The Ghost Horde

by Ryx

Early June; 714 CR.

Giant Dikes.

The Eagle Tower was appropriately named and stood taller than any other within eyeshot of its keen eyed tenants. There was no ladder leading up to the tower's flat platform, no apparent way to reach it from the ground. Owing to the unique nature of Metamor's citizens the tower had no need for such. It looked like a frightfully flimsy affair as it towered almost one hundred and fifty feet from the wood and stone palisade walls below. The platform had a low roof of lightweight wooden shingles shading its occupants. Anyone trying to peer under the low brow of the roof from the ground would be unable to tell if the tower was manned or not.

From east to west the Northern Wall of Metamor valley stretched into the distance, snaking its way across the top of the ruins of the ancient Giant Dikes. Giants, in the height of the empire that passed into history when the Suielish were only a tiny spark in the southern lands, had built a great wall of stone to protect their southern border. Over the millennia that wall had crumbled into a long ridge barely recognizable as purposeful construction. It was atop this long ruin that the people of Metamor were erecting their wall, now to protect themselves from encroachment by northern foes. Much of the wall was little better than wooden palisades, even after six years of almost constant work even through the merciless winter bite. Some sections, such as between the Gate of Stones to the east and the Gate of Winds to the west with the Eagle Tower roughly equidistant between them, had actually been finished by simple repair to the ancient wall.

By best estimates it was going to take nearly thirty years to finish the entire wall.

Every quarter mile was a wooden watchtower and every seven miles was a spindly high tower much like the Eagle Tower. These tall posts could only be reached by Metamoran's given wings and sharp eyes by the twisted magic of their greatest foe; the mage Nasoj who held much of the northern territories with an iron fist. In recent years his grasp had weakened but it had not failed utterly, yet. As it was he could no longer marshal the forces he once had at his whim and had not, since his failed bid seven years previously, made another attempt to breach the southern kingdom's much fortified defenses.

In the tower perched two birds; one a gyrfalcon, the other a far smaller tern. They chatted amiably with one another as they clutched the wooden perches affixed to the floor beneath the tower's thatch roof. Their keen eyes could see far further than those manning the shorter watch towers a quarter mile away to the east and west. Truly, those shorter, far more dominating towers did not watch the cleared expanse of verdant green north of the wall. They served as storage and garrison space for the patrols that made their way along the walls every day. It was left to the sharp eyed avians to give warning that something approached from the north.

The ground immediately north of the wall and ridge upon which it stretched was a clear sward of northern grass. It extended just beyond the range of a catapult's shot and gave the watchers a clear view of any who might attempt to approach the wall. Only three gates allowed access from the south, none of which were within miles of the Eagle Tower. Beyond the sward the wilds of the north regained its dominance; thick gorse and copses of trees spotted he land as far as even their sharp eyes could see. No towering oarwoods remained within a league of the wall but they could see where the northern forests began in the distance.

"Grennek?" asked the tern sharply with a flick of his narrow wing to tap his companion's shoulder. The gyrfalcon had hopped down from his perch to slake his thirst from a bronze bowl. With a chirping cluck the larger bird turned about and waddled awkwardly back to the edge of the platform. The dizzying height affected neither of them in the least. "Look there, to the north and a little east, what do your sharp eyes see?"

Grennek tilted his head slightly and ruffled his wings, as ever disgruntled by the curious intensity of his young cohort. They had been watch partners off and on for the past year. Grennek had been changed by the initial application of Nasoj's dark curse and was well used to his new form. Indeed, he little remembered what it had been like to be human. The curse had changed him far more dramatically than others; he had lost his hands entirely, lacking even the weak utility of wing-fingers enjoyed by others. Not, of course, that he had not learned to use his deadly talons almost as deftly as any who still retained hands. "Smoke." He squawked harshly. To his acute vision the thin stream of smoke was as clear and sharp, as if he stood mere paces away. It issued from the concealing depths of the bracken choking the expanse between sward and forest proper. "Hunter, likely."

"Oh!" the tern piped in surprise and extended his wing to point a little to one side of the trail of smoke, "More, see?" When Nasoj's curses were laid upon the Keep Darsien had been little more than a babe in swaddling. His change had come only a year and a half before but he had adapted well. After all, unlike those caught by the dark wizard's magic, the boy had many who could teach him how to deal with his new form. Grennek, and those who stood the line at the Gates, had been forced to learn by trial and often painful error.

Grennek flexed his wings and glared in the direction indicated by the tern, "More smoke." His feathers lifted as he felt a clutch at his crop; he spied not only that second tendril of thin gray smoke but a half dozen others as well spread through the bracken. "Not wildfire, not hunters. Darsien, fly over, stay high."

The tern, Darsien, bobbed his head swiftly and leaped from his perch. He plunged a score of feet before his narrow, swift wings caught the air and he darted northward. Grennek watched him go with concern. The gyrfalcon was far too large to fly as swiftly and would be far more easy to see from below with his nearly thirty feet of wingspan. He watched Darsien climb twice again the height of the Eagle Tower and circle in a wide arc above the thin trails of smoke. Grennek scanned the bracken slowly and ground his sharp-edged beak. There was more than a mere dozen fires burning under the bracken, there were scores stretching from east to west almost as far as his keen sight could spy. Whomever had come to encamp themselves at the Northern wall they had come in numbers that gave the old warrior pause.

Darsien returned within minutes and backwinged to land deftly on his perch. "There are hundreds of campfires, Gren!" he piped breathlessly, "Lutins! Hundreds of them!"

"Lutins?" the gyrfalcon screeched in horror. While decimated as Nasoj's first line of fodder for both past assaults they had never been completely crushed. Not a month went by without a report of some Lutin raiding party making it to the wall, or beyond it by some high paths through the mountains, and causing mischief. Grennek had to stop and ponder that, however, for the past year they had been oddly quiet. No one spoke of autumn or spring raids. He was not privy to all reports, as a mere soldier among the thousands that manned the wall, but he heard gossip. The quietude of the Lutins over the past year had many very concerned. General Misha had sent scores of scouts north to delve the meaning of that inactivity but they had all returned with the same report; the Lutin tribes had decamped and moved to places unknown. Those they did encounter melted into the north and avoided conflict. "Flash the towers, summon commander Weyden."

While Grennek watched the ever increasing numbers of camps sending their smoke into the clear summer sky Darsien hopped over to the bronze flashing tube. Within the tube was a gem enchanted to a brightness that blinded the eyes even at the height of the sun. The tern spun the tube eastward, toward the Falcon Tower seven miles away, visible only as a mere shadowy needle upthrust from the wall even to their sharp sight, and tapped at the small lever on the side of the tube. Small metal louvers on the front opened with each tap of the lever, releasing the brilliance of the magic within. He only hoped that Tourneyfield and Janet, at the Falcon Tower, were paying attention and not watching the smoke.

"Report?" commander Weyden asked when he arrived an hour later from the Gate of Winds several miles to the west. He had seen the smoke as well, the sheer numbers of campfires was impossible to miss. The hawk was sore and winded from flying tower to tower taking the reports of his subordinates.

"Camps." Grennek squawked, "First sight three hours past dawn." He swept a gray wing toward the north, encompassing the entire northern horizon with the gesture, "I lost count long ago, more than a hundred to my eyes."

"It's the same all along the central watch line." Weyden's beak clicked in consternation, "Maintain your post until relieved." Dipping his beak into the bowl to slake his parched throat he tilted his head and let the chill, clean water fill him. "Flash the Falcon Tower, I will not stop there, I'm beat." He lifted each wing in turn and winced at the ache of overused muscles. "I'm making for the Stones. If anything changes, flash it along." With that their commander hopped off the tower and winged swiftly eastward toward the Gate of Stones which served as the primary garrison for the Wall. Grennek watched him go and Darsien danced from one foot to the other on his perch in consternation.

Grennek clacked his beak at the younger watcher irritably, "Calm yourself, boy." He groused with a ruffle of his feathers, waddling back to hop onto his perch. "It is going to be a long night."

The long night passed uneventfully and, though their relief arrived with the setting sun - an owl and bat - neither of the day watchers abandoned the tower. Throughout the night, between fitful snatches of uneasy slumber, they jerked their heads from beneath their wings to scan the horizon. The bracken was aglow from countless camps but, to the owl's report, nothing had emerged into the sward. Several times she, or the bat, made quiet sweeps over the Lutin line and reported that there was no counting the numbers. It looked to them as if every tribe had come to besiege the wall.

The only change that they saw with the dawn was a multitude of banners brought from the bracken. Attended by a few Lutin guards while they were thrust into the earth the line of flags only seemed to confirm what the owl proclaimed previously. It appeared that, indeed, every tribe that they had ever seen, heard of, or even not heard of, had amassed at the edge of Metamor's reach.

Some hours after dawn a haggard Weyden glided down to the tower and crowded onto the platform with the three others. The bat had chosen to sleep on the perch below the platform and the owl awoke when she heard their commander's approach. Before greeting the others he spent several minutes catching his breath and slaking his thirst from the freshly refilled bowl. Darsien offered him a bit of a fawn the owl had taken in the night and the hawk gulped it down hungrily.

"Get any rest at all?" the owl asked quietly with a queer rotating tilt of her head.

"Very little." Weyden admitted with a rustle of his wings, "The Lutin encampment extends some ten miles from the Hawk to the Sparrow towers. None have come forward, no skirmishes, not even attempted scouting. Nothing." He paced along the front of the platform and gazed at the line of banners along the bracken. "Skull Bearers, Bloodied Claws, Bone Gnawers... familiar tribes and unfamiliar, everywhere." He extended one wing and jabbed it toward a distant banner, "And there, Moon Dog. Shaman and mages, that one. They were there during the yuletide attack but, otherwise, have seldom been seen except those shamen who serve the other tribes."

"Why here?" Darsien hazarded deferentially, ducking his head low when the two larger birds turned questioning glances toward him. "I mean, why here?" He swept one small wing across the sward to the north. "You say the strength of their numbers is between Stone and Wind, where the wall is strongest. If they mean any sort of assault why not to the east, closer to Starven, where the wall is weak and the dragons furthest away?"

"A question for which I have no ready answer." Weyden remarked with a shrug of his wings. "Everything about this gathering is one confusion after another."

"Any news from the Duke? From the nearer garrisons?" Grennek asked.

"Aye." Weyden bobbed his head, "The Duke is marshalling the levies as we speak. All of the valley has been alerted and are sending what they can call up to the wall as swiftly as they can, but if those damnable green beasts attack within the next three days there won't be much slowing them down. There isn't enough manpower on the wall. Starven is under siege and cannot offer support."

Grennek, who had family among the fisher folk of Starven, gaped with a slow screeching caw. "Under attack?"

"No." the commander said with a shake of his head, "A crow arrived in the night. She said that Starven has been surrounded by the Ice Fang and Wolf Claw clans but no sorties have come of it. They're just bottled in. Every time they try to skirt the line by boat they are harassed back into deeper water by archers."

"Ice Fangs?" the owl hooted in surprise with a lift of her wings, tail fanning, "They are from the east, far to the east! They have been at war with many western clans for... for as long as I've known." Like Grennek she had family who lived north of the Dikes and knew much of the northern politics. Knowing which Lutin clans warred with which others was of considerable use, and no little debate.

Weyden evinced a glare of frustration with remarkable fierceness on his raptor face. "News to me, woman, news to me."

"Commander!" Darsien chirped shrilly and hopped back and forth on his perch, one wing extended, "There!"

They all crowded to the edge of the platform to see what the tern saw; a quartet of Lutins standing at the foot of the Moon Dog banner. "Parlay?" Grennek and Weyden quipped in unison with the same confused exclamation. "They hold forth the branch of parley?" Weyden clicked his beak. Two of the Lutins were exceptionally tall for their kind and exceedingly pale. Two others were more familiar as far as Lutins went, and beside them slunk walking sculptures of snow in the form of white coursing hounds; moon dogs. "Grennek, with me. Darsien, Palas, remain here. Flash along the wall that the Lutins have extended a parlay."

Grennek followed Weyden from the precipitous perch of the Eagle tower and soared at his commander's left. He was far, far larger than the hawk he took orders from, but that was the strange nature of the curse. As they circled overhead looking for archers that may have been concealed along the edge of the bracken the quartet of Lutins continued until they were half way into the sward. There they stopped, watching the two avians circling down from above. Weyden and Grennek glided down and landed smoothly to either side of the unmoving quartet. Three of them watched the more dangerous aspect of Grennek while the last, a male Lutin richly decorated with marks and tattoos of leadership, looked to Weyden.

"Good morning, watchers." That male said as they approached, circling the group to meet up between where the Lutins stood with the wall at their backs. He spoke the common language of the south easily but with the gravelly harshness of his own language accenting it.

"Morning, it is." Weyden offered slowly, his head tilted to stare at them with one intense predatory eye. Grennek stopped several paces away and towered to his full imposing six feet to glare down the short length of his wickedly curved beak at them. "Why have you brought such a force to our borders?"

The Lutin favored the hawk with a wry smile, "To speak, and be heard." He extended one hand toward the tall, pale Lutin female who stood at his side. She passed him a scroll silently, her strangely intense, deep blue eyes wide as she gazed upon the two raptors. "Bear this missive to your stallion lord. At high sun on the longest day we shall return, and treat with those named upon the scroll. To no others will we extend our words."

Weyden reached out with one wing and folded the scroll into the long feathers to tuck it at his side. He glared at the Lutins and their fearsome white pets, "You bring an army the likes of which only Nasoj has commanded in the past, and bid us bring our leader into range of your siege? Are you mad, Lutin?"

The Lutin smiled and bowed slightly, "Only those named are desired, though He may be present as well if that suits his desires. The dark king does not command this gathering, sharp eyes." He explained with a slight hardness to his smile, "I do." With that he swept one hand in a short gesture and turned. The others turned with him and only the white beasts remained to stare at the aerial hunters.

"And who do I tell him sends this summons?" Weyden squawked harshly.

Pausing, the speaker turned while the others continued to walk. "The Chief of Chiefs, sharp eyes. More I will say, on the longest day." Inclining his head in farewell he turned his back on them, confident that the huge raptors would not pounce; either of them was large enough to slaughter him before the moon dogs could intervene. Weyden's beak gaped in protest and he shifted on his talons but could find nothing more to say. The moon dogs turned about with feline grace and loped to catch up with their masters. Tucking his beak to grasp the scroll from beneath his wing Weyden jumped into the air. It took Grennek a few running strides to get enough air under his wings to climb skyward. He craned his head to look back in bemusement at the strange scene.

In all of his many years and his countless experiences in life, that had to be one of the most confusing.

Finally! Murikeer Khunnas, archmage of Metamor and mage councilor to Duke Thomas, let out an exasperated sigh and leaned back in his comfortable chair. The hand-woven slats creaked quietly under his weight. In his arms was a small bundle hardly larger than a bread basket swaddled in a pale blue cloth. At long last that burden had quieted into slumber, giving the skunk mage some respite from his colic induced wailing. Such was fatherhood, admitted the mage, having already sired two other children and dealt with their early years. Not that those years were far gone; the eldest was four and her sister almost three. They, too, had their moments of wailing temper.

He leaned his head back and looked through the leafy boughs of the maple that extended its branches over the foreyard of his home. At least it was a good day to be outside and enjoying the fresh air. The sky was a flawless azure with not a cloud in sight. Soft breezes whispered through the leaves and their cool touch stirred at his fir. The quietude of that peace had, at long last, seeped into his son and pushed back whatever fit of temper that had overcome him. From the crook of Murikeer's arm his tapered white muzzle pointed skyward as if basking in the warm, shade dappled touch of the sun. Gazing upon his firstborn son Murikeer felt a flush of pride renewed and smiled to himself.

"Fatherhood makes you look princely." A female voice commented from nearby. Murikeer smiled as he looked up, lidding his one good eye against a momentary glare of sunshine on pristine white. His wife of five years, the sorceress Kozaithy, smiled down upon him and extended a wooden cup. He took it thankfully and sipped the cool tea slowly while his son slept comfortably in the crook of his arm. Leaning back he extended his angular legs onto the age worn wood of a stool.

"I shant say what motherhood does for you, Kozi." He replied with a rakish smile, "I might never escape your graces should I." He winked, which with his single eye was nothing more than a blink. Over the hollow of his left eye was a leather patch decorated with small gems and artistic etchings. Spells quickened into those chips of translucent colored stone enabled him to see properly but nothing would ever recover the eye he had lost in a bygone battle. His tail swept amiably back and forth across the grass behind his chair while Kozaithy settled onto the stout arm of the carved wooden chair and looked at her son. He was some seven months old now and as stubborn as a mule, or so their nurse proclaimed.

"Practice, practice, practice." She admonished with a shake over her head, "As if I don't know my craft already." With one hand she swirled a shimmering skein of colors through the air in front of Murikeer's muzzle. He laughed softly and craned his head forward enough to nibble upon her dexterous fingers.

"But more practice -" he started and stopped, mid-sentence, as a shadow swept from the sky and, with a throbbing beat of backed wings, settled onto the peak of the thatch roof. The hawk was huge for its kind and gazed down at them with a stare that could only be thought of as savage and predatory.

For those below, however, it was a familiar stare and they merely gaped in surprise at the unexpected visit. Giving them a moment to recognize its arrival the hawk hopped neatly down the pitch of the roof and dropped to the foreyard with a small flick of its wings. "Jessica?" Murikeer chirped in warm surprise. Kozaithy stood to greet their guest, the sorceress' long white tail drifting across his lap briefly. "Well come to our home. I was not expecting you."

Jessica, the hawk wizardess in residence at Metamor Keep, bobbed her head curtly, "I'm sorry, Murikeer, but this is not a visit. The Duke sends most urgent summons for you."

Kozaithy turned as Murikeer leaned forward to stand smoothly from his chair and extended the blue wrapped burden in his arm. Kozaithy swept their son into her grasp and gazed down, for both of the skunk mages stood taller than the hawk. "I will answer his summons. What is wrong?" he asked quickly.

"Krane!" Kozaithy called out for their nurse-cum-housemaid and strode for the door.

"A force of Lutins has encamped itself at the Giant Dikes." Jessica offered breathlessly and tilted her head to fix him with one intense eye. The skunk nodded distractedly and picked up the pitcher of chilled tea Kozaithy left behind. Pouring a measure into a broad wooden bowl he offered it to his guest. "They sent a missive to the Duke requesting an audience." She took the bowl in her wing-hands and drank thirstily. For a winged Keeper the journey from Metamor to his house was but a short flight but always taxing because there was no range to just glide.

"Lutins?" Murikeer chuffed in surprise, "Why? What do they think Thomas can do for them?"

She shook her head and Murikeer refilled the bowl. "Not Thomas." She explained with a grateful smile, "You. You, and Misha Brightleaf."

Murikeer blinked in surprise, "Me? Not the Duke, but me and Misha?" he scowled in confusion an accepted the bowl once she was finished. Kozaithy emerged from the house, her arms empty, with two small saddlebags. As they often journeyed to Metamor Keep or Glen Avery, both equidistant from their house, they had little need for travelling accoutrements. He kept minor residences in both places; at the Mountain Hearth Inn and his old chambers in Metamor.

"Other than being addressed to him the missive said nothing of extending an audience with him." Jessica shrugged helplessly, "The Duke is rallying the levies to man the northern wall nonetheless and should be there within a tenday. The Lutin claims to be the 'Chief of Chiefs' but did not name himself in the summons or to my husband." Murikeer recalled Jessica's avian husband, the patrol commander Weyden. He accepted one of the saddlebags from Kozaithy and draped it over his shoulder while he pondered what he may have left in his laboratories that would need to be dispelled. Luckily he had only been studying there of late. Krane would know to set the latch and keep his ever-inquisitive daughters, Llyn and Fliene, from his delicate work. He never attempted to work with dangerous magic at home; he reserved such studies for the keep where Kyia's magic would enable him to use protected rooms. Kozaithy draped the second bag over her shoulder and moved to stand at Murikeer's side.

They were more than husband and wife, they were a team; two highly skilled mages with complimentary abilities.

A stout, broad shouldered woman appeared from the shadows of Murikeer's house to stand in the doorway. In one thick arm Murikeer's son rested quietly. The woman listened wordlessly as she favored Jessica with her normal expression; one of angry distrust. Eight years before she had been a brawny merchant guard from the south but, like so many, had been left behind because of two broken legs when his caravan left. The curse had turned a mountain of muscle into an equally muscular woman, but softened his surliness in amazing ways. The look was just that, a look. Under the façade she was as kind as a lumbering watchdog; calm and glacially patient until called to the defense of her family whence she would become an implacable foe.

Murikeer felt wholly safe in leaving his three children in her care. The bruin's husband would return in a couple of days and then he, too, would provide care and protection to the skunk mage's children.

"Thomas wants you to travel to the dikes as swiftly as you can. My husband is marshalling the levies as they arrive at the Gate of Stone. He will be able to tell you more." With a bob of her head and farewell wave of one wing she took three swift strides and leaped up onto the roof. At its apex she jumped into the air and winged northward.

"What is this about?" Kozaithy asked as he finished off the tea in a few swift swallows and set the pitcher aside.

"I've been summoned, it seems, but a Lutin chieftain."

Summer Solstice; 714 CR.

South of the Giant Dikes the land was preparing for yet another war from the north. Duke Thomas had called up his armies and local levies. He had sent word to his southern vassals, those that he believed trustworthy, to ready themselves if the Dikes should fall and prepare to move to the Keep in defense. This time, however, he trusted far more than he did not and was confident they would heed his messages. For Sir George, General of Metamor's army, it was a complete nightmare despite competent captains and others below them who knew their jobs. Even when things went perfectly a General's job was ever a strain on the eve of eminent battle.

The unknown Lutin chief's deadline was tomorrow. His armies had only seemed to grow but as yet had not shown themselves in any numbers. They had heard a few brief skirmishes in the bracken and forest but witnessed nothing. Some banners were taken down, others hacked down, and still more were brought forth and erected. Whatever unity established by the Chief of chiefs among the tribes was, to all appearances, as strained as any gathering between warring factions. As the day wore on and the final preparations were being completed a host of Lutins, some twenty in all, accompanied by four giants came from the shelter of the bracken. Watched by thousands of eyes and an aerial armada of flying Keepers the company brought forth cloth and poles. These were carried to the half-way point upon the sward where the Lutin had first extended his offer of parley. Over the next three hours they set about constructing a large pavilion of deep green cloth.

It was open on all four sides so that those within could be observed by both lines. A huge table was brought out by the giants and arrayed beneath the canopy and chairs were arranged around it. Other than those preparations the Lutin host did not act any differently than they had over the last fortnight. No attempts to make contact were responded to and the bracken was more than dense enough to keep the fliers from catching more than the occasional glimpse of tents beneath its low canopy. Whenever the curious, brave, stupid, or blindly drunk made their way over the wall and tried to approach the bracken they were met invariably by a pack of silent, fearsome moon dogs. The magical aura of fear that lingered about them was most often more than enough to scare the recalcitrant back to the roaring wrath of either Misha, George, or some other harried commander spread thin with hundreds of other tasks besides berating the idiotic.

Messengers were likewise met, but reported far less of a fearsome pall from the dogs, and escorted half way back before their ghost white escorts withdrew. The animals seemed to be everywhere at once, or in such numbers as no one could ever recall seeing. Even during the winter attack no more than two score had been counted. Of all who watched from the walls only Murikeer had ever seen the Moon Dog clan itself, and even he said that their numbers could not account for so many of the frightening predators. Thomas had bade him not reveal himself, or his wife, or any of the other mages who had joined the armies massing south of the wall.

So they had spent their time in a private pavilion in Duke Thomas' camp. Rickkter was, as ever, his irascible self; he deplored the waiting. As the days stretched on he grumbled about the annoyance of the people, the chaos, and the need to stay out of sight. Kayla, a journeyman mage well on her way to master rank, did her best to curb his dark moods while Murikeer and Kozaithy made preparations for what might come and fervently hoped would not. Against such a terrible host even the four mages could not hope to have an appreciable effect.

Andwyn, his spies, and the scores of keen eyed avian Keepers reported that no Lutins had been spied in the mountain heights. The dragons of Metamor held sway there, expressing their full forms with deadly majesty as they soared leisurely along the wall in a display of strength. Catapults and ballistae stored in the watch towers were wheeled out and anchored in place. Trebuchet were erected on the tower tops.

In all the people, man and woman and beast, of Metamor looked fit to take on the entirety of the north but, in truth that all knew, their numbers were far smaller than the Lutin horde by all conservative estimates. Even if Thomas called the southern levies to bolster their numbers they could only hope to equal a third of the estimated Lutin numbers. Rickkter assured him that, while fortifying the wall, they could withstand almost any assault the little green monsters could mount. Misha, on the other hand, was concerned that the all too apparent encampment was merely a ruse to pull their forces to a single location on the thirty league wall. Attacks at their far eastern gate would find far fewer defenders despite a bolstering of their numbers. To the west, at least, they had Starven and the lakelanders. Though bottled up by six clans in total they had not been assailed and their boats could move to support the western gate even should Starven come under attack.

After all, they could pull up anchors and move the entire city out onto the lake, well out of siege engine range, in a matter of hours.

Few found much rest the night before the solstice.

At an hour before noon the next day a tense silence hung over the Metamor camp. Cranes slowly lowered a bridge down from the top of the wall and Duke Thomas strode sedately down to the crest of the Dikes upon which that wall was built. Murikeer and Kozaithy followed him while Misha and his wife, Caroline, followed. The ramp was left in place as the five made their way down the slope of the dikes and walked slowly toward the pavilion. Upon the wall archers readied their bows and engine crews readied their machines. Other than the Metamor banners upon the crenels snapping in the breeze not a sound was made. Even the fliers withdrew to their perches.

"Once more unto the breech, my friends." Misha intoned ominously as they waded through the knee high grass of the sward. "Are you sure you truly wish to be here, your grace? They did not name you in their summons."

The black stallion gazed across at him and nodded, "Whatever it is this Chief of chiefs is about I wish to be there to hear it. If he wishes to extend some diplomacy, as all of his apparent intentions seem to indicate, I will be there to reply." He smiled thinly, "Besides, with a pair of my doughtiest warriors at my side and two competent mages what need I fear? Two more mages and an entire host stand ready at my back."

A small group of Lutins, four as before, emerged from the bracken shortly before the height of the noon hour. Accompanied by a pair of moondogs they marched sedately toward the pavilion. Misha scanned the concealment of the dense line of greenery but even his alert eyes could spy no archers or engines of war. As they approached Murikeer slowed and narrowed his eye with a tilt of his head. Whatever caught his attention so distracted him that he stumbled slightly and Kozaithy looked to him in concern but he only shook his head and resumed walking with an odd quirk at the corner of his muzzle.

The two parties entered the shade of the pavilion within moments of one another and simply stood at either side of the table staring at each other for a few long breaths. Two of the Lutins were tall, almost as tall as a human and along the same general proportions. Their eyes were an arresting shade of blue and their continence, while unmistakably Lutin, held an aura of solemnity that reminded Misha of his friend Charles' once traveling companion Andares the Åelf. Beside them the other two Lutins almost looked like bastardized caricatures.

Despite the dichotomy of the two distinctly different races the taller pair deferred to the Lutins. With a wave of his hand the taller of those indicated the chairs arrayed along the Keepers' side of the table. There were ten chairs there while opposite there were only four. "Please, make yourselves comfortable." The Lutin offered in gravelly accented northern common tongue. "I knew not how many would come, but understanding how our pasts have not been complimentary I thought you would bring more of a retinue." Drawing back a chair the Lutin pulled himself up into it. The table was built to human norms and the shorter Lutin was forced to use a chair made taller to suit it. Thomas dubiously took one of the more stout chairs and seated himself across from the Lutin. The others followed suit as well, Lutins and Keepers alike, save for Murikeer who remained standing with a look on his face reminiscent of one who had just bitten into something delightfully, if somewhat overly, sweet. "I believed that you would attend, Duke of Metamor, though I did not make such request. You are well come to this discussion."

"You've brought a mighty host to the borders of my land, Chief of chiefs, so I came." Duke Thomas replied levelly. His lustrous black tail flicked behind his chair showing those on his table how ill at ease the situation had him. The moon dogs seated just beyond the pavilion had that affect on those who were not used to them. Even at that slight remove their effects touched everyone.

"Such was necessary, Duke." The Lutin explained as he rested his small green hands upon the table. "To speak, and be heard, and to be witnessed."

"We are here, Chief, and we most certainly are listening." The Duke continued.

"That pleases me; us." He moved his hand slightly toward the pale female at his side, "Introductions, perhaps, are in order. This is Ti'sitta, queen of the Ghost Horde clan and my wife." She nodded solemnly and offered a slight smile. Her blue eyes seemed lambent in the shade of the pavilion. The Chief indicated the Lutin seated to his left, "Amogh, Chief of the Moon Dog clan and my sire. Lastly, Rach'alel, spirit walker of the Ghost Horde. You might understand her more clearly as a shaman, if that please you, their spiritual leader." At that last he touched his fingers to his breast, "And I am -"

"Keletikt." Murikeer churred deeply causing the heads of his companions to turn. The skunk was grinning like a maddened fool, almost laughing as he realized who this Chief of Chiefs was. He stepped forward and leaned across the table to extend his hand. The Lutin Chief, Keletikt, stood in his chair to lean across and clasp the mage's black furred forearm firmly. Murikeer grasped his forearm in return and the two shared a brief greeting. "I had believed you dead."

"Murikeer, you know this Lutin?" Thomas nickered deeply with a twist of one tall black ear.

"Indeed, your grace, indeed." The skunk laughed warmly and settled into an empty chair, "We shared a winter when I sought refuge in the north, years ago."

"We saved one another." Keletikt offered, "And while we sheltered in a cavern we taught each other a great deal. I learned your tongue, though I have since sought to improve that, and his particular southern magic. I, in return, taught him much of my own people, language, and the spirit magic we embrace." He sat back down in his chair with the same wide smile shared by his one-time companion. "I see you have much changed, brother." He touched his left cheek with a fingertip. Murikeer reflexively reached up to touch the eyepatch that covered the gaping hole where his left eye had once been. The skunk chuckled warmly and nodded.

"As have we both, brother, much changed indeed." He smiled, "Duke Thomas of Metamor and the Northern Midlands, and Misha Brightleaf need no introduction." Keletikt nodded solemnly to each in turn, "Caroline Brightleaf, his wife, and Kozaithy, my own." He motioned toward each in turn with his hand.

"Congratulations on such fine choices you, both, have made."

Duke Thomas, bemused by the strange greeting between the two, snorted softly but he, too, was smiling as the tensions seemed to melt away. "So, Chief Keletikt of the Clans, your purpose?"

Keletikt brought his gaze back to the black stallion, "Simple, your grace. Peace."

"I would welcome that more than I could say in so many words, Chief." Thomas said with emotional depth, surprised that it would be offered but having suspected that message with more and more certainty over the past weeks. "An end to this senseless war between our peoples will only benefit us both. What, however, of Nasoj and the other humans of the north? And what is this new clan, this Ghost Horde?"

"It is the mighty arm with which I drew in the clans, a prophecy passed down from seers long dead." The Lutin explained slowly, "Nasoj lost his hold on the clans when last he wasted our numbers in futile bid to conquer you. He still seeks to extend his iron fist but the clans melt away at the lightest touch. Other humans, well, they are as they are. They may accept peace, or not, but they are not of your Kingdom, Duke, and not your worry." He sat back in his chair and tapped his chin lightly with his fingers as he pondered how to continue. "It is told that He who topples Stone Towers that Walk will bring forth the Ghost Horde from the shadows and that no clan would ever stand against them. To that end they have been sought, for reasons of power, for centuries." His gaze came back to Murikeer, "You, my brother, were that great hero. I knew this when I saw the citadels fall into the chasm. It took me a long time to understand that you would not bring them forth though I sought you out once I came to them."

"Me?" Murikeer chuffed in surprise.

"I was only a witness, you were the hand of their fall. A rival revealed my aid to you, and I now believe that even that mere small aid was sufficient to fulfill prophecy." He shrugged his strong shoulders helplessly, understanding the true depth of prophecy no better than any, "I sought you out, for a time, in the years I spent among them and teaching them your ways. You were among their prophecies as well but not in such a clear way. The magic you taught me fulfilled that need as well; I became their pawn of prophecy. In time I became their Chief." He paused briefly and glanced aside at Ti'sitta, "Though it is the Queen who rules her clan. Power passes along the female line, I am merely a figurehead for my own kind."

Murikeer quirked one corner of his muzzle, "That rival is dead." He said flatly, "He thought, as well, that I was the prophesied one and sought to kill me. A giant dealt with him most effectively."

Keletikt nodded, "There are those like him still among my people; they grumble and chafe at the dictates of my rule but dare not challenge the strength of the Ghost Horde. I have brought together all clans who heeded the old ways, and destroyed those that were deaf to the spirit song." One of the moon dogs rose from its haunches slowly and padded into the pavilion to stand at the table. Murikeer felt the subtle touch of its fear aura and beside him Kozaithy tensed. He saw the others tense as well but forced himself to acknowledge the fear, and its source, to let it wash over him without affect. "The Ghost Horde answer to the spirits of the earth, not the bickering of those gods humans have cowered to. We have cast Lilith from the traditions of my people. Her minions, given to us since time unremembered, remain though have lost much of their fearful touch. They are, after all, mortal beings in their arcane ways."

Murikeer leaned over the table and extended his fingers toward the moon dog. Kozaithy clutched at his forearm and Misha growled a warning. Extending its head over the table the moon dog nipped lightly at Murikeer's fingertips. "I feel you, Firxas." The skunk intoned ritually. Its greeting complete the eerie white hound released Murikeer's hand and returned to sit beside the other beyond the pavilion. Murikeer settled back into his seat.

"Misha Brightleaf, scourge of all clans, to you I speak." Keletikt turned his attention to the otherwise silent fox, "You and your dark blade have taken many, many Lutin lives." Misha merely nodded and listened warily. "But no more." The Lutin said levelly, "No more will the clans raid your land and endanger your peoples. Peace between us, mighty hunter."

"So long as that lasts." Misha groused softly as he crossed his arms over his chest. Keletikt tilted his head slightly and the pale, blue eyed female whispered something into his ear, causing him to laugh a soft, raspy sound like gravel in a stream bed.

"So long as peace ever lasts, mighty hunter." The shaman shrugged, "My wife says you mistrust us, and in that I understand. Many clans I hold by the scruff of their necks and push to the earth as a bitch her pups. They only learn by strength, and time. Strength I have, time I have." He smiled toothily. "But, Misha of the black axe, I have one more life to give you." Misha's ears shot up at that, forward and then back dubiously. "To you I extend my son, to learn in your shadow, and bring peace between us."

"Whaaaat?" Misha barked. Thomas shot him an admonishing glance and he fell silent with an irritated growl.

"If peace demands a Lutin Long Scout, then by the gods they'll have one, Misha." The Duke exclaimed in exasperation.

"For peace, and the clans. I have read in the books of the dark master's libraries that in the south they refer to it as ... fosterage? Hostage?" he shrugged, not understanding the concept fully. "If the clans see me give you my son as a token of peace they will understand I truly mean to hold that peace, for his sake."

"Agreed." Thomas said with a nod, "And you ask in return?"

"Knowledge, your grace. I wish that the greatness of Metamor's knowledge be made open to our people."

"Pardon?" Thomas snorted with one arched brow.

Keletikt nodded quickly and twitched a hand toward Murikeer, "My brother-in-fur showed me the greatness that lies in human writing, what can be known that is not known, unchanged by the passage of memory to memory by the songs of the shamen." He dropped his hands to stroke the smooth surface of the table, "I hunger for it. I traveled to Nasoj's dark, evil castle to take what of it I could. All too brief, that studying, leaving me wanting to know more."

"So..." Thomas rubbed his chin, "So, you wish to come to Metamor and study there?"

Keletikt shook his head, "All Lutin, your grace, all who seek to know more than bone and stone and ice. My wife's people are like Murikeer, yourself, myself; seekers of knowledge and curious of what has been known, to know it themselves."

Thomas stammered in surprise and gave a harsh lash of his tail, "You want me to open my gates to Lutins?"

Keletikt nodded and held up a staying hand, "Few, great Duke, few. In time, more, but only as trust is built; stone by stone like your great wall. My son, those few who you allow, will be the foundation stones of a trust that I would desire outlive us all."

"That... is a worthy goal." Duke Thomas nodded slowly with a sigh, "We will need to speak more of it at some length, but nothing is gained without effort."

"Painful effort." Misha quipped and twitched as Caroline grabbed his thigh under the table and squeezed, hard.

"I have time, your grace." Keletikt said gently, "Today is a time of celebration among the tribes; the longest blessing of sun. I will remain until this complexity of peace can be grasped, if you wish to consider it from the safety of your wall?"

"I can consider it just fine from where I sit, Chief, but I need to bring this desire to my people. I have listened to your words, and I must as well listen to theirs."

Keletikt smiled warmly, "A Chief without ears for his clan is not chief long." Thomas nickered humorously and nodded.

"With your leave, High Chief Keletikt, I would withdraw to discuss your proposal with my councilors." He said as he rose. The others did as well but Murikeer remained seated. After a curious look at him Kozaithy sat back down as well.

Misha cleared his throat and shook out his fur, "This son of yours?"

"He waits at my camp, I can bring him forth when you wish, Misha of the black axe."

"Misha!" the fox barked in exasperation, "Just... Misha."

"Indeed, I am just Keletikt. All of Great Chief this, your grace that, ever so much a waste of breath." The Lutin laughed merrily. Even his wife smiled in that slightly distant, solemn manner.

"Duke, if it please you, I would like to stay?" Murikeer asked as Thomas turned to leave. The Duke glanced back at him, his dark gaze shifting to the Lutins standing on the far side of the table, and his ears twitched a moment before he nodded. "After all, other than giving some introductions, I do not know why I was summoned."

"As you wish, Murikeer. I hope to return within the hour." His gaze flicked to Keletikt, "Will it be satisfactory to bring refreshments? We may be talking a long time."

"My people will bring food as well, for we celebrate this day. You may bring as many as you like, peace will hold this day even if ere after we depart at point of blade." Keletikt turned his attention to Murikeer, "And you? You know not why you were called?" he clapped his brow and laughed loudly, "What brother would not be joyous to see his spirit kin after so many years? I learned you yet lived, and so very close, I could not miss the opportunity!" Murikeer gazed at him a moment and then laughed as well at his own short sightedness. Thomas stared at them for a few more moments and then made his way out of the pavilion back toward the wall. Misha paced along beside him with Caroline in their wake.

"What enemies are left for me?" Murikeer heard the fox yowl before they were out of earshot.

Keletikt's sire and the Ghost Clan shaman withdrew with one moon dog while Keletikt and his wife remained. Firxas, tongue lolling from his narrow sharp toothed muzzle, lounged at the edge of the sunlight. Murikeer did not feel his fear presence at all. "Keletikt, what is this surprise?" Murikeer asked after some moments, "How did a simple acolyte shaman become such a mighty Chief?"

Keletikt leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers over his chest, "That, my brother-in-fur, is a long, long story indeed. And what of your eye? We have stories to share, my brother, and with some luck, years in which to share them!"