Three of a Kind

by Christian O'Kane

Summer 707

It was raining lightly as the small troop of soldiers and knights made their way up the road. The stones underneath them were relatively new and in good shape making the going easy. Here and there were stones whose lighter coloring told of recently having been placed there, replacing older ones damaged or destroyed over the winter and spring.

The column of over a hundred soldiers and knights moved along the road at a good pace but not so fast that they would just stumble into an ambush. An all too frequent occurrence here. Thankfully the trees and underbrush that usually grew close to roads like this had been cut way back leaving few places for ambushers to hide. Riding at the head of the column was a tall, thin cheetah morph dressed in full armor. Behind him some of his troops rode horses. The rest walking along behind as all infantry did.

Moving along this road was hardly new to these troops. They had patrolled along this road and countless others like it in the valley since their arrival. This time though things were different. This was not just a simple out and back to Metamor Keep type patrol. Instead they were headed to the fortress to stay for a month.

The woods around the road gave way to the low rolling hills covered with fields of corn and wheat. It was still several months till the crops were ready for harvesting but already they were taller then a man and made the perfect cover for an ambush. A fact well known to all of them.

It was several hours before the group caught its first glimpse of the fortress. Peeking over the top of a distant hill was the upper parts of a stone tower. The massive, square building had the flag of the Duke flying from the top. The banner proudly flapping in the wind.

As they moved down the road they passed farmers of all sorts out working. Some were tending the crops, others were herding some sheep and cattle. Still others were cleaning ditches. But in spite of all their differences Edmund Delacot noticed one common factor; all were carrying weapons of some sort. The young girl tending a flock of sheep had a sling tucked into her belt. The boy pulling weeds from around corn stalks had a bow and quiver on his back. And as the small column approached the people would all stop and look at the new arrivals as their hands went to whatever weapon they were carrying.

They wound their way around a bend in the road and finally the castle came into full view. A tall curtain wall painted a bright white encircled the entire fortress. Slightly taller towers anchored the four corners. In the middle of the south and each walls massive, squat gatehouses rested.

It’s official name was Hareford but most people simply called it Outpost. The fortress had seen many changes over its long lifetime of many centuries but it’s current incarnation was less then seven years old.

Standing between them and the bridge over the moat was a woman dressed in armor and carrying a long spear whose tip was of bronze. Her blonde hair was cut short, close to her head. She bowed low. “Welcome to Hareford Sir Edmund! I am pleased to have you here.”

The cheetah morph climbed down from his horse and bowed to the woman. “Thank you! I am Sir Edmund Delacot and my people and I are pleased to be here. We are here for our thirty days of service here as garrison.”

“My name is Marcia Caruslo, Castellan for Lord Sentilus,” the woman explained. “I will show you to your quarters and brief you on your assigned tasks.”

“Sir Sentilus is not here?” Edmund asked. “I wish to meet with him to discuss matters.”

She shook her head. “No sir. He is busy with other matters but he has placed his full trust in me. We can discuss this matter together now.”

“All right,” Edmund answered slowly. He had just been insulted by the absent nobleman but he refused to show any anger. “But not till after I see my horses stabled and my people into their quarters.”

The woman smiled and bowed. “This way please.”

The hooves of their horses clattered loudly on the wooden boards as they made their way across the bridge over the deep, wide ditch that surrounded the castle. Marcia was in the lead, flanked on one side by Edmund and the other by Terrant.

Edmund noticed that the moat was deep, wide and clear of any form of vegetation except for grass that was kept clipped close to the ground.

They passed through the dark gatehouse and into the bright sunshine on the far side. Behind them was the gatehouse and the curtain wall. They found themselves walking along a cobblestone street. Two and three story, brick, stone and half timbered buildings lined the street, crowding close together and towering over the soldiers. People were bustling about running errands, shopping or playing. They passed a woman who was sweeping the street in front of a small store. The sweet smell of fresh bread filled the air explaining that they were passing a bakery.

Space inside a town is always tight. No more so then one surrounded by a curtain wall and a ditch. Up ahead someone in search of a larger home had carried the three story building across the street on an arch turning the street into a tunnel. As they entered the short tunnel a little girl smiled down at them and waved. Edmund returned the wave cheerfully.

“A good sized town,” Edmund said. “How many people live here?”

“Three hundred and forty eight people at the present time but that doubles in times of trouble when the outlying people come in,” Marcia answered.

“How often is there trouble?” Terrant asked.

“Depends on your definition of the word,” Marcia countered. “We have individual or small groups stealing whatever they can all the time. But those never fight and are mostly a nuisance. True raiding parties have been rare this year. Only three over the last four months.”

“The losses from the Yule attack have hurt them bad,” Terrant commented.

The paladin nodded in agreement. “That and the collapse of Nasoj’s control has kept them too busy fighting each other to bother us.”

“Yes!” Marcia said cheerfully. “And we are all grateful for the reprieve. Before the Yule attack we were getting two or three raiding parties a week!”

“Still I’ll want to push out two mounted patrols during the day and another two foot patrols. At night we’ll put out two listening posts and one foot patrol,” Edmund ordered Terrant. “I’ll take one mounted patrol and you will command the other.”

“You haven’t even see the ground and already you are sending out patrols,” Marcia exclaimed.

“I did come up here last month to get the feel of the land when I found out we were coming here.” Edmund explained. “But that was a brief visit and I do want to get a better idea of the lay of the land today before nightfall. That is another reason why I wanted to meet with Sir Sentilus and find out more about the area.”

“No worries sir Delacot. I know this area well and I’ll take both of you on a tour personally,” Marcia said.

The paladin nodded. “We must have the foot patrols and the listening posts out tonight,” Edmund ordered.

Terrant nodded. “Agreed. They are bound to strike tonight.”

“Why?” Marcia asked.

Edmund was sure she knew the answer already and that he was being tested. “The troops are rotated every thirty days and have been for years,” Edmund answered. “The Lutins must know that. They must expect us to take a day or two to get into position and get the lay of the land. If we move tonight we are sure to catch them off guard.”

Marcia smiled. “You seem more skilled and aggressive then most of the nobles who come here.”

“If you do nothing then evil can get a foot hold,” the paladin intoned. “And I am too much the professional to let my guard down.”

The castellan nodded. “Good!” she said obviously pleased. “Most of those who come here are intelligent, skilled and eager to help defend this place. But some are . . .” the woman’s voice trailed off.

“Fools?” Terrant suggested.

“Interested in doing as little as possible and going home as quickly as possible,” Edmund stated calmly.

“All too true,” Marcia commented sadly. “And our own people are forced to take up the slack as best we can.”

“All armies are stuck with such wastrels,” the paladin intoned. “but you will find none such with me!”

Suddenly the houses ended and gave way to open ground. In front of them loomed another curtain wall and behind that standing far taller was a square keep. The massive stone tower was at least a hundred feet taller. They turned left and paralleled the wall for a few minutes till they came to a gatehouse. Standing guard at the open gate was for soldiers. All were dressed in expensive plate mail armor and carried long spears with wickedly sharp metal tips.

They made their way past the guards and through the gatehouse slowly. The hooves of their horse made a loud echo as the clattering noise echoed off the stonework around them. The massive stone structure was a powerful fortification in it’s own right. Capable of withstanding sustained direct assaults on it. The passage they were moving through was often called the death passage as it was meant to kill any enemies who entered it. The paladin felt uneasy passing through this place all too aware of the people above them ready to rain death down from hidden slits and ports in the ceiling above and the walls to either side.

On the other side was a courtyard paved with the same grayish stone and the curtain walls. In one corner was the massive tower keep. Across from it was a three story tall manor house with it’s walls plastered a bright white. The rest of the buildings that lined the courtyard consisted of a small storehouse, a kitchen, and a large building that was a stable on the ground floor and a barracks on the upper floor. Tucked into a corner was a small dovecote. The wooden building was home to scores of pigeons who would eventually find their way onto the dinner table. Their waste was a rich fertilizer and was carefully collected for a many uses.

Edmund and Terrant inspected their new quarters carefully while their soldiers remained in the courtyard outside. The stables were clean and dry and had plenty of room for the horse. The food was nice and fresh as was the hay. Up a flight of steps was the barracks; a large, open room filled with beds and with fireplaces on either end. A half dozen wooden tables and chairs lined the center of the room. There were two small rooms located on either side. Edmund would sleep in one and Terry and Bridgette the other.

“Nice, clean and dry,” Terrant commented as she looked over the barracks.

“Latrine and mess hall?” Edmund asked.

“The latrine is downstairs in the back of the stables,” Marcia answered. “For your meals you’ll send three people to collect them from the kitchen at dawn, noon and dusk.”

“What of special meals?” Terry asked. “Some of our people can no longer eat normal, human meals.”

The castellan nodded. “That is to be expected. You’ll need to speak with Belinda the head cook about exactly what special foods you need. Since the change she has become very good at preparing all manner of unusual foods. If the needs are very unusual we have a provisioner in town who stocks even the most unusual of foods.”

Edmund nodded in response. “What of other facilities? Entertainment? Is there a bath here?”

“Entertainment?” Marcia asked a little confused.

The paladin gave a chirp of amusement. “My people need to relax a little. A tavern, a field where they can play Small Ball.”

“There are plenty of places to play Small Ball but a tavern? I thought as a paladin you are forbidden to drink alcohol.”

“I am but my soldiers are not. I do not try and impose my ideals and desires on others,” Edmund explained. “But my people do understand the concept of restraint. You’ll have no drunken brawls with them,” he said proudly.

Marcia smiled nervously. “Ah . . I see.” And she fell silent.

“I have an unusual request,” Edmund asked filling the silence. “I have a female ward coming. Is there entertainment here more civilized then a tavern?”

“We do not have all the luxuries of the Keep but we do have a small library here and there are many who like to entertain guests.”

Edmund chirped in delight. “Good! Bridgette and I do love a good party.”

“I do have a favor to ask of you,” the castellan said.

“What is it?” the cheetah asked. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Lord Nestorius and I have been pushing the Duke to permanently assign more troops here rather then keep rotating people through every month,” she explained.

“How many are assigned here permanently?” Terrant asked.

“Forty,” the woman answered. “Plus another forty in the town militia.”

“That’s barely enough to properly patrol the town walls!” Edmund exclaimed.

She nodded in agreement. “I know. That is why people like yourself and your people come here. The constant rotation of troops works but not very well. Every thirty days another new group arrives and must settle in and start patrolling. If Thomas was to assign a mere company of cavalry here along with a another company of infantry . . “

“I understand but the Duke has only so many troops,” Edmund countered. “Still you have proven the worth of this place and you do need more troops here. I can speak with Misha and George. The Duke does respect their opinions.”

Marcia smiled broadly. “We would be very grateful for that Sir Edmund.”

Edmund waved a hand. “No need. Several of the nobles who have served here have said similar things. They have also said many good things about you and your people here.”

“Thank you,” Marcia said and smiled.

“George sends his scouts here doesn’t he?” Terrant asked.

Marcia nodded. “Oh yes. The number varies over time but he always have at least twenty here.”

“Is Marcus, their leader here?” Terrant asked.

“No, he’s been out on patrol since yesterday. But he is due back sometime tonight,” the castellan explained. “We meet at least once each week to discuss our strategy for the coming week.”

“Do you meet him more often then that?” Edmund asked.

Marcia smiled. “I do. He’s my brother in law.”

Edmund and Terrant both laughed. “That does help make working together easier,” the paladin joked.

The paladin walked to a window and leaned out. In the courtyard below his soldiers waited patiently.

“All right. Everyone come up and find a bunk and get settled in. There are two small rooms. Terrant and Bridgette will share the larger and I will take the other.” Edmund ordered.

The soldiers scattered to their appointed tasks and Edmund turned back into the room.

“Why?” Stealth interjected suddenly. The cheetah messenger was seated on a bench at the far end of the room.

“Why what?” Edmund asked. Surprised by the interruption.

Stealth stood up. “Why are Terrant and Bridgette in a room together and you alone?”

“Why? Terrant and I are the commander and second in command as such we rate our own quarters,” Edmund explained. “And Bridgette is my guest.”

Terry nodded in agreement. “Rank has it’s privilege.”

“No. That’s not my question. Why is Bridgette with Terrant and not you?” Stealth said and pointed to Edmund.

“Why?” the paladin asked and was silent for a moment. “Terrant and Bridgette are female. I’m male.”

“That’s all?” Stealth asked. “Just because she’s a woman and you’re a man?”

“Yes,” the paladin answered. “Is there a problem?”

“It does sound like an injustice, "You're the same person you were... but sleep in the other room, you can't sleep in my room because you're a girl."

"Why? Because that is improper! Men and women do not sleep together unless they are married."

Stealth pinched his nose bridge, "Ed, last time I checked a room and a bed were vastly different things..." He paused for a moment, "No offence but this is bordering on separatism; why don't you just divide the gendermorphs from the rest of your men, have them eat at different tables, work in different groups and different places from one another and be done with it?"

"Stealth," Edmund said harshly. "Society has certain rules. "MY order has certain rules and one of them is men and women sleep separately."

"Society is changing..." Stealth said with a glair. "You know me Ed, I don't care for rules. I break them." He said with a grin.

"I know!" Edmund answered. "We ALL know that. I also know that society is changing. The curse has turned society upside down."

The feline nodded slowly, "Those women used to be men. Just ask yourself, what if some strange magic turned me into a she? Then what would you do and how would you expect me to react?"

Edmund laughed. "I'd expect you to be just as difficult a rebel as you are now!"

Stealth stared at his home for the next thirty days. The bed was a simple wood frame with a grid work of ropes to hold the thin straw mattress. A very battered and worn chest stood at the foot of the bed.

“Why did I come here?” Stealth asked.

“You are here because Edmund needs you here to run messages between here and Metamor,” Terry answered.

“That will only take a small amount of time. What am I going to do for the rest of the time I’m here. For a month. A full month! ”

"Do? Why explore of course! Don't you want to see something of this valley besides the Keep itself?" Terry answered. “There is an entire town to explore here! Hundreds of people to meet and get to know.”

“I can’t afford a holiday!” the cheetah commented.

Terrant nodded her head. "You'll work for it. We'll have you running back and forth with messages and packages.”

"Why do you want me? You know I'll just botch up any task you give me,” Stealth said.

"Stealth if I thought you would mess up I wouldn't take you along,” Edmund answered sincerely. “I need someone I can trust to go back and forth to the Keep with my personal correspondences. And I trust you!”

A short distance away, across the courtyard was the manor where Nestorius and his family lived. Amidst it’s many rooms was one without any walls. Inside sat the commander and noble in charge of the fortress and town. He was well aware of the new arrivals but paid them little heed. Instead he intently studied the map laid out on the table in front of him. With one hand he lightly traced the image of the three figures at the top of the map. “Who are you?”

The first morning patrol was a small one, just twelve knights on horseback lead by Edmund. With them was Samantha. The young woman was an experienced soldier and would be their guide for today.

They made their way from the castle, through the town and out the east gate. It was barely past dawn and the town and castle were quiet and still. Only a handful of people were out, moving about on their own errands.

As they crossed the bridge over the moat everyone grew more awake and alert in spite of the early hour of the day. Swords hilts were grasped and bows and arrows touched in one last check.

Outside such walled towns was usually found a larger unwalled town just as vibrant and active as the one inside. But Hareford was different. Outside her walls was no town, no settlement, nor buildings of any sort. Just flat open fields whose sole occupants were grazing sheep.

They made their way slowly away from the fortress and the open grass fields gave way to fields of wheat and grain.

“What is the preferred crop?” Edmund asked. “I see mostly wheat and barley.”

“Wheat and barely are the favorite but also growing apples is good,” Samantha answered. “Some people have recently started raising sheep and that seems promising.”

“Surely they have been sheepherding here for a long time,” Edmund commented.

The woman nodded in response. “Oh yes but until recently with the lessening of raids raising sheep was always dangerous. The Lutins seems love mutton.”

“Doesn’t everyone?” Edmund joked.

It was several hours before sunset when the patrol finally made it’s way back through the town and into the courtyard of the castle. Aside from a handful of young grooms and stable hands, Marcia and Terrant waited for them.

“The day was peaceful?” Marcia asked.

“Very,” Edmund answered as he shook his head slowly.

“Surprised?” she asked.

“Yes, I’ve heard of the troubles you’ve had here in the past,” the paladin explained as he climbed down from the saddle.

Marcia walked up to Edmund. “Things HAVE been rather quiet as of late,” she admitted as she laid a hand onto the bridle of Edmunds horse.

“Now you are the one surprised,” Edmund joked. He removed the saddlebags and his extra quiver of arrows from the saddle.

“We haven’t had things this peaceful for as long as anyone can remember,” the Castellan said as she lightly petted the horses neck. “I keep expecting some massive and horrible attack to come.”

“You’ve been at war so long that you have forgotten what peace is like,” Edmund commented.

She laughed and smiled. “Peace is nice! I can actually sleep at night now.”

“I was hoping,” Edmund started suddenly. “to meet with Lord Nestorius.”

“Unfortunately Lord Nestorius is busy with a very important ritual at the moment and cannot be disturbed,” came the woman’s guarded answer.

“I see,” Edmund said. “I do wish to confer with him before I leave. I have questions that only he can answer.”

“I will talk to him and mention your desire for a meeting,” was Marcia’s answer.

“Good!” the paladin chirped in reply.

“I was hoping that you and Bridgette would be willing to come to my home this evening for dinner,” Marcia announced. “My husband Maxwell is eager to meet both of you.”

Edmund nodded in response and chirped in delight. “I’m honored and flattered. Of course Bridgette and I will come for dinner.”

The woman smiled broadly. “Good! Then tonight at six o’clock please.”

“We’ll be there!” the paladin answered cheerfully.

The home of the Caruslo family was a modest three floor stone building located on the main road leading to the keep. It was the last building on that street before the deep moat. A pair of lanterns flanked the doorway to the house. They cast a warm glow over the door and the street in front of it. Standing in the doorway were two figures. One was Marcia the other was an animal morph. The male had the thick, squat, black and white furred form of a honey badger. A creature unknown in this colder climate.

“Good evening!” the couple said to the arriving couple.

The badger bowed deeply. “My name is Maxwell Caruslo. You have already met my wife Marcia.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you. Thank you for inviting us tonight,” Edmund answered. He pointed to Bridgette. “This is my ward Bridgette.”

“Thank you for coming!” Marcia said. “Please come inside!”

“Dinner was delicious,” Edmund said cheerfully.

“Thank you,” Marcia answered.

“The sauce on the roast lamb was surprisingly spicy!” Edmund said.

“Not too spicy I hope,” Max asked.

“No it was fine, just the right amount to make it exciting!” the paladin answered.

The woman smiled. “Good. Not many people like food so spicy.”

“I was born in the southlands,” Edmund explained. “and it brought back memories of my youth.”

“From the Southlands to Metamor,” Max commented. “You’ve traveled a long way.”

Edmund shrugged. “I go where the order needs me.”

“How are you and your people coping with being here?” Max asked.

“Good. I have to admit things are a lot quieter then I expected,” Edmund answered.

Max took a drink of beer and nodded. “It has been a lot more peaceful then is usual for this season. Thankfully.”

“I know it will end sometime but hopefully not so soon,” Marcia said.

“Have you considered negotiating with the Lutins instead of fighting them?” the feline paladin asked.

A look of surprise crossed the woman’s face. “You mean talk to them?”

“Yes. The Lutins are one of the Great Ones people and Metamor has worked with them in the past.”

“The distant past!” Max commented. “Not in centuries.”

“Then it is perhaps overdue,” Edmund commented.

“With Nasoj’s dominance over them broken I am hopeful many Lutins will be open to talk. Certainly trying to take Metamor by force has failed,” Edmund commented.

“Negotiating with Lutins?” Marcia said slowly as if unable to grasp the concept.

“Why not? The Lutins respect force and power. And it’s been shown several times that Metamor is more powerful then Nasoj,” the paladin explained. “Every time Nasoj has attacked he has been defeated. Each time worse then before.”

“Has Duke Thomas considered negotiating with the Lutins?” Marcia asked.

The paladin nodded. “I have heard rumors,” Edmund started slowly in a soft tone. “That some at the Keep have been talking to certain lutin tribes.”

“Who?” Marcia asked surprised.

“Well Misha for one although I am sure he speaks for the Duke,” Edmund answered.

“Misha?” came the surprised question. “That axe wielding slayer?”

“There is more to Misha then just slaying.”

“So it seems,” Max commented. “He and his scouts have been here many times over the years.”

Marcia nodded in agreement. “And they’ve killed lots of Lutins as well. Why the change? Why does the fox want to speak with the Lutins now?”

“People change with time,” the paladin answered. “He has grown tired of the constant warfare. And so have the Lutins it seems. It was not his idea for a truce. You see the Lutins approached Misha first. But to Misha’s credit he did readily agree to it.”

“I’ve heard rumors of a truce like that,” the woman said. “Certainly the Lutins have been abiding by it. No one has been killed in the few raids that have occurred over the last few months. And the Duke did ban us from raiding the Lutins outside the valley.”

“Unfortunately not all the tribes are involved,” the paladin explained. “But it is a start.”

“Do you believe other tribes could be enticed to join?” Max asked.

Edmund shrugged. “No one can tell but I have high hopes.”

“What does Misha think?” Marcia asked. “If anyone would know it would be him.”

“He is doubtful,” the paladin answered. “And a little confused, but he is honoring the truce.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell us of this before?” Marcia asked. “We deserved to know as soon as it happened.”

“The truce has only recently begun. Misha asked me inform you, since I was already headed here,” Edmund explained.

“I have a question,” Max said. “Does this mean the lutins involved aren't going to enter the valley at all or does it mean that they will enter and do what they want and the two sides aren't allowed to fight?”

Edmund nodded his head. "I believe the agreement was that we stay out of the lutins territory and they stay out of ours."

“How was it decided who owns what territory?” the badger asked. “Our turf is south of the dike, what if the lutins try to dispute the borders and claim a part of the valley?”

“And the Duke of Metamor has controlled parts of the Giantdowns in the past,” Marcia added.”

Edmund shook his head slowly. "I don't think anyone considered that idea. It’s an unwanted complication that needs to be considered. I would think Giants Dike would be the agreed upon border.”

“Stealth!” Edmund as he walked up to his friend. The paladin held out his hand. In it was a large envelope. “I need you to deliver this to Sir Nestorius.”

Stealth took the envelope and examined it. The envelope was a plain white thing with the words “Lord Nestorius” written in black ink on the front.

He held the envelope in his hand. It was hardly a difficult delivery. They were both in the barracks and the Manor the lion lived in was a short walk across the courtyard.

“I want you to deliver that to Sir Nestrius personally,” Edmund ordered. “It is for his eyes only.”

“Understood,” Stealth answered. “I’ll hand it to Nestorius myself.”

“Thank you Stealth. This is very important.”

The walk across the courtyard took him only a minute or two. On the opposite site of the small courtyard tucked against the curtain wall was a two story manor house. Built of the same, sturdy stone as the rest of the castle it was covered with plaster and painted a bright blue. Located in the center of the ground floor was a larger door. The blonde colored wood was complimented by hinges of brass that had been polished to a golden gleam. On the door in the center and at about chest high was the door knocker. This was made in the shape of a snarling lion with the lower jaw hinged. What caught Stealth attention was that it was made of some black metal and not the shining brass like the rest of the doors hardware.

Stealth grabbed hold of the brass knocker and rapped three times. The sounds seemed to echo for a moment before fading into silence. After a long moment the door slowly opened to reveal an older woman.

“I have a message for Lord Nestorius . . “

“Use the servants entrance,” the woman said harshly interrupting Stealth. She pointed off to her right.

“But this from Sir Edmund himself for . . “

“I said use the servants entrance,” the woman snarled and shut the door in the felines face.

He stood there for a moment too angry to do anything. His snarled at the closed door and the now absent servant. Then he turned and walked to the left. After a few moments he came to a small door. It was made of dark wood and had wrought iron hinges.

The cheetah looked at the door for a moment. It had no knocker and he did not like the idea of banging on the rough wood with his bare hand. He looked around at the ground and located a small, fist sized rock. He picked up the rock and hammered it against the door several times.

After a long moment the door slowly opened to reveal the same woman who had opened the front door. “What do you want?” the woman scowled.

He took a deep breath and tried to speak calmly. “I have a letter from Sir Edmund Delacot for Sir Nestorius.”

“LORD SENTILUS,” the woman shouted. “Treat him with respect peasant.”

Stealth held up the envelope. “This is for him alone.”

The woman snatched the letter from his hand. “I’ll see that he receives it. Good day,” and with those words she slammed the door shut.

This town reminded Edmund of any of a hundred small towns he had been in over the years. The cobblestone streets were narrow and twisted back and forth. Lining each side were tall stone buildings that towered over the street leaving it in gloomy darkness. In many places the buildings crossed over above to the buildings on the other side. Turning an open street into a dark tunnel.

As they walked along Edmund noticed small alleys the opened onto the road he was on. These tight little alleyways were so narrow that his shoulders would brush both walls if he traveled down them. But Edmund avoided them, instead they stuck to the larger streets with their crowds of people.

The people they met greeted them warmly, smiling and nodding as the couple passed. One, a young woman wearing a brightly colored dress was selling bread through a large. open storefront window. She smiled and gave Bridgette a small bun still hot from the oven. She hesitated for a moment before taking it. And thanking the woman. Edmund quickly bought several loaves of bread and a dozen rolls all still warm. The smell of the freshly baked was wonderful to the paladin. It brought to him memories of when he was a child in his mothers kitchen with all it’s wonderful sights, smells and sounds.

His sensitive nose was one of the many good things about the change to his present form. At the moment he was just enjoying those enhanced senses. But most of all he was enjoying being with Bridgette. He had first taken the woman as a ward. To help a person with no memories get her life back together, but they had grown close. At first he was sure it was just friendship but with each passing day they grew closer and closer. At first they were getting together for her lessons. Learning to speak and read and write again. But soon their times together broadened to shopping in town, visits to concerts, and simply walking together.

Edmund was no simpleton. He had courted young woman before he had taken the vows. And since then he had courted a few since then but none of them made him feel so good, so complete as Bridgette. She was a simple woman is so many ways. With her old memories gone she was seeing the world for the first time and even the simplest of things brought her great delight. Edmund had led men in battles, fought dragons, manticores, ghouls and all manner of undead with no problems. Combat was no stranger to him. What did confuse him was Bridgette. Was she the woman to share his life? He was afraid of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing and hurting her. She was looking into his eyes now. Suddenly aware of the fact that something was worrying him. He put those worries aside. He did not want to ruin this fine afternoon with such thoughts. Edmund looked into those warm soft eyes and saw patience, warmth and love. He leaned forward and tenderly licked her muzzle in a canine kiss. She rubbed her muzzle against his and licked his face gently.

“Well?” Edmund asked eagerly. “Did he get the letter?”

“No but I did deliver it to someone who said she would give it to him.”

“I asked you to give it to Nestorius himself,” Edmund commented.

“They wouldn’t even let me in the door.”

“You need to be more assertive,” Edmund said.

"I'm sorry," Stealth said and lowered his head.

"It’s not your fault my friend. Nestorius is being particularly rude."

Stealth shook his head. "I stuffed up an easy job... I knew I'd do this."

"It was not an easy job." Edmund commented. "This lion has refused to meet with me already."

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