The building that Jacob led them to was once a shop for outfitting travelers for their journeys. Such could be clearly seen by the scattering of debris from the smashed front. Jacob almost tripped over a frozen body in the street that was half covered by the drifting snows. That had clinched it and he demanded Rickkter provide some light. The raccoon mage nodded absently as he hugged himself, teeth chattering. But he did summon a dim feather of witchlight above their heads. Now they were standing in a room at the top of the house in what was an observation tower. From it they could see the whole town. Or would, were it not for the snow. Now all they could see was blackness, snow blowing against the windows, and the odd blotch of orange from various fires. The greatest number of those was to the north, towards the Keep itself, and in the same direction the raccoon mage was looking intently.
“It’s a swarm,” Rickkter finally pronounced. “We’re screwed.”
“It can’t be that bad.”
“It is that bad. We can’t reach the main gates: we’re stuck out here.”
“But we’ve been lucky so far- ”
“We’ve been on the outskirts of their forces. Their main objective was Metamor itself.”
“You have your magic- ”
“Which will be picked up by any other magic user in the vicinity. I don’t have the resources to properly work the cloaks.”
“But if we can just get to the gates- ”
Rickkter’s paw latched onto Jacob’s collar and pulled the fox close. The raccoon’s lips were drawn up in a snarl as he yelled into the fox’s ear. “Listen to what I’m trying to tell you! Will you do that?! They will not let us in. At all!” He shook the fox. “That army that I saw now controls the gates – something I’m not half surprised about after seeing this. They’re not about to let us through. We’d be lucky to be killed on sight. They own everything between here and the Keep itself! Do you understand that!?” He felt the faint tug on the collar as the fox nodded. “Good! Now, assuming they haven’t completely overwhelmed the gates, that means our side is fighting a losing battle. Do you understand that? They will not open the gates for us. Under ANY circumstances! Not for just the two of us, it would be too great a risk of letting the enemy in. We are therefore expendable! Do you understand that?”
“I do,” Jacob whispered meekly, just loud enough to be heard over the howling wind.
“Good!” Rickkter hunched his shoulders, thrusting the cowed fox away as he wrapped his arms around himself in an effort to stay warm. Damn it, he was so cold! Even his teeth were starting to chatter. He swore inwardly at the entire situation, and the caution that made it risk for him to risk something as simple as a spell to keep himself warm. “We need to get ourselves some real shelter, someplace relatively safe for the night and wait until morning or until this snow lessens. When that comes I have no idea what we’ll do. Try and escape to someplace they haven’t taken over yet, perhaps.”
“Yes, you’re right, we do need shelter,” Jacob agreed. He was looking over the shivering raccoon, mostly unaffected himself by the harsh cold. “If we don’t get you someplace warm soon, you’re going to freeze to death.”
“And what happens if we run into another group of Lutins?” Rick asked as he hugged himself for warmth.
“We haven’t so far. Besides, if what you said is right about them taking the gates, they’ll need all the men they can to do that. They won’t have the resources to worry about the town.” The fox shook his head slowly and grinned from one corner of his muzzle, “And if we do I think you would not need magic to slaughter them.” He said, nodding toward the raccoon’s sword. A rime of ice had formed on the hilt, making it gleam in the muted light.
Rickkter growled through his clenched muzzle. Damn it, the fox was making too much sense. Besides, his fingers were so cold they were hurting him. He doubted that, had Lutins come upon them at that moment, he even hold his sword, much less fight with it. “Alright, fine. Let’s do this.”
They descended the stairs once more into the wrecked shop, Rick bringing up the rear. He was concentrating so hard on keeping his jaw locked shut that he missed a step, stumbling and almost hitting the fox in front of him. When they reached the bottom level, Jacob took one look through the ruined front then turned and placed a hand on Rick’s chest as the coon started to head out. “Look, I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve learned some things about certain morphs in this kind of weather. If we go out now, with the wind and snow that’s being tossed around, I don’t think you’ll make it. I can stand the cold better, so it should be me that goes out.”
“No way,” Rick said with an emphatic shake of his head. “We’re not separating.”
“You’ll freeze if you go out there.”
Looking up into the placid face by the weak and flickering glow of his witchlight, Rickkter could only snarl. He also knew the fox was right. “Okay, you win. Though I’m still coming with you.”
Jacob’s ears tilted back in a frown. “How?”
Rickkter appeared to ignore him, throwing debris from behind a series of shelves. He eventually came up holding a large canvas backpack. “I think this should do,” he muttered as he tossed it on the counter. Jacob did a double take as the raccoon started to remove his weapons.
“What are you doing?”
“Like I said, I’m coming with you,” Rickkter told him as he pulled off his chainmail shirt and tossed it on the table. He tapped the pack beside it. “I’m going in this. And since I don’t want to lose any of my weapons, get over here and put them on.”
Jacob had Rick’s swords and two knives on and was adjusting the oversized mail shirt by the time he figured out what the mage was intending. Rick left Jacob to do the buckles on the rest of it, as his paws were shaking too badly to do anything but start stuffing his removed clothing into the bag. A gust of wind ruffled the fur on his chest and he had to snap his jaws shut to stop their chattering.
“Okay, Jacob,” he said, his voice shivering just as much as the rest of him. “From now on, you’re on your own. No light to guide you, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to concentrate enough to use my magic to keep a look out. Just find us someplace warm for the night, preferably on the edge of town as there shouldn’t be to many of them out that way. We can decide on course of action in the morning, okay?”
“Yes, okay. Now get in the bag.” Rickkter spared a moment to consider how ridiculous the near black fox looked in the ill-fitting armor and weapons. He just hoped he would get a chance to get them back. If that fox were killed and some slimy Lutin got them for a trophy, Rickkter would be most upset! The whole situation brought a snarl to his lips as he grew smaller, more hunched over, shifting into his animal form.
Jacob picked up the fully transformed raccoon around the middle, feeling the thick tail automatically tuck under Rick and against his own paw. “Damn, you are cold,” he observed, vigorously rubbing the raccoon’s fur. Rickkter grumbled and chittered as he squirmed in the fox’s arms. “Okay, okay. In you go.” He opened the pack a little wider, carefully laying the raccoon in on his back so that Rick could have his nose close to the opening to breathe. “Well, I hope you’re warm enough now,” he said, tucking in Rick’s tattered dress shirt around the raccoon, “because I don’t intend to stop again until we’re safe. I’ll try and keep the trip as free from bumps as I can, but I can’t promise anything if the Lutins show up. Any problems with that?” Rickkter gurred, but shook his head. “Alright then. See you when we’re warmer.” He closed and secured the lid of the pack, carefully hoisting it onto his shoulders as the small sphere of magic ceased to exist. Even though the illumination had been weak, it took the fox’s eyes some minutes to adjust to the dark. Fingering the wrap on the unfamiliar sword at his hip, Jacob Fox set out into the cold unknown.
The storm’s urgency had faded the further South they went. Bryonoth was glad of that, for it allowed him the luxury of a bit more light as he continued to drive Thomas through the night. He was not sure if he was being followed, but he doubted very much that the Keepers would allow him the luxury of an escape so easily made, despite their other problems. But he knew that his steed could not handle too much exertion in one evening, especially through this sort of weather. Why, his legs must be freezing, only continuing to move because they were so used to the motion.
Bryonoth had been learning the layout of the land south of the Keep for the last two months, and so knew his way about fairly well, and knew where to find shelter. Turning through the woods, he slowed Thomas down slightly, pulling back on the reins. Obedience was immediate, and he doubted that Thomas even realised that the spell of control had waned. He was just used to obeying his rider’s commands. He’d strengthen it again while Thomas slept, so that he did not realise that it needed to be recharged. No point in giving his new found stallion reason to be obdurate or rebellious.
The snow was lighter at least, only a foot or so deep in the woods. The blizzard had mostly been concentrated at the Keep, and had died off to a light dusting after an hour’s ride. Both he and his steed appreciated that, as it allowed them to move faster down the valley. Bryonoth was no fool though. He knew that he was not safe, and Thomas would not truly be his steed until they had safely left the valley and were in the Midlands proper. There, he could have Thomas shoed in preparation for the trip to the Steppe of the Flatlands.
Once they arrived in his homeland, it would not be difficult to rejoin the Bryonoth clan, and Thomas would produce many fine foals. Of course, he’d need a more fitting name than Thomas. It just wasn’t of the Steppe. He’d have to think on that for now, as nothing sprang to mind. But surely he would bring his family much honour by claiming a steed as this. And he knew a rune to cast that would seal Thomas forever into this form just as soon as he was branded by his clan.
However, for any of this to come to fruition, he needed to find shelter, before Thomas’s legs became too cold to move. Ducking under a few more lifeless branches, casting the snow upon it to the ground and over Thomas’s hindquarters, he saw that building that he’d intended for. It was a small farm that had been abandoned the previous winter. Signs of attack had still been upon it when Bryonoth had found it last month. He’d spent a few days repairing the stables, and stealing enough hay from the nearby farms to stock it.
With a lick of his tongue he turned Thomas towards the front door, slowing him down to a simple walk. Thomas, with bowed head, complied, obviously exhausted from his run through the bitter winter chill. Bryonoth patted his steed’s neck with one hand to assure him that all was well, though said nothing. He had a few other places prepared in case he had been able to make it further on the first night of his escape, but the blizzard made this stable a necessity.
Dismounting, the knight lifted the latch on the stable door, and led Thomas inside, where it was warmer, though not a great deal. After closing the door and removing his gauntlets, he took the tinder from the saddlebags perched on either side of Thomas’s flanks and lit the lantern he’d hung inside the doorway.The stable was small, only three stalls, each of them freshly stocked with hay, while more awaited in the hayloft above. There was a small fire pit on the other side, which had fresh kindling and twigs already placed inside. Taking a small stick, he lit it with the lantern’s flame, and then proceeded to start the fire.
It took him a few moments to get the flame nice and bright, but once he had done so, he removed a blanket from the saddlebags and held it before the flickering orange flame, until it was pleasantly warm. Turning, Bryonoth approached Thomas, who stood in the middle of the stables rather dumbly. Bryonoth let out another nicker, and the horse clopped forward upon the hay-strewn wood floor, his eyes the fire both apprehensively, and appreciatively.
Bryonoth leaned forward and began to rub Thomas’s legs down with the warm cloth, restoring feeling to them as he worked. Thomas just stood there meekly, cooperating as if he were but a tame horse, though the knight gave no orders. Bryonoth gazed a moment into the Duke of Metamor’s eyes as he worked on his forelegs, trying to see what thoughts were betrayed in them. All that he could discern though was appreciation for this gesture. No sense of that former rebellion remained in them.
With a bit of a chuckle, Bryonoth patted Thomas’s cheek with one hand, a hand that the horse leaned into. Smiling, he turned to work over his steed’s rear legs, delighted at the compliance he found. Perhaps the Duke would not be so hard to break as he had at first suspected. And so, as the fire crackled, the flames growing higher and higher in the inglenook, Sir Albert Bryonoth continued warming the Duke’s body with the cloth, rubbing it firmly across every one of his legs, taking care around each joint.
Once he was finished with that, he lifted the saddle from the Duke’s back, and set it on the nearby rack. He then gripped the reins, and led Thomas into one of the stalls, turning him about so that his head rested above the slightly rotted wooden door. Thomas clopped about, his tail swishing from one side to the other almost lazily, snorting and champing a bit at the halter.
Bryonoth chuckled then, and patted the side of his head, just beneath one eye. “Thou art mistaken if thou thinks I shalt remove thy halter just yet.” Leaving the horse inside the stall, he retrieved two sets of poles from one of the other stalls, each with wide clasps on the ends. Returning to his steed, he said, “Stand still, “ and immediately, Thomas’s body stiffened, the legs locking beneath him as if he were sleeping.
Stepping underneath his stallion, Bryonoth placed the clasps around the upper portion of Thomas’s right foreleg, and then placed the other around his right hind leg. He used the other pole on the horses’s left side, before locking each clasp in place, and shifting them about to make sure that they were secure. He then stood before his horse and offered him a slight smile. “I shall warn thee, if thou attempts to change back, then thou shalt break they arms and legs. A horse whose limbs are broken is good only for its flesh.”
Thomas’s eyes went wide at that, but he offered no protest. Bryonoth then untied the halter, and pulled it from the horse’s head, the bit coming free of Thomas’s mouth at last. It looked as if it were a great relief to Thomas to have those straps of leather from his face, for he opened and shut his mouth several time sot get the taste of the bit out.
Bryonoth hung the halter from a peg on the post next to the stall, and then dragged one of the feedbags over, and began to pour the oats into the trough just inside the stall. Thomas was quick to set his face down into the offering, eating gluttonously. Nodding in approval, Bryonoth walked over to one of the cisterns on the other side of the barn, and placed a pail beneath the valve. Turning the handle, he saw that the water had not completely frozen, as it trickled slowly into the pan. Once it was half full, he turned the handle back, carried the pail back to the horse’s stall, and filled the water trough with what he had in the pail. Bryonoth made three trips before he was satisfied his steed had enough to drink.
Content that Thomas was well cared for at the moment, he turned to face the two doors leading outside. If indeed he the Metamorians were looking for him, then the Keepers would have little difficulty in following that trail he’d left. He took the long shaft of wood and laid it in the braces for the door. It would take a bit of effort for any Keepers to burst their way into the stable, which would give him just enough alarm to defend himself and his steed.
He shoved a few logs into the inglenook then, listening to the crack of the fire as it snapped and worked to turn the kindling to ash. He held out his chapped hands to the flames, letting them be warmed once more. It would feel good to be back on the Steppe, were weather such as this rarely if ever occurred. There was a soreness to his body as well, in his legs, one that he had greatly missed in the last two months. It was the feel of a horse between his legs.
An unpleasant moue crossed his features then as he thought over the last two months. He’d had to live out of the saddle, without the companionship of his steed. It was a bitter existence that, one that he was not meant to live. He was born to the saddle, a man of the Steppe. He breathed in deep of his own flesh, and found its taint of equine odour appealing, a true impression of living. Turning back to Thomas, he saw that his steed was eating quietly from the feed tray, the poles about his legs not preventing him from taking small steps, but certainly from changing back or attempting to flee.
Walking once more across the short space of the stables, Bryonoth rested his now warmed hands upon the horse’s neck, running his fingers through the mane there, and breathing in deep of the pleasing aroma. Thomas lifted his head to consider the knight, his eyes curious, but did not appear to be damning or in the least bit reproachful. Bryonoth rested his forehead against Thomas’s, as he gently ran his fingers through the cheek fur. “I thank thee,” was all he could say before he began to whimper quietly.
Thomas nuzzled him a bit with his head, and Bryonoth hugged that head close, his whole body so delighted to just have the feel of a horse so close. Never before could he remember when he had felt so delighted to have a steed at his side to care for. Truly, he needed a steed to feel complete, to feel like a man. As he held that massive equine head in his hands, all other thoughts fled his mind. Truly, the blood of a horse flowed in his own veins.
The patrol moved slowly down the corridor. In the lead was Arla, the dog morph. Dressed in only a leather jerkin covered with metal studs. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. She never wore one when she was patrolling. No matter how well made, they always seemed to block her ears and cut out her hearing. Knowing the enemy was coming was more important then being better protected.
Arla’s first warning of the wolves was in one of the Keeps many kitchens. There in the doorway was a large paw print barely visible in the dust. She motioned for the five scouts behind her to stop and then she crouched down and examined the print. It was as huge, almost as big as her head.
The woman who knelt next to Arla was tall, almost six foot, and was solidly built. There was no mistaking the powerful muscles under her chain mail armor. Her long brown hair was bundled up underneath her helmet. She examined the print with piercing, brown eyes. The dog pointed to the print in the dust and then placed her hands next to her ears in imitation of the wolves’ larger ears. Her message was clear, “Wolf prints.”
The woman, who was Laura, Arla’s team leader. Quickly the remaining scouts joined them.
Laura examined the prints for a moment. She spread both hands apart then placed them by her own ears. “giant wolf,” she corrected silently.
Arla held up both hands, all ten fingers spread wide, then clenched her fist and opened them again. “twenty,” was the count.
All six scouts shifted nervously. The idea of fighting that many of those pony sized monsters wasn’t a happy one. Trying to kill twenty of them was hopeless for such a small group.
A slim teenage girl dressed in leather crouched next to Arla. Her leather armor and short sword looked out of place on such a young looking person, but Arla knew better. Lisa Ringe was married with two children, and a hardened, veteran scout of many years. Arla was glad to have the tough little scout with them.
“Now what?” Arla asked with silent hand signals.
“We keep going,” Laura said. “If a dire wolf pack is loose in the Keep we have to find them before they can cause any havoc.”
“Agreed,” Lisa answered with her hands.
Arla nodded and motioned the group forward. The kitchen was a shambles; pots, pans, knives, forks, and bits of unidentifiable debris were scattered everywhere. The sound of tearing flesh, and bones crunching came to the collie’s ears and the faint but unmistakable scent of the giant canines came to her sensitive nose.
Moving carefully, they followed the sounds, past shattered crockery and battered furniture. The sharp tang of the dire wolves’ scents became stronger with each step. As she came to the counter Arla could make out the scents individual dire wolves. The sounds and smells led through the kitchen, past the large stoves and ovens, past shattered cabinets and over turned tables and to a closed door. Pressing her ear to the door the sounds of the wolves feasting came through clearly and their scents were overpowering.
Quickly the scouts spread out in a semicircle around the door. Weapons were drawn and readied for a use. Silent hand signals were passed back and forth until everyone understood their job.
Ralls held a warhammer in his left hand and reached for the door handle with the other. Arla briefly wondered if his chainmail armor was strong enough to withstand the dagger sized teeth of a dire wolf. She looked at the brown bear standing next to her left. Meredith had a large crossbow in his big hands. That bow was too large for the dog to even pick up, yet the bear wielded it like it was a toy. The axe that was strapped to Meredith’s back had a head as big as Arla’s but he could wield it with a frightening speed and dexterity.
A glance to her right showed her the small, slim form of Allart. Even some many years after the curse had taken effect she still found it hard to remember that the fourteen year old boy there was actually twenty five, with a wife and child. Still the boy could wield his short sword with skill.
Arlas attention was drawn back to Ralls. The man was looking at her. She nodded that she was ready. He yanked the door open and jumped back, bringing his hammer up to strike.
After several long moments a solitary dire wolf poked its head out of the door, a large beef bone in its powerful jaws. It stared at the scouts, and then withdrew back inside.
Confused by the less then hostile greeting Arla carefully peered into the room and saw strange sight. The room had been a pantry. Shelves lined the walls from the floor all the way to the ceiling. But the shelves were empty, only bits and pieces were scattered around. Also scattered around the large room were twenty dire wolves. Some of the huge lupines were eating, some were sleeping and in the corner two were playing together with a large bone. All activity stopped and the score of dire wolves turned to look at the intruder in the doorway.
“Hello!” a voice said from the panty. Following the voice she saw, there, perched on a shelf that was at least ten feet off the floor, was a black haired boy of around ten years old. “I’m Terrance.” Arla noted that the shelf was out of the reach of the wolves, most likely the only reason he was still alive.
As Arla and Laura watched twenty pairs of eyes turned in their direction and one of the wolves uttered a deep, guttural growl as he slowly stood up. The remainder of his pack mates got up onto their paws and also moved toward the door.
Quickly the six scouts readied themselves for when the dire wolves would come boiling out of the door. Arla stepped back, raised her sword and awaited the first rush of the monsters.
The rush never came.
For a long moment the scouts waited anxiously but the dire wolves never came out. Finally the border collie stepped back to the door and quickly peered in. Arla let out a yip of humor and her tail wagged.
“What’s wrong?” Meredith asked.
“We’re waiting for them to attack us, and they’re waiting for us to attack them,” came her answer in an amused tone of voice.
The bear lowered his axe to the floor, “Now what? Why don’t they attack?”
“Why should they?” Terrance asked. “All the food is in here.”
“You have to admit he has point,” Ralls commented moving forward to stand next to Meredith. The woman smiled. “Why would they want to leave a nice, warm room full of food and get killed fighting us?”
“Now what happens?” Terrance asked. “You two groups going to stand there staring at each other or what?” All eyes, both keeper and dire wolf turned and looked up at the boy.
Snorting a moment, Egland considered the stable that emerged from the wood. It was attached to an old abandoned farm house, one that was crumbling from neglect. The stable though appeared to have been repaired somewhat, as the wood along one side was only a month old, whereas its neighbouring planks were rotting in places. Two aspects of the stable however spoke loudest to the elk. Between the cracks in the wood shown feeble light, and there was smoke emerging from the narrow chimney.
Saulius whispered into his ear, “It appears they hath taken this place as refuge.” Egland nodded, even as he felt Saulius loosen the straps around his belly. He stood solid there, his hooves planted firmly in the snow as the bits of cloth were unwound. With a muffled whump, Saulius rolled off of his back, landing in the snow with a mild grunt. “I do not wish to ride thee ever again, I hath sores from my tail tip to my whiskers.”
Egland snorted again, though this time it was in amusement. However, his heart returned quickly to his promise, eyes turned on those stable doors. He cautiously approached, not bothering to shift from his elk form, at least not yet. Saulius stalked at his side, sword in paw, his mail shirt tight in the chill.
As he drew near to the door, he could hear the crackling of a fire, and could smell the thick scent of a horse, and that of Bryonoth, as well as the customary hay that is usual with stables. However, there was no indication where any of them were inside of the stable, or what they were doing in there. Saulius stood back from the door watching him, waiting for something.
Egland felt a bit of a flush creeping over him as he realized the rat’s intent. Turning his hind quarters to face the middle of the double doors, he leaned forward and gave them a sharp kick. The sound of cracking and splintering wood came back to him, but the door still stood shut. Rearing again, he thrust his hind hooves will terrific energy into the wood, and the splintering grew more pronounced as the doors heaved inwards. Grunting, the elk knight kicked again, this time sending one door singing inwards as the long wooden shaft that held them shut cracked in two.
Saulius rushed inside, even as Egland turned on his hooves to see what lay before them. Bryonoth was standing, sword in hand, before a stall in which stood the horse that was Duke Thomas. Thomas appeared to be rather frightened, the whites showing around his pupils. Yet, he just stood there in the stall, whinnying in anxiety. “Thou canst have him, he’s my steed!” Bryonoth declared hotly, waving his sword tip before him at the rat knight who was slowly stepping forward.
“Thou hast claimed the Duke of Metamor as they steed wrongfully,” Saulius answered back, his voice, though high pitched, challenging nonetheless. “Thou shalt let him return to his people, as is his right and privilege.”
“No, he is my steed, thou shan’t take him from me!” Bryonoth repeated, his eyes looking even more wild than before. Thomas continued to stand mute, just watching, tail flicking back and forth in agitation.
Saulius gasped, even as Egland began to change back to his morphic form. “Sir Bryonoth, it is I, a fellow man of the steppe. Dost thou remember me, Sir Erick Saulius?”
An expression of momentary recognition flashed over Bryonoth’s wild face, but it was quickly subsumed by that other part of him, that part that was determined to make Thomas a true horse. “He is my steed, and I am his rider. Thou wilt not separate us. I shall kill thee if I must to protect him.”
“Bryonoth,” Egland called. “Ts’amut! It is I, sir Yacoub Egland. Please come back to me, Ts’amut.” He knew that the Flatlander word for friend/brother had caused Bryonoth to stir before. He hoped that it would do so again now, but even more strongly. There was a part of Bryonoth in there that he wished to summon, a part that he knew so well. He refused to believe that his friend of so many years had been completely corrupted by this evil notion.
“No!” Bryonoth cried then, shaking his head vividly. “Thou cannot be him, for thou art a monster, whereas he was a man, a man who should have been of the Steppe!”
“I am that man!” Egland declared, striding forward, interposing himself between Saulius and the crazed knight. “I am even more that man now that I am an elk, for I am still a knight, and I serve something higher than myself. I serve all the people of this continent. I serve them by standing here at Metamor to stop the hordes of Nasoj’s forces from sweeping through this valley. And that horse that you have taken is my liege, who I have sworn to serve.”
“No, he is my steed, my stallion, my honour!” Bryonoth cried, cringing back, the grip on his sword weakening. It appeared that he had to struggle just to stand there and face down the massive elk before him. His face twisted between fear, hope, and fierce rage, all within moments of each other.
“He is my liege, and by our friendship and by your honour, I ask you to let him go.” Egland stood tall, though naked, he was no longer afraid of what twisted Bryonoth. “Come with me, Ts’amut. Come with us to Metamor. Povunoth is waiting for you, for his rider.”
Bryonoth held up his hand to his face, as if to rip the skin free, even as he turned a terrible eye to Egland, one that yearned to both throw down his weapon, and skewer him mercilessly. “No, he is mine! Leave or I shall kill thee, vile impostor!”
Egland stood there watching, and felt something bubble up and out of him, the one thing he knew could be done to convince this man. He opened wide his mouth and began to sing notes and words that had not graced his throat in months, and all of it, in the archaic language of the Flatlanders.
“Have a day of sun strewn grass,
Fields abound endless in expanse,
Watering holes that will last,
And with good steeds for thy lad and lass.”
Bryonoth had stopped his shaking as he heard the song, so familiar to his Steppe born ears. Sir Saulius’s ears and whiskers had stood up at the sound of his old tongue, and he even joined in the song at the refrain, doubling Egland an octave above.
“Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.
Each day, a new sight to see;
A new hill, new hollow, new valley.
Ride with thy whole family,
And taste what it means to be free.
Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.
Sing the song and dance the dance,
Of Steppe born men free to pomp and prance.
Drink of joy, drink to a trance,
And drink to honour those gone to lance.
Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.
Born upon the horse’s back,
A Steppe born man who shall nothing lack.
Mare’s milk to sup, nipples black
While one hand already holds the tack.
Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.
Before Egland could continue with the next stanza, he saw Bryonoth shudder visibly, and stare at him with sudden recognition, and terrible fear. “Egland? Help me!” He managed to force past quivering lips before he gave a violent twitch, the furious rage that they had seen before bubbling over and spilling out as his words lashed out at the elk, expectorating vile obscenities. Egland fell back a step, startled by the terrible vehemence in his old friend’s exclamations, his ears flattening back as the most painful words of all poured forth. The truth, each painful secret the once man had tried to keep quietly to himself and his closest confidants, one of which had been the man who now assailed him with his own innermost secrets, peppering them liberally with the most vile epithets that Egland could ever recall hearing uttered by a human mouth.Abruptly Bryonoth’s tirade stopped, his harsh vocalizations ending with a pained grunt, and he collapsed limply to the hay strewn floor as Saulius brought the hilt of his sword across the back of his head, having snuck behind him during the course of the song.
Egland glanced up and breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank you, Sir Saulius. Thank you for sparing him.”
“He is my friend as well,” Saulius murmured, leaning forward, inspecting the wound. “He shalt have a terrible headache when he arises.” The rat glanced up at the much taller elk standing beside him, his whiskers twitching for a few moments. “I shalt place what I hast heard here in mine confidence, friend.” The rat offered at length, turning his attention back toward the supine human.
Egland nodded quietly, and then turned towards the stall in which still stood the horse that was Duke Thomas of Metamor. Opening the stall door, he saw that the legs were secured by crossed, wooden hobbles. No wonder Thomas had done nothing, if he dared move, he’d break his own legs. Reaching down, he clumsily undid the clasps, and pulled the poles out from underneath him.
Almost instantly, the form began to shudder, as it shrank in size. Hands emerged from what had once been the forehooves, and the chest flattened somewhat, taking on a human cast. Soon, the figure standing naked before them was that of a morphic horse, one that looked quite relieved. “Thank you both for coming to my rescue, I had just about given up hope that any would come. How did you arrive so quickly?”
“Well, much the way you got here, I carried him just as you carried Bryonoth. There is an advantage to being fleet of hoof when you have four of them,” Egland mused dryly. He then kneeled before the Duke, doing his best to ignore his nakedness. “I am so relieved to see that you are safe, my liege.”
Saulius was also at bent knee, and made his own genuflecting remarks, but Thomas waved them to their feet. “Again, I thank you. Your effort will not be forgotten. But we must return to the Keep quickly to help co-ordinate the defence. Your talents are being missed there, I assure you.”
“What of Bryonoth?” Egland asked. “What should we do with him?”
“I do not know,” Thomas muttered, as he gently kicked the prone body with one hoof. “He was controlling me with this.” He pointed one thick stubby hoof-like finger at the halter that hung on the hook outside his stall. “I saw him cast a rune into it as he slipped it on me. We ought to take this back so that Wessex can analyse it. Well, once we repel Nasoj at least.”
“If we wish to return as quickly as possible, I am afraid we must use our full animal forms,” Egland interposed, glancing briefly at the leather halter.
Thomas nodded. “I think I’m up to such a run, I just had a rather relaxing massage. He may have wanted to make me into a horse, but he treated me well for a horse, I suppose.”
“Even maligned, he was born of the Steppe. He could do no less,” Saulius proudly declared.
“We ought to bring him back as well. It is possible we could discern from him clues to solidify our evidence concerning the Patriarch’s murderer,” Thomas added, stretching his newly restored limbs.
“We will have to tie him down to your back then, I’m afraid,” Egland pointed out.
Thomas shrugged. “I’ve been carrying him on my back for the last few hours already, what is a few more?” He then turned and glanced at the saddle and saddlebags resting on the rack. “Bring the saddle bags as well, but I don’t think I want to wear that saddle ever again.”
“Of course,” Egland said, as he turned and shoved the halter into one of the bags, and then draped them over his shoulder. He watched as Thomas shifted back into his stallion form, the newly regained humanity disappearing beneath the body of the equine. Saulius tossed the blankets over his back, and the elk then strapped the saddle bags into place over his flanks. The two of them, while Thomas watched curiously, lifted Bryonoth by his arms and legs, and pulled him across Thomas’s back on top of the blankets.
“I am curious, where did thou learn that song?” Saulius asked as he helped tie Bryonoth firmly onto Thomas’s back.
Egland smiled a bit, as much s his cervine face was capable. “Bryonoth taught it to me. I must confess I can’t remember what every stanza means.”
Saulius let out a small chuckle then, as he tightened the last strap. He then patted Thomas’s cheek. “Thy freight is secure. As soon as Sir Egland and I are ready, thou can begin.”
Thomas nodded back, whickering softly, and stamping his hooves a bit impatiently. While Egland put the fire out, Saulius then began to knot the straps that had held him in place on the elk’s back. He kept them sufficiently loose, but not too loose. Then, the two knights stood together, the rat gripping the deer’s back, while the straps were wrapped about them. Egland let his full animal form flow out of him. Quickly, mass began to fill the empty spaces the straps offered, until they pulled the rat tightly to the proud elk’s back.
Egland snorted to Thomas, and stamped one hoof. Thomas did so in return, and gestured to the door with a toss of his head. The elk nodded submissively, his massive rack of antlers, spread out before him, and then started to trot through the permanently opened doorway. The horse followed after, the jingling of the rat and knight’s armours on their backs the only sound that cascaded through the snow-filled night air as they started on the road back to Metamor.
Yet, like all journey’s, theirs came to and end as they finally found themselves faced with the Cathedral doors. The climb back up the treacherous ridge had been painstakingly slow. It was so much easier to go down than up, and so they had chosen an even leveller route up, switching back and forth nearly twenty times before they were finally at that solitary door in the wall, which had been wedged open by the falling snow. And even so, there had been many occasions where their hooves had slipped on the snow and ice, and they’d had to make another turn to regain their ground.
Egland had felt as if he were playing a game of Flumes and Ladders with his life as they’d climbed up that ridge, but thankfully, they only ever caught the short flumes. When they had reached the door however, other concerns took their minds. The Lutins were abundant inside the halls of the Keep, how could they possibly escape detection? Yet they had proceeded inside anyway, where Saulius undid the cloth holding himself onto Egland’s back, and the knight returned to his humanoid self, bearing the weapon that the rat had brought for him.
Yet as they carefully walked across the carpeting to muffle their hoof-falls, they continuously kept their ears open, and their noses sniffing, trying to discover if an ambuscade waited around the next corner. Yet, the only Lutins they ever saw were ones already dead, or even a few sleeping, half-empty bottles of fine wine clutched in their arms as they waited for a group of Keepers to come along and slit their throats. At the behest of Thomas’s very insistent nodding and stamping, Egland and Saulius did so, though it was not the sort of behaviour they were particularly fond of as knights.
So it was with great relief when they finally came upon the doors to the Follower Cathedral. Egland slammed his fist on the door, smiling over at Thomas, who was still a horse carrying Bryonoth over his back. Thomas however did not appear to mind stalking the halls of his own palace as a full equine. When the doors were opened, they were of course greeted by sword points at first, but soon by riotous joy! Egland nodded, smiling down to Saulius, whose whiskers were a twitter, and back at Thomas as they were ushered into the Cathedral and the doors closed behind him.
Vinsah and Hough were standing very close to see, while Thalberg and Cassius lay on mats along with the other injured a short distance away. Copernicus was beaming down to them as he half sat upon the edge of one row of pews. Finally, Hough found himself capable of speech, “Is that Duke Thomas?”
Egland nodded, even as he and Copernicus began to undo the thongs holding Bryonoth upon the horses back. “Yes, he decided to help carry back his presumptive captor. You remember Sir Bryonoth, do you not, Bishop Vinsah?”
Vinsah came forward, long striped tail swirling behind him underneath the black cassock. “Why, yes, I do. But why would he attack the Duke?”
“I’ll let Thomas answer that,” Egland murmured, as he and Copernicus drug Bryonoth along the floor for a bit, setting him down cautiously amongst the soldiers with their swords still unsheathed. “Watch him, we don’t know how he’ll react yet.” They nodded, and a few of them leaned upon their swords as they kept an eye on the unconscious knight.
After Saulius had removed the saddlebags from Thomas’s back, the horse began to shift, rising up upon its hind hooves, the fore hooves shifting, breaking into three pieces, as the head shrunk a bit, taking on a more human guise. The blankets draped over his back fell off as he stood upright, collecting around his hooves and fetlocks. Soon, in all his naked glory, there stood Duke Thomas. Saulius was quick to grab the blankets and offer them to Thomas for modesty’s sake, and the Duke was in no position to argue, wrapping them about his waist, while his tail flicked from side to side between his knees.
“I do apologise for not arriving with my escort, but I had a slight delay,” Thomas remarked, much to the amusement of the other Keepers who could not help but laugh a bit. The sound of laughter felt as if it had been gone from the Cathedral for aeons, and to hear it now cause a brightening to fill the air, as if the oppressive archaic and timeless quality of this antiquarian edifice had been brought into the present and vanquished.
Vinsah was leaning over Bryonoth’s body, running his dark paws across the man’s face. “What had he wanted with you?”
Thomas narrowed his eyes uncomfortably. “For some reason, he wanted to make me into a breeding stallion back on the Steppe.”
Egland narrowed his eyes as he tried to call back some long forgotten memory. Suddenly, the actual events began to return to him, the long beautiful houses, streets so clean, the magnificence that had since become so familiar to him had all been new that day, as if freshly cleaved from the womb. They had been walking side by side with their steeds between them. The remark that he had found so amusing just before they reached the stables had been so typically Flatlander of him, that Egland had not forgotten, and apparently, neither had somebody else.
“I remember him remarking the first day we arrived in Metamor that he thought you could sire many great foals, my lordship,” Egland said, feeling a bit embarrassed even in saying it out loud, despite what he had just seen that night. “He’s from the Flatlands, and has been around horses all his life, I suppose nobody can blame him for thinking such things at least in jest.”
Saulius appeared suddenly uncomfortable and nodded. “‘Tis true, my liege. I hath often wondered what fine steeds thou couldst produce.”
Thomas blinked a few times and then let out another laugh. Both Egland and Saulius stood there for a moment considering what was going through Thomas’s mind, but the Duke explained himself. “I find it a rather strange honour to be considered so highly for my lineage, even if in such an unconventional way! We of the nobility have often been bred by our families, so I suppose what Bryonoth wanted for me was hardly different than what I could have expected out of life had I not lived in such an enlightened city as Metamor.”
The ridiculous nature of his comparison left both the knights wondering if they were not being made fun of for a moment, but as the rest of the Cathedral let up in laughter with there liege, so too did the knights. Why should they feel slighted, after all, they had saved the Duke.And as they both thought on that, Thomas came to their sides and placed his hands upon their shoulders. “Thank you my friends. You have done a great service to me and this castle and to these people. When all this is over, I shall see to it that you are honoured appropriately.”
Both Egland and Saulius turned to face the Duke, and then bowed to their knees, lowering their heads. “We could do no less for thee, my liege,” Saulius intoned reverently, while Egland spoke clearly a similar epitaph.
Thomas then looked back to Father Hough. “How are the guards and Thalberg who had accompanied me?”
Hough shook his head. “Two of them didn’t make it. Thalberg is resting right now, but he will survive. Gregg and Miles will survive, though poor Miles has lost his arm.”
Vinsah was still leaning over Bryonoth, his green eyes a study in curiosity. “We’ve done what we could for them, but nothing we can do for a missing arm.”
“I shall find a new place for him to serve,” Thomas said, his voice drawing the attention of all by its breadth. “After this is over, I believe there will be much work for everyone” Most of the people in the Cathedral simply nodded at that, many of them capable of remembering what had happened the last time Nasoj had attacked. “There will be more destruction than there was last time. But I think our spirit will be stronger too.”
“We will make Nasoj pay for everything he has taken from us,” Hough declared, which was a strange thing to hear from a priest. Yet his fiery statement caused many of the Keepers to cheer and wave their swords and daggers about.
The coon Bishop was still looking down at the knight, but suddenly stood up and pointed at the prone figure. “And what of him? How do you intend to punish him? Do you truly believe he did this of his own accord? I knew Sir Bryonoth before this, and though his ways were sometimes strange to me, he never before showed a glint of malice in his soul, not like this.”
Sir Egland nodded, his antlers slicing the air. “I have known Sir Bryonoth for even longer than His Eminence has. He is a good man, a good knight, one that loved his steed and adored his friends, but had the utmost of respect for those in authority. For him to do something like this, he must have been deranged in some way.”
Thomas nodded at that and rubbed his chin with one hoof-like hand. “I saw many sides to him during my captivity under him. He showed me great kindness at the stable. I do not believe he was acting on his own volition. It strikes me most likely that whoever killed the Patriarch decided to use him to sow more dissension here at Metamor. I want Wessex to examine him and the magical items he used to enslave me.”
The Duke of Metamor then looked at the knight curiously, his eyes a mix of both anger at what was done, but concern for the man. “However, we won’t see Wessex until after Nasoj is pushed back again, I think. Is there anything you priests could do for him? He is of your faith after all.”
Vinsah and Hough gazed at each other for a moment before the Bishop clasped his paws together, his ears standing upright, and his tail circling about one of his ankles. “We can fight evil spirits, at least a priest at my level can. I do not know if this extends to abjuration.”
“Do you think you could try?” Thomas asked. “It would mean a great deal to me if you could rid him of the evil influencing him.” The horse’s eyes narrowed and he peered at Vinsah more closely. “Wait a moment, just who are you anyway, I don’t recall ever having seen you before.”
Vinsah hung his head for a moment. “Yes, I know. I am Bishop Vinsah of Abaef, the former Patriarch’s adjutant. I’ve been out of the coma for some time now, but was not ready to reveal myself until just now.”
Thomas’s eyes rose in delight. “Ah, it is good to see you healthy at last. I am grateful that you can spare your talents for us, Bishop Vinsah. I must say that you look much younger as a racoon than I had thought you would.”
Vinsah nodded, his face looking a bit uncomfortable. “Let me see what I can do for the knight.” He leaned down, and placed his paws on the knight’s chest, and closed his eyes, clearly praying. After a few minutes, he made the sign of the yew tree upon his chest, and the body suddenly stirred, quite violently.
Vinsah nearly leaped back as Bryonoth’s eyes came open in livid rage, hatred pouring out of them, yet he could not raise his chest from the ground, as if it had been pinned there, or some great weight was bearing him down. Bryonoth grabbed at Vinsah’s tail and tugged him back to his knees, ripping a small bit of fur clear when he did so. The Bishop let out a startled cry, and slammed his fists back into the man’s chest, praying loudly, his words in the language of Yesulam, completely foreign to most of the Keepers’ ears.
Bryonoth screamed violently, but it was not his voice, but something far more sinister. It was as if some terrible daemon had crawled up from necrophagous pits and had let loose the cry instead, buried as it was inside the knight’s throat. But Vinsah kept his focus upon his prayers of release, signing the tree upon the knight’s chest several more times, each time unleashing another torrent of violent objection from the possessed man. He kicked, hit, clawed and ripped fur from Vinsah’s hide in his attempt to dislodge the racoon, but the Bishop would not move.
From that mouth ushered obscenities that made Hough cringe in fear, blasphemous utterances that nearly made the walls of the Cathedral tremble in rage. Yet it was clearly not the voice of a man from the Steppes, for the poeticism was gone, the lyrical lilt to the tongue was debased into a course mockery of language. And yet, after each word was uttered, it was erased from the memories of those who heard it, as if it was tenuous and something not of this world, something that could not be contained within the walls of flesh.
And then Bryonoth fell silent, eyes closed, arms resting once more at his sides, totally prone and unconscious again. Vinsah collapsed over top of him, his paws pressed firmly into the tiling, holding him up. Egland knelt at his side and put his own hoof-like hands underneath his shoulders to help him up, but the bishop shook his head, “No, I’m all right. I just need a moment.”
Egland nodded and backed off slightly, his eyes turning instead to his long-time friend. The face was peaceful, no hint of the malice that had just a moment ago been painted across it. There was not even a line or groove on his skin to remember the ferocity of his fight with the priest. It was as if it had never even occurred. Finding his voice, the elk-morph managed to ask, “Did it work, is he all right?”
Vinsah shrugged as he leaned back on his tail. “I have no idea honestly. I think that it might have worked, but we will not know until he arises once more.” He breathed heavily, his chest rising and falling as if it had just been released from some terrible weight. “Whatever it was that had a hold on him, it did not want to let go. It did not feel like an evil spirit, despite what it did, but whatever magic was used in its conjuring or summoning, I don’t think that it was of this world.”
Suddenly, Bryonoth sat upright, breathing heavily, panting nearly, and flashing his eyes about. “Thou hast to help me, they art attempting to kill the Patriarch, please!” He then fell back to the stone, his eyes gazing almost emptily into the high vaults of the Cathedral roof.
Thomas, Hough, and Saulius darted closer, as did the other Keepers, intent to see what the newly awoken Bryonoth had to say. Bryonoth had reached up and gripped the hem of Vinsah’s cassock and was gazing forlornly, like a man completely lost. “Please, thou hast to save the Patriarch before it is too late.”
Vinsah gently gripped Bryonoth’s hand in his paw, holding it close to his chest, and shaking his head, his green eyes closed tight in the sorrow of memory. “It is too late, Sir Bryonoth. The Patriarch is dead, murdered most foul. You are at Metamor, in the Cathedral. I’m Bishop Vinsah, one of the few to survive the attack.”
Bryonoth gazed upwards into those green eyes and the mask that surrounded them in disbelief, and then he closed his own. “I... I know. I hath my memory still, twisted foully as it is.” He turned and peered up at Egland’s cervine face, reaching out a hand to stroke down the end of the muzzle, at which Egland had to chuff slightly. “Yacoub?”
Egland nodded, laughing, nearly crying as he held that hand to his face with his own hoof-like one. “It is I, Albert. I have missed you.”
“I have missed myself as well. What evil dost they use upon me?”
“We don’t know yet, but we will.”
Sir Albert Bryonoth nodded, and then turned his eyes to Thomas, who was still watching him curiously. Pushing himself out from underneath the Bishop, he kneeled before Thomas, bowing is head in shame. “I hath done a grievous wrong to thee, your lordship. I shalt humbly serve any punishment thou deem worthy for a man such as I.”
Thomas peered at him for a moment, but shook his head. “But you did nothing of your own will, it was that evil spirit that was controlling you that did those things to me. You are innocent of any intent.” Thomas knew all too well how easily it was for a mortal to be turned to powers that were beyond mortality. As with the bridle, and a cursed blade some months before, magic had ways most foul to invade the soul and the spirit, twisting them to evil ends. “You have done nothing to deserve punishment. Being used by the enemy like you were is hardly something you yourself would have wanted.”
“Please, your lordship, I beg of thee, I have done terrible crimes to thy people in taking thee. Punish me as thou wilt,” Bryonoth’s face was contorted into agony as he spoke, as if just thinking of the things that he had done while controlled was a burden he could not bear.
Thomas continued to shake his head, one hoof like hand holding the blanket about his loins. “But you did nothing, it was that evil spirit that was controlling you that did those things to me.” He reiterated, “You were but a prisoner within your own body, Sir Bryonoth.You are innocent.”
Bryonoth shook his head, leaning even further down to the floor, nearly bursting with shame. “Nay, my lord, I would be haunted if thou didst not hold me responsible for this, for it was my flesh and blood that did this to you.”
The Duke of Metamor turned and looked at Egland, then Vinsah, as if hoping for some advice, yet they remained silent, offering only noncommittal shrugs, unsure themselves of what had to be done. Grimacing reluctantly, Thomas nodded, and tried his best to add gravity to his voice as he let his sentence be pronounced. “Sir Albert Bryonoth, formerly a knight of Yesulam, I Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, hereby decree that thou shalt serve Metamor in her stables until such time as I see fit to renounce your sentence. You will assist the other stable hands in caring for and cleaning the Keep’s horse, just as soon as we beat back Nasoj’s army that is.”
Bryonoth suddenly bore a queer look of appreciation on his face, one that he quickly tried to hide. Nodding, her kept his head low. “Thank thee, your lordship.” Only Duke Thomas, Sir Egland, and Sir Saulius knew just to what extent the knight of Yesulam meant that thanks.
“My thanks.” The Duke intoned as he accepted the robes and slid one arm into a sleeve, still regarding the knight kneeling before him, “But for now you are considered under arrest until such a time as those stables are liberated. Please conduct yourself to an unoccupied room and remain there unless you are called upon.” He raised his head as he rolled his shoulders into the robe and cinched it about his waist, “Sir Egland, you and your squire are to stand guard over him.” His voice was firm, his dignity regained at last.
Egland blinked, his ears twitching, “Squire, m’lord?” he muttered, momentarily confused. Thomas hooked a thumb at a tall, thick shouldered antelope standing at the fringes of the crowd, whose eyes continuously strayed to Egland’s frame with a strange dulcimer quality.
“The Oryx, Intoran?” He whickered as he stood, one ear turned toward the confused elk as he levelled a stare at him as if brooking any sort of argument. Egland opened his muzzle, then stopped and nodded woodenly, stepping forward to help Bryonoth to his feet.
"The Lutins have grugs on their side." whispered Desuka carefully. "They are trying to break into the room with magic, but Blake says to me that the magic and the antimagic of the tower is moving and changing."
"But it happens now."
"That explains why Jesse was able to blast through the lower wall. It's almost time. Get ready."
A loud and sudden rumble shook the floor.
"That's them! Get ready!"
A small, lime green, one-eyed Lutin cried out to his captain in a whiny voice. "Cap'n sir! I hears diggin' under the ground!"
"There ain't no diggin'." the captain replied. "The ground is too cold for diggin'. Now shut up."
The lime colored one went back to his business. A few minutes later, he came back. "Captain, I'm sure I hears diggin!"
"There ain't no diggin', you son of a motherless radish! The ground is as hard as ice!"
There was a loud rumble.
"Now I know I heard that, Cap'n!"
"That was thunder, you second wife of an ogre's dog! There's a storm goin' on outside!"
"But Sir, it don't thunder in December!"
"It's a magic storm! It can do whatever it wants!"
Rolling echos of the thunder grew louder. They also seemed to grow closer, coming right up to the spot where they had patched up the wall using debris and ice and the remains of their slain comrades. The patch went flying every which way, having been displaced by an angry rhinoceros.
In a sad, disappointed tone, the lime colored foot soldier said "That magic storm just dug right through our wall."
As the Lutins stared in amazement, the rhino withdrew and was replaced by a kangaroo. "CHAH!" cried the kangaroo, letting a ball of light float from his paws. A large otter tossed a rock into the air. Both dove for cover.
The instant the rock intercepted the ball of light, it burst into a million fragments, which lodged themselves firmly within the bodies of the Lutins.
Immediately, more Lutins poured downward from the level above. They surveyed their dead cohorts and the Keepers standing just beyond the breach in the wall. As one, they rushed forward. The keepers withdrew.
"NOW!" shouted Oren.
A rain of swords, spears and clubs came down out of the sky. Lutins found themselves suddenly crushed, impaled or both. The keepers, meanwhile, seized whatever weapons were in their reach and began hacking away at the miserable green devils.
Desuka, Blake and Natalie congratulated each other for their part in the plan. More than a fifth of the occupying force was now dead or dying, and more would quickly come. Now all they had to do was defend the hole which they had created in the wall and wait for their allies to reach the seventh level of the tower.
There was a resounding "thump" at the door.
"That wasn't Shamgar." said Natalie.
Blake folded her hands and smiled. "Last rule of magic. When all else fails, use brute force."
"They are breaking door in!" exclaimed Desuka. "You go, Natalie. We defend this place."
Natalie hesitated, then made her way up to the roof, where she perched and waited.
"EVIL! EVIL! SNOTBAGS!" screamed Oren as he swung a halberd in a wide arc, ending the lives of many Lutins in one sweep. "No one is EVER going to take my home away again!"
The third and fourth level had been cleared of invaders, and he was working on the fifth. Ever upward he pressed, his friends giving him a wide berth, frightened by the enraged monster he had become.
It was on the sixth level that he met up with Desuka and Blake. Desuka was as red as a red panda could be. Blake was cackling like mad, whatever control she had displayed now completely gone. Both were drenched in the blood of their enemies. For a moment, everyone stopped, even the Lutins, as the three crazed killers regarded one another. No one knew what to expect.
Oren turned to face his troops. "Keep going." he said.
Instantly, the battle resumed. Desuka and Blake returned to fulfilling their bloodlust. Oren, however, stood and silently looked down at the blood which clung to his fur and vest.
The blood of Vitra's people.
He had killed dozens of Lutins in the past few minutes. In the line of duty of course.
And he'd enjoyed it.
He had been happy to take the lives of innocent beings, finding sheer delight in their death cries and joy in their final moments of suffering.
He was a monster, just like Desuka and Blake had become.
No... Worse. Blake was insane, and Desuka was mindless. Oren knew perfectly well what he was doing.
Natalie had been concentrating on increasing her size. She was grateful that the curse which changed her into a dragon had mingled with the spell which shrunk her, giving her some amount of control over how big she could be. That ability proved invaluable, now. As she approached a good ten feet tall, she could hear the Lutins coming up from below.
"Get back down there!" one was yelling. "Stay at your post!"
"I's not going back down there! There's a demon raccoon, I tell you! It ate one of the grugs! Bit the thing's head right off! I'm not facing that thing!"
"You dare call yourself a Lutin?"
"On second thought..."
The two Lutins emerged into the open air and leapt over the railing, clinging to the face of the wall in order to claw their way downward to safety.
Natalie flew up beside them. "Hey, I recognize you." she said. "Tell me again who would be good eating?"
Seconds later, a pair of Lutins hit the ground rather hard.
Down over the edge of the tower Lutins poured. Those who managed to keep their grip were politely helped to freedom by the angry dragon. She made sure every one of them found their way to the ground.
Dan's first sensation was heat. A beautiful radiant warmth that was infusing
into his body. Unfortunately the joy of the heat was quickly joined by pain.
As he regained his senses, a throbbing headache developed. This was quickly
overshadowed as the pain started to flow through the rest of his body. His brain,
once again conscious, began to take in world around him. He could feel a softness
around him. A quick examination revealed it to be a heavy fur draped over him,
and a sleeping palette under him. A
bright flickering light to his left revealed itself to be the fire in a large hearth, the source of the heat.
Pushing himself up onto his elbows, Dan looked around. As he had begun to
suspected, he was in a shelter. Around him were a cross section of Metamor's
population, everyone from common laborers to minor nobles, huddled together
in a cellar for
protection. The dark room was crowded with people, split off into little groups. The room was quiet except for the sobbing of a child.
Though still feeling weak, Dan struggled to rise to a sitting position. As he tried to roll over onto his back, a helping hand appeared, pulling him to his feet. The grasshopper found himself leaning against Christoff. The solider lead him over to a bench by the fire and helped to sit down.
"Feeling better?" asked the soldier as he draped a robe around the unclothed insect's shoulders.
"Feeling like shit." mumbled Dan. "What happened?"
"Cold shock," replied Christoff. "Near as I can tell. Only seen it once before. Used to have a cold-blooder in my unit, a skinkmorph. You expended way too much energy out there. Your body couldn't take it."
Christoff dipped a mug into a steaming kettle sitting in the coals of the hearth. Dan accepted the mug, sipping the hot tea, the liquid spreading a comforting warmth deep in his body as he sipped.
"How did it go?" he asked, dreading the answer.
"Two dead; Jace and Francine. Other then that, only a few minor injuries. A lot of frostbite." answered Christoff solemnly.
"It happens. I've lost men before. I know it will happen again. It is an unfortunate danger of the job."
"We got him in here." answered the solider. " He's in an unheated storeroom. Someone suggested that would keep him from waking up."
"I want to see him." said Dan, struggling to rise to his feet.
"Rest a bit first. Get your strength back."
"No, I want to see him."
With a sigh, the captain once again helped Dan to his feet. Draping a thin, chitinous arm across his shoulder, Dan let Christoff lead him the short distance to an adjoining room. The room was long and narrow. Shelves lined each side of the room, piled high with supplies. The room was uncomfortably chill to Dan, still sensitive to the low temperature.
In the middle of the floor lay Laracin, branches still bound in the heavy ropes. Dan just stared at his friend. Wounds were obvious, the green-yellow wood showing through the dark gray-green of the bark. Cracked roots, broken branches, and skinned bark were all in evidence. Each and every one Dan saw pulled at his heart. Each was one more reason his friend might never again wake.
"Was it really worth it?" Dan asked softly.
Christoff, looking over the damage as well, took a moment before he replied. "Are those wounds going to kill him?"
"I don't know."
"Then it was worth it. He has a chance at life, as opposed to the certain death he faced outside."
Dan nodded, though he really didn't believe what the soldier's words.
"Besides," continued Christoff, leading Dan back into the main room of the cellar, "This was a victory over Nasoj. Maybe only a small one, but still a victory. One of our first. From what I hear, things are not going all that well for us."
"A victory?" replied Dan, with a dry chuckle. "You call that a victory? We may have saved a life, but it cost us two!"
Christoff stopped, letting Dan settle back down on the bench by the fire.
"Do you know what happens now?" he asked.
"Now we organize. We fight back. We kill those seeking to kill us. We rally around our small victories, and push the enemy from our home."
At last, it was all over. The Hipocci minutemen and their friends stood in the top level of the tower, almost oblivious to the wind and snow. Despite his disappointment with himself, Oren was proud. His people, both Hipocci and keepers, had come through without a single fatality, while the enemy had been severely crushed.
But there was one more thing to do.
Onto a pile of Lutin clothing and weapon handles, Jesse tossed a handful of dry bark.
"Light it." Oren commanded.
With a mighty heave, Natalie summoned forth a fiery blast which turned the
pile of garbage into a blazing beacon.
In the sanctuary of the followers, Gornul was the first to see the light. Joyfully, he called everyone's attention toward the casement to see. The tower had been reclaimed. There was hope!
In the palace of the Duke, they saw the light, and felt that hope.
In the assembly of the Lightbringers, they joyed in that light of hope.
In the Long house, the scouts' hearts swelled with the hope.
We weren't out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot. But for many, that was the turning point of the battle. That was when they knew that they could win.
The Lightbringer Archives were quiet, and unexpectedly warm considering the weather. Men, women and children were curled up on the floor in soft woolen blankets; some of them, those who were old, sick, or weak, rested on thin sleeping mats that provided a bit more comfort for their tired and aching bones. Most had drifted off to sleep by now, clustered together into groups of family and friends. Others still lay awake, praying for the protection of their loved ones outside. And one figure paced irritably back and forth near the spiral staircase, her footsteps making no sound but her frustration obvious in every movement.
A second form quietly descended the stairs, touched the first figure lightly on the shoulder, and beckoned her back the way she had come.
"You shall arouse the others if you continue pacing down there," Merai said when they had reached the top of the staircase.
"If you dislike seeing me pace, then give me something useful to do," Daria growled. "I have no business sleeping on a night like this."
Merai turned and clasped forearms with her warrior friend. "What good will it do anyone for you to wear yourself out?" she asked, her voice and eyes concerned. Her feline tail twitched behind her in silent worry.
"What good will it do me to sit here while the battle rages outside?" the redhead countered. "I'm a squire, Merai. My place is by my master's side, in battle, not cowering in here behind a wall of magic." She clenched and unclenched her fists repeatedly, looking as if she desperately wished to be holding a sword and shield in those hands.
Merai sighed and shook her head, her pointed ears twitching backwards a little. "This battle is bigger than us, Daria. Going outside, alone, now— you would only get yourself killed. One squire will make no difference."
Daria's jaw tightened, but after a moment she, too, lowered her head and sighed. "I know. And perhaps that is the more frustrating thing." She slumped down against the wall, and the cat-woman silently moved to join her. Daria drew her knees up close to her body, gripping her arms in her hands as if to ward off some unseen chill.
After a few seconds of silence, Daria turned to face Merai. The young priestess saw that her friend's eyes were wet with tears. "Merai, my father is out there right now," she murmured. The dread in her voice was palpable. "He was on the wall when the alarum sounded. I wish that I could go to him, help him in the battle ... but I could never find him out there, and it would be wrong for me try." She fell silent again, her hands tightening against her arms. "All my life, my father has been the most important person in my life," she said, her eyes distant. "He has been my inspiration, my example ... I look at him and I see a hero." She shook her head distractedly. "I know that people die in war. But if he's gone..."
Her voice drifted off, as her head hung forward limply. Wordlessly, Merai reached out and drew her into an embrace, holding her close as silent tears rolled down. Daria fought so hard to be strong, Merai reflected— struggled to be the brave knight and warrior she had always wanted to be. But emotions were real and important things, and denying them could only force them inward until they consumed you. Merai tried to help her realize that there was no shame in expressing her feelings— but as her friend clutched tightly at her back, digging her fingers into Merai's robe until she was gripping the soft fur beneath it, the priestess reflected that she still had a long way to go.
After some time— Merai could not say how long— they heard a sudden pounding in the hallway outside.
"What is that?" Daria asked, frowning. "Is someone trying to break in?"
Merai perked her ears forward, listening. Someone was, indeed, banging on the heavy bronze-covered doors of the temple— but there was another sound interspersed with it, fainter but still recognizable...
"Those are Keepers," she said, getting to her feet. "They must have come here looking for shelter."
"Can we let them in?" Daria asked, following close behind her as she wiped the tears from her eyes.
"I hope so."
Stepping out of the side passage that contained the staircase, Merai shut the door behind them and headed for the main entrance. Two guards stood at the door, both human, their swords drawn and ready. One was a town guardsman from Euper named Wester and the other a woman who called herself a bodyguard. From the cool manner the two displayed toward each other they obvious had some sort of history together that had been less then cordial. Whatever their feelings towards each other, though, they weren’t letting them interfere with their duties at the door, and in any case Merai had more important things to worry about.
"Is anyone in there?" a female voice shouted behind the door. "Please, let us in! We have wounded with us!"
Merai gripped the heavy metal handle on one of the doors. "Were you followed?" she asked, trying to speak loudly enough to be heard while still being considerate of those sleeping in the nearby rooms. The woman grasped the cross brace, handing the other guard her sword for a moment as she prepared to haul the heavy beam up. She said nothing, watching Merai with intense, hazel eyes, and waited.
"No, the staircase closed behind us on the second floor," the voice answered. "There isn't an enemy in sight."
Nodding, Merai stepped back from the door. "Lady Kyia," she murmured, "will you let these people come inside?"
The answer came back like a whisper on the wind. "I shall. There is no danger— they have brought no darkness with them."
"Thank you," Merai whispered. Turning to Daria, she motioned at the door. "Would you let them in, Dari? I shall keep watch that nothing foul tries to slip in behind them."
The squire nodded, walking up to the large double doors as the female guard hauled the cross brace back. She grabbed the handle of the left one and it opened easily. Quickly, a line of about twenty men and women of assorted species filed into the room, carrying two more men and a young girl along with them. As soon as the last one had passed inside the door shut firmly behind them of its own volition and the self-proclaimed bodyguard rammed the cross brace back in place. Merai beckoned to two acolytes who silently stood guard at the far end of the hallway with two other armed members of the congregation.
"Take these three into the temple and tend to their wounds," she said. "I'll be along shortly to help with anything serious."
Without a word, the acolytes came over and examined the wounded. After a moment, they led the men carrying them back into the main temple hall.
"Thank you," one of the remaining women said, approaching Merai and extending a hand. She was a skunk-morph, one of the few Merai had seen, and her eyes were a mixture of gratitude, worry, and hardened resolve. She also looked tired, her breathing labored from what must have been a long, hard run from the battle lines. Surprisingly, Merai could only faintly detect any hint of the woman's distinctive musk; traces of it lingered on the clothes of some of her comrades, but none on the mephit herself. Merai noticed a pendant hanging from the skunk-morph's neck; its magic shined clearly in the priestess's aura-vision, and she realized that this must be the device that was dampening the mustelid's aroma.
All of which would make things much easier on everyone, especially since they were in confined quarters. Merai clasped the woman's hand firmly, nodding once. "Just doing our duty," she said. "Welcome to the Lightbringer Temple. I'm Sister Merai."
"Aye, I've seen you from time to time around the Keep," the other woman said with a weary smile. "Kayla," she added by way of introduction, speaking over her shoulder as she turned to the nearby cloakroom and began pulling off her winter outer-garments and laying aside the few weapons she'd managed to secure since the alarum sounded.
"A pleasure," Merai said, smiling. "Though I wish it could be under other circumstances." Her expression turned serious. "How goes the battle?"
" 'Tis too soon to tell," Kayla said, frowning. She leaned back against the wall, resting there for the moment, but she seemed to be recovering from her exertion quickly. "The enemy has control of the town, and some have penetrated the castle, but they've not gotten far within it. The Keep seems to be frustrating their advances."
"Good to hear. Where is Lord Thomas?"
The skunk shook her head.. "I don't know. I was at Misha Brightleaf's Yule party— I've not seen the Duke since yesterday."
Merai bit her lip thoughtfully. "I hope he is all right."
"So do I."
"What of the guards?"
Merai and Kayla turned to look at Daria. The red-haired woman's expression was earnest, and her eyes were red and just a little swollen from her recent tears.
"Beg pardon?" Kayla asked.
"The guards on the curtain wall," Daria said. "What has become of them?"
Kayla sighed. "I'm sorry, I don't know," she said again. "I would imagine most have been killed, or at best cut off from help. There may yet be a few in the towers, and some may have reached the entrance to the Keep on the northeast side." She shook her head again, sadness in her eyes. "Considering how quickly the enemy came upon us though, I doubt that many have survived."
Daria leaned back against the wall, visibly shaken. "Thank you," she whispered.
With difficulty, Merai drew her eyes away from her troubled friend and back to the skunk-woman. "Kyia has opened the first two levels of the Archives to visitors," she said, gesturing at the door that led to the staircase. "You can sleep there for the night— we'll provide you with blankets. One of you may stay with your wounded friends while their injuries are treated, but no more than that. The Lothanasa will give us further instructions in the morning."
"Thank you," Kayla said. After a few moments of discussion with her associates, it was decided that she would be the one to stay by their wounded comrades. Following the directions of one of the acolytes, the others made their way down to the Archives.
Merai, meanwhile, entered the temple hall, with Kayla following close behind. There were now five acolytes awake and tending to the injuries of the men and the girl. After conversing with them for a few minutes and looking over the three wounded, Merai decided that they were in no grave danger and the Light-Healing would not be necessary. Kayla sat down beside them and began speaking to them softly, as Merai went into a storeroom and brought out a few cups and a pitcher of water. The skunk-morph accepted them gratefully and helped her injured friends to drink a little before pouring a cup for herself.
"Do you have any idea what the Lightbringer is planning?" Kayla asked, after her comrades had drifted off to sleep.
"Not really. She said that she would 'speak with her sources', that she would have more information in the morning, but I know not how she means to go about it. It seems as though she intends to simply wait the battle out, and provide whatever comfort she can to those who are trapped here with us."
Kayla turned to look at Daria. The young woman was still sitting in the entrance hallway, leaning up against the plastered wall, staring numbly off into space. "I doubt that some will be satisfied with that course of action."
"So do I, but what else can we do? There are only a few hundred of us here, most of them women, children and older folk. What can we do that would have any impact?"
Kayla smiled. "You'd be surprised what a small group of warriors can do, Sister Merai— especially when they are fighting the enemy in territory they know well. Have you ever heard of 'otrinca'?" Merai shook her head. "It means 'little war'— it's a term we use in Intelligence to describe the tactics of harassing a large invading force, like a dog nipping at their heels."
"You work in Intelligence?" Merai asked, surprised.
Kayla nodded. "I know something of otrinca tactics— my grandfather was a tactician, and I've been with Intelligence for a number of years now. They can be very effective. In a situation like this you cannot stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and win, but you can make their lives a lot more difficult."
Slowly, a smile spread over Merai's face. "Daria, come over here," she said. "Kayla has something you'll want to hear."