The Winter Assault

Part 26

by The Winter Assault Writers

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

12/27 – 3pm

After what felt like an eternity Charles finally struggled up from the bounds of an unwanted sleep, his body sore and resentful at his attempts to rise. Blinking into bleary, half-formed surroundings the rat struggled against the confining bag that held him fast, pushing the cloth away, but aching at every motion. The greatest pain was across his back, which felt as if a spike had been driven into the flesh and sewn in place. Yet there was one balm, a pleasant surcease from his stultified blackness, that smiling face of his dulcet lady; the last thing he could remember seeing.

And then, when his feverish images began to coalesce into something coherent, he realized that the image he saw was not that of Lady Kimberly, but of that opossum whom he had saved from the bridge. The bridge? Yes, the one that he and the Glenners had gone to destroy. What had happened to it? He had lain over Baerle as it began to collapse and then terrible agony had filled him, then nothing; darkness. Where was he?

Suddenly the blackness was sucked from his eyes as he bolted upright from the convulsing phantasms of his unconscious self. Blinking wide, his eyes stared at a small room shorn from rock, braziers lining the walls casting the place in a friendly amber glow. Looking down at his paws before him he found that he was lying in a bed, covered by thick quilts. Over his chest were bandages wrapped tightly around his ribs. He reached up to gingerly press against them and grimaced, a dull throbbing pain resounding through him.

Obviously Charles realised that he was back at Glen Avery, but what had happened? He turned to climb from the bed but the pain in his back sent him falling back onto the pillow in a terrible exhaustion, his breath stolen by the sudden ache. His tongue lolled form his mouth as he panted, the heat of even trying to move that much enervating him completely. The falling timbers must have injured him more than he had realized; he was probably lucky to still be alive in fact. But what about the others? Surely they did not go unscathed in that bridge’s angry fall?

His question was answered a moment later, at least in part, when he heard a shifting behind him, a creak of old wood, much like a chair. Charles put one elbow beneath him, and with a grunt and a heavy breath, rolled over onto his side and peered over his pillows at the figure behind him. Slouched over in one of Lars’ chairs from the brewery was the same grey-furred opossum whose face he had seen in his dreams. Baerle was reluctantly sleeping, her narrow snout resting on one of her small paws, the long white claws slicing through the fur of her muzzle and whiskers. Most of the white powder still clung to her in patches and there were splinters of wood still imbedded in her fur from the collapse of the bridge.

Charles could not help but afford a small smile. She had been watching over him as he lay here ever since he had been brought back, not even taking the time to refresh herself. His chest felt a bit lighter at that despite how uncertain she had made him feel the previous day. He could almost feel that impromptu kiss on his muzzle, and he had to suppress a chuckle as his ribs groaned with the very thought of it. He wondered idly why she had played with him during that voyage, but found no immediate answer that made sense to him.

He did not have much time to ponder such matters, however, before the opossum stirred, her long white tail gripping the chair leg tightly. Yawning, she stretched her arms out wide and blinked drowsiness from her eyes. She then saw that the rat was awake and watching her, a small smile crisscrossing his whiskered muzzle, and so returned the expression, her dimpled cheeks casting a glow upon her face that the braziers could not match. “Ah, you’re awake,” she said, her voice smooth, relieved. “We were wondering if you were ever going to recover.”

Charles nodded and leaned back into his pillows. “What happened? How badly was I hurt?”

“You broke four ribs,” she said reproachfully. “You almost died on the way back to the Glen, you know.” Her voice was slightly accusing, as if his injuries were entirely his fault.

“Four?” Charles murmured, pressing his fingers up against the white bandages and wincing. He kept running them along the shape of his chest though, but could not feel any twisted bones, or bones in places they shouldn’t be.

“Burris used his magic to mend them, but they’re still weak, so you are going to have to stay here for a while.” Baerle said, bringing the chair around to the side of the bed so that they could talk without the rat straining himself to look back at her.

“I’ve never had four broken before.” Charles murmured, as if proud of his injuries. Baerle scowled at him as he said that and swatted one of his round ears with a paw.

“Don’t you think about it.”

“Think about what?” Charles asked innocently even as he tried to sit up, holding his paws up before his face to ward off any more swats.

“Going back out to fight. You’re in no condition to leave this room until those ribs heal.” Charles wondered if she’d used the same routine on her father while he was still alive.

“But I’m very useful, and it really isn’t that bad,” Matthias grunted as he shifted back onto his elbows.

Baerle snorted indignantly, her tail lashing about behind her. “Men! Anson said almost the exact same thing, and all he did was break a leg. You can’t even sit up and you think you are ready to go out fighting again. You’d be dead in five minutes if you tried. You are staying in this bed until I say you can leave.”

Charles groaned, and lay back down on the pillow, panting once again. He hated to admit it, but she was right; he was in no shape to help his friends in whatever was to happen next. Nodding slowly, he sighed and acquiesced, “You’re right, I ought to recover more before I go back out. But I am going to go back out, and soon. I just need to get used to the pain first. I’ll be fine after that.”

Baerle put a finger to his chest as he tried to rise again and he gasped, collapsing back on the bed, his dark eyes wide from the sudden pain that had flooded him. “Oh, is that all you have to do?” she asked archly, her eyes imperious, yet there was something else behind them that the rat could not yet identify.

“I said you were right,” Matthias spluttered, gasping once more for breath, each inhalation causing a new round of stars to flash inside of his head. Closing his yes he rolled into the pillow, welcoming blackness into his mind. Then, with a sudden lance of fear he pushed the darkness away, forcing his eyelids open and gazing out past his furry snout towards the opossum who sat watching him. Forcing his breath down, he repeated, “I said you were right.”

“Good,” she said sternly, before uncrossing her arms and leaning forward, her face taking on that mischievous girlish aspect, like the one she had worn just after kissing him. “Now, what would you like to talk about? Is there anything you’d like me to do for you? I used to give my father massages when he was sore, if you are interested.”

The thought of asking her to give him a massage almost caused him to splutter in embarrassment. Instead, all he managed was a dry cough, hacking for a moment or two until he caught his breath again, a thundering ache filling his chest and sapping his breath with each ragged cough. “No, thank you.” He managed to gasp after a moment, waving an impotent hand toward her, “I would like to know what happened after the bridge fell, though. Did everyone make it out all right?”

She looked at him curiously, ears pricked forward as she leaned close to hear his breathless words. Impetuously she reached out a paw out to straighten the fur atop his head. Charles was too sore to protest. “Not everyone made it okay,” she said pointedly, but then added, “but everyone made it. Anson’s leg was broken, but he thinks he’s fine. Lady Avery is making sure he gets his rest. A few of Angus’s men have cuts and bruises, but otherwise we managed remarkably well. We even have Baron Calephas for a prisoner!”

Charles blinked several times, trying to sit up in surprise until his chest convinced him that was an unwise move. Baerle continued to stroke her claws across his head between his saucer-shaped ears, and he had to admit it was very comforting. He thought of the times that Lady Kimberly had done the same for him while they were lying out underneath the summer sun in one of the Keep’s gardens. He hoped that she was all right, but even the thought of her filled him with worry.

However, it was short-lived, as the news that Baerle brought was great indeed. “Truly? That is a major coup then. How did we mange that?”

The opossum shrugged as she leaned close to him, her scent filling his nostrils. Was it just his imagination, or did her subtle scent seem entirely too receptive? Shaking such distracting thoughts from his mind he focused on her voice instead. “I’m not sure exactly how, I’ve been watching over you since you managed to hurt yourself, but I do know that his own sergeants turned traitor on him.”

“What’s being done with him?”

“Lord Avery and Angus interrogated him, I believe. You know how intimidating Angus can be sometimes.” After Charles gave a mild chuckle that did not end in a hacking spasm of coughs, Baerle went on, “His sergeants gave us their weapons, and so are unarmed for now, but otherwise I think they are free to come and go as they please. They’re both big men though. It would take four of you to make one of them, I think!”

“I’ve seen Northerner’s before, they are gigantic.” Charles agreed.

“They’re helping our men make new weapons right now, I think. At least that is what Amelia told me when she came in with fresh linens for you a few hours back.”

Charles studied her, his own face quizzical. “Fresh linens? Why would I need those?”

Baerle laughed sprightly at that, and cocked her head to one side. “You’ve been bedridden for almost a day now. You can’t very well use your chamber pot lying down can you?”

“Oh.” Charles said, flushing once more in embarrassment. He gingerly lifted his sheets with one paw, and peered down, which only caused the opossum to laugh again. “Oh dear.”

“Don’t worry, I cleaned you up. I’ve had to do it for my father for years now a well.”

The rat flushed even more, his whiskers standing out to their tips as his ears backed in consternation. She’d cleaned him up, which meant she’d touched him down there. Nobody had ever touched him down there in years, not even Lady Kimberly! He wished he hadn’t asked about the sheets now, as he would have been perfectly happy remaining ignorant of the entire affair. At the very least, Charles could console himself that this was nothing special for her, as she had done it for her father after all. Yet for some reason, he felt she derived a secret amount of delight from taking care of him like this, and he could not understand why.

So he turned the conversation back in directions that he felt were less compromising for him. “Why do you need to build more weapons, I thought you had plenty here.”

“We did,” she said, her face taking on the serious rote once more. “But Nasoj’s forces swept down on us so fast, we weren’t able to stockpile them in sufficient numbers. We have enough swords and daggers, but many of our longer bows were broken.”

“So you are trying to repair them?” Charles asked, though for some reason he doubted that, as he was vaguely aware the difficult process involved in shaping a bow.

“No, silly, we are using the pieces for what we can. The snapped strings make wonderful garrottes, very good for taking out sentries.”

“What do they want to use all this for? We’ve taken out the supply line, so now what can we do?” He queried as he propped himself slowly up on his elbows again.

Baerle leaned forward again and tapped a claw on his pink nose. “You can stay in bed and rest,” she said pointedly, pressing that claw down, making the rat’s whiskers twitch uncomfortably. “As for the others, I think that Lord Avery wants to help save Metamor. I think they’re going to attack Nasoj’s forces from the rear as soon as they can force Baron Calephas to talk.”

Charles’s eyebrows arched in surprise and he found himself trying to rise once more, the pain in his chest filling him again though he did his best to ignore it. “If we are going to help Metamor, I have to be there, it’s my home!”

But once again the opossum simply pressed her claws into his ribs, and with a grunt he fell back onto the pillow, breathing heavily. She waited several moments, shaking her head down at him. With her watching over him like this he knew that he was not likely to join in the fight until she thought he was ready. Yet, despite that, there was sympathy in her eyes this time. “You’ll be no good to us when we do go, not like this. You’d delay us at every turn, and where would we be then, hmm?”

Charles closed his eyes as he continued to catch his breath. Finally, after the agony had left his bones, returning to that dull throbbing that was bearable, he answered her in despairing tones. “But Metamor is my home!”

“Then why did you come here to fight with us?” The question struck the rat as more curious than anything else.

“Because of Garigan, my student. I promised him that as soon as he reached a certain point in his training, he could return to Glen Avery freely. When we found out that the Keep was under attack, he insisted on coming to save his home, but I knew that if he tried to come alone he would be caught and killed. So I insisted that I go with him, and so here I am.”

“And your human friends?”

“They wanted to come along as well.”

She nodded then and leaned back in her chair, tail swinging back and forth and rubbing at the polished wood. Finally she bent down and retrieved something from the floor at the rat’s bedside. Matthias watched with keen interest, hoping sourly that food was in his near future. He hated having to be waited on like this but, much to his chagrin, Baerle was right. He could not do practically anything for himself in his condition.

Yet what she lifted was not anything edible, but the thick black cloth of his Sondeckis robe. She turned it over in her palms, the white of her paw fur brighter in contrast. Finally she managed to draw the heraldry to the top, the folds of the robe making the white sword appear bent and the red palm crooked, almost like a paw. “You were all wearing robes like these when we found you, except that Garigan’s was green. What does this mean? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

With a sullen pang of irony he realized that Nasoj’s attack had forced the issue. He could no longer hide who he was. The bloody kangaroo was going to have his way after all because of this. Somehow that only made him despise his former friend all the more. However he could only hope that the marsupial met an unfortunate end during the attack, as his neck was not here for the rat to sink his claws into.

Even so, he still had to answer her question. Taking a deep breath, and thankfully not descending into a coughing fit for having done so, he began, “I’m not surprised. That is the symbol of the mage clan that we four belong to. Well, we aren’t officially members as such, and my elders do not even know of our ferret. But that tells others who we are and what we can do.”

“You are a mage?” she asked, her voice trembling slightly.

“Not like Burris, or most of the magicians you’ve seen, certainly. I can’t cast any spells in the normal sense of the word. We have a power born within us that lets us use physical force in ways that ordinary men cannot, and most mages cannot. That’s how we were able to break the foundation of the bridge, because we are stronger than we appear; far stronger.”

She traced her claws over the sword, and around the hand. “How can Garigan be a member if your elders don’t know about him?”

Charles fumbled with his words for a moment. “Well, he isn’t technically. When I was here last April I saw that he had the power within him, and so I took him back with me to Metamor to train him to master it, instead oft he other way around.”

“His power controlled him?” Baerle asked, her voice mostly curious now, seeking.

“Yes. Our power feeds on our emotions. Ask any of his friends here about how he was acting before he left for Metamor last April. He was surly, grouchy, and very combative. You’ve only seen how he is now.”

Baerle shook her head, “Only a little while watching him in the bar. I didn’t come to Glen Avery until last June after all.”

Charles nodded as he lay against his pillow. “I remember you mentioning that before. Anyway, had I not reined him in his power might possibly have killed him, or caused him to harm others. It won’t do that now, he’s learned enough to keep it under control.”

She continued to fold the cloak contemplatively, running he paws across the dark fabric, feeling the rough edges of the seam. “Will you be going back to Metamor, after?”

“After what?” Charles asked.

“After all this is over, and you’ve recovered I mean. Will you take Garigan back to Metamor with you?”

“I would like to, yes,” Charles admitted. The truth of the matter was he had never even thought that far ahead so far as Garigan was concerned. Now that they were in Glen Avery he had no hold on the ferret, and if he should decide to stay how could the rat compel him otherwise? Reluctantly he added, with a painful sigh, “But, that is his decision.”

“What of your human friends? Were they both women before?”

Charles did his best not to laugh though his whiskers twitched with a smile, “No, they haven’t been touched by the curse yet. I imagine they’ll stay only as long as they have to, unless the curse takes them. I wonder if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.” His voice trailed off as he considered what that could mean. With three black Sondeckis there would be little to fear from the Kankoran at least. He could even give back the Sondeshike simply to appease Misha, as it would do Rickkter little good.

Even so he felt slightly ashamed at that line of reasoning. Misha was his friend, somebody he cared deeply about. And he had betrayed a trust in keeping that Sondeshike. Yet the great unknown was whether he could trust Rickkter far enough to let him have the weapon back. He did not know for certain, but he was afraid that he could not.

“And you are going back to the Keep once this over?” she asked finally, her voice rather distant.

“Of course, that is my home.”

She nodded absently, gently stroking his head fur with one claw. It was much like Lady Kimberly did while they were lying together, he thought. Even so, Baerle’s sudden withdrawal did strike the rat as unpleasant, so he scooted up a bit under the covers and offered her a pleasant smile. “Were you an archer before you came to the Glen?”

She nodded, turning her muzzle to one side, considering the sconce along the rough-hewn cavern wall. The light it cast made dizzying shadows along the contours of the cave, always flickering and shifting about him as if they were spinning about. “After Nasoj’s forces destroyed Mycransburg, I took up the bow. I was only twelve at the time, and hadn’t changed yet. Most of the boys my age had been killed in the raze, and as many of the older men who’d survived were now women, they let me practise with them. The bow was the only weapon I was really any good at.”

“Have you had much chance to use it?”

“More now that I’m here at the Glen than before, but yes, I’ve killed my fair share of Lutins. They like to raid our farms you know. Mycransburg is still too poorly defended, even after all these years. I remember the days when I would play with one of the ard’Kapler boys out in the rolling fields with the cattle, doing our best not to step in the pies. He was older than me by eight years I think, but he was a midget, and hated being around his family. He went off to Metamor a year or two before the attack to become a mage I think.”

Charles grimaced, his breath sucking in warmly. “Wessex,” he murmured, remembering the dead child’s eyes, haunting grey embers that flared with maleficent light.

Baerle nodded, turning to face him, muzzle cracking in a dimpled smile, her eyes brightening. “Yes, that was his name. Do you know him?”

“I did,” Charles said, looking to that face, so innocent despite all the pain that surely she had faced in recent years. He could not help but feel a great compassion for her. “I’m sorry, Baerle, but he’s dead.”

Her eyes faded then, dark embers dwindling into ash. “Oh,” she said, leaning back in the chair, her paws settling in her lap negligently. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Not as sorry as I am to have to tell you this. I wish I could give better news to you,” Charles reached out a paw from under the quilts and laid it atop of hers, gripping them in a comforting touch. She returned the gesture, holding onto his paw, as if it were a sacred treasure, an heirloom that had been passed on from a dying elder

“I’d rather know,” she said softly, her eyes meeting his again. There was a subtle warmth to them that they shared in that moment of rapport. “How did he die?”

Charles sucked in his breath, unsure of how to respond. In all truth he did not know who had actually killed the young mage, only that it had been a most horrific death, most likely caused by another mage. To make one undead was not easy, and there would have to be an investigation of it when Nasoj was finally stopped, if he was at all. Sighing, he said the only thing that he could, “He was one of the first casualties of Nasoj’s invasion. I helped put him to rest before coming here. I’m sure he is somewhere far better now.” He did not mention that the boy had been a well-known agnostic at the Keep, as he did not know to what faith Baerle subscribed.

She nodded solemnly, her gaze descending step by step into a melancholy that was tearing at Charles’s heart. There was such a vivacious spirit in her that it pained the rat to see it quenched at the loss of an old friend. He had lost too many himself. Reaching his paw even further, he gently stroked it along her arm, offering her his smile yet again. “Baerle, it is all right, please don’t cry.”

She held onto his paw tighter, shaking her head. “I’m not crying!” she declared, though her eyes were wet. “I’m not crying,” she added, though with less conviction than before.

Charles leaned over slightly, his chest groaning in protest. His other arm came around and he gently presses a claw beneath her muzzle, raising her eyes to meet his. “Yes you are.” he said, though he did his best to keep a certain amount of levity in his voice.

And it proved enough, for her eyes brimmed then as she laughed, her body shaking, and her visage bright once more. She patted Charles on the head with one paw as she tightly held the other. Then, not feeling that was enough, she leaned over his bedside and wrapped his chest in a gentle hug. It did hurt slightly, but not enough for him to object. As she drew back up, she pressed her muzzle to his, and kissed him quickly.

“Thank you, Charles.” she said, before she laughed again. Charles’s expression was once more that of shock, as his nose scrunched up, in disbelief that they’d kissed. “You look really cute like that, you know.”

He grunted and lay back on the pillow. He felt his stomach growl at him again, as well as another unpleasant sensation a bit lower on his anatomy. Grimacing, he patted the top of the quilts for emphasis, “Is there anything I can get to eat here? I haven’t eaten in days I think.”

She chuckled again and rose from his bedside, her long white tail circling one of the chair legs. “Of course, I’ll go bring something back in a bit. You just rest there, and we can talk more I get back, all right?”

He smiled and nodded, watching her leave out through the doorway at one end of the room. When he heard the soft click of the latch he breathed a sigh of relief and tossed back the coverlets. Aside from the bandage wrapped over his chest he was completely naked, but it was not something that embarrassed him as much as it used too. Peering over the edge of the mattress he could see where his clothes had been piled and black chamber pot at one corner.

He grinned at that and began to draw himself up into a sitting position. It took quite a bit of energy and by the time he had his legs dangling over the end of the bed he was panting again, so weak he had to hold onto the sheets to keep from falling back down. With a ginger push he slowly slipped his feet to the cold ground, letting his paws feel the stone beneath them. He kept his arms pressed against the bed for support for he did not think he could stand otherwise.

Then, kneeling over the chamber pot he took care of one pressing concern. It felt good knowing that he would not have to worry about Baerle cleaning him again!

12/27 – 4pm

Charles was finishing off the stew that Baerle had brought for him when a trio of figures collected outside the doorway. The opossum was still sitting in her chair next to him, holding onto his mazer of mead while he spooned the beef and potatoes into his muzzle, heartily enjoying the warm flavours of both. At first he objected to Baerle’s assistance in holding his mazer while he ate, but she pointed out that he had nowhere to set it down, and might spill it, so he begrudgingly took her help.

Yet as he gazed up and saw his fellow Sondeckis standing there, white powder washed clean from their faces, he could not help but set his plate down upon the quilts before him and call out in delight, “Jerome! Krenek! Garigan! I’m so glad to see you all, and well! Please, come in, I’m just finishing my breakfast.”

Jerome laughed slightly as he passed beneath the aperture. “It’s actually closer to dusk than dawn, but we just heard that you’ve come to, so thought to welcome you back to the world of the living.”

Charles then turned to the opossum, her eyes watching his companions with a bit of uncertainty, as if she was about to order them out and insist that the rat need rest. Yet his gaze caught her attention and she held out the mazer for him thinking, or hoping, that he wanted another drink. His request caused her face to droop slightly, but only slightly. “Baerle, do you mind excusing us while we talk? I’ll be fine, I assure you.”

She nodded then and set the mazer on the floor next to his robes and other belongings. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little bit though.” Her eyes then went to Garigan, the only other animal morph in the room. “Be sure that he doesn’t get out of that bed. He is very weak right now, and should not be moved. Don’t let him tell you he is fine, because he isn’t.”

Garigan nodded at that, offering the flustered opossum his word that he would keep Charles in bed, with rope, if need be. Baerle looked back at Matthias with her hazel eyes once as she rose from the chair, patting his shoulder with one calming paw, and then lithely walked from the room, the click of her toe claws upon the stone receding into the distance. Zagrosek watched her leave, his own eyes curious though he did not immediately speak. Instead he came in and dragged two more chairs into the room with him, setting them down beside the bed.

When they were all sitting around their friend, Charles said again, even as he leaned back up on his pillow and grimacing at the ache in his chest, “I’m very glad to see you three here. Baerle told me that you made it out unharmed, but it is still nice to know it with my own eyes.”

Garigan whistled through the gap in his front teeth as he chuckled. “I imagine Baerle has told you a good number of things recently. I hadn’t believed it at first when these two told me what you and she had been doing together on that trek.”

Matthias blinked, his cheeks growing hot as his ears backed. “I don’t know what you are talking about!”

Zagrosek shook his head as he suppressed a chuckle. “Oh come now, Charles, don’t tell me you haven’t noticed the way she is flirting with you. She obviously has her eyes set on you, and is trying to woo you. And you’ve been making it very easy for her.”

“Oh come now,” the rat groused. “I already have my Lady Kimberly, why in the world would I be interested in this opossum?”

“I didn’t say you were, but she is very much interested in you,” Zagrosek winked back at him. “She insisted that she be assigned to watch over you while you recover, you know.”

Though he didn’t want to admit it, he could see that mischievous grin as Lady Avery consented to let her sit at his side. But, as he’d known her for barely a day, she was probably just the flirtatious sort, hardly worth worrying about. “Never mind about Baerle,” Charles finally said, putting the last few bites of the meat into his mouth before he handed his plate to Jerome, who set it on the floor. After chewing down the luscious morsels, he added, “I want to know what’s been going on.”

“We have Calephas as a prisoner,” Garigan said, quite elated. “Turned in by his own men too, if you can believe that.”

Charles nodded then, even as Jerome handed him his mazer. Drinking the last of the warm mead he wiped his muzzle upon the fur of his upper arm and handed the wooden decanter back to his friend. “Yes, Baerle told me all of that. Has he been interrogated yet?”

“Earlier in the day, aye.” Garigan continued, his tongue pressing at the place where his two front teeth had once been, only to find the scarred gums. “We didn’t get much out of him though. But it looks like Nasoj may be at Metamor himself.”

Charles blinked in surprise. “Now that is important! If it’s true–“

“If it’s true,” Garigan finished, “we may be able to end our troubles once and for all. Lord Avery and the rest are discussing the particulars of it all now. We don’t have the forces to single-handedly destroy the flanks, but we certainly can harass them.”

The rat nodded approvingly at that, and then looked over at the two humans. “And so, do you plan to stay for this final fight? I don’t know just how many days you have been with us already yet, my accident has made me lose count.”

“By dawn tomorrow we will have been here in the Valley for four full days.” Jerome replied, certain. “We are going to stay the duration, though it is our hope that this siege is resolved in the next two days, otherwise, we will most likely be stuck here with the two of you.”

Zagrosek shifted in his seat a bit, leaning forward ever so slightly. “I can think of worse fates than to be ever at the side of friends.” His eyes then strayed down to the white bandages wrapped firmly about the rat’s chest. “Did you really manage to break four of your ribs?”

Charles nodded then, resisting the temptation to feel his chest, as that always filled him with an intense throbbing. “They’re mending now at least. I’m glad to see that you three came out unscathed.”

Jerome rubbed the back of his head slightly. “Well, not completely unscathed. I woke up several hours after the fight with the worst headache ever. Here, look at this bruise.” The broad man turned around, showing him a swollen scalp, and purplish lines all across the back of his neck. “You’d think I’d dyed it, it’s so colourful.”

Wincing, Matthias turned to the other two, “And how did you fare?”

Garigan shrugged, “I wasn’t down in the chasm, remember? All I got was Lutin blood on my fur. That stuff is such a pain sometimes to wash out.”

“Just a few minor bruises,” Zagrosek added, shrugging. “How long do you think you’ll be in bed?”

“Well, I’m not moving today,” Charles said, grunting as his chest drove the point home, his ribs creaking beneath the bandages. “I don’t want to be kept here in this bed like an invalid while the rest of you risk your lives for Metamor.”

“I’m afraid you don’t have much choice,” Zagrosek pointed out, rifling his fingers through his black hair. “Breaking four ribs is not the sort of thing you just walk away from, even with the help of magic.”

“But, I–“ Charles stopped and sighed, leaning back against the pillow, one ear pinned under his head. “I don’t want to be helpless.”

Jerome chuckled softly, and gave him a warm smile. “You aren’t helpless, Charles. You never have been. I’m willing to wager that you can still punch anybody sneaking into this room while lying in that bed.”

The rat nodded sourly as he lay there, breathing shallowly, to keep his chest from groaning against the bandages. “It just doesn’t feel right for me to be stuck here, while you are fighting for my home. I can’t explain it any better than that.”

The three of them shook their heads as if in unison, though Garigan spoke for them. “You don’t have to, Charles. We know precisely what you mean. I felt exactly the same way when I first heard about the attack; I was willing to walk into the face of death to save my own people, my home. Metamor Keep is your home, just as Glen Avery is mine, and you have every right to wish that you could be there to drive out those Lutins and plunge a dagger in Nasoj’s black heart.”

Garigan smiled then, a lopsided grin that showed off his missing teeth. “Besides, in another few days, you will be right as rain again. And then you can go back to your love, and everything will be all right once more.”

Charles smiled weakly at that, though stronger than before. “I do miss her. I hope she is all right.”

“You said yourself she was in the Chapel, and there are many competent fighters there. I’m sure she’s safe.” Garigan assured him, his voice confidant.

“I just don’t know,” Charles admitted. The thought of her being hurt, and possibly dead, was a frighteningly real one to him. He did not wish to imagine what they could have done to her, for he also feared the rage it would unleash in his chest. Yet the shame that burgeoned there instead came from the fact that no matter what had happened, if anything, there was nothing that he could do about! He could not protect her, he could not soothe her wounds and her heart, nor could he avenge her should the terrible occur. That was the true source of his woe.

“Look,” Zagrosek cut in, “we’ve all been injured at one time or another, have we not? It happens to the best of us, and when it does, we just have to live with it. I would rather have you at my side than a hundred men, Charles, but the truth is, you can barely sit up in that bed, let alone wield your Sondeshike.”

The rat sighed disconsolately then, slipping back within the warm covers, resting his paws on the lip of the quilt. No matter how much he hated to admit it, they were right, all of them, Zagrosek, Baerle, Garigan, Jerome; they all knew that he had to rest in this bed until he was well enough to leave. And, much to his chagrin, he knew it too, no matter how much he wished to deny it, or worm his way around it. No circumlocution would mend his bones and restore his muscles. Only time could bring back his health and his strength.

“Well, then, I just hope that you three can fill my place adequately in the coming battles. My thoughts will be with you.”

Garigan then gave him yet another lopsided grin, deliberately pulling back his lips to expose the raw, bright red gums where his teeth use to belong. “It could be worse, you could be missing your two front teeth like me!”

Charles found himself laughing, as were the others. “Yes, but at least with you, it isn’t too noticeable! How does your mouth feel by the way?”

“Much better now,” Garigan shrugged, one paw reaching up to feel at the empty space in his muzzle. “It is still sore, but at least it doesn’t hurt to eat any more.”

“Good, I don’t think I want to know how awful that must have hurt.”

“And I think I’d like to keep my ribs in one piece! What ever made you leave yourself so exposed like that?”

Jerome chuckled dryly, shaking his head, at which the rat gave him a dirty look. “Baerle had been standing out in the open watching as the bridge tumbled down. I grabbed her as I ran and forced her into the crevice beneath me. I guess it hadn’t been deep enough for the both of us.”

“And she blames you for getting yourself hurt too, I’d wager.” Zagrosek added in wry amusement.

Charles nodded at that, his face settling into that typical moue of annoyance. “Yes, that is what I’ve gathered. I can only imagine the fit Lady Kimberly is going to throw when she finds out how badly I was hurt. She’ll probably blame it all on me too.”

Zagrosek laughed then; a thick throaty laugh. “That’s a woman for you! They aren’t just satisfied with seeing you in pain, they have to make you feel guilty about it too!”

“And then they hug you really tight and gape at how brave you were,” Jerome added, his smile whimsical. “Remember that night we were walking the streets of Makor, and we ran across the lady being robbed?”

Charles nodded, his own muzzle twitching with the delightful reminisce. “Ladero was on the hooligans before I’d even recovered from my drunken stupor. And they were running as fast as they could only a few moments later. She practically jumped in his arms if I recall, and then fussed over the cut he’d gotten.”

“Of course,” Zagrosek cut in, “Ladero wouldn’t let her touch it, which only got her more insistent.”

“It wasn’t as amusing as when we found out she was a prostitute and was willing to repay Ladero with her trade!” Jerome put in. Garigan’s eyes went wide at that, his village innocence shining through clearly. The ferret had heard of such people, but had never seen them, not even in Metamor, though he knew they existed in the town.

“I’ll never forget that,” Charles murmured quietly. “His cheeks were so bright when he found out, that you could have used him to light the city block!”

“I think he spent the rest of that night counting his rosary.” Jerome added, laughing at the recollection.

“Ladero sounds like a very good man,” Garigan put in, gazing at the three black Sondeckis, his own eyes wistful.

Charles nodded, his lips set firm. “Yes, he was.” Then shaking the memories from his mind, he peered back at the rest, his eyes curious. They were also tired, as a sudden sleepiness began to fill the rat. It had given no warning, but as he lay there, head against the pillow, he knew that he must soon rest. “When do you think Lord Avery will want to act on what he got from Calephas?”

“Probably tomorrow,” Garigan said. “Maybe tonight. The sooner that we can strike at Nasoj, the fewer of us have to die.”

“Well,” Charles said, his throat dry, “Then let us sing the Song of the Sondeck one last time while we are together. I know that you two are going to leave if this mission is successful, and you are better off not coming back to visit me again. So, before we part again, let us share in that.”

Zagrosek nodded even while Jerome began to hum a note. “We shall sing,” the black-haired Sondeckis declared, affirming the rat’s plea. Each finding their own place in the song the four of them joined in harmony, singing that ancient melody to the walls, letting it fill the silences of the cavern and into their bodies, bones; to fill their souls with the unifying theme of the ancient song. Though his chest ached with each new note, Charles sang on, letting his voice rise in conjunction with theirs, to form that hymn of old, and to once more proclaim his allegiance to their mutual suzerainty.

His eyes trailed over their faces, even as he found his spirit transported upon the waves of song. Their features were already a permanent fixture in his mind, yet the rat studied them nonetheless. As the sound and the Sondeck filled his body and soul he wondered whether he would ever see any of them ever again. That thought slowly faded as the somnambulant strains echoing off the walls lulled his eyelids and soon, as the last harmony resounded, the rat had drifted back into quiet sleep.

Lord Avery had already drained two mazers full of mead yet his nerves were still wound tight, like a new sapling tied in a knot, threatening to work loose and swing violently about and smacking all who were nearby. The badger who was morosely glaring at the map before them was not much better, every now and then striking the table in heated frustration, and constantly pacing his wide girth back and forth behind the table. Lady Avery’s slender paw was resting on Brian’s shoulder, her words soft-spoken and soothing, but ultimately they could not remove the stain that Calephas had left upon his thoughts.

His boys were off to one side of the bar, still rubbing down the slender shafts of fir that had been collected. Their small rasps were more than adequate to add the proper notches and to make the indentations necessary for the fletching. They were not discouraged by the fact that several of the scouts that they had grown up with were now dead. Rather they appeared emboldened to try and help all those that they lived in this forest with. Though Brian did not know which would take his place and watch over the Glen, he knew in his heart that they would be good stewards, either of them.

Yet his knuckles tensed, the flesh beneath his fur whitening with strain as the horrid images that Calephas had implanted rose once more to the surface. That beast who only bore the semblance of a man wanted to use Brian’s progeny for his sexual amusement, debasing their bodies in whatever fashion he chose, before throttling the life from them and discarding their useless flesh in some faeces-infested gutter. That very notion burned Avery’s heart and made him wish nothing more than to see the Baron’s privates skewered left out for the crows, among other even less wholesome mutilations.

Yet as he listened to the soothing words his wife murmured into his short, round ears he knew that his mind ought to be elsewhere and not on devising more interesting and painful tortures for the dog of a man locked in their redwood cell. Leaning back he ran a single paw up into her cheek fur, disturbing the grey of her ruff, his dark eyes meeting hers and sharing an instant of untamed fear. Then, sighing, he said softly, “I love you, Angela.”

Her short muzzle broke into a gentle smile and she pressed her two large teeth against the side of his head, planting a kiss upon his own ruff. She then blinked in sweet but reassuring delight. Though, with a bit of mischief about her, she replied, “I’ll think about it.”

Lord Avery laughed then, finding the tension in his body relaxing somewhat as he turned back and gave her a kiss of his own, his nose twitching at her lovely scent. There was a tinge to it that was pleasantly familiar. With a bit of chagrin he realized that she was beginning to come into season. He blinked in surprise as he recognized this fact, appearing almost embarrassed as he sat there facing her.

She caught the look and nodded, knowing precisely what he’d realized. Setting a single claw upon his nose, she tapped it in admonishment. “After Nasoj’s troops have been beaten, dear.”

Angus peered up at them curiously, but said nothing, his own nose quite capable of telling him all that he needed to know. Instead he set his dark orbs back on the map of the Valley that was stretched out before them on the table. Leaning forward, he rubbed the white diamond on his forehead, pretending to be lost in his own thoughts despite the fact that the Baron had rendered him too incensed to keep focussed.

“Well, I think we should really try to work out a plan of action,” Lord Avery suddenly interjected, his voice filled with new purpose. Angus did not mention he had a very good idea what that purpose might be. In fact he found it quite amusing, something that he would have to confront his friend about over a good mazer of mead one day, many months from now.

Several of the other Glenners began to get approach their table, setting down the work they’d been doing. Most were busy repairing broken weapons, piecing together new shirts of mail, sewing cloth garments to help protect them from the chill season, or lying down with their muzzle in their arms to catch a bit of sleep between patrol shifts. In one corner Walter looked up briefly before she returned to stitching appliqué heraldry of the Glen into various tunics and coats. She had insisted that they allow her that vocation while they kept her cooped up in these travertine caves away from her home and her looms. Avery knew that she did not blame him for this, and so had not argued but allowed the tailor to pursue her own agenda when she was not needed elsewhere.

Alldis came up behind Brian from the other side and crossed his long arms over his broad chest, the thick black nails of his three-fingered hands tapping his elbows. “Well, what exactly did you have in mind? You said the Baron was not very forthcoming. Aside from that relay station, of course.”

Angus shook his head and hit the table again with his thick fist. The table shook with the force of the blow and the mazer set before Lord Avery nearly toppled, saved only by the squirrel’s swift paw. “He gave us numbers of troops, and as they were we could never hope to match them. Presumably the Metamorians have dispatched a good number of them by now, but we can’t depend on that.”

“And presumably Nasoj is there,” Alldis finished for him, lifting that hoof-like hand to tap at his slender snout. “It could be a lie of course. I would hardly expect honesty from a man of his habits, but what if it is true?”

A small voice piped up, hushed as if expecting swift rebuke because though the speaker was obviously nervous, “He is a powerful mage. If we tried to attack him, he could scatter us to the winds, mi’lords.”

Angus grunted as his eyes trailed to the white ermine who had been sharpening his mien gauche upon a whetstone. Fellen had been under the boot-heel of the thankfully late Lord Loriod, and so had trouble escaping the subservient habits that the fat man had instilled in him. And it had not just been through force of arms that had so ground his spirit to dust, but also through the geas of magic. It was little wonder that he feared Nasoj so greatly.

Berchem shook his head as he continued to dust some of the white powder from his fur. He’d just recently returned from a patrol of the region but had found not even a single living Lutin skulking about in the thick snow. “An arrow can kill any man, if they do not see it coming,” he said simply, his voice carrying with it the weight of many years of hard won experience.

“If he comes out into the open.” Fellen countered, his tail whipping from side to side in his nervous tension.

“Well that is all well and good, but it doesn’t help us too terribly much,” Lord Avery pointed out, spreading his paws before him as he rose from his seat. Angela stood close to his side, her paw still resting upon his shoulder as her long, bushy tail mingled with his own. “We have to decide what to do. I believe at least one thing that Calephas said. If Metamor falls, then so will the rest of us.”

“I’m afraid he is right about that,” Alldis muttered sourly.

“He is.” Brian continued. “If Metamor falls, so do we. That is why I believe that Nasoj has centred his forces on the Keep. We should find token resistance throughout the rest of the valley because the great bulk of their forces here,” he tapped the castle which occupied near the very centre of the pass between the mountains. “We’ve destroyed their supply line and we’ll have taken that relay station soon, but I do not believe that it will hurt them at all anymore.”

“Why not?” Berchem asked, sounding mildly upset about that. It was not hard to imagine why, as he had led the expedition into the chasm to destroy the Northern bridge, as well as the one that had travelled down the road to determine whether Calephas had been telling the truth about the relay station. Much to their dismay the Baron had been honest, giving them one more task to perform before they could help Metamor.

“Because there are at least a hundred men in his service, mercenaries most likely. I have grave doubts that they would have signed on if the siege had been intended to last more than a few days. It has been almost four since the battle started, so they must feel victory is soon to come.”

Angus glanced at the map thoughtfully, studying the lay of the land and the thick of the forest that surrounded Metamor’s northern borders. He could see Glen Avery in one corner, secluded, with only Barnhardt’s estate a two-hour walk to the South. He pursed his lips thoughtfully, rubbing his nose absently with one claw. “Has our envoy to Lord Barnhardt returned yet?”

Alldis shook his head, the great set of antlers threatening to dislodge the paltry chandelier that swung absently from the timbered roof. “No, that party hasn’t returned yet. They should sometime soon though. If the newt has troops left I cannot imagine him refusing to join them in any scheme we may devise.”

Lord Avery nodded, and considered. “I can hardly imagine him refusing to help either, despite our grievances.”

Angus’s brow furrowed at that. “He won’t come join the fight, so you needn’t worry about that.”

“Of course he won’t join the fight himself, he’s a newt. He’s probably having his wife soak him in a tub of warm water just so the weather doesn’t kill him. I won’t blame him for that–“ Lord Avery cut his diatribe short, lest he begin to blame his Southern neighbour for the various disputes they’d had over the years.

“In any event,” Alldis spoke, “let us assume that he sends his troops to join us. We obviously have to make some sort of attack against Nasoj’s troops. From what side though, and by what path?”

“Well,” Berchem mused as he drew closer. “Their wagons were moving down along the main road, and they do have that one station just a short distance south of the glen along it. There may be more groups stationed along the road that Calephas didn’t tell us about. But we should have little trouble in sacking them unless they are as heavily garrisoned as the Dike.”

“True enough, so it sounds like our forces should follow the road South, though flanking it rather than on it. That sounds reasonable to me. We’ll also need to take that watchtower as efficiently as possible, so that they can’t warn their brethren at the Keep. I suggest a small team of archers and fliers. Burris can help with that. And what should we do once we near the castle itself?” Lord Avery asked.

“Well, I suppose we would have to see depending on where the troops are placed.” the skunk replied, rather stumped. If only they had more information about Nasoj’s troop placement at the Keep they might be able to plan properly, the Lord of the Glen bemoaned to himself. He could see that wistful look on the face of all of his brethren here, each one wishing that they just knew a little bit more about what was going on.

“Another good question,” Alldis then mused, tapping his muzzle again with one thick hoofed finger. “How many of our men are we going to take to Metamor, and how many stay behind to guard the Glen?”

At this Lady Avery sucked in her breath, though her paw was firm and steady upon Brian’s shoulder. The grey squirrels regarded each other for a moment before Lord Avery turned back to the rest around the table. His voice was certain and stern though the edges had been rounded smooth, betraying his concern for his people. “We will leave only a dozen men to protect all those here who cannot fight. The children will be taken below to the lower caves and kept hidden down there until we return. The men will wait in the brewery here and defend it should the Lutins discover it. If four days pass and those who remain behind do not receive word from us then I want you all to leave this place and head for the mountains to the West.”

There were a few about the room who began to object to that, but Lord Avery waved them silent with one paw. “I know, I do not like to think of abandoning our home to those monsters, but we may have no choice. If you do not hear from us in four days we will either be dead or captured. I do not want to see the same happen to any of the children, be they of my blood or not. Angela will lead you into the Dragon Mountains and from there you will hide as best you can and keep living with the hope that one day you’ll be strong enough to push the Lutins back out of our home.”

Angus snorted. “I’m surprised Nasoj chose this time to invade. The entire continent is girding itself for war, ever since the Patriarch died. At least that’s what I hear from Metamor. Even if Nasoj wins he’ll ride right down into the Midlands only find seasoned troops waiting for him.”

Lord Avery nodded at that, breathing deep, his heart soft after ordering such a terrible thing. Yet he could feel the warm touch of his beloved wife and he knew that she would be strong enough to carry on and raise their sons to fight for the Glen, even if they could not live there. “So I want to take every other available fighter down to Metamor. I wish that Matthias could come, as he is far more familiar with the area than any of us, but we’d kill him if we tried to bring him. It takes about five hours to reach Metamor from here via carriage. I want to be there by midday tomorrow with as many troops as we can muster. We will wait until midnight to hear from Barnhardt, but then I’m afraid we will have no choice but to strike out on our own.”

“We’ll have at least sixty men,” Angus said, running his large black claws through the thick ruff of his cheek fur. “If you want to include some of our new recruits who haven’t finished their training yet then we’ll have just over eighty.”

“Yes, bring every paw that we have,” Lord Avery said, spreading his own slender paws across the map. He was about to continue when there was a pounding from the barricade at the main entrance to the brewery. Three firm raps, then a pause followed by two slower ones in a earlier agreed upon sequence. They each let their breath exhale, though drawn swords were still held tightly, the fresh leather crinkling in their calloused hands as the guards opened the door to the outside.

A small cadre of Glenners poured into the warmth shaking snow from their cloaks and their fur. The wind shrieked through the aperture and plumes of snow blew inward, sprinkling the roan horse who stood watch with speckled white. Their eyes turned to the lead figure, another buck whose set of antlers was only slightly less dramatic than Alldis’ own. Hearts leapt in delight at the sight of the proprietor of Glen Avery’s only Inn. Voices were raised to congratulate the stalwart buck at his safe return from his mission to the South.

“Jurmas!” Brian Avery called out over the din of the crowd. “Please be bringing good news, for we sorely need it at this hour.”

Jurmas shoved the thick coat from his shoulders, wrapping his arms about his chest, the thick green tunic underneath damp from the snow. His wife, a slender doe who had been helping Mrs Levins in the kitchens, rushed to greet him and drew his chilled body close, sharing her warmth. The buck smiled and gently kissed her, whispering words of assurance and relief before turning to his Lord. “We’ve come back from Barnhardt’s lands fast as we could. He’s agreed to put his men into the field under our joint banner. He dickered about it enough though.” The buck muttered, “I had to remind him just who was invading Metamor at least three times. Sometimes I think the water is sloshing around in his head, and not the other way around.”

His complaints were not unexpected, as was the buck’s habit. Alldis regarded him dismissively, though his own narrow muzzle was breaking into a cervine grin at the news. Avery hoped that the two bucks had gotten over their animosity from the embarrassing rut this last Autumn, but instincts were hard to dismiss. All he needed was another waft of Angela’s luscious scent to remind him of how powerful it could be.

“How many men does Lord Barnhardt plan to send?” Angus asked finally as he leaned his large form across the table.

“Not nearly as many as we hoped,” Jurmas groused as he continued to rub his arm fur free of the damp snow. “The Lutins had sent a small force to pen them in before moving onto the Keep but his soldiers spotted and engaged them yesterday morning, so he won’t give us more than a third of his garrison out of fear that there might be a counterattack. He’s sending at least a hundred men; thirty archers and three times as many foot. He only wishes to know where he should send them.”

“Thank you Jurmas, we’ll discuss that now. I’ll send another group to inform him once we’ve reached a decision.” Lord Avery smiled at the Innkeeper, one of the first he’d given that evening, and certainly the first since interrogating that foul Baron.

“Of course, my Lord.” Jurmas acknowledged, bowing gracefully, his antlers sweeping out before him, nearly catching on the edge of a nearby table. When he straightened he looked about, his light voice turning sour, “Now, where can I get some warm food and drink into my stomach? I’ve been walking through the snow all day after all, and having to deal with stubborn newts!”

His wife led him to the counter where Lars was already bringing him some of his mead and a plate of Mrs. Levins’ vegetable stew. Jurmas continued to lament his travails privately to his wife around mouthfuls of potato, while Lord Avery and the rest returned once more to their map.

“There, I think.” Alldis said, tapping a cluster of hills just South of the Lake near Barnhardt’s estate. “It will take us at least four hours to reach there on foot. We can wipe out the relay post quickly enough, and then continue on down to wait for reinforcements there, as it is relatively secluded and a good distance from the main road.”

Angus nodded in agreement. “I can have our men keep those hills secure until Barnhardt’s men arrive. It probably is the best place. If we send a group to meet with Barnhardt now, and leave ourselves within the hour, we will probably only be waiting an hour or two before we can push on further South to Metamor.”

“In the night no less,” Lord Avery said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “That will be awfully hard on those of us without fur.”

“True,” the badger mused. “I recommend we keep what humans we have here at the Glen, excepting Charles’ friends should they decide to come. From what I’ve heard them say, I think we want them there at our front.”

“Good, send somebody to fetch them and Garigan. What humans we have stay here in the brewery. Angus, I leave the choice of any others for this place’s defence up to you.”

“What about the Baron?” Angus asked, his voice full of disgust.

Avery’s dark eyes narrowed. Those orbs strayed to two small squirrels who were watching the conference with barely veiled curiosity even as they continued to work on fashioning the bits of wood into arrows with their rasps. He then looked back the badger, the malice held within his gaze plain and clear. “Set a guard upon him, but if something unfortunate happens to the prisoner, I don’t care.”

The others around the table nodded, sharing the sentiment wholeheartedly.

12/27 – 11pm

Baron Calephas was wretchedly cold. Night had long since fallen on the Glen, and inside his wooden cell all pretensions of warmth had fled, leaving him shivering in the thick wool that he had worn when venturing to the Bridge. At the very least they had left him his clothes, otherwise he would probably have died from the chill by now. As it was he was hard pressed to believe that he would not die anyway under the lack of care the Glenners provided.

He had heard the muffled sounds of footfalls an hour earlier moving past the tree in which he had been imprisoned; a great number of them passing him by. Certainly Lord Avery had to have set set his men on their expedition to Metamor by now. If he were to follow through with his hastily conceived plan, he would have to act swiftly. And so he slowly stood, the cold stiffening his joints and biting through his garments the moment he unfolded himself. He paced his cell, rubbing his arms firmly as he paced, working up a particular need – as well as keeping his body warm – and talked to his jailer.

The guard outside the door was a rather robust wolf morph though his belly could have benefited from less alcohol. He did his best to ignore Calephas’s barbs though the Baron could hear him growl under his breath into the chill wind. This sign only emboldened the master of Arabarb, prompting him to describe in detail how he had seduced one particular page boy back in his father’s manor. It had been his very first and he had been rather clumsy at it, but he told nothing of that to the wolf, gushing with voracious detail about the event, and how the boy had cried against his bonds at the climax.

“Shut up you sick bastard,” the wolf snarled, banging his sword point against the bars of the iron door.

Calephas laughed at that. “Oh, I assure you I’m no bastard, I was born legitimately from my father’s loins. Though I did have a few half-brothers. In fact, the youngest was quite handsome. I remember that on his eighth birthday I gave him such a lovely present, though he wasn’t quite as eager as I’d hoped. Eight times I gave it to him, for being eight years old. I thought it a fair gift. Would you care to hear about it?”

“I said shut up!” the wolf barked, his eyes gone red with disgust.

The Baron, however, went right ahead and began to tell the story, ignoring the guard’s angry demands, omitting not a single detail, describing the boy’s cries as he made each thrust. He noted the way the knots were tied that held him secure to the bed, and remarked upon how long the sobs continued even after he had finished and let the boy recover from his exuberance. Throughout the tale the wolf only growled louder, though he set his back firmly to the door, doing his best not to give Calephas any pleasure.

The Baron took every opportunity he could to find pleasure, as it was necessary. Stepping close to the iron door he peered out into the dark of the frigid night and, though he could only see the vague outlines of the wolf’s form, it was enough. “My, I must say, your children must be quite lovely. After all, you’re a delightful specimen. I certainly wouldn’t mind taking one of your boys to bed and exploring further.”

As he said this he uncinched the belt at his waist and let his trousers fall to the floor, exposing his legs and groin to the bitterly cold wind. The wolf turned about and snarled at him from between the bars as he had hoped, crying out for him to be quiet. What he found, rather than silence, was the warm stream of the Baron’s piss splashing across his muzzle and spilling down his nose.

Spluttering with rage the lupine guard jammed the keys into the lock as he snatched his sword from its sheath with his other paw. Calephas slammed his shoulder into the door the moment the bolt was pulled, throwing the heavy iron outwards against the enraged wolf, smacking it into his head. Kicking his pants to one side he jumped out into the bitter snow and dived onto his jailer.

The wolf, startled at the ferocity of the sudden attack, tried to bring the sword across. His muzzle was bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth as one of his long canines had been knocked from his muzzle and was lying in the scarlet snow. The Baron was faster for all of his chill. He kicked the wolf’s sword arm aside and snatched the dagger at the wolf’s hip from its sheath, then plunged it into the thick mail covering the guard’s chest. Crimson stickiness spread from the wound and the Glenner gaped in horror, the sword falling limply from his paw as blood welled from his throat, choking off his agonised howl. He coughed a few more moments, glaring at the Baron with hate in his eyes, before he finally lay still and lifeless.

Baron Calephas retrieved his trousers and pulled them back up over his legs, tying them tight. Returning to the dead wolf he scanned about the Glen to see if there were any others about. Though his eyes were not very good, he did not hear any tocsin raised, so assumed that he had yet to be discovered. With quick fingers he undid the straps holding the wolf’s leather mail in place, swiftly stripping the wolf of his armour. The shirt was ruined, drenched in blood as it was, and Calephas cut it away. The breeches, though, were just large enough to fit him despite his lack of a tail and greater height.

With the extra warmth around his legs, Calephas set to slicing his enemy’s bowels open. Years living in Arabarb had taught him to contain his stomach, as he’d had to do this to many different animals. With precision he sliced the layer of fat from the skin and began to squeeze it between his fingers. It was warm, but would not be for much longer.

Grimacing, the Baron began to wipe the fatty mucus across his woollen shirt, rubbing it hard and deep, letting the oil sink into the material. It smelled acrid and foul, but he cared not, reaching into the stomach cavity for even once he had finished with the first handful. By the time he had completely coated his shirt in the muck, the snow had begun to cover the body.

Certain that his warmth was assured, he unfastened the wolf’s buckler and placed it around his own waist. He then wiped the dagger off in the snow and sheathed it at his side. He considered the sword, but after a moment’s thought left it behind. If the Glenners tracked him it would be of no use to him anyway. Brushing a bit of the snow from his oiled shoulders, he set off at a quick trot, heading North through the woods. He could not be thankful enough for taking the time to thoroughly memorize the maps of this region.

As he left the environs of Glen Avery, picking an easy trail through the snow, he turned his mind back to the guard. With a bit of whimsy he wondered whether the lupine even had any children.

“What’s going on?” Misha asked harshly. “Why aren’t they dead?”

The man in front of the fox morph was tall knight who couldn’t have been more then twenty years old. The elaborate heraldic design on the tabard he wore marked him as a knight of high noble birth. Misha knew he wasn’t from Metamor. He vaguely recognized the rampant Griffin emblem as being from a Tourell noble house. The man’s armor was still shiny and devoid of any scratches or dent. Most likely he was a second born son sent out to gain glory, fame and experience.

“My Lord,” the knight said, bowing deeply. “I am Sir Roark of Brigston Manor. And those foul beasts are held up in a group of rooms.”

“I’m aware of that,” the fox interrupted. “This is a castle, there are thousands of rooms and only forty Lutins.”

“Yes Sir, I know that,” the knight said, annoyance creeping into his voice. “But there is a problem. The have hostages.”

The fox went stiff. “Are you sure?”

“Yes sir. When we charged them they put a Keeper in the doorway.”

The Long scout muttered something under his breath. “Have they said anything?”

“The Lutins want safe passage back north,” the knight replied.

“Not surprising,” Finbar said walking up to the two. “What do we do?”

“We talk,” Misha answered.

The doorway had been barricaded with a motley collection of chairs, tables, desks, and whatever else that happened to be laying around. There was no sign of any Lutins.

“All right,” Misha said out loud from a corner some ten feet away. Beside him was Finbar and the knight. “This is Misha Brightleaf.”

A green head appeared briefly over the edge of an up turned table and then disappeared. A moment later a Lutin stood up in plain view. The fox noted that this Lutin was dressed in chain mail armor that was covered with various bits of leather, metal, feathers, fingers, ears and other body parts, some human, some animal, many Lutin in nature, many others unidentifiable. Misha realized that this Lutin was an important person, a sub chief at least.

“What you want?” the Lutin asked.

“I want to see your head hanging from the Keep gates,” Misha answered. “Give me a reason why I shouldn’t kill you all.”

The Lutin nodded to his left and a figure appeared next to him. It was a bound and gagged pony morph.

“Good point,” Finbar commented dryly.

“We want safe passage out of here, and back to our home,” the green skinned sub chief demanded.

“What do we get in reply?” Finbar asked.

“We give you our hostages.”

“How many do you have?” the Knight asked.

“Many,” the Lutin replied.

The knight opened his mouth to say something else, but Misha stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t bother, Lutins can’t count.”

“We get to Giants dike safe, we free them all then,” the Lutin demanded.

“NO!” Misha countered strongly. “You release them all now and we’ll let you go free.”

The Lutin laughed. “We know you fox. We give you people, you kill us all anyway.”

Finbar laughed. “He has a point.”

“I’ll be your safe hostage,” the knight announced suddenly.

“Roark,” Misha said to the knight. “Do you realize how dangerous that is?”

“I do,” he answered simply. “But it’s worth the risk if it will save lives.”

Misha stared at the man. The face that stared back at him was calm and dead serious. “You’d do that for a Keeper?”

“You’re all humans, no matter what people may say,” was the knights response.

Misha turned to the Lutin. “I promise you safe passage in exchange for the people you are holding captive. This I swear by Whisper.”

“You promise but not live up to promise,” was the Lutins answer.

“I’ll give you Whisper as a safeguard,” the fox answered.

A look of shock crossed the Lutins face. “You really mean it,” he said surprised. “Why?”

“A thousand Keepers are dead, and many times that number of Lutins. There’s been too many deaths already,” Misha said in a weary voice.

The sub chief nodded in agreement. “Fershak stupid to believe Nasoj’s lies about gold and plunder.”

Misha laughed. “Chief Fershak is dead. You want to see his head?”

“You keep head,” the Lutin said grinning. “I keep tribe.”

Twenty keepers watched as a ragged group of forty Lutins came out of the doorway and filed past them. All were battered, worn and frightened, hardly the bold group that had entered the keep a mere handful of days ago. Last came the Lutin chief. Misha handed the Lutin a large white cloth on a pole. “Carry that at the front of your group and it will guarantee your safety as far as the Dike,” the fox explained. “ Then he reached for the axe that was strapped to his back.

The Lutin waved his hands. “You keep axe. I trust you. If you not kill us yet, you will live up to promise.”

The fox laughed. “Brains and humor, a rare gift in a Lutin. What will you do with your tribe?”

“I take the Hammers home,” the Lutin answered. “And never come back to Keep.”

“I’ll hold you to that promise,” Misha said.

The Lutin left the Keeper and ran to the head of his people, the white banner held aloft. In a moment the group was out of sight.

“I believe he’ll live up to that promise,” the knight commented.

“So do I,” Misha added.

Finbar came running out of the doorway. “Misha, you’d better see this.”

The ferret dragged Misha through the doorway and into the rooms beyond. He was drawn passed a stinking pile of rags and furs that marked a Lutins bed and through a side door. The fox found himself in a small room that had been a storeroom at one time. Scattered around the room were at least a dozen keepers. Some were sitting against a wall, others were lying down and still others were tending to the wounded. Finbar brought him to a keeper who lay in a back corner near the rooms sole window. He recognized the figure instantly.

“ANDRE!” he shouted and dropped to his knees to hug his old friend.

Weakly the wolverine returned the hug. “Hi Misha,” he said in a whisper.

“It’s good to see you alive,” the fox said crying.

“Jenn is safe?” Andre asked.

“Yes, she’s doing fine.”

“The Keep?”

Misha hesitated before answering. “The Keep is fine.”

“No it isn’t,” the wolverine countered. “I can tell by your voice.”

It was a long time before Misha spoke. “A lot of Keepers are dead or wounded and most of the lower ward is in ruins, but we’ve broken the attack,” the fox explained. “The only Lutins in the pass are dead or fleeing for their lives.” He looked his friend over and noticed something that horrified him. Andre’s left leg was gone below the knee. All he had there was a stump covered with a dirty and bloody bandage. “What did the Lutins do to you?”

“The green skins didn’t do this,” Andre said waving a paw at what remained of his left leg. “The humans who took the gate did it. The Lutins saved my life. The chief kept us alive as a safeguard. If the attack failed he was going to use us to gain his freedom.”

“It worked,” Finbar said.

“It worked for everybody,” Misha added.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 |
13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | Epilogue

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