The Winter Assault

Part 27

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

For Metamor, For the Glen

12/28 – 1am

Yegern spat into the snow, his chiselled features rasping against the air as he surveyed the broad, empty road. The night was full of a familiar chill and so he tucked his frame into the thick furs bundled across each shoulder and around his waist. His tribe brothers were similarly attired in bear skins. All had long, wicked, bone knives hanging from their tanned belts. Each blade was different, unique, fashioned by the very warrior who had slain the beast that the bone had come from. He ran his green, callused fingers across the blade, fashioned from the very rib of the bear whose skin he now wore. He had made the priest of his tribe bless it before leaving the Giantdowns, on the hope that it would be soaked in the blood of the filthy, cursed creatures that inhabited the great Keep which barred the southern lands from the tribes of the North.

And so, with great dismay he continued his circuit of the relay station alongside the road leading North-South, wondering if they would ever get to use those knives. The North Bear tribe hailed from a region abutting the eastern flanks of the Dragon Mountains, where some of the largest bears in the world roamed. He had left behind two young ones, already old enough to be helping to tan the bear hides, cook the meat, and fashion the organs into pouches, wineskins, and the like. Yet when Nasoj had called, he had been forced to leave them behind in that world of night and shadow.

In the ten years since Nasoj had claimed total dominion over all of the many disparate northern tribes this was the first time that the North Bear tribe had been summoned away from their ancestral hunting grounds. They had been promised greater lands upon which to hunt, but had refused, for they did not need any more than their tribal lands could provide. They had been promised great quantities of gold, but had refused, for they had no use for the heavy yellow metal that the tribes to the west and south seemed to covet. They had been promised glory, and balked even at that. Glory often came with the heavy price of blood, and against the bastion of the southern lands’ defence that price was especially steep. The Blood Fang and Shattered Axe tribes could attest to that, for they had the greatest glory among the tribes, but had the highest mortality rate among the young warriors.

In the end it had been the threat of annihilation at the hands of Nasoj’s warrior mages that brought forth the warriors of the North Bear tribe.

Glancing at his fellows he knew that many of them were thinking the same things. Where was the glory they would bring to their people in waiting here in this empty stretch of road? Here they could kill none of these Keepers, and here they could not wet their blades with the blood of men. The sting of betrayal was like bile in his mouth, making him spit again, the vitriol making a wet splotch against the hazy blue glow of the winter’s blanket. He watched it sink and melt the snow a bit before it froze, leaving behind only a dark hole in the night shadowed snow to mark it.

Yegern grunted, frowning as he hefted the bone knife into his hands, turning it over and inspecting it. Smooth on both ends, yellowed from use and decay, it was still sharp where it mattered, and the slight hook at the end was the sign of a slight deformity in the bear. Even so, it had made for a wonderful knife, as the tip alone could slice through almost any skin or leather armour. It had never tasted the blood of a human though, as the North Bear Tribe was too remote to see any who were not the agents of Nasoj. It had been responsible for the deaths of several bears, as well as the assortment of fowl, rodents, and other animals that they trapped for food. The moccasins his children wore had been skinned with that knife; and when his own skins wore thin and drew the attention of fleas he would make new furs for himself with that same knife. The bone knife in many ways was more the symbol of his tribe than even the bear was, at least that was how Yegern saw it.

A sudden scampering of claws up a tree caught his attention and the Lutin turned to one side of the road to see what had caused it. The sound was out of place in the chill winter night and brought his guard up instantly. No animals, hunter or prey, would be out at such a desolate hour in this season. The other members of his tribe also turned as one to peer into the dark, claustrophobic depths of the wood, blades coming up as their lassitude vanished in a tense, silent hush. Even if the sound should prove to be nothing more than a sleep-walking rodent it would do them good to actually do something, for the rations of dried vegetables were rather tasteless, if not distasteful. Alas, that was about all that they would receive in Nasoj’s army, unless they caught more interesting game themselves.

Yegern knew though that whatever had been in those woods was certainly well out of reach by now, and turned from the trees, casting his eyes about for Hulra. If there was something to hunt here, he would be the best to send for he would not reveal himself. The oddly coloured Lutin had come to the tribe a parentless waif six years earlier, found sick and alone in the cave of a hibernating bear. The pale white of his skin was looked upon as a blessing from the Ice and thus the strange looking Lutin was freely accepted into their tribe. The tall, slender Lutin was also an amazing hunter. Yegern moved to sheathe his bone blade when a subtle sound reached his ears. Not a scampering this time, but a barely audible twang. Glancing about in bewilderment, he heard gasps from his fellows as he watched arrows sprout with wet chuffs from their chests and necks. The stricken fell to the ground limply as if the Ice had stolen away their spirits, clutching impotently at the narrow shafts in disbelief as their last breaths misted in the biting winter air.

Yegern had ducked down slightly at that first quiet twang and heard the angry hiss of an arrow sail over top of his head. He scurried hastily to one side of the road and tucked himself beneath a pile of rocks, gripping the knife firmly in his hand, green knuckles tensing with his own blood. The missiles appeared to be coming from all directions about them, striking down his comrades with careless disregard. With an angry eye he saw his own brother, Verner, stumbling about, grasping futilely at the three arrows fitted into his back, blood frothing from his mouth. Nearby was Dozi, the harsh-tongued old Lutin who had guided Yegern in his very first hunt many years ago, laying face down in the snow-covered road stuck like a porcupine. Verner fell over the old hunter’s corpse, landing heavily in the snow with the bloodied metal tip of an arrow jutting from his temple. Yegern found himself staring into the eyes of his brother, barely two arm-lengths away, and watched the spark of life fade as his soul was given over to the Ice.

Biting back his rage he waited, safely ensconced beneath the pile of rocks, watching as his tribe brothers were cut down by the storm of arrows. The forest returned to silence soon after, with only the last gasps of his friends as they died rising up from the snowy depths, smothered by hands unseen. Yegern waited, knowing that he too would die, but hoping that his blade could taste some blood before it would lose its master. He knew that it had to have been the Keepers, so he would wait until they stepped out from hiding onto the road to pillage what they could. The thought of one of those freaks cutting up Dozi or Verner for food and supplies made his heart pound faster in his fury.

Yet, as he lay there in the cold wet earth underneath the rocks, all he saw was the blood of his comrades freeze in the winter chill. Had the Keepers wished to take anything form them they had wasted their chance, as the flesh had to be cut from the skin quickly in this clime if it were to be of any use. Finally, when he could feel sleepiness begin to overtake him from lying out in the cold so long, he crawled out from the rocks and peered about at the woods. No arrows were loosed to meet his exposed flesh and no warning cry was sounded. With a start, Yegern realised that the enemy had already left, leaving the bodies to rot out under the ineffective winter sun!

“Damn you, Keepers!” Yegern muttered under his breath, a part of him not wishing them to return. If they could destroy his own tribe in minutes without ever once showing themselves then he was as equally vulnerable.

Wandering amongst the bodies, he leaned over Verner and rested his green, callused hands over his brother’s chest, and then offered a prayer to the spirits of their tribe; the Ice, the Bear, and the Fire in the Winter Sky. Reaching down to his brother’s side he took the bone knife, which Verner had claimed from the shoulder of a Tundra Mole he had slain, and placed it in his sack. Moving from each of their bodies he did this, taking the bone knives for each was as individual as their owner. He found Hulra only by the splash of blood fanned across the snow before the babbling Lutin, his hands clasped over his side where the Ice had stabbed him with a slender, fragile sword.

That statement startled the older hunter as he knelt before his dying nephew, sighing sadly. Father and adoptive son both slain in the same futile gesture; watching a useless stretch of wagon-ruts through the forest in the dead cold of winter. Hulra babbled about the Ice; she had come from the snow and attacked him with the blade of a southlander. She was known for her moods, the Ice, but Hulra had never known that she had white fur to accent her wintry wardrobe, nor the face of an ice-weasel. Yegern’s young adoptive nephew died with that painful question of faith upon his lips, slowly slumping to one side, his own bone blade falling into the snow between his knees.

With a heavy sigh the older hunter took up that blade, blooded only with the dark crimson of its creator as it was dropped into the stained snow. He offered a prayer for his younger friend, for the first time in his life omitting the Ice from that quiet lament. If indeed she had taken with the Keepers, and walked among them as an ice-weasel, then she did not deserve this one soul. Once his pack was full he stopped, offering another prayer, and started through the woods to the Northwest. He’d make his way amongst the mountains and skirt the Dike completely.

Turning to the side of the road, Yegern spat once more, leaving behind the foul taste of unfulfilled vengeance. How dare the Keepers not reveal themselves, and deny him his one chance to resuscitate honour for his tribe! And how dare Nasoj have his tribe placed here, where they could gain no glory, only stand out in the open to be skewered by arrows. He spat again, shifted the pack on his back a bit, and pulled the straps of bear skin closer over his chest, marching into the woods. To Hell with Nasoj and this Valley he thought contemptuously and then began his trek for home.

12/28 – 3am

Lord Avery paced back and forth in the trampled snow, pausing only momentarily to cast his eyes at the overcast sky, grimaced, and then resumed pacing. The assault of the relay station had been swift and had only cost them three score of arrows and an extremely startled Fellen. Yet as they waited in the small enclave South of the lake for Barnhardt’s troops to arrive he could only feel his tension mounting. Without the stars to guide them they had no way of knowing what time it was. Even so it felt as if they had been waiting for an hour already.

Angus was busy with the newer recruits, going over techniques with them at a feverish pace. They did not spar of course, as that would have made too much noise, but they practised their drills mercilessly. The plan was to let them rest for another hour before they pushed on, after Barnhardt’s men arrived. It would be many more hours yet before they reached the watchtower, and already Alldis and Berchem were rehearsing plans to take it. It was eminently unfortunate that the only bird living in the Glen was Burris, for the poor woodpecker was spending his entire time flying about above the treetops scanning for Lutins and watching should another snow storm could billow in.

This left Lord Brian Avery of the Glen with nothing to do except brood and pace. As he watched the preparations about him, the sharpening of blades, the testing of bow strings, and the line of recruits moving about in half-remembered forms, he could not help but recall the last time something of this scale had been done. Seven years ago, when Nasoj had first attacked Metamor with his Lutin hordes, Glen Avery had been a town much like any other, and he was the Captain of his father’s archers.

Rubbing his fingers against each other, he could almost feel the bowstring between them. They had always been a forest people, the Glenners, but at the time his father had enough security to be slightly aloof from his people, though not nearly to the extent that nobles in the Midlands were, or even in the rest of the Valley. Times had been rich, and with their prosperous fur trapping, they traded for all that they needed from Metamor.

Then word of the threat from the Giantdowns reached them. They had always had rather dismissive relations with the Lutin tribes up North. Every few months or so a raiding party would venture past the Dike and some blood would be spilled, but it had never been a serious problem as the Lutin tribes were so disparate that they could never mount a force significant enough to pose any real threat. Then Nasoj managed to wrest power from the ice and wastes of the northern tundras and united them in a common cause against Metamor, promising glory, riches, and a whole new land to plunder south of the great keep. The threat became a reality then, one that many had wished to dismiss, but found impossible to do so as those armies began marching Southward.

His father had led the defence of Glen Avery of course, while Brian had remained in the trees with his fellow archers, watching over the town much as they did now, from above. Even then they had been on very good terms with the woods about them, though not nearly to the extent that they were now. There had been no homes dwelling high in the tree branches, nor burrows beneath their roots. Their homes had been conventional, arrayed in pleasant order along the open groves on the rise over the river. And now, they were all gone.

Nasoj’s army had swept out of the Northern hills in a surging flood of green-tinted flesh and decimated what had once been a pleasant and thriving fur-trapping village. His father had fallen back towards Metamor, determined to hold off the forces as long as he could before they were finally cut down at the river’s edge. Brian had been ordered to take as many of his archers as he could to Metamor to help protect against the siege. He had never found his father’s body, though the torn remnants of his banner were discovered lying upon the bank of the river, washed crimson and tattered.

Shaking the unpleasant memory from his mind, Lord Avery stirred from his pacing and walked down across the snow packed path to Angus, whose harsh whispers did not echo. The badger turned from his drills, barking a few soft orders to the newer recruits before turning to the grey squirrel, glancing down the foot and a half of height that separated them. “You look troubled, sire.”

“I was just thinking about the last time–“ he stopped, his voice no longer working for him, as it descended into barely audible murmurs. He had trouble even facing his friend of many years, who had once served his Father as well.

Angus nodded and placed a thick, furry paw on his shoulder. “We all have, and we all remember how that turned out. It was a hard battle, but Nasoj was driven back. Why shouldn’t he be this time?”

“But so many friends are going to die, no matter what. I was just thinking about my father.”

“He did what he felt was best, and saved the Glen in the process, you know that. And you are doing the same thing. People die in war, nothing we can do to stop that. But at the very least,” he cocked a glance over his shoulder at the recruits who were swinging their blades over their heads, “we do our best to insure that our men will be ready to face the enemy.”

Avery nodded at that, glancing back into the black and white chiselled face of the badger. “I just don’t want my boys to lose their father the way I lost mine.”

Angus placed his other paw firmly on Avery’s shoulder, and squeezed them in a comradely fashion. “They won’t, because this time, we know what to expect.” He then added with a smirk, “And because you are a damn fine leader when you set your heart to it.”

Lord Avery offered a small chuckle and reached up with one slender paw to pat the badger on the cheek ruff. “And you are a damn fine Captain of the Infantry, and friend. Thank you, Angus., I’ll leave you to your men.” He then peered at the line of Glenners, some of whom were sneaking glances in their direction. “Are you all eager to hand Nasoj a sword up the arse?”

There were a few quiet cheers and grins from the men, their eyes sparkling with proud defiance. Angus glowered at them as they fell out of line and they were quick to resume their regimen. Lord Avery laughed and patted his friend on the shoulder once more before turning to consider how his other men fared. Angus caught his thick tunic though with one claw, and nodded towards him affectionately, “Damn fine leader, no question!” He then let the squirrel go, and returned to walking down the line of recruits.

Avery chuckled to himself and walked back towards the lake where, by the pale light of a few cloaked lanterns, Berchem and Alldis were pouring over a map. He strode towards them, picking out their words in mid-sentence. The skunk was shaking his head and gesturing when Avery finally began to hear them clearly, “- than one in that tower, then we can’t simply distract them. Only one will come to see what is happening.”

“But if we have the right distraction, then we can lure them out into the open so your archers can skewer them.”

“Anything that might draw them all would likely warn most everyone in the Valley that something strange is about.” Berchem objected, his thick tail swirling behind him as he frowned. “Why is it that Metamor has almost all the mages, anyway?” he commented to no one in general as he whisked a few stray snowflakes from the map.

Lord Avery paced quietly up to them; his foot paws crunching the snow lightly beneath him. Before they left this grove the entire area would be trampled flat. “Making any progress?” He asked in a curious voice, though he knew the answer well enough by the tone of their earlier comments.

“Very little,” Alldis murmured softly, his antlers slicing through the air unrestrained as he turned about. “But we’re not going to be able to accurately plan until we have a better idea how the Lutins are running the outpost.”

Avery sighed and nodded. He opened his mouth to speak when he saw a dark shape descending through the trees, the motion arresting his words as a sudden chill raced up his spine, heightening his alertness. It took him only a moment to recognize the woodpecker who circled around the stump serving as their makeshift table before he finally landed in the snow and shifted to his morphic form, shaking a bit of snow out of his tail feathers as he did so.

Berchem was quick to place a thick wool cloak about Burris’s shoulders. The woodpecker nodded in appreciation, a hot jet of stem rising from his beak. “Ah, much appreciated.”

“What have you seen?” Lord Avery asked.

“Lord Barnhardt’s men are just over the rise, they should be here in ten minutes,” Burris replied, snuggling the blanket further about him with his wings. “All the men promised are there that I could tell.”

“Were there any other birds?” Alldis asked suddenly. Both Berchem and Avery nodded at the question, eager to hear Burris’s answer. Birds were a precious commodity at the moment, as they made wonderful spies; and with only one put too great a burden on the poor woodpecker’s feathered shoulders. Add to that the fact that he was their only mage made his service as airborne scout even more treacherous, for were he shot from the sky they would be entirely without magic.

“Two that I saw, a sparrow and an owl.”

“Excellent. They should do wonderfully in this weather,” Avery said, feeling a bit of excitement fill him. Perhaps they could win this after all. “We should get ready to move shortly. I want to be marching half an hour after they arrive.”

“I’ll prepare the archers,” Berchem said, rolling the map up in his dark paws.

“And I’ll make sure that the scouts are camouflaged,” Alldis added, turning to run to the other side of the grove, slender legs plowing easily through the snow.

Avery grinned and clapped his paws together. “Excellent, I’ll see to it that we have one last round of rations before we move out. We are going to shed quite a bit of Lutin blood tomorrow, I hope.” The other could only share his grin as they set about their own tasks.

12/28 – 5am

It was still well before dawn when they finally saw the watchtower. Lord Avery pulled his coat closer over his shoulders as he peered out through the sparse trees at the forty-foot tall spire of wood. It overtopped the trees to the north and the south, as they had been routinely cut down to keep the line of sight clear, but the trees to the east and west stood considerably taller. The roof of the tower was hooded and so the snow did not collect in the eaves to weigh it down. There was a ladder from the cupola to the ground though it was slick with ice, making a climb almost impossible to manage without something to either break the ice free, or dig into it.

Although the rim of the cupola was too high for the squirrel to peer into he could see the group of Lutins that had established a ramshackle camp at the base of the tower. Bellicose laughter rang about their slack canvas tents as they shared a bawdy tale and drank heartily. It was clear that the guard at the base of the tower was only supposed to defend it long enough for the Lutins waiting in the cupola to light the signal fire. Given that the lands North of the Keep had not been subjugated this time, he had to wonder why the Lutins were not taking their job as seriously as they ought.

Berchem was at his side, and behind him was a human woman wrapped in tight furs. Naomi was the Captain of Lord Barnhardt’s corps of archers, but so far had failed to convince Lord Avery of her merit. She had insisted that she come forward through the trees to peer at their quarry as well, though the squirrel was only really interested in Berchem’s opinion. The rest of their men waited back in the trees several ells, keeping as quiet and as still as they could. The forest this close to Metamor was not as dense as the Lord of the Glen would have liked, but they would have to do.

“Well?” he asked softly as he slipped back behind the narrow trunk. It was oak and, gnarled as it was, it hid them decently enough, despite the lack of leaves and piles of snow clustering the branches.

Naomi shrugged. “The overhang makes it difficult to fire arrows into the cupola, but I think that it can be done.”

Lord Avery waited for the skunk to speak, hoping he kept his face passive. Her manor was hardly unappetizing, but there did come a bit of the natural superiority that he felt was in the blood of all that lived on Barnhardt’s lands. It was as if they were perpetually looking down their noses at he and his less urbane people.

So it was with some regret that he found Berchem nodding in agreement with Naomi’s analysis. “It is possible to shoot arrows in there, but it will not be easy. Of course, even managing to get arrows in there will do us no good if we don’t hit the Lutins and kill them quickly.”

“We could tip our arrows with poison,” Naomi suggested dryly. “Even a scratch would be fatal then.”

Lord Avery shook his head; with a bit of satisfaction he had to confess. “Unless it will kill them instantly, it is no good. It only takes a few moments to light the signal fire. With the blizzard past, it will be seen at Metamor easily.”

Naomi smiled at him then, in a way that he felt most unfair. “Our poison works very fast. If they are even scratched, they will not live long enough to realize it.”

“Magical?” Berchem asked, his brow furrowing in some surprise.

“In a way,” she turned her head to one side in a most feminine fashion. Considering that Naomi had to have been a man when she was born, the gesture was rather startling. “One of Barnhardt’s servants become a snake after the curses struck, a very venomous snake in fact. He supplies us with his venom every month or so. We brought some with us of course. I’m not sure if it will be enough to go around to all the archers.”

“There is one other thing,” Berchem added, turning to face Lord Avery again. “We’ll need to know how many Lutins are in that tower, and where approximately they are. We can’t climb these trees too much. They aren’t big enough to keep us hidden.”

Lord Avery patted the trunk with one paw. “I’ve noticed that myself. I was an archer once after all.” He left it unsaid that Berchem was far better than he’d ever been. “We have three birds now, it will not be difficult to find out where the Lutins lay. I’ll have the infantry attack the camp once our archers have launched their first volley. That should be more than enough to take the tower.”

Berchem nodded his ascent at that, before turning to Naomi. “Just how much of that poison do you have?”

Naomi rubbed her palms together, her breath causing puffs of steam to rise in the air. “If we split our supplies in half, we’d have enough to lightly poison at least one arrow for every archer.”

“We don’t need all of our archers for this,” Avery countered, thumbing his jacket with one paw. “I think we should split into three groups of fifteen each. Naomi, you take your thirty archers, divide them in half, and move to flank the tower. Berchem, you take fifteen of our men and move between the tower and Metamor. That way no stray arrow is likely to come down on any of our own men. I’ll instruct the infantryman not to attack until after one full volley has been loosed. Only the first volley is to be poisoned. The last thing we need is for one of our own to be struck by a poisoned arrow.”

The two nodded at that, then the skunk turned to the lanky girl and spoke in a cool whisper, “I’ll pick my men, then I’ll confer with you about the poison.”

Naomi favoured him a slight grin, though through the cloth pulled tightly about her it was hard to say whether that grin ever left her face. “I’ll have it ready. Five minutes say?”

“Five minutes,” Berchem agreed. He then turned his sharp mephit features towards the squirrel. “We can be in position in another five to ten minutes after we have the poison.”

“Then the attack comes in twenty. I will see to the infantry. May all the gods watch over you,” Avery spoke the benediction firmly, though he had to suppress a chuckle when he saw Naomi make the sign of the Patildor tree across her chest. It highlighted yet one more reason why relations were chilly between Avery and Barnhardt; the fact that they shared different faiths.

As the two archers moved on off back into the trees and towards the rest of their men who were waiting in the woods, watchful and vigilant, Lord Brian Avery muttered beneath his breath, “Thank you Artela, for Nasoj, for his ambition, which has brought us foolish mortals together in common cause. Help us find victory over him here this day, so that he may no longer spoil your beautiful land.”

His own prayer spoken, the Lord of the Glen followed after the archers, with only one last glance over his shoulder at the dark tower standing against the silhouette of the midnight mountains. In thirty minutes time he intended to stand beneath it instead of hide from it.

12/28 – 5:30am

Skulking through the shadows beneath the leafless limbs overhead, Lord Avery and Alldis roved from group to group of infantry to see to it that they understood the plans exactly. There were no sentries lurking about the Lutin camp as, aside from the ones waiting in the watchtower above, they were contenting themselves to drinking and sleeping. Even so the Glenners were careful, lest the Lutin guards were not as inebriated as their bawdy song made them appear.

At any other time than this Lord Avery would have marvelled at how few of Barnhardt’s soldiers appeared to care that they were being led by a man who did not get along too well with their lord. Yet Lutins were running amuck in their land, in their home. Nothing else could have brought them together like this. Even so, seeing them be only too happy to help gave Brian a bit of a charge that was not always present.

Alldis felt that thrill as well, like the warm rays of the first summer sun in the Glen filling every bone in his body. After they had finished going over the plans with the second group of infantry stationed before Naomi’s archers, taking only a minute to do so, they both had shared that same grin, knowing exactly how the other felt. This was a common experience in the Glen, for they all knew each other, most of them very well, and nobody wished life would be any different.

The Lutin guards continued in their off-key singing, straining cultured ears with their waspish tones. The squirrel watched them a few moments more as they sauntered around the stoutly built base of the tower before moving on through the underbrush, following after the heavily garbed deer. Alldis stayed low as well, his antlers poking out some, but not so much. With the darkness as close about them as it was they appeared nothing so much as another bush waiting for the Spring to return.

So they did not feel any great apprehension when they finally reached Angus’s infantry, arrayed in several packs before the archers, who were fingering the strings of their bows. Why should they, Avery reasoned, when they had never been in any danger from these sorry Lutins in the first place? It would hardly be any work to dispatch the ragtag force on the ground. The real test of this venture would be to the skill of the archers, and to the lethality of the poison Naomi had supplied them.

Angus was fingering the pommel of his great sword, rubbing the new leather, which was already creased with moisture. His dark charcoal eyes were grim, set towards the baleful tower that was dimly visible through the cluster of branches before them. Garigan and the two friends of Matthias were arranged behind him while the two northerners, still clad in their furs, stood amongst the ranks of the Glenners. Avery was not certain that he completely trusted those two, Andrig and Gaerwog, but so far they had proven true and had delivered a great enemy into their paws. The squirrel would take great delight in seeing how the curse took Calephas before they executed him.

The badger turned his gaze towards the two of them, Alldis nodding fiercely back even as he took his place before one of the contingents of troops. Avery leaned in close to the badger and patted him on the shoulder with one paw, nodding his head as well as he and favoured him with a grin. He turned that to the men standing at the badger’s broad side and on down the line of his people. They each smiled back in return, clutching blades and staves, eager to strike back at their oppressor.

Finally his eyes set hold of Burris, who was bobbing his head up and down as he walked over to the squirrel. The woodpecker’s feathers, once bright red, had been dashed with soot to darken them because he would be flying against a sky rippling with clouds and ashen with their former tempest. With a single nod of his head Avery gave the signal for the wood mage to transform himself into the form of a small bird. A great deal of the soot cascaded off of the mage in that instant but his feathers remained black. With a flutter of those darkened wings, he rose into the sky, the first signal in the fight to take back the watchtower.

Berchem watched the dark shape disappear into the murky blackness above then cast his eyes once again to the tower in the distance. His white streaked tail curled about the thick trunk of the tree he was perched in while his foot paws dug into the snowy branch. His archers were arrayed among the branches a good twenty feet from the ground, which was as high as they dare climb without exposing themselves or stressing snow-laden limbs. The trees in this portion of the wood were not as strong or as tall as those in the Glen, rendering their usual tactics unfeasible.

Even so, as the skunk peered across the gulf to the cupola which was silhouetted in reds and oranges by the campfires below, he tried to see past that overhang and spot any of the Lutins that were supposedly stationed up there. At his present height he knew that he would have little difficulty in sailing an arrow past the eaves and inside the cupola. Whether he could do so with any accuracy was his concern. Even if he could climb another ten feet higher he knew that he would not miss, but the trees were not steady enough to support his weight without swaying or rustling at that height.

He rotated the arrow shaft between his fingers and claws idly. Berchem had it pointed downward so that the thick, viscid poison would not run down the shaft. As there was nobody beneath them he was not worried about it dripping slightly that way. The poison was thick enough that it did not run easily, but he had to wonder, given how long they had had to wait since applying it to the arrowheads, if there would be enough left on it for the poison to kill instantly as Naomi had claimed.

It only took a moment before he saw Burris’s small form descending once more through the trees. Bringing the arrow shaft to his muzzle Berchem kissed it softly, and then placed the notch against the string of his cherrywood bow. The woodpecker sailed down toward the archers with deceptive silence, landing an arm’s length from Berchem as he began to shift into his morphic form, talons gripping the branch next to the skunk tightly.

The branch did begin to buckle slightly, prompting Burris to stop his shift at a median form just large enough for him to speak softly. He turned to the head archer and whispered, “There are four Lutins in the cupola. Three are in the far left corner playing some game, huddled close together. The fourth is circling the other two sides, close to the edge. His shadow should be visible.”

Berchem nodded and then glanced back at the cupola. Sure enough there was a slight darkening in the wall facing him, moving slowly across. Turning to his right he spoke to the seven men arrayed there. “Aim for the dark shape moving along the wall facing us.” After they nodded and notched their arrows, he turned to the left and added, “Aim for the far left corner. Shoot when I shoot.”

The other seven nodded then, tensing their muscles as Berchem pulled the bowstring close to his ear, his eye always on the point before him as he stretched his body out. The quiet creak of eight bows being drawn whispered into the quiet, unheard by the raucous revelry of the Lutins not so very far away. His eyes pushed the tree branches interposing themselves out of view and considered only that ghastly cupola, gleaming as if it had just risen from some unnameable abyss. The tip of his arrow gleamed violet from the poison, dribbling slowly around the edge of the shaft past the metal tip. And there, in the shadows, he could see that dark, formless blackness moving once more along the side.

Berchem took his eyes from the solitary Lutin and focused instead on that far left corner. He would have to aim his arrow so that it would just pass over the edge of the hut the cupola was placed atop of. It would be a difficult shot, but it was better that eight tried for it at least, for it would be even harder for the other two groups to manage. He almost laughed to himself as he pondered how many arrows would be sticking out of that sentry in a few more seconds. Then, the moment of whimsy past, he turned his entire attention to the subtle straightening he needed for his bow, the string nearly humming in his ear as he held it taut.

And then, satisfied, he released. The arrow shot forth with an audible twang, sailing through the darkness, and slipped effortlessly beneath the cupola. A strangled cry drifted from the shadowed watchtower as a swarm of arrows joined the first. Berchem watched for a moment as a good number struck the cupola or hammered into the wood. Some bounced off to sail ineffectually down to the ground. The lion’s share flew into the hut, however, finding some target to claim its own.

Berchem danced on his toes, cold from the snow, and began to climb higher up the tree, slinging his bow over his shoulder in one swift motion. The string was still vibrating when it landed against the wool of his tunic, humming softly with a balefully languorous note. Scrambling, pushing the snow aside, no longer caring for the racket he raised, he scaled along the shaking tree’s bark, scratching and clawing at it to find just the grip he wanted.

Turning, he peered into the dark shrouded cupola as he worked, intent on seeing what good they had wrought. A solitary spark filled the hut, then went out again. With a shudder he realized that at least one Lutin was still alive and was trying in their last moment to light the signal fire. Whether they had escaped all harm or the poison had not been s effective as Naomi claimed he could not guess, nor did he care. Only he had the vantage to silence this vestige of the Lutin defence.

Drawing a second arrow, he put it to the nock and drew it tightly against his ear, the fur there running along the string, draping it in the powder he’d used to camouflage himself. Another spark filled his vision; like the burning of the sun, it was all that he could see.Berchem snarled beneath his breath, pointing his arrow as best he could, noting where the Lutin had to be, and loosed. A third spark came to life, then flew backwards and was extinguished. A choked cry filled the air from that cupola briefly, then silence.

From the watch tower, at least. On the ground below the alarm had been raised, but far too late to do aught but make useless noise.

Jerome favoured Zagrosek with a quick grin as the arrows flew by overhead, coming from every direction as they struck the cupola and ended whatever life was therein. Angus the badger let forth a bellow as he charged, the first volley away, ready to destroy what lay in the tower’s shadow. The Sondeckis ran after him, Zagrosek with his Sondeshike, Jerome with only his hands, as he preferred.

The Lutin camp was spread out over the clearing just beneath the tower. There were two fires on either side, casting dancing red and orange light all about the trees there. Bursting forth from the winter-chilled trees the Glenners and those from Barnhardt let out shrill bestial cries while the Lutins scrambled to find weapons. Some were simply too drunk to even stand up. Jerome charged forward, shoving his palm into the green face of the nearest Lutin, ale frothing from its lips in a foamy spew before it all was crushed back into his skull by the force of the blow.

Jerome turned to claim a second to his tally and, spinning his heels brought his fist into the side of a helmet, denting the metal inwards, not to mention its contents. The body stumbled away, falling across a companion who was still singing that awful song with a bottle in his hands. That song was silenced a moment later when Zagrosek swung his Sondeshike down and across in a blurry sweep, sending the grinning face in to the trees while the corpse slumped back over the desiccated log it had been straddling.

Winking to his friend, Jerome turned in towards the centre of the camp, kicking one hapless Lutin into one of the fires causing him to scream piteously before being run through by Angus’ sword. Spinning, he was about to crush the skull of a Lutin at his back but he saw that Garigan was already there with his two daggers, slicing out the creature’s back and spine. It was at that moment when the Sondeckis realized that the fight was already over, that the Lutins had been decimated as if they had never been alive in the first place.

Looking up at the cupola overhead, Jerome grabbed the ice-slicked ladder and pulled himself up, scrambling up the rungs faster than he could slip on the smooth ice. Chunks of the glossy substance fell to the ground, cracking into shards before melting as they neared the snapping fires. He knew that he had to be careful, for if he should accidentally touch the arrow points he might very well doom himself to an instant death. That thought in mind, Jerome jammed his shoulder into the trap door above, bursting it open. Gripping the side of the hut he pulled himself inside the large watchtower and peered about. No arrows came at him now, for they all knew that the fight was over.

Looking about he saw the four bodies laying on the floor along with several arrows that had missed their mark. Two of the bodies were lying in the corner, one with an arrow through his hand, its fingernails dug into the wood as the stricken Lutin had clawed in bitter agony before death had claimed him, while the other Lutin had been punctured through his back by three arrows, instantly fatal even without poison. A third was by the far wall, ten arrows buried in his flesh in various places. The fourth was slumped around the lamp set in the middle, a single arrow through his throat.

Jerome reached down and grabbed the first corpse and glanced ever the short wall of the cupola. The Metamorians were arrayed beneath, milling about in the heady feel of battle. “Look out!” Jerome called out to them. Heads lifted as those below glanced up, then all stepped out of the way as the Sondeckis began tossing the bodies, one by one, out from the cupola and to the ground. As each one fell the cheers rose louder and louder among them all.

Finally, the tower freed of the Lutin presence, Jerome cried out, “On to Metamor!” And the others took up that cry as they cheered, knowing that the distance would silence their voices. In that moment, Jerome felt that he truly could spend out his life among these people, not just as a friend, but as one of them. He gave the cheer again one more time before descending from the cupola to rejoin his kith.

12/28 – 7am

Charles woke to a most delicious scent under his nose. He had been dreaming of Lady Kimberly, and when the sweetness filled his nostrils, he imagined that she was kissing him, yet the notion was disabused rather quickly as his groggy eyes opened and he surveyed the cavern room once again. Somebody was holding a spoon filled by a delicious pastry right before his half-open muzzle.

Spluttering slightly, he tried to bring the image into focus. In moments he could see the prickly outline of Mrs. Levins leaning over him. She was chuckling to herself, her small pointed face beaming to him almost like a mother might. “I see he’s finally awake.”

Charles pushed himself into a sitting position, the pain in his chest creaking as he did so. He gritted his teeth, the lovely scent of the blackberry pastry filling him, taking his mind off the pain. It was not as pressing as it had been the last time he had woken, but it was still intense. Glancing back at the hedgehog woman before him, he offered her a half smile. “It smells as if it were fresh.”

Mrs. Levins nodded her head, the quills along her back jostling in merriment at the praise before she shoved the spoonful into the rat’s open mouth. Charles did not protest, but licked the utensil clean. “I’ve been keeping that warm for three hours now waiting for you to wake up so you could eat. I thought you might like something solid after all the soup, and you are looking much better now. I think you can be up and walking in a few days. I checked the bandages while you were sleeping.”

Charles ran his paw down the white cloth on his chest. It did not appear to have been moved. He looked back at her uncertainly, but she continued to smile amiably. “I do know how dress a wound, young sir. And I’ve seen far more bodies than your own. Your precious lady friend need not worry about an old hedgehog.”

Charles found himself laughing a bit, despite himself. Her affable mood was infectious, and any mention of Lady Kimberly was apt to fill his heart with joy, as it did now. Yet the joy was brief, for glancing past the short, squat figure of Mrs Levins, the rock wall of the caverns beneath Lars’ brewery filled his vision, reminding him of the events of the past few days. A sudden terror began to take hold of him, one that he had been living with since he had seen the first sign of the Lutin attack – was Lady Kimberly safe? Or was she dead, the last moments of her life spent as a plaything for malicious green-skinned beasts?

While he ruminated on that most unpleasant question he found another spoonful of the blackberry pastry being shoved past his incisors. Turning his muzzle away, he reached out with his arms, his chest groaning at him from the motion, to take hold of the bowl and utensil. “I can feed myself, I’m not that hurt.” Charles hoped that his voice was not as surly as he was afraid he felt.

Mrs. Levins simply smiled, though, her pudgy face bunching up in grandmotherly delight. “Oh, you are getting better then, Sir Charles. As I always say, once they get grumpy, they are almost ready to leave.” She handed him the wooden bowl with the savoury bread and blackberry cobbler and he took it in paws that trembled only slightly.

“I suppose you have been watching over the injured before. You know the signs rather well,” Charles shoved a spoonful into his muzzle, though the shaking in his arms caused him to spill a bit down his front. He grimaced as the sauce began to stain his bandages a dark violet.

“Oh, do let me get that,” Mrs. Levins said, wiping up the slight mess with the hem of her cloth apron. It was already grey from various other spills accrued over the years. Charles held his arms up slightly, though he did grimace as she pressed at a sore spot on his chest. With a self-satisfied smirk, she popped the bit of bread that had tumbled from the rat’s spoon into her mouth. ‘There, much better.”

Charles chuckled again, swallowing his mouthful. “I can see why Lord Avery has you seeing to the injured, you treat us well enough to laugh, but right enough so we don’t get too used to comforts of breakfast in bed.”

Mrs. Levins waggled a short-clawed finger in his direction, a stern yet barely concealed laugh behind her eyes. “Now, none of that nonsense. You are going to stay right in this bed until I tell you that you can leave, but I have half a mind to throw you out right now and see how you like sitting on the stone floor for a change.”

The rat could not help but openly laugh at that, despite the pain it caused in his chest. He smiled at her, doing his best to apologize at his sudden outburst. “I think I will eat my breakfast right here,” he said after finally quieting his boisterous laughter, and taking several long breaths to soothe his ache.

“Good,” Mrs. Levins said, wiping her paws on her apron. “And you try to be more quiet now. You might wake up Baerle. She’s been up all night worrying about you, and is finally getting some sleep herself.”

“Baerle’s here?” Charles asked just before putting the next spoonful upon his ever eager tongue. Turning his head around behind him he saw the opossum slouched over in the chair again, her head resting on one paw, muzzle tilted downwards, and her tail laying out flat behind her. She looked like she had been knocked over the head and had been left behind in the chair for some passer by to find.

Charles turned back to face the hedgehog. “I thought she would go with Lord Avery and the others to help take back Metamor.”

Mrs. Levins shook her head. “No, she wanted to stay. And if poor Lord Brian doesn’t come back, may Dokorath smile on him, then Lady Angela is going to be leading us into the mountains. We would need good archers just like her, and so some had to stay behind.”

“Then I certainly hope he comes back, and with news of victory. I have so many friends at Metamor. I hope to see them again.”

Mrs Levins gave him that grandmotherly smile again and began to look about the room, possibly for something to attend to, some minor imperfection to straighten out. “Oh, you will, I’m sure that Lord Brian will arrive and find that Metamor is beating back the Lutins. We just have to trust and pray that the gods will deliver them safely back to us.” She reached out her paws and began straightening the quilts that lay across the rat’s chest, as she continued speaking. “Your friends, those two strangely dressed men went with Lord Brian.”

Charles nodded, having known they would. “When did they leave?”

“Oh some time ago,” Mrs. Levins remarked, straightening up, as the room finally met her approval. “It is only two hours until dawn.”

“So late? But it was only evening when I talked with Jerome and Krenek.”

She chuckled lightly. “You’ve been sleeping a long time, young sir. Injured rodents need their rest after all. But they also need their food and their drink. Now that you are up, I will go and get you something warm to drink to help wash the cobbler down. I will only be a moment. And do try not to wake up poor Baerle. She’s too tuckered out right now to miss any more sleep.”

Charles nodded and watched the hedgehog bustle out of the room, her eyes bright even so. He wondered if she was at all worried that her Lord Brian might not come back, nor any of the children she had watched grow into men and women who fought for the Glen. And was she thinking already about what she would bring should they need to flee into the mountains? She always appeared so certain, so buoyant, that Charles could not be sure if there were any doubts lurking behind her eyes and underneath her prickly exterior.

At that thought, he had to laugh. Mrs. Levins was one of the kindest old women he had ever met. The joke the curse played upon her by making her a hedgehog had been an ironic one, for the only pricks she appeared to possess were the ones she carried on her back. And then there was her husband, Walter, the tailor, who carried such bitterness that Charles was loath to be around her, despite her occasional moments of softness and generosity. How they stayed together Charles was not sure. Only a woman like Annette Levins could love a woman as stern and cold as Walter Levins.

He chastised himself for such thoughts, shoving another spoonful of the blackberry cobbler between his teeth. Walter worked hard for the Glen, just as did everybody else, and had watched her twin sons be turned into infants and killed at the Battle of the Gates. That was not an easy thing, not for anyone, to cope with. And from what he had heard, she was not nearly so severe with folks that she knew from the Glen as she was with outsiders.

Shifting about in his bed, clenching his teeth as his chest sent a shrill cry of protest to his brain, he turned to peer at the slouched form of Baerle. She was still dressed in the same tunic and leggings that she had worn when Charles had first awakened the previous day. They looked ragged, as ragged as she did; wrinkles in almost every place and a few stains from where her natural oils soaked through. And where her clothes did not cover her Charles saw rumpled fur and a disorganized pelt. But even as he stared he saw her stirring, pulling herself more upright in the chair with her elbows, and tired eyes glanced up and met his own.

It took the rat only a moment to realize that the opossum had woken up and was staring delightedly at him. “Oh, Charles, you’re awake!” She almost bolted form the chair, and wrapped her arms around his neck to hug his head and muzzle to her chest. He nearly dropped the bowl of blackberry cobbler on the quilts in surprise. As it was the spoon went clattering to the floor, spraying the bit of bread held upon it along one of the walls.

“I just woke up,“ Charles confessed, his voice muffled by her embrace. “Mrs. Levins was in here a moment ago and gave me this to eat.” He finally managed to disentangle himself from her exuberant embrace and showed her the lovely meal. She nodded and leaned down to pick up the spoon, wiping it along one of her sleeves.

“You shouldn’t do that, you’ll stain your tunic,” he remarked as she handed the clean spoon back to him.

Baerle just shrugged and cracked open her muzzle in a smile, showing off the pointed tips of her teeth. “I’ve had worse things than blackberry stains. Is that cobbler fresh?”

Charles found himself chuckling a moment. “No, Mrs. Levins has been keeping it warm in Lars’ oven, or so I think she said.”

“I’ll have to get some of that when I go up to the kitchen. Best way to start out the day is with a happy stomach, I always say.”

“I imagine you aren’t alone in that opinion,” Charles added, even as he scooped another spoonful into his muzzle. He winked then. “I certainly agree with you!”

Baerle laughed at that and nodded, turning at the sound of claws on the rocks outside their door. A moment later Mrs. Levins returned, her eyes once more reproving, but hardly very seriously so. “I thought I told you to let the young lady sleep?”

Charles opened his mouth to speak, but the opossum was quicker with her words. “I woke up of my own accord. I’m glad to see you feeding Charles well. Is there any more of the cobbler left? I’d like to have some for myself if I can.”

Mrs. Levins nodded. “I have a whole batch ready in the oven now. I’ll go bring you back some.” She handed the small mazer to Charles, who noted that it held milk. He did not want to ask just how fresh this was, but it did not taste funny, even in the slightest. He sipped at it for a moment, finishing off the last of the cobbler in his bowl while he watched the two women standing at his bedside.

“Thank you,” Baerle said, smiling her dimpled grin once again. Mrs. Levins cast both of them a strange glance before she left, one that Charles found himself incapable of reading. He drank in silence for a moment, gazing out the empty portal through which the hedgehog had disappeared, and wondered what she’d meant by it.

“So, are you feeling better?” Baerle asked, leaning over him slightly.

Charles put the last spoonful of the breakfast into his muzzle and chewed slowly. He had discovered that exerting himself by eating too fast tended to make his chest groan. Swallowing, he took a quick sip of the milk and handed the bowl and spoon back to the opossum who set them on the floor beside the bed. “I’m feeling better, yes, but I’m still sore. I would like to get up and try to walk about though. I hate being confined to this bed. Besides, if things go bad, then you’ll need me to help.”

His words tasted like ash so soon after the sweet blackberries, but he knew they had to be said. He hated even thinking of the possibility of Lady Kimberly being lost to him forever, but no matter what he did, he would have to try to go on without her if there was no other way. He quickly found Baerle’s paw drawing his morose muzzle back to face her. “Don’t pout, everything is going to be fine. We’ll win this one yet, and all your friends at Metamor will be safe.”

“I hope you’re right,” the rat said, still not convinced despite the optimism both she and Mrs. Levins had shared with him.

“As do I,” Baerle said, her face taking on a particularly morose cast for a moment, a dark and sombre expression that Charles could not ever recall seeing her wear before. Flashes of memory and recollection passed through the inosculating colours of her eyes — images that clearly she did not wish to resurrect. She turned away then, presenting her back to the rat as her paws went up to her muzzle, feeling along its length, while her tail flitted from side to side in agitation.

Charles leaned over slightly in the bed, careful not to upset the mazer in his paws. “Are you all right?”

She nodded, still with her back to him, though he could hear her breathing heavily, and the pungent scent of remorse began to fill the air, displacing the vivacious aroma of the blackberry cobbler. Charles pondered what it was that he had said, or that she had remembered, that had caused her sudden dearth of optimism, but could not find any answer.

After a moment, the rat realized that Baerle was not going to respond any further, nor was she going to turn back around. So, wetting his tongue with one more quaff of the milk, he asked again, “Is there anything wrong? Please, I’ve never seen you like this, what is wrong?”

She turned her head to the side a bit, so that Charles could see her muzzle in profile. “I was just... thinking about the last time–”


Baerle nodded after a moment. “Yes, I was just thinking about how it had looked after Nasoj’s army had sacked it on their march to Metamor seven years ago. All the homes had been burned down. The beautiful ard’Kapler mansion was a ruin. You never saw it did you? It had the most lovely promenade between the servants quarters and the main house. Bright flowers decorated the rail in the Spring, but it always was a new flower every week, and never the same twice. The arch was gilded with ivory and porcelain, so delicate I was afraid to touch it. And beneath it there was a small brook cascading down an incline of carefully selected rocks. In the afternoon they shined brightly so that there was always a rainbow beneath the esplanade. In the winter it would always freeze over, and we would slide down the stream, and watch the sun make the underside of the walkway glisten as if gilded with precious jewels.

“But it is gone now, and when I finally crawled out of the hole my father had hid me in during the attack I saw that the promenade had been smashed into rubble, and the stream was a haven of mud and flowing blood. And only a short distance away, Lord ard’Kapler’s head was stuck on a pig pole. I–” Her voice finally broke and she began to just cry, her whole body shaking with the wracking sobs that came from deep within her chest.

Charles, who had been awestruck by the simple splendour of her telling of the promenade, was almost startled by the grotesque ending to such a beautiful wonder, and by the opossum’s sobs. He reached out one paw and gripped her shoulder, gently pulling her closer. Baerle, however, turned around and flung herself down into his arms, burying her face into his chest, which groaned in dismay. He nearly dropped the mazer of milk but managed to catch it before it slipped and proceeded to draw his arms about her back, holding her tight as her tears flowed freely.

“It was terrible, yes,” Charles said, not sure really what he was saying. He had seen the wounds that war and invasion left on a land, but never in personal terms. They had always been just places he had visited, never a place that he knew intimately. He had never known the horror of watching the streets he walked upon everyday be torn and crushed under the boot-heels of an invading army, nor the homes of friends and family burned and cast down to rubble. So how could he possibly console this woman who had?

Though he did not know how, he resolved to try anyway. “It was terrible, and what Nasoj is doing now is terrible, but our friends will stop him again. And I swear he will be stopped once and for all. I know there will be a day when we can walk through the woods without fear of being beset by his agents. And I know that Nasoj will pay eternally for all the lives he’s destroyed. And we will live to see that day, I promise you that.”

Baerle lifted her head from his chest, and looked back at him. He smiled reassuringly to her, a small smile, but a warm one. She nodded, her muzzle splitting into a gentle grin, the tears drying in the fur of her cheeks. “I know it too, it is just… just that we have lost so much already.”

“And everything we have lost we will regain.”

“Even my father?” she asked, her voice tinged with anger and bitterness, but Matthias knew it was not directed at him.

“Yes, your father will regain his dignity and his honour, because you will do it for him.” He ran one claw along the side of her muzzle, softly. “I know you will, I can see it every time I look into your eyes.”

Baerle looked away, pulling back from the bedside, giving the rat’s chest quite a bit of relief. “I’m sorry, it has been a long time since I’ve let my feelings about that show.” She favoured him with her more familiar grin, quirked at the corners with sadness, “Thank you, Charles. You have been a true friend.”

Charles shrugged a bit, though he did smile, even as he shifted about in the bed. “I did what any decent being would have done in my place.”

“Thank you nevertheless,” she insisted, and the rodent nodded. Baerle smiled again, and looked at the door, drawing her composure back. In a moment Charles could see that she was the same opossum that had journeyed with him to the bridge, and the same opossum that had stolen a kiss while on that ledge. He still was not sure what to make of that, but he did suspect that Lady Kimberly would not find the story of it amusing.

“I just hope that Metamor stands,” he muttered. “I know many promenades, some of them more precious than stone.”

“And I know many here as well. But no matter what happens we will make Nasoj pay for every stone he’s toppled.”

“Not lying in bed I’m not,” Charles remarked sourly, shifting his legs and tail about restlessly.

Baerle laughed at that, and nodded. “You’re right, you should get a chance to get out of your bed today. Let’s wait until after I’ve had some breakfast though, okay?” But Charles had ignored the opossum’s words. As soon as he knew that he’d had her permission, he’d swung his foot paws out from underneath the quilts, and began to scoot himself off the mattress, his tail dragging along after him. The cup of milk nearly tumbled from his grip as he finally felt the cold floor beneath his toe claws again, and as he looked down to check and make sure it had not spilled, he realized that he had forgotten one important fact. Aside from the bandages over his chest, he was stark naked

12/28 – 8am

Dawn was nearly upon them by the time Metamor was in sight. Jerome peered from out of the folds of his tightly drawn cloak and could see the familiar spires and towers reaching in the brightening sky. Clouds still churned to the south, the last vestiges of the blizzard that had hammered the area and covered Nasoj’s approach, leaving the sky over Metamor Keep clear, with only a few stars twinkling to remind them of the bitterly cold night. At the thought of the chill, he drew his black cloak even tighter about his neck.

After they had taken the watchtower they had proceeded towards the main road through the valley. It had been a hard trek, with rocky terrain, and copious patches where ice underlay all the snow, or exposed in others. Having been bred in the deserts around Sondeshara he was unused to it and so found himself, along with Zagrosek, slipping every now and then. The Glenners found their inability to tread upon ice quite amusing, though they always showered them with disapproving stares whenever they did miss a step.

Once they made it to the road the travel became easier, as it had been traveled so heavily by the Lutins during the storm that most of the ice was cracked and navigable to his warmer upbringing. It also made them more susceptible to the winds racing through the hills, however, and so he felt colder here than he had ever been before in his life. He dreaded to imagine the incomparable frosts even farther North where the Lutin tribes roamed across the vast tundra of the Giantdowns.

Yet now that he could see Metamor, shrouded in a pallor of darkness as if to reinforce the undeniable fact that it was a castle under siege, he felt as if the chill had an end, and it was only a matter of time before he would feel the warmth of the air south of the Barrier Range. Time was another matter that was of particular concern to him, as both he and Zagrosek had spent far longer in this cursed valley than they had expected to. The sight of Metamor only reminded him of this, that they had barely two days more before the curse would claim them and reshape their bodies in some alien fashion.

Glancing to his side he could see that Zagrosek was thinking much the same thing, his brow creased in anxious concern. They were walking amidst the infantry columns, surrounded mostly by Lord Barnhardt’s troops, they in turn flanked by the archers from the Glen. Whatever uneasiness Lord Avery may have alluded to between Lord Barnhardt and himself, the Sondeckis could not see it in the faces of the men and women at his side. Of course, as many of those faces were snouts and muzzles, he was not sure he could have seen any such animosity, for while he found himself fairly competent at judging Charles’s mood by his face, that was only because he had known him most of his life.

The thought that in another week he, too, could share such a face was rather disconcerting. When Charles had sent him the letter requesting his presence at the ceremony to raise Garigan to the green he had assumed that it would only be a matter of a few days — a day’s walk to Metamor from beyond the range of the curse, a day or two spent with Charles and his student, and then the walk back; a perfectly safe venture. Nasoj’s invasion had made that impossible, for although he did not want to become a woman, a child, or an animal, he could not have lived with himself had he abandoned his firmest friend.

And so he kept marching, watching the topmost spires of Metamor rise above the snow-topped trees. Somewhere far above the three avians were flying, scouting on ahead in shifts, and reporting back to Lord Avery, who was just a few columns behind the Sondeckis. Whenever news would come to the squirrel it would filter up through whispers along the lines. Whether they were official orders or just word the soldiers shared Jerome did not know, but he passed it along anyway, knowing it would be appreciated.

Thus, when he saw Burris flying overhead, he did not give it much thought. Yet as his feet crunched the hard earth and packed snow he could feel some excitement build behind him as the whispered voices were even more boisterous and frantic than usual. The news finally reached him just as he was topping a rise, noting the darkened profile of the Keep as it sat alone amidst the icy mountain peaks. A bobcat behind him tapped his shoulder eagerly and grinned a sharp toothed feline grin as Jerome turned his head to the side. “What is it?” the Sondeckis asked, his heart already beating stronger just from the joyous expression on the man’s face.

“There is a group of Lutins running down the road from the Keep towards us,” the cat growled in a delighted, raspy whisper.

“Are they breaking?” Jerome asked, hope that neither he nor Krenek would have to suffer this curse filling him.

“They don’t know yet, but Lord Avery wants us to keep on marching for now.”

“Did he say why?” Even though he asked, Jerome felt he knew why. Basic tactics were required learning at Sondeshara after all.

“Something about making a gauntlet,” the bobcat added, shrugging and shifting the spear he held from one hand to the other. Even as he said that Jerome saw the badger Angus jog along side the lines, up to the front of the column.

“I think we will see blood shortly.” Jerome muttered, to which he received a feral, predatory grin from the feline in return.

“We’ll rout those little monsters yet!”

“That we will,” Jerome grinned and turned to pass on the message. He shared a quick smile with Zagrosek then gazed at the turrets of Metamor Keep. For some reason, they appeared to be brighter than when he’d first seen them.

12/28 – 8am

Baron Calephas scuffed his boot heel over the stiff remnants of a Lutin’s arm lying in the snow. The watchtower stood above him, silent and empty, so stricken with arrows that it resembled a pincushion. Grimacing, he pushed the arm aside and found a broken bottle of whiskey beneath it, the drink frozen into the ground alongside the streaks of red. Were it possible he would discipline the commanding officer of the regiment for allowing such lax behavior. Unfortunately that officer’s head was lying just a few feet away from where the Baron stood, demonstrating the needlessness of such a lesson.

After he had stumbled bitter and frozen back into his camp at the Dike he had amassed what forces he could and started on his relentless march Southwards to stop the army of Glenners. Ideally he hoped to pin them against the walls of Metamor and slaughter them, but he doubted that he could reach the castle in time to catch them at its gates. So instead he would settle for cutting off their escape when they would flee from the forces already occupying Metamor.

He kicked the frozen arm in annoyance, then winced and grunted at the sudden pain that lanced through his foot and leg. Though he had survived the horrible chill of his run through the snows, he had not come through it unscathed. Three of the toes on his right foot had been frozen so completely that they had to be sawed off while his lieutenants organized the troops at the Dike. He could still feel the emptiness in his boots where they had once been. Though he was grateful that it was not worse, as it very easily could have been, the loss still grated at him.

As he peered up at the watchtower he saw the sky begin to brighten a bit. No longer was the oppressive dark of night overhead, only the last twinkling of a few solitary stars. To the east the mountains glowed with the reflected sunlight from the glaciers even further eastward. It would not be long before they would shine with the first rays of sunlight themselves.

Turning his eyes to the ladder as a single Lutin descended slowly and carefully, the bars still slick with ice. He hated to be surrounded by the green-skinned barbarians, but his choice of allies left him little room to complain. The Lutin waddled up to him in the thick furs it had about its shoulders, and saluted. “Baron, the light has been destroyed in the Watchtower.”

Calephas nodded thoughtfully. “I thought as much. Very intelligent of them. How long ago do you believe this happened?”

“Two hours at least, sir.”

He nodded yet again, having made similar estimate. The Lutin, Captain Skolem, was one of the few that Calephas found useful, for he was both deferential and inventive, a combination that the Baron did not find often in the green-skinned monsters. “Organize the men and return to the road. We continue on to Metamor immediately. With luck we may catch them yet.”

“Of course, sir,” Skolem nodded, bowing slightly. From the sceptical tone of his voice, Calephas knew that the Lutin doubted very much that this venture would gain them anything. He wondered if there was any way that he could incorporate this Captain into his own retinue, for it was clear that he would be very useful.

Turning, he took one last look at the abandoned watchtower, then began the walk back to the road. He kicked the severed head of the Lutin officer on his way, and grunted as he did so.

12/28 – 9am

The road to Metamor from the North consisted of rolling hills abutted by the thick forests and rocky outcroppings that cast wide portions in shaded darkness for most of any given day. It was at the base of one such that Angus called the columns to a stop and quickly began giving orders, pointing men towards one side or the other. Jerome and Zagrosek both walked behind a thick jut of granite that was surmounted by clusters of aspen and pine. The road between the two hillocks was narrow, but long, leaving little room for an army to manoeuvre.

For Jerome the point of the badger’s orders was quite clear. They would lie in wait behind the rocks amidst the trees until the Lutin army came through the pass, then the infantry would box them in on either side while the archers pelted them from above. It was indeed a gauntlet that no Lutin would survive through unless they were able to climb the sides of the walls and fight past the archers lining the ridges or their army was far larger than the birds had reported. The three avians had been making regular rounds between Lord Avery and the Lutin forces, however, and the estimate clear at a good two hundred heading up the road in a ragged mob. That would surely be a force small enough to be easily slaughtered.

Kneeling in the snow, Jerome rubbed a bit between his fingers, his warmth melting the white powder in moments. Turning to his side he saw Zagrosek pressing his palm hard upon the cold surface of the rock, indenting the lines and contours of his hand into the ice that covered the huge boulders in a glossy white sheen. With his other he held his retracted Sondeshike, fingering the release idly. His dark eyes caught the glance, returning it speculatively.

“You know we have been in Metamor Valley for five days now.” Jerome said softly, so as not to be overheard by the archers who were arraying themselves just behind the rocks, occasionally peeking over into the gully to gauge their bearings.

“I know.” Zagrosek turned back to consider the road, crouching even lower behind the jagged, ice-covered granite. His lips were chapped and, in places, bleeding. Jerome’s own were no better of and he licked them constantly to put feeling back into them. The black-haired man then shuffled even lower, nearly burying his legs in the windswept piles of snow against the back of the rocks. “I wish that we could have said goodbye to Charles after the battle had been won. It must be trying for him to wait behind, never knowing if he will see either of us again, or we him.”

Jerome nodded, abashed that he had not given his friend the rat much thought on their trek from the Glen because he had been lost in his own personal frigid misery. Numbly, he nodded. “I do hope that this is the all that remains of the Lutins. I would hate to think that Metamor has fallen forever. It would destroy him more than any injury could, I fear.”

“Yes, it would,” Zagrosek murmured quietly, pressing his lips together, and snuffling. “If it has fallen, we cannot abandon him or his friends, you know that.”

Again Jerome nodded, crouching closer, the snow soaking into his black cloak. “I’m willing to risk the curse for that, I always have been. I’d rather that we did not though.”

“You and me both, I think,” Zagrosek smiled then before turning his gaze back to the road. It was simply a matter of waiting, they both knew. And when the time came they knew what they would have to do. How long had they been awake this day? It felt like forever. Jerome leaned against the rock, blinking to keep the exhaustion from him. It would have to come soon, or too many of the Glenners would be asleep!

He did not have long to wait before the burly badger passed along by, his face covered in so much chalk dust that one could not even see the white diamond on his forehead. In a gruff voice he accosted them both, pointing towards the mouth of the gully with one thick claw. “They will be coming over the rise in a few minutes. I want you two to be at the head of the infantry by my side. Don’t start out until they are halfway through the gauntlet.”

“Of course.” Jerome said, offering the badger a fond smile. In some ways he reminded the Sondeckis of one of their trainers from many years ago. He had been a man of some bulk too, but a good sense of humour that tended only to show when he was not drilling them.

Zagrosek twirled the Sondeshike between his fingers and favoured him with a lopsided grin. “Don’t worry, they will not live long enough to know they were in a fight.”

Angus snorted, but did return the grin as he passed them by to dole out a few more orders. The two Sondeckis looked to each other, then laughed beneath their breath. Jerome had no trouble keeping his eyes open now, the taste of battle already filling his mouth.

Gaerwog was not limping as badly as he had the day they had made their run across the bridge with Baron Calephas between them while being chased by a mob of battle-hungry Lutins. In fact it felt as if that day had been some remote distance in the past, separated from the now by scores of years uncounted. Andrig could almost envision it as a dream of some sort that had only been witnessed from the outside, like a phantasm that curdles at the back of one’s consciousness. Yet when he saw his burly friend favour that injured leg he had to confess to himself that the events were only two days old.

Yet as he pressed himself against the snow bank on the ridge overlooking the Metamoran side of the gully he could not help but leave their betrayal of Calephas in some distant era, a thing for historians to debate and to discuss, for bards to embellish and exaggerate. With a bit of whimsy, the young Northerner could imagine what some of those tales might indeed be like, where the heroes Andrig and Gaerwog fought bravely with the mighty Calephas; a man standing ten feet high who could breathe fire from his mouth, and whose manhood was a sword that could slice through the hardest rock. And then, victorious, they carried his body upon their shoulders across a bridge, beset upon by thousands of Lutins while the bridge collapsed beneath them. With a mighty throw, they flung the titan’s body across the ravine then jumped across themselves as the bridge fell with a colossal crash, sending the thousand or so Lutins to their deaths.

When he laughed at the images he had conjured, Gaerwog peered at him in confusion. Andrig drew his lips together, silencing the abrasive laugh, even as the Glenners and the infantry from Lord Barnhardt’s lands peered at him strangely and with a bit of annoyance. They were on the Metamoran side of the gully, and so the Lutins would rush past them first. It was very important that the green-skinned monsters not discover them until they were already in the depression, being assailed from all four sides. What was worse was that Andrig and Gaerwog were being placed at the very front of the assault at the Lutin’s back. They both chalked it up to the idea that the Keepers were not entirely certain they could be trusted.

Though Andrig knew he should not blame them, he did anyway, for they had risked not only their lives, but the lives of their families as well, to deliver Calephas over to them. Should the unthinkable happen and the Baron escape and then return to Arabarb, vengeance upon their parents and siblings would be swift and unrelenting. In Andrig’s case this was not as much of a concern, as his parents thought him dead and his only sibling was here at Metamor, an older sister he had not seen in ten years. Gaerwog had lived just on the outskirts of Arabarb, so his face and relatives would be well known.

Life with his family seemed so distant though, even more remote than the incident on the bridge. The old mill alongside the river, amidst the sprawling rocks and thick trees, with smoke coming from the chimney, only came to him in his dreams anymore. At times he found flashes of his childhood returning, of playing in the stream during summer, helping his father and sister tan bear hides in early Autumn, and then, wrapped in those hides, capering about in the snow while herds of elk and moose thundered past. They had been happy days, and at times he wished he could return to them.

Yet, both the times he could remember them and those times he wished to relive them were few and far between. The reality he had known for so long was the struggle to throw Nasoj’s forces, specifically Baron Calephas, out of Arabarb and push them back over the Dragon mountains and into the Giantdowns. After that they could care less what the Baron or Nasoj did, for their home would be safe once again. But now that he had seen what Nasoj had done to the obstinate folk of Metamor for resisting them he knew that such a dream was a farce, that even if they did retake Arabarb and defeat the Lutin hordes that had come to find life on the western side of the Dragon mountains appealing, then they would face a similar punishment from the wizardry at Nasoj’s beck and call.

A tap on the shoulder broke his reverie and, turning around, he saw the cervid face of Alldis, the infantry commander along this side of the gully. His dapper expression bore no indication of what he thought of them, at least not to Andrig’s eyes. The powder that had been used on his nose and muzzle had begun to disperse, revealing the dark bark brown of his fur and the pearl black of his nose. His mobile scalloped ears twitched as he glanced from side to side between the two Northerners.

“There has been a slight change in plans,” he said, loud enough for all those near him to hear. They would quickly pass the word along, so there was no need to make a general announcement. “But thankfully this is in our favour. Burris and the other birds have spotted a force of Keepers riding in behind the contingent of Lutins. They estimate that they will catch up with their quarry just before they reach the gully.”

“So we are going to meet them?” Gaerwog asked, massaging his injured leg beneath the layered furs with one thick hand for a moment.

“No, the Lutins should still continue to run even after they are met by the riders. We are just going to focus all of our forces at the head of this ravine to keep them from escaping it. So we are heading to the other end of the ravine. No delays now, they will nearly be upon us by the time we reach the other side.”

Alldis then turned, and with a flick of his short tail, started back up through the thick trees alongside the icy rock walls of the gully. Andrig gave Gaerwog a passing look of relief mixed with annoyance before they both fell in behind the deer. He hadn’t come merely to move the infantry, but only to insure that the two Northerners would be at the front of the battle. Loosening the straps on his axe, he fingered the freshly leathered pommel and smiled. At the very least they would have plenty of opportunity to gain vengeance upon the Lutins for what they had done to his childhood.

He did not have much time for reflection upon this before they had tramped through the snow and woods to the other side of the gully. Alldis bade them stop and turned to face them. Even before he spoke they could hear distant cries as the riders met the Lutins a short way up the road. “In a minute we will be rounding this bend and meet them head on. However, we are to wait here for the other side to charge first. Angus is waiting across the gully, and he will give the signal to attack. We wait until then. Ready your weapons, we should see them soon.”

And almost before Alldis had stopped speaking Andrig heard the tightening of bows and the unfastening of swords, axes, and spears. Leaning against the rock, he looked back the way they had come up along the road. Before his eyes he saw the green-monsters that had come to haunt his nightmares pour over top of the rise, running as fast as their little legs could carry them. Row upon row of them fled, rushing with the wind, filling the gully without any worry but to plunge forward. Then bestial cries filled their ears as they saw the riders from Metamor peak the rise, slashing at the rear of the mob with swords and huge axes that appeared more suited to felling trees than men, or even the diminutive Lutins.

Then, before he realized just what had happened, he heard cries much closer to himself and saw two figures in black leap from the other side of the gully, one bearing a gleaming, silvery staff in his hands. At that signal Andrig found himself running around the ice encrusted rock, raising his axe over his shoulder and letting out a war cry, ignoring the scores of Keepers at his back also giving lent to that cry. The faces of the Lutins he saw bore an expression of terror, yet they pushed towards them, brandishing their own weapons; swords, spears, diminutive hand axes or whet ever they had not already dropped in their hell bent flight from Metamor.

The two men in black met them first, though it was the one with the staff that caught most of Andrig’s attention in those few moments before he joined the fray and caved in the skull of a Lutin with the butt of his axe. The man twirled the staff in his hands and waded through the Lutins, smashing their heads open, and sometimes knocking them completely off as he spun the silver shaft around himself. Lutins fell before him in a wide circle all around, their attacks blunted as if useless, while he danced, his black robe flashing like a shadow about him.

Then any thoughts of others fled Andrig’s mind as he came crashing into the body of the Lutin mob, their grunts and cries for blood answered with their own deaths. He swung his axe about his chest and middle like one long used to tangling with bears. Lutin after Lutin fell before him, even as the arrows rained down from above, striking only the Lutins who were in the centre of the gully and not near any of their own forces.

With a squishy smack he slammed the blade of his Axe into the side of one Lutin’s head and yanked it back out again with a meaty crunch, hauling the smaller humanoid off its feet for a moment before it fell. Andrig scanned about for any other Lutins nearby, but they were all several ells away engaged with another comrade. Glancing up at the carnage, he could see several Lutins trying to scale the icy rock walls of the gully. Yet they would fall back down, either because the walls were too slick, or because there was an arrow imbedded in them. In fact, in short order the number of Lutins left alive had been cut in half.

A cry of rage rose above the din of the battle close at hand and brought him swinging about, the red braids of his beard flashing by his eyes. A short, broad shouldered Lutin was charging him with a long spear point aimed at his middle. Andrig twisted to the side and brought his axe head sailing across, through the slender shaft, hewing it in two. He then reversed the stroke and brought it back up, cleaving into the Lutin’s chest beneath his ribs. Stunned, the figure dropped the broken spear and tried to push at the axe blade futilely with dead limbs. He then slumped over, his hands slipping as his legs gave out from beneath him. Andrig kicked at his middle and the body rolled off the blade, which was completely soaked in blood. He could feel it running through his fingers as he tightly held the leather.

Rolling the axe about in his palm, he squished the blood deep into the leather, trying not to think of its awful stench. Spinning on his heels, he charged headlong into the fracas only a short distance away, where Gaerwog was removing arms and ears with finely timed swipes of his own longer axe. With a quick, ravenous grin, they stood back to back, pushing further into the expanse of dying Lutins, helping them along the way by crushing in their skulls and chests, only further drenching their furs in the dark blood.

He had worried for a bit whether Gaerwog’s injury would deter him in the fight but, as he pressed his back up against his friend’s, he knew that such speculation was foolish. His friend stove in the bony frames of Lutins just as effortlessly as did the rest enjoined in the battle, and with an even more ferocious aspect, for he had pain to beckon him on. Pain was without peer among the many reasons to that Andrig knew of to fight, for it gave strength beyond the measure of simple anger. Pain was closer to the flesh than any other feeling, beckoning lost instincts from man’s past.

As he slammed the blade through a Lutin’s back as it tried to scramble away and past them, he knew that it was over. Andrig surveyed the gully about them, and could only see a few Lutins still alive, but they did not last long as the riders slashed through those at one end and the man in black danced the others to ribbons. With a heavy breath, he knew that the fight had been won, and the blood that lay on his hands was not his own, not even a drop of it. He did see a few of the animal folk being carried back, stabbed or slashed by a Lutin blade, but not a single Lutin remained to cart off their own dead.

Turning about, he saw Gaerwog facing him, relief plastered across his own visage. With a great sigh, they embraced each other in a burly hug, patting each other on the back with the flat of their axes, and laughing in delight. “We won!” Gaerwog said, as if amazed of that fact.

Andrig nodded and glanced back about the gully, as if the sight of so many dead Lutins was something he could not believe unless he was looking at it. The riders from Metamor approached from the head of the gully, the hooves of their horses crushing bones with each heavy hoofed step. Suddenly, just as he was turning his back on them, a familiar voice called out, “Andrig! By all that is Holy, is that you?” His blood froze as he heard it, for it was almost the voice of his father, but there edge of bitterness had been taken off.

Turning back to face the riders he saw two of them divert towards them, both on huge Clydesdale stallions. The first was one of the strangest creatures he’d ever seen, an animal of some kind with huge feet, a long thick tail, and a narrow upper torso with donkey-like ears. The second, however, was the one who caught his attention more fully, for the human was a broad-shouldered, red bearded Northerner who looked like his father must have twenty years ago.

Dismounting, the two approached them, the Northerner grinning uncontrollably as he bellowed again, “Is that you, Andrig?”

“My name is Andrig,” he said finally, uncertain, gripping his axe a bit more closely. He did not know why he was suddenly afraid of this man, but the familiarity was too close for him to be sure what to make of the man. He had heard tales of Nasoj using familiar faces to fool his enemies.

The man was nearly crying in delight, while the odd amalgamation standing next to him looked simply delighted. “I know you don’t recognize me, but I’m your sister, turned into a man by the curse of the Keep.”

“Lhindesaeg?” Andrig asked suddenly, nearly dropping his axe in surprise at this revelation. His knees quivered as he gazed at the older man, knowing that had his sister been born a man, this was what he would have looked like. And then he remembered the letters that she had sent soon after the last attack against Metamor, telling them that she had become a man. Andrig had at the time been working with the Arabarb underground and so had not paid much attention to such wild claims, but here the truth stood before him, undeniable.

The man whom had once been his older sister nodded, laughing a throaty chuckle. “The same, though I use the name Lindsey now, it is easier for the Southerners to pronounce.”

Gaerwog stood befuddled at Andrig’s side, scowling in confusion as he looked between the two, until Andrig joined his sister-now-brother in the laugh, and threw his arms about his tree-trunk-like neck. “Lhindesaeg! I never would have thought to see you again!”

Lindsey hugged his younger brother back, pulling him tight against his chest like a bear. “Nor I you! Mother wrote me telling me that you’d died!”

“Ah, a terrible deception that I had to make, I will tell you about it over some ale sometime.”

Lindsey nodded and smiled then, his face bright and full of colour. “You do remember Habakkuk do you not?” he said then, indicating the strange creature at his side.

Habakkuk hopped forward, disturbing the blood covered snow as he did so. “It is good to see you alive again Andrig. It has been so many years since last I visited the house of your parents.”

Andrig nodded, even as he peered at Zhypar, the memory of his older sister following after the strange merchant coming back to him clearly. “I had wondered what had become of you. What exactly are you?”

“I’m a kangaroo, and I’m sure that does not help you much. You would have to cross the entire length of the world to see another.”

“At least I have a name for it now, “ Andrig said, pursing his lips as he looked between the kangaroo and his older sister – brother. “Are you two still…?” He let the question trail off, finding the situation awkward.

“No,” Lindsey shook his head then, but patted Habakkuk on the shoulder with one thick hand, curling his fingers around it completely. “We are simply best of friends now.”

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Andrig said suddenly. “But it certainly is good to see you both again, I had not expected I ever would.” He looked with delight upon their strange new faces, but noticed that the kangaroo was looking past them at something else. Turning curiously, he saw the two men draped in black cloaks talking with Lord Avery, and then turning to leave. One of them, the black-haired one, glanced back, almost right at them. He could not help but shudder, as if thrown out naked into the arctic winds; for in a single moment that stranger’s face turned into a visage of pure malevolence before being replaced by the serenity that he had glimpsed upon it all other times.

Dimly, he heard the kangaroo mutter, “Before this year has seen its last day, somebody is going to die from a shadow without a shadow.”

“What was that?” Lindsey asked, turning to the kangaroo, in confusion.

Habakkuk appeared to snap out of whatever trance he had slipped into and shook his head. “Oh, nothing, a bit of nonsense I heard somewhere before.” Yet his eyes continued to watch those black clad men. Andrig turned about to look at them again, but saw that they were departing by themselves into the wood.

Before he could add anything new two more figures came to their sides. One was a tall moose much like those that he was used to seeing in the hills around Arabarb, save for the fact that this one walked on two hooves instead of four. The second figure, however, made the kangaroo appear completely normal, for it was some large rodent of some kind, whose fur was a plaid pattern of red and black. “Ho, Lindsey, Habakkuk, who are your friends?” the beaver called as he trundled over, his shirt tight over thick muscles.

“Ho, Michael!” Lindsey called, smiling to his fellow Metamorian. “This here is my younger brother Andrig.”

The beaver stopped a few feet short and peered at the man who clearly was Lindsey’s brother. His eyes had gone wide, the whites bright against his cream coloured flesh. “But I thought you said he was dead?”

“Happily, I was mistaken,” Lindsey said, before laughing and hugging his younger brother again. “By the gods, Andrig, you are the greatest sight I’ve seen in a week.”

“Perhaps,” Habakkuk ventured. “One could view him as a symbol of our victory, they thought we were dead, but no, were came back and proved otherwise!”

Both Andrig and Gaerwog stared oddly at the kangaroo, but the other three with him laughed. The moose then said, “You must forgive Zhypar here, he is a writer. They tend to get a bit melodramatic at times.”

Zhypar turned on the moose and favoured him a lop-sided grin. “And I must confess I’m amazed you know a word like melodramatic!”

Lindsey then interfered, motioning the moose and beaver towards his brother. “Forgive me for being so rude, Andrig, this is Michael and Lance, two good friends of mine.”

“It is a pleasure to meet a friend of my brother’s,” Andrig said, while Gaerwog smiled and shook their paws. “We definitely must share a drink together sometime soon. The stories we will have to tell are too numerous to count!”

“Then perhaps we shall have them tonight,” a new voiced chimed in. They turned to see Lord Avery, accompanied by a large bull dressed in the same manner as the Metamorans. “I’ve already sent riders back to the Glen to inform them of our victory. Chief Tathom here tells me that the Lutins have been routed at Metamor. Now they are just chasing them down through the woods.”

“That’s right,” the bull said in a gruff voice. “All that is left to do is to mop the remainder up. I’ve heard that Misha Brightleaf himself is organizing a force to assail their flanks all the way into the Giantdowns, to make sure this never happens again.” He rubbed at a scar on one side of his bovine muzzle, and they could all tell that it was recent. “There were many casualties, but we won.”

“And the city itself?” Andrig asked suddenly.

“We’ll be rebuilding for quite sometime. I imagine we’ll be up in the forest chopping trees almost everyday for the next five or six months at least.” Behind him, he heard the beaver groan at that. Tathom narrowed his glassy eyes at the beaver, but then shrugged. “Right now though it is time to celebrate our victory and to mourn the dead.”

They all nodded in agreement before Habakkuk interjected, his face curious. “Excuse me, Lord Avery? What were those two black clad men saying to you before they left?”

Lord Avery blinked, his long bushy tail flitting behind him. “Oh, just that they had to depart before the curse took them. They were friends of Charles, and damn good fighters, more than that I’m afraid I cannot say because I do not know.”

“Ah, I thought so,” Zhypar nodded, gazing back at Lindsey and then Andrig. “Now, I think we ought to reacquaint ourselves better, perhaps over some ale at the Keep? I assure you that we will not be the only ones drinking tonight.”

“At my place,” Lindsey said determinedly, embracing his brother with one arm again. “Assuming it still stands of course!”

“I’m sure we shall find it in good order,” Habakkuk said, and then laughed along with the rest of them. Andrig just smiled and joined in the joy. The battle was over, Metamor had won, and here stood his sister, now his older brother indeed. For the first time in almost ten years, he felt free.

It was only an hour since they had stopped at the watchtower, but Calephas wanted to be sure of his plans before he pressed on. All the powerful mages among the Lutins and Nasoj’s human servants had been sent to aid in the attack on the Keep, so he had to rely on his eyes to know anything about the conditions to the South. So he and Captain Skolem had climbed up into the trees and were sharing the farseeing device. Neither of them liked what they saw.

“I see too many Keepers walking about Metamor, sir,” Skolem said as he passed the magically enhanced telescope back to the Baron. “I’d say that they somehow beat our forces.”

Calephas bore a scowl that could have curdled milk. “Yes, it does appear that way.” Through the lenses he could see Keepers gathering the strewn bodies of Lutins and depositing them in huge heaps just outside one of the gates. Several crews were working nearby with huge, mostly unburnt timbers making sledges, most likely to haul the corpses away from the keep for disposal.“Nasoj will not be pleased. It will be another seven years I fear before we could even hope to attempt another attack. One of his generals is probably going to die.”

“Are you afraid it is you, sir?”

Lowering the telescope, the Baron considered the question. It was quite likely he could be killed for this failure, even though he was not at Metamor for any of it. Finally, he shook his head. “My orders were to maintain the fortifications at the Dike, and that is what I shall do. Order the troops to turn around. We are going back to the Dike. If they try to strike at the Giantdowns now when we are in retreat, they shall have a very unpleasant surprise. I will make any more deaths cost them severely.”

Skolem nodded and began to scramble down the tree. “That you shall, sir, that you shall.”

Calephas lingered in the tree branches a moment longer, glaring at the Keep. He had visited it once in his youth, long before the curse had struck. They had failed to take it twice now, and that fact stung even more bitterly than their first loss had. He would stride the halls of Metamor, even if it took another seven years to accomplish. He would win this valley for Nasoj, no matter the cost.

Finally, unable to bear the sight of those bright, sparkling spires, he spat and began to climb back down the tree, eager to return to the Dike and to lands more familiar. Already, plans were circling his head on how to make life even more miserable for the Northerners living near Arabarb.

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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