For Metamor, For the Glen - Part I

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 tribemates were similarly attired in bear skins, long, wicked, bone knives hanging from their tanned belts. He ran his green callused fingers across the blade, fashioned from the very rib of the bear whose skin he now wore. He’d had his tribe’s priest bless it before leaving the Giantdowns, on the hope that it would be soaked in the blood of the filthy Keepers.

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’d 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’d had to leave them behind in that world of night and shadow.

Glancing at his fellows he knew that many of them were thinking the same thing. Where was the glory they would bring to their people in waiting here in this empty stretch of road? Here they could kill no Keepers, and here they could not wet their blades with the blood of men. The sting of betrayal was like bile in his mouth, and so he spat 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 discolouration to mark it.

Yegern grunted then, 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 them. It had been responsible for the deaths of several bears, as well as the assortment of foul, rodents, and other animals that they trapped for food. The mocassins 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 other members of his tribe also turned as one to peer into the dark claustrophobic depths of the wood, wondering perhaps if this was something that might be good to fill their bellies. The rations of dried vegetables were rather tasteless, if not distasteful, but 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 so turned away from the tall trees. Still with his bone knife in his hand, he moved to sheathe it, but then heard a barely audible twang. Glancing about in bewilderment, he heard gasps from his fellows as arrows protruded from their chests and necks, even as they fell to the ground, clutching at the narrow shafts in disbelief.

Yegern ducked down, even as he heard an arrow sail over top of his head. He scurried to one side of the road, tucking himself beneath a pile of rocks, gripping the knife firmly in his hands, his green knuckles tensing with his own blood. The missiles appeared to be coming from all directions about them, striking down his comrades. With an angry eye, he saw Verner, his brother, stumbling about, three arrows fitted into his back, blood frothing from his mouth. And there was Dozi, who had guided Yegern in his very first hunt many years ago, laying face down in the snow-covered road stuck like a porcupine.

Biting back his rage, he waited, safely ensconced beneath the pile of rocks, watching as his tribemates were cut down by the storm of arrows. Soon though, the forest returned to silence, 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 would have wasted their chances, 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, he too was equally vulnerable.

Wandering amongst the bodies, he leaned over Verner, and rest his green, callused hands over his brother’s chest, and then offered a prayer to the spirits of their tribe. Reaching down at his side, he took the bone knife, 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. Once his pack was full, he stopped, offered 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 either, 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.

Lord Avery paced back and forth, cast his eyes to 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. 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 in case another snow storm should billow in.

And so, 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, 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.

And 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 before, as the Lutin tribes were so disparate that they could never mount a force significant enough to pose any real threat. And then Nasoj came and united them in a common cause against Metamor, promising glory and riches, a whole new land to plunder. The threat became a reality then, one that many wished to dismiss, but found impossible as those armies began marching Southward.

His father had led the defence of Glen Avery of course, while he 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 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 never found his father’s body, though the torn remnants of his banner were discovered laying against 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 pocked 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, milord.”

“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. 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 then 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 then, 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.

Lord Avery then reached 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, and was about to speak, when he saw a dark shape descending through the trees. It took him only a moment to recognize the woodpecker, who circled around the stump they were standing about, 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, woolen cloak about Burris’s shoulders. The woodpecker nodded in appreciation, a hot jet of steam 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, as they made wonderful spies, though with only one, it put too great a burden on their shoulder’s.

“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 in 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.

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.

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 thirty-foot tall spire of wood. The roof of the tower was hooded, and so the snow did not collect in the eaves to weight 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.

Although, the rim of the cupola was too high for the squirrel to peer into, he could see the group of Lutins who 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, a 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. However, 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 forests this close to Metamor were 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, 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 drily. “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, take your thirty archers, divide them in half, and move to flank the tower. Berchem, 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, and then the skunk turned to the lanky girl and spoke in a cool whisper, “I’ll pick my men, and 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 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. For it highlighted yet one more reason why relations were chilly between Avery and Barnhardt, as 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 it 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.

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 too felt that thrill, 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. In the Glen, this was a common experience, for they all knew each other, and 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 well wrought base of the tower, but then moved 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 clustered 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 relief 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, 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, and favouring him with a grin. He turned that to the men standing at his broad side, and ever 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, as 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 him 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, and then cast his eyes once again to the tower in the distance. His white streaked tail curled about the thick shaft of the tree he was perched on, while His foot paws dug into the snowy branch. His archers were arrayed among the branches a good twenty feet high, as high as they dare. 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, 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.

Idly, he rotated the arrow shaft between his fingers and claws. Berchem had it pointed downward, so that the 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, and held it taut. The woodpecker sailed down towards the archers, and began to shift into his morphic form, talons gripping the branch next to the skunk lightly.

The branch did begin to buckle slightly, but Burris stopped his shifting at a median form, large enough for him to speak softly. He turned to the head archer and said, “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 said 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, even as Berchem pulled the bowstring close to his ear, his eye always on the point before him as he stretched his body out. 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 focussed 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 shooting forth with an audible twang, sailing through the darkness, and diving beneath the cupola, amidst a strangled cry as a swarm of arrows joined the first. Berchem watched for a moment as a good number struck the cupola and hammered into the wood, some bounced off to sail ineffectually down to the ground. However, the lion’s share flew into the hut, finding some target to claim its own.

Berchem danced on his toes, cold from the snow, and began to climb 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, 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, and 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 as effective as Naomi claimed, he could not guess, nor did he care. Only he could silence this vestige of the Lutin defence.

Drawing a second arrow, he put it to the nock and held 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, and then, it flew backwards and was extinguished. A choked cry filled the air from that cupola, and was silenced.

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