For Metamor, For the Glen - Part II

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

The Lutin camp was spread out over the clearing just beneath the tower, and there were two fires on either side, casting dancing red and orange light all about the trees there. Bursting forth from the winter-chilled limbs, the Glenners and those from Barnhardt let out shrill bestial cries, while the Lutins scrambled to find a weapon, while some were too drunk to even stand up. Jerome charged forward, shoving his palm into the green face of the nearest one, ale frothing from his 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, sending the grinning face in to the trees while the corpse slumped back over the desiccated log he’d 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's sword. Spinning, he was about to crush the skull of a Lutin at his back, but he saw Garigan was already there, with his two knives slicing out the creature’s back and spine. And it was then that 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. 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 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, whose nails had clawed into the wood, scraping in bitter agony before death had claimed him, while the other 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, and lifted the body and then glanced outside the wall. The Metamorians were arrayed beneath, milling about in the heady feel of battle. “Look out!” Jerome called out to them. They glanced up, and then all stepped out of the way as the Sondeckis began tossing the bodies one by one out from the cupola and onto 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 their voices would be squelched by the distance. 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.

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 overtop of 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 croaking 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 caves 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’d been living with since he’d 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’d been.

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 eye. “Now, none of that nonsense now. 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 to 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, the 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 passerby 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, and so buoyant, that Charles could not be sure if there were any doubts lurking behind her eyes and underneath her prickly exterior.

And 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 loathe 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 then chastised himself for such thoughts, shoving another spoonful of the luscious blackberry cobbler between his teeth. Walter worked hard for the Glen, just as did everybody else, and had to watch her twin sons be turned into infants and killed at the battle. 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, and 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’d worn when Charles had first woken 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, shifting about on her elbows, until 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 now 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 he’d held upon it along one of the walls.

“I just woke up,” Charles confessed. “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, even 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 then, even as she turned 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 delectable breakfast into his muzzle, and chewed slowly, as he’d discovered that exerting himself by eating too fast tended to make his chest groan. Swallowing, he took a quick sip of the milk, and then 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. Yet, 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’d 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, 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 them, 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 then favoured him with her more familiar grin. “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 then 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.

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, but the sky over Metamor Keep was 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, and in some places, was exposed. 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 though, the travel became easier, as it had been travelled so heavily by the Lutins during the storm that most of the ice was cracked and navigable to his warmer upbringing. However, it also made them more susceptible to the winds racing through the hills, 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, but flanked by the archers from the Glen. Whatever uneasiness that 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.

Yet, 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. Yet, 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 then 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. And 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 man behind him tapped his shoulder eagerly and grinned 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,” he said in a delighted 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 man 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, and up to the front of the column.

“I think we will see blood shortly,” Jerome muttered, to which the man smiled again.

“We’ll rout those little monsters yet!”

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

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, and stricken with arrows so that it resembled a pin cushion. Grimacing, he pushed the arm aside, and found the 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 behaviour. As it was, the 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 – almost three hundred Lutins – and had started on his relentless march Southwards to stop the army of Glenners. Ideally, he hopped 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.

Kicking the frozen arm in annoyance, he had to grunt from the sudden pain. 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 completely, and had to be sawed off while his lieutenants organized the troops at the Dike. He could still feel the emptiness in his boots where once they had 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, but only the last twinkling of a few solitary stars. To the East, the mountains glowed with the reflected sunlight from the glaciers even further East. It would not be long before they would shine with the first rays of sunlight themselves.

Turning his eyes to the ladder, 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, though from the sceptical tone of his voice, Calephas knew the Lutin doubted very much that this venture would gain them anything. He wondered if there was anyway 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, and 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.

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