For Metamor, For the Glen - Part III

The road to Metamor from the North consisted of rolling hills abutted by the thick forests, and rocky outcroppings that cast wide portions in darkness. 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 the 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 a good sized army to manoeuver.

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, and 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 of course 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. However, the three avians had been making regular rounds between Lord Avery and the Lutin forces, and the estimate was a good two hundred heading up the road. That would surely be a force small enough to be easily slaughtered.

Kneeling in the snow, Jerome rubbed a bit between his fingers, the 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 them like a glossy white sheen. With his other, he held the retracted Sondeshike, fingering the release idly. His dark eyes caught the glance, and returned 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 as he had not given his friend the rat much thought on their trek from the Glen. Numbly, he said, “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, he 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!

But 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’d 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, and 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’d 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 the events were only two days old at most.

Yet as he pressed himself against the snow bank on the ridge overlooking the Metamorian 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, 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, and 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’d 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 Metamorian 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, or they had risked not only their lives, but the lives of their families 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’d not seen in ten years. Gaerwog had lived just on the outskirts of Arabarb, and 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 they 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 he’d 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 short 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 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.

Yet, 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 then turned to face them. Even before he spoke, they could hear distant cries as the riders met the Lutins a short ways 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 came 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. And then, bestial cries filled their ears as they saw the riders from Metamor peak the rise, slashing at the rear of the block with swords, but mostly huge axes that appeared more suited to felling trees than men, or even the diminutive Lutins.

And 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 silvery staff in his hands. At that, Andrig found himself running around the ice encrusted rock, swinging his axe over his shoulder, 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 and spears and the like.

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 too caved in the skull of a Lutin with his axe. The man twirled the staff in his hands and waded through the Lutins, cracking their heads open, and sometimes knocking them completely off as he spun it around himself. They 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.

And then, any thoughts of others fled Andrig’s mind as he came crashing into the Lutin army, 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, only striking 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 then yanked it back out again. 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 their throat. In fact, in short order, the number of Lutins left alive had been cut in half.

A cry of rage brought him swinging about, the red braids of his beard flashing by his eyes. A short beast was charging him with a long spear point aimed at his middle. Andrig jumped to the side and brought his axe head sailing through the slender shaft, hewing it in two. He then brought it back up and cleaved into the Lutin’s chest beneath his ribs. Stunned, the figure dropped the broken spear, and tried to push futilely with dead limbs at the axe blade. 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. For he cleaved in the frame’s of Lutins just as effortlessly as did the rest, 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.

And then, as he slammed the blade through a Lutin’s back as he tried to scrambled 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, and they did not last long, as the rider 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 sigh, they embraced each other in a burly hug, patting each other on the back with the sides of their axes, and laughing in delight. “We won!” Gaerwog said, as if amazed of that fact.

Andrig nodded, and then 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 through the gully, the hooves of their horses crushing bones as they galloped. 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 the edge of bitterness had been taken off.

Turning back to face the riders, he saw two of them diverting 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 what caught his attention more fully, for he 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, 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 who was 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, that is until Andrig joined his sister 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, the one, a tall moose, much like those that he was used to seeing in the hills around Arabarb, aside from 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 brothers,” 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 Metamorians. “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, and 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 grown at that. Tathom narrowed his glassy eyes at that, 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 moue that could have curdled milk. “Yes, it does appear that way.” He could see through the lenses Keepers gathering the strewn bodies of Lutins and burning them in huge pyres. “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.

Charles watched Metamor Keep draw near from his perch on the wagon. His journey back from Glen Avery had flown past as if it had never occurred. His thoughts were astir of the heavenly face he hoped to find still smiling, and of his last moments beneath the mountainside in Lars’ brewery. The messenger had arrived bearing the news just after noon, and the entire room had erupted into shouts and cheers for joy, and more ale. He distinctly recalled Baerle’s reaction, as he had been sitting with her at the time — having finally convinced her that he was well enough to be walking about. Her face burst forth with joy, but also with a sense of longing that could not be swept away by mere victory.

Of course, Charles had immediately demanded that he be allowed to return to Metamor, as it was now safe. Their reactions had been what he’d expected though.

“Absolutely not!” Baerle had shouted, poking him solidly in the chest with one claw. Through sheer force of will, he had only grunted at that, instead of wincing as he had so often done before. “Just because the Lutins have left the Keep, doesn’t mean there aren’t some still in the woods. And you are in no condition to go out fighting if you happen to run across some.”

“She’s right, young man,” Mrs. Levins had told him, waging one of her short fingers in his direction. “If you just wait one day more, I am sure that the forests will be clear, and you won’t need help walking about then either.” From her tone, he had known she was still upset with them both for allowing him out of his bed.

Charles however was not going to be waiting this time. He had to know as soon as possible whether Lady Kimberly was still alive. So he had just shrugged and said, “Well, I’m going anyway. The only way you are going to stop me is by holding me down and breaking my legs. I think you will find that rather difficult to do.”

Baerle had then scowled, her long tail twirling about the chair leg she sat in. “You are going to be stubborn about this aren’t you?” Her whiskers had twitched in annoyance, and something else crossed her eyes that the rat was still not sure he understood.

“Yes I am, so I suggest you allow me to do what I must. I’ll need a wagon and a horse, but that will be all.”

She had then crossed her arms, “Well, if you are going to be stubborn about this, then I am going with you.”

“No you are not,” Charles said, slapping his paw on the table for emphasis.

“Yes I am,” Baerle retorted, much to the amusement of the other patrons. She stood up and leaned over him, pressing her claw into his chest. “And I will hear no arguing out of you about it. Either I go with you or I break your legs, and I think you will find it rather difficult to keep me from doing it!”

Hearing his own words back at him, the rat had grimaced, and then reluctantly agreed to allow her to accompany him. In retrospect though, he was glad she had insisted, for it was nice to have company on the long ride from the Glen to Metamor. Not that he noticed much of it, as he was so concerned with what would happen once they arrived. Baerle often tried to get him to talk about it, but he refused to do so. Even speaking it aloud made him fear it would become real.

So, while she managed the horse, he rode in the back of the wagon, watching the towers of Metamor rise before them, bright in the afternoon sun, the clouds long since vanished. Bands of Keepers watched the roadside, and every now and then, they would wave and greet each other, but it was quick, for the rat would not tolerate any delay that kept him from his Lady. Yet, at the same time, should his Lady have been killed he wished never to know of it, to have such knowledge kept from him forever. So, when they drew up to the gates at last, he felt his heart pound in both exultation and abject fear.

They were allowed entry to Metamor, and what they found there was terrible, but joyful. Beyond the gates, the snow was stained red in so many places that it resembled one of Gregor’s special frostings. Where the bodies still lay strewn, the stench of death was nearly overpowering for both of them. Yet that paled in comparison with what had been done to the town. Homes were in ruin from one end of the city to the other. Roofs had holes burned in them, windows smashed, and foundations destroyed. There were quite a few still standing, but the desolation was everywhere that they looked.

As they moved through the town, they could see carts carrying bodies of Lutins being dragged back towards the Killing fields. Parties of Keepers were digging through the smouldering wreckage of homes, sometimes finding precious heirlooms thought lost, other times finding the corpses of loved ones brutally slain. With a grimace, he could see the single wall that had once been Gregor’s Bakery, the other three had collapsed inwards. The oven still stood flush against that solitary wall, the smokestacks pointing upwards as if in defiance.

The castle itself, though scarred, appeared to have been spared most of the strife that had crushed the rest of Metamor. Walls were splattered with blood, but many diligent Keepers were already cleaning it up. Even the Deaf Mule had suffered grievously from the onslaught, as the roof was charred, and the walls looked burned, though they still stood. No light came from within the walls though, and it was clear that was lay inside must be a ruin as Donny had moved a large table out and had set up bottles and mazers atop of it and appeared to be selling drinks.

As they passed by it, two figures very familiar to the rat stepped out from the crowd about that table, laughing and sharing a drink. Charles stopped Baerle, and then called out to them, “Nahum! Tallis! You’re alive!”

They both turned their snouts at the sound of his voice and cheered. “Charles! Good to see you too! Where were you in all of this mess?”

“I was at Glen Avery, but that’s a story for another time. Where’s Lady Kimberly?”

“She’s at the Chapel,” Nahum said.

“At the Chapel?” Charles asked, a sudden fear coming into his voice. No, it couldn’t be true—

“Not like that,” Tallis interjected quickly, running one paw through the curly hair atop his head. “She’s there praying for your safety. She’s quite alive, and unharmed.”

Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and then smiled, offering a quick prayer of thanks, one that he was sure he would be repeating many times over before the day was done. “And where are you two off to?”

“The Writer’s Guild. We’re going to survey the damage this evening before we continue celebrating. I suppose you are going to be too busy elsewhere to join us, eh?” Nahum asked, winking at him.

“Indeed,” Charles exulted, feeling as if he could float into the air. “I’m glad to see that both of you are still alive. We shall talk again!”

“Take care, Charles. You must tell us your story of how you ended up at the Glen sometime!” Tallis suggested, even as he began to walk towards the Guild.

“I shall, have no fear of that!” Charles shouted after them, his face a buzz with wiggling whiskers and elated grins.

That was when he noticed Baerle’s half-formed scowl. “Who is Lady Kimberly?”

Completely oblivious, he blurted out, “Why, she’s my fiancèe.”

Baerle’s mouth fell open a bit at that, and then closed, her eyes showing shock, regret, and then anger. And in another moment, that anger had developed into fury. Before he could even react, her paw came across his face, slapping along his cheek with such force that it rocked the rat backwards a few paces. She then turned, crying, running back the way they had came towards the gate.

“Baerle!” Charles cried out, completely taken aback by her reaction. He started to run after her, but his chest began to cringe at that. The truth was he could only just barely walk, running was simply not an option, even at this point. And so, he watched her form dwindle among the wreckage of Metamor, totally unsure of what had just happened, and why. Hurting Baerle was one of the last things he’d ever wanted to do, and yet somehow, he’d managed just that.

Turning back, he marched towards the Mule, ignoring the crowd outside of it. For some reason, the desolation inside was more to his liking at that moment. He’d just caused a terrible pain to somebody he had grown quite fond of, and he wished to momentarily abate it among ashes, for surely, that was where he belonged.

“Oh, damn, you’re still alive,” a voice before him said, half in mocking disappointment, the other half still too delighted at victory to truly care. Yet the voice sounded haggard, as if it had been taxed for quite some time.

Charles grimaced and tried to bite back the snarl that wanted to escape his throat. Glancing up, he saw Rickkter standing amidst the ruined debris of the Mule’s bar, a study in ashes, his arms hanging down by his sides. A part of the rat wanted to just walk away from the contemptible raccoon, and to just find Kimberly and forget about everything else. Yet another part told him that to do so would be foolish and dishonourable. The words that Zagrosek had levelled at him before the attack came back to him, and he knew what he had to do.

“If you would care to listen, Rickkter, I would like to apologize for stealing this from you.” He reached into his tunic and pulled out the compact Sondeshike as he strode further into the remnants of the Mule. With a bit of reluctance, he held it out before him, offering it to the Kankoran. “It is yours to keep, it was never mine, and I would like to amend the wrong I committed in taking it from you.”

Rickkter stared at him as if he were offering him a poisonous viper. “Is this some sort of sick joke on your part? Because I have no time for your twisted humour right now”

“No joke,” Charles said, holding the Sondeshike out. “But to show you that I mean what I say--” and the rat kneeled before Rickkter, bowing his head low, and holding the weapon of his clan out to the enemy of his clan. His heart trembled with concealed rage, yet another part of him felt vindicated by this, as if he were taking part in confession and penance.

After a moment, he felt the raccoon snatch it from his paw, the claws momentarily biting at his flesh, but drew no blood. He then heard the weapon extended, and he could feel the tip of it lay at one of his ears. Looking up at the raccoon, he offered a conciliatory mask, desperate not to show the last vestiges of his rage.

“You realize that I could kill you right now, ending this feud in an instant, don’t you?” Rickkter said, glaring meaningfully. Charles had no doubt that the Kankoran had every intention of doing just that.

“Oh, I don’t recommend that. You see, I’m heading over to see my Lady Kimberly. She would be quite wroth with you, and there is nothing more fearsome than the wrath of a woman scorned.” Even as he said the words, he remember the look on Baerle’s face just a moment before she slapped him and ran away crying. Had she really felt that way towards him, and had he really been so blind as not to see it?

Rickkter appeared for a moment bound to laugh at such an audacious statement, for clearly Kimberly could do nothing to hurt him. Yet, the laugh died on his muzzle, and the expression of contempt was replaced by one of curiosity mixed with uncertainty. Then, he retracted the Sondeshike and slipped it within his cloak. “This place has seen the blood of enough Keepers recently. It doesn’t need to see any more. Go, get out of here. Go to your Lady. I could deny no man that, not even now, and not even you.”

Charles stood then, and bowed his head in a show of respect, though his mind rebelled against the very notion of showing respect to a Kankoran. “Thank you, Rickkter.”

The raccoon scowled at him. “Know that this does not mean an end to our disagreements.”

“Perhaps a tempering of them?”

Rickkter stared at him, his muzzle contorted into a most unpleasant moue. Finally, he crossed his arms and nodded his head, “Perhaps.” He then stalked off past the rat and into the ruins of the town, his long striped tail flitting behind him.

Charles breathed a sigh of relief, before turning himself and heading towards the nearest entrance to the Keep. He was walking as fast as he could, desperate to reach the chapel. Yet, the Keep showed favour upon him, by making his travel short, for barely a minute after he’d entered her walls, the Keep brought him to the double doors at the entrance to the Chapel.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed through the doors, and into the mostly empty chapel. There were a few petitioners still in the pews, but only three figures caught his eyes. The first was another raccoon that was quite familiar. He was near the double doors, wiping up some blood that had lain spilled on the tiles. The second and third were sitting together, both with their heads bowed and praying — Father Hough and his Lady Kimberly.

However, before he had a chance to cross the aisles to greet her, the raccoon looked up and accosted him. “Oh, you’ve been expected, Sir Matthias.”

His whiskers wiggled slightly at the appellation.”Elvmere, isn’t it?” he asked, remembering the raccoon from the Deaf Mule that one evening.

The raccoon winced at the name. “Ah, no, I’m afraid that was a bit of deception on my part, one that I will ask your forgiveness. You have seen me before, but I was human then.”

“Then who are you?” Charles asked, a bit impatiently. It was obvious that neither Lady Kimberly nor Father Hough heard them speaking as their heads continued to point towards the altar.

“I am Vinsah, the Bishop of Abaef, and one time aide to the late Patriarch Akabaieth. I imagine you are rather surprised.”

Charles blinked a few times, and then laughed softly. “Wonders will never cease. Now if you will excuse me, I must go see to my Lady.”

Vinsah nodded, and then returned to his scrubbing, his striped tail flicking from side to side much like Rickkter’s had done. Charles stepped past him, and walked steadily up the aisle, his eyes never leaving her heavenly frame, perched there against the pew, kneeling before the altar and praying. He could barely contain his joy, as tears began to flow from his eyes, wetting his muzzle again, even as his heart threatened to burst from his chest.

Finally, standing at her side, he leaned down and rested his paws on her shoulders and spoke softly into her ear, “I love you.” She turned, and stared back into his face, her own stained by salty tears, before she cried out in abundant joy and wrapped her arms about his neck and hugged him tight, reunited at last. Father Hough just looked at them with a smile, and then back towards the altar, and nodded his head in thanks.

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