Down the Bridge - Part II

Berchem and three other Glenners were waiting outside Lars’ brewery for the three Sondeckis. It was still mostly dark out, and the entire grove was shrouded in a pale twilight, the littering snow strangely luminescent. The archers were equipped with long bows strung over their shoulders, and quivers lined with smooth feathered arrows at their sides that they might reach them easily. Their faces had been powdered haphazardly white, making it hard to notice them when they stood against the trunks of the trees.

The skunk waved the three Sondeckis over with one paw, and they quickly stepped through the low snow. The winds had buffeted much of the snow to the sides of the grove, leaving the area around the hillside mostly free from accumulation. Drifts climbed the trunks of the trees, as if to swallow them and bear them down to the earth. Charles held his arms close to his chest and the thick tunic that he now wore. They’d had to leave the Sondeckis robes behind, as they were the wrong colour for this kind of weather. Though it was still night, it would be dawn soon, and they would be visible to any competent scout.

The clothes they had been given were thick, and fit relatively well, though Jerome found it amusing that he’d had to borrow some of Lars’ own shirts just to fit over his chest. The Sondeckis had told the others that if he were to become a bear, he’d be enormous. Even so, the breeches were a bit loose on him, and he gripped the belt that held them up tightly with one hand every now and then. Their faces were just as Charles’s, smeared with the white dust, to obscure their natural colours. They were three ghosts walking silently in the barren winter wastelands, their only life captured in the intensity of their eyes.

Charles gave the skunk a brief smile as he approached, his red tongue pressing against the back of his large teeth. He’d long since grown accustomed to being covered in dusts and dyes, being a Long had taught him as much, so its chalk-like scent did not bother him. He felt a bit of sympathy with the mephit though, for nearly his entire body had to be dusted with flour. Every time his tail flitted from side to side, a miniature snow storm erupted from behind him.

“Where’s Burris?” Charles asked, as he scanned about for the woodpecker who was to burn the bridge.

Berchem pointed upwards into the branches far above and then winked. “He’ll watch us from above, and alert us if any Lutin parties are about. We should be able to walk along the ground the entire way. The Lutins appear to be staying close to the roads. We should not run into any unpleasant company on our journey until we near the bridge.”

“Good, I’d rather we not run into any opposition until then.” Charles then glanced back at the two humans standing behind him. “This is Jerome, and that is Krenek. We are at your disposal.”

Berchem nodded and then pointed to the three Glenners who had accompanied him. “Good, I was wondering what your names were. I’m called Berchem in case you had not heard, and this is Ralph, “ he gestured to the stout vole who was missing a tooth, “Anson,” a lithe arctic fox who had not needed any powder, “and Baerle.” The last almost appeared to be a rat, judging by the long tail, but it was white, and not grey, and her teeth were sharp instead of protruding as Charles’s were. It took Matthias a moment to realize that the young, female Glenner was an opossum. She saw the rat staring at her, and flashed him a smile that dimpled her furry cheeks. Matthias quickly turned away, trying not to let his blush show through his drooping whiskers.

“Well, now that we know who everyone is, shall we be off?” Charles asked, thumbing the button of his surcoat.

Berchem nodded, and pointed off towards one corner of the Glen, “Once we pass out of this grove, speak quietly if you must speak at all. I will lead us down the path. As my men are archers, I would ask that you three cover our flanks and rear while we walk. Can you climb?”

This last was asked of all of them, but Charles spoke for them. Ever since they had arrived at Glen Avery, the rat found himself their voice. He idly wondered if Jerome and Zagrosek were nervous about being surrounded by so many animal-men. “We’ve been trained to climb most surfaces. Though it has been stone in the past, trees are hardly more of a challenge.”

The skunk weighed the answer, but decided against debating that generality. “If we find ourselves surrounded by their army, just follow us into the trees. We’ll climb too high for them to follow, or observe from the ground and lose them that way. We shouldn’t have to, but we shouldn’t be forced to destroy our own bridge either.”

Charles nodded glumly at that. He’d never been along the road as far as the Giant’s Dike. He had been north of the Dike of course, the raid to Stepping Rock being the foremost instance in his mind, but they had followed a path through the hills on the eastern side of the valley. And now, he followed after the artificially white skunk into those unknown northern hills. The trees closed about them very quickly, casting them into a deep darkness, though not one impenetrable to his night vision. Despite Berchem’s admonition not to speak once they left the grove, none of the travellers said a word at all, and so, in the still calm of a forest gripped by the frost of winter, they marched into areas that none of the Sondeckis had ever trod.

Wistfully, he tried to spot the path through the trees that Misha and he had traversed while in animal guise to spy on the Lutins in the ravine between Mount Kalegris and Mount Nuln over half a year ago. Yet, it was lost in the shrouds of his memories, and obscured by the lay of the winter land. Should he spend enough time at Glen Avery, he was sure he could retrace his tracks, but for now, it would simply have to remain a memory. There had been something almost magical about that trek into the thick of the woods, into gulches and up to the rise of the hills to overlook the mountains yonder as the sun began to shine its first rays upon those lofty peaks. He had to wonder how many more such vistas would he have beheld had he become a scout as soon as he arrived at Metamor, instead of hiding from himself at the Writer’s Guild.

And then, he thought of the grey-eyed fox who had been his mentor in the Longs. In the last eight months they had grown rather close, spent a great deal of time together, and had found deep friendship. Yet, their last words to each other had been heated, and ultimatum’s had been delivered. He did not want to see everything he had begun to build here at Metamor fall apart. The worst bit of it was, none of it would ever have happened had that Kankoran not shown up.

His heart beat faster as he trudged through the snow, his eyes scanning the long, thick trunks that pierced the sky above. When he’d helped Christopher destroy that small Lutin band back at the end of March, he’d thought his life had been destroyed – he’d come within inches of striking the Duke himself because of it. Yet that had only been the rat’s rehabilitation, and the rediscovery of who he really was, a warrior. And then, just as he was coming to accept that new aspect of his life, that blasted Kankoran arrives, brandishing a Sondeshike, and turning everything on its ear.

The list of things that would be better if that man had never come to the Keep were endless, as far as Matthias was concerned. Though he would not now have the Sondeshike he held in one paw, at times it felt as if it had caused more trouble than it was worth. It had nearly destroyed his friendship with Misha, a fact that gnawed at his heart as he would gnaw on chewstick. Yet, what else could he do about it now? There did not appear to be any answers to that question, which only made the rat more sullen.

And then, he felt a prickling sensation on the back of his neck. Glancing to one side, he noticed that the opossum Baerle was idly watching him as they walked only an ell or so apart. Anson was further past her, while Jerome was some distance away. Zagrosek of course was in the rear, turning to look behind them every few steps. Ralph followed closely behind the white skunk, an arrow knocked in his bow, though he held it loosely in his small brown paws – though they were about all of him that was his natural colour.

They each of course kept each other in sight so as not to get too far apart. In case the Lutins suddenly attacked – though that was not likely, as every once in a while he could see a small, dim shadow fly overhead – they would need to draw closer together to protect each other’s backs. Yet, Charles felt as if the young archer was keeping more of an eye on him than she needed to, and he was not sure why. As he peered back at her, she gave him a ‘and-what-are-you-staring-at’ look. The rat, forced his eyes from her, and back to the trees about him, the sharply curved hills, and the shadows that lay all around. For some reason, he felt like she was laughing at him, and he didn’t know why.

Thankfully, the storm had died off in the night, and so only the occasional snowflake descended past their snouts to join its already fallen brethren. This let them move rather quickly through the meandering path that Berchem chose, winding in and out of clusters of trees, snow drifts, and the occasional pile of large rocks that had tumbled down from the western mountains in earlier generations. Upon their tired and worn surfaces, clung various lichens and moss, though most of it was shrivelled, long since dead from the cold. Every so often, a patch would stand out, only the barest of snow upon them as they held onto the sides of the boulders, making it appear to be a mosaic that had been painted, or a menhir chiselled by a forgotten hand in a forgotten time.

The land turned downwards, and Charles noticed that the hills along either side of them began to slope upwards, as they winded between them, always taking the route that led down into the gulches, and into even deeper shadows. Soon, as the mountains pressed closer to their left, they found themselves striding into narrow chimneys through the rock, forcing them to stand side by side, and sometimes single-file. For some reason, Baerle had trouble staying on her side of the pass as they walked, continuously bumping into his shoulder, and accidentally poking his round ear with the tip of her long bow slung across her back.

At the very least, the snow drifts had been swept out of most of these chimneys, or had simply not fallen into them at all, as they collected overhead, the roots of trees dangling out over the shallow precipices that they descended through. Glancing up once, he saw Burris perched on one of those roots, his long beak turning this way and that about the landscape before he launched himself into the chill twilight air. Of course, when he took off, he dislodged the snow collected on that branch, and it had fallen onto the rat’s head. He grimaced and swallowed his pride as he brushed the flakes off, while Baerle chuckled beneath her breath. His grimacing stare only made her try harder to suppress her mirth.

When they finally emerged from that chimney of course, Charles rather adroitly switched sides with Jerome, placing Anson between himself and the rather vexatious opossum. The fox’s wintry blue eyes, cold and flecked with white about the slit pupil, appeared to try to say something to him, but Matthias was not sure if he wished to know. Looking back at the tube through the rock, he could see Zagrosek stepping out of its dark embrace and back into the dim twilight that surrounded them even in the more open portions of the woods. The Sondeckis flashed him a quick grin and a nod, before peering once more backwards.

Berchem stopped a short while after that as they came to a cluster of hills that lay low against the wall of mountains that had grown ever closer to their left. The trees were thinning, not nearly as large as their giant brethren back in the Glen, and also permitted more of the faint glow that was brightening on the Eastern horizon. To their right the land continued to descend a short ways, then began to climb steeply higher before it spilled out into the northern reaches of the Valley. To their North, the Dragon mountains began to curve, boxing them in on two sides, tall, angry peaks rising up in protest of their journey.

Turning to face the others, the skunk held out his paws, and motioned for them to stop. They had reached a slight depression, and, as they had been walking for at the very least two hours, almost certainly the end of the first leg of their journey. Scanning those hills all around them, he could see through a thicket of bushes a small frozen lake half covered in snowfall, the rest blown up onto the banks by the winds. Even as he thought of them, they came as if summoned, buffeting his fur and streaming it back over his face. But the powder held fast to his fur, and the elements gave up their battle only moments later.

Circling down from the sky, Burris landed in the small copse of trees with the seven travellers, and began to shift back into his normal form. Strangely enough, his beak, which was already rather long and pointed, appeared to grow first, carrying the rest of him upward, as if it was only expanding to suit the weight of its heavier burden. Finally, bright red feathers clearly visible, and his plumage neat and orderly, the woodpecker glanced over the rest of them, and then turned to the skunk. “The gorge starts only ten minutes Northeast of here. I haven’t seen any Lutins, or their hounds patrolling this area, so it should be safe to proceed when you are ready.”

“Has the sun risen?” Berchem asked, crossing his arms before his tunic, which had been dusted with the flour as well.

“In another half hour I believe. The storm clouds are mostly to the South now, but there is a thick cloud bank covering many of the hills to the East. It will probably give us some trouble spotting any Lutin forces when we do run across them.” Burris’s beak dipped into his chest feathers and picked at them for a moment before his small eyes regarded the rest of them. “You have made better time than we had anticipated.”

“One always does, when there is no trouble,” Berchem added, as if quoting a maxim. He then looked to Ralph, his dark eyes capturing the vole’s attention immediately. “Would you and Jerome go with Burris to find a path to the gorge.”

Ralph nodded his thick head, his brown paws tightening about the stout pine of his bow. “You’ll never know we were gone.” The vole smiled proudly and then gazed up nearly two feet to the massive Sondeckis who lumbered easily through the snow after him, flexing each of his fingers one by one. Burris hopped along after them, shifting to a smaller form in mid hop, and then swooping up to perch on the Sondeckis’s shoulder. Jerome looked at the woodpecker curiously, but could only sport a wry grin as he disappeared into the fold of the white hills.

Charles stepped over to Anson, thumbing his belt idly, ready to simply wait for the three to return, but soon heard the skunk calling his name. “Charles, would you and Baerle climb up those hills and watch for the sunrise? I don’t want to enter the gorge until then. Lord Avery’s forces will be leaving with the sun.”

“And the plan will work best if we both reach the bridge at the same time, I know,” Charles finished for Berchem. “We’ll keep a sharp eye out for any Lutins while we’re up there too.”

For some reason, as he moved to join the opossum, she flashed him that dimpled grin again. Uneasily, he strode off into the trees, and up the eastern rise, back-switching when the terrain became too steep. Baerle was behind him of course, easily following the trail he set, her foot paws crunching the snow lightly, or not at all. He almost imagined he heard Zagrosek chuckling behind him through the trees as he worked up that slope, though he could not imagine why that would be so.

The trees continued to thin, fur and pine having long since replaced the oak and birch that was predominant towards Metamor Keep. Ice hung from the pine needles, crystalline like fragile glass, trapping the trees in their glossy cocoon. Finally, after a few dips and rises, they saw one peak that opened out onto the valley beyond. It was even steeper than before, and slippery rocks jutted up from the hard earth. Digging his claws into the ice-locked stone, Charles hefted himself up the last few feet, before he crouched in shallow snow atop the slender rise.

“Um, could you help me up?” he heard the opossum’s voice call from behind. The vista before him did not even have time to register, before he naturally turned about and looked down the rock slope at Baerle who stood at its base, her narrow snout admonishing, though her eyes were pleading earnestly. She held out one slender paw, short claws reaching up towards him. Charles held out his own, gripped her warm hand and pulled, letting his Sondeck draw her towards him.

Her foot paws clawed at the ice of the rock, scrabbling some of it free before she finally leaped up the last of the incline, and landed atop the rat, knocking him over onto his back, his face full of surprise. She laughed gently as she peered down at his embarrassed face. Before he could reach out to object and before he even realised what she was about, the sly opossum had planted a firm kiss on his pink nose. “Thank you!” she exclaimed spritely, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Charles scooted backwards then, extricating himself from beneath her embrace, though in the process managing to shove a good deal of snow down his tunic, his whiskers twitching in a furious blush. “Uh, you’re welcome,” he stammered, rubbing at his nose, still in disbelief about what she had just done.

She giggled slightly, and then sat back on her haunches, clearing the snow away with one paw. She then rested her legs, her long fleshy tail curling about them as she turned to look out across the hill. “Have you ever been this far North?”

“Um, twice before,” Charles said, still shaking slightly, though he peered out over the landscape on the other side of the hill too, still unsure of what had just happened. The valley dropped off slightly just past the rise, but they could not see far, as the clouds layered the hills on the other side of the depression, all the way to the mountains several miles distant. The snow covering those hills glistened with a lambent, ghostly blue hue, still and silent beneath the overlying clouds. It was still too dark to make out many details, but the clouds on the eastern horizon were brightening.

“This is as far as I’ve ever come,” Baerle said, when Charles did not speak further. She crouched down a bit lower, resting her head on her paws, elbows buried in the half inch of snow. Their clothes were much warmer than the Sondeckis robes that they’d arrived in, and so the rat found himself quite comfortable in the chill. “You’re a scout from Metamor?”

Matthias nodded, letting his eyes trail down the hillside, trying to spot anything he could. When he wasn’t looking at the young, female opossum, he could almost imagine that she hadn’t kissed him. He cringed at the thought of how irate Lady Kimberly would be when she found out another girl had kissed him. And his beloved would probably blame the whole affair on him too he thought sourly.

But, he kept all of that in his mind, and let his mouth stay where it belonged. “Yes, I’ve been on missions for the Keep sporadically over the last nine months.”

“Is that why everybody knew you when you arrived last night? Have you been to the Glen before?”

Charles nodded again and found himself, despite his best efforts, glancing over at her. She was not looking at him, but was scanning the valley and the hills, as the fog threaded through them. “Yes, it was one of my very first missions in fact, back in April. I don’t remember seeing you, did you just move to the Glen recently?”

“This last summer. My father finally died, and so I came out here. I like the Glen better anyway.” Her voice was bereft of any melancholy, but Charles suspected that it was only because she hid it rather well.

“Where were you living before, and how did your father die?”

When she turned to meet his gaze, her dark hazel eyes finding his own as if by instinct, the rat returned his attention to the valley. “We lived in Mycransburg. Before Nasoj attacked the first time, my father was Lord ard’Kapler’s butler. He lost both of his legs when their manor was destroyed, so I had been taking care of him since then.” Her voice remained level as she spoke, and Charles found himself gaining an odd sort of sympathy for her. Caring for an invalid could not have been easy, especially after the way Mycransburg had been decimated.

“So why did you come to Glen Avery after he died?”

She turned back to the valley, her voice taking on a slightly distant cast. “It’s where my mother was from.”

“And where is she?”

“My mother? I never knew her. She died giving birth to me. But many of the folk at the Glen knew her.” She giggled then, her face brightening, her short whiskers laying back against her narrow muzzle. “Do you know the tailor’s wife?” At seeing the rat nod, she continued, “She treated me so wonderfully when I fist arrived, I’ve started calling her Auntie Levins, and me her niece!”

Charles could not help but smile, at the thought of the plump hedgehog acting as a surrogate mother for a friend’s bereaved daughter. “That’s rather lovely, I’m glad you found a home here.”

“Do you like Glen Avery?” Baerle suddenly asked, shifting about on her belly. Charles noted that she appeared to be lying closer to him than she had been before.

Even so, he pretended not to notice. “Yes, I do. If I did not already have a life at Metamor, I would move here, for it feels as much a home as any place I’ve ever known.”

Baerle smiled then, her tail curling about her legs rather supply, more tightly than Charles could ever manage with his own tail. Even so, she did not speak for several more moments, preferring to lay there, watching the valley move slowly in the last few minutes before dawn. The only thing that moved before them though was the mass of clouds that drooped over the hillside, shifting and eddying over the contours of the land. A gentle breeze came up the incline, rattling the trees behind them, the ice covering the needles tinkling a silvery melody.

At that, the opossum shivered visibly, and chattered her teeth together, “It’s cold!” She wrapped her arms about her chest to emphasize the point.

Charles moved closer and wrapped an arm about her back, and pressed his side into hers. He gave her a small smile then, “This should help keep us warm until that sun rises.” She grinned back at him, her muzzle dangerously close to his. He then remembered that kiss she’d planted on him earlier, and he was half afraid she’d strike again. Yet, she kept her lips to herself, pressing her side into his as well, and slipping her arm underneath his.

The rat felt slightly uncomfortable at that. He’d never been this close to any other woman but Lady Kimberly, and he’d no intention of being this close to any other. But, this was to help keep them warm, as it was frightfully chilly laying there on the bare hilltop, with the wind rising over their fur. And that was all it was to him, two companions huddling together for warmth. “Feeling better?” he asked then.

She favoured him that dimpled smile again, and nodded. “Much better.” Her eyes turned back towards the cloud bank, as it started to yellow with the rising sun. Charles watched in rapt fascination as the clouds started to glow with the dispersed morning sun, looking more like a mound of warm cream melting into the groove of the hills they topped, like a delicious biscuit fresh from Gregor’s ovens back at Metamor. The glints of light began to make the ice gleam brightly, casting ephemeral light about them on all sides, reflecting it subtly even into the dense thickets. The two animal morphs huddled together for several minutes as they watched dawn bring light into Metamor Valley once more.

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