Down the Bridge - Part III

As the scouts had reported, the area around the bridge was respectably guarded. Groups of six or seven Lutins circled the area at the South end of the long wooden bridge, accompanied by at least two of their arctic hounds. Ten Lutins stood sentinel at each end, bearing spears of crude but serviceable make, as well as hatchets and an assortment of stolen iron daggers. Over the chasm, the long wooden bridge spanned, with one central support descending into the darkness below. A few Lutins patrolled across it, though they usually stopped midway to see how long it took their spit to reach the bottom.

Angus set his ponderous form behind the tree trunk, nestled in the midst of snow covered branches. Despite his bulk, he had little trouble climbing the natural towers, though he did find it tricky at times seeking out trees with branches wide enough to support his weight without buckling. As it was, he was only twenty feet from the ground, but it had been enough to gain him a good view of the Lutin forces, as they milled about.

Taking a deep breath, he fixed his claws into the ice covered bark, and began to slide down the slippery oak, shivers of white glistening from his black claws as he descended. He held on tight with his legs though, keeping his descent both slow and quiet enough so as not to attract attention. Though he easily could have had one of his subordinates go up to take a look, he always preferred to do this sort of task himself. And no one was likely to argue with a three hundred pound badger either.

Lord Avery waited while the badger wiped the snow from his sleeves after landing with a silent thump in the thick snowdrift. The grey squirrel was grey no longer, his fur a snow white from the powder, his dark eyes shone like pebbles against them. They were four standing in the snow so close to the bridge they wished to destroy. The rest of their men waited several minutes back, while they went ahead and made one last survey before their plan of attack was set. Garigan stood next to the noble, two wicked daggers clutched firmly in his paws, while to his left was Alldis, whose wide rack of antlers threatened to catch the squirrel’s tail as it flitted anxiously from side to side.

“It doesn’t appear as if they’ve changed any of their patterns from yesterday. Ten men at the at the end of the bridge, two groups of scouts patrolling the woods. An equal number on the opposite side, though it will take a minute to cross once they know what is happening.” Angus spoke in a low gravely voice, keeping his head close to the ground to further muffle the sounds.

Lord Avery nodded, and then began to absently gnaw at the end of his long bow. He quickly stopped himself, affording only a slight moue from embarrassment before speaking. “Let’s kill the scouts first, as quietly as possible.”

Alldis shook his head, “They have hounds. They’ll start baying as soon as they smell us.”

The ferret let his eyes trial between the three of them, but held his tongue in check. Brian Avery though bore an amused expression. “True enough. We should give them something to bay at though. There are many animals in these woods, and we are certainly animals after all.”

The deer scowled unpleasantly as he found the Lord of the Glen’s eyes upon him. “The last time we used that tactic, they shot the animal full of arrows if you recall.”

Brian nodded. “I know, but it is probably the only way we can take out those scouts without the rest of their party realising what we have done. Let’s regroup with the others, and then I’ll want you to be our animal for us, Alldis. I know it is a great deal to ask, but–“

“But I am going to do it anyway,” the deer morph affirmed, bowing his head thoughtfully.

Angus gave his friend a comradely pat on the back as they retraced their steps through the snowbound earth, a good distance from the road. Garigan slunk off ahead, eyes darting this way and that as he slipped between the trees. They were tighter packed here than at Glen Avery, as they were much shorter, and thinner. Even so, a few giants rose up among them, stretching upwards to the sky itself, though none were large enough to build a home in, as had been done at the Glen.

The return trip to their comrades waiting in the woods clustered between the trees, and in most cases, invisible amongst them, was uneventful. The Lutin patrols stayed close to the bridge, preferring to run as close to the road as possible. The Glenners though were at home in the woods, and even though most of them had never been this far from their home, they still walked among the trees as spirits riding upon the wind. Only as they were so used to their own techniques were they able to even spot the guard of archers that had nestled in the crooks of branches all around their temporary camp, and even then, Angus was certain that he missed at least half of them!

When Lord Avery motioned for the others to approach, shapes materialised from the woods, as if they had just been created out of the trees themselves. Even those who had only been living with them for less than a year had become skilled, like the ermine Fellen who was suddenly at the badger’s back, thumbing the pommel of his mein gauche. Angus waited, giving the short musteline a firm pat on the shoulder, glancing from side to side as his friends made peace with whichever gods they worshipped.

“There are two groups of patrols, and we need to silence those first. Alldis will distract the hounds, so you should be able to kill the Lutins quickly. The Lutins at the bridge must not know we are here until we attack them directly. Archers, you will come with me to hide in the trees near the bridge. The rest of you will go with Angus and Garigan to kill these Lutins. It is nearly noon, so Burris should be at the bridge soon. If we can take it before he arrives, all the better. Now, let us fight for the Glen!”

Though Lord Avery’s voice barely rose above a whisper, the last statement felt as if it had been shouted directly into their hearts. Angus could barely contain his pride. Fighting for his home was one of the greatest joys he could think of. Drawing his thick blade into one paw, gripping it tightly, and feeling the weight responding in kind, a grin began to cross his features. The badger did not enjoy battle for its own sake, rather, he was charged by the love of his homeland, and hatred for all those who would destroy it.

His group consisted of roughly six other Glenners, including Fellen. He watched for a moment as Alldis rubbed the snow across his muzzle and arms, removing the powder rather quickly. He did not stay to watch his friend undress and shift. Instead, he tasted the wind, and began to lead his group to the left of the road, circling far out into the thick woods, his men close behind. The archers were already lost to sight far above in the trees, moving between them as innocuously as normal squirrels might.

The stink of Lutins permeated the air. Aside from this glaring fact, the patrols were decent soldiers among the Lutins, making little noise, and hardly talking amongst themselves as most were inclined to do, sharing bawdy jokes and the usual assortment of boasts and mischief. If it were not for their foul scent, Angus was certain that he would have had a difficult time moving his men in behind them and their hounds. As it was, they crept up on the unsuspecting patrol, weaving in and out of the trees, their blades ready and yearning to taste flesh.

A flash of brown from one side caught his eye, and with a bit of a wry grin on his muzzle, the badger knew that Alldis was doing his best to attract the hounds. And he did a marvellous job, as the poorly trained dogs began yapping and straining at the leashes to chase the deer, galloping through the woods. Several of the Lutins swore at their animals, even as the Glenners crept up behind them.

Angus was the first to reach them, followed by Fellen and a stoat. He plunged the thick end of his blade into the first Lutin’s neck, and grabbed another with one hairy paw, and snapped its neck with a single twist. Fellen slid the mein gauche across one of the green-skinned throats, spilling the black blood across its studded armour and onto the mounds of disturbed snow below. After the first three of the seven were dead, the other four began to take notice, and one of them almost managed to cry out, but his voice was cut short when an arrow suddenly protruded from his warty lips, struck from some unseen perch among the trees.

Their master’s now dead, the hounds, still intent on the deer, ran after it, their leashes bouncing along behind them as a horse’s pinions might after its rider had been dislodged. They could hear a bit of laughter from the bridge as the deer and the hounds bounded along down the road. Angus waited quietly, standing amidst the dead bodies, listening to that laughter, hoping not to hear the sound of iron being drawn. Yet, only the laughter continued, and it was followed by the silence of the thick woods, save for the baying hounds receding down the road.

The badger surveyed the bodies, and noted that Fellen and the stoat were making a quick search of their garments. However, aside from their patch-work armour and a few cutlasses, the Lutins possessed nothing to distinguish them from the tribal savages that they had been before Nasoj had united them against Metamor. Angus pointed towards the sound of the laughter, and his group nodded slowly. He would trust that Garigan had met similar success, as no sounds of alarm had been raised. Now, it was just a matter of dispatching the ten who stood at the bridge’s end, and holding it against the forces on the other side.

The woods had been cleared for a good twenty feet on either side of the bridge, and obviously not recently. Most of the lumber from the felled trees had certainly been used to build the current bridge. And it was not the first bridge to span the chasm before them either. The old stone bridge had been fashioned in the days of the Suielman Empire, but it had crumbled a century ago from rot and neglect. Many of the crumbling stones were still at the base of the chasm, and even now were holding the present edifice aloft, as the central support rested upon their remains far below, though most had been pilfered over the years by the locals who did not wish to pay to have stone shipped from the quarries to the South.

Yet, as Angus peered out at the group of ten Lutins standing watch over the bridge, his concern was not so much for the history as for what his eyes now witnessed. There was a man crossing that bridge, flanked by two humans, and a dozen Lutins, armed not with spears, but swords, and well-crafted ones at that. With the foul taste of bile filling his throat, Angus could barely keep from spitting in disgust as he recognised the slender man as Baron Calephas. What was he doing here?

Holding his paws up, he motioned for his men to wait. Clearly, Lord Avery and Garigan were also holding back, as the forest remained quiet and still. In the distance, the hounds ceased their baying, as Alldis had undoubtedly lost them in his escape. The badger gazed across the wide ravine to the other side, and began to count the number of Lutins he saw over there. The number had tripled from only moments before. How had the Baron known of their attack? He couldn’t have, and they’d given no warning. Unless of course they’d captured Burris, Charles, and Berchem, and forced them to confess. That was an unpleasant, if unlikely thought.

As there was little else he could do, Angus waited, alongside of his men, many of whom were anxious from spilling blood. The black ichor slid from their sabres and daggers, staining the snow around them, darkening and melting it as it sunk down to the ground, as if even the Earth itself did not wish to remember it. Absently, he wiped his own blade clean in the snow, even as he pressed his shoulder firmly against the bark of the nearest tree, watching between the leafless thickets as the Baron’s party reached the other side of the bridge.

The Lutins there stood more firmly at attention, but as they were Lutins, that was hardly any better than a slouch, their spears pointing at odd angles. “Why were the hounds running down the road just now?” one of the men at Calephas’s side asked in a hot voice, as the Baron himself just glanced about the woods, his dark eyes searching randomly. Though Angus had nothing but contempt for the pederast’s tastes, he had to confess that the man was tactically sound, and rarely made the same mistake twice. He had to wonder what was going through the man’s mind, and if their enemy knew or suspected that they were lurking in the woods not thirty feet away.

“Ah, they were chasing a stupid deer,” spat one of the Lutins, waving a negligent paw down the road.

Calephas sucked in his breath and snapped his eyes to the other man at his side. “Get back across the bridge. Now!” The Lutins at his side faltered for a moment, but began to run back the way they had come, surrounding the Baron and his two human companions as they bid a hasty retreat. The ten Lutins standing guard stood dumbly for a moment, blinking, unsure exactly what had just happened. And then, a volley of arrows descended from the trees about them, piercing eyes and throats, arms and legs, including that of one of Calephas’s human soldiers. Five of those Lutins ran, dropping their clumsy spears in their haste. The other five lay dead or dying, clawing at the arrows in their limbs, even as the second round ended their last moments.

Angus did not emerge from the trees, and he put up his paws for his men to wait, though with as many arrows descending into that bridge, they did not need to be told to do so. He watched with a bit of surprise as Calephas and the other human stopped a moment to grab their fallen comrade by the arms and hoist him between their shoulders. The Lutins that had been protecting them continued to flee, leaving them exposed, yet they still managed to make the rest of the journey back across the bridge. Once on their own side, Calephas and his two human soldiers moved back into the woods, leaving only the Lutin guards to stand at the open, thirty or so, Angus figured from his rough count.

“Why did they give us this side of the bridge?” Fellen murmured softly, mostly to himself.

Angus shook his head. “Probably because he knew that they’d be decimated if they tried to hold it. They have archers themselves on their side. It does us no good to hold this side as long as they can shoot at us from across this chasm.”

“So what do we do?” the stoat asked, turning his short sword over in his paws.

Angus nestled in closer to the tree, loosening his grip on his blade a moment to stretch his claws. “We wait. We wait for Burris to set that bridge on fire. Once they do that, they can have that side all they want. They’ll be stuck on it, and Nasoj’s supplies with it. We just have to keep them over there.”

His men nodded, hunkering down amongst the snow drenched trees, but not a single one of them relaxed. It was never possible in a standoff. They watched the woods about them, hoping that Calephas did not somehow get word to troops on their side. It would be a disaster to be caught between Lutins and that chasm. Angus though, kept his eye on the other side of the ravine, watching to see if Calephas would ever emerge from the trees again. If the archers could just get one clear shot, a menace to their lives could be eliminated.

Of course, Baron Garadan Calephas was not such a fool as to fail to realise that himself. Sheltered amidst the pine, he helped the burly Northerner Andrig set his fellow Gaerwog against a tree. The latter was protesting bitterly, staring at the arrow that had plunged through the flesh of his thigh, completely through the scale of his hauberk. Calephas grimaced, rubbing one hand up and down his smooth cheeks as he considered his sergeant. “The wound does not appear serious, we can probably pull the arrow once we saw off the tip. Do you think you’ll be able to walk?”

Gaerwog nodded as he gripped his leg tightly, squeezing the flesh of his thigh, which was nearly as wide around as the Baron’s head. Both of his men were from the region about Arabarb, and so bore the characteristic red beards at only eighteen, as well as the build more reminiscent of a bear than a man’s. Reaching over with one hand, he gripped the handle of his axe and held it before his mouth. “Get it over with,” he said through clenched teeth, before biting down hard on the leather grip, his teeth chewing into the thick hide.

At a nod from the baron, Andrig leaned over his companion and held his shoulders down, while Calephas leaned over the leg. Taking a sharp dagger, he pressed it firmly at the arrow shaft just above the feathers, and began to press deep into the wood. After only a second it snapped and came off in Calephas’s slender hands. Depositing that in the snow, and giving his sergeant a warning look, he gripped the shaft firmly just above the man’s thigh, and yanked hard.

Gaerwog did not stir, but remained still, his teeth biting through the leather, spit dribbling into his beard as the blood coated shaft came free from the wound. Blood suppurated into the mail, before the Northerner pressed down again, stanching the flow. Andrig handed his friend a cloth to place over the wound, while Calephas tossed the bloodied shaft to the side.

“Will you be able to stand and fight soon?” the Baron asked, turning to glance over at his Lutin armies amassed at the one end of the bridge. He grimaced at their terrible formation, but was loathe to leave the safety of the trees to correct it.

Gaerwog nodded, his thick beard ragged. Pulling the axe from his mouth, he spat the bile onto the snow at his side. “Just give me a moment to tie this off.”

Calephas nodded once more and motioned for them to wait there. “I’ll marshal the troops, though I doubt there is anything that can be done just yet. We shall have to wait and see. I just wonder how the Keepers could have gotten past the main body.”

“Perhaps they aren’t from Metamor, but from one of the outlying towns?” Andrig offered.

The Baron shrugged, accepting the answer as the only that could make sense. “I knew we should have been more thorough when we pushed South, but I suppose they might have been able to get a message through to the Keep despite the blizzard. Well, we shall never know now.” With that, the Baron of Arabarb turned off and left the two humans alone together. They gave each other quick looks, and then scanned the immediate area to be certain that they were alone.

Lowering his head close to that of his friend’s, Andrig whispered softly into his ear, “This may the opportunity we’ve been waiting for.”

Gaerwog nodded, his face grim, his lips drawing out a thick line upon his weather-beaten cheeks. “Perhaps, but there are too many Lutins for us to fight alone.”

“We have to get the Lutins back on the bridge again somehow. If we can convince Calephas as well, it would be even better. I imagine the Keepers would be delighted to have one of Nasoj’s lieutenants to question.”

“We’ll, let us keeps our eyes open then.” Gaerwog looked up as he saw a small force of Lutins come trundling up the forest road towards them. “Quiet, we’ll talk later.” Andrig smiled down to his friend as he watched the green-skinned fiends move back into the woods after the Baron yelled at them a few times. They would keep their eyes open indeed.

What had begun as a simple downslope between two hills that rose on either side, rather quickly became a narrow ravine that twisted and wound its way through the Northern countryside. The walls that held them varied in height from just twice as high as Jerome, to nearly the summit of the towers at Metamor. Sunlight barely broke past the first few feet beyond the ground far overhead, leaving them walking through shadowed path, tripping over loose stones and bumping into each other when they got too close. Snow littered the ground haphazardly, the confining walls of the gorge proven resilient against the storm.

Burris was flying overhead, scouting along the ravine to see what lay ahead. Berchem and he had worked out signals in advance to warn of Lutins in the area, but so far, Charles was glad to see that they’d not used any. As the base of the ravine was sometimes so narrow as to only allow them to walk single-file, the three Sondeckis were interspersed between the archers, and Charles invariably found himself behind Baerle, who looked back over her shoulder at him the rat felt more often than she watched where she was going.

While they were climbing over a pile of old rocks that had fallen from the hills above, he whispered, “Where did this gorge come from? I mean, what made it. It doesn’t appear to fit with the rest of the Valley too well.”

Baerle shrugged her head, taking a moment to look over the rat’s shadowed figure. In the darkness, neither he nor she cast their own shadows, but relied upon the towers ridges along either side. “This is the first time I’ve been here, too.”

Anson, the arctic fox who had been giving Charles queer looks, a half-bemused smile usually, then spoke up from behind him, “An old earthquake some say. I heard one tale that one of the old gods of myth was punished to dig while blindfolded for some transgression, I’ve forgotten what exactly it was.”

The rat let his eyes stray up to the crevice of light far above. It was turning into a bright day now, the fog having long since rolled off to the South, leaving them with clear skies. The deep blue above him appeared almost crystalline, as if it were only a dream that would shatter should he throw a rock high enough. A tiny speck passed over the crevice, and he knew it to be Burris circling back to find them as he flew about. Charles hoped sincerely that the Lutins did not take to using the woodpecker as an object of sport, for he could think of no worse way to go, than having been killed by those who thought him nothing more than an animal.

Charles watched the avian mage circle the air a few times before dipping lightly at the lip of the ravine and heading East once more, before gazing back into the solemn gloom. Baerle was climbing up a pile of rocks, scampering up their slippery sides. The one constant at the bottom of this abyss was that it was damp. If the snow wasn’t covering it, then a slick of moisture coated its mouldy surface. This made climbing up the piles of boulders tricky at times, and the morphs had to rely on their claws to chisel their way over.

As his eyes made sense of the darkness, he realized that Baerle was holding her paw out towards him, urging him up. Charles reached out and clasped it, her sharp little claws digging into his wrist as she hefted him up the incline. Digging his toe claws into the rock, Charles brought himself up next to her, their chests alarmingly close. Though it was too dark to be certain, Matthias suspected that the opossum was flashing her dimpled smile his way again.

Turning, and trying not to blush, he helped Anson up that same incline. A sudden spark filled him as he felt Baerle’s tail curl about the tip of his, drawing it up, lifting it high as she continued on down the ravine. His Sondeck was aflutter at his embarrassment, so much so that he doubted he could use it at that moment. Anson was giving him that bemused grin again. The rat wanted to snap at the archer, ask him what he found so amusing, but was afraid that he already knew.

As they continued to walk along the ravine floor, it slowly began to widen, and straighten out. The light from the noonday sun filtered further down, casting the littered ground in pale shadows and vague outlines. Once there was room enough to walk side by side, Charles scooted up to Baerle’s right, and leaned towards her ear. That dimpled smile was clear in evidence upon her muzzle, and she leaned back, her bright brown eyes warm.

“Yes?” she asked rather archly. Her tone set the rat off for a moment, and he began to blubber the first words that came to his mind rather nonsensically. She continued to fix him a curious stare, but it only confused the rat more.

Finally, Mathias grimaced, shook his head in disgust, and stepped back from her, shaking out his thoughts. He couldn’t tell if the girl was flirting with him or not, and it only made his head spin all the worse. If she were just consistent about it, he could understand, but this back and forth was playing havoc with his mind.

However, as they came around another bend, his eyes caught the red speckled shape of Burris descending past the ledges towards the skunk who was still powdered white. Charles caught his breath as he watched, forgetting his opossum troubles for the moment. His paw reached inside his thick tunic to the retracted shaft of his Sondeshike, feeling its cool surface and grain against his skin.

The avian shifted back to his most human form and pointed one wing tip towards the bend just up ahead. “The bridge is only a few minutes more away,” he said quietly.

“And the Lutins?” Berchem asked, his voice gruff, weary from the hike.

“They’ve retreated to the Northern side of the bridge. Lord Avery has pushed them back across it. Neither side is willing to take it back, as they both have archers.” Burris then lowered his beak a trifle. “Calephas is with them, and he brought two dozen more Lutin soldiers.”

Anson snorted at that, drawing his bow from over his shoulder and notching an arrow. Charles glanced past the arctic fox to Zagrosek who was thumbing his Sondeshike. The black-haired Sondeckis nodded in return, casting his eyes warily to the left ridge. Sucking in his breath, the Long waited for the skunk to make up his mind.

“We continue on as planned. Ready your bows,” Berchem drew his own, testing the string a few times before he continued on. Charles followed closely after Baerle, being careful not to step on her tail as they made their way around the last bend in the chasm.

The bridge itself, when he finally saw it for the first time, was hardly astonishing, but it did make him pause a moment to gaze. It was made entirely from wood, with three supports holding it aloft, two on each ridge, and one directly in the centre. The railing was at least five feet high on either side, and it was wide enough to hold two four-horse carriages side by side. At present though, it was as Burris had said, empty.

Crunching his feet through the snow, Charles followed after the opossum as they marched very close to the Northern ridge. If the Lutins were watching, they’d have to be peering over the edge to notice them as long as they stayed flush with the wall. Matthias drew his paw across the old stone, seeing the signs of age and mould corrupting its surface. Faints cracks cobwebbed their way up the surface, until they were indistinguishable in the dim light. He idly wondered if any creature lived down here where the sun refused to shine.

Yet, as the bridge loomed closer and closer to his eyes, and growing even more gigantic with each stride, did the reality of the situation come to him. They were going to destroy this bridge, send it crashing into the ravine so that the Lutins could no longer ship their supplies to Nasoj’s army at Metamor. Burris, whose specialty was working with wood, was going to convince the stressed timber to catch flame, which would be sufficient to do the job. Only Burris was a bird and could fly away when the bridge began to collapse. What about the rest of them? What would they do when the structure came tumbling down about their heads?

Also, as they began to draw near to the bridge’s underside, they began to hear the cries and snarls of the Lutins far above them. Most of them were unintelligible, but the rat did catch, “Come out, you bloody animals! Stop hiding!” The archers were watching that ridge, claws twitching on their bowstrings as they listened to the stream of invectives shot across the gorge. Yet, the other side remained silent, a testament to the patience and surety the Glenners possessed. Somewhere on the South ridge was Garigan, his student, waiting, possibly with blood already dripping from his daggers, waiting for the Lutins to finally charge across the bridge.

He did breathe a sigh of relief as they finally passed under the structure, and back into the thick shadow. Berchem slowly moved out along the ravine itself until he came to stand next to the centre support for the bridge. Burris hopped along after him, his thin legs sifting the snow about him. Anson and Ralph followed after them, their bows pointed up at either side of the North face about the bridge, their eyes bright. After a moment, Baerle went after, her tail curling up around her ankles as she did so.

Charles stood with Jerome and Zagrosek by the cliff wall, watching the five Glenners make their way into the path of danger, circling and covering the bird from any enemy attack. Grumbling slightly, Jerome patted one of the supports abutting the North face, “Well, we made it this far.”

“This far, yes,” Charles muttered sourly. “How are we going to get out from underneath this thing when it falls?”

Zagrosek peered up at the wooden beams far overhead, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Well, perhaps we should start running as soon as it catches fire?”

The rat bore an unpleasant moue at hearing his friend’s suggestion. “Just run? The Lutins will be shooting at us for certain.”

“Then we try not to get hit,” the black-haired Sondeckis added dryly. “We have very few options at this point, Charles. Let’s just do what we can.”

Jerome pointed a bit further down the gorge. The two Sondeckis followed his thick finger, and saw a large pile of rocks that were clustered haphazardly a good twenty yards off. “We can probably climb in those rocks. They should shield us from most of the collapse.”

They both nodded at that, and Zagrosek added, “Yes, I think we can easily make that. And if the Lutins start shooting at us, they’ll hit the rocks most likely as well.”

Before either could even voice another thought, a shout descended from the North face above. Glancing up, their ears caught the strains of a strangled cry from first one Lutin, and then several more, as they clamoured about the edge of the chasm, looking down into the darkness at the mischief the Glenners were about. “Damn it,” Charles swore beneath his breath. “Now we have to do something.”

“But what?” Jerome asked, even as the archers began to let fly their arrows into the sky, their arcs long, yet most of them falling short on the first volley, crashing into the side of the rock, and clattering back down to the damp ground. In response, a vaguely familiar voice began shouting orders, and was quickly followed by haphazard arrows streaming down beneath the bridge, imbedding harmlessly into the snow, or coming dangerously close to the quartet flanking the woodpecker.

Charles knew that the Lutins were not aware of their presence yet, but hated himself for standing there while the Glenners were shot at. He looked into their concerted faces, fixed ever upwards on the lofty heights above, firing strained shots towards the lip of the ridge, while a rain of shafts fell about them. There were several choked howls as their shafts met their targets high above, and even one lone wail as a Lutin toppled over the edge, landing with a resounding thump in a pile of snow, sending gusts of white floating about him as he lay dead.

The vole grimaced as an arrow nicked his arm, causing him to take a step back before he could fire another arrow. That was all the catalyst that the rat needed to dart forward, heedless of the arrows cascading about him, until he was standing in front of the four archers, the Sondeshike extended in his paws.

“What are you doing?” Berchem shouted amidst the twang of the bowstrings.

“Covering you.” Charles called over his shoulder, even as he began to spin the staff, quicker and quicker between his paws. Out of the corner of his eyes, he glimpsed Baerle’s glowing back at him, even as she continued to shoot. At that moment, it made the rat feel a bit surer that what he was doing was not going to get him killed.

Zagrosek saw what he was doing, and darted over to help, standing before Ralph and Anson, spinning his staff in his hands as well, until the ferrules whined as they twirled through the air. A faint nimbus appeared to shield those twirling staves, deflecting arrows that came into their path, smashing the wooden shafts into splinters. Jerome waited beneath the arch for several moments more, before running to join his friends, standing behind the archers, and striking the base of the bridge with the palms of his hands, even as the woodpecker continued to mumble barely audible enchantments.

“What’s taking him so long?’ Charles cried as yet another arrow shattered before him, yet this one had come straight towards his head. Blinking in fearful surprise at the averted death that had come so close, he added, “Let’s burn this bridge and run!”

“The wood is too wet as we feared, Burris is going to need several more minutes.” Berchem called back, letting loose another bolt. A cry arose from a Lutin’s throat, before the limp form tumbled down the ridge, bouncing off the rock face and dislodging mouldy stones until he collapsed in a heap beside his brethren in the piles of snow.

“Well, he’d better hurry,” Charles growled. His paws were not sore, and in fact, found the grove quite relaxing. He knew that he could have continued to spin his Sondeshike for a good fifteen minutes before he would have started to feel the effects of it, but he doubted that he would live that long. Surely one or two arrows would get through their impromptu shield, and then, it would be over.

Yet, fortune was in their favour, as Lord Avery realised this as well. Scampering down from his perch high in the trees just before the clearing, he quickly found Angus’s party nestled in the trees, their faces set in grim lines. The badger looked up as his Lord darted amidst them, his paws held out empty, long bow slung across one shoulder.

“Lord Avery, I take it you have seen the abominable situation before us?” Angus rose slightly from his kneeling position, but not fully.

The squirrel nodded, his tail flitting from side to side. “Yes, and we need to distract those Lutins. Take your men and get at the end of the bridge. Do whatever it takes to anger them enough to charge you. I’ve ordered the archers to hold back until they are at least two-thirds of the way across. I’m going to tell Garigan the same thing. Now move, we mustn’t waste a moment.”

Angus nodded and rose to his feet, drawing his thick blade into his paws once more. The five soldiers with him also stood ready, their bodies tense. Finally, Angus gave Brian Avery a wink, and then darted out from the trees, bellowing at the top of his lungs, brandishing his blade high in the air. The sound of bowstrings twanging ceased for a moment, as the Lutins looked up in surprise to see the Glenners emerging from the woods, charging towards the bridge. Moments later, a second group joined them at the end, shouting curses and challenges across the chasm to the angry Lutin soldiers.

Several of them dropped their bows at that moment and drew daggers, running down the length of the bridge, intent on silencing the Keepers. Yet, a voice from within the woods cried out to them, “Stop, you fools! Keep shooting at the Keepers in the ravine!”

“Calephas,” the badger said in distaste, before dropping his sword to the ground. With his large paws, he undid the belt at his waist, and dropped his trousers to the ground. Turning about, he gave the Lutins a good look at his tail and rear, waving it about in the air behind him as he continued to shout. Many of the Glenners did the same, which only caused the Lutins to cry out in further anger, a good number of them rushing across the bridge disregarding the Baron’s shouts for them to fall back.

Angus stared between his thick furry thighs at the Lutins racing towards them, and at the ones who had remained by the ledge. He offered a quick prayer of thanks that the Lutins had not thought to bring long bows with them, otherwise they would have been able to fire across the chasm with ease. As it was, they were safely out of range of the short bows that the green-skinned savages preferred. So he simply watched, and continued to shout, as the Baron began trying to frantically organise the undisciplined Lutin forces.

In fact, he kept waving his rear at the oncoming Lutins until he could distinguish the lacing of their bucklers. Then, with a final swing of his short tail, he stepped out of his trousers, and grabbed his sword, meeting the enraged soldiers half-naked. Even as he raised his sword above his head, slew of arrows descended from the trees behind him, pinning all but two of the dozen who’d charged them.

The first of those came at the badger, heedless that his companions lay dead or twitching on the wooden planks of the bridge. He raised his axe to swing from the left, but found himself neatly skewered on the long thick blade, the hatchet falling limply from his callused hand into the snow at his feet. The second clutched at a dagger that protruded from his chest, falling to his knees, gurgling blood and bile from his lips, before collapsing on his side, clawing at the snow feebly until there was no strength left in him.

Angus let out a cheer and continued to swear at the Lutins still on the far side, many of whom were trying to ignore the Glenners and continue shooting down into the ravine. Baron Calephas was certainly not going to allow any more of his soldiers to foolishly squander their position, only to be skewered by the Glen’s archers. He had suspected all along after all that they had been waiting on the other side of the bridge for a reason. That a group had somehow managed to reach the bottom of the crevice and was attacking the base of the bridge, vindicated him in his suspicions.

However, as he shouted orders to the line of Lutins at the ridge’s lip, he did not consider the intent of the two men at his back. Gaerwog had finally manage to climb to his feet, the cloth tight beneath the mail, though he limped slightly. Andrig held the pommel of his sword tightly between his fingers, the two friends certain of their intent. They approached as quietly as their large feet would allow through the snow crusted road, ever watching their quarry, the tall, slender Baron Calephas.

The man whom Nasoj had appointed over Arabarb never once looked back, but continued to cry out to the disorderly Lutins, keeping them in check against the Glenner’s obstreperous challenges. Andrig brought the pommel of his sword hard against the back of the man’s head, causing the body to suddenly jerk, and then fold in on itself as consciousness fled the Baron. Gaerwog grabbed him in his arms, to keep him from falling over completely.

Andrig then sheathed his sword, and draped one of the Baron’s arms over his shoulder, holding him aloft. Gaerwog did the same, and Calephas’s feet dangled in the air between the two massive Northerners. Taking one last look at the Lutins lined along the rim of the chasm, not a one of them glancing back to see that their commander had been betrayed, they set off at a run, matching each other despite the one’s limp, straight across that bridge and toward the animal-men hollering on the other side.

It only took the Lutins a moment to realize just what the two Northerner’s were up to, and their shouts became that of war cries, as many of them abandoned their quarry in the ravine, and turned their sights upon those men. Discarding bows in favour of knife, cudgel, or axe, they charged after Andrig and Gaerwog, their collective rage making them faster than was commonly thought possible. Their footfalls were like thunder upon the bridge, a following storm that threatened to overwhelm them.

And it was a sound that did not go unheard by the eight down in the ravine itself. Charles watched in befuddled amazement as the ranks of the Lutins’s broke, and they began to charge across the bridge. He stopped spinning the Sondeshike, to gaze up at the massive structure overhead. He then turned back to where Burris and Jerome were assaulting the base with their arts, a sudden look of shock crossing his features.

Berchem set down his bow and pointed towards where the flames were beginning to lick along the wooden supports. “Hit this thing with those staves of yours. If we can knock it down now, we’ll take out the Lutins too!”

The skunk then waved the rest of them over towards the pile of rocks that they’d spotted earlier. Baerle stopped a moment to watch in fascination as Zagrosek and Charles stood beside the flaming base, their Sondeshikes held firmly within their hands. Matthias peered into the bright flames that corroded the support, dancing madly up and licking at the wood higher an higher, spreading rapidly across its surface. The black-haired Sondeckis met his gaze then, through the flames, burning brightly, absorbing their entire world. The stresses creaked and the rock that it sat upon charred under the intense heat. And for a brief moment, Matthias could feel the pendant that Murikeer had given him, which he wore next to his chest grow cold, as if to warn him against the inferno and the bridge overhead ready to collapse.

And then, the two Sondeckis swung, smashing their staves into the crumbling timbers that held the central support up. The entire bridge reverberated with the impact, as it buckled in the middle, the ends twisting and bending as it sagged. With the base racked and splintering, each new cross section thudded into the rocks, only to break apart, causing the bridge to sag even further. Finally, as the Lutins above realised just what was happening, their screams turning to ones of fear instead of rage, the planks overhead began to splinter, and the walkway broke apart, dropping the central section to the ravine far below, and with it the greater portion of Calephas’s forces.

Of course, by this point, both Charles and Zagrosek had run from beneath the bridge towards the large pile of stones that the others had fled to. Baerle stood open mouthed just a few feet from those rocks, staring as that great structure collapsed, the bodies of their enemies falling into the yawning pit, as if the earth itself were swallowing them up. Charles came up beside her and grabbed her arm, dragging her to the rocks, even as the two sides that had been abutting the ridges finally fell, crashing downwards into the large pile of broken timbers that had already accumulated at the bottom of the gorge.

Matthias pressed the surprised opossum down into a crevice within the stones, and lay atop her, even as the thunderous detonations continued, the crackling of the fire as the carnage spewed outwards. The freakish screams of the Lutins as they died were lost in the roar of the bridge as the last of the struts slammed into the earth, showering them with debris. Snapped timbers splashed across the pile of rocks, throwing slivers across them, into their fur, and drenching them with thick dust.

Yet, one of the larger pieces crashed into the rat’s back, the force somewhat diminished by the rocks on either side, yet the pain was excruciating and brief. The last thing that he saw before blacking out was the dimpled smile upon the opossum’s muzzle, even bigger than after she’d kissed him.

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