Breaking the Duke - Part I

Assassins had killed two of the men in his Honour Guard, a small party of Lutins they’d stumbled across had murdered another, and three he’d sent off with the librarian to ensure his safety, over the objections of his Steward, the alligator Thalberg. Duke Thomas however, had insisted. The fox had saved his life and did not deserve to be left to die. Besides, there would be a good number of warriors at the Cathedral, which should have only been a short distance away.

Should have been, but strangely, was not.

The four men who were still surrounding them scanned cautiously from side to side, two at his front, and two behind. Thalberg walked at the Duke’s side, his massive tail swaying nervously behind him. The alligator clutched his left arm with one hand, pressing the sleeve of his official robes against a bleeding gash. The stain appeared only as a darkening of the satin, a wound that he refused to let anyone else see. Nor would he allow Thomas out of his sight. In fact, he gained that gash when he’d leapt in front of a Lutin’s blade before crushing the monster’s head in his massive jaws.

Thomas stared wanly at his friend of so many years. Though Thalberg was often cantankerous, and usually very insistent about being his Steward first, there had been times on those bitterly cold winter evenings when they had just shared a drink together and watched the festivities, or talked of the times when they were children. Posti had been with them in those days, and this would have been the first winter without him. The attack only seemed to highlight the former Prime Minister’s absence, like an open wound that had become infected and began to spread.

The hallways were dim, many of the torches that hung in the braziers had been extinguished. Several of the tapestries had been torn down, and those that hadn’t had either been slashed to ribbons or defiled by the Lutins. Thomas grimaced as he surveyed the rampage and wanton destruction, knowing that it would tear Malqure’s heart to see it, were he still alive. Some of those tapestries had been in the Duke’s family for generations, and some had been even older. A few were untouched, but only a few.

Already, thoughts of how he could make Nasoj pay for this latest atrocity were going through his mind,. He flicked his ears in greater annoyance at each work of art that he saw ruined. The damage had been not nearly so terrible the last time this had happened; the Lutins had never really managed to get into the castle itself the last time. Might they succeed in destroying them all? He hoped not, but his heart was heavy with that fear.

A glance from Thalberg and those menacing yellow eyes told him that his Steward felt the same thing. Yet, they also told him more, a worry that even should they push the Lutin hordes back, would they have enough fighting force left to strike back? And who would lead the fight? How many of his good soldiers would be gone after this was over? Those questions only made his heart sink even further.

The two guards before them moved quietly along the carpeted floors. Thomas himself had soft shoes placed over his hooves, so that he could move silently as well. The clatter of his hooves on the stonework would resound through the halls, and so many years ago he’d had these socks made to muffle that noise. They worked quite well, and aside from that one Lutin band they’d stumbled across, they’d seen nobody since.

But just as he was dwelling on that, the clinking sound of armour approaching came from one side passage. The four guards tightened their grip on their weapons, while Thalberg tensed visibly, his jaw hanging open in case he needed to bite again. The foul aftertaste of dirty Lutin still permeated the alligator’s maw, leaving him with an oily, ill sensation of disgust. The goat standing before him held up his paw, and raised one stubby finger, and then pointed around the corner, his short tail wagging in anxiety. The stoat at his side rolled his long daggers about in his paws and nodded.

The boot heels continued to sound though, and ere long, out strode a man dressed in plate armour, bearing a sword and a shield. He turned to face them, his visor down, so that all they could see of his flesh were his eyes, and wild eyes they were, consumed by some unseen desire that would not be denied. His armour was mostly ceremonial apart from the white cross emblazoned on the front, while upon the escutcheon was a white bend sinister across a solid green. It only took the Duke a moment to recognize the heraldry. The sword and shield he carried were considerably more serviceable in appearance.

“Yesulam,” he muttered as he stared at the knight in that single moment as the man had turned to face them. “Why is a knight from Yesulam here?” he called out, his voice carrying slightly, but not far enough to attract any attention the clattering of the knight’s mail had not already brought.

“I came to claim thee,” the voice inside that polished helm spoke, dull but intent, indicating the Duke with the unwavering point of his polished longsword. The two guards stiffened and advanced upon the knight, who had strode forward, his own sword fresh and without stain or nick. Thalberg interposed himself between the knight and the Duke, while the two guards at their back charged forward to meet this new adversary.

The goat swung his sword in from the side, but met the knight’s shield with a metallic whack, while the knight’s blade thrust forward towards the stoat, who parried it with both of his narrow blades. With a heave, the knight threw back the goat, sprawling him against the wall, then sliced his blade upwards, neatly severing one of the stoat’s arms just above the elbow. The mustelid cried out in agonised horror, falling backwards, blood drenching his surcoat even as he gazed at the lifeless limb that had landed with a wet smack upon the damask carpet.

The metal of his armour clanking with every movement, the mysterious knight slapped the goat’s head one more time with his shield, and then turned his attention once more upon the Duke. The other two guards however, had jumped between them all. The first, a woman, thrust at his helmet with a slender blade. The knight lifted his shield, ducking low, and let the sword ineffectually screech off its smooth surface. Thrusting his broad sword even as he blocked the woman’s strike, he speared the ankle of the spaniel that had tried to come at him from the side. Yelping at the pain, the spaniel jumped back, only to collapse as the paw gave out from underneath of him. Turning then, the knight slashed his heavy sword across the woman’s lighter blade, which shattered just above the hilt without slowing his strike, and opened her abdomen as neatly as a surgeon’s blade, spilling her entrails out in a viscid surge as she sighed and crumpled to the floor on top of the goat’s prone form.

Thalberg snatched up his own blade then, pushing the Duke back a pace, and he spread his arms wide, his jaw dropping to expose the rows of sharp teeth. The knight paused then, as he kicked the cringing spaniel’s head with his steel-toed boot. He rubbed the pommel of his blade with his gauntlet, the wild eyes narrowing as he considered this massive foe. And then, he charged froward, shield held high and his sword arm moving low.

The Steward stepped back a pace, bringing his own sword up underneath, trying to slide it around the shield. But the knight was well trained, and dropped his shield to counter the blade, as he sliced upwards, striking at the alligator’s arm. Despite the fact that he was a reptile, and covered in several layers of cloth, he was able to move out of the blade’s path, but the effort cost him his own blade as the knight changed his strike slightly, hammering the hand basket of the alligator’s blade soundly, sending it humming away as the reptile’s sword hand went suddenly numb. Hissing, Thalberg snatched that hand back before it got severed, and struck out with his other, raking his claws across the knight’s visor so hard that it twisted half around on his head.

Suddenly blinded, the knight from Yesulam stepped back several paces and slipped slightly in a pool of blood, dropping his sword as he reached up to readjust his helmet. Thalberg surged forward in that moment of weakness and grabbed at the knight’s shield with both of his hands and yanked at it, intent on dragging it off the knight’s arm, or dragging the knight of his feet if luck were with him. However, he did not expect the knight to actually give it over. Thrusting out with his arm, the knight shoved the shield into Thalberg, sending the alligator crashing into the near wall. Lifting his helmet from his head, he revealed his face, fraught with fury and pure desire. Beneath the canopy of long dark hair, amber eyes flashed.

He swung his helmet against the side of Thalberg’s head suddenly, smacking him across the cheek and red blood began to flow from beneath the yellow-green scales. The alligator was not finished however, and threw the shield off of his chest, then snapped his jaws at the knight’s face, which was now exposed. The knight took a step back, leaning away from those horrible jaws, and caught the folds of the Steward’s robe with one hand. He yanked hard upon the fine, tattered robes, pulling the steward close for a brief moment, their eyes locking for a brief flash of time. Thalberg let out a sudden croak as he was spun about on his feet, falling face first against the wall, slapping his head right between the eyes. The mysterious foe then reached down, retrieved his sword, and with one swipe, sliced through the gown and into the alligator’s back.

Duke Thomas stared, aghast, as his old friend slowly slumped against the wall, leaving him to face the rogue Knight of the Ecclesia alone. He had no desire to abandon his friends and servants, yet he was no fool either. Whoever this knight was, it was clear that he meant to kill him, though Thomas could not fathom why a knight of Yesulam would desire such a thing. He cast a momentary glance at the weapons scattered about on the floor not far away, then discarded the idea. He was passably decent with a sword, but this knight was something else altogether. Thomas knew that, having dispatched four battle-hardened veterans of the Three Gates, the knight would make very short work of him. Turning on his hooves, Thomas fled down the corridor, intent on escaping the man. Surely an armoured knight could not outrun a horse who was intent on escaping. Yet a sudden pain tore into his back and he fell forward onto his face, bruising his sensitive nose.

He clambered once more to his hooves, forcing himself to run despite the terrible pain in his back. It did not feel as if he’d been stabbed, more like he’d just been hit by something. Taking a quick glance behind him, he could see the knight racing after him, retrieving his helmet, and hurling it once more at the Duke’s back. Though he tried to jump aside, he was too late, for the solid thwack sent him spinning, tumbling to the stone floor as the weighty steel slammed into his face. A new ache greeted him, one in his jaw as he moved it about. One of his teeth had been broken.

He looked back, perhaps to grab the helmet and make off with it, but as he looked up, he could see the knight only a few feet away, picking it up once more. The gaze on the broad face was one of triumph. “Thou shan’t make me hurt thee anymore? ‘Twould be a pity to damage a fine stallion such as thyself.”

Thomas felt fear and a great anger building in his chest as the knight stepped closer. Tensing his legs he pulled them closer to his body as he lay there, watching the knight approach smoothly, idly noting that the human was not even breathing hard yet. With a snort he kicked at the knight’s shin, but his hoof only met empty air as the man danced nimbly aside. Pulling a knife from his belt, he pressed it firmly against the Duke’s neck. “Thou wilt allow me to slip this upon thy head, or I shalt kill thee.” With his other hand, he produced a rather ordinary-looking halter.

Thomas took one look at it, and glowered, “Never!”

The knight shrugged and then pressed the blade of the knife more firmly into the Duke’s neck. Wincing, Thomas let out a pitiful whinny, before he nodded softly. Instantly, the knife’s edge was drawn back a bit, and he could feel the other hand lifting up his muzzle. He open his lips and tried to bite at it, but the hand was gone in a moment, and a fist slammed down into the side of his head, making his sight swim.

While the Duke tried to resolve the multiple images of the knight into one cohesive whole, he felt the leather against his head again, and he pulled back, trying to get away from the vile thing. Yet the knight placed his other hand at the back of his head, and forced it on, tying the cinch tightly, fixing it in place. And then, even as he stared past the straps over his nose, he saw the man tracing something on his forehead with a single finger. A sullen blue nimbus filled his vision for a moment, and then his body was on fire! Agony raced through his limbs, wringing an agonised gasp from his chest as he fell on the floor and convulsed in a vain attempt to escape the pain.

Thrusting back away from the man, Thomas squirmed, trying to draw his hands up to his face to rip the halter off. Only, as he looked down, he found he no longer had hands, only the hooves of his full horse form remained. With a rending pop the clothes on his back tore from his body as his flesh stretched and grew. He whinnied in terror, thrashing about as he managed to rise to four limbs, kicking at the air, trying to shake the awful fire from his body.

And then the pain was gone, leaving him nothing more than just a horse wearing a halter over his head, standing in the hallway with the knight looking on rather pleased with himself. He turned his mind towards changing back into his morphic form, but that fire exploded over his flesh once again, causing him to fall back to the ground to writhe in agony. As he lay there, he let go of his desire to be anything but the horse, and the fire subsided, leaving him with a strange sort of calm, one that did not feel natural at all.

He breathed slowly as he lay there, his tongue working at the broken tooth, until he had managed to push it out of his mouth around the cold metal of the bit that he’d been forced to take. Try as he might, he could not get it out. His eyes glared up at the knight, and he once more climbed to his legs, intent on charging the knight. He knew that he could kill this man, horses were not weak by any standards.

Yet, the man just stood there, and smiled to him, and spoke one soft word. “Stop.” Instantly, Thomas’s hooves sealed themselves to the ground, every muscle in his body stiff. He burned with the desire to strike out at the man with his forehooves, yet he could not even lift them. The knight then walked over to his side, standing just as tall as Thomas. He pulled one of his gauntlet’s off and began to gently stroke through Thomas’s mane, ruffling it gently between his fingers. “Thou art a beautiful stallion, and thou shalt sire horses to make the other clans of the Steppe feel shame.”

Thomas’s eyes went wide at that pronouncement, realizing that this man intended for him to spend the rest of his life as a simple horse like every other. He wished to run, but his body would not respond. The man walked back down the hall, retrieved his equipment, replaced the helmet, and then took the lead to the halter in one hand. He clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and suddenly Thomas found himself walking beside the man at a slow trot. Whatever enchantments were in this halter, they had completely reduced the Duke of Metamor to an obedient and tamed horse.

Thalberg forced his eyes open as he clawed at the wall to rise to his feet. The slash had forced him to his knees, and then his vision had gone dim as he lay there slumped against the stonework. Turning his head to the right, he could see the four guards lying upon the ground, blood splattered over their flesh and across the carpet. He couldn’t tell if any of them were alive just from a glance. Duke Thomas, and the mysterious knight of Yesulam who’d attacked them, were nowhere to be seen. With a terrible gnawing fear he suspected that Thomas’s head would soon be decorating some Lutin General’s banner.

Glancing at the four prone forms, he peered at the blood, and then passed them down the hallway. His memory was acute, even if his mind had been wavering in and out of consciousness, but he knew that Thomas had been standing farther back away from the guards. If he’d been killed, where was the blood to indicate where he’d fallen? A sudden thought struck him and he breathed slightly easier as he dug his claw tips into the masonry. Perhaps Thomas had been wanted alive as a present to be brought back to Nasoj? If that was so, then perhaps he could still be rescued.

Turning his head in the other direction, back towards the Follower Cathedral, he tried to move one foot forward, but found he had no strength left in his legs. Collapsing, he fell to the floor with a pained hiss and a muffled whump, the thick folds of his ceremonial robes protecting him from the impact. However, his back sent a dull crushing ache through his mind. The wound was not terribly deep, or otherwise he would already be dead, but it was still agonising. Reaching forward with one green-scaled hand, he gripped the stones and pulled himself close to the wall, and towards the bodies of the four guards.

The woman was clearly dead, as half of her organs lay upon the goat’s motionless form. Reaching out his hand, Thalberg pressed his palm against the narrow face of the goat, and could feel warmth still within the flesh. His grin crept up a bit, though only imperceptibly. As a reptile, he lacked detailed facial control, but what little he did have, he preserved as often as he could when alone. Turning to the other two figures, he could see that the spaniel’s skull had been cracked from the kick, and he doubted very much that he would live long enough for even magic to save him. The stoat however had managed to tie a ribbon around his severed limb before passing out.

Crawling closer to the musteline, Thalberg gripped the ends of the ribbon in his hands, and with a tug, made sure that it was tightly bound. Perhaps he would survive, but only if the Steward could reach the Cathedral in time. Patting the dog on the side of his cheek, he gripped the stone work and began to pull himself along the floor down the hall, one aching foot at a time. Hand over hand, he tugged and clawed, scratching the stone at times as he drug his immense weight behind him.

He briefly considered climbing onto the carpet, but dismissed the notion almost as soon as he had thought of it. His clothes would catch and drag on the carpet, and he was just as likely to drag the carpet to himself as he was to drag himself towards the Cathedral! And Thalberg needed his clothes to keep him warm, otherwise he might slip back into torpor and never come out again. And if that happened, any hope of saving Thomas could be lost. He’d served the Duke for too many years to allow any pain or discomfort keep him from protecting his liege. Grunting, his thick tongue pressed up against the long roof of his mouth, he continued forward one hand after another.

The hallway twisted and turned before him, as if it were being warped by unseen hands. Yet Thalberg knew that it was just his own eyes and delirium playing tricks on him. With each painful tug he drew himself forward upon his belly into that miasma, that ever changing hall. Beneath his claws he could almost feel the floor move, undulating beneath him like a snake, writhing like a mass of earthworms in a fisherman’s pail. Blinking, he tried to abjure those fearful images, tried to force the hallway to solidify and remain still before him. Yet that only drug up further images, images of things that he knew were not really there.

He could hear the laughing voices of children running through the halls. Thalberg let out a sullen groan as he drew himself forward, watching the shapes of those little boys and girls materialise before him. Dressed in brown knickers, except for one young boy whose fabric was made of vibrant blue, the children were kicking some soft leather ball through the myriad of halls of the Keep. There was one other lad, much taller than the rest, and older, who appeared to be rather nervously watching the boys, the one dressed in blue in particular.

Crawling at the stones, the painful visions of memory gouging his heart, Thalberg tried to reach out, desperate to stop what he knew to be coming, to unleash a warning to the children to stop them from their play. He could feel the floor cold even through the folds of his garments, bitterly cold as that day had been, and so to was this day. They should never have been allowed to play ball inside the ever-changing Keep. Yet there he stood, watching them, knowing it was foolishness, but unwilling to speak his thoughts to stop it.

He let out a terrible bellow as he saw the boys kick the ball around a corner, and towards where the open staircase led off the promenade. The ball skittered off one balustrade, and lay on the edge of the stairwell, resting on the thick, embroidered carpet and waiting for a boy’s foot to send it careening off again. Thalberg, bellowed in terror as he tried to reach the children, the injury to his back pressing him firmly to the ground like the alligator he was every time he tried to rise, as if crawling upon his belly were punishment for just standing by and letting the tragedy occur.

Two of the boys, the blue clad one and a friend, both went for the ball at the same time. But the one in green, a smart looking boy, with bright blond hair, and pudgy face, slipped on the stones and cried out in surprise, grabbing the blue tunic of his friend, before toppling both of them down the staircase. The young man then darted forward, racing down after the tumbling children, but his efforts were in vain. When he reached the bottom of the staircase, the blue-clad boy’s arm was twisted in a way it should not have been, and the other boy lay with his head cracked open along one side.

Thalberg beat his fist upon the ground, a thick sob coughing up from his chest as the images began to melt back into that ever shifting hallway. Why hadn’t he spoken up, he could have stopped it all? He would not keep his thoughts to himself, no matter who he had to speak them to, or what the consequences of his opinions might be. He closed his eyes, trying to wipe those children from his memory, but though they had faded from sight, they still remained clear to him, as clear as if it had just really happened.

He’d told the Duke he shouldn’t send so many men with the librarian, he’d been most insistent about it, but again, he’d just stood there and went along with the foolishness. Now his liege was taken by that knight, suffering some unknown fate, while he crawled like a simple reptile through halls he wished to forget. Could he ever forgive himself should Thomas die? Thalberg did not know, but he doubted that he could.

Grunting, he threw out his claws once more, dragging himself around the last corner before the Cathedral. The wide double doors were closed, probably barricaded as well. Yet he had to reach them and get those inside to open them up. He was the Steward of Metamor, he would do everything he possibly could to save Thomas’s life, even though it was his fault he had not done so sooner.

Yellow eyes watching those double doors twist and warp, he reached out his other arm, dug the claws into the space between blocks, and dragged his belly and tail over the stones. His breath came heavy, and he could feel the soaked garments cling to his back, rubbing against the cut, and intensifying the pain he suffered with every motion. Yet he kept his eyes focussed on that door and the evanescent braziers on either side. No fever dreams would distract him now, no painful memories would call him to days of old. He would reach those doors.

One block of stone at a time, they grew closer, and yet they also seemed to twist away from him, as if some higher power wished to deny him his one chance for redemption. It was true that he was a Lothanasi, though he only attended the important celebrations, as his duties took up much of his time. And even so, he rarely offered supplication to the gods, preferring to rely on his own council as his father had instructed him and his younger brother.

With a sudden pang, that stairwell was before him, and the two falling children tumbling head over heels to the veranda below. He reached out one green-scaled hand, as if to catch them and draw them back up, but they fell away, crashing to the bottom as before, as they had every time he’d turned his thoughts to that day. The young Thomas lay there in his blue silk with a broken arm, while Thalberg’s own brother lay, his life seeping out as quickly as the blood flowed from the crack in his skull. His council had advised him to allow the boys their fun despite the possibility of accident in the halls of the Keep. His own council had advised him not to argue the point further after Thomas had declared for the third time he was sending three of his men with Fox Cutter. How trustworthy was his own council?

He tried to bellow in anguish, but his throat only allowed him to cough weakly. He turned his mind towards the gods, gods he had neglected in his pride and stubborn persistence. Reaching out his claws once again, he called out to them as well, seeking strength to continue forward, and safety for his liege from whatever evils that knight may think to visit upon him. He did not know how it would be possible, but he even asked for the Keep’s help itself, hoping that she could assist in the thwarting of that man. Yet, he could not remain focussed solely on even the gods for long, they would have heard him anyway. He needed to reach the Cathedral doors.

Yet when he opened his eyes, he saw that the doors were there before him, as if he had been picked up and deposited before them. Balling his hand into a fist, he beat upon the base of them, a dull thud resounding back along the hallway. He would not question the good fortune given to him, but offered thanks up to the gods, never once considering the irony that they had helped him to the house of worship for a rival faith.

He continued pounding for nearly a minute before the door was opened and a sword point thrust into the air above his head. Glancing up, he could see another knight bearing the escutcheon of Yesulam. For a moment he felt a brief flare of panic at the sight. Had they come to claim Metamor as well, for their Mother Ecclesia, and cast out all those that were not of their faith? He cast that fear aside almost as it fell upon him, for he was not looking upon the fair face of some young, idealistic knight. Rather he was staring, past the heraldry, at a face that had lost almost all vestiges of humanity, leaving the knight with the tapered muzzle of a rather large deer. “Thalberg?” he heard from the cervine throat, before the doors were pulled wide, and several armoured men bearing sharp weapons ventured into the hall, while several soft, gentle hands gripped him beneath his arms and drug him inside the Cathedral.

He could see Father Hough flanked by a raccoon dressed in a simple priestly cassock standing just a short distance off. The young boy gazed at him with concern. “What happened, good Steward?”

“We were coming here,” Thalberg said quietly as he lay there, the gentle hands pulling at the folds of cloth on his back to expose the wound. He winced as the fabric dragged over the cut again. “A knight attacked, and took the Duke.”

“What?” several voices exclaimed. “Is he dead?” “What about his guards?” “Where did he take him?” “Is he alive?”

Thalberg just coughed in anguish. “I don’t know.”

The raccoon knelt beside him and examined the wound. Thalberg stared at his face hard, but could not place him. With a soft whisper, he placed his paw upon the exposed scaly back of the Steward, and began to chant very softly. A litany of some sort, but different than any the Steward was familiar with, in the old tongue favoured by the Followers, but there was a power in those words, which came to the alligator’s realization with some surprise. Thalberg felt a warmth spread through him then, as if he were wrapped in blankets soaked in hot water. With a bit of a start, he realized that the pain in his back was gone, though he still felt terribly weak.

“You should live, Steward Thalberg,” the raccoon said then, offering him a slight grin underneath his furry mask. “Now who was this knight that took the Duke?” Thalberg could sense the many Keepers who crowded close to see and hear what he had to say. A few were cut and bruised, but it appeared that they were safe here at the Cathedral as Thomas had hoped.

“He was–“ Thalberg peered closely at the stag that had greeted him at the door. “He was a knight of Yesulam.”

There were several gasps and shouts of “Impossible!” from the crowd. Yet Thalberg shook his head. “I know what I saw, and I think I know his name.”

“Who was it?” Sir Egland asked, leaning in closer. “And how could a knight of Yesulam come all this way, and why would he be interested in the Duke?”

“One body was missing from the Patriarch’s camp after it was slaughtered, a body of a knight had been carried off. It is possible this is the same man.” Thalberg ventured quietly, letting his voice drop so that the proclamation did not carry beyond the acute hearing of those closest to him.

Egland and the rat Saulius looked at each other with sudden apprehension. “Bryonoth?” Egland whispered, his skin suddenly shivering.

“I think so, he spoke as a Flatlander. His accent was unmistakable,” Thalberg said before he was given over to that racking and wheezing cough again.

“But why would he take the Duke?” the raccoon asked, his face bemused.

“I don’t know, I just know that it was him.”

Egland stood erect and looked down at Father Hough and the raccoon. “I’m going after him and I will rescue the Duke.”

“Thou shalt have myself as a companion,” Saulius declared hotly, rubbing the hilt of his sword with one paw. He was joined by at least ten other soldiers standing close by who insisted upon going.

Father Hough shook his hand and held out his hands. “We cannot send all of you, we need you for the defence here. I’m afraid if we spare too many men for this, you may still fail, and the hordes of Lutins will crash in here and slaughter us all.”

The raccoon nodded his assent. “Father Hough is right, I would only send as many men as is absolutely necessary.”

Thalberg coughed again and then gripped the hem of the raccoon’s robe. “Thomas’s guards, some are still alive.”

Hough grimaced. “Eight men then. Egland, you and Saulius should go, as you both knew Bryonoth. Six others will be drawn by lot, four of which should carry the guards back here so that we can heal them. I know it is not many, but it is truly all that can be spared for this.” The boy spread his hands apologetically at that.

Egland shook his head, the massive antlers that rested atop them slicing the air neatly. “Four should be enough, as long as we do not walk into a horde of hundreds of Lutins. And even if that happens, I think we could outrun them. Though the thought of showing such cowardice pains me, we cannot save the Duke if we are dead.”

Thalberg did not hear any more after that, as the sullen pain in his back, and the terrible exertion he’d undergone to reach this place had taken their toll on his mind. With a hopeful sigh, he allowed himself to drift into unconsciousness.

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