To the Glen - Part III

Calm yourself,” Zagrosek snapped softly, even as he stubbed his toe against the rock. Grimacing, he rubbed his shin as he peered out of the hole they’d fashioned. A thick line of trees and snow stood all about them outside the tunnel, while the bright yellow disc shone through the leafless branches. “We’re here now, whether we like it or not, so let’s do what we can.”

Garigan was next to tears, staring at the sun open mouthed as if he could not believe that it existed. “Do what?” he finally asked, his rough burr a near shrill. “Do what!”

Zagrosek glowered at the ferret and raised one palm forward, but did not strike Charles’s student. Matthias was too shocked by the sun still to react at all to his friend’s action. “Be quiet. There may be Lutins in the area as it is. Charles, go out and see if you recognise where we’ve come out. I’m tired of tunnels. We can harass the Lutins from their flanks still if nothing else. And we will do something.”

Charles nodded, though he did grab the hem of Zagrosek’s robe and draw him away from his student. Garigan had taken the hint and was frantically searching for his Calm. It would not take him very long to find it, as the point had been made effectively. The taller Sondeckis looked down at Charles rather abashed, “I’m sorry I had to do it.”

Matthias nodded though, before scrambling up the rocks clogging the entrance. “I know, just let me do that in the future.”

The rocks were slippery from the snow, but having claws gave the rat a good grip, and soon, he was standing in a vast field of undisturbed snow as high as his waist. The trees were rather tall, taller than he remembered them being South of Metamor. In fact, as he gazed about at the rough strewn hills, and disjointed assortment of the trees, he realized that he didn’t recognize the area at all.

“I have no idea where this is. It doesn’t look like any place South of the Keep to me. The trees are too tall,” Charles whispered back into the tunnel entrance. From this side, he could see that it had been set into one side of a hill that only grew larger the further back it went. Even in the sunlight, he could not tell what sort of stone it was made from.

“Tall trees?” Garigan asked, his voice strangely accented all of a sudden. “Let me see.” He climbed up onto the rocky outcropping, standing no better than Charles in the snow drift. Matthias could already feel his toes start to freeze in the thick white confines. He hoped that it was not this deep through the woods, or he’d soon freeze, no matter how much he wore!

He turned back to face the sun, hoping that some of its rays would warm him, though he found meagre comfort in its feeble light. Even though the sun was visible, most of the sky was covered in thick grey clouds, most of them to the South. They clustered together, though through the hills and the trees, Charles could not tell if it was still snowing down that way. He doubted the sun would last long either before the clouds filled in that small gap.

“I know where this is,” Garigan exclaimed suddenly, his face brimming with delight. “We’re only an hour outside of Glen Avery! I’ve travelled this way many times!”

“What?” Jerome asked, even as he scrambled up onto the rocks, slipping a bit as his human form did not possess claws that were good for gripping. “But we’ve been travelling South, you said Glen Avery was Northwest.” Zagrosek nodded, and said something similar, even as he tried to make his way from that tunnel and into the world of sunlight and breezes.

Charles laughed a bit, though he did keep his voice mostly to himself. “Well, this is Metamor. You’ve seen how the geometry of the Keep changes. Why not the direction of that tunnel? I know I never saw a turn, but if a five-sided figure can have angles like a square, why not a straight passage that curves?”

Jerome waded through the snow, though on him it only reached past his knees. “Why not indeed! And it is good to know that we are so close, but in which direction?”

Garigan pointed just West of the sun. “We’re a bit North and East of where we want to be, but it shouldn’t take too long, even in the winter. If we had snow shoes, it would be much easier.”

The rat snorted, even as he tried to lift his legs enough to move through the snow, but found he could barely do so. “Either that or you are going to have to carry me.”

Jerome jumped down the rock side, slipping and sliding down the hill a bit as he made his way towards a more level track. He waved back up to them after stomping around for a moment. He did not say anything though, having made far too much noise as it was already. Though, the snow there did not appear to reach higher than his boots. Charles breathed a sigh of relief at that. He would never make it to the Glen if he had to wade through snow up to his waist or higher.

Even so, it took him several minutes just to slide down the hillside after his fellow Sondeckis. Zagrosek helped him, but even so, Krenek was left stumbling as his feet managed to find a few errant roots beneath all the layers of snow. Of course, in the process of battling through the thick drift, his Sondeckis robes became soaked with the snow, and he could feel the chill creeping into his tunic and breeches underneath. His heart was happy that Glen Avery was so close though, for in retrospect, he’d rather be in the tunnel then fighting snow drifts nearly as high as he was!

When they had all joined Jerome down at the base of the hill, Garigan took over the lead, flowing between the trees with the ease a Glenner ought to have. Matthias would not have been surprised had his student called each tree they passed by name, and then able to tell stories of its struggles and travails in this northerly forest. The trees did get wider and taller as they moved South, keeping the sun just a bit to their left as they moved. Soon, they were at their colossal stature that the rat remembered from his trip here back in May.

Yet, shrouded in the blanket of snow, most of it undisturbed, he found a new and greater appreciation for this, the most isolated region of the valley. Here they were in a shrine of nature, locked and guided by its whims and vagaries, and yet they held a beauty that could not be found elsewhere in the world, Charles was certain. Until he’d visited here, he had never imagined trees wider than a horse, aside from the impressive peaks of the Åelfwood which he’d ascribed to magic. Now, seeing them crested with white plumes of snow made him feel as if they had been clothed in gowns of purest priestly white, the finest silk that had been available. They were the lofty kings of this world, towering beside the mountains themselves, giants who would long be standing even after the four of them had gone into the grave.

Even as he watched with his dark eyes, the clouds gathered far overhead, casting their world back in the pale grey that was so common in winter. Though the sun was obscured once more, Garigan still knew the way, leading them along the length of the shallow crescent between the hills, deeper into the clutch of the silent giants. Jerome and Zagrosek followed blindly, glancing this way and that, always wary of the scout that may lurk behind those massive trunks. Charles wondered if the Lutins might not stash an entire army behind them, as they were so huge at times.

Ere long, a light dusting of snow began to descend through the branches, and it gradually grew thicker as they pressed Southwards. Glancing back behind him, Charles could see that their footfalls were already filling in with the newest precipitation. Sighing, the rat drew his robe tighter about him, holding his arms as much inside the black cloth as he could. Still, the dampness clung to him, sending shivers down through his fur. Despite the layering of his garments, he still felt as if he’d been buried in ice.

Yet, he felt a distant sense of unease, as if there was something wrong about all that he was seeing, as if it were an illusion of some sort. He could not identify the feeling, and so glanced from side to side at the banks of snow upon the hilltops, collecting and clustering around the trees, wondering if something might lay beneath that serene surface. A subtle warmth melted into his chest, drawing him forward over the next rise beyond his student, making him even more edgy, his eyes shifting about recklessly. So it came as little surprise to him when Garigan held up his paw, ears alert and pointing forward, his posture firm, giving the green cloak about him an almost serpentine twist.

After a moment, in which Charles felt his heart skip a few beats, as he stood with his foot paws going numb and his whiskers collect with irksome snowflakes, the ferret slowly moved to one side putting the base of one of the trees between himself and what lay over the crest of the next rise. The three other Sondeckis did likewise, though the rat found the deeper snow much to his distaste. It was up to his chest, and had he waded in to it, he doubted he could have found his way out again!

When he was close enough though, he could see the source of his student’s alarm. Overtop of the rise he could hear the sounds of feet crunching snow, and of wagon wheels doing the same. Peering from behind the tree trunk, he could see a small group of Lutins drawing several wagons along what must have been the old road to the North past Glen Avery. It was not a large convoy though, only a squadron of twenty Lutins at the most, manned the wagons, disconsolate mules dragging them through the thickening white blanket. The wagons were covered by coarse blankets, but from out of one corner, the rat could see feed bags.

Slipping back around the tree, he noted that the others had seen the composition of the party as well. However, they needed to decide what to do about it, for surely the path Garigan intended to take crossed that road. Blinking a bit of snow from his eyes, he spoke softly, directly into their ears as they leaned closer. “Supply wagons. I’d wager they use this road to carry in their supplies from the Dike. Do we let this group pass?”

Zagrosek shrugged softly, nestling into the cold confines of the winter frost. He was sitting in it, which amazed the rat, who could barely stand and still see overtop of it. “If we attack them on the road, any other Lutins that come this way will see evidence of it.”

“Perhaps not,” Jerome mused rubbing his chin with one finger. “The blizzard hid their coming to Metamor. It might cover our tracks by the time the next wagon passes by.”

“And the bodies?” Charles pointed out.

“We can drag them over the next hill. They’ll probably never even look for them.”

“And we could certainly take some of the supplies to Glen Avery with us,” Garigan pointed out, jerking his paw over his shoulder. “But if we do take them, we ought to move fast, they’ll be past us shortly.”

Matthias nodded, and then blinked as he saw something move through the trees on the other side of them. Before he could say another word, he heard a guttural voice cry out, and they were suddenly surrounded by a dozen Lutins, wielding spears. Jerome and Zagrosek turned their heads in disbelief, while the ferret reached for his knives.

Charles felt a spear point touch his neck, and he held still for a moment, though his paw curled over the Sondeshike inside his robes. “You come with us now, sneaky Keepers!” the Lutin who held the spear said, spitting on the snow at their feet.

He glanced once at Zagrosek and quickly spoke in the Southern tongue, “Tanze wei Zherd?”

Zagrosek nodded, fingering his own Sondeshike within his robes, a smirk creasing his face. Jerome went wide eyed as he heard that, and with one hand reached out and grabbed Garigan’s neck, dragging him to the ground, while the ferret let out a sudden meep of protest. The Lutins surrounding them appeared uncertain for a moment, but only for a moment, before two of them found the ferrules of the Sondeshike’s crushing their chests.

Charles spun the Sondeshike from beneath his robes, moving paw over paw along its length, until the silver shaft became no more than a spinning blur that he wove both around his body, but around Zagrosek and his Sondeshike as well. The Lutin party that had come upon them from behind scattered as they tried to jab at them with their spears, but found them broken in half when they met those radiant discs that the rat and man kept before them.

It had been seven years since he’d ever enacted the Dance of the Staff, and never before with a Sondeshike of his own, and certainly not while he was a rat! Zagrosek had always been his partner, for the Dance required two to be done properly. He had to continuously remind himself of their size difference as he tucked and spun about his friend, their bodies always close together, yet neither they nor their staves ever touched, even when the brilliant discs they made in the air appeared to intersect.

Zagrosek grunted almost imperceptibly as he swung his arms lower than he otherwise would have, forced to bend lower to intertwine himself with the rat as he spun on his heels. The soles of his boots dug into the snow, kicking up chunks of the gentle white blanket, where it was turned to a bright powder by the swing of his staff, cascading into the air until neither of the Sondeckis could tell which snow was falling, and which was rising.

Charles at first found his world condensed into brief flashes of his two friends lying face down in the snow drift beside the tree, and the horrified visages of the Lutins as they surveyed this new enemy. Yet, as his tail curled neatly between Zagrosek’s legs, and begun to casually wrap about them as he twisted and turned, yet never once getting caught, as if it had two ends instead of one, the rat found those brief flashes come together, into a great union, as if someone had taken the edges of each image, and fastened them together with an alchemical glue.

Only then, when his vision took all that was about them and fed it to his mind at once, did he know that he was spinning at just the right speed. No longer did he care about the snow that clutched at the hem of his robe, or the way it infested the space between his toes, giving his foot paws a webbed appearance much like a duck’s, for he was no one with the Dance. Zagrosek and he were not two, but one being, a circling menace that spread the snow about them, divested of individuality, and singular of purpose.

The Lutin party about them found themselves facing a foe that they did not know how to kill. A few backed up and reached for short bows slung across their backs, and the rat gave them credit, for it was certainly a safer pursuit than trying to get close to those whirling discs. Yet, as Charles and Zagrosek turned in circles, even the arrows were shattered when they struck those impenetrable arcs they fashioned with their Sondeshikes, brilliant shining discs that glistened with the snow and blood flinging from the ferrules.

Of course, as they waded through the snow, closer and closer to the Lutins who were now shouting for the others to come help, Garigan and Jerome were once more safe to stand. The other two Sondeckis did so, and leapt at the nearest of the Lutins. Garigan plunged both of his knives into one of the green-skinned savage’s head, before jumping off of him to another. Jerome deftly avoided the spear jabs, and reached inside to use his palms to crack bones and crush faces. Though he had many opportunities to take one of their weapons, he did never did so.

As he turned about, the world a continuous swirl about him, yet clearer to him than normal sight, Charles saw that the Lutins from the supply wagons had raced up the ridge to join in combat beside their brethren. As if on unspoken agreement, on his next twirl, he came down a step closer to them, and Zagrosek followed suit, swinging his shaft out a bit far, smacking one Lutin in the head, knocking it almost completely off as he did so. The party of Lutins from the supply wagon took one look at the dancing Keepers spinning towards them, those discs slicing anything they touched in half, and then bolted back down towards the road, crying in terror, dropping their weapons in their haste.

They did not take up chase, the Dance was not quick enough for that. The Dance was slow, but certain, only the luckiest of shots could have penetrated their Sondeshikes. Even from overhead, it would have been nearly impossible to strike them, For Zagrosek, being almost two feet taller than Charles, brought the edge of his staff over his head every few moments, in his portion of their unity. They were two whirligigs capering through the snow, with each portion of their body further entwined within each other, near to the point that at times, it appeared as if the rat’s head were protruding from Zagrosek’s stomach, or the man’s arms were tied in a knot within the rat’s tail.

Though the Lutins from the wagons had fled, the scouting party that had come upon them unawares was still struggling to hold their ground against Jerome and Garigan. One of the green-skinned fiends had managed to slice the ferret’s arm, as a bit of blood dampened the torn cloth. Jerome, though he carried no weapons, did not appear to have even been nicked by blade or arrow, for his robe wove through the piles of snow pushed up from the stomping and the spinning of his comrades, untouched and unsullied except by the dark blood of the Lutins who met the crushing touch of his palms. And with the advantage of both morale and skill, the Sondeckis were easily corralling the Lutin party against a stand of trees.

Into that stand, Charles and Zagrosek wove, as if they were one being instead of two, a blurry image, one unable to be viewed with any precision by normal eyes, consisting of two twirling discs that rotated about them at all times, and two very different halves that spun with those discs. Snow spiralled up around them, as if it were incapable of existing in the same place with them, and the flakes that fell from above were blown outward by the force of their spinning. Charles felt his arms almost speed up as he neared the last group, draped so liberally in his own Sondeck, that he was certain he could have continued should both his arms break!

With Jerome and Garigan before them, and the spinning menace behind them, the last six Lutins realized that they were trapped. They let out a bloodthirsty cry, one that might be heard elsewhere in these woods, though with the snow and wind falling as heavily as they were, they each knew that those cries were muffled. Charing at the ferret and the man, they brandished bent swords, broken spears, as well as their teeth, attempting to do whatever they could before they were cut down.

Jerome however, calmly put his front hands together, and pushed outwards with a sudden exhalation of force. The Lutins were sprawled backwards onto the thick snow, and then, as they struggled to return to their feet, their voices gave lent to horrible screams, these now of pain and fright, instead of malice, as Zagrosek and Charles whirled upon them, their Sondeshikes slashing and crushing their bones, splattering blood all about them, until the once pristine snow was glazed scarlet.

The Lutins dead and routed, the Dance was ended. Charles and Zagrosek spun away from each other, their hands still moving over each other across the Sondeshikes, until, a few seconds later, they were shaking their heads clear of the power that had flowed through them. Garigan looked at them, his eyes going from one to the other in amazement. “How did you do that?”

While the world continued to spin about him, Charles heard Jerome answer, “That was the Tanze wei Zherd. It means Dance of the Staff. It is one of the Sondeckis techniques that blacks who chose to practice the art of the Sondeshike are required to master. They’re just novices with the technique, so it will take them a moment or two to stop walking about in circles and falling over.”

“I’m still standing,” Zagrosek said, before his foot managed to catch at something beneath the snow, causing him to fall on his face into the stained powder. He lifted himself back up, shaking his head clear once again.

Charles managed to collapse against a tree trunk, so had a much easier time regaining his bearings than his friend. After peering onto a world all about him, every angle made clear and plain, to find himself gazing at only a small portion was quite unsettling. Vaguely he recalled the first time he’d broken off the Dance once achieved. He’d run right into a large pillar and knocked himself out completely. This time, only his stomach rolled about, as if it wished to be outside of him, rather than snug in his belly.

Even so, after a minute, its quarrelsome behaviour ceased, and he was able keep the world before him in one place. Peering down at the road, he could see that the Lutins had completely scattered, leaving the mules plodding along, dragging the wagons behind them, as if they had no other purpose in life. “Could we take one of them?”

Garigan stabbed one of the Lutins who was not as beat up as the rest, and then walked over to the rat, and shrugged. “Certainly, this road forks just up ahead. The right fork will take us to Glen Avery, while the left goes to Metamor. The Lutins were probably going to Metamor, so we shouldn’t encounter any problems on the right fork.”

They were soon joined by Jerome, who shook his head. “We ought to only take one, if any. We’ll be more visible targets if we choose to ride in one of those.”

“Well, it will make the trip go smoother, and we’ll have more supplies for the Glenners. Taken right from Nasoj’s own stock no less!”

“We should at least see what is in those wagons,” Charles pointed out, even as Zagrosek finally managed to find his legs beneath him again. Even lifting his arms made him cringe, the rat realized. It had been too many years since he’d done that, it had left him almost completely sore. “And I think Krenek and I need to get to shelter soon; that was more taxing than I thought it would be.”

Jerome grimaced once, but then finally nodded, starting down the hillside. The road was clear of Lutins by now, and the mules did not object in the least to the presence of somebody smelling a good deal better than their previous owners. Matthias scrambled after him, while Garigan helped Zagrosek remain steady as they came down the hill. The rat privately hoped that they’d stopped an important caravan, but given the lack of serious protection, doubted it would be anything more significant than food.

And, it turned out that he was right. All three wagons were crammed with foodstuffs of one sort or another. Mostly just grain that could be boiled in some water to make a soupy meal, but a meal at least. There were a few bags with carrots and potatoes, but only two at most per wagon. As quickly as they could, they redistributed all the vegetables to one wagon, and filled the rest of it with the grain. Zagrosek and Charles then climbed inside of the wagon, resting their arms and legs for a moment beneath the thick, coarse blanket. It was one of the first times that Charles had felt even remotely warm on this whole journey, and even then, it was only in comparison with burying himself in those snow drifts.

Jerome took one last look up the ridge, and then came back down, sitting at the front of the wagon behind the mules, the whip in one thick hand. “The snow’s already covering the bodies. With luck, the Lutins won’t find their comrades for days.” He glanced back at Garigan, who was sitting in the other two wagons, cutting open the sacks of grain and spilling them all over the place. “Unhitch the mules while you’re at it, would you?”

The ferret nodded, and did as instructed. With a sharp smack of his paw, he sent both mules charging down the road. Satisfied, he climbed down from the wagons, and peered underneath. Looking around, he saw an axe that one of the Lutins had dropped in their haste to flee. Grabbing it firmly in both hands, he swung down underneath the cart, and smashed the axle in two.

He did the same for the other wagon, before depositing the axe in a nearby snowbank, letting the snowfall cover it. Charles nodded his approval at his student, even while he shivered beneath the thick blanket on the other wagon. Jerome helped Garigan climb up to join them, and then he whipped the remaining mules into action. Soon, he’d coaxed them into a decent trot, and they were moving at a respectable pace down the old road.

The road was not very wide, enough for a single cart to make its way down without trouble. The centre of the track was upraised slightly, but given the amount of troops that had moved down this way, the snow was rather thin on top, and packed hard beneath. Above them, the branches clustered, casting them in deep shadow at times; the dismal grey light that fell from the sky just as much as the thick snow did, gave them the impression that colours did not exist in this part of the wood.

Yet, they reached the fork in the road only minutes after they started, as Garigan had promised. The right fork was even more clustered then the old North road had been, and soon, they found themselves swatting at low-lying branches that clogged the pathway. Garigan ducked under one ponderous limb and then shrugged to the others. “We don’t use this road anymore, so we’ve let the woods grow back. I’d forgotten about that.”

“How much further until we reach Glen Avery?” Charles asked as he picked a bit of bramble from the cloth. It was not the most comfortable way to ride, he reasoned, as there was a carrot poking him in the back.

“Not far, perhaps a few minutes, unless we run into trouble.” Garigan then furrowed his brow thoughtfully, glancing at the thick woods on either side. “How had those Lutins snuck upon us as they did?”

“They had scouts following them on either side of the road,” Zagrosek murmured, even as he shifted about beneath the blanket, scanning backwards warily. “We were so focussed on the wagons, we didn’t pay attention to our flanks.”

“Well, it doesn’t appear that there are any Lutins harassing these woods,” Jerome muttered, as he gave the mules a little more incentive with a flick of his wrist. “Strange creatures, I’ve never seen their like before.”

“They live in the Giantdowns,” Garigan explained. “They’ve always been tribal savages, and until Nasoj organised them, they were rarely a threat to the humans living in this region, and to the North.”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, they can keep the cold places,” Zagrosek muttered. “It was never this cold at night in Sondeshara!”

Charles had to chuckle lightly, even though he himself was shivering beneath the blanket. “You’ll get used to it, if you stay here long enough.” Neither of the humans had any response for that, simply huddling tighter in their cloaks, and staring at the world of white frost about them with a mix of wonder and of uncertainty.

True to Garigan’s word, Charles began to see the familiar shapes high in the trees only a few minutes later. The road led out into the relatively open space that was Glen Avery. Only this time, where the few open hills that the rat had remembered were lay undisturbed blankets of fresh snow. The ferret jumped from the wagon, and looked about, scanning sights that were familiar to his eyes, and grimacing as he did so.

“So where is everybody?” Jerome asked as he brought the mules to a stop and climbed from the wagon.

Zagrosek never had a chance to do so, before he found himself surrounded on all sides by fur and claws, the sharp point of a sword pressed firmly against his neck. A thick black paw with thick and unfriendly claws held that blade. Charles turned his head in shock, seeing the familiar badger, nearly drag his friend, a Sondeckis of the black, from the wagon’s back.

“Angus!” Garigan cried suddenly, spinning on his feet through the relatively deep snow! “Stop, these are friends!”

The badger looked over at the ferret, blinking several times, before a broad smile lit up his face. “Garigan! Why it is good to see your wretched face here. But what are you doing here? And who are these two humans?”

“They are friends of mine,” Charles said, as he glanced over the haggard and snow-bitten faces of the eight scouts that had descended on them so suddenly. He wondered idly where they had been hiding, for not even Garigan had seen them, and he was a native! “Trust me, they’re here to help.”

Angus nodded, and then sheathed his sword, giving Zagrosek a pat on the shoulder as he did so. “Any friend of Matthias’s is a friend of mine. But what are you doing here?”

Garigan glanced over at the rat, who had already begun to speak. “Metamor has come under attack...”

“We know that. Nasoj’s forces came through here first and snuffed out our defences before we could even raise an alarm. They killed a good number of our scouts too.”

Garigan’s face blanched, and his whiskers grew straight. “How many?”

“Five, including Shelley,” Angus admitted, gripping the pommel of his blade tightly in one paw. The leather of his pommel appeared freshly tanned, without the characteristic stains of well-worn weapons. As the rat scanned about the party, he noticed that all their equipment was that way, as if freshly made. Turning back to Angus, the rat noticed that the white diamond on his forehead appeared oddly distorted for a moment, but Charles soon realized that was just the snow collecting on his broad head.

Garigan sighed, his whiskers drooping, “I wish I could have been here sooner. Shelley was a good friend.”

“The rest of us are holed up in the caves underneath Lars’s tavern. We eight have been making sure that the Lutins don’t come back here for the moment. We were hoping to strike back at the Lutins once we were sure where they were, but we’ve not been able to find their base of operations yet.”

Charles grimaced sourly. “Unfortunately, the majority of them are in Metamor already. From all accounts I’ve heard, and from what I’ve seen, not only have they overrun the town, but they’re in the castle as well.”

Angus’s face fell, as did that of the rest of the Glenners. “Then all hope is lost. If Metamor does not stand, how can we?”

“Metamor is not lost!” Charles declared, shivering despite the passion that he could feel filling him. “They may have troops inside the castle, but they do not hold it yet. We’re here because we wanted to make sure that the Glen still stood, and, because together we might be able to take back Metamor, and stop Nasoj again.”

Angus appeared sceptical. “Just the four of you?”

Jerome gave the badger an odd smile, and Zagrosek, though still rubbing his neck, joined in. “We’re a bit more formidable when we don’t have a sword at our throats. And even then, as Garigan can attest, we are not without a few surprises.”

Charles pulled his cloak tighter, and shifted about on his foot paws. His toes were so cold, he cold almost feel ice forming on his claws! “Do you think we could go to Lars’s? It’s rather cold out here.”

Angus laughed slightly then and nodded. “Of course, we’ll go right away. But first, what’s in the wagon?”

“Grain, carrots, potatoes. We thought you might find them useful, so we stole them from the Lutins,” Charles added, shaking a bit of snow out from between his toes; a useless gesture of course, because once he put his paw back down again, more of the white powder settled between them.

Angus nodded and then turned to an ermine who was just at his back, “Fellen, would you make sure this gets into the storage?”

The ermine nodded, sheathing a long slender blade in his buckler. “Yes, sir.” He and two of the other scouts deftly moved to the front of the wagon, and led the complacent mules down into the open field towards the rocky base at the far end, near the frozen river. Charles watched them go, noting that Fellen’s pelt was far thicker than the rat’s own, which explained why he was dressed so comparatively lightly. His fur was also white, and if it were not for the leather, and the dark orbs of his eyes, would have been invisible only a few feet away against the snow.

A few of the scouts snickered, as Angus grumbled beneath his breath while watching the ermine lead the others off. Garigan looked at him curiously. “Fellen? Where is he from? I don’t ever remember seeing him before.”

Angus nodded, silencing his mutterings. “He’s from Lorland, just arrived this last Summer. He has become a decent fighter, at least once he got the courage to tell me he needed to use a smaller blade. No matter what I do though, he won’t stop calling me ‘sir’!”

Garigan had to stifle a chuckle of his own, while the other three Sondeckis simply smiled. Charles’s smile did not last long though, as soon, the chill in his feet began to creep up into his legs and tail. Angus though, did not give any the time to laugh, as he turned to the other four scouts and flashed them a quick hand signal. They disappeared into the trees within moments. Charles tried to watch them as they climbed up into the lofts, but lost them only after another few seconds. How he wished that he could spend a few months just learning from them, for he had never been so good at hiding as were the Glenners.

Angus gestured towards the same rock outcropping that the wagon was being led to. “Shall we go then? I assure you, we do have fires. But tell me, how in the world did you travel all the way from Metamor to the Glen? It is not a short journey, even by carriage.”

“Once we’re by that fire, I’ll let you know,” Charles said, eagerly scampering through the knee high snow. Angus didn’t say anymore as they quickly crossed the field, staying close to the trees the entire time. The copious snowfall began obliterating their tracks even before they had reached the entrance to the establishment. There would be no sign that they had ever been outside in a few more minutes. And certainly no trace of the supply wagon they’d taken from the Lutin army.

Lars Hasgkenn’s brewery was just as Charles remembered it, except that the front entrance was flanked by two Glenners bearing spears, and another two with bows standing behind them. Inside, it still had that pleasant atmosphere that reminded him vaguely of the Deaf Mule, but in a way, even friendlier than Donny’s well-run establishment. Many familiar faces looked up as they entered, from Lord Avery, to a few of the soldiers he’d fought alongside in the Battle of Nuln. Off in one corner had been the skunk whose tail he’d had been forced to keep his nose in while they rode the Lutin wagon up the back of the mountain all those months ago. Lars himself was tending the fire, his great ursine frame lowered over the sluice as he stirred the coals. Through the back door, he could hear the pleasant humming of Mrs Levins as she prepared the meals – somehow, anything that her paws touched ended up smelling delicious!

Each of those faces lit up in unexpected surprise as they came in, with Lord Avery bounding from his seat, and running to embrace the returning ferret. “Garigan! What a pleasant surprise! I never thought to see you here, not now! How’d you get here?” Even before the musteline had a chance to answer, the excitable grey squirrel had spotted a familiar rat. “Charles!” He embraced the honorary Glenner so suddenly, Charles barely had time to reciprocate. “What are you doing here? And who are your friends?”

“We’ve come to help,” Garigan replied, while Charles caught his breath. The rest of the bar had lit up, with old friends clustering about the entrance, greeting Garigan and Charles, giving him grins and hugs as if he were just as much one of them as the ferret was. Jerome and Zagrosek stood by, watching, secret smiles upon their faces.

“What happened to your arm?” Brian Avery said, as he saw the bloodstain on the ferret’s shoulder.

“I got cut a bit, but I’ll be fine. We’ve been travelling for a while, and were hoping to share your fire.”

“By all means, come in, do come in. You must tell me all that you’ve seen and heard.” Charles had to laugh as they were brought into the centre of the room, near the small blaze set in one wall. It was good to feel the heat again, soaking into his cloak and filling his bones. He stretched his foot paws as he was led to a chair, and a flagon of mead found its way into his hand.

However, before anybody could say anything, and before Matthias even got to sip the delicious mead, another voice broke into the crowd. “Oh, no they will not!” It was Lady Angela Avery, pushing her way through the Glenners that had clustered about their table to hear what they knew. “You will wait until we’ve seen to their wounds. Burris!”

The woodpecker appeared to have been sleeping against one wall, for his long narrow beak opened in some surprise, and his wings extended, nearly tumbling himself over in the process. “Yes, my Lady?”

“We need your art, poor Garigan has been hurt,” Lady Avery insisted, pushing her husband out of the way, while another one of the Glen’s females, a vole of some kind, snatched that flagon of mead from the rat’s paws. Her critical eyes examined Charles’s tail and she snorted. “The rat too.”

“I’m fine,” Charles began to say, but her sharp voice cut him off.

“Not until I say you are. You boys all say the same thing, be you three or thirty. Now you will sit there while we fix that tail up. Then you can have a drink, but only one mind you.” Her voice was so stern, that any further objections died in the rat’s throat. Instead, he glumly sat there as she cradled his tail in her paws, while the vole forced Garigan to remove his cloak, and shirt. Burris stood behind the two women, waiting, blinking sleep from his beady eyes.

Lord Avery gave Charles an understanding smile, and then a glance at the mazer of mead that the vole had put aside. The way his long tail darted behind him, said volumes – she’d kept him from having anything to drink recently too. Angus just chuckled, and focussed the Lord of the Glen’s attention on the other two men who were with their friends. “And just who are you two?” Brian asked, crossing his arms, glad to have something his wife would not interfere with while still excited.

“I’m Jerome Krebe, and this is Krenek Zagrosek,” the broader of the two men said. “We haven’t been touched by the curse yet, but are willing to take that chance to defend this place. It is not our home, not yet, but it is the home of our life-long friend Charles. We are at your service, my Lord.”

The squirrel nodded then, looking from one to the other. “Just call me Brian Avery, most everyone does. When was the last time you had something to eat? And just how did you get here all the way from Metamor with Nasoj’s army out there as it is?”

“Not since yesterday,” Zagrosek said, slumping down in a chair.

Angus patted him on the shoulder and looked over at the bruin standing by the fire pit. “Lars, we need two meals for our guests here. Fellen is bringing some more food around the back, so be a little generous this time.”

The bear snorted, and laughed. “Don’t you go prejudicing them already, you crazy badger. Not generous, hah!” The ursine disappeared in the back behind the counter top, grumbling something unintelligible.

Charles looked over at them both, and then across the smiling faces of the Glenners all about him, even to the critical expression that was on Lady Avery’s face. She continued to lecture him about being careful and not getting hurt like this, though she did treat him a bit lighter than Garigan, who was red from ear to ear; as if he could have made the wound heal by mere will alone!

Settling back with a sigh as he could feel Burris’ magic work through him, he had to allow himself a bit of joy. He was warm, there were good friends all about him, and the Glen was safe for now. Perhaps things were going to turn out all right in the end after all, and Nasoj would be kicked right back out of Metamor again, and maybe this time for good. And maybe Lady Avery would give him that flagon of mead back too. With a silent laugh, he decided to just enjoy the warmth filling him.

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