Some wounds are deeper than mere flesh and bone
It itched. No matter how much he told himself he wasn’t feeling an itching sensation he still felt it. It was his LEFT foot that itched which was impossible. It didn’t matter that it really wasn’t there anymore his left foot still itched like crazy. It wasn’t the stump that itched, that wound hurt. What truly un-nerved the wolverine morph was that he could still feel the lower leg and foot in spite of his loosing them to a sword blow a month ago. Andre tried to take his mind off it and concentrate on the matter at hand with limited success.
“We’ve got the debris cleared from the outer gate and should have the new hinges and counterweights in place by the end of the month.” The person who spoke those words was a broad shouldered woman dressed in red and black robes. On her hip a sword in a blue leather scabbard hung from a belt of the same color. “We also cleaned out the guard room but there are a few spots of blood we can’t remove.”
That statement brought up a wave of bad memories and mixed emotions for Andre. On the Yule tide eve when everyone at the Keep was celebrating the holiday Nasoj had attacked the keep. That didn’t bother the wolverine. It was a brilliantly executed attack. It was the Keepers own fault for being so lax. What hurt him was what had happened at the start. Just before the first assault on the walls one of Misha’s trusted Long Scouts had come to the south gate and given to the twenty guards a Yule present of wine and fine food. All of it poisoned. The merest sip was enough to leave a person writhing in agony on the floor for the few minutes it took to die. Twenty fine people murdered by a traitor in one deadly toast. His anger boiled thinking about it. The only thing that helped was the fact that the traitor had died scarcely two days later.
Andre himself should have been among the dead. He too should have drunk that fatal toast. The only reason Andre wasn’t among the dead was that he had been at Misha’s party and lingered there a little too long. When he had arrived he found his soldiers dead and a scores of Lutins and humans charging through the burning and twisted gates. In his mind he again saw a score of his soldiers writhing on the ground in agony as that stinking bird stood over them cheerfully talking to tall lutin chief. He had seemed so proud of his handiwork. It was an image burned into his mind.
He felt a warm hand on his shoulder. Looking up he saw his wife Jenn standing there. She didn’t say anything, just squeezed his shoulder. No words were needed.
“Don’t try to remove them Catljin. Leave them as a memorial to twenty good soldiers,” he finally said.
The woman nodded slowly. “We’re going to need replacements for them,” she said calmly.
“Any suggestions?” Andre asked. He just couldn’t focus his mind on the living. All he could see was the dead.
“A few,” Catljin commented. “The Duke has forty soldiers supplementing our people at the gate and some of them show promise.”
“What about the dead?” the wolverine asked.
“They’re in the crypts under the gate. When spring comes we’ll give them a proper burial.”
“No,” Jenn said quietly interceding in the conversation. “We will give them the proper rites now, not three months from now. That’s too long to let them just lay there in a room like a slab of beef in a cold room.”
“When?” the Catljin asked sounding a little unnerved.
“Sunday,” Andre answered. “I want Father Hough and the priestess Blackmane there and I’ll talk to the duke and see if he’ll come as well.”
“What are you going to say at the funeral?”
That gave Andre some pause. “I don’t know but I have four days to think on it.”
To Hough Misha didn’t look good. The fox was dressed in a brown shirt with green pants that were both rumpled and creased,. The bandages on his head and hand were clean but also had a rumpled look about them. It looked like he had slept in them. He moved with a slow, weary gait that spoke of an exhaustion that was both physical and mental. His eyes mirrored that exhaustion. Hough wondered when was the last time Misha had gotten a good nights sleep.
“Thank you for coming Father,” Misha said as he scratched the bandage on his right hand with his left. “It’s about the prisoner we captured during the counter attack. He’s not had a good nights sleep yet. He sleeps very little and when he does he always wakes up screaming. Nightmares.”
“He is a prisoner. He probably believes you’re going to torture him.”
The fox shook his head. “It’s not that simple.” Misha paused for a moment. “During the battle I . . .” he lapsed into silence.
“I’ve heard the stories,” Hough said quietly.
“I doubt you’ve heard the truth. I did something no one has done in a millennia and summoned,” the fox paused pondering his next words carefully, “her . . .”
He paused again for a long time before continuing. “She tried to drain his life like she did to the others. It actually left a mark on his throat shaped like a grasping hand.”
“What is she?” Hough asked, more then a little alarmed. The idea that Misha had summoned something so evil was frightening. There were things no one should ever try and summon or control. A person could loose more then just their life using such magic.
"I am not sure I can describe her. I'm not totally sure what she is but I know she is not evil."
"How do you know that?" Hough asked
Misha was silent for a long time before he answered. "I can't give you a clear explanation but I feel it in my heart. She's saved my life so many times.”
Hough wasn’t entirely satisfied with that answer but he did trust the judgment of the fox, as it had often proved quite reliable in the past. He had been right about Madog. “I understand but I still worry.”
The fox gave a short bark of laughter. “I know Father. That’s part of your job.”
Hough smiled, laughed and shook his head.
The wolverine was seated on the edge of the bed and was dressed solely in a brown pair of pants. No shoes or shirt. His fur was colored all black except for an unusual spot of white on the throat in the shape of a hand. Hough tried to imagine what it must have been like for him feeling the very life drained from his body and shivered involuntarily. Outwardly he tried to appear calm. He didn’t want to disturb the wolverine any more then necessary.
“I am Father Hough and tend to the spiritual needs of the people here at Metamor Keep.”
The figure on the bed gave the young looking cleric a nod of the head in return but said nothing.
“How are your wounds? Healing well?” Hough asked sincerely.
“Yes, Sir. I thank you for showing me such kindness,” the wolverine answered in a timid voice. He looked nervous as if he expected the priest to attack him with some hidden weapon.
“We're not monsters here. I am merely showing you the kindness all deserve. What is your name son?” Hough asked.
“Eldrid,” the wolverine answered quietly.
“Where were you born? By your accent you're from the South Midlands aren't you?”
The wolverine nodded solemnly but relaxing noticeably . “I was raised along the Marchbourne river and my parents said I could swim before I could walk.”
“Why did you leave that place and all you friends and family?”
“I’m from a small village along the river. I found taking up my fathers life as a fisherman boring beyond reckoning. So I left to wander and see the world. Anything had to be more exciting then spending the rest of my life fishing. So I wandered. I’ve been a sailor, a miner, a mercenary, I’ve even been a farmer.”
“How did you get involved with Nasoj? Surely you understood who he was?”
“No,” came the curt answer. “I’ve been a fighter all my life. I have done many other things but I always come back to fighting. I’m good at it. Nobleman have paid me very well to fight their wars for them. Dukes, kings, barons they mean nothing to me. They all have some petty reason for waging war but that doesn’t matter so long as they have gold to pay me with.”
Hough shook his head sadly. "And has that money made you happy?"
Eldrid shook his head sadly in agreement. “No it hasn’t. All it’s gotten me is scars. When a man offered me high wages to fight for Nasoj I accepted. I didn’t know who he was, merely that he was some northern lord who needed my skill with the axe. He did offer me far more money then any one else had.”
“For three years I fought his enemies - humans, Lutins, ogres, whoever and whatever they were. But until last spring I never fought a Keeper. Then I was part of a raiding party that was ambushed by some Keepers. I know now that they were the Long Scouts. First we were showered with arrows that cut down a dozen in the first volley. Then this monstrous bear came charging at us and killed two men with a single swing of an axe. I survived by jumping into the river and letting the current sweep me away from the fight. Even then I took an arrow in my back.”
“The officer who paid me explained more about these animal men, how they had the speed and agility of an animal but with the mind of a man. He said it was the perfect combination for a warrior.” Eldrid shook his head. “He finally asked me if I would like to try being changed a little to see if I would like it. If I didn’t he would change me back.”
“And you accepted?”
“Not at first, but Nasoj was patient. Over the space of the spring and summer he kept telling me how great being an animal would be. How it would increase my power and strength and my virility. Then he showed me the two who had become panthers. I saw how they HAD become faster, stronger and more deadly then ever. And with claws and teeth they had weapons infinitely more powerful then any sword. And I remembered how easily that bear had ripped through those two men. Eventually I accepted. He even let me pick the animal I wanted to become like. I’ve always admired wolverines for their ferocity and long claws.”
“I never regretted the change, you can’t imagine how great it feels. The strength, the vitality, all the new senses that came with it. No man or lutin could beat me.” The wolverine held up his hands showing his long, sharp claws to the young looking priest. “With these claws I didn’t even need a man made weapon. I had built in ones. I could never loose them and never had to sharpen them.”
The wolverines body sagged and his head drooped. “I learned later the true cost. I had to kill one person and help them take Metamor Keep. I didn’t think much of it at first. When the snow kept us from the Keep we were told to setup an ambush and let the Keepers come to us. It sounded simple. The ambush went off perfectly and me and Mercher were fighting the fox.”
“The fox was really good but there was two of us. Mercher had cut the fox really badly on the hand and across the face, knocking him down. All that was left was for the killing stroke, one quick chop and off would come that fox head and it would be all over. Then the fox shouted something and IT appeared.” His voice trailed off into silence for a moment before continuing. “This red demon seemed to come right out of the axe itself. It picked up Mercher and just squeezed the life out of him the same way a man might squeeze a piece of fruit.”
“Then that hand closed around my throat and it felt like a noose made of the cold ice of hell itself. Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I could feel the cold from that thing seeping into my body filling it with a coldness like an open grave. I . . . “ His voice cracked and he fell silent.
The priest sat down next to Eldrid and put his arm around him. The wolverine was shivering and crying, his whole body shaking. Hough held onto the wolverine with both arms doing his best to sooth the frightened morph.
“You’re safe here. No one will harm you and it will not ever return to hurt you. I promise you that,” Hough said softly.
After a long time the shaking and crying stopped and Eldrid seemed to regain his old strength. “When I thought I was dead I heard above all the confusion the words ‘Stop. Please let him live.’ It was the fox speaking. That cold hand released me and I dropped down to the warm earth. Later they picked me up, bound my wounds and brought me here. Since then they have shown me nothing but kindness and caring, food, clothing, a fine bed they even let me bath. I feel more like a guest then a prisoner.” Eldrid shook his head. “Why? Why save my life when all I wanted to do was kill him? Why did Misha do that? Why all the care since then?”
“Are you a Follower?”
Eldrid shrugged. I was raised that way but I haven’t given any thought to religion since I was a child.”
“I have known Misha as a brave and powerful fighter but he is also caring and forgiving. He feels guilty for causing people to die in such a way and he could not let it happen again.”
Hough took a deep breath, "Misha has seen a great deal of death. I think you have too. Do you wish to see any more of it?"
Eldrid shook his head slowly, "No. No more death, not like that.”
Hough smiled and placed on hand on the great wolverine paw. "Then you know why you are being treated so well now. None of us want any more death. This is the time of forgiveness. This is our way of saying that we at Metamor do not hold what you did against you."
Eldrid didn’t answer but pondered Hough’s words in silence.
At that, Hough patted the paw one more time, so much more massive than his child's hand, and nodded. "I know it is hard to accept sometimes. But rare it is that a greater gift can be given than this."
Eldrid looked confused at that last comment. "I tried to kill him and he forgives me? No one has shown me kindness like that since I was a child.”
Hough pursed his lips at that. "I will not speak for him personally, but I do not think you would be here if he had not forgiven you in part for it. Spare you perhaps. But give you good food, bed, even a bath as you say, is that the action of a man who has not forgiven you in some way?"
The wolverine nodded in agreement. "What will they do to me? Will I be in this cell for life?"
Hough sighed then, but smiled hopefully. "I think that depends on you."
“ME?” Eldrid asked in a confused tone. "I don't understand."
"Yes," Hough said, turning to face him fully. "How you receive this gift will determine how your life is lived. But the choice is always yours."
"Choice? What choices do I have? I cannot go north or Nasoj is sure to have me killed for failing. And to go south like this," he waved a paw at his massive furred body. "Would mean certain death."
"Yes, those are choice you have. They may not be good choices, but they are still your choices. You could also stay here at Metamor."
“Stay here?” Eldrid asked in a surprised tone. “I’d never considered the idea. What would I do?” he asked, his voice calming down as if he was already warming to the idea.
Hough smiled then more broadly. "Whatever you wish to do, within reason."
“Would they accept me?”
"I don't see why not. Most would have no idea what you have done." His face grew a bit darker then. "But you should not tell of your service to Nasoj lightly. Many will hate you for it, even if you change your ways, but they will with time accept you.”
Eldrid was silent and didn’t speak but just looked a spot on the floor.
“You have any family?” Hough asked, changing the subject to something more cheerful.
“My mother and a sister and a brother,” Eldrid answered hesitantly.
“If you wish we could send a message to them, telling them you're alright.”
“I haven't seen or spoken to any of my family in years.”
“Then it is long over due.”
“How did things go?” Misha asked Hough who was standing in the doorway to the cell.
“Well,” the boy priest answered. “I have helped lay the worst of his fears to rest but I will be by tonight for another visit.”
“Of course. Whatever helps.”
Hough held up an envelope. “I need to see that this is sent off before dusk.”
Misha nodded. “Where is it headed?”
“To the town of Marlesbury, along Marchbourne river in the South Midlands.”
“A courier is taking mail and packages to my sister in Marigund. I’m sure we can have him make a detour.”
A figure appeared silently in the cell behind Hough. It was Eldrid.
“Why did you spare my life? Eldrid asked in a whisper.
There was a long silence before anyone spoke.
“The Great One has mercy for us all,” Misha explained. “They killed his son and he forgave them anyway.”
“Is that the only reason?” Hough asked quietly, calmly. Both the boy and the wolverine were staring at him intently.
The fox shook his head. “No. I have a friend, Andre who is also a wolverine. Watching you dangle from her hand like that, crying and pleading for your life. Suddenly you weren’t an enemy anymore, just a terrified, helpless person. I just couldn’t let her kill you.” He let out a long, slow sigh that seemed to come from the depths of his soul. “I’m tired of killing. I’ve seen too much of it.”
“We all have,” Hough added and Eldrid nodded in agreement.
“I wish to stay here at the Keep,” Eldrid said suddenly. “I have no where else to go.”
Misha nodded his head. “I’ve already brought the subject up to Thomas. He’ll want you under guard for a while but you can stay. In time we’ll discuss what tasks we’ll have you do and your pay.”
“You’re not surprised I want to stay?” the wolverine asked, surprised.
“No,” the fox answered. “The Keep seems to attract the lost and wandering. Giving them a home.” He laughed. “If we can put up with Rickkter’s antics we can certainly accept you.”