- "Peace hath higher tests of manhood, than battle ever knew"
The forest flashed past beneath the large owl's wings, the snow glittering from reflected sunlight.
John was usually asleep by this time of day, a rather inconvenient side-effect of having the body of an owl. But today... How could he sleep knowing that a group of those little green monsters were living in his town! People he thought were his friends, how could they just accept them like that!? He wanted to scream in frustration, THEY'RE LUTINS!! But in his current form, unable to speak, it came out as a warbling whistle.
How could they all just sit there, knowing that a group of those Beasts were
only a mile away, and more were coming! How could they all stand in that field,
looking at the ruin those monsters had wrought and accept their pledge of friendship!
And why had he not done more himself! One comment about not wanting anything to do with them?! And he walked out?!
He knew why he did. Those beasts had somehow convinced Ashley of their good will and with what happened to Melanie, most of the others where already halfway to believing it too. As if lutins could ever be more than cruel vindictive monsters!
It was all an act, it had to be. Lutins would never be anything more than monsters, why couldn't the others see that!
He felt as though he would burst if he did not do something. He let out another whistling call, putting into it the sum of all the rage and hate he had within him, pushing it out with such force that it was almost a shriek that seemed to echo back from the forest below.
He dove to skim the treetops, banking hard among the branches, his wings beating out his anger on the air.
Suddenly something flashed up right in front of his face. He wheeled around, trying to see what it was. Then another flashed past, and then three more in quick succession. The realization flashed upon his rage clouded mind just as pain flared in his right wing. His body twisted in the air around the arrow in his wing as he fell from the sky. He managed to right himself and pump his wings once before he hit the ground, hard.
Light shone over the verandas of the buildings in the town square, song filled the air along with the smell of good food and better company. The harvest had just been completed and the newly appointed lord, Lord Cybury thought that a celebration would do well to lift their spirits. And they did need lifting, only last year the ruling ard'Kapler family had been killed, and then Nasoj himself had come and attacked the Keep itself and placed a curse upon them all. Yes, spirits could definitely use some lifting now.
John wobbled slightly through the square, he had still to master walking in this new form, his wings fluttered, trying to keep his balance on his taloned feet. He gazed out across the crowd, looking for one face in particular.
There she was, by the far table gathering a plate of assorted vegetables. One thing he liked about this new form, he could always find who he was looking for. Taking a deep breath, he started toward her. He was going to do it, come what may, by Eli he wasn't going to just stand there, not today.
They had been together for ten months before this curse had struck, she was beautiful, soft of voice, yet strong of will. He had been planning to propose to her, and now... now he was an owl, and she... she had become a rabbit. Yet to his eyes she had not lost one bit of her beauty, and though slightly more skittish, her strong will remained.
Still, she had been avoiding him since the curse took hold. They both needed time to adjust, he knew that, but now was the time to act. He had to know if she still felt for him as he did for her.
As he walked he moved to the right slightly, to get in front of her, so she would see him coming. The last thing he wanted to do was startle her. When he was halfway to the table, she saw him. He could see her whole body tense as she saw him, but then relax as she forced her muscles to loosen, it was just something he noticed now, perhaps a predatory instinct, knowing that your prey had discovered you.
He quickly shook that thought from his mind, she was not his prey. But then, courtship was like stalking prey, in a gentler and more civilized sense.
With that thought he was finally before her. Looking into her eyes, forcing himself to blink repeatedly as he knew his staring gaze would be unsettling to her now. He spoke softly, trying to control his voice, it was difficult to talk without lips, "Good even, milady."
"Good even, John." Her lovely voice was even softer now than he remembered. But she did not meet his gaze, he could feel his heart beat in his chest, hoping against hope that she would not run from him.
"How do you fare tonight, milady?"
She still looked slightly nervous, "With all that has happened, I suppose I fare well enough, and you?" With that she finally looked into his eyes, her smile more beautiful to him than all the angels of heaven.
"Now that I hear your voice again, I could not be happier." Her smile seemed to light up the night.
From behind him, near the center of the town square a fiddle started playing a lively tune. John smiled as he looked toward the sound. He slowly, awkwardly held out his wing to her, "Milady Emily, would you do me the honor of this dance?"
She looked down, and for a moment John feared he had done something wrong. Then she said, "I fear this curse has left me with two left feet."
He laughed, "Well that is fine my beautiful lady, for it has left me with no feet at all, but I would still be honored if you would dance with me. Perhaps we could relearn it together."
Her ears rocked back and forth, and a hint of laughter tinged her voice, "Then it would be my pleasure to dance with you John."
She took his wing with her paw and they walked to the cleared dance area. His other wing went around her back. They started off hesitantly, there were several close calls, and with his talons it would actually be dangerous if he stepped on her toes. But after a while they both began to gain more confidence and soon where moving smoothly across the square.
Suddenly, in a flash, for only an instant the scene changed. He was standing in a clearing, it was a cool spring night, and a light rain was drizzling down through the tree canopy. She was there, as he had found her...
John woke screaming. It was nearly five seconds before he remembered where he was, and what happened. He quickly stood up, ignoring the pain from his wing. He had been shot down, there were Lutins nearby. Looking down he saw an arrow lodged in his right wing, flying was out of the question. He quickly bit through the shaft, trying to stay quiet as he pulled out the arrow.
Staying low to the ground he moved deeper into the snow-covered brush. Without flying, there was no way he could outrun a Lutin, hiding was the best bet. As he crawled he used his uninjured wing to smooth out the snow behind him.
He pulled himself as deep into the brush as he could, his white and brown feathers lending him natural camouflage. In the distance he could hear something crashing through the woods. It got closer, and within a minute he saw several pairs of green legs flash past his hiding place.
He heard voices a few minutes later, they had found the arrow. After a lengthy conversation that he couldn't make out they seemed to split up, probably searching through the forest for him.
Doing what he could to stop the bleeding from his wing, he settled in to wait.
John woke as the sun was rising over the mountain, he had spent a week changing his sleeping habits so he could do this right. He stepped off his perch, another thing he liked about being an owl, not having to make a bed.
Taking a deep breath, he stretched his wings out to full extension and then pulled them back, letting out the breath.
Today was going to be perfect.
After taking the time for a bath and to meticulously groom his feathers, he stepped out into the street in search of Emily.
He found her exactly where he expected her to be, in the garden behind her family's home. She looked beautiful, even in the working clothes she wore when gardening, He watched her pulling weeds from among the heads of lettuce and carrots. As he watched she picked a wild clover and absently popped it into her mouth, probably not even realizing she had done so.
She suddenly seemed to tense and quickly looked around. She started as she saw the owl standing behind her, then relaxed as she recognized him. "John! What are you doing up at this time of day?"
"Hoping you will join me for lunch."
She smiled at him, "Well, I am quite hungry. Give me a moment to change and I will be happy to join you."
They made their way to their favorite spot in the valley. They had found it before the curse, and enjoyed spending time there during the summer. Only a few miles to the west of town there was a steep hill, and on the other side a grove of willows surrounded a small lake. It was a beautiful place, especially now, when the lilies where blooming on the surface of the water.
They ate under the largest tree, the song of birds overhead surrounding them. John's nervousness grew throughout the meal, thinking of what was to come.
When the meal was finished, they sat together, looking out across the lake. John put his wing around her and spoke softly, "I love you, Emily."
Smiling, she leaned into him, "I love you too, John."
His heart soared, while they had exchanged those words many times before, this time seemed all the more important. He turned to face her, "When I first met you, I knew you were special. I thought that day would be the happiest of my life. But each day we're together is even better than the last. I don't ever want that to end, I want to live the rest of my life with you. Emily... will you marry me?"
Her smile blossomed on her face as she threw her arms around him, "Oh John! Of course I'll marry you!"
He pulled away slightly, and brought up his wing, holding a golden ring with a small diamond set in it. A small diamond, yet a diamond nevertheless. It had cost him nearly a year's pay, but he had been saving, and she was more than worth it. He held it up to her with a smile, "One carat for my beautiful bunny."
It had been almost a half-hour since he had last heard anything, moving slowly, he crawled from his hiding place. Looking around, he suddenly recognized the surroundings, he knew exactly where he was. He must have been flying toward it instinctively as he thought about the Lutins.
Moving forward, he made his way through the trees, following the same path that he had tread so many times. Coming to the clearing, he stopped. He stared at the ground, in some ways he liked being an owl, almost never having to close his eyes, because whenever he did he would see her here.
Walking forward he fell to his knees, the world outside forgotten.
The owl looked up from the dead Lutin in his talons. The Eastern block was on fire, smoke rising in a huge column over the town, at least four people had been killed before the militia could respond. When they had arrived, they had found a group of fifteen Lutins throwing torches through windows, trying to do as much damage as possible. It was the third attack this year, and it was only March!
It had started raining a few minutes ago, which should help with the fires at least. He turned at the sound of his name to find his mother-in-law running toward him in a panic.
She had never been one to panic, that she would now worried him to no end, "Ma'am, what's wrong?"
She ran up to him and grasped his wings, "John, Emily hasn't come back yet, she was going to gather herbs and berries in the forest. She should have been back hours ago! I know something's happened to her, I know it!"
He put his wing on her shoulder, "I wouldn't worry Martha, she probably just got distracted by something, you know how she can get. Don't worry I'll find her."
After checking in with his commander he took wing and flew north. Despite his reassuring words, a cold dread began to build in his chest...
He found her in a clearing, about three miles north of the town. He swooped down to land by her side. His legs nearly failed him as he looked at her. A horrified scream escaped his beak as he fell back to his knees.
She was on her back, blood flowing from her crushed skull, and from between her legs.
He turned quickly from the body as his stomach rebelled against the sight. He turned back, tears flowing freely, his eyes searching the clearing, the sky, looking at everything and anything but her... She wasn't dead! She couldn't be! This was some horrible nightmare!
But his eyes were drawn back to her. He couldn't stop them, the image burned into his mind, "Oh Eli! My Emily!"
He didn't know how long it had been, but eventually his commander and some friends from the militia had found him, he remembered being led back to town, attending the funeral.
Then things got hazy for a time.
Things cleared, he was standing in front of the captain of the local militia. "You've been a hopeless drunk for almost three months John, I can't put you back on active duty, I doubt if any of the unit commanders would take you."
John kept his gaze level and spoke softly, "I don't know if you can understand..." His voice cracked as he tried to hold back tears, "...but, I see her. She's there, every time I close my eyes."
His voice became ragged with emotion, "I tried drowning it in beer and wine, it didn't work."
Looking up, he speared the captain with his unflinching gaze, and spoke with hard anger, "If spirits will not ease my suffering, then I will drown this memory in Lutin blood!"
And it had worked, he buried the pain under a pile of Lutin corpses.
It had worked, until now.
His talons dug into the frozen ground, "I will never forgive them! I don't care what Ashley says!"
The soft crunch of snow drifted past his ears.
He turned, and reeled back in pain as a sword opened a gash along his chest. He tried to get up, but his body wouldn't respond to him. Looking up he saw seven Lutins in the clearing behind him, their leader had a sword in his hand, blood dripping from the blade.
Stupid fool, he thought, you should have waited longer before moving, just because they were making such a racket before didn't mean they couldn't be quiet if they wanted. They must have been trying to flush him out, and when that didn't work they must have decided to wait for him to move.
He thought about trying to fight back, but against seven Lutins, without his weapons, and a chest wound, he had no chance. And besides, what would be the point... He was already dead, he had died on this very spot that day, so long ago. He had died with her, his body just needed time to catch up to his soul.
He would accept his death...
The Lutin walked forward, sword in hand.
He would not flinch...
The Lutin raised its sword.
He would not flinch...
It was the one thing that he liked about being an owl, the ability to stare unblinking, even at his own doom.
The sword fell.
He did not flinch.
And because of this he saw exactly what happened. He saw the huge blur of red/grey fur and teeth leap over his body to tackle the Lutin, the maw clamping down on its sword arm. He heard the crunch of bone and the scream that died as the rider plunged a spear through its chest. The wolf tossed aside the corpse and they turned to the remaining Lutins.
As they charged forward one of the Lutins loosed an arrow. The rider grunted in pain as it speared into the left side of his chest, but he still managed to throw his spear, pinning the archer to the ground before he could fire again. The rider drew a sword as the wolf charged into the group of five remaining Lutins.
The wolf bowled through the group, knocking four to the ground, but not before taking a long gash in his flank. The rider slashed his sword through the standing Lutin's face as they passed.
Not appearing hampered by their wounds the wolf and rider turned and rushed back at the Lutins. They were on them before any had regained their feet. The wolf leapt full upon one as it tried to stand, crushing it to the ground and tearing with his claws. The rider cut down another as the wolf finished the third. As this was happening the final surviving Lutin had pulled the spear from his fellow and charged the wolf.
The wolf yelped as the spear pushed through his hind leg. His rider quickly swung his sword in a downward arc that severed the shaft as the wolf turned and crushed the Lutin's head in his jaws.
When it became apparent that the threat was gone, the Lutin rider slumped over on the wolf's back, his wounds finally catching up to him. The wolf's right hind leg was dragging behind it, it was whining softly, trying to keep its rider balanced while trying to turn around to get at the spearhead still in its leg.
The rider coughed, took in a wheezing breath, and coughed again as he tried to exhale, a bit of blood splashing on the wolf's neck. John had seen this kind of wound before, his lung had been punctured by the arrow, without help he could die.
He half slid, half fell off the wolf to land on his knees on the ground. He broke the shaft off near his chest, not pulling the arrow out, as it was the only thing keeping his lung from collapsing.
With him no longer on its back, the wolf turned itself around and started chewing on the protruding spear. Coughing sporadically, the Lutin stumbled over and gently pushed the wolf's head away from the wound, it tried to push back but the Lutin kept a slightly shaking hand on its head while mumbling words into its ear. When the wolf stopped trying to get at the spear, the Lutin turned and got a good grip on it.
With the first jerk it came about halfway out, with the second it was almost out. It came out with a small flow of blood on the third pull. The wound was through the meat of its leg and hadn't severed anything vital.
Amazingly the wolf just stood there, trembling and whining and yelping loudly with each jerk, but it made no move to attack or even stop the Lutin as any other animal would.
The Lutin fell to his knees, coughing up more blood. John got to his feet, the wound across his chest burned, but it wasn't as deep as he first thought. He wouldn't be flying for a while, but would recover.
His mind was awash with conflicting thought as he stared at the Lutin, the Lutin that had just saved his life. Why did he do it? There was no gain! In his mind, unbidden questions arose. They already had their pledge of peace, why would the Lutin risk its life to save him? It could have just let him die, there would have been no risk to the peace, no one from the town would have known. So why? Why did it place its life in danger to save him? It’s a Lutin!
He was angry, at Lutins in general for everything they had done, and at this one in particular for forcing him to question his convictions.
John stopped a pace away from the Lutin, the wolf had laid down and was licking at its wounds, glancing worriedly at the Lutin. The Lutin was nearly unconscious from lack of oxygen. If he passed out, John was certain he would die. At the moment he didn't care, he needed an answer.
"Why the Hell did you do it? Why!? WHY DID YOU SAVE ME?!"
The Lutin looked up, surprised, "Keepers... friends. (cough) Sasiv pro... promise. We Keep Promise."
John's face contorted with emotion. This was impossible, They're Lutins! Lutins are monsters! THEY'RE EVIL! They are incapable of doing good!
A part of his mind seemed to ask, 'Why?' BECAUSE OF EMILY! I will NEVER forgive them for what they did! 'But you killed all those responsible long ago, them and many more.'
They're All Guilty! 'Then why did he save you?'
I don't know! 'But he just told you, if you'd care to listen.'
The Lutin slumped over, breaking John from his thoughts. He rushed over and pushed the Lutin into a sitting position. He was unconscious, his breath coming in quick, shallow gasps.
The owl growled, "No you don't, you’re not dieing on me! Not like this, not after what you did. Now Wake Up!" John slapped him across the face.
The Lutin's eyes opened and he coughed up more blood. But he started breathing deeper. John looked to the wolf, "Well? Come on, I'm not carrying him all the way back myself."
Ashley looked up as a murmur went up from the people walking through the street. What she saw momentarily shocked her. John had walked out of the forest, with a Lutin riding a limping wolf in tow. All of them had dried blood covering them, and he was talking with the Lutin like they were old friends!
Turning she yelled, "Someone run for the healer quickly!"
They were quickly taken to the healer's house. As Hurz was taken into a side room, the wolf whined lightly. John put a wing on its back, "Don't worry Swiftrun, he'll be alright."
Another healer, with a Lutin at his side, stepped up to the wolf. The Lutin led Swiftrun into another room while the healer followed, looking slightly nervous. He'd probably never worked on a true animal before, especially not a dire wolf.
John felt a hand on his wing as Ashley had him sit down. Another healer began washing his wounds, an apprentice as John's wounds where the least serious.
The owl looked up at her, "I had to keep him conscious, talking was the only thing I could think of."
Ashley smiled, "So, now that you've had the chance to actually meet one of them, what do you think?"
John looked up at her sharply. At the anger in his eyes her smile faded. He
held her gaze silently for a time, as the healer wrapped a bandage around his
chest. Then he spoke, "I still don't trust them, I don't know if I ever
will. But, maybe, not all of them are bad."