Flayed Hide

by Charles Matthias

Afternoon July 2, 708 CR

Elvmere scraped bark off thin branches while keeping a wary eye on the woods around their patrol camp. At Captain Dallar's order they spent the previous day and a half patrolling the surrounding forest. They traveled in squads of four for a few hours in the morning, returned to camp for a brief respite, then one squad would venture out again in the afternoon. After they returned the other squad would go on an evening patrol. All the while the soldiers would teach the levies skills they needed to survive in the wilds of Metamor such as tracking, hunting, moving silently, and knowing which foods were safe to eat and which were not.

Last night they'd taken two hour shifts watching, with Elvmere on third watch, ready to rouse their comrades should Lutins or brigands attack. The raccoon was used to walking all day and sleeping out in the wild, but after months serving as a Temple acolyte he lacked the endurance he'd built in his travels with Malger and Murikeer. His muscles were sore on his third day of patrol, but not nearly as sore as they had been on his second. The few hours respite at camp in the evening yesterday had been enough to sooth out the worst of the tension. Though having his sleep interrupted to stand watch in the middle of the night meant he did feel drowsy if he sat still for too long.

Now on the second full day in the woods, Elvmere and his squad were told to watch camp during the afternoon. But there was never rest on a patrol, not while they were awake. As promised, Maud had helped Elvmere and the tokay Wyaert gather saplings suitable for fletching. Green wood needed a significant amount of seasoning and straightening to make real arrows; they did not have time for true seasoning but they did the best they could in the field. After cutting down the straightest saplings they could find, they dangled each shaft next to the campfire with weighted stones tied around the ends as the heat dried them out. Elvmere and Wyeart turned the shafts every few minutes to ensure they didn't warp. And then, when dry enough, came the sizing, slimming, shaping, smoothing, and notching, and all one by one with but their paws and knives. The comely woman who could easily have bested both of them in combat managed the feathering, while Wyaert fitted the metal arrowhead in place.

Elvmere found the rhythm of carving relaxing. It allowed him to do simple work with his paws, while his mind could be active or contemplative. Prayers were first and foremost offered from heart and mind. He attempted to consider philosophy and what the gods he worshiped were, but found his mind returning instead to stories and songs. Out in the woods with soldiers and craftsmen the various ballads he learned from Malger on their journey seemed more appropriate than the canticles of the Pantheon. The holy songs had humorous moments, but far less ribald than Malger's contributions.

He pondered what tale he could tell without staining the reputation of the Temple when Maud took a short break to check on the pack horses. Elvmere took a moment and glanced at the Patildor lizard and the pile of arrows they'd crafted together. After a few hours of work they had fashioned a few dozen serviceable arrows and numerous more abandoned part-way through due to warping or mistakes. The tokay stared cross-eyed with his bright yellow orbs protruding from his head at the metal tip he was fixing to the last arrow, before glancing at the raccoon. "How're your hands, Elvmere?"

"Fine. I'm used to working with them like this. Yours?"

"I think the curses made detail work like this easier for me. It'll be even easier when my arm finishes healing!"

Elvmere chuffed, then looked up as Maud returned. "All right, let's see how well we've done." She selected one of the finished arrows, fitting it in her bow, and shot it at a tree on the other side of camp. He felt relieved to see it fly straight and true. It made a thunk as it pierced the bark. "Elvmere, can you fetch it for me? And measure how deep it went."

He was glad to stretch his legs for a short jaunt. He measured the depth with his claws as he wiggled it free. "Two claws deep. Did we need so many?" He asked as he handed the arrow back to the dark-haired woman.

She examined the point before glancing at the raccoon. "We've eight who can draw a bow. Or will once you've each been trained. Between us this makes four or five per scout?"

Elvmere frowned but nodded. "I see. Forgive the foolish question."

"And," Maud continued with an amused smile, "how else are you and Wyaert to master the art if you do not make many more arrows?"

The tokay nodded, large yellow eyes fixing the raccoon. "She's right. You only learn a craft by doing it over and over again under a master's guidance."

The raccoon felt a flush of embarrassment at the schooling and folded back his ears, tail dashing from side to side. "Aye, of course. Shall we fetch more saplings to continue?"

Watching from nearby, the hulking presence of the giraffe Larssen shifted from where he reclined against an oak. His triangular hear turned toward the sky and he stretched out an arm. "Hold, I think I see Myrwyn coming."

The three birds had their own rotations which Dallar entrusted to Weyden. They could travel further and faster than the rest and so scouted from the sky to find places worthy of their land-bound brethren's study. Elvmere put a paw above his eyes and stared into the sky where the giraffe pointed. After a moment he noticed the larger than normal woodpecker descending through the trees toward them. The satchel secured tight across his chest made it clear it was Myrwyn.

They gathered around the campfire while the woodpecker landed. Larssen kept a watch on the forest while his wife approached the woodpecker and helped him loosen the satchel. "Is everything all right, Myrwyn?"

The woodpecker's next words made Elvmere's heart leap into his throat. "I've found the poachers. I've found where they're hiding."

Maud looked to her husband whose brows furrowed, casting dark shadows over his eyes. "We wait for Captain and the others to return. Do not panic. This is why we're here. Wyaert, fetch something for Myrwyn to drink. Elvmere, secure the fletching supplies. Then both of you help Maud prepare something to eat when the rest of the patrol returns. Poachers will be out at dusk, so there's no point in doing anything until after nightfall. Now get to it. I'll keep watch for the others."

Elvmere closed his eyes for a moment, one paw pressed against the Dokorath medallion beneath his padded green scout's tunic. No prayers came to mind beyond a meager plea for courage.

"Where is this cave?" Captain Dallar asked after his squad returned and had a minute to rest. He had Sedric fetch them bowls of the stew they'd prepared, while Van and Tamsin checked their gear. Jessica inspected Wyaert's arm as her husband Weyden beamed with pride at the woodpecker. Elvmere observed them quietly as fed the fire; only Larssen remained where he'd been, watching the forest from the edge of the clearing.

Myrwyn scratched pictures into the dirt with his talons. "I saw it from a snag about a mile and a half south, a little west from here. There's a rock hill beneath some pines. They're using ivy to cover a crevice in the rock."

"I've seen the snag," Weyden added. "It will not be hard to reach, no more than two hours moving quietly."

Dallar cast a withering glance at the brown woolen sheep bearing bowls of stew. Around the empty pipe between his teeth he muttered, "It may take longer for some. We have to assume there's a second entrance. Probably around behind. Do you know how large the cave is?"

Myrwyn shook his head. "I left as soon as I heard the voices. I heard three, at least."

"Three? Then there's probably at least five or six poachers to deal with."

"Five or six?" Wyaert asked. Jessica's wings were draped over his injured arm and a faint glow emanated from her black feathers about his blue and red speckled scales. "But he only heard three voices."

"Rule of hoof or claw, if you know of two enemies, there's another two you don't. If you know of ten on the ground, ten more hide in the trees. Double the number you know. Even if your first count is right, it's better to be prepared." Dallar pointed at the crevice in the hill Myrwyn had scratched in the dirt. "How wide is this opening?"

"Seven or eight hands wide. Maybe a little more. I'm not sure." Myrwyn flicked his wings out. "I was in my beast form when I stood in it. I'm not good at judging sizes."

Dallar nodded, leaning over the drawing and frowning. "So single-file then. Hmm. And what leads up to the opening? What's this line you've drawn beneath it?"

"It's a stream bed, Sir. Currently dry."

The ram pondered in silence for several seconds. He barely noticed the younger ram trying to hand him a bowl of vegetable stew, but before the youth could say anything he thanked him and sat back to eat.

"Well, I'm not going to be going in," Larssen observed. The giraffe flicked an ear to dislodge a fly. "But I can be there if they try to escape."

"Aye," Dallar agreed between bites. "We'll need a few to go inside and roust them, take out as many as we can. We'll need some to stay outside in case they escape. I wish we knew if there was a second exit."

"If the caves are extensive it could be a mile away," Van said. The man who appeared as a boy with short dusty-brown hair and freckles danced a knife along the back of his fingers as he spoke.

Dallar glanced at Jessica and caught her attention with a soft bleat. "Jessica, do you think you and Weyden could examine the area? Perhaps use some magic to see what they don't want us to see?"

"Unless they are using magic to hide it, no. But I can help us see better in the dark. We might spot something."

"Good, take a short rest and have a little to eat before you go."

Weyden and Jessica both nodded. Jessica patted Wyaert on the shoulder before heading to the cauldron to fetch her meal. The tokay stretched his shoulder and arm for a moment, yellow eyes brightening. His wide mouth opened with a reptilian hiss of pleasure. "Feeling almost normal again. Thank you, Jessica."

"Good to hear, but I will still be placing you at the back, Wyaert. You're very colorful and will be hard to keep hidden." Dallar took another spoonful of potato, chewed for a moment as he considered the woodpecker's scratches in the dirt, and then the members of his patrol and the levies in his care. Elvmere tried not to avert his eyes when the ram looked his way. There could be no doubt now. With the poachers found they were all going to have to put DeMule's combat training to the test.

Dallar swallowed and tapped the drawing with the stem of his pipe. "Poachers know patrols are looking for them, so they won't be using traps. Too easy for Keepers to find. They'll be doing their hunting at dusk and dawn. We will ambush them during the second watch of the night. If they sleep at night then they'll be in a deep sleep. If during the day then they'll be busy skinning and tanning their evening catch. Either way it's our best chance of sneaking up on them."

He gestured to the dirt beyond the dry stream. "Larssen, I want you and Wyaert to wait in the woods here to make sure none of them can get out and no more can get in. Maud, you and Sedric will patrol around the other side of the rock if we're able to find a second exit. Otherwise you'll join Larssen and Wyaert unless you hear us shouting for you."

The ram glanced at the boy and then to the raccoon. "Van, you take Elvmere and enter the cave first. The two of you have the best chance of catching them by surprise. If the passage opens out into a larger cavern, try moving along the side so we can flank them. Tamsin, Jessica and I will follow you in. Once in we'll ambush whoever we find."

"And if we don't find them?" Van asked.

"Then we'll gather all their gear and anything else we find. We'll turn it over to the guards in Lorland and let them sort it out. For now, get something to eat. And you levies, I want all of you to try and get some sleep. We'll wake you when it's time to head out." He turned and patted the woodpecker on the shoulder. "Well done, Myrwyn. Well done."

The woodpecker beamed and danced on his feet.

Elvmere stood over the cauldron and spooned his portion of the stew. He carried the bowl over to a rock and sat down, striped tail flicking from side to side. Tamsin joined him with a fierce grin on his snout. "Well, it's not going to be another night standing guard outside the Temple, eh Elvmere?"

The raccoon flashed his tapir friend and fellow acolyte a waspish snarl. "I'd rather that. I'm not sure I'm ready for a battle."

"You'll know soon enough." Tamsin looked up at the trees above. The sun was starting to go beyond the mountains, leaving the forest floor gray even while the sky remained bright. "I'll have your back. Don't worry."

Elvmere took a deep breath, though his heart remained unsettled. "Knowing we or one of the others might not live through the night? Anxious I might falter and put one of you in danger? I am only worry."

Tamsin patted him on the shoulder and gripped him for a moment, eyes serious behind his drooping snout. "Elvmere, brother. You have nothing to worry about. You've trained well. You are surrounded by seasoned warriors. And I am going to have your back. Trust me."

The raccoon took another deep breath and patted the tapir on his shoulder. "I trust you, Tamsin. I do. Were you afraid before your first battle?"

"First and last," Tamsin said. "You're always afraid or your will be dead." Tamsin lowered his arm and tipped his bowl to his snout, slurping a potato and carrot with one motion of his tongue. He chewed for a moment before adding, "Dokorath's strength is in doing what is necessary even when we're afraid. That's courage."

Always afraid, Elvmere wondered, then shook his head. Malger seldom seemed afraid, often times he charged into battle with a song in his throat, light on his feet, dancing his twin swords as if at a spring festival. And Murikeer, the skunk, neither seemed afraid nor gleeful when he used his magic in battle, calm and calculating as he dropped foe after foe with some spell or other. And then there had been, before his animalistic friends, the Yeshuel who never seemed to show fear no matter the circumstance. They were battle incarnate, brutally efficient at cleaving down bandits foolish enough to waylay them during their travels.

Until the last, dreadful night when there was naught but terror.

He was not like them, confident and bold, cold and distant, brutal and steadfast. Instead he was a nerve-wracked bundle of ruffled fur, backed ears, and flattened whiskers. He sighed with another shake of his head. Elvmere chuffed and lifted his bowl. "Would you pray with me for a bit? After we finish?"

The tapir nodded, "As long as you need."

Midnight, July 3, 708 CR

Elvmere managed as much rest as he imagined he would.

None at all.

Captain Dallar expected them to keep up appearances and so Maud and Larssen led Wyaert and Elvmere on a brief patrol through the woods west of their camp. They did not venture too far south on their circuit so there was little risk of stumbling into the poachers out hunting in the evening gloom. But all of them did their best to move silently. Elvmere, long used to travel through Sathmore and avoiding unwanted attention, and with eyes well suited to seeing at night, had little difficulty. Wyaert moved slowly but still managed to crush leaves, bump underbrush with his tail, and generally sound like a drunken bear blundering aimlessly into every tree. Maud stayed near the tokay to teach him. Larssen, to Elvmere's surprise, made no noise at all as he moved his humongous shape beneath boughs and over rocks.

Elvmere was allowed to lead them along game trails. Maud would point from time to time, but otherwise let his nose guide. He kept low to the ground, sniffing and feeling the earth. The raccoon did not recognize many of the odors he found, but when his fingers felt the tell-tale sign of a hoof or paw print in the earth, he was able to follow their scent for a few minutes before losing the trail.

Once they returned to camp, they stowed their gear and were instructed to get rest. Elvmere climbed into his lean-to next to Tamsin and laid on his back, staring at the canvas and trees above. His friend was already asleep. The raccoon sighed, took deep breaths, and drew to mind all he knew of Dokorath to try and still the fluttering in his heart.

He prayed.

He meditated on the histories.

His eyes refused to stay shut.

What was he afraid of? Losing his life? Not really. He could have lost it the rain-soaked night the Patriarch was murdered. He could have lost it in Yesulam the night of his excommunication. Any number of times on his journeys through Sathmore and Pyralis, whether with Malger and Murikeer or with the Sondeckis and Nylene, he could have died.

Dokorath, guide my hands.

Velena, help me protect my friends.

Artela, guide us in our hunt.

The minutes trickled past. Crickets serenaded. A solitary owl hooted. Sedric snored.

An hour. Two. Frogs croaked. The embers smoldered in the firepit. Sedric rolled over and finally fell silent.

Three. Elvmere breathed in and out. Closed his eyes for long stretches. Popped them open at any sound near the camp. Closed. He tapped his claws together. Each breath he could sink deeper and deeper into a warmth. He yearned for his Lady to visit him in his dreams.

But he never reached his dreams. Hour four, still unable to sleep, the patrol guards started moving around camp rousing them one by one. Reluctantly, Elvmere slipped from beneath the lean-to and stretched his muscles. The moon, slightly more than half full, had risen an hour past and brought a faint, pale glow to the forest. For most of the animal Keepers it was enough to see their gear and prepare themselves as they'd been trained. For the humans and the birds whose eyes were not suited for the night, Jessica summoned a few witchlights low to the ground so they could see without alerting others.

As Elvmere tightened the straps to his leather armor, he watched Tamsin twirl his thick fingers in the air and breath across them. The tapir's eyes glowed with a subtle light and then to Elvmere's amazement a handful of new witchlights sprouted from the tips of his fingers, before entering a slow dance above his hand. They cast both tapir and raccoon in a somber verdant light. Tamsin grinned at his friend, then lowered his hand, adding his lights to the others dotting the ground.

Elvmere leaned over and whispered, "When did you learn that?"

Tamsin whispered back, "Been practicing at Temple all last month. I know a few other tricks. I'll show you sometime."

Elvmere smiled as the lights spread across the ground. He watched them for several seconds before returning to his gear. He worked his foot-paws into the boots and laced them with deft touch. He pulled the green patrol tunic over his armor, buckled the baldric and belt. The weight of the scabbard and blade rested against his back. His fingers curled about the pommel and gingerly drew it forth. The steel caught the light, diffusing it into a faint aura bathing the raccoon's face and chest. Neither the glow, nor the weight, or the feel of the leather straps on the hilt comforted him.

He sheathed his blade as silently as he drew it. Elvmere stood, stretched his legs and tail, flexed his toes within the boots, and exhaled his breath. His eyes found Jessica who was one by one casting a spell over each of the patrol. By the time she reached him, Tamsin was also ready, idly stepping on his own lights and snuffing them one by one.

"Just hold still," she said in a strange murmur. Her voice, like her husband's, came with an avian undertone, as if she were ejecting every word from the depths of her lungs, twisting her throat to craft each syllable. To hear it so quiet raised his hackles as if a great predator hunted him.

But he did as she bade. The claws at the joint in her wings traced runic symbols a few inches from his face, her beak cracked open with silent incantation. Elvmere could feel something faint like a veil of silk drape across his face, and for a brief moment he thought he smelled blueberries and black currant. And then the sensations faded and the clearing they'd made their camp seemed almost as bright as it would during midday. The leaves on the trees were every shade of green. The buckles on Wyaert's armor had only been buckled on one side. Beyond them Larssen's neck bent down and his thick lips brushed Maud's as his arms enfolded her still human body. The woods beyond, once dark but discernible, now held no secrets.

He smiled to the hawk to assure her the spell worked and she bobbed her head. Jessica moved to Tamsin next, while Elvmere walked over to Dallar and Van for final inspection.

Van shifted his belt but otherwise seemed satisfied. Dallar took a few extra seconds before nodding and giving him a pat on the shoulder. Elvmere chuffed, grateful for their approval.

He waited only a few minutes for the rest to prepare. Elvmere's paw rested upon the weight of the Dokorath medallion against his chest. He did not pray so much as dwell on the memory of the vision of the god himself he'd received the first day of their patrol. Black armor and black cloak almost hidden in the night, split wide by the silver blade he bore. No hostility did Elvmere feel from the vision or even its memory. It brought confidence, reasons to hope, even if it did not lift his anxiety.

And then the moment came and Dallar gestured for the raccoon to join Van and Weyden at the front of the line to lead them. Elvmere took a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other, and headed toward battle.

The trail to the poacher's den was silent and slow. Weyden would fly ahead a hundred or so paces and wait, perched high in a tree, until Van and Elvmere reached him. Their pace was slow, slower even than the evening patrol. But it was quiet and in the shadows for not a one of them needed a lantern or witchlight.

Elvmere had wondered why Dallar hadn't asked Jessica to cast a spell to muffle the sounds of their passage for a time. But as he pondered, taking step by careful step to avoid crushing fallen leaves and twigs, or disturbing low branches or bushes with thorns, he recalled his travels through Sathmore. The skunk Murikeer who had ever only been kind to him, had spoken of magic leaving its own mark the trained eye could see. Jessica had even tried to teach him to see magic a few days ago and when time allowed on patrol would do so again.

A little magic to see gave them an advantage at night and in a dark cave. But too much and they might make themselves more noticeable. Further, Elvmere realized, part of the point of the patrol was to teach them the survival skills they needed. How else would they learn to move quietly if they always had a mage do it for them?

Ruminations on solvable problems kept his nerves calm as they made their way through the forest at the midnight hour. But long as the trek was, it came to an end. Weyden waited on a lower branch, one wing extended. Beyond him the ground sloped down to a dry stream bed, then back up again into a rocky defile covered with pine trees and huge carpets of ivy. Elvmere could see what the woodpecker had tried to show them in his scratches in the dirt.

Van stopped when he reached the tree Weyden perched in, drew his sword, and turned to check on him. Elvmere crouched against a second tree, taking a quick breath and drawing his sword too. It felt heavy in his paw, and he feared it would tip over and send him careening down the hill. He tightened his grip, claw tips pressing against his palm pads. His eyes fixed upon the wall of ivy, imagining a horde of hunters bursting forth with war cries.

They waited for the rest of the patrol to catch up. The poacher's den was a good hundred paces away from where they hid, but still, Dallar used hand signals instead of words. He gestured first at Maud and Sedric, pointing to one side and made a circling motion with his finger. The woman nodded and tapped the young brown ram to follow her. He then caught the eyes of Weyden and Myrwyn and flicked two fingers upwards. The birds bunched their legs tight, and then leaped into the air, beating wings hastily upward into the boughs. To the rest he held his hand flat out. They stayed still and waited.

Elvmere cast a glance toward Maud and Sedric as they headed westward around the cave. The hawks had found a second smaller entrance on the other side leading into a narrow ravine. Armed with bows they would wait atop it in case any poacher escaped. Sedric wasn't the best archer, but Dallar probably knew it best to keep him outside the cave; he was an excitable sheep and likely to alert the poachers with his enthusiasm.

Myrwyn flitted back a candlemark later and bobbed his head up and down a few times before darting back into the trees above. Dallar nodded in return, then looked at Van and Elvmere. With one hand he gestured toward the ivy. Elvmere swallowed, put one paw upon the Dokorath medallion, and carefully started down the slope.

Van crouched as he stepped, eyes never leaving the ivy. Elvmere followed him down, both of them keeping trees between themselves and the cave mouth. The boy cast a quick glance at the raccoon before climbing up the hillside. He carried a short sword with a fine edge, well proportioned to his short stature. Even when he needed to brace himself on the rocky slope to the ivy drapes, the sword was kept before him, as both weapon and shield. Elvmere tried to imitate the pose in his own ascent.

The forest was quieter than at their camp. The raccoon could hear a distant owl, but no frogs nearby, and even the crickets seemed remote. Elvmere winced when a single pebble scraped beneath his boot, breathing a whisper of gratitude to Artela it did not clatter to the stream bed. Every shift of his arms and legs brought forth what seemed to him a roaring creak of leather and rustle of cloth. Even his own heart beat louder in his ears than the whispering wind through the trees.

Van reached the ledge and put his back to the rock next to the ivy. Elvmere did the same on the other side, holding his sword close enough to his snout to feel the flat of the blade with his whiskers. He peered at the ivy and saw most of it covered granite. In the center it covered a dark hole, something they would never have seen if they were not standing atop it. Van glanced down the hill and Elvmere's eyes followed. Dallar and Tamsin were at the stream bed with Jessica perched atop the tapir's shoulder. Beyond them Larssen and Wyaert waited at the top of the far hill, visible only because of the hawk's magic.

Van slipped the tip of his sword beneath the ivy, lifting it every so gently, and peered inside. Elvmere waited, barely breathing. The boy stared for several seconds before glancing at the raccoon and giving a short nod. Elvmere forced himself to take a deep breath, then turned and slipped through the ivy and into the crevice behind the boy.

The cave appeared to be a natural formation at the entrance, but showed signs of human hands six feet in. The walls were shaped to allow a Metamorian of modest build an easy path. The floor sloped downward and to the right, with no sign of any light for over a dozen paces. Van hugged the left wall, Elvmere the right, as they step by step delved within.

Around the bend a faint light flickered across the walls. Elvmere's ears turned toward the sound of someone sleeping, and the scent of smoke, freshly killed meat and salt filled his nose. Van's pace slowed and with it so did his. There was another sound, and it took a moment for Elvmere to place it: a tanner's knife through hide. At least one poacher was sleeping, and another was preparing their latest catch. He heard no others.

Van and Elvmere crouched low as they took their next steps. The light on the walls grew brighter. The passage led downward for another dozen paces, ending in an opening to a large cave blocked by animal hide; small shafts of light escaped around the corners. There was enough room for Van and Elvmere to stand next to the hide and peer through the cracks.

The room beyond was more natural cave with uneven floor and ceiling, small stalactites and stalagmites along the narrowest gaps, and small fissures in the ceiling through which smoke trailed. They could see one of the poachers in profile, a human man with scraggly beard and stocky build. His eyes were focused upon a quartet of rabbits whose hides he deftly skinned and hung from string tied to stalactites. The snoring man was not visible, nor anyone else. They could not see the back of the room from the opening.

Van glanced back up the passage for a moment, before nodding to Elvmere and pointing toward the right. No sooner did Elvmere nod the boy slipped beneath the pelt and crouched along the left side of the cave, keeping out of sight in the shadows. Elvmere swallowed.

Artela, keep my steps silent.

Dokorath, I trust you to guide my sword.

The raccoon eased through the pelt, stepping quickly behind one of the larger stalagmites on the right side of the cave. The ceiling remained high, marked by many smaller spears and box-shaped rock, all glistening with moisture. But the floor was higher than where the poacher stood, so Elvmere, even crouched, still looked down at their quarry. He inched along, being careful not to dislodge any stones, nor to strike his blade against any.

Further down the cave he could see another passage leading off from the left wall, and a third descending from the far side. A small hollow next to it featured hammocks strung low between stalagmites. Elvmere counted three more poachers, including the one snoring. The snoring one was a hound of some sort, while a badger reclined next to him, tapping his claws to his chest while trying to get some sleep. The third, also a human, this one fairly young with only a few hairs on his cheeks and lips, was idly sharpening a knife and staring at the shadows on the ceiling.

Elvmere didn't see any weapons other than the knife and the badger's claws, but there were so many cracks and crevices it was impossible to see everything. He couldn't see where Van had hidden himself, and there was no safe way to reach either of the other two passages without being seen, so Elvmere waited, wondering what he should do.

The one poacher finished skinning the rabbits and started cutting what little meat they had free, when Dallar and Tamsin emerged from the first passage. Both stepped fully into the chamber, with Jessica at full size following them in. The ram shouted, "In the name of Duke Thomas Hassan, you are all under arrest for the crime of poaching! Surrender at once!"

Chaos erupted. The two poachers laying in their hammocks scrambled to their feet, knocking the hound onto the cave floor in the process. The first man dropped his knife, grabbed the sword he'd kept on the same stone, and rushed toward the ram and tapir swinging wildly. Van emerged next to the passage on the left, while Elvmere did his best to scramble down from his perch. Jessica flapped her wings once and the fire blew out, dimming the room but not casting it into complete darkness.

Dallar crossed blades with the first poacher, while Tamsin rushed to Elvmere's side as the other three finally found their bearings and charged. The badger was first with a heavy axe and Tamsin deflected his first swing, driving him back toward the dark passage at the end of the hall. Van was on the younger man a moment later, while the hound staggered toward Elvmere swinging a mace.

Elvmere moved his sword up and down, side to side, deflecting each blow from the cornered hound. The poacher's jowls flecked with drool and his eyes, droopy and dilated, searched the darkness for the raccoon as he stepped side to side with each swing. He felt his arms ring each time their weapons struck. The hound swung hard, knowing he was facing years in the mines or worse if he was caught. But Elvmere easily avoided or deflected each blow.

Another two poachers dashed out of the passage at the end, but Elvmere was only dimly aware of them. He heard the first poacher grunt and collapse to the ground and felt Dallar brush past to help Van and Tamsin. The hawk screeched an incantation and the badger roared in pain. A moment later the badger grunted when Tamsin drove the hilt of his blade across the badger's face.

Elvmere kept himself between the hound and both exits from the cave as the hound vainly tried to brain him. The mace was tipped with knobs and would break his bones should it strike, but each time Elvmere found his blade in the way. Even the rocking from the impact seemed to energize his body. He pushed back each deflected blow, sending the hound reeling and off balance for a moment or two. The raccoon felt a chittering snarl in his throat and his heart beat with fire, tail flicking from side to side as he kept his eyes fixed on the hound who could do naught against him.

A handful of attempted blows later, and two more poachers groaned as they were sent tumbling to the ground. The hound, finally realizing he wasn't going to get past Elvmere, darted off to the side, coming straight at Tamsin's back. The tapir was helping Van deal with a broad-shouldered wolf bearing two swords. Elvmere pegged him as the leader of the band of poachers and the only one with real combat experience. Tamsin, so focused on the battle before him, did not see the hound with mace lifted to crash down upon his head.

Elvmere hissed and jumped, driving his boot into the hound's leg, the flat of his blade across the middle of his back, and then with one more swing smashed the hilt into the back of the poacher's head. The hound collapsed into a heap at his boots. He spun toward the others, danced around Dallar, and then did something he remembered seeing his master Malger do. He ducked low underneath one of the wolf's swings and sliced the thin of his blade along his thigh. The wolf yelped sharply in agonized surprise and Elvmere felt his entire body spasm at the sight of red along the edge of his blade.

And then the wolf fell to his knees. Dallar struck him on the back of the head and the last poacher collapsed. The battle was over.

Elvmere gasped at the sight, his breath heavy and his fur standing on end. Tamsin glanced around, then up at the raccoon and his snout lifted in a big grin, "And you thought you wouldn't be able to handle it. First battle, and first blood. Well done!"

Dallar looked around the cave for several seconds, noting the six unconscious poachers. Van was already binding their hands behind their backs with rope. "Elvmere, excellent work. Clean your blade and make sure his wound isn't fatal. Jessica, let the others know we've secured the cave but we'll need their help getting all the poachers out. Tamsin, come with me, we're going to explore the rest of this cave. Be wary, there may be one or two yet hiding."

Tamsin patted the raccoon on the shoulder as he stepped past toward the far passage the wolf had come from. Elvmere smiled around his fangs, and patted him back, gripping tight for a moment, tight enough the tapir would feel his claws. Tamsin's smile widened and a knowing look came to his eye. He in turn tightened his grip on Elvmere's shoulder.


Dallar's voice ended the silent bond. Tamsin followed the ram down the passage at the back, while Elvmere wiped the edge of his sword on the wolf's tunic. The blood smeared across the hide as it came clean from his blade. Elvmere sheathed the new blooded weapon and stared at his paws. They trembled. He stared past them at the wolf and the bright red cut along his thigh. It was a long, straight, smooth glisten of red through the wolf's pelt, from his knee upward across his thigh, two hands long and bleeding freely. That was his cut, he had shed that blood. He bent down and tearing a discarded tunic with his fangs, he wrapped it tightly around the wound.

Akkala, heal this man. Please.

"First time?" Van asked as he grabbed the wolf's arms to bind them.

Elvmere nodded. "Aye. My first." Years traveling with Akabieth and his Yeshuel, and then on the road traveling with Malger and Murikeer, then across much of the Pyralian kingdom alone, he had never shed blood. He had never raised a weapon against another.

And now he had both raised a weapon, and spilled blood.

"Always the hardest. But they live. Just wait until you have to kill them. You'll get drunk afterward. And Dallar won't mind if you do tonight."

The raccoon nodded. One paw pressed against the medallion.

Thank you, Dokorath. Thank you, Artela. Thank you, Velena. I am in your debt.

"Can you teach me to bind them? I need to use my paws."

Van nodded and gestured for him to follow.

At least I didn't kill him. At least I didn't kill him.