Fresh Meat

by Charles Matthias

July 6, 708 CR

A faint afternoon drizzle coated the land and Wolfram's patrol in a cool mist. The road from Tarrelton to Mycransburg followed a shallow ridge along a narrow stream bed flanked by pastureland to the north, and a dense forest to the south. Local shepherds carried a crook in one arm but had a sword or bow on their back. Rocks filled the ground, making it unsuitable for agriculture, but the road had long been cleared of loose stones to bedevil hooves and twist ankles.

North of the pastures the edge of a thick blend of pine and oak overtook the land. A few small pine dotted the pastures waiting for a local to cut them down. They did not dare push the line of woods back any further. An ancient Suielman city lay deep within the heart of the forests northeast of Metamor. And the forest and its beastly brethren were the only life the spirits abiding there tolerated within its demesnes. Wolfram knew the head of the Long Scouts with another had started to heal their wounds but it may yet be years before they were laid to rest.

They'd left Metamor Keep in the morning after breaking their fast and made good time to Tarrelton. Clouds filled the sky by mid-morning and by noon a barren gray stretched from the Dragon to the Barrier. The rain began shortly after they left Tarrelton and it showed no sign of stopping. A pleasant Summer rain to cool their wool and fur, he and most of his patrol nevertheless kept their cowls over their heads. Drenched fur was miserable no matter the temperature.

Other than Zachary the massive three horned reptile, they all rode horses at a slow clop, neither hurried nor indifferent to the passage of time. Their eyes watched the roads and the pastures on either side. The buck riding beside him idly scratched at the base of his antlers and the velvet covering them. Even the ram with his one curling horn on the left could manage a cowl, but neither Zachary nor Burkhart could do so. A drop of rain plopped on the tip of his nose and he stared cross-eyed at it with annoyance. "I will be very glad to reach Mycransburg. I've had my fill of rain."

"An hour to go I suspect."

"Have you been there before, Captain?"

"Nay," Wolfram replied, tilting his head back to glance at the eastern sky and road ahead. "There's an abandoned road heading north up ahead. See it?"

Burkhart put one hand over his eyes and bleated. "Aye, I see it now. Not much left."

The northern road, overgrown with grasses, disappeared into the rolling hills toward the stream now far to the north. The forest grew closer, but was still at least half a mile or more away. "Should be a ruined bridge somewhere up there. Or so I've been told. It's only a few miles more from here. We should see the first sign of the city soon."

"Good. Looks like we're not the only ones enjoying the weather."

Trundling along the road around the next rise was a wagon draped in oiled burlap. The merchants driving the wagon, a human man and woman, were similarly attired. Wolfram called out to them as they passed, "Hail and well met! How is the road to Mycransburg?"

"Muddy," the man replied with a shrug. "But the gates are open and the Inn's warm. How's the road to Metamor?"

"Much the same, friend. Safe journeys."

"And you as well."

The last was said as they passed each other by. Neither had slowed as they spoke. Wolfram eyed the wagon as they passed. Fully laden with boxes and barrels from what he could see, all covered by the burlap to protect them from the rain. He had half a thought to asking them to stop so he could inspect their wares, but even as the thought struck him the storm rumbled overhead, the rain pelting harder.

He glanced at Burkhart. The deer had a miserable grimace stretching across his face. "Let's pick up the pace, shall we?"

Wolfram was too long by a candlemark. The road veered north across a small bridge in a wide open area before sloping upward toward wooden walls at the crest of a long hill. Guards stood on either side of open doors beneath an awning to protect them from the rain. They recognized the blue tabard of a Metamor patrol and waved Wolfram and his men through. They stared in awe as Zachary strode past.

Mycransburg reminded Wolfram of the many other villages spread throughout the valley. Small tight streets flanked by wooden buildings dominated, but the older parts of the city had stone roads and foundations. The storm continued to rumble in the distance and drenched them with a steady rain. The roads were muddy and slick and filled only with the unfortunate who had to be out.

The barracks and stables for Metamor patrols and any soldier stationed at Mycransburg was near the main gates up one more hill. Stone foundations touched by moss gave way to a wooden and plaster facade rising a few dozen hands above the nearby houses. They could hear the clanging of a nearby smithy, but the rain on the wood and mud and puddles drowned everything else.

Wolfram turned to the rest of his patrol who all looked relieved to have arrived. "Owain, Ross, Gweir, see to the horses and gear then join us inside. I think we'll be waiting out the storm today."

He dismounted, patted his steed on the neck, before handing the reins to Owain the collared peccary. Burkhart, Kindle the mouse, and Zachary the kharrakhaz followed him into the garrison. Zachary had to duck down to fit through the door. Inside a warm fire greeted them in a hearth, casting orange light across the stone floor and into the wooden beams overhead. A pair of beastly soldiers stood in front of another wooden door with iron banding. Wolfram moved to the middle of the room while Zachary hunkered close to the fire. "Captain Wolfram Barhart of Metamor reporting in. Can I speak to the Captain of this garrison?"

"Of course." The canine on the left opened the banded door.

Like most doors made since the curses were cast it was large enough for beastly Keepers to pass through but Zachary was still going to have to duck down. Wolfram held out a hand toward the massive reptile. "Wait here, Zachary. You need the warmth."

Zachary nodded gratefully, his blue tabard already drying.

The room beyond also featured a hearth and two passages into the rest of the garrison. The wall with the hearth featured a desk with various papers and a heavy-set boar sitting behind it. He looked at the ram and nodded. "Fresh arrived from Metamor, eh Captain?"

"Wolfram, and aye. We've been stationed here for a few weeks." Wolfram reached into his knapsack and withdrew parchment sealed with the patrol insignia.

The boar broke the red wax seal and scanned the text within. "Good, good." He set the orders on the table, stood, and came around the table. "Welcome to Mycransburg, Captain. I'm Captain Stanclyf. The garrison has billets you and your men can use while you're here. Have you been assigned to Mycransburg before?"

"This is our first time." Behind him both Burkhart and Kindle managed to stand as close to the fire as they could manage.

"Mycransburg survives on the pastures to the west and south, and a bit of mining in the mountains to the east. Some hunting in the forests for furs, but otherwise everything else comes from traders. We need the roads west to Tarrelton and south to Mallen kept safe. Brigands like to strike from the forest to the southwest when they do."

Wolfram pushed the cowl off his one horn and ran a two fingered hand through his mostly dry wool between his ears. "Are there reports of brigands there?"

The boar shrugged. "Not since the plague hit Metamor. But with Summer here it happens."

"Brigands this far north in the valley are risking the curse."

Stanclyf snorted and shook his head. "Half the time they're Keepers too. Plenty of folks willing to risk time in the stocks for an extra Garret."

"Of course. Lutins?"

"They rarely come this way. The Haunted Woods and all; easier to go past Hareford and Lake Barnhardt. But every now and then they do risk the foothills of the Barrier mountains. Same with brigands from the Giantdowns. Very rugged terrain up there, lots of chances to fall to your death, so if you patrol there be very careful."

"Of course." Behind him the storm grew louder as the rest of his patrol stumbled through the garrison door. "Do you have billets for my men?"

"Down that hall," Stanclyf gestured at the doorway opposite his desk. "You can have any empty billets. Should be a dozen empty right now. There are private rooms for officers, I'll take you myself."

"Burkhart, take the others back and find something suitable for all of us. You can leave my equipment."

The deer nodded and after tapping Kindle on the shoulder, led the others, all drenching and dripping water with every step, down the hall. Ross handed Wolfram his pack as the young man walked by. The ram hefted it over his shoulder, nodding to each in his patrol as they walked past. The last was Zachary who had a sour moue writ on his beak-like face.

"Everything all right, Zachary?" Wolfram asked the kharrakhaz as he crouched to pass through the next doorway.

He turned his head, tail swinging low along the floor. Had anybody been standing there they'd now be on their hands and knees. "I cannot pray again, sir. The distracting thoughts have returned and are getting worse."

When their previous patrol down between Metamor and Lorland had finished a week past, they'd visited Father Felsah at the cathedral. Every time Zachary tried praying his beads he'd experience such terrible intrusive thoughts he couldn't even form the words. After the jerboa priest blessed them and all of the weapons for the entire patrol, Follower and Lothanasi alike, Zachary found his ability to pray restored.

"When did this happen?"

Zachary pondered for a moment before saying, "Along the road. After we left Tarrelton. The forest... something about it made me uneasy."

Wolfram grimaced then patted him on the side. "Understood. Get dried off and stow your gear."

Stanclyf stared in awe at the kharrakhaz and blinked a few times. "We do not have any beds big enough for one your size."

"Nobody does, sir. I'm used to it." Zachary deflty slipped through the doorway into the next hall and lumbered out of sight.

The boar gave Wolfram a sidelong glance. "Cannot pray?"

"Zachary's very devout and sensitive. He often can feel when things aren't right. So has there been anything unusual been going on in Mycransburg?"

Stanclyf motioned for Wolfram to follow him. They stepped through the same passage. Every room appeared to have the same block structure; the first opening out to a wide passage with double bunk pallets and chests for the soldiers. The doorway opposite led to another hall with five additional doors. Stanclyf opened one and inside Wolfram saw a pallet, chest, writing desk, hearth, and a window with muslin curtain. He drew the curtain across the window but the sound of rain pattering rooftops still echoed.

"Not much unusual, to be honest," Stanclyf remarked. "The northern forests have always made people uneasy but I have heard it said folks are even more spooked than usual by them these last couple of months. A few animals have gone missing as well. A cow, a few sheep, some chickens. We've swept the area looking for wolves or bears but haven't found anything yet."

"Do you think it was wolves or bears?"

"Well, there's no sign of claw marks on the pens, and no tracks, so they aren't getting close to the city. More likely the cow and sheep wandered off and then were taken. As for the chickens, I figure somebody's been eating a little too well in town. We've increased our night patrols through town but haven't seen anything yet. But it's only been a few, and not often enough either Earl Cybury or Mayor Tabit have bothered to discuss it with me. If you wish to investigate you are more than welcome. I can provide you some local guides for the forests."

Wolfram nodded. "That would be agreeable. When can we meet them?"

"Tonight. Go to the Inn for supper and they can meet you there. And if you want to speak to the Earl or the Mayor you're likely to find them there too. They haven't finished renovating the old ard'Kapler mansion yet, so they still do their business at the Inn."

"Thank you, Captain, that's good to know. Why both an Earl and a Mayor?"

"Earl Cybury is in charge and leads the soldiers and the feasts. He trusts Mayor Tabit to handle all the parts of running a small town he doesn't want to do. Which is everything else."

Wolfram bleated a laugh and then shook his head. "One last question, Captain. When do you think the rain is going to stop?"

Stanclyf shrugged. "Summer rains in the Valley. Probably another hour or so. Should lighten up by evening. Could last until morning. Dvalin doesn't tell me these things."

"I guess we'll wait and see. Is there anything else?"

The boar shook his head. "After you've had a day or two to look around let me know where in the area you want to focus your patrols and I'll adjust my men. Don't want us tracking each other!"

"Nay!" Wolfram set his satchel down on the pallet and offered another laugh. "On behalf of my men I look forward to patrolling with you and yours."

Stanclyf saluted. "I'm looking forward to it, Captain. George has said many good things about you." Before the ram could ask, the boar stepped back out. His hooves echoed down the hall back to this desk.

Wolfram glanced around the room one more time. In addition to the lantern hanging from the ceiling, a second sat unlit on the desk. Wolfram took a moment to light it and then inspected his chambers. There was nothing beneath the pallet but more close-fitted stone. A single drawer in the desk had an ink stopper, a feather pen, and a dozen empty sheets of parchment. The chamberpot was empty and recently scrubbed. He lifted the muslin curtain and peered out across the city. The window was wide enough for him to empty the chamberpot if he wished. The street was a good twenty feet below and the house across the street was only a single level, giving him a good view of this section of the city. The main street headed due east up a gentle slope toward a marketplace festooned with lanterns and canvas awnings. He could faintly hear the cry of hawkers even with the heavy rain.

He dropped the curtain and rubbed the chill from his arms. He bent over the pack on his palle, undid the lacing, and checked his gear. Everything was there. He took the other sealed envelope and set it underneath the parchment in the desk. Satisfied, he retied his satchel and left the room to check on his patrol.

The billets were as comfortable and as roomy as he'd come to expect. It was a good thing their nine-foot hulking three-horned reptile wasn't claustrophobic or the garrison would have fewer walls. Gweir was already laying on a top bunk with Owain sitting on the bunk beneath rifling through his satchel, with Ross and Kindle occupying the next set of bunks, the mouse wizard brightening the room with several witchlights. Burkhart was laying first one way and then another to determine how best to avoid smashing his antlers into the stone wall. Zachary sat against the opposite wall, unrolling the hefty blankets he always carried.

"Is everyone settled?"

"Thereabouts," Gweir called down. "Have a good chat with the local captain?"

"Thereabouts. Seems the strangest thing happening in Mycransburg is missing livestock. Might be a local poaching chickens. Some sheep and a cow too."

"Should be a simple matter of following the tracks," Owain noted with a snort. His porcine snout swelled as if he were eager to begin. "I'm surprised they haven't figured it out already."

"No tracks and no obvious signs."

"Magic?" Kindle asked. The mouse danced a witchlight along his claws.

"He didn't say. But he did say he's going to assign us some local scouts who know the area. We can meet them at the Inn tonight. Seems all important business happens there."

"It's still raining," Burkhart noted with a wave of his arm. "I'd like to dry off before we venture back into that."

"We may not get a choice," Wolfram noted before sitting down on an empty bunk. "But for now, let's dry off and warm up. Who's got the dice?"

A couple of hours after they arrived the storm lightened enough they risked the roads. The Inn, a large wood and plaster structure occupying the far corner of the market, radiated light and warmth from the windows on the main floor. A broad common room with bench tables arranged in a dozen long rows could seat a hundred easily. On a wet evening a third of the tables were occupied with travelers relieved to be out of the rain and locals relieved to eat something somebody else cooked.

They selected a table at the end of one row toward a wall. Zachary sat cross-legged on the floor with his tail stretched behind him. Even sitting on the floor the kharrakhaz was still taller than most of them.

The proprietor, a zebra named Gregory, had welcomed them at the entrance. He realized they weren't going to rent rooms when he saw the issuant horse heraldry of the Metamor patrol on their uniforms, and had spent every moment since guiding them within boasting of the warm meals he could serve. Only a few minutes after they were seated he and a yellow-furred meerkat woman brought bowls of fresh steaming potato stew.

"And a mazer of ale each for you and your men?" Gregory asked with hopeful turn of his ears.

Wolfram nodded, "Thank you, good sir. Ale will be good."

A minute later the warmth of the ale and the heat of the stew had all of them feeling the best they'd felt since the morning. Around them laborers and merchants enjoyed their meals too. For several minutes they each ate and drank, eyes and ears on all around them.

"Look," Ross, the young human soldier, noted. He pointed toward the long wall opposite. The owner and his wife and their staff passed in and out through a wide doorway. Next to this on the right was a large hearth crackling with fire. On the left was a raised platform four hands high. A trio of Metamorians in bright, fire-yellow and blue attire, each of whom suffered a different curse, were arranging a pair of stools and some musical instruments.

"Some music, eh? That's the most welcoming thing I've seen yet," Owain noted.

"Don't judge too harshly," Gweir reminded them. "Rain has a way of making any town miserable."

"The food is good," Kindle added before slurping another spoonful.

"Yeah, food's good," Owain agreed, though the peccary had already finished his.

Ross gestured at the stage again. "Has anyone seen these performers before? I don't recognize them."

Wolfram studied them. The two humans, a young woman, a child about eleven or twelve, had similar dark hair and narrow features in their face. If she'd been just a bit older they could have easily passed for mother and child when in reality they were probably brothers before Three Gates. The third, a black-furred dog, might have been related or just a friend to round out their troupe. The boy had a small table in front of his stool with a pair of drums and a flute waiting. The dog busied himself tuning a lute as he reclined on the other stool. The woman must have been a singer as she did a few vocal exercises facing away from the crowd.

"They're not familiar to me. Perhaps a local group just getting started." Wolfram took a quick drink and flicked his ears outward as the twang of strings reached them. "They certainly have the costumes for it."

"We should give them coin if they're good," Ross said with a final wave of his hand before returning to the last of his stew.

"Indeed," Gweir agreed. He nodded toward the end of the table. "I think those two are coming for us."

Wolfram followed the older human's gaze and saw a pair of animal-touched teenagers bantering and nudging each other as only brothers could as they made their way along the end of the rows of tables before turning down the aisles toward them. One was a red squirrel, the other a raccoon. The squirrel had a sealed bit of parchment in his right paw. They stopped just short of the group.

"Captain Wolfram?" the squirrel asked. Wolfram nodded and stood. "I'm Elbert and this is my younger brother Braeder. We're scouts for Mycransburg and we've been assigned to help you while you're here in our home." He offered the piece of paper.

Wolfram accepted it, broke the seal of the Metamor patrol, and scanned the note. It was from Stanclyf as promised. "Well, Elbert, Braeder, I am Captain Wolfram Barhart and these are my men. Why don't you sit and join us. Looks like we're going to get a show."

The pair sat down, Elbert next to Burkhart and Braeder next to Owain. The raccoon looked at the peccary's empty stew bowl and rubbed his fingers together as if washing them. "Oh, did you enjoy Master Gregory's stew? He makes one with cooked fish too."

"It was good, aye," Owain replied. "How old are you, young sir?"

"I'm fifteen. And I've been all over Mycransburg and her lands. I know where all the game trails and caves are and the best places to get a good meal."

"And fishing holes," Elbert added with a flick of his long tail.

"And my brother knows where all the nut trees are."

Owain and Gweir both guffawed, while Burkhart chuffed under his breath. Ross blinked a moment before joining them in laughter. Kindle gnawed on the end of the spoon as he shook his head. Zachary stared at the two curiously but said nothing.

"And you, Elbert," Wolfram said, "how old are you?"

"I'm seventeen. Our parents died during Three Gates, so we've survived by doing whatever needs doing for the landsmen. We work for Master Gorthen at his farm and tavern at the northern end of the town. You should come by there sometime. Mistress Rosalie makes the best pies."

"We're here in Mycransburg for a few weeks so we'll be find the time," Wolfram offered the two youths a smile. Elbert was old enough to join the patrols, and once his brother was old enough they might. The two brothers looked inseparable. "Who are the performers?"

The trio had finished tuning their instruments and were now discussing among themselves. Wolfram expected the singing to start any minute.

Elbert looked over his shoulder but Braeder, who didn't have to turn, beat him to the answer, "That's Marja and her brothers, Peiters and Pauwel. Great singers! You're in for a treat. But we're going to miss them."

"Why?" Ross asked, brow furrowed.

"They're leaving on a caravan for Metamor in a few days. Going to try their luck in the city." Braeder frowned. "Don't know when they'll be back again." But the frown didn't last long before youthful vigor replaced it. "They've written a few songs of their own too. Mostly about the local tradesmen and the valley and the fantastic creatures we've all become."

"And what of the town itself?" Wolfram asked. "Anything unusual going on we should know about? We're here to patrol the roads and if necessary help keep the peace. And keep an eye, and ear, and a nose out for Metamor's enemies. Is there anything you've heard, seen, or what not you cannot explain?"

Elbert and Braeder exchanged glances and then both shrugged. The squirrel's tail flicked behind his head, tufted ears tilting forward as his eyes flitted with a rodent's nervous energy from one member of the patrol to the next. "There's been a few animals gone missing. We actually went searching for Master Gorthen's cow a few weeks back, but the trail vanished. Went into the northern woods and then just disappeared."

Burkhart rubbed his chin. "Bears or wolves?"

"Didn't look like either. If you want us to show you we can."

"After three weeks and this rain there's no point," Burkhart pointed out. "The trail will be gone."

"Anything other than the missing animals?"

Braeder shook his head. "Things have been quiet here. More time for fishing!"

Wolfram swallowed another gulp of mead. "Well, tomorrow, if the rain's stopped, we'll find this Master Gorthen and you can guide us around town and the fields. For now, I'd like to listen. I think they're ready to start."

All of them sat back, sipping quietly as the trio of musicians began their first song.

The musicians proved to be a talented trio and all of them enjoyed the variety of songs they performed. Some were familiar staples Wolfram had heard from other jongleurs, while a few, the squirrel and raccoon assured them, were the trio's own. Songs of the might of dragons, craftsmen with their hammers, and even of unlikely peace between Keepers and Lutins delighted all who came to listen while warming themselves with good food and drink.

As the evening wore on more and more laborers and merchants came to enjoy the warmth. The storm picked up briefly, but settled into a faint patter at windows before finally abating completely. Wolfram and his patrol watched the comings and goings of the people of Mycransburg through the Inn for a few hours. They seemed like any other people of Metamor, hardy, with their own small squabbles, but proud of their homes and kin. None treated the patrol poorly.

As night stole even the gray light, leaving only the lights from homes and streetlamps, Wolfram decided it was time to head back to the garrison. "We've been on the road today and our muscles need rest. Good night, Elbert, Braeder. Thank you for your company and welcome to your beautiful home."

The raccoon and squirrel walked them to the street before heading north through the city, voices debating what flavor pie to get at the tavern before bed. Wolfram and his patrol wasted no time returning to the garrison, fearful the sky might open again. But other than drips from the eaves, they felt no touch of rain. The garrison felt cold in comparison to the Inn, but they were quick to stoke a fire. None of his men were in much mood for conversation, exhaustion plain on each of their faces. It was the start of another long patrol and a miserable start too. Best to let them get their sleep.

He retired after only a few minutes to the officer's quarters he'd been granted. The ram built a fire for himself and sat for several minutes warming his arms, legs, chest, and face in the amber glow. Warmed again, he sorted through his gear and leaned his pack against the door. He checked the muslin drapes but saw no one in the city streets.

Satisfied, Wolfram opened the desk drawer and pulled the sealed letter from beneath the blank pieces of parchment. He sat next to the fire, turned it over in his thick fingers a few times. The red wax had been imprinted with the seal of a bat. He'd discovered the envelope in his knapsack only an hour after they'd left Tarrelton but it had not been there when he woke.

He held the envelope before the fire, staring at the light through the marbled parchment. Veins of pulp could be see, but no lettering. He ground his flat teeth together, feeling a bit of potato about to come back up for another round of chewing. He let the cud fill the back of his muzzle as he sniffed the envelope. The wax smelled like any other candle. The parchment was dry and had the faint scent of ink but nothing unusual either.

Wolfram ground his teeth together as he chewed. He hated mysteries. His mind drifted to a friend broken in body and mind deep within the dungeons of Metamor. Mysteries only ended in disaster.

He slipped open the envelope, taking care to keep the seal as intact as he could. A bat could mean Andwyn, but his mind could not help but ponder others. Within he found a single line in unremarkable letters.

Trust no one from Mycransburg.

He snorted and folded it shut. He had half a thought of pitching it into the fire. But after saving the seal he knew better. Another mystery. Why shouldn't he trust the people of Mycransburg? Were they not like any other people of Metamor Valley? Who gave him this note?

Wolfram returned the letter to the desk drawer, put another log on the fire, and lay down on the pallet staring at the shadows dancing on the wooded rafters above. He made the sign of the yew and began his nightly prayers.

The thick clouds over the night sky were beginning to break apart. An errant star peered through the gaps only to be hidden away again a moment later. But none of them could see beneath the healthy canopy of trees shrouding the forests north of Mycransburg. And none found the cleft between two hills in which nestled the entrance to an old hunter's cave.

Braeder felt his heart swelling as he reached it, ever so careful to leave no trail for others to follow. The dark cave mouth, dark even to his eyes, rose for a few paces before turning sharply to the right and then left again. The inside was dry and a predator's scent clung to the air. A faint light glowed from the floor. To one side a collection of baubles glowed a solemn bronze but most of the light came from the diagrams carefully drawn. Triangles large and small glimmered where they'd been cast, as well as strange shapes like ferns within ferns growing from a larger whole. Skulls cleaned and shimmering with a pale blue light were arranged within the shapes. Cow, sheep, chicken, all were here.

A figure lurked within, limned by the light radiating around him. Braeder felt his heart nearly burst through his chest in its eagerness to be near this being. This power. This god.

His god.

"Master," he murmured in a chittering whisper. His tongue ached with the beautiful name.

Two other figures flanking the wall shifted, lupine snouts and ears coming into view. Where was the third pup?

"Ah, Braeder, my precious. Have you brought it?"

The raccoon set down a small parcel. "The herbs you requested. Sealed tight the way you taught me."

The figure turned, face distending into a wolf's jaws. Yellowed teeth glistened and deep burning eyes fixed on him. Tattered animal hide draped across his hunched shoulders, the ends of which lifted upward whenever they neared the cave floor and the incantation writ upon it. He spread his arms wide. "Come, my child. I see you have more to tell me."

Braeder scampered on all fours to his god and allowed himself to be held in long, furry arms. Thick tongue and hot breath bathed across his face. The raccoon pulled his arms and legs as close to his chest as he could. "There's a new patrol from Metamor in town. They're asking about the missing animals. Shall we bring them to you, Master?"

The tongue curled around his ear and then groomed over one eye. "A full patrol? How many?"


The wolfish figure bit ever so gently upon his ear, only enough for him to feel the touch of fangs and for his god to enjoy his taste. "Keep them away from here if you can. I am not to be disturbed for some days. "

"But when can I see you again?"

"You'll know. I will call you when I have need. And when I do you are to bring them to me. Now return. You have done well, my pet."

He set Braeder back on the stone and the raccoon was quick to dart out of the cave. The two pups watched him leave from their shadowed places. A heavy wall of air stripped his fur of the beautiful scent of his master. His heart sagged but he understood. None were to find him.

And none would.

He rushed back to Mycransburg. Elbert would no doubt be eager to share a walnut pie.