A host of Lutins was moving slowly down either side of the road, most of them with buckets and brushes in their hand. All were shamans or magic wielders of one sort or another, chanting as they painted odd designs on the huge wooden boards that made up the pavement of the roadway. Muri chewed the inside of his lower lip as he looked over the assemblage slowly advancing down the roadway. They were Moondog clan; Keletikt's clan. His tribe was almost entirely made up of shamans and acolytes, a repository of Lutin wisdom and tradition, working like drudges along the roadway. They were too far away for Murikeer to pick out any individual, which was a blessing as there were at least four actual moondogs among the Lutins below. The wind was in their favor and the trackers could not scent them.
Not yet, at least.
"What are they doing?" Llyn whispered in his ear as she crept forward another few inches to get a better look over the boulder behind which they hid. Her hand was upon her sword so tightly her knuckles would have been white had there not been fur upon them. She growled each time she saw one of the pale moondogs below, her eyes narrowing as her hackles stood on end, her tail standing straight out behind her in her ire.
"Casting some sort of wards," Muri offered as he tried to make sense of the magic. He could see that they were painting runes, but he cold not see them in any detail from their distant concealment. His own hackles rose with the appearance of the horror dogs, but that was the extent of his reaction to them. His curiosity was more toward the enchantments the Lutins were placing on the huge slabs of wood hewn from the forests that had once stood where the road now crossed. He could see only a tiny hint of the spirit power each of the runes took when they were created, but there was other magic involved as well. It was not magic he could easily identify, nor its purpose. "They're all mages though; or rather, shamans."
"All of them?" Llyn asked in shock, shrinking down behind their concealing boulder.
"They call themselves the Moondog clan, or rather, a sept of that clan here. The true heart of the Moondog clan is far, far to the east in an ancient, holy city. Acolyte shamans are sent to the Moondogs for training in their arts, eventually returning to their tribes to lead them in the ways of their ancestors." Muri ducked back down behind the rock as well, turning to place his back against the cool, hard surface. These things were the tales given to him by Keletikt, so he had no real way of verifying the truth of those tales. Though, from what he had just witnessed, some of them were indeed true. "They uphold tradition, and are the sages of the tribes."
"What traditions?" Llyn quipped sharply, looking at him from the corner of her eyes, "They're beasts, the only traditions they know are death and destruction."
"Most of those traditions are ones they have adopted under Nasoj's rule, and to compete with the other races of the north." Muri replied quietly to her barb. He knew how rapacious the beasts were, despite Keletitkt's honor, and knew that a good many of their traditions did indeed involve bloody conquests. Mostly over other tribes or the odd clan of giants, and humans when they had occupied much of the Midlands south of the Great Wall. Now, in these cold, unforgiving lands of the north they fought simply for their own survival, traditions be damned.
"So," Llyn mused, her ears twitching, "if we destroy the Moondogs, we destroy the Lutin's link to their past?" she rubbed the pommel of her shortsword with a slight grin pulling at the corner of her muzzle, whiskers angling forward as she turned her head toward the skunk seated next to her.
Muri shrugged, "You'd certainly put a damper on them." he conceded, his own ears twitching toward a distant sound. "It'd be like... burning a great library of the south, or sacking a monastery."
"A big morale breaker, mm?" Llyn smiled broadly, her white teeth gleaming in the mahogany fur of her muzzle as her dark eyes glimmered in the muted sunlight of the cloudy day.
"Quite." Muri nodded distractedly, bowing his head to block out the surrounding noises and concentrate on the annoying, faint sound. It was... something grinding; a loud squeal of tortured wood like the axle of an overloaded wagon. The distant crack of a whip came to his ears, with the dull, moaning groan of wood under great strain. Llyn tilted her head toward him, her whiskers twitching as she started to speak, but a quick negating gesture from the skunk silenced her.
She turned, getting to her knees to look over the top of their rocky shelter toward the road below. The Lutins had moved a fair distance as they were speaking, leaving behind the rune-painted planks. Llyn scowled and pulled up the corner of one lip; the painted wood looked for all the world like some badly wounded animal had dragged itself down the road. Turning around, preparing to sit back down, she paused as her eyes saw a slight movement.
At first her defenses kicked into overdrive, thinking perhaps they had been found out by some wandering patrol, but she almost as swiftly dismissed the alarm. The motion was in the distance, just over the top of the next ridge to the north of their position. Sitting down, she watched, her ears twitching to the same noises Murikeer had noted. His head was still bowed, brows furrowed as he turned his ears this way and that, trying to focus on the echoing sounds. Llyn tipped her head to one side in confusion as she began to make out what she was seeing.
"What by Eli's grace is that?" she exhaled, placing a paw upon Muri's shoulder as her other hand pointed toward the distant object. Muri's head came up and he looked at her, then followed her pointing finger. It took him a few moments to come to the same impossible conclusion that she had come to.
Creeping slowly beyond the crest of the next hill was the crenellated top of a castle tower. Muri's maw opened slightly as his eyes widened, the hackles upon the back of his shoulders standing upright as he nearly stood. Only Llyn's sudden grip at his shoulder prevented him from exposing their location to those moving down the road below. His dream came crashing back upon him with sudden, heart wrenching force. The battlements of a huge castle above the treetops, manned by indistinct shapes, grinding its way ponderously through the forest. All in its path was flattened by the immense weight.
The driving, unquenchable urge to speed northward that had come over him since the day of that dream suddenly peaked, the stonework of the distant tower's top coming into striking focus. He could see the texture of the rough greyish stone, almost feel it because of the sudden flaring of his senses at the sight of that impossible sight. Glancing over the boulder at the now empty road below, then back at the slowly moving crenellations in the distance, he made some rapid mental calculations.
"A castle tower." he hissed over his shoulder as he scrambled on down the back of the hill away from the road. Once far enough to stand without exposing himself to any observers on the road he stood and began to jog swiftly down the hill. Llyn scrambled after him with a startled warning of caution.
They scrambled pell mell down the side of one hill, dashing across the flat expanse of stump-spotted dirt as fast as Llyn's shorter legs would go. Muri's longer stride pulled him some distance out ahead before he paused and looked back at Llyn, an expression of impatience on his face. From where he stood he could see a section of road in the distance, realizing that anyone that happened to be on that road could see him as well.
Yet, he no longer cared. He had to see the castle. He threw up an illusion of a shrub to mask his presence, using the illusion of a heat shimmer to conceal Llyn as she slogged through the wet, exposed ground to him. Their fur was matted and heavy with mud left by spring rains. The ground was crisscrossed with streamlets and gullies of churned earth. Without the trees and undergrowth to keep the earth in place it was being swept away in huge quantities.
They were worn and breathing heavy as they reached the distant hill over which they had seen the first castle tower. Shaking off the worst of the clinging mud, they crept toward the crest of the hill on hands and knees, tails kept low behind them. Moving forward upon their bellies, they peered over the hilltop. The sight that met their sight was beyond amazing.
It was truly horrifying.
The road was some distance away, cut into the side of the hill upon which they were hiding as it curved gradually toward the south from the west. The low, rumbling, crackling groan of wood and stone under stress was a constant din in their ears. Below them all manner of humanoids called to one another under the constant, low level rumble. Whips cracked and animals bellowed, surging forward under their great loads.
They were finally able to see more of the stone construct they had first spotted from a great distance, and that sight was amazing. It was nearly as wide as the road itself, leaving perhaps ten feet to either side. It was only slightly longer, supported upon six monstrously immense stone wheels. The whole construct was some seventy feet tall, dotted all over with arrow loops of varying sizes. On the third and fourth 'levels' of the four story citadel there were two huge drawbridges. Those were some thirty feet long, designed to allow invaders to assault defenders on a wall of a castle directly. On the crest of the huge, rolling citadel were three great catapults, their spring arms upright against the stops. Stacked next to each massive siege engine was a large heap of huge, rounded boulders. Buckets, barrels, and racks were arrayed out here and there between the catapults, but there were no sentries manning the battlements.
That was luck for both of the observers, for the top of the huge construction was on a level with them. Its progress down the wide road was lethargic; ponderous. Thirty huge draft horses were harnessed to three tongues made of huge tree trunks wrapped all over with some sort of strengthening material. There were no reins on the animals, Lutins walking along the length of the tongues screaming and smacking the huge beasts with short switches.
Underneath, the citadel was also pushed by an unknown number of giants, ogres, and trolls. Their broad backs bent as they pushed against huge struts under the monstrosity, adding their brute strength to that of the horses. Muri now knew why the pitch of the road was southward; it would help get the citadel moving, and keep it moving with less effort.
He did not know how they would stop, if they ever did.
Following closely in the wake of that huge citadel was a second, some hundred feet behind, hardly far enough to give its horses much of a following gap. Behind that one was yet another. The third one was far different than the first two, which were obviously built for a direct siege. This one had fewer arrowloops, and had no siege engines on the top. It was also another twenty feet taller and lacked the crenellated battlements of the first two. The topmost floor was more open than any of the others, with deep set, wide casements arrayed around a huge central room.
Muri knew immediately that it was a mages' tower, which would pull up before reaching their target and support the operations of the other towers.
Behind that tower came two more of the assault citadels, making the total count five of the mind numbingly huge siege towers.
The purpose of the runes painted upon the road was quickly made obvious as the huge wheels of each tower ground their way slowly from one board to another. The wood groaned and bowed, but did not break under the mountainous weight set upon them. As each wheel passed the wood was left torturously warped, but intact. In the wake of the fifth tower the road was no longer the strikingly smooth, level passage it had been. The slabs of wood that covered its surface were warped and twisted by the huge wheels, but they had served their purpose.
"What happens if those reach Metamor?" Muri asked quietly as they retreated back down the hill before the mages' tower drew abreast of them. With its added height and the large windows on the upper story, any observer would have been able to spot them had they remained on the exposed hilltop.
Llyn shuddered, "Those shorter towers would be able to assault the walls directly if they ever get that road to Metamor."
"You think they could get the road that far?"
"No." she looked back up the hillside, though they could no longer see the citadels. They could still hear the grinding moan of their progress and the murmur of those handling them, and could even feel the subtle rumble through the very earth at their feet, "But if they get the road to the dikes, they would be able to roll them things southward through the passes. With as big an army as we saw making that road I doubt that Metamor would have the manpower to stop them by brute force alone." She pulled her lips back in a grimace, her sharp teeth gleaming against the mahogany of her fur, whiskers laying back, "And that's saying nothing about the towers themselves. The Keep is on a ridge, and that ridge is pretty heavily defended Metamor's own siege machinery. How they would build the road up to the level of that ridge, and get the towers up that incline I have no idea."
"I'm sure they've thought that out." Murikeer shrugged, gazing off to the south, "After building the road and those citadels, I think they would have figured out how to remove the advantage of that ridge."
"We're going to have to warn Metamor about them."
"I agree, you will have to warn them." They began retracing their steps, keeping more to cover than they had earlier, "They're moving pretty slow, but faster than the road-builders. I suspect they plan on reaching the end of the road shortly after it's finished."
"They'll be found out before then." Llyn affirmed as she stepped over a shattered branch from some long removed tree, "That will slow them down."
"Remember how many were out there ahead of the road? Their timber crews, scouts, and supply trains?" Muri asked over his shoulder as he frowned, shaking a clod of mud from his foot, "They could probably hold back a sizable force and keep up their rate of construction."
"And we have to get through them again." Llyn groaned, shaking her head.
"We did it once already, we can do it again."
"You think?" She glanced over at him ruefully as they paused in the bottom of a small gully to rinse the worst of the mud from their fur. Muri nodded, then looked up at her suddenly, and grinned.
Llyn could not help but shudder at that grin. There was a sinister touch of insanity in his expression, and it gave her a twinge of uneasiness.
"Or we could stop them."
"Them, them what?"
"Huh?" she grunted, looking at him quizzically as she stood hock deep in the muddied water. "How would we, just the two of us, stop those monstrosities?"
Muri's grin, if anything, got even more maniacal, "I have a plan."