The room was quiet. Misha walked in and sat down at the table across from George who had arrived only moments before. Spread on the table was a large map of Metamor Valley and the Giantdowns.
"How is Finbar?" Thomas asked softly. The stallion was seated at the end of the table
"He's quiet," Misha answered softly as he settled into a chair.
The duke leaned forward. "Is that good or bad?"
The fox morph shrugged. "I'm not sure. Danielle has managed to calm him down considerably."
Misha reached for a cup and a pitcher filled with a red liquid that was resting in front of George. He sniffed the contents of the pitcher and then poured some into the empty cup. He took a long drink of the red wine before talking. "How did the rest of the greeting go after Finbar ran out?"
George took back the pitcher and filled another cup full of wine and sipped from it. "Quiet. We got through the usual introductions easy enough."
"It must have been a serious shock to find out he has a Lutin half brother," The stallion said.
"It is. He is still trying to accept the fact that he is half lutin," the fox commented. "Now he finds out he has a half brother."
"How long has he known he was a half lutin?" Thalberg asked. The alligator morph was seated in a chair close to Thomas.
"He's always known," George responded. "It was no secret that his mother was raped. It's just that Finbar has never truly accepted that he was half lutin."
"We spoke of it only once," Misha explained. "And we agreed to never mention it again."
The Duke slowly nodded his head. "How long have you known he was a half lutin?"
"Since a week after I considered having him join the Longs," was the response as the scout relaxed in the chair.
"Did his half lutin nature affect your thinking?" Andwyn asked in a seemingly casual tone.
"No," Misha leaned forward and gazed at the bat with a cold, hard glare. "Should it have?" Was the vulpine's question in a soft whisper.
"Of course not," Thomas said in a stern tone. "But I'm not worried about Finbar," the stallion explained. "I AM worried about his brother. What is this chieftain's intentions? And do you have more information on him? Who is he?"
Andwyn leaned over the map and pointed to several spots as he spoke. "He controls an area of the western Giantdowns from Politzen north to the Arabarb pass. And from the Dragon mountains to the Death mountains."
George pointed to spots on the map with the cup filled hand. The wine in the cup splashed around but never spilled over. "He has the Dragon mountains behind him to secure his back but his flanks are exposed. His biggest threat is Nasoj which is why he's probably trying to make friends with us."
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," Thalberg muttered.
"Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy," the bat responded instantly.
"True," George slowly. "But he can be useful."
"Agreed," the bat answered.
"He seems to be the latest in a long line of warlords trying to carve a kingdom for themselves," Misha said and took another drink of wine.
Thomas gave a snort. "How long will he last?" Thomas asked. "The Giantdowns has seen a long line of petty tyrants."
"No way to tell," Andwyn answered. "He seems better at it than previous ones."
"He understands that diplomacy involves more than killing people till they agree to his demands," Misha commented with a nod of the head.
"I've met a lot of humans who've never figured that out," George joked sarcastically.
Thomas leveled his gaze at Misha. "I am hosting a banquet for Lord Kelrag tonight. Be sure Finbar is there, sober and without any weapons that can make him dangerous."
"Finbar is dangerous any time," Misha responded. "Even without a weapon. I'm not sure we can be certain he is unarmed. Finbar is very good at hiding weapons on himself."
"Can you be sure he behaves?" Thomas asked in hard tones.
"Danielle will be there to keep him in line," the fox answered. "She usually can get him to behave."
"I know someone who can keep him in line," George said without looking up from the map. "Annelise."
The hackles went up on the back of Misha's neck and his one remaining ear was laid back against his head. "Not her!"
Andwyn gave a hiss and shook his head. "Not her."
"Who is Annelise," Thomas asked a little surprised by Misha and Andwyns's reaction.
"She is the toughest person I've ever met. A real survivor," George said without really answering the stallions question. "She's killed more Lutins than Misha."
Misha nodded his head slowly. "She's also Finbar's mother."
"HOW COULD THEY LET THAT THING IN HERE!" Finbar shrieked. The ferret morph was waving his arm as he paced back and forth in the apartment he shared with Danielle.
As agitated as he was the pine marten morph was calm. Danielle was standing out of arm's reach watching the love of her life from a distance. "We can't keep ignoring them."
"We're not ignoring them, we're killing them!" He countered without stopping.
"This isn't about all the Lutins," Danielle said quietly. ""It's only about one; Kelrag."
"One Lutin is like all the rest," Finbar snarled as he waved his arms about, slashing at imaginary Lutins with imaginary weapons. "And they all deserve to die."
She took a step closer. "He is your brother and you need to understand that. Accept that. If you don't face him now things will get worse. It will remain in the back of your mind festering like the untended wound it is."
"NO!" Finbar snarled as he waved his arms about. "He's no kin of mine. No. Not now! Not ever!"
She walked up to him and placed both hands on his shoulders. Finbar's wild gesturing instantly came to a halt. "He is your half brother," Danielle said simply. "And no amount of screaming and yelling will change that."
Annelise looked deceptively innocent from a distance. Standing by the door was a young girl who looked to be about twelve or thirteen years old and was wearing a pretty blue dress with bows and lace all over. She looked to be the very picture of innocence but when a Lutin passed she stared at him with a hard steely, searing gaze that looked out place on a face so young. Her hand slipped down to her belt in a move Misha recognized as a reflex action to grab a weapon.
Misha stepped up to the woman, putting himself between her and the lutin. "Annelise!" He said trying to sound cheerful and still stay out of arms reach. "Thank you for coming! It's good to see you!"
The woman's hard gaze fell on the fox and he saw the steel hard look on a face as cold and unforgiving as granite. Then just as suddenly that face brightened into a warm smile. "Misha. It's good to see you!"
Misha hugged the woman gently taking the opportunity to run his hands along her belt to be she wasn't carrying any weapons. "I'm glad you came!" He said honestly.
Things in the hall were fairly tense for understandable reasons. Both sides of the hall were lined with tables piled high with food and drink. The tables on one side of the hall held a long line of various Keepers. The tables on the opposite side held many lutins and a small ogre. Between the two groups was a large open slice of floor, only populated by servants who moved though with haste. And one end of the hall was a large table. Sitting side by side at that table was Thomas and Kelrag. Even between the two leaders was several feet of open table. The emotional chill in the air was as palpable as the tension. The two groups were staring at each other as if expecting an attack.
"This is going badly," Misha muttered. He was sitting to one side of Thomas at the end table. Next to him was George and Terry.
George waved his hand and a leopard Keeper came walking over to him. The canine whispered an order to the maitre d' .
"Sir?" The leopard asked as he cocked his head to one side.
"You heard me right. One for everyone," George responded. "See to it now!"
The leopard started giving orders that send the serving staff scurrying.
Terry leaned closer to George. "What are you doing?" The woman asked.
"Lightening things up," came the answer.
Finbar looked at the lutin chief. Kelrag was locked in an animated discussion with George. He decided to ignore the greenskin and concentrate on his meal. He reached down to the table to pick up his knife and came up with a spoon instead. The scout looked down at the table to locate his errant utensil. The ferret morph saw two forks, three spoons and a napkin holder made of wood but no knife. "Where's my knife?" He asked out loud.
"You don't need one dear," Danielle said softly and patted him on the wrist.
"How am I supposed to cut my food with no knife," he reached for one of the knives usually on his belt but those were gone. He remembered that Misha had deliberately taken the weapon from him. He had taken ALL of Finbar's knives leaving the ferret feeling naked. What really annoyed Finbar was that George had located all his weapons; even his six hidden blades.
THUMP! A large, extremely sharp dagger landed in the table with its point buried deep into the wood. The hilt wobbled back and forth. Finbar had to pull a few times before he yanked the blade free. "Thank you Mom!" He said cheerfully.
"I thought you searched her for weapons," Thomas said coldly keeping his eyes on Finbar and not looking at Misha.
"We did," the fox answered nervously. "Twice."
"Three times," Andwyn added without taking his eyes off the female. "It seems we missed a few things."
"I'm surprised you never recruited her Andwyn," Thomas commented dryly.
"I tried," the bat answered. "Three times."
"And I tried twice," Misha added. "She didn't actually say no but the foot long dagger she threw at me made her answer clear."
"She was happy to do work for me," George said calmly between swallows of wine.
"How did you convince her?" Terrant asked.
"I paid for a nurse to watch her children so she could go do her favorite past time," the scout leader explained. "Kill lutins."
A whole host of the servers came into hall, each carrying a tray loaded down with mugs of some dark liquid. They swiftly and efficiently moved among all the guests; human, Lutin and otherwise giving each a mug.
When the last server had finished George stood up and rapped on the table with a ring covered finger. The room fell silent. He lifted his mug. "I'd like to say something profound," The canine said and paused. "But I can't think of anything. So I propose a toast to good food and getting drunk!"
"HERE! HERE!" Misha shouted in agreement and took a long drink from his mug. Only a few others in the room followed suit.
George turned to the tables filled with Keepers and then to those opposite. "Drink up!" He said in a loud voice friendly voice. "NOW!" He finished in a tone ringing with the cold steel of command.
Slowly the Keepers and Lutins responded and started drinking.
One Keeper, a young looking cougar took a big swallow then spit it out. He bent over the table coughing and sputtering. "Holy crap, what is that?" He managed between coughs.
"It's a little concoction I learned in Swindale from the centaurs," George answered. "It's one part ale, one part beer and the rest is a drink called vodka. It's a real man's drink! Drink up. Unless you're afraid."
The drinks vanished slowly. The drinkers on both sides tried to not break out in coughing and choking. The tension in the room eased as all present concentrated on their drink and trying to not embarrass themselves too much.
More drinks were bought but thankfully they were just beer and diluted wine. Those went down soon enough. "Yarduf val shumdal," George started singing a song loudly.
Misha listened to the words for a moment and his eyes grew wide. Several lutins smiled and joined in. Quickly the tension eased and the atmosphere grew more relaxed.
Several hours later Misha and the rest of the Longs were in his office. The banquet had gone well enough. Several hours of good food, good drink and bad singing had left them all a little tired and relieved.
Caroline touched Misha on the arm. "Misha. we have a guest."
The girl was standing in the doorway to Misha's office. Her body was as rigid as a sword blade. Her glare was fixed upon the fox with the intensity of a hunter tracking prey.
"Everybody out," Misha ordered slowly.
The others quickly filed out but Caroline hesitated. The fox hugged the love of his life and kissed her. "I'll be fine. Go, we need to work this out." Slowly the otter left the room keeping her eyes on Annelise till she was out of sight. Only Misha, Finbar and Annelise were left.
"Out means you too Finbar," Misha ordered.
"But . . ."
"Do as he says dear," Annelise said slowly in a frigid voice without taking her eyes off of Misha.
Slowly, very slowly the ferret left the room. Each step taken with the greatest reluctance. He stood at the door for a long time before turning and leaving. It seemed an eternity as the door slowly swung shut. It finally came to rest with a soft click.
"YOU TRICKED ME," the woman snarled. "How dare you let that THING near me."
"Tricked you?" Misha answered in a calm tone. "You were freely invited to the banquet."
"I didn't know that thing would be there."
"Oh yes you did," Misha said slowly. "The whole valley knew that Kelrag would be there. Everyone was talking about it."
"I don't pay attention to petty gossip," Annelise growled with a dismissive wave of the hand.. "I didn't know he would be there."
"Didn't know?" He said and leaned closer. "Or didn't want to know. Perhaps a part of you wanted to meet this Lutin. To be honest I'm surprised you came at all."
"You should be glad I didn't kill him," she snarled.
Misha leaned back in his chair. "Why didn't you kill him? And don't lie to me about you not having the chance to. Maybe you didn't want to kill him. Perhaps you wanted to reach beyond the hate and the killing."
Her face twisted into one of pure, blood red rage. "I ONLY WANT HIM DEAD! ALL OF THEM. DEAD!" Her whole body was shaking rage as her hands reached for her belt.
"Keep your hands in sight girl," Misha ordered ominously, baring his teeth as he did.
"Are you threatening me?" There was an evil glimmer in her eyes and her face was a hard as stone.
Misha kept both of his empty hands in plain sight. "Let go of the past. Selig is dead. Your son killed him."
"He's still alive in my nightmares," she said coldly. "He always will be." With those words she turned around and stormed out.
A small group stood outside of Misha's office. Caroline stood near the door, within earshot. Her hand was on the hilt of the dagger that hung from her belt.
A short way off Finbar stood alone. His whole body sagging and his ears drooping like a little lost puppy.
Danielle walked up to Finbar and wrapped her arms around him. She rested her head against his chest. "What are you thinking?"
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her lightly. "I don't know what to think. He seems to be reasonable."
"What's wrong with that?" She asked.
"I've never seen a reasonable Lutin," he said with an edge of anger and confusion. "He must have some other reason for being here."
"Why?" She asked. "Maybe he just wants to meet the man who killed Selig and reward him."
Finbar shook his head, "Why would he want that? Why would he want to reward the man who killed his father?"
Danielle looked him in the face. "Selig raped your mother and killed many more. What makes you think he was any better to his fellow lutins?"
Finbar looked at her in blunt surprise. "I . . I never thought of that. Misha did tell me that Andwyn and him think Kelrag worked against the Yule assault. Talked several tribes into not joining the attack."
"Do you believe it?" she asked calmly.
He was silent for a moment. and he seemed to be staring into space. "I didn't," Finbar said slowly. "Until now. But I don't see him offering us an alliance out of the goodness of his heart. There must be some other motive."
"Of course there is," Danielle responded. "All political alliances and treaties have different motives behind them."
"He probably only means to honor it for a few years," Finbar snarled. "As long as it helps him. When it stops being helpful he'll drop it."
"Finbar, my love. Gaining Kelrag as an ally even if only for a few years could help everyone at Metamor. And I do think this Lutin's interest in you is genuine. He's taking a considerable risk coming here. And admit it. Aren't you at least a little bit interested in him? What your brother is like?"
Finbar looked down at the floor. "Well, a little bit."
She smiled and kissed him on the muzzle. "We can't keep fighting them forever. You can't keep fighting forever. It will only lead to you dying before your time. And I couldn't bear the thought of living without you."
Finber didn't speak but hugged her tightly. Then he kissed her tenderly on the muzzle. "All right. For you I will meet him. Misha has given up his wild ways. So can I. But what worries me is Mom."
"She needs to put Selig to rest, to kill him," Danielle said.
"Selig is dead," Finbar countered. "I killed him myself."
She shook her head. "I didn't mean physically. I mean here," she tapped the ferret on the chest. "In her heart."
"She's been trying to kill him there for over twenty years and hasn't succeeded yet," Finbar said with a shake of the head.
The apartment was quiet. Misha and Caroline had no pressing tasks or problems and the two were enjoying the quiet time together.
"What do you think of this Lutin chief?" The fox asked. "Him coming here to meet with Thomas."
"I have the feeling that there is something more to Kelrag doing this than just politics," Caroline said simply. "He seemed pretty sincere about wanting to see Finbar."
"You think so?"
"He's taking a considerable risk coming all the way here just to negotiate with the Duke," she explained. "He could have easily sent someone to negotiate for him. But he came himself."
"Good point!" Misha commented. "But why? Why care about someone he's never met?"
She shrugged. "Everyone wonders about their family. I have cousins in the south I've never met but I still wonder what they are like."
"We have two problems," Misha said. "Not just Finbar but also his mother."
"I think we need to get both to finally sit down with him and talk things over," Caroline said. "For ALL their sakes."
"But how?" The fox asked. "Danielle can get Finbar there but Annelise won't come. We'll have to hold a knife to her throat to get her anywhere near a lutin."
"Now that's a good idea," Caroline said.
Misha never was one for diplomacy and politics. He preferred straight and honest talk but politics and diplomacy was usually neither straight nor honest. But it was better than letting things degenerate into more warfare. Which is why Misha found himself standing in front of Kelrag. The chieftain had set up a massive tent on a hill near Hareford, just outside of arrow range.
"It's an honor to meet you sir," Misha said and bowed to the Lutin.
Kelrag smiled and gave a shallow bow in return. "It's a pleasure to meet an esteemed warrior like yourself."
"Thank you for seeing me," Misha said. "I hope the accommodations are to your liking."
"I am pleasantly surprised by the warm reception I've gotten from most people," he answered.
"This is a learning experience for all of us," the keeper answered.
"What news of my brother? I do wish to meet him in person."
"I have met with some," Misha paused for a moment and pondered his next words. "Complications."
The Lutin general tilted his head to one side. "Serious ones?"
Misha shook his head. "It's Finbar."
"He has too much of his father in him," the Lutin responded.
"Perhaps but he has too much of his mother in him. With her hates and painful wounds," the fox explained.
Kelrag looked at the fox with a sneer on his face. "We all have our wounds but he's a warrior and can't give in to them."
"Agreed. But he has spent his whole life fighting and hating," Misha explained. "For many humans they let it consume them. They only know hate and fighting."
"I know many of my own people like that," Kelrag responded. "But if I can raise above the hate. So can he." He growled.
Misha sighed. "A lot of humans would be glad to see peace with your people. Others hate Lutins with a passion and want to see all of them dead."
"And where does Finbar rest?"
"I'm not sure," Misha answered honestly. "Finbar doesn't know that himself. That's the problem."
"I hear you talking but not saying anything," the Giantdowns leader said coldly.
"I trust Finbar with my life," Misha said. "We've fought side by side more times than I can count. I trust him like a Faraluch - a Sword Brother. I trust him too much to force him to meet you at the point of a sword. Besides that won't work. He may come but nothing would be accomplished."
"You make him sound weak," Kelrag said.
"He is anything but weak," Misha answered. "He's a ferocious fighter but all he understands is killing. The sword and the knife. A good leader knows when to move with force and when to be more subtle. I haven't lived this long by just blundering around and bullying people. But you already know that. The fact that you are still alive while Selig is dead proves that."
"My father was a powerful warrior and a leader," the Lutin countered in clipped terms. "He led the attack on Metamor itself. Came close to taking it."
"He wasn't taking it for himself," Misha answered. "He was simply working for Nasoj, a human. A true leader knows when to back off and think rather than just blindly attacking." Misha leaned closer to the Lutin chief. "A real leader, a true warrior knows when to take advantage of a distraction. While the ruler is away fighting some distant enemy he strikes close to home and builds his own kingdom."
"Brute force isn't always the way. Selig never learned that lesson but you already have," Misha commented. "I can arrange a private meeting between you and your brother."
"Will Finbar be there?"
Misha nodded. "I'll make sure of it. He is a friend and I AM his leader. He will follow my orders."
"Will his mother be there?" The lutin asked slowly.
"Annelise?" The fox asked, surprised. "I was trying to find a way to keep her from NOT meeting you."
"I'd like her there as well," he said trying to sound casual but his voice was filled with tension. "Unarmed. There is someone I'd like her to meet."
Misha shook his head, "I can promise she'll be there but not unarmed. The last time we tried to completely disarm her was before the banquet." He gave a yip of laughter. "And she still got three knives past us. I will make sure she behaves herself or at least is reasonably less violent."
The order from Misha was both blunt and to the point. "Come to my apartment at 2:30pm exactly. Please be sure your mother is there as well."
Both Finbar and Annelise knew that something was going on. Finbar followed orders and made his way to Misha's apartment. Annelise had no intention of following the fox's command but Kyia had other ideas. The spirit of the great building twisted and bent the keep's hallways around her. No matter what she did or which way she went Annelise always wound up back at the door to Misha's apartment. So both mother and son found themselves at the door to the Long Scout leaders home. With much swearing and cursing the woman stared at the door for a long time before stepping inside.
Standing at the far end of the room was Kelrag. His arms were crossed and his face had a hard expression that was impossible to read.
Annelise turned and marched toward the door. "I'm not going to . . ."
Misha was standing next to the door. He didn't speak but simply placed his massive black axe on the floor across the doorway, blocking it.
She came to a sudden halt and turned to the fox. "Misha."
"No argument from you," Misha ordered. "It's time for you to listen. He pointed to the woman. "It's time for you to heal your wounds."
"I don't need your help," Annelise snarled with a look of blind rage on her face.
"All right. You can leave right now and spend the rest of your life with your old nightmares." He picked up his axe, freeing up the exit. "Or you can stay and finally end the pain and stop the nightmares. Like the one you had last night."
"How do you know about that?" She hissed.
"I heard you screaming," he answered and waved his hands about in a broad gesture. "The whole castle heard it." Misha stepped closer to her. "Do you honestly want to pass up your only chance of ending the nightmares?"
For once Annelise didn't have an answer. She stood there with a look of confusion on her face.
Misha motioned with his hand through the doorway. "All right come in please."
A figure stepped into the room. She was only a little taller than Annelise. Her black hair was heavily grayed with age. Her face was lined with wrinkles and several ugly scars. This Lutin was around the same age as Annelise.
"Why would I want to talk to any lutin?" she snarled and spit on the ground.
"You were both raped by Selig," Misha answered simply.
Annelise stiffened and the rock hard look of her face crumbled in surprise. For the first time Annelise looked like a frightened and lost little girl.
"Hello," the Lutin woman said softly. "My name is Emise."
"Annelise," Slowly the woman walked up to the Lutin. "My name is Annelise."
"How is it going?" Thomas asked nervously. The stallion was standing outside the room with a large group of Keepers, humans and Lutins.
"Kelrag and Finbar are onto their twelfth jug of ale," Misha answered. "And Finbar is on the third retelling of how he killed Selig."
"And what of their mothers?" Alberta asked.
"They're still talking," Misha responded. "They'll probably be talking all night."
Two days later Kelrag Arthedain left Metamor and headed back into the Giantdowns. With him were the one hundred and twenty people who had come with him. The agreement he had reached with Thomas was as simple. "The Duke of Metamor and his people agree to neutrality with the kingdom of Arthedain. The forces of both sides will not attack the other and will respect the borders of the other." There was a lot of room for mistakes and manipulating by both sides but it was a start. For everyone it was a chance for a fresh start.