Misha opened the window and stared out into the night sky. Below him guards paced out their rounds on the outer wall and two people stood talking in the middle of the courtyard far below. Nothing else stirred at this hour of the morning; Metamor Keep was still asleep. The one thing he hated about being a scout was the odd hours. It always seemed to be dark when he was coming or going.
He looked over to Caroline. The otter was curled up sound asleep in his bed, so completely covered by blankets that only the tip of her tail showed. He hadn't expected for them to spend the night together, it just seemed to happen. After loading their packs the two of them had gone to The Mule to relax and take their minds off the next days journey. The next thing he knew they were back in his room nuzzling each other. "How long have I been in business with her father Will? Five, no seven years, since before the change. We do make quite a bit of money together building clocks and such. What a strange pair of business partners we make; a jeweler and a scout. I've seen and talked to Caroline a thousand times, in those seven years but never considered her more than a friend and a fellow scout. Not until I asked her to join the Long Scouts did we become involved. The testing and the training meant spending a lot of time together, especially the patrols. The two of us were alone together for two to three weeks at a stretch when we were out in the field. I've talked to her more in the last month than in the previous five years combined. After being alone for all these years it feels good to have someone to snuggle with, and to love. But where do we go from here? How do I handle this? I'm not good at relationships. Don't push it Misha, go easy, and just take it as it comes."
Misha sighed; this was going to be a dangerous trip. Was she ready for it? He'd gone that far north by himself countless times but she hadn't. This would be her first trip. She had handled herself well during all the short patrols they had been on together. Caroline really was an expert scout. Her woodcraft skills were excellent and it hadn't been luck that won her the accuracy contest in the Easter festival archery tournament. One doesn't stay in the Duke's service as a scout for ten years without learning something. Was she good enough to be a Long Scout? That was what this trip would decide. God, please don't let me get her killed. He had the idea to let her sleep and go alone. "No, she's a grown woman and I can't start patronizing her now."
"Enough deep thought Misha, it's time to go to work." He closed the window and walked over to the bed. Misha carefully tapped a lump in the blanket he figured had to be her head. The blanket stirred a little. "Come on Carol, it's time to go to work".
"MMMM" was the otter's only answer. He gave her tail a light tug. "UGH, I don't want to go to work, I have a sore throat" was her sleepy argument.
A mischievous thought crossed his mind "if you don't get up I'll use cold water to get you up" he whispered in a sickly sweet voice. The otter's answer was to pull the blanket tighter around her. Misha walked over to his dresser on top of which was a bowl and a pitcher of water. He picked up the pitcher and slowly poured some water into the bowl. The splashing of water sounded loud in the quiet room.
The otter sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted "I'M UP, I'M UP." She wrapped the blanket around her and gave Misha an evil look. "I hate mornings."
"So I've noticed," Misha commented dryly. Caroline stood up and stretched, and he admired her firm, sleek body. He shook his head to dispel thoughts of sex, "No time for that now, there's too much to do," he thought to himself.
At 3am the mess hall was almost empty, there was only the cook and a few soldiers eating before going on duty. Misha piled his tray full of meat, eggs, toast and a large bowl of fruit. He even found room for a mug of tea. He was on his third slice of beef when he noticed that Caroline wasn't really eating. She was only nibbling at some toast and sipping a cup of coffee. "Carol, don't you want more to eat, this will be your last chance for a hot meal for a long time?"
She just shook her head no. Caroline ran her finger around the rim of her coffee cup for a moment before speaking, "Misha, I'm not sure about this. I don't think I'm ready."
He stopped eating and looked up from his food "Yes you are," he countered "You've been a scout for ten years, and we wouldn't have asked you to join if we didn't think you could do it. I won't lie; this is going to be a dangerous patrol. Being a member of the Long Scouts means long dangerous journeys, that's why we're called Long Scouts but Phil, George and I all believe you can do it. We've been on many patrols together and I've seen how you handle yourself. This is no slow walk around the valley, where we're going one mistake could get us both killed. I'm trusting you with my life, that's how good I think you are."
Carol brightened up, took Misha's hand and squeezed it, "Thanks, I needed that."
They headed back to Misha's apartment to check all their supplies and equipment one last time. They both had a large backpack to carry, along with two canteens and a rucksack. Each backpack held a month's worth of trail rations, a sleeping bag, a first aid kit, tinderbox, and a host of other items needed to survive in the north. All that equipment made the packs large and unwieldy, the only saving grace was that the backpacks were magic and weighed a fraction of what they should have.
Misha took two small jars from off his desk and opened them. Both contained colored dye, one jar held brown, and the other green. Together Misha and Caroline covered their heads, arms, legs and tails with both dyes. Covered with green and brown patches they both looked like one of Pascal's experiments. It was a necessity, when you're hiding from several hundred lutins, even the slightest flash of red or white fur could be fatal.
The armory was their last stop; to pickup armor and weapons. Rather then heavy chain mail both opted for a lighter set of leather studded with iron rivets for strength. Over the armor went a camouflage suit. The Camo suit was made of tough linen dyed with brown, green and black patches meant to blend into the woods. A hood that could be pulled up over the head, would keep some sharp eyed lutin from recognizing the pointed ears of a fox or an otter. Both picked up a longbow and a quiver with twenty arrows in it. A carefully wrapped bundle holding thirty more arrows went into each backpack. The wolf behind the counter carefully handed Misha his great axe. Even with the blades covered by sheaths both of them were careful to stay away from the edges. Those edges were razor sharp. Caroline's long sword was the last thing to be handed over. Now ready they left the armory, and the keep.
The two walked through town till they came to a large post and timber two-story building. The sign over the door read "Will Hardy, Jeweler to the Duke." The proprietor himself stood in the open doorway waiting for his daughter. Caroline went to her father and kissed him goodbye. The old badger hugged and kissed her in return "Please be careful honey," he said loudly.
"I will papa" was her reply.
"Don't worry Will, we'll be fine, we've both done this a dozen times before" Misha said trying to sound confident. Will didn't look too convinced but didn't say anything, he just waved goodbye. As they slowly walked away Caroline turned and looked back at her father who stood in the doorway still as stone. When they came to a corner, she stopped, gave one last wave, slowly turned the corner, and her father passed from sight.
"Relax Carol he'll be fine, and we'll be back before you know it," her partner said trying to cheer her up. She just shrugged in return.
The keep at this hour was quiet, and the two scouts made their way in silence to the outer Gate. They stopped in front of the three soldiers standing guard before the massive doors.
"Stand and identify yourself" one of the sentries ordered.
"Misha Brightleaf, scout," was Misha's reply.
"Caroline Hardy, scout," was his partner's addition.
One of the soldiers nodded and wrote something in a small book. "Recognized," the sergeant said "good luck."
"Thanks" was the sole reply.
As they left Metamor Keep Misha spoke "Remember Caroline whenever you leave or return to the keep always be sure to tell the gate guards who you are. That way they'll always be a record for George the patrol master, and Phil. They both read the logbook everyday to get an idea of who's been in or out. As a Long Scout you don't report to George's office before leaving so identifying yourself to the gate sergeant is very important."
Caroline just nodded.
The first part of the trip was easy. The old Suleiman road north went past villages, farms and forests. The pair passed workers and farmers moving around in the pre-dawn darkness. Sometimes they would stop and talk with a friend or exchange greetings with someone they had never met before, but who understood the danger the two were walking into.
Dawn found them many miles from the keep and still headed north. Gradually the farms and villages grew fewer and fewer, and the forest grew darker and closer to the road. The paved road slowly devolved into a muddy track with no trace of paving left. They stopped in the overgrown ruins of a village for lunch. After carefully checking the wreckage they quickly ate their food. Even then they kept their weapons close at hand, eating in silence, looking, sniffing and listening for anything strange. The lutins who destroyed this village could still be around. Lunch was finished quickly, and their trip continued. They walked slowly up the track making as little noise as possible, checking for trouble. So it was very late before the two of them reached the Giants Dike.
During the waning days of the Suleiman Empire with the many invasions coming south the Emperor decided to block the north end of the pass with a great wall. The ballads describe it as being made of stone 80' high and 30' wide. Towers 120' high were set along its length and great keeps anchored the wall at either end. The bards said a thousand soldiers walked along its battlements. The truth was a little bit different. Far from being stone it was an earthen bank, topped by a wooden palisade and fronted by a deep ditch. The towers were wooden platforms on top of the bank, and the great keeps were never built. Still it worked and held back the tide for a time. Its downfall was politics. Pretenders to the throne would take troops from the wall and march south to claim the throne. Eventually too few soldiers were left to hold back the lutins and the giants.
Time hadn't been kind to the wall. The ditch had filled in, the bank worn down and the palisade and towers long since burnt to ashes. The only things left were a low bank and a shallow ditch both overgrown with trees and brush. Most people had long since forgotten who had really built it. Such a great earthwork could only have been dug by giants was most peoples thinking.
Misha and Caroline carefully climbed the bank, and lying flat on the top surveyed the land beyond. For them the dike had more than historical value, it marked the end of Metamor territory. Everything north of here belonged to the lutins and the giants. From here on the trip would be a lot more dangerous. Misha drew a small book and a pencil from a pocket. In it he wrote the date and the words "Arrived at the Giants Dike after dark with no trouble. No sighting of any lutins. We will push north tomorrow."
"Caroline," he asked in a whisper "what is this book for?"
"Is this a test?" she retorted.
"Just a little pop quiz."
She straightened up and in her best school girl voice answered "The journal is used to keep a record of everything that happens during the patrol. That way we don't have to rely on memory alone when filling out the report after we get back to the Keep."
"And," Her instructor suggested.
"And if we are killed anyone who finds our bodies can figure out what happened by reading it. Cheerful thought," came her answer. "Did I do well teacher?" she said in a sarcastic tone of voice.
Misha gave a short yip of amusement and nodded yes. The pencil and journal went back into his pocket and they both turned their minds to dinner.
One meal's worth of trail ration consisted of a bread stuffed with meat, fish, fowl or vegetables. Misha opted for the meat (he had his choice of beef, pork, lamb, or goat) and the fowl(chicken or duck). Caroline took only the fish. He avoided the fish rations. The salmon and halibut weren't too bad, but the frog one was terrible.
Properly wrapped in parchment a loaf could last for months. Both of them had brought along cheese, dried fruit, and most importantly of all several small bottles of spices to liven up the taste of the bread roll. The rations were long on nutrition, and preservation, but short on flavor. As they ate both of them kept a careful watch on their surroundings.
By the time they finished eating it was too late to continue so they settled in for the night. Even that wasn't easy. While one of them slept the other kept watch.
They were moving long before dawn. Breakfast was cold trail rations and water. A fire was out of the question, someone would see the smoke. It was slow going; Every step had to be placed with care so as not to make any noise, not even the crack of a twig. And always they had to look, sniff and listen intently for any sign of trouble. They took turns leading, Misha had lead the day before, so he let Caroline start off.
Footprints, broken branches and discarded bits of trash all gave testament to the passage of several groups of lutins in the past few days. Even so it was almost noon before they encountered someone. Caroline was still leading, when she suddenly froze in place for a moment then motioned with her left arm towards cover. No other sign was needed; Misha understood what was going on. Three quick and quiet steps took them both into a dense clump of bushes. They lay down in the middle and didn't move. To someone moving past, the two scouts would look just like a part of the bushes. Misha kept his hands on the axe handle and watched a group of twenty lutins go past. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Caroline lying next to him, stone still, her right hand on the hilt of her sword. There was no sign of fear or panic; she was as calm as any veteran. They waited about ten minutes after the last lutin had passed before stepping out on the path and continuing on.
They didn't meet anyone else for the rest of the day. After dusk they picked a spot about twenty yards off the trail and settled in for the night taking turns watching and sleeping. Late in the night as Misha was on guard, another group of lutins came marching past headed north, singing and laughing as they went. It was a raiding party returning home already celebrating their victory. Misha wondered who those raiders had hit. Was it other lutins, or was it someone in Metamor? His silent hope was the raider's victims had been other lutins. He felt something lightly brush his arm. It was Caroline's tail. She was awake but still in her sleeping bag, afraid any movement or noise would give them away. The only thing the two of them could do was watch, and wait. It seemed like forever before the singing and laughing finally moved out of hearing. With the danger over Caroline and Misha swapped tasks. He crawled into his sleeping bag and fell asleep in moments.
All too soon Caroline was shaking him awake. It seemed like only a few seconds had past. It was still dark, but the faint traces of light in the east told the tale that dawn wasn't too far off. Breakfast passed quickly and soon they were again making their way north.
As they traveled traffic on the road picked up and several times the two of them had to take cover to avoid being seen. Finally Misha decided the risk wasn't worth the gain in travel time, and motioned Caroline off the road. About thirty yards off the road, paralleling it was a narrow animal trail and the two scouts continued north on that.
Four more days of steady of marching finally got them to the river. The river Irthing was still at flood stage and that meant it was over a mile wide and ice cold. It was too cold and wide to swim, and too deep to wade. It took all afternoon to find what they were looking for. A seemingly random scratch on an outcropping of rock marked the spot. Neither of them approached it. The two scouts lay near by and scanned the surrounding woods, listening, sniffing and watching. Finally Misha nodded his head and slowly stood up. The two of them made a complete circle around the rock. They moved very slowly checking for the slightest sign of an ambush. Nothing, the area looked deserted, but Misha was taking no chances. He had Caroline stay under cover with her longbow drawn. With axe in hand, he slowly made his way to the rock. Misha placed his back against the outcropping and carefully paced off five steps. On the ground just to his right was a small stone. He stared at it for several moments trying see if anything was different from his last visit.
From his breast pocket he drew out a small pouch. Misha opened it and took a handful of the fine sand out. The pouch was carefully returned to the pocket. He clasped the sand with both hands and quietly spoke "Wi na toha shola." He sprinkled the sand on the stone and the ground around it carefully watching as it hit. Nothing happened, he let out a sigh of relief. If the stone had been booby-trapped, the sand would have sparkled. If someone other than a Long Scout had touched the stone the sand would have glowed a faint red.
Misha picked up the stone and carefully placed it to the side and began digging. In a few minutes he had uncovered four wooden boards. pulling off the cover he carefully peered into the depths of the cache. Everything seemed to be just as he had left it. By slowly running his fingers over things he checked for any booby-traps. The spell said nobody had found it but Misha knew that a mage could easily hide any trace of a trap. Finally he began to remove the contents. The Long Scouts had many such caches scattered around. Hidden in all the most unlikely places. Nobody liked having to rely on them but some things just couldn't be carried easily.
With Caroline on guard Misha had to work alone. It was a long, arduous task to wrestle the canoe out of the hole. After that he had to cover the hole back up and remove any trace of it. By this time it already dusk, and he barely had time to choke down a bread loaf and gulp down some water before shoving off.
After piling all their gear in the center of the canoe they knelt by the water and checked for trouble. Misha slowly looked out across the water, a few small objects floated past. He followed each one with his eyes. Just bits of debris. He swiveled his ears about listening for the slightest sounds. The burbling of the waters, and the faint sounds of insects came to him. The smell of mud, water and decaying plants drifted on the wind. No smell of lutins, or giants, that was good.
Misha looked at Caroline. She was looking back at him. With her right hand she pointed to her eye then touched her ear and last she traced a question mark in the air. She was asking him if he had seen or heard anything. He shook his head and pointed a finger at her. "No, have you?" was his silent answer.
Caroline answered with a shake of the head.
He pointed at the canoe and made a rowing motion. It was time to get going. Misha didn't relish the idea of crossing the river. If anything happened to the fragile canoe in the middle of the river, they would be in deep trouble. Being an otter morph Caroline stood a good chance of making it to shore, but not Misha. If the current didn't get him, the cold probably would. Even if he did survive he would be washed miles down river and be separated from Carol. They had set up a rendezvous point back where the cache was, but it could take them days to get back together. Being alone, wet, and bone cold in this God forsaken place could be fatal, especially if most of your supplies had washed away. As they started to paddle out into the river, Misha tried not to think about such things. It had happened to him two years before, and he had barely survived. When he had finally gotten back to the keep he had spent a month in the infirmary with pneumonia. He wouldn't have made it back at all if Robert hadn't found him. Misha pushed those memories from his mind and tried to concentrated on rowing.
The river reminded Misha of an iceberg. At first glance it was calm, placid and seemingly harmless but below the surface was a powerful and implacable enemy that wasted no chance at claiming another victim. The current was slow but it moved with incredible power. It took both of them paddling hard to keep the canoe from being swept away. Even so he could feel them being pushed down river. Various bits of debris floated past, tree limbs, branches, pieces of wood, and once a body. Misha hoped it was a lutin, even though it was a bit too big for one. Half way across his arms started to ache and he was panting. It seemed to take forever before the opposite shore finally came into view. About fifty yards from shore the current suddenly slacked off, and he tapped Caroline on the shoulder "Rest a moment." Both of them slumped down exhausted. He could barely move his arms and he couldn't stop panting. The sound of his panting seemed loud even over the babbling of the river. He tried to stop or muffle it but he couldn't, he just had to wait and hope nobody was nearby to hear.
After a long time he had recovered enough to stop panting. His arms felt like lead and he was exhausted but it was getting late and they had to be off the river and under cover before first light. Rowing close to shore and hunching down they surveyed the beach. Carol looked back at him and shook her head. She hadn't spotted anything and neither had Misha. He held up his paddle and pointed to a part of the shore where the riverbank sloped down to the water. The trees grew close to the bank and would provide plenty of cover. The two of them rowed hard to the shore. When the canoe scraped bottom, they hurriedly got out, pulled the canoe up on dry ground and under cover. They lay down next to it and surveyed the area for any sign of trouble.
It was a long time before they were satisfied that they were alone and could relax a little. Caroline leaned close to Misha and whispered into his ear "You never mentioned that the crossing would be so hard."
"It's at flood stage now, but it should be easier on the way back," he countered, "the water should be lower by then."
The two scouts had to wait till dawn to figure out where they were. The current had pushed them ten miles down river. Hiding the canoe wasn't easy; a long search turned up a gnarled weather worn tree. It would serve very well as a landmark. Twenty feet north of the tree they dug a pit ten feet deep and long enough to fit the boat. The canoe and its paddles were carefully lowered in and then the pit was filled back up with dirt. It was hard laborious work, made all the harder because the only tool they had was a small folding shovel. The two of them took turns digging and guarding.
It was almost dark before Caroline scattered the last handful of leaves on the ground over the buried canoe. Misha inspected the spot carefully. She had done a first rate job of hiding all traces that the ground had ever been disturbed. Both of them were bone tired so after eating, they settled in for the night. His partner had done great today so he took the first shift on guard, and let her get some much needed sleep. He let her sleep till after midnight before waking her up. When the fox was sure she was fully awake, Misha stretched out on the ground and fell asleep without even bothering to unroll his sleeping bag.
Despite his exhaustion Misha slept lightly and late in the evening he woke up instantly when something touched him on the arm. A faint thrumming noise filled the air. In the darkness he made out the shape of Caroline, bow in hand sitting next to him. He lightly touched her on the knee to let her know he was awake. She looked down at him and pointed to his weapons. He slowly reached for his axe and bow. The thrumming noise was getting louder. A large dark shadow passed overhead and the noise was louder than ever. Both of them held their breath as the large thing slowly drifted past. It was moving too slowly to be a dragon, even if it was as big as one. It seemed to slowly float past like some dark storm cloud. It took a long time for the shadow to disappear, it took even longer for the noise to fade into silence.
Caroline leaned close to Misha, and whispered into his ear "What was that?"
"I don't know, but I bet it bodes ill for the Keep," was his answer.
She nodded in agreement.
"Pack up we're leaving," Misha ordered. He didn't have to say it twice. In a few minutes, they were packed and moving.
The sun was up, and many miles lay behind them before a halt was called. As breakfast was hastily eaten, he pulled out his journal and pencil, and described in detail their encounter with the flying thing. Caroline looked over his shoulder and added her own comments.
With the meal and the report finished both journal and pencil went back into a pocket, and the two scouts started moving north again. There was still a long way to go.
Pascal woke up with a start, and looked around her small room. It was alight with a faint green glow.
A high-pitched hum filled her small room. The sound was annoyingly monotonous, and terribly persistent.
Something was wrong, she thought to herself, very wrong. Alarmed, she stood up and grabbing her red robe from off the stool put it on. The noise frightened her, it sounded ominous and foreboding. She picked up a dagger from off of the desk.
The light and noise was coming from under the door. Opening it she stepped through into her lab. The door should have led to the hallway, but she didn't mind. Sometimes the door led to her lab, and sometimes it led to the hall.
The light and noise was coming from a table that stood next to the door. This worried her. There were a lot of nasty things that could cause the noise and light. She carefully waddled up to the table, and examined it. Amid the beakers and cups lay a small stone. The light and noise was coming from the stone. Leaning closer she studied the rock for a moment. It seemed harmless enough.
Pascal carefully touched the stone, and then with more confidence picked it up. Clasping it in both hands she closed her eyes, and opened her mind to the stone's magic.
The noise didn't seem so loud or menacing now.
"Come on Phil, where are you? Answer me please," a voice called out in her mind. It sounded impatient, and worried. She focused her mind on the voice, and moved closer to its source.
"Phil, is that you?" The other person was a male in his thirties, a canine by the feel of it. Someone she knew but wasn't really close to.
"Who is this?" Suspicion and curiosity were the emotions that came through to her.
A fox, her questioner was a fox morph, and he was contacting her from a great distance.
"Who is this? Pascal? Is that you? I was trying to get Phil. I don't suppose the rabbit's with you?"
She moved closer to the voice, and she started to get an image of the fox. The first thing she noticed was that it was dark and wet. The rain was coming down in a steady stream, and it was late in the evening. It took a moment for her to adjust to the darkness. The fox was crouched in a small dugout carved into a hillside. The opening was camouflaged with branches, twigs and the like. After a moment she recognized the speaker. It was Misha Brightleaf, one of the scouts at the keep.
"Misha where are you? I get the impression that you're very far away?"
"True, I'm on a scouting mission for the rabbit. Is he there with you?" Pascal got the impression that despite being under cover Misha was wet and cold in addition to being tired. Pascal shivered in spite of being in her warm laboratory. The connection between them was becoming too close.
"No, he's not here, I'm alone in my lab."
"Drat, I'm sorry about that, did I wake you?" Misha said, "by the way that robe of yours needs a good cleaning."
She self-consciously pulled her robe closed.
"I'm sorry Pascal, I didn't mean to peek. This spell was only supposed to pass along sound, not sight and smell. I never was a great mage" he said apologetically. "I need you to pass along some info to Phil for me. Please, it's very important."
"Why?" she asked "What's so important, and exactly where are you?"
"It's hard to explain, but only two people know where we are. We're about a half days walk south of Starven."
"STARVEN! That's a three-day ride north of here. What are you doing there?" she asked in surprise.
"I'm a Long Scout, girl," He replied as if that explained everything.
Someone touched Misha on the knee.
"Who?" Pascal asked reflexively.
"Caroline, my partner," was the answer, "Now hush, let me work."
Curious, she concentrated harder, and became aware of someone sitting next to Misha. In the darkness all she could see through Misha's eyes was a black, vaguely human shape. The figure that must be Caroline pointed out of their dugout.
He looked out of his hiding place and swore silently. Pascal couldn't help but laugh, he was very proficient in cursing, and could do it in several languages. The humor disappeared when she concentrated on what he was looking at. The dugout the two scouts were hiding in was on the side of a hill. Through the rain and darkness she could vaguely make out a road below them, and in the distance were the lights of a small city that must be Starven. But it wasn't the road, or the city that caught her attention. Coming up the hill, less than fifty yards away was a group of people, at least ten of them.
"Do you think they know you're there?" Pascal asked.
"No, not yet, but they suspect something is here," he answered.
Misha made some signs with his hands. After a second his partner made some of her own. The translation didn't come through fully, but it seemed to Pascal that they were comparing notes on the people coming at them. There were fifteen of them, not ten. In a loose group slowly moving up the hill. They weren't meandering, they were moving with a purpose, straight towards the hiding place. As they came closer Pascal's attention was drawn to a tall person in the center of the group. That person had something clutched in both hands. Even at such a long distance, and seeing through someone else's eyes she recognized that the figure was using magic.
"Misha, the tall one in the middle, he's a powerful magic user," She warned.
"Are you sure?" was the reply.
"Yes, he's using magic to find you."
A flurry of hand signals passed back and forth between Misha and Caroline. Pascal only caught the last parts.
"So the leader goes first," Caroline signed.
Misha just tapped her on the knee twice "Agreed."
As the hand signals continued to go back and forth Pascal realized the two scouts were planning on who in the group to kill, and how. Finally Misha tapped the otter's knee twice ending the discussion. The Plan seemed to be if spotted, they would first use their longbows to kill as many as possible. Then they would close, and finish the job with sword and axe. The first one slated to die was the tall magic user. Pascal felt a pang of guilt as she realized that her comments would likely get that mage killed.
"Don't feel guilty about that one's death, Pascal. I had him figured for the leader before you spoke," Misha's words rang in her mind. She hadn't realized he could read her mind. This connection was too close. Too personal. She backed away, blocking her mind, but didn't break the connection, she was too curious.
"Ok Misha, relax. This is where you earn your pay." She could feel his fear as he spoke those words to calm himself.
The group was now less than twenty yards away, and she could see that The two lutins in front were dressed in chain mail and carrying bows. Misha slowly reached down and patted the axe that lay next to his leg. "Easy, Whisper, it's almost time to go to work." She felt the faintest touch of another mind besides Misha's. Had she felt it, or just imagined it? He slowly picked up a longbow with his left hand, using touch alone. His eyes never left the party coming up at him. His right hand found the quiver at his hip. He slowly drew an arrow and nocked the bow but didn't bend it.
Misha carefully looked to his left, and through his eyes Pascal could see that Caroline had her own bow lying across her lap. They were both waiting. The two lutins in front of the group were now less than ten yards away. "Go away, you green bastards," his words echoed in Pascal's mind.
Now the lutins were less than twenty feet away. Suddenly one of them stiffened, and turned his head towards the rest of the party behind him.
"SHIT! We've been spotted," Misha's words blasted into Pascal's mind. He stood up crashing through the camouflage, and in a flash bent and loosed his bow twice. The two lutins dropped without a word. Suddenly Caroline was standing next to him loosing arrows. In quick succession Misha shot five arrows, each aimed at a different person. Four of them found their mark. An arrow sailed past his head. His eyes scanned and found the archer, in the back next to a tree. He calmly placed an arrow into his enemies chest. "Lets finish it," he said aloud in a voice as hard as steel. He dropped the bow behind him, reached down, and picked up his axe.
In that last instant before he rushed forward, Pascal could feel the fright and anxiety in his mind, "St. Barbara protect me and all who are in my care" was the fervent prayer that came through to her.
The battle came to Pascal's mind in a confused jumble of images. There was no time to think, just act and react. He let out a blood curdling yowl, and hafted the axe over his head as he charged forward. There was the smell of sweat, mud, fear and blood in the air. A lutin wielding a sword loomed up in front of him. The axe swept down, and suddenly the stench of blood filled his nostrils. Many miles to the south in her lab Pascal sagged against the table and fought back the nauseous.
There was the sound of fighting off to his left. Caroline was fighting with two figures, both taller than she was. He started towards her raising the axe. One of the attackers turned and made a complex gesture with his hands. Despite the terror Pascal recognized the spell being cast. As the axe came sweeping down she tried to warn Misha. That spell was a shield spell. Nothing could get through it, not even Misha's axe. "Wait, you can't get past..." the axe swept down, through the shield and into the mage behind it. Pascal saw the look of surprise on the man's face, just before the blade bit into his chest.
Suddenly it was over. Misha was standing axe in hand looking around. The stench of blood, and death was everywhere. Pascal was laying on the floor panting, and shaking trying not to throw up.
"They're all dead Misha," The words startled Misha and Pascal both. It was Caroline. She slowly made her way over to him.
"Pascal, are you still there?" The fox asked.
Pascal couldn't think straight, the smell of blood, and death filled her with terror. She wanted to run away and hide in some dark corner.
"Pascal answer me. Are you all right?" This time the touch of his mind brought to her worry and compassion. After a moment the smells vanished leaving only the fear. "Pascal, think of something nice. Think of you and Scratch snuggling up together in front of a nice warm fire on a cold night. Think of the warmth and love. The panic and the fear slowly vanished like a bad dream. "How are you feeling now?" Misha asked.
She slowly stood up, and shook herself. Her quills rattled noisily in the quiet solitude of the lab. "I'm fine," She finally managed.
"Misha" Caroline had spoken those words in a whisper, but to Pascal it sounded like a shout. Misha looked over at Caroline who was bent over one of the bodies. He knelt down next to his partner and looked at the corpse. It was the mage, or what was left of him.
To Pascal the body didn't look too bad at first, until she realized that he had been cut in two at the waist. Misha turned the dead man's face towards him, and leaned closer for a better look. With the rain splattering down on it, the face looked almost peaceful. The fine clothes and the well-groomed mustache and beard spoke of noble birth and upbringing. "Well, it seems God's justice may be slow, but it is certain and inevitable."
"It's him isn't it?" Caroline asked. Misha just nodded in return. Caroline spit on the corpse and then slapped that peaceful face twice.
"Who was he?" Pascal asked, unnerved by the otter's action.
"That things name was Furlin, commonly known as Furlin the Flayer. He was one of Nasoj's lieutenants. A more brutal and vicious monster you'd be hard pressed to find."
"He looks so peaceful."
"I saw him personally kill seven people simply because they happened to be in his way. People call us monsters and demons because of our looks, but if there ever was a true monster in this world it was him." He took a dagger from his belt and started to cut off one of the dead man's ears.
"Taking a souvenir Misha?" Pascal whispered in his mind.
"No, I'm getting proof. The Duke has a ten thousand gold piece reward for Furlin's death."
As he was putting the proof into a pouch the sound of voices came to Misha's ears. Looking down the hill he saw a large group of people standing at the base of the hill. Hand signals flashed back and forth between the two scouts.
"There's at least fifty of them," Carol signed.
"They're trying to work up their courage to come up here and find out what had happened," was her partner's silent comment.
"Pascal, tell Phil what just happened. Also tell him that there's a force of two thousand lutins moving on the old Empire road. There are four giants with them. The whole group just passed our position moving south."
"Time to go, we've stayed too long," Caroline signed. Misha nodded in agreement. There was a shout from down the hill, snapping sounds and a whistling filled the air. Both of the scouts flattened themselves against the ground. A score of arrows thudded into the ground just short of them.
"Pascal, tell Phil we'll head for the den. Things are going to get real ugly from now on."
"Good luck to both of you."
"Thanks," Misha managed before he ended the spell, and broke the connection. Pascal's last image was of the two scouts running.
Pascal opened her eyes. She was still standing next to the table in her lab. She held her hands up and saw that they shaking badly. After a moment she headed for the door to the corridor.
The door opened slowly and a four-foot tall rabbit peered out at Pascal. "Pascal, do you know what time it is?"
"I'm sorry to bother you Phil, but I've been in contact with Misha and..."
"Misha! Come in, come in," he said excitedly, and waved the porcupine in.
The room was small, and cramped. It felt more like an oversize closet than an office, and Pascal had to move carefully to avoid knocking something over.
"He was trying to get you, but his message spell went awry," She explained.
"Misha never was a good mage," Phil said shaking his head. He motioned her to a seat.
Pascal explained the spell, her talking to Misha, the battle she witnessed, and Furlin's death. He listened in silence interrupting only once, to have her describe Furlin's face again in detail.
When she had finished Phil sat quietly for a moment. Hanging on the wall was a long blue cord with a gold tassel on the end. He clenched the cord with his teeth and gave it three good pulls. In a moment there was a knock on the door, and a young boy of around ten came in.
"You called sir," He said respectfully.
"Yes. I want you to send for Diane the assistant patrol master, and and Will the gate captain."
The page nodded, and left on his errand.
"Aren't you going to do anything else?" Pascal asked, a little disappointed at his lack of reaction. "If Nasoj finds them he'll flay them alive."
"Yes, we are going to help, but we have to act cautiously. A lot of people wanted to see Furlin dead. Nasoj won't know who murdered his favorite lieutenant, just that he was killed. Being so far north his first thought will be to blame the lutins. Last year Furlin killed one hundred and fifty lutins of the Bloody Maw tribe as punishment for disobedience. Before that he killed seventy-five lutins of the Rending Claw tribe for not bringing his tribute fast enough. Even the lutins of his own army could have killed him and then faked the ambush. Nasoj won't know who to look for or where find them. Misha and Carol will have more sense than to leave any clues behind. Even the arrows they use were taken from dead lutins. If we send out a big party to help them and make a big show of force, Nasoj will know exactly who killed Furlin. That will tell Misha's pursuers just who to look for, and where they're headed."
"So you're not going to do anything?" Pascal asked still confused.
"Of course we'll do something. Just as my people watch him, Nasoj has his people watch us. It's a subtle but very deadly game that goes on all the time, and Misha knows how to play the game very well. I'll send some people out to help him and Caroline, you can be sure of that. It will have to be done quietly though, without a lot of noise. Right now their best defense is confusion, doubt and anonymity. By the time Nasoj figures out what really happened they'll be long gone and halfway home."
"What about the other half?"
There was a long silence before he answered. "They're both Long Scouts, Pascal, and there are no better trained or more experienced people at the keep. Misha's been up north hundreds of times and been in worse predicaments than this."
"What are the Long Scouts? I've never heard of them."
"There has always been a need to get first hand information on what was going on up north. The Longs take care of that, and a lot of other dangerous jobs. You could call them the elite of the scouts, but don't tell Misha I said that. He hates it when I call him elite. He prefers to be called a scout, and a troubleshooter."
He slowly guided her to the door, and she took the hint. The door didn't have a doorknob. Where the knob should have been there was a small square hole. Phil carefully inserted a forepaw into the recess and pulled the door ajar a bit. Then the rabbit opened it the rest of the way by sliding his other forepaw in behind it, and then pulling normally.
Pascal shook her head at the sight. "What happens if someone tries to open the door while your paw is in that hole?"
Phil rocked his ears. "It gets broken sometimes, Pascal. My forepaw that is." He held up a forepaw that had no thumb or fingers, just short toes, and waved it in front of her as he talked. "Mostly it just hurts like hell."
"Yeesh!" she replied. "That's awful! I think I can come up with something better than THAT!"
Pascal halted in the doorway. "Do you really think they'll be alright?" She was still worried in spite of what he had said.
"Don't worry Pascal, Fox has been in worse spots before. The two of them will be fine." He sounded pretty confident. "I'll keep you informed of how he's doing. When they get back you can buy them dinner. Now if you'll pardon me, I have a lot of work to do." With those words he closed the door, and left Pascal alone in the hall.
As she headed back to her rooms she contemplated everything that had occurred. Phil had sounded confident, unworried. Things couldn't be too bad for Caroline and Misha. Relieved, she quickened her pace. If she hurried she might still get a couple of hours sleep before dawn.
The two figures moved quietly but quickly through the darkness. Many miles behind them fifteen corpses lay scattered near a small cave dug into a hillside. Mute evidence of their having passed that way, evidence they would rather not have left so deep in enemy territory.
After a few minutes of running flat out they settled into a slow, steady jog that they kept up for hours. The lead scout carried the large axe in his hands with ease. If it's weight bothered him it didn't show. He only slowed his pace to find his footing in the darkness. The person trotting behind him easily kept pace. Coming to a stream they leapt it easily.
Suddenly three lutins loomed out of the darkness. They barely had time to bring up their swords before the axe swept back and forth. Two of the lutins fell dead. The third sentry fell to an arrow, scarcely a moment later. The two scouts kept right on moving, not even breaking stride.
The two of them kept moving until the sounds of the chase finally faded into silence. They slowed to a walk, and then stopped by a large boulder. Misha leaned against the rock, too tired to do anything but pant. The stone was still cold and wet from the recent rain and it felt good against his back. In the silence of the woods his panting sounded like thunder, but he couldn't stop it. Being a fox morph did have its drawbacks. Caroline slumped to the ground at his feet, exhausted. He took a long drink from his canteen and splashed more on his face. After a moment his partner stood up and started sipping water from her own canteen.
After what seemed like an eternity he had cooled down enough to stop panting, and quiet returned to the woods. "I think we've lost them," Caroline signed with her hands.
Maybe they had. There had been no sign of their pursuers for a long time. He nodded yes. In his mind Misha plotted the safest route back to Metamor. It was at least a week's walk to the river through an area infested with countless thousands of lutins, all eager to skin the two of them alive. Nasoj had a standing reward of a thousand gold coins to the person that brought him Misha. The reward was double if he was still alive. The thought of being held prisoner in Dark Keep made him shiver. He patted the hilt of the dagger that hung from his belt. He would use it to slit his own throat rather than be taken there.
Off to the south came the sound of people tramping through the brush. Damn! In a moment the two scouts were moving east. Dawn was still several hours away; it was going to be a long night. Hopefully things would get better with the daylight.
They didn't. A long, bad night turned into an even worse day. The chase never let up. No matter how times they lost them, their pursuers always found them again. There always seemed to be someone snapping at their heels, never letting them rest. Time and again they had to turn and lash out at their pursuers with sword, axe and bow. The battles were short, sharp, but one sided. Carol and Misha would kill three or four lutins, and the rest would flee. Each fight took valuable time and made large amounts of noise, advertising their location for all to know. They would have to run, dodge, and hide until someone caught up to them. Then the cycle would start all over again.
Slowly the sounds of pursuit grew fainter until it disappeared altogether. Finally, they stopped for a rest. It was almost nightfall. After running all day and night they were exhausted. Lying flat in a cluster of thorn bushes, they listened and sniffed for any sign of pursuit. It was the little things Misha checked for: the rustling of mice in the leaves, and the sounds of insects. Both would go quiet if lutins were about. After twenty minutes of waiting they relaxed, but only a little.
The ration was dry, almost tasteless, and the meat filling was unidentifiable, but he was too hungry to care. It was the first meal he'd had all day. He finished it in a heartbeat. He drank the last of his water and shook the now empty canteen. They had to find potable water, in the Northlands that could be a difficult task. Still he knew of a few places that held promise. He put the canteen back and started on a second ration.
He'd taken only a single bite, when the wind brought to his nose an unwanted scent. "Shit, I knew it was too good to last," he thought to himself. Dropping the unfinished ration into a pocket, he checked on Caroline. She was looking at him, confused, aware that something was wrong, but not what it was. Misha made a sign with his hands. Her whole body just sagged in disappointment. Caroline looked about ready to cry, but didn't. Instead she sighed quietly, and quickly finished her own field ration.
Lying flat in the middle of the brush as still as death, they waited. The minutes slowly dragged by with nothing happening. The scent grew stronger, and Misha could pick out the rancid stench of lutins. Also there was the faint musk of wolves in the air.
Misha listened intently. The mice and the insects had gone quiet. After several minutes the sound of quiet footfalls came to him, then silence. Neither of them moved, or made a noise. Someone was out there listening and watching, just like they were. This was the hardest part, the waiting. A person could never be sure if the enemy knew they were there or not. If they didn't know the scouts were there, the best thing to do was to wait them out. Eventually the lutins would get tired and leave. If the lutins did know, the scouts had to leave before they were surrounded. The problem was moving made noise, and that would surely give their position away. The hard part was knowing when to stay, and when to leave. If he judged right, they lived. If he judged wrong, they died.
The wait seemed to stretch on for an eternity with no sound or sign of lutins. How many were out there, and where were they? Did they know we're here, or are they just looking. Misha tried to calm himself, and not be nervous. The worst thing he could do was panic. He listened for even the slightest sound. Nothing. There was the faint rattling of some stray leaves off to his left. Was it just leaves moving with the wind? The sound stopped, leaving a deathly silence.
Neither Misha nor Caroline heard it coming. One moment it was just the two of them lying there. The next moment a shadow loomed over Caroline. Misha's heart stopped for a moment, and he had to fight the impulse to run. Standing less than two feet from Caroline was a large wolf the size of a pony. It had to weigh at least a thousand pounds, and it seemed to be all muscle and teeth.
To her credit Caroline didn't panic, but just held stock still. Looking into her eyes Misha could see the blind panic she was fighting to control. The wolf just stood there, looking and sniffing it's find. It was a young male, no more than two years old. Misha suddenly realized that it had never before been this close to a morph. Her scent would be strange to it; part animal, part human. The wolf didn't know what this thing was, and he was confused.
That confusion could work to their advantage. It was large, but it was still a wolf. Moving slowly he reached into his pocket. The wolf's head whipped around towards him. Misha found himself staring into a large maw that seemed to be filled with hundreds of foot-long teeth.
From his pocket he pulled out his partly eaten trail ration. He extended his open hand, with the ration on it, towards the wolf. Lutins liked to keep their animals half starved so they would be extra vicious. The creature warily examined the offered food for a moment. The giant could just as easily take his whole hand, rather than just the food it was holding.
The wolf leaned closer, but whether to attack or eat, Misha couldn't tell. SNAP! Suddenly the food was gone, but his hand was still there. He wiggled his fingers just to sure everything still worked. Relief flooded through him, and he relaxed just a little. The wolf was more interested in food than in fighting. He pulled a second ration from his haversack and gave it to the wolf. It was eaten, parchment and all, by the hungry animal in a moment. A third was produced, and disappeared into the large maw, like the previous two. As it was eating a fourth ration, Misha risked petting the wolf. He rubbed the soft fur on the underside of the neck. He could feel the powerful muscles under the fur relax as the wolf enjoyed his touch.
"VACK!! Come here," someone shouted from a few feet away. The lutin who'd spoken had not the vaguest idea that Misha and Caroline were so close. The wolf stared at Misha for a moment, and he realized that it was deciding what to do. Would he attack, reveal them to his lutin handler, or just leave? He licked Misha on the muzzle, and then turned and trotted away. All without making a sound.
They waited in silence for a long time for something to happen. Finally the insects started to chirp and chitter. They both slowly relaxed a little, but not completely. Misha risked making some hand signs to Carol. "Are you alright?" She nodded yes, but she looked very shaken.
"Just a little unsettled," she signed back.
"You have a right to be. It's not often a person goes nose to nose with a giant wolf." Misha wrapped his arm around her, and he could feel that they both were shaking. That one had been too close for comfort. The shaking grew worse as it sank in just how close to death she had come. Holding her close the soft musk of her scent filled his nose. He could smell the fear and panic in it. It was too dangerous to talk, and Misha couldn't think of what to say anyway. All he could think to do is hold on to her. After a long time the shaking stopped.
"Better?" he asked silently. After a moment she answered with a barely discernible nod of the head. Misha stared at Caroline for a moment trying to guess her emotions.
"He really liked it when you rubbed him under the chin," she signed.
"All canines love being rubbed there. It really feels good."
"Even you?" she asked.
He nodded yes. "Rub me under my neck, and I'll follow you anywhere," he replied.
He could feel her shaking even harder than before. This time trying to suppress the laughter. "I'll have to remember that," she signed.
Misha had to hold his muzzle shut with his hands to keep from laughing out loud. He couldn't help himself, it sounded hilarious. Both of them lay there for several minutes quietly laughing, completely oblivious to everything else. As he shook with silent laughter, all the pain, tension, fear and shock drained out of him.
Finally the two of them regained their composure. They listened and checked their surroundings. When they were reasonably sure no one was lying in wait, the two of them stood up, and slowly started moving south.
There were thirty of them guarding the spring. The leader was a large ugly ogre. In his hands was a broad sword, six feet long and still encrusted with the blood of it's last victim. Hanging from his belt were a dozen severed heads. Most were lutin but Misha recognized several human ones. He wondered who those grizzly trophies had been in life. A friend perhaps? No way of telling, the heads were pretty rotted. The powerful stench of decay filled the air.
The rest of the party consisted of lutins, all wearing armor. The richest wore chain mail, others were in ring mail or leather. The poorest were dressed in a polyglot mixture of various bits and pieces. Probably scavenged from the dead of a dozen battles. All of the sentries were heavily armed. Though in typical lutin fashion no two carried the same weapon. Every type of weapon seemed to be present, including wicked-looking flails, heavy iron maces, spears, swords of every type, war axes and even clubs.
For Misha and Caroline the sound of the burbling spring was a torment. After two days without water all he could think of was sticking his whole head into that cool wetness. There was barely thirty feet of open space between Misha and the water. It might as well have been thirty miles. The two of them had no chance of getting to that water. Not with that well armed war party standing guard. The Bloody Fangs were unsubtle, but unlike other lutin tribes they were very through.
"Now what?" Caroline signed.
"There's a cache about a five miles west. We'll try for that," he answered.
Slowly they edged away from the spring and it's guards. The two scouts got barely a hundred yards before they heard a patrol coming. Both of them stopped and lay flat on the ground. Now came the hard part of dodging a patrol. They had to try and guess where the patrol was, and how close it would come to their hiding place. He couldn't see them, but he could hear and smell the lutins. He lay there listening and sniffing, trying to guess where they were. The footsteps slowly got closer and closer and still the two scouts didn't move. Finally he pointed to the left and rubbed his hand on the ground. Still lying flat on their stomachs they crawled, head down, through the brush. The tramping sounds got louder and louder. Misha had to resist the urge to move faster. After several minutes they stopped and lay motionless. The lutins were very close now. He could pick out the squeak of leather, and the clink of metal above the noise of shuffling feet. Holding his breath Misha waited as the group marched past behind him. He couldn't even risk swiveling his ears to hear better. Slowly, very slowly, the sounds of the soldiers moved away. After ten minutes it disappeared completely. Ten more minutes passed before either of them dared to move.
Stepping carefully, they started moving west again. The two of them got less than a quarter of a mile before they ran into another patrol. Twenty minutes were wasted avoiding it. No sooner did they get done dodging that patrol then they ran into another, and then another, and another. Finally in disgust, Misha called a halt.
"What's going on? The last time we came through here we only ran into three patrols the whole time. We've already dodged fifteen and it's at least a day's walk to the border," Caroline motioned.
"They knew we were coming," was her partner's answer.
"How?" she asked.
Misha shrugged, "They know we're from Metamor and guessed our route back to the keep. Did you leave anything behind back at Starven that could identify us?"
"No, I even took the garbage," the otter answered.
"Something told them who we were." The faint sounds of yet another patrol interrupted the conversation. Both scouts lay still and listened as it passed by about a quarter of a mile away.
When they were gone Caroline shook her head, "How long will they keep this up?"
"Too long for us to wait them out," came the answer.
"Can we still get the supplies. How long will it take?" she asked.
Misha shrugged, "Uncovering the supplies will take at least an hour."
"How's it hidden?" he was asked.
"Under a pile of rubble in some ruins."
"Moving rocks means making lots of noise," Caroline silently commented.
He nodded yes, "We can try for the other stash, but that area is probably just as heavily patrolled as this one. The next one is two days south of here, in Neck Snapper territory. Can you stand going without for that long?" Misha asked.
"I can hold out as long as you can," she replied with short, sharp hand gestures.
Anger bubbled up in him. "We're surrounded by two thousand lutins, and your playing stupid tit for tat games," he signed angrily, "I need to know, can you hold out without any water for two more days?"
His partner just stared at him without responding. The anger in him disappeared. He hadn't meant to insult her. Three days of dodging patrols with little food or water left them both tired and edgy. "I'm sorry Carol. It wasn't supposed to be this rough. I had it planned as an easy reconnaissance. Just a long walk, a little look around, and then back home. Easy! If only it hadn't been Furlin, then Nasoj wouldn't have given the battle a second thought."
Carol took his hand and squeezed it. "I'm a grown woman. I understood how dangerous it was when I joined. Besides we killed the Butcher of Willow Hill! Do you realize how many deaths we've avenged? It's worth a little risk, my love."
The sound of tramping feet came to their ears. It was a large patrol coming from the west. Caroline pointed south and made a question mark in the air with her hand. Misha nodded yes. Stepping quietly the two of them moved south.
Misha crouched in the brush by the side of the road and stared warily at the figure on the other side. The lutin was resting with his back against a large tree. Barely twenty feet of open space separated them, but that twenty feet was open road, devoid of any possible cover.
Behind him there was a faint sound. He slowly turned towards it and waited. After a moment a green and brown form slid into view. Misha relaxed as Caroline slowly came closer. "How did you do?" he signed with his hands. "Any luck?"
The otter's hands moved in reply, "They have a sentry every thirty feet for at least two miles. How about the other direction?"
"The picket line extends three miles that way," the fox replied. "No chance of sneaking past during daylight."
"Neat trick, we can't cross the road without being seen by a sentry. And if we take out a sentry those on either side will see it and raise the alarm," she quietly explained.
Misha looked at the sentry, he could kill him in an instant with a arrow, but not without it being seen.
"How do we do this?" his partner asked.
"We'll have to wait till night fall and sneak across then. It's not possible to guard that big a section of road at night," he signed back.
"I don't know, something doesn't feel right. I'm sure they must have something guarding the road at night," she said. "What could guard a five-mile section of road in the dark?"
"I guess we'll find out. What we'll do is pick a spot midway between two pickets, and cross there. I'll go first while you stand guard. Once I'm sure its safe I'll throw a pebble into the woods to signal you," Misha signed.
"I don't like it," she replied.
"Neither do I" the fox answered with his hands, "but we don't have a choice."
Night came all too quickly for Misha's liking. It seemed to arrive in a rush, like a charging bull. The darkness seemed to be more intense than ever before. Almost like the night itself was alive. I made him shiver.
Misha crept silently to the edge of the road and knelt down. Caroline was next to him, visible only as a dark shape. He reached out, took Carol's hand and squeezed it. She squeezed it in return, and then reached over and kissed him on the muzzle.
With the axe gripped tightly in his hands he checked one last time for any sign of an ambush. Nothing. That didn't mean it wasn't there. It meant it he couldn't spot it. Crouching low Misha moved onto the road. For a moment he was naked of cover as he hustled across the road. Then he dropped into some bushes on the other side.
Behind him he heard the sound of gravel clattering against a tree. Misha looked up in time to see a large black mass rushing at him. The object slammed into him knocking him to the ground.
The creature on top of him was ice cold and easily twice his weight. It seemed to be all teeth and muscle. A mouth with dagger sized teeth rushed for his face. The fox jammed the wood handle of his axe into that maw. The jaws clamped down and the creature shook it's head. He could feel the tremendous power as it tossed him around like a terrier shaking a dead rat. The creature's breath was like a blast of arctic air in his face and it chilled his whole body.
Misha's world diminished to just the two of them as they wrestled and rolled on the ground. The only thing between him and a violent death was the thin oak handle. As long as Misha kept it in that frigid things maw, it couldn't bite him. He needed both hands to hold off the beast, but he couldn't keep this up for ever. The only thing he could think to do was to hold on and pray.
Finally the creature slammed him bodily into a tree. The force of the blow stunned him, and he lost his grip on the wooden handle. A cold, heavy weight pinned him to the ground like a thousand pounds of ice. Those huge teeth descended towards his throat. "GOD HELP ME!" he screamed. out loud.
"ANA TOW KANA" a voice shouted. Suddenly the whole area lit up with a brilliant glow. The light blinded Misha for a moment. There was a loud scream, and suddenly the weight on his chest was gone.
Misha shook his head to clear the spots from his eyes. A figure knelt next to him and spoke aloud "Are you alright?" It was a Caroline.
"Yes, I think so," answered still a little daze.
"Nafu ti," she said and the darkness returned to the forest. Carol threw her arms around him and hugged him. Her warm body felt fantastic after that icy creature. For a moment they just hugged and enjoyed each other's warmth.
"What happened," He signed to Caroline.
"It just appeared when you reached the middle of the road. Poof! One minute you were alone, the next it was standing behind you," came the reply.
He shook his head. "Neat trick, they bound the creature to guard the road. I didn't know you could bind something to guard that large an area."
"Where did it go?" he whispered.
"It ran off when I activated the Light stone. I realized that the monster couldn't bear light. That's why they had the sentries on the road during the day."
Her partner nodded, "Makes sense."
"What is that thing," she asked.
"A dark hound," he answered. "I've heard about them, but never seen one before."
"Will it come back?"
"No, a summoned creature like that can only be set to do one task," he explained.
"Ah, and each attack counts as one task," she added.
Misha nodded in agreement.
"We have to get out of here my love. Are you up to it?" she asked.
Misha stood up slowly, a little unsteady. "Where's Whisper," he asked looking around. He reached down and picked up the axe from where it lay next to a bush.
The sound of people shouting and running sounded through the woods. "Time to go honey," Carol whispered. She pointed south to the river Irthing, less than a mile away.
They took to their heels and ran from the battle site. Twenty minutes of running left their pursuers far behind. Tired, Misha lay flat on his back.
Caroline knelt next to him, "Are you alright?" she asked.
"Yea, nothing broken. The armor absorbed most of the blows," he answered.
"Where to now Misha?" she asked.
The fox had to think for a moment, before answering. "We ran due south, so we need to continue that way till we reach the river. Then we should be close to the cache, where we left the canoe. If my navigation is right."
Misha stood up and hafted his axe.
"We could both use a rest, and I'd like to check your wounds."
"We'd better put a few more miles behind us first," was his answer. Caroline didn't answer but just nodded her head reluctantly.
Together the otter and the fox started moving south, towards the river and safety.
The two scouts lay quietly in the brush and examined the clearing. In the center was a gnarled, old tree that they both recognized. It had taken them all day to find it, but there it was.
They measured off twenty feet to the north and that brought them to an empty spot in the woods. If nobody had found it, under the earth should be their canoe.
They circled the site four times looking for an ambush, but found nothing. While Misha stood guard Caroline slowly edged closer to the cache. Finally she reached the spot and searched for any traps. Nothing. She started carefully digging with a small folding shovel.
The two of them took turns alternating between guarding and digging. After an hour they had uncovered the boat and laboriously dragged it from the hole. After that the hole was filled in and the leaves and debris were replaced. Soon it looked as if the ground hadn't been disturbed. A careful examination of the canoe showed that it was still in excellent shape. A good piece of luck.
It was dark before they were ready to assault the river. The two scouts knelt on the riverbank and scanned the water. It was broad, and the surface was deceptively placid. Underneath, the currents were slow but very powerful, and the water itself was ice cold. There were countless bits of debris; trees, boards, branches and the like in the water. There was even a half-sunken row boat floating along with the current.
CRUNCH! Both of them jumped at the noise as it echoed across the water.
"It ate the row boat," Caroline said aloud and pointed towards the middle of the river.
Misha looked where the otter was pointing. Where the row boat had been was nothing but a scattered cluster of broken boards. As he watched a large black shape reared out of the water and swallowed the boards. Then it disappeared back into the river.
"What is that thing?" she signed quietly.
"Don't know, but its big trouble," came the silent reply.
"We can't use the canoe with that thing out there," she stated with sign language.
"Do you have any other ideas? The nearest bridge is three days walk east of here. You can be sure it's very well guarded. Two or three hundred soldiers at the least," was his answer.
The otter didn't answer but just looked out over the river. "Hmm. Did you bring any extra clothing?" she asked after a moment.
"HUH? Sure I brought more clothing. Why?" he asked a little confused.
"I have an idea how we can get past than thing in the river," Caroline explained.
Two hours later a canoe pulled out into the current and headed for the opposite shore. In the boat two figures were hunched over paddles.
Below the water a creature noticed something odd floating on the surface. With a flip of a thirty-foot long tail the creature propelled It's massive bulk towards the object. As it got closer the animal saw that the floating thing wasn't a log or tree. It was a human made thing. This was what it had been ordered to eat. The giant beast remembered the command clearly "Destroy any human or human made thing in the river."
It circled the boat a few times just to be sure. The huge animal had been trapped here for many days. Forced to swim back and forth in this tiny shallow river, instead of her nice big ocean. She could tell that the time of her service was nearly over. The spell binding her grew weaker by the day. When the spell had worn off she would leave, but that was still days away. Which meant she had to obey the commands.
She started to spiral closer and closer to the canoe, gliding just Below the surface. Then when she was close enough she closed her around the canoe with a loud CRUNCH!
Seated on a large log about twenty yards away Caroline and Misha looked back at the canoe they had been towing. Not so much as a splinter was left.
"Row gently, it might not realize that we're here," Caroline spoke aloud. The two of them kept paddling for the shore, a scant thirty yards away.
The shoreline seemed to creep closer at a snails pace. Then Misha felt the log rock back and forth twice. They both stopped rowing instantly. "It's checking us out. Not sure what we are," he said in a whisper.
Suddenly a massive head loomed out of the water, less than ten feet away. Two eyes each as large as a dinner plate stared at them. Both of them held perfectly still and waited.
It seemed like an eternity as the massive head looked at them. Then just suddenly as it has appeared the head disappeared. Neither of them moved but just let the log drift with the current. After a few moments there was a splash of water a good distance up stream. Misha risked turning his head to look. He saw a log spin end over end through the air. Suddenly that massive skull shot out of the water and caught the log in mid air. The creature sank back down into the water. Then with a toss of the head it threw the log into the air.
He relaxed, and made a rowing motion with his paddle. In a few short moments they made it to dry land. Both of them leapt off the log and ran for higher ground. They didn't stop until they least fifty feet inland. The two rested under cover of some bushes. Behind them the sea creature continued to toss and catch its toy in the river. Oblivious to how close it had come to killing the two scouts.
They were exhausted. They hadn't slept in two days. It had been a week since they had eaten the last of their food, and muddy river water was a poor substitute for drinking water, even if it was cool and wet. It was almost an hour after sunrise before they could muster the strength to start walking.
They headed east along the riverbank towards the cache. That had been where the canoe had been hidden before they first crossed the river. That was over a month ago. The canoe was gone, but there were still water and rations stored there.
The march should have taken all day and most of the night with most of That time taken up by dodging lutin patrols and sentries. Instead the Journey took less than six hours. They didn't run across a single lutin during the entire trip. A trail that should have seen a constant flow of lutins was deserted. Alone and growing more easy by the minute the two scouts headed up river.
Nervous, the two scouts lay hidden under cover and carefully examined the rock outcropping. Five steps from that rock was a small stone that marked the location of the cache. He could see it clearly from where he was hiding. They slowly circled the site, moving carefully checking for an ambush.
He was halfway around when he spotted the ambush. There, less than thirty feet in front of him someone lay in hiding. Misha paused to consider what to do next. Just as he knew the ambusher was there, he was sure the other person knew that Misha and Carol were there.
Carol lay next to him and signed to him, "How many are there?"
"At least one, probably more. It's hard to tell, these boys are good." The wind shifted and it brought a scent to them. Misha caught the faint whiff of some animal. It was an exotic creature, not native to this area, and it was very familiar. It was a prairie dog.
"Craig, is that you?" he said in a barely audible whisper. The figure motioned them closer, but didn't speak.
Clutching his axe he crept closer to the person. He was ten feet away when a voice whispered, "Halt."
The figure moved closer to him, and Misha recognized Craig, immediately. The prairie dog morph came closer and spoke in a whisper, "It's all clear you two. We've swept the area, we're alone," he said aloud.
In few moments a woman, a pine marten, and a young girl joined the prairie dog, fox and otter. All of the newcomers were dressed in the camouflage armor that marked them as Long Scouts. There were hugs and handshakes all round for the two returning heroes. A pair of canteens were produced at handed over to the two thirsty scouts.
Misha took a long drink of water emptying half the canteen in the process. The water was cool, fresh and went down easily. No wine ever made tasted so good.
The Marten touched Carol on the arm, "Can I see it?" she ask in a low whisper.
"See what," Carol asked, a little confused.
"The proof that he's really dead," the marten replied.
"It's right here Danielle," Misha said interrupting. He held up an leather thong with a human ear on it.
Danielle reached out with her hand but didn't touch it. "Great," she whispered.
"Where are all the lutins? This area should be crawling with them," Misha asked.
The young girl pointed off to the south, "They're a little busy at the moment." Misha looked in the direction Lisa had pointed. About ten miles away a large column of thick black smoke billowed up from the woods.
"Neat! That should keep the Silver Knives busy for a while," Misha said with obvious delight.
"What's that?" Carol asked staring at the smoke.
"That, my love is why you build castles out of stone, not wood," Misha said.
"Great, all I want is a simple answer. Instead I get a lesson in architecture," Carol said sarcastically.
There was a smattering of laughter, from the group. "That pillar of smoke is from fortress Long Knife. Laura and her team must have the Silver Knives believing the Duke himself is attacking," Danielle answered.
"Let's get going, you can fill us in on the details as we move," the fox ordered.
"Hey," Caroline said indignantly, "What about some food? I'm hungry." Danielle handed a rucksack full of trail rations to Caroline.
Misha took a ration without bothering to identify it, and started eating. It was filled with beef. "Ready to go home, dear?" He asked Caroline.
The otter had already half finished a trail ration and answered between bites. "Yes honey, let's go home."