May 02, 706 CR
Patrol Master George counted it a pleasant day. The sky was a clear pale blue and the sunshine a warming respite after the gray rains of April. A gentle breeze ruffled its cool whisper across his fur carrying the scents and sounds of Metamor awakening from winter. In one hand he held a pewter taper of fine sherry while his other rested upon the stone balustrade encircling the balcony off his chambers.
“T’is goin’ t’ be a fine year, methinks.” He commented lazily to his secretary standing nearby. She nodded with a warm smile and sipped her own sherry from a smaller wine glass of exquisite craftsmanship. Both were feeling in good spirits for the first fine day of the year. Lutin incursions had not picked up measurably with the spring thaw and overall infractiosness was at an all-time low.
A crow, brazen as a back-alley tomcat, winged in to drop smoothly on the balustrade a mere two paces away from George’s hand. The gleamingly black bird tilted its head and regarded the patrol master with one gimlet eye and then the other while the jackal stared back at it. The brave bird was much too small to be some keeper masquerading about in full bird form, but was of a size to be expected of its wild kin. Landing so close and boldly told the patrol master that this was no wild bird.
“’Ere now, whose pet are you?” George grunted, surveying the bird for any carried messages but saw none.
Craw! The crow announced with a ruffle of ink-black wings and tail. Graak! Graak kie!
“Wouldn’t happen to speak crow, would ya, Diane?” George asked as he watched the brazen black interloper on their fine day. His secretary laughed and shook her head.
“Not a caw.” She replied, lips quirked in a humorous smile. “I’ve been known to eat it on occasion, though.”
George barked a laugh. “Haven’t we all, at times.”
“Me crow is not for eating, milord.” Retorted a sharp voice from behind and incongruously above them, prompting both to turn about and look upward. Adhering to the rough stonework some twenty feet above them was a squirrel; a very large squirrel for its specie but not by comparison to other citizens of the keep. Head downward due to having climbed from the tower-top high above, the pale russet-furred Keeper looked quite natural and comfortable transcending the stone as easily as it might a tree.
From toeclaw to tufted eartip the red-squirrel morph looked to be little more than three feet in height, conformed more to a true squirrel than the human physique it indubitably once had, with a voluminous tail adding another three feet of length. At most it tipped the scales at fifty or sixty some pounds with much of its apparent bulk given by a thick pelt of fur. Over that fur was worn a simple vest and short pants dyed in patternless browns and grays.
“And who’re you, whelp?” George barked, both irritated and surprised to have been so closely approached completely unawares. Metamor’s easy living was making him complacent and he detested that realization. “Get you down from there, you’re giving my neck a crick!”
Crick! Kee craw! Proclaimed the crow loudly. The squirrel scampered rapidly, head-first, down the stone wall in a headlong dash. Planting both hand-paws solidly against the stone six feet above the balcony it performed an easy tail-over-head flip to land smoothly upright before the two already on the balcony.
“Buster Swinson, sire.” The squirrel announced with a swift bow and knuckling of the brow. “Milady. The crow there is Crawk.”
“Buster, ah? What’d you be wanting with me then, lad, er lass?” George asked with a wave of his pewter encumbered hand toward the visitor helplessly. “With your garb and fur it’s not a simple matter to figure.”
“Lad, sire, some eighteen summers. Buster, as I said. Friends call me Nut Buster.”
“A’cause you’re a squirrel, no doubt.” The patrol master coffed incredulously. “Welladay, Buster, lad. What do you be needing with me?”
“Well, sire, I… ahh… wanted to report that I came across some Lutins and a human with them. I was told to bring such news to you.”
That news immediately piqued George’s interest, his ears pinning forward, tail stilling behind him. “Go on.” Beside him Diane had drawn a small chalking slate from a pocket, ready to take notes.
“Well, it was near a fortnight ago. I had gone into the mountains northeast of the Keep looking for stones.”
“A fortnight?! And you tell me now? What bloody stones are so important ya wait a fortnight to say anything?” George barked, aghast at the procrastination that rendered the news nigh useless at such a late date.
“Stones for me da, sire. It was a tenday to return direct and I came back as soon as I were able, weather permitting.” The squirrel hastily clarified, standing his ground in the face of the taller keeper’s ire. That was commendable, as George had seen many rodent-morphed types quail when faced with his jackal irritation, all teeth and bushed fur and intense glares.
He let out an irritated phaugh at old news, motioning the squirrel to continue. “Say on. You were getting stones for your father?” Ten days, the patrol master wondered. What damned stones were so important to travel ten days, in the rough weather of winter’s departure, to get them? The valley right outside Metamor’s walls was full of them! Hell, the keep itself was full of them!
“Well, sire, as I said, I was getting stones…
… for his father. Not just any old mountain rock, but the fine treasures secreted within the very bones of the mountains. Through a high pass east of the castle he traveled during a brief respite in the weather and north from there as only a squirrel can travel. Traversing naked stone and forest height to the private little secret cataract of water bearing the freed treasures to a place he could get at them.
Emerald, sapphire, ruby, topaz, garnet were the gifts churned forth by the raging currents of spring thaw and summer storm. With the skill and knowledge supplied by his father’s (now mother’s) tutelage and books from Metamor’s vast libraries he learned how to read rock and stone. How water deposited each according to its weight and from whence they came. Over the years of exploring the often times dangerous wilds of Metamor’s neighboring mountains and valleys Buster had discovered dozens of prolific deposit points for the precious stones.
Thus, once the spring weather broke he was more often far from home than near with only a sharp-eyed crow for companionship. A crow that could point out stones Buster could not easily see and alert the lightweight squirrel to lurking dangers.
Lightweight but hardly vulnerable as his keen squirrel eye and nimble hand proved adept at the sling as well the braided steel lute-wire he kept as a garrote for the occasional ambush-from-above dispatch of an unwary Lutin. The pesky little hunters had a poor habit of not looking up for danger.
This was a failing Buster made good use of.
Crawp! Kir caw! Caw! Kee grock! The sharp, angry voice of Buster’s companion crow declared to bring his attention to potential danger. Each sound was one that Crawp had developed over the years and buster had dutifully learned by listening not only to his crow, but to those that still flew wild. Kir meant ‘beware, hunters!’ which could mean anything from angry farmers to wolves or stalking cats. Kee grock only meant one thing; Lutins. Crawp’s angry cry sent Buster up the nearest towering oarwood tree before distance and direction was consciously determined. He was a hundred feet up the huge tree before his dropped bucket had even stopped rolling.
Once amongst the foliage high above, where his russet fur and the muddied earth-tone dyed clothes made him night invisible, he began searching. Crawp’s crow eyes were frighteningly keen and his hyper-alert response could mean that the hunting Lutins were a hundred paces away, or miles. He followed the pointing black beak perched nearby and saw them swiftly enough.
Less than a quarter league away upon an exposed shelf of rock he saw them; four Lutins astride vicious looking shaggy-pelted dire wolves and a lone human afoot. Held by the reins was the creepiest looking midnight-black horse Buster had ever seen and, if anything, the wolves seemed more wary of it than it of they.
From his concealed perch Buster watched the human unpack a strange apparatus consisting of two tripods and a long stick placed atop them. While the Lutins looked on in evident boredom the human laboriously constructed the device. With repeated inspection of an unseen tool in his hand the man made careful adjustments and readings by sighting between two slender sticks on either end of the longer pole.
After many long minutes Buster realized what it was, an astrolabe of some sort. The human and his Lutin allies were surveying the land for some purpose. It was no great leap of intuition to realize that whatever that purpose was it would not be anything beneficial to Metamor.
To home, cursed as it was. Whatever unpleasant plan the Lutin ally and his evil looking black horse might be hatching would be best served by a swift abortion in the nest.
Crawp! Grok! The crow clicked its beak and kept its unwavering black gaze upon the dangers it perceived on the rock ledge.
Rop! Rokk! Perturbed at being left behind the crow fluffed black feathers and sent a noisome sample of corvid ire plummeting to the ground far below.
Circling around the girth of the oarwood trunk so his rapid decent would not be easily observed Buster ran down the tree with facile squirrel ease. Upon reaching the mid-level canopy foliage he began making his way toward the hill upon which the stone ledge rested. From branch to air a dizzying height from the forest floor he leaped to another branch without much slowing. He traversed the forest tree to tree almost as swiftly as someone mounted on a horse might on the forest floor.
By the time he arrived nearer the ledge he saw that the human was stowing his survey equipment. With a few terse words to his allies the man turned his mount toward a path off the ledge. The Lutins fell into a loose gaggle trailing behind the black horse without scout, outrider, or rear guard.
So confident they were that no enemy might be about they took no precautions to obscure signs of their passage. Buster followed some distance behind as stealthily as he might, avoiding the vegetation lashing his sixty-plus pound frame would cause jumping limb to limb. It was not long before sight of the trailing dire wolf and its rider provided him an idea as nefarious as anything Nasoj could ever concoct.
Quickly selecting a green seed-cone from a forest conifer, a small thing about the same weight as a precious lead sling shot but slightly larger and festooned with short, sharp spikes Buster closed rapidly. Carefully weaving his way through the foliage he closed from a distant pursuit to get within sling range. Several tens of feet above the small survey group Buster easily evaded the occasional rearward glance engendered by his sometimes noisy pursuit. The trailing Lutin looked back, but never up.
When an ideal open shot presented itself Buster dropped to a lower limb, loaded the conifer cone into the pocket of his sling, and with three forceful revolutions loosed the shot at the rear of the trailing wolf. He aimed not for the stoutly leather armored back of the Lutin rider but instead aimed for the exposed, furry rump of the huge wolf. The spike covered shot slammed into the wolf’s exposed vitals with a meaty smack and enough force to draw blood.
The huge wolf let out a howl of pain, tail tucking, followed by the dropping of the assaulted rump and the lurch of massive shoulders skyward tumbling the startled Lutin backward from its mount. Furious and wounded the wolf spun about to see what had bitten its vulnerable soft parts. There before it was only the confused Lutin sprawled on the forest loam. Two agonized shrieks split the air before the wolf’s savage fury ended the Lutin’s existence. The beast continued to savage the corpse of its once rider while the others of the survey party turned hastily about and sped back to find out what happened.
Buster fled back into the heights at the first smack of impact feeling a sympathetic pain of masculine injury for the assaulted wolf. While the three wolves milled about their enraged, snarling, bloody muzzled pack mate the squirrel maneuvered high above them. His new quarry, the human, remained slightly separated from the wolves and their riders but did not apparently suspect attack. He never looked up. To the human it seemed like nothing more than a sad case of misfortune, and it was delaying their work.
Unnoticed thirty feet above the human’s head a tree limb bowed dangerously under the weight of a truly large red squirrel. In the squirrel’s dexterous hand-paw was a braided steel lute-string fashioned into a loop and affixed to a rope. That rope was, in turn, affixed to the bowing tree limb along which the squirrel crept. Hanging only by the claw tips of his rear paws, body stretched, Buster sidled out as far as the limb allowed.
That is, until the human turned his head. He came face to inverted furry face with the curse-altered Metamoran gem hunter and let out a startled shriek.
But too late.
The lute-string noose fell about his neck even as he hauled at the reins of his bewitched mount. Three Lutin heads snapped around at the sound but, for an instant, did not see the muddy earth-toned dyed clothing and pale russet fur dangling like a bat from the overburdened tree limb. When Buster released that limb, however, they spotted the snapping upswing of foliage and plummeting squirrel landing on the hindquarters of the dark horse immediately.
The tree limb snapped upward ending the human’s cry with a choked gurgle but the angry, startled neigh of the mount was louder still. The pull of the limb reduced the rider’s weight by sixty pounds and a little more while an identical weight, possessed of claws sharp enough and long enough to treat trees like even ground, landed on its haunches and dug in as if horse-flesh was hardwood. The horse shrieked, the human clutched his bleeding throat, gurgling, and the wolves sensed a prey animal in extremis. They turned upon the horse despite the futile attempts at control by their Lutin riders.
The wolves spared no care that it was no mere mortal horse but a magically enhanced mage-steed more aggressive than they had ever known. The first huge wolf got a maw full of dark horse throat and the second, slightly less nimble, got a skull-crushing hoof to its head. Lutins were pitched screaming and tried to scatter. The wolves, already frenzied by the scent of fresh blood, the flailing rider and enraged dark horse, saw the small, screaming, running Lutins as more ready prey and pounced upon them with lupine savagery.
Buster, having landed on the pitching haunches of the black steed, sank in all his claws for traction and launched himself toward the nearest tree. One of the wolves stopped shaking the savaged remains of its former rider and sprang for the squirrel but came up considerably short. Bark and wood curled away under the assault of its thick claws upon the trunk but gravity won out, dropping it back to the ground. The squirrel-morphed Metamoran caught tree bark with more success than the wolf and surged hastily into the protective concealment of the foliage. Below him chaos reigned with bloody furor.
The horse’s rider, pitched and tossed upon his saddle, finally parted company with both head and seat simultaneously. The fine braided steel wire of the lute-string, under many pounds of vigorous pressure, swiftly sawed through soft flesh and gristle. A bright font of arterial spray fanned outward from the dying man’s throat. With the several hundredweight of blood-frenzied wolf hanging from its throat the horse could not rear to shake it free, instead it collapsed to its knees and sent the now headless horseman to the earth in a heap.
Having finished savaging their former riders the remaining wolves turned their attention on the horse as well. Despite the powerful enchantments and fey powers invested upon it the horse could not hold against its own totaled weight in hungry predators. Soon after one of their party was assaulted by a pinecone the horse gave up its last struggle with only one dead wolf to show for its dark enchantments.
From his perch high above Buster marveled at his ingenuity.
POP! Craaack! Patrol master George winced at the sharp report of a walnut surrendering its encapsulated flesh to the power of the squirrel’s jaws. It sounded like an old leg bone being worked over by a hound.
“So, you’re telling me that you dispatched an entire Lutin scouting party, their mage, and his bewitched horse with nothing more than a lute-string and an acorn?” the jackal questioned blandly. The squirrel disgorged the shattered walnut from his mouth and began prizing the shell apart with his finger-claws. George noticed that those claws were short, slender and wickedly sharp. Each was affixed to a powerful finger upon a strong, dexterous paw-hand.
“A pinecone, actually.” Buster tossed a bit of nut meat toward the beady-eyed crow which snapped it from the air easily. “But yes, sire, that’s the whole of it.”
“A pinecone?” George was still incredulous at that feat. Buster spilled the remains of the walnut hull over the edge of the balcony while chewing the meat not surrendered to his crow. Reaching into the bunch on his hip he drew forth a handful of objects.
One was an arrestingly green crystal the size of a hen’s egg, another an egg-shaped lead sling shot familiar to any young hunter, and the third a pinecone likewise the size of a hen’s egg and festooned with dozens of short, sharp spikes. The last item was another walnut which Buster popped into his mouth while handing George the pinecone. The seed bearing fruit of a mountain conifer was still green and densely packed but weighted near as much as a much smaller sling stone or lead shot. Each leaf of the cone was protected with a short, stout spike.
“Now, sire, think you to be a huge hunting beast just barely controlled by a little beasty riding your back and that,” Buster flicked a finger at the pinecone in George’s hand, “smacks you in the tender nethers with the force of a slinger behind it.”
“I imagine it’d be like getting your gems touched by the business end of a footman’s flail.” Diane commented drily, smiling. George’s tail dropped and he winced at the mental image. “Without armor.” His secretary added, causing George to wince anew.
“Ahkay, then, I’ll take your word for it, lad.” George handed back the pinecone. Another sundering crack issued from the squirrels mouth as another walnut gave up its treasure. “What was that green stone?” Still rolling the walnut between his teeth with bone snapping noises Buster surrendered the stone.
“Emerald.” He said after spitting the shattered nut into his hand. “I find those along river banks, among other types.”
“Stones for your father?” George rolled the stone in his hands admiring its rough, sand-scoured beauty. “Your surname’s Swinson?” With the typical custom of adopting one’s family trade as its surname Swinson quite truthfully meant ‘swine herder’s son’, not gemologist cum Lutin slayer.
Buster nibbled on walnut meat prized from the shattered shell, offering tidbits to his crow. “My grandsire and uncles are still in the old family trade, but my da apprenticed as a gem cutter. He’s a workshop in Euper, polishing and cutting the stones I bring home. He thought it best to keep his family name instead of ‘gem cutter’.”
“Being bandit bait, that name, aye.” Handing the stone back the jackal-morph turned to his secretary. “Tally up the lad’s service to the Patrol this year, Diane. One fortnight served.” Finishing his sherry with one last draught he strode toward the door.
“Master George, I knocked on your outer door but got no answer, that’s why I came down the wall. When the wolves were finished eating their fill I recovered what I could. It’s all outside your outer door.” George paused, turning back, to listen. Buster moved to stand upon the balustrade and, his explanation over, turned and scrambled down the vertical stone face as confidently as George might walk down a hallway. With a last gimlet stare the crow hopped once and disappeared over the edge.
Returning to the balustrade George leaned over and looked down. From balcony to courtyard was a dizzying fifty foot climb he would have been ill confident to perform without rope and harness. The squirrel blithely hopped the last ten feet without a thought. The crow, describing a long lazy spiral backwinged to drop upon the youth’s shoulder and receive a bit of walnut. “Cocksure little blighter, he is. Killing Lutins with a pinecone.” George shook his head slowly and chuffed a short laugh, “That’s one for the record books.” He strode into his chambers with Diane following just beyond the swaying tip of his tail. “Let’s see what he brought us. Ya did catch his name, yes?”
Diane nodded with a smile. “Aye, Nut Buster.”
“Dark gods’ blood, girl, don’t you go writing that into the tally books!”
Grinning impishly Diane followed the grizzled old campaigner toward the outer door. “Why not? You saw what he did with those walnuts.”
“It’s the principle of the thing, woman! Light sakes, don’t want a name like that in the histories when I’m agone.”
Some hours later the black-backed jackal morph that was Patrol master George of Metamor Keep entertained another visitor to his opulent quarters, but one a little less quircksome than the walnut crushing, gem scrounging squirrel. Misha Brightleaf, master of Metamor’s Long Scouts and a red fox morph stood at George’s side while they flattened the slightly gnawed, blood spattered map and anchored its corners with oddments scattered about the desktop. Fox and jackal perused the map in detail while Diane looked on, waiting to note their observations.
“Unsettling.” Misha commented, tracing one claw along a line plotted from the west of the Death Mountains, from near a town identified as Ilyek, all the way to the Giant Dikes. Other lines split off north of Caralore to join known roads toward Bremen and Lik. “Encampments, resource caches, chokepoint passage capacity. None of this looks good.”
“As much I kenn, yes. Back mountain routes through some hellish rough passes even in high summer. Ambuscades to harass our flanks, keep our arms a’ bottled in defense while whatever that is,” George poked a claw at the line, “comes a’ knocking at the Dikes.”
“Aye. We’ll need much more information to compare with the details on this map, but it seems authentic. Far more than something that could be forged just for misdirection.” Misha’s attention roved over the map slowly, palms upon the desk and acute eyes narrowed. “I’ve got one scout north of the Dikes now, the mink Joy Wanderer, on a CSR. She should return within the next fortnight.”
Diane, noting their conversation on a small ledger board, paused briefly, “CSR?” she asked with one upraised brow.
“Circle, scout, report.” Misha translated without looking up from the map. “Someone paid a high price for this map, George, is all well?” the fox waved the fingers of one paw over a spattered fan of blood obscuring one corner of the oiled parchment.
The jackal barked a laugh, “Someone paid a death toll to lose this map, but we paid for it with just one pinecone.”
Misha blinked, one ear backing in confusion. “One what?”
“Pinecone. If you’ve got some time I’ll spin ya the yarn that was spun for me.”
“Much as I would like to, old friend, I’ve much to do. The weather is breaking and I need to get more Longs out.” Mish tapped the settlement marker for Lik, one of Nasoj’s main resource generating cities producing wood, stone, gems, and precious metals from the surrounding forests and mountains. “I’ll send Caroline and a couple others to reconnoiter Lik, see if they’re caparisoning for invasion. I’ll send Baldwin to fly this line and see what it actually is.”
“A road, appears t’ be.”
“A scary damned big road if these resource tallies are any indicator.” The fox tapped a half dozen cryptic lists along the line cutting across the Giant Downs.
“Diane, draft a preliminary report for Thomas about this intelligence and request a general raise in readiness among the levies.” George growled flatly, watching Misha point out the scratches of ink on parchment that meant nothing to the jackal’s eye.
“No activation of additional Patrol numbers?” his secretary asked, rapidly transcribing notes.
Misha glowered at the map as if awaiting it to speak to him directly and illuminate its intentions, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, ears backed. Under George’s questioning glance the fox reluctantly shook his head. “No need to raise hue and cry just yet, but heighten awareness. I will shift Long Scout focus toward the north, toward Stepping and beyond it to Lik, Caralore, and the Dark Forest. George, I’ll leave more of the south for your regulars and volunteers.”
The jackal patrol master nodded gravely, reading the lines and incomprehensible jittering on the map for any tactical understanding. “I think they can handle that. We’ve got our work cut out for us cleaning up the mess Loriod made of his lands. And then there are the fool midlanders who seem to want a piece of the action, but don’t dare move because of Thomas.”
“As with everyone else covetous of Metamor’s particular riches and terrified of our curse. We’ll have to deal with such in their due time.” Misha shrugged in helpless, overworked frustration. “No peace for the deserving. I need to go and get my Scouts in order, George, Diane.” He sketched a bow and crossed to the door.
Diane waved farewell with her quill and George flicked a brief salute, bending to the new tasked stacked upon the never-ending daily tasks already much delayed.