Once More Within the Walls

by Lurking Wolf

November the 21st, in the year 707, Cristos Reckoning

The grass crunched, snapping rigidly beneath Lois’ boots as he jumped out of the wagon. A thick coat was thrown about his shoulders, fashioned from the pelts of some unfortunate creatures that had strayed too near a hunter’s snare. The patchwork coloration would almost blend into the woods if he chose to hide among the trees, but it was used at the moment to retain warmth.

The man’s breath misted as he quietly surveyed the camp around him. Many men had risen early at the onset of the sudden chill, building fires within the circular campsite they had erected. Fog wrapped itself about the campsite, muting the finer details of the surrounding area. Lois made no move towards the sources of warmth, though, instead looking about, searching for a particular form.

“If you’re looking for me, you’re wasting you’re time over there, Lois,” a voice sounded from behind him. Lois turned to look at the caravan master. The man was short and stocky, with a face worn and wrinkled from years of facing the elements. He held a pipe twixt his fingers, playing with it as the curls of smoke rose from it. He rested, leaning up against the side of the wagon Lois had just left.

“I suppose that this is what you meant by the type of weather you hoped we would avoid?” Lois commented.

The man shrugged. “It’s winter, you take what weather comes your way and you work with it or against it, depending on what you get. You might hope to avoid it, but it will always do as it wishes, never asking your opinion before doing so.”

“Put quite bluntly then, yes, you had wished not to be here for a cold snap.”

“It is unfortunate, but not at all surprising. It’s winter, and it has been a surprise that the cold has not been here far sooner. By what I can tell, this cold is here to stay for now.” The caravan master quietly blew a small cloud of smoke out into the air. Why the man bothered to smoke when he could easily blow puffs of steam without the cost of tobacco Lois didn’t know.

“I suppose that means that we’ll be heading toward Metamor with all haste,” Lois commented, surveying the camp once more. “It may take so motivation to get these men moving, though. You’re sure they’ve been this far north before?”

“Lois, I hire not by whether I think they have been north for long, I hire by whether they can handle themselves in the field, how much help they are loading and unloading, how little they’re willing to work for, and by how many summers they’ve seen.” He blew another puff of smoke out of his pipe.

“So, shall I rouse the troops then?” Lois asked. “It would appear that they will need a bit of time to restore circulation to their legs currently. Best to start moving before they lose feeling entirely, is it not?”

“Yes,” the caravan master said. He put very little thought into it at first, but then, standing straighter, he repeated. “Yes, we should start moving. With the rain, there will be frozen puddles, perhaps not frozen enough. Should we fall into one of those we will need time to get ourselves out.”

“There are other hazards,” Lois said. Silently, he looked up. The man beside him did likewise, his gaze meeting the branches that bent low above him, stressed by the weight of the icicles that had formed on them. “These branches survived the night, but other, rotten or weak branches may have broken.”

The caravan master sighed. “Brilliant, it couldn’t have been this blasted rain’s equivalent in snow, could it?” He shook his head. “With snow there is significantly less in the way of possible pitfalls. Well, we shall see what becomes of this.” He walked off towards the camp. Lois watched him for a moment, then slowly moved as the man started to bellow out orders to the rest of the camp. None were too enthusiastic about doing anything in the cold, and they moved only with the angry verbal encouragement provided by the caravan master. Lois quietly moved about, preparing his own belongings. One way or another, he meant to part ways with this caravan by end of day.

It took the better part of an hour to actually get things moving. For the last half of this, Lois paced around the camp, staying conveniently out of the sight of any of the higher ranking members of the caravan. Though he was better prepared than most for this sort of weather, he still had no desire to do anything that he didn’t need to.

When the caravan started off, Lois kept his usual position riding beside the lead wagon, watching quietly for any sign of raiders. He didn’t think they’d see any, they were already pretty close to the Keep. They were close enough that Lois regularly saw what he was reasonably sure was a Metamor patrol. He was never able to verify it, and what he saw was always gone before his eyes had an opportunity to focus.

The caravan master, who rode in the lead wagon, copied Lois’s silent vigil, but his eyes scanned the fog cloaked roads ahead where Lois watched the woods to the left. The only sound that accompanied them was the horse’s hooves crunching through the frostbitten grass. The silence was eerie, the cold seeming to remove any desire to speak from the men. Lois enjoyed this as much as he could while keeping watch. He always had been rather partial to silence, and had never been too worried about cold, so having the one at the price of having the other was not to bad a trade for him.

One again, Lois caught sight of movement in the woods off to his left. He made as if he had never noticed it, continuing his scan of the trees, but he could tell that the source had not left this time. He could still see the form of something, crouched low in the undergrowth. As he scanned back over the spot, he kept his eyes fixed on that spot while his head continued to move. Then, seeing all his wished to see, he simply turned his gaze onto the road, stopping his vigil on the forest.

“Lois,” the caravan master’s voice broke him out of his reverie a few moments later. Lois turned and raised an eyebrow at the man, but remained silent.

“Keep watch on the woods, Lois, that’s why we hired you,” the man said, his own gaze on Lois sidelong and accompanied by a scowl.

“Trust me, sir, we need not worry. Our escorts have arrived.”

The caravan master looked out into the woods silently, the back to Lois’s face. “You saw a patrol, then?” he asked.

Lois nodded, his mouth twitching into a small smile. “One patrol group to our left, at least three members, and obviously Keepers. You might consider asking the right side guards if they have seen anything, but I believe that the majority are trying to catch up on lost sleep at the moment.”

The caravan master rolled his eyes. “Keep your watch anyways, Lois. You’re the only man so far that has proven to be worth his salt, and you’ll be leaving us for heavens know what reason once we reach the Keep. At least if I fail to talk you out of it…” He smiled at the thought of the private bet they had made that he would talk Lois out of his intentions. “I hope to at least make you earn your place here.”

“Somehow, master Huron, I doubt that you’ve had any trouble getting your money’s worth. After all, you’re not paying me for my work.”

“Regardless, my wagons are loaded down by your equipment. How one man could want so much to take with him on one caravan I’ll never know,” Huron commented, once more focused on the road ahead.

Lois considered reminding the caravan master of his intentions at the Keep, but he doubted that the man had any trouble remembering. After all, he had been rather flabbergasted by the request, and even went so far as to bet with a few of his guards that he would convince Lois to return with them. Still, Lois returned to his vigil, once more spotting the Metamor patrol. They made little or no attempt to hide themselves from the caravan, but still blended in well with their background, making them difficult to spot and a nightmare to identify. Still, with his years of experience, Lois could testify to the fact that one of the members of the group was not any of the species he was familiar with, but seemed to rather accurately fit the description he’d heard of some of the cursed Keepers.

It did not take Lois long to have his attention drawn away from the forest. This time, however, it was not idle musing that distracted his attention. In the road ahead, standing and waving his arms, was a man dressed in a plaid shirt. He was well built, with large muscled arms and a broad chest, and a short brown beard that matched his hair. The caravan master had the wagons stop, then called out as the man approached.

“Ho there! What news?” he called to the man.

“You’ll need to be stopping here, sirs,” the man said, his gruff voice resounding in the near dead silence about them. “The road ahead is blocked.”

The caravan master muttered a few curses under his breath, then called back to the man. “Are you in need of any able bodied men to unblock it? Our caravan could spare a few.”

“Aye, we could use a few stout men. We have a group on it already, but many hands make light work, so come ahead if you wish to hasten your progress.”

The caravan master nodded. He stood up on the seat of the wagon and moved to where he could look back along the line of wagons. “You heard him lads,” he bellowed back along the line. “If you want to get to shelter faster, you’d better come lend a hand with this.”

Of course, every man in the caravan wanted to get to shelter faster, but few wished to work to make such a thing happen. Instead, the majority just sat on their horses, waiting, watching to see if anyone else would take the bait. The caravan master left orders for someone to make a temporary camp while they waited, then headed out himself.

Lois needed no second invitation. He was already started forward on his horse before the first other volunteer started forward. He stopped beside the man and turned his horse to watch quietly as the other volunteers began to make their lethargic passage towards them. Lois smiled at the man beside him as he shifted in his saddle.

“How are things at the Keep, sir?” he asked quietly.

The man regarded him quietly for a few moments before speaking. “Fair. Things are relatively quiet for the moment. I hope they stay that way.” For a moment, he seemed to wish to continue, but stopped short.

Seeing that the man would not be continuing, Lois nodded. He also hoped for some quiet for a time, just so he could get used to the feel of life at the Keep for a while. He had been in the Keep, true, but never in the state that it currently was in. He had neither seen the Keep since the curse, nor had he seen a Keeper clearly until this moment. Even so, this man was hardly one of the more noteworthy specimens of what the rest of the world envisioned when it heard of Metamor Keep.

After a few minutes of waiting, the rest of the group who intended to assist in the venture had finally gathered, and the man led them back along the road. It wasn’t long until they had reached the site where the road had been blocked. A large tree lay across the road, not completely blocking the path, but cutting it off enough so that passage by wagon would be impossible. The top of the tree had been cut off, some of the branches lying by the road. The bottom of the tree was scarred and blackened, and, without much effort, Lois spotted a stump with similar damage to the side. Already at work on the tree was a group of about five Keepers, two of which had fur, and all of which wore the plaid shirt as did the man who had warned the caravan.

“Lightning strike?” Lois asked of the tree’s ruin, more as a verification than a question.

“You think maybe?” the Keeper asked, giving Lois a strange smile.

“Perhaps,” Lois said. “Or maybe some mage of considerable power decided to practice on this particular tree at some point in the pouring rain last night,” he added, glancing sideways at the man. “I think I’ll guess the first.”

The small group of half-frozen volunteers was then introduced to the men who were already at work trying to get the tree off of the road. Two looked rather like normal humans, albeit slight over-proportioned, one seemed a bit too young for this sort of work, and the two others bore animalistic traits which masked their formerly human bodies. One of them seemed part squirrel, the other, part beaver, also bore fur coloration to match his wardrobe.

Although the men of the caravan had doubtless known what they would encounter at the Keep, the were still noticeably unprepared for the sight of the furred Keepers, especially the beaver. Lois, in contrast, made it a point to do as he always did and treat them as though he stood to benefit from their opinion of him. After all, or all he knew, he could be neighbors to one of the animalistic Keepers, perhaps, if all went as he hoped, becoming one of them.

No one was interested in wasting time, though this fact was for varied reasons depending on the person. The Metamorian work crew had already started work on it, but the felled tree had been frozen in place after falling into the rain-soaked road. The work team had driven a number of hooks into the tree, and stout ropes had been tied to each of the hooks. The ropes had all been tied at their opposite ends to a ring which attached them all to a yoke of two horses that stood a little off the road. No progress was being made, however, due to the ground’s frosty hold on the log.

“The ground is frozen pretty deep around this thing,” commented the lumberjack who had met them along the road. “We have plenty of tools, but we need more manpower to get this thing out. We had originally intended to just cut it up where it is, but we got nowhere; the ice still holds, and it just takes longer. It’s a large tree, but the horses should be able to handle it. We figure that getting it out of the way all at the same time will be faster and more convenient at the current juncture.”

Lois nodded, and the rest of the volunteers made various shows of understanding. “So, let’s get started,” Lois said without hesitation, and much to the annoyance of some of the stiff-muscled volunteers. “I assume that you have all of the tools necessary for this operation?”

The man nodded, and they had soon all been supplied with various tools meant for breaking through the ice. All of the men soon had started working, spaced evenly so that they could hopefully get the log free at the same time. Lois went at it with great enthusiasm, breaking the ice with the pick he had been given and trying to clear the dirt out. He knew that the moisture in the sludge he had freed would quickly refreeze in the current temperature, and so made sure to get it away from the log as quickly as possible.

All of the workers worked quickly, but they were still only about halfway down the side of the log at the end of the hour. The dirt was simply too hard to clear with any speed. The men frequently paused to drink the water that was provided by the Metamor work crew. Lois, however, kept moving, making comparatively good headway as he went.

Finally, the crew had managed to clear out a good sized perimeter around the felled tree. After breaking as much of the ice around the log as possible, they turned to the horses for help.

The first attempt resulted in very slight movement from the tree. The crew again went to, doing everything they could to break the tree loose from the ground. This time when the horses pulled, the log began to shift. Encouraged, the men took advantage of small bit of separation that the end of the log now had above the ground, and cleared the obstructions out from in front of it. Another pull, and the log began to slide, slowly but surely, free from the rut it had carved in the road.

A few more minutes of work, clearing the debris that the log dragged up along the way. Finally, the log was off of the road and into the forest.

Lois stood back from the log, smiling as his quickened breath misted before his eyes. It had taken them close to two hours of hard work, but they had managed to finally get the log off of the trail.

“Well done,” the man who had met them said, smiling. “It would have taken us far longer than it did if you hadn’t been here to help us.”

“It was our pleasure,” the caravan master said. Lois could tell that it was mostly said for courtesy’s sake. He could also see by looking at his employer that he was worried, and Lois knew why. “I hope that there are no more such situations farther along the road.”

“I cannot guarantee that there will be no other such obstructions up ahead,” came the response. “We were only a little way up the road when the storm hit yesterday, and we were forced to stay out here for the night. By what we’ve seen so far, though, do not expect your road to be free of pitfalls. The wagon that we brought our tools in managed to find a good sized rut, and it took us a good while to free it.”

The caravan master sighed. “I was afraid of this. We have already been in the valley for almost three days, thanks to that storm. I do not wish to tempt the Curse’s wrath, no offense intended.” He shook his head. “At this rate, we could very well be on our way there for another day, it will take time to sell our wares and buy supplies for the return journey, and then we need time to get out of the valley.” He shook his head. “I feel like I’m pushing it to try to get there.”

“I would suggest turning back if you do not wish to run a high risk,” the Metamorian commented. “We’re expecting the weather to stay this way for a while. If you continue, you’ll run a very definite risk of being trapped at the Keep.”

The caravan master cursed. “Just as I feared. It seems that we might be better just to turn back right now. From here we might have enough supplies to tide us over. Still, we‘ll be losing a considerable investment if we don‘t complete this trip.”

“Better to lose an investment than be trapped by the Curse!” one of the caravan guards cried, obviously having hoped that this trip would have turned out calmer. His argument was backed by many different affirmations from the other caravan guards. The Metamorian lumber crew suddenly began to gather their things as though to quickly escape the discussion that was to follow. Lois leaned against a tree and waited, not doubting much what course of action would be chosen.

A few of the guards seemed convinced that the profit from tempting the wrath of the elements at that point would be worth it, but most heavily favored turning back. Both parties repeatedly presented their own arguments as to why they should decide on way or another.

Finally, the caravan master had had enough. “All right!” he shouted, interrupting the argument. “We know that some of you are more interested in gaining profit than in making sure that we avoid the Curse, while the others are heavily in favor of fleeing before the Curse has a chance to work its will on us. I offer you all a solution: We will return the way we came, and you will all be paid double the agreed hire.” There was a quiet discussion among the men for a moment, then they all agreed that this suited all of their interests equally well. “Good,” the caravan master said, still with a look of anger evident on his face. “Now, let’s return and begin our trek back, before some unforeseen disaster eliminates our escape.”

They started away back up the road, leaving the Metamorian work crew to gather their supplies and prepare for there own journey. Lois silently followed the group, knowing exactly what he intended to do.

They soon arrived at the camp that had been made in their absence. The caravan master quickly informed the remaining men of the decision, and they moved quickly to break camp and start on their way back before it got any later in the day.

As the men moved quickly to perform their duties, however, Lois was involved in quite a different task. Jumping into the wagon where he had stowed his supplies, he packed all of the loose items into a medium sized black chest, then jumped out of the wagon, toting the chest before him. He found the horse that he had been given for the duration of the journey. Taking the horse’s lead, he moved down the road towards the Keep, his chest held in his right hand while he led the horse with his left hand.

It didn’t take the caravan master long to spot Lois. He jumped on his horse and quickly moved to intercept the man.

“I see that you seem to intend to make off with one of my horses,” he said, turning his steed in front of Lois on the icy road. Lois looked up at the caravan master impassively.

“You stated that all of your caravan guards were to be paid twice the agreed hire,” he pointed out, assuming the voice he used when discussing business. “My agreed hire was free transportation to the Keep. As I do not wish to travel back with you, I will take this horse and be on my way if you don’t have any better ideas.”

The caravan master shook his head. “So, this is it then? You truly are mad enough to wish to suffer the Curse?”

Lois shifted slightly, still regarding the man with a gaze devoid of any emotion. “I do not go to the Keep to be cursed, but if I must be cursed to live there, then so be it.”

The other man shifted in the saddle, his expression perplexed. “For a man of your type, I would never have anticipated that you would want to live in a cursed Keep,” he said, voice confused. “You’ve done well enough for yourself outside of the Keep. What sort of wanderlust could possibly drive you to accept such a thing as the Curse?”

“Wanderlust in not the proper word,” Lois replied. “Homesickness would describe this more fully, I believe.”

The caravan master looked even more confused. “Homesickness? Are you Metamorian?”

“Not by birth, but by heart,” Lois confirmed.

“By heart!” the man laughed. “I didn’t think you had a heart.”

“Maybe I don’t. Maybe it’s just a gut feeling that I belong at the Keep, but I do feel that way.” Lois straightened, shifting his supply chest to a more comfortable position. “Now, may I have your leave to continue on my way?”

“Very well,” came the response. “It is a shame to lose such a good man, though.”

Lois gave a slight smile. “I would be willing to bet that it is more that you hate to think what your purse will suffer after both losing your investment in this caravan and losing your bet that you would convince me to stay on with you.”

The caravan master shrugged. “Perhaps,” he responded. “Well, while I do not understand your reasoning, I respect your wishes. I wish you all speed on your journey, and may you live a happy life in your new home.”

Lois nodded, accepting the well-wishing of his employer. “Who knows, perhaps sometime when the weather is fairer, we may meet again.”

The mounted man laughed again. “I doubt that I will recognize you if we ever do meet, but I hope we do anyway,” he stated. “Perhaps, if we ever do meet again, you might tell me what sort of madness drives you to this decision.”

“I will surely do so if we ever meet again,” Lois said, smiling. “Farewell, until we meet again.” As the horse that blocked his path was moved away by its rider, Lois continued down the path. A few of the caravan guards watched him curiously, but no one was about to follow him. No one else was foolhardy enough to try the Curse’s patience.

Lois’ horse crunches along the still-frozen road, navigating around any puddles that looked remotely dangerous. Lois now rode normally instead of leading the horse. Having tired of lugging his supplies with one hand, he had used two strips of cloth that the case had contained to create loops for his arms, tying them to the case. He then crossed them across his chest. It sure wasn’t the best looking rig he had ever conceived, but it did allow him to ride his horse, however hunched he was forced to sit in the saddle.

He had been riding now for several hours. He had considered trying to raise his pace, but he already had to keep alert for the dangers of the road. Going faster would increase the chance of an accident.

Still, by what he knew of his location, he expected to be able to reach the Keep before sundown. The sun was already setting, but it was hidden behind the heavy clouds which loomed overhead. A haze hung over the trail, producing an eerie feeling as he moved alone on the path. The only sounds were the steady plod of his horse’s hooves, the accompanying crunch of the frostbitten ground, and the quite but steady rhythm of his own breath. No animals seemed present, or any who were saw fit to preserve the silence of the day. Lois shrugged, setting the straps in a more comfortable position on his back.

The routine continued like this for quite a little while. As the light slowly waned and the fog seemed to redouble its efforts to hide the ground, Lois silently considered his situation. He had not planned to camp alone out on this path. While he had done stranger things in the past and no doubt intended to do so in the future, camping without the proper equipment on that road in that weather didn’t seem like the best way to spend the evening.

Lois kept moving forward, hoping to see the Keep ahead so that he would at least have some idea as to how far he had left to travel. The fog prevented this, however, and he had still not seen any sign of the Keep when darkness forced him to stop. He dared not continue for fear of running afoul of one of the many pitfalls that the storm had created.

The forest had retreated on either side of him, and now all of the trees stood behind the fog, invisible to Lois as he sat in the saddle, thinking through his next course of action.

He just sat there for some time, mulling over the situation in his mind while staring out into the night but seeing nothing but the impenetrable gray wall that hemmed him in on every side. He didn’t like the idea of staying out on the road at night; nothing wholesome would dare go anywhere in this weather. That only left whatever unwholesome things there were around him, and he knew there were far too many in this part of the world.

He dismounted the horse, compensating unconsciously for the cumbersome weight of the chest strapped to his back. He stood silently beside the horse, still uncertain of his course of action.. The horse also seemed nervous, ears swiveling to follow noises that weren’t there. Still, the two remained silent as if by some accord.

Lois looked about him in the darkness. He would have liked some light, but none was forthcoming. He didn’t exactly plan to have this sort of trouble, so he had not brought a lantern. He berated himself for not having taken one from camp after seeing how the weather was.

Seeing nothing he could do, Lois untied the chest from his back and set it on the ground beside his horse. He stretched, releasing the tension that carrying it around had produced in his muscles. He then sat down, hugging his coat closer to him. He frowned, knowing that the weather was likely to get worse before it got better.

He sat there, holding his horse’s reins, staring at the fog with loathing. How he wished that it would just go away and leave him to travel on his way. He was sure that there would be enough of a moon to travel by tonight, if only he could actually see it.

He alternated between trying to bore holes in the fog through pure force of will and laying his head back against his horse’s side. He couldn’t tell what time it was, there was nothing to indicate passage of time, only the dull gray walls that stood around him on every side. It was a strange feeling, this disorientation. He had experienced it before, but never outdoors. It had always been caused by the constant black of underground dungeons that had caused it before.

Hours passed. At least he thought they passed, with the fog as thick is at was he sometimes wondered if time was still moving on the outside. Still, the gray of the fog was lightening ever so slowly. He thought it was, anyway. He shook his head. It was maddening, this blasted fog!

Finally, Lois noticed the thickness of the haze was lessening, and he was able to see farther along the road. Seeing this, he stood back up and strapped the chest to his back again. Still unable to see far enough to trust himself to aptly ride the horse, he led it by the reins deeper into the fog. He hoped he was still on the path; he had intentionally kept the horse facing their traveling direction after dismounting, but he could never tell when the path would take a turn. Still, he determined that moving would stay his madness, and that he would continue to walk until he found the trees, or, if he was lucky, a stone wall hiding in the fog.

His steps kept on, avoiding the occasional divots that the weather had caused in the pathway. The fog continue to lift, making him continue to increase in confidence. His steps became longer, moving him faster through the mist. He still felt cut off from the world, but the absolute loneliness of the past few hours had been far more disconcerting.

He stopped after an hour or so of travel, eating a small meal that he had packed before he left. He hoped that he wasn’t too far off of the beaten path; he didn’t have anything else to eat, and he wasn’t interested in going hungry.

As he ate, the fog lifted further, far enough so that he could see underneath it for a substantial distance. After some consideration, he decided to give it some time to clear rather than continue to travel blindly.

So he waited, once more sitting on his travel chest. He stared intently into the fog for a while, the decided that he was just wasting time and frustrating himself. He decided not to bother his horse further by resting his head on him. Instead he just sat with his shoulders slumped, hunching himself against the cold as well as putting himself in a more comfortable position to rest in.

He woke with a start a while later, hand immediately on his dagger. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep. Luckily, his horse had decided to stick by his new owner and still stood beside him. It wasn’t this that interested Lois so much, though. The fog had lifted substantially, letting him see for a good distance before it once more cut off his vision, and standing there about thirty feet from his position, was a large wall.

“Well,” he said to himself, smiling broadly, “That is convenient.”

He had soon strapped his pack to his back once more, and set off slowly towards the walls. He called out as he approached, and a man atop the walls responded to him. He quickly explained his presence, and the gates were opened without a problem.

Lois guided his horse along the roads of the town he was in. He had been here before, many years earlier. Euper, they called it, the town that preceded Metamor along the southern road. He had spent a good amount of his previous stay in this area, in one of the inns that bordered the main road. Now, though, he intended to move into the Keep proper if at all possible.

The street that moved through the center of the town was basically deserted. Those who were outside moved briskly to get to wherever they were going. No one was interested in staying outside. Though it was not raining now, the humidity was enough to soak someone from the inside out in no time at all.

Lois was already soaked so he just kept his horse moving in the right direction. He was in no hurry now that he had arrived at his destination, and he already knew what awaited him up ahead, so he just traveled quietly, looking out for anything of interest.

His hunger got to him again a while later, as the small breakfast he had taken that morning wore off. He stopped at a small place and took his midday meal before continuing his way to the Keep.

He finally reached the switchback trail that lead to the Keep’s main entrance. The trail was somewhat slippery with the rain, but the horse was able to find purchase for its hooves, so they climbed upward. They made their way up the slope, turning back on the successively high paths until they finally reached the top of the winding trail.

Finally, now that Lois’ view was no longer obscured by the fog, he could see the first gate before him. He moved towards it until, as he reached the gate, a guard, bearing some features of a bull, challenged him.

“Halt, identify yourself.”

Lois grimaced. When would someone finally come up with a more original challenge than that?

“My name is Vincent Lois. I seek refuge within the walls,” he responded, stopping his horse as a way of acknowledging the sentry’s challenge.

“We have not received advanced warning of anyone coming along this road, explain yourself,” the sentry answered back.

Lois rolled his eyes. “Besides the fact that I doubt that any scout could have seen me in the past 12 or so hours, there is the fact that I had been accompanied by a caravan. The caravan master decided that risking the Curse’s wrath in this sort of weather would be foolish, so I have continued alone.”

“We do have record of a caravan turning back about a day ago,” the sentry confirmed. “We did not here anything about someone leaving the caravan and continuing alone, however. You wouldn‘t happen to still have the contract, would you, Mr. Lois?”

“Yes,” Lois answered. He shifted awkwardly, pulled back one of the cloths that held the pack to his back, and pulled out the contract. He handed it to the bovine guard, who studied it for a moment before nodding.

“All looks to be in order. Still, as the caravan is no longer going to be conducting business at the Keep, I must inquire as to your intentions.”

“I intend to seek residence,” Lois answered briefly.

“Really?” The sentry’s voice had a bit of interest to it. “We do not receive people seeking residence very often. Even though we have requested as much aid as possible, the Curse seems keeps people away.”

“I have no fear of the Curse,” Lois said. “At any rate I will not allow it to keep me from entering.”
The guard nodded, satisfied. There were a few more questions asked, and the corresponding answers given. The guards searched Lois’ equipment, told him where to find an inn to stay at temporarily, and then let him enter.

Lois crossed the killing grounds, then once more submitted to an interrogation from the guards. As soon as they had satisfied themselves that he intended to do as he said, they allowed him to enter. As he rode through the gates, Lois smiled. He was back.

None of the people in the streets seemed too interested in the newcomer. Their minds were likely on their own business, Lois decided. He continued to ride into the town without encountering any complications. Eventually he found the inn that he had been told of by the guards. He wasted no time in getting a room, then entrusting his horse to the age regressed Keeper who cared for the stables.

As Lois sat on the bed in his room a few minutes later, he smiled. He felt truly happy for the first time in many years. After just thinking over the events of the past few days, Lois shook his head and laughed. “It’s good to be home.”