Drake raised his hands upward in a yawning stretch.
"Damn me, that's a long climb," he said, looking back up the escarpment they had scaled, tumbled, and even fallen down a few times, though not as far to knock any of them from this life. "I'm surprised your boys and girls made it to the wall in the time you did. A lot of those little Lutins went splat trying to get up that little molehill I made."
Misha winced at his words. "Nice image, let me remind you we got another hundred feet or so before we're through with this monster. I'd rather not hex this whole thing for you and my people."
Drake only smirked before taking a broad leap from the ledge.
Misha rushed forward, too late to prevent the human's fall, only to see the old fighter jumping, flipping and rolling down the slope, landing precisely and softly on boulders all the way down.
"That old guy's pretty spry for someone past fifty," Misha murmured to Rickkter, his ear twitching back at the warrior-mage's presence.
"Sprier than most people I've known," Rickkter muttered back. They both could here faint sounds of laughter coming from the knight. Misha heard the scowl that must have been on the raccoon's face by his tone. "Come on, we got a long way to go. I don't know about you, but I don't want to end up with my head caved in, so I'll take it a little slower." Misha chuckled, not sure whether at Drake's antics or Rickkter's distaste. For some reason, that human really got on Rickkter's nerves.
He let the other half dozen people who were returning with him to the Keep go in front. He'd led a squad of fifty to engage the Lutins at the ravine. Originally a rescue mission, Misha didn't expect that the skirmishing party would still have someone to save when they got to the wall. He watched the man, Drake, delightfully bouncing down the steep slope.
Misha switched his attention back to his own situation, shifting Whisper's strap around himself, and concentrated, getting his vulpine body down the cliff in one piece.
Drake sat atop a rock, his hand behind his head, cushioning it against the hard substance. He stared westward, watching as the sun approached the mountainous walls surrounding Metamor valley. His foot twitched up and down in tempo to some melody only he could hear.
"Nice of you to wait for us," a surely voice said from behind him.
The old fighter turned to look at the speaker.
"Oh, sorry about that, uh, Rickkter, isn't it," Drake apologized. He turned back to the pastoral skies, watching as the clouds changed colors against the dark horizon, "I just needed to get down. Just impatient, I guess. I was nice enough to anchor that rope for you, though."
"Yeah, well, some of our men could have used the help."
"They were okay," Drake chided, "This last stretch was nowhere near as dangerous as that chimney near the top. I figured that it would be nice to get down here and get that camp Misha mentioned this morning set up before heading back, tomorrow." The hunter nodded toward the fire pit off to the side, with fresh kindling awaiting flint and tinder to ignite. He still watched the skies, admiring the scene. "It looks as if they are alright, anyway. I figured we probably should rest after today's labors."
Rickkter didn't reply but gave a hand to Misha, who hopped down.
"Hey there. You two tired," Misha said to Drake.
"A little, but I bet I could still run you into the ground," the traveler answered with a smile. "How far are we to Metamor, anyway."
"At a leisurely ride, a little more than half a day or so," Misha surmised. "We'll be there by late evening tomorrow if we start early and push it on foot. It was a good idea to set up camp, though. I don't think we've hit the Curse boundary yet, and you probably want to get as much rest at Metamor Keep before you're off again."
Drake sighed as he watched the people go about to set their packs and pallets around the camp he'd started. "Man I wish my horse was around, but he's probably still halfway around the world trying to catch up with me."
Misha cocked his eyebrow, his curiosity piqued.
Drake chuckled, "Sorry, my horse is somewhat unique. Thinks it's a nursemaid or a man-at-arms sometimes. Thinks it's human, too, even though I foaled it myself," another sigh, "quite a long time ago. His was a difficult birth, and the groom let me keep the colt in return for saving the mare's life. As he determined it, that colt had sick lungs. I got the better part of the bargain out of it, though, as it got better. It comes from the magical stables of Kandlia."
"I've heard of them, and even seen one," Rickkter said as Misha whistled. The fox had heard of stories from his grandfather of those fabled steeds. The raccoon asked accusingly, "Why the heck did you abandon it?"
Drake dismissed the concerned question with a wave of his hand, "That horse takes better care of myself than I can. If it can handle me, then I have no doubt of its own safety. Sometimes you have to have faith in others."
"If you'll excuse me," Misha said, "but I have to go organize a hunting party. I'm sure you're hungry, Drake. You eat enough for three men."
Drake grinned viciously, his even teeth flashing white as the sun started to set.
Misha laughed as he left the two alone in a pregnant silence. Drake kept his eyes on the sunset.
After a few minutes, Drake spoke.
"You don't like me, do you Rickkter," It wasn't a question.
Rickkter grunted in acknowledgement.
"May I ask why not?" the traveler said.
"Because I know you're a bigger liar than I am. You hide a great deal about yourself," Rickkter responded.
"How can anyone know 'WHO' another is?" Drake replied philosophically. He drew in a deep breath, still watching as the sky turned orange and the clouds turned a cheery violet.
"At one time I might have been able to explain fully, but too many years get in the way. What is it about me that gets your goat?"
"I briefly saw how you fought. I also see your weapons. Those are weapons of a professional. That katana alone has to be at least a thousand years old. It's a mark of a true warrior, which your demeanor totally contradicts."
Drake unhooked the sheathed sword from his side and examined it.
"I used to be, but then I got sick of war. As for the sword, I actually forged it myself. Here, you want to take a look at it?" he offered to the raccoon, accept, drawing it halfway from the sheath.
Rickkter continued, closely examining the lacquered pattern on the blade "And then there is the way you took out that many Lutins. Yes, you were hard pressed. But killing six dozen, actually, more like over a hundred of them, is impressive. I would be hard pressed to face that many all at once.
"No, what makes me suspicious the most is the fact that you have power, and I couldn't trace any signs that you used any of it in the past week. Either you are a very skilled warrior, and didn't use it..." He looked at the soldier.
"Or..." Drake supplied.
"I don't know," Rickkter sighed in defeat, slumping down beside the sun-gazer, "I can't explain it."
"It takes a wise man to understand his own limits," Drake sagely commented, "and an even wiser one to discern others," he paused, and with a confused look across his face, said to himself, "or is that the other way around?"
They both watched the setting sun.
"If you have any questions about myself," Drake said finally, "Don't hesitate to ask. I'll try to answer them," he paused again, before adding, "but realize that there is a time and a place for everything, and at the time you ask, I may not yet be able to answer."
"Humph," Rickkter growled, "Well, at least you're finally serious."
With a grin, Drake said, "Even seriousness has its time and place."
He lapsed into silence again, as Rickkter got up and went to the growing camp fire. Alone, Drake watched the sun set, enjoying life.
Drake stretched, and was greeted with familiar pops as muscles loosened themselves and bones ground against each other.
It was still dark in the valley, even though the sky had reached its dawn glow. It would be another hour before the sun rose high enough to peak through the cliffs.
Without waking anybody, he silently flowed through camp, then deposited himself on the rock he occupied the previous evening. He stared up at the sky as it turned from violet to its usual brilliant blue
"Early bird catches the worm?" a voice startled him. He glanced over to his left, away from the camp, acknowledging Misha as he sat down on the rocks.
"You're pretty good," Drake commented, looking back upward toward the sky, "I didn't even notice you." With a grin, he added, "Not many can do that."
Misha shrugged as he sat down beside him.
"How old are you, anyway?" the fox inquired, suddenly.
Again startled, Drake drew in a deep breath, "What makes you ask?"
"Something I thought about yesterday. You claim to have known my grandfather, but you must have been little more than a boy. You don't look that much older than forty-nine ."
"More like fifty-three, and still older. I'm pretty well preserved. Maybe hanging around Llewellyn helped," the old fighter speculated, then smirked, "although, most people I knew say he prematurely aged them.
"No, I met your grandfather in similar circumstances I met you. A group of bandits decided to ambush me. The similarity between my would-be fates probably reminded me of him. Memory can be a tricky thing, or so I've discovered. Of course, there are some differences, but you share his humor."
Misha shared Drake's smile, "You move better than some of my scouts. What's your secret?"
"Thinking that you're still twenty five," said Drake, without missing a beat. They both chuckled.
Misha got up, his curiosity satisfied.
"We'd better get going if we want to make it back to the keep before nightfall," the fox said.
The older man grunted in agreement, but his eyes were distant.
An hour later later, the group was jogging at a brisk pace, already several miles from camp. Drake was trailing after two Long scouts who were leading the way. Misha took up the rear, sandwiching a group of six in between, running in single file.
"How far away are we from the curse boundary, anyway," Drake asked.
"I'm not sure, its not really something that can be measured," the woman behind him answered between strides and breaths. With a grin, she said, "You'll understand the lack of volunteers to find out."
"My name's Eva," she introduced herself.
Drake nodded. "Sorry if I don't shake your hand. It's a little hard when carrying four stone worth of equipment, and I don't really want to fall flat on my face. You probably wouldn't want to, either."
It was her turn to laugh.
His smile, though turned into a wince of pain. His steps faltered as he clutched at his right side.
Eva cried to the front, "Hold up," to Drake, she asked, "What's wrong?"
Drake sucked wind, trying to stand up straight, though his muscles wanted to fold him over.
"Cramp," he replied. He started taking the harness off his frayed armor to help him breathe. Eva helped him take the heavy crossbow, staff, and travel bag off him. "What wrong," a scout called out with a barking laugh, "You're not going to have a seizure on us, are you?"
Misha threw an annoyed glance at his man as he walked passed.
"I'll be fine in a moment," Drake assured still taking deep breaths. His pallor, though suggested otherwise as he turned whiter as he began to sweat. He leaned heavily against Eva.
"Get some water," Misha ordered one of the others. Eva tried to lower Drake to the ground, but he shook his head, endeavoring to stand. A handkerchief was dampened and placed on the back of his neck.
"Sir?" Eva said with concern, "He's burning up."
Misha started forward with the water skin, Drake held up a hand, trying to ward the man away.
Suddenly, Drake arched back and yelled to the sky. A thunderclap pressed everybody down to the ground, save Rickkter, who swayed as his muscles tensed to keep balance against the onslaught. The blast threw Eva away from the old fighter.
As they watched, a golden flash blinded them. Through the afterimage, they could see that a large wolf occupied the old knight's place. Unable to balance on two legs, it fell over backwards. Its golden eyes rolled back into the head as its four legs started twitching. Then, it slumped to the side, its tail between its legs, and its breathing grew relaxed.
The Metamorans could move again. They all stared at the canine. The only traces that a man had been there were the weapons and the satchel, laying on the ground.
Eva lay on the ground, unconscious.
"What in Eli's name happened?" a Scout asked.
"We have to get him to Wessex," Misha breathed, disbelieving, "Immediately!"