by Charles Matthias

The entire population of the Glen was awake before dawn on the Equinox. The sky was mostly clear of clouds, only a few wandering sentinels blotted out the starry night. The air was cold and chill, though it held faint promise of warmth to come that day. The first of the birds were beginning their singing as if summoning the sun to rise. And the Glenners and all those staying there woke with eager delight upon their lips.

The Long Scouts were all quite used to rising early, and had no difficulty in the first ritual to start the days festivities. It was a tradition, Angus had explained to Charles, that had gone back for as long as anyone could remember. On that first day of Spring, they would each take a hoe or spade and break the ice on the lake. The Glen was not a farming community, as their lands were too forest choked to support any serious farming. But everyone, even the children, were prepared for the morning’s excitement.

Of course, before they would venture down to the lake, they would all gather in the commons area of the Glen, one of the clearings that the children had cleared of snow a few weeks before. The ground was still hard with the winter frost, but at least it was dry beneath their paws. Charles soon found himself surrounded by his fellow Longs, each bearing the traditional hoe or spade. Misha held his spade as if it were his great axe Whisper, the black weapon forged in countless ages past. Most of the Longs got quite a pleasant laugh seeing themselves bearing the farmer’s tool, especially their leader, who spun his in his paws.

Already they could smell the warm bread baking and the sweet tang of fruit and pies waiting to be laid out. Smiles abounded on every face, and many a nose twitched and turned to follow that delectable scent. While it was true that Annette Levins could not hope to make enough pie for everyone to have a piece, Charles had heard that she’d made a valiant effort. Of course he did not know for sure he’d not seen her in days!

But at last Lord Avery gathered their attention, Angus, Berchem and others near his sides bearing several torches to light the way, bits of tar falling from the wooden brands to smoulder and disappeared on the earth. The squirrel did not speak but a few words, his voice gripped tight with his own excitement. Waving his spade in one paw, his long tail waving back and forth behind him like a brown spectre in the torchlight, he said just loud enough for them all to hear, “Let us welcome the Spring!”

At that, the Glenners, and all of the Longs lifted their hoes and spades in delight, following the Lord of the Glen down the winding steep trail that took them to the small lake. As they milled about, working their way down the hillside, a jaunty little tune in an older tongue sprang to somebody’s muzzle, echoing off the trees. Soon, another joined in, and then another, moving along the line like a wave, as if they were a vast choir whose voices were rolling down a mountainside into an unsuspecting village. Charles and the other Longs soon found themselves singing along, even though they did not know the words, so pleasant and contagious was its character.

After the fifth repeat of the refrain whose meaning the rat still could not comprehend, because the dialect was quite old, the trees opened up and he could see the stars shining overhead, a lovely waning gibbous moon dipping in the western sky to the black shadowy peaks of the Dragon mountains. And below in the narrow gulch, sparkling like raindrops on diamonds, lay the ice-locked lake. It was fed directly by mountain streams, while an outlet that trickled over rocks and broken planks from an old beaver’s dam led down to the larger and more impressive Lake Barnhardt. While during the days in the last few weeks it had often grown warm enough to begin melting the ice, every night the cold returned, and at each new morning, it was once again solid enough to walk across. And thus it was when they all finally reached the lakeshore.

Angus and Berchem led them around the lake in opposite directions. Charles found himself following after the skunk, with Kimberly right next to him. She was dressed warmly in woolen breeches and gloves, though Charles carried her hoe as well. There was still a great deal of snow by the lake, some of which he remembered dumping there, though a vast majority of it had melted off. So it was that they trudged their way, their paws growing cold and wet, but the warmth of so many people around and their good cheer kept them from feeling it.

To the East the sky was already beginning to brighten, a warm blue filling the air, dampening some of the starlight. Were it not for the mountains, the sun would already have risen. But after having lived so many years in the valley, they were all used to its vagaries. Charles did not find it distressful in the least. After all he was a rat, and he felt completely comfortable with only the moon, stars, and a few torches to guide his steps. Further, he was a Long Scout, and so even if the torches were extinguished and the sky full of clouds, he could have found his way without much difficulty.

They finally stopped walking and just stood around the lake once Berchem and Angus reached each other, having circled the entire lake. They lined the shore completely. Charles could see a dark line of Glenners on the other side, each moving about, testing the ice with tentative paws or hoes. Charles smiled to his sweet lady and handed her the hoe he’d carried for her. She took it and then reached up to give him a quick kiss on his cheek.

They all waited together for the sun to make its first appearance over the mountains. Charles wrapped one arm around Kimberly’s shoulder, even as he continued to sing that song. He felt he could pick out snatches of words here and there as he both listened and tried to harmonize. The dialect was not one that he was familiar with, but there were enough similarities with others he’d studied during his years at the Writer’s Guild that he began to recognize it as a paean to Artela. Mostly it was concerned with thankfulness for the coming Spring, but that particular member of the Lothanasi Pantheon received special mention in a few places.

Even so, Charles and the rest of the Long Scouts continued to sing, even those who were Followers. In his heart, Charles knew he was singing his thanks for the coming Spring to Eli and Yahshua, and that was certainly good enough. Even as he began to ruminate on what Father Hough might say to him if he were to find out, the voices grew silent in wonder. As he was facing West, he had to turn around to see that bright sky begin to show the first sparkling rays of the sun, the last of the stars overhead vanishing from sight at long last.

With a great shout of joy, the Glenners drove their hoes and spades into the surface of the icy lake, the cracking and splintering of the ice resounding across the surface and bouncing from tree to tree. Charles swung his like an axe, the end of his spade sinking deep into the ice, cacks radiating out around it like a drunken spider’s web. Kim’s hoe came down beside his, shattering the ice even further. Bits and pieces began to float on the unsettled water beneath. After several more strokes from all around, the outer rim of the lake was a mass of small pieces bumping into each other, while the water lapped over the surface of the rest, even as cracks radiated towards the centre of the lake.

“Spring is here!” Somebody shouted, a chant taken up by the rest of the Glenners. Charles laughed with delight and hugged Kimberly, still gripping the spade firmly in one paw. Before another moment was up, he’d embraced Misha, Caroline, and a few of the other nearby Long Scouts. It wasn’t until he realized that he’d embraced Baerle as well, her narrow muzzle regarding his in piquant amusement, that his exuberance faded. Doing his best to hide his embarrassment, he skipped back to his wife, and held her closely, kissing her once on the nose. She laughed at him and returned the kiss.

A few moments later, and they and all the Glenners were making their way back up the hillside, except for the truly adventurous few who jumped into the water to prove that winter was over. Most of those had been changed into animals common to the deep cold of the north, though Angus himself braved the frigid waters. Charles saw him shake himself off like a dog, and then shiver the whole way back up the hill, but the grin on his muzzle let everyone know that the freezing was all part of the festivities.

When they finally made their way back up to the Glen, most folks began to mill about waiting for the next part of the festivities to begin. Annette and many of the other cooks began to bring out their baked goods, setting them on tables that had been prepared the previous evening. Few were not attracted to the rich aromas that came to them, though those like Angus who had jumped in the lake first went back to their homes to warm themselves and dry their fur once more.

There were several piles were people had stacked their hoes, now used and ready to be put away for the next year. Some of the children had kept their and were now using them in mock combat. The two Avery boys Christopher and Darien seemed to be leading the pack as they ran about and around the trees and adults, whacking at each other with the wooden handles. And as it was festival time, not even Lady Avery tried to stop them. Charles could not help but smile as he watched them, imagining his own children playing like that in a few years.

When he turned around to mention this to Kimberly, he discovered that she was gone. Scanning about in surprise, he found her a short distance away, accompanied by Baerle and several other women towards the tables of bread and pies. Her dark eyes caught his glance, and with a whisker twitch, she winked back at him and waved. In fact, as he looked, he could see that all of the women were making there way to those tables. Several of the Glenners were trying to drag Danielle away from Finbar, even as the men were trying to drag Finbar away from Danielle. Neither were terribly successful.

When Berchem walked past the rat, the skunk’s long tail nearly brushing over his ear as they were all so close together, Charles grabbed his shoulder gently and asked, “What is going on? I don’t remember hearing about this.”

The skunk turned then and offered him a wry grin. “Why the hunt of course!” He then continued on his way, slipping around a pair of bewildered Longs towards the far end of the clearing. The rest of the men were headed there as well, at least the Glenners.

Angus was upon them in a moment, having finished drying his fur off and changing into warner clothes. He still looked frigid though, but he was stolid and did not show it. “Ah, Charles, Misha, come it is time for the hunt!”

The Long were now mostly standing together, though some Glenners still passed amongst them. And the females were all being dragged off by the other women, despite the protests of some. “The hunt?” Misha asked, a delightful glint in his grey eyes.

“Yes,” the badger said, his voice filled with eager excitement. “All the men will be out hunting while the women prepare the fields.”

“All the men and all the women?” Georgette asked, setting her hands on her hips. The badger appeared to be quite embarrassed by this, as his dark eyes failed to meet the transgendered Long.

“Well, it is a tradition for us here. Most of us became animals when we changed, so...” but Angus couldn’t finish his words, as they trailed off into silence.

Jotham let out a heavy sigh as he looked at both Georgette and Laura. His face was sympathetic and at the same time jealous. “Oh you two are so lucky. I would so love to skip this awful hunt and be where the real fun is, with all the women.”

The two curse-made females laughed lightly at that, and after a few more words, departed to join the rest. Caroline and Danielle and the others also went over to the bread tables where the Glen females were joining in secret conclave. Soon, the rest of the Long Scouts made their way over to where the men had stationed themselves. George the patrol master and Rickkter accompanied them of course, though the latter gave Charles quite a wide berth. James was also with them, standing just a bit behind the rat, but off to one side.

When they joined with the others, Lord Avery beckoned them with a wave of one hand. “Since we have guests,” the squirrel said, even as some of the others, including Garigan, chuckled, “I will tell you how this works. We have until just past noon to hunt. You will be hunting for elk kill nothing else. You may use whatever means you wish. Whoever brings in the largest will earn a special distinction later. You may work together, but each group may only kill one elk, remember that. And no, you won’t be killing any Metamorians by mistake, we are careful about that.”

“Will we be able to find any elk with this many hunting at once?” Padraic asked, his lop ears twitching slightly.

Quite a few bemused grins were sent the rabbit’s way. The squirrel stood a little taller, straightening himself out, long tail lifting to stand just as firm behind him. “There will be plenty of elk my good Long. Just plenty. Unless of course you all make too much noise and scare them all away.”

Misha’s one ear lifted at that, and his grey eyes narrowed with a bit of pride. “I’ll bet you that we Longs bring back the best elk!”

Quite interested now, the Glenners laughed merrily, even as their Lord crossed his arms, leaning back. Angus was shaking his head in mirth, while Garigan gave Charles a bemused look. The Longs returned those gazes, each as certain of their victory as every other. “What shall the wager be then?” Lord Avery asked. “As you will certainly lose, I see no reason you should not decide what you will do to pay for it!”

“I will very much look forward to seeing the rest of you make good on this bet,” the fox called back with equal bluster. “The winner shall pick a dance that we will all participate in if we can.”

Charles gave the fox an odd glance, but his friend appeared quite certain about this. He was not sure how a dance could be a delightful enough wager, but it seemed to please the Glenners who readily agreed. “A dance it will be then! I hope you are quick on your feet, Misha Brightleaf!”

“We Long Scouts are very quick on as many feet as we need to be!” Misha openly winked to Charles and the other Longs. In the distance, Rickkter rolled his eyes, but still laughed slightly. Feeling a strange exhilaration, Charles knew right then that he would do his best to help his fellow Longs win the hunt.

It took a short while before everyone was ready and the parties began to set out in all directions from the glen. The Longs themselves stayed along the road at first moving as one. In the warming air of the Equinox morning, both excitement and consternation wove together in a desultory cloak that each of the scouts wore.

“We’re only allowed one elk between all of us?” Ralls asked, the moue plain upon his face. “That’s not fair.” Several other Longs murmured their agreement. Charles rolled his chewstick about in his paws, and nodded in agreement.

“The Glenners split up,” George pointed out with the wave of one paw at the tall trees about them. “I doubt they will be bringing back just one elk amongst them.”

“Why not a contest of our own?” Meredith asked. In spite of the bandages around his waist the bear appeared quite happy. His eyes shone beneath heavy brows, and his voice was warm and gruff. Charles suspected that his fellow Long was happy to not only be up and about, but to be in the forest once more, for many of them their true homes.

“I like that idea!” Misha said gleefully, a smile playing across his muzzle, this one just as wicked as the one he’d bore when he’d made the wager with Lord Avery. “We each go off and get our own elk and the biggest wins.” The light in his grey eyes grew then as he pondered his own words, claws tapping along the end of his bow slung across his shoulder.

“Wins what?” Allart asked.

Though he still bore a mischievous glint, the fox now also took upon himself a celebratory character, that of a man about to sit at a great table and be honoured by kings. And in that manner, he answered them, his words a delight to their ears, each turning and smiling at the thought of what their vulpine leader promised them. Charles could not help but smile then, thoughts of Misha’s wager to dance leaving his mind for the moment. Instead, the simple act of hunting came to fill it.

“Great!” Meredith growled. “It’s been too long since I’ve been hunting. I thought my crossbow would rot from neglect.”

Smirking and leaning back slightly, Jotham asked, “Since when have you ever even hit anything with that thing?” The jovial mood had all of the Longs breaking up in laughter then. But as always when they were out in the woods their laughter was soft, of good cheer, but still soft.

“I’m hunting alone,” Finbar intoned coldly and held up two daggers. There was a dangerous glint to his eyes, as if daring anyone to try and challenge him for that right. Yet, it was not born against them, rather for something else. Charles felt he had a good idea what that might be, but said nothing.

“Finbar,” Misha asked calmly, a small laugh still perched at the back of his throat. “You don’t intend to try and kill a one ton elk with just those blades?” He pointed at the two daggers the musteline clutched in his paws. But the ferret only nodded solemnly, gripping his daggers more tightly even, standing a bit taller.

“You’ve got to be joking?” the bear asked incredulously. Several other Longs echoed Meredith’s words, their faces full of astonishment. George said nothing, smiling privately to himself. Rickkter, who had accompanied them quietly as before, looked on Finbar as a parent might a child who’d claimed they would go out and topple some tyrant with their stick sword.

Finbar for his part said nothing, merely letting that cold smile they all knew grace his features. At that, Misha shook his head. “Nope, he’s dead serious,” the fox said, his voice impressed and hopeful.

Taking a moment to glance at the other Longs and seeing their expressions, Misha said, “Finbar, you don’t have to prove anything,” but stopped when he found himself talking to the ferret’s back.

“You didn’t really think you could stop him, did you?” Charles asked at last, lifting the chew stick to his muzzle to nibble upon it.

At that, the fox laughed once more and then shook his head. “I suppose not. Well, then it’s everyone for themselves. The one who brings back the largest wins and we bring that one in for the festival. The rest we eat!”

And with that, the Longs dispersed into the woods, some travelling together, others going their own way. And from that moment forward, none of them made any noise whatsoever.

Zagrosek had been waiting for over an hour before Bishop Hockmann agreed to see him. He’d come to the Cathedral just as the sun had been rising, intent on speaking with his grace after the morning prayers were finished. It was not a Sunday, and so no services would be given until the afternoon anyway. He had shown the scroll case bearing the lock of the Ecclesia to one of the adjutant priests, and shortly afterward had found himself waiting outside a wide cherry door furnished with brass knob and decoration, limned by gold flecks.

The portal was set in a small cramped alcove with a wide arch whose transom was a light curve. The hallway outside was an airy expanse, open to the outside apart from the stone trellises that were festooned with thick ivy, even this early in the year. Bright coloured stones, in light blues, greens and yellows adorned both wall and floor, giving the appearance of an underwater causeway. The Bishop’s chambers were set off on this outlaying parapet, as if his grace wished to look down and see all the people’s of the city massed beneath him.

Zagrosek was not alone of course, for the cherry door was flanked by two guards dressed in the green of the Ecclesia, clutching long spears and eyeing the dark clad stranger warily. In the first few minutes, Zagrosek had been watching them as well, studying the way they held themselves and their spears, and also the way their long sabres rested upon their hips. Within five minutes, he knew that while both were accomplished soldiers, he could best them both before either could call for help. Although he could not see through the door, he presumed that more guards stood waiting inside. Further, another pair of guards stood on either end of the hallway. Any bit of sport he should choose would be known to the whole Cathedral in short order.

Not that he intended to kill any of them. His business with the Bishop was far too important to consider it. But after the long minutes dragged into an hour, standing there waiting to be admitted, his mind was venturing into any territory it could find. And when he realized his mind was wandering down pathways he had no wish to go, he brought back the many discipline she learned as a Sondeckis to still them.

Nevertheless, when that door finally opened to admit him, Zagrosek felt impatient. As he’d suspected, the door opened into another small alcove in which stood two more guards, another two standing just inside the small room beyond. Light streamed in through one side, and as Zagrosek was ushered in, he could see that it was open on two sides, leading to a balcony that went around the parapet. Two doors were set in the far wall, both also made from cherry. When the guard opened the one on the left, Zagrosek stepped through, offering a quick smile as he disappeared within.

The Bishop’s office featured a small fountain with bubbling and flowing water that trickled over an array of smooth stones of wild colours before disappearing down into a small basin that fed into the wall. Two high windows flanked either side of the outrageous feat of plumbing, showing a narrow view of the city of Breckaris on one side, and the wide expanse of the sea on the other. There was a small bookshelf on the opposite wall filled with various tomes and treatises on matters Ecclesiastical, while the Bishop himself, awash in white robes and golden filigree, was seated heavily upon a chair upholstered in sea green studying one of the tomes.

Zagrosek bent down to one knee then, lowering his head, the scroll case held out in his hands. “I bear a message from Yesulam, your grace.”

Bishop Hockmann stared at him past narrow spectacles that hung low on his nose. His eyes were old and grey, though the Bishop had no more than forty years. With slow deliberateness, he closed the book and set it on a small stand beside his chair. He took the scroll case and turned it over in his hands, examining it through his glasses. Upon seeing the yew tree lock, he breathed heavily, lines creasing his face.

“Where did you get this?” he asked at last, rubbing his thumbs across the lock.

Zagrosek felt a sudden sting at the question. “From Yesulam, your grace.” He was still bent upon one knee, but the thick carpeting kept him from feeling it.

“I have been Bishop for the last ten years. Never in all of that time have I received a scroll case bearing the yew that was not brought to me by one of the Ecclesia’s couriers.” His voice was hard, and it was clear that the Bishop felt this was some ruse of some kind. Yet certainly his guards would have told him that the courier had worn black, and not the traditional green. Surely Hockmann had a reason for allowing Zagrosek within his chambers. Curiosity perhaps?

“For whatever reason,” the Sondeckis began slowly, “I was the messenger chosen to bring this to you, your grace. I can only guess that the reason for my selection has to do with the contents of the letter.” Although he naturally had never seen the letter, he nevertheless knew what it contained, or felt certain of it at least.

“Is that so?” Bishop Hockmann asked, eyes narrowing above the rim of his spectacles. Yet he did not move to open the case then, merely watching the black clad man with angry eyes. They studied him for several moments, as if he could see past the clothes and into his very heart. Zagrosek knew better than to meet his gaze then. He did not want to challenge this man just yet.

At long last, the Bishop removed a small signet ring from within his robes and placed it into the lock. Both fit together, and soon the mechanism turned and gave a satisfying click. Removing the ring, the case slid open, depositing a bit of white parchment stamped in green wax, also of the yew tree. After setting the two halves of the case aside, the Bishop spent a moment considering the parchment. At long last he broke the seal and unrolled it, scanning it quickly.

His expression turned from sour to dark in those moments. A scowl made its way across his lips, new lines forming in his cheek and brow, spectacles slipping a bit further down his nose. After several long moments in which the Bishop simply stared angrily at the parchment, Zagrosek waited, still bent on one knee. He laid his hands over that thigh, pressing against it to give it better support. But he was long used to holding uncomfortable positions for great lengths of time. One of his rubrics as a Sondeckis had been to be placed in the oddest and most painful of positions by an elder, and then to remain that way for a full day.

Finally, bearing a scowl that probably managed to curdle the stomachs of his subordinate priests, Bishop Hockmann waved the parchment in front of Zagrosek’s face. “This is an outrageous missive.” Despite the tortured look upon his face, his voice was measured though tight. “I presume you know what it contains?”

Zagrosek nodded slowly. “Yes, I do. It is part of the reason I was chosen as the courier for this message.”

Leaning forward in his seat, Hockmann narrowed his eyes, pushing his spectacles further up his nose with one finger. “And just what does this message tell me?”

Zagrosek did not smile, but now lifted his face to meet that of the Bishop’s. A few strands of his dark hair fell over his eyes. “It orders you to assemble what forces you can from this region and strike at the southern borders of Sathmore. This comes directly from the Patriarch.”

Hockmann leaned back then, tossing the parchment onto the book. It curled up reflexively, the broken wax seal rolling it to one side. “So you do know. Very well, I presume then that you were also told why?”

“It is my understanding that this stems from the murder of Patriarch Akabaieth.” Of course Zagrosek had practised saying that for some time now. After all, it was he who had killed the former Patriarch of the Ecclesia. Now, he could say it with the proper amount of anger and bitterness in his voice that was required.

For several moments, Bishop Hockmann appeared to consider those words. And then, he glanced to the parchment and then back at Zagrosek, his eyes very doubtful. “I know Patriarch Geshter. I have known him for many years now, since before he became the Cardinal of Pyralis even.” He picked up the missive and waved it in the air before the Sondeckis. “And one thing I do know is that this was not written by His Eminence.” with disgust, he tossed the parchment back upon the book.

Taking a deep breath, Zagrosek slowly nodded his head. “It is true that the words themselves are not penned by the Patriarch, but by one of his closest advisors. But Patriarch Geshter did sign and seal the note to you, so you have no need to fear its authenticity.”

Rolling his fingers across the book, the Bishop stared at it for a moment as if considering those words. After several minutes more in which the only sound was the trickling of the fountain water over the rocks, the Bishop finally spoke, his voice heavily with finality. “I am not going to bring these countries to war because a messenger purporting to be from Yesulam brings me word that is not even written in the hand of the Patriarch that I should do so. No, I will not be the one to begin such bloodshed. Know this whomever you may be, and take this message back with you. I will send my own messenger to Yesulam asking them to confirm this order. If it is genuine, then I will accept the blame for my doubt. But if not, I will be justified in rejecting you. Now get out.”

Zagrosek nodded his head respectfully. “Of course, your grace.” He bit back what he wished to say, instead rising and walking stately from the room, knowing full well what it was that he needed to do. The Bishop had rejected him as the Marquis had feared. He would need to send word now to du Tournemire. Smiling to each of the guards as he passed and made his way down those blue, green, and yellow corridors, the warmth of the morning sun on his face, he considered how he would phrase his note.

It felt good to be out in the woods. It felt even better knowing that he did not have to worry about some Lutin lurking behind a tree or rock, or up in the branches or upon any of the various outcroppings he passed as he moved deeper and deeper within the least explored portions of the Valley. And most importantly, he felt a great relief, almost a carefree buoyancy, knowing that what he hunted was not hunting him in return.

Misha did feel strange to be armed only with the long bow slung across his shoulders, and the viscous stiletto at his side. He felt naked without the weight of his backpack and armour burdening him down. He very nearly danced from rock to rock, pads skimming across the surface of the snow clinging to the last breaths of winter, as he felt so light. But the greatest absence, the one he felt the most as he winded his way through the towering giants, was that of Whisper, his black axe.

It was a strange thing, a powerful weapon beyond time immemorial. But ever since he’d released what lay within it, it had felt even more alive in his paws than ever before. It was somehow a shame to use any weapon but that, as if it had been made with him in mind. Yet for this hunt, he would do as his own forebears did, and hunt with bow and arrow. His pw glided down to the quiver that hung from his hip. There were a handful of arrows, recently fletched, that lay within. He rubbed one claw across the feathers, and smiled. This would have to do.

It didn’t take long for Misha to pick up the trail of an elk. He’d been heading steadily westward since leaving the road, towards the Dragon mountains, and the terrain became increasing rocky and gouged. Various streams few through fissures and winded there way around and under tree roots that spanned great hillocks. What little snow was left clung to the roots of the trees and to the massive boulders that pushed up from the earth as if driven by a hammer. Along a small trail a short distance up from one of the minor streams Misha found his trail. The strong musky scent where the corvine had urinated was hard to miss. The ground had softened from the snow melt, and it was clear that the animal’s tracks moved off to the north, and so too went the fox morph.

The ground levelled somewhat as he headed northwards. But the elk’s trail followed a puzzling course, switching back and leaping across various boulder slides and defiles through what would soon be moist loam, and between trees so close together Misha wondered whether they were not the same tree but split by lightning. After two hours of following the trail, Misha came to a small clearing. The trees were not nearly the giants that lived in the Glen, but they hid the opening well.

The faint scent of elk came to his nose and he paused just inside the woods. Standing in the centre of the open area grazing on some grass revealed by the melting snow was a tall elk. Powerful hooves stood upon the grass, while the beginnings of velvety antlers could be seen protruding from his head. Misha stood for a moment merely feeling the wind brushing across his fur and smiled. He was upwind. The elk did not know he was there.

He slowly drew an arrow from his quiver and took careful aim at the creatures neck. He could see the muscles rippling beneath the thick fur and ruff the animal bore. His eye narrowed as he watched it graze, unaware of its danger. It was a marvellous animal, and would stand him in good stead for the festival.

SNAP! The arrow flew from the bow towards the creature. A moment later Misha had drawn and released a second arrow. The elk started at the sound of the arrow’s release but barely had time to lift his head before the first arrow hit. It sliced through muscle and flesh before tearing apart the creature’s jugular vein. The second arrow struck near its brother, blood drenching the fur of its neck as both arrows lodged heavily into the elk.

Moving more on instinct then anything else the elk wheeled about and darted for the safety of the woods unaware that it was already dying. Misha grimaced as the creature began its run, hoping that it did not take him too long to track it down. He started after it, no longer worried about what noises he made. Even so, he still trod silently through the grass and pine needles.

It took a full hour to find where the animal had gone before the loss of blood had finally felled it. Misha found the buck laying in the last of the snow surrounded by a pool of its own blood. The stink of it had attracted a few other animals, but they fled upon his arrival. After he surveyed the dead beast, he used his dagger to cut off several branches and fashion a makeshift sledge for the corpse. Labouriously he dragged the elk onto the sledge. Once done, he removed his leggings and sought after his other form, that of the taur. In that form he would be more capable of hauling the creature.

Once he could feel four paws touching the ground, Misha hooked up the sledge, and began the trek back through the woods. The trip back to Glen Avery was going to be long and slow. But he had his elk, and for that, he began that journey with a smile upon his gritted teeth.

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