February 20th, 707 CR
In spite of the coming warmth the Keep's weather mages were predicting would arrive in the next week, it was still a cold day. The wind whipped down the valley from the Giantdowns and seemed to find its way through Edmund's clothes no matter how tightly he bound them. It left the cheetah morph cold, but today being cold was the least of his worries. The slanting afternoon sunlight found him standing in front of the gates that led to the outer ward of Metamor Keep.
Standing next to him was Terrant, his second in command. She had taken the change into a woman by the curse hard at first, but had soon grown to accept it. Edmund had been pondering how little it had changed Terrant’s abilities and skills. It certainly had no effect on her leadership or her formidable fighting skills.
“Your party is passing through Euper now. They’ll be here in a few minutes,” George said.
Even with his sensitive feline ears and nose he had not known the scout was coming until he spoke. “Thank you George,” Edmund said, refusing to show any reaction to George’s sudden appearance. He was sure the jackal morph enjoyed spooking people with his sudden arrivals.
“Very small group,” George commented as he stood next to Terrant. “They only brought a handful of knights. The rest are just outside the valley and safe from the curse.” The jackal patted her on the shoulder softly. She smiled at him and rubbed his back gently with her hand.
Edmund suspected that there was more then just a friendship between them. They certainly had grown close over the last month. It was an odd friendship considering that the old scout leader was twice Terrant’s age. Still the ex-bandit had seemed honorable enough and it was always wise to curry favor with someone as powerful as George.
“The Knight Master probably did not want to risk exposing too many people to the curse,” Terrant commented.
Edmund spotted the group slowly coming up the long ramp that led from Euper to the gates at the entrance to Metamor Keep. About fifty horse-lengths ahead of the group rode two more, one of whom carried a long pole from which a broad banner fluttered, deep blue with elaborate gold trim and tassels. It spoke of rank and power, prestige and influence.
“I count forty plus the two riding at the front,” Edmund commented.
“Edmund,” Terrant said in a nervous tone. “That banner. I think it’s Harrick the Elder’s.”
Edmund groaned and shook his head.
“Terry, who is Harrick?” George asked.
“The senior Knight Commander,” the woman answered as she ran her hands through her hair nervously. “He is second only to the Knight Master himself.”
“I was expecting the Order to send a high ranking knight but I did not expect them to send someone so prestigious.”
“They must be very upset,” Terrant said.
George gave a short bark of laughter. “I wonder why?”
The group was closer now. They had dismounted and were walking and leading their horses by the reins to ease the animal’s burden up the steep ramp. That was the sign of soldiers who really understood and cared about their mounts. It also made the wait for their arrival all the longer.
Market day in Euper was always a hectic thing. The countless stalls filling the square jostled for positions with the crowds of people who were selling, buying or just looking.
Lisa tried to ignore the sounds and confusion as she made her way through the crowd while keeping an eye on the woman in front of her AND on her husband and two children. The boy and girl were bouncing ahead of her along with her husband who was in vain pursuit of them. Trailing behind was Georgette and four other keepers including a bull morph, a water buffalo woman and two boys too young for the curse to have changed them yet.
Being trapped in the body of a 14 year old girl made life hard enough. Everything seemed to be made for an adult and she always reaching up for things. What made it worse was that her right arm was missing. She lost all of it below the elbow during the yuletide attack to a werewolf. Lisa was lucky to be alive at all and she knew it. Long days of recuperation and enforced rest had not dimmed her enthusiasm and good cheer.
The cook opened a bag of grain and examined the contents. With her black hair in curls and standing barely five feet tall Diane looked like a little girl and not the chief cook in the Long House kitchen. She rubbed some grain in her hands and smelled it. “Good. I’ll take four hundred sacks.”
The woman smiled broadly. “Where do you want them delivered?”
“No deliveries,” she answered sharply. “We have a wagon and we’ll take them right now.” In spite of her small stature Diane ran the kitchen that fed all those living in Long house with skill and energy commanding the lower cooks and servants with ease.
Lisa turned to Georgette and the four other keepers with her. “Load them onto the wagon. Be sure each bag is searched before it goes into Long House.”
20 bags of leeks, 300 sacks of ground wheat, 100 bags of oats, 3 bags of salt, 1 keg of black pepper, 3 chili peppers (they were too expensive to buy more), 1 bag of mustard seed, 400 cabbage heads, 600 heads of lettuce, 200 pounds of tomatoes, 200 pounds of Butter, 100 gallons of cream, 300 gallons of milk. And the list went on and on. There seemed to be no end to what was needed. Slowly they made their way through the market quickly filled first one wagon, then a second, a third and then a fourth.
The cook just watched as they loaded the last of the items onto the fourth wagon. “Now for the meat.”
It was several, long minutes before the new arrivals reached the top of the ramp and approached the gate. Slowly the group came closer and more details became clearer but it was hardly reassuring. He was soon able to see the scowl on Lord Harrick’s bearded face. But that was not unusual. Edmund could not remember ever seeing the Knight Commander smile. No one ever had which led to his nickname of Lord Smiley among the lower ranks of the order.
Edmund bowed deeply. “Lord Harrick. It is a pleasure to see you again sir.”
“Give your name Ed,” George muttered in a barely audible whisper. “He doesn’t know what you look like anymore.”
“My name is Sir Edmund Delacot,” the cheetah morph announced loudly. He pointed to the woman standing next to him. “And this is my second in command Terrant Gattaway.” He turned and pointed to George. The jackal morph only nodded his head in the direction of the knights. “This is George, the Duke’s Scout commander.”
The knight looked Edmund and Terrant over carefully for a long time without speaking.
The cheetah paladin kept his head bowed in respect as was proscribed by the Order’s rules.
The knight gave a shallow bow. “Thank you Sir Delacot. It is a pleasure to be here.” The words he spoke were pleasant but his tone and stiffness was cold and harsh.
Harrick turned his gaze on the scout, his eyes as cold and deadly as a sword point
George returned Harrick’s gaze calmly and then yawned loudly, showing his lack of respect for noblemen as well as a muzzle full of long, sharp teeth.
Harrick scowled at the jackal.
“George,” Terrant said softly. “Behave.”
“Never,” the old scout answered but he kept still. “Besides as the Duke’s representative I don’t have to behave.”
“You’re George the Slayer?” Harrick said coldly. “I still have the scar you gave me.”
George nodded. “A pike. Right shoulder.”
“I should have killed you then,” the knight answered and turned his back to the old bandit.
“You tried and failed. Twice. Be glad your family paid the ransom. Be glad you were rich enough to afford a ransom,” George commented coldly.
Lord Harrick stopped for a moment but didn’t say anything. Instead he turned to Edmund and Terrant. He stepped in front of Edmund and looked the cheetah over like he was examining a prize stallion before purchasing it.
Edmund met the older knight’s gaze calmly and never flinched. Even his tail which was usually in some state of motion was still.
“You should have consulted with the Order before committing yourself to this place for life,” Harrick said in a cold tone. “Your abilities are needed elsewhere.”
“I’m needed here more!” Edmund snarled angrily, revealing a muzzle full of sharp teeth.
“That is for me to decide,” the commander shot back his face twisted into a harsh scowl
Edmund shook his head. “No. That has already been decided. All you can do is approve or disapprove.”
“Are you comfortable?” She asked for the fourth time. The ocelot was fluffing the pillows that Meredith was resting his back against.
“I’m fine honey,” the bear said slightly testily. He loved his wife but she did get too protective at times. “The pillows are fine and I am fine.”
“No you’re not fine,” Elisha countered. “The healer says your ribs still aren’t healed.”
“I hate this. I’m bored being in all day,” the bear commented.
Elisha kissed her husband on the cheek, “I know but you can barely walk honey. “
“Can I at least go for walk?”
She laughed. “Of course but you can’t leave Long House and you certainly can’t go over to Finbar’s for a little drink.”
“Now that’s just cruel,” the bear countered. “You’re being over protective.”
“I am protecting you from yourself,” she answered. “If you want to be ready for the festival in Glen Avery next month you have to rest.”
“Explain to me what needs to be done now that the snow has finally started to melt,” Duke Thomas asked. The stallion was seated at the end of the large table that was the centerpiece of his private meeting room.
“Some 75 % of the outer ward is in ruins,” Thalberg was seated close the Duke. “And will need to be rebuilt. Hopefully before the fall rains.”
“First priority is to removing the debris,” the stallion ordered.
“We’re short of laborers,” the reptile commented.
“What do we pay the laborers?”
“Three bronze crescents a day,” came the answer.
“Make it four,” Thomas ordered. “And offer a free noon meal to all workers. That will bring out the people we need.”
“When we get the debris cleared away we will need a place to dump it,” Thalberg commented.
“How much debris?” Thomas asked.
“Much of the stone can and will be reused but that still leaves us with several hundred tons of debris,” The alligator explained.
“Where can we dump that much?”
“There is an abandoned quarry some miles to the northeast,” someone commented. “It’s really just a deep hole in the ground.”
Thomas nodded. “That will do. As we clear an area we can begin rebuilding.”
“The large portion of the north curtain wall was destroyed for a length of over three hundred feet. It will have to be rebuilt.”
The Duke sighed in frustration. So much destroyed. So much to replace.
Crews are already at work clearing away the debris to begin rebuilding but it will take months to repair the wall along its full length. Till then Metamor will be vulnerable.
“Have them construct a palisade covering the breach.” That had not been a problem till now as deep snow and a cold winter had made the breach impassible.
The reptile nodded. “But that will make removing the debris harder. The stone will have to be hauled through the Keep rather then just pushed down slope. Installing a gate will weaken the defenses palisade.”
“I Understand but we have no other choice. Put in the gate and double the number of guards there,” Thomas answered.
“Understood but we are short of soldiers.”
“I’ll take sixty sides of beef, 30 whole pigs and two hundred chickens and geese,” Lisa told the butcher.
“Planning a party?”
“No just restocking the larder,” she explained.
“That’s a large larder,” the butcher commented.
She just laughed a little but didn’t explain any further. “The cost?”
“Two moons each for the beef, 1 moon for each of the pigs and a crescent each for the birds.”
The woman shook her head. “A Moon for each of the beef, 3 crescents for each pig,” she countered. “And we take the meat with us now.”
“That’s enough food to last forever,” Lisa’s daughter exclaimed.
“It will feed a lot of people for a year,” Lisa answered.
“Why?” Amanda asked.
“Well, During the attack on the Yule we had a lot of people in Long house and they ate a lot of food. So now we have to stock up more food.”
“Why? Are we going to be attacked again?” Amanda asked, frightened.
Lisa kissed her on the forehead. She could imagine the girls fear. At the height of the Yuletide party they had been attacked. Later she had seen her mother badly hurt and almost killed. “No, we’re safe but Misha is just being careful. So we’re stocking up just in case. It always pays to be prepared for the unexpected. Never give in to your fears but never ignore them either.”
“We have accommodations for you and your people in the Keep itself,” Edmund said.
“It’s almost sunset,” Harrick said. “Is there time to reach the chapel before Vespers?”
Edmund nodded. “There is.” Understood was the fact that if they did not reach the chapel before sunset they would perform the service wherever they were, even if it was the middle of the street.
The group made its way the past the inner gates and into the lower ward. Destruction greeted the Knight commander eyes as his group entered the lower ward. In the center of the plaza there stood the remains of a statue on a pedestal. Burns and cracks marred the pedestal, and of the statue only the two bronze feet remained, cut off at the ankles. Of the buildings that once lined the plaza nothing remained but shattered and burnt wreckage. Here and there he could see groups of people sifting through the remains. In one corner the debris had been removed and a building was going up in spite of the cold weather.
“You wanted to know why I believed we were needed,” Edmund commented coldly. “Now you know why.”
“When was the last attack by Nasoj?” Harrick asked.
“Last night,” George responded harshly.
Terrant nodded her head in agreement. “Raiders attacked a village five miles north of here.”
The sign over the door read simply ‘Aldred & Sons, Fletchers.” The brick and wood timbered building stood on a side street in Euper, the town that rested in the shadow of Metamor Keep. It had survived the Yule attack fairly well. Only one corner showed timber and brick of a lighter color then the rest indicating where damage had recently been repaired.
The door Misha opened was also new, the iron hinges hadn’t even started to rust yet. He had expected to find the interior brand new, freshly made furniture replacing those destroyed during the Yule tide looting. But he found the same old, worn but well cared for furnishings. The counter had a few more dents and a large chunk of one end had been recently mended but the rest looked the same as always.
The fox had always suspected that Aldred had some powerful wards on the place to protect it. She was not a wizard but being the maker of the finest arrows in the valley meant the family could easily afford to hire one. Still it wasn’t until after the Yule attack that the rumors had been proven true. A score of Lutins had broken into the store but only a half dozen had escaped alive. Screaming.
The woman behind the counter bowed deeply to Misha. “I’m honored to have you in my humble establishment Sir Brightleaf.”
She was of a middling age, with a face that could be anything from twenty to fifty years old. Her straight black hair was braided with gold and silver wire and bound close to her head. Aldred had been a man till the curse had changed him into a her but she had adapted well wearing dresses and she actually seemed to love the change. It certainly hadn’t affected her fletching skills. Her only stubborn streak had been her refusal to change her name to something more feminine.
Misha returned the bow. “Thank you. I am honored to be here.”
Straightening up, the woman looked the fox straight in the eyes. “What can I do for you, Sir?”
“Arrows. I need two thousand arrows.”
“A large order. Quality takes time Sir, but…” She hesitated.
“But?” Misha asked.
“But if you need arrows quickly and are willing to accept lesser quality, I have some arrows that you might wish to see. Right this way to the storeroom please.”
The room in front of them was about a forty feet long and ten feet wide. Sturdy shelves made of wood lined both walls, all the way to the other end. What caught Misha’s eye was that every shelf was piled high with bundles of arrows. Short arrows, long arrows, and arrows of every color in the rainbow.
“Where did you get all of these?” Misha asked.
The woman shrugged. “From the dead. I pay everyone who brings me an arrow four copper so long as it is intact and can be used.”
The fox picked up a bundle of a dozen arrows. The green, blue and yellow bands on the shaft and feathers marked them as coming from the Rock Wolf tribe of Lutins. “They’re from the dead. Smart idea. Shame to let good arrows go to waste and be buried with the dead.”
She bowed. “Thank you for the compliment sir. Most are of mediocre quality but there are many of fine quality.”
“Lutins can do fine work when they want to,” Misha explained.
“Could you be so kind as to do me a favor? I have identified the tribe many of these arrows came from but not all. I do need them properly labeled for my collection.”
“Of course. I’m always willing to help you my friend,” Misha answered wagging his tail.
She moved through the rows and racks till she came to a door that was marked ‘private’ and had two, expensive and complex locks on it.
Aldred unlocked the two locks carefully and opened the door. Peering inside Misha saw that the interior was small but also had many racks. These shelves also held arrows but instead of bundles of arrows there were individual arrows carefully laid out on special holders that kept the fletching from being bent.
Man or woman Aldred was still a fine fletcher. Her arrows were the finest and the strongest in the whole valley and Misha gladly paid the extra money for them. The quality was well worth the price. Aldred did have one habit that in any but an arrow maker would seem very odd. He collected arrows and was making a sincere attempt to get two of every type of arrow ever made. She already had over seven hundred arrows all carefully marked with where they were from and how she had acquired them. Many bore the words “Taken from dead lutin by Misha Brightleaf,” along with the date and place.
In later centuries the entire collection would be donated to the Metamor city history museum and be called the Aldred collection. It would occupy one whole floor of the museums vast north wing. But for the moment it remained the odd hobby of one person.
The arrow she handed him looked normal at first glance, a wooden shaft about two feet long with a metal head on one end and fletching on the other. As he looked more closely at it he found some peculiarities. The first thing he noticed was the decorations or the lack of them. It had been painted with a rather bland gray paint and nothing else. That alone made it unusual. The Lutins liked to decorate everything, clothing, shields, armor and even themselves. Much of that art was poor but some was of high quality. The shaft was perfectly smooth and straight. Too smooth and straight to have been made by hand. It had to have been turned on a lathe, unusual for a lutin and very uncommon even here in Metamor. The fletching wasn’t made from a feather but looked like paper that had been coated with something. “Paper? Is this paper?” he asked touching the fletching.
She nodded in response. “Dipped in a high grade of glue.”
“I’ve never seen a lutin use paper for fletching. I’ve never seen ANYONE use paper.”
“Neither have I and the lack of markings is puzzling.”
Misha nodded his head. “I’ve never seen an arrow so completely devoid of markings. This is not a lutin arrow nor is it from any of Nasoj’s fletchers. And it’s certainly not from anyone in the valley. I’ve never seen an arrow so totally devoid of any markings. Even the ones we use in the Long scouts have more markings then this. How many of these do you have?”
“One thousand, four hundred, twenty. All exactly the same. Even the fletching is the exact same size.”
“That means they were mass produced. Any makers marks?”
She shook her head in answer. “None. I do have many that have been decorated but that seems to have been done by the Lutins themselves long after they were manufactured.”
“I can’t blame them. Something this bland I’d paint it over too.” Misha slowly turned the arrow over and over as he examined it carefully. “No markings. When we were getting rid of the dead Lutins in Long house we found many with weapons like this arrow. Swords, daggers and spears. All were well made but bearing no mark of any sort. Not even a makers mark on the tang inside the hilt.”
“Do you think they are from the same source?”
The fox shrugged. “I don’t know. This means something. They’re important clues but to what I don’t know. I want a score of these arrows. I’ll take them with me right now. I want to look at these more closely. I don’t know what this means but I WILL find out.”
“You’ve got a firm hold of the railing?” Jenn asked. The female wolverine was standing very close to her husband.
“Yes. I’ve got both hands firmly on the railing,” Andre answered trying to take his mind off of what was about to happen. He was seated in a chair but both hands were grasping a large wooden railing attached to the wall.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“No, but that’s never stopped me before,” he joked. Andre put all his weight on his right leg. His ONLY leg. He couldn’t help but look at the bandages that wrapped his knee. The leg below that was gone, hacked off by an axe wielding human during the Yule tide attack. Andre had spent years fighting Lutins and he had been crippled by a human. Ironically enough it was a lutin that had bandaged his mangled leg and saved his life.
Standing up was not easy. Something he had done all his life without thinking was now incredibly difficult. With his lower left leg gone everything seemed to be difficult. The distribution of his body weight had changed.
Andre took a deep breath and leaned forward. He ignored the instinct to lean on his left leg as that was no longer there. Instead Andre he put his weight on his right leg and compensated by pulling with his arms. Slowly he pulled himself from the chair. The railing creaked ominously under the wolverines weight but it held. He felt the pain throughout his whole body and he tried to ignore it as he concentrated on standing. The floor felt firm and cold underneath his sole remaining leg but he couldn’t seem to balance himself. Andre found himself swaying back and forth and side to side. The only thing keeping him from falling over was his firm grasp on the rail.
“You’re standing!” Jenn said delighted.
“I AM standing!” Andre answered more then a little amazed.
“Of course, Sir Denli.” Will was seated at a small workbench located in the small quarters assigned to him in Metamor Keep. Laying in front of him was a small collection of jewels and jewelry some of it quite old and valuable. Standing next to him was a tall, male Gazelle morph dressed in the flowing robes of a nobleman. “A merchant is due here in a two days time. He will be more then willing to purchase the entire collection at fair market value.”
The gazelle nodded. “Thank you Will,” he said with a mix of relief and pain.
Will could understand the nobleman’s relief. The attack over the Yule coupled with the harsh winter and late spring had devastated his home, his lands and the lands of the peasants and freeman under him. These jewels would buy much needed grain to fill hungry bellies and obtain cattle, sheep and pigs to replace those killed. With nobility came many great advantages but it also came with many responsibilities. A good leader saw to his people’s needs first and his own last.
The same merchant who would leave with these valuables was arriving with several hundred head of cattle and sheep, all of which would be sold at a good profit. Often with him own coins. A great deal for him but the merchants had learned not to cheat in their dealings. All it took was the mere threat of delaying the bargain for two weeks and they grew remarkably more open and sincere. Still most of the merchants were fair people and Will found it hard to begrudge them an honest profit.