6 years before Winter Assault
City of Frondham, The Outer Midlands
Hung over and feeling tired in spite of the sleep, George sat on the edge of the bed trying to get his weary body moving. He managed to stand up feeling the aches and pains through his whole body with each step he took.
The mirror was cracked and dirty which fit the cheap and dingy tavern he was in perfectly. Still he was able to see himself clearly enough. The figure that reflected back at him was of middling height with a strong physique. What drew his attention first was his chest, which was crisscrossed with scars both big and small. He ran his fingers through hair that had once been light brown but was now liberally sprinkled with gray.
“You’re getting old, George.” It was times like this that he envied his brothers for their choice of staying peasants. Sure, they would have struggled and worked hard, but now in their later years they would have families to take care of them. He briefly considered traveling to his old village but he hadn’t been there in decades. He wondered if either of his parents were still alive.
There was a sudden, loud POP behind him breaking George from his reverie. Turning he saw a small, wooden figurine lying on top of the tangled blankets on the bed. It hadn’t been there the moment before.
He muttered several curses under his breath. This was the last thing he wanted, another one of Misha’s cheery messages. Still his friend rarely sent such messages unless he needed George or he had a well paying job for him.
George sat down next to the small figure and looked at it. The figurine was one of a fox seated on a small rock, its tail tuck under its front legs. He waited a moment before picking it up.
“Good morning George!” a voice emanating from the figurine said cheerfully. “I hope this message finds you in good health. I’m doing well. I am finally getting used to my new body but I still slam the door on my tail occasionally and it HURTS bad,” the figure commented.
“Why does he always have to be so cheerful?” George muttered to himself. “It’s like he’s talking to his mother!”
“The mages here keep talking about reversing the curse but I doubt it. I know too much magic to be fooled by their double-talk. They have no clue how to reverse it but they know better then to actually admit that openly. I don’t mind. I like this new body. My hearing and sense of smell are incredible and I have a nice fur coat to keep me warm in winter.” The voice was cheerful but George had known Misha too long to be fooled.
Misha’s voice paused and when it continued it was in a more somber tone. “Thank you for going to my funeral,” the voice said. There was another long pause. “It was a nice thing to do. They tell me it was quite a spectacular one. Even my brother attended.”
There was a long pause and George knew that Misha was probably having trouble containing his emotions. He waited patiently and soon the voice continued.
“You’re needed here at Metamor Keep, George,” the voice from the figure said. “It’s not the curse. People have mostly adjusted to the changes. It’s the Lutins. I know I’ve talked to you about this before but they’re getting more brazen with each passing day. Their raids are burning and destroying everything. The people here are brave and skilled but they have no idea how to stop these bandit raids. They have no organization and it shows. The Lutins are raiding at will. They need a good scout leader here. Someone who knows how to fight bandits. The first person I thought of was you! Who better to stop bandits then an old bandit like you.”
“I think you just complemented and insulted me at the same time,” George said sarcastically.
“Be warned my friend. If you stay here more then two weeks the curse will take you and you’ll change. You could wind up a child, a woman or an animal person like me. The voice laughed. “I just had the image of you as a woman and damn you look terrible with breasts!”
George just shook his head and scratched the scar that ran along his left side. It was a new one and it still itched and would till it had healed fully.
“The offer is the same as the last time. The work is good. Your pay per month would be half the ransom my parents paid you for my release all those years ago. But you would have to earn that money George. You’ll have to organize the Duke’s scouts and reorganize all the locals and the militia. That alone could take years. But these are good people. Tough, hardy folk. I already mentioned you to Duke Thomas and he liked the idea of you working for him. Thomas is a fine man, er – stallion. He is someone I trust. We really need you George. What do you say? It would be a lifetime job but it would be a plush one.”
The figurine was silent, expecting a reply from him. The money would be nice. It had been far too long since he had lived the good life. The task didn’t bother him. George the Cutlass had both been a bandit and hunted bandits many times. Still the idea of being changed into something else gave him pause.
George looked at himself in the mirror again and noted the gray hair he saw. He was old by the standards of a bandit. Everyone he had known was either dead or rotting in some prison somewhere. All he had to look forward to was death in battle or at the end of a hangman’s noose. He trusted Misha’s judgment. The young man had never been wrong in the past and had given him some well paying jobs over the years.
“Yes,” he said firmly to the figurine. “I accept the task and the pay!”
“GOOD! See you soon George! And don’t loose the parchment! If you get in trouble just show it to someone. It might help,” the figure said and vanished from his hand. In its place was a folded piece of paper and a small leather pouch.
Unfolding the paper he found it was a well detailed map of the midlands with both Metamor Keep and the town of Frondham marked with a red X.
In the pouch he found a good collection of gold, silver and copper coins and a piece of parchment with writing on it. George couldn’t read so the words were alien to him but the seal at the bottom had a rearing horse at its center. It was most likely the seal of the Duke of Metamor. The document probably stated that George was on the Duke’s business and was to be allowed free passage.
He doubted that the document would work anywhere but on the Duke’s land as the bounty for his head was rather large. But Metamor was still held in high regard in many places and it might well help to get him out of trouble.
Suddenly the sound of loud voices raised in anger came through the closed door. George dressed quickly pulling his chain mail shirt on over his head. He tucked the map, free pass and coins into a safe, inner pocket. He strapped his cutlass across his back and the dagger went onto his belt.
Moving quietly he opened a window and leapt the short distance to the street below.
Duke Thomas heard the problem long before it actually reached him. The shouting was clearly audible through the closed doors that led to his audience chamber. The voices grew even louder when those doors were finally opened. He quickly wished they had stayed closed.
A group of a dozen people came pouring into the audience chamber all of whom seemed to be waving their arms wildly and shouting at each other and at no one in particular all at the same time.
“MERCENARY, BOUNTY HUNTER!”
“HE IS A WANTED KILLER AND YOU WILL TURN HIM OVER TO ME!”
“YOU DON’T GIVE ORDERS HERE!”
“LORD DETRIUX HAS A FIVE HUNDRED GARRETT REWARD FOR HIS HEAD!”
Thomas stomped a hoof hard on the marble floor and the sound resounded throughout the whole room like a clap of thunder. “QUIET!”
The room fell silent and all eyes turned to the Duke. In the past Thomas had been a tall man with light brown hair and blue eyes. But now clothed in the dark blue robes of the Duke was a tall, black stallion that was standing on its hind legs. Instead of hooves this person had hands. In spite of being more equine then human Thomas still had a regal air about him. His powerful neck arched and his nostrils flared, ears laid back.
“Explain yourselves,” the stallion Duke ordered.
An alligator dressed in long, flowing robes stepped forward and bowed deeply to the Duke. The reptilian features displayed no emotions giving him the same harsh looks that all reptiles had. It made him look cold, emotionless and stoic.
The curse was supposed to have worked randomly on everyone in the Keep changing them into different animals but Thomas always wondered if the curse had some twisted sense of humor. As an alligator Thalberg looked cold and emotionless. As a human he had been the same way. Thomas knew that he was a warm and caring person but Thalberg had always kept a cold demeanor in public. Not harsh or cruel but there had always been a calm, detached air about him. There were few people who could withstand his harsh gaze. That alone could end most arguments. Few people liked the steward but all respected him. Being an alligator seemed to perfectly compliment his personality.
“My lord, Duke Thomas,” Steward Thalberg said calmly. He pointed a green skinned hand at a short man dressed in very expensive clothes. “Aldred Fitz Williams, representative of Marshburg wishes an audience with you.”
The alligator pointed to three other men each one dressed in clothes more elaborate then the one before. “Sir Dedium of Lothanorre, High Protector of Isenport Alinux Arthlow, and Philip Wellsman, representative of Lord Detriux also seeks audience with you.”
Standing on the opposite side of the room was another man. He was dressed in a shabby cloak and pants that were tattered and dirty and the chain mail shirt he was wearing was rusted in spots. A cutlass and a long dagger dangled from his belt. The Duke noted that although the armor was dirty the weapons were clean and well cared for. He looked at Thomas with a calm, calculated stare. The Duke was sure that he was being sized up by this scruffy looking character.
Standing between the dirty man and the well dressed ones were no fewer then six of the Duke’s guards. Two were watching the well dressed arrivals, the remaining four were carefully watching the other arrival. It spoke volumes on who they considered the bigger threat.
“And who is this?” Thomas asked pointing to the dirty man.
“This is George,” Thalberg explained. “The reason they are here,” he said and pointed to the other four. The alligator steward shuffled forward and handed a small piece of parchment to the Duke.
Thomas examined the document for a moment. “Ah yes. George. The one recommended by Misha.”
George’s face brightened at the mention of Misha’s name. “I was told that you needed my services,” he said in a calm voice.
Thalberg nodded. “I have already ordered Misha to appear here.”
“He is a thief, a brigand and a brutal killer,” Sir Dedium shouted. “He MUST be turned over to me or hanged immediately.”
“That man,” the High Protector Alinux Arthlow, accused “is responsible for massacring over two thousand people at Sandport and starting a civil war.”
“Your king is still mad because I backed his brother instead of him. And I wasn’t the only person who fought at the BATTLE of Sandport,” George countered quietly.
“Lord Detriux has a five hundred Garrett reward for his head,” Lord Wellsman commented offering no explanations as to why.
“Five hundred?” a voice said suddenly from the doorway. “I didn’t think George was worth more than two hundred.”
Looking up Thomas saw Misha standing in the doorway. The foxman was dressed as usual in a brown shirt and green pants. He had no shoes on his paws but as the fox walked across the floor he made no sound. That didn’t surprise the Duke. Even with his sensitive equine ears Thomas never heard Misha approaching. The vulpine scout seemed to do everything supernaturally quietly and stealthily. He had even approached from downwind so that the equines sensitive nose couldn’t pick up his scent.
The fox man stalked across the floor to where George was standing. “GEORGE!” he shouted and flung his arms around the man.
George pushed the vulpine away. “Who are you?” he asked remaining calm but keeping the fox man at arms length.
“I’m Misha,” the vulpine answered sounding slightly upset. His ears drooped and he tucked his tail between his legs.
“Prove it!” George countered. “Furry.”
Misha pulled up his shirt revealing the cream colored fur that covered his chest and torso. He grabbed George’s right hand and placed it low down on his chest, just above his belt. “Feel that scar?” the fox asked.
The man nodded in reply. “How did you get it?”
“You gave it to me,” Misha answered coldly, “when we first met. And there is a nice scar on your right shoulder that I gave you at the same time. If you want more proof I can go fetch HER. You know the axe all too well.”
George didn’t answer at first but looked deep into Misha’s eyes until the fox man shifted uncomfortably.
“The body is different but the soul inside isn’t.” The old man smiled broadly revealing yellow teeth. Then he hugged the vulpine morph tightly slapping him on the back. “It’s good to see you again. You’re hairier than last time.”
The two separated but stood close. “It’s good to see you George. We need you here more then ever.”
“Why is it Misha,” Thomas commented sarcastically, “that whenever you appear here there is always screaming and shouting?”
“That last one was Wessex’s fault, not mine. A man should learn when to stop asking questions,” Misha countered harshly.
Thomas nodded his head. “Indeed,” was all he said.
The Duke turned his gaze upon the bandit George. “You are this great scout Misha has been telling me about?”
“SCOUT?” Fitz Williams said derisively. “He’s a bandit and a mercenary. A sell-sword of the lowest type. He kills for money.”
“Your money,” George countered. “Your money and the money of other nobles like you.”
“You kill just for money,” Fitz Williams shouted back.
George looked unfazed, “I kill for money. You kill for land and power. What’s the difference?”
Fitz William looked ready to explode but the Duke cut him off with the tap of a hoof.
“Enough!” Thomas ordered.
“I don’t pay mercenaries,” Fitz Williams retorted ignoring the Duke.
“That’s right,” George shot back. “You hire them and then when they’ve done what you want you kill them. The only person you have to pay is the executioner.”
“ENOUGH!” Thomas shouted ending the argument. The stallion was intrigued by George. For a ragged looking bandit he seemed capable of holding his own in an argument with nobles. It showed that the man had a quick and sharp mind. A thing missing in many nobles.
“Now George,” the equine duke said softly and pointed a hoof-like hand at the other humans in the room. “They want you and are willing to pay a rather large quantity of coins to get you. Explain to me why I shouldn’t hang you and hand over your corpse to them or perhaps dismember you and give each a piece?”
George walked past the Duke, up to a window and pulled back the curtains. From there the Keep and the whole of the valley to the north was clearly visible. He pointed to a tall, thick pillar of smoke that rose from the trees nearby. That smoke rose from the remains of a village raided the previous night by Lutins. “I can stop that from happening again.”
“You’re a bandit and a raider,” Alinux commented sarcastically.
“Yes. I’ve been a raider and I’ve hunted raiders,” George explained. “Who else would you pay to kill raiders? That fat merchant?” he said and pointed to Fitz Williams.
The merchant started to speak but Thomas stomped his hoof and the man kept silent.
The Duke turned to George. “You are aware of the curse?”
“Yes,” George answered simply.
The Duke stared at the old bandit for a long time waiting for him to continue but George remained silent.
“Why do you want to stay here?” the stallion asked finally breaking the silence. “Once the curse takes hold you will probably never leave this valley again.”
George shrugged. “I’m old,” he said. “I’m tired of cheap inns, bad food and poor pay. I want a place where I can relax my old bones and live in peace and comfort.”
The equine nodded his head. “Your pay will be fifty gold a month to start plus food and a private room,” Thomas said calmly.
“You’re accepting that explanation?” Thalberg asked in surprise. “That is not enough of a reason.”
“It is good enough for me,” Thomas countered in a harsh tone that left no room for doubt or argument. “A man should learn when to stop asking questions,” he said mimicking Misha’s earlier argument.
The steward didn’t speak but simply bowed in acquiescence. Thomas knew this debate would be continued in private later when he was alone with Thalberg.
“You cannot hire him!” Philip Wellsman announced. “You don’t know how good he is. He’s exaggerating just to get your gold.”
“No he isn’t,” the Duke countered. “The high bounty you’re offering proves his skills.”
Foiled by his own words Lord Wellsman fell silent but there was a harsh expression on his face.
“We have no proof of his skills Lord Thomas,” Thalberg interjected. “How do we know he is the bandit George and not a stranger masquerading as him?”
“I know him,” Misha said in a deep tone filled with anger. “He taught me all I know about scouting and tracking and MY skills are not doubted by anyone. I know this man and trust him with my life.”
That silenced the Steward. The fox rarely spoke in terms so adamant but when he did, he meant it. Thomas pondered for a moment before speaking.
“Misha is going on one of his killing sprees in a few days,” the Duke said with an air of authority. “To take revenge on the ones who burnt that village.” He pointed out the window towards the column of smoke. “You, George will accompany him. At no time will you leave the valley. When the curse has taken hold then you two may return if you’re still alive. Then they’ll be no doubt as to your loyalty.”
George nodded. “Fair enough.”
“It’ll take us a month just to look over the whole valley,” Misha added. “And visit every castle and village north of here.”
“You cannot . . . “ Sir Dedium sputtered.
“If you don’t like my decision,” Thomas said, interrupting the knight, “you can wait here for two weeks and see if he returns.” The curse was a problem but did have its good points.
Dead silence fell over the group. All present knew that a stay that long would surely let the curse take them. They wanted the bandit but not that badly.
“My Lord Fanthick of Lothanorre must be informed of your decision Duke Thomas,” Dedium said slowly.
Thomas simply nodded. “We will meet tomorrow morning Geoege. I wish to know you better before I trust you to go wandering around my valley.”
George and Misha made their way slowly through the hallways and corridors of Metamor. The old bandit took a close interest in every person they passed especially all the animal morphs.
“Is there any limits to the species?” George asked as they passed a female zebra walking with a pair of human looking children.
Misha shook his head. “No. Any species is possible including griffons and several that no one has seen except in old stories and legends from far distant lands. And at least a dozen are thought to be extinct in the wild.”
“Where does the curse get it’s power from?” George asked.
“The Keep itself rests on a powerful magical nexus,” Misha explained. “Basically it’s a natural magic source. Somehow the curse has become intertwined with it and the Keep itself.”
“Somehow?” George asked sarcastically as he dodged a fast moving servant headed in the opposite direction. “Meaning the mages have no clue what happened.”
Misha gave a yip of laughter and wagged his bushy tail in delight. “Correct. Seriously though from what little I know of magic it might take them a century or more to fully understand what happened. Right now all they can do is make guesses.”
The fox stopped in front of a door. It was a plain wooden door with writing on it that George recognized. It read “Misha Brightleaf.”
“You live that close to the Duke?” George asked.
“No,” the fox explained and rested a had on the door knob. “Remember that Metamor is magical and the interior moves around almost constantly.”
“How do you find your way in a building that is always moving?” George asked shaking his head..
“You don’t. You just picture in your mind where you want to go and start walking. Soon enough you arrive.”
George looked at him dubiously. “That makes no sense,” the bandit commented.
“I know but it works.”
“Fair enough. That’s what matters.”
Misha nodded and opened the door. “You’ll get used to it soon enough. It took me a few days at first. And this is what I call home!” he exclaimed and stepped through the door.
The room was surprisingly large. George had expected Misha’s room to be like most rooms he had seen in castles and fortresses; small, cramped and cold. This one was huge with a bed large enough for two people, a desk, a good sized table, several cabinets and even a fireplace.
The old bandit spied a door set in one wall and opening it he saw a small but well stocked workshop which shared the fireplace with the first room.
“I’m impressed,” George commented as he looked around.
“Where did you think I was living? A hole in the ground?” Misha picked up a small bell that was sitting on his desk and rang it. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll get us both a meal and we can plan our little outing.”
There was a soft knock on the door and a young girl of about fourteen entered. “Sir,” she said softly.
“Dinner for two,” the fox ordered. “Veal, vegetables, bread and ale.”
“And wine!” George added.
“Lots of wine,” Misha finished.
The girl left as quietly as she had arrived.
“All this and a servant too?” the man kidded.
“That girl is a page in the Duke’s service. She probably rides better then you and me,” Misha explained. The fox made his way to a cabinet and pulled out a bottle and some cups.
“Women knights?” George said. “I didn’t think Thomas was that open.”
The vulpine nodded in response and placed the bottle of wine and the two cups on the table. “The curse changed the gender of one in three at the Keep. It’s hard to be biased against a woman when SHE was once a HE and is better with a sword and lance than you are.”
“How are people handling the changes?” George asked.
Misha shrugged. “Mixed. Some love it, others hate it. The rest are somewhere in between. Everyone is coping with it.”
“And you?” George asked.
Misha opened the wine and poured some into both cups. “I love it! You can’t imagine what it’s like. I have my human mind combined with a fox’s superb senses. I even have a fox’s bite.” He pulled back his lips revealing a muzzle full of long, sharp teeth.
“Do you chew on a bone to keep those clean and sharp?” George commented laconically as he picked up one of the cups.
Misha didn’t speak but bared his sharp teeth and snapped them together.
George sipped the wine slowly. “Nice.” He nodded his head. “Good vintage. Where is it from?”
“From the Giantdowns,” the fox explained.
“I thought there were only Lutins in the north?” the old bandit asked as he sipped more wine.
“Most of it belongs to the Lutins but there are quite a few human settlements up there too. Unfortunately all of them belong to Nasoj at the moment.”
George held up the bottle of wine. “And how did this get here?”
“Smuggled of course. Every so often a few merchants wander into one of the villages north of here with goods to trade. At least that’s what the villagers claim.” Misha gave a short bark of laughter. “There’s always been some form of smuggling and trade going on with the Lutins. Even during the days of the Seuliman.” The fox shook his head. “But not lately. The only Lutins coming here have been raiders not traders.”
“Why barter for what you can steal,” George said between sips of wine. “What is it like here? What do I have to work with?”
The fox scout took a large, rolled up piece of parchment from his desk. “There are some good people here George. They’ve been fighting the Lutins for centuries and they’re good at it. What they need is organization and good leadership. Most of the good leaders were killed during the siege and we’ve just never recovered.” He unrolled it onto the table between them revealing a large, very detailed map.
“This is Metamor Pass.” Misha explained. “The valley is about twenty miles long. The width varies from several miles to less then half a mile here at the Keep. The southern part of the valley is pretty safe. But north of the Keep is pretty wild and dangerous. Few settlements and those that there are seem to be constantly under attack by raiders. The raiders themselves are mostly Lutins backed by some humans.”
George traced his finger along a line at the northern mouth of the valley. “What’s this?”
“Giants Dike,” Misha answered. “The remains of the old Seuilman wall.”
The bandit took a drink of wine. “Anything left?”
“Nothing but a few ditches and some piles of stone. Nothing we can use.”
“Shame. A nice tall wall would be easy to defend.”
Misha nodded. “I doubt the Duke would have enough people to man something that long,” the vulpine scout commented. “It took the empire two full legions and what the Duke has isn’t even equal to half a legion.”
“There are just a handful of nobles left north of the Keep. On the west side is Lord Barnhardt. He has a good sized castle built on a lake and three or four small villages,” Misha explained. “None are very large and all have been raided at least a half dozen times. One, Glen Avery has been hit so many times they’ve given up on regular buildings. They’ve dug the whole town into the ground like a badger hole.”
“Makes sense. Can’t burn dirt!” George commented and nodded his head.
The fox tapped the map of one side. “On the east side we have Lord Cybury of Mycransburg. They were hit very hard during Nasoj’s last attack and they still haven’t really recovered.”
He placed his finger on the map just above the Keep. “Directly north of the Keep we have Tarrelton at the crossroads. It’s only a dozen houses surrounded by a palisade plus a tumbled down, old Seuliman tower.”
“They haven’t been hit,” George said. It was a statement not a question. “Too close to the keep. Barely an hour’s walk. Cavalry can cover that in a few minutes and slaughter any raiders.”
The vulpine nodded in agreement. “They’ve had some sheep and cattle thefts,” the fox added. “But nothing worse.”
“In some places cattle stealing is a local hobby,” George commented. “You’re not considered a man till you’ve stolen someone’s cattle.”
“Except here they kill the cattle herder instead of just beating them up.”
George tapped a small green square with a red x through it that was just to the south of the Giants Dike. “And this is?”
“That WAS a small outpost castle. It was razed to the ground during Nasoj’s last attack and they haven’t rebuilt it.”
“Why?” George asked coldly.
Misha shrugged. “I’ve no idea but things have been pretty unsettled since the curse took hold. And Nasoj really devastated the whole valley.”
The man shook his head vigorously. “No excuse. That place controls half the valley mouth. From there we can stop raiders before they can get anywhere near the towns and villages.”
The fox snarled softly and shook his head. “I’ve made those suggestions already and all I get in response is that I go back to killing Lutins and leave strategy to people who know what they are doing.”
“I see your reputation with that axe of yours is still as bloody as before. She’ll be the death of you yet.”
“SHE,” Misha commented angrily, “has kept me alive all this time.”
“And left most people thinking you’re an axe-wielding manic,” George added calmly.
“I’m just one voice, George,” Misha answered softly. “I can only do so much. I need someone with your leadership skills and respect.”
“George, you are a natural leader. When you speak people listen,” Misha explained and poked his friend in the chest with an outstretched finger. “Even Thomas recognized that and he only met you for a few minutes.”
George smiled at the compliment. “What’s Thomas like?” he asked in return.
Misha shrugged in response. “Decent but he definitely is no military genius and he certainly has no idea how to command scouts. But he does at least have the sense to recognize his limitations. He agrees with me that we need to organize the scouts.”
“He just doesn’t want you leading them?” George added.
The vulpine nodded his head in response. “I’m a good scout but this task is far beyond my skills George. I’ve never led an army or held the post of commander of scouts. You’ve led armies and taken cities.”
“Don’t belittle your own skills Misha. You’ll make a good leader someday,” George countered.
“Just not now,” the fox replied.
George ran a finger around a large green patch on the map that filled the entire northeastern part of the valley above Mycransburg. In the middle of it was a large red skull.
“That is Haunted Wood,” Misha said, answering the mans unasked question. “And yes it really is haunted. Most of it is plain forest but the center holds the remains of a Seuilman fortress and that place IS haunted. I’ve been there and it would scare anyone.”
The man looked dubiously at his old friend.
“I’ve seen and heard them myself George and I’m certain that the Seuilman left something behind. Something very nasty.”
“Any clues to what? I’ve seen some of the nasty things the empire has left behind,” George asked as he settled down into a seat. “And other things that some stupid mage summoned.”
Misha shrugged. “No idea and I’m not in the mood to get close enough to find out more. The wizards here haven’t really studied the problem but they do say that it’s strictly confined to the ruins and the woods surrounding it. I know the locals and the Lutins avoid the place, especially at night. Unfortunately the forest doesn’t go all the way to the valley wall and they can easily get around it.”
George nodded. “Still it does help us. It means less area to patrol.”
The fox nodded in agreement. “Someday we’ll have to do something about that but for the moment we can ignore it and concentrate on Nasoj.”
“Not ignore,” George countered. “For the moment it’s a lesser threat but we can never really ignore.”
“Of course,” Misha answered, “but when the house is burning down it’s hard to worry about the termites eating through the floorboards.”
The elder scout laughed. “And what if the floor collapses while you’re trying to put out the fire? And if you do put out the fire the termites will still be there.”
“I understand but that doesn’t change the fact that Nasoj and the Lutins are our biggest threat.”
The old bandit nodded in agreement. “Any threats from the south?”
Misha shook his head. “No. Most of the people just south of the valley are loyal to the Duke. Besides most people outside the valley are terrified of the curse and won’t come near the valley.”
The old bandit smiled. “The curse does have it’s good side. But I bet that will change with time. The curse doesn’t scare the Lutins?”
“Unfortunately Lutins are immune to it,” Misha answered. “Only human folk are effected.”
“Shame. A little fear can go a long way to helping us win,” George answered shaking his head. “And nothing scares better then a fear of the unknown.”
The fox scout shrugged. “The Lutins weren’t frightened by the empire centuries ago so why should a little magic stop them.” He ran his hands across the map in a giant sweeping motion. “Remember they conquered all of the Midlands.”
“A lot of folks in the Midlands don’t remember that but I do,” George said and sipped his wine.
“The Lutins have been raiding into the valley for centuries,” Misha commented. “They have the tactics worked out very well. The only thing stopping them is the Keepers. The curse has made it both harder and easier to defend the valley. A lutin might not be afraid a man with a spear but they’ll bolt in fear when faced with a lion!”
“Strip,” George ordered suddenly.
“Excuse me?” Misha asked calmly. “Don’t I even get dinner first?” he joked.
“If I’m going to become fuzzy like you I want to see what I’m going to get and you are my only example,” George explained.
“The keep is full of furries like me George,” the fox countered.
“But the only one I’ve seen nude is you,” the man explained pointing a finger at Misha.
“Not voluntarily. I surrendered honorably and you stripped me naked.”
George laughed. “It was the only way I could keep you from trying to escape again. And no one touched you did they?”
Misha took off his shirt and dropped it onto the back of a chair. “True. You always respected a person’s body. No one can ever accuse you of rape.” His pants soon joined the shirt on the chair and Misha was now only clad in cotton breeches that barely covered his genitals.
George looked his friend over like he was eyeing a horse before purchase. “You’re a lot thinner but you’ve lost none of your muscle tone.”
“I lost close to seventy pounds,” Misha explained. “This is my balanced weight now. Any more and it just turns to wasted fat.”
George walked up to the morph and placed his hand on the vulpine’s head, “You’re shorter too. By more then a full hand span.”
Misha nodded in agreement. “Foxes are naturally small.”
“Does that mean the larger species are bigger?”
“Oh yes! The medium sized species like wolves are normal sized but the larger species wind up bigger. We have an elephant here who is almost three times my height and a rat that’s a full head shorter then me.”
“I also see a few new scars,” George commented.
Misha nodded. “Lutins excel at fighting.”
There was a soft knock at the door and the page returned carrying a tray filled with platters of food. Behind her was another page, this one a boy carrying two bottles of wine and a jug of ale.
The girl’s eyes widened slightly at the sight of the almost nude, male fox but she showed no other reaction. The two pages laid out the food and drink as Misha and George waited silently.
Misha reached for the pouch on his belt before he remembered he wasn’t wearing his belt, pouch or anything else. He fumbled for several moments with the pile of clothes on the chair before producing a handful of coins.
The fox tossed a gold coin to each of the pages. “Thank you Cindy, Brian.”
The boy left quickly but the girl paused at the door and looked at Misha for a moment, her eyes taking in the fox’s seminude form. She smiled, then blushed from ear to ear and hurriedly left the room.
George laughed. “No wonder you get such good service if you give the women such a free show.”
Misha gave a bark of laughter and quickly pulled his pants and shirt back on. “That was my only performance.”
“Are you always so free with your gold?”
“Thomas pays me five gold,” Misha said displaying all the fingers of his left hand, “for each dead lutin. And my normal pay is twice that each week.”
The old bandit grinned broadly. “I’m going to like this horse lord.”
All further discussion ended as they started to eat. They enjoyed the meal even if they did have to order more wine. Twice.
The room was empty except for Lord Thomas and Phil. He would have preferred Thalberg to be here too but Phil’s skittish rabbit instincts made the presence of any carnivore extremely difficult. The stallion was seated in a comfortable chair. Across from him the rabbit was perched in a large, overstuffed chair.
“What do we know of George?” The equine duke asked. “Do we at least know his last name?”
The white rabbit morph shook his head. “No. He was born of peasant farmers from the Midlands. I don’t think he has a last name. Misha says he was born in the Outer Midlands near Salinon. I have no way to confirm or disprove that. He has led an interesting life; bandit, bounty hunter, scout, caravan master and general. Several times a general.” Phil laughed. “There are no less then seven bounties out for his head.”
“For what? All of our visitors made grave charges against him,” Thomas said. “I must consider their requests seriously.”
Phil nodded in agreement. “I have been studying George since Misha first mentioned him several months ago, and I have amassed considerable information. Aldred Fitz Williams claims to be the representative of Marshburg. More then likely he represents some of the merchant guilds there. The various guilds in Marshburg are always feuding and fighting. He was working for the Clothmakers guild and when they won the last round of fighting the merchants decided to kill their mercenaries rather then paying the very high rewards they had promised.”
“They’re infamous for their greed and treachery,” Thomas agreed shaking his massive head making his mane flap about. “What ever happened to loyalty and trust?”
“It doesn’t exist there. Their only interest is in making more money. George led a large mercenary band there and they cut their way free destroying a lot of the city in the process. But it is hard to tell who caused most of the damage.”
“What of Alinux Arthlow?” the Duke asked.
“There was a long civil war in Isenport some twelve years ago between two brothers vying for the throne. The fighting at Sandport wasn’t a massacre as he claimed. The general in command of the troops of Prince Harry was a George Cutlass.”
Thomas gave a snort of laughter. “He certainly has a flair for dramatic names.”
“That George commanded Harry’s troops for several years and handled them brilliantly. He would have won if someone hadn’t poisoned the prince.”
The Duke leaned forward “Are both Georges the same person?”
“The descriptions do match,” the rabbit answered. “And Lord Arthlow thinks so.”
“He must have done very well to have a reward still on him over a decade later.”
The rabbit nodded in agreement. “This man is a leader with considerable skills. If we do not hire him Nasoj is sure to,” the rabbit warned. “He has more then enough money to buy George’s loyalties.”
The Duke shook his head. “I don’t think so. This one has more sense then to just follow the one with the most gold. When you are a mercenary you do not get to be his age by being stupid or greedy.”
“True,” the rabbit said and nodded in agreement. “But can we trust him?”
Thomas shrugged. “We’ll find out in two weeks. If he stays and lets the curse take him then he means what he says.”
George was quiet for a long time pondering everything he had heard. They had gone into more details then Misha had the night before but very little of the new information had been noteworthy.
“I’ve been thinking about this since Misha first asked me to come here. You’ve got a bad situation here. A strong enemy to the north and your own assets are small, poorly organized and badly scattered. On the good side you have a dedicated and loyal population and the narrowness of the pass means they can only attack from one direction. That makes things a lot simpler. What we need to do is to push this fight north. Get it away from our settled areas and into Nasoj’s territory.”
“For a start double the number of patrols you run from the Keep itself and make sure they go all the way east and west to the valley walls. Next reinforce Tarrelton. Put a good sized garrison of soldiers and cavalry there. They’ll patrol the full width of the valley from Barnhardt’s castle to Mycransburg,” he said tracing that line on the map with his fingers. “The open farm land will give the cavalry an advantage. Also rebuild the tower to twice its height and put observers at the top. They can spot raiders a lot sooner and signal the Keep.”
“Signal the Keep with what?” Thomas asked. “We have too few mages to waste them sitting in towers watching for raiders.”
George looked at the Duke perplexed. “Why use spells? Haven’t you heard of signal fires? Signal mirrors?” he asked in a surprised tone.
“Evidently not,” Thomas answered flatly.
“You keep the fire covered except when you want to send a message. Then you uncover it so many times. The number being different for each message,” the old scout explained. “A fire, even a small one can be seen for a long way off.”
“Four flashes could mean raiders to the east, three to the west,” Misha explained.
“If the number of flashes stood for individual letters instead of whole words the number of messages could be infinite,” Thalberg added.
Thomas nodded his head. “Impressive. A line of such towers spread across the valley could give us almost half a day’s warning of raids.”
“Only if combined with good observers and a well organized scouting
group,” George added as he sipped some wine.
“The hard part will be holding off the bandits long enough to actually BUILD the towers. Nasoj will simply concentrate on attacking the towers and destroy them,” Thalberg countered calmly.
“So?” George answered laconically. “All the better. If they go after the towers we can be waiting in ambush. No need to go hunting the raiders. They’ll come to us! All we have to do is wait.”
“And while they are attacking the towers the towns and villages will be left alone,” Misha added.
It was such an obvious and simple plan that made so much sense. Thomas was stunned and it showed. “Good. Very good.”
“Combined,” George said. “the patrols from the Keep and Tarrelton will seal off the southern half of the valley from raiders. They’ll have to cross two lines of patrols to get there. They’ll be a few bloody fights at first but all raids south of the Keep will end within a month.”
The old bandit bit into a large piece of pastry and continued to speak, spraying crumbs everywhere as he talked. “The first rule of warfare is attack. Get the enemy to react to you. Keep Nasoj busy fending off your attacks and that will relieve the pressure on the villages and towns here in the valley.”
“How?” Thalberg asked. “We do not have the people needed to invade the Giantdowns.”
“Invade?” George asked angrily. “Did I say invade? Why do all nobleman always think of huge armies?” he exclaimed in an annoyed tone. “RAIDS!” he shouted. “The Lutins are raiding you in small groups so you have to strike them the same way. Besides with all this forest,” he said and waved a hand over the green colored portions of the map. “You don’t have any room to maneuver a large group of soldiers. Certainly not a bunch of arrogant noblemen riding around on horseback waving banners and making all sorts of noise. I’ve killed lots of fools like that.”
“So have I,” Misha added calmly. “And so have the Lutins.”
George tapped a spot on the map to the northeast of Barnhardt’s castle. That was the ruins of the destroyed castle. “We’ll clear these ruins first. No doubt they’re using them as a lookout post. All sorts of good places to hide there. But first we’ll sweep the tree line on both sides of the road. I want a full company of infantry nearby. People good with swords and spears.”
“Why?” Thomas asked bluntly.
“If we flush out anything too big for us to handle they’ll help,” George explained. “And when we get done clearing the ruins they’ll stay there and make sure no Lutins return.”
“Those ruins are empty,” Standing next to the Duke was a tall wolverine morph. He was wearing a gray robe trimmed in dark green. On both cuffs was the same emblem in gold: two crossed lances on a shield above which was a crown. Andre was not happy with the scruffy looking man even if Misha did think highly of him. “We search them every day. I was there this morning.”
“You mean you rode through there on horseback,” George corrected. “Maybe even got off and walked around a little.”
Andre opened his mouth to reply but George cut him off by dropping a small pouch onto the table. “I’ll bet you all the coins in that pouch that we find Lutins there AFTER you ride through.”
The wolverine morph extended a clawed hand. “Agreed.”
“And what do we do after clearing the ruins?” Thomas asked.
George shot the stallion a cold, hostile glare. “That’s a stupid question,” he spat back. “You rebuild the castle and garrison it. Patrols from it will block over half the entrance to valley.”
“We don’t have the troops and resources to garrison it,” Thalberg countered.
“THEN FIND THEM!” George shot back harshly showing teeth in the process. “Metamor has a standing army. I saw how many you have guarding this pile of stones. Send half to be the garrison in the new castle.”
“No,” Thomas answered. “If Nasoj invades again we will need them to defend the Keep.”
“Stupid, narrow thinking,” George answered and cursed fluently in several languages. “To get to the Keep he would have to besiege the outpost. He could not afford to just bypass it. Why do you think he attacked it the last time? It will take several days to reduce the place, giving you plenty of time to raise the feudal levy and march north to meet him there. Caught between the castle walls in front of him and your relieving army behind he will have to retreat or be wiped out.”
George calmed down a bit and spoke in a softer tone. “And it will keep the raiders out of the rest of the valley. The Lutins would always have to work their way past the castle and its patrols first to get in and then to get out. Then the people of Glen Avery wouldn’t have to live in holes in the ground anymore.”
“Part of the garrison will come from your nobles,” George explained. “They could serve their annual feudal service at the castle as the guards. That would allow us to use your professional troops for patrols and chasing down raiders.”
The room was silent. No one had spoken throughout George’s tirade. It was Andre who broke the silence. “I don’t like what little manners you have but I do like how you think,” He said simply. “It makes good use of what resources we have.”
George smiled. “I’m not here to be polite. I’m here to win a war.”
“The bandit does have a point,” Thomas commented calmly both complimenting and insulting George at the same time.
“How long would it take?” Thalberg asked.
“Several years at least to make most of the valley safe,” George answered.
Misha nodded his head in agreement. “It will take months just to organize the scouts and the light infantry.”
“This will not be easy. We will have to fight to take the ruins and then fight harder to keep them. And they are sure to try everything to stop us from rebuilding the place,” the old bandit added.
“He will have every lutin, ogre and troll within a hundred miles raid the construction site,” Thomas commented, “to keep us from restoring the fortress.”
“But while they are attacking there the rest of the valley will be left alone,” Misha countered.
“If we could get one or two good harvests in without raiders burning the crops that would help greatly,” the alligator said.
“Why don’t you raid the lutins and steal their food?” George asked.
Misha shook his head. “You do NOT want to eat anything a lutin calls food.”
The old bandit had a confused look on his face. “What does a lutin eat?”
“Anything that doesn’t eat them first,” Andre commented. “Including each other.”
“There is no garbage dump in a lutin settlement,” Misha added. “And no midden either.”
“Do they keep cattle?” George persisted.
“Some do,” the fox answered. “There are even a few who do something that could vaguely pass for farming, but most survive by hunting and raiding each other.”
“In more peaceful times some Lutins used to trade with the Keep,” Thalberg said. “At least one tribe used to trade several varieties of mushrooms including ones with a cap several feet across. They tasted quite delicious.”
“They’ll only trade peacefully with the Keep when that is the only way to get what they want from us,” Misha explained.
“Peace only comes when you have the military might to back it up,” George commented.
The stallion nodded in agreement. “All too true.”
“Are there any drawings of the old castle? If so I want to see them.” George asked. “And I want to talk to people who were there when it was taken.”
“We have complete diagrams of the whole fortress,” Thalberg answered. “I will have them delivered to you right away. There were few survivors of the siege but I’ll locate them.”
Misha scratched his ears slowly. “I wonder if any plans for the old Seuilman fortress are left? They might tell us if the legionnaires buried any surprises.”
“The library would be the best place to look,” Thalberg said. “Any surviving Seuilman records would be there but I doubt they are complete. The invasion destroyed a lot.”
The fox scout nodded. “It’s a place to start at least.”
“First we take the fight to the Lutins. Start raiding into the Giantdowns,” George explained. “Strike at the Lutins and Nasoj. Make them have to defend their homes. Then we retake the ruins and rebuild the outpost there. After that you can build those signal towers and we can work on plugging any gaps they are sure to find. After that it is down to a war of attrition. We keep killing the raiders till we’ve killed all the aggressive ones. Then the rest will leave us alone.”
“You make it sound so easy and simple,” Thalberg commented.
“The best plans are the simple ones,” George countered in a cold tone. “But let this be clear. This is going to be a long and bloody fight. No grand battle and a victory celebration afterwards. This will be a nasty war of countless little skirmishes, ambushes and chases.”
“Do we have any other choices?” Thomas asked.
“We are already fighting this war Thomas,” Misha commented.
“And loosing,” George added.
Thomas stroked his chin as he looked at the map. Then he turned to George. “As of this moment you are The Duke of Metamor’s chief of scouts. Henceforth all scouting and scouts will be under your control.”
George smiled broadly. “Good! I want a meeting of all the scouts,” George ordered. “All of them. I want to see the people I’m leading immediately.”
Thomas nodded. “We will do that. It will be set for two weeks from today.”
“I prefer tomorrow.”
“No,” the stallion countered. “After the curse takes you. Then I know I can trust you.”
George’s reaction was unexpected. He laughed. “You’ve adapted really well to using that curse.”
“A good leader uses what resources he has at hand.”
The old bandit smiled. “Indeed.”