Arla crawled through the mud. Both her white and black fur, once dyed a now unrecognizable mixture of earth and green tones, was now slick with the viscous substance. The stuff oozed into every crevasse of her fur, penetrating to skin. It covered her, sucking her into its mass, trying to claim her as its own. It protested with a loud smack each time she moved too fast, trying to swim her way through the quagmire. As a result, she moved even slower, as any sound could give her away. Through the muck, she could barely hear Finbar, far over to her left.
She knew the Lutin encampment was within five miles. The two Metamorans had already passed the Giantdown company's foragers and far range sentries. Their guard was now even more heightened, if such a thing were possible. The life of a Long Scout was already paranoid, at best. From the size and the number of the foraging parties, it seemed as if another major offensive was on its way south.
Moving slowly, Arla caught sight of Finbar. Using small hand motions, she directed him to move around the lake of mud, and to head on to survey the area. The ferret disappeared into the reeds.
She sighed in relief, and began to make her own way to the right, wishing she had brought a canoe. Her hands ran to check her equipment. Her arrows currently in the quiver were probably of no use anymore, and the slim short sword was probably going to spatter any enemy she drew it on with mud, but it was still good. The same was probably true with her daggers, one in her boot, two more on her belt, and another secreted in her slime filled sleeve. Her pack was wrapped in oilskin cloth, so the extra arrows, and cloak, and the dwindling food supplies inside were still safe, though inaccessible unless she had time to prepare.
She made a mental note not to come back this way. She picked it as her mode of travel because it looked as if no Lutin, disgusting as they are, still would never put their foot in a place such as the one she subjected herself to. It would be the perfect concealment, she had thought. And she was right. But if she had to get away in a hurry, she could probably make better time running around this mud flat, resultant of one of the many tributaries running to the Sea of Souls.
Yet consternation fell upon her as she broke through the reeds to see a bright, inviting, meadow, with absolutely no cover except for the small groves of trees several hundred to either side. She did not see any activity, however.
Using what time she might have, she did a more thorough check of her equipment. She cleaned off her blades, hiding them from the sun with her body to prevent any gleam from escaping to unwanted eyes. To her surprise, when she unsealed her quiver, she found her arrows were in prime condition.
Sealing her quiver again, and taking another quick overview of the meadow, Arla disappeared back into the reeds and crawled her way to the copse to her right. She was sure Finbar was doing likewise, heading toward the opposite direction to the other side of the meadow.
When Arla reached the grove, she took another surveying glance. Expecting to see short, squat Lutins, she was totally unprepared for the tall, lean character that strode out of the trees with a bounce to his step.
She assumed that it was male. The clothes, which looked to be a weave of some sort of black material, gave off a slight sheen, and covered the person from neck to toe, fitting the person like a second skin, although it was only slightly padded across the whole of the front. Solid metal bracers, seemingly heavily reinforced, wrapped his forearms and shins. He wore black leather boots and gloves. Extending out of his boots were wicked looking ebony claws, which shined like obsidian.
Slung across his back in a harness, in addition to a satchel of same cured black leather as the gloves, was a staff with balanced spearheads, one a sharp pike head, the other cunningly crafted into a snarling wolf's head; and a crossbow, though its bow was currently collapsed at the sides of its stock. Strapped at the man's left hip and leg was a sheathed sword. Arla could make out another carved wolf's head on the pommel of the long, curved hilt. The sheath reached down to the man's ankle.
The most startling aspect of his appearance, though, was the helmet, which, like the sword and staff, was carefully wrought into the detailed appearance of a waiting wolf, its mane covering the front of his neck, and came down just past his shoulder blades. With the way the he was walking, and the realistic artistry of the helmet, Arla was startled not to see a tail behind him happily wagging. Of course, she also lived in Metamor Keep; where around a little less than a third of the populous had a tail of one sort of form or another.
In his left hand, he carried a bag of some sort of animal hide draped over the same shoulder. The other was empty.
Arla watched him warily as he walked toward her. He paused and let the bag drop down to the ground. He looked southward and up at the sun, as if gauging the time or the heat. He raised his arms up in a deep stretch, as he absorbed the sun's rays. She heard an audible yawn come from him. She had to wonder about the sanity of the man, who, for all appearances, was taking what looked to be a Sunday stroll through the middle of a war zone.
Relaxing, he switched the bag over onto his right shoulder and prepared to take a step when a shudder went through the man. He turned around, and held up the twirling bag. Her thoughts were echoed from the arrow protruding from it.
Arla heard a the man say disappointedly, "Ah, Shite!"
The man in black dropped the bag and jumped forward. He rolled with a surprising amount of agility with all the bulk he was carrying on his back. Three or four arrows flew through the air that he had once occupied. As he flowed to his feet, ten Lutins crested through the forest, their assorted weapons waving in the air.
Arla had her hand on her sword, preparing to step out of concealment to aide the man, or protect herself. To her amazement, the man never moved his position, but waited until the first Lutin was upon him. Then, faster then an adder's strike, his hand snapped out at the cruel, yet crude, sickle the short monster wielded, sending it hurling behind, impaling itself in one of the attackers' thigh. Sweeping down, the man kicked the legs out from under his opponent. Stomping down on the unfortunate creature, the traveler launched himself at the small horde, his bracers ringing as he caught his opponents' strikes, and then struck out in return. Arla shuddered, as the man suddenly uncomfortably reminded her of Rickkter.
Lutin bodies were flung around like rag dolls in their futile attempt to attack the traveler as he danced among them, flowing from partner to partner as the preceding Lutin flew away with a punch, an elbow to the face, a kick, or a knee. The whole melee ended in less than half a minute.
The man turned around retrieved the animal skin sack. He paused, and turning around from where to horde had appeared, he muttered inaudibly, annoyed. He started sprinting, past Arla. Seconds later, fifty Lutins broke into the clearing, and chased after.
Arla was dazed at the whole conflict. However, she knew that the information gathered was more important than some stranger, especially if it meant that Metamor was in danger. In her opinion, the appearance of this person might be a sign sent from Eli, designed to aid her. Of course, the appearance of that stranger may have also raised the encampment's guard.
Never minding the may or may nots, as they wouldn't matter to the outcome of her mission, Arla waited a few minutes to allow any stragglers to follow, then picked up her pace towards the supposed camp.
She peaked the hill to be greeted by a large outpost. Over two thousand Lutins, giants, and human renegades camped behind wooden walls. They had been there long enough to establish semi-permanent log cabins.
She felt a hand on her shoulder.
She snapped out with her left, grabbing the hand. Her right still halfway to her dagger when she noticed the fur on the arm she grabbed.
"Finbar," she muttered irritably, shaking her head.
"I checked the camp. There must be over two thousand Lutins, a couple dozen giants, and what looks like a kennel of moondogs," Finbar stated, only mentioning the facts. He failed to mention the lapse in her vigilance, being as tightlipped is he usually is, and knowing the lesson was already learned. "We had better get out of here. They're running around as if someone stirred the hornets' nest."
"Must be that man I saw," Arla muttered under her breath. She shook her head, "Where does Nasoj get all of them?"
Finbar didn't answer.
Arla sighed, "We'd better get out of here then." She looked expectantly at Finbar. "Have you ever seen anybody at the Keep wearing a silver helmet shaped like a wolf's head?"
Finbar shook his head.
Arla muttered, "Well, somebody just passed by here, dressed to the tooth to make Rickkter jealous, took out a small patrol back at that clearing without drawing a weapon, Then ran out as several dozen more came after him and he high tailed it out."
Finbar growled, "Thanks a lot. How are we going to get back to the Keep now?"