December 28, 706 CR – 7:00 pm
Somewhere on the Western Ocean
The peaceful smell of salt water permeated the air; the only sounds were of the ocean and the wind, the song of the gulls long since faded. Dimalya looked back, the mountains of her island home were a mere speck on the horizon.
A large fin rose out of the water and pushed back into the depths, sending a crest of water straight at her. As she spluttered and gasped for breath she heard the booming laughter of the man who was her travel companion, husband, and sometimes, teacher.
She glared at him and slapped the hard scales she was sitting on, directing her ire to the creature they were riding, “That was NOT funny!”
A low rumble ran along the length of the sea-serpent. She could have sworn the great Leviathan was laughing at her. She turned her eyes to the sky and laughed, “Eli help me, I’m stuck in the middle of the ocean with a pair of comedians.”
Dimalya of the House Taggard, by marriage, was an energetic woman to say the least, her dark black hair, only a shade darker than her skin, offset the deep blue eyes that showed her birthright. Her body was rugged, honed by a lifetime of physical and mental training. At twenty-five years of age she had completed her training as a summoner mage and been married to Drake. That it was an arranged marriage did rankle her a bit, but that was not to say she didn’t want it. They had been together for as long as she could remember, their marriage arranged since birth on the condition that they both complete their summoner training. As their power was passed through family lines they could not, well, ‘waste’ those people who have the power.
Of course, it didn’t help that the Irombian society treated women almost as property, except for those who had exceptional talent.
Dimalya considered herself very lucky to be so talented. On her few visits to the mainland of Irombi she noticed the subservience—some would say the weakness—of most of the women there. They were slaves, by any other name. She didn’t feel sorry for them, this was the way of things. Those who are weaker need to be ruled, don’t they? Sometimes she wasn’t so sure that their way was the best, but it was the only way she knew. Of course no one treated her with anything other than respect, at least not after the first time.
Three years had passed since her training had been completed when her husband, Drake, had awakened her in the early dusk and asked her to accompany him on a journey. At first she was confused, before she realized that he meant to leave the island.
He told her of a dream he had been having for almost a week, and in truth, she had begun to worry as she had awakened to find him in the throes of a nightmare some days ago. A woman who called herself Kyia came to him, needing his help. He had seen a great castle on a hill, burning as strange animal creatures and humans fought a losing battle against hordes of giants and green skinned monsters in the midst of a massive hurricane of snow and ice. He concluded that she was a being of another realm, perhaps one of the Djinn, or a nymph, but in any event she was very powerful and was calling for help. He had to find this place, its spirit, and help her people. And Dimalya had gladly followed.
They went to the beach where Leviathan waited, Drake must have summoned him earlier in the night as it would take about an hour of constant focus to call forth such a creature.
At the moment she was regretting her decision.
“I should have known any higher order creature you summon would have your sense of humor.”
He laughed again, “You’d rather sit in silence for the whole trip?”
She glared at him as he sat laughing. As her anger began to abate she couldn’t help but laugh to herself, after all she was no worse off. Her clothing wasn’t wet as one would think, it had been treated with an oil made on the island to repel water.
He was a good man at heart, even if his humor could use some refining. He was 30 years old with black hair and the same dark, work-honed body she had, as they had been trained under the same master, he having completed the course of study a few years before her. His eyes were the same dark blue color of her own—the mark of a summoner.
Drake looked over as her stomach growled, “Hungry, love?”
“Famished, I haven’t had anything since before we left.”
“Well then it’s high time for dinner.”
He stood up as the body beneath them shuddered for a moment, then the water began rising as Leviathan dove beneath the waves. She came up spluttering again, “Warn me next time, damn it.”
She sounded angry but was laughing all the same. They both treaded water for a few minutes before their feet hit something solid as Leviathan rose up beneath them again. As they came free of the water, the large head of the creature came up and turned around to face them. It lay its head down across its back within reach of the two and opened its mouth. In the recesses, surrounded by rows of razor—sharp teeth, was a pool of water held back by its tongue in which swam a school of multicolored fish.
Drake patted the creature’s head, “Thank you, my friend, this will be perfect.”
Climbing full into the mouth he grabbed several fish and impaled them on one of the teeth to stop their flopping before climbing back out.
Dimalya looked incredulous, “Raw fish, dear?”
“Of course not, have a little faith in me.”
He placed his hand out, as if waiting for something, and in a flurry of light a bundle of firewood appeared.
“This wasn’t just some spur of the moment thing, I’ve been having the dream for a week. I made sure to store what we would need.”
Leviathan swallowed the rest of the fish, turned his head back around, and started swimming again.
In short order, the wood was stacked on the broad expanse of Leviathan’s back and with a thread of fire magic Drake lit the blaze. If the creature noticed the heat it gave no sign.
With a quick mental trigger Dimalya brought an arrow into being from her personal stores and the fish were quickly roasted and eaten.
December 28, 706 CR – 7:00 pm
Metamor Valley, North of the Keep
Sasiv, chief of the Wolf Riders tribe, slowly walked through the forest a few hours north of Metamor. He was still holding the stick with the bit of white cloth the Keepers had given him when he called his tribe to stop the fighting. He was still trying to work out the inconsistencies of the past day as he walked.
Nasoj had said that the Keepers were evil demons who care nothing for the life of Lutins, who sit in their comfortable towers feasting, laughing as Lutins starve and freeze in the inhospitable wastes of the Giantdowns. Yet the Wolf Riders cared nothing for this; they survive well enough in the Giantdowns. So the messenger appealed to the old chief to do this for the good of all Lutin tribes, for the freedom of all, not just the Wolf Riders. When that failed, he threw fire from his hands, killing the old chief and several others, saying that all will die if they do not follow Nasoj.
So Sasiv led the tribe south under the banner of Nasoj. They came to the Keep. They saw the great riches and the feasts that Nasoj had spoken of.
They met the demons of the Keep and they fought…and they lost.
And the demons, the Keepers, had done something that Sasiv had never expected.
“They let us live...”
“Why they let us live?”
“They demons, Nasoj say.”
Quickbite, his mount, a large grey-furred dire, walking at his side, looked at him and let out a soft wuff.
The Lutin chief let out a low growl under his breath, “Nasoj lie, Lutins die for nothing!”
Sasiv fell silent as he noticed an almost imperceptible twitch from one of the wolves on the vanguard. Unlike other Lutin tribes who only use dire wolves as tools, the Lutins of the Wolf Riders tribe were connected on an almost spiritual level with their wolves. The Lutins all slowly reached for their weapons as they hunched lower to the ground, scanning the trees for an ambush.
“What is it, why are you stopping? Keep moving you fools, before the damn Keepers change their minds and come after us!”
The wolf who had given the alarm, Keenscent, let out a low growl as Sasiv started toward the front, ignoring the loud, grating voice of the mage following behind him. Sasiv grimaced as he reached the wolf, thinking ‘I hope it is ambush, loud fool make good target for archers.’
Unfortunately Keenscent’s rider had been killed during the attack on the Keep, unfortunate because without her rider the wolf could not communicate exactly what she had smelled.
Large-ears moved to his side and his rider leaned down until his chin was resting on the wolf’s neck. The wolf’s nearly bat-like ears flicked back and forth for a moment as he sniffed the air. Sasiv strained his eyes to see through the trees and snow. Large-ears’ rider, Zaxz, spoke softly, “There one, alone.”
Sasiv nodded as he kept looking. The mage had finally realized what was happening and had fallen silent while moving to keep several Lutins between him and the forest. Sasiv’s grimace deepened in disgust at the coward mage.
He knew even as he stared into the snow-covered forest that Gauntjaw and Swiftrun with their riders, Kuugar and Hurz, would be circling from the back of the formation to the left and right to get behind whoever was out there.
As they reached the front of the pack, whoever was out there realized that they had been seen. A form wrapped in a large, white, fur-lined cloak burst out of the snow and started running deeper into the forest, at the same moment both wolves sprinted forward to cut off the escaping form. As the figure ran, the hood of its cloak fell revealing that it was a human, a female Keeper, her blond hair cut short.
As she realized that she couldn’t get away she put her back to a tree and drew a saber, holding it in a shaking hand. Judging from her appearance, however, it was more due to the cold than to fear.
The mage strutted forward, shoving Sasiv out of the way as he saw it was only a lone woman Keeper. With a smug smile he gestured to the two riders, “Kill her.”
As Gauntjaw and Swiftrun slowly closed around the woman, both riders and wolves looked back to the mage, as if to confirm what they had just heard. Sasiv rose from where he had been so thoughtlessly pushed aside, let out a growl, and waved them back, “We give promise to holder of Whisper to not harm Keepers...”
“I don’t care what those damn beasts said, I am your master and I say KILL HER!”
Turning on the mage, Sasiv finally let the anger that had been simmering since they were forced on this doomed attack boil to the surface. “Wolf Riders give word! Wolf Riders keep word! Keeper NOT die, MAGE DIE!”
The mage’s face was growing ever deeper shades of red as Sasiv spoke, but as the final words left the Lutin’s mouth, all color suddenly drained from his face.
His eyes wide, he raised his arm, a burst of fire igniting in his palm. Before he could loose it he screamed in pain as Quickbite’s jaw crushed his arm. She lifted him off the ground, shook him violently, and watched as he tumbled through the air, his arm still in her mouth. As he hit the ground the wolves fell on him with a vengeance, tearing and pulling in all directions until all that remained was a bit of tattered clothing lying in the red snow.
Ashley had thought she would die when the wolves had caught her scent, so, of course, she was pleasantly surprised when they turned on one of their own instead. She had been outside when the attack began and had been cut off from the Keep. She had been trying to make her way to the ruins of the ard’Kapler mansion in Mycransburg where she and other survivors of the town’s destruction, along with some friends of theirs, had lived for a time after a rather narrow escape from a near disaster in Lorland, where they had moved after the destruction of Mycransburg. At least it would be relatively warm.
Although with this Lutin complication she was beginning to doubt she would make it.
The wolves finished with the mage and again turned their gaze on Ashley, who gripped her sword as tightly as she could, given the fact that she could barely feel her fingers, and braced herself for the charge. It never came.
A large Lutin called out, “Run Keeper, we not kill you.”
Without thinking she called back, incredulous, “Why not?”
“We promise, Wolf Riders always keep promise. Run Keeper, we return to ice of north to save tribe from Nasoj.”
The Lutin looked at her strangely, “All Keepers so stupid? Of course save, must move tribe before Nasoj learn that we want him dead.”
Ashley’s mouth dropped, “You want Nasoj dead?”
The Lutin turned and began walking north again. The wolves and other Lutins followed.
Ashley muttered under her breath, “I know I’m going to regret this.”
Aloud she called, “Wait... There is the ruin of a mansion in a town about an hour’s walk to the north. You could stay there.”
January 3, 707 CR
Ashley walked up the well-traveled road, joining the sparse morning traffic into Metamor Keep. The sun had just risen over the mountains and the snow was glittering like a thousand diamonds. It had been over a week since the Yule holiday, when the army of Nasoj had been driven out of the Keep for the second time in seven years. Many parts of the Keep were still in shambles, but at least things were getting back to some semblance of normalcy. When she reached the massive gates, the guard looked her over and in a rather bored voice asked her purpose in Metamor.
“Ashley of Mycransburg, I’m here for the day to meet a friend.”
She made it through the gates and into the Keep proper, stopping for a moment in the square to get her bearings. In any other castle in the world, finding one person without advance notice would be nearly impossible. But Metamor wasn’t any castle.
Ashley just started walking, focusing in her mind on the childish face of her friend Ben. After about a half-hour she was inside, walking aimlessly through a hallway when she came to a four way intersection. About to take a direction at random she stopped as she heard the echo of running feet.
Looking to the left she saw a young boy bounding around a corner and heading in her direction. He looked perhaps thirteen years old, with unruly brown curls and a slightly freckled face. In his hand was a rolled piece of parchment.
As he ran toward her his face brightened with recognition. Not slowing, his voice taking the same pace as his feet, he said, “Hi, Ash! Sorry, can’t stop right now. Gotta deliver this fast!”
As he flashed past her she turned and ran to catch up to him. Ben was one of the Keep’s messengers, the job of running through the Keep all day being one of the only jobs that could hold the attention of the now youthful AR for any length of time.
In a few moments her longer stride had taken her alongside him. He looked over at her, his running stride never breaking. “So how have you been? Good to see you survived that whole mess. What are you doing in Metamor? Sorry I can’t stop, but I have to deliver this right now.”
Before she could respond to any of his rapid-fire questions he came to an abrupt stop in front of a heavy wooden door. He knocked loudly twice and it was opened almost immediately. He handed the parchment to the woman standing in the doorway saying, “Message for patrol master George from the Duke. I’m supposed to wait for a response.”
The woman nodded slightly and closed the door. Ashley’s eyes widened, “What’s that all about?”
Ben was bouncing on his feet while he waited, “I don’t know. I just deliver them. I don’t usually have to read them.”
“Ben, I want you to come back to Mycransburg with me.”
Slowing down for one of the few times in his life, Ben looked at her, “Ash, you know I have nothing to go back to there. I’ve got a good life here at the Keep, a home. After all these years you can’t see that?”
“What? Ben I’ve never had a problem with you not coming back to live in Mycransburg. Whatever gave you that idea?”
Looking rather confused, Ben started bouncing again, “Well, you haven’t come to visit since I moved here. I just thought you were mad that I didn’t stay. And now you just show up and ask me to come back....”
“I don’t mean for good, I just need you to come back with me for a few days. I have a small problem that I need your help to solve.”
Any reply the diminutive messenger would have made was cut off as the door was opened again and the woman handed Ben another letter. Before the door was fully closed he was off down the corridor, Ashley only a few steps behind.
Without looking back, Ben spoke up, “I’ve never turned you down before, I’m not about to start now. Meet me at the main gate a little after the noon bell, I’ll help you in any way I can.”
Slowing to a stop, Ben turned to face her, “Um... no offense, but the Duke’s guards might take exception to you following me into his chambers.”
Looking around, Ashley noticed the hall had become far more opulent, there were bright tapestries lining the walls and the floor was carpeted in red. “Oh, well I’ll see you at noon, then.”
The sun had set by the time the two entered Mycransburg. Ben started heading toward Ashley’s house, which was on the outskirts, before he noticed that she was still heading into the town. Confused, he said, “Where are we going?”
“To the mansion.”
“I’ll tell you when we’re past the town.”
As they came in sight of the mansion, Ashley slowed to a stop.
Ben turned and asked, “So are you going to tell me why we came all the way out here?”
“Yes, before we get there you need to know that there is a tribe of Lutins in the mansion, and Dire Wolves.”
Ben’s brow furrowed as he looked around, then he spoke, confused, “When you say Lutins and wolves, you mean dead ones...right?”
“Then...the Longs and a troop of the Duke’s Knights are hiding in the forest just waiting for your signal?”
“No, no one knows about them but us.”
“You can’t be suggesting that we fight them alone?!”
Ashley sighed with resignation, “We aren’t going to fight them Ben, I invited them to stay here.”
Ben stood for almost a minute, staring at her with his mouth opening and closing, as if he were trying to speak, but couldn’t.
He finally regained his voice, yelling softly as if suddenly worried about being overheard, “By Eli, Ashley, you’re harboring the enemy! The last person who did that was that otter...Oren I think it was.”
At her blank look, he added, “You know, he built that lighthouse outside the Keep. He brought just one Lutin to the Keep, a half-Lutin at that. He was thrown in the dungeons and put on trial, they were talking about executing him!”
“I never heard about that.”
“It was a closed trial, no one knows about it.”
“Then how do you?”
“Well...someone has to be there to carry messages back and forth.”
“So you were eavesdropping.”
“No, it wasn’t me. I heard about it from another runner. You’d never believe some of the things we hear Ashley, now stop changing the subject. That was one Lutin, you brought an entire tribe?!”
He started laughing, slightly hysterical, “There won’t even be a trial. When the Duke finds out about this he’ll be so mad flames will shoot out of his nose and burn you to a crisp on the spot.”
Ashley took his youthful head in her hands rather forcefully, “Ben! Calm down.”
She continued, “Ben, what does it say in the Canticle of Eli, in the book of Lucias, the sixth chapter....”
He looked at her blankly. Ashley shook her head, “I know you know Ben, tell me.”
He dropped his head, thinking, then speaking slowly he recited grudgingly, “Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you... Be merciful as the Father is merciful, judge not lest ye be judged, forgive and ye shall be forgiven.”
He looked back up, “This isn’t fair, Ash, they’re Lutins!”
“And does Yashua’s lesson not apply to them? If life was fair we would already be allied with them, and Nasoj would have been dead long ago and this curse would never have existed.”
Ben smiled weakly, “And you would have been able to follow your vocation, and enter the priesthood.”
Ben was still for nearly a minute, emotions storming over his face, but finally he came to a decision, “Fine. I suppose if Yashua could forgive those who killed him, even as he died on the tree... I guess I could forgive the Lutins who saved my best friend.”
Smiling, Ashley continued toward the ruin.
As they stepped among the ruins of the mansion, they heard a low growl coming from behind them. Ben turned swiftly and only Ashley’s hand gripping his arm stopped him from drawing his sword. “Allies, remember?”
Ashley called into the darkness, “Hello! It’s just me and my friend Ben, nothing to worry about.”
Ben’s sharp intake of breath was heard as a huge form strode from the darkness. The wolf had dark gray fur, with a black mane down its back.
Ashley was racking her brain trying to remember its name when she noticed there weren’t any Lutins around. The only rider-less wolf she remembered was... “Keenscent, right?”
The wolf looked surprised as it moved closer to sniff both of them. Ben cringed back as the wet, black nose touched him, but he held his ground.
With an annoyed growl the wolf stalked back into the shadows. As the wolf disappeared, Ben let out the breath he had been holding.
Ashley walked deeper into the ruin, Ben staying so close that he was nearly stepping on her heels.
Carefully picking her way through the debris, Ashley quickly came to a fallen wall with a heavy wooden door set in it. To the casual observer it would seem perfectly fine, but on closer inspection one would see that it had been dragged there from elsewhere in the ruin.
Ashley opened the door, revealing a stairway leading to the depths of the mansion. Light flickered up from the depths as they started down, Ben carefully closing the large door above him.
When they reached the floor they were in a small, square room with doors on three walls and the stairway behind them. There was a cloaked figure seated at a small table with a candle burning in the center. Ben started as the figure lifted its head to reveal the green skinned face of a Lutin. This time, at least, he was able to stop himself from drawing his sword without Ashley reminding him.
Another head lifted from behind the table, a medium sized dire with light, red/grey fur.
Stepping up to the table, Ashley said, “Hello, could you tell me where Sasiv is?”
“Chief Sasiv take most of tribe North. Zaxz lead until they return.” The Lutin pointed to the left door, “he in there.”
As she opened the door a strange sound reached her ears. Stepping into the large room, she saw a fire blazing in the hearth with two Lutins nearby. She recognized Zaxz laying against his wolf, whose ears were half again as large as her hand. The other Lutin had his back to the wall with a black and grey furred wolf curled nearby. It was from the Lutins that the sound was coming, they were both holding white flutes that seemed to be roughly carved from dried bone.
The melody was low, almost mournful, and as she listened it rose, simple harmonies adding to its depth and color. As the pitch reached higher and higher the wolf at Zaxz’s back raised his head and added his howl in perfect dissonance to the flutes’ haunting melody. As Large-ears ran out of breath, his howl ended, and both Lutins lowered their flutes.
The second wolf, seeing the two humans, let out a soft bark. The other three turned, Zaxz rose to his feet, returning the flute to a pouch on his belt.
Ashley walked farther into the room, bringing Ben to her side, “Greetings Zaxz, this is Ben, my friend.”
“Greetings Ashley, and Ben, friend of Ashley.”
Ashley pointed to the pouch with the bone flute, “What was that song you were playing? It was beautiful.”
A look of loss crossed over the Lutin’s face, it was strange as neither of the Keepers had ever seen such an expression on a Lutin before. “It is the song of past. It is how Holder of past tell of Wolf Riders’ past. But the Holder died at Keep. Only Seeker of past live now, he not come to Keep, he stay with tribe. But Seeker not ready to be Holder, much of our past is lost with Holder.”
There was nothing she could say to that, so Ashley moved to sit by the fire, Ben still staying close by her side. “We need to talk about what to do next.”
Zaxz pointed to the corner of the room. Ashley could see a pile of carved tree branches, each one with a white cloth tied to one end. “Keepers give us one as sign of our promise to not harm, we make more so Keepers know we remember promise.”
Ashley smiled, “It is a good start, but let’s talk about....”
It was nearing midnight when Ben and Ashley finally left to return to the village. Ben was unusually quiet for most of the walk. As they neared Ashley’s home, he turned to her and said, “I’ve never even imagined that a Lutin could make music like that. I never thought that a Lutin could do anything but kill and destroy. I’m sorry Ash.”
“When you first told me that you asked Lutins to stay here, I thought for a moment that you might be a traitor. But you were right to let them stay.”
January 4, 707 CR – Midnight
The night sky was glittering with stars. The moon shone overhead, casting the ruins in an eerie half-light. The winter air was crisp and frigid—not to say that this bothered the ruin’s lone occupant.
The Dire Wolf’s ear flicked as she heard an owl in the distance, but she didn’t raise her head from her paws. She was not interested in distant sounds, she was to keep strangers away from the Wolf Rider’s new home, something she was more than willing to do.
In the frozen lands where she had been born she did not enjoy sitting outside their caves on guard duty, it was always too cold, even through her thick fur. Of course, she never shirked her duty, and it helped that Erurk would always bring his largest white bearskin cloak to cover them both. They had killed the monster together as a right of passage.
On the nights when they had guard duty he would always speak to her, quietly, to pass the time. And even though she couldn’t truly understand everything he said, nor reply in kind, the sound of his voice always brought her happiness. She missed his voice and his presence...and that happiness.
He would have liked it here. It was not cold as much as it was pleasantly cool. She enjoyed being outside in their new home. She hoped they would be able to stay here.
The wind picked up and Keenscent surged to her feet, the sadness and loss she felt was pushed back as she picked up an increasingly strong scent on the breeze.
It was humanscent, a scent she hadn’t encountered until very recently when the one came who killed the old Alpha. The female and the child had left earlier, and this did not smell like them anyway. She quickly and carefully made her way through the debris to the opposite side of what had once been a mansion. This was the side that had faced the rest of the town. There were still people living here, though no one was living within sight of the mansion. Perhaps this was because they did not want to be reminded of what happened, or due to some fear of ghosts, or simply out of respect. The wolf didn’t care about any of that, her only concern at the moment was that there were unfamiliar humans coming near her new home.
Moving to peer around the half collapsed remains of a wall she saw three human pups, two male and a female. They smelled of fear, anger, and from the female, determination. Listening, she heard them speaking.
Confused on who was speaking:
“I told you I’m not afraid!”
“Yeah, you said that already. Now you have to prove it.”
“Yeah, you have to go into the mansion and stay there till morning.”
“You’ll never be able to do it.”
“Yes I will!”
“The ghosts will get you before then.”
“There’s no ghosts!”
“Then prove it.”
“Yeah, prove it.”
In the past, Keenscent would have circled around and taken the two males as they tried to get back to the town, then she could have hunted the female at her leisure. But, Alpha Sasiv had said no killing. She was not sure what she could do, she had never had to not kill something. The female was coming closer, in another few moments she would be around the wall and Keenscent would be visible. She couldn’t let them come to her home, but she couldn’t kill them.
Frustrated, she jumped out from behind the wall with a flurry of growling and snapping and lunged at them.
The two male pups fell down in their mad scramble to get away. They ran screaming back toward the town. The wolf noticed that they had scent marked themselves as they ran. She wondered how these creatures had survived so long if, when faced with a threat, their pups leave an easy-to-track scent trail while creating enough noise to attract every predator within earshot. Oh well, it didn’t matter, she had done her duty, and without killing.
As she turned, she suddenly realized that the female pup was still there. Looking down the wolf saw that she was laying on the ground, fainted.
This wouldn’t do. To the wolf the night air was pleasantly cool, but Keenscent had been born in the glacial north of the giantdowns and pleasantly cool to her was still cold enough to kill the sleeping human child.
She would not go through all the trouble of not killing and then allow the child to die anyway. The wolf nosed and pawed at the child, trying to wake her so she could run like the others, but she didn’t wake. Letting out a weary, annoyed huff she laid down beside the child, curling her body around her.
The wolf had been laying by the child for perhaps a half-hour when her ears picked up a disturbing sound. The wind had shifted as she waited, so the sound was her first warning. It was the sound of voices, many voices all coming toward her. After only a few minutes she could see the fire of torches coming from the town.
As the voices and the light came closer, Keenscent became increasingly nervous. She knew very little about humans, but from what little she had seen of them, it seemed that for most killing came as easily as for some of the most violent Lutin tribes she had ever fought against.
She thought for a moment about simply leaving the child there for them to find. She started to slink back into the shadows of the mansion, but stopped. What if they killed her? Some Lutin tribes would kill children if they showed any sign of weakness.
The wolf was torn, even if they didn’t kill her they would know that something was living there and they might find her home.
Keenscent moved swiftly back to the sleeping child and took her gently in her mouth as she would her own pup. Even as she did, the humans came into view, a shout went up and Keenscent dashed toward the forest.
Darting in and out among the trees, Keenscent tried her best to keep her head steady and her jaw soft around the small girl in her mouth. At the speed she was moving, she quickly left her pursuit and slowed to a trot to avoid harming the pup.
The wolf had gone far enough that she could no longer hear the shouts of the hunters and had slowed to a walk, panting around the body in her mouth, when the girl finally woke up.
She looked down, seeing half her body being held in the great maw, surrounded by huge teeth as the wolf’s hot breath washed over her. A look of pure terror flashed across her face. She took a whimpering breath and let out a piercing scream.
Keenscent dropped the child and cringed back. Her ears, flattened to her skull, were still ringing.
The child stopped screaming as she hit the ground, forcing the air from her lungs. She crawled to the base of a nearby tree and huddled there, crying.
The wolf started toward the crying child, trying to think of a way to let her know that she had to be quiet or she would bring the hunters to them. But as she drew closer, the girl shrank against the tree and started crying louder.
It was something that was almost completely against the wolf’s instincts, but also the only thing she could think of to convince the child that she meant no harm.
Keenscent took a submissive pose to the child. With her tail between her legs, she lowered her head to the ground, slicked back her ears, and crawled slowly to the screaming child.
As she crept closer, the child pushed herself against the tree, holding her hands in front of her as if to keep the wolf back. Keenscent raised her head to lick at the outstretched hands. As she did, the girl stopped screaming and, whimpering, looked confused at the wolf.
“You’re not going to hurt me?”
She reached out slowly and hesitantly put her hand on Keenscent’s head.
At that moment the shouts of the mob resumed as they again picked up the wolf’s trail. Keenscent turned her head to look, seeing the glow of torches light up the night. The wolf lay down next to the girl and nudged her with her head toward her back.
The girl was confused, “What is it, what do you want? Who is out there?”
Keenscent pushed the girl more urgently until she was leaning against the wolf’s back. She seemed to get the idea then, “You want me to get on?”
The wolf nudged her again and the girl climbed slowly onto her back. It was almost too late, even as she had gotten settled the yelling voices where breaking through the brush behind them. Keenscent stood and dashed among the trees, painfully aware of the little girl’s grip on her mane, the wolf’s ears picking up one last faint shout as she ran, “It’s got Melanie!”
Once Keenscent could no longer hear the voices she slowed to a walk, her panting breath sending clouds of steam into the air. After a moment the girl noticed they were no longer running and her grip loosened. She shifted on the wolf’s back and Keenscent could tell she was looking around.
“Um, wolfie, you’re going the wrong way, home is that way.”
Keenscent turned her head and saw the girl pointing off to the left. “I need to go home, mommy will be worried. Please?”
Typically among Lutins, the females were the more peaceful. If the girl was to live, her mother would be the best place to go. Keenscent did not like the idea of running forever from these humans.
The wolf turned in the direction the girl had pointed and sped up to a trot.
After a few minutes they came out of the forest. They had made a large circle around the mansion and were on the other side of the town. There were few lights visible from the houses, and Keenscent could see the most light coming from a large building near the center of town. There seemed to be a group of women gathered as close to the open door as possible, trying to balance staying warm and watching for the hunters to return.
Upon seeing them, the girl pointed to a female at the center of the group, a mongoose with long, dark, yellowish brown fur, “There’s mommy, wolfie, over there. Why are you stopping? She’s right there!”
Keenscent had indeed stopped. Humans were frightening creatures, even more so these Keepers, especially now that she could no longer kill them even to defend herself.
At the girl’s insistence she started walking again, furtively toward the town, skirting the edge of the light as she circled around it.
She made it to the building next to the one the women were gathered around, hiding in the shadow under an overhang. Suddenly one of the women who was looking around looked straight at the wolf. Her mouth dropped open as if she were about to scream, but instead she yelled, “Wolf!”
Everyone in the doorway turned simultaneously to where she had pointed. The sound of metal rasping on leather reached the wolf’s ears as every one of the women drew a sword of some kind or other.
Keenscent backed up, preparing to run from the unexpected threat, when the girl slid off her back and moved in front of the wolf with her arms out.
The mongoose moved closer and, crouching, extended her hand. She spoke softly, fearfully, “Melanie, I want you to walk toward me, slowly. Come on, Melanie, just come toward me.”
Melanie shook her head, “No mommy, she saved me. It was scary at first but she’s really nice, please don’t hurt her, mommy, please!”
She didn’t understand everything that was being said, but the women didn’t seem to want to attack the little girl, so Keenscent gently pushed the girl toward them with her nose and turned to run back to the forest. The girl’s voice, and the small hand on her tail, stopped her, “Wait, wolfie, please don’t go!”
Her mother hissed, “Melanie! Let go of its tail, that’s a wild animal!”
Keenscent turned, she may not have understood the child’s words, but she understood the feeling behind them very well. Had she been able, she would have spoken those same words back at the Keep when Erurk lay dying on the cold stone.
She opened her mouth, a collective gasp went up from the women as they raised their swords, and she licked the girl’s cheek. She would not leave. She nuzzled the girl as she hugged the huge wolf.
Suddenly she noticed that the mother was standing right in front of her, expecting a blow, she flinched back.
“Easy, it’s alright... just stay calm, I won’t hurt you.”
Seeing that her hands were empty, Keenscent moved back to Melanie’s side, and even went so far as to allow the mongoose to reach up and pat her head.
After that, everyone slowly moved closer to her. They seemed to delight in patting and stroking her fur.
Gregory, owner of the local inn, was nearly going out of his mind with worry. The two boys had come running back to town telling about the monster in the mansion and, after some urging, that Melanie was still there.
He had seen the huge wolf run into the forest with something in its mouth. Then, when the shout went out that it had his only child, his heart nearly stopped.
Then the hunters at the front had said that they had seen her riding the wolf. He didn’t know what to think. They had followed the trail in a circle around the town, and then it turned inward, heading directly into town.
As they entered the town, a most unusual sight greeted him. The women who had stayed behind at his inn were all gathered around the huge wolf, and were feeding it scraps of meat from his kitchen!
Ashley had heard a commotion from the town and so went to investigate. She found a group of people gathered around the inn.
As she approached, she could hear an argument going on. She could make out a few sentences, “It kidnapped Melanie, it is a wild animal, how could you think of keeping it here!?” She recognized the voice as Gregory, a strange white and black striped horse morph, who had never bothered to look through the Keep’s library to find the name of his species. As he spoke, there was a murmur of consent from the crowd.
“In case you didn’t notice, our daughter is here, it brought her back, it saved her.” That one was Mary, the yellow mongoose morph. More murmuring from the crowd followed her statement.
“Stop talking about her like a thing! She’s a ‘she’, not an ‘it’. An’ if you hurt her, papa, I’ll never forgive you!” Some scattered laughter followed that one.
Ashley got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she realized what they must be talking about. She moved through the crowd to the center.
Melanie was standing with her fists on her hips, being as imperious as a ten year old could be. Right behind her was the Dire, Keenscent.
The wolf looked up at her, over Melanie’s head, giving her a helpless ‘It’s not my fault’ look.
Ashley walked forward till she was standing before the wolf. She could feel the eyes of the town on her, and hear them wondering about her in hushed conversations.
“I’m not gonna let you hurt her, either.” Melanie’s voice held absolute conviction.
Smiling, Ashley knelt down and whispered, “I’m not going to hurt her, and I’m very glad you don’t want to hurt her. Can you help me make sure nobody hurts her friends either?”
“She has friends?”
“Yep, lots of friends, can you help me?”
Melanie nodded with certainty, “Uh-huh!”
Ashley smiled again as she stood up and patted Melanie’s head. She looked at Keenscent and held out her hand to the wolf. “Can you go back home for now?”
Keenscent looked down at Melanie and then back up at Ashley. “Melanie will still be here tomorrow.”
Melanie put her hand on the wolf’s neck, “Promise you’ll come back.”
The wolf licked her face and ran off toward the mansion.
"Ashley, you knew it was here?" The speaker was Nathan, a feline morph, and the best archer and tracker in town. His voice was more confused and hurt than accusing.
Ashley sighed, "I think we need to call a town meeting together."
- "Peace cannot be achieved through violence, it can only be attained through understanding"
January 4, 707 CR - Dawn
The sun had just risen over the mountains when the last of the townsfolk had gathered at Gregory's inn. As the largest building left since the Mansion's destruction, it doubled as a town hall.
Ashley had been dreading this moment ever since she made the suggestion to Sasiv that he bring his tribe back to the mansion. She had hoped that she would have more time to give the memory of the devastating Christmas Eve attack time to fade.
As it was, people were still rebuilding, still burying the dead; it was still fresh in their minds. Tensions were high. It would have been hard enough to convince her fellow citizens to accept the Lutins under normal circumstances. After a major attack by their kind, it would be nearly impossible.
It was an attack that they had participated in, she reminded herself. She was still trying to anticipate all the arguments before they were made.
She had an idea of what her own arguments would be. All the historical research she had done while she was still hoping to become a priest, before the curse, would finally come in useful.
Ashley waited until the last person sat down. She took a deep breath, stood, and walked to the center of the room.
As there was no real town leader since the loss of the ard'Kapler family and lord Cybury was at the Keep, everyone in town was basically equal. The main room of the inn had been prepared the night before, all the tables stacked along the walls, and the chairs were placed in a series of concentric circles around the room. Anyone who wished to could stand and speak, or move to the center of the room.
Gregory spoke from his seat, "Now that we're all here, would you like to explain how you knew about a dangerous creature like that and why you didn't tell us about it?"
Just as he finished speaking, he flinched slightly to the side and quietly nickered as his daughter stuck her finger into his ribs. She whispered, "She's not a ‘it’, papa, remember? You promised."
Ashley could hear Mary whisper, "Melanie, stop poking your father."
Hiding a smile, she answered, "I believed that Keenscent was no threat to the town. I still do."
Gregory sounded disbelieving, "You named... her?" He had been going to say 'it' but Melanie glaring at him caused him to rethink that.
Bracing herself, Ashley said, "No, I was told her name, by Sasiv, the chief of the Wolf Riders tribe, when I asked them to stay at the mansion."
It took a moment for the statement to register with everyone, but within the blink of an eye almost half the room was on its feet shouting.
It was nearly five minutes before they had calmed enough for individuals to be heard. A man named John was the loudest, "They destroyed our town! Attacked the Keep barely two weeks ago! And you ask them to stay!?"
"The Wolf Riders had nothing to do with the destruction of our town, and Nasoj forced them to attack the Keep!"
"They are Lutins! They are all guilty!"
The noise in the room was so loud that Ashley had to shout to be heard, "Just as you are guilty of murdering Lothanasi! Of burning them alive!"
The entire room fell silent.
John looked horrified. He stuttered out, "A-Ashley, wha-what?"
"That is what was done during the inquisitions. You are a Follower, _I_ am a Follower, are we not all guilty?"
Looking around, she spotted a pair of black furred ears with long tufts of fur sticking straight up from the tips. Before she could lose momentum, she called out, pointing to the cat, "And you, Nathan, you are guilty of crucifying Followers. You're Lothanasi" She looked pointedly at John, "and all Lothanasi are guilty, aren't they?"
Ashley raised her voice, speaking loudly so everyone could hear, "And all of us, we're Demons, aren't we!? We all are, if you listen to some talk in the Midlands! We sneak into their homes, kill their men, rape their women, and steal their children away to the Keep to be cursed!"
John stood up as Ashley began to point out someone else, "We get the point!"
She looked back to him, her voice lowering to a more conversational tone, "Do you? We cannot judge a being based solely on their race. If we do, we are no better than those who call us demons."
Gregory stood up, "That's different, if they just gave us a chance we would prove we aren't evil."
Ashley looked at him and smiled widely as her voice took on a conciliatory tone, "And that is exactly what the Wolf Riders are asking from us—a chance to prove they aren't the monsters we think they are."
There was a prolonged silence, then John spoke softly, "I want nothing to do with Lutins, it doesn’t matter what you say, they will never reform."
He got up, along with several others in the group, and turned to leave. As they walked out, Ashley followed, "Will you tell Metamor?"
John stopped and looked at her, without turning around. Ashley grimaced, her neck got sympathy pains every time she saw the owl morph do that. "I know you well enough to know that you really believe in what you’re doing. As long as you keep them out of the town, we won’t betray you to Metamor."
Ashley nodded her thanks as they returned to their homes. As she turned and walked back inside, she sighed. Still, she thought, it was going better than expected.
When she got back to the center of the dining room, she looked around at the faces of her friends and neighbors. "Will you meet them at least, please?" Her eyes landed on Gregory, "Give them the chance to prove that they are not the monsters you think they are."
Two groups assembled on the snowy field in front of the ruin that had once been a mansion. On one side, human and animal morph, and the other, Lutin and wolf. No one moved, except the slowly wagging tail of the one wolf who already knew and trusted the Keepers.
No small number of hands and paws gripped sword hilts, but no sword was drawn. The lutins and wolves walked forward.
In that moment a milestone of history was crossed. Lutin and Keeper stood face to face and clasped hands in peace.
When Sasiv and Aier, his wife, brought the tribe back to the mansion that spring, in April, only four citizens of Mycransburg didn’t show up to welcome them.