|CREATED||16 OCT 2000|
|MODIFIED||2 DEC 2000|
|NOTES||Arla, Lisa, Finbar, Misha, Meredith, Ralls, and Danielle are all Chris O'Kane's characters. Many thanks to him for their use and his extensive help in conceptualizing and fleshing out this story. Thank you Chris!|
|This story is Copyright by David Ihnen. Please do not distribute without permission.|
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"Huh? Where?" asked Skylos, looking about. He caught sight of the black and white back of a border collie morph disappearing in the colorful marketplace crowd.
"Over dere!" giggled Ally, wiggling her toes in Skylos's paws, "Giddyup!"
Skylos grinned and trotted down the street, the young Ally jostling atop his shoulders. They entered the market and pushed amongst the many keepers crowding the busy market place. Arla was nowhere to be seen.
"Ahoy, you look like a dog in need of a brush!" called a merchant, sweeping an arm across his display, "And maybe a fine, soft one for the lass?"
Skylos shook his head, glancing over the wares. "No thanks."
"Its your last chance for now, my good man! My wares will see southern ports this winter!" warned the merchant, holding one up with glassy sparkles.
"Oooh!" exclaimed Ally, reaching for it eagerly.
Skylos interrupted them, moving away from the combined reach of the merchant and girl. "No Ally, we need to get some soap! Do you see the soap man?"
"Shope!" cried Ally, pointing triumphantly to the colorful awning a few booths up.
"Perfect!" said Skylos, winding over to the soap stand.
They found Arla there in the midst of being solicited by the eager merchant, sniffing a bar of shampoo critically. The border collie was dressed in a simple short sleeved tunic of light purple and breeches, her usual sturdy boots upon her paws. A wide belt held a short sword and a dagger with her purse. She was a little shorter than Skylos.
"Eet ees only da finest!" the merchant urged, "Dee best spices an h-erbs!" He noticed Skylos approaching and threw out his arms in welcome. "Ah, greetings Sir Skylos, and Miss Ally atop!"
Arla twitched and looked around. That amorous hound had somehow found her again. This time he had a blonde-haired little girl, maybe one or two years old on his shoulders. She was clad in only a diaper and he wasn't clad in much more, only his simple loincloth, soft boots, a bag hung by his side. It smelled like the infant had wet her diaper not too long before. The border collie wrinkled her nose in displeasure.
Skylos picked up Arla's paw and licked the back of it romantically, bowing. "Greetings, oh fair Arla!" he said, smiling up at her. The child was brought close to her head as he bowed. She grabbed one of Arla's ears, tugging on it as she pushed it against her nose to sniff at it.
Arla pulled her paw back from the hound, shaking her head to dislodge the little hand. Her ears layed back tight. "Watch it, mutt!"
"Ooh, Skylos make good husband!" grinned the merchant, presenting another sample bar to Arla, "See how he is with dee children, eh? And handsome too!"
Arla growled, showing some teeth as she snapped, "Look merchant, I don't need your advice, just some shampoo."
"I don't think she smells that good." Ally said to Skylos.
Arla turned to them, paw on her hip, looking at Skylos icily. "Whats wrong with the way I smell?"
Skylos shook his head, ears flicking back submissively. "Nothing! I jus..."
Ally interrupted, "Unca Sky said dat you smell better, but I'm prettier!" She looked very proud of herself.
The merchant almost fell over in gales of laughter, upsetting several piles of soap.
Skylos pointedly ignored the merchant, selecting a bar and offering it to her. "Absolutely nothing at all. You smell much better. Even without the diaper." He winked. "Maybe you would like this shampoo? Its one of my favorites."
The merchant was sniffling, and wiping his eyes.
Arla snorted at Skylos, and sniffed it. It actually was quite nice. It had a woody underscent that tugged memories in the back of her head. She glared at the hound with narrowed eyes before turning to the merchant.
"I'll take two of these." she grunted through grit teeth.
She hurried the transaction and rushed off into the crowd.
"And for you, Miss Ally?" the merchant addressed the toddler atop Skylos' shoulders.
"Mint!" she exclaimed cheerfully, tugging rather sharply on one of Skylos' ears. He winced, and halfheartedly tried to disentangle one of his long ears from Ally's grasp. It didn't work.
"And a bar of shampoo, too." the hound grinned. "Do you always charge the ladies half as much as me?"
"Eh, dat Arla ess a pretty one!" the merchant said, "and whot ees a few coins, one way or dee udder?" He took some coins from Skylos in exchange for the package of two bars.
"Not pretty as me!" crowed Ally.
Skylos winked at the merchant, pushing his hand back as he tried to give some of them back. "For Arla." He handed the paper wrapped soap to Ally. "You hold onto this good, okay?"
"I got da shope!" giggled Ally cheerfully, jostled as Skylos jogged off towards the bath.
"Have a goot bath, Ally!" called the merchant, chuckling after them.
They found Arla again, standing outside the baths, talking to the keep messenger. She finished as they approached, looking more annoyed than ever. She saw them as she turned, and shook her head.
"What, can't I even take a bath in peace?" she grumbled, stalking through the archway to the steamy room.
Skylos walked in behind her, swinging Ally to the slippery stones. "It's not my fault, Ally here peed on my back!" he protested. The baths were a large arched chamber dominated by the main soaking pool in the center. There were basins around the edges, perennially filled with steaming water, accompanied by plenty of ladles and large sponges. Several keepers were soaking in the far end of the bath, murmuring softly to one another.
Arla sat on a bench and worked on removing her boots. "Look Builder, I don't care why you're here, don't even think of trying anything."
Skylos shrugged, kneeling and unfastening Ally's diaper. "What did the messenger say?"
Arla eyed Skylos silently as he shed his boots, loincloth and bag onto a bench before pulling her jerkin off. Working with stone had given him enough of a physique that it showed even through his coat of fur. She wondered why she hadn't noticed before. He hardly seemed to wear anything. She averted her eyes as he turned towards her, once again kneeling beside the young girl. He pulled a dripping sponge from the warm water basin and wrung it over Ally, who squealed piercingly, making Arla's ears lay back.
"Geeze, can't you get that brat to shut up?" she growled, taking off her breeches and underclothes before commencing to pour water into her fur.
Skylos shrugged. "She's just a child. They do that."
Arla grumbled, wringing more water from a sponge into her fur. "Some stupid assignment. Go search a tunnel they found in the hills."
"Sounds exciting! Why, don't you want to go?" asked Skylos
Arla efficiently worked the shampoo into her fur. The hot water against her skin was helping her relax, and she wasn't half as bothered by Skylos' presence as she expected.
Arla sighed and wrung the spong, rinsing the fur on her front. "No. No, I'm a fighter. Searching tunnels is pointless. Probably nothing but some badgers. I'd rather go on patrol. I don't like caves either."
"Well, I know a pretty ferocious badger. Why don't they send somebody else?" he asked, the unmistakable scent of mint rising as he rubbed the squirming Ally down.
"Everybody is busy. I was SUPPOSED to have a few days to myself." She sighed, shaking water from her fur. She smiled at the child as Ally pulled the blonde hair out of her eyes. The sympathetically nodding hound was wringing the sponge over her again to rinse the soap off. The merchant had called her Ally. "Ally, want me to shampoo your hair?" she asked.
"Um..." Ally hesitated shyly, looking up at the Skylos.
"Go ahead, I gots to wash myself, ya know." grinned Skylos, swatting her bare butt playfully to send her on her way.
Ally toddled over to Arla and smiled up at her. Arla knelt with the shampoo, working it efficiently into her hair.
"So, Skylos is your uncle?" she asked Ally.
Ally nodded. "Yup. An he's my very favorite grown-up!"
"Not blood," corrected Skylos, trying to scrub his back with a cloth attached to a stick, "Friend of the family."
Arla smiled, "That's sweet. What do you do with Skylos?"
"We build with blocks, and go for piggy back rides!" Ally announced proudly, leaning her head back as Arla rinsed the shampoo from her hair. She looked hopefully at Skylos. "Now?" she asked.
Skylos nodded agreeably, "Go for it!" With a giggle of delight, Ally jumped into the main pool. Skylos shifted to full hound form to shake the water from his fur. Arla frowned, sniffing at him as he shifted back to his more usual anthro form.
"You still have urine in your fur." she said.
"Well, its hard to get out." shrugged Skylos, "Its not important."
"So let me scrub it." sighed Arla.
Skylos blinked and looked over at her with some surprize. "Uh, sure!" he grinned before she could recind, offering her the slippery bar of shampoo.
Arla flexed her paws. Why did she say that? It would just encourage him more. She was naked, with a man she knew was after her. Why didn't she feel uncomfortable? What was wrong with her? He wasn't even looking at her. Didn't he like her? She shook the thoughts from her head as she took the soap. She and worked it roughly into his neck and back fur, scrubbing firmly with her claws.
"ooOoohh, that's nice." mumured Skylos, his eyes closing as he leaned into the scrub.
"Well don't get used to it, mutt." she grunted, leaving off. "Rinse it now, you should be fine."
Skylos poured more water over him, and sniffed over his shoulder. "Hey, its gone! Where did you learn to do that?" he asked.
"When you fight you get alot of stuff in your fur." Arla said mysteriously, lowering herself into the steaming bath alongside Ally, who was splashing the water with the palms of her hands.
Skylos sloshed in on the other side of Ally. "You really don't want to go?" he asked.
"Go!" exclaimed Ally.
Arla shook her head. "I just have many things to do."
"Then let me go instead!" he suggested, "I'm free."
"A builder?" scoffed Arla, "To do a long scouts work?"
"Hey, I'm not so helpless," protested Skylos, "Besides, you said yourself it was boring. There won't be any fighting. And I love caves!"
Arla looked at Skylos thoughtfully. He did have a point. It wasn't a dangerous mission. He could take her place, help explore the tunnel. She could get her errands done.
"I wouldn't want to take you away from Ally here." she said. Ally was scrambling out of the pool.
"Hot." she said.
"Naw, I'm just taking care of her today." said Skylos, his eyes following Ally's path towards the door. "Ally!" he called.
The girl didn't pay any attention, and toddled through the archway into the courtyard.
Skylos sighed and heaved himself up out of the water, leaving a trail of puddle out the door as the water ran from his fur. He came back in a few seconds later with Ally in his arms.
"You're all wet!" protested Ally, wiggling in his grasp.
"So're you, silly!" chuckled Skylos, setting her down on the bench and toweling her off. "You gotta wear something out there, you don't have fur!"
"We'd have to talk to Misha about it." sighed Arla, climbing out of the pool and shaking her fur out. "He probably won't hear of it."
"When I grow up, I'm gonna be a doggie just like you 'n Unca Sky!" Ally said to Arla.
Skylos laughed and tickled Ally's tummy before securely fastening a fresh diaper from his bag around her waist.
Arla held her clothes away from her damp fur as she walked out into the courtyard. The sun was almost down, but the air was balmy and warm. She had just set her usual clothing down when she was thumped on the shoulder, setting her off balance and the clothing scattering across the lawn.
"You're the goose!" cried Skylos, already out of reach, running across the yard with tail wagging.
"You!" she barked, chasing after him.
Ally squealed joyfully, toddling after them as Skylos dodged around a tree, faking left and right. Arla took the right and Skylos took off to the left, barely eluding her grasp. She barked again as she ran after, only a couple steps behind. She caught up with him and grabbed his shoulder, spinning him around. She socked him solidly in the middle of the chest.
"YOUR THE GOOSE!" she barked, grinning at him victoriously.
Skylos took a few seconds to get his breath back as she stalked away, rubbing his chest. She had quite a punch. He trotted over and tagged Ally on the head. "You're the goose! Get the doggie!" He pointed to Arla.
Ally squealed and ran as fast as she could towards Arla. Arla was gathering her clothes when the child arrived, and basically crashed into her, bouncing off and landing on her behind. "You Goose!" Ally giggled, pulling her hair out of her eyes again.
Arla looked down at Ally, and then up as Skylos, eyes narrowing, a smile playing on her muzzle.
Skylos was grinning as he watched them, rubbing his chest tenderly. He realized Arla looking at him. "Oh, nono!" he exclaimed, turning and scrambling as Arla started towards him. He ran around the tree, Arla close on his tail. He put on a burst of speed and tore into the baths, catching the edge of a basin. He spun around the corner, barely missing a fox walking the other way gingerly on the slippery stones.
Moments later, Arla came running through the archway at full tilt. She collided directly with the fox, bodily lifting him. They both came down on the stones, sliding several feet before stopping. When it was clear nobody was hurt, Skylos laughed.
"You're the Goose!" he teased, running back out into the courtyard.
"What's all this!?" roared the fox, scrambling indignantly to his feet.
Arla yelped, "Misha!", trying to stand up and cover herself at the same time.
"Goose!?" the fox glared at her, "This is hardly seeming behavior for a long scout of your stature. Playing Goose, Naked, with that, that mutt?" his expression quivered.
"I..I'm sorry, sir, It won't happen again." Arla murmured, head down, tail between her legs as she turned.
"You're the Goose!" yelled Misha, thumping Arla solidly on the back, before doubling over with a roar of laughter, slapping his knee.
Arla blinked and turned around incredulously. Misha whooped, smacking his knee again. "Oh, you shoulda seen the look on your face!" he laughed, tears running down his cheeks, "Priceless!"
Arla huffed. "Why you!"
Misha straightened up a bit, holding his side, his words interrupted by giggles. "oooh, my side... I can't wait to tell..."
Arla growled, grabbed him and flipped him bodily into the pool.
When Misha regained the surface, he saw her standing at the end of the pool. "Whose the wet goose now?" she smirked, turning and marching out in as dignified a way as her state of dress allowed. Misha's laughs echoed after her.
Arla slowly put on her clothes. All the running about had mostly dried her fur already. Skylos was sitting on a bench under a tree with Ally, attempting to teach her patty-cakes. She smiled at them.
"A handsome specimen there, Arla." spoke Misha.
Arla started, turning to the still dripping long scout leader. "Look, I uh..." she began, and stopped, looking at him in some astonishment. He was standing in only his fur, his soaked clothes hung over an arm.
Misha chuckled, a twinkle in his eye. "We all could use a lighter heart around here, Arla. Its good to see you not being so serious."
Arla nodded. "Yes. I uh, I wanted to speak you. About Skylos." she indicated the hound, who was still playing with the child.
"Looks like a fine man." Misha nodded, looking over at Skylos appraisingly, "But he looks to be married?"
Arla shook her head, "No, he's not married. Ally is his niece, sort of... No! That's not why argh!"
Misha smirked, dripping more on the grass. "Sure..."
Arla growled, "No, about the mission to that tunnel. We already have Lisa and Finbar going, Do you really need me? It's just a simple scouting job. I was thinking Skylos could go."
"He's not a long scout." stated Misha firmly.
Arla shook her head, "No, he's a builder. But he can handle himself, and there's not been any lutin activity in that area lately. I hate caves, and he likes them. You just want the caves explored, there's not any fighting in that."
Misha considered, then walked over to Skylos.
"Skylos?" he asked.
The hound looked up from his game. "Huh?" he focused on the wet fox. "You're wet."
"My name is Misha." he said, "Arla here tells me you want to explore the tunnel we located in the hills."
Skylos nodded. "Yeah, sure, it sounds like fun!"
"Its dangerous out there." Misha stated gravely.
Skylos nodded, lifting Ally into his lap. "Yup, but I'm a big doggie, right Ally?"
"Big doggie!" affirmed Ally.
"He can handle himself," Arla added. "Besides it's not like he's going up north. "
Misha pondered for a moment before making a decision. "Very well. The patrol leaves tomorrow before dawn. Report to the long house at dawn."
Skylos nodded. "Yessir!" he said, saluting. Ally mimicked him.
Misha nodded went on his way, muttering about being wet.
Arla smiled at Skylos. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
Skylos looked into her eyes. "Its nothing" he said sincerely.
Arla's ears felt hot. "I'll, uh, see you when you get back." she said as she turned, eyes averted.
"Sooner I hope!" grinned Skylos, watching her go. He picked Ally up in his arms. "Why don't we go find your mommy and daddy, huh?"
"Hungry." responded Ally, yawning.
Skylos arrived at the long house about half an hour before dawn. He wandered through the large rooms, staring up at the cieling with a curious expression. The rooms were mostly empty at the early hour, but there were a few scouts about.
"What're you lookin at, Dog?" asked a passing long scout.
"There isn't a ledge to hold the centering." said Skylos, pointing up to the corner of the arched cieling, "It must have been constructed in an odd way."
The long scout peered up blankly, then then back at Skylos. "Uh, sure." he muttered, "I'm going to bed."
"Sleep good!" waved Skylos as the scout left.
In the armory he passed over the myriad armor and inspected the swords. He found a short one that appealed to him. It was single edged, and its tip was beveled and sharpened instead of the usual smooth point. It was sharp, and had some heft to it but was still easy to swing. He nodded agreeably to himself and fastened it to his belt.
A young woman entered the armory, brushing past him. She was a little over five feet tall, her frame thin in a soft youthful way. She wore a plain tunic and some snug fitting breeches, practical for wearing armor. Her hair was pulled out of the way into a bun. She picked up a suit of leather and plate armor and took it to a bench. She began strapping it onto her youthful frame efficiently. She looked to be about fifteen. Most people about that age in the keep had been cursed with youth. She looked up at the hound as she cinched down some straps.
"You Skylos?" she asked bluntly.
Skylos nodded. "Yup."
"I'm Lisa. If you're going with me, you'll need more than that sword." she indicated the weapon on his belt.
"Yes, do you have any crossbows?" he asked, looking around again, his paw resting on the hilt of the sword conciously.
"Down on the end wall." she pointed over her shoulder.
Skylos found a large selection of crossbows. He chose a lightweight one for portability, and two full belt quivers.
When he returned, Lisa had been replaced by an athletic ferret morph, industriously fitting himself into some leather armor.
"I'm Finbar," he introduced himself, "Lisa told me about you."
"Good things, I hope." grinned Skylos, leaning on the edge of a sword rack.
"I'd never agree to you going normally." he said honestly, "But Misha said."
Skylos shrugged, "Well, Arla is busy you know."
Finbar snorted. "Aren't we all. Aren't you going to wear any armor?" the ferret asked, cinching down his shoulder plates. The overlapping layers of tanned hide exuded the scent of freshly soaped leather.
Skylos shook his head. "Nope. I don't have any."
Finbar pointed towards the armor racks. "Well, I'm sure there is some here that would fit you..."
Skylos shook his head. "No, thanks. I don't wear it. I'm much faster without it."
"All the scouts wear armor." argued the ferret, "even Arla!"
Skylos grinned. "Ah, but I'm not a scout."
"You could get hurt!" he warned.
Skylos nodded. "I agree. But I have seen a man killed by a crossbow, through both his plate armor and chain mail. I really don't think its going to make a lot of difference." He hefted the crossbow, slinging it by its strap over his back.
The ferret shrugged. "It's your funeral. Don't expect me to lug your corpse out when you get killed."
Lisa returned, carrying a large bundle that she pushed into Skylos chest. "You go on patrol with me, you wear armor.
"I don't wear armor," the hound complained examining the thick quilted woolen shirt she had shoved at him.
"Put it on," Lisa ordered. "It's just padded armor. Light, easy to wear and it just might save your life.
"Lighter than leather or mail, but still really hot." protested Skylos, looking at the mass of cloth with some annoyance.
"If you don't want to go, we'll just wake up Arla." Lisa snapped, checking the buckles on her skirt. One of the strap ends had strayed, and she threaded it back in.
Skylos sighed. "Look, how about I just put it on when we get there, okay?"
Lisa frowned. "Or at the first sign of any trouble. Time's wasting, lets move out." The girl sheathed a long sword into a scabbard strapped over the back of her armor.
They found the tunnel exactly where reported, concealed by a screen of overgrown vines at the foot of a low bluff, about a four hour walk from the keep. The first few feet were natural, but it quickly became obvious that the passage had been widened by human hand. It continued for only a few meters before they entered a circular chamber about twenty feet across. The center was dominated by a large rectangular block of stone, tilted towards the entrance. Light filtered down from above, a cascade of water tumbling down from the overhead opening. It splashed into a cup-like depression in the center of stone's surface then ran down a carved channel. The water entered a matching channel in the chamber floor and washed back out the main doorway.
Skylos ran his paw over the channel in the stone. "Looks like this has been here a long time."
"How so?" asked the leader, inspecting the corners of the chamber with a freshly lit torch.
"The water has worn the stone smooth. Unlike the other side." Skylos indicated the similar channel above the cup that currently sloped upwards.
Lisa knelt and ran her finger along the two.
"So it has. What is it anyway?"
Skylos walked around it. "I think it makes the water go into the tunnel instead of outside. See, There is a matching channel on the other side too."
Finbar ran his paw over a carving by the entrance. "What's this?"
Lisa walked over. "Some strange writing... I can't read it."
Skylos climbed up on the high end of the stone. It creaked under his weight.
"Justa little more..." he murmured, bending his knees and shoving down with his inertia.
With a grinding rumble, the low end of the stone lifted, then quickly flew up as Skylos came down to earth, tumbling away from the stone as it slammed to the ground with a reverberatingthump. He looked at the results and grinned proudly at his companions. "It still works!"
The flow of water now went the other way, filling the dusty channel that disappeared into the darkness below.
Lisa shook her head, rolling her eyes at Finbar. "Hey dog, can you read this?"
Skylos walked over and inspected the carving. "Its a Sulieman empire I built this." he said. He indicated a marking at the top "This is the empire symbol, I'm sure you've seen it before. This is probably the builder's name, here." He moved his paw over a sequence of characters. "The rest is probably the date it was built, but I can't read it."
Lisa shrugged indifferently, the sword on her back shifting with a muffle clank. "So its old. Lets get a move on and find out where it goes. With any luck we'll be home tonight. Skylos, put on the armor." she ordered.
Skylos sighed and struggled into the armor, refastening the scabbard on the outside of it. It wasn't quite as bad as he thought it would be, but it still cramped him, and chafed the fur on his arms annoying. They marched into the mountain, a torch held overhead. The tunnel was wide enough to walk side by side, barely. It came together overhead in a round arch. It had been hewn impressively from the solid rock. It meandered right and left at random, continuing deep into the mountain, but always steadily downwards. Before long they passed the last of the tracks the previous keeper patrol had left. They continued on for another hour before pausing for a drink from the water running swiftly down the channel in the floor. Lisa lit the second torch from the fizzling remains of the first.
Finbar broke the quiet hiss of the water running by. "Well, its got to go SOMEwhere!"
Skylos nodded. "Yup, see, there is a breeze." He pointed to the torch, which flickered, its flames dipping behind, even as they stood still. "All that wind is coming from somewhere."
Lisa nodded. "He has a point. Come on, it can't be much further."
They continued down the tunnel, which started to switch back on itself, descending more steeply in a confusing zig zag.
"How far into the mountain does this thing go?" the ferret asked in a whisper.
The leader shrugged. "I'm sure we'll find the end soon. How much further can it go? We'll camp there if necessary."
Skylos smirked. "There's enough mountain that it could go on for days."
The woman lit the third torch from the second.
"If we don't find something soon, we'll be out of light." she said.
Skylos nodded, trying to adjust the padding around his arm. "Its a long walk in the dark."
I prefer the dark," Finbar said. "Light attracts too much attention."
"Come on, the torch is burning."
After another five switchbacks, they found a change in the construction. Instead of being hewn from the solid rock, the walls were worked stone, arching overhead. Only a couple hundred yards further, they encountered another round chamber, about the same size as the first. A staircase along the wall led from the passage to the main floor. The channel that had been their constant companion extended on a raised pier to the center of the room, where it splashed into another pool. The flow split into four separate channels from there, disappearing into the walls.
The source of the breeze was one of the channels, the water flow blocked by a warped board fitted into a slot across the start of the channel.
"Not much to see here." observed Finbar, licking a drink from the cascade of falling water.
Skylos pulled the board out of the slot, sending a rush of water down the channel.
Finbar shook his head at the dog. "Just can't leave things alone, huh?" he whispered. Skylos grinned.
"Over here guys." called Lisa, descending into a narrow staircase. Skylos looked around for a moment in the darkness left behind. he could see some light dimly from one of the channels. He turned and followed, the ceiling seeming to press close in the darkness.
He caught up with them at a landing. Where there should have been a doorway, there was a blank wall.
"Great. Just great." said the ferret, slumping against the side wall. "Dead end."
"Its really old." said Skylos, inspecting the wall, "And bad construction, too. Look, the mortar is crumbling. It would probably come down with a good push."
"He's right." said the woman, testing the gaps with the torch. "There are
a dozen holes in this wall."
Skylos clawed around one of the looser stones, easily pulling out chunks of mortar. It fell in, revealing darkness beyond. Another stone followed it, and another. Finbar tried to peer through.
"Stand back, its going down!" Skylos said, pulling Finbar away hastily as the stones collapsed.
The dust cleared, revealing a small room in the flickering light of the torch. Its walls were all of stone. A low doorway across the room was filled with a sturdy looking door, a small grate centered in its upper half. The floor was covered in a thick layer of dust, still swirling from the fallen stones. Lisa sneezed.
"Some sort of dungeon?" puzzled Finbar.
"Or storage." said Lisa, "Careful, you never know what we'll find."
She drew her sword and stepped carefully on the freshly fallen stones, finding slightly more stable footing on the stone floor of the room. "Come, we'll find a way out of here."
The door was locked. Its sturdy appearance was deceiving, though, and it fell apart with a sturdy push of Skylos's shoulder. They peered warily into the revealed hallway. The stone floor was covered with a thick layer of dust, disturbed only by the tracks of small animals. The ceiling was also of arched stone. A faded tapestry hung on one wall, depicting men in pointed helmets in victorious battle over a horde of lutins.
"I don't think anybody has been in here for a long time." said Skylos, peering into one of the doorways along the hall. This door had swung open to a slight pressure.
Lisa brushed by him into the room, setting the torch in a sconce by the door. The room had the remains of several barrels in it, and no windows. Skylos shook his head.
"How long are we going to wander around here?" asked Finbar, shifting from one foot to another. "This place hasn't been used in centuries."
Lisa shook her head at Finbar. "Just go in the corner." she muttered, lighting another torch from the one in the sconce and walking back into the corridor. "We won't go far. Skylos, come with me. Lets see where this hallway goes.
They rounded a corner to find the ceiling collapsed, the entire corridor obstructed by earth and stones.
"That didn't take long." grinned Skylos.
Finbar arrived, holding the other torch in his paw. "What now?" he asked.
"Skylos, come with me. Finbar, you check the right, we'll do the left." she ordered, turning and marching to the first doorway.
Finbar sighed and went the other way. The ferret walked up to a door and pressed his ear against the ancient wood. He listened for a moment then slowly pushed the door. The ferret peered into the room and then withdrew. "Empty," he commented and moved on to the next door. It was all the same, storeroom after storeroom. The last door was the one they emerged from. He investigated the one opposite.
Finbar cried out, "There's a doorway here!"
Skylos and Lisa hurried over. Half obstructed by a pile of half disintegrated wooden boxes was another door. They moved the boxes out of the way, raising much dust in the process. Skylos and Finbar sneezed. Lisa held a cloth over her face, squinting in the swirling dust. The door swung towards them with a heavy creak of rusted hinges, revealing a jumble of ancient crates completely obstructing the doorway. They all worked together, working the crates free and tossing them into the corner of the room. As they were moved out of the way, light was revealed. Suddenly Skylos froze.
"I smell lutins." he growled, hackles raised.
Lisa and Finbar drew their swords.
"He's right." hissed Finbar, nose raised to sniff the air.
"Maybe we should go back?" the ferret whispered to Lisa.
"We need to know how many and what type," she whispered back, "Lets move the rest of these crates. Quietly, now."
They quickly moved the rest of the crates out of the way. Finbar took the torch from the sconce and put it out by stepping on the flame. With his short sword in hand he led the way into the light, followed by Lisa and Skylos in the rear. The room was brightly lit by sun shining through an arrow slit, but nothing could be seen outside but an patch of brambles, some rocky ground, and the forest. The door to this room had been long destroyed. It led to a hallway open to the sky. The smell of lutins was stronger, and they could hear voices to the north. Skylos cocked the crossbow as they crept down the hallway, setting a bolt into place. Lisa crouched, then crawled on her stomach as they approached the end of the floor. It ended abruptly, that part of the structure having fallen already. They could see a portion of a large hall ahead of them, much of the view obstructed by the corridor walls which continued a short distance ahead. They could, however, see a number of lean-to's along the far side, facing a large fire pit. A pubescent lutin carrying an armload of wood trudged into view, a long knife glinting from his belt. He dumped the wood haphazardly over the fire pit and stalked off the way he came.
Several small children ran by, accompanied by shouts from an older male lutin somewhere out of sight. Two older females sat on a log near the fire pit, one working on something in her hands, the other breast feeding an infant. Lisa frowned, watching the scene.
"They seem so... normal." she whispered.
Finbar hissed, "and they'd kill you in a heartbeat."
A stone shifted under Skylos's elbow.
"Back!" he whispered urgently, sliding backwards as fast as he dared. Finbar scooted back hastily as the floor shifted, crackling under the weight of the three keepers. A shout went up from the lutins.
"Run!" hissed Lisa as the floor shifted again beneath them. Finbar turned and ran, the floor disappearing from under his paws, sending him sprawling into the hallway as Skylos and Lisa went down with the collapsing structure. He peered over the edge as the shouts redoubled in the lutin camp. He couldn't see Skylos, but Lisa's legs were pinned under a number of large stones. Her face squinted in pain.
"Run!" she signaled, "Get help!", gesturing at the Ferret urgently. He backed into the shadows as the lutins arrived, sliding back down the hallway out of site. He could hear some lutins to the north, coming through the castle towards him. He turned and sprinted back the way they came, stumbling noisily over some of the boxes as he rushed into the darkness. He heard a lutin shout, and felt quickly along the wall. He stumbled over the stones of the doorway and rushed up the stairs to the water room. The sound of the cascading water was loud in his ears, disorienting him as he panted in the near blackness. The only light filtered up murkily through a channel filled with water.
The Lutins quickly surrounded Skylos and Lisa, their spears pointing menacingly at the pinned pair, lunging at their every move. Their leader arrived moments later. He spoke to them loudly in his guttural lutin language, looking unsatisfied at their blank expressions. He turned to the others and gave some brief orders, before marching away. The lutins pulled the pair roughly from the collapsed stones, dragging them to the hall. The keepers were stripped of their weapons and tied painfully to a pole near the fire. Several lutins guarded them, spears and swords held at the ready.
"At least they won't kill us," whispered Lisa to the hound.
"How do you know that?" he whispered back.
"If they wanted us dead they would have just run us through instead of threatening us."
"What will they do with us?" he wondered.
"I don't know but they aren't going to do to me what they did to Caroline," the woman said coldly. "I'll slit my throat first."
"Look on the bright side", suggested Skylos, "Maybe they'll invite us to dinner!" His stomach rumbled faintly.
Lisa grunted, "Or have us for dinner."
Finbar raced up the tunnel as fast as he dared in the darkness, his animal night vision revealing the vague outline of the tunnel, the water a darker slash in the floor. He ran along, guiding himself with paw touching the wall. He stumbled over some debris, and staggered, a paw falling into the channel and twisting painfully as he slammed into the floor. He extracted his foot and panted for long moments as he tried to deal with the pain.
"Slowly, you'll get there Finbar." he muttered, his eyes straining to pick put details of the black tunnel. He limped along slower now, trying to keep from tripping over the debris scattered over the floor. Suddenly, he blinked. The tunnel ahead of him was brightening, footsteps echoing down the shaft.
"...how far do you suppose it goes?" said a female voice in a whisper. It sounded like Arla.
"Cutter said it's supposed to go all the way to castle Burton." said a
male whisper. It sounded like Misha!
"I'd swear I could smell Finbar." whispered a husky male voice, "Didn't he go too?"
"Misha!" he cried, "Arla!"
"Who goes there!" called Misha, the shadow of his axe blocking the flickering light of the torch down the tunnel.
Finbar hurried forward, limping and laughing in relief, "Its me! Finbar!" he called, entering the light.
Misha lowered his axe. "Where are the others?" he demanded.
"The lutins have them!" he replied, panting, leaning on the wall to catch his breath.
Arla snarled, "What, you just left them!?" She looked furious.
"Yes, there was nothing I could do!" he snapped back.
"You're hurt." said Ralls, a stocky man with a long bow slung over his shoulder.
"Huh?" responded the Ferret, then winced as he put weight on his foot. "Yes, I caught my foot in the channel down there."
Ralls knelt and ran his hands over Finbar's boot. The pain faded. "That will do for now." he said curtly, "We have no time to waste."
Danielle offered Finbar a shoulder as he got back to his feet. "Come on, you can do it."
Misha shook his head impatiently. "We can talk on the way!" he ordered, swinging his axe to his back as they continued down the tunnel. "Tell me what happened."
Finbar had to trot to keep up, his ankle still spiking in pain when he stepped on it too hard. The grumbling Arla was close on his heels. "The floor collapsed, there was nothing I could do! The lutins were coming for me too. Lisa was trapped under the stones, she told me to go get help! I'm so glad you're here! How did you know?"
A large bear lumbering along in the back spoke with his husky voice, "Skylos told that librarian fox where he was going, but it didn't click in his head until after he left. We know that the ruin of castle Burton has been inhabited by a clan of Lutins for some time. When he told us where the tunnel probably went, we came as fast as we could."
"How much further does it go?" asked Danielle.
Finbar shrugged. "Its like a mile or two." he said, "it starts switching back on itself a bunch of times, going down."
Before long they reached the first of the switch backs, hardly even slowing their pace. Soon they arrived at the chamber, the sound of the splashing water loud in their ears.
The keepers drew their weapons and crept down the stairs. The first room contained only the footprints of the keepers. The hallway outside revealed their footsteps investigating the first room, then leaving.
Finbar pointed to the doorway across the hall without saying a word. No one had given any orders but all knew that from now on there would not be any more talking, only hand signals.
Misha and Arla crept forward, extinguishing their torches as they entered the second room, the arrow slit providing the late afternoon light. From the hallway outside they could see the lutin fire, Skylos and Lisa tied to a post near it.
"There they are!" Danielle signed with her hands.
As they watched a lutin came over and barked orders to the guards. Lisa was untied and dragged, kicking and screaming into one of the huts.
"Is there a way down?" asked Meredith with gestures of his hands.
"Probably." Finbar replied, "We didn't have time to check."
The fox pointed to his ears and then his eye. Then he gave a sweeping motion with both hands followed by him holding up two fingers. "Spread out," Misha had ordered. "Scout around and come back in two minutes."
The long scouts nodded and crept off in different directions, moving with a surprising silence. Misha pulled Finbar back into the room with the arrow slit.
"You did the right thing, Finbar." he said quietly, "Its not your fault what happened."
Finbar nodded, tensing at the sound of Meredith poking his head in.
"Found a staircase, come!" he whispered, beckoning the other keepers to
the proper direction. They crept down the stairs and through a hallway.
Suddenly the sound of Lisa screaming echoed across the hall.
Misha snarled through bared teeth, "Meredith, Ralls, get Lisa. Danielle, Arla with me to the dog. Finbar, wait here."
The keepers rushed into the hall with a battle cry. Meredith cut down several lutins with broad swings of his axe as they scattered in panic, making it to the hut where Lisa was taken in only a few moments. The camp was chaos. Children screamed, lutins ran for their weapons. Those lutins who did pick up a weapon died. Most fled, few succeeded.
Meredith knocked down the door as Ralls rushed through, his hammer spinning. The Lutin chieftain was rolling on the ground clutching his stomach. Lisa was kneeling on the bed, legs still bound, a bloody dagger in her hand. Rall's warhammer made short work of the lutin and soon his blood was pooling on the floor by his bed.
"No one is going to touch me," Lisa said coldly.
"Lisa, are you alright?" asked Meredith, scooping her up in his arms. Lisa nodded mutely.
"Ralls, lets get out of here." growled Meredith, turning and exiting the hovel.
Arla rushed over and cut the straps holding Skylos while Danielle blocked some arrows with a hastily cast spell.
"Beautiful Arla!" said Skylos with delight as she yanked him to his feet, "You rescuing me!"
"Shuttup mutt!" she snapped, "You never should have gone on this trip!"
The keepers stared at a line of a dozen lutin warriors who stood protecting a group of huddled females and children. They could hear several of them crying in terror.
"Now what?" Finbar asked. "I don't relish killing kids."
Misha gave a short wave of his hand toward the way they had come in. The group moved warily in that direction. Lutins watched but didn't interfere.
"We have no quarrel with you," growled Misha, "We've only come to rescue our own."
One lutin, who was dressed in a battered set of chainmail armor nodded. "Go, we not fight Keepers anymore."
The lutins stood silently as the keepers moved back into the ruin, quickly filing up the stairs and back into the darkness, striking torches on the way. They paused to regroup in the chamber at the bottom of the tunnel, the splashing of water echoing off the walls in an noisy cacaphony.
"What did he do to you, Lisa?" asked Meredith, setting her back on her feet as Danielle made short work of her bonds.
"Nothing, but he certainly tried," she said, smiling up at the big fatherly bear. In her hand she still held the dagger, its blade still wet with the chieftains blood.
"They took all our weapons. How did you hide that?" Skylos asked.
"Do I want to know where you hid that thing?" Misha asked.
Lisa only grinned broadly.
"I'll take that as a no," the fox answered.
Ralls was inspecting Finbar's ankle. "He really shouldn't walk back to the keep on this." he said.
Misha nodded, his muzzle dripping after taking a drink from the cascade. "Your animal form is small." he said, "shift down and ride with Meredith, if you don't mind?"
Meredith shrugged indifferently.
"Good." he looked over at Arla. "You can carry his armor and pack. Lets get going. Its a long walk back to the keep and I'm as tired as you all are."
They arrived back at the keep well after dark. The group went directly to the long house to dispose of their equipment. Arla excused herself to see Skylos back to his room. After the canines parted from the scouts, Skylos spoke to her.
"Thank you for saving me, Arla. I am sorry to be so much trouble."
Arla sighed, looking down. "No, I'm sorry. Really sorry. I was selfish to let you go. You should never have been there. Its a long scout's job, and a long scout should have been doing it."
Skylos took Arla's paws in his, and looked her in the eye. "When I was captured by the lutins, you saved my life. I'll never forget that."
Arla's ears flicked back, then up, her expression shifting with them. "Skylos..." she started to say, then shook her head, looking off to the right at nothing.
Skylos let go of one of her paws and walked along with her, holding the other. She halfheartedly tried to pull her paw from his but he squeezed it. "I thought my life was over, and I was okay with that. I was tied up in that lutin camp and I was ready to die. Then you came, and saved me."
"The other longs..." mentioned Arla.
"But you were there, for me." said Skylos. The keep had delivered them to Arla's door. He turned to Arla again. "Its the least I can do to be there for you, whenever you need anything." he said sincerely.
Arla blinked at the hound, looking to the right again, her expression forming a degree of resolution. "Stay with me tonight." she said, pulling his body up to against hers and kissing him deeply. She could feel his body stiffen in surprize, then press up against her in response, but he pulled away when the kiss ended.
"Arla..." he said, looking into her eyes, "I'm honored, and I like you very much. There is nowhere I would rather be, any night than with you. When you want me to, because you like me, not because you think you owe me something."
Arla looked into his eyes unseeingly for a long moment, her expression quivering, dropping Skylos' paws.
Skylos nodded as her expression stabilized, "Good night, beautiful Arla." he said simply.
"Good night." murmured Arla, her gaze dropping. Skylos's loincloth was tented obviously, bringing an unwanted flush to her ears and a warm glow to her gut. She smiled, ears and tail erect as she watched the hound turn and walk away, trying to adjust his loincloth.
"See you again soon." she murmured, smiling to herself as she turned to her room.
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