I had known for the last three days that someone had been following me.
I had briefly considered doubling back and trying to see who was dogging my back trail, but then decided that it would have been way out of character for the itinerant peddler that I was impersonating. So I settled for just acting nervous and quickening my pace.
Acting nervous was no problem. Hell, I was plenty nervous for real.
I managed to actually sell some of my items to folks at isolated farms. But the town remained unfriendly at best, and actively hostile in a couple of cases.
But the fresh air and exercise had left me in the best shape I had been in since my service days, and walking all day from dawn 'til dusk was now routine.
It had been almost 3 weeks since I had parted ways with Malla and I wondered how she was doing.
Jessie and the rest of my new family were also heavily on my mind. I knew that they would be worrying about me and could only hope that they didn't do something stupid such as trying to follow me.
The more I thought about it though, the more I was certain that sooner or later Jesse and the catkin girls would run out of patience and try tracking me down. I had to find this Merinel fast and deal with her before my wife got herself into trouble that I couldn't get her out of.
I was starting up into the Northern Mountains now, and I could tell that there were magicians here. Either that or someone had been using napalm to judge by the scorched valleys and ruined fortresses that I could see from the mountainside trails.
It occurred to me that I had not heard from the Goddess since I had left Malla. I shrugged it off. I had done very well without the Goddess for years before I came here to this world, and I could do just fine without her until she decided to make herself known again. If she ever did.
The winds were cold and blew sharp through the rough cloak that I wore over my tunic and trousers. I wished momentarily for my old Kevlar lined leather jacket, then grinned at my own foolishness.
What would Cutter or Iron Mike think about my cursing the cold? "Grow some balls dude." Would be the likely response.
As I crested the next pass, I found myself looking out over a long narrow valley. The valley was full of old growth forest. Mostly huge oaks and elms and here and there were scattered clumps of pines or firs. I could see a snowstorm coming down the valley and knew that I would have to find or make shelter before the storm hit.
I made my way down into the valley and into the forest.
After a while I left the road, such as it was, and scouted for a suitable location to hole up and wait out the snows.
There were plenty of places to pick from, but since I had the luxury of a little extra time I was going to be choosy about my campsite.
A few hundred feet from the road I found what I was looking for.
A huge tree had been blown over in some hellacious storm, and the roots had been torn from the earth forming a concave hollow surrounded on three sides by roots with the dirt still clinging to and between them.
It took me only a couple of hours to gather enough evergreen boughs to wall off the open side of the hollow, and to extend the overhead coverage to meet the outer wall.
It was musty in the hollow, smelling of damp earth and cut pine. I had been careful to take only one or two branches from each pine tree, and none nearer than a hundred yards from my shelter.
I used the small shovel from my pack to dig the hollow a little deeper, forming a shelf for sitting and sleeping and a small area to build a fire. The arrangement would let the heat of the fire reflect back against the shelf where I figured to spend most of my time.
At one end of the hollow I dug a deep hole for a toilet and then left the shelter to scavenge firewood.
I had nearly a cord of good sized pieces of wood by the time the snow got heavy enough to make going out of the shelter again too dangerous.
I spread my blankets on the shelf and then built a pocket-sized fire.
As I had intended, what little smoke the fire produced was diffused as it filtered up and out through the thick mat of evergreen boughs that I had woven as a roof for my little hidey-hole.
I had found several flattish stones as I had dug the trench and the shelf. Now I placed these near the fire to absorb heat. When the fire had burned down to coals, I used some hastily made tongs to move the heated rocks over to the back of the sleeping shelf. They would provide heat for a good while before they cooled. And so I wrapped myself in my blankets and dropped quickly into a deep and dreamless sleep.
I was awakened hours later by a whining and snuffling sound from just outside my shelter.
It sounded like a dog, but considering where I was I figured a wolf would be a more likely source for the noises.
I sat up as quietly as I could, hoping the wind that was now moaning above my shelter would mask any noises I might make as I drew my sword and then strung my longbow.
I should have known that an animals hearing would pick my sounds out over the natural sounds of the storm.
The whines outside changed to an even more pitiable pitch and urgency. Sighing and knowing I would likely regret the decision, I moved out of the trench and over to the outer wall.
It was stout enough to discourage most smaller animals and slow bigger ones enough to give me a halfway decent chance at defending myself. (or escaping if that seemed to be the prudent course.)
I peered out through a small opening left for that purpose and immediately spotted a grey shape through the blowing snow.
It was a wolf all right, a young one, and from the way it was moving, it was injured.
I eased a flap of the wall open and moved back to see what would happen, keeping my blade ready in my hand.
The wolf eased closer cautiously and poked its head inside the shelter to look around. It saw me and gazed at me for a long moment before looking around at the rest of the shelter.
I stood there patiently until the wolf made up its mind and wormed the rest of the way into the hollow.
I refastened the flap of wall and moved back to the shelf, keeping a prudent distance from my canine visitor.
Now I could see the long shallow gash that ran from shoulder to haunch on one side of the wolf and the stub of an arrow protruding from the back on the same side.
The wolf panted as it looked around, then fixed its gaze on me again. After a while it gave a sort of sigh and slipped down to lay in the bottom of the trench.
I dug into my pack and took out some sausage and hardtack. The wolf looked up at me when I laid them down next to it, then lowered its head and ate almost daintily.
I filled a wooden bowl with snow and melted it beside the coals of the fire.
When the bowl was half full of water, I put it down next to the wolf and let it drink deeply.
I peered closer at the arrow in the wolf's back. From this angle I could see that the arrowhead had actually passed clear through the skin on the top of the shoulder. It should be possible to just pull the rest of the arrow stub on through and out, but I had no idea of how to do it without the wolf chewing me to doll rags in the process. Finished with the water and the food, the wolf sat up gingerly and laid its head on my lap. I gently scratched behind its ears and stroked its head and neck, getting a few weary tails wags for my efforts.
Finally I decided I just had to try to get that damn arrow stub out of there. Talking soothingly to the animal, I eased my hand down to the arrowhead and gently grasped it. The wolf flinched a little and whined again, but offered no other protest. I slowly applied pressure and the arrow shaft began to slip free.
The wolf whimpered but stayed still as I finished withdrawing the stub of the arrow shaft from its shoulder.
I resumed scratching behind its ears and petting it until it relaxed again. Finally the wolf lay down on the floor of the trench and put it's head down on its forepaws.
I examined the arrowhead and the stump of the arrow shaft I had removed from the wolf. The arrowhead looked to be bronze and was razor sharp. It was bound to the shaft with thin metal wires. The shaft itself was ordinary wood that I couldn't identify and was devoid of markings of any kind.
I tossed the arrow stub onto the fire. Maybe later I could salvage the arrowhead.
The wolf eased onto its side and sighed again as I added a bit more fuel to the fire.
Now I could see that it was a young bitch wolf. If I could judge it's age by dogs I had raised and known, she was about a year old, maybe a little younger.
I wondered where the rest of her pack was. And who had attacked her and why.
Then I lay down on the shelf again with my hand wrapped firmly around the hilt of my sword. The questions could wait unto morning.
The next time I woke up it was because something had just ripped the roof of woven boughs completely off the shelter.
The wolf was on her feet, crouched beside me in the trench, her fur standing on end and a soundless snarl proclaimed her fury for all to see.
I snatched up my longbow and nocked an arrow as I stared around wildly looking for what the hell had just opened the little hollow like a man pulling the tab off a beer can
When the front wall tore away I could finally see what it was. Not that seeing it helped me to identify the damn thing. .
It looked like a centaur gone horribly wrong.
The lower, horizontal, body looked more like that of a rhino while the upright section looked more like a fucking gorilla. It grunted as it spotted me.
The wolf finally gave voice to a howl of rage and launched herself at the throat of whatever the hell that centaur thing was. This bought me the time I needed to take a quick aim at the monster's now wide-open mouth.
The first arrow just pierced the cheek of the beast and had the effect of pissing it off even more.
The wolf was just leaping for the thing again when the monster swung an arm that bent in too many places and in the wrong ways. But odd as the arm looked, it and the huge fist at the end were strong as hell.
The wolf was caught in the side in mid-leap and hurled to side. The wolf landed in a snowdrift a dozen yards away and yelped as she tried desperately to flounder her way to her feet.
As the monster turned its attention back to me again, my second arrow buried itself to the feathers in the creature's belly. It grabbed at the wound with both hands and bent the upright portion of its body forward until it was nearly parallel with the ground. I dropped the bow and snatched up my axe as I sprang forward. I figured the axe stood a better chance of dealing a fatal blow than my sword. I still wasn't much good with a sword, but swinging an axe just takes strength and a decent aim.
The axe bit deeply into the creature right at the juncture between the shoulders and the neck, chopping through the spine.
The centauroid convulsed once and then went limp.
I stood there gasping, splashed with the creature's blood, smelling the stench as its bowels loosed in death and leaned on my axe to steady myself.
The wolf managed to work her way out of the snowdrift and limped back to my side. She sniffed me, and then the dead monster.
Suddenly her head came up and she looked back past me with a growl. I spun around to see a dozen or more big cats emerging from the shadows of the tree line.
I took a grip on my axe and hefted it, but I didn't have a lot of hope for the coming fight. The smallest of the approaching cats was the size of an African lion, and the others were a lot bigger.
Much to my surprise the biggest of the cats, a huge male easily the size of a Kodiak bear from back home stood erect on it's hind legs and studied me.
I looked back, noting the flecks of gray among the roan coloration of his muzzle.
Standing, he had the appearance of a giant cat-headed human male, covered in short dense fur much like the catkin that I had become so familiar with.
Taking a gamble, I bowed my head without taking my eyes off him for an instant. "Greetings My Lord." I said.
The man-cat didn't respond for a long moment, then nodded back. "Human."
The other cats stopped their approach and either stood erect for a better look or lay down in indolent poses that didn't fool me for an instant.
These must me the others that Varra and Chenna had told me about, the other side of the catkin coin.
Just when I was about to say something, the big man-cat spoke again. "You are not like the other humans we sometimes find in our valley. You do not bluster about your power nor do you plead for mercy."
I gave him a tight smile. "There is a time for talk and a time for fighting."
This brought a chuckle from the big man-cat. "It wouldn't be much of a fight human."
I deliberately let my axe droop to the ground and leaned on it. "Oh I don't know about that," I replied. "I'd surely get at least one of you. And probably cripple a couple more." I paused. "But I would rather talk than fight, and I would really rather just collect my things and be on my way."
The big man-cat cocked his head to the side and seemed to grin at me. "And just where would you be going in our realm and what would you be doing when you get there?"
I shrugged, seeing no further risk in telling the truth of the purpose of my journey. "I am seeking a sorceress named Merinel. And when I find her, I intend to slay her."
Several of the assembled cat folk rumbled loudly at the mention of Merinel's name.
The Man-cat considered this for a moment, then nodded. "You may travel our realm in peace," he said at last. But we will be watching you. And if you prove to be false you will die."
"That is only fair my lord." I replied. Then I had another thought, "There is someone following me on my journey. I don't know who or why, but I would like you to allow them to pass as well."
The man-cat cocked his head again and looked at me quizzically. "So be it."
Then he turned and vanished into the trees again, followed by the rest of the cat folk.
I looked down at the wolf. "Well, are you coming too?"
She just gave me a dirty look and then went over to the carcass of the monster and began to feed.
When I got my belongings gathered and packed, the wolf trotted over to pace alongside me as I made my way back to the road and set off up the valley.
I stopped at a stream that crossed the road not long after to wash the blood from my hands and face, then took the opportunity to change clothes. I didn't want to alarm anyone I might happen to meet on the way. However I encountered no one until the road climbed up and out of the valley and over the crest of the next pass.
There, leaning against a pillar of rock were a very familiar group of people.
"You didn't really think you could get away with doing this all on your own did you?" Asked Marcus with a sardonic smile.
Jessie came over slowly and hugged me, then stepped back and belted me with a right cross that damn near broke my jaw.
I stood there and rubbed the spot where she had slugged me. "I guess she's a bit pissed huh?" I winked at Marcus.
Jesse growled and acted like she was going to clobber me again, but stopped when the wolf came up to stand next to my leg and growl back at her.
"I had my reasons," I told them. "Traveling alone was, and still is, safer."
"How so?" Chenna asked.
"Simple," I replied. "Anyone who knows us at all knows us as a tight knit group." "Therein lies out strength," stated Marcus.
"In this case it's also our weakness," I said. "We know that Merinel can kill at a considerable distance, but she has to know her target before she can hit it."
Jesse nodded slowly, her face still an impassive mask.
"She doubtless knows that we are after her hide by now, and she'll be watching for a group such as ours to be headed her way. But what she won't be looking for is a single pack peddler wandering through just selling odds and ends."
I looked over at my catkin mistresses. "By the way, I met some of your cousins down in the valley back there," I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "They were impressive."
Varra chuckled. "You must have impressed them as well since you survived the encounter. They do not care much for humans."
"So how did you track me?" I asked. "I thought I had covered my tracks pretty well."
"So you did," Said Marcus. "We had no clues where you had gone until yesterday."
"Malla told us where you were." Jessie said. "The Goddess brought her to us a few nights after you two parted company." She gave me a narrow look, "And she had quite a tale to tell us."
I wasn't sure just how much trouble I was in with my wife, but I had the feeling that I would be making up for this little escapade for a long time.
"Where is she now?" I asked.
"She is at home, waiting for us to return. IF we return," said Jessie.
Well, that was one less worry.
"So how did you get here ahead of me?" I asked. "Was that you following me the last few days?"
They all looked startled. "Skyfire brought us and put us down here last night," said Varra. "Are you sure someone was following you?" Asked Jessie. "Very sure," I answered.
I sighed. "We are within a half days march of Merinel's stronghold now. So I suppose that we should stick together now that you're here."
Marcus shrugged a pack off his shoulder and opened it. Inside was my gun belt and weapons.
I strapped on my gun belt and immediately felt a lot better.
Jessie reached up and stroked my clean-shaven cheek. "I think I liked the beard better," she said musingly.
"Then I shall grow it back when all this is over," I told her. Then I took her in my arms and kissed her soundly.
Of course Varra and Chenna had to get their hugs and kisses in as well, although they were somewhat hampered by their wariness of the wolf. But that one just sat down and panted and ignored the goings on.
The valley that now lay before us was as densely wooded as the previous valley had been. But instead of oak, elm, and pine there were massive gnarled trees with bark that reminded me uncomfortably of reptilian scales and the leaves and odd shaped fruits had an oily sheen to them.
The air smelled like damp moldy earth and no breeze blew to freshen the atmosphere.
We were all on edge and terse with each other as we moved deeper into the valley.
No birds sang, no small creatures rustled leaves or bushes, and the only stream we had passed we didn't dare drink from.
Wolf trotted up ahead of the group, taking point and Marcus was bringing up the rear. Jessie was right behind me and a little to my left with the catkin sisters walking side by side a few yards in front of Marcus and a few yards behind Jessie.
There was a roar of noise behind me and I spun around to see Marcus, Chenna and Varra being swarmed by dozens of the centaur-apes like the one I had killed over in the other valley. It was over before I had a chance to react, the trio had been seized rendered unconscious and carried off into the forest.
To my surprise, none of the centauroids tried to come after Jessie and I. In fact, they didn't seem to even notice us, as if we were invisible.
Jessie wanted to give chase right away. For that matter so did I. But warning bells were going off in my mind when I looked at those trees.
"Not yet my love," I told Jessie as she wept in helpless frustration. "We will rescue them, or avenge them in due time. But we'll need help and lots of it. And to get that help, we'll have to get rid of Merinel so that she doesn't fry all of our
Jessie didn't like it much, but she could see the truth of my reasoning. Merinel was the bigger threat at the moment.
We started back on down the valley at a considerably faster pace.
Wolf took point again, although she stayed a lot closer now, and she acted like she knew where we were headed, so I was content to follow her lead. For certain she was no ordinary wolf.
We soon came into sight of a large fortified keep with curtain walls surrounding a central tower.
I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was Merinel's stronghold. The keep was situated atop a sheer cliff with a single trail leading up to it that was clearly visible along it's entire length by anyone in the keep who bothered to look down even casually. I mentally marked that route as last choice and stood there a few yards back in the trees studying the layout. The keep was backed by more sheer cliffs rising up a good thousand feet before starting to slope more gently toward the top of the mountain, and on top of the peak of the mountain was another, smaller stone tower. Undoubtedly that would be a lookout post that commanded a view of the entire valley.
Before I had come to this world, I would never have considered scaling the cliff even in broad daylight much less at night. But I had been adapted to this world, and my night vision was nearly as good as the natives of this realm. And I had lost my beer belly long ago. I figured that we stood a decent chance of making it to the keep walls unseen. As to what we would do once we got there, I had absolutely no idea. No doubt I would think of something when we got there. Or Jessie would figure something out. No matter, we had a few hours to kill before dark, so I took Jessie and wolf and retreated a little further back into the trees.
I spread a blanket on the ground in a small clearing and Jessie and I lay down side by side to rest and talk. We had a lot of catching up to do.
Wolf lay down near us for a while, then got up and silently eased off into the forest.
Jessie and I talked for a long time, and then we wriggled out of our clothes. The odds were that one or both of us wouldn't survive until dawn, so we wanted to make love while we had the chance.
Our first coupling was fast and urgent, no finesse at all, just naked lust. Later bouts were slower, gentler and much more satisfying.
Jessie seemed determined to have as much of my seed in her belly as she could draw out of me. I wondered if she was trying for pregnancy or if she had another motive, but I was too busy trying to bury as much of myself in her as I could. I had missed my beloved wife while on my journey, and even the interludes with Malla had been unsatisfying in comparison to the real thing.
At long last, we just lay together, holding each other and relishing the feel of skin on skin, conserving our energies for the long night ahead.
Around dusk Wolf came back acting very pleased with herself.
Jessie and I dressed and equipped ourselves from my pack. Wolf obviously wanted us to follow her, so we did. She led us to the base of the cliff where she wriggled between a clump of bushes and the rock wall.
Jessie and I followed her to a cave mouth that was screened by the bushes. No one would be able to see the opening from the other side of the bushes. The opening was small enough that Jessie and I had to go on our hands and knees for a while, then the cave opened out enough for us to stand upright without bumping our heads
The floor of the cave was relatively smooth, and when I made a makeshift torch and lit it, I could see that the cave sloped upwards and vanished around a corner a few yards further on.
Jessie stayed close as I followed wolf deeper into the cave.
The roof of the cave stayed far enough up that we could continue to walk upright, and the walls were easily far enough apart for us to walk side by side in comfort.
As we walked, I rechecked my equipment. Several hundred feet of rope in a coil slung over one shoulder, my longbow and quiver of a dozen arrows, my bowie knife and the .45, and a half-dozen pouches containing odds and ends.
Jessie was equipped much the same.
Neither of us spoke. We didn't have to.
The cave wound around, sometimes to the left and sometimes to the right, and always trending upward at about a 20-degree angle.
It took is almost 6 hours to reach the far end of the cave. We emerged from the cave behind another clump of bushes that grew between the cliff face and the keep's curtain wall.
I extinguished the torch before exiting the cave and then had to let my eyes adjust to the lower light level. Jessie was already standing there, screened by the bushes as she studied the wall of the keep. Wolf had vanished again.
Atop the wall we could see sentries posted about 30 yards apart. I probably shouldn't have been surprised to see that the sentries were those centaur-apes, but I hadn't expected them for some reason.
Simply picking off the sentries with our longbows was out of the question. Those monsters weren't easy to kill, and there were too many to kill without at least one giving the alarm.
I decided to wait for dawn, I had the feeling that the sentries would be a little more lax then.
Jessie and I retreated back into the cave and rested, sitting together there in the dark, our backs against the cave wall and our sides touching.
"What do we do now?" she whispered.
"Unless Merinel's a total idiot, she has a back way out of her fortress, just in case she has to escape. That's going to be our way in." I whispered back.
It was almost time to leave the cave and start our hunt for the keeps back door when Wolf showed up again. We had followed her this far, I thought, might as well continue to do so.
Wolf led us out of the cave and over about 50 feet to a spot on the wall that looked to me like every other part of the wall around it. Jessie started running her hands over the surface of the wall where Wolf indicated until something went 'click' and a small part of the wall slid noiselessly inward, and then sideways.
We wasted no time in slipping inside. The door closed behind us, leaving us in total darkness.
Jessie eased forward, her hand outstretched to touch the wall beside her, and her other hand out in front of her to keep her from bumping her nose on anything.
I kept one hand on my bowie knife and the other on Jessie's shoulder as we moved. Wolf brought up the rear.
The passage led us to another concealed door, and from there it was a short stroll to an unguarded door that led into the keep proper.
We went through the door and found ourselves in a darkened hallway.
A few yards in Jessie found a thick drapery and stopped. She peeked around it and found herself looking into a wide, well-lit hallway with doors piercing the walls at irregular intervals and stone columns in niches every dozen yards or so. It was deserted. She let me look, and then we moved on out into the light.
I looked around and Wolf was gone again.
Jessie looked at me quizzically. I shrugged and pointed left. We went that way.
We met no one in the hallway, although we could hear the noises as people moved about the keep's morning routine.
I noticed a small alcove behind a pillar and pulled Jessie into it A small slit in the back of the alcove looked out over the keep's main hall. There were a few humans and a couple of the centaur-apes going about various tasks.
As we looked, I saw Wolf casually stroll up to one of the humans. She changed.
She seemed to blur a little, then her body stretched up and out until she solidified again into a lovely woman who bore a striking resemblance to Jessie.
Jessie was trembling against my side. I slipped an arm around her and gestured for silence with my other hand. I wanted to hear what Wolf/Merinel was saying.
"Captain, I have led my sister and her world walker mate into the keep. Find them and capture them, but they are not to be harmed yet." She said.
The captain bowed. "It shall be as you wish my lady."
"The other prisoners?" Merinel asked.
"They are secure in the cells below." Replied the captain. "The man and the catkin females killed 4 guards and injured a dozen more before they could be securely chained. Their equipment is in your rooms as you instructed."
"And that hunter who nearly killed me?" Merinel demanded.
"He is down in the interrogation cell unharmed." Said the captain. "I thought that you would prefer to conduct his questioning yourself."
I thought about taking out my .45 and shooting her right then, but regretfully decided not to take the chance. I would only get one shot, and the angle was wrong for precise shooting. Anything less than an instant kill and Jessie and I would be fried.
We waited there until Merinel had resumed wolf form and left. Once she was gone, I took Jessie's hand as we left the alcove and hurried down the hallway at a fast walk. Activity picked up around us as the captain organized the search for us. Without knowing the layout of the keep all we could do was to keep moving and hope that we would find out way to our friends before the guards found us.
There came a roar of fury and sudden screams from the outer courtyard. All of a sudden there were people and creatures running everywhere. A good many ran straight past us without giving us a second glance. I wasn't sure what was going on, but Jessie had a small smile on her face as we broke into a run.
I found a staircase heading downward and we took it. The stairs ended in a guard-room with tables, benches and a half dozen startled looking humans just now rising to see what the commotion was all about.
Jessie reacted faster than I did, drawing her .45 and opening fire. I drew my own pistol, but by then the guards were all down and Jessie was headed for a ring of keys that was visible on the belt of one of the downed guards.
The cells holding Marcus and the catkin girls were just a few doors down and it didn't take long for us to free them. All three were bruised and battered but able to function.
I gave Marcus my bowie knife and Jessie had long slim daggers for Chenna and Varra. I looked into the other cells as we passed them and opened any of the cells that held live occupants. If nothing else, they would add to the confusion upstairs.
In a cell down at the very end of the short hallway I found a man strapped to a table with various instruments of torture laid out neatly on tables and stands next to him.
"This must be the hunter Merinel spoke of," Jessie hissed in my ear. I nodded and opened the cell door.
I had to use a hammer and chisel to break the metal bands that held the man to the table, but we soon had him free.
"I don't know who you are," he said as he took the short handled sledgehammer from me. "But you have my eternal gratitude."
"Introductions can wait," I said. "For now let's concentrate of getting out of here and finding Merinel."
The man nodded and we left the cellblock and headed back up the stairs. The hunter stopped long enough to loot a sword belt and sword from one of the dead guards. The other prisoners had likewise armed themselves and then swarmed up the stairs looking for either an escape or someone to slay.
Marcus and Chenna took the lead of our group and we went upstairs far more cautiously than the mob of released prisoners had.
Upstairs the scene was one of total chaos. People were running back and forth in a panic. I caught enough of what they were screaming about to figure out that the commotion outside was caused by a very pissed off dragon rampaging about in the courtyard.
We were almost at the main doors of the keep when Merinel appeared in front of us in a flash of light. She glared at us and gestured. We dropped our weapons as they suddenly glowed red hot and stood there as she strode forward.
Merinel sneered at us. "Did you really think that you could come into my own home and defeat me?"
I folded my arms and looked back at her levelly. "Well, that was the plan, and as you can see, here you are in front of us now."
She gave a silvery laugh. " And yet you are unarmed and helpless. I could kill you all right now."
"There are 6 of us and you are alone," I said. "Surely one of us would live long enough to get to you."
I was stalling for time. The hunter had slipped off to the side, partially concealed by the smoke coming into the room from outside and partially by the way the rest of us had spread out to confront Merinel. I noticed that he still held his hammer. The metal head was glowing red-hot, but the wooden handle was evidently still cool enough for him to carry it.
I kept her talking and focused on me. The more time the hunter had to get set, the better chance he had to get to her. I braced myself to rush Merinel when the Hunter attacked, and knew that the others were just waiting their chance as well.
There was a sudden BOOM as something hit the doors of the keep. Something very large and heavy.
Merinel reflexively glanced that way and the hunter made his move. He came forward in a silent gliding rush, his hammer already swinging up and back for the one blow that he would get.
Merinel's head snapped back around to us and her eyes just had time to widen as the hunter struck.
Sorceress she might be, and powerful enough to slay from miles away, but 10 pounds of red-hot iron embedded in her brain through a shattered skull made all of that meaningless.
Merinel made a gurgling noise as she dropped limply to the floor, her limbs jerking and twitching involuntarily.
The stink of cooking meat and singed hair combined with other stinks as she voided herself.
Then it was over. Merinel was dead.
Marcus moved to stand next to the body of his sister for a moment, then he stood and sighed. "We'll take her body home as proof that she's dead." He said wearily. "And she'll be buried in the family crypt."
Jessie buried her face against my shoulder and wept.
The hunter stooped and worked the hammer free from Merinel's shattered skull, then cast it aside. "Now I can rest easier," he said.
We invited the hunter to accompany us back to the city but he declined with a shake of his head and a weary smile. "My thanks," he said. "But I just want to go home and try to put my life back together."
By the time we managed to get outside, all of the guards were either dead or had managed to escape out of the keep. Skyfire was pacing back and forth in the narrow space between the curtain wall and the keep itself looking for someone else to flame or chomp.
"Greetings Brother Dragon," I called up to him.
The big dragon bent his neck to peer down at us. "Is the sorceress dead?" he rumbled.
"She is," Marcus nodded to the body in his arms. "Might we prevail upon you to return us to our home?"
Several days later I was relaxing back in the rooms that I shared with Jessie and our catkin mistresses, enjoying a hot bath when Malla came into the room. She was wearing the shorts and halter top that Jessie, Varra and Chenna favored. "I wanted to thank you again for the kindness that you have shown me," she said. "But what happens now?"
"Now, we take it easy until the next crisis pops up," I told her with a crooked grin. "In the meantime, why don't you join me here in the bath?"
"I mean where do I go from here?" she asked as she began slipping out of her clothing. "I have no family or home since the fire."
"You can live here with us," Jessie said from behind her as she started to undress herself. "You will always be welcome in our home. You are family now."
Malla's eyes filled with tears. "Thank you my lady," she managed to say.
Then both women were in the tub with me, crying on each other's shoulders. I just sat back and let them get over their crying jag.
Ranal poked his head into the room. "Bill, Jules wants to see you as soon as we can get there."
I sighed and started to push myself up and out of the tub. "Ranal, your buddy Jules has the lousiest sense of timing..."
But to tell the truth, I was actually looking forward to whatever the king had in store for me next. After all, it couldn't be as bad as the quest to stop Merinel.
Aug 17, 2018 in romance