Township of Alvindale, Értha Territory, Wylding Lands,

Luinyr, 73rd of Red Leaf, Empire Year 27

8.25 p.m.

The first snow of the year was falling gently over the port city of Alvindale, hushing down onto the rooftops, where it slowly built into a frosting of white crystals, turning each building into a fancy cake, glittering in the lights of the town's fires.

As was usual anymore, the gates of the city's massive walls were open, even this late at night. The men and women of the 4th Lance, 11th Imperial Infantry, who were stationed there, quite enjoyed their posting, as Alvindale, once a dangerous, terrifying frontier fortress meant to act as a staging place for military raids by the Kingdom of Dulcitter into the Wylding Lands, hunting slaves and other valuables, was now a quiet, peaceful harbour town. Especially at this time of year, when there was little trade going on.

Gael Ni Morda and Gareth Mac Hilde were two of the soldiers on duty at the East Gate tonight. They stood at their posts on the right side of the massive double gates.

They were bundled tightly in cloaks, hose, breeches, two different tunics and thick woollen watch caps under their helmets and hoods, to keep warm in the bitterly cold night.

They stood, stamping their calf boots, which were tucked under a pair of knee high, boiled leather leggings that they wore as both armour and cold weather gear, on the ground in an effort to keep them from getting too wet and cold.

Gael glanced up at the gates and once again, for the hundredth time, marvelled at their construction.

There were actually two different sets of gates; one was on the exterior of the wall and opened outwards, the other was on the interior of the wall, opening inwards. It was on the opposite end of a thirty foot long tunnel that bored its way right under the wall.

The gates themselves were made of two foot thick pillars of oak. The shortest, out on the edges, nearly ten feet high, with the tallest in the centre being twice that. There was still ten more feet of solid stone wall above the gates before your eyes ran into the crenelated parapet, and the walls completely encircled the town, stretching out for a grand total of nearly fifteen square miles.

It was impressive. Completely unnecessary in this modern day and age, but still impressive.

She yawned and stamped her feet, shivering, and glanced aside at Gareth.

"Ya still got summa that mead?" She asked softly, hoping that the men on the other side of the gate, about forty feet away, would not hear.

She wasn't worried about being turned in for drinking whilst on watch. The force was pretty lax around here, and it was expected on cold nights like this. No, she wasn't worried about that, but rather that the two men would come over and try to bum some of the mead off of them. She was too damn cold to go sharing something like that.

Gareth, to her eternal joy, nodded and smiled, and pulled a thermos out from under his cloak and popped the cap off. She took it into her hand and breathed deeply of the scent of the hot, spiced honey wine.

Thank the gods for the Mancers and their little gadgets and gizmos.

She was not certain about a lot of the things that the weird buggers did over in their college in Dulcitter, but she was certain that, whatever destructive, evil things they might get up to, the thermos would more than make up for it.

Tipping it back, she took a deep pull of the warm liquor. She sighed as it worked its way down her throat and into her belly, where it settled, spreading a comforting warmth through her, much needed on a night like this. She handed the thermos back to Gareth, and he took a long drink, then put the lid back on and tucked it away again.

"Oi! Was that some of Doc Farley's spiced mead?"

Bollocks! She cursed to herself. One of the other guards, a bumpkin from rural Susall named Cul Mac Efith, had spotted her getting a drink and had ambled over with his partner, another hick named Ferghus Mac Clara.

"What's it t' ye if 'tis, Cul?" Gareth asked calmly. Gael turned and smiled at the big Susallan slightly, while inside she was thinking that she'd like nothing better than to shove her Guttercat, the short, heavy broadswords used by the regular soldiers of the army, right up Cul's ass.

Cul grinned a little lopsidedly and shrugged one shoulder. "Whu' d'ya want fer it?" he asked in his deep, rumbling voice, layered thickly with the quaint sounding accent of his native land.

Gareth made a show of thinking about it, tapping his chin with one finger, then smiled. "I know! Ye can have a drink o' it, jest one, mind, if y' go down to the cookhouse an' fetch us up some o' the pork they got up there. What say ye t' that?"

His rich, Kranean lilt filled the air with music, and Gael, a native of Dulcitter with its harsher, more clipped sounding notes, blushed under her hood at the thoughts it put into her head.

She had been labouring under a severe crush for the lanky ex-bard ever since they first met. Or maybe it was just a major case of horny. She didn't know, and, to be honest, she didn't care. She figured one of these nights she'd jump his bones and that would be that.

Cul screwed his face up in thought for a moment and then brightened up. "Whu' if I get Fergie 'ere t' go an' fetch it fer ya? Ya gi' me a drink, then, eh?"

Gareth again seemed to think for a long moment, until the other two were tapping their feet in the snow in impatience, then he nodded, slowly. "Well . . . A'right, then, ye got yerself a deal, so ye have."

Cul smiled and turned on his companion. "Well, yew 'eard 'im, Fergie. Go an' git yon meat fer 'em, eh?" Fergie snapped a smart salute by striking his chest with his fist and then lifting it in the air, nodded, turned on one heel and walked off, making a bee-line for the cookhouse, inside the wall.

"Well, 'e's off, then. 'Ow about ya gi' me m' drink now, eh?"

Gareth cocked his head. "What? Before we even see if he's got what he's been sent fer? Now, I may be young, but I was no' born yesterday, t' be sure, boyo." Cul looked grumpy for a moment, but then shrugged and stepped back, turning to look through the gate.

He saw a small figure in a long cloak hurrying down the tunnel into the town. "Wait . . . 'oo's that, then?" he asked, puzzled. Gael looked up and blanched.

"Bugger, we musta missed 'em goin' through the gate while we was talkin'!" she said, flinching mentally at how bad her voice sounded in comparison to Gareth's, which followed a moment after hers, while he placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her going after the person.

"Probably jest a traveller lookin' to get into the warm and out o' this abysmal cold. Would ye begrudge 'im that, and keep 'im out longer than needs be, by chasin' the poor soul down and talkin' 'is lug off, would y'?"

She smiled just to have him talking to her, even if she did blush in embarrassment. "I guess yer roight. I mean, it's not like any trouble'll come of it, roight?"

"Right y' are, lassie" he said, smiling, and patted her shoulder before turning back to the lookout for Fergie. Gael turned to it as well, still smiling at his touch on her shoulder.

8.36 p.m.

Ferghus nodded to the older woman running the cookhouse and walked out the door, taking a bite from a roll she had given him, the pork wrapped in butcher's paper and held in his other hand. The scent was wafting up from it and he could feel the heat through the paper. The thought of it left him drooling. He satisfied himself with munching on the roll, knowing what Cul would do to him if he showed up without the pork.

On the way, he passed a small figure hunched over in a cloak; a lengthy bundle just a little shorter than it was tied to its back. He got the sense that the figure paused for a moment as it passed him, before continuing on along its way.

He was almost back to the gate when he felt a sudden pang from his bladder. Bugger, he thought to himself, looking up through the not too distant gates at where his friends stood waiting for him. Then he felt another, sharper pang and turned, looking for a quiet place to take care of his business. He spotted a stack of barrels behind one of the stable buildings, and turned and walked over to it, tucking the wrapped meat into an interior pocket of his heavy cloak. Stepping around behind the barrels, he glanced around for a moment, but saw no one but for a sleeping draft horse a few metres away, beyond the corral's split-rail fence.

He undid his belt, his sword clanking as it came loose and the hilt knocked against one of the barrels. He pulled up both tunics and tugged down his breeches and hose, shivering at the touch of the bitterly cold air on his privates. He got himself arranged and placed a hand on the stone side of the building, feeling the cold even through his gauntlets and groaned as he began to urinate. He'd been doing it a lot more frequently, over the last year or so, and had learned that when he needed to go, he had to go, right then, and be damned to the circumstances.

He had heard that could be a bad sign, but was too frightened to go see the medico with it. For one thing, the medico was an older woman who reminded him of his mother, and the thought of her playing 'round with his wanker was enough to make him go blank for a moment, and, for another, what if she said that he had it? He did not particularly care what it was. All he knew was that he didn't want it. He was distracted by such thoughts, and as such did not hear the soft hush of movement behind him.

This really wasn't his fault, as not much happened that was interesting in Alvindale, except for the nights when they were on leave and he could go down to the Parted Change and get snockered drunk and watch some pretty girls dance around without much clothing on.

Add onto that the soft hush of falling snow and the nearly supernatural quiet of the movement, and it was no wonder he didn't hear anything, or notice when the horse twitched awake and lifted its head to stare at something coming up behind him.

Indeed, he may never have noticed that something was amiss at all, had he not reached up to scratch an itch under his arm and touched a small hand covered in fur that was reaching for the pocket that held the wrapped meat.

He yelped loudly and spun, inadvertently wetting his boots down, and saw the small figure in the cloak. It lifted its head with a surprised jerk that caused the hood to slip back, and he saw the lupine features of a young Falka wylding, a little hollow of cheek and slightly bright eyed with what was evidently a damned strong hunger.

Something in the face said that she was a female, but he wasn't exactly sure what, as there were none of the clues that you got with humans.

The pup snarled, fangs flashing wickedly in the dim, ethereal light that reflected up off of the snowy ground, and started backing away. As she did so, Ferghus saw that she had actually managed to snag the paper the meat was wrapped in with one claw, and was now holding it close to her cloaked chest.

"Oi!" he exclaimed and made a staggering move forward and she jerked to the side with a sudden motion. He felt something tangle his feet and he dropped like a stone, face first into the snow.

He heard a small, dry coughing sound that a second later his muzzy brain identified as the laughter of a wylding, followed by sharp motion and sudden silence. Looking up a moment later, he found himself alone with his pants around his ankles and no meat.

It was the trousers that had tripped him, and he glared down at them, only to become rather abruptly aware of a growing frozen feeling in a not very good location. He jumped up with a yelp, scrambling to get his pants pulled up before his pecker froze off.

He glanced around again while he pulled his pants up and buckled his belt, but the little cur was gone, and the snow was already well on its way to filling up her tracks. She had gotten away.

With the pork.

Cul was going to go spare!

"Oh, bugger me" he muttered to himself and turned and walked slowly away towards the gate, practicing a few excuses under his breath. "There was four of 'em, Cul. They was big, huge lads, an' they all 'ad big, huge clubs. . . ."


Myrkín Rn`Keir knelt in the shadows of one of the stalls in the stable and ripped open the package of meat. She nearly cried when she saw the rich tender pork inside, still slightly pink in the middle. She tore into it without further ado; fangs slashing through meat as well as any knife might, while she clutched it tightly in her claws.

She had not eaten in nearly four days, except for one small squirrel stupid enough to fall into one of her traps. A few berries and some tubers along the way had not made up for the lack of good, red meat.

This was cooked a touch more thoroughly than she liked and it had an odd, sharp flavour that Myrkín, who had never before been to Alvindale, or seen a human beyond a couple of traders who came to her village once a season, attributed to the overcooking. Although, it smelled much like the strange herbs that the two men she knew of would try to sell them, but it was still meat, and that was all that she really cared about.

She had it half eaten inside a minute, and it wasn't a small amount. She slowed down and ate another quarter of it while she peeked out of her hiding spot and looked around to make sure that there was no one about.

Other than the horses in their stalls, and those who were out in the fields inside the fence, she was alone.

She took the moment, as she had up in the foothills when the settlement first came into view, to marvel at the sight of a human city.

It was huge. Bigger than anything she had ever laid eyes on before. The buildings were massive, some of them standing sixty or seventy paw-lengths high, filled with holes that had been filled with some sort of clear, wavy material that felt like crystal, but was more transparent. And there were hundreds of them, all grouped together in a rambling cluster inside the massive stone walls.

She tucked what was left of the meat into her bag, which hung in front of the knee length kilt she wore, made of light, soft doeskin, settled her dagger on her right side and the long package on her back.

The package was important. It held the sword that had caused all of her problems, and had also solved many of them.

The weapon was of human make, about six paw-lengths long, with a cross shaped guard and a big ring shaped pommel through which you could see the tang. A little over a quarter of the long, double-edged blade was blunt, apparently on purpose, though, what use this served she could not begin to fathom. The flat of it was etched with some sort of symbols, which appeared to be human writing. The grip was wrapped in some faded red cloth that was soft to the touch, like a puppy's fur. Its scabbard was made in similar fashion, covered in the same soft red cloth and fitted with silver pieces at the mouth, centre and tip.

Her mother's father had claimed it off a dead, human warrior; one of the class who rode the big feral stallions, or so she had been told.

A few months earlier, her father, one of the warriors of her village, had come to the konin, the small hut that Myrkín shared with her mother. He had been drinking and was there to try to lay with her. Her mother did not like to bed him when he was drunk, and would tell him so in no uncertain terms. Usually he would accept this, after some wheedling and grouching, and leave. But that night he hadn't.

That night, he had started beating her mother, badly. At first, Myrkín had tried to hide, but then he began to use his claws and fangs, biting and ripping at her mother. Thinking to run for help, Myrkín had fled from her hiding spot, but had tripped over something lying on the ground just before the doorway to their konin. She looked down to see her grandfather's sword tangled in her paws, and, looking past that, her mother lying limply on the floor, staring at her with dimming eyes, twitching slightly as blood poured from her throat.

It had been savaged beyond any Shithan's ability to heal, and her father was standing over her, dripping blood and staring at her in a dazed manner, as though he wasn't certain what had just happened.

Myrkín had felt a red mist close over her mind, and, as spots of red flame danced in her vision, she had snatched up the huge sword, pulled it free of the fancy sheath and, not even feeling the weight in her rage, had whipped it through a wide arc that passed through her father's stomach and ended with the blade buried several inches into one of the wooden pillars that supported the konin.

The village guards, hearing the disturbance, had come running and found her father and mother dead on the ground, and Myrkín kneeling beside them, weeping silently, while her hands rested on her mother's body.

She felt certain at the time that she would be vindicated. That her father's body would be thrown into the woods to allow the feral cousins to deal with, as was done with the bodies of murderers amongst the wyldings, and she would be upheld for avenging her mother.

Later, she would wonder at her naïveté, to not see how things would turn out.

No matter his drunken binges and violent temper, her father had been popular amongst the older warriors of her village, and they had the ears of the Shithana, the holy mage-priests and priestesses who held the laws in their grasps and appointed the chieftains, and who, as such, were the real rulers of any village.

Their village's Shithan had not been fond of her mother, considering her dangerous because of her outspoken views that their village should trade more with the humans, and had oft times been one of her father's lovers.

She had turned the entire trial into a farce, ordering her mother and father both to be buried with honour, then casting aspersion onto young Myrkín, and accusing her of murdering both of her parents. She called her an abomination and a violator of the Spirits Way, the sacred laws by which every wylding, no matter the species, lived their lives.

Unbelievably, the villagers, too cowed by the Shithan's power to speak out against her, had gone along with the verdict, and had cast Myrkín out into the wilds.

They had washed away the fur dyes that told Myrkín's life to any other wylding at a glance, and had replaced them with a series of dyes on her back, meant to be viewed from behind, as she walked away.

The pictographic images, in sequence, labelled her as a parent killer, an abomination, and an Rn`Keir, one of the Banished.

She had no choice but to leave. She was allowed, by law, to take with her anything that she could carry on her person, and so she put a little bit of food into her bag, along with some ammunition for her sling. She then belted on her dagger and wrapped her sling around her waist, tying it in front. As she was preparing to leave, she spied the sword, still stuck in the beam.

She pried it loose and looked at it, seeing the blade amazingly unscarred by the impact with the heavy old wood, beyond a small nick that would be easy to work out with a whetstone, then placed it back inside the sheath, rigged it with a leather thong and slung it over her back.

Then she set out on her own, only thirteen years of age, having just come into her puberty.

She had been looking forward to entering into the mating games of her people, to picking and choosing her lovers, and to one day becoming a warrior like her grandfather.

Now, all of that was gone, destroyed by one drunk who couldn't take 'no' for an answer.

She was snapped out of her memories by the sound of one of the horses, a positively enormous paint stallion, one of the sort ridden by the special human warriors, snorting a greeting, and she ducked back into the stall she had been hidden in. She pushed herself back into a corner as footsteps sounded outside, in the hall of the stable building.

The horse nickered again, as the footsteps grew closer, and Myrkín's hand drifted towards her dagger. Had the soldier tracked her down? How? It did not matter. If anyone found her, she was not going to be taken without a fight.