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Introduction:

This contains all the chapters
Chapter 1

Remembering

I was born July 25 1940 and my name is Samuel David Grey. I enjoyed learning new languages and could speak and understand seven by the time I graduated from high school. My father had been a veteran of World War II and came to believe a man should be able to defend himself. Because he did, I was taught kung fu and judo from an early age.

By the time I entered the Army I was a master in both arts. I also practiced the Japanese art of Kendo. Like most boys of that age, I was taught how to use a rifle and enjoyed hunting with my father. I was what he called a natural with a rifle and rarely ever missed.

When I was twenty, I decided to join the Army. I had dreams of serving my country and this was how I was going to do it. From the start I was singled out, first for Airborne training and then a sergeant major talked me into joining the Special Forces. I was a know nothing private and worked hard to keep the sergeants happy. When I got orders for Vietnam I didn’t even know where it was.

We were supposed to be advisors to the South Vietnamese soldiers but were not allowed to return fire, even if we were fired at. On my first patrol we were skirting a small open area when automatic fire raked the patrol. Sgt Jones was in front of me and as I dove for the ground I saw his body jerk several times. By the time I reached him, he was dead.

That was the beginning of the war for me and during my first year I went from a private to a Sergeant First Class. I was only supposed to be there for a year, but I was asked to stay with a new group that was just forming. It was another three months before anything happened and when it did, it wasn’t pleasant.

Almost the whole chain of command for the company was killed in a month and before I knew what was happening I was asked to accept a battle field commission. I stepped into the bunker where Colonel Peters and Major Sims were talking and came to attention, “You wanted to see me Sir?”

The Colonel smiled as he looked at me, “Yes Sam. Harry and I have been talking and I made a couple of calls to the General. We want you to accept a battle field commission.”

I blinked and looked from the Colonel to the Major, “A commission?”

The Colonel grinned, “It’s not like you haven’t already been doing the job.”

I smiled back, “As long as I don’t have to wear the damn shoot me bars.”

They both laughed and the Colonel picked up a pair of gold lieutenant bars. He handed them to me, “You can leave them off when you’re in the brush.”

Six tours of combat later, the war was over. I was a Major and while many officers were asked to leave the services, I was asked to become a courier for the State Department. Courier was their way of saying black ops. When I retired after twenty years, it was as a full colonel.

I had met a woman and fallen in love. She taught electrical engineering in a southern California university. For the next twenty five years we lived and loved each other although we never had any children. I spent my time attending any classes that drew my attention. Ellie had insisted I have a night to myself so she arraigned a poker night with several of the more prominent professors.

Ellie died five years ago and I was lost. I stayed in our house and lived day to day. When I was diagnosed with cancer and given only six months to live, I was almost relieved. There I was seventy years old and dying of cancer. My friends didn’t feel that way though and talked me into cancer therapy.



Chapter 2

Visit in the hospital

I was three months into the therapy and sick and tired, mostly sick. I was in the hospital for a few days and the constant attention of the nurses was driving me crazy. When Jasper came in I was ready to start planning an escape. He was twenty years younger then I. Jasper was a professor of bio engineering and was working to create something he called nanites.

Every Monday at our poker games we talked about what we were working on and got fresh ideas from each other. Jasper worked to create the self replicating nanites. Henry was trying to create something to do with time. George was working on a new means of energy. Jasper looked worried as he sat down beside me, “Hey Sam, chased any nurses lately?”

I glared at him, “Funny Jasper.”

He grinned and looked away. We talked about a few things and then he looked at me, “I think I have a problem Sam.”

He knew what I had been before I retired. I looked at the way he was sitting and tried to sit up more, he moved closer and helped me. I leaned back and sighed, “Tell me.”

He smiled as he looked at his feet and then he frowned, “The company that is paying for my research wants all my notes.”

I kept looking at him and he finally looked up, “I thought my nanites would be used to help people. All these people want is a way to make money… Well, that and to use my nanites to make some type of super soldier.”

I nodded, “Go public.”

He looked away, “I thought of that… They… threatened me.”

I thought about it and sighed, “You have everything in your head. Destroy your notes and they can’t touch you.”

He grinned, “Ten years of work and you want me to just destroy it?”

I grinned back him, “If it’s in your head, then you won’t be destroying it.”

He nodded and sat back, “You know that might work.”

We talked some more and then he left. It was close to midnight when I felt someone come into the room. I thought it was just another nurse. I already had an IV in my arm and felt a cool rush before feeling suddenly lethargic.

I opened my eyes to see Jasper hooking up two huge IVs. When he finished, he put his hand on my shoulder, “I’m sorry Sam. They didn’t see things your way. They’re shutting me down and taking everything. I destroyed my notes but they said they could reverse engineer my prototypes, so… so I’m putting them in you. Keep them safe and watch your back.”

I watched as he sat down and stared at the two IVs. It took almost a half hour and then Jasper unhooked the IVs and looked at me before walking out. I woke to a shattering explosion that rattled the window. It was still early morning and I hit the call button. I felt strangely alive and watched as a young nurse came in, “What was that explosion?”

She was frowning, “We don’t know. It came from the direction of the campus.”

I frowned and reached to pull the IV out, “Get my clothes please.”

She was at my side in an instant, “Stop that!”

I looked at her as she tried to push the IV back in my arm, “Nurse, either get my clothes or stay out of my way.”

I pushed her away and sat up. I pulled all the leads off and slid out of bed. I was a little surprised at the loss of pain I usually felt. I turned toward the closet as the nurse left to find someone to help stop me. I pulled that damn hospital gown over my head and reached into the closet for my pants.

I was buttoning up my shirt when the nurse returned with a doctor and an orderly. I only glanced at them, “I’m checking out, if you have a problem with that, I’m sure my lawyer will explain it in more detail.”

The doctor wanted to check me but I only ignored him as I left. I had already arranged for the hospital to be paid by my insurance so I only stopped at the administration desk to check out. The taxi dropped me at my house just off campus. I looked down the street at the crowd of fire engines and cops. They were all in front of what looked like Jasper’s house.

I hesitated and then walked down the street. George and his wife were standing on the sidewalk as I came up. He looked at me and Shelly gasped, “Sam! You’re supposed to be in the hospital!”

I smiled and then looked at the burned out front of Jasper’s house, “Any word on Jasper?”

George shook his head, “Dead. His body was thrown out almost to the street.”

I looked at him, “Are you sure it was him?”

He nodded, “Shelly and I were one of the first to reach him.”

I nodded and looked at the ruins, “Anyone know what happened?”

One of the other neighbors cleared her throat, “I heard one of the firemen say something about a gas leak.”

I looked at the house and knew better. I had seen many high explosives used and thought it might have been a shaped charge, (a big one). I turned away and walked slowly back towards my house. Almost as soon as I closed the door I knew someone was in the house. I stood still and waited.

Beside the front door was an old telephone stand. I quietly opened it and took out the 45 I kept there. I had made it and the only thing different about it was the fact that it used caseless ammo. I held it behind my leg and a minute later a young guy in a suit stepped out of my kitchen, “Nice and quiet old man.”

He was wearing gloves and from the way he was moving I knew this wasn’t a social call, “What do you want?”

He smiled and spread his hands a little as he walked slowly towards me, “I just want to talk.”

I moved the pistol around so he could see it and he stopped, “You don’t want to do that.”

I grinned, “Son, I was killing people before your mother was born. You just keep your hands where I can see them and you might live to see another day.”

He licked his lips, “We want your friend’s notes and anything else he might have left here.”

I shook my head, “You’re an idiot. Jasper came to me in the hospital yesterday and told me what you wanted. I told him to destroy everything. Since he had it in his head you fucked up.”

He glared, “He wouldn’t have destroyed it!”

I grinned, “Go look in his lab, I bet you find all the ashes. Jasper was always old school and refused to leave notes in a computer.”

He glared and looked around and I knew what was coming, he was trying to decide how to kill me. I pointed my pistol at his head, “Go ahead and try.”

He hesitated and I carefully moved sideways. When I was clear of the door I waved the gun, “leave. If I ever see you again, you’re dead.”

He moved slowly to the door and opened it, “we will be back.”

Chapter3

Falling down a hole

I had been around spooks enough to know what would happen next. All I could think of was slipping away, maybe a nice camping trip in the mountains. I kept the pistol with me and walked into the back of the house. In my bedroom I went to the corner facing the walk in closet. I hesitated, I hadn’t touched my go bag in a year.

I pushed on what looked like two tiny nail heads and the panel popped open. I opened it the rest of the way and looked at the two black bags. I pulled them out and started undressing. It was a good thing I had never put on weight as I got older. I pulled out the first vacuum sealed package and opened it.

I quickly dressed in the soft but durable black pants and shirt, next was the soft wool socks and black boots. I started sliding weapons into different places, most were knives or throwing darts. I pulled the combat vest and rig out of the bag and put it in the other bag.

After packing the vest and other combat gear into the one bag, I lifted the modified assault rifle out. It was like my pistol, I had machined it and it fired 7.62mm caseless. It was still in its soft case and I took a moment to load it. I closed the rifle case and fastened it to the outside of the black bag. I put the pistol in the small of my back and lifted the bag, “Time to go.”

I went back to the front of the house and took a moment to look out my front window. I saw the surveillance right away and shook my head. Whoever these people were they were amateurs. I went into my garage, pulled a long dusty overcoat on and lifted the dark green pack full of dehydrated meals off the shelf. I swung it over one shoulder and gave the shelf a tug.

I swung the shelf away from the wall and pushed on the wood panel behind it. I squeezed through and into my shed. I carefully opened the door and slipped out and across a brick path into the tall hedges along my fence. I stayed between the fence and the hedge all the way to the back. The hidden gate opened quietly and I slipped onto the golf course.

I moved right and was almost to my hidden exit when I saw a shadow pass over me. I glanced up and cussed. They were using a remote to watch and probable follow me. I waited for it to make a turn and opened the hidden gate and squeezed through. I closed it behind me and knelt under a tall bush, dropping the bag and pack. I pulled the overcoat off and pulled my vest and combat harness out of the bag and put them on.

I slid the pistol into the swat holster on my right leg. I hesitated and then closed the bag. I pulled the overcoat back on and shouldered the pack. I grabbed the bag in my left hand checked for the remote before moving. I was almost at the street when two men in suits stepped onto the narrow path in front of me. Both men reached into their jackets and I pulled my pistol.

It was close range, not more than nine feet. I didn’t hesitate as I brought my pistol up and put one round in each man’s head before I started moving. I walked straight across the street and down a narrow walk that let out onto the grass of the campus. They knew this old man had teeth now.

I walked quickly and came to a faculty parking lot. I crossed to a little used door into the engineering department. After the door closed behind me, I pause and pulled my cell out and dialed a number I had memorized but never used. I woman’s voice answered, “Situation room, code in.”

I smiled and leaned against the wall, “Colonel Grey. Alpha 64, Red 80.”

There was a pause, “State the nature of the situation.”

I looked at the door as the knob turned but the door stayed closed, “Dr. Jasper Harris was terminated by persons unknown, they are currently hunting me. I think they believe I have his research notes. I have taken out two, be advised they are using an aerial remote.”

There was a paper shuffling sound, “Do you have the notes?”

“Negative control, he visited me in the hospital and said he destroyed them.”

“Copy, do you have someplace to go dark until back up gets there?”

I thought about it and remembered Henry’s test lab, “Yes.”

“Give us thirty and call back.”

There was a click and the line went dead. I started walking again, using the back hallways. It took me almost ten minutes to reach Henry’s labs. I peeked around the corner and saw several men lingering around his main doorway and moved back to think. The test lab had another door into it but was kept locked, not that it would really stop me.

I moved back the way I come and stopped at a metal door with a sign that said the door was blocked. I reached into the bag and brought out the small black case that held my lock picks. It took almost thirty second to unlock and open the door. I had been in here several times and had known the door was clear.

The room was almost empty with a black matte material covering the walls and silver lines forming small squares. I started crossing the room to knock on the other door when the silver started glowing. I glanced at the large clock on the wall and swore. Henry was running a test! I couldn’t move as I started hearing a whining sound.

It started getting louder and the black matte material started glowing while the silver lines started to get blurry. Suddenly I was falling and brought my feet together. It felt like I was falling in slow motion and seemed to take almost a full minute just to fall through the floor. Everything around me was pitch black as I continued to fall.

It felt like ten minutes had passed before I landed. I rolled like the airborne instructors had taught me many years ago and came up into a kneeling position as I dropped my bag and pack. Like I had many times in the jungles of Vietnam, I could almost feel danger around me.



Chapter 4

Dragon’s trade

I fumble with the bag in the dark and pulled out the rifle. Gradually the walls started glowing, I stayed where I was and continued to wait. I heard a grating sound and then a loud slithering noise. Soon it was light enough for me to see and I glanced around.

There was a mound of something about fifty feet away and I was in what appeared to be a large cave. A rasping sound had me spinning around and I froze as a huge shape came out of the darkness, “You picked the wrong cave thief.”

It was like something out of a movie or a book, Tolken or one of the others. In front of me was a huge dragon. I looked into the large glowing eyes, “I’m not a thief.”

The dragon moved closer, “I can smell my gold.”

All I could think of was the gold coins in my bag, “That would be my gold coins you smell.”

The dragon stopped in front of me, “Yours?”

I smiled, “Yes. Are you real or did I hit my head on the way down?”

The dragon tilted its head and looked up, “Ah… you came through the hole.”

I looked up but couldn’t see anything, “If that is what you want to call it. Where is this place anyway?”

The dragon looked at me in a way that I thought of as strangely, “This is my home human.”

I looked around, “At least you will stay dry.”

There was a coughing rasping sound as the dragon turned its head. I could see a trickle of flame fall from its mouth before it turned back to me, “Why are you not afraid of me human?”

I grinned, “I’m seventy years old. What are you going to do… kill me?”

The dragon tilted its head, “yes.”

I shook my head, “Let me guess. For my gold?”

The dragon was silent as I sat down, “That would just be another way of stealing.”

The dragon hesitated and then laid down, “You could give it to me.”
I grinned as I fished in my bag and came up with the pouch of gold coins. I held the pouch up, “If I give my gold to you what will I use?”

The dragon tilted its head again as if thinking and then it turns its huge head towards the black darkness at the back of the cave, “I will trade you as much as you can carry from my pile of discards.”

I looked into the darkness, “Discards?”

The dragon seemed to growl or grumble and the whole cave lit up. The floor of the cave was sandy with fine white sand that sparkled. I looked around at the sparkling walls with thick vanes of gold running through them, “Very nice dragon, I think it is missing something though.”

The dragon’s head moved closer as it growled, “And what would that be?”

I looked from the huge pile of gold to the dragon, “A bed.”

The dragon snorted and small bursts of flame came out of its nose, “I sleep on the floor human.”

I looked at the gold pile, “You could melt the gold into bricks to make a bed. I thought dragons liked feeling gold against their skin?”

The dragon looked away from me and at the pile of gold. It was almost thoughtful as it murmured, “Gold bricks.”

I looked around the cave again as I casually dropped the pouch of gold on top of my bag, “You wouldn’t have some water in here would you?”

The dragon turned to look at me and then looked in another direction, “In the corner.”

I fished around in my pack for a metal camping cup. I walked towards the dark corner and the light seemed to follow me and light the way. There was a small pool that had a large trickle of water running down the far wall. The water was very cold and almost seemed sweet. When I came back to the dragon, it was curled up by my bag and pack, “Tell me human, how would you make bricks of gold?”

I smiled as I put the cup away and sat, “Well, you would have to make a mold. You start with clay and bake a shape of a brick and go from there. Ideally, you want to create a metal mold for something like gold bricks. Once you have the mold, you melt the gold and pour it into the mold. Let it cool, open it and take the brick out.”

The dragon’s eyes were half lidded, “And could you make a mold?”

I rubbed my chin as I thought about how to make it, “I would need clay and some type of pot metal. I would also need to build a forge to bake the clay.”
The dragon looked at me and stood up, “Stay here.”

I shrugged, “Where would I go?”

The dragon turned and walked out. I looked around and stood to walk towards the pile of glittering silver piled against the back wall. It was easily three times the size of the huge pile of gold. There were chests of silver coins and even silver bar scattered around. There was also other stuff, jewelry and shining weapons, chain mail and shields. There was so much stuff it was hard to grasp. I found a plain looking dagger on the edge and picked it up.

Pulling it out of its sheath I saw the wavy lines of high quality steel. It reminded me of a Japanese sword I had seen once. I put it back in the sheath, tucked it through my belt and turned to walk around. I found a nice flat spot not to far from the pool of water that would be a good place to build a small forge. I didn’t find many loose rocks and had to go farther away to find them.

I had just finished the back and sides and was looking for a larger, flatter rock for the top when the dragon returned. It was funny to watch it walk in with a clump of clay in one huge clawed hand. The dragon dropped the clay and looked at what I was doing. It walked to the wall closest and using one claw, started cutting large square bricks of solid rock. I walked closer and realized what it was doing and started carrying them back the flat spot, “I need one that is thinner for the top.”

Before I knew it I was looking at a large stone forge, “Now I just need a heat source.”

The dragon snorted and little flames shot out of its nose. I grinned, “One that will last for a few hours.”

The dragon seemed to sigh, “Show me where.”

I pointed at the forge and the dragon looked at it for a second and then carefully took a deep breath. He breathed out in a long seemingly careful manner. The flame that came out of his mouth was different than any of the other times I had seen it. It was a steady stream of bluish green flame that seemed to wrap around the stone forge.

The stones quickly started turning red. When the dragon stopped, it growled and grumbled. The forge stayed hot and I turned to the clay. It didn’t take long for me to form a brick. It was shaped like a paving stone I had once seen, only shallower, maybe an inch and a half thick. I put it in the forge and turned back to the clay.

The dragon had moved away and gone into another room of the cave. I made a thick tray of solid clay, planning everything as I went. After a couple of hours, I pulled the clay brick out with the sleeve of my shirt and set it aside to cool. I was thinking about getting out something to eat when the dragon returned. Besides a plow and several other large pieces of metal, it carried a charred hunch of something I thought might be a deer.

I used one of my knives to cut a large piece off when it dropped the meat in front of me. It was a little well done, but anyone that has spent time in a jungle… Let’s just say I ate. When I was done, I checked the brick and then started to make a tray like mold with the brick. It held a total of twenty bricks and it didn’t take me long to finish.

I was able to barely fit the pieces into the forge before I turned to the dragon, “I’ll need an iron pot for the gold.”

It nodded and left, a few minutes later it was back carrying what looked like a small boulder. It lay down and seemed to ignore me while using one of its claws to carve. I walked to the pile of gold and looked at it for a moment before kneeling and opening a small carved chest. It looked really old and only held a bunch of gold coins, I dumped them out and sat down.

I drew the dagger I had found and reached out to pick up what looked like a gold necklace. I noticed the dragon watching as I used the tip of the dagger to pry the large gems out of the soft gold and drop them into the box. When I was finished I tossed it aside and picked up another, I finally stopped and went to check the mold. I ended up pulling it out with a corner of my shirt. I left it to cool and stretched, “when it cools we need to find a way to melt the pot metal.”

The dragon seemed amused, “Leave it to me human.”

I shook my head, “Call me Sam.”

The dragon was a long time in responding, “Names can be a powerful thing human.”

I shrugged, “Dragon I’m old, humor me.”

The dragon tilted its head and finally nodded. I went back to prying gems out of gold and lost track of time. I finally looked up and saw the dragon watching me. He looked kind of bemused and turned to look at the mold. I set everything aside and went to check it. It seemed cool enough and I put the pieces together.

I looked at the dragon as I carefully stood them on their sides. “Now we need the molten pot metal.”

The dragon shifted and reached out to hold some of the metal in its hand. It leaned close and breathed slowly in its clawed hand and I watch a clear flame envelope the metal. The metal sagged and then just seemed to glow white before melting. The dragon tilted its hand and carefully poured the molten metal into one of the molds.

It repeated the process a second time for the second mold and then sat back. I checked and carefully started tapping the mold, “What are you doing hu… Sam?”

I glanced at him, “By tapping the sides any air bubbles or pockets break lose and go to the top.”
The dragon nodded and looked at the mold as I finished. I moved to my stuff and got my cup. After getting water and eating more meat I lay back against my pack and closed my eyes, “Wake me in a few hours.”

I heard the dragon snort and murmur something about crazy old humans. I woke in dim light and turned my head to see the forge still glowing, “George would love to know how you do that.”

I sat up and realized I felt different, almost like I had when I was young. I took my cup to the pool of water and drank my fill before going to check the molds. It still felt hot so I left it alone, I looked around but the dragon was gone. I got one of my meals out and made something to eat before going back to the pile of gold to start removing gems again.

It was a couple of hours before the dragon returned. It looked at me as it walked in carrying what looked like a canvas pack. It set the pack down by the forge, “There should be a thick iron pot in there.”

I grinned, “And here I was thinking of using one of those stupid helmets.”

The dragon sputtered and then roared, there were flames bursting out its mouth, shooting fifty feet to splash across the roof. I looked at the roof to see it change color and a few drops of gold fell. I shook my head as the dragon coughed and growled. Finally it looked at me, “You are a strange man, Sam.”

I smiled and moved to check the molds. They were still warm but I broke them anyway. I dug into the pack the dragon had brought and found the iron pot. I spent a few minutes checking it before going to the pile of gold and filling it. I brought it back to the forge and pushed it in. I went to the discard pile and started looking around.

I found a pair of studded leather gloves sticking out of a suit of armor and took them back to the forge. I checked the pot every few minutes and put the molds together. I picked up some more loose gold and dropped it in the pot, it took almost a full hour for the gold to melt. I brought a small pile of gold over by the forge and the dragon moved closer. He lay down and curled up a dozen feet away and watched me through lidded eyes.

I finally pulled the pot out and carefully poured the gold into the mold. I filled the pot with gold again and put it back in the forge before taking a couple of minutes to tap the sides of the mold. I brought more gold back to the pile and went back to removing gems. When the mold had cooled enough, I opened it and spilled the bricks onto the sand.

I left them and closed the mold back up. When the pot of gold in the forge was melted and I filled the mold again. The next time I dumped the gold bricks out and refilled the mold, I carried the cooler bricks to the area the dragon gestured to and I started leveling it. I placed the bricks like I had seen pavers do once.

It took me over a week to finish. The dragon kept me fed and let me sleep when I needed it. We didn’t really talk a lot, even when I absently dumped my coins in the pot to be melted, somehow the dragon just felt like a friend. I did talk to the dragon and explained about games like poker and dominos.

The dragon was intrigued with the idea of dominos. The bed of gold was huge, just over a hundred feet long and almost as wide. It was three bricks deep and the last night the dragon moved onto it carefully and lay down with a big sigh. It rested its head and looked at me with heavily lidded eyes, “Thank you Sam.”

I smiled and for the first time since I had been here, I stripped and washed my body completely. I changed into a fresh set of clothes and replaced my weapons. I had checked the discards several times during the week and went to it. I had the canvas pack and emptied it before filling it with silver coins. The dragon had pointed out several other things in the pile, mostly gem encrusted weapons.

When the pack was full, I grunted as I lifted it to my shoulder and carried it to my bag and set it down. The dragon and I looked at each other and I smiled, “I’ll miss you lizard.”

He snorted, “Humans are supposed to fear me.”

I shrugged, “Most fear or dislike old men too.”

He grinned, “That’s because they are crazy.”

I laughed and looked at my pack and the bag. The dragon shifted slightly, “Wait until morning. On the west side of the mountain is a large meadow. That’s where the knights and other idiots camp and leave their gear and horses. You should be able to catch them without to much trouble.”

The dragon was silent as I settled back against my bag, “Take the small chest of gems Sam.”

The light had dimmed but I could see the dragon’s eyes watching me, “Are you sure?”

The dragon snorted, “To me they are just crystals. Take them.”

I relaxed and closed my eyes, the dragon had been amazed the first time I had laid down and just went to sleep. I had spent a couple of hours explaining to it, that the military had taught me to sleep whenever the chance offered. I woke to the sound of the dragon snoring and had to smile. I quietly gathered everything and grunted as it settled on my shoulders.

I walked out and for the first time since I had got here, I saw the outside. I looked up into the dawn sky to see two moons, one on each horizon. I took a deep breath of fresh air and started looking for a way down. I could see the meadow the dragon had described and headed in that direction. It wasn’t that easy and I was forced to detour several times before I reached the bottom.

The forest at the base of the mountain was mostly free of brush and I could see a lot of signs of old fires. I headed towards the meadow and the neighing of horses. As I came out into the meadow I saw a dozen horses moving back and forth between me and the dragon, which was several hundred feet away. I dropped my stuff and looked around to see several old tents and camp sites.

There was a pile of rope and harness by the closest camp and I moved towards it. I had ridden on a horse only two times in my life and these looked huge. I sorted through the pile of rope and other equipment before pulling out a couple of ropes. One I tied to a couple of trees thirty feet apart at the very edge of the meadow. I grabbed a handful of grass and started towards the horses slowly.

The horses seemed more then willing to come to me and I was able to catch the first one. I tied it to the other rope and went after the next horse, it took me a couple of hours to catch the rest of the horses and tie them up. I had noticed a large pile of silver and weapons by one of the tents and ignored it. When I was finally done, I walked out to the dragon. He grinned, “I thought about eating one of them but changed my mind.”

I grinned back at him, “And the pile of discards?”

The dragon’s shoulders seemed to shrug, “I thought that since you helped me with my gold, you might be able to use some of it.”

It almost seemed like the dragon was embarrassed. I shrugged, “I’m sure I can find a use for it.”

The dragon seemed to relax and I looked back at all the camps, “I guess I’ll stay here tonight and get a fresh start in the morning. Which direction do you think I should try?”

The dragon tilted its head, “Perhaps west. You should do well there.”

The dragon seemed to sigh, “good bye my friend.”

I watched it turn and then leap into the air. Its huge wings kicked up a strong wind and the horses screamed. Luckily they didn’t break free and I went back to them. I used more long rope to let them graze and eat some of the long grass when they had calmed down. I started checking the camps and old tents. The tents were the kind with no floor and most were old with mold on them.

I spent my time emptying packs and filling them with some of the discards, mostly silver. I found a lot of stuff I thought would be useful as trade items or weapons. Like a beautiful longbow and more arrows than I could use in a month. I sorted everything and made packs for each of the horses except one.
After a careful search and some much needed attention, I had a saddle I thought I could use. Of course I had to do a little tinkering to make it what I remember a western saddle should be. I had never liked the thought of making a horse wear a bit and instead I found what I remembered as a hackamore.

I made camp and cooked a meal before deciding on a tent to take. I used another for a floor and set about making it happen. When I was done I folded it up and packed it away. My bag and pack joined the tent in the pack for the last horse. As it started getting dark I laid back and stared up at the bright sky over me. I didn’t know if this was some dream from striking my head or the effects of Henry’s test.

I also thought about the way I felt. I felt strong and seemed to have as much energy as I did when I was much younger, like when I was twenty. The only thing I could think of was the two IV’s Jasper had put into me in the hospital. He had said they were his proto types and I had no idea of their life span or what they were doing to my body, I finally relaxed and fell asleep.



Chapter 5

Robber Baron and the Crossroads

I woke as the sky began to lighten and ate quickly. Getting the packs on the horses and secured proved harder than I thought it would. I was tempted to just lead the horses but knew I would have to relearn to ride sooner or later. I made a last look around and finally climbed clumsily into the saddle. The horse was not like the ones I had ridden long ago.

After I picked myself up and picked the grass out of my hair, I started trying to coax the horse back so that I could try to mount again. This time I was remembering a TV show I had once seen. When I landed in the saddled, I grabbed onto it and leaned forward as the horse started bucking. I slammed my fist against the side of the horse’s neck and to my surprise it locked its legs and froze.

I hesitantly patted the horse, “You and I have a ways to go. If you take care of me, I’ll take care of you.”

It turned its head and I pulled on the rains to make it turn towards the lead pack horse. I pulled my rifle out of the pack and then took the lead rope. Each of the other horses was tied to the packsaddle of the one in front of it. I turned my horse towards the west and as he started walking. I tied the lead rope behind my saddle and settled back. I slung my rifle as we entered the forest.

We weren’t going very fast. At first the horse would grab a mouthful of grass and I had to remind it to keep going. By afternoon the horse was into a rhythm, it would get some grass and then start moving again. It was a few hours before dark when I called a halt for the night beside a small creek. I was sore and tired but unsaddled the horses and put them on a long picket.

I had thought about things as we went along and as soon as I had camp made I set out a few snares. It had been many years since I had practice martial arts and it took awhile to loosen up. I let my mind relax as I moved through the katas and as I finished, I started practicing with two long daggers. After the daggers, I used one of the better long swords as if it was a katana. When I finished, I pulled the longbow out and shot a couple of dozen arrows.

When I was done I washed up in the creek and made dinner. The next day was a repeat of the day before and it was almost five days before I came to a road. I had been catching rabbits and sometimes birds in my snares. Along the way, I had learned that the plants and animals here were both familiar and in some cases different.

My first encounter with another person came a few hours after I had started out for the day. We came out of the woods into a field. I could see some kind of track on my right and turned to ride to it. Twenty minutes later I was approaching several mud brick huts. As I started getting closer I could see a couple of women rushing as if to hide with their children.
It reminded me of some of the third world countries I had been in. By evening I had passed a dozen more small communities. I made camp on the edge of a small group of trees next to a field. I had just finished my exercises when a man came to my camp. He was wringing his hands as if very nervous and waited until I nodded to him.

He looked down, “My lord, word was sent to the baron of your travels. I have been told to… direct you to his customs stop.”

The man was speaking an old type of Spanish but I could understand him well enough, “Customs? And why does your baron want me to go to his custom stop?”

It was almost as if I could smell the man’s fear. He was shaking as he continued, “You have to pay the baron for crossing his land.”

The image I got was of a robber baron from Europe in the middle ages. I thought about it and nodded, “anything else?”

The man shook his head, “No, my lord.”

I looked out at the narrow track, “Where is this custom stop?”

The man seemed to flinch, “A day’s travel down the track and to the left by his keep.”

I nodded and the man hesitated before turning away. He stopped after a couple of steps and reluctantly looked back, “Be careful my lord. Not many travelers escape the baron’s men.”

I looked at him and then grinned. I fished a couple of silver coins out and tossed them. “Thank you for your concern.”

He caught the coins and looked at them with both fear and gratitude. I watched him walk away and thought about what I should do. If this baron was like the robber barons of Europe then he wouldn’t stop at a simple toll. I made a meal of roast rabbit and wild onions with something that was similar to potatoes. I was worried that one of the locals might try to sneak up on me and slept lightly.

I was up early and took my time in saddling the horses. The track widened as I got closer to the baron’s keep and the gathering of huts became small wooded houses and then larger communities. I was able to buy a rabbit and some cheese at one of the isolated farms and ate a late lunch.

I was close to what looked like a small town with a stone keep on a hill over looking it when I saw a half dozen riders heading towards me. It was only a couple of hours until dark and I stopped to wait and swung out of the saddle. I tied the reins to a small tree beside the road and checked my rifle.

When they came up to me they spread out. I could see the two men carrying what I recognized as crossbows. One of the men was better dressed than the others and rode closer, “You are on baron Tennison’s land.”
He looked at one of the men, “Take the last six horses.”

I cleared my throat, “I don’t thinks so.”

He laughed, “Alright, we’ll take them all.”

I nodded as the two riders without crossbows moved forward. I raised my rifle and shot the man in front of me through the head. I shifted to the two men with crossbows and took them down. The other two men were fighting their mounts until one slipped off and pulled a long sword.

I shot him twice and shifted to the last man as he finally got control of his horse and turned to me with a snarl, “You are dead stranger.”

I smiled, “I was going to pay a toll but I think you can tell your baron I will be coming to collect his head.”

The man backed his horse before turning and riding off fast. It took several minutes to calm my horses and I moved them back into the nearest wood line. I unsaddled and picketed them on long leads. I kept an eye on the keep while I worked and when full darkness came I slipped out of the camp and headed for the keep.

It took a half hour to get close and I moved quietly as I approached the tall wooden walls. I watched the sentries walking along the top of the wall before moving forward. The rough wooden walls were easy to climb and I waited for a sentry to pass before I slipped over. It only took about twenty minutes to take out the sentries.

This baron must be paranoid, the door into the guard barrack had a drop bar on the outside. I was quiet as I put the bar in its brackets and quietly took out two more guards by the main keep and slipped through a side door. I could hear the loud voices from a large room I thought might be the main hall.

I looked though and listened as a large man with a big belly was drunkenly telling several men how he was going to have me torn apart while I was still alive. The servants came and went keeping their heads down and tried to avoid his notice. I had been watching for about five minutes when a girl almost tripped while carrying a tray of food.

The baron roared as he came to his feet, “Fool!”

He backhanded her and she was sent sprawling. I stepped into the room before I realized I had. The fat baron was stalking after the girl while everyone laughed, “Touch her again and it will be the last thing you ever do!”
The room went silent as the fat man turned to me quickly, “Kill him!”

As the long table that ran down the center of the room was overturned I brought my rifle up. I shot four men that sprang towards me and then I turned towards the fat baron. I shot him three times in the stomach before pointing back at the other men. They were all frozen as they stared at me.

I shifted slightly as I took a step towards the dying baron and looked at the men, “I am heading west. You will leave now and head anywhere except in that direction. If I see any of you I will kill you.”

I glanced at the girl on the floor. She had crawled into one corner and lay there shaking, “Come here girl.”

She slowly crawled to me as the men backed out of the room. I looked at the servants in the other doorway, “Does the baron have a wife or child?”

Several shook their head and I looked at the girl and knelt to lift her up. I looked her in the face, “Ruling others is done by leading them. A true ruler is one who looks after the welfare of her people first.”

I caressed her face before looking at the servants, “This girl is your new baroness. You will follow her or I will return.”

I looked at the frightened girl, “Go among your people and get their advice on how to do things but always remember the decisions are still yours as well as the responsibility. Rule fairly and treat your people as you would want to be treated. If you fail and become like him…”

She looked at the fat baron as he lay in the dirt of the floor. I was a little surprised when she stood straight and looked into my face, “I will not fail.”

I nodded, “The guards that remain can be sent away or kept if you think they will remain faithful.”

I turned and walked out of the room quietly. The main gates of the keep were open and I walked out. I was careful as I made my way back to camp. It was a long night and I kept thinking one of the guards would try to sneak up on me. I made an early breakfast and cleaned my rifle before saddling the horses.

In the small town people were out in the street and stood watching me as I rode through. I stopped when I saw an older man I recognized from the keep. I gestured to him, “Would you be good enough to take something up to your baroness?”

I could see his fear but he came closer and ducked his head, “The mistress is in with her mother.”

He gestured to a small house with several children standing around watching me. I bowed my head, “Would you be kind enough to get her for me?”

He bobbed his head and hurried into the house while I slid out of the saddle. I went to the last horse and untied the lead rope. I led the horse to the front as the girl came out with an older woman following her. She held her head up as she walked to me and I smiled and bowed before holding out the lead rope, “You will need something to help get you started.”

She looked from me to the horse, “Get me started?”

I looked at the horse, “Silver.”

I looked back at her for a moment and then walked around my horse and mounted. I looked down on her, “Good bye youngling.”

I started off and didn’t even glance back. I had a warm feeling in my chest and knew I had done something good. The country I rode into became rolling hills with small streams everywhere. I had taken out my sectioned fishing pole and flies during the first evening. I caught two really nice size fish that almost looked like trout.

The small track became a narrow road with wide grassy sides that I rode on. The road twisted and turned but kept heading in the general direction of west. There were a lot more small towns that I learned were part of the barony. It was almost a week after I had killed the baron when I crossed a wooden bridge and saw a crossroad ahead. I had been riding with the long bow at the ready incase I saw a rabbit.

I rode up to the intersection carefully. The last small village I had passed had warned me about robbers. I swung down and tied my horse to a thick post. I walked towards the sign post to read it. The way south had the name of someplace called Darkholm. To the north was Sithern Plains City. To the west was Glevin Trade City.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement in the nearest clump of bushes. As I turned back to my horses I reached for an arrow. Someone had been watching me and gave a yell that sent a dozen men rushing at me. I had left my rifle on my horse but turned to face the men rushing at me.

My first arrow sped past the rushing men to hit a tall skinny man pulling the string back on his own bow. My second arrow took the man in the lead and my third took the man behind him. I released my fourth arrow before tossing my bow aside and pulling the long sword from over my shoulder.

Almost all of the men had make shift weapons like long kitchen knives. I slid easily into my fighting stance and waited. I didn’t have long to wait as the first man stumbled into range and died as my blade swept out to take his head. I continued to make a follow through with a downward slice that took both hands from the next man.

A half spin and thrust slid the point of my sword through the ribs of another man before I pulled back and turned. A diagonal cut to block and then a spin and side step to avoid a rusty looking long knife. I jabbed into one man’s throat with my fist and backhanded my sword through the stomach of another man.

I slid past the man on the ground gagging and trying to breath as the others followed me. I spun and lunged, the first foot of my sword slicing through a man’s stomach before I yanked it back. I wasn’t fast enough, as he fell he took the sword with him. I pulled my fighting knife and the long dagger I had started carrying.

There were three men left and they followed as I carefully stepped back. With a rush two came at me and the knife came up to block as the dagger went home in the other man’s chest. I shoved him into the other man and turned in time to catch a descending blade with my dagger before cutting his throat with my knife.

The last man was just coming back to his feet and kept looking around for a way out. He lunged and took a swipe with his knife. I blocked with my knife and stabbed through his arm with the dagger. I twisted as I moved sideways and then sliced across his throat with the knife as he screamed. I looked around to see all the men down and dying.

I stepped away from the bodies and really looked around. In the distance I could see someone riding towards me from the south. I knelt to clean my weapons before putting them away. I found my bow and picked it up before heading towards my horse. I swung into the saddle and shifted the horse to put the bow and quiver on the first pack horse before pulling out my rifle.

I turned back to see several people riding closer. I could see what looked like wagons behind them, as they got closer I had to work not to stare. They were riding horses but each person was very short, like four feet tall. They were also very wide in the shoulder and each rider carried what looked like a crossbow.

They stopped about a hundred paces away and looked at each other before one that looked better dressed started forward. He kept looking at the dead and dying men and then at me. I waited quietly to see what he was going to do. He pulled up in front of me and gestured at the men, “Bandits?”

It took me a moment to realize he was speaking very old German and I nodded, “They made a mistake.”

He grinned and then laughed before turning to wave at his men. He looked back at me, “Where are you bound?”

I pointed west with my chin and he nodded, “Us too. We go to sell our wares.”



Chapter 6

Trade city by the River Glevin

I turned and we fell in beside his men. He kept looking at my rifle but didn’t say anything. It was a few hours later that he gestured off the road, “We make camp there for the night.”

I looked around and nodded before turning with him. The area was beside a moderate stream with lots of tall grass. I picked an area to the side and unsaddled my horses before staking them out on long pickets. It only took me about twenty minutes to catch a couple of large fish. I brought fresh clothes down and stripped beside the stream.

I waded out into the water and was surprised when after a few minutes several male and female dwarfs joined me. I grinned and finished washing before wading ashore while they played. I dressed and went back to camp to clean, fillet and cook the fish. The well dressed dwarf squatted across from me and looked curiously at the fish frying.

I held a wooden plate out to him that I had traded a farmer for a couple of days earlier. I had also found a pepper tree and had a large bag of peppercorns, all I needed now was salt. The dwarf looked at me and then accepted the plate gingerly. He tasted a small piece of fish with his knife point and then stared at the fish.

He grinned and looked at me as he took another bite, “I have never tasted these in one hundred and twenty seven years. You can call me Bris.”

I grinned, “Catching them is just as fun. I’m Sam.”

I talked about fly fishing while we ate and he seemed fascinated. After dinner he went to check his camp and men while I checked my horses and put them on a single picket line. I began my evening exercises as several of the dwarfs watched and finished as the sun sank down over the horizon. It was a quiet night that had me more relaxed then in a long time.

I woke with the false dawn and headed for the stream, hoping to catch another couple of fish. Before I had caught my second fish, Bris was there. By the way he was staring I knew he wanted to try it. I waved him out and started teaching him. Several of the others lined up behind us to watch and on his third cast Bris got a hit that bent the pole.

He was hooked along with every one of the dwarfs that was watching. He reeled in a huge fish and I helped him get it off the hook and he was right back in the stream. After his fourth fish I managed to get him out of the stream so we could clean and cook the fish. He watched closely as I cleaned them and had one of his men bring a small pouch of salt.

We were late getting started and all they talked about was catching the fish. Bris kept looking at me as we rode along and finally turned in his saddle, “How much for your fishing pole?”
I grinned and then laughed, I shook my head no and he looked grumpy until I mentioned that I would make a pole for him. He grinned, “How do you make them?”

I nodded to a stream we were coming to, “Find a strait sapling and cut it to length…”

We spent the day talking about fishing and how to make fishing poles and flies. I tried to explain the difference between wet flies and dry flies and when to use each. We made an early stop for the night beside a stream. I let Bris use my fishing pole and took my bow to go looking for something else.

I was watching a young buck and slowly placing an arrow on the string when I felt something watching me. It was like the times when I was in combat and had felt something out of place. I slowly looked around and found myself looking at several wolves as they crept closer. They were huge, easily the size of a Great Dane.

I dropped the bow and spun as I pulled my pistol. The wolves rushed towards me and I barely had time to aim. I took the first one in the chest and the second through the head. I had to spin away from the third and shot the forth straight through its mouth as it leaped. I shifted sideways and turned to shoot the third wolf behind the ear.

I turned with my pistol following my eyes as two other wolves slowly approached. I took aim and killed one with a chest shot and the other turned to leave. I looked around and relaxed as I realized it was over. I was skinning one of the wolves when Bris and several of the dwarfs found me. He stood with his hands on his hips and shook his head.

I shrugged and went back to skinning the wolves. I rolled each skin up and when I was finally done we headed back to camp. I dropped everything beside where I planned to make a fire. I ate a meal that night while the dwarfs stayed in their camp and talked. I carefully started scraping one of the skins and went out to cut a few branches to use as a frame to stretch the skin.

I rubbed ash from my fire into the skin and stretched it on the frame I had made. Bris came to my camp just as I was getting ready to lie down. He squatted across from me, “You are a strange man, Sam.”

I grinned, “I’ve been told that before.”

He smiled, “You are very skilled with weapons and you have other weapons we know nothing about.”

I lay back and gestured for him to join me, “I’m going to tell you a story.”

In the month since I had arrived, my appearance had changed so that I looked like a man of maybe forty. I looked into the night sky and began taking about my life. Not just about my life but about my world. I told him everything… about being in the hospital and the rest. The dragon seemed to surprise him and he looked at me speculatively.

When I finished and lay quietly, he nodded, “It is similar to a few other stories we have heard about.”

I looked at him and he nodded, “I think the dragon helped you more than you know.”

I nodded, “I think I do know.”

We relaxed and he sighed, “We will stay with you. The trade City is only three days away but it gets more dangerous.”

I looked away from the sky and he nodded, “Across the river Glevin is the vast plains of Turass. There are large herds of beasts that roam the plains and because of this predators like the wolves you killed are plentiful. The closer we get, the more we will encounter.”

Listening to his talk made me think of the Great Plains and the huge herds of Bison that had once roamed it. I nodded, “We had something like that in my world but that was long ago.”

Bris shrugged, “You need to camp with us and keep your horses with ours.”

I nodded, “Fine but we share guard duty.”

He agreed and then grinned, “And the fishing pole.”

I laughed and we were quiet for a time. Bris kept looking at me, “Could you make more of those weapons?”

I thought about it, the metal of both weapons was made from advanced composites and needed special tools and equipment. I glanced at Bris, “They are made from metal stronger then the steel in a sword. I would need special equipment I probably wouldn’t find here. I could make weapons yes but not using the same metals. They wouldn’t be like the weapons I carry either.”

I looked at the sky thinking about what he had asked. With all the different things I had learned over the years I could make a modern weapon. In fact, I remembered a time when I had designed a Thompson machine gun made from newer light weight metals. It had only weighted half of what a real Thompson weighted.

I had also studied plans for other weapons, an old Colt Peacemaker and a Ruger Red Hawk. I woke early and rolled out of bed. I checked the horses and saddled them before putting them on their leads. They were grazing in the tall grass as I packed up. One of the dwarf women walked to the rolls of wolf pelts and only glanced at me, “We will take care of these.”

I smiled, “Thank you.”

Bris appeared smoking what looked like a long thin milky stone. The smell was like apples and cinnamon. I looked at the pipe and he grinned before nodding towards the stream where several dwarfs were watching one fish. I grinned and cleared a sandy patch of ground. I thought about it and sketched the eyes and brass caps on the section ends, describing everything as I went.

Bris watched and listened until I was done. I explained about curing the wood so it wouldn’t split. I told him about using strong waxed string to attach the eyes and a strong glue to hold the sections caps on. When I finished he called the dwarf that was fishing. When he got to us, Bris took the fishing pole and examined the eyes and section caps closely.

As we rode during the day the guards stayed closer to the wagons and were more alert. Just before our lunch break we were approaching a large slow moving stream when I noticed something moving in the tall grass off to one side. I was carrying the bow and pulled up before swinging out of the saddle and tying the rains to a passing wagon.

I nocked an arrow and moved closer. I was only fifteen feet away when it rose up slightly as it moved closer to the road. I brought the bow up and pulled back in one motion. The release was almost an after thought. The scream of the big spotted cat as my arrow slammed into its body caused the horses to scream and panic.

The big cat was snapping at the arrow as I prepared another. I didn’t have to shoot though, the cat spasmed and dropped to the ground. I carefully moved closer as the dwarves joined me. I recognized the cat as what I thought was a large Jaguar. It took the cat several minutes to die and Bris told one of the other Dwarves to stop the wagons beside the stream.

Another Dwarf moved towards the big cat and I watched as he skinned it with a lot less effort then I could. He rolled the skin and we headed toward the waiting wagons a few hundred yards away. Bris looked at me, “You did a good job spotting that cat. Most of the time we only see them when they attack.”

One of the women handed me a large piece of bread and a chunk of cheese. I grinned and looked around for some twigs. I made a small fire and cut the bread in half before stuffing the cheese inside. I used a forked stick to toast it over the small fire while the dwarves watched amused. I sat back and ate my sandwich slowly, enjoying the unique taste.

The rest of the day went by without incident and we set up camp beside a wide slow moving stream. The water in the stream looked almost crystal clear as I waded out to cast a line. I hooked a big fish on the first try and brought it in. I had noticed several large fish gliding close to me, they looked long and lean like Northern Pike.

When I lifted the fish I had caught out of the water one turned towards me. Something I remembered from fishing in a northern state came back to me. Another man was telling stories of northern pike that attacked a man while he was fishing. I shifted my pole to the same hand as the fish and reached over my shoulder for my sword.

I had just pulled it out when the fish attacked. I struck straight down and impaled the fish on the end of my sword. I brought the sword up with the large struggling fish and wadded to the shore. The dwarves were wide eye and stared at the large fish on my sword and I grinned, “When fishing, watch the water around you for fish like this. They are what is called territorial and may attack your feet.”

The dwarves looked at each other as I offered the fishing pole. I was cleaning the fish when one of the women just took it away from me. I sat beside a couple of the women as they cooked and learned a little about the herbs and spices they used. When I offered the pepper I had gathered, they only looked at me as if they had never heard of it.

I crushed some on a plate with a knife blade and they tried it. I relaxed later with their quiet voices around me. Bris was busy at one of the fires and the women were working on the pelts. I drifted off and was awakened by a young dwarf a few hours before the sun came up. I drifted around the outside of the camp watching and listening until the sun started coming up and the whole camp came awake.

The land around us began to flatten and there were only a few hills. There were a lot more large farms and small communities along the road. Just after our noon stop we were warned by a farmer about a big lion that had been stalking the farms around there. We saw a larger pack of wolves in the distance but they stayed away.

I had switched back to carrying my rifle and rode in the front of our caravan. We camped beside a shallow river and kept the horses between the camp and the river. During dinner Bris handed me what looked like a spice grinder, “The women asked me to get some of your peppercorn.”

I smiled and dug into a pack. I filled the grinder and handed it back, “Next time we pass one of the pepper trees I’ll point it out and get some for you.”

He grinned and nodded as he pulled out his pipe. He saw me watching and grinned, “The weeds are wild. The women pick and dry it along with spices and a few other things. They seem to like the smell.”

I thought of tobacco but when I looked at his offered pouch of weed, I found that it was something else. I tried a few puffs on his pipe and found that it seemed to wake me up and made me feel more alert. There were several dwarves grinning at me as I handed the pipe back. It was almost like I had passed a test.

I had the middle of the night watch and went to bed early. When I got up, I pulled a two foot silencer out and then my thermal scope, I slid it on in front of the sights on my rifle. It was an hour past midnight when the horses became restless. I turned on the thermal scope and scanned the area before moving to the horses.

I took a moment to look out at the shallow river and then along the bank. The lion stood out sharply in the scope and I whistled for the other guard. I was joined shortly by not by just the one guard but by several dwarves that had been awakened by the restless horses. I gestured, “There’s a very big cat along the river bank.”

They nodded and spread out holding their spears tight. I scanned the area above the river bank and froze as I saw another lion, “There’s another one in the grass above the river.”

I thought about it and took careful aim on one of the lions. The muffled shot wasn’t really that loud but it seemed that way to me. I quickly shifted aim as the other cat came fully to its feet. A second muffled shot and it was over. A minute later Bris was there carrying a lantern. I walked out towards the sound of the two lions twitching bodies.

Bris stood beside me and whistled, “Those are big lions.”

I was staring at their fangs and couldn’t believe I had just shot two saber tooth lions. Bris had two dwarves skin them while we went back on guard. I managed to get a few hours of sleep before we headed out in the morning. I had the tanned pelts of the wolves over the last pack horse and he wasn’t to happy about it.

Not only had Bris had the lions skinned but he had the long fangs removed. While we rode along he told me about seeing a pair of engraved fangs. Two of the dwarves driving wagons had the fangs and seemed happy as they relaxed and carved as the horses plodded along. That night we camped in a huge high walled yard.

They called it a Merchants Yard. It had a corral for the horses, a well and several fire pits. Bris said we would reach the trade city a few hours before night fall the next day. I used a bare piece of ground to start drawing and before long one of the women handed me a parchment and a piece of graphite.

I looked at her and then grinned as I went back to drawing, only on the parchment. I was thinking of the night before and the other guard’s inability to see the lions. When I finished, I sat back with Bris across from me. I described what it was and he looked interested. I realized that even after all the time I had spent with him, I didn’t know what he was bringing to the trade city.

Bris grinned and went to the one of the wagons. He returned with a chunk of a silver metal ore. At first I thought it was silver but after examining it I realized it was something else. I had studied geology for awhile but I had no idea what this was, maybe something like titanium. He called it Mytheril or Star Silver.

It was only found deep in certain mountains. He took pleasure in telling me all about this… Mytheril. He said it was stronger than steel and worth its weight in gold. I handed the raw ore back and we sat talking quietly until we finally called it a night. Everyone was excited as we started out the next day.

I had the pelts of the Jaguar and both lions on one of the horses. Our lunch stop was brief and then we were back on the road. We came in sight of the walls in the late afternoon. I was a little sad to see the high walls because it meant I would be leaving the dwarves. It turned out I would be with them a little longer.

There was a huge yard inside the high walls for caravans. We put the horses in one of the corrals and set up camp. I asked Bris if he knew of a local place where I would be able to do some metal work. I described making a rifle, scope and a night vision device. He was more than willing to help and had a relative that lived nearby.

We walked into the city and down a narrow street like all the rest. The building he led me to was made of thick granite blocks that were joined together perfectly. Inside he greeted another dwarf in a hug. They whispered back and forth before I was led to a large workshop. There were easily thirty dwarves scattered around the room working at forges and hammering at benches.

I was led through an arched doorway where several dwarven women were working. I was set up at a bench that had parchment and other drafting tools. I grinned at Bris as I sat and bent over the bench. In only a few minutes everything around me faded away as I concentrated on what I was doing.

When I got tired, I moved to the side and curled up to sleep on a mat that had appeared. I was back at it early the next day. When I finally stopped, I had plans for not only a scope and night vision device but for two different rifles and ammunition. I hadn’t paid attention to the bread, cheese or even the fruit that had been quietly handed to me as I worked.

I rolled up the plans and made my way back to my camp after thanking the sturdy dwarf that had been my host. I cleaned up and took four horses with prepared packs. I led them into the city and followed Bris’s direction to a large open trade area. It took almost two hours of bargaining to trade the silver and weapons for gold.

The two bags of gold were noticeable as I placed them on the first horse. I had made a list of the things I would need and spent another three hours in the marketplace. I was used to third world markets and kept my eyes open for thieves and pickpockets. Back in camp I put everything together in two packs.

The dwarves were celebrating the sale of one wagon load of Mytheril and I did a little bargaining with Bris for some Mytheril as well. It was an early grey dawn as I headed back into the city with one of the dwarf maids. We were going to a little known market where there were spices and dried herbs.

The narrow street was crowded with people until we came to a small widening of the way. There were six men pushing people and talking loud. They were extorting money or property from everyone that tried to pass. Two men stepped in front of us and one reached for the basket the dwarf maid carried.

It was at the same time that I saw two of the other men laughing as one held up something an old woman called a bond kitten. All I saw was a young, maybe eight week old grey stripped kitten squirming and then it bit the man’s finger. Time seemed to slow as his belt knife came out and swung toward the kitten.

He was trying to fling the young cat away as the knife swiped over its throat in a small shower of blood. I was moving before I even realized what I was doing. My left hand flicked the small throwing knife from behind my belt as I reached out to the closest man with my right hand.

I could see the bloody kitten tossed away as my throwing knife slammed solidly into the man’s throat. My right hand had locked on the wrist of the man near me as I slid forward sideways. As I turned his hand my left hand grabbed the back of his head and then my right went ridged as it came forward to strike his throat.

My hand left the man’s head as I turned to the other man and brought my elbow around in a strike to the back of his neck with enough force to break it. I keep turning as he fell and pulled my combat tanto and pistol. I flipped the tanto and threw it into the man’s chest by the old woman and aimed at one of the two men still standing.

I put two rounds through his chest and as the other turned to flee I shot him in the back of the head. I moved quickly to the bleeding kitten and went to my knees. I did the only thing I could think of to save its life. I pulled a small knife and sliced open my left index finger. I gently wrapped my spurting finger around the bleeding throat of the kitten.

My gushing blood splashed into the gash in its throat, “Hold on little one. Calm down and relax.”

It seemed strange but all I could think of to save the kitten was the nanites that were in my blood. I knew that my blood type was O positive and hoped it wouldn’t hurt the kitten. It was trying to move and I used my other hand to hold it still, “No little one, hold still!”

It was as if the kitten heard me and seemed to relax. I glanced around at the twitching bodies of the six men and the crowd that was gathering. The dwarf maid walked to the men I had kill with knives and pulled them out. It was several minutes before the kitten seemed to get a second wind and I thought it would live.

I looked up for the old woman only to find that she had disappeared. I slowly pulled my finger away to see that the cut I had made in my finger was closed. I checked the kitten and saw that while the neck wound looked raw, it to looked partially closed. I carefully picked the kitten up and the dwarf maid led the way back to camp.

While the maid set my weapons down, I pulled out a dirty shirt and laid the kitten down. At first it didn’t want to move and refused to eat. I diced some red meat that one of the dwarves brought and slowly the young kitten ate. It fell asleep quickly after eating and I sat back to think. It was a little strange that I could be so… drawn to the kitten.

Granted, I had always liked cats but… I shook my head and turned to clean up and then clean my weapons. I stayed in camp and washed clothes and rested. I sent a couple of the dwarven lads to a market and they returned to look at me strangely. All day I tended to the kitten, feeding it and gently petting her.

I cleaned her matted fur and saw that her wound was completely closed and the scar was even fading. The dwarfs stayed away from me and it was almost evening before Bris returned from his business. He crossed to me as I sat with the kitten in my lap. She was purring as I rubbed the side of her face and then down her spine.

Bris sat across from me, “You have made powerful enemies.”

I looked up and shrugged, “If they can kill an innocent, then I don’t want them as friends.”

He sighed, “You are strange Sam. The men you killed came from a gang that are rogues and cutthroats. They are a threat to me and mine.”

I nodded and looked around, for some reason I didn’t wanted the kitten far from me. I found a large kerchief and tied a knot. I opened it like a sling and slipped the kitten inside. I put my combat vest on and put the sling around my neck. I pulled the silencer for the rifle out and attached it.

I picked up my rifle, “Do you have anyone brave enough to show me where these cutthroats are?”

He looked at me speculatively and stood, “Follow me.”

He led me back into the city. The kitten stayed in the sling but I could hear her purring. Bris led me along very narrow alleys and back ways until we were across the street from a large building. There was yelling and laughter coming from inside, “This used to be a weavers hall.”

I nodded and hesitated before pulling the sling with the kitten off and handed it to Bris, “Hold her for me.”

He looked at the tiny head of the kitten as she stuck it out and nodded and put his cupped hands under her. I walked across the street towards the large double doors. There were two men leaning against the door jam and they sneered as I approached. The one on the right started to stand as I lifted the barrel of my riffle and shot him through the throat at ten feet.

I shifted quickly as the other man jerked up. I fired twice into his chest before kicking open the doors, I walked into the room as it quieted. A couple of men rose and pulled daggers, I didn’t even hurry as I brought the rifle up and shot both. I turned to the large fat man at the other end of the room as madness broke out and shot him.

I let the women go but killed every man that was in the room. I turned away from the carnage and walked back outside. Bris was still across the street trying to hold a struggling kitten. I walked towards them and reached out to pick up the feisty cat. I held her up in front of my face, “And where do you think you’re going?”

She mewed at me and stopped struggling. I shook my head and looked at Bris to see him still looking at the building. I took the sling and put the kitten back inside it. He led me back to camp where we found several men on guard. I fed the kitten and laid back to rest. I was thinking that since I had gotten here I had become a lot more violent, more like I had been when I was young.

I drifted off to sleep with the kitten curled up on my chest. I woke to her licking my face with her sand paper tongue while one of the dwarf women looked on from a few feet away. I spent the day in the shop working on my projects. I took my breaks when the young kitten would come by mewing pitifully. That day set a pattern that we followed for almost two weeks.

I sighed as I leaned back on the short stool. On the bench in front of me were four rifles that looked like a cross between a Thompson and a M16. It did have some of the features of each plus some from an HK. They had a barrel like an HK416. They were operated by a gas piston near the muzzle but had a buffer system to reduce the recoil.

They were chambered in what I called 45 super long. The ammunition was what had taken so long. It wasn’t like other caseless ammo, there were three liquids that you mixed together and poured into molds. It hardened in less then three hours and gave a muzzle velocity of almost twenty four hundred feet per second.

I had to make the thin tin primers first. The bullets were copper jacketed bullets with a ceramic core and had an accurate range of at least two hundred meters. All four had short, wide four power scopes that easily slid onto the rails on top. They also had small night vision devices that locked into place in front of the scopes.

I had shown Bris and a couple of others how to make the ammunition as well as the small batteries for the night scopes. I had learned how to make the batteries from my wife Ellie. I looked to the side at the long barreled rifle lying there. It had a railed system like the others but was chambered for a much stronger round of ammunition.

I looked down as Little One used her claws to climb my leg. I helped her onto the bench where she sat down and wrapped her tail around her front feet. She looked at me like, ‘its about time, I want to play.’

I rubbed her chest before turning to look across the room. Bris was flirting with one of the women and I grinned as Tabin slammed a big blurry hand onto his shoulder. Bris frowned as he looked at him and turned at his gesture. He hopped off the stool and walked across the room with a swagger. Having me in his camp had given him a huge reputation.

The Trade City guards had kept their distance as well. I picked Little One up and tucked her inside what I had come to call her carrier. I nodded to three of the rifles with shorter stocks as I picked up the forth and the other larger one.

Bris was grinning, “I have the ammunition ready.”

I smiled and shouldered the two rifles before grabbing the large bag still on the bench. Bris walked beside me briskly while carrying the three riffles. Back in camp, I showed them how to load the magazines in the bag. I sat back and played with Little One while they grinned and loaded magazines.

I fed the kitten and let her curl up to sleep in her carrier while I saddled a horse. We rode out and went towards a low bluff in the distance. A couple of the dwarves were carrying wooden framed targets. I had them set up the targets in front of a high bank. We started at twenty five paces. I zeroed my rifle quickly and then spent my time helping Bris and the two other dwarves.

Once the rifles were zeroed, we moved further away. The scope on my long rifle was different, stronger and more powerful. Even with a double buffer system, the rifle still kicked my shoulder like a mule. The explosion of the big four fifty express round caused the horses to scream in panic. We had to move the horses further away so I could finish zeroing the big rifle.

I gradually moved back recording each setting on the scope until I was three hundred paces way. I watched the horses when I was done and let the dwarves practice. Little One did not like the loud noise and wandered off to explore a nearby creek. When the dwarves were done we collected the targets, ‘the dwarves wanted to just leave them’ and headed back to the city.

I had a second project I had been working on and after unsaddling the horses and brushing them, I headed toward my tent. I had set the tent up the fourth day here when a storm blew in. I came out with the small long wrapped package and looked around. I found Bris speaking to one of the older dwarves about leaving.

I quietly handed him the package and watched as his eyes lit up. Inside the package was a small wooden box and inside that was a sectioned fishing pole similar to mine. It was made from seasoned wood with brass eyes and section caps. The string had been the hardest part next to making some flies.

Bris was speechless as he examined the rod and small silver reel. I smiled, “That is even better then the rifles.”

He grinned, letting his hands caress the rod. That evening we had a feast with the dwarves dancing to each others clapping. Bris sat across from me while I watched a dwarf maid playing with Little One. He looked and grinned, “She is a playful thing.”

I nodded and turned to look at Bris as he sighed, “We will be leaving soon. Are you still planning to head west?”

I nodded, “I’ve looked at a couple of maps Tabin showed me and was thinking of heading to a place called Calef.”

Bris nodded, “Than you will be crossing the plains.”

I nodded again and he frowned, “I know of a dwarf family that is headed in that direction. They leave in five days as part of a caravan.”

I looked down, “Not all dwarves like or trust humans.”

He grinned, “Well, you are a worthless lot.”

I gestured to his fishing pole in the small wooden case, “We have some things to give.”

He grinned as he caressed the top of the case, “True. I’ll talk to them. I know the Caravan master is still looking for a hunter.”

I nodded and he looked at the youngest dwarf in our camp. If he had been human we wouldn’t have called him young, he was only fifty, “Samson wanted me to ask you to let him bargain for the rest of your silver.”

I grinned, “I don’t know, he’s awful young.”

Bris grinned, “True but he is determined.”

I laughed and gestured to my horses, “I need a good wagon if I am going to cross the plains. If he can get me a good one…”

He nodded as his got up, “I’ll tell him.”

I woke to the buzzing purr of Little One telling me she was hungry and I should get up. I cut up a piece of rabbit for her and began sorting through my packs. I left the packs I needed to trade outside my tent and headed into the city. I tucked Little One in her carrier and she rode with her head poked out.

Normally she would sleep after eating but for some reason she didn’t today. I headed to the spice market and spent almost two hours arguing over high prices and a small spice grinder. On the way back a large gray cat started following me and Little One kept trying to climb my shoulder to look behind me.

I thought it was funny and just put her half on my shoulder so she could watch the other cat. When I got back in camp I packed everything away while Little One disappeared. It was almost dinner time when the old woman came to the camp. Little One sat up quickly and wrapped her tail around her front paws and stared.

I watched as she walked calmly through the dwarves with the same grey cat I had seen earlier leading her. She stopped in front of me and I gestured for her to sit. Little One mewed at me and went to the older cat and started rubbing against her. I watched and then looked at the old woman, “I looked for you after the fight but you left.”

She smiled as she watched Little One, “I thought the kitten dead. There was little for me there.”

She looked up and took a breath stealing herself, “Never the less. You have bonded to the kitten and I would like to be paid.”

I grinned and looked at Little One, “I wasn’t really looking for a kitten but she has grown on me.”

The woman nodded, “Bond cats do that.”

I smiled at the woman, “How much?”

She kept looking at me and licked her lips, “One gold piece.”

I looked at her in surprise and then held my hand out to Little One as she came back to rub on it. I finally nodded and reached into the pouch I now carried. The old woman looked surprised and I smiled as I handed the gold piece to her, “The kitten is worth it.”

She smiled and ducked her head, “Thank you.”

I sat back, “Do have family?”

She hesitated before shaking her head, “They are gone now, my lord.”

I had heard that many times since I was here. I guess it was the way I spoke or carried myself, “Call me Sam or Samuel.”

She bowed slightly, “I am called Sarah.”

I thought about it, “Do you have anything keeping you here?”

She shook her head, “I am old and have naught but my bond cat.”

I looked at the grey cat sitting beside her and smiled, “Do you know how to drive a wagon?”

She looked at me for a long minute and finally nodded, “I know how.”

I smiled, “I could use someone to drive my wagon when I get it.”

She looked around at everything in the tent, “Where do you go?”

I shrugged, “Perhaps Calef.”

She sat back to think and I turned to look out the tent as the rumbling of a wagon was heard. Little one mewed and headed for the door and I smiled, “I think that is my wagon now.”

I stood and walked out as she stood to follow. Samson was grinning as he drove the wagon towards the corral. Four horses were pulling it and another was on a lead behind. I walked to the wagon park behind him and walked around the new wagon as Bris joined us.

The wagon was something I had never heard of or seen. It was fifteen feet long and eight wide. The bed was over three feet above the ground and was four feet high. It didn’t have axles, each wheel was on a long metal leaf spring with a thick coil spring in the center.

When I looked under the wagon, I saw a thick wooden rod go from the back of the wheel hub to a center point on the floor of the wagon. A closer look showed the rod attached to a metal ball that was slotted into a thin slit. Whatever else this wagon was, it would give a smooth ride. I grinned at Samson, “Not bad.”

He jumped off with two bags in his fists and grinned, “I got this too.”

I laughed, “I’ll need to send you into the city to get all my supplies.”

The old woman walked slowly around the wagon before coming back to look at me, “All right Samuel, I will drive your wagon.”

I smiled and bowed before looking at Bris, “Did you speak to the Caravan master?”

He grinned, “He will come by tomorrow to see you, along with Jerome and his son.”

I looked at Samson and accepted the two heavy bags, “Who is Jerome?”

Sarah turned to walk back to my tent with me and Bris followed us, “He’s the Dwarf heading west in the caravan.”

Sarah left shortly after that, saying she would return tomorrow with her few belongings. I sat beside the large fire that night saying my goodbyes. Just as I was getting ready to call it a night Bris returned with a long wrapped package. He quietly handed it to me and I spent a moment trying to think what it might be.

When I opened it, I stared and then grinned at Bris. I had described a katana and how it was made. Bris had done me one better, it was made from Mytheril. I could see the wavy lines where it had been folded repeatedly. The hilt was wrapped with a thin silvery Mytheril chain and capped with a dragons head, it even had two rubies eyes.

I looked at Bris, “Thank you, it’s beautiful.”

He grinned, “One of Tabin’s workers made it.”

I slowly slid the naked blade into the lacquered sheath and looked around at all the dwarves, “I will miss you all.”

They bowed and I turned to enter my tent. I was up early helping them break camp. I watched as they rode out and turn away with a sigh. A large grey haired man was standing there watching me. I had seen him across the huge yard a few times. I approached him and he held out his hand, “Henry Biship, Caravan Master. Bris said you were a good man to have along.”

I shook his hand as Little One came back from following Bris, “He told me you needed a hunter?”

Henry nodded, “We’ll have over thirty wagons headed to the dwarven settlements in the Grey Mountains. Most of the wagons carry trade goods and they can ill afford the room to carry food for the entire trip.”

I nodded, “How long will the trip take?”

He shrugged, “Depends on the weather. Two weeks.”

I thought about it and nodded before bending to scoop Little One up, “When do we leave?”

He grinned, “In three days.”

I turned and waved as I headed towards my tent and the list I had made of things I would need. I was just coming out when the old woman came into camp with a hand cart. I looked at it and had an idea. I helped her put her things in my tent and went to work on the inside of the wagon. I made a bed on one side and then went to the market for a few chests and barrels.

Sarah liked the idea that her bed would be in the wagon after I explained that I would be putting a tent over the top. It wasn’t like the pictures I remembered of old west Conestoga wagons. I peaked the roof down the center, the ends of the roof extended a foot beyond the side of the wagon and several feet over each end.

I placed a water barrel on each side and another in the wagon. I made it so that I could use a horse to pull her cart or fasten it to the back of the wagon. We spent a day gathering supplies and on the last morning were waiting at the yard gate into the city. The dwarf family was the first to arrive. The husband was a brisk no nonsense type of person and walked to me.

He looked up into my face with his hands on his hips, “Bris said you were worth knowing and would be a good travel companion. We will help you and the old woman with any animals you kill. In exchange we keep the skins.”

I grinned and shook my head, “Half the skins.”

His eyes narrowed and he finally nodded. It was another half hour before the rest of the wagons finally arrived and led the way through the gate. We went through the city slowly and an hour later started across the floating bridge to the plains beyond.



Chapter 7

Mammoths and Bison

On the other side of the river I swung into the saddle of one of my horses and let Sarah drive, our wagon was the third in line. Sarah was more than happy with the smooth ride, her bond cat was sleeping on the bed behind her in the wagon. Little One liked to ride in front of me unless she wanted to sleep, if she got sleepy she would climb into her carrier.

It was a long day, the trail across the plains was clear with few trees close to it. The caravan master stopped by a few times and we talked. He said we would be stopping at what was called Caravan Keeps every night. We saw wolves a few times but they kept their distance and large herds of what I recognized as bison.

When we came within sight of tall walls I moved to the back of the wagon and unhooked the cart. I pulled it out of the way and put the handles in the loops beside my saddle. I thought to leave Little One with Sarah but she refused to leave me. I pulled the 450 express out of the wagon and turned away from the Keep.

While the wagons headed into the gate through the high walls, I headed towards a nearby herd of bison leading my horse with the cart behind him. I only glance back when I heard Jerome the dwarf stomping after me. I stopped a couple of hundred yards from the herd and waited for Jerome. I nodded towards the horse with Little One sitting up in the saddle, “Wait here.”

I moved to the side a little ways and knelt. I had been watching the herd and picked out a bull on the edge. The loud explosion caused my horse to stir but he had at least heard it before. The herd of bison stirred and began moving away. The bull I had been aiming at had dropped to its knees and then fallen over.

I put the big rifle on safe and moved to the cart. Little One was giving me a dirty look while Jerome had wide eyes. I set the rifle inside the cart and turned to lead the horse towards the downed bull. Jerome got himself together and hurried to catch up. We didn’t take long in skinning the bull and cleaning it.

We put everything in the cart and started back towards the Keep. I glanced back and saw several wolves coming out of the tall grass to feed on the offal from the bull. The inside of the Keep was strange, the walls were six feet thick. At each of the four corners there was a raised platform for a guard.

Jerome and I took meat for our own camps and the caravan master took the rest. Jerome didn’t even hesitate in rolling the large bull hide up and throwing it over his shoulder. We had gone slow while traveling so the horses had a chance to eat some of the grass. I had walked beside the wagon several times cutting grass with a long handled scathe and dropped it into the back of the wagon.

Little One wandered off with my directions to stay in the Keep. Sarah’s grey bond cat seemed happy to curl up on her lap after dinner and purr at her with pleasure. I checked each of the horses and the caravan master came by to give me my assigned shift on one of the watch towers. I slept fitfully that night and woke with relief when the camp guard came by to get me.

Watching the area outside with my night scope showed me why guards on the towers were necessary. I saw a couple of large cats as they made their way past the Keep and knew they would have been able to leap up and climb into the Keep. As the sun rose a mist followed and slowly the camp came to life.

We hadn’t been out of the Keep long when I saw a big cat coming out of the fog. It looked like a large mountain lion and it was heading for the lead horses pulling my wagon. I brought the new rifle up and fired in one smooth movement. The lion screamed as it stood up on its back legs and then fell to the ground biting at its side.

There was a few moments of panic along the caravan and gradually things calmed. I moved forward to the downed cat as it died. The caravan master and a couple of others appeared and then moved away. Jerome got there as I began to skin the lion and he immediately took the other side. It didn’t take long to finish and we rolled the skin up.

Our wagons had continued to move with the rest of the caravan. I tucked Little One back in her carrier before we started jogging to catch up. I slipped the skin into Jerome’s wagon before moving on to my own. I walked beside the wagon and Sarah grinned down at me as I handed Little One up.

She handed down the scathe and I moved off. I slung my rifle as I began cutting the tall grass. It was like the pattern I had set the day before only after the lion I was a lot more alert. It was a good thing I was paying attention because the man in front of me was doing the same thing I was.

He didn’t even see the large wolves as they came out of the grass for him. There wasn’t time for me to unsling my rifle so I dropped the scathe and drew my pistol. I put two shots into the first rushing wolf before switching to the next. The explosive sound of my pistol brought the wolves to a halt as I double tapped the second.

I shifted and shot a third and then a forth before they turned to run. The caravan was full of shouting and the man I had saved was staring at the wolf a few feet away from him in shock. I changed the magazine and moved to start skinning the first wolf. This time Jerome and I had help skinning the wolves while the caravan waited.

When we moved on everyone was more watchful. As we approached the next Keep I took the cart and began moving off towards a herd of bison in the distance. This time Little One stayed with Sarah as Jerome and I went hunting. I shot a huge bull at the edge of the herd and then because a second bull wouldn’t move away I shot it.

That night I had first watch and saw a sight I had never dreamed of seeing. A large herd of Mammoths bedded down at the base of the Keep wall. I was asked to shoot one of the creatures for its tusks and shook my head, (people never change). Sarah stayed up until my watch was over and we sat talking until it was late.

The next day was a repeat of the one before without the wolves. I was able to shoot three antelopes before we reached the next Keep so I didn’t bother going after Bison. I didn’t have guard that night and lay against my saddle with Little One on my lap. I wasn’t sure what had awakened me until I heard the horses snort uneasily.

I reached beside me and lifted my rifle. I had placed the night scope on just in case and switched it on now. I slowing began checking around the camp and froze when I saw a huge lion crouching beside the small camp fire across the way. I took careful aim and flicked off the safety. The quiet click of the safety made the large cat’s ears flick towards me.

It looked across the camp straight at me. I squeezed and the night was shattered by the roar of my rifle and then by the scream of the lion. The Keep was alive with shouts and yells, the horses were screaming and everything was in chaos. I moved across to the dying lion as others began to gather.

It turned out that one of the men on guard had fallen asleep. The caravan master put extra men on each post so it wouldn’t happen again. Jerome watched as I skinned the lion and then helped drag the body out a gate. We came back to the caravan master who nodded and turned away. I shook my head and for the first time Jerome grinned.

It took awhile before I was able to sleep. Little One finally curled up on my chest and began to purr. It was strange how something like that can help someone fall asleep. I woke to the touch of one of the night guards moving around waking everyone. When we moved out we had to go slow because a large herd of bison were spread across the plain in front of us.

All day we moved like that and the caravan master stopped by to say we would be getting to the next Keep late. I shot an old bull and Jerome and I skinned and cleaned it while the caravan waited. We reached the next Keep after dark and moved in carefully. I was leading several men in to check it when I noticed the far man sized gate open.

I held my hand up to stop everyone and then pointed at the open gate. The pack of wolves came out of the dark and into our lantern light snarling. I didn’t hesitate and shot the first one I had seen through the chest. I hit the second in the neck and then they were running away. The problem was that they didn’t head out the far gate.

I waved the men back and used the night scope. I shot the wolves one after another until they were all dead. They helped me drag the wolves out the far gate before leading the wagons in. It was awhile before I finished skinning the wolves, even with Jerome’s help. I was on watch on the far wall when I saw the large group of men approaching.

They were quiet and had naked swords in their hands. I nudged the other man on guard with me and let him look through the scope. He turned to face the camps, “Raiders!”

I took the rifle as the men below charged at the gate. I fired rapidly taking the first three before they could reach the gate. I hit another as he was opening the gate and lanterns flared to life. I turned and headed down the stairs inside the Keep. There were three raiders just inside the gate with arrows in them, the rest were fighting with men from several camps.

I shot two men that stood beside the gate with short horse bows and then headed into the fight. A big man came out of the semi darkness and I side stepped his stabbing knife. I struck out and crushed his windpipe before moving on. I shot a man that sprang at me from the shadows and headed towards the last group still fighting.

The last of the raiders fell with arrows in their back as I reached them. It was a long time before things calmed down. We were lucky, only three men were injured and they weren’t hurt that bad. The rest of the night was tense and we got little sleep. We moved out the next day more carefully.

The days slowly crept by and a week and a half later we approached what looked like a gash through the earth. A huge Keep spanned it and the caravan master stopped us before the gates. Half of us approached and opened the gate. I was carrying my old HK416 with the silencer since it didn’t scare the horses.

Once inside I saw that the Keep was split. Each half was the normal size of a Caravan Keep. Two rope bridges spanned each side and a wide solid looking bridge crossed the gap in front of us. On the other side of the bridge was a group of ragged looking men. What I didn’t like were the four crossbowmen on the far wall.

The caravan master had us wait and walked to the near side of the bridge. I could hear the brigands making demands and watched as one of the crossbowmen lifted his crossbow. I didn’t wait and took aim. I fired and switched to another man and then another. I took the last crossbowman as the group at the bridge realized something was happening.

I shot the leader and then just start shooting anyone that stayed still to long. I killed the last three as they ran for the far gate. After that it was only a matter of dragging the bodies out and bringing the wagons in and across the bridge. I went out with the cart and Jerome and found a small herd of elk.

I killed two and we cleaned them. He looked at me as we headed back, “We reach the settlements tomorrow evening.”

I glanced at him, “You have family there?”

He nodded and pulled a long stem of grass as we walked before putting it in his mouth. He looked at me again, “You were not what I expected.”

I smiled, “If you always expect people to act a certain way, you will either be satisfied or surprised.”

He laughed and nodded before falling silent. I had last watch that night and stood looking out at the low foot hills in the morning light. When I returned to the wagon it was to see a large pile of pelts in the back with Little One curled up on top. I looked at Jerome breaking camp nearby, “This looks like more than half the pelts.”

His wife looked up from her work and smiled as Jerome got a red face, “I say it is half.”

I raised an eyebrow and he looked down and scuffed the dirt, “Take it Samuel.”

I smiled, “Thank you Jerome.”

He nodded and all to soon we were headed out. Large wolves ran from the dead bodies as we came out but that was all. The plains turned into low rolling hills and I swung up onto a horse. I had switched to the newer super long and carried it across the saddle bow. I saw the spotted lion as it came closer to the wagons and slid out of the saddle.

By now the others in the wagon train knew what that meant and started looking around. Several saw the large cat and pulled out bows. I aimed and fired which made all the horses nervous but they had heard it enough by now. I walked out to the dead animal with Jerome and two other men. The wagons stopped and waited the few minutes it took for us to skin the big cat.

Not long after I killed the cat we came to a small deep river. It had a wide stone bridge that I had to study as we crossed. After that we crossed a river or large stream almost every hour and they all had stone bridges. It was a couple of hours before sunset when we reached the dwarven settlements.

The walls we came to were huge. At least a hundred feet high with funnel like crenels that would allow bowmen to shoot out at an angle. When we entered the wide gate I discovered the wall was probable twenty meters thick. We came out in a huge caravan yard with corrals to one side and a small party of dwarves waiting.

It didn’t take long to put the horses in a corral and I made a quiet camp. That was when Sarah told me she had been offered a position with Jerome and his family. I smiled and relaxed as she made dinner, “You should take it. Jerome is a grumpy dwarf but he has a good heart and his wife seems understanding.”

She smiled and nodded, it was after dinner that the small party of dwarves came to the camp. I was leaning back with Little One on my chest. The leader and a gruffly dwarf named Peter squatted across from me, “Jerome says you are a worthy man.”

I smiled as I kept petting Little One, “I can be useful.”

He smiled as he watched the cat and then cleared his throat, “You are traveling further west?”

I nodded, “I was thinking of Calef.”

He looked at another dwarf before looking back at me, “You will resupply here before moving on?”

I nodded again as Little One stood to stretch and then hopped off me and headed into the night to explore and hunt. I looked back at Peter who had been watching Little One. He grinned, “Perhaps we can talk about a deal. I will buy your furs and pay for your supplies in exchange for letting my brother and his family travel with you to the Dwarven Tunnels.”

I looked at the other dwarfs, “And what else?”

He hesitated as his eyes narrowed, “What do you mean?”

I smiled and looked into his eyes, “What is he carrying besides his family?”

He looked at my face before nodding, “There are a few… gems he might be taking with him.”

I sighed and leaned to the side where the small chest from the dragon’s cave lay. I flipped up the lid and then looked back at the wide eyed dwarves, “like these?”

Peter absently nodded and then shook himself, “Where…?”

I laughed and began telling him my story, as I was talking they relaxed and pulled out pipes with the strange herbs Bris had smoked. When I finished my tale they were grinning and looking at each other.

Peter cleared his throat, “We have a large supple of gems we need taken to the Tunnels and Jerome said you are good man for a human. After hearing your story, I think he is right.”

I nodded thinking about robbers and thieves, “I think I might need to use a smithy and a supply of chemicals.”

I stood and moved to the wagon before pulling a small parchment book out. I flipped to the page I needed as I walked back. Bris had written everything out in a kind or flowing script that was Dwarvish. I turned it to show Peter, “I need these items.”

He took the book gently and the other dwarves moved to look over his shoulder. He nodded and looked up, “This should not be a problem.”

I nodded, “And the smithy?”

He frowned and looked at one of the other dwarfs, “Johansons?”

The other dwarf nodded and Peter looked at me, “What do you need made?”

I took the book from him and sat down. I pulled the thin graphite pencil from the binding as I thought about a suppressor for the 45 Super Long rifle. I carefully began to sketch each component as the dwarves gathered around to look over my shoulder. When I finished, I looked back at Peter. He smiled and nodded, “Easy enough.”

I started to tear the page out and he stopped me, “I’ll copy it.”

I handed him the book as he clenched his pipe between his teeth and pulled out a similar book. I looked at the other dwarves, “Where can I buy some of your… pipe herbs?”

They grinned and the next thing I knew I was the proud owner of an older pouch and the combined gifts of herbs from all the dwarves. I was even given a small old milk white stone pipe. I was also given a small box of sulfur matches and started a small bowl of herbs. It was as I remembered and seemed to wake me up. Peter finished copying my drawing and they left.

Over the next couple of days I went to a dwarf smithy and made a suppresser and Peter sold some of the hides I didn’t want and my extra horses. I kept a few bison hides for cooler weather and purchased new supplies. Sarah left the second day after giving me a hug and a kiss on my cheek.

The family of dwarves had four grown men; Dodson, Samuel, Adalson and Maderson. The mother seemed very nice and there were actually four younger dwarves, two boys and two girls. One of the boys drove my wagon as we headed out the gates.



Chapter 8

Ellie?

We left with just the two wagons, mine and Dodson’s family. I walked beside my wagon in front carrying my silenced Super Long. Little One lay across my shoulders watching. The dwarf tunnels were only a week away but it was going to be over hills and across a lot of small streams. That night we made camp and settled in.

I was to take the middle watch and had just started thinking about crawling into the wagon since it looked like it would rain. The voice that came out of the night had everyone moving towards weapons. I used my night scope to look and saw five people standing just out of the fire light.

Dodson called for one to come forward and I got a surprise when a slim man walked to the fire. As I watched him, I realized he wasn’t a man. His hair was white and he had longer ears than a man and an almost delicate face. I cleared my throat, “Tell the others to come in.”

That brought his attention to me and his eyes narrowed. Even from where I knelt in the shadows, I saw the yellow cat slit pupils of his eyes. I looked into his eyes without looking away and he smiled before turning to call into the night. It was mix of French and Celtic and I smiled, “You are right, they should watch the human.”

He looked at me quickly as the others came forward into the light. My world seemed to slow and then stop as I looked at Ellie. She was younger but I knew it was her. I felt the pain of losing her all over again. I started when Sam touched my shoulder, “Samuel?”

I looked at him and then the others. I turned away and moved into the darkness. I knew it wasn’t really my Ellie but she had looked so much like her, like the way she moved and gestured. I stood in the dark feeling lost and alone more then at anytime since I had come to this world. When Ellie had died my world had ended and I would have welcomed death.

I heard the soft step behind me and ignored it. The person stopped just behind me, “Tell me what you saw human.”

I glanced back at the manlike person that had walked into our camp, “Leave me to my pain.”

He sighed, “You are a crossover.”

I ignored him while he stood as if waiting. Finally he put a hand on my shoulder, “Sometimes those on your world die. They are reborn to live again somewhere else as someone else. Sometimes…rarely… very rarely, the gods step in and one is reborn here. They remember nothing of your world but vague dreams and shadows.”

I looked at him, “My Ellie only died five years ago.”
He smiled, “What is time to a god?”

I shook my head and looked into the night, “Go away whatever you are.”

He dropped his hand and walked back towards the camp. Little One clawed her way up my leg and body to crouch on my shoulder and purr. I reached up to touch her body, “Thank you but it does not help.”

I didn’t even hear her until she cleared her throat, “What is your name?”

I closed my eyes and then opened them and slowly turned to face my angel. I looked into her eyes and knew I had been right when I first saw her, “Samuel.”

She nodded, “I dream of seeing you. I never knew your name…”

I looked away and whispered, “You died.”

She sat gracefully and looked at the ground, “Green Bow told me you were a crossover.”

She sighed, “I feel like I know you Samuel.”

I looked away, “We were married for twenty five years.”

She looked up, “You are not that old.”

I laughed as I felt my face. I had looked at myself just a couple of days before. She was right, I didn’t look my age. I looked maybe twenty five, “That is another story, El.”

She smiled, “El? That sounds… right.”

I smiled and took a breath before shaking myself. I held my hand down to her, “I am Samuel Grey.”

She took my hand as she stood to face me, “Elizabeth… Grey. My friends call me Ellie.”

I nodded and gestured back to the camp before pulling Little One down into my arms where she purred loudly. Everyone looked up as we came into camp. The four that had been with her when they came to the camp sat by the fire and looked at me. I could see they were like that first… person.

A small shape scampered out of the dark and headed straight for Ellie. She barely paused as she knelt and scooped up a tabby cat that looked a little older then Little One. Little One lifted her head and I smiled as her eyes brightened. I bent and set her down, “Do not stay up all night.”

I nodded to Dodson and headed to my wagon. I laid back thinking and fell asleep with the vision of Ellie. I woke to the slight shifting of the wagon and then rain. Even in the dark I knew it was Ellie. Little One purred by my head and from somewhere next to her an answering purr sounded.

“Samuel?”

The voice was a soft whisper, “Here.”

I reached to where I had the generating flashlight and wound it up as she sat on the bed. I turned the light on and her eyes widened. I sat up and turned to put my feet on the floor. Ellie looked from me to the flashlight and back before grinning. She looked at me with sparkling eyes, “The dwarf Dodson said you had mid watch. Would you mind if I stayed in your wagon?”

I shook my head, “Is it mid watch already?”

She shook her head, “almost.”

I moved to the chest at the head of the bed, “Well, the bed is warm…”

She smiled and nodded, “I see Charles has charmed his way into your bond cat’s bed.”

I glanced at Little One to see the small young tabby cat lying next to her. I smiled and looked at Ellie as I reached for my boots, “Let me put my boots…”

She lay back with her feet off the edge, “I did not plan to kick you out.”

I grinned and finished lacing my boots before shutting the flashlight off so my eyes would adjust to the night. I could hear Ellie as she shifted and then I heard her boots drop. I smiled, “El? Who are those… people you came with?”

She shifted and I knew she was lying on my bed, “Elves. Well, that is what Green Bow said you would call them… or Sidhe.”

I grinned, “This has been a lot like Alice in wonderland. I fell down a hole and now I am in a world of fantasy. I have spoken and made friends with a dragon, met Dwarves and Elves. The only thing left would be to meet a wizard.”

Ellie didn’t laugh, she shifted on my bed, “Well… you have met a mage. I guess that would be close to a wizard. Wizards are all stuffy old men anyway.”

I looked towards the bed trying to see her, “Mage?”

She laughed, “Me.”

I blinked thinking about what she had said and what came to mind was Ellie with her whizzing gadgets back home. I smiled, “We’ll have to talk about that.”

I heard the soft knock on the wagon and turned to face the rear, “I’m awake.”

I pulled my vest from the wall and put it on before standing and leaning over the bed to pick up the rifle. I moved to the back of the wagon and hesitated before looking back at the bed, “Are you leaving tomorrow El?”

“No. Green Bow talked Dodson into letting us travel with them.”

I smiled, “He talked to the wrong person El. I’m the one to decide that.”

I slipped out of the wagon and shivered as the rain started soaking through my clothes. I found Adalson by the horses and sent him to bed. I made a round using my thermal scope and stood under some trees by the horses. The sound of rain was loud but there was another sound that drew my attention.

I looked through my scope and saw what at first I thought was a small dragon. It glowed in the thermal image as if very hot. I followed its head as it looked to one side and saw a second one and then a third. The third was sideways and I sighted on a spot behind the ear and fired. The sound of the shot was muffled and not really that loud.

The eyes of the two other dragon creatures snapped to me and I knew they could see me, “ATTACK!”

The one I had shot was down and the other two charged. I shot the second straight through the throat and shifted to the last. It was almost on me as four arrows struck it and I fired. I put three rounds through its chest and then looked out at the second one. It was down and thrashing around like it was trying to breath.

I shot it through the head and it stilled. I looked at the four elves as they drifted out of the night. One said something to the others and headed out towards the bodies. I looked back as lanterns flared to life and the dwarves came towards us. The horses had stirred at my firing but had settled down.

When the elf that had gone out to check the small dragon things returned, he glanced at me, “The human killed them.”

They all looked at me as I turned to Dodson when he stomped up, “Some type of small dragon thing.”

He jerked, “Drakes?”

I shrugged, “Do drakes look like dragons?”

He shook his head, “They pass us by?”

I pointed out into the darkness and he raised the lantern before taking a step back, “Damn!”

I looked at the elves as they looked at me curiously, “Are there very many of these drake animals?”

Ellie slipped up next to me and I jerked. I grinned as she looked out and then spoke to Green Bow, “How many?”

He looked into the darkness, “three. A mating set.”

I looked from him to Ellie and she nodded before softly murmuring something that didn’t sound like a real language. The whole area lit up to show the three dead drakes. She looked at Green Bow, “Nested?”

He nodded and Ellie looked at Dodson, “It should be awhile before their hatchlings break shell. The hides should bring a high price in the tunnels.”

Dodson turned and gestured to the others and they headed out. Ellie shivered as she looked around in the light rain. She looked at me, “You are much more than you seem.”

She looked at Green Bow, “Much more.”

I smiled as I looked up at the glow that lit the area, “So are you El.”

She smiled and turned towards the wagon, “I think I will go dry off.”

I laughed and looked out at the busy dwarves as they skinned the three dead animals. The elves drifted away and I was left to keep watch. Almost as soon as the dwarves walked past me and into camp the glow that lit the area died. When I was relieved, I walked to the wagon and climbed in. I stripped out of my wet clothes and heard Ellie shifting on the bed.

I smiled in her direction but only moved to the chest at the head of the bed. I took my time wiping down my rifle and cleaning it. The years had taught me that light wasn’t always needed to do things and I was comfortable sitting in the dark. I hesitated when I finished and set the rifle aside. I moved to the bed and wasn’t surprised that the covers were held up for me.

I slipped in and turned to face away as Ellie snuggled against my back and Little One crawled down into my arms purring. I woke to the hint of dawn and the warm feeling of my wife against my back. I slowly looked over my shoulder to see Ellie looking back and smiling. I slid out of bed and set Little One up with Charles before opening a chest.

I pulled a dry set of clothing out and Ellie chuckled softly, “At least you have clean dry clothes.”

I smiled, “I could offer you a warm shirt but I think the pants would be a little large.”
She smiled and sat up and held out her hand. I pulled a shirt out and finished dressing. I smiled to see Ellie wearing only the shirt as she followed me out. I watched as she headed to the elves and turned to go speak with Dodson. He apologized for accepting the elves but said they would be worthy companions.

I went to my horses and put their feed bags on while getting them ready. Unlike the plains, I had eight horses pulling the wagon with two following on long leads. I checked each horse and harnessed them. When I was finished and the feed bags were removed, it was time to go.

I had Ellie appear to walk beside me as I walked in front of our wagons. I glanced at the tall white staff she used and smiled, “Now you look more magical with your staff.”

She grinned and looked down at her bare legs, “And feel naked.”

I laughed, “If you were naked I might try something.”

She laughed and bumped against me like my Ellie used to. I sighed as I scanned the surrounding area, “So… what brings you and your elves to this wonderful place?”

She looked at me and then back at one of the elves walking to the side, “I was just traveling to my new home but they go to the Dwaven tunnels to speak with the counsel.”

I was curious, since I knew there were dragons… and drakes, dwarves and elves… I looked at Ellie, “El?”

She smiled as she looked at me, “Yes Samuel?”

I grinned and scanned the area again before looking at her, “Since there are elves and dwarves, does that mean there are orcs, trolls or goblins?”

She looked at me but didn’t say anything. When I looked at her she nodded solemnly, “Yes.”

It was in the late afternoon that I signaled to bring the wagons together for the night. We were beside a wide shallow stream and I was thinking of trying my luck. The wagons formed a vee with the horses inside. I dug out my rod and set my rifle on the bank before taking my boots off and wadding in.

The dwarves looked at me the same way Bris and the other dwarves had. The elves looked wary and curious and Ellie looked amused. It was the third cast that brought the first strike. I fought the fish and backed to the edge of the stream. The dwarves were all staring wide eyed and crowding around.

The elves looked surprise and Ellie had a huge grin. I landed the fish and headed back out for another. That first fish had to weight at least five pounds. The next cast brought a huge surge of water as the fish jumped and started fighting. When it was over I had two very large fish to clean. I was beside the stream gutting the fish when the bear came out.

It roared and everyone seemed to freeze in fear as the horses in camp screamed. The elves were slowly pulling theirs bows from their shoulders. I slowly stood and faced the huge bear from no more than a dozen feet. I was afraid for Ellie and dropped the knife I was using, “Move behind me.”

It was said quietly but she heard. The bear stood and roared again and I drew my pistol. It seems that moments of extreme stress only made my aim better. The bear was huge, easily twelve feet tall. I shot it five times rapidly under the jaw, angled up. The head snapped back and the bear seemed to stand there frozen before falling.

I moved forward as it spasmed and died. I put the hammer down before holstering the pistol and turning to everyone staring at me in shock. I smiled at Dodson’s wife, “Would you salt a haunch for me?”

She nodded and looked at her husband. I smiled as I headed back to the fish, “Let me finish cleaning the fish and then I will work on the bear.”

Ellie touched my shoulder, “the weapons you carry are very powerful.”

I shrugged, “you still need to hit what you aim at.”

She grinned and the elves chuckled. After cleaning and filleting the fish, I started skinning the bear and Ellie helped me. This was something she would never have done… I reminded myself this wasn’t exactly my Ellie. The Dwarves carved up the meat while I rolled up the hide. In camp I set the bear skin aside and pulled out my cooking utensils.

I used herbs with salt and pepper to cook the fish. Ellie sat beside me looking hungry and I put the first fillet on a wooden plate with some water crests and spicy rice. She looked at it and me while the elves and dwarves watched. They were all eating bear steaks but watched as Ellie tasted the fish.

She grinned after her first careful bite, “This is good!”

I smiled and slid a second fillet onto her plate before starting mine. I cleaned up after dinner and pulled out my pistol which made everyone stop what they were doing. I pulled my cleaning kit out of the wagon and sat down to unload the pistol and take it apart. I cleaned it and put a light coat of oil back on before putting it together and reloading it.

I sighed and pulled the bear skin out and unrolled it. I started scrapping it and Ellie silently began helping me again. She had been silent since dinner and now she started talking, “Trolls are only found in the forests or high in the mountains. They have very hard skin and arrows don’t penetrate.”

She looked up at me, “Luckily they are known to kill other trolls that come into their territory.”

She looked into the night, “Goblins are a subspecies, they are small grey skinned and breed like rabbits. They will not only kill other goblins but they eat them.”

She smiled at me, “Orcs… Orcs are very dangerous. They are five feet tall with greenish skin and no hair. They travel in huge packs and kill anything and everything they find.”

I nodded and she shuddered, “They have been known to destroy large cities.”

I looked at her and she nodded, “Then there are gnomes. They are a shy reclusive people. They also live in the heavy forests. Sometimes in even large dwarven communities.”

She looked at me, “You are the first I have heard about that have had a meeting with a dragon and still live.”

I grinned, “I guess he though an old human would be to tough to chew.”

The elves sputtered and the closest dwarf laughed. I grinned and sighed before looking at Dodson, “Guard shifts?”

He nodded to the elves, “They will take it tonight and we will do it tomorrow.”

I looked at the elves and then at Ellie before standing and digging through my pack at the back of the wagon. I pulled out my thermal monocular and turned it so Green Bow could see the switch, “Turn this to use it.”

I tossed it to him and then rolled the skin and tied it to the side of the wagon. I grabbed a large towel and turned for the river. Ellie touched my arm, “May I join you?”

I looked at her and nodded before turning to the river. At the edge I stripped and picked up the wash cloth and soap. Ellie stood in the water and smiled as she lifted her arms to murmur her made up language. I felt a tingle as if a current of electricity had passed through me. She held out her hand, “We are safe now Samuel.”

I chuckled as I wadded out, “one of us is safer then the other.”

Her throaty chuckle made me grin. Our bath was one of remembered touches and caresses. When we finished, I dressed and waited to walk to my wagon holding her hand. That night I held her against me afraid to sleep. When she whispered softly I felt my mind slipping and then I was blinking awake.

I looked at the soft body still in my arms in the dawn light, “You should not do that El.”

She stirred and lifted her head to look at me before smiling, “I am not going anywhere Samuel and you needed to rest.”

I caressed her face and slid out of bed before I did something. We had only been walking a short time that day when I glimpsed something moving through the brush. I switched sides with Ellie, “We have company.”

I shifted the Super long and bent to pick up both Little One and Charles. I quickly tossed them onto the seat of my wagon, “Stay in the wagon.”

Ellie had made a sound and signaled to the elves. They spread out as I looked around and thumbed the safety off my riffle. When the little grey creatures attacked, I reacted and brought the rifle up. I fired rapidly into the large crowd of rushing creatures. By the time they reached me there were only a few left and arrows took them quickly.

I looked around when it was over and didn’t see anymore. I looked at one of the elves as he drew a sword and walked through the creatures and stabbed each one. I looked at Ellie, “Those were goblins?”

She nodded, “A small pack.”

I turned one over and looked at its open mouth and the only thing I could think of to describe it was sharks teeth. I looked around and nodded to Dodson to start moving again. The next attack came just before we stopped for the night. They came out of a brush choked gully and I spun as Ellie gestured and murmured something.

A jagged bolt of what looked like lightning jumped from her staff to strike one of the rushing goblins. It glowed and then the bolt jumped to another as the first dropped to the ground smoking. I ignored everything and started shooting the closest ones. When it was over the ground was littered with dead and smoking bodies.

We were careful about how and where we made camp. That night there was no fire, after we made dinner it was put out so it wouldn’t attract more goblins. I worked on the bear skin until it began to get dark. I had first watch and Ellie walked around the camp with me. When Adalson relieved me, she took my hand a led me to my wagon.

Little One and Charlie looked up from the furs on the chest behind the wagon seat. Ellie stripped and pushed my hands away from my shirt to undress me. She looked into my face, “We were once husband and wife Samuel. I still feel that bond and I know you do also.”

I looked down, “Are you really…”

Ellie put her finger to my lips, “I am both the same and different than the Ellie in your heart. Just as you are both the same and different then the Samuel in my dreams. I have thought hard about this and have decided to accept my husband back into my life.”

I looked at her in the near darkness and slowly reached out to touch her face, “I am afraid, El.”

She laughed and pulled me to the bed, “You will not lose me Samuel.”

I woke to dawns light with Ellie was still snuggled against my back. Little One hopped onto the bed and lay down against my chest purring. I shifted and stroked her fur before sliding out of bed and dressing. When I dropped out of the wagon, Green Bow looked up from his bed beneath the wagon.

I glanced around and went to start a morning fire. I had just gotten the pot of water to boil when everyone began appearing. The first hint of something came with the snort of one horse. That snort rang bells that brought me to my feet with my rifle coming to my shoulder. I shifted and moved slowly towards the horses.

Green Bow and the other elves had stood and pulled their bows out. The dwarfs were looking around cautiously. The rush came suddenly, it was a huge band of goblins. I didn’t even hesitate before starting to shoot. The creatures dropped and still kept coming. I changed magazines six times and they still flooded out of the dawns light.

Ellie was throwing some type of fire balls that exploded and the elves were shooting arrows. The dwarfs were using compact crossbows but I was baring the brunt of the attack. When the bolt locked back on my last magazine I dropped the rifle and drew the sword Bris had given me. I moved into the rushing monsters as Ellie yelled.

It was like I was back in the jungles where my life began. I sliced and danced as I blocked or avoided goblins trying to swarm over me. It was a life time later that I stabbed through the throat of a rabid goblin and looked around. Everything was quiet, the ground around me was littered with dead goblins.

I glanced at the camp and everyone was looking back with wide eyes. I looked down at my blood soaked clothes and shook my head. I started back towards the camp, bending to retrieve my rifle. I smiled, “I think I’ll wash before we start off this morning.”

Dodson chuckled, “throw the clothes away. You’ll never get all that blood out.”

I was looking at Ellie and she smiled and shook her head. The stream I used ran red before my bath was over. I had to wash several times to get the stink off. I pulled a set of black combat utilities out and dressed before reloading all my magazines. I stayed in my wagon as we started and quickly cleaned my sword and rifle.

I dropped out and pulled Little One down and draped her across my shoulders. Ellie grinned at that and bent to pick up Charles as he meowed. Green Bow moved forward, “You are very good with the sword.”

I glanced at him, “I’ve been doing it long enough.”
He nodded and then looked at Ellie, “How is it you are so young?”

I thought about that question and how to answer. I looked at Ellie and smiled, “I led a life as a combat soldier and then I met my Ellie. She was a teacher for a university… a type of school. She was the one to introduce me to other teachers. Five years after she… died, I was dying. I was in a hospital and one of our friends came to me. He had created tiny robots…”

I looked at the elf and frowned as I thought. I smiled, “Like golems?”

I saw both him and Ellie nod but they weren’t happy. I smiled, “That is as close a description as I can think of. They aren’t good or bad, they are tiny machines that just do what they were told to do. In this case they were designed to destroy or remove… bad growths inside a human body. They remove diseases from the blood too. They also cause the body to regenerate.”

I reached up to pet Little One, “That last saved Little One.”

Ellie smiled and I looked at Green Bow, “When I first came here I looked my age. Since then I have slowly regain my health and look like I did when I was much younger.”

He nodded and drifted away. Ellie set Charles down and Little One perked up. I set her down too, “Don’t get lost.”

She meowed as she scampered after the other cat. I shook my head and Ellie moved closer, “You frightened me.”

I looked at her and she smiled, “I have never seen someone use a sword so well against such a feral… enemy.”

I smiled, “That part of my life was many years before we met.”

It was two more days before we reached the entrance to the dwarven tunnels. The rest of the journey was calm with no attacks. We did see signs of drakes a couple of times but none approach us. The evenings were cooler now that we were entering the edge of a mountain range. I had finished cleaning and tanning the large bear skin.

I measured it and wasn’t surprised at how big the bear had been. The entrance to the tunnels was walled of course but we weren’t challenged.



Chapter 9

Dwarven Tunnels

Dodson directed me to a huge stone stable after we entered the gate. Several dwarf lads took the horses to a small corral after I parked the wagon. Green Bow and the other elves waved as they continued towards the large mouth of the main tunnel. I looked at Ellie and she smiled, “We might as well get comfortable, dwarves tend to take their time.”

I smiled and glanced at Little One and Charles as they headed into the barn, “Do not get lost.”

Little One only flirted her tail as she kept going and Ellie laughed. I smiled and went to the wagon to bring out my dirty clothes. I looked around and Ellie laughed again before calling one of the dwarf lads. One came out looking annoyed and she smiled sweetly, “Would you happen to know of a nearby service to clean clothes?”

He looked at her and then me before grinning, “My mother can do it for a price.”

I laughed, “Tell you what. I will give you these and mage Ellie’s robes to be cleaned. I will pay you a silver when they are done.”

He nodded and walked closer as Ellie climbed into the wagon and handed her robe out. I grinned at her bare leg, “Maybe we can find a marketplace to get you a couple more robes or dresses.”

She grinned as I turned to give the lad the clothes. He grinned back at me, “Go inside the tunnel and take the first left. At the arched doorway on the right, go in.”

I took Ellie’s hand and we headed into the tunnel. We found the doorway the lad told us about and walked in. All around us was the hum and murmur of voices from hundreds of dwarves. Light filtered down from high overhead and I could see huge seems of crystal. I grinned and pulled Ellie after me as I headed into the busy market.

I headed through the solid looking shop like stalls walking slowly. I stopped when I saw the emerald green cloth on a counter. I grinned at the two dwarf women, “How long to make a nice dress?”

They grinned and the older of the two looked at Ellie, “An hour.”

I looked at Ellie as I pulled my large pouch of silver and started bargaining. I had noticed several other bolts of cloth in many colors. In the end I bought Ellie four dresses, the other three were to be finished and delivered to our wagon. While I waited for her I looked around the nearby stalls.

I was not surprised when Little One clawed her way up my body and lay draped across my shoulders. I found another shop that was selling capes and bought three. One for me and two for Ellie, one was fur lined. I returned to the dress shop to find Charles draped across the counter while several young dwarf girls pet him.

I smiled as Little One sniffed and meowed in complaint. I reached up to caress her while looking towards the back of the shop. A grumpy looking dwarf with a beard down onto his chest stomped down the isle and looked up at me, “You Samuel Grey?”

I smiled slightly, “At least for today.”

He snorted as the girls giggled, “The counsel wants to speak to you.”

I sighed and glanced at the back of the shop as Ellie peeked out, “I am busy right now.”

I looked at the dwarf, “I will be back at my wagon in a half hour if they still want to talk to me.”

He put his hands on his hips, “This is important human.”

I smiled, “Not to me dwarf.”

His eyes narrowed, “is it money you want?”

I laughed, “Well, right now I am shopping and enjoying the courtesy of these wonderful merchants.”

He looked around and blushed, “yes, well…”

The girls giggled again and he glared at them and then at me, “I will have the counsel meet you at your wagon.”

He turned and stomped off and I shook my head as Little One mewed softly. I caressed her and glanced at the back of the shop as Ellie opened the curtain and stepped out. She was stunning in the long dress and smiled as she walked towards me, “He was a grumpy old man.”

The girls laughed and the one petting Charles grinned, “He is always like that.”

We stopped at a food vender on the way out and carried two meat and goat cheese sandwiches back to the wagon. I set Little One down as Charles meowed at her and they disappeared into the barn. Ellie grinned, “They must be going for lunch.”

I tossed the new robes in the back of our wagon and sat with Ellie to eat. A large group of dwarf men and women approached as we were finishing. I noticed Dodson walking along with those in the lead and sighed, “Another recommendation.”

Ellie laughed and leaned against my shoulder. The group gathered around us and sat down. One old dwarf that looked ancient cleared his throat, “We have a problem and you were recommended as someone that might solve it for us.”

I gestured, “Go on.”

He looked at the others, “We have a nest of goblins.”

I looked at him in surprise, “I thought…”

He held up his hands, “Actually it is in one of the older, higher tunnels off the pass that they found a way into.”

I sat back, “What do you want me to do?”

They looked at each other and the old dwarf cleared his throat, “Kill them.”

I shook my head, “can you just block the tunnel off?”

The old dwarf nodded, “We could but the problem would be protecting the workers. Also they would just find another way in since they know we are here now.”

I sighed and looked at Ellie, “I have always hated doing a job knowing it was to kill and not just protect.”

She nodded and then sighed, “You saw the goblins. They are mindless animals.”

I looked at the dwarves, “I will need a few things.”

The old dwarf looked at another that had a bright red beard, “Tolivar will provide whatever you need.”

Another dwarf leaned forward, “How much?”

I smiled and looked at Ellie, “Beside what I need, I want seven bolts of cloth of my choosing.”

They were looking at each other and the same dwarf cleared his throat, “That is all?”

I looked at him and raised my eyebrow, “That is my price. Do you want me to ask for more?”

The other dwarves grumbled and he blushed. I looked at the old dwarf, “Give me an hour to think about what I need and I will give you my list.”

He nodded and they all stood. Tolivar stayed as the others walked back towards the tunnel. I sighed and handed Ellie my pouch of silver, “Would you mind looking in the marketplace for some of the pipe herbs?”

She grinned as she stood, “I love the smell of pipe herbs.”

Tolivar grinned as we watched her head back into the tunnel. I pulled out my note book and gave him a list of what I needed. It was basically everything I needed to reload and make more bullets. I climbed into the wagon and started pulling out my extra magazines and ammo. I sat and started preparing.

I had only done one mission underground and it was not a pleasant memory. I glanced at Ellie when she came back but kept working. I finally set everything aside and sat back and closed my eyes. She moved behind me and started rubbing my temples like she had done in the past, “Goblins are like weasels Samuel. Once they know prey is there they can not stop themselves from killing. It is a kind of blood lust.”

I sighed and nodded, “Killing is killing El.”

When Tolivar returned, I started making more bullets. It was late when Ellie pulled me to bed in the wagon. I woke to the sound of a lot of voices. Ellie shifted and moved to get up, “A wagon train from Kendal. It sounds like they have wounded.”

I sat up and began to dress as Ellie climbed out of the wagon. The area around the stable was full of wagons and horses, with dwarves and humans moving around both. I started helping with the wounded and was almost sickened at some. The goblins that had attacked them did not try to kill before eating and some wounds were horrific.

The sun was up before everything calmed down. I sat with Ellie and ate some bread and cheese before putting my gear on. Tolivar returned as I was finishing a shoulder bag that held extra magazines. When Ellie stood to come with me I almost told her to stay. Little One and Charles trotted at our feet as we headed into the tunnel.

A small party of dwarves carrying some type of chemical lanterns met us and started leading the way. I smiled at Ellie, “I need to look for those lanterns in the marketplace.”

Ellie grinned and bent to scoop up Charles. Little One leaped and used her claws to climb my body to her perch on my shoulders. Most of the tunnels were well travel until late afternoon when we reached a large shaft. Inside was a pulley operated wooden elevator. Tolivar explained that it mostly used giant stone counter weights.

I think we rose about a thousand feet before coming to a stop. Not even a hundred paces away was a second elevator that took us up another thousand feet. When we got off that elevator we stopped in a large room that looked like a common room and even had a stone fireplace. Of course they used coal they dumped into a basket beside it.

The other dwarves busied themselves and Tolivar sat with Ellie and I. He cleared his throat, “A short walk from here is another lift that will take us up to the level where the goblins are. That set of tunnels extends out to just below the tree line off the trail that leads to the high pass. There are about five leagues of tunnels we will be searching so it is a good idea to be fresh when we start.”

I nodded and glanced around, “Beds and a place to cook?”

He looked towards a far corner, “The kitchen is in the corner. We have a supply train coming with supplies for a week.”

He gestured to the door beside the fireplace, “The sleeping room is through there.”

Little One and Charles both hopped off our laps and went exploring. It was an hour later that Little One scampered back and jumped into my lap, a few moments after that the supplies started arriving. That night I slept lightly with Ellie in my arms and my pistol in my hand. We were up early and ate before the dwarves finally decided it was time to start.

Ellie’s staff had appeared from somewhere as we entered the lift to ascend the shaft. I caressed her cheek and set Little One down, “Stay behind us.”

She mewed and sat but I was not sure she would stay and shook my head as I moved to the front of the lift. When the lift came to a halt I brought the rifle up and looked through the scope. I nodded and gestured before moving forward. I watched as the dwarves set up a hasty position. I had studied the tunnel diagrams and moved forward slowly when the dwarves were ready.

The plan had been to check and clear tunnels thought to be free of goblins. The first tunnel went deeper into the mountain before coming to an end. When we returned to the tunnel intersection I waited while they blocked it. The second tunnel was the same and then we started on the third. We had barely entered when I saw the goblins.

Looking through my scope, I almost became sick as I saw them ripping another goblin apart and eating it. I stopped everyone and took a deep breath before taking aim. I fired until the magazine was empty and then changed it. That was when the goblins attacked. I fired rapidly and went through three magazines before they even got close.

There were only a few left when I started on the next magazine and that was when the dwarves fired a volley of crossbow bolts. It was quiet after that and the dwarves started down the tunnel killing any wounded goblins. I replaced the used magazines with loaded ones from the shoulder bag. Ellie took the empties and made them disappear somewhere.

We checked the tunnel carefully and I watched as the dwarves started removing the bodies. We still had four more tunnels to check. The one that exited out onto the pass was going to be the last one. After we finished checking and blocking the tunnel we moved back to the lift. We rested and drank water before eating bread rolls and cheese.
Little One and Charles found a large rodent somewhere and were having a feast of their own while the dwarves laughed. Finally I stood and we headed for the next tunnel. I moved slowly scanning ahead of us with the scope. The group of goblins I found was small but almost seemed to smell us as I started shooting.

Two full magazines and several bolts and it was over. The rest of the tunnel was clear and Ellie leaned against me and whispered as the dwarves went about blocking it, “These are just weak splinter groups looking for food.”

I knew when we entered the next tunnel it would be different. I had a large group at extreme range rushing towards us. I started firing and changing magazines, I was on the fifth before the dwarves began using their crossbows. The bolt of lightning that exploded in their midst startled me but I kept firing.

When I dropped the magazine the last goblin fell with three bolts in its chest. I reloaded the rifle and then placed full magazines in empty holders. Again Ellie made the empty magazines disappear. I shook my head, “do not lose those, I might need them later.”

She grinned and kissed my cheek, “They are safe.”

Slowly we checked the tunnel and then the dwarves started removing the bodies. I was almost tempted to ask what they did with them but Ellie must have read my mind. She leaned against me as we held our bond cats, “They have a system of cartiers waiting on the level below that take the bodies to a narrow cleft and dump them over a cliff.”

I relaxed as I watched the two remaining tunnels while the dwarves started blocking the one we had just cleared. Tolivar appeared and wiped sweat from his forehead, “After we finish blocking this one, we are going back down to the break rooms.”

I nodded and he grinned, “Your weapon is very impressive.”

I smiled as he turned to watch the other dwarves. When they finished we went to the lifts and descended slowly to the next level. It was a quiet evening as I cleaned my rifle and reloaded the empty magazines Ellie handed me with a small smile. Little One stayed close as I lay in bed with Ellie holding me. I woke to a crash and yelling. I rolled out of bed reaching for my rifle.

I reached the doorway to see goblins fighting several dwarves in the common room. I killed one biting the shoulder of a nearby dwarf and Ellie shouted a spell that lit the room with bright light. I shot another across the room as it leaped toward the back of a dwarf already struggling with a goblin. Other dwarves rushed past as I shot a goblin off Tolivar.

I moved into the room and shot goblins as I went past them. When it was over there were twenty goblins on the floor and two dwarves. I quickly went and dressed while Ellie and other dwarves began taking care of the wounded. I reloaded the magazine I had used and came back into the room.

Tolivar was nursing a nasty bite as I sat across from him, “Do you know how many came down?”

He nodded, “The sentries gave a warning and one was still alive in a smaller locked room. These were all that came down.”

I nodded as Ellie looked up from bandaging a nearby dwarf, “It was a splinter group scavenging for food.”

I turned to walk to the door and checked the tunnel with my scope. The mass by the lift had me squeezing the trigger as I called out, “There is more coming down the lift!”

I kept firing as dwarves hurried into the hall. They knew better then to get between me and the goblins as I dropped the magazine and replaced it. They lined up and prepared their crossbows as I went through another magazine. The goblins finally started rushing towards us as I started on the third magazine. Of course by then there were only a few left.

The volley of crossbow bolts killed the last of them and I reloaded before the dwarves moved forward to make sure the goblins were dead. Tolivar came back from the lift, “Nothing else coming down but we better move up to the next level and finish this.”

I nodded and walked towards the lift. It did not take long before the dwarves had the lift packed and ready. I knelt inside and used the scope as we began heading up. It was clear all the way to the next level. I led the way to the second tunnel and began to slowly move down it. This one was a little longer than the others.

Somehow I was surprised when we did not find any goblins. We moved back to the lift and I watched the last tunnel as they began blocking the one we just came out of. Little One and Charles both appeared running from the last tunnel and I could hear a distant roaring. I glanced at Ellie before bringing the rifle up, “That was not a goblin.”

I did not see anything for awhile and then they were rushing towards us from the bend over two hundred paces away. I started firing and went through a magazine and then a second and third. I started on the fourth when the larger bodies appeared behind the goblins. I concentrated on the goblins in front as I fired, “There are three bigger animals behind them.”

I knew what they were as I dropped the fifth magazine. Ellie whispered, “Fire Drakes!”

I started firing again as the dwarves fired blindly down the tunnel. When the rifle locked back after the sixth magazine, I let it fall on its strap and pulled my pistol. I ignored the several goblins as I aimed at the closest drake. I shot it three times, twice in the chest and once through the head.

I switched to the next drake as lightning exploded down the tunnel. I shot the second drake like I had the first and dropped my pistol to pull the sword over my shoulder. I side stepped and swung the sword to take the head from the third drake. Quiet came to the tunnel as I knelt to retrieve my pistol and wipe my sword clean.

I replaced the magazine in the pistol and then the rifle. I kept watch and moved forward with the dwarves as they checked and killed any goblin still alive. When we reached the bend in the tunnel I shifted the rifle and came around the corner looking through the scope. The large creature was something I had never seen.

It roared and the dwarves panicked and ran. It had to bend its neck as it lumber towards me. I knelt as I remembered Ellie telling me they had thick skins. I aimed at the throat and fired slowly. After six bullets it was still staggering towards me. It opened its mouth to roar again and I shot it through the mouth.

Its head snapped back as it froze and then fell. It started jerking and twitching and I glanced back to see Ellie standing there wide eyed. I reached back to touch her and she shook herself, “I never thought I would see a troll or see one killed.”

I shrugged, “How long before the dwarves come back?”

She grinned, “A day or two.”

I looked at the body of the troll, “Well, I am not trying to move that thing by myself.”

I moved forward around the twitching body and then started checking the rest of the tunnel. At the very end was a common room with a wide doorway. Ellie crossed to it and glanced out before looking back, “The troll must have chased the goblins and drakes in here.”

I moved to join her and looked out at the open forest with a wide well used tail going past. Ellie took my arm, “It will take us four days by trail to reach this spot and two more to reach the high pass.”

I nodded, “How long to get down?”

She shook her head, “We will be in the pass for at least three maybe four days. The trail leading down the other side will take a week or more, than there is…”

I laughed, “One step at a time El.”

I turned and went back into the rank smelling room and crossed to the tunnel, “We should head to the lift.”

I led her back through the tunnel until we reached the lift. We yelled down the shaft for ten minutes before we were answered. Even then it was a full lift that came up to get us. At first they did not believe I had killed the troll and then they had to creep down the tunnel to check. Finally there was jubilation before they began clearing the dead away while Ellie and I sat with our smug looking bond cats.
When we finally made it back to my wagon the whole dwarf community was celebrating. No one had touched anything in my wagon and it was late when I pulled Ellie into bed and held her against me before closing my eyes. I spent the next three days replacing ammunition I had used. Ellie was very good at finding the supplies we needed and bargaining for them.



Chapter 10

The High Pass

When we led the team of horses out the gate there were dwarves that lined the way. As we walked we looked at the stunning colors of fall. Little One scampered out of a bush with Charles chasing her. She ran right up my body as Charles detoured to leap up into Ellie’s arms.

Four days later we stopped early to camp beside the entrance into the dwarven tunnels. Ellie had purchased sacks of grain and I put feed bags on each horse before heading out to gather wood for a fire. Tiny light snow flakes began falling before I brought the first arm load of wood in. She glanced up and grinned, “We have company.”

She nodded to the new thick door into the dwarven tunnel that was open now and I smiled to see Tolivar. He came out carrying a big pot of what looked like stew, “I was up here checking on the new door and decided to stick around until you came by.”

I grinned with Ellie and set the wood down. It was a nice evening but after eating it began to snow a little harder. Little One and Charles both grumbled about wet feet and went to hide in the wagon. I had moved a few warm furs to the bed a few days before when it began getting cooler at night.

Tolivar looked at the drifting snow, “Be careful going through the pass.”

He stood and headed for the doorway without looking back. It was still snowing lightly the next morning as we headed towards the pass. It was not a blizzard but I knew it could get bad. I had Ellie sit in the driver’s seat of the wagon while I guided the horses. I was a little worried one of the horses might slip and break a leg but they seemed to do fine.

Even the extra horses behind the wagon carrying more grain did okay. We stopped for a lunch under some tall pines. I made a small fire and smiled at her amazement when I made grill cheese sandwiches. Ellie walked with me during the afternoon. By the time we stopped for the night in a thick stand of evergreens it was snowing a little harder.

Little One and Charles went out to explore while I gathered wood. We fed the horses grain warmed in a mash before cooking our own dinner. Ellie surprised me by walking around our camp and whispering a spell. She smiled and told me it was to ward off wild animals. We were just getting ready to climb into the wagon.

A whisper of sound came to me and Ellie spun in surprise and glanced out into the darkness, “Who is there?”

The creature that stepped out surprised me. It was only two feet tall and covered in fur. Then I realized it was wearing a type of fur robe or overcoat. Ellie knelt, “How may we help little one?”

The voice that answered was high and almost squeaky, “We are traveling over the pass to the Deep Forest.”

I looked at Ellie as she smiled and glanced at me and then back at the little person, “How many travel with you?”

It seemed to smile, “My family, four adults and six children.”

Ellie nodded and smiled at me, “We can take them with us?”

I smiled at her, “I do not think they will take up much room.”

She nodded and turned back to the little person, “Bring your family in and warm yourself at our fire.”

It almost sounded like a ritual and the little man bowed, “Thank you.”

Ellie stood and moved back to the fire and added another few sticks. I sat on a fallen log and waited. She finally turned to face me, “They are Gnomes. Very timid and rarely seen. They normally live in heavy forests.”

I nodded, “and use some type of poison on their weapons.”

She looked surprised but nodded, “That is a closely guarded secret.”

I shrugged, “The fur he was wearing told me.”

She smiled and looked towards where the gnome had been, “mages tend to help them when we can.”

I nodded, “Makes sense. They can ride the wagon to stay out of the snow.”

Ellie grinned, “They can be very fast on snow.”

I smiled, “Moving through snow can be tiring no matter how big you are.”

“You are right human.”

I glanced over at the small group pulling what looked like a sled. I bowed, “Come, be welcome at our fire.”

An older looking female bowed slightly and led they way. She held her hands out to the flames but looked at me, “The whispers tell us you are responsible for the troll’s death.”

I nodded slowly, “The death of even one such as it is not something I am proud of.”

She actually smiled, “You are strange human.”

The others had gathered around and a younger female busied herself cooking. I sat beside Ellie as they ate and cleaned up before looking around. I smiled and stood to walk to the wagon. I pulled out a couple of bison skins I had been using on the floor. I laid one out and folded the other before walking out to look for what I needed.

When I came in I was carrying several sticks. I pulled out some leather strings I had started collecting and made a dome shaped frame. I went to the fur and set the frame down and draped the second skin over it. I turned and bowed, “It should stay nice and warm.”

Ellie stood and bowed, “Sleep well. We can speak again in the morning.”

I followed Ellie into the wagon and undressed before slipping in beside her. She shivered and held me tight as the blankets slowly warmed. Little One meowed and crawled under the blanket and then Ellie squeaked as Charles did the same against her back. I woke to Little One purring and kneading my chest.

I pet her and rubbed her face as Ellie shifted and woke behind me. The two bond cats climbed out when we got up to dress. The chill made me wish for an electric heater. I dropped from the wagon and walked to where the fire had been but it was covered in snow and more still fell.

I squatted and used a pine branch to brush some of the snow away before building another fire. Once it was going, I went to check the horses and feed them some grain. When I came back to the fire the gnomes were up and moving around. Ellie was beside the fire toasting bread and cheese. Little One and Charles were both being petting by the gnome children.

I squatted beside Ellie, “If this snow keeps up it is going to make the other side of the pass dangerous.”

The elder gnome woman snorted, “Only if you do not know what you are doing human.”

I smiled, “I have news for you little mother, not only am I just learning about horses, I am also new to this world.”

She looked at me with questions in her eyes and then nodded, “We will travel with you as far as the forest and help you if you need it.”

One of the male gnomes cleared his throat, “Your frame was very efficient.”

I smiled and accepted toasted bread and melt cheese from Ellie, “If I had a liner for the inside it would be even warmer.”

He nodded and turned away. After breaking our fast, I harnessed the horses while Ellie helped the gnomes into the wagon. She rode on the wagon seat most of the time, talking to the gnomes. I was careful leading the horses on the snow covered trail. I was carrying my bow and managed to kill several rabbits along the way.

I skinned them and cleaned them before handing them up to Ellie. I knew they would last a long time in this cold. She gave the skins to the gnomes who cleaned them as we traveled. We reached the highest part of the pass just before I decided to stop for the night. I picketed the horses in front of the wagon while Ellie and the gnomes started a fire beside it.

After putting a blanket on each horse and fitting a feed bag over their heads I went to help Ellie. She smiled and stood to stretch before starting a walk around the camp with her staff. I left to gather wood for the fire as the gnomes pulled a bison fur under the wagon. I returned with my arms full of tree limbs and pulling a large heavy branch behind me.

The gnomes had the tent I had made set up with another skin fitted over it. As we ate dinner the elder gnome man talked about switching the horses on the trail down. Putting four horses to pull if needed and the others behind the wagon to resist or act as brakes. I was a little surprised when Little One and Charles went into the gnome tent to sleep.

Ellie shivered as I slipped into bed and held her. It was awhile before we warmed up from the chill of being in the snow all day. I woke in the middle of the night with Ellie shifting around. She whispered, “Something is near.”

I slid out of bed ignoring the cold as I quickly dressed. I grabbed my rifle before climbing out of the wagon. I switched the thermal sight on and slowly turned as I looked through the scope. The small shape that appeared was familiar. Ellie touched my shoulder, “Do you need light?”

I glanced at her, “It is a small fire drake.”

She blinked and turned to gesture. A globe of light sprang to life and we both saw the small huddled form in the snow. I shook my head as I started forward, “Wait here.”

When I reached the drake it growled weakly. I knelt beside it and reached out to hold the neck before releasing my rifle and shifting closer. It was the size of a small dog and weighted even less. I used my other hand to turn it and then lift. It growled but did not pull away as I stood and held it against me.

I do not know why but I headed back to the wagon and bed. I only took my gear off before climbing under the pile of furs and held the small drake against me. It shifted and growled a few times but it was not long before it was asleep. Ellie had climbed back in bed behind me and rubbed my back before snuggling close.

I woke to the drake shifting around and lifted the furs to look at it. It sniffed but did not growl or bite which I thought was a good sign. I climbed out of bed thinking real hard about making a gas heater. After putting everything on, I dug out a fur skin and then reached in to lift the drake out.
I tucked it into the fur before climbing out of the wagon. Of course it was still snowing and it took a little longer to get the fire going. I set one of the dead rabbits from yesterday beside the fire to thaw. Ellie climbed out to join me and then the gnomes came out. Of course the drake growled again but I just reached into the fur and rubbed it under the chin and it calmed down.

The gnomes were a little hesitant but finally started moving around the fire to warm up. I gave the rabbit to the little drake and went to check and feed the horses. It was an interesting day, I carried the drake around with me and more than once Little One would meow from the wagon in displeasure.

I left the drake with Ellie when I went out hunting at midday. Little One rode my shoulders and rubbed against my neck the whole time. I used my bow to kill the four rabbits I found instead of my rifle. Like the day before I skinned and cleaned them before handing them to Ellie. The drake rode in the wagon the rest of the day.

I think it enjoyed the attention the gnomes gave it. There was an overhang beside the trail that had seen many fires. It was huge, more than large enough to put the horses in the back where someone had cleared all the rocks and made a crude fence. The wagon even fit under the edge and we sat by a cheerful fire that evening.

I cut a rabbit up and we took turns tossing the pieces to the drake as I lay beside the fire. Ellie had walked along the edge of the overhang and done one of her spells to ward us from animals. I looked out into the snowy night and saw that it was snowing even harder. She leaned against me, “We start going down tomorrow.”

I nodded and held her, “Next time I see the dwarves I will tell them they could make a killing if they had a tunnel all the way through the mountains.”

She laughed and the drake looked up. She gestured and tossed the last piece of rabbit. The gnomes were almost cheerful as they said good night. When Ellie and I climbed into the wagon it was to see Little One and Charles curled around and on the young drake. Ellie smiled and murmured something that made the air in the wagon seem warm.

I woke to wind shaking the wagon and glanced at Ellie still asleep. The two bond cats were still draped over the young drake and they all seemed to be purring. I shook my head and climbed out before dressing. As soon as I dropped to the ground I knew today was going to be bad. Snow fell thicker and the wind was blowing harder.

I moved to the horses and was surprised to feel it warmer in their corral. I fed the horses and went back to start the fire. I put water on to boil and headed out into the storm to try to find more wood. I moved along the cliff face and had not gone very far before I came to a huge wind fall of branches.

I started dragging large branches back and after three trips I sat by the fire to warm up. The gnomes came out stretching and made me grin, “Sleep well?”

They grinned and came to the fire. I gestured to the falling snow, “I do not think we should head out just yet.”

The old gnome woman nodded as she started making their breakfast. I stood and went to bring a rabbit body back to the edge of the fire so it would thaw out. I looked into the back of the wagon to see Ellie tickling the drake, “I am going out to hunt.”

She nodded and sat up as I turned away. I grabbed my bow and headed into the falling snow. I was a little surprised at how many rabbits I found. When I returned to camp it was with six fat plump rabbits. I had already skinned and cleaned them and hung all but two on the outside of the wagon. Beside the fire Ellie took the rabbits, “I was thinking of a nice stew.”

I squatted down and held my hands out to the fire, “Sounds warm.”

I looked around, “Where is the drake?”

The gnomes laughed and Ellie grinned, “Sleeping in the back of the horse corral.”

I looked around, “Where is Little One and Charles?”

She grinned as the gnomes laughed again, “Sleeping on the drake.”

I grinned and stood up to take the heavy coat off before moving to the wagon. I hunted around until I found the roots and the small jars of preserved vegetables. I pulled out the large pot and carried everything back to the fire. It was a slow day of watching the heavy snow fall. I did go out several times to bring the rest of the dead fall back to the overhang.

I woke the next morning to a sense of calm, the snow had stopped falling. It was a little different going down the other side of the pass with some of the horses behind the wagon to slow it down. I went out hunting at noon when we took a break. I used my bow again and had both rabbits and what I thought were grouse when I came back.

Almost from the moment we started moving again it started snowing. It started off light but quickly grew heavier. I knew we were in trouble when I could not see the wagon from the lead horse. I stopped and went back to pull out my thermal scope and push Ellie up onto the wagon with both bond cats.

The hours crawled by as we followed the trail with me using the thermal scope to see the way. It was just after dark before I saw the cliff beside the trail disappear leaving the wind and snow behind. I led the horses into the huge cave and Ellie dropped off the wagon as she brought light into the cave.

Right away I saw the cave had been used as a way point, it even had a corral and small stone hut. With cold, shaking fingers I unharnessed the horses and put them in the corral. Ellie had found wood and started a large fire in front of the hut. I fed the horses a double measure of feed and started rubbing them down.
By the time I finished Ellie and the gnomes had a tasty dinner ready. The glow Ellie had made faded as I sat and held my hands out to the fire. The gnomes looked at me with respect but it was Little One that warmed me by just crawling from my shoulder down into my shirt. I shivered as her small furry body vibrated and began warming me.

The drake even crawled into my lap and Ellie grinned. I finally relaxed and scratched the drake under the chin as Ellie passed bowls of rabbit stew out. I ate while Ellie pulled everything out for the gnomes and set up some protective spells. After feeding the drake I headed to bed, I was worn out from fighting my way through the storm.

I blinked awake and glanced back at Ellie before slipping out of bed. Both the bond cats were missing as well as the drake. One glance at the gnomes tent told me where they were. I went to check the horses and feed them before building the fire up. I went to the mouth of the cave to see that it had stopped snowing.

The day actually went smoothly and just before I was ready to call it a day, another larger overhang appeared. Four days later we walk off the last hill in the trail and entered a thick evergreen forest. I pulled the horses to a stopped and helped Ellie unload everything of the gnomes.

I was sorry to see them leave and was not really surprised when the drake whined and followed after them.



Chapter 11

Rescuing Elvin Rangers

It was two days later that we heard the sound of fighting. I wanted to have Ellie wait but she jumped from the wagon to the light dusting of snow. I tied the horses and pulled up my rifle as we moved forward. We came around a tree with drooping limbs to see a small clearing. In the center of the clearing were six men fighting back to back against five times as many orcs.

I knelt and started shooting while Ellie watched behind us. When I changed the magazine all the orcs were dead or dying. I stood and we moved forward, the men turned out to be elves and they were all wounded in one way or another. Ellie stayed and I went back to bring the wagon closer.

Ellie did what she could and we put the elves in the wagon before I led the horses back to the trail. As we walked I thought about the orcs. Ellie gestured to one side and I followed her lead and turned the horses. It was not long before we came to an old set of ruins. I took one look before working the wagon through into a walled courtyard.

I began setting up the camp as Ellie helped the elves out of the wagon. One of them glanced at me, “more orcs will come. That was only a small advance party.”

I looked at Ellie and started a fire, “Can your magic move the stones to seal the entrance into the courtyard?”

She stood and looked around, “they can still come over the walls.”

I smiled, “Let me worry about the walls.”

She smiled and did something that made her staff appear. A few minutes later the ground shook slightly and loose stones started flowing across the ground to fill the entrance. I unhitched the horses while she helped the rangers. There was a large tower in one corner with the top broken off and collapsed in on itself.

I checked it and there was no way in but through the one doorway. It was barely large enough to hold the horses and Ellie helped me move them in. There was one set of broken stairs on the wall by the entrance and I went up. After checking I returned and helped Ellie moved the elves to the doorway of the broken tower.

I nodded to the doorway, “When they start coming over the walls move in with the horses.”

I pulled out my pack and a few more magazines before moving back to the tower doorway and setting the pack down. I went back up on the wall and knelt to wait. Every time I glanced back Ellie was always watching. It was almost three hours before they surged out of the forest in one huge wave.
I did not even hesitate as I started firing. I went through four magazines before I turned to move down the stairs. I backed towards the tower as the orcs started coming over the wall. I started picking them off as fast as they appeared. I knelt when I reached the tower and continued to kill orcs.

Now they were dropping to the ground and rushed towards me. I was going through magazines quickly, one shot, one kill. Finally the slide locked back, I yanked the sling off and pulled my sword as I let the rifle drop. I moved forward into the rushing orcs and began killing them as I danced an unforgettable dance.

My world narrowed to slash, step, block, slide, lunge, whirl, cut, shift, stab, block, step… It went on and on until there were no more orcs attacking. I sighed and knelt as the fatigue I had pushed away returned. Ellie was suddenly there and kneeling to hold me, “Are you hurt my love?”

I shook my head, “Just tired.”

An elf cleared his throat, “That was amazing human.”

I glanced at him as he leaned against another elf to stay on his feet. I looked at Ellie as Little One and Charles came from under the wagon, “I am afraid you will need to make camp without my help.”

She grinned, “I will manage.”

I groaned as I stood and moved to my pack and the dropped rifle. I pushed Little One away, “I am all bloody.”

She chirped and sat with her tail wrapped around her feet as if saying, “I will wait.”

I shook my head as I began picking up the dropped magazines. I walked to the wagon as the elves began the task of dragging the orcs to one side. Ellie pulled out supplies to fix dinner as I set the pack down and started undressing. Ellie gestured to one side, “Throw the clothes there and I will see if I can get the blood out.”

I nodded and finished before taking a clean rag that was offered. I used water from the barrel on the side of the wagon and started washing. One by one the elves moved to copy what I was doing. We were eating when something made me turn my head towards a wall. I rolled to my feet as my pistol came up and fired. The orc standing on the wall fall back.

I gestured to Ellie, “The tower now!”

I knelt to grab my rifle and backed towards the tower covering Ellie and the elves as they struggled towards the door. I held the rifle back to Ellie, “Hold this.”

I was carrying eight spare magazines for the pistol, each with ten rounds. We did not have long to wait as suddenly the orcs were spilling over the wall and rushing towards me. I made every shot count and went through the magazines quickly. The elves helped by using bows and even more orcs fell.

Finally there were only a couple left as the slide locked back and I dropped it into the holster and reached for my sword. I did not have to touch it as several arrows from the elves took the orcs. I was quiet as the dim light showed the carnage. I headed straight for the wagon and pulled out all the ammo I had as well as my old rifle and vest.

I moved back to the tower and knelt in the doorway to start reloading, “How many of these orcs are there?”

One of the elves cleared his throat, “We found a main camp with at least two thousand.”

I looked at him and he shrugged, “They will send maybe half of that.”

I glanced at Ellie, “I have only killed half that.”

She nodded and I went back to loading the magazines. I gestured to one of the elves and showed him how to load the magazines. We were almost done when movement on the wall had me turning, the rifle snapped to my shoulder and I fired. It was a good thing I had thought to add the thermal scope. My shots were deliberate, fire, shift fire shift…

Ellie shifted and summoned another one of her lights. It helped but I did not let it distract me. When the orc suddenly dropped from the tower above us, I tilted the barrel and shot through his head before going back to shooting at the ones trying to rush across the bodies in front of us. Another elf knelt and hesitantly reached for my old rifle.

I only glanced at him before continuing to fire, “On the left side is a small lever. Turn it until it clicks once. The magazine only holds thirty rounds. On the right side is a button to release the old magazine.”

It did not take him long to learn and then the orcs were dying much faster. Another orc dropped from above and a small bolt slammed into his chest before I could kill it. The elf beside me managed to keep reloading the magazines as I emptied them. As suddenly as it started, it was over. I looked around and started reloading only to have my hands pushed away, “Rest.”

I glanced at the elf and he smiled before going back to loading. I sighed and turned to Ellie, “there should not be many more.”

An elf in the tower snorted, “Perhaps another large group.”

I sighed and pulled my pistol and started showing the elf that had been using my old rifle how to load and use it. Little One and Charles both scampered across the bloody ground to rub against Ellie and I. When they came again it was with a rush as one just dropped from above to land in front of me. He jerked as the pistol exploded twice and it fell back.

Ellie created her spell light and I was back to firing as orcs flowed over the wall. My old rifle was empty within a few minutes and as I dropped the fifth magazine the pistol locked back for the last time. I was on the second to last magazine when the orcs stopped coming over the wall. I stood and gathered everything up, “Time to go.”

Ellie’s spell to remove the stones blocking the entrance caused them to explode out, clearing the way. The elves were miracle workers with the horses and had them harnessed in no time. I put Little One and Charles in the wagon with the elves and helped Ellie up onto the seat. I hesitated before stripping to just pants with my sword over my shoulder.

I led the horses out and pulled on the lead horse harness to guide him through the darkness. I turned at the narrow trail and started to trot, pulling the horses with me. My eyes had adjusted enough to let me see the trail ahead. The single orc that appeared in front of me died as I did not even slow. I brought the sword around and through his neck.

I kept the pace down to keep the horses fresh as long as possible. Many people do not know a man can actually run a horse to death. It was hours later that I slowed to a walk. The horses were covered in sweat and were breathing hard. The air around us was growing lighter as the sun began to rise.

We had entered a huge clearing in the forest and as it grew lighter I saw the walls of a large town or small city. I continued to walk the tired horses towards the city walls and gradually the gates appeared. The group of guards at the gate challenged me and one of the elves dropped out of the wagon.

He walked forward, “It is us Thomas.”

The gate was opened quickly and the elf met the man that appeared. They whispered and then the gates were thrown open. Just inside the gate and to the right was a huge corral. Several men came to help the elves and Ellie and I were left to tend our horses. When we finally had them cooled down and fed Ellie pushed me towards the wagon, “Wash and get some sleep.”

I shook my head, “I will sleep tonight.”

I began pulling out everything to make more bullets and Ellie quietly helped me. Little One and Charles disappeared and I got the impressions she was hunting. We had a few of the city guards watching us but none came near. Several elves I did not know left through the gates but most of the foresters were turned back.

Ellie smiled tiredly just before noon, “Can we take a break?”

I smiled and finished what I was doing, “How about seeing if we can get a meal in an inn?”
She grinned, “Stay away from the ale. It is probably poisonous.”

I laughed and took her hand. We stayed in Wood Haven for over a week while I made more ammunition for both rifles and my pistol. The town had gradually gone back to normal since the reports the elves brought back were all good. When we left, it was with two traders going the same way.



Chapter 12

Deep Forest

Little One had a following when we left and seemed satisfied with herself. Charles also seemed satisfied and Ellie kept looking at him as he groomed himself. She finally put her arm through mine as we walked beside our lead horses, “I think the two of them were up to a little deviltry.”

I grinned as I looked at the seat where they sat side by side, “Well, they do not seem upset with each other.”

It was late afternoon when the large stag broke through the brush and froze as it stared at us. I had been carrying my bow in case I saw a rabbit and brought it up. I released just before the stag turned to flee and the large deer dropped suddenly. The two traders were upset about stopping and Ellie just waved them on, “We do not need to share what we kill.”

They became quiet and continued on without even looking back. Ellie shook her head as I started cleaning the deer, “Their stuck up, conceited idiots.”

I grinned but did not stop what I was doing. After I had clean and dressed the deer Ellie helped hang it in the back of the wagon. We started off again and I was not surprised to find the merchants waiting a little way down the trail. The thick forest reminded me of stories of wolves and fleeting glimpses from the corner of my eye did not help.

Little One chirped suddenly and I glanced at her before following her stare. The huge black wolf that sat in the forest gave me pause and Ellie touched my arm, “They are all around us.”

We fell in behind the other two wagons and I tried to keep watch. The wolves seemed to follow us but kept their distance. There was a wide clearing we came to in the late afternoon and the traders swung their wagons around. After I placed our wagon in the gap all the horses were brought into the center.

The traders whispered and looked worried as we made camp. I started a fire between the back of two wagons after walking out in the forest for wood. The wolves had kept their distance but continued to watch us. I made the cats stay in the wagon and just before it got dark the wolves moved to the very edge of the forest.

Ellie was cooking a pot of venison stew and I finally stood and walked away from the wagons, “Come forward and tell me what you need.”

I do not know why but it had just felt like that was what they had been waiting for. Several large wolves stood and padded out to sit before me. I waited and one turned its head to look back into the forest. It almost felt like he wanted me to go that way. I shook my head, “Not in the dark.”
It whined and went to his belly before crawling towards me. I sighed as it touched my leg and looked towards the dark forest, “Why?”

It looked at me and then into the forest before growling. That I understood and smiled, “You want me to kill something.”

The wolf barked and I sighed, “How far?”

It tilted its head and I sighed before looking back at Ellie, “Do you know anything that could help?”

She shook her head, “If they have singled you out it is for a reason, something powerful that they can not fight.”

I nodded and looked at the wolf before holding one finger up, “One day?”

It nodded its head and I almost laughed. I looked at the wagon, “Can the wagon go there?”

It looked at the wagon for a moment and then seemed to nod and bark at the same time. I sighed and looked at Ellie, “Well?”

She smiled, “I guess we follow them.”

I nodded and turned to look into the dark night, “We wait until dawn and then we go.”

Ellie nodded, “Safer for the horses.”

I looked at the wolf, “We will follow you at first light.”

It turned and walked into the dark forest. I went back with Ellie and tried to relax. I knew the wolves were watching and I doubted they would attack. I set my mental alarm and leaned back against the wheel of the wagon. My eyes snapped open and I caressed Ellie to wake her before slipping out from under the light blanket.

I checked the horses as it gradually began to get lighter. I moved them out and harnessed them while Ellie spoke to the traders. When I stared leading the horses towards the forest a wolf appeared to guide us. They picked the best way and we never had to worry about becoming stuck. It was several hours before the other wolves closed in which made the horses nervous.

The wolves moved around until they were down wind but something else made the horses snort and jerk against their harness. The first ghoul that appeared made my stomach turn. Its flesh was rotting off and the stench was almost overpowering. I did not hesitate to shoot it through the head but Ellie quickly moved forward to whisper one of her spells.

After I had shot it, it had dropped but lay twitching. When Ellie put her spell on it, it burst into flames. She watched as it flared and turned to dust and turned to me white faced, “This is not good. There will be more and not just men. Anything that is bitten will change.”

I nodded and looked as the wolves, “How much further?”

They whined and Ellie cleared her throat, “It will not be much further unless they have begun to move.”

I looked towards the direction we had been traveling. “I will scout ahead.”

I moved forward carefully and barely left the wagon before several dead ghoul animals staggered out of the brush. I shot a bobcat in the head and then two squirrels and a fox. They lay twitching and I moved back to the wagon and Ellie, “Animals.”

She nodded and came to me and began pulling out my magazines one at a time. She whispered an enchantment on each and finally nodded, “that will help.”

I raised an eyebrow and she smiled, “Anything you shoot will burn.”

I looked at the snorting horse, “Anyway you can ward or shield the wagon and horses?”

Ellie nodded, “And block the scent of the ghouls.”

I watched her slowly walk around the wagon and horses, going from tree to tree. I glanced at the wolves, “I will need you to stay with us as we hunt the ghouls. Just growl or make a sound and look towards any ghouls you see, hear or smell.”

The leader nodded his head and growled before looking towards the dead animals I had shot. I blinked as I saw them crawling towards us. One round in each brought an instant flare and fire. The fire did not spread though, which was good. Ellie finally joined me and I looked at the wolves, “lead the way but stay with us.”

The leader nodded and looked at the other wolves. They all laid down except a large grey bitch that moved up beside him. They walked forward and Ellie and I followed. It was not long before we saw more ghouls. The wolf growled and pointed through the trees and I followed his look to a small group of animals eating another animal.

Ellie whispered, “those immune are eaten.”

I checked around us as one of the ghouls lifted its bloody face. I brought the rifle up and began firing. I waited as their bodies burned and the bitch growled. I looked to the side where she was looking and spun to fire at the three Goblins stumbling towards us. Another look around and then we were being led deeper into the forest.

We kept coming across small groups of animals, seeing babies was what made it hard for me. Ellie whispered that when we reached the main group every ghoul would come for us even those further away. The small clearing was where we found the main group. They were feeding on what looked like a dead horse.

There were goblins and all kinds of other animals including a few wolves. There was even a couple of humans and elves. I started firing as Ellie kept watched around us with the wolves. I moved further into the clearing as I changed the magazine. More ghouls stumbled out of the forest and towards us.

I killed the last ghoul in the clearing and turned to start on those closing on us from the forest. Some of the larger ghouls kept walking after they were shot and continued to burn. The pack leader and his bitch were snarling and growling at the ghouls but did not leave our side as I kept killing them.

After a third change of magazine it was down to a waiting game for the ghouls that had been further away to reach us. Finally it was late afternoon before we stopped. No ghoul had come out for over an hour. I looked at the pack leader, “Are there any more?”

He tilted his head and finally seemed to shake it slightly. I nodded, “Time to go.”

We walked back to the wagon and horses to find them where we left them. Little One and Charles were on the seat and looked at us calmly. I nodded to the wolves, “you should move away for awhile.”

The pack leader looked at the other wolves and they followed him into the forest. I smiled at Ellie, “Think we can make it back to the merchant trail?”

She grinned, “if we start now.”

We made it to the trail and made camp. The following week seemed to go smoothly even if we were traveling alone. We met a couple of woodsmen on the far edge of the forest and I was surprised to see them planting new trees. The areas on each side of the trail turned into fields with cattle. The next day they turned into large fields of grain.

For two days we walked past farms before we came in sight of the low city walls.




Chapter 13

The City of Kendal

There was a large caravan area where we could set up camp. Little One and Charles both disappeared before we were finished. Ellie linked her arm in mine, “Shopping?”

I grinned before reaching into the wagon and setting my rifle down, “put a ward up.”

Kendal was a city of tall spiraling towers and bright colors. I bought several bolts of thick wool. Bright blue, dark and light green, pale yellow and dark blood red. We bought food for dinner and returned to our camp. Ellie frowned when she removed the ward, “Someone tried to enter my wards.”

I looked at her and then looked around. The only ones I saw were the gate guards that sneered as they looked at us. I nodded and we put the bolts of cloth away before starting dinner. Little One and Charles returned looking smug and I grinned, “I think they found trouble and got away with it.”

Ellie laughed and it was just after dinner that trouble came in the form of a city official and a guard captain. We had cleaned up and were sitting together talking about what we were going to need. The two men stopped close to us as if they were trying to intimidate us.

The official cleared his throat, “The city of Kendal requires all merchants and travelers to pay a bond.”

I glanced at Ellie to see her tight lips and stood, “And why would I pay this bond?”

The official sneered and looked at the guard captain who had his hand on his dagger. I smiled, “Let me put it another way. Why should I not kill you both now?”

They froze and looked at each other and the captain started pulling the dagger. I pulled my pistol and pointed it at his head, “You can die here and now if you like.”

He looked from the barrel of the pistol to me and licked his lips, “My guards...”

I shook my head, “Are thieves and back stabbers. They will not even left a finger.”

I reached out and took his dagger before stepping back, “We could use a couple of slaves Ellie. We can sell them in the next town.”

Their eyes widen and their faces turned white. Ellie walked around them slowly, “They are not very fit and we will not make enough to pay for what they eat.”

I sighed as if in regret, “Then I guess I should just kill them now.”

They dropped to their knees to beg and we waited. I finally shook my head and put my pistol away, “fine your lives are our bond. Leave and do not come back.”

As soon as they were out of ear shot Ellie turned to me, “This means the thieves guild now runs Kendal.”

I glanced at the captain when he stopped to yell at his guards as the official hurried into the city. I sighed and went to pull out the super long. I slipped the vest on and turned as a large group of guards started walking towards us with drawn swords. I glanced at Ellie and she shook her head, “We need to go see the council.”

I shrugged and lifted the rifle as the men got closer. Six seconds later I walked through the dead bodies on my way towards the gate, “Well, lets go see the council.”

She was grim faced as she walked beside me. The streets emptied quickly as we walked through them. The large square where the city courts were was empty. We walked across and through the large double doors. Two men turned as we entered the hall and Ellie gestured and said something that made them stop moving.

We walked past them and opened the huge double doors. The room was huge with a heavy table at the other end. The official from our camp turned and his face went white. A large fat man stood, “How dare you!”

I smiled as I crossed the room and stopped on the other side of the table, “I will offer you a bargain, your lives.”

He snarled as four large men entered the room, “Kill them.”

I shook my head and shot him twice in the chest before turning to the men. They had stopped walking as they realized I was more dangerous then they thought. I gestured to the floor, “On your knees.”

One pulled a dagger and I shook my head and shot him. The others went to their knees quickly as Ellie murmured a spell that made the room echo. I looked at the men remaining around the table, “You are leaving this city. I will walk you out and if you even breath wrong I will kill you. You will not return because if you do I will be waiting.”

One opened his mouth and I pointed the rifle at his head, “go ahead.”

He looked up from the barrel into my face, “This is not over.”

I smiled, “It better be because if it is not a lot of men will die.”

I gestured and Ellie unsealed the room as I started walking them out. People were standing in doorways and looking out windows as we walked the group through the streets and out the gate. I gestured to the road, “do not return.”
I watched as they slowly moved away down the road and I looked at Ellie, “What now?”

She grinned, “Now we find someone to take over.”

That was not as hard as we expected. We walked back towards the big city court building. We sat on the steps to wait and talk. It was only an hour before several citizens came into the square hesitantly. I let Ellie talk to them and they were surprised when she said they needed to decide who would take control of the city.

Within another hour the large square was full of people. We managed to slip away to our camp. It was dark out as Ellie set the wards and we lay together. I was thinking the ones that had been in charge might try something. I was up before dawn and made a small fire to heat water for coffee. The attack came from the field side of the caravan area.

There were two dozen men rushing towards me with several shooting arrows. I rolled to the side but the wards stopped the arrows. I pulled my pistol and started shooting. A thick bolt of lightning flashed out to strike several men. I changed magazines and killed the last three men before looking at the archers who had thrown down their bows to run.

Something seemed to snatch them off their feet and slam them to the ground. They screamed as the ground opened and they fell in before it closed. I changed magazines before going to check the other men. It was an hour before several armed people from the city came out the gate. I let Ellie talk to them as I finished making breakfast.

A cart came out for the bodies and the poor looking man was actually grinning when he left bouncing the dead mens purses. Ellie sat with me to eat and smiled, “They are the new city guard.”

I glanced at them as they walked towards the gates, “I hope they know what they are in for.”

Ellie grinned, “They whole city is waking up. If any thieves try anything they are going to be in for a surprise.”

I smiled and started cleaning up, “We need supplies before we leave.”

She nodded, “I gave them a list.”

I looked at her and she smiled, “As thankful as they are, they want us gone too.”

I looked at Little One and Charles play fighting by the wagon, “Tell those two trouble makers to stay close.”

Ellie laughed, “They went out last night and got back before you woke up so they should sleep most of the day.”

I nodded and went to check the horses and the harness. Ellie was relaxing in the wagon singing as she cut and began sewing a new dress. I was mending a torn harness when the cart and several of the new guards came back. I paid them after making them tell me how much it had cost. They actually grinned and left happy as I started putting some of the things away.

Ellie took over and pushed me towards the supplies I had needed to make more bullets. We spent the day together and every once in a while someone would come to the camp. Ellie was the one they talked to and they always left in a better mood. It was after dinner before I was finished and sat down beside her.

She grinned, “We seem more popular now then before. I was even told we would have to be carefully traveling to the west.”

I looked at her as I absently stroked Little One while she purred, “Why?”

Ellie looked up from brushing Charles, “Burrowers.”

I just looked at her and she shook her head, “Sorry. Burrowers are light sensitive leach worms that live underground and come up at night to feed. They can grow to almost nine feet in length and are always found in groups that can number in the thousands. Vibrations on the ground tell them where their prey is.”

I shuddered and looked at her, “How do we know where they are and where a safe place to camp will be?”

She grinned, “Off the ground is safe and you will know when you are in their hunting zones.”

I pet Little One as I thought, “If we keep moving while in their territory can we stay clear of them?”

Ellie nodded, “As long as we do not have to stop.”

I glanced at a small group of women walking towards us, “you have visitors.”

She grinned, “I asked for some patterns and sewing supplies.”

I smiled and let Little One go as she wiggled off my lap. I cleaned up and put everything away before climbing into the wagon. Ellie slipped in a minute later and put her new sewing supplies away. She laid beside me and caressed my chest, “They told me large groups of Orcs were gathering to the north and west.”

I sighed, “When it rains it pours.”

She laughed and put her head on my shoulder.

Chapter 14

Houses on Pillars of Stone

We started early, I walked beside the lead horses as Ellie sat on the wagon and worked on her new dress. Little One and Charles seemed content to ride in back and sleep. The farms we passed were well kept and they waved at us. We stopped beside a wide fast moving stream and I decided to fish for dinner.

Ellie thought I was crazy since it was cold but sat on the bank and watched. I hooked a huge fish and backed towards the bank as I fought it. She was jumping up and down clapping as I kept fighting the fish. I glanced at her and almost dropped the rod. An old man was standing behind her watching me curiously.

I gestured and Ellie turned as I backed out more and finally lifted the fish and walked ashore. The old man’s eyes were shining as he looked at the two foot long fish. He glanced at me finally, “That looked fun.”

I grinned and turned to start cleaning the fish. He watched everything I did closely. I handed the fish to Ellie, “put this by the fire.”

I looked at the old man, “Want to try your luck?”

He grinned, “I would love to.”

I started showing him what to do and a moment later he took off his old worn boots and waded into the stream. Beginners luck was with him because within seconds a huge fish exploded out of the water as it took the fly. He yanked the pole back and started reeling as I tried to calmly remind him what to do.

It was a quarter hour before he brought the fish ashore. I showed him how to clean it and then led him to the fire. I filleted the two fish and seasoned them before starting to grill them. Ellie was skeptical but made flat bread and pulled out a small wheel of cheese. Both Charles and Little One had devoured the parts of fish I had tossed to them.

While we ate dinner we talked and I found out Chris (the old man) was returning to the area with the burrowers. He grinned at us, “I built houses along the way on stone pillars to stay off the ground and away from burrowers. Burrowers are good for the soil, I farm the valley and they kept the pests away from my crop.”

I grinned, “no game to hunt?”

He laughed, “Burrowers taste good if you roast them.”

Ellie shuddered but I pointed to the two fillets she had eaten. She actually grinned before sticking her tongue out. Chris laughed and we talked about the rumors of orcs. He snorted, “they be dumb, if they come around my farm they will just be more worm food.”

Ellie nodded and then stood to stretch. She climbed into the wagon as I stood and said good night. Chris just rolled out a bed roll and laid back to watch the stars. Little One and Charles both crawled onto us when we laid down and started purring as we pet them and whispered to each other.

I was up early but Chris already had the fire going. I heated water for porridge and coffee before checking the horses and harnessing them. I glanced at him when I was done, “What about horses?”

He lifted an eyebrow, “What about them?”

I smiled, “the burrowers? I do not think you pull the plow yourself.”

He grinned, “I have small stalls built up beside the houses. The trick is to get the horse up the narrow ramps.”

I nodded and glanced at the wagon as Ellie climbed out. When we left Chris tossed his heavy pack in the back of the wagon and bent to scoop Little One up before walking beside me, “stay on the road and I will show you where the way houses are.”

I smiled as Little One started purring and Ellie grinned as she bent to lift Charles. He had decided that if Little One was getting attention he should have it too. I let my super long hang as I carried the bow and started looking for targets to practice on. I thought these houses on pillars were only a few feet above ground.

When we turned off the road in the late afternoon it was to see a house twenty feet above the ground. The stalls beside the house turned out to be small barn like sheds and not small stalls. It was more like the house was part of the barn. He was right about getting the horses to climb the ramps though.

We had to blindfold them to get them to do it. The houses were black with slate grey wooden boards. There was not a stove, just a central stone fireplace. We carried bedding up the ramp with what we needed for dinner. Chris grinned as Ellie started making dinner, “Burrowers are mostly drawn to movement and sound so the wagon should be fine.”

As it began to get dark I went out to see if any Burrowers would come up. Ellie and Chris came to stand with me and Chris pointed down close to one pillar, “see the ground moving? I buried the Pillars deep and solid so they can not move them but they can sense us here.”

I bent to pick up Little One, “You stay up here tonight.”

She purred and butted her head against me and I sighed, “I must be getting soft.”
Chris snorted and Ellie bent to lift Charles into her arms. I woke often during the night and each time I looked for the cats before walking out and looking around. A week later we walked down into a wide beautiful green valley with a river running through the middle.

Chris chuckled, “The Burrowers stay away from the river because they can drown.”

His house was in a large grove of trees beside the river. The house was twenty feet in the air with a wide barn connected to it. A women met us as we came near and Chris embraced her before turning to us, “My wife, Natalia.”

After introducing us she looked at him, “I saw an orc.”

Chris shook his head and looked at us, “they have come this way a few times but never learn.”

They helped move our horses up into his barn and then our sleeping things. I sat on the wide porch with Little One in my lap as the sun set. Chris sat beside me and pointed towards a field, “dumb orcs are going to end up as Burrower food.”

I watched in the dim light as the orcs suddenly yelled and jumped around before starting to scream. It went on for a few more minutes before it became quiet. I glanced towards Chris, “the orcs do not come up through the trees?”

He chuckled, “They used to but I put up a high stone wall with orc skulls lining it. The dumb buggers will not even climb over it if they can go around.”

Suddenly there were a lot more screams. I glanced at Chris as I lifted my rifle, “That is not a few orcs.”

He shifted, “it does not sound like it.”

I used the thermal scope and saw a few orcs running through the trees towards us. I sighed and began firing. One after another they dropped and something started jerking the bodies around. Chris moved towards the door, “Those dumb orcs have the Burrowers in a feeding frenzy.”

I looked at him as he went into the house and went back to killing the few orcs that came into sight. The screaming continued in the distance and seemed to grow as if from a lot more orcs. Ellie knelt beside me, “Chris had his wife put out the lights. What do you see?”

I glanced at her but had to return to killing orcs, “the Burrowers are going crazy and the few orcs heading this way have drawn some closer.”

She sighed and sat, “How many can they eat?”

I grinned because the screaming was still loud, “By the sound I would say a lot. They are probably drawing every Burrower in the valley.”

She was silent as I killed a couple more orcs before they stopped coming. It was an hour before the screams stopped. I kept watch from the chair but no more orcs entered the trees. Chris sat beside me and sighed, “sleep and I will wake you in a few hours.”

I smiled and glanced at him before going in. Ellie was sitting with Natalia talking quietly beside the embers from the fire. I stretched out and pet Little One before relaxing. I woke to a touch on my foot and looked at Chris, “More orcs.”

I sighed and moved the cat off me before standing and walking back to the porch. There were more screams but they were further away. Chris sat, “Sounds like down by the narrows.”

I sat beside him and leaned back before using my scope. I relaxed and we just listened to the mayhem down the river. It finally quieted and Chris sighed, “you better wait until the sun is well up before going down.”

I looked at him as he stood, “They will calm down once the sun is up.”

I nodded and leaned back to relax. As the sun began to rise I was able to see the carnage from the few orcs in the trees. I went in and woke Ellie and went to check the horses. The sun was well up when I finally started leading the horses down the ramp. None of the Burrowers had bothered the wagon and everything seemed calm.

Chris gave us directions to a sheltered cave on the other side of the valley. He said it had a rock floor so we would be safe. When we walked out of the trees it was to a scene of slaughter. We went up river to a crossing and waded across. Ellie kept Little One and Charles on the wagon the whole day as she silently watched the valley.

She shook her head, “These Burrowers are killing this valley.”

I looked at her and then around at the lush green valley, “At least it is green and beautiful.”

She smiled, “They kill everything that moves. Before long the food supply will be gone and they will either move on or change.”

I grinned, “Chris said they taste good.”

She looked at me before shaking her head, “And how do you catch one without the others eating you?”

I smiled smugly, “you go fishing. Use a tree or rock cliff. Throw bait out and drag it. Have a strong hook in the bait and when they take it...”

Ellie laughed and slapped my shoulder. It was almost lonely walking across the lush valley with no animals moving. I glanced at her, “Maybe you are right. Someone should run trap lines and start killing the burrowers.”

She smiled, “We could stop for a few days if you want to try fishing for burrowers.”

I grinned, “lets find the cave first.”

Ellie grinned and took my hand as we walked. It was noon when we walked past the cave and stopped to look. It was in a low stone bluff and more of a wide crack in the stoneface with a trickle of water. Ellie did something to sweep the rocks on the floor to the side and made a stone circle for the fire.

I checked inside deeper and found a large space to put the horses and we started unloading. I soaked some of the smoked meat we had in the water before taking a walk with Ellie. As it started to get dark I moved the horses in and Ellie made sure Charles and Little One were on our bedrolls.

I had cut a long thick sapling and made a barbed hook to use with some cord. I threw rocks until I heard something and looked through my night scope to see burrowers. I put a small hunk of meat on the hook and threw it out before slowly dragging it back. I barely started pulling when a burrower grabbed it and the fight was on.

Ellie was jumping up and down as I slowly backed into the cave and pulled the burrower in. It was fatter then I thought it would be and longer. It was easily eight inches thick and maybe ten feet long.

Once it was on the stone floor of the cave and I had a clear look at it I grabbed the camp hatchet and moved to cut the wide head off. It almost looked like something from a movie with dozens of spines sticking out. I began cleaning and skinning it and Ellie reluctantly took the meat to broil it in our fire.

I took the remains and tossed most of it after putting the hook through some. I did not get a chance to pull it back as another burrower grabbed it. I was surprised but yanked the sapling rod back and then started walking backwards. Chris was right, burrower did taste good and Ellie could only shake her head and grin after eating her fill.

I caught ten before stopping and going to bed. I woke to the dawn light and Little One on my chest. I pet her before getting up and starting the fire. I cut up one of the burrowers to grill for breakfast and let Charles and Little One eat some raw. After the sun was well up I led the horses out and harnessed them to the wagon.

Ellie helped and then we were walking along the old trail. It was several hours before we came to the gap through the hills. There were a lot of torn apart remains and a few wagons outside the gap where people had tried to camp. We looked through the wagons and ended up with a few more things.
Ellie did something to carve a warning into a large boulder as well as directions to the cave. The floor of the gap was thick with several layers of stone. After we came out on the other side we headed towards a distant column of smoke.



Chapter 15

Dwarves returning a favor

We walked into the stone walled town and I smiled when I saw all the Dwarves. The caravan yards were on the other side of the town beside a wide stream. I unharnessed the horses and turned them loose before Ellie took my hand and we walked back into the town. The dwarves seemed to go out of their way to avoid us.

We bought a few supplies and went back to the wagon. I was inside putting things away and pulling out the clothes we needed to wash. The wagon creaked and I held still as there was a loud groan. I turned to climb out and there was a loud crack and the wagon lurched. I tumbled out and rolled before turning to look at the sagging wagon.

Ellie turned from the horses and walked to me as I moved to the wagon. I knelt and looked under the back to see the axle snapped. The whole area around the springs on the left rear was rotten and the supports had cracks. I sighed, “great.”

Ellie bumped my shoulder, “this is a town of dwarves.”

I sat back and looked at her as she grinned. The blacksmith growled as he came to look at the wagon before saying he could fix it. I let Ellie bargain with him as I began unloading the wagon. The blacksmith and several helpers returned as I was pulling out my fishing rod and putting it together.

Ellie had organized everything from the wagon and made us a place to sleep. The blacksmith watched as I looked towards the stream and started walking. The fish were large and seemed more than eager to bite. I was enjoying myself and threw several back before keeping two and cleaning them.

When I walked back to the wagon the blacksmith was grinning, “that looked like fun.”

Ellie snorted as I grinned, “well, I enjoy it.”

He glanced at the stream and then at me, “we had word passed about a man. He is a fierce warrior and surprisingly they say he is a good smith. He also taught some of our cousins to... fish?”

I smiled as I squatted beside the fire Ellie had going and handed her the fish, “That would probably be Bris.”

He grinned, “yes, they say you helped my people in the mines too?”

I nodded, “necessary but not welcome work.”

He nodded again and I thought of the burrowers. I grinned, “do your people go through the gap?”

He shrugged, “sometimes but the burrowers are nasty.”

I grinned, “and good to eat.”

He looked at me and smiled, “how would you catch them without being eaten?”

I held up the fishing pole, “by fishing for them. Use strong cord and meat as bait. Since you are dwarves you know about rock. Make a stone platform out of blocks or use poles to make a platform well above the ground. Throw rocks out until burrowers come near and then use the bait and cord. Pull the burrower up onto the platform and cut off the head. Use its guts as more bait for the next one.”

I looked at him as he stared and suddenly started laughing and slapping his legs. I glanced at Ellie and she grinned and shook her head. It was a minute before the dwarf stopped laughing and grinned, “that would be the fun way to hunt them.”

I nodded, “and safer.”

He chuckled as he looked at his helpers, “I will have to make me a fishing pole.”

They pulled the wagon away and we sat to enjoy a nice dinner and each other. I finally looked around and frowned, “where is Little One and Charles?”

Ellie snickered, “Little One is flirting with the local toms and Charles is trying to get a few of the ladies pregnant.”

I grinned and shook my head before pulling her close. I was a little worried about Burrowers but Ellie tapped the huge piece of slat our bed was on and pointed out nothing had bothered the dwarves animals. I was up early while she slept in with the two cats for company. I thought I might catch a few fish and smoke them to see how it would turn out.

Somehow I was not surprised to see the dwarven blacksmith. He grinned from the bank, “We are going through the gap with a few wagons.”

I looked at him before turning back to watching what I was doing, “going to make a stone platform?”

He chuckled, “Yes.”

I grinned as I thought of fishing for the Burrowers, “I am tempted to join you.”

Ellie laughed as she walked to the edge of the stream, “They could make stone way stations all the way across the valley. It would open the way up again and they could make money on a toll.”

The blacksmith looked at her and grinned, “now that sounds like an idea. We could even sell roast burrower meat to the travelers.”

I grinned as I pulled in the line and waded ashore. Ellie laughed again and kissed my cheek, “do not get eaten, the cats and I will wait here for the wagon to be fixed.”

I dressed and took a small pack besides the super long and my pistol. The dwarves had moved quickly and I had to trot to catch them in the gap. They had several heavily laden wagons and carried long poles. A few hours later we came out and the dwarves shook their heads at the remains before moving passed them.

The next thing I knew they were all busy leveling an area. I set my pack aside and went to find a good sapling before I started helping. Almost as soon as a wagon was unloaded it headed back through the gap. Thick flat stones were fitted together with a type of mortar or cement and slowly the large area was covered.

I still was not sure it would be safe as the sun headed for the horizon. A second set of wagons appeared as the dwarves started another layer on top of the first. A dozen stayed after the wagons left and I brought my pack to the center where several had stacked wood for a fire. As it started to get dark I realized they had not brought any meat for bait and sighed.

I ran towards the wreckage of the closest wagon and dug through it for rags. When I was back on the stones I wrapped them and tied a heavy hook to it. I was using a strong cord and squatted close to the edge as the dwarves grumbled and glanced back, “if you start the fire I will catch the first one.”

Greg the blacksmith grinned and pushed a younger dwarf, “start the fire.”

I had added a stone in the middle of the bundle and started tossing it out and dragging it back as a few of the dwarves came closer to watch. The first burrower was a surprise and grabbed the bundle before the sun had set completely. I yanked and the fight was on. It was not like fishing since the burrower could only pull and fight from the hole it was in.

It had strong muscles though and kept pulling as I slowly worked it out of the hole and then it was not hard to pulled it across the ground and onto the stones. I gestured as it got close, “when I get it on the stones someone take its head.”

After it was dead I cleaned it and cut it into chunks to be cooked before using its head and guts as bait. The dwarves were jumping up and down each time they caught one and yelled and laughed. I moved to the fire and ate burrower and pulled out my pipe and watched the dwarves. Greg was laughing when he walked to me and squatted down, “this is fun.”

I grinned, “as long as you stay on the stones.”

He nodded as he dug out his pipe and sat. He looked around, “this will give the town a purpose too.”

I nodded, “and help clear the burrowers from this valley.”

By the time the sun was rising they had caught dozens and were talking about methods to smoke or cure the meat. We started walking back through the gap and the dwarves kept talking. It was past noon when we walked out of the gap and headed towards the town. When I walked into the camp we had made, it was to see Ellie with a dozen dwarven maidens sewing dresses.

She grinned and pointed towards the stream, “bathe.”

I grinned and went to collect my things and pet and caress Little One when she came to see me, the water was cold but refreshing. I knew the dwarves would be going to cut more stone to make the stone platform larger. I spent the day with Ellie and we settled into bed holding each other and looking up at the stars.

I snapped awake to a horn and rolled to my feet. I looked towards the town to see the thick gates closing. I quickly dressed with Ellie and a few minutes later heard more horns and yells. I saw something coming around the town wall and knelt as I used the night sight on my super long. I almost cursed, “orcs.”

I began shooting as more swarmed around the wall and started moving towards us. I kept changing magazines as Ellie cast a light spell into the sky above us and then lightning into the rushing orcs. I was down to the last magazine when the town gates crashed open and dwarves poured out with curved axes.

Crossbows sang from the walls above and bolts slashed into the orcs. I dropped my rifle before pulling my sword and moving to meet the orcs, “To me!”

I shifted and brought my sword across to take an orcs head before stabbing another. It was not long before the dwarves fought beside me as I slowly moved forward and killed orcs until my hands and arms were red with their blood. Finally the last few were running away and we stopped to catch our breath and check the wounded.

Luckily the dwarves wore thick leather chest armor and bronze bracers so there were few serious wounds and Ellie helped with those. It was awhile before things calmed and they told us the orcs had come through the pass. I shook my head and told them about what had happened in the valley.

I grinned, “what you need is a thick, very tall wall they can not climb over.”

They looked at me and the blacksmith snorted and then laughed, “across the other end of the gap where the burrowers can eat them as they claw at the wall.”
Everyone laughed and started talking. It took several days to get rid of all the bodies and finally I woke to Ellie rubbing my chest, “a wagon is coming out the gate.”

I sat up and turned my head to look before grinning, “about time.”

We dressed as the blacksmith and dozens of others came to watch. They had not just fixed the old wagon, they had made a whole new one with two types of springs and wider wheels and a step to climb into the back. The wagon had tall sides with poles that made a frame for the top. I turned to thank the blacksmith and he grinned and bowed, “our gift to repay you.”

Ellie went to him and kissed his cheek before the rest came wish us well. The inside was designed perfectly and our things seemed to fit into place with ease. The horses were as ready to leave as we were and started off at a strong walk. I held Little One as Ellie held Charles when we waded across the stream.

The hills were almost gentle as we followed the old trail away. Ellie grinned after we put the cats in the wagon and held my hand as we walked, “much better.”

I nodded as I tried to get back into the habit of watching everything around us.



Chapter 16

Dragon to the Rescue

Every few days I managed to kill a deer or antelope as we came out of the hills and down onto a lightly wooded plain. We moved through the plain easily following an old trail that gradually widened into a road. Several times we found large farmsteads that had been destroyed but the tracks always led away to the north.

Ellie was silent each time we found the farmsteads. It was a week before we walked around a thick stand of woods and saw the small city, it had high walls and towers. The city was across a wide, deep river rushing through it. We went through the gate and the way led to the left and around towards the stream.

Ruin and wreckage was scattered everywhere and the stench of death was almost over powering. We were almost to a body strewn bridge when three orcs emerged from a building. There was no hesitation, my rifle came up and I shot the first in the chest and then the second. The third turned to run and I put a bullet through the back of its head.

I looked around before reaching back to pull on the horses, “make sure Little One and Charles are in the wagon.”

Ellie went to look in the wagon as we reached the bridge and started across. I could see tall wooden gates on the other side of the bridge with what looked like hundreds of orc bodies. The horses resisted going closer but I kept pulling until they followed. I finally had to stop and pull bodies aside before we could move forward.

I could see men above the gate on each side. When Ellie made a noise I turned to see a half dozen orcs trotting towards us. I knelt and started with the ones behind and worked my way up to the last one as it got close to the wagon. I put a single bullet through each orc’s head and stood when I was done.

I went back to moving bodies and a second later the gate opened and a dozen men came out to help. When it was clear Ellie led the horses through the gate as I fell in behind. One of the men, a tall wide shouldered man walked with me, “I do not know how you made it through.”

I shrugged, “for the most part they have been ahead of us. These were the first we have seen.”

They closed the gates and he shook his head, “the first we knew they were climbing the outer walls and overrunning the guards. We barely had time to reach this side of the river.”

I glanced around at the few people, “they have not tried to reach you very hard.”

He shook his head, “they are to busy with those that did not make it.”

I continued to follow the wagon as Ellie led the team through the city. The man shook his head when we stopped in a stable yard by the other gate, “most of the people left out this gate already.”

I went to help Ellie unharness the horses, “let us look around?”

He nodded and I looked at Ellie while working. She smiled and glanced back, “not many orcs are going to attack anywhere but the bridge, they fear water.”

I smiled, “unless they find another way across.”

She nodded and we collected Little One and Charles before heading back to the gate blocking the bridge. From the wall beside the gate we could see into the city as orcs moved around. I finally gave Little One to Ellie and aimed the supper long before squeezing the trigger. There was the crack of the bullet as one of the orcs head exploded.

I nodded and began slowly picking targets. More orcs appeared to see what the noise was but they did not seem to connect the sound with them dying or with us. Ellie snorted, “so gorged they can not think.”

I killed two hundred before I stopped, “I need more ammo.”

Ellie grinned and turned to climb down. She was back thirty minutes later and there was already a hundred orcs across the bridge looking towards us. She helped load magazines from the bullets in the wooden box. It took ten rounds before they began to understand that the sound and the dying orcs were caused by something we were doing.

They slipped away into buildings and the few streets so I was left with nothing to shoot. I reloaded and smiled at Ellie, “Dinner?”

She smiled and rubbed my shoulder, “they will try again tonight.”

I nodded as I moved the box of ammo closer to the wall under the firing port, “I know.”

While I continued to watch she went to make something to eat. The man that had let us in sat and yawned, “That weapon sure makes killing them orcs easier.”

I nodded as I thought about all the farmsteads we had seen on the way here, “There has been a lot of orcs moving around.”

He nodded, “we should have listened to the party of mages that came through last month.”

I looked away from the bridge and at him and he shook his head, “They said the orc breeding cycle had ended.”

I kept looking and he shrugged, “when they stop breeding it is time to expand and they all seem to gather into one great army.”

I gestured towards the bridge, “that is not a great army.”

He shook his head, “we heard rumors of something happening to the north.”

I looked at Ellie when she returned, “you know about orc breeding cycles?”

She looked towards the bridge and after several moments nodded, “that would explain a lot.”

She sighed, “the city of Calef is two days away.”

I looked at her as she turned to face the man, “you will not be safe here.”

Ellie nodded to the box of ammo, “we need to leave while we can.”

I bent to lift the box and the man began calling to people as we went back to our wagon. I was thinking of our trip through the forest and sighed. After putting the ammo away I started harnessing the horses while Ellie packed everything away. People began joining us until the man by the gate pushed through, “this is everyone.”

I shook my head, the city must have had a few thousand people but there was maybe a few hundred here. I bent to pick up Little One and set her on the wagon seat with Charles before moving to lead the horses towards a gate in the outer wall. I glanced back a few minutes later to see Ellie lifting small children and putting them in the wagon.

Several minutes after that she was walking beside me and reached for my hand. I squeezed it as I thought, “we will stop at midnight and continue after the sun rises.”

She nodded, “I put the smaller children in the wagon.”

I smiled, “did you tell Charles and Little One to watch them?”

She laughed and glanced back, “they think they are in heaven.”

I stopped for breaks every hour to let people rest. When I stopped at midnight men and women moved together to lay down. I unharnessed the horses and let them rest as I brushed them before laying with Ellie to watch the night sky. The next day was more of the same except a few men ranged ahead to hunt and scout.

We stopped after dark and built a few fires to cook on before putting them out. Noon of the next day we walked over a low ridge and saw the large city of Calef. There was a high solid looking cliff behind the city with a wide river flowing through it. The outer walls were at least fifty feet tall with many crenels and arrow slits.
There were people working in the fields and they stopped to watch as we passed. At the gates Ellie had me stop while the small children were lifted out of the back. I smiled when we went through the gate to see a second curtain wall inside the first. We went through the second wall and Ellie started leading me through the streets.

We crossed the river on a stone bridge and continued to the south until we reached the sloop leading up to the cliff. She grinned and nodded to a grassy area, “park there.”

After stopping and putting the horses on leads Ellie took my hand and started climbing towards the cliff. When we reached the cliff she grinned and pointed to glyphs carved in a wide arch. I looked and she grinned, “an illusion.”

She touched the cliff under the arch and suddenly a set of tall, wide doors replaced the granite of the cliff. She grinned and pushed on one side, it opened slowly and she led me in, “I had a mage build this when he was still here. Of course I made a large house for him where I was so we are even.”

The hall was very wide and tall and went to a huge room with couches and comfortable chairs around a huge fireplace in the back wall. I grinned and squeezed her hand, “this is big enough to entertain a dragon.”

She laughed and nodded to the doorway on the right, “the kitchen and dinning area.”

She pulled me after her to the left and through another doorway with steps that led up. Above was several floors with large bedrooms, each with a small fireplace and fire as well as a bathing room. We returned to the wagon and started moving everything but stopped to make dinner and eat.

We were sitting together on a couch when there was a knock on the door. Several older men stood looking anxious when I opened the door and gestured them in. I led them back to the fireplace where Ellie was waiting and sat beside her, “you need something?”

One nodded, “I am Henry Dodson. We were told you had a weapon to kill orcs.”

I smiled, “I have a weapon.”

He cleared his throat, “we have several elven scouts that have reports orcs gathering to the north. They say it is a vast army.”

I looked at Ellie, “I can not kill thousands.”

She bit her lip as I looked at the men, “I will think about your problem.”

After they left we climbed the stairs to a large chamber with a big bed. There were several narrow deep slits in the wall to let in the night air. Somehow Little One and Charles had found their way and were already stretched out across the bed. As I lay holding Ellie I was thinking and knew I could not make enough weapons to stop a whole army.

I had dozens of ideas that I discarded as fast as they came. I was up early and dressed before I left and walked across the city after feeding the horses. The guards looked at me as I went through the inner curtain wall and looked at the wide gap between it and the outer wall. There were three outer gates and two inner.

I climbed steps and looked out at the fields beyond before walking all the way from the river and around to where it met it again. I did the same with the inner curtain wall before walking the streets and then checking the three bridges over the river. I found the marketplace and went looking for what I needed to make more ammunition.

When I returned to the cliff Ellie was outside brushing the horses down. I watched before walking up behind her and putting my arms around her, “I wish I knew how large this army was going to be.”

She leaned back with a sigh, “thousands.”

I looked at her and she turned to touch my face, “this is the end of a major breeding cycle.”

I looked across the river, “they might slow them but...”

I looked at her, “think the city council would listen if I spoke to them?”

She smiled, “they will not leave.”

I shook my head, “and you want to stay.”

Ellie nodded, “this is where I want to live.”

I sighed and let her go, “then I have my work cut out for me.”

I went back to pick up the bag of supplies I had managed to buy before heading towards the door. I had a few ideas to slow or stop the orcs but needed a few things. It was two weeks before the swarm of orcs appeared and I stood on the outer wall to watch them come. Every fifty paces was a pole with a barrel on top, they were set out a hundred paces from the wall.

The ground was covered out to a few hundred paces with small caltrops and traps. I watched with the guard commander as the orcs spread out but flowed towards us. They slowed when they hit the caltops and then the arrows began to fall. I lifted my rifle and started shooting and killed those that were leading the others.

It was a moment before they fell back but continued to spread out and more were still coming over the far rise. It was less then an hour before they started moving towards us again. I began killing them and once they were in range the arrows began again. They almost reached the barrels before pulling back and still more were flowing over the far rise.

While we waited I reloaded the empty magazines and watched. The next attack had them almost reaching the walls before the guards I had stationed lit the fuses I had made. There was a flash that was almost like an explosion. Less then ten seconds later the barrels exploded and the lamp oil with liquid soap ignited as it spread onto the orcs.

They screamed and fled in panic as those caught by the flames were burned alive. It was hours before they attacked again and I kept firing until they were almost to the wall when they finally pulled back. I looked at the guard commander as I started reloading magazines, “they will breach the wall next time.”

He nodded, “I am moving the extra supplies back and moving the horses up.”

The horses had been my idea to help the escaping guards flee through the other wall faster. Between the walls were more barrels on tall posts as well as more caltrops to slow the orcs. There were safe lanes the guards had learned to use. The commander turned to bark the order for oil to be spilled between the walls as the orcs started forming and milling around.

I glanced at Ellie as she slipped up beside me, “ready to do your spell?”

She grinned, “as soon as they start climbing the walls.”

It was not long before there was the roar from the orcs as they rushed towards the wall. There was still more flowing over the far rise as I began firing, they almost seemed to hesitate before everything sped up. They reached the wall and I heard Ellie begin to chant as I kept firing. There was a huge boom and lightning exploded along the front of the wall and reached out into the army of orcs.

I spun and grabbed the large shoulder bag before pushing Ellie in front of me. The commander waited as more orcs pressed in and started climbing the wall. I ran down the stairs behind Ellie and watched her almost flow up and onto a horse before leaping into the saddle of my own. I followed as she rode for the inner wall tunnel and gate.

Inside we turned and swung down before running up the stairs. I could hear the horns signaling the soldiers to retreat before we reached the top of the wall. I was hoping they had managed to finish evacuating everyone across the bridge as I stopped between crenels. I dropped the large shoulder bag and started reloading my magazines with Ellie helping.

It was not long before I saw orcs coming over the other wall and began shooting. I went back and forth to cover the soldiers moving back through the gates. Others began firing arrows but slowly more orcs were spilling over the other wall. I grinned at Ellie, “time for our surprise.”

Orcs covered the other wall and seemed to spill out between the walls. This was more carefully planned and Ellie murmured and made a throwing gesture. The wall exploded in flames and raced away in each direction as orcs screamed and were consumed. The fire did not spill down between the walls so we were able to kill the milling orcs that had been trapped.

It was awhile before the fire on the wall died and the orcs began climbing over again. We had killed thousands and they were still coming over the far rise as if there were an endless number. We killed them until they reached the inner wall and then fire arrows were shot into the ground to ignite the oil that had been spilled.

Fire spread quickly until the entire area between the walls was in flames. I had been worried the barrel on the tall poles would catch on fire but the retardant on the poles kept the poles from burning. We used arrows to kill the orcs on the outer wall while they waited for the fire to die. When it did the orcs poured down between the walls and rushed the inner wall.

It was awhile before they broke through and the commander gave the order to fire the barrels. Wires ran from the inner walls to the barrels with a fuze and the fuze was lit. Each barrel exploded, sending flames and oil out and onto the orcs. It was not long before the area between the walls was completely in flames again.

I reloaded and looked at Ellie, “go to the bridge.”

Each of the houses on this side of the river had bricked up. They all had planks leading from roof to roof. Two of the three bridges had been collapsed so there was only one way across and it now and it had a thick wall and gate blocking the other side. After Ellie was gone I looked out at the rise and shook my head.

I glanced at the commander when he stepped to my side, “that was the last of the oil.”

He nodded and grinned, “the barrels of whisky are next.”

I nodded but knew even that was not going to stop the orcs. I was not sure how Ellie had gotten so much of the three liquids I needed for my ammo but it was not going to be enough. I fired into the orcs crowded onto the other wall until the flames between the walls started to die. I reloaded again and waited until the orcs roared and rushed off the other wall before firing again.

They were starting to climb this wall when the commander ordered the catapults fired and barrels of whisky started crashing down into the orcs. Soon the area was in flames again and the orcs were fighting to pull back. The commander sighed, “the horses are ready for when they start climbing the wall.”

I nodded as I continued to empty magazines. I stopped and began to reload and started firing again as the fires died. The orcs flowed over the wall and down before rushing us. I kept firing and then looked up at a huge roar. A dragon was high above the city and I watched as he banked and dove towards the area between the walls.

I turned to yell, “do not fire at the dragon!”

He raced above the level of the walls as a huge jet of flame consumed the orcs below him. He rose and twisted before starting to fly back and breathing flame on the outer wall and then came back beyond them. The men on the wall stared as the orcs fled in panic and I headed for the stairs.

The men guarding the gate hesitated before opening them and I raced out and ran towards the outer wall gates. They were open and burning as I ran through to see the dragon finally turning and flying towards the wall. I walked out and over the orc bodies that littered the ground. He dropped to the ground in front of me and I grinned, “well met dragon, I missed you.”

He grinned as he carefully walked towards me, “it is strange but I have missed your company also.”

I glanced at the running orcs and looked at the dragon, “have you eaten?”

He nodded, “a few deer.”

I smiled and turned to the gates to see guards and Ellie. She pushed past them and started towards me and I turned to the dragon, “will you stay?”

He looked around and seemed to smile, “a few days. I am actually going farther to the west and into the Peak mountains. My mate is finally coming into season.”

I blinked as Ellie joined us, “mate? I did not see...”

He lifted his head and breathed out a large smoke ring, “dragon mates do not stay together. We are mated and can speak with each other at any time.”

I nodded and then gestured, “old lizard this is my mate, Ellie.”

She hit my shoulder, “old lizard.”

She bowed, “thank you for helping us with the orcs.”

He sniffed, “helping you? Were the pests bothering you?”

I grinned as she tried to find an answer, “only a tiny bit. How was the trip so far?”

He looked around before reaching down to rip an orc apart and swallowing, “not bad. The plains are always tasty. But the mountains and forest on this side seemed sparse. The ground worms I found were very tasty too.”

I grinned, “I hope you roasted them, I liked them that way.”

The dragon nodded, “roasted is always good.”

I turned towards the gate, “would you like to meet us by the cliff? I do not think you would fit through the gates.”

He grinned, “I wanted to talk to you about that female baron just beyond my territory.”

I was almost afraid to ask, “what about her?”

He snorted, “she is a brave thing. I ate one cow and she walked into my cave and told me off and demanded I pay the farmer.”

I grinned, “the old one tried to rob me and I had to kill him.”

The dragon started walking and I felling beside him as I grabbed Ellie’s hand, “this female baron was most reasonable. She suggested I visit the village over the pass and ask if they would like the remains of all the heros back.”

He chuckled, “it seems to have worked. I had a runner come to the cave to warn me about a stubborn prince that refused to go away. I paid him a visit as the female baron suggested and spoke to him at length while eating his horse. He was most polite and apologized for disturbing me.”

I laughed with Ellie as we reached the gate. The dragon just hoped and grabbed the wall as he climbed over and met us on the other side. The guards that had come out stood aside and stared as we went by and I cleared my throat, “I should warn you I made new weapons for some dwarfs beyond and to the south of the female Baron.”

The dragon snorted, “I noticed. Loud things that would wake the dead.”

I grinned, “I did not think about a silencer until later.”

We went through the other gate while he went over and the commander stood aside with wide eyes as we walked down the street talking. Once across the bridge and through the other gate the dragon snorted as Little One and Charles both appeared in the street ahead. They almost seemed to ignore him as they stood and turned to walk back towards the cliff.

I glanced at Ellie and then the dragon, “have you had anymore things fall through the hole?”

He shook his head, “it has been quiet since you came.”

We climbed to the cliff to the door into our home and I was right the dragon fit. I was almost sorry to see him leave a couple of days later. The orcs had not returned and the city was busy burying all the bodies. Ellie slipped onto my lap that night as I stared into the fire remembering my old life. She caressed my face, “time to change our history.”

I shook myself and smiled at her, “what change would that be?”
She smiled, “children.”

The end
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