Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 37

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Chapter 27 - Cold

#31 Post by Neutral Smith » Sun Oct 11, 2015 7:16 pm

Chapter 27
Cold


"Smith! Letter from the king." It was Rolph who entered the smithy the next morning, holding an important looking piece of paper in his hand.
Smith looked up from his work, etching the symbol for 'Duty' on the blade of Arthur's sword. "Which one?"
Rolph grinned. "I don't think that the Human king would send you a letter that the Lion general is delayed. He will come in spring."
Smith nodded and shrugged. "Alright... Not what I expected, but did he give a reason?"
Rolph shook his head. "Unfortunately not. It is a very short letter. But there are rumors that there is some trouble with the Wolves, maybe he has to solve that problem first."
Smith grimaced. "They continue to give trouble... Do you have any news from Schotenburg?"
Rolph shook his head. "Unfortunately not much. Only the people who have a home and job there are still there, and a lot of soldiers. Everybody else left or is killed. No trade, they are in lockdown, although I don't know why. But the good part is, Mary is safe, I heard that from the tanner here, who heard it from a shoemaker there, and his brother-in-law saw her leave with Chester."
Smith sighed. “That's a relief... Just curious, why did you get that letter instead of me?”
Rolph shrugged. “I don't know. Maybe that messenger thought that the most important person would work at the town hall instead of a smithy. Got to go now, a lot of work in the town hall. Some managing of supplies to do.”
Smith nodded. “Supplies... yes. We also have sold the entire stock of forged items. We have the basics again, hinges and household items, and some swords, but there is a lot of work to do until the stocks are completely filled again. I'm glad it's going to be winter, that means a lot of work without people disturbing with difficult questions.”
Rolph nodded. “Yes... But food can't grow in winter, arranging enough food for everybody is a challenge after that feast. But Linda is a really good help, being the daughter of a trader.”
Smith nodded. “I really hope Mary will be just like that, good for sales.”
Rolph nodded again. “Yes... As long as she doesn't start selling herself. Goodbye!”
Smith sighed. That was just a mean remark from Rolph. But how many times was he just like that? He was also known for some very rude manners.

“Smith! Come quickly! Katie!” Before Rolph could leave a cattle farmer entered the smithy.
Smith looked at the Cat. He was not known to be the most friendly person, but this time Smith saw the panic in his eyes. “What happened?”
“Tim's house... it's under attack... Katie came to warn us, she needs help! Hurry!”
Smith nodded, and grabbed Arthur's sword. “All right. Rolph, gather everybody who can fight or help, and go to Tim's house! I'm leaving right now, and see what I can do.”
Rolph nodded, and Smith started to run like he had never done before.

This was not a normal feeling Smith had. He felt like he had a gap in his memory, again.

“<Smith? Are you there?>” A voice called him.

“Ydw, yr wyf yma.”

“<What?>”

“<Yes, I'm here.>”

“<Do you know what you have done?>”

“<Yes.>”

“<Are you sure?>”

“<… No.>”

“<They are dead.>”

“<All?>”

“<Yes, you killed them all.>”

“<I couldn't have.>”

“<Yes, you killed all those Humans. We are in the process of cremating them, and we will scatter their bones, despite our beliefs. Your orders, you didn’t want others to know what happened here.>”

“<And the Tigers?>”

“<Dead, but you did not kill them. You avenged them. We have given them a decent grave.>”

“<I think I'm going to pass out.>”

“<Just like you have done before. Go ahead, we'll watch you, like God is watching over us all. I’m not sure if you are going to remember this conversation, you are not yourself. You already have asked twice what happened.>”

Some time later Smith opened his eyes. His feet hurt, his limbs hurt, his whole body hurt like it had never done before. It was dark, but he could smell that flesh was burned. He stared at the smoldering remains of Tim's house.

“Smith? Are you there?” This time it was a familiar voice, it was Jacques.

Smith stared at his feet in the gloaming. Cuffs. He was chained to something, presumably a tree nearby. Rather thick chain, a bit rusty, but a good quality chain, and some old cuffs. He did not have the strength to look behind him to confirm his assumption about the other end of the chain. “Why am I chained?” he asked nonetheless. He could guess the answer.

“Because we were afraid you would run away again. Feral.”

Smith nodded. “I understand. And why are you here guarding me?”

“Because I have convinced the others that I am the best at this.”

“And François?”

“He is doing your work.”

“That didn't answer my question. I trust him more than I trust you. Why isn't François here?”

“Because I convinced the others I am the best at keeping you sane. Did you know you killed one of my old friends?”

Smith nodded. “I vaguely remember someone saying that someone I killed was not a Human. What happened?”

“The wife of the Minister of Inimals decided to attack Tim and Mia, because you told the people about them and where they live at the feast. On a very unfortunate day that other Tigers were visiting them. Katie got away, and warned others, who in turn warned you. You grabbed the sword you were working on, and murdered every Human around. I never thought someone could take on almost forty Human soldiers, but you did. And sixty others, including the minister's wife and my friend. Unarmed civilians.”

Smith sighed. “Your friend was an adviser. I know your game, you won't win.”

“But we won't lose either. We are patient, we can wait a few of your short living generations. It’s a pity he is dead, but he was a bit… careless.”

“Why are you telling me this? You know I now can never trust you again.” Smith tried to hide his tone of surprise.

“Because you are not yourself. You always look at the faces of the people you are talking to, but now you don't. Your own facial expression is… How should I say it? Blank. You are not sad, you are not angry, you are not happy, it's just… the same look you had when we met for the first time. Desperate and wanting to forget. And you are good at forgetting. We had this talk before, I know you won't remember.”

“You used me.”

“Of course we did. You were an opportunity we could not let pass. Your work with metal was flawless, but unfortunately the Bergvolk didn't take the bait.”

“You were outsmarted. Old wisdom versus being smart and inventive.”

“Just a minor setback. Like I said, we are patient. And we learned from that experience. Your story is consistent, exactly the same as our previous.”

“What's your game? It's not a total eradication of a kind I guess.”

“No, it isn't. We need the Humans, but we don't want to be overrun by them. Keep the numbers limited, by letting them have enemies, and not only themselves.”

“That's clever. I guess you needed the Bergvolk to build for you?”

“Indeed. We have seen their rise, and we could use them as well.”

“Slaves?”

“Sort of.”

It was dawn again. Smith was still chained to something when he woke up, still standing. They haven't brought him to Simon to recover.

“Awake again?” Jacques was still there.

“Ydw.”

“Good… It must have been awful, seeing your friends skinned and that woman, the minister's wife bathing in their blood.”

“Hmm.”

“You don't remember?”

“Hmm.”

“Indeed, 'hmm'… You don't respond in a normal way. You are not like other Humans.”

“I'll kill you… But on the other hand I won't. I don't want to kill the evil I know. There might be a bigger evil.”

“We all wear a mask. Don't forget my age, and I do know a good deal of fighting. I wear a mask of a friendly tailor, you wear a mask of a smith. Beneath that mask you wear might be a king.”

“I don't wear a mask. I am a smith who can fight because I always take my time for the customers, practice with them to figure out what they need instead of what they want. Now take me to some place where I can recover. My whole body hurts like it has never done before. If I wouldn’t have been in this much pain I could take you in a fight.”

“No you can’t… The pain is because you have done something nobody has ever done before... Well... On average it's three Humans on one Wolf, you have killed eleven Wolves in your past, so thirty-four Human soldiers is what I could have expected. What I did not expect is that you went on killing. I usually spare unarmed people, and just vanish.”

“They were evil.”

“You know that there is no such thing as good and evil. Only friends and enemies.”

“And people who are neither. Not a friend, but also not an enemy. Let me tell you this: I am not your friend, but you don't want me as an enemy either. Those people were not friendly towards my friends, and that made them my enemy.”

“In sixty years you will be dead, and I am still the same. You can warn your children about me, you can warn your grandchildren about me, but I won't do anything that might harm them. Not helping them either, but standing in the shades, waiting until people have forgotten about me, and then strike again. The evil you know. Seven generations, Smith, that is all it takes to forget.”

“Shut up.”

“I really loved the talking we did while you were forging. It's a pity you don't remember much of it.”

“Yes… Yes it is. But I do remember some of the other conversations I had with others.”

“Jean is a fool. A very old fool. Remember that.”

The sound of a cart could be heard. Smith felt like he woke up from a dream, but this time the nightmare was the reality. He sighed. A familiar feeling, talking with an Elfique to forget, and maybe some forced substances to help with forgetting. He was lead to the cart, and tied again. He just let it happen, he did not have the strength to fight. He saw that someone picked up a sword. Arthur's sword. “Hey! I was working on that sword, it's Arthur's.”
The man nodded, and carefully placed it next to Smith on the cart, the grip away from Smith's hands.
Smith stared at the sword, stained with blood, and the etching on it not perfect, there was a bit of a smear etched, he was almost done when that Cat entered his smithy and he just started to run with the blade covered in beeswax and the uncovered parts in the acid, might have been a branch that damaged the beeswax surface. But somehow it looked good on it, leaving work behind to do your duty, trying to help those in need. But he was too late.

Smith woke up again staring at a ceiling. An almost familiar ceiling. But the distance to the ceiling was not correct this time, it was further away than it should be, and he was a bit too far away from the wall to be on the bed. Despite the fact that his whole body hurt Smith looked around and noticed he was on the floor. He smiled, that explained the distance to the ceiling. He stared at the bed, that was occupied, that explained why he was on the floor of Simons office. Smith sighed and dragged himself towards the bed to see who was in it. It was again dark outside, but some candles had been lit. Enough light to see.
It was a man, right arm and left leg in a splint, an a lot of red stained bandages at the place where the left hand should be.
As soon as Smith sat down on the bed the man opened his eyes. “<Who are you?>” he spoke with a whispering voice.
“<You are not in the position to make demands. You tell me first.>” Smith spoke, on a soft but surprisingly low tone.
The man nodded. He had to be in a lot of pain, but he was not showing it. “<First get me a glass of water… It's odd, I don't feel much, except thirst.>”
Smith shook his head. “<I am no doctor, but I don't think it will be good for you to drink. I doubt you feel much, but you are in a very bad condition.>”
The man slowly nodded. “<I understand… You are Smith, am I right?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes, that's what they call me. Smith. And you are?>”
“<Minister of Inimals, Jan-Peter.>” the man on the bed replied after a long silence. Talking was tiring for him, although he seemed relieved that he could talk to someone.
Smith nodded again. Slowly. “<Let's just say it in the blunt way I am… I killed your wife.>”
Jan-Peter nodded and briefly smiled. A jolt of pain shot through his body. “<Good… for the Inimals.>”
Smith gently put a hand on Jan-Peter's shoulder. “<Take your rest. You need it.>”
Jan-Peter shook his head. “<No… Please stay here, and talk... I don't want to die alone.>”
Smith sighed. “<All right… I'll stay. I need the distraction as well. And it's too early in the morning to go home.>”

“<So… you killed my wife… How was that?>” Jan-Peter spoke again after a long silence.
Smith sighed again. “<I wish I could remember. She has done some terrible things to some friends of mine, and I am not myself when I am really angry. They told me I killed almost forty soldiers, and sixty more civilians.>”
Jan Peter nodded. “<Yes… my wife had a very large entourage. Much more than I had in Schotenburg. Very impressive.>”
Smith sighed once more. “<I don't know how. Humans always tend to be the better fighters. Simply surround me with their numbers, and I am history.>”
Jan-Peter nodded. “<That's the new doctrine, stay together, no matter what. Don't split up to surround, and never go alone. I have heard about Wolves that slashed a circle, the soldiers thought they had some Wolves surrounded, the Wolves worked perfectly together to puncture the circle, but instead of going straight on to flee they split up and slashed the soldiers that surrounded them a few moments earlier. Same for Leopards, they just use the trees, jump up and drop down, Tigers look like they don’t have bones with their agility, and Cheetahs can't be surrounded on foot or even on horseback, they just outrun everything, and when you think they are gone they run past you and you miss a few soldiers on your flanks. And if you flee as an individual you become prey, Inimals will hunt you. Nobody fled because they didn't want to be hunted by you, they were just hoping that someone in their group was strong enough to stop you. They were not used to fight other Humans.>”
Smith started to laugh, ignoring the pain he was in. “<Inimals are not magical beings that cannot be stopped. Agility in a forest against Canines, open field and raw strength against Felines, that is the correct way to defeat them. And archery, never underestimate that. Humans are not as good as Foxes, but never underestimate a volley of a few dozen arrows.>”
Jan-Peter also smiled slightly. “<Why are you telling me this? these are secrets I suppose.>”
Smith continued to smile. “<You said you didn't want to die alone… The only people you will be talking before you die are the people I trust. These aren't secrets here, this is our way of life. We don't have armies to fight, but there are groups of criminals… Dead people can't tell secrets.>”

Jan-Peter was sunken in thoughts after the last words Smith spoke, but suddenly he grimaced. “<The Hands… A gang of all species working together. The reason why I am here... Schotenburg does not want to join the Neutral Zone, but they want independence. Somehow people there gathered all kinds of Inimals, not to be slaughtered, but to be the slaughters. I and a battalion of soldiers were sent there to restore the peace, and assure they remain a part of the kingdom.>”
Smith nodded. “<I knew there was some trouble there.>”
Jan-Peter smiled. “<You are the leader here? I thought you would be a more… imposing person.>”
Smith also smiled. “<Thank you. I am just a normal smith, I am here because I grew up in the old village further south… and I… I have lost everything I had, and I didn't want that to happen again, but I was too late.>”
Jan-Peter managed to smile, he was clearly more and more in pain. “<Your friends were just in time for me… Me, a Human that has caused so much suffering for Inimals rescued by a Black Wolf and a White Tiger, with a mixed group of soldiers under their command, and here helped by a very gentle Cat and my old friend Simon. I never have been a religious person, but now I start to believe there is a god.>”
Smith smiled and shook his head. “<There is no god in my opinion, or that god works in mysterious ways. I have talked to a lot of religious people here, they are all thankful that they allowed to live here, and they are very upset when I tell them that if their god really exists they wouldn't be here as refugees, but he would have helped earlier.>”
Jan-Peter slightly grinned. “<You know that, I know that, but they continue to believe in their fairytale… You know, you can get a lot of power when you can influence them in the right way.>”
Smith smiled. “<I know. People call me a king here, and some of them see me as a savior. I just try to help them, I treat them the way I want to be treated.>”
Jan-Peter nodded. “<Yes…>”
Jan-Peter fell silent, and Smith decided to also lie down on his sleeping mat on the floor again. There was no need to do something else.

Smith felt something touch his blanket. When he opened his eyes he stared at the underside of Minou's tail. She was checking Jan-Peter. The ceiling was a prettier sight.
“Good morning. Not wearing pants today?” Smith blurted out, and immediately regretted saying it.
Minou turned around in the narrow space between the mat and the bed, giving Smith a frontal view. “Good morning… and… erm… you are the first one ever who complains about that.”
Smith grinned. “Normally the patients are not on the ground I suppose, and Boris has never had this view. Be as you are, I was only kidding… On a different subject, is he dead?”
Minou shook her head. “No, not yet... Good to see that you are back to almost normal again. A little high on the joking side, but fine nonetheless.”
Smith nodded and dragged himself to a chair again. “My whole body hurts when I move, but will he survive?”
Minou shook her head. “No, I am surprised he is still alive, but he won't last very long. He was brought in at the same time when you were brought in, Simon has patched him up a little, but his wounds are far too severe.”
Smith nodded again. “I have talked to him… He does not seem to be in a lot of pain, he was thirsty, but I have not given him something to drink. Now I feel bad about that.”
Minou shrugged. “You don't have to.”
Smith sighed. “I know you hate him, your responses to the things I say and how you look at him are not like you normally are.”
Minou smiled. “You are back to normal again. Observant as ever… And you are correct, I don't like him. He has done some very bad things to Inimals. He is better off dead.”
Smith sighed. “Nobody deserves to die.”
Simon who also had entered the room put a hand on Smith's shoulder. “<Those words coming from a man who had killed almost a hundred people yesterday. What are you?>”
Smith was a bit startled by Simon's sudden touch, but then shrugged. “<I honestly don't know. I know how to trade, customers appreciate it when you take your time for them, that has taught me how to fight, and I really don't like injustice, that makes me really mad. I guess I was really mad yesterday.>”
Simon nodded. “<A few days ago actually… But you don't feel remorse?>”
Smith shook his head. A jolt of pain shot through his neck. “<No, I feel… empty. But not remembering what I have done also helps with that.>”

The front door opened, and Katie entered, a few moments later followed by Charlene and another Human. And Siegfried and Arthur. The cold draft from the open door made Smith realize he wasn't wearing clothes either, and this made him regret the remark about a pants-less Minou even more.
Katie ran over to Smith, and hugged him. “You are alive!”
Smith smiled. “The fact that you are alive is far more important. Now please, let me get dressed… If my body allows that.”
Charlene nodded, and handed Smith a set of clean clothes. “I have thrown the clothes you wore away, they were literally soaked in blood. But not a single drop of blood from you, not even a scratch on you.”
“<He is protected by our god.>” the stranger spoke, while he knelt before Smith.
“<Crappy job from your god. If he is almighty, why did I have to fight? And who are you by the way? This is none of your business here.>” Smith replied. He already had a deep dislike for this man. Already talking about his imaginary friend, and now even kneeling before him like he was sacred.
“<You are the bringer of the light.>” the man replied while he knelt before Smith.
Smith sighed. “<I am born on longest night. I am the darkness.>”
The man smiled, and started to kiss Smith's feet. “<After longest night the light returns. You are our savior.>”
Smith had to hold back the urge to kick the man in his face. “<I am not the light. Katie is the light here, brightest of us all.>”
Charlene grinned. “<Then it's better not to tell that she is born on longest day. That would make her the bringer of darkness.>”
Smith chuckled. “<Well… We are going to need a neutral person here. We have a Human as the bringer of light, a Feline as the bringer of darkness. Now we need a Canine as a neutral person. Siegfried, please tell me you are born on an equality day.>”
Siegfried shook his head. “<I was born a few weeks after the spring equinox, and so is Beatrice. Maybe Ralph, but I doubt it.>”
Smith looked at Arthur. “<You?>”
Arthur shook his head. “<I want to forget my past. The day I was born is not important any more, but the way I want to die is. As an old Tiger in peace, like you always wanted for me, that sounds good. Thank you for making it safer already. The… devil… is gone.>”
“<I am neither. A few weeks before longest day. And yes, thank you. It is a lot safer to go to the Human kingdom now.>” Charlene added.
Smith nodded. “<All right, two for a balance. Now let's wait until Jan-Peter is dead, and then go home.>”
“<That is rather… cold from you, daddy.>” Katie spoke after a short silence.
Smith sighed once more. He did not like to talk about it. “<Well… I… He is not my friend, but I promised I would stay here until he dies, he won't die alone.>”

“Jan-Peter is overleden… Jan-Peter is deceased. It's over.” Minou spoke, almost sounding relieved.
Smith nodded. “<All right preacher… priest… whatever you are, go ahead. The dead are indifferent about what happens with their body. I'll… try to get dressed and go home.>”
Simon nodded. “<Or you can borrow that blanket, and keep that wrapped around you while you walk home. It’s cold outside.>”
Smith also nodded. “<Yes, that might be an even better idea. Go home, have a light meal, talk some about what happened, and stay in bed until the water in the tank above the forge is warm enough for a bath, but I am not going to do any work today.>”

Smith entered his home, wrapped in the blanket. He noticed that François sat on his couch, and Frank was also sitting on a chair.
François smiled when he saw Smith. “Good morning Smith, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there for you.”
Smith nodded. “No problem. I had a good talk with Jacques. Now I really don’t trust him.”
François’ smile widened. “Good to hear. I was afraid I would lose you again. Did he say anything about Jean?”
Smith grinned. “Yes, he called him an old fool… But now that you are here, I want to ask you a favor.”
François nodded. “You want me to write a letter for the Human king. Of course. I already have written a letter about what you have done.”
Smith smiled. “Thank you… Charlene… I want you to deliver that letter to the Human king, and spend a few days with Chester.”
“Smith, isn’t it wiser to let someone else deliver that letter?” Arthur spoke after a short silence.
Smith smiled. “No, because I also have unwritten instructions. Charlene, I want you to convince Chester to come over here, and take Mary with him. Not because I love her, but because I want to know how far her influence can get. You know how the Human king sees me, as someone he can trust, and I trust Mary. I want Mary to be the new minister of Inimals, and I want to be her adviser.”
Frank nodded. “<We guessed you would say something like that. You are predictable.>”
Smith grinned. “<Jacques told me I was not like other Humans. I don’t know what I am anymore.>”
Siegfried smiled. “<You are the best friend anybody could have... On a different subject, it is a magnificent sword Arthur has, I never knew a sword could be that sharp, I must admit that I am a bit jealous.>”
Arthur nodded. “<Indeed… And the scabbard is also a marvelous piece of work.>”
Smith smiled. “<The scabbard is not my work, locket and chape are again Vulpine, and the leather is Canine, I just ordered that. As soon as I am recovered a bit I am going to work on a new sword for Siegfried, a sword made by a master instead of an apprentice.>”
Siegfried smiled. “<But I like my old sword. I have fought for it.>”
Smith grinned. “<It is not a very appropriate sword for you. You are a soldier, and that is a sword for a merchant. You are a Wolf, and that sword is balanced for a Human who has smaller hands. You prefer to stab, and that sword is for slashing. It is not your sword. It is a sword I have made for someone else, and you have taken it.>”
Arthur nodded. “<Yes, but you have taken my sword, and have defeated an army with it, and you have done the same in your past with the sword of your fallen master.>”
Smith sighed. “<I don't care. I just want to forge to forget. Eat, sleep, forge, repeat. But first a few days to recover.>”
Charlene nodded. “<You think you can manage? I'll be gone for more than a week.>”
Smith also nodded. “<Of course. I need a few days of preparations before I can start with the big hammering part of Siegfried's sword. I'm sure my body is recovered by then. I can order prepared food at the inn, and have it delivered here. That is very handy when you don't have time to cook.>”
Frank shook his head. “<Smith, you take a few days of rest. You just step over the death of your friends like nothing has happened.>”
Smith sighed. “<Don't try to stop me doing what I want to do.>”
Frank nodded. “<I understand. Nothing can stop the love of a father for his daughter. I can't imagine what you would have done if Katie would have been killed.>”
Smith grinned. “<Elfique hunt. Every single one of them. I don't have the eternal life, but I will die with a grin on my face because I know I have tried my best, and done my worst.>”
François nodded. “<I understand your desire. The Elfique de la Vallée are the ones who are with the Humans, I won't be sad when they disappear.>”
“<And those of the Forêt?>” Frank asked.
François sighed. “<You could have guessed… Inimals. But I won't talk about strategies.>”
Smith nodded. “<You have sworn to protect me, and my children. Jacques told me I and my children and grandchildren will be safe, and that he will strike again at the seventh generation. Can I trust you?>”
François nodded. “<Just trust me. If your children are just like you are they are worth protecting.>”
Smith grimaced. “<I understand. When I am gone and people forget why there is peace it's easy to start fights again. But my children will be safe, thanks to you.>”
François nodded. “Vous comprenez.”
Smith shook his head. “Tutoyer s'il vous plaît, tu me fais vieux.”
François started to laugh. “Vous êtes aussi vieux que vous vous sentez. Vous avez toute la vie devant vous.”
Frank started to look confused. “<I have no idea what you are talking about, but I'm going to work. I'll put the sheets around the forge, to give you more heat in the water. I never knew what those things were for, but since the visit of the kings I understand. Clever invention.>”
Smith nodded. “<Eat, bathe, sleep, repeat. I think I am going to do that in the following days. And spend some time with Katie.>”
Katie nodded. “<And learn to write.>”
Smith sighed. “<And learn to write, Tim no longer needs that, and Beatrice can give me the attention.>”

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Chapter 28 - General Nonsense

#32 Post by Neutral Smith » Mon Dec 14, 2015 7:59 am

Chapter 28
General Nonsense


Winter came early and supplies ran low. Even Smith had to join the hunters because he owned a heavy ranged weapon, his armbrust, to hunt boar.

“<Did you really have to hang that boar's skull on the wall of the smithy?>” Robert suddenly asked, breaking th­e relative silence in the smithy, nobody had spoken for hours.
Smith looked up from his work, preparing the etching for his own newly made sword, 'Last Resort'. “<Yes… Don't you like decoration? It's the biggest boar I have ever seen, and killed. Katie has the skull of her kill in her bedroom.>”
Willem shook his head in dismay. “<That was just insane. You just don't take your child on a dangerous hunt without a weapon.>”
Smith shrugged. “<She had her dagger with her, but she wanted to try what Tim has done, jumping on the back of a boar and claw the throat. And succeeded… To be honest, I was more worried about accidentally hitting her with a bolt from my armbrust if things went wrong, she is so incredibly fast.>”
Willem nodded. “<I can imagine. But you have broken your promise.>”
Smith looked inquisitive at Willem. “<What promise?>”
Willem smiled. “<Your promise to learn how to write. You keep avoiding that. First you made the sword for Siegfried, when we ran out of coal you left for hunting, and now you are working on your own sword. Beatrice was really angry when she found out you left with Katie.>”
Smith nodded “<Yes, but I had to. Charlene was still gone, and we, the village, needed food.>”
Willem nodded. “<Yes, Charlene making more money than we have done making the Royal Guard weapons in the same time, by running some messages with Chester for the Human king. She came home the day you left.>”
Smith grinned. “<I really made Beatrice shut up by asking if she preferred having some coins because I used her time to learn how to write, or a big chunk of a boar and some rabbits with a value that was more than the coins I would have given her for my education. Knowing how to write is nice, but I'd rather have something to eat.>”
Robert nodded. “<Indeed. And thank you for giving us some of the newly delivered coal as well, prices are insane, aren't they?>”
Smith sighed. “<Three big silvers for a sack is indeed insane. But it is supply and demand. I wonder what is happening with the Wolves, we don't get any shipments from them.>”
Frank grinned. “<They wait until we break the five silver barrier, and then they suddenly want to deliver for four big five. Same as you do for their metal. Triple the price.>”
Smith shrugged. “<They learn. Good years are over then. Time to move on, and this etching is really fun, I'm glad I have learned it, and that people actually want it.>”
Robert nodded. “<Indeed. The results are beautiful, much finer details than you can make by mechanical means. It really gives something special to metal. How is your shoulder by the way? You are hammering like you have never done before.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Healed completely. Just as the other wounds are. What doesn't kill me makes me more careful.>”
Frank grinned. “<What doesn't kill you makes you stronger just doesn't go with you.>”
Smith also grinned. “<I know who pain is.>”
Frank nodded. “<A friend who has taken you to interesting places. Although I don't want to meet that friend, I keep it with regular pain.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I just didn't care. If acceptance with an interesting new kind needs a beating I would gladly do it again. That was a chance, and I have taken it, first outsider ever who has achieved that level of acceptance. Same with the fight with the Black Fangs, if there would be a second fight with a gang I'd gladly throw you at them and dislodge both shoulders. As long as I can walk away on a safer path through the forest.>”
Frank grinned. “<I won't put a dagger in their back, I'll just crush them with my weight.>”

“<Smith! Visitor!>” Willem suddenly called out.
Smith looked at the open door. In the doorway stood a young Tiger boy, the same age Katie was.
As soon as the boy noticed Smith he turned around. “Daddy! I have found that smith!”
Smith put down his equipment to receive the visitors, he was almost done making the drawing for the symbol for his sword, just a few more strokes in the beeswax, but that could wait, receiving the Inimal Tiger guests was more important. And this was for his own sword, not for a paying client.

“William, you don't announce that you have found our target that loud. Now, point him out.” someone who could not be seen replied, although the sound of it suggested he was standing next to the door.
“Or you could just come in like everybody else, and quit those silly games.” Smith called out.
“That's Smith.” Smith heard Arthur say. “You'd better do as he says.”
A Lion stepped in front of the doorway. Smith immediately recognized him, although he has never seen him before. “Welcome Leon. We've been expecting you.”
Leon was a bit startled. “What… How… How did you know who I am?”
Smith smiled. “Knowing who your target is, is important. You look like your brother. Although you are a bit older.”
Leon grimaced. “Hmm… Keep my family out of it, I'm here for work.”
Smith sighed. “My old family was your work… but I have forgiven you. Everyone makes a mistake sometimes… I see you have a young Tiger who calls you 'daddy', adopted him?”
Leon nodded. “Yes, he is the son of a friend. His father died in battle, his mother a few months later, and I have adopted him.”
Smith smiled. “I have adopted a young Tigress, just as old, and just as fluffy he is. They really should meet. I really like your whiskers, William.”
William looked timidly at the ground. “I don't like them.”
Smith got off his chair, knelt before William. “Don't be ashamed of who you are. Be proud of what you can be. I bet you really will look impressive when you are older, your father must be proud of you.”
William faintly smiled. “Thank you mister.”
Smith stood up again and looked at Leon. “You have a place to stay… sir?”
The old and tired looking Lion shook his head. “No… I haven't. Long journey, dark nights, but as soon as I got here Arthur received me, and brought me here. The king thought he could send me and my son here to these remote lands. I'm glad it stopped snowing.”
Smith shrugged. “From my point of view this is not a remote land, this is a center of trade between the kingdoms. It's not safe here, and the king wanted you to spend your last active days here. It's not a battlefield, but we have other problems. You can stay at my house. We have some problems with supplies, and this way we only have to heat one house.”
Leon shrugged. “The tone of your voice tells me you are not happy.”
Smith sighed. “Yes… Recently I have lost six Tiger friends and their babies. I'm sure you've heard it.”
Leon nodded. “Yes, and you have done something that is impossible.”
Smith shook his head. “You know the average amount of Human soldiers that is needed to kill a Wolf soldier?”
Leon nodded, and faintly smiled. “Three… And you killed eleven. Of course.”
Smith smiled. “But that is the past. If you hadn't sent those Wolves I would have been a simple smith, making hinges. I never want such attack to happen again, from both sides. I was too late for my friends, but preventing such attacks is much more effective. I invite you and your son into my house, as long as you can behave.”
Leon nodded and smiled a little. “And I accept. You can leave your work behind?”
Smith shrugged. “That sword I am working on will be my own sword. I'll be naming it 'Last Resort', because I don't want to fight any more.”
Leon nodded. “You prefer to talk. Fighting as a last resort. You prefer to sell weapons, and let others do the fighting.”
Smith sighed. “Yes… let's go to the house, and see where you have to spend a few months. I don't know if there are Inimal whores here, but leave my women alone.”
Leon nodded. “Of course. I am already too old for that kind of activities. And I am a general, I can't do such things.”
Smith shrugged. “And I don't care, I'm just warning you.”

When Smith entered his house he noticed that not only Katie was already home, but that also Beatrice and Siegfried were there.
Smith sighed. “Katie giving trouble again?”
Beatrice shook her head. “No. No incidents with mice and a screaming Sylvia. I am here for you. Is your sword finally finished?”
Smith stared at the floor. “Just a few more strokes in the beeswax, and then the etching.”
Beatrice nodded. “Siegfried, get that sword, and clean the beeswax off. He won't be allowed to work on it until he has learned to write down our words and sentences. And the Human of course.”
Siegfried nodded, and left to do as requested.
Smith sighed. “Beatrice, please… I have the general Leon and his son William here.”
Beatrice shook her head. “General… Young Tiger… This Human here can't write properly.”
“But I have built all this without that knowledge. We wouldn't be here if I have wasted my time learning to write.” Smith spoke with tears in his eyes, the tears of shame.
William grinned. “See daddy, that Human has achieved all this without knowing how to write. Why do I have to learn it?”
Smith sighed and stared at William. “I am wealthy enough to let others do the writing. You don't have that luxury. I am an excellent reader, I can decipher the most hard to read scribbles for orders, in all languages, but somehow I can't recall how to write the words myself. You, William, also have to learn how to write.”
Beatrice nodded. “But normal school will begin again in two moons. The Humans want to celebrate longest night, and normally their celebrations last between two new moons.”
Smith nodded. “And now longest night also has a new moon, that means it will really be a long and especially dark night.”
Beatrice nodded again. “Yes, they keep saying that this longest night will be the beginning of a new era, and they want to celebrate it like they have never done before.”
Smith sighed. “We have a shortage of almost anything. We must stop them wasting resources as offerings.”
Siegfried nodded. “They know your majesty, that's why you have ordered Rolph to take care of the Humans. Celebrations will consist of singing and praying… And speaking of a new era, don't you believe in coincidence? A lot has happened in the past year, with the apex of you killing that woman, I don't think things will get worse in the future… And oh, one more thing, I have sent those hunters a message that you won't be available for helping them design new arrows. Beatrice's orders. Hunters are important in times of little food, but you are more important.”
Smith shrugged. “Fine, I wouldn't have had time for them anyway thanks to Beatrice… The god of those Humans works in mysterious ways. You have seen how that preacher responded when I told him I was born on a longest night, I just don't hope they will put me in the center of their attention. I feel a bit different than I did last year around this time, but that is because I am now surrounded by friends.”
Siegfried grinned. “It won't harm you when they do, only a slight nuisance… That expression on your face when that preacher kissed your feet was priceless, I have never seen someone look that disgusted.”
Smith shrugged. “It's all right… All right general, let me introduce you to the people here. The Cheetah here is Charlene, I helped her, the little Tigress here is Katie, I adopted her and together with Charlene I raise her. She is also an orphan, her parents were killed by poachers, I'm sure you'll meet Boris, he is our tracker, he spared her life by telling the poachers that she wasn't there. The Black Wolf who just ruined a day's worth of work is Siegfried, I spared him after I killed his gang, and the Black She-Wolf is his wife Beatrice, who is a teacher as you might have noticed.”
The general nodded. “Arthur has told me a bit about you and the people you helped. It's almost dinner time, what do we eat? There is a bit of a shortage of everything here I heard.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, cold winter after a big feast. Supplies are running low. I'm glad I have Charlene, because she knows how to prepare very tasty meals with very cheap meat. Tonight we have boiled dried beef.”
The general nodded. “The meat that makes us win the war. It's produced here in the Neutral Zone, am I right?”
Charlene nodded. “Yes, Humans know how to cure meat so it can be stored for a long time. Inimal beef combined with Human curing techniques. I boil it because it's far too salty, and add some spices to give it a flavor again.”
Smith smiled. “Charlene can do miracles in the kitchen. I bet William can't wait to have chicken.”
William shook his head. “No sir, I have no preferred food. I can eat anything.”
Smith shrugged. “If we didn't have shortages of food I would have tortured you to find out what you like. Every day something new to eat, I will closely watch you and see how you respond when you take a bite, see if you like what's in your mouth or not. I suspect you have at least some table manners, maybe you can teach Katie some.”
General Leon nodded. “It's a pity there is no springbok this far north, I would kill to have that again.”
Charlene smiled while she went to the kitchen. “That's what we have tomorrow, springbok biltong. Nobody seems to like that, only us southern Felines. Only me and two Leopards buy it, the store where we buy it had 'coincidentally' a shipment of it a few weeks after the announcement that you would come to help us. It's the cheapest meat here these days.”
Smith grinned. “That is no coincidence. They are traders. They thought they would soon have a big customer for it, but fortunately it can be stored for a longer time.”
Leon smiled. “So, shortages of food for common people, but enough delicious food for us. I don't think I'm going to mind living here for a few months.”
Smith nodded. “It's good to see how your facial expression changes when you talk. You really look like a general when you are talking about your work, and more like a friendly person when you are not talking about your work. Outside my house you are a general, but in my house I want you to be a bit more friendly.”
Leon smiled. “Sometimes it's hard to leave your work behind. I never thought I would be working with Humans instead of killing them. What about those mice? I saw Siegfried grin when Beatrice told about it.”
Smith grinned. “Katie also will become a trader. She was breeding mice to sell to Cats, and brought some to school, and a few escaped.”
Siegfried grinned again. “And even Boris heard Sylvia scream, and we were an hour away.”
Leon nodded. “Great strategy, I bet every Cat knew then that there were mice. I wish William was that clever.”
Katie smiled. “I can teach William that as well. Trading is very easy. Find a demand you can fill, and do it. Base the price on a balance where you just can sell everything you have, and then you will maximize your profits.”
Smith smiled. “She is a very clever girl.”
William sighed. “My father makes everything so difficult for me. I can never do anything right.”
Smith patted William on the shoulder. “Don't worry about it. He has too much pride. Did you think I taught Katie all she knows?”
William nodded. “Yes, you are a wise man.”
Smith continued to smile and shook his head. “You are wrong. Some of the Bergvolk have taught her how to trade. The most important lesson I have learned her is that if she doesn't know something she must ask someone else who knows, or even ask someone who might know someone else who knows. You can ask me everything about metal, but if you want to learn how to write you must ask Beatrice or Sylvia, if you want to learn how to fight you can ask Arthur, and if you want to learn strategy you can ask your father. Everyone knows something different, I bet you even know things I don't know. I only have to ask you the right questions.”
William shrugged. “He tries to teach me everything about military strategies, but I want to learn something useful. Can you teach me how to forge?”
Smith shrugged. “Of course… But you are still young, there might be a lot of other interesting things you could learn. Katie, can you show William around tomorrow?”
Katie nodded. “Of course. But now I'm hungry.”
Smith also nodded. “All right… Beatrice, I'll show Leon around tomorrow, talk about what I expect him to do, see what he needs, and if nothing bad happens you may drag me by my ears to the classroom the day after the day after tomorrow if I don't come voluntary. I have some last arrangements to make.”
Beatrice nodded and slightly grinned. “That sounds like a good deal. I'm really looking forward to it. You can't keep running away forever. I expect to see you in three days at school, and bring some coal, we're out of it.”
Smith nodded. “No problem. But you can also bring everything we need to my house, that is already warm.”
Beatrice shook her head. “Too many distractions. You and me in an empty building. For as long as needed, and we burn as much coal as needed to be comfortable. Don't think you got away that easy with Tim gone.”
Smith shrugged. “Alright. No problem. Shipment of coal came in a few days ago. I’ll fill one sack again to take with me, we have some trouble with thieves stealing coal. Coal is harder to steal when it's piled instead of in sacks.”
“Then just punish those thieves instead of those silly prevention things that only hinder yourself.” The general spoke at a commanding tone.
Smith shook his head. “No, I won’t punish people who steal coal because their wife is cold, or food because their children are hungry, I just make it harder for them to do it. When I catch one and they have a very good reason to steal they can get a bucket of coal.”
General Leon nodded. “You are truly generous. No wonder the people love you.”
Smith grinned. “No, I want a bucket and a half of coal back when the times are better. What do you think I am? The benefactor of the Neutral Zone?”
The general grinned while Charlene put the plates on the table. “I never expected you to be a benefactor. You only help when you can get better of it in the end.”
Beatrice nodded while she stood up to leave. “Yes… Helping me, now I’m going to help him. Eet smakelijk, Smith. You know how to write that?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, with a pencil on paper. And if you are certain you can trace the lines with ink to make it formal.”

It was a quiet and cold night. Leon had explicitly forbidden William to sleep with Katie, and Smith was also sleeping alone because it was a 'nobody else in his bed' night.
After breakfast both Arthur and Siegfried came to Smith's house to talk. Katie was away with William.
“All right Leon, what took you so long?” It was Smith who spoke first when everyone was seated.
Leon sighed. “You are just as the king told me, not very subtle… But it are the Wolves in the west, they continue to give trouble.”
Smith sighed. “We've noticed. The Vulpine from the west are coming to live here, looking for safety. We buy a lot of coal from the Wolves, but lately we haven't received any shipments. You have resolved it?”
Leon shook his head. “No… The troublemakers escaped.”
Smith shrugged. “As long as they don't come here I don't care about your past failures, as long as you have learned from them.”
Leon nodded. “I have, but every situation is new. I heard you wanted to build an assault course?”
Smith nodded and smiled. “You don't seem to like talking about yourself. But yes, we want to build such a thing. How did you know?”
Leon nodded again. “I have read some reports about the Neutral Zone and I talked with some of the soldiers yesterday. It's not an impressive army, but very effective.”
Smith smiled. “Good… And what about William? You are very hard on him.”
General Leon nodded. “Yes, I am preparing him for his time on the Academy… And one more thing, Katie is also admitted. I have a letter from the king for her.”
“She won't survive there!” Arthur exclaimed.
Smith nodded, and smiled. “She will… William only has his father to help him, Katie has you and the rest of us. You are going to prepare her on how to survive.”
Arthur shook his head. “You don't understand Smith, she won't survive, because only the strongest survive.”
Smith shrugged. “Mia also has attended the Academy, she was also a woman who has survived it.”
Arthur shook his head again. “That was not because of her, that was because of her father. He had a lot of influence at the Academy. She didn't have to do the physical things everybody else had to endure.”
Smith nodded. “Then we will make Katie the first woman who passed the Academy. You tell her about all the hardships she will encounter, and how to deal with them. She has achieved much more than you have done when you were her age, and she can do much more at the Academy. Don't be afraid to hurt her, but no permanent damage. Something like I have endured during my time with the Bergvolk. I can't say the things they have done to me those days have a bad effect today. On the contrary.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes… I don't think I would have survived that. You had lost everything, and you just didn't care. But Katie still has everything.”
Smith shook his head. “No, I am her second chance. A Human taking care of her. She belongs with the Inimals, not with me. I will guide her there, and then she has to walk on her own.”
Arthur shrugged. “I have no idea what you are talking about. But all right, I will teach her. And William if his father allows.”
Leon nodded. “Yes…”

But before Leon could finish his sentence Katie and William entered the house, entirely black from coal dust.
Katie's white teeth glistened when she grinned. “We are now Panther Tigers, the most fearsome fighters!”

Smith sighed.

“William! This smithy is built on an island, run around it, using the first bridges north and south of it. Five laps around it.” the General spoke at a very commanding tone before Smith could say anything.

Smith simply nodded. “All right William, I guess this is some sort of punishment for you, go ahead. The good news is, your father just volunteered to clean the bathroom after you have washed yourself. Coal dust is nasty to remove… Katie, you join William. Seven laps, running pace, no rest, Arthur will watch you and your progress. After that you can wash yourselves.”

“What… No… I...” general Leon stuttered.

Smith grinned. “Now what, general. Regret? Made a hasty decision, and now you have to suffer? Let me tell you this: I am not going to clean the bathroom, and neither is Charlene, and one punishment is enough for the children… I really don't care whose idea it was, to play with coal and wasting it, but the other one had to be smart enough to say that it was not a good idea. William, Katie, this is my house, with my rules. You go and wash yourselves, and don't leave the bathroom until it's just as tidy as it was when you entered it. Charlene can tell you how to clean, but she is not allowed to touch any equipment, not even handing a cloth.”
Charlene shook her head. “No, I won't. I'll just check the bathroom before lunchtime, and if I'm not satisfied with the cleanliness they have to work on after lunch, until dinner. And if I'm still not satisfied they have to go on tomorrow.
Katie smiled. “See, I told you that my daddy is much nicer than yours.”
Smith continued to grin. “That was a very nice thing to say. You know what, you get the choice between running three laps and me cleaning the bathroom after you washed yourself, or now washing yourself and cleaning the bathroom yourself.”
Katie continued to smile. “It started to snow again. I choose the warm bath and cleaning the bathroom… It's not going to be a hot bath, but still warmer than the snow. And it's really itchy. I actually feel dirty.”

Smith was still grinning when Katie and William left to the bathroom. “Neither of them told whose idea it was. They cover for each other. I like that.”
“I don't.” General Leon replied. “Relations are forbidden at the Academy.”
Smith shrugged. “Then they must learn to keep it hidden. Really general, the times are changing. You can't go on breaking up happy relationships.”
Leon also nodded. “Yes… I suppose that is the best option. See if they are smart enough to do that.”
Arthur looked at the general in disbelief. “I can't believe you saying that. But Smith has a strange effect on people. To quote Floris Fox the Enforcer in the Vulpine village north of here: I'm not surprised you changed your opinion. Smith has that tendency to cause that.”
Leon nodded. “Yes… Well… Yes indeed.”

Leon, Arthur and Siegfried were talking about military things when Smith decided to sneak to the smithy to do some work. When he opened the door to the smithy he faced Beatrice, who grinned and shook her head. Smith noticed that there also were a female Cat and Dog in the smithy, sitting in a corner but close to the forge, Smith presumed that those were the women who temporary lived with Siegfried and Beatrice, and were in the smithy because there was free warmth, from the forge.
Smith sighed, and closed the door again. No work today. Not as long as Beatrice was in the smithy.
Siegfried noticed it. “Something wrong in the smithy?”
Smith grinned. “No, everything is perfectly fine there. I thought I could do some work today, because you are talking about things I don't understand, but your wife and the women from your house are there.”
Siegfried also grinned. “She knew you would try to work. But she won't drag you by your ears today, and not even tomorrow. The day after tomorrow is when you have to put on a helmet that covers your ears when you want to sneak out, and put some serious straps on it. And weld the visor shut, because if she can't drag you by your ears I'm sure she will go for your nose. Or some other body parts, so also put on some strong pants when you go outside that day.”
Smith grinned. “I won't. I think I'll even go to see her tomorrow, you and Arthur can show Leon around… It's almost lunchtime, let's see if I can invite those women from your house to have lunch here.”
Siegfried shook his head. “I doubt it, it's a miracle they are actually in your smithy. They are very shy.”
Smith nodded. “Fine. If they want help they have to come to me, I am not going to ask them if they need help. Leon, please give me that letter, I want to read it.”

It was not an admission letter, it was an invitation to the Academy, written by the king himself. Smith silently nodded when he was reading the letter, and folded it again when he was done reading. He left to put the letter in a safe in his bedroom.
“What was that about?” Arthur asked him when he returned.
“Admission letter. Lessons begin at the spring equinox, and she will spend eight years at the Academy. In my opinion she is still young when she leaves, but that gives her more time to learn something… useful. I keep the letter safe in case they don't believe that I, a Human, comes knocking at the door of the Academy to deliver my Tiger daughter. Showing a letter from the king has more power than my word.”
Arthur nodded. “Don't underestimate the power of your word… Special class for the basics for her then, most children her age don't know how to write yet… You know, I knocked at the door when I was eight years old, I stood alone, and I was fourteen when I left… In my time it was unthinkable that a Human would knock on the door of the Academy, and I don't think a lot of people would believe it today. You better keep that letter safe.”
Smith also nodded. “And now I really feel the urge to learn how to write. I don't trust François enough any more to write the more important letters for me.”
Arthur nodded again. “You saying that you don't trust François any more worries me.”
Smith smiled. “You don't have to. I don't have to. Our children don't have to, our grandchildren don't have to… there is no need to worry.”
Arthur sighed. “And after that… everything that has happened is forgotten again, and can happen again.”

“Smith… We have a little problem.” Charlene had returned from the bathroom.
Smith looked up, and to his surprise he saw that Charlene was grinning, not the correct facial expression you'd expect with somebody who said there is a problem. “Stains can't be removed and Katie and William are so tired they fell asleep? I know it's hard to clean, but not impossible… for an adult. It is supposed to be a punishment, remember?”
Charlene nodded. “Bathroom is clean again, but Katie and William have a problem… They brushed so hard to get clean that they have lost a lot of hair. They don't dare to come out, it's too cold for them, they are sitting in the bath, pumping in water but it's still not warm.”
Smith nodded. “They pump too fast, water doesn't have time to warm up. All right… Fine… Let Jacques make some clothes for them to keep them warm.”
“Why not Melany?” Arthur interrupted, his facial expression as blank as always.
Smith grinned. “It's a punishment. The clothes Melany makes are far too comfortable. They have to be reminded of what they have done for the remaining of the winter.”
Leon shook his head. “No… One punishment is enough for them. I'm sure they have learned their lesson. I'll pay for the clothes, made by Melany.”
Smith nodded, and then shook his head. “Sir, I will pay for clothes for my daughter, you pay for the clothes for your son. They have to be comfortable and warm, but I don't want them to be pretty. I want them to wear them as a last resort, you know, as a training, a preparation for their time at the Academy. Not wearing them and be toughened against the cold, or wearing them and laughed at because they just look silly. Arthur, I trust you enough to know you can make a very bad decision for them.”
Arthur slightly grinned. “Oddest mission yet. I failed your first direct mission, stopping Melany from buying too much fabric, and now I'm afraid they will end up looking marvelous.”
Smith nodded. “Just do what your instincts tell you. You know what I asked you earlier today.”

Katie and William were sitting on a couch, huddled together, sharing a single blanket. They suddenly looked much older, being a lot less fluffy as when they were when they woke up.
Smith smiled. “Why don't you go to bed? You know me, I already have ordered some clothes for the both of you, before dinner you both have your own set of clothes.”
William nodded. “Thank you sir… You mean I can sleep with Katie in her bed?”
“No.” Leon replied.
Smith shrugged. “All right… William, tonight you can sleep with me in my bed, and Katie, you shut up, nothing changes for you. Now both of you go to your beds.”
Katie nodded when Charlene whispered something in her ear.

“Are we...” William asked when Smith got into his bed that night.
“No.” Smith shortly replied. The door creaked slowly open. “But Katie is joining us. It's cold, and it's better we sleep together. Your father, Charlene and I are strong enough to withstand the cold, but you and Katie are not, now that you have lost your hair. Tonight you and Katie sleep with me, tomorrow you and Katie sleep with Charlene in this bed, and I really hope your father comes to his senses and allows you and Katie to sleep together with some extra blankets. I don't want Katie in bed with your father.”
“Can we do the exercises tomorrow?” Katie asked when she climbed into the bed.
Smith shrugged. “I don't know. This morning I was very reluctant to get out of bed, it was nice and warm underneath the blankets, and the room was cold. You have lost something today, and I don't think you would like it tomorrow when you are almost naked doing the exercises.”
“What exercises?” William asked.
Smith sighed. “Exercises Melany taught me about, and her father has taught her… Thinking of it, I don't think those exercises even exist… It was all thought up by her father to do certain things with Melany she didn't like. But if you want to do them I won't stop you.”
Katie giggled. “William is much smaller, if he lifts my legs and pushes my feet behind my ears he really would rub...”
“Goodnight Katie.” Smith interrupted. “No exercises tomorrow. Just me throwing the blankets off, and see how you cope with that.”

It had been a very cold night. The following morning only a small trickle of water came out of the pump, it was almost completely frozen. 'That would be a lot of damaged pumps.' Smith thought. 'The others have to handle it.' a second thought added. Smith sighed. He would learn how to write today, and burning an insane amount of coal to get the classroom warm. And the worst of winter still had to come.
“Good morning Smith, up early?” It was Leon who greeted him.
Smith nodded. “Yes, as I usually do. Someone has to light the stove to get it warm in here. I'm not sure if I am really happy with it, a normal fireplace for wood would have been cheaper, and this winter is insane.”
Leon nodded. “The old-fashioned way… This is a very modern house in a modern city, you have a school, a doctor, even some sort of a moat. Not all modern things are better, but I really like the way you can control the water level. Thick ice, thick enough to let an army march over it, but lowering the dam to remove the water underneath the ice, the ice collapses and then you have some nice steep and very slippery banks. Almost like a wall.”
Smith nodded. “But I don't like walls. Did you know that the city of Schotenburg did not have gates when I went there to get the soldiers?”
Leon nodded. “Yes, they told me… It would have been easy to conquer that piece of filth a year ago, now they have repaired it. It would have been a death trap.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… I'm sorry. I have told them about that flaw of the gates, and they repaired it. But the good news is, the new hinges still have the same design, a few warm and wet summers and the hinges are lumps of rust again.”
Leon grinned. “A true smith who sees everything metal… Have you seen Katie? She was not in her bed.”
Smith sighed. “She is in my bed with William. Didn't you notice how cold it is? You and I are strong enough to withstand the cold, but the children are not. Just let them sleep together, one night with me, one night with Charlene, and one night alone because I also want to spend a night with Charlene.”
Leon nodded. “I just wanted to check her… It is indeed cold.”
Smith sighed again. “If you harm her I'll cut your balls off. With a brick.”
Leon nodded. “I understand. You even can scare Arthur, you are very protective. I am just as worried as you are about the cold… I am still not used to the 'keep your relation hidden at the Academy' you talked about yesterday.”
Smith smiled. “Don't worry about it, they are children. Just forge them together, and they will get tired of each other sooner or later.”
Leon grinned. “You mean force them together, but I think I understand what you mean. You hope they will see each other as brother and sister. I really hated my younger brother.”
Smith nodded. “And now your younger brother the king sends you here, in bad weather, with your young son, to work with Humans. I'm sure you have done some nasty things to your brother in the past, and this is his revenge.”
Leon nodded. “Maybe. But there also might be a plan.”

“Charlene! Breakfast is ready!” Smith knocked at the door of Charlene's room. There was no response.
He would only enter Charlene's bedroom if there was a need for it, and now there was. Worried Smith opened the door. The bed was empty, and the blanket was missing. Smith sighed. This was not good. He checked every other room in his house, but there was no sign of Charlene. The last room he checked was his own bedroom. It seemed very unlikely she was there, but there she was, with the children, in his bed, with her blanket.
Charlene opened her eyes when Smith gently shook her. “Smith… It's not nice to put your blanket on top of the wardrobe when you leave the bed. Think of the children!”
Smith grinned. “You did well. But next time they have to jump around to get warm. Not nice and cozy in bed. They are going to be soldiers, diplomats, whatever you can become when you have been to the Academy, but they have to survive the training there. I was preparing them for that.”
“I don't want to go to the Academy, I want to become a smith.” William protested when Smith pulled a blanket off him again and folded it.
Smith smiled. “Learn everything you can learn about weapons, and when you return I can teach you how to make them. I always practice with the weapons I create, but I have no idea what I am doing. I always look at the customers as stabbers or swingers, and make something I think that is best for them, you can actually tell them how to improve, and the best ways of how to use their new weapons. But first you have to learn how to handle weapons yourself, and you are going to do that with the best.”
William nodded. “And Katie?”
Smith continued to smile. “She is going to be a diplomat instead of a trader now that she is given the opportunity. But she also has to learn how to fight.”
Katie grinned, and grabbed the blanket Smith still was holding in his hands, and in one swift movement she put it on the wardrobe, on top of Smith's own blanket. She was still grinning when she held on to the top of the wardrobe.
Smith sighed. “Katie… What did I tell you about climbing indoors? We shouldn't do that any more. Now the wardrobe has even more holes and scratches than it has before.”
Katie flexed herself, and with a back flip she landed on the bed again. “I know, but it's fun.”
Smith sighed. “Breakfast is ready. Time to eat some hot food. After that you can stay in bed until your clothes are finished. Melany's fingers are also cold, she can't work that fast.”

Smith intended to leave the house with two sacks of coal on his shoulders, and while he was contemplating about how to open the door the door opened and Beatrice entered, holding some writing equipment.
Smith sighed. A sigh of relief. “Beatrice… What are you doing here? I was just leaving to come to you.”
Beatrice smiled. “With two sacks of coal… Very generous. But I decided I would teach you here, here it is already warm. Siegfried told me that you would come today, and I wanted to be ahead of you.”
Smith nodded. “And not too many distractions. I guess that Leon will go and do what he was asked to do, and Katie and William will stay in bed.”
Beatrice nodded. “You are not punishing them?”
Smith grinned. “I have. They had to clean themselves, and the bathroom. Cleaning the bathroom was not a problem, but cleaning themselves was, they have lost some hair because of all the brushing and scrubbing they needed to do to get the coal dust out of their fur, and they are now shivering in bed, waiting until Melany has finished some clothes for them.”
Beatrice also grinned. “All right then, not much hair left. Leon, would you please leave us, and Charlene, please try to be quiet. I want Smith to be able to write a speech for longest night, for Willem to read out aloud. The theme will be 'bringer of light', because that's what they call him.”
Leon nodded. “Then buy those believers some candles, you know, as a metaphor. You literally bringing them light.”
Smith also nodded. “Great idea. Charlene, go and order three hundred candles, all the same size. I want them the day before longest night, but keep it a secret why you want them.”
“Really that much?” Charlene asked while she got the money for such a large order.
Smith nodded. “Yes… I'm going to write down some story about bringing the light and sharing the light. Candles are cheaper than buying an oil lamp for everybody. Two candles for every listener.”
Beatrice grinned. “You always astound me, Smith. Customer gives you a hint about what he wants, and you deliver. Me saying bring the light, Leon saying give them candles, you give them candles, and telling them… you letting Willem tell them… that they have to share the light by sharing the candles.”

The lessons went smoothly, writing words was far easier than drawing elaborate symbols. Words were in fact symbols, with every stroke of the pencil and later pen giving it a new meaning.
Beatrice smiled. “You really are my best student, even better than Katie. In a few days the big exam, with Willem reading the words you are going to write for the speech. Are you prepared?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, I am. I am a bit uncertain about a few words, but I'm sure Willem understands what I wanted to write, and pronounce it correctly.”
Beatrice's smile turned into a grin. “He won't. I'll instruct him that he has to pronounce every word the way you have written it, for an audience of over one hundred people. Until now I was the only one who has seen your mistakes, but then everybody will hear them.”
Smith shrugged. “All right. But just like in real life I'll cheat. If I don't know a word I'll look it up.”
Beatrice nodded. “I don't mind. As long as you write the words, and not someone else.”

Smith stared at the piece of paper. There were words he had never seen before, except during the lessons. He sighed. He knew that he had made some mistakes, but he could not see them. 'I before E except after C', with a lot of exceptions. 'A C before a U or an A sounds like a K'… Thumbs down for 'perfect quality', thumbs up for 'bad decision', grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization… So many things that could go wrong, but there was no turning back now, the speech was written.

Smith had sent away his employees except Willem and Robert to prepare the smithy for the assembly of the religious people of the Neutral Zone. Willem because he was one of them, and he knew what was appropriate, and Robert because he had a feeling for cleaning and putting candles everywhere.
Not everybody could come, and Smith was happy about that, because the smithy could not accommodate more than a hundred people.
William, dressed in his beautiful and still clean clothes entered the smithy with a plate of food for Smith, because he had forgotten the time again. Robert and Willem were already gone for their dinner.
He grinned when she saw that Smith had put the boar’s skull on his work bench, a bit hidden behind some tools, and put a small candle in it, in such a way that it illuminated the eye sockets. “Do you really think that is appropriate?”
Smith grinned. “No, but I really want to see the reaction when someone sees it. I don't want those people to come here more often if they are not going to buy anything.”
William nodded. “I understand. They see you as their god, don’t they?”
Smith smiled. “More like the son of their god, but I am the son of a destroyer of trees, a lumberjack, instead of the son of a creator of things, a carpenter. But I don’t mind, I just play along with them.”
William nodded. “Good luck. My father doesn’t allow me to listen to what those people have to say.”
Smith shrugged. “That is his decision, you are young, you can easily be influenced, and he is afraid you take over their ideas, and become something he doesn’t want you to be. I agree with him, if you would have been in the smithy tonight I would have sent you away, I know how powerful ideas can be. I also have to be very careful with what I say tonight. Share the light, not setting fire to your neighbor's house.”
William nodded. “I understand. Good luck.”

Slowly the people entered the smithy. Smith grinned when he saw that almost everybody stopped in the doorway to admire the way the smithy was decorated, with candles everywhere. And pushed forward again to make way for those behind them, who did exactly the same in turn, stop to admire.
“<Welcome everybody.>” Smith greeted them. Even Jacques, François and Boris were present, as the only non-Humans. Some people were carrying simple instruments like flutes, and there was someone with a drum.

There was a bit of a struggle close to the forge where Smith had made a fire of wood instead of the some sort of interpretation of hell it normally was with coal. Nothing special, but a crowd of people was trying to warm their hands while there was not enough space for all of them around it. A glance from Smith was enough to stop it, and all the people stepped away from the forge, forming a ring around it.

“<You have the speech?>” Willem asked Smith when everyone had found a place.
Smith nodded. “<Yes… but I have written it in Inimal, because… you know… I can't write Human yet.>”
Willem nodded. “<No problem, they'll understand.>”
Smith smiled. “<Thank you… What is the program for tonight? I have never attended a Longest Night celebration.>”
Willem patted Smith on his shoulder. “<Word of welcome, prayer, singing, prayer, your speech, prayer, singing and a final prayer.>”
Smith nodded. “<All right… Fine. I'll just stand in a corner and watch everything. Don't mind me, these are your celebrations.>”

The preacher climbed on a crate, and someone gently tapped the anvil with a hammer he had taken from the rack. The crowd went silent.
“<Ladies and gentlemen. We have come here together to celebrate Longest Night and the return of the light. Last year was an odd year, an omen of the change of times. We all have this thanks to our God, he who watches over us all, and who has given us a caretaker, someone who has given us a place to live, and gives us protection, and makes us thrive. Now let us say our prayers, and sing for the higher glory of our God.>”

For Smith the prayer sounded like a lot of mumbling, and a clearly audible 'amen' at the end of it.
The singing was not bad, but the sound the flutes produced was awful. The drum was silenced after the first beat, the membrane was frozen, and cracked. Smith grinned when he saw that Boris had put his fingers in his ears. For him it must have been horrible, because sound is the most important thing there is.
Some more mumbling with an 'amen' at the end, and finally it was Willem's turn to stand on the crate.

Willem cleared his throat, and the crowd went silent again.
“<Smith, the person who owns the smithy we are in right now, and giving us all shelter in his village, has written a speech for us. We know that our God has given him the gift of speech, but he also made it so very busy for him that he never had time to learn how to write. God has brought people on his path, people who needed help, and in return could help him. He has not only helped us, but also others. People who God uses to give us protection, people whose hands our God uses to heal us, and people who can teach. Until last new moon Smith couldn't write, but he has helped people who could teach him. He is good friends with Beatrice, the Wolf teacher at our school, and our celebrations have given her time to teach Smith how to write. He has written a speech. It is in Inimal, because that is his first language, but we will understand. Beatrice has given me the order to read out every mistake there is, to give Smith understanding what he has done wrong in the text.>”
The people nodded. They understood. Some were sniggering a little.
Willem took a deep breath when he opened the letter, like he was expecting something that was almost unreadable. The exhaled with a smile. “<This is really a beautiful handwriting, Smith, it's almost calligraphy.>”

He cleared his throat again, and started to read.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tonight you have come here, in my smithy, together to celebrate the return of the light. Beatrice has asked me to write a speech for you, and I have done it.

Light. Light is a beautiful thing, but light itself is useless. It's what you can do with the light that is important. Don't stare at the source of light itself, but look at the things it illuminates, look at your work, admire your fields, use the light.
Saying that the light is returning tomorrow is saying that you live in dark times today.
It is cold outside, supplies run low, the nights are longer than the days are, it will become much colder, and people will die.
These are dark times. Enemies show up, and friends die. People call me a savior, the bringer of light, but how can you appreciate the light if you don't know what complete darkness is? How can you love the warmth if you have never felt the cold?

I am honest. I don't like you. I always have had four simple rules: Don't damage, don't soil, don't waste, and treat others the way you want to be treated. It's simple. I could write a long an elaborate text about how I want you to live, but instead I am giving you a test. A metaphor.

The sun is nice, a big source of light. It can scorch the fields, and yet there are dark and cold caves.
I am giving you candles. Two to each one of you. You can do whatever you want with them. I have a question, but it is not me who needs the answer to that question.
The question is: What are you going to do with those candles? Put them all together, make an image of the sun that shines on you, or share them, give the second candle to those who actually need a candle?
With the first option you believers all bathe in the blessing light of your god, like the sun that scorches the fields, but with the second light you share the light, give give the light to the whole world, right into the darkest caves, where a treasure may be found.

I wish you a good new year,
From the person you know as 'Smith'.”

The crowd was silent when Willem stepped down from the crate.
Reluctantly the preacher climbed on the crate again. “<All right… Let us… pray once more.>”
The mumbling started again, and Smith noticed that the fire on the forge was dying. He got some pieces of wood, and put them on the fire. A woman opened her eyes during the prayer and gave him the dirtiest look he has ever received from a woman.
When the final 'amen' finally sounded Smith smiled. “<You can't expect your god to keep the fire lit. sometimes you have to do things yourself.>”
The woman grimaced. “<You don't belong among us. Leave us.>”
Smith shook his head. “<My smithy. If you don't like it here get your candles from the crate, and then you go.>”
The woman's reply came in the form of a slap with a book in Smith's face, and a slam of the door when the woman left.
Smith shrugged. “<All right, go on. Don't mind me, I am just doing what everybody else could have done, putting some wood on the fire, because if I didn't do that we would all have gotten cold. This is exactly what was in my speech, you are not here for a better afterlife, you are here for those who live. Now if you excuse me, I'm going to stand in my corner again.>”
There were some mixed responses from the group. Smith shrugged again and ignored it all. The woman was correct about one thing, he didn't belong with the group in the smithy. Part of him wanted to leave, an other part of him wanted to keep an eye on them.

Finally the final 'amen' sounded. It was over.
Smith went to Boris, and patted him on the shoulder. “I'm sorry about the speech”
Boris smiled. “It's not a speech I would call coherent, you jumped the subjects a little, and I have the feeling you scratched quite a few bits. But it's all right. I am not one of them for whom it is intended, I don't feel addressed. But I am a little light for them, I have to bring some of them home, I don't mind the darkness… Did that woman hit you?”
Smith patted Boris on the shoulder. “You heard that correct.”
Boris grinned. “She was one of those I had to bring home. I honestly don't like her, but I am professional enough to help. If she wants it. Now she has to find her own way home… One more grave to dig. If you haven't noticed it, there is a snowstorm outside.”
Smith sighed. “I don't care, I want those people out.”

Now it was Smith's turn to climb on the crate. “Ladies and gentlemen, as you might hear, it's a bit windy outside and some snow. I want you out of my smithy, you can't stay here. For those who live close by, open your house for those in need. Otherwise they have to pay for the inn.”
There was some mumbling, and Jacques, who now came standing close to Smith, grinned. “{Far better than I could have ever dreamed.}”
Smith glanced at Jacques. “{What?}”
“{You put a wedge in them with that speech and how you act. One group follows your path, helping others, but others only want pure worshiping. I like this. Watch the candles}” Jacques whispered in Smith's ear, and left.

Smith watched the crate of candles. Most people took two candles, but there were also people who took more. He felt the urge to interfere, but he didn't. Instead he watched. He watched those who took more than they ought to take, and he watched those who noticed it. He sighed. Instead of bringing unity he had brought discord.
Willem came standing next to him. “<This is not good.>”
Smith shook his head. “<No… But this way you learn to know people. My feelings about them were correct>”
Willem nodded. “<Yes… That's why I like you. Be there for others. Help, grow. Not being egoistic like them.>”
Smith shrugged. “<On a different subject, I am really disappointed that nobody noticed the boar's skull on the workbench.>”
François who now came standing next to them grinned. “<I have blown out the candle in it. That made it almost invisible. Sometimes it's better that some things stay hidden in the darkness.>”
If it moves but shouldn't: Duct tape. If it doesn't move but should: WD-40. With a hammer everything fits, and if it still doesn't fit: bigger hammer. If it can't be fixed with a hammer it's an electrical problem.

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Chapter 29 - Not Safe

#33 Post by Neutral Smith » Sun Jan 03, 2016 9:28 pm

­Chapter 29
Not Safe


Winter was cold and harsh, but it ended as abruptly as it had started, and life could start again.
A lot of people had died, but none of the women and children from Schotenburg or those who took care of them, because Smith and Rolph had made a simple rule: Only give help to those who are also willing to help others. Those who only prayed for salvation received none.

Life took its normal way again. A lot of houses were vacant again, and after disposal of the bodies by burying them and replacing the cracked pumps due to the freezing they were ready to be occupied again. For free. The funerals were sad, with only the preacher, the undertaker and some gravediggers attending. Whole families from a single house were buried. Buried because they were too busy praying to stay out of hell, and froze to death.
Construction also resumed on the various locations. The assault course was already finished, and Smith not only astounded the other soldiers by being faster than all the other Human soldiers on it, but also by not being the slowest on the Canine part. Only a Dog who was known to be lazy was slower. It made him feel good, knowing that he still was strong and athletic.
The Feline part on the other hand was a total failure, he got stuck at the first obstacle, and had to be rescued from his perilous situation, hanging upside down with his foot snagged in some ropes.
Arthur was also enjoying the course. There were even some rumors he also used it at night, with Melany.

It was a nice day, and general Leon and Smith decided to visit the construction site of the barracks for the women from Schotenburg, along with a lot of other people who wanted to go out for a stroll, including Katie and William. They needed other lessons, lessons that Beatrice nor Sylvia could give them.
“It's looking good.” Smith remarked while they walked around the buildings.
“A bit remote.” Leon replied, looking at the forest.
Smith shrugged. “Those women come from a Human city, we guessed they never wanted to see a Human again. It is a temporary housing, if they want to go to the Inimal kingdom they can, if they want to live closer to my village that's also a possibility, a lot of houses are empty now.”
Leon nodded. “Yes… And if you are going to say that I also can stay in one of those houses as well I have to disappoint you, living in your house is far better for William than living alone with me. And it's just for one more month, then he and Katie will go to the Academy. I don't want to live alone in one of those houses. Just like those women want to stay with the people they are now with until they can live together in these barracks, or can live with their husbands in a house.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, but please, not a whore every night. When you arrived I jokingly said that I didn't care, but now it's getting a bit out of hand.”
Leon nodded. “But they were cold… I offered them a warm place to stay.”
Smith shrugged. “All right… Cold days are over. Now you can visit them.”
Leon grinned. “And it's a bit awkward when I do it in their hosts' houses… One of them was a mistake. We must be glad we had Boris to retrieve those stolen items.”
Boris, who was also walking next to them grinned. “She was not with the women from Schotenburg, and we already had our suspicions about her. You filled her, and she filled her pockets… Clothes really stink, and that was a very easy trace to follow. I'm glad it's getting warmer again so I don't have to wear those smelly, noisy clothes.”
Smith patted Boris on his shoulder. “I can barely hear you walk. But I bet wearing clothes for you is something like wearing a steel helmet with bells on it for anyone else.”
Boris nodded. “That's a nice description of what I have to endure. Yes. I can't hear a thing when I move, and I can't pinpoint the location of the sound I am listening for if I don't move my head… But they are comfortable, Melany really knows what she is doing. I even got some compliments that I was looking good.”
Arthur nodded. “Indeed. And a lot of the Human women want to feel the fabric of the clothes I wear.”
Smith grinned. “Or your muscles. Really Arthur, Human women are strange, you should know that by now.”

Smith was looking at an almost finished roof with Olaf who explained the different methods of construction roofs when Boris tugged on his sleeve.
Distracted Smith glanced at the Hound. “What?”
“Howling Wolves.” the blind Hound replied, while he kept staring at the forest with his blind eyes, ears twitching.
“Ours?” Smith asked, subconsciously releasing the strap of his sword, Last Resort.
Boris shook his head. “No. Never heard them before. And it are attack howls, not coming from Ferals.”
“Damn it!” Leon shouted. “They followed! Charlene, go back, and warn the soldiers to get here. Fastest runners here, slower soldiers have to form a second line of defense closer to the village, and also warn the villagers, let them get pitchforks and other weapons for a third line! William! Katie! Boris! Stay close to us! You, big guy, grab something you can use as a weapon and stand with us! Arthur, Siegfried! Cover the flanks! For the rest, stay with us and fight, or run, but don't get in the way!”
“No! Let the slower soldiers come here at a walking pace, that way they won't be tired when they enter the fight!” William corrected his father.
Charlene nodded, and started to run.
Smith smiled. “See, you do have some good ideas. You are not totally worthless. If that second line sees action that means we are all dead.”

Olaf who was also with them got a beam and came standing next to Smith. “[What's going on?]”
Smith looked to his right where Olaf was, grimaced and clutched his sword. “[Attack, somehow I don't think that Leon has told me the entire story of him and the Wolves in the West.]”
“Is you father afraid?” Smith heard William ask Katie behind him.
Smith looked over his left shoulder. “I am not afraid… I am terrified.”

Something came crashing through the woods on the other side of the field. It was a Bear. On the run, fleeing for the Wolves behind… her.
“Let her pass between us, that's a harmless Feral.” Smith called out.
Leon standing to the left behind of him grinned. “If you call a Feral Bear harmless, but are terrified of what is following her we really should be worried.”
“You don't have to. I already can hear our soldiers.” Boris to the right, behind Olaf replied. “The first of the soldiers will be here… a few minutes after the Wolves arrive.”
Smith grimaced again. “I called my sword 'Last Resort' because that's exactly what it is, a last resort for a single attacker. I made it for comfort, carrying it around without hindering me too much, not for fighting. But I won't run. I want to give at least one of them a scar to remind him that he attacked me.”

The She-Bear passed between Smith and Olaf, and went straight to a pile of timber. Smith gave her no further attention, because the first of the Wolves were visible, coming out of the woods in full battle gear. Some of them even had armor plates covering their chests.

The first wave of Wolves formed a standard straight Wolven attack formation as soon as they saw the people standing next to the half-finished barracks. Five Wolves with heavy shields running side by side with others running close behind them to fan out as soon as the first line of defense was broken. This wasn't their first attack, and they came out of Inimal territory, Smith feared for the worst for the areas they already have been.
“Standard straight attack, stay together, but keep enough distance to fight. William, as you can see their formation is as wide as our defense, but with five while we have a line of four. Wolves can't make sharp turns, and mostly attack in straight lines. Narrower formation than our defense means that their flanks are vulnerable when our line buckles back and our flanks surround them, and when they go too wide those on their flanks can't turn fast enough, and then our flanks can cut them.” Leon explained.
Despite the grim situation Smith grinned. “Nice day for a lesson in strategies, don't you think general? Now the reality, them attacking us. Five of them so two of them can attack our strongest fighter, presumably Arthur. This time it's not going to be you sitting behind a desk calculating the casualties. If William did not correct you, you would be nothing more than an addition for the number of deaths.”

Normally swords would have met first, but this time Olaf stepped forward, the beam in his large hands, and literally ramming the middle Wolf to a halt, with the one behind him running into him. The others were met by Smith, who inflicted a deep wound in a leg of one of them while he dashed out of the attacker's sword’s way and Siegfried who killed the second one with his better sword on the left flank of the little line, and the two on the right were in one swift display of agility killed by Arthur. The Wolf that Smith had injured was finally disposed of by Leon.
Smith grimaced. His sword was far too light for this kind of fighting. It was sharp like a razor, but it was far from good against the heavy Wolven swords. He did what he could, but he was afraid it was not enough.
In the turmoil a few Wolves slipped through the thin line of defense. Smith turned around, and just saw Katie slip between the legs of a Wolf while slicing his scrotum and stabbing her dagger ‘Chicken’ in the Wolf's back when she got up again. Smith briefly grinned. A fighting stance with your legs apart is not the correct stance when you fight a small child. William on the other hand was looking frightened, clasping his father for protection.
When Smith turned around again he saw a Wolf that intended to attack him make a strange move, caused by Olaf who knocked him aside with the beam.
“[Eyes forward Schmied!]” the big Troll spoke while he rammed yet another Wolf on his head with the beam with an astounding feeling for timing. He swung the beam around like it was a twig, and every time the end of the beam hit a running target.

The sound of the fight changed. Now there were not only more Felines on the battlefield, but also the distinct 'clack' sound of Bergvolk armbrusts could be heard. Smith was in a fierce sword fight with an armored Wolf with the worst sword that Smith had ever seen when a Tiger suddenly leaped from behind and over him and his adversary. The Wolf that Smith was fighting momentarily looked up to see what was flying over him, and that gave Smith the opportunity to put his sword in the Wolf's exposed throat. The Tiger nodded after the landing, and ran back to provide some Orks some cover while they reloaded their armbrusts.
Smith looked around for another opportunity, when he suddenly saw a Wolf fall with no obvious reason. A few moments later he saw another one fall. When he looked better he saw an arrow sticking out of the Wolf's back. Someone was shooting arrows from the forest. Smith sighed, they got help, but the fight was far from over.

Suddenly he heard a roar, and the She-Bear passed him, ramming a Wolf that Smith had overlooked, but was very close to him, off his feet with another large wooden beam.
“Olaf! Assist her!” Smith called out to his big friend in Inimal while he ran away to help Katie and Boris with their desperate fight. The two Dogs and three Wolves that tried to defend them and some of the women were already dead, and the four Wolves that were threatening the child and blind Hound were very close to them.
Olaf nodded, and headed towards the fighting Bear, knocking Wolves away left and right.

Smith swung his sword at the neck of one of the Wolves, but it got stuck. Angrily he pulled the sword out again, he wanted to decapitate, but that didn't matter, the Wolf was dead anyway. Smith took a few steps backwards, he got the attention of the other three, giving Katie the opportunity to kill another one.
Smith grinned. Somehow the Wolves did not recognize the child as a threat, but as something you can turn your back at.
Suddenly the two remaining Wolves got a very frightened look, and Katie dove of the way of something, also pushing Boris to the ground. A split second later Smith was passed left and right by Olaf and the She-Bear, who rammed the two Wolves with their heavy beams. The She-Bear roared again, causing another Wolf who thought it was still a smart move to threaten her to stagger backwards and trip over a corpse. The Bear slowly turned towards him, and planted the beam on the Wolf's head. When she lifted the beam again there was a deep depression with fragments of bone and teeth in the soft soil where the head had been. With a lot of red and gray matter around it.
Smith sighed. Was he really that stupid to get the attention of two heavily armed Wolves with nothing more than a lightweight child sword? It didn't matter, he was saved at the last second. Next time better find some distracted single Wolves, those are far easier to kill.

Slowly the fight subsided, Wolves started to flee, but were met with arrows fired from the woods, with an incredible accuracy. Only a few arrows missed their target, one of them landed next to Smith's feet.
He pulled the arrow out of the ground to examine the arrowhead, to determine its origin. It was a Red Brigade arrowhead.

The fight was finally over, the last Wolf dropped dead, three arrows in his chest and one in his face. Fallen close to the forest, far away from the battlefield.
Smith walked towards Arthur to show the arrow he had pulled out of the ground.
Arthur was still standing in a fighting stance although there were no living Wolves near him, and was not looking like he was very responsive.
“Arthur!” Smith called from what he considered a safe distance at his friend.
Slowly Arthur turned around. A lot of blood in his fur, and a strange look in his eyes, like he was Feral again.
“Arthur! Do you know where you are?” Smith asked again.
Arthur looked around, and slowly nodded. “I was Feral again, wasn't I?”
Smith nodded. “Something like that. I haven't seen much of you fighting, but here are the most dead Wolves. And we have had some help.”
Arthur nodded. “I have lost count. What are the casualties on our side?”
Smith surveyed the battlefield. “Can't tell at this moment. We had also Wolves with us. Siegfried is still standing, I see Katie and an injured Boris… but… I… I think that Leon is dead.”

“This is not good.” Smith finally managed to say after staring at Leon's dead body for some time. Despite being motionless he still looked majestic in his blood-soaked coat.

“Help me!”

A muffled cry sounded. It was William.

“You… You are alive!” William finally managed to say after he was freed from underneath his father's dead body. William started to cry. “But my father… he… he is dead!”
Smith hugged the little Tiger. “I am very hard to kill, but having some strong friends who know how to fight and don't hinder me when I am fighting also helps. I am going to finish what your father has started, I am going to take care of you now.”
“I… I don't have to go to the Academy?” William asked, sounding a bit relieved.
Smith shook his head. “You have to. You will learn everything about weapons, and when you return you… I will teach you how to make them. And I want you to help Katie, she has an invitation, and I don't want her to go alone. She can help you with the physical things, you have to help her with the studying. You don't have to be the best, I just want you to pass.”
William nodded. “I understand… Who are those Foxes?”
Smith stood up again and turned around. “Good question. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“We are what is left of the Red Brigade. I’m Vince, acting leader.” One of the Foxes replied.
Smith nodded. “What’s left of the Red Brigade… You were with seventy-two, and now I see only seven of you. What happened?”
Vince sighed. “We are defending the Vulpine against these Wolves. Thank you for helping us.”
Smith nodded, and then shook his head. “No, thank you for helping us. I don’t know how many of us are still alive, but I think we have lost our entire force, and a good number of our builders.”
“If I do a quick count of the bodies I think we have only eight fighters left, and we have lost everyone else who was here. I don’t know how many people fled, but sticks and stones might break some bones, but those are no match against swords and shields.” Arthur replied while he was standing over the body of Wilfred, the Wolf builder, and the women he was taking care of.
Smith nodded. “This is the Neutral Zone. We had some sort of an army here consisting of almost fifty people, both Human and Inimal. With Arthur, that Black Wolf Siegfried and that blind Hound Boris there are now eleven left of them. Not much, but before the winter I have eliminated a big threat, winter itself has taken its toll we guess, and now us together have eliminated another threat. But at a terrible cost. Lucky for us we had William, if we did what his adoptive father ordered we would all have been dead, then the Wolves would have regrouped and marched over the second line, an onto the village, instead of some fresh soldiers on our side in this fight.”
Vince nodded. “Old doctrine, multiple lines. Thought out by someone sitting at a desk. William, I am proud of you. You bring in some new ideas.”
William smiled. “Thank you sir.”

“And what about the Bear?” Siegfried asked.
Smith looked at the She-Bear, standing in their midst staring at the others. “I don't know. Olaf, you go and talk to her. You are the only one who can look her straight in the eyes.”
Olaf stared in disbelief at Smith. “But Schmied… she is a Feral.”
Smith smiled. “And so were Melany, Beatrice and Arthur. Just try.”
Olaf shrugged. “But what am I supposed to say?”
Smith also shrugged. “I have no idea. Just try something. Tell her who you are and what we are doing here. Tell her about that other Bear that visited us one day to buy metal, and jumped into to river to catch some fish and that Uwe charged him for extra towels. Just some small talk, be friendly, show that you are not a threat.”
“That… that was my husband, he has told me the same story… If this is really the Neutral Zone I don't want to stay at the inn… If I had any money… they are expensive.” The She-Bear suddenly replied.
Smith smiled. “See, that was easy… Really?”
The She-Bear nodded. “Yes. Are you really Smith and Olaf? My husband was Bernhard, he has told me so much about you years ago. He liked you so much that he wanted to visit you again after the bridge was finished. I'm Belle by the way.”
Smith nodded and dropped to his knees. “All right… Katie, William… come sit on my shoulders, you have to do the greeting for me. Katie, this is your chance to meet a Bear and look her in the eyes.”
Belle smiled. “That's just what Bernhard told me. You stood on a chair while you talked to him, you were the only one who has ever done that, normally he had to crouch to talk to people.”

Smith went standing before Belle. “I'm Katie.” “And I am William. Pleased to meet you.” he heard from above him while he stared at an impressive chest. “And you know me as Smith. Unfortunately I am not able to give you a hand, or Katie has to stand on my shoulder, that way I can move my arm to shake your hand without her sliding off. Standing on that stump over there of course, you don't have to drop to your knees for me.”
Belle laughed and shook her head. “No, you don't have to. I hate formalities. And you ordered the two little Tigers on your shoulders to do the greeting for you.”
Smith nodded. “Fine. Direct to business. I like that. Now let's go back to the village, we have… only one wounded and… oh… I see that Minou is already here taking care of Boris… And Rolph is already here, and some others… And Charlene… what are you doing here? I told you to get to safety.”
Charlene nodded. “I know. But nobody can outrun me, as soon as I warned the soldiers I came back to see how the battle went, and if it went wrong I could have warned the village.”
Smith sighed. “We won. From the soldiers I only see Felix, two Tigers, a Leopard, Walther, and one other Wolf alive. And only two Humans. I know there were some of the Bergvolk, but I don't see them anymore.”
Arthur nodded. “I don't see the bodies of our cook and three others for support, I suspect they are still in the village. From a little army of thirty-nine that were left after winter to fifteen, and a third of them not fighters.”
“Wilfred Wolf is dead, the carpenter Cat brothers are dead, eleven Human builders are dead, three Dogs, seven Wolves, two more Cats… For me it's also a huge loss, although none of the Bergvolk are dead, but that's mostly because we are cowards, we don't like blood outside of our bodies. They fled when they were out of bolts.” Olaf added.
Smith nodded. “All right… Huge loss for the entire Neutral Zone, but now we have more guests. Belle needs a place to stay, and I want to thank those Foxes by offering them a few nights and meals at the inn. I'm sure they want to move on after that.”
Vince nodded. “Bergvolk are far from cowards. They just like to keep the distance with their ranged weapons, just like us… And about your offer, that's very nice of you. But we will stay only for two nights, and then be on our way again. We want to defend, and bathing in luxury while others live in fear is not what we want.”
Smith shrugged. “I want to bathe in luxury, without the need to defend ourselves. Three months ago we had a huge attack, and now this attack. Normally we have criminals robbing people in the forest, but winter has taken care of those, you can't hide from the cold in a tent or simple shack. I had Leon for organizing the defense, figure out what the threats are and do something about it, but now it seems that I only have William left as the one with the most tactical insight.”
“But I am a child!” William protested.
Smith nodded. “I know. But I am a smith who knows everything about metal, Arthur is a soldier who knows everything about fighting, Siegfried is someone who knows a lot about ambush, Boris can find anything that has been touched by someone, Olaf knows everything about construction, and Charlene is a messenger. If you know anyone else who has learned more about strategies than you have please tell me. We have only one month left before you also leave us, but I want you to be useful. And having some experience is always nice. Katie knows how to kill, you know how to lead, you can teach Katie with some theoretical lessons, she can teach you how to run over the assault course we built without ending with your face in the mud.”

“It would be an honor to serve under you.” Vince said to William while they were walking away from the carnage. Rolph had to solve that, Smith did not want to be reminded of what happened. He was a smith, a dealer of swords and shovels, not a dealer of death itself.
Smith nodded. “William will attend to the Academy in a little bit over a month. We are preparing him and Katie a little. You are experienced fighters, are you willing to take them and Arthur with you for a while? Then you can tell them about the various battles you have fought, and what kind of mistakes those who are dead made.”
Vince nodded. “Yes… And now with those Wolves dead we have some time to do that. I don’t think those Wolves dare to attack again very soon, their best fighters are dead now.”
“Smith, they are Vulpine. How do you expect Katie and William to learn from them? Katie knows how to use a sling, but ranged weapons are not our weapon of choice.” Arthur remarked.
Smith nodded. “You didn't listen. Born leaders learn from mistakes, you can't teach them the right ways in a month, but telling them about the wrong ways to fight might also be informative. You already heard it, Leon ordered two lines of fighters, but William corrected him because… somewhere in his mind he knew that if the second line saw action we were unable to stop the Wolves.”
William smiled and shook his head. “No, it was just a hunch. I am really not that clever, my father said that I am stupid.”
Katie hugged William. “You are not stupid, you are a child, just like I am. We are supposed to do stupid things, that way we learn what is stupid.”
Smith laughed. “You really learn from what I have told you. I bet you will be a wonderful mother when you have children of your own, I wonder how often they end up with their face in the mud when they want to do something stupid and you just say 'go ahead, try it'… On a different subject, Belle, didn't you and Bernhard have a son?”
Belle nodded. “Yes, I have a son. He is also attending the Academy. The only Bear there. He must be in his third year after the spring equinox.”
Smith nodded. “Do you want to come with us, to tell your son that you are alive?”
Belle shook her head. “No, I don't want my son to know that I am still alive. Let him believe that I am killed, and let that fuel his hatred for Wolves.”
Smith nodded. “If you insist… But I really want to meet him, and you can't stop me doing that… And why do you hate Wolves so much? You are from the same region.”
Belle nodded. “Coming from the same region is exactly the problem, they want the other species out. We were building a bridge, my husband got the metal for the scaffolding, suddenly they wanted to build it an other way, bridge collapsed and they blamed us. They killed my husband, and I went Feral. I don't remember how I ended up here, it's a long way from home.”
Smith nodded. “You are not the first Feral that ends up here, first we had Melany who went north, driven by a feeling of safety from the Neutral Zone, then we had Beatrice, went looking for Siegfried, also went north after she went Feral, and Arthur the same, but he first went west to get out of Human territory, then north. You are the first who went east, but maybe because you knew about me.”
Belle shrugged. “I Don't remember, I don't care. I am here, and I have the feeling I can do something here. I can help with building if Olaf wants that. I have nothing else left.”
Olaf nodded. “Of course… and I… erm… also have a place to stay for you, I have two large beds, and other large furniture. Normally it would be for friends, but for you I can make an exception.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, that's a good idea. Normally I take those I help in, I have a large bed in one of my six bedrooms, but I don't have other tall furniture. You take care of her for as long as needed, building new things might get a little bit slower with more than thirty-two builders dead in a few months, so her house has to wait if she wants to stay, maybe until autumn if more bad things happen.”
Belle nodded. “I understand. First come, first served.”

“You have Vulpine in the north, am I right?” Vince asked while the little group entered the inn.
Smith nodded. “Yes, a village here in the Neutral Zone, and a village just across the border.”
Vince smiled. “Do you mind we set up a camp there? In the village across the border?”
Smith shrugged. “I don't care, as long as you are not a threat you can do as you want. We only receive threads in the form of yarn from them.”
Vince grinned. “Threads instead of threats… I like you and your sense of humor.”
Smith nodded. “That's good to hear… [Uwe! Some food for our guests! Eight… no, nine Vulpine, a Bear, two… no three… four… six Tigers including the young ones… who invited the wives of the soldiers?… Leopard… a few of our Wolves… You know, just give everybody here and those from the village who enter this inn while we are here something to eat. It's going to be expensive for me, but I don't care, I just want to make the people who helped us feel at home.]… Don't mind me Vince, I speak all the languages here.”
Vince smiled. “You are just as impressive as I imagined you.”
Smith laughed. “All thanks to the Wolves. If they wanted metal they paid triple the price, and that made me very rich. Those we killed today were not the first Wolves I have killed in my life… Sit down, and talk. I really want to know what is going on. Leon shouted that they followed him as some sort of revenge I guess, they were hunting Belle, and you told me that you wanted to defend the Vulpine against those Wolves… That's three different stories, I want to know the truth.”

“They all are.” A waiter said while he put the first plates on the table, without even asking what the guests wanted. “The Wolves want independence, and expand their territory. They just kill everybody who stands in their way.”
Belle nodded. “Yes, the bridge we were building was for a trade route with the Bergvolk, but now that's on hold. How do you feel about that?”
The waiter shrugged. “I don't care. There are more ways to trade. Your current king closed our trade route with the Wolves, and apparently they are angry about it and want to open a new one themselves. But the good news is, we won't help them, we want to trade with as much species as possible. The Vulpine are masters of making transportable goods, we want to protect them as well. Those goods are more sought after than stones.”
Vince nodded. “Good to hear. Apparently we have more friends than we thought. Now let us enjoy the chicken stew… it's… it's just the way my mother used to make it. How did you know how to make this?”
The waiter smiled, but said nothing, and left again.

“And two large fishes, freshly caught as soon as we heard there was a Bear in Smithsville. You heard the story of the previous time we had a Bear?” The waiter asked Belle when she got her plate.
Belle nodded. “Yes… That was my husband. I'm glad I don't have to pay for it.”
The waiter smiled. “For you it's on the house… Let's say that… what was his name?… Bernhard payed for them.”
Belle laughed. “You remember my husband! That's incredible!”
The waiter made a slight bow. “We never forget a customer. If you excuse me, there are more guests. Enjoy your meal, at least you didn't have to catch it yourself. After that you can take a bath, with free towels… you know what, everybody who has fought for us today can have a free bath. You look like savages with all that blood on the wrong side of your skins.”

“I thought this village would be a lot smaller.” Belle remarked while she was devouring her fish.
Smith smiled. “A year ago it was, but me meeting Katie and Charlene, and allowing an entire Canine Inimal village to move to the Neutral Zone we now have a steady supply of stones and stonemasons from the quarry, and I met two great builders in Schotenburg, a Tiger and a Wolf who used to work together, later two carpenter Cat brothers arrived from that Inimal village who first thought it would be better somewhere else, another Tiger from Schotenburg who was a basket weaver but also had a talent for thatching roofs… We could build houses and other buildings in weeks instead of months… But unfortunately those are all dead now. I don't know how many people who know what they are doing are left now, but the rate of growth we had in the past year is gone.”
Olaf nodded. “We have lost almost everybody. Thinking that it would be nice weather for a stroll, and now they are dead… But on the other hand, if we didn’t stop them they would have destroyed everything, and killed us all.”

“You are a beautiful woman.” One of the other Foxes said to Violet.
“You know, I have been thinking.” Smith interrupted. “You will hear the entire story of what we are doing here soon enough, but there are some people in the prison of Schotenburg I want to get out, and now that we have a… shortage of people, those might add to the building and fighting forces… this calls for a small change of our current plans, I intended to get them after I brought Katie and William to the Academy, but now I will get them before that, and after I return with those people but before we leave again to bring Katie and William to the Academy I will make you as much arrowheads as I can. For free. I don't know how many I can make in that time between coming back from Schotenburg and leaving for the Academy, but every arrowhead is one potential dead Wolf. Or more if you reuse them.”
Vince nodded. “Shut up Victor, she is taken… Yes, that’s reasonable. We still have most of our arrows, but you giving us more of those heads is good as a payment. We aren’t allowed to ask money for our help, but if you give us those killing ends of arrows we can give them to others to use against those Wolves.” Vince replied from the other end of the table.
Arthur also nodded. “Yes… Might not be the best fighters and builders you get from there, but everybody counts. Go ahead. I knew it was the intention to get them after you return from the Academy, but we can house them in the empty houses we have now. Although it's sad that a lot of the women are dead now.”
Smith nodded. “I will write the letters for the Inimal king and Mary about what happened here, and then leave immediately, no time to wait.”

“Why don’t we search for their camp? So many soldiers need a place to sleep and to eat.” William remarked when they were almost done with eating the rather elaborate meal.
Smith nodded. “Good idea. I’ll get my armbrust and a better sword, and then we are going to hunt the rest of those Wolves. Gather everybody who can fight, the baths can wait, just as the letters.”
Arthur shook his head. “No Smith, you stay here and do what you have to do. I promised to make it safe for you and Mary, and that’s what I’m going to do. You are the provider of our weapons, you don’t have to use your own.”
Smith grinned. “Tie me to a chair if you want me to stay here. I’m coming with you. I will stay in the background, but you can’t stop me from using my armbrust. I want to be useful, you know I can defend myself, and besides, we need every fighter we have, and I have experience with fighting Wolves.”
William nodded. “I don't think there will be more than ten Wolves at their campsite, we have seven more archers, with you and Felix that will be nine ranged weapons. If all the people with a ranged weapon pick one target each there won't be much of a fight, because we have the element of surprise.”
Victor grinned. “It's a pity Leon is dead, because I would have kicked him in the nuts if he ever called you stupid again. Another great idea whiskers! You stay here.”
William nodded. “Yes… I am not a great fighter. I'm going to take a bath at Smith's house, with Katie.”

The wound on Boris' arm was not very serious, some bandages around it, and he was also capable of coming along with the fighters.
He was not needed after all, the Foxes knew where they had to look and the Wolves had built a huge fire in the forest, although it was still daytime. Many of the Wolves were rather preoccupied with menial tasks like sharpening stakes, like they wanted to build a fence with them. They were bored, and not paying attention to their surroundings. The soldiers and Smith decided that the archers would take positions, and that Smith would distract the Wolves.

Smith felt no fear when he entered the clearing, despite the fact that there were far more Wolves than anticipated. His new friends assured him that they knew what they were doing, and if they failed and Smith also failed they would all die, and that was not their intention for today.

“Hey! You know what's really sharp?” Smith shouted while he lifted his armbrust, and shot the Wolf nearest to him. If the others behind him didn't do what they had to do he would be in trouble.
The other Wolves grabbed their weapons, but before they knew where the enemy was they were killed by a hail of arrows. Smith grinned. “Red Brigade arrows. Really, you should buy them.”

Vince slapped Smith on the shoulder. “That was incredible… Heh… 'Red Brigade arrows, you should buy them'… oh, right, you are the one who sells them. They are priceless, and those Wolves paid with their lives.”
Smith nodded and slightly grinned. “I know… My hearing is a bit impaired, but hearing those arrows whiz past me gives me the chills. I really never want to do that again, I'm sorry. Some even made a whistling sound, those might need some sharpening again. And that's not for free.”
Boris nodded. “An incredible sound. Just as the twang sounds all around me. Your armbrust just sounds awful compared to that.”
Siegfried nodded. “I'm glad I'm on this side of the fight. More than twenty dead in a matter of seconds. Now let's see what they have collected, their camp is larger than I expected. It looks like they wanted to stay here for a while.”
Smith sighed. “It doesn't feel right, taking what doesn't belong here, but just take everything of value and metal. Iron can go to the foundry… I'm going home, I have some letters to write. One for the Inimal king about what happened here today and that his brother is dead, and one for Mary that it's not safe here yet until we figured out what is going on. And that I won't be home next month.”
Siegfried nodded. “Beatrice is proud of you. Go and do what you must do, we can take care of this. I already see Rolph and that Human of treasury approaching, like he can smell money with that nose of his.”
Smith grinned. “My guess is that he couldn't agree with his god about the entrance fee of heaven. It's a good thing I know how to negotiate, otherwise he wouldn't spend a copper on the village.”
Siegfried nodded. “It's a miracle he didn't freeze to death. But he got his wife pregnant again, maybe that also has something to do with it… Please go before you start another heated argument with him.”
Smith continued to grin. “But at least I got him to pay for the smashed furniture.”
Siegfried also grinned. “He was the last thing that you could break. Go.”

Smith finished writing the letters the following day. He was still a bit uncertain about them, and showed them to Beatrice and Sylvia before sealing them, but they were flawless.
“All right Charlene, I have two letters here. One for the Inimal king, and one for Mary. I have the feeling you want to deliver the letter for Mary, but officially I don't know it. I'm sure you know a messenger you trust, let him deliver deliver the other letter.” Smith said while he handed Charlene the letters.
Charlene smiled. “The other messenger is a she, one of the Dogs from Schotenburg who wasn't with us yesterday… And I don't think she knows where Mary is. Mary is in hiding I think, but she told me where she can be found, and she made me promise I won't tell anyone.”
Smith nodded. “Good… first thing I am going to do… tomorrow is getting those Inimals from the prison, might be some fighters and builders there, and after that I go back to my normal life for a week or so, at the forge… not quite normal, I will work for free, forging as much arrowheads for the Foxes who helped us defending our village as I can before I go and take Katie and William with me to the Academy.”
Charlene nodded. “Yes, but please, make some money after that. We can't eat safety. Or do you want me to run more messages for others?”
Smith shrugged. “I asked you to be home for Katie while I am away. With Katie at the Academy you don't have to stay and be bored at home. You made some good money running with Chester, maybe you can do that again.”
Charlene shrugged. “Fine… Before winter you wanted to convince Mary to come over here, and now you don't… What do you want?”
Smith sighed. “I want it to be safe for her… Safety for us all. With safety trade will come again, and with trade comes money. I want my old life back.”
Charlene hugged Smith. “You gave away a lot of money, but you still are richer than most people here. We can buy more food than we can eat. Dark times are over, and when you return we have one mouth less to feed. Don't worry. What you call poverty is still wealth to me.”
Smith sighed. “We are rich, but that attracts a lot of unwanted people… again. We have to defend ourselves, but we have lost almost all our soldiers, and those who are left are scared.”
Charlene put her head on Smith's shoulder. “Just do what you think is right… It usually is.”

“Are you worried?” Katie asked. Smith was still sitting at the table.
Smith nodded. “Yes. I am worried about the future… Katie, William… sit down and listen. Charlene, please go somewhere else, I need to talk in real private.”
Charlene nodded, and left.
Smith sighed. “All right… William, do you understand what is going on?”
William shook his head. “No sir, I am just a child.”
Smith briefly smiled. “William, I never believed there would be Tiger generals, but you can be the first if you want to. I know you want to become a smith, the choice is yours. But this is a matter of strategy, and I want to talk to you about it. Do you know who Mary is?”
William nodded. “Yes, she is the Human you love.”
Smith smiled. “That's one of the things she is. Things are going wrong in both kingdoms, you know what happened before winter, you know what happened yesterday… I am trying to put Mary in a position close to the Human king, she is taking care of the Inimals there, and I try to let her become a minister or something with access to information about the Human kingdom. That function itself won't be important, but she will be my eyes and ears there. But that leaves me blind on the Inimal side, I have no source of information there, only messengers who occasionally bring me a message. Almost blind on the Inimal side of the border… And now the lesson for today, a lesson I never want you to recite aloud. You know what the Elfique are?”
William nodded. “They are old and stupid.”
Smith shook his head. “They are not stupid, they do not want both the Humans and Inimals to become too powerful. Katie, you know what the difference between the Elfique de la Forêt and the Elfique de la Vallée is?”
Katie nodded. “Yes, those from the forest are there for the Inimals, and those from the valley are there for the Humans.”
Smith nodded. “Correct… I am in a very special position, I am neutral, I look like a Human, but I talk like an Inimal… I bring the species together, and that is something they don't want. I interfere with their plans. I got the kings to fire their Elfique advisers, that would bring peace between the Humans and Inimals, but 'suddenly' there are uprisings in both kingdoms. I want Mary in the Human kingdom, and I want you both in the Inimal kingdom to be my eyes and ears. Do you want to do this?”
Tears welled up in William's eyes. “No, I want to become a smith! Like you!”
Smith sighed. “Do you think I wanted to sit here at this table, talking with you, a child, about the world around us? I never wanted to be a king, but people see me as a king. I want to be the person working at a forge and anvil, hammer in my hand, working in peace, I don't want to be the person who is responsible for that peace. But here I am. I have been treated as an equal by kings, I have seen things beyond belief, I know what loss and who pain is, I am a king, and I want you to become my servants.”
Katie giggled. “You sound funny.”
Smith had some trouble controlling his laughter. “I'm sorry, I tried to sound a bit like a king, but I failed. What I am trying to say is that you must stay friendly with the Wolves. End of lesson.”
William looked at Smith, eyes a bit squinted, looking much older than he really was. “Are you saying that…”
“I said 'end of lesson', no more talking. Never talk about what you are thinking right now. Not even to Katie.” Smith interrupted, a bit agitated, while he stood up to get his equipment for another journey, to a prison to get people for 'his' Neutral Zone, instead of being in the smithy. Going to a place he hates. For many of those Inimals there he would have a sad message, but he wanted them out of there nonetheless, their names were on a list. He needed them. The Neutral Zone needed them. Loyal fighters and builders. Loyal to the man who got them out of their misery. Their 'King'.

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Chapter 30 - Diplomatic Solutions

#34 Post by Neutral Smith » Wed Feb 24, 2016 8:37 pm

Chapter 30
Diplomatic Solutions


There were a few carts close to the smithy, ready to leave. Katie and William were already away with Arthur and the remains of the Red Brigade to go to the other Vulpine in the north to see what they needed for a better defense and some lessons, and Charlene was already on her way to deliver the letter for Mary, with Smith's lighter Vulpine tent because she didn't want to sleep in the open air because it wasn't the best weather to travel, it was rather cold again. Smith was left with his heavier Feline tent, the tent he had bought at Dory's almost a year ago. The same tent that Melany had damaged and repaired again. It felt heavy, compared to the Vulpine tent he usually used. And this time he had his armbrust with him, to hunt larger prey. He had everything he needed.

“<Finally you show up, you're late.>” The coachman on the first cart called at Smith.
Smith looked at him, and the two other carts. In the first were also Rolph and the Human man from treasury.
“<What do you mean, I'm late? I'm going to Schotenburg. Where are you going?>” Smith replied, not intending to stop for a talk, but stopped out of politeness nonetheless.
“<We are coming with you. Did you really intend to let those people walk?>” Rolph replied, sounding a bit annoyed.
Smith nodded. “<”Yes… You don't think that's a good idea? Don't you know how expensive hiring these three carts is?>”
The man from treasury nodded. “<They are, but the lives of those men we bring back from Schotenburg are priceless. Rolph told me about his time there… Let's just say you don't get a lot of exercise there, if you have been sitting for more than a year it's hard to walk a long distance. And we have tents, sleeping mats and blankets with us, it's still winter, and they are not soldiers who are used to sleep in the open. And food.>”
Smith nodded. “<Agreed. Now let's go, I don't want to argue with you.>” and climbed on the cart, and put his backpack and armbrust at his feet. “<You know, I prefer to walk, but I'm afraid that I scare the horses too much. Hand me a blanket, I hate sitting still and getting cold.>”
The man handed Smith a blanket with his left hand, while he also extended his right. “<Jacob, treasury. You were so mad at me you didn't even ask my name.>”
“<Smith, although that is not the name my parents have given me.>” Smith replied while he shook Jacob's hand. It felt almost like he shook the hand of a skeleton, cold and dry. Definitely not used to work hard.

“<So, how do you like the Neutral Zone?>” Smith said after a long silence. He was cold, but finally he had managed to get a comfortable position to sit in for a long time without getting too cold. He wanted to walk in front of the cart, but that would scare the horses too much. The horses were already a bit uneasy.
“<Efficient. You managed to do a lot with a small amount of money, and now that we have more money it could go a lot faster. What those Wolves had was insane.>” Jacob replied, his face barely visible.
Smith nodded. “<If we had enough people. Giving more money does not make the people we have left better builders or more loyal fighters. That's why we are going to Schotenburg right now.>”
Rolph nodded. “<Loyalty. You get them out of prison, and they work for you. Humans are a lot less loyal than Inimals.>”
Smith sighed. “<Yes… I prefer working with Inimals over Humans. But unfortunately I am a smith, and Humans are the best with metal.>”
Jacob also nodded, barely visible under the blanket. “<That makes you an excellent leader. You know what you can do and what you can't do, and you ask the best people to do the things you can't.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Yes, that's true. Why do you come along with me… us? There is no need for someone of treasury, a fighter for protection might have been better.>”
Jacob removed the blanket from his head to free his movement. “<I am asked by the king to teach you diplomacy. Asked in a formal letter.>”
Smith snickered. “<Asked by the king… Diplomacy… Why would I need that?>”
Jacob sighed. “<You are very blunt. If you want something you take it. You need more subtlety.>”
Smith snickered again. “<Where has that subtle diplomacy brought you?>”
“<Sitting here, asked by the king.>” Jacob replied, putting the blanket around his neck like a cape.
Smith nodded. “<Right. You shut op and let me do the talking, on our way back I might allow you to tell me what I have done wrong, and how you would have handled it. I negotiate to get what I want, nothing else.>”
Rolph snickered. “<He is not very easy Jacob, better do as he says. The warden of the prison was really afraid of him, you held your ground for a whole lot longer.>”
Smith grinned. “<But finally you also yielded. Loser.>”
Jacob sighed again. “<That's exactly what you have to unlearn, you have to apologize sometimes. You can't always take what you want. Give and take.>”
Smith grinned. “<I just don't take it well when people refuse to give me what I want.>”
Jacob sighed once more. “<All people are equal. You can't give some people help, while you refuse to help others.>”
Now it was Smith's turn to sigh. “<It's not 'all or nothing' here. I ordered to help those who help others… We are now in one cart of three, sometimes these coachmen also have orders from me, they all do the same work, they can transport the same amounts in the same time, and still I don't treat them equal. One of the coachmen has a family with four children, one lives alone, and the third one has a drinking problem. You tell me who needs the most money.>”
Jacob nodded. “<I understand. The one with the family. They need to eat.>”
Smith smiled. “<And I give the lonely one the more interesting rides… Sometimes he comes back with the most interesting stories.>”
The cart driver turned around. “<Did you know that… >”
“<No, I don't want to hear that.>” Smith interrupted him. “<Keep your eyes on the path, we might encounter some fallen trees. Removing those will give me something to do. It's a pity I have forgotten my sharpening stones, because I see that your ax is a bit dull… Blunt… Your ax is just plain blunt.>”
Rolph grinned. “<That will indeed give you something to do when you have to use that.>”
Smith smiled. “<Sometimes it's not about money… I have sharpened the ax of the drunkard for free. I know it's an accident waiting to happen, but that's not going to be my problem. I'm glad he and his ax are with us.>”

“<Hey! We lost someone!>” The coachman from the cart behind them suddenly shouted. Smith felt like he woke up again.
The coachman of the cart Smith and the others were on stopped the cart and turned around on his seat. “<Who?>”
Smith could guess that the second coachman was grinning. “<You may guess once!>”
Jacob grinned. “<Your chance to walk. Go get him back. You can handle horses, right?>”
Smith also grinned. “<I know how to handle horses, and they are very tasty… Haven't you noticed how the horses of this cart tried to bolt when I climbed on?>”
Jacob's grin dropped, and he nodded. “<Yes… What should we do?>”
“<Go on, there are fresh tracks on the path, someone is ahead of us. His cart was besides the good ax empty.>” The coachman replied, staring at the path ahead of them. “<We don't know when we lost him, might already have been near the pub. I don't think he even reached the forest. Better not pay him in advance next time you need him.>”
Smith shrugged. “<All right… Some have to walk on the way back. Still got what I wanted. Sitting still is cold, I can't even feel my feet.>”
The cart started to move again, and Jacob smiled. “<And how are you going to tell them that in a diplomatic way?>”
Smith grinned. “<The truth. Just saying that you hired a wrong coachman, who was known for his drinking habits, but was cheap… Really Jacob, you can't catch me with words, I already have learned from the best.>”
Jacob nodded. “<Hmm… Indeed. I might not be able to learn you something after all.>”
Smith smiled. “<Just try. You give up before you even started.>”
Jacob nodded. “<I gave up in the Human kingdom, but I started again in a new kingdom, with more success.>”
Smith nodded. “<We all start something new every once in a while. My first start was being the youngest child in a family of lumberjacks, I don't remember much of it, but my second start was when I started to work in the smithy in my old village instead of in the forest, everything went well, until that life ended and I went wandering, ending up with the Elfique and Bergvolk, third start, and still the most interesting. Fourth start? Starting my current smithy with friends from the previous life. Current? Meeting Charlene and Katie, realizing that I was lonely and only had money. Now I'm really trying to help people.>”
Rolph nodded. “<Same for me. Normal life in Schotenburg, family killed, went on rampage and got caught, met Smith, he gave me a book, I calmed down and now I am the mayor of Smithsville. If you are stuck at one path walk back, and try another. You might not reach the destination you intended to go to first, but your new destination might be a lot better. Metaphorical of course. Walk of life.>”
Smith nodded. “<I always wanted to be a smith, but now I want to be more. I never thought I would leave the smithy to sell items, but next month I will. I am a friend of the Inimals, I had a good talk with their king, and his soldiers know how good the weapons are I create, and I will try to get some orders from them. I wish I could take Jacob with me, to show him how I do diplomacy with the Inimals, but unfortunately I currently am the only Human who is allowed in their kingdom. The Vulpine in the north have forbidden me to go there without a Human female as a companion, so that would make Mary the second Human who is allowed there.>”
Jacob also nodded. “<I am here to teach you Human diplomacy, I know your relations with Inimals, but with Humans you are inexperienced.>”
Smith grinned. “<In a few days we will be in Schotenburg, you stay in the background, and tell me what I have done wrong afterward. And how you would have handled it without getting yourself killed. It's not the nice place it used to be, there is some sort of a separatist movement there, but I don't know the details… yet. That's also something I want to figure out, my way. And I am not inexperienced, I am a good salesman.>”
Jacob nodded. “<We'll see.>”

They reached Schotenburg on the third day. The route was open, no obstructions, but also very little edible wildlife, Smith only managed to shoot a roe deer from an impressive distance with his armbrust, that was enough real food until Schotenburg.
“<Looks like the gates are closed.>” The coachman remarked when they approached it.
Smith nodded. “<Let me handle this.>” and jumped off the cart.

“<Open the gates!>” He called at the guard.
The guard behind a small hatch shook his head. “<No. It's too dangerous to open them. You have a Wolf.>”
Smith nodded. “<All right then. Let's point out the flaws in your defense. First, you are standing behind the gates, looking through a little hatch. You can’t see what’s happening left and right of you, and you don’t have guards patrolling the wall itself. Last time I was here you were standing with some others some distance away from the gates, but that was also a little exposed. Second, the hinges. It are beautiful gates, when they are open they really look welcoming, but there is a huge flaw. The hinges are on the outside, exposed to the weather. The previous ones were chunks of rust because of that. That hasn't changed. Third, the door bar. You have three sets of beautiful and strong hooks to put large beams in to make the gates as one piece when they are closed, but I haven't seen those beams the previous time I was here, only a small block that can be placed by one person on the middle hooks. There is a huge crack between the gates, I can see the shadow of that block. I can make a special hook, stick it through it, lift the lighter block out of the hooks, and open the gates from the outside, that shouldn't be too hard in the middle of the night. Fourth, beautiful vines. Even a Wolf could climb them. Fifth, rabbits. I see a burrow underneath the wall, if you just dig a hole you can take out blocks of it because I don’t expect strong mortar below the ground, or dig a tunnel. I don’t know how deep the foundations really go, but you can easily dig because nobody will see you. Unfortunately for you a moat is impossible here, it’s a bit hilly.>”
“<You are that smith from the Neutral Zone, aren't you?>” The guard asked, still from the open hatch in the closed gate. He went from arrogant to a bit scared.
Smith nodded. “<Yes, now open those gates. We want to get in.>”
The guard nodded, and finally did as requested.

Jacob grinned when they passed the single guard, but waited to speak until they were out of hearing range. “<Handled well my apprentice, in a way I never thought of. I considered bribing him.>”
Smith nodded. “<And thank you for your help by saying nothing. This city has a lot of problems, and very little money, but I think there will be a lot of trouble when people find out you bribed him… The only thing they really can do something about are the vines, although I am afraid they hold the wall together. Robert had planted some with flowers next to the door of my smithy, but Olaf pulled them out, and explained why… I didn’t mention that window in the wall though, there were some lush curtains behind it, so I guess there lives someone wealthy who thinks that it was smart to make a hole in the wall to see the countryside. Smash the window, use a catapult to throw in a firebomb, and the city has a problem because I suspect the person who lives there also has some strong doors which are locked all the time. But the main problem of Schotenburg are the number of soldiers. You need two strong ones if you want beams to lock and unlock the gates, eight to patrol the walls on all sides, and a number of messengers to warn others, and those soldiers can’t keep an eye on the streets of Schotenburg, where the bigger problems are. And triple those numbers if you want that day and night.>”
Jacob grinned. “<And I thought we had problems. I would never want to work here, that's a hell to manage.>”
Smith nodded again. “<We have potential problems. There is no danger from the outside here, that is a thing we do have. And we don't know what that danger is next time, here it's easy to monitor it, just watch and listen to the people… Let's go to The Kicking Pig, I'm really curious who is behind the bar there these days.>”
The coachman nodded, and brought them there.

“<Smith! Welcome!>” The man behind the bar in the empty tavern, The Kicking Pig, greeted the people who entered.
Smith nodded. “<Hello whatever name they will put on your tombstone.>”
Jacob shook his head. “<Smith, did you really have to insult that man? We want to spend the night here, not to have a fight in here!>”
The man behind the bar started to laugh. “<Don't worry whoever you might be, Smith is harmless… You just don't want to get him angry though. I've heard how he fought here, and you really must worry when he gets very calm. He knows exactly what he is doing. The previous owner here really was scared of Smith, Smith 'followed the path of the disturbed psyche' he told me.>”
Smith grinned. “<This is someone from treasury from the Neutral Zone. He wants to teach me some diplomacy, how do you feel about that?>”
The bartender grinned. “<Useless. We need people who act, instead of people who talk. People like Smith.>”
Smith nodded. “<I know. He doesn't… So, how's life here? You running The Kicking Pig these days?>”
The bartender nodded. “<Yes, this is a goldmine. A lot of people with a price on their head still come here.>”
Smith nodded. “<But we want to leave still as free men tomorrow. We are here to get some Inimals from the prison.>”
The bartender also nodded. “<Ah yes, the list… So soon?>”
Smith sighed. “<Yes, this soon because we have a problem. You know what happened a few months ago, and a few days ago we had another attack, from Wolves. We lost some fighters and builders, and maybe those from the prison can replace those. And they are innocent.>”
The bartender nodded. “<Yes… But not all of those who are there are innocent.>”
Smith nodded. “<I know. Now I'm here for those who had a partner and are on the list, in a few months I will return to get others out, those I trust enough.>”
“<Had?>” The bartender asked.
Smith nodded. “<Yes, had… We had an attack, and a lot of those women were killed. Killed by Wolves.>”
The bartender sighed. “<And those idiots think we are safe here. What do you think about it? Is it safe here?>”
Smith shrugged. “<I don't know. I'm a smith, not a strategist. But I have given the person at the gates a few hints about flaws in the defense, but Jacob here is afraid they won't have enough money to fix all of it.>”
The bartender grinned. “<You are a wise man, what did you tell him?>”
Smith also grinned. “<They can't see who or what is coming when they stay behind the gates looking through that hatch, the gate itself is not very good, exposed hinges, and they don't use heavy beams to lock it, vines on the outside of the wall that are easy to climb, and seeing a rabbit burrow underneath the wall also exposes a problem.>”
The bartender nodded. “<Yes… Idiots. There are rabbits on both sides. We even had children escaping… The five of you want to spend the night here?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… I know you unfortunately only have four sleeping places, and two of those in a double bed. Two of us have to share a bed, and one of us has to sleep on the floor. One thing I know is that I don't want to share the double bed with a Human male.>”
Alex, the coachman of the cart Smith had been on nodded. “<I'll sleep on the floor. Smith, I heard you didn't have problems with sleeping with male Wolves, so you can share the bed with Rolph.>”
Smith grinned. “<Tent… bed… not much difference. As long as I have my own blanket… Wolf kisses are awful, all the Wolves I got from the prison here did that, and even Wilfred had kissed me.>”
Rolph grinned. “<Linda doesn't mind… I miss her. But yes, please, a blanket for me, and one for Smith.>”
Smith nodded. “<Even I feel lonely here… Bart, you know anything about Mary?>”
The bartender was a bit startled. “<How did you… Oh right, it’s short for ‘bartender’, isn't it? Mary is safe, that is all I want to say.>”
Smith nodded. “<You know what I can do to get the information I want. But I believe you. Too many ears that can hear, too many mouths that can speak… What’s on the menu for tonight?>”
Bart sighed. “<Bacon and eggs. I don’t have many guests here, so it’s a waste to buy too much and throw it away.>”
Smith nodded. “<Get some chickens. Free eggs, and an excellent emergency source of meat. I also had a large chicken pen in the early days of my inn. The Red Brigade even made payments in chicken.>”
Bart nodded. “<That is indeed a good idea. Bartering bartender Bart. Nobody can guess that’s my real name.>”
Smith shook his head. “<No, just ask money for your service. This is a civilized city, not a lonely smithy in the middle of nowhere between two kingdoms. I couldn’t chew on coins then, but these days we have excellent suppliers of food. And they want coins.>”
Bart nodded. “<Of course. Did you know that Charlene was at the gates the day before yesterday?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. She has some messages to deliver. Maybe she thought she could find Mary here.>”
Bart nodded again. “<Mary is with her father. She is… safe.>”

The food and night were better than Smith had ever had at the Prancing Pony or Kicking Pig. But he was up early nonetheless.
“<What are you doing in my kitchen?>” Bart asked when he saw Smith busy with the frying pans.
Smith smiled. “<Making breakfast. Taking over this tavern as Mary suggested.>”
Bart nodded. “<You know what you are doing. I see that you use a lower temperature, so that was your secret.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. But practice makes perfect… And I wanted to talk to you alone. Do you know what is going on here?>”
Bart shook his head. “<Not exactly. It started with people getting mad a people who mistreat Inimals, then Humans and Inimals tried to take over Schotenburg, the Minister of Inimals came here and had to flee again while wounded… I think the best summary for it is chaos.>”
Smith nodded. “<That's also my opinion. You have any idea who is behind all this?>”
Bart shook his head. “<No, I have no idea. I'm sorry.>”
Smith nodded. “<Thanks for the information. Can you please call the others? Breakfast is almost ready.>”

Smith received the compliments for his breakfast, and after a fair payment they left again for the prison. They made a short stop at the shoemaker's house, but nobody was home. And the house was burned down, like many more buildings in this part of Schotenburg. There even weren't many people on the streets, it felt deserted. It truly had been chaos, and probably still was. It was best they would leave again as soon as possible.

They reached the prison, and Smith ordered the coachmen to wait at the side entrance.
Before he could reach the door it was already opened again by the warden himself.
“<Smith! What a pleasant surprise!>” He greeted Smith.
Smith nodded. “<Yes… You know what I'm here for?>”
The warden nodded. “<Yes. Twenty-three of the twenty-six on the list are alive. All Dogs and Cats>” He stared at Jacob. “<Who's that?>”
“<Jacob, treasury.>” Jacob replied while he extended his hand to shake the warden's.
“<But he is not going to pay for anything. He is here trying to teach me some diplomacy.>” Smith spoke a little annoyed while he pushed Jacob aside to walk through the open door.
Jacob glanced at Smith while he passed him. Smith ignored Jacob.
“<You are doing well.>” Smith heard the warden say to Rolph.

Smith went straight on to the prison, walking in such a way he got the few guards and soldiers he encountered to salute him and hastily open the doors before Smith could walk into them.
Smith grinned. This felt good. Dominance, he had it. Not only power by talking, but by acting. Politeness is for the weak. When he passed the last door he stopped to look around. He noticed that there was something different, there were more Inimals than there were before.
Panting the warden reached him. “<Yes… more… here… than before… Lots of trouble… these days.>”
Smith nodded. “<But I don't want them. Only a few more of the first group. I see a lot of mean Cats.>”
The warden nodded. “<Yes… we relocated those… on the list… towards the end of… the corridor… Except one… the Dog.>”
Smith nodded again. “<All right… Let's talk to him first. I really want to know if I can trust him.>”

“<So, you did return.>” The Dog in the cage spoke to Smith with a mean tone of voice, and in Human.
Smith nodded. “<Your name happens to be on a list of Inimals that I am taking home. What's your name?>”
“<Dick>” The Dog replied.
Smith nodded. “<All right Dick. Rolph?>”
Rolph also nodded. “<Alive. Although there are two Dicks on the list, from both they are… Dick, what is the name of your wife?>”
Dick sighed. “<Diana.>”
Smith nodded. “<All right. Open his cage.>”
The warden shook his head. “<You are insane! He is a danger!>”
Smith sighed. “<He is not a danger. Thanks to his wife I am standing here. She told me and the king who was visiting the Neutral Zone that a lot of women had a husband here, in this prison.>”
Dick stared in disbelief at Smith. “<You… have talked to the Human king?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes, and the Inimal king as well. You are free to do as you please, but please, don't interfere with what I want. Your wife already has a job, she is working at an inn.>”
Dick got a sad look on his face. “<She was pregnant.>”
Smith nodded. “<And she has given birth to a healthy daughter, Faith.>”

Smith got the keys from a reluctant guard in a rude way, almost breaking the guard’s fingers, and proceeded to open the cage himself. The other guards already had let the others out of their cages.
When the door finally was open Dick started to cry. “<Thank you… I… I don't know what to say… All these months… How's Dory?>”
Smith patted Dick on the shoulder and smiled. “<She has given birth to a healthy son, Hope. She is also working at that inn, it's very busy. It's owned by two more Dogs, Diego and Dora, two other friends of mine. Dora is her sister.>”
Dick sighed. “<And what did you mean with 'alive'? How did you know whose women are alive and who is dead?>”
This time it was Smith's turn to sigh. “<A few days ago we had an attack, from Wolves. We were building barracks for the women, and it was a nice day to visit the building site to see how the building proceeded. We did, Wolves attacked, we lost many people including some women, and now we are taking you out of here to replace the builders and soldiers we have lost. I know you are not all fighters or builders, but you are better than nothing. We intended to get you out a bit later, after everything was ready.>”
The other Inimals nodded. “<I don't care whether my partner is alive or not, I just want to get out of here. Everything is better than this.>” One of the Cats replied.
“<But thank you for taking care of us. Mary visited us every week, until the trouble started.>” Someone else added, also in Human. It seemed that all the Inimals Smith got out spoke Human.
Rolph stared at the list, looking up the name of the first Cat, and shook his head. “<Carl… I'm sorry. She died.>”
Carl shrugged. “<Also a lot of males die in battle. Plenty of widows and older orphans.>”

“<So, you are here to teach Smith some diplomacy? I really hope he will become a lot friendlier.>” The warden spoke to Jacob when the group was walking towards the exit.
“<I won't become friendlier.>” Smith interrupted. “<You know… Your head on a silver plate is an insult… For that silver plate. Your head on a stake would be more appropriate, right next to the door in front of that 'No skins for sale' sign.>”
Jacob shook his head. “<Smith, I understand you don't like this man, but you can't say it this way.>”
Smith shrugged while he proceeded to open the last door of the prison with the keys he had taken from the guard, right next to the cage with the White Wolf and the Lioness. “<I am an honest man. I don't like him…>” Smith turned around and poked his finger at the warden's chest. “<Warden, you listen very carefully to what I have to say. I know you have a lot of trouble here, but this is nothing compared to what I can do. I hope you remember what I said the first time I was here. The gates might have been repaired, the guards may have new clothes, but there are plenty more weak spots in the defense. Climbable vines, if children can escape through a rabbit hole that means that diggers like Wolves can come in through that hole, a nice window in the city walls that can be reached with a ladder, and not enough guards.>” Smith got an evil grin. “<You know, the real fun part is that this city doesn't have enough money. Asking a gardener to manicure the vines, asking a sculptor to make some stone plugs for the holes underneath the walls, asking a carpenter to make some appropriate shutters for that window… All very expensive. I'm sure you have some influence here, but how long will they listen to you? How long do those people who rule this city tolerate you? You keep warning them for imaginary threats, but nothing bad comes from the Neutral zone… Nothing bad comes as long as you do as I say… I'm going home with these gentlemen, but I will return for the rest of the original group. You may do as you wish with the… new troublemakers, but I want to take a selection of the rest of the original group. All you have to do is keep them healthy. All of them.>”
The warden nodded, and started to run away in a funny way.
Dick grinned. “<You made him soil his pants. I never achieved that. Please teach me how to talk like that.>”
Smith also grinned. “<Ask Jacob, he wanted to teach someone diplomacy. You might be a better student.>”
Jacob nodded. “<Of course. The key is knowing how much power you have. Smith was rather rude when we entered this prison, but it was a show of power. He got the guards to salute him like he was a king, he remembers little facts and re-uses them. He knows what he can do and what he can't do. And he made sure the warden saw and heard all of that.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… Now let's move, the carts are ready. I want to get home, I have some arrowheads to make, at this moment the Neutral Zone is almost defenseless, from a nice mixed army of thirty-four fighters down to twenty-two, but now with eight Foxes, and seven of those won't stay long, that was by chance they are helping us, and I want to pay them in arrowheads.>”
The others nodded.

“<I want to walk>” One of the Dogs said, when they were standing next to the carts.
“<Me too. I have been sitting still for far too long.>” Another one added.
Smith shrugged. “<No problem. We only have two carts, the third one had… some trouble. But please, use the other things we provided, sleep in the tents tonight, on the sleeping mats and underneath the blankets. We have sixteen tents, and we are with twenty-eight, so some of us have the privilege to sleep alone in a tent.>”
“<Quit your bickering and just walk. We'll sort out how we sleep tonight. I have plenty of dried meat, Smith was stubborn enough to bring hunting equipment, and I'm sure he wants to waste some time hunting.>” An annoyed Jacob called from a cart.
Smith grinned. “<Don't mind Jacob, he's from treasury, he has paid for three carts, but the coachman of the third has a drinking problem, and now you tell him one cart would have been enough because you want to walk… I'll walk with you, I hate sitting still on a cart, time to stretch my legs. And I prefer fresh kill over dried, salted stuff.>”
The Inimals grinned, and started to walk.

When they approached the gates they saw that the gates were closed again, and there was no guard. Smith walked on to remove the block.
“<Smith! Wait!>” One of the Dogs warned. “<There are people on the other side! I heard the unsheathing of a sword! They might have heard the carts.>”
Smith nodded. “<Thanks for the warning. You, stand at the side of the hinges of that hatch, and open it. But don't get too close to the crack between the gates itself, you can stick a sword through there as well.>”
The Dog did as requested, and almost immediately a spear was struck trough the opened hatch. A Cat who seemed to have experience fighting grabbed the spear at the shaft, and pulled it through the hatch, intending to stick it back again, sharp end first.
Smith quickly grabbed the spear. “<Please, don't make this more difficult. Let me do the talking.>”
The Cat nodded, and stepped out of the way, to make room for Smith.
“<Who is there?>” Smith called out, attempting to see the world outside the hatch, while keeping at a safe distance from it. He could see some soldiers.
“<Eleventh. Now open the gates.>” someone replied from the other side of the gates.
“<There are no guards here, you are talking to a civilian from the Neutral Zone. You will have a problem when you harm me or one of those who are with me.>” Smith replied.
“<You are that Smith guy, aren't you?>” the voice on the other side spoke again, after some murmuring.
“<Yes I am. And now that you have identified me and know who I am I will open the gates. Stand back, they open outwards.>” Smith replied while he lifted the block out of the hooks, and tossed it aside, breaking it.

There was a large group of soldiers standing outside the gates. Smith recognized some of them, they were with the king when he visited the Neutral Zone.
“<All right… What are you doing here?>” Smith asked the captain of the unit.
The captain wanted to salute, but suppressed the urge, resulting in an odd twitch of his arm. “<We are here to solve the trouble… Why are you opening the gates after a very long time instead of a guard?>”
Smith shrugged. “<There was one guard when we entered this city, maybe some trouble somewhere else… I don't know… While you are solving the trouble here I want you to do three other things. One: Leave the Kicking Pig alone, a friend is standing behind the bar these days. Two: I haven't seen an other friend of mine, he had a house along the road towards the prison, but that is burned down. He is a shoemaker, and I don't know where he and his wife are, but if you identify him send him my regards. And three: Leave the Inimals in the prison alone. There are two groups of Inimals now, one is from this city, but the others are troublemakers that don't belong here. Make sure that the first group won't be harmed.>”
The captain nodded. “<Of course. We are under direct orders of Inimal Affairs, we are here to prepare everything for the evacuation of the Inimals from the list, but it seems that you already have them. And Bart is an old friend of us, I'm glad you are also a friend, and that shoemaker, Peter, and his wife, Helena, are safe… And Cat, you are a very capable fighter, this soldier here was stupid, you can have his spear.>”
The Cat gave the spear back to the soldier nonetheless. “<You need it more than I do. I want to be a farmer, with some cows. No fighting.>”
The soldier got his spear back, and sighed. “<I'm sorry I tried to stab you.>”
The Dog that opened the hatch smiled. “<It would have been me if Tiny Dick didn't warn us, and Smith didn't tell us what to do, stand back… And you were also very close to getting the spear back in your face, but Smith saved you.>”
The soldier nodded. “<Capable leaders, that's something we… I mean nice talking to you, I am very sorry, but now we have to move on. The gates are open now.>”
Smith nodded. “<Indeed. And forget about that rule about no soldiers in the Neutral Zone, as long as you, Eleventh, are under the command of Inimal Affairs you are welcome to come… Again, for some of you.>”
The captain nodded. “<We will come to visit someday, I heard it was beautiful. And delicious.>”
Some of the other soldiers nodded and smiled.
Smith also nodded. “<Time to move on. These Inimals here have women who are waiting for them, and I also have a lot of work to do.>”

“<What are you thinking about?>” Dick asked Smith while they were walking. It was already late in the afternoon.
Smith stared at the forest. “<Those soldiers… Eleventh company, the main supplier of men for the Royal Guard. I try to get Mary in a more influential position, but it seems that she already is taking care of her own. First time we met she had two soldiers with Royal Guard weapons with her, and these soldiers we met today seemed to know Bart, one of those men who were with Mary. And as a bonus they knew that shoemaker we, Mary and I, have sold a house. Very impressive for the daughter of a trader, but I am also a humble smith after all.>”
Dick nodded. “<She is… Nice. She is just like a female version of you.>”
Smith laughed. “<She is far prettier than I was, am, and ever will be… And I don't think she alone can command men. Those soldiers said they were under the command of Inimal Affairs, they didn't mention Mary, I think Inimal Affairs is taking over the place of the Ministry of Inimals. I have a lot to do, when we get home I want to forge as much arrowheads for the Vulpine as I can before I bring my adopted daughter and the adopted son of General Leon to The Academy, and after that I am going to make some time for Mary, invite her, show her around, show her what I can do, and when she returns she can tell Inimal Affairs about me, and I hope they will see the power she can have with me as her boyfriend.>”
Dick also laughed. “<You sound like a little boy. Take it slow, don't scare her father too much.>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course. Did you really think I would let her walk away?>”
Dick nodded. “<I don't know you too well. You came earlier than expected. But please let that boar over there walk away, I want to get to my Diana as fast as possible. That dried meat you have is good enough, I used to be a cook, I'm sure I can make something tasty out of it for dinner.>”
Smith smiled. “<That sounds like a good deal. No wonder Diana was so eager to work at an inn. Now I'm eager to get there as well, I really miss the old days, my best friend in my past was a Hound.>”
Dick nodded. “<Those are the real masters of the kitchen, my cooking is simpler, I use spices and herbs to mask mistakes in cooking. But I never had complaints.>”
Smith shrugged. “<These days I only eat Feline food if I don’t do the cooking at home. I live with a Female Cheetah, Charlene, and Katie, my adopted daughter, is a Tigress, and so is William.>”
Dick grinned. “<So you know how it is how to burn your mouth, even when the food is cold.>”
Smith also grinned. “<And be very careful when you have to pee after you have cut some peppers. Or some other things with my hands and… erm… you know what I mean.>”
Dick nodded, but said nothing, slightly grinning.

“Smith! Welcome!” It was Diego who greeted them when they entered the inn.
Smith smiled. “And I have brought some more guests. And your new cook.”
“Dick!” Diana shouted, dropping a stack of plates.
Smith smiled while he stepped aside to make room for a running Diana. “Don't worry about those plates… I will pay for them.”
Dory smiled when she got close to Smith. “Don't worry about those plates. You have the males… Was it hard to get them?”
Smith shook his head. “No, not at all. The guard at the gates seemed to know I was coming, the new bartender of the Kicking Pig knew, the warden knew, and even a company of soldiers were there to make preparations for us. I don't know what you have told the king, but it seems that it impressed him, and that he really did something.”
Dory smiled while she got Hope, her son, who already was walking around. “Or you impressed him, and he wanted to do something in return, for you.”
Smith shrugged. “But that is not important. I see that little Hope is already walking. How's Faith?”
Dory's smile widened. “Also walking. Is it true that Human babies take almost a year until they even can stand?”
Smith nodded. “Yes… And almost four until they are potty-trained. But that's not my problem… yet.”
Dory grinned. “You want to practice?”
Smith looked at Dory. “What?”
Dory caressed Smith, while holding her child. “Practice making babies.”
Smith shook his head. “No… I don't want to do that… And I also don't want you to do that. Just find a good husband, and give that one all your love. Don't waste it for money. Or do you have financial problems?”
Dory shook her head. “No, but I feel lonely. You are the only one that seems to care about us Dogs.”
Smith sighed. “I don't know what I can do. I just do what I think is right. I like you and your kind, always friendly, honest, temperate… If I could live with only one species it would be Dogs, not Humans.”
Dory wrapped her free arm around Smith. “Then you would feel the same way I feel here. Surrounded by Wolves and Humans, but not my own kind.”
Smith nodded. “I have a lot of things to do, but after I have brought Katie to the Academy I will return with Mary, show her around here, and after that I will return to Schotenburg to get as much Inimals out of there as possible, and there are a lot of Dogs there. Just be patient, I'm sure I will return with a perfect husband for you, or… Hey Rolph! Is there a Dog in our group who has lost his wife?”
Rolph nodded. “Yes, Donald… He is a bit down because of it. Hey! Do! Get over here!”
Donald trudged towards the little group. “What?… Oh, hello Dory, good to see you.”
Smith stepped backwards, out of Dory's embrace, and forced the prostrate Dog forward. “You lost your wife, she has lost her husband. I want you to stay here and take care of her and her son.”
Donald managed to smile a little. “Thank you… You really care. I never thought of this. That would be a nice new start.”
Smith also smiled. “And you start to talk Inimal again. I'm sure you'll find a job here.”
“He can work for me, maintaining everything. Please take a seat, Dick is already in the kitchen.” Diego said while he was picking up the shards of the plates.
Smith nodded. “See, there is no need to worry.”
Diego sighed. “Maybe you could get the others out of prison, there is a shortage of people here, especially at the quarry.”
Smith shrugged. “I could, but I can't force them to work there. I have a Cat here who is a capable fighter, but he wants to be a farmer… I'm happy if there are three potential soldiers and three potential builders in this group. But two out of twenty-three already have a job, here, that is something positive.”
Diego nodded. “Yes, those Wolves who watched the inn while we were away are working at the quarry again, they said they never wanted to work here again. Far too busy for them. You can leave stones when you have to do something else, but not thirsty guests or food in a frying pan.”

Dinner and breakfast were just as Smith expected, simply excellent. And so was the night, in a normal room instead of Diego's private quarters. There were not many guests, so every Inimal from Schotenburg had his own bedroom for the night. All except Donald and Dick, they were sleeping with Dory and Diana.

The group was walking again, although most of the Cats were now sitting on the carts. They were close to Smithsville.
Smith was walking behind the cart Jacob was on. “<Well… How did I handle it?>”
Jacob smiled. “<Good. It would have been perfect if you didn’t do the insulting you did, but on the other hand you instinctively knew you needed to do that… You know, I have been told scary stories as a child about Wolves at the door who would take me if I misbehaved, but I never was so scared that I soiled my pants.>”
Smith sighed. “<Sometimes the truth is more horrific than a lie. Wolves don’t take children, they… I don’t want to talk about it… I will walk on to the smithy after we entered the village, I have work to do. Real work, forging, you can take care of the Inimals.>”
Jacob nodded. “<I understand. This is not your work, your work is… at the forge and anvil. Good luck, sire.>”
Smith smiled. “<Smith, you mean smith. You have met Bart the bartender, and I am Smith the smith. Not Smith the king.>”
Jacob grinned. “<Sometimes it's better better to tell a lie. But you are a king to us. A king that takes care of his people.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Fine. But instead call me Smith, friend of kings.>”
Jacob smiled. “<You have no idea how impressive that is.>”
Smith shrugged. “<A Lion who wanted to be a general, and a Human who wanted to trade places with me, and live a normal life. Really, I see them as friends.>”
Jacob nodded. “<You don't understand. You treat people who outrank you like they are nothing important, and people nobody cares about are the people you help.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I don't care. I treat people the way I want to be treated. I just want to be liked, not adored.>”
Jacob smiled. “<You are impossible. Good luck forging… Six days until you leave again?>”
Smith nodded. “<About that. Five or six, I want to spend as much time as possible with Katie at home, and not in the smithy. I am not going to see her for a long time when she is at the Academy. But on the other hand, I have to keep the fire for wanting to learn how to forge burning in William. I don't know, I'll just see what I'll do.>”
Jacob nodded. “<I understand. Successor. Good luck with that.>”
Smith nodded, and sighed. “<Indeed… Indeed. Well… This is where our paths diverge, I will go home. Treat them the way I would treat them.>”
Jacob smiled. “With respect.”
Smith grinned. “<You don't have to talk Inimal to them, they are from a Human city… Just ask them in what language they want to talk, that's easiest.>”
Jacob nodded. “<Of course. Goodbye.>”

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Chapter 31 - Arriving and Leaving

#35 Post by Neutral Smith » Sun Jun 19, 2016 7:05 pm

­Chapter 31
Arriving and Leaving


Smith had not left his house and smithy since he had come home with the Inimals from Schotenburg. He even used the door that connected them instead of the outside doors he usually used to save time. He had timed the making of the arrowheads for the remains of the Red Brigade in such a way that when he had a task finished it was time to eat. He intended to make forty-eight arrowheads before he left with Katie and William, to give four archers a set of twelve arrows. He felt like a Bergvolk machine, but instead of running on water power or wind power he used regular food. And he could avoid mistakes, and if he made a mistake he could correct it, instead of making the same mistake again and again, rendering a whole batch of work useless.

“<Helloooo lady!>” Frank suddenly called out, disturbing Smith's thoughts.
Smith looked up from his work, sharpening the forty-third arrowhead. Only one more to sharpen before dinner, and the remaining four he wanted to sharpen could be done tomorrow before lunch, and after lunch he could make some arrangements for when he was gone the day after the day after tomorrow.
For the first time he felt tired during the day. He turned around to look at the apparently female visitor, and reprimand Frank again for being rude at what could be a paying customer.
Instead of a stranger he saw a woman wearing a kerchief, but with a very familiar face. When he looked better he saw that the woman was Mary.

“<Mary… What are you doing here? It's not safe here!>” Smith finally managed to say.
Mary smiled and sighed. A sigh of relief. “<Safety. It is safer here than at home.>”
Smith shook his head. “<It’s far from safe here, didn’t you read the letter? But I understand. Wolves attacking are easier to recognize than assassins. You helping people that are much better at working with stone and wood might make Humans who do the same work angry, and those might want to take out the competition. Timo was one of the victims.>”
Mary nodded. “<Yes… That is also a very real threat.>”
Smith smiled. “<I intended to finish work before I would leave to take Katie to the Academy, but it seems that I won't be able to do that… Finish my work I mean.>”
Frank slapped Smith on the shoulder. “<Don't worry about that… I can do that as well. You spend some time with Mary. You deserve it.>”
Smith smiled timidly. “<Fine… You are not jealous?>”
Frank laughed. “<You don't want to know how jealous I am, she is gorgeous… But go ahead, have a good time. I only want to see you here when you say goodbye. Me sharpening those remaining five-and-a-half is not a problem.>”
Smith nodded. “<Fine… Mary, this is my smithy. This here is Frank, the male Cat is Chris, the other Humans are Robert and Willem. There used to be two more female Cats, but those died in the latest attack… I thought it would be nice for them to see where they would live...>”
Mary nodded. “<That White Tiger, Arthur, told me all about it. It must have been awful.>”
Smith shrugged. “<It could have been worse, an unexpected attack with everyone at home.>”
Mary smiled. “<But you are unharmed, that is the most important.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… I assume you already have met the others?>”
Mary also nodded. “<Of course. I have been here for hours, we arrived just after lunchtime, but the others told me you couldn't be bothered. They assumed you would be ready with your work for today, but it seems they were wrong.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Indeed. I intended to sharpen one more arrowhead after finishing this one, but now Frank is going to do that, and the other four tomorrow. Let's go go my house.>”
Mary smiled. “<But we are not going to eat at your house, that Ork from the inn, Uwe, has invited us for dinner.>”
Smith grinned. “<There must be something wrong with him, he rarely gives free meals. But all right, let's go there, after I have changed my clothes of course.>”

“<Schmied! Welcome!… You know it's custom to hold the door open for a lady!>” Uwe greeted them.
Smith sighed and turned around, already halfway the inn. “<I'm sorry… Did the door hit you?>”
Despite Smith's clumsiness Mary laughed. “<I can take care of myself. But… Uwe… is correct, that wasn't very polite. Better not tell my father about that.>”
Smith nodded and moved the chair nearest to him to allow Mary to sit down.
“<Coat.>” Uwe spoke at a demanding tone.
“<What?>” Smith replied, not understanding what Uwe meant.
“<Her coat. Take it, and hang it at the coat rack. She is not an Inimal without clothes.>” Uwe spoke again, having some trouble containing his laughter.
Mary smiled and handed Smith her coat. “<You are not really used to have Human women around you, are you?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Not really… Now if you excuse me, I have a coat to hang.>”

When Smith returned he saw that Mary was sitting at an other table. A table for two with a single candle on it. Nonchalant Smith grabbed some other candlesticks from other tables, lit them, and placed them on the middle of the table, almost forming a fence of them between him and Mary, and sat down.
Mary got a perplex expression on her face, but Smith shrugged. “<I want to see what's on my plate. I wonder why there are no large oil lamps around this table for lighting.>”
“[It's supposed to be romantic, you idiot!]” a waiter whispered almost shouting in Smith's ear, while removing the candles again.
Mary giggled. “<I didn't understand all of it, but I did understand that he called you an idiot.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I'm sorry again. I'm not very romantic. Inimals only know pleasure and beauty, and I am used to that.>”
Mary giggled again. “<I know. As soon as Chester is done he falls asleep. Even when I'm not done yet. He falls asleep right on top of me.>”
Smith grinned. “<Charlene has the same problem… Inimals have no shame, but tell me, who was on top when Charlene was with you? She or Chester?>”
Mary giggled once more, almost like a little girl. “<Neither of them. They did it sideways. After some arguing who would be the one on top.>”
Smith grinned. “<I don't mind. I like it both ways.>”
Mary's response came in the form of a slap in Smith's face. “<You pervert!>”
Smith was a bit startled by it. “<I'm sorry… I'm not used to pull out of… of this kind of conversations. I could get you pregnant… Oh look, the food is coming.>”

Several waiters with trays arrived, and put small plates and bowls on the table. One poured glasses of wine for both Smith and Mary.
Smith stared at the small items of food on the plates. “<Couldn't you just put it all on one plate? And all these little bits of meat and other things… are you out of large steaks? And you know I only drink water or milk with a meal.>”
Uwe, who had joined Smith and Mary, smiled. “<You really don't know anything about romance, do you? Just a little drink to loosen up, and all kinds of food. If you don't like something you give it away, preferably in a gentle way, and not dumping it on her plate.>”
Smith grinned. “<You still remember last time I got drunk, don't you?>”
Uwe also grinned. “<Of course I do. My wife still talks about it.>”
“<About what?>” Mary interrupted, while she scooped some food on her plate.
Smith continued to grin. “<Me being too drunk to get it up and make sweet love to his wife, and I gave her a massage instead. I kept complaining that she didn't have a tail.>”
Mary smiled. “<Thats… not bad. Can you give me a massage as well?>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course… But I only want to see you naked when your father has given permission.>”
Mary giggled. “<You just have sex with anything that moves, but when it comes to me you become very prudish. Even when you talk, you avoid the naughty words.>”
Smith smiled. “<Not everything that moves… If you said adult females I can't get pregnant you would be more correct, but I am… Well… Old fashioned… What I do when there can't be children is just for fun… Although I must admit I have used Charlene and Melany… Charlene is a fast messenger, and Katie, who I used to get Charlene, was a bit lonely, so that's where Melany was useful. I could have left Beatrice to die, but she was useful to keep Siegfried here, I forced Arthur and Melany together, giving Arthur a reason to stay, I even manipulated you a little, somehow I knew that Chester is a fighter, I used him to protect you. And after that I have a loyal fighter here.>”
Mary smiled. “<I have never seen Chester run that fast as when he saw Arthur. And he cried, I also have never seen that before. And Arthur, a huge Tiger, sobbing like a boy.>”
Smith nodded understandingly. “<Arthur always keeps his emotions hidden. I guess he asked you to keep it a secret?>”
Mary nodded. “<Y… Yes. I guess I'm not very good at keeping secrets.>”
Smith smiled. “<It's all right… I also have a lot of secrets. And so has Uwe. One more little secret is not a problem for us.>”
Uwe nodded. “<Indeed… And let me give you a tip: Blend in more with the normal people here. A kerchief around your head stands out a little, most women wear a hooded cloak here against the rain.>”
Smith grinned. “<A cloak with secrets. I won't tell you those, but let's say I can make a nice set of hidden blades for you.>”
Mary nodded. “<I have heard of those. They are famous, and rare at the same time.>”
Smith nodded again. “<Number of sales are classified. You must understand that I am neutral in everything, I really don't care to whom I am selling to, as long as we keep it peaceful here in the Neutral Zone.>”

Mary smiled. “<Of course… Now tell me about the Inimals, you know a lot more about them than everyone else.>”
“<I'll go on with my work. I'm sure you can handle yourself now.>” Uwe spoke while he stood up again.
Smith nodded. “<Yes… Thank you. Who pays for all this?>”
Uwe grinned. “<Eleventh. They came with Mary for her protection.>”
“<But you said it was for free!>” Mary protested.
Smith grinned. “<It is for free, Uwe has a little less profit. We don’t have to pay for it this time.>”
Uwe grinned, and left.

“<So, you are here with Eleventh.>” Smith spoke while eating the rather elaborate, but small portioned meal.
Mary smiled. “<Don't try to change the subject. I asked you first about the Inimals. I know a bit about them, but how do they grow up?>”
Smith nodded. “<You really like to take the lead. But all right… First of all, Inimal is not one species like Humans are. There are different species, all with different features. Felines get about forty years old, Canines fifty, and I'm not sure about the Vulpine, I think they get about forty-five. Born, can walk within months, learn twice as fast as Human children. Considered adults at fourteen for Feline and Vulpine, and sixteen for Canine, but it can differ between the actual species. Felines are more home-schooled, Canines have more normal schools like Humans have. I'm not sure about Vulpine, but I thought journeyman and apprentice, and later master and the older journeyman as the apprentice again, but that is rare. You know, I planned to go to bring Katie to the Academy, an elite school for all species of Inimal, within a few days but I think it’s better I’ll leave the day after tomorrow, that way I won’t spend a few days with you and then leave. But don’t worry, I’ll leave you here under the protection of Siegfried and other capable soldiers. And Eleventh of course.>”
Mary nodded. “<Arthur has told me about it. He is a bit worried, but he thinks she will do well. And he also told me that you might want to leave sooner because of me.>”
Smith sighed. “<I’m glad you are not upset about it. Katie is my child, and I will do anything for her. When I return I want to take you, Melany, Arthur, Charlene and Chester and Violet and Felix on a tour, visiting the Vulpine. I’m sure Melany wants to buy some fabric again, and this way we can combine business with meeting all kinds of Inimal for you. And I guess your next question will be about the names? Let me answer that before you ask. As you can guess, a lot of names start with the first letter of the species. Charlene and Chester Cheetah, Timo and Tina Tiger, Diego, Dora and Dory Dog, Felix and Violet as Foxes or Vulpine, and so on. But it’s not mandatory, we have Katie, William, Arthur, Melany, Siegfried, Beatrice and many more seemingly random names.>”
Mary smiled. “<I could have guessed that. And you taking me out meeting your friends around the country sounds like fun. Just have a good time, instead of work.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. But first Arthur and I will be away for a few weeks… I will ask Melany if she wants to stay at my house, and maybe even Siegfried and Beatrice, there are six bedrooms, so everybody can have their own bedroom, and Chester is not the only male. With you as the mistress of the house.>”
Mary smiled. “<That sounds like a good idea. My bodyguards a bit closer.>”
Smith nodded. “<But Beatrice is not a bodyguard, she is a teacher. I have no idea what you can do, but I think that you can help her. Or help Melany if you are creative. Or François.>”
Mary smiled. “<Or just do my work. I have a lot of work to do, a lot of letters to write. I have people everywhere, and they need to keep doing my work.>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course. With Chester and Charlene running your messages and both Eleventh and the people here you are much safer than you are at home.>”
Mary nodded. “<That was the idea, I’m safe here while I do my work, and also learn about you and the Inimals. And above all see what I can do to help you better.>”
Smith smiled. “<I am not the one who needs help, I am the one who helps, but if you want to help me helping others… that’s fine.>”
Mary nodded. “<I have spoken to the… survivors… and they already feel at home. And even the males who have lost their wives don’t mind.>”
Smith sighed. “<Inimals get over loss a lot easier than Humans. It has taken me almost ten years to be… well… a new normal again, and I have seen Inimals shrug when being told that the ones they loved have died. They are here for those who live, the dead are indifferent.>”
Mary nodded. “<I can understand that. After all those killing the Humans have done they just stopped caring… On a different subject, shall we go to your house? We have eaten all the food and I’m tired, I’ve had a busy day.>”
Smith nodded and stood up. “<Yes, good idea.>” “Auf wiedersehen!” he shouted at Uwe, far too loud to be polite, and helped Mary with her chair and coat.

“<So… you can be a gentleman.>” Mary noted while they were walking arm-in-arm back to Smith’s home.
Smith smiled. “<Of course I can be a gentleman. I’m just not used to be one when I’m not working. But the difference is, then I pretend to be a gentleman, here I try to be an honest one.>”
Mary gave Smith a kiss on the cheek. “<You are a gentleman when you want to be one. I like that. Most of the times you are just honest. I like that even more. Please never change.>”
Smith grinned. “<But I like change. Fourteen years ago I was a lonely boy, that changed into a happy man when I met my wife and she got pregnant, that changed into a broken and wandering man when my wife was killed, to a man that had no feelings when he returned thanks to the Elfique and Bergvolk, to a man that recovered to almost normal because of Charlene, Katie and the other Inimals, and now I am really curious what you are going to change me into. I guess it must be really good.>”
Mary gave Smith another kiss. “<I hope so.>”

When Smith and Mary entered Smith’s house only Katie was in the living room.
“Where are Charlene and Chester?” Smith asked the still small Tigress.
“<They are in your bedroom>” Katie answered in Human “<And William is with Arthur, I can still beat him on the assault course.>”
Smith snickered. “<He is worthless. He is a little bit smarter, but a lot weaker than you are.>”
Mary shook her head. “<Smith… After the death of Williams adoptive father you have promised to take care of him. Don’t be so harsh.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Sometimes it needs a little pain to bring out the potential. I have no idea how to do that with William. I thought that Katie was stubborn, but William is much worse. I can laugh at Katie when she tries to do things she can’t, but encouraging William to do things I know he can but doesn’t dare is a lot harder… On a different subject, Katie, have you eaten?>”
Katie nodded. “<Yes, Melany has given us food.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Fine. Let’s prepare for the night, I think I will use Charlene’s bed tonight, you also will have to use an upstairs bedroom, and Mary can sleep in your bed, that way she has a proper toilet instead of a bucket, I am going to give the lady a bit of luxury here>”
Mary smiled. “Your house is truly huge. Six fully furnished bedrooms, even my father doesn’t have that many while he has… a lot of rooms, but not many bedrooms for himself and guests. But he does have… personnel sleeping in his house, for the household.”
Smith nodded. “<You don’t have to speak Inimal here… But yes, what you see are the remains of the inn this house used to be. An inn with a smithy. Or smithy with an inn, depends on how you see it. Six bedrooms, two real toilets, large kitchen, and free heated water for the bath as long as you remember to fill the tank above the forge in the morning.>”
Mary nodded. “<Charlene has told me about it. I thought she exaggerated a bit, because Inimals are not used to huge buildings, but she wasn’t. It’s not Human, but practical. I like it.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes, this building is Bergs… Katie, can you escort our guest to the bathroom and then your bedroom? I have no urge to see her naked yet.>”
Mary grinned. “<Truly a gentleman. Just let the others do the work.>”
Smith also grinned. “<Bath and then to bed. You are drunk. Or supposed to be drunk, given the amount of wine you had.>”

Just when Smith was about to leave to his bed for the night William entered the house, covered in mud.
Smith sighed. “Forgot to use your claws?”
William shrugged. “Yes. Puddle is still too wide to cross.”
Smith shook his head. “I am not a Tiger, but jump towards that lower branch and grab it with your hands. Don’t try to land on it with your feet. It took Katie two mud-dives until she understood, and three more until she succeeded, and you? Ten? Fifty? And not even understanding what you are doing wrong.”
William shrugged again. “A smith doesn’t have to jump puddles of mud on an assault course.”
Smith sighed again. “I want you to graduate at the Academy, and that means you have to be able to do everything, all years. The Academy is not simply a school where you learn from books, you also have to learn from the real world, by moving yourself. I haven’t read a single book about what a smith is supposed to do, I couldn't even write properly a year ago.”
William nodded. “But what teaches jumping across puddles of mud about forging?”
Smith smiled. “That a large sword on your back like Arthur has is not very comfortable when you fall backwards. You have fallen various ways, can you tell me what kind of weapon is suitable for you? That won't hurt you when you fall?”
William shook his head. “No… But… I have to learn about the weapons. And those are taught in the later years, so I have to keep attending if I want to learn that.”
Smith nodded. “Finally you start to understand. Now go to bed. Charlene and Chester are in my bed, and Mary sleeps in Katie’s. I have to sleep in Charlene’s bed.”
“Can’t I sleep with Mary?” William asked, yawning.
Smith shook his head. “Upstairs young man. In an empty bed.”
William started to walk towards the stairs.
“William!” Smith called the young Tiger back. “I do not want to do all the thinking for you. Aren’t you forgetting something? I gave you an order to go to bed, but before you can sleep in a clean bed you have to do something else first.”
William stopped, trying to figure out what his second adoptive father meant.
Finally he got it, and went to the bathroom to get himself clean. Smith snickered a little, because he knew there was no warm water left. But he did not hear William complain.
Smith sighed again, and left for his bed for tonight. William could take care of himself. He had to.

Smith was the first to wake up in the morning. He had some trouble figuring out where he was, but finally he understood why he was in Charlene's bed. He had guests. One of those was a male guest, in his bed. With Charlene.
He hastily dressed himself and left the house to buy some fresh eggs and other items for breakfast, he even had to wait at the bakery for fresh bread.
When he was busy unpacking the things he had bought he saw Charlene, who smiled when she saw what Smith was doing. “No fresh food for me?”
Smith smiled. “You are fast enough to go and buy the things you want to give Chester for breakfast yourself. Mary is my guest. Or do you want him and eggs, sunny side up?”
Charlene playfully hugged Smith. “That ham and eggs you have bought is good enough. And I already had him on his back.”
Smith grinned, and started to make breakfast, for everyone. He had bought food for everyone.

“<You haven't unlearned how to to make breakfast.>” Chester noted after eating the elaborate meal.
“<That was truly magnificent. I never had bread that tasted this good. If I have to choose between cake and this bread it will be this bread.>” Mary added.
Smith nodded. “<Best cakes can be bought somewhere else, the bakery where I bought this bread is on the south side of the village, the so called patisserie where they are specialized in cakes is north-east. But I don't trust them, people say that those cakes are bad for your health. They learned the technique of making those cakes from the Elfique, they even use glass spatulas for the icing.>”
Mary nodded. “<Cakes are indeed unhealthy, that's why you should only eat them on special occasions. Not because you survived another day… When is your birthday?>”
Smith smiled. “<Longest night. It's a pity that the Inimals can't taste sweetness, because Katie is born on longest day. We could celebrate that, even though she will not be here.>”
“<Or you could celebrate it when she comes here on leave. Cake for you and Mary, and her favorite meal for her.>” Chester added.
Smith nodded. “<Yeah, we should do that. You already have met Arthur, shall we go and meet the rest of the soldiers here?>”
Chester nodded. “<Yeah, great idea, although I have seen most of them already, not many left… By the way, do you want me to come along with you?>”
Smith shook his head. “<No, I need you here, protecting Mary… On a different subject, how do you feel about Siegfried?>”
Chester shrugged. “<He is the reason Arthur went Feral, and I barely escaped. I don't hate him, but I will never like him.>”
Smith nodded. “<Fine. But are you fine with the idea of Melany, Siegfried and his wife Beatrice staying here while I am gone?>”
Chester shrugged again. “<Eleventh is one hour on horseback east of here, but Siegfried is a capable fighter, and you trust him. I guess I have to tolerate him.>”
Smith shook his head. “<I wanted to hear a clear 'yes' or 'no' from you, but all right, I will ask Siegfried if he minds staying here with you. And if he says 'no' you will be the only male in the house while I’m away.>”
Chester grinned. “<Arthur will kill me if I try something with his Melany, but I don't mind. Can't you ask Violet and her husband?>”
Smith also grinned. “<No. But when I return I want to take you, Mary, Charlene, Arthur, Melany, Felix and his wife Violet to go to visit the Vulpine in the north, for Melany to buy fabric and for Mary to meet them. Wolves and other Humans are not allowed there, so Siegfried and Beatrice have to stay home.>”
Chester nodded. “<Agile fighter, fast fighter, archer and a strong fighter like you as a replacement for the Wolf is a good protection. I don’t think that Eleventh will stay here for months, although they seem to like it, some have been here before.>”
Smith nodded. “<I invited them when I encountered them at the gates of Schotenburg. I told them that they were welcome as long as they are under the command of Inimal affairs. They can stay as long or as short as they want. I’m sure that the Human king will need them sooner or later, they are almost Royal Guard, elite soldiers. And yes, some of them have been here before, with the king.>”
Chester nodded. “<Indeed. And now I understand why they all wanted to come here, and the king has given permission. You invited them, they wanted to come, the king gave permission because he knows you, and they got here.>”
Smith nodded again. “<Indeed. And now that we have a shortage of fighters they are more than welcome… Well, let’s finish our breakfast, and then I’ll go to arrange some things for when I’m away.>”

“Ah, good morning Arthur… Kapitein.” Smith greeted Arthur and the Human captain of the Eleventh brigade, staring along with some others at the assault course where William was preparing himself for his first run.
The captain simply nodded in the direction of Smith, and Katie, who already had crossed it, did a rather good impression of a Human salute. William was just concentrating, he seemed not to have noticed Smith.
William started his run, and succeeded to get over the puddle of mud that was there for cushioning and humiliation. The onlookers applauded.
William looked over his shoulder after he climbed up again, and almost lost his balance, but Katie grabbed him before he could fall.
Smith was proud. “Congratulations William. See, you could do it.”
William nodded. “Yes… I never thought that.”
Chester also nodded. “This assault course is much larger than they have at the Academy. This jump is almost a tail-length more. A few more times, and the course at the Academy will be easy for you.”
Arthur also nodded. “Yes… My mistake. I am a bit larger than the rest of you, and never considered children to use it. William, I am sorry for making this so hard for you.”
William smiled. “I don’t care. Chester telling me that the one at the Academy is easier might make me break your record.”
Katie gave William a push, causing him to fall in the mud beneath. “But first you have to beat me. I still helped you up. Take a run and knock me off.”
Smith shook his head. “No you won’t. I want you both in good health tomorrow, it’s a miracle you haven’t broken arms or legs, and I don’t want you to break them today. William, training is over.”
William grimaced, got up, and ran towards the ramp that lead to the jump, crossed it in one swift move, and pushed Katie down, and jumped down himself to push Katie further into the mud.
“William! Katie! Stop! Go home and take a bath. Cold!” Smith called out, in a tone that caused some of the soldiers to go standing in attention.
Smith grinned when he noticed it. “<At ease soldiers, you are not my children. I’m sure you know how to behave.>”
The captain grinned. “<You did it again. What’s your secret?>”
Smith shrugged. “<I don’t know. And I don’t care… Now if you excuse me, I have other things to do.>”
The captain and the soldiers headed back to their horses, which had become a bit uneasy because of Smith’s loud voice, and Smith headed towards the town hall.

“Everything is prepared for your departure tomorrow.” was Siegfried’s greeting for Smith when Smith entered the town hall.
Smith nodded. “That is good to hear. No trouble with food supplies?”
Rolph shook his head. “No, none at all. Eleventh has brought some food for themselves, and we have some fresh supplies. It was not as cold as normal in the south, I guess we got the cold this year.”
Smith nodded. “That’s… good I guess… Siegfried, what’s your business here?”
Siegfried smiled. “Not much, more boredom. Good to see you here.”
Smith nodded. “You are the head of the military here while Arthur and I are gone, you are responsible for Mary’s safety. You understand what is on your shoulders?”
Siegfried nodded. “Completely. I contemplated staying at your house, but I think it’s better I won’t, Chester doesn’t seem to like me.”
Smith also nodded. “You have an excellent feeling for people. Indeed, he doesn’t like you. Keep an eye on him, and make sure he behaves. I don’t want half-bloods with him as the father running around. And I don’t want angry husbands chasing him either.”
Siegfried grinned. “He is not at home here. Here the women are more independent. Although I think that Mary and especially Charlene will keep their eyes on him as well.”
Smith nodded. “I wanted to ask you if you wanted to stay at my house, he said that he didn’t like you, but would tolerate you, and in the same sentence he asked for Violet and Felix instead. But you already gave the answer, he will be stuck with three women in my house, I will ask Melany if she wants to stay at my house, because she is alone with Arthur gone with me.”
Siegfried grinned. “Arthur will kill Chester if he tries something, despite being his friend.”
Smith grinned as well. “Chester knows that, he said exactly the same… Well, I have nothing left to do except asking Melany. I guess this is our goodbye, we will leave at first light in the morning.”
Siegfried nodded. “Yes… Goodbye. And be careful. Send the king my regards, I still haven’t received the letter in which he pardons me for my crimes.”
Smith nodded. “I think someone higher in the ranking must ask that. If I see the Inimal king I will ask him, and if I don’t see him I will send him a letter before I return. That’s the cheapest way.”
Jacob, who was reading and signing papers, looked up and grinned. “<You could save a copper for that. We were far too busy to give Siegfried that letter. There had been some correspondence between us and the cabinet of the Inimal king, but truth is, he was already pardoned when Smith was away to get Rolph. He was doing a great job, on both sides of the border, capturing fugitives and other criminals. The Human king has also pardoned him, although there was no evidence that he did something wrong in the Human kingdom. I guess it was a ‘just in case’ pardon. Jaques and François have arranged that.>” Jacob looked again at Smith. “<Smith! Your actions on the other hand cause a lot of… less friendly paperwork, from both kingdoms. Better do some writing explaining your actions yourself. It’s hard for me to find your motivations. You just can’t kill people and get people killed.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I’m just being myself, I didn’t like them and if I didn’t kill them I would be dead. But all right, I also have received some letters myself, I also might write something in return if it is of concern of the neighboring kingdoms, like killing criminals while I am not a part of the legitimate forces.>”
Jacob waved his hand as a gesture for Smith to leave. “<I need you to leave… We can handle ourselves, we don’t need you. Just relay those letters you receive to us, and stop killing without explaining yourself later to us and the kings.>”
Smith nodded. “<Fine. I’ll try to figure out what is going on in the Inimal kingdom. I have some guesses, but I need proof. And I haven’t killed that much, only someone who tried to rob me on my way to Schotenburg to get the first soldiers, two on our way back, a poacher in the Inimal kingdom, Jan-Peters wife and a lot of soldiers and others who were with her, and maybe some more.>”
Jacob waved more angrily with his hand. “<Yeah, fine. Plenty of kills. Now go, please. I think I just signed something wrong. I don’t agree with a paper, and I signed it. Thanks for distracting me.>”
Smith walked over to Jacob and grabbed a paper he thought Jacob had wrongfully signed, and tossed it into the fireplace. “<What paper?>”
Jacob looked at the ceiling in disbelief. “<Yeah, indeed. What paper. Not the paper you incinerated. But this one. You just gave me a lot more paperwork with your actions. Go!>”
Jacob was getting angry, and Smith retreated. Slightly grinning.

“<Are you afraid?>” Rolph asked Smith when he escorted him to the exit.
Smith shook his head. “<Not more than I was when I visited the Inimal village for the first time.>”
“<I mean… Aren’t you afraid that the capital is run over by Wolves? They must have passed it.>” Rolph rephrased the question.
Smith shook his head. “<No, that would be a stupid strategy. They were north of the river, capital is more south.>”
Rolph grinned. “<Hello general Smith, what do you know about strategies?>”
Smith also grinned. “<More than you think. But think for yourself. You destroy a little village, and friends of that little village attack your other enemy because they don’t know what happened. The enemy of your enemy is suddenly an ally you can deal with later. I don’t know what the Wolves want, maybe weakening the Feline Inimal enemy by letting the Humans attack them.>”
Rolph nodded. “<Seems plausible… Well… Farewell if the capital is run over, you can’t fight a Wolven army alone.>”
Smith sighed. “<Goodbye. Not farewell. Just don’t let this village be run over.>”
Rolph sighed too. “<We lack a good strategist with you, Willam and Arthur gone.>”
Smith patted Rolph on the shoulder. “<But we have Siegfried. Don’t underestimate him. Although I don’t know where his loyalty might go now that he also knows that he is pardoned for his crimes.>”
Rolph nodded. “<Also? Did you already knew that?>”
Smith also nodded. “<Yes… I have received a letter from the Inimal king where he asked for Siegfried’s help, but I didn’t want Siegfried gone, so I haven’t told him. And now we really can’t miss him. I suspect Jacob feels the same about it, that's why he hadn't told Siegfried either before mentioning it today.>”
Rolph nodded and sighed. “<Not nice what you have done, not telling him, but understandable. Goodbye.>”
Smith smiled. “<See you soon. Now that Siegfried knows it, it might be a trade, group of Inimal soldiers, maybe cadets from the Academy, for Siegfried.>”
Rolph shook his head. “<A person is not something you can sell. You should know that. Now go, we are talking far too long.>”
Smith grinned. “<Another goodbye?>”
Rolph also grinned but shook his head. “<No. Go.>”

“Where are you going?” Arthur asked Smith when he passed the assault course again.
Smith stopped, and stared distracted at the Human soldiers from Eleventh who were trying the course, they hadn’t left, only went to the horses to calm them. Only the few Human soldiers from Smithsville who were also at the assault course weren’t covered in mud, because they already knew how to cross it. There were also a few Foxes, with bow and quiver ready for a go over their part of the course. “<I’m going to ask Melany if she wants to stay at my house while we are gone. To keep Mary company. And after that with Mary and I with you and Chester with Charlene and Felix with Violet to the Vulpine for a visit.>” Smith answered in Human, because the Human captain of Eleventh who was standing next to Arthur.


Arthur nodded. “<That is very nice of you, but I think she will refuse. You know, our new home with her workshop is almost finished, and she is busy there. And she just orders fabric by messenger, that way she can continue working.>” Arthur replied, now also in Human.
Smith nodded, a bit disappointed. “<Understandable. You think that Felix and Violet want to come along?>”
Arthur shook his head. “<I doubt it. Violet is pregnant. Chester hadn’t noticed that when he was ogling her.>”
Smith shrugged. “<All right… Then it will be me and Mary with Chester and Charlene. Eleventh can go home when we return.>”
The captain of Eleventh nodded. “<Or sooner if we are needed elsewhere, although we prefer to stay here. Not for Mary, but here we actually learn something. No wonder the Inimals are better fighters if you see how they practice.>”
Smith nodded. “<I’m going to put on some comfortable pants, and then I’ll show you how to run this course. I have beaten all the Human soldiers here.>”
Arthur shook his head. “<No, you won’t. Don’t go bragging about your skills. It’s easy to slip, and get injured beyond walking tomorrow. You forbade William and Katie to continue, and now I forbid you. Just… go and take a bath, with Mary.>”
Smith nodded. “<A bath sounds good, last bath in maybe weeks, but without Mary. But that is personal, Humans are different, we have a slower start with our relationships.>”
Arthur also nodded. “<Last warm bath then. Plenty of cold rivers and ponds. But don’t let the children in either, they have had their time of luxury, no bath for them as well.>”
Smith nodded. “<Memories of a regular warm bath because they were covered in mud instead of their last luxury warm bath, I understand. But I’m afraid they already have used the warm water. Let’s hope those in the smithy don’t have to use to forge much today, so I can put the shields around it to capture the heat.>”
The captain smiled. “<You live a life of luxury, but on the other hand you have to do a lot for it. There is a water tank above the forge? Clever, that means you have free warm water after a day of work.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… Now, if you excuse me, this lord wants to take his bath.>”
The captain nodded, and unintentionally saluted Smith, again.

“<Well, nothing to do… Oh, you already have the shields around the forge>” Smith spoke when he entered the smithy, and saw that the people there already had done what Smith wanted to do.
Frank nodded. “<Yes, a mud-covered Katie and William came asking for that. They wanted a warm bath. And I heard them fill the tank again, so there will be warm water for you too.>”
Smith grinned. “<No problem. I’m sure they will miss this luxury, warm water whenever they want it. Even a king has to ask his servants for warm water, and I have it for free every day if the forge is used.>”
Frank nodded again. “<But only after a hard day of work, like it’s supposed to be. I’m sure you will tell Mary she has to wait until evening.>”
Smith nodded. “<She already knows. And let me tell you this: You do anything Mary doesn’t like, you die. Painfully. I’m not sure if I am going to kill you, but I am sure there will be a lot of people willing to do it for some money.>”
The last trace of the grin Frank always has on his face disappeared. “<You never threatened me before like that… You are serious… I keep that in mind… just… go.>”
Smith nodded. “<You know I am serious. Just treat her with the respect she deserves. She might even befriend some other women, those can be yours, but not Mary.>”
Frank smiled again. “<I hope so. You leave at first light I guess? In that case I wish you a good journey.>”
Smith nodded. “<And see what orders I can get. Although I do not want to offend the Inimal smiths at the Academy and maybe court.>”
Frank nodded again. “<Understandable. Now, enjoy your last bath. Knowing you without Mary.>”
Smith smiled. “<You know me. I respect women.>”

“<Back already?>” A bit startled Mary greeted Smith. Startled because Smith had used the door between the smithy and his house.
Smith nodded. “<Yes, and I want to take my last bath here before I leave.>”
“Can we join you?” Katie asked, clean again and wearing her clothes.
Smith shook his head. “<You and William just had your bath. This time it will be just me.>”
“Can I join you?” Mary asked, in Inimal.
Smith shrugged. “Then I’ll get my bathing pants. With Charlene and Melany it was naked, but with the children around it was always with my bathing pants. Until permission of your father I will be clothed with you around.”
Mary grinned. “But I will be naked, and I demand a massage.”
Smith shrugged, but was also grinning. “Bathing pants, bathing tent… not much difference. But you won’t see the tent-pole… I think I’ll go buy some massage oil first, I think that would be really nice instead of my dry callus covered hands.”

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Chapter 32 - The Academy of Things

#36 Post by Neutral Smith » Sun Oct 16, 2016 8:23 pm

Chapter 32
The Academy of Things


Smith woke up next to Mary. All the memories of his past had come by. The gentle kneading that the Felines wanted, the rougher slapping that the Bergvolk women had done, the kissing and stroking he had done with his previous Human lover. All his memories used as a source of inspiration to use on the woman he loved today.
He smelled Mary’s hair and caressed her soft breasts. This was nice, it was a pity he had to leave today.

“Daddy! Are you awake? It’s already past breakfast time!… What are you doing?”

Smith reluctantly opened his eyes, replacing his nice dream with the harsh daylight, not even the gentle light of early dawn. Mary’s hair looked as good as it smelled. Smith closed his eyes again, this was a dream, and Katie calling him was just his imagination.

Someone jumped behind him on the bed, lifting the blankets off him and stuffing them between him and Mary, forcing him to lay on his back. It was Katie, the nightmare of day had begun.
“<Eww, gross!>” He heard Katie call out, in perfect Human.
Smith opened his eyes for the second time, and saw Katie, fully clothed, staring at his crotch.
Smith cleared his throat, it was a bit dry. “<Remember what Melany and I have taught you when we were at the old inn? You know what it does, and I must admit that Mary is very attractive.>”
Mary giggled and also turned around. “<It is quite small, but your father compensates it with a pair of very soft hands… Katie, go. It is very impolite to stare at naked people… If you are a Human of course, I don’t know how Inimals judge those things.>”
Smith nodded, shrugged, and got up. “<No shame, like you already knew. Katie, never forget that Mary and I are Humans, we have shame and dignity, respect that, that is why you have seen me naked only four times, and three of those were unintended from my side… I have broken many promises last evening and night, and done a lot of things, it took a lot of effort on Mary’s side to get me undressed, but I haven’t done things that could get Mary pregnant… I’m going to shave myself, visit the toilet, skip my breakfast and then we’ll walk. I want to eat fish tonight, at the river.>”
Mary giggled again “<You forgot ‘getting dressed’.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Yes… also putting on the correct clothes for walking. Katie, get off the bed, naked Human wants to get out of it.>”

When Smith entered the living room, clean-shaven, dressed, bowels empty, backpack completed with his shaving set and the admission letter from the king and some other papers, and ready to announce he was ready to leave he saw that Mary also was there, still naked.
“<There are rules in this village about walking around naked.>” Smith spoke, after some time admiring her body in the light of day.
Mary stretched herself, she did not seem to have any problem with walking around naked. “<Really?>”
Smith nodded. “<There is a coin embedded between two floorboards somewhere in this room. It is there because there was a disagreement between two groups of Humans. One said that they were not in the oppressive Human kingdom, and they could do whatever they wanted here, and the other group did not want to be offended. I tossed a coin to decide whose rules we would follow, but the first coin got stuck upright and I got a bit angry. Second coin was for the religious people, and that is why you as a Human have to wear clothes outside. If you want to walk around naked indoors you’ll have to install some shutters for the living room windows. I won’t like them, those shutters make me feel like I’m locked up, but if you want them ask Charlene to have them installed, she manages everything in this household and my money. I just don’t want you to be a distraction for the village.>”
Charlene nodded. “<Yes… Now please go, you haven’t even noticed Arthur, he is getting impatient.>”
Smith shrugged, and got his backpack. “<All right. Let’s go. Don’t burn down the house.>”
Mary smiled, and gave Smith a goodbye hug, which made him feel a bit uneasy. Given the giggling Katie and William did he must have turned bright red. He stopped caring, and grabbed Mary’s bare bottom, which in turn resulted receiving a slap in the face again.
Smith smiled, and turned around. “<Well… That was better than a goodbye kiss.>”
Mary grinned. “<Just come back in one piece. Without that annoying kids of yours.>”
Smith sighed, but said nothing, and left with his house, following William, Katie and Arthur.

“You didn’t reply when when Mary said something that was not very nice about Katie.” Arthur spoke when they passed the last house of Smithsville.
Smith nodded. “She doesn’t have to know the truth.”
“What truth?” Arthur replied, while he started to walk faster.
“Can you please slow down? The children can’t keep up!” Smith replied, already regretting he didn’t have breakfast but was almost running on an empty stomach.
“No problems here!” William replied.
“What truth?” Katie added.
“Doesn’t matter, it’s a secret. I’m sorry I told too much.” Smith replied, almost breaking into a run to keep up with Arthur.
Katie and William passed them left and right.
“Slow down children, I just wanted some distance to talk to Smith in private.” Arthur spoke at a rather commanding tone, and started to slow down himself, adjusting his walking speed to that of what Smith was capable of.
Smith sighed, a sigh of relief. “We have plenty of time, we left one day earlier than planned. Yes I want to stay at the river for the night, but no, I am not going to tell anything more than you need to know. Let’s just talk about other things.”
Arthur nodded. “I can make some guesses, it is not a coincidence we are walking both the children to the Academy like this.”
Smith shrugged. “Just prepare yourself for some surprises.”
Katie climbed a tree, and dropped down on Smiths neck. “Surprise! Although you can’t surprise me.”
William grinned. “I have learned that I never should be surprised about what your father does.”
Smith lifted Katie off his shoulders, and put her on her feet again. “You surprised me once, but now you are old enough to walk the entire distance. Although be careful not to tire yourself too much, I am not going to carry you.”
William sighed. “Both my first and my second father have never carried me.”
Smith patted William on the shoulder. “But you have become a strong Tiger. You already know a lot, and can do a lot, but still you will be in the special class where the basics are taught. You already know most of those basics, and that will make you better than the rest of the children. I want you to help your classmates, no matter what species.”
William shrugged. “I won’t help Wolves.”
Smith sighed. “Even Wolves. I want to figure out what is going on, and that is easier when Wolves trust you.”
William nodded. “You are like a king is supposed to be.”
Smith patted William again on the shoulder. “I want you to be the king, and Katie to be the queen of your class. And in the later years I want you to be the king and queen of the entire Academy, helping everyone.”
William grinned. “And after that king and queen of the country? I don’t think so, that will be the third Feline in a row, that can’t be good.”
Smith patted William again on the shoulder, but said nothing. He really was regretting he hadn’t eaten this morning. Lucky for him it was close to lunchtime, close to some bushes with some delicious early berries.

The walk was long, but not very hard. Days of sun and days of rain, and all days of boredom, but finally they reached the capital of the Inimal kingdom, on a cloudy morning. It looked rather boring, and was smaller than Smith expected it to be. But the worst part of all was that they had lost track of days.
“Well… Finally something else to talk about than nothing and the order of some words. This would have been a marvelous sight… maybe on a sunnier day.” Smith remarked when he saw their destination, ‘The Inimal Academy of Arts, Fighting, War and Diplomacy’. Or something else, like ‘The Academy where they teach you the Art of Fighting in a War when Diplomacy had failed’. Or even ‘The Buildings of Disagreements about Art, and how to solve it’. But art was not an important subject that was taught when Arthur left.
Arthur nodded. “Yes. That is because Inimals don’t have cities like Humans have. If a village is large enough for two competing workshops and an inn we already call it a city. Most of our capital consists of the Academy, the palace and the administration, the barracks and supporting buildings… And I am sorry for the boring journey, I have avoided most of the villages, a Human is still an enemy for a lot of Inimals.”
Smith nodded. “You said 'most of'… The only villages I have seen were abandoned, I haven't even seen an occupied hut.”
Arthur nodded again. “The fear you had when you visited the old Inimal village across the border to learn the Inimal symbolism was real, and the Inimal kingdom is still a dangerous place for a Human. But we do have passed quite a few villages, but they were hidden in the forest. If we had taken a wrong turn it could have become more difficult to protect you.”
“And I have seen a few Leopards in the trees.” William added.
Arthur nodded. “Yes, those were Ferals.”
Smith shrugged. “We have arrived, from now on it's impossible to avoid other Inimals. I guess you are glad the Academy is on the east side of the capital, where we are.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, but the people here are more civilized. I don’t think that a message about not harming you has been sent to all those villages we have passed.”
Smith shrugged. “Then just deliver the children, and head back. I asked you to come along to protect me, and if you say it’s not safe, I listen.”
Arthur slightly grinned. “That would be a first, you listening.”
Smith shrugged. “I would listen to your arguments. I never said I will do as you say. Now let’s go, I expect rain. Again.”
Arthur shook his head. “No, not leaving immediately, I want to meet some old friends. I trust them enough to have you around, just don’t do stupid things.”
Smith grinned. “If I hadn’t done stupid things my life would have been very boring. Trade your sword for some boring chisels? Then you can be a carpenter.”
Arthur patted Smith on the shoulder. “Never change. Let's go to the Academy.”

They weren't the first that arrived at the rather unimpressive looking front door of the Academy. There were some more children with and without their parents, mostly mothers. A lot of species, and all boys. Smith assumed most of them were orphans and widows.
“Good morning.” was Smiths greeting, startling a few of them, but only those who didn't see him arriving.
“Morning. Smith, isn't it?” one of the Leopards replied. It was a mother who was there with her son.
Smith nodded. “You know who I am?”
The Leopardess nodded and smiled. “We all do. You are a friend of the king. Welcome.”
“Keep an eye on your surroundings. Remember that.” Was Arthur’s greeting.
Smith grinned. “Don't mind my friend, he graduated years ago. I'm sorry I startled a few of you because you didn't see or hear me coming. Be glad I am not an enemy. What are you waiting for?”
“They won't open the door for us.” one of the Dog boys replied.
“Then knock again.” Smith replied, a bit annoyed about the incompetence of the people who were waiting for something to happen.
“If one of the parents knock it's a bad omen, most of the children whose parents have done that fail, and if one of the children use a rock or a piece of wood to knock louder and they damage the door it would be a bad start.” Arthur spoke while he gestured William and Katie to sit down and wait patiently. “It could take a few hours, this is a first test. If you get impatient and turn around and walk away you fail.”
Smith nodded. “I understand. But I look at life as a business opportunity, if you are too slow a client will walk away, and that could have been a very good client. William, stand up, I need that rock you are sitting on.”
William stood up, but reluctantly. “What are you going to do?”
Smith grinned, and lifted the rock William had been sitting up to his chest, and started to walk towards the door. “Do as I say, but never as I do.”
Arthur had a look of disbelief on his face, but quickly turned around when he saw what Smith was about to do, like he was trying to hide his laughter.

Smith started to use the rock as a battering ram, slamming it onto the door and after a few blows through the door, splintering and dislodging the planks. But before the door crumbled someone shouted to stop from the other side.
Smith grinned, and tossed the rock aside. “And what is going to happen when a parent almost destroys the door?”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief. “Nobody has ever tried that before.”

The door cracked. Not open like it was supposed to open, but cracked because someone was trying to push the door open from the inside, and instead of opening it he pushed a plank from it, and through the formed gap he could be seen staring dumbfounded at it, holding it at the handle.
“Stand back! I’m going to finish what I started!” Smith called out at the perplexed Wolf at the other side of the damaged door.
Before the Wolf could retreat to a safe distance Smith took a run, and kicked the door with all his strength.
The only result was that Smith hurt his leg, not severe, but enough to reconsider kicking the door again.

Finally the door was opened. Not the way it was supposed to open, but as soon as the lock was unlatched it simply fell from the broken hinges and landed with a dull ‘thud’ at Smith’s feet.
“Good morning. A door made by Wolves, that is not a good start.” Smith was the first to speak, he was far too amused to stay silent.
“You will pay for this.” were the first words the Wolf spoke.
Smith nodded, and grinned while reaching for his pocket. “Of course. Six big silver for a lot of fun, right?”
“Why… Y… Yes… No… I mean I…” stuttered the Wolf.

“King approaching!” someone called from the hallway.
Smith quickly put his wallet back, and swatted the dirt and splinters from his clothes, and made a few steps backwards to give king Leopold proper ground to stand on, instead of a destroyed door.

“Send those children inside! They are admitted… Smith! Finally! You stay here! Some words with you!… Arthur!… Good to see you again too.” King Leopold spoke after he stared for a few minutes at the carnage that Smith had created.
“Thank you sire!” Arthur replied.
“See you in a few moments!” Smith called at Katie and William who were guided away. “Good to see you too sire!”
King Leopold shook his head in disbelief. “I have sent a message to every village you might encounter along your way here to receive you and send a me messenger to inform me that you are on your way, but here you are, completely catching us by surprise. And destroying the front door of the Academy.”
Smith grinned.”Blame Arthur. He is a very capable Elite, thanks to him we have avoided every village. And sorry about that front door, I will pay for the repairs.”
Leopold nodded. “Of course you will… I could have expected that. And avoiding villages explains why you are here only one day before the opening of the new year. You haven’t taken the fastest route. I should have sent Arthur a message as well.”

“Shall we go inside? I need to use a toilet, and emptying my bladder against the facade of the Academy is not very polite.” Smith spoke after an awkward silence.
Leopold nodded and slightly grinned. “You are not in the position here to make demands, but all right… And after that we eat and talk some… Men, take their backpacks and bring those inside too.”
Smith grinned when he saw the people staring at him, with open mouths. “Old friends.”

When Smith and Arthur were seated the first plates and bowls of food were brought in for lunch. Quail, dove, pheasant and a lot of other small looking poultry that must be very expensive.
Smith gestured at a Fox waiter. “For dinner I’d like to have some springbok biltong. Preferably prepared by a Lion or Cheetah, or some other southern Feline. Is that possible? And a good Human host eats the same as his guests, I want the same for the king.”
The white Fox waiter bowed. “Very well sire.”
Smith shook his head. “Sir, not sire. I am a guest of the king, not a king myself.”
The Fox bowed again. “As you wish sire… sir.”
King Leopold started to smile as soon as the last of the waiters had left the room. “Smith, you are the best friend I could have. I love biltong, but as you can see I only get the most expensive food, I can’t even name all birds that are on my plate.”
Smith nodded. “I’m sorry I invited myself for dinner with you. But I’m glad we are on good terms.”
Leopold smiled. “I really appreciate it. But you are a trader, you give the people what they need, and you knew I really needed you here. You really shake things up a little.”
Arthur was a bit sulky. “I’m sorry sire. I am sorry that I avoided all those villages, and I am sorry that I didn’t stop Smith from destroying the door.”
Smith patted Arthur on the shoulder. “You avoided those villages because you wanted to protect me. And it was a door made by Wolves, now it can be replaced by something better.”
Leopold shook his head. “You see that wrong Smith. We will show you around, but you are exactly saying what we want every child to say and do, look around and tell what can be done better.”
Smith shook his head. “Improve it, and let the next generation make more improvements. Cycle of improvements, instead of a cycle of talking about improvements. This way you get nowhere.”
Leopold shrugged. “Hollow words. Improvements will be for my successors.”
Smith slammed his fists on the table, rattling the glassware and plates. “I have learned Inimal symbolism. I was willing to teach a Wolf the art of Human forging. I even regret sending a Wolf away who wanted to learn archery. If people want to learn I let them learn… All right, find a Wolf who is willing to learn carpentry, and let him make a new door. Next Wolf who comes along and thinks he can do better may replace the door. And after that the next.”
Leopold nodded and sighed. “You’d be in for a surprise. A lot of things here are made by the wrong species. Prepare yourself for a lot of Feline masonry and Canine carpentry.”
Smith snickered. “Forced, or willing? I am a Human, I can do everything. Things I make with stone and wood may not be the best, but I think that my work could be compared with the second or even third worst, not the worst, as long as I have the right tools and a patient teacher. But if you are forcing me to do certain work the quality would be awful, and that is what I expect to see here.”
Leopold sighed. “The latter. The mistakes you are warning for were made. It really is awful, but the children must have their dreams.”
Smith shrugged. “I really don’t care about that. Dreams are worthless, it’s the skills and knowledge that count. And what can be done with those skills and knowledge.”
Leopold nodded. “It went on like this for generations, not improving. You are the first adviser who says something else, but you are not an Elfique, you are a Human.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. I am a Human. But I grew up among Inimals, and I have spent some time with les Elfique de la Fôret, les Elfique de la Vallée and das Bergvolk. I have taken the best from all species, and forged that together… I want to walk around here, guided by Arthur, and talk to various people. Is that possible?”
Leopold nodded. “Permission granted. I wish I could come with you… Something about Wolves, am I right?”
Smith sighed. “Yes. I want to know what in the forest is going on.”
Leopold also sighed. “I wish I knew. Terrible… I’m sorry for your loss. But on the other hand, thank you for stopping them. Human revenge would have rekindled the war.”
Arthur nodded. “Thanks to the Red Brigade. We have taken them into our ranks, they are going to protect the north of the Neutral Zone, just like the Wolves of the south are doing in their part. It are only seven, but it’s better than only Felix, Robin and a few hunters.”
Leopold smiled. “Tell them they have permission to cross the border to fight, protect the Vulpine on our side. That way we can spare some of our soldiers for other places.”
Smith shook his head. “They are no mercenaries. This way you are losing terrain, if the Vulpine can’t expect protection from you, you can’t expect them to pay taxes for safety.”
Leopold nodded, and gestured Smith and Arthur to leave him. He had some thinking to do.

Smith sighed after they left the room, Leopold was not as he imagined a king, this was walking incompetence. Smith felt sorry for the Inimal kingdom. It could take a long time to change the things into the way he wants it to be, maybe too long. Smith shook his head, sunken in thoughts. No. This was not the way he wanted to be, he wanted to be a smith in peace… but he felt like he was the only one who could make that happen, peace and prosperity for his Human children.
“Shall we go to the mess hall first?” It was Arthur who broke his thoughts.
Smith nodded. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

“Something bothering you?” Arthur asked, while they walked through the rather large and long hallways between the castle part of the complex and the Academy part.
Smith nodded. “Yes… But please, let me also think. A lot of things are wrong here, and I want to help.”
Arthur sighed. “Indeed. If you compare this to the Neutral Zone this is a bunch of amateurs, while those in the Neutral Zone have a lot less experience.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, but the trouble is, I don’t know who I can trust and who I can’t trust here. If I talk to the wrong person I have the feeling I might end up dead, and there is no way saving me from what I’m up against. It is a bit over my head, but somehow I like this game.”
Arthur nodded understandingly. “Just follow your feelings. Your instincts. And just hope you won’t die in too much pain.”
Smith grinned. “I know who pain is. That will be a friend who will take me away.”
Arthur shrugged. “I want to die as an old Tiger, peaceful in my bed with my grandchildren around me. I wish I didn’t have to fight anymore.”
Smith nodded, and sighed. “We all want that. But to achieve that we need someone who does instead of dreams, and I have the feeling that I am that person. With a bit or your help of course.”
Arthur nodded. “And Siegfried. And Boris. And everyone else we have.”
Smith sighed again. “Left… Everyone else we have left.”

“Well… It’s a bigger mess than I imagined.” Smith remarked when he and Arthur entered the mess hall. Not very busy, but there were quite a few students eating.
Arthur sighed. “Yes… It is. This separates those who are disciplined and who are not. Don’t look up, but on the balconies are teachers watching and taking notes of those who misbehave. This year is almost over, but it will be remembered.” Arthur spoke quietly, the last words almost whispering.
Smith nodded. “White Tiger on the balcony above us, Common Wolf in the dark corner behind that open door, right now taking a step backwards so he can’t be seen directly, and some more older teachers at strategic locations where they observe.” Smith also mumbled.
Arthur stared in disbelief at smith. “How?”
Smith grinned. “Mirrors and big shiny things everywhere, and those are the cleanest things here. This looks a bit like the ball room where I handed in my masterpiece for the Human king instead of a place where you simply eat…”
“You!” Arthur suddenly called out, pointing at the Wolf next to the door, interrupting Smith’s explanation.
A few students looked up from their late lunch.
“Arthur… I don’t want too much attention.” Smith spoke calmly and quietly, but a bit scared of the tone of Arthur’s voice.
“You have made my life here miserable!” Arthur spoke angrily.
“Arthur, don’t.” Smith spoke again, remaining calm, but looking for a solution for the trouble that Arthur was about to cause.
Arthur started to walk towards the Wolf in a threatening manner, arms apart as if he was blocking the escape route of the Wolf, and Smith had to act quickly, and started to run to catch Arthur before he could do harm.

Smith quickly grabbed his friend around the waist because he knew that a gentle hand on Arthur’s shoulder would not be enough to make him change his mind, and at the moment Smith grabbed his own wrist to lock the grip Arthur jumped, dragging Smith with him.
The landing was painful, but there were no broken bones, so Smith held on with all his might. It was like Arthur was ignoring Smith, and had only eyes for his prey. Smith holding on to him was only a nuisance.
“Arthur! Stop!” Smith shouted, but to no avail, Arthur crept on and students fled.
The scared looking older Wolf jumped from his corner to safety, and was lucky that Smith was holding the strong White Tiger down.
Arthur turned around like a funny looking snail, with his arms waving in the air as the eyes, and Smith as the shell. Smith had to hold on, because he knew that if he let go there would be an awful lot of blood. Just… hug the angry big Tiger a little bit more, and try to ignore the fact where his hands and face were very close to, Arthur was only wearing his shirt.

“Arthur! If you don’t cease this attack I’ll leave you here and tell Melany what you have done!” Smith shouted, still struggling to keep the strong Tiger down.
They must have looked very weird, Arthur on his knees, and Smith behind him, feet dragging on the ground trying to get grip, and his arms wrapped around Arthur’s hips with his face at the base of the tail to hold him. But finally Arthur ceased his attack, and started to cry. Smith let go of the big Tiger, and stood up to wipe the dirt off he had collected during the involuntary tour across the mess hall.
The White Tiger that stood on the balcony jumped down, but lost his balance at the landing next to Smith.
Smith indifferently pulled him back on his feet, like he always did when someone was in trouble.
“Thank you… I’m sorry, old age. I promised myself to never jump down again.” the Tiger apologized.
“What is going on?” Smith asked, staring at his sobbing friend.
“Come with me. Talk. Arthur, you as well.” the White Tiger spoke at a commanding tone, looking from Smith to Arthur and also gesturing the Wolf that he had to come along.
“Yes master Tiger.” Arthur spoke, barely audible.

“Arthur, go stand in that corner, listen, but don’t look. You, Human, sit down. Wilco, check for students, and close the door.” The old White Tiger spoke after he had seated himself behind his desk.
Smith nodded as soon as the door was closed. “I think I understand what you have done with Arthur. Permission to speak?”
The old and tired looking Tiger nodded. “You look like a very smart Human. I can tell you have seen and done a lot of things in your life. Tell us what you think, I will tell you when you are correct, but I won’t tell the truth when you are wrong.”
Smith nodded. “A game of ‘good teacher, bad teacher’. Feline and Canine. The Wolf does things the Felines don’t like, and you, big Tiger, do the things Canines don’t like, and you teach your own kind how to defend themselves against the other. Every time a student understands it you take it to the next level, and do something new, something more painful or humiliating. That way they learn fast.”
The Tiger nodded. “I call myself Master, and it would have been an honor to have you as a student. You are correct.”
Wilco nodded. “Indeed. I never liked using Arthur as a punching bag, but he never cried. I really had to be careful when my friend Master had taught him new ways to defend himself.”
Master also nodded. “Yes, Arthur was a shy little boy when he came here. And afraid of the dark, like no-one else. He must be glad he had someone like Chester to pull him through. If you don’t know him you will see him as a strong man, but look at him now, standing in the corner like a boy, he hasn’t changed for us, although that outburst of violence was a bit unexpected.”
Smith smiled. “Arthur, you outrank both of these teachers, get a chair and sit down like a man.”
Arthur looked timidly over his shoulder, but as soon as he saw that the others were staring at him he turned to stare at the walls again.
“Arthur! I gave you an order. Sit down, get over here, and get a chair. Put that in the right order, and do that!”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief because Smith tried to be funny again, but finally sat down next to Smith. “I wish you wouldn’t bring up my past here.” he spoke softly.
Smith patted his big friend on the shoulder. “I can’t change the past you had here, but we do know the right man to help you with your fear of the dark. If I get back with Mary I want you, me and Boris to train in the dark. I wander off, and you have to find me in the dark forest.”
Arthur sighed. “That’s dangerous.”
Master sighed. “That is exactly what I am afraid of. You don’t know the fears he has. Who is Boris by the way? Do we know him?”
Smith shook his head. “I don’t think you know him. He is a blind hound, abused as a tracker by Human poachers, and I saved him. Now he is our nose and ears, he and Siegfried Wolf have cleared the forest of criminals.”
Wilco smiled. “Siegfried Black? I know him. He would have become the next king if he didn’t run away… A sad story. In love with another Black Wolf from his village, the old king would have approved their marriage despite his father, but he left.”
Smith nodded. “Ran away, became a criminal, I spared his life and now he is with us. And so is Chester Cheetah, he is also still alive.”
Master nodded. “Chester alive? That’s also nice to hear. You really collect the best people around you. Do you know more we might know?”
Smith shrugged. “I honestly don’t care much for the past of people, we have had quite a number from the prison in Schotenburg, but there is one that also stands out a little, Walther Wolf, a Grey.”
Wilco nodded. “There was a Grey Wolf named Walther who left in his first year. Left because he didn’t want to kill a rabbit they had to raise as food.”
Smith grinned. “I think we are talking about the same Walther. Nice Wolf, but you don’t want to stand in his way when he wants to protect.”
Wilco nodded. “Indeed. He was forced to leave after he killed some others who were toying with the rabbit’s head. He was spared from the death penalty because he was a good soldier.”
Smith smiled. “I guess we are talking about the same person… Now that the past is resolved I have a question for you. How many Bears are here?”
Wilco grimaced. “One. But he is a troublemaker, keeps beating up the Wolves.”
“And he doesn’t listen to me either.” Master added.
Smith nodded. “Do you know where I can find him? I want to meet him.”
Wilco shrugged. “Most of the free time he can be found at the training ground, in the wrestling ring, waiting for another opponent he can beat… Why do you want to meet him?”
Smith smiled. “It has been a long time since my last wrestling match, and I want to try it again with a worthy opponent.”
Wilco grinned. “Shouldn’t you try a Wolf first?… Oh, you have a history with Wolves. You also beat all of us.”
Smith shook his head. “No, only those who tried to kill me. But truth is, I know his father Bernhard and his mother Belle, and now I want to know him as well. His father is dead, and his mother told me she didn’t want him to know she is alive. I just want to meet him.”
Wilco nodded. “I understand. And the wrestling?”
Smith smiled. “I have spent a few months with the Bergvolk, and that was a sport there. My strength can be compared with an average Ork. I want to wrestle again, but unfortunately my Ork friend doesn’t want to wrestle me, and my Troll friend is too strong for me, and he knows my tricks.”
Wilco nodded again. “We also use the Bergvolk rules. But his strength is almost like a Troll. You can’t beat him.”
Smith grinned. “Don’t underestimate me.”

“Well… These are our proving grounds.” Wilco spoke at a rather bored tone when they, Smith, Arthur, Master and Wilco entered the rather large open square.
Smith looked at him. “If you don’t like giving me a tour you can go back.”
Wilco sighed. “I don’t like it here. But I am curious, I want to see if you are capable of beating our Boris.”
Smith nodded. “I understand. But first I want to say ‘Hi’ to my children. I see that Katie and William are already looking at the assault course.”

“Hello mister Smith!” William shouted when he noticed Smith approaching them.
“Hello William, Katie, Tiger teacher.” Smith greeted the children and the teacher who was with them.
“You must be their father.” the Common Tiger, a bit younger than Arthur, spoke after a few moments of staring at Smith.
Smith nodded. “Yes. A year ago I took care of Katie, and just after winter of William.”
The Tiger nodded. “And this must be Arthur. Impressive sword, may I look at it?”
Arthur unsheathed his sword and handed it the teacher. “Of course.”
“Impressive… heh… Duty… Funny name for a sword. The sword that killed so many Humans and our number one enemy. Unfortunately held by a Human.” the Tiger mumbled while he admired Arthur’s sword.
“Hello, that Human is standing next to you.” Smith spoke, slightly annoyed.
The Tiger nodded. “Oh, of course… It truly is a masterpiece. It’s… the best sword I have ever had in my hands. Although it’s a bit too large… But it’s Arthur’s, he is a White after all. And I see he has two daggers too. And nice clothing. He must be a very lucky man.”
Arthur nodded. “All thanks to Smith… I suggest you to be a little more friendlier.”
Smith put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Arthur… don’t. I can handle myself, you don’t have to defend me. Now let’s go to the wrestling ring.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes… that would be the wisest thing we could do.”

“Good afternoon.” was Smith’s greeting for the Bear who was sitting on a log.
“Afternoon… Smith, I presume?” was the Bear’s reply.
Smith nodded. “If you know another Human right here right now in this city I want to meet him… And you must be Boris. I want to wrestle you.”
Boris stood up, and was a bit larger than Smith expected. “Wrestle me?”
Smith nodded. “It has been a long time since my last match, and you seem to be a worthy opponent.”
Boris smiled. “You are smaller than a Wolf, but all right. Best of five?”
Smith nodded. “I was afraid you would say ‘best of seven’, but I have no problem beating you three rounds.”
Boris grinned. “All right… Wilco, I hate you, but I want you to be the referee. Puny Human flying out of the ring or being pinned to the ground for three counts isn’t that hard to see.”
Wilco nodded. “But I will follow the rules by the letter.”
Smith nodded, and took off his shirt to expose his torso. Not very impressive, but imposing an opponent would be his strategy. He managed to suppress a grin, because he knew he looked stupid in the eyes of the strong Bear.

“Round one, fight!” Wilco called while he rang a bell.
“So you are wrestling?” a familiar voice, that of king Leopold, called out.
Boris looked in the direction the voice came from, and suddenly lost interest in the fight and walked out of the ring. “Sire… What a pleasure to meet you.” was his greeting for the king.
They taught a lot of things at this Academy, but not how to properly greet your king.

“Round one, Human wins.” Wilco called out.
“What? I… What?” Boris stuttered while he looked behind him. There was no doubt about he was out of the ring.
“Didn’t you hear me? You lost the first round.” Wilco said with a tone of amusement in his voice.
Smith grinned. “Here you can’t leave the ring to greet the king, on the battlefield you can’t leave to take a [censored] in the woods. It’s basically the same.”
“How dare you to insult my king!” Boris spoke, rather angry. He didn’t expect this loss.
Smith grinned. “I just do. Now, round two, and make it quick.”
Boris nodded and walked back into the ring. “All right… round two… I’m sorry sire… No distractions, just a quick victory. For me.”

“Round two!” Wilco called out, and rang the bell again.
This time it was different. Boris dashed forward for what he thought it would be a quick victory, but Smith quickly stepped sideways to avoid a direct hit and gave Boris a push at the same time. The little push didn’t help much, but Boris passed Smith and was too clumsy for a quick turn. Bears could be agile, his mother was an example of that, but Boris was too used to simply push Wolves out of the ring in a straight line for that. Smith quickly recovered and gave him the last push over the boundary. Boris tripped over the thick rope that marked the ring boundary.

“Round two, Human wins again.” Wilco called out.
“What… how?” Boris stuttered again. He was clearly out of his element.
Smith grinned. “How does it feel to lose?”
“I don’t like it.” Boris replied, swatting the dirt from his fur.
Smith nodded. “I understand. First round you were distracted and simply walked out, second round you were too slow to turn, and I used that… I am not a Wolf, remember that. Next round will be hard for me, because I am out of tricks.”
Boris nodded. “Might be, but I don’t believe you.”
Smith grinned. “Whatever. Round three?”
“Round three!” Wilco called out, and rang the bell once more.

Slowly Smith and Boris circled around each other. It has been a long time since his last wrestle match, but slowly his memories of the matches he had fought in his past came back. Fights before the big test, just having fun. All his opponents were predictable, all fighting in the same manner. He won matches by being unique, using his left arm instead of the usual right, grabbing opponents, and tossing them over his left shoulder to get them down. This Bear had the same education in wrestling, and could be just as predictable.
Smith knew his attack wasn’t strong, he had to wait for his opponent to make the first move. And this opponent was a mountain.
Smith briefly smiled. He remembered that he was avoiding using his right arm since he had dislodged his shoulder. This could be his strong point.
“Why are you smiling?” Boris asked.
“Remembered something from my youth… What are you going to do? Attack me, or simply keep walking in circles?” Smith replied.
Boris’ reply came in the form of an attack, for some reason he wanted to grab Smith’s arms, presumably to incapacitate him.
This was the reply Smith was waiting for. With equal opponents they would have grabbed each others arms and wrestle as long as needed to get the other to his (or her) knees, but this time Smith quickly grabbed Boris’ right arm, turned around, and attempted to toss the heavy Bear over his shoulder. In a split second Smith realized the stupidity of the thing he tried to do, and quickly hooked his leg around Boris’ left leg.
Boris was not used to this kind of tackle, usually the opponents went for his right leg if they ever got this far, and quickly he lost his balance, and toppled over to fall on his back.
Smith quickly jumped on top of the Bear to push the shoulder blades down.
Boris was too perplexed to realize what happened.

The bell rang three times, the fight was over.
“Human wins round three. Three victories out of five. You wish to continue?” Wilco asked when Smith and Boris were back on their feet again.
Smith shook his head. “No, I won, that’s enough for me.”
“It’s not fair!” Boris protested. “I want two more rounds!”
Smith shook his head. “No young Bear, we agreed on best of five, and to follow the rules very strictly. Learn to listen, at the beginning of our little match I said that I was glad that we did ‘best of five’ instead of ‘best of seven’. I never thought I would actually win. I thought I could have one victory like in the second round, using your difficulty to turn, and maybe one more on skill, like our third, but after that I would have been out of tricks because you also would learn from what I do. If you want more I invite you to visit the Neutral Zone, there you can wrestle a Troll.”
Boris smiled. “I’d love to. Consider your invitation accepted.”
Smith nodded. “But now you will enter your third year. Three more years, finish your education, and then you can come.”
Boris nodded. “But how…”
“Your mother is…” William spoke, but quickly shut his mouth.
“My mother is what?” Boris asked.
Smith smiled. “Your mother is still alive and told me about you. She lives in the Neutral Zone now… I am the Human your father probably has told you about. Pleased to meet you.”
“My mother is dead, killed by Wolves!” Boris cried out.
Smith shook his head. “No, she isn’t. She went Feral, got away, and ended up in the Neutral Zone. She didn’t want you to know this, but William here has a lot to learn, like keeping his mouth shut, or at least think before he opens his mouth.”
“I’m sorry.” William spoke timidly, staring at his feet.
Smith smiled, and patted the young Tiger on the shoulder. “Don’t be. Just do whatever you think is right. Boris deserves to know the truth.”
William nodded. “I just don’t want to lie.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t care whether you tell the truth or not, I will find out the truth. And I am not friendly when I find out someone was lying to me… Sire, what are you doing here? Given the honest surprise of Boris here makes me think you don’t visit here very often.”
King Leopold smiled. “I wanted to visit. You being here gives me a reason to also come here. You caused quite a bit of turmoil. Stopping a White causes a lot of fear about the strength of Humans, and you winning of a Bear is also impressive, although I am not convinced.”
Smith smiled. “If I was Arthur’s target I wouldn’t have survived, and I actually have won two rounds, thanks to you I won the third.”
“And Arthur didn’t use his sword” Master added “Weapons are illegal here. I see that the young Tigress has a dagger and a pouch. Is that your daughter?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, this is Katie, I took care of her a year ago, I gave her that dagger, and in that pouch is her sling, she is a good shot with that weapon, just like I am… Katie, give those weapons to me, I will keep them safe.”
Katie handed Smith her sheath with the dagger and the pouch with the sling and projectiles, who in turn handed them to the nearest servant of the king, a Wolf. “Put them in my backpack.”
The servant nodded. “Very well sire!” and almost ran away, like he was afraid that Smith would chase him.
Smith smiled to nobody in particular. “I’m a smith… not a sire.”
“And one more thing Smith.” Leopold spoke again “We are out of biltong. I was quite upset when I heard about that, and we have come up with a different solution, a feast with all the new students and their parents.”
Smith nodded and smiled. “You even start to act like I would do. I assume you are going to compensate the innkeepers and butchers in the city for the loss of income? I’m sure they had some food and meat prepared for their guests, but those aren’t coming because they eat here… And sleep?”
Leopold smiled. “That compensating the city here for the loss of income is a thing I haven’t thought about, but that will be done” Leopold gestured at some of his men, who nodded and one Badger walked away “And you, Smith, son of a Human, will sleep with me in my castle. The rest can sleep in the dormitories. I… made it an exercise for the students, move everything so we can receive a lot of guests.”
Smith nodded. “I understand you like me, but I am not more or less than any other parent. Dormitory sounds good enough for me.”
Master nodded. “If you wish you can use the teachers’ bedroom in the dormitory we reserved for the Feline females, that offers a little bit more privacy.”
Smith shrugged. “I really don’t care. I grew up among Inimals.”
One of the remaining servants grinned. “We know. A little bit more privacy. Arthur has to sleep with the Canines if he doesn’t want to sleep at the castle too.”
Smith shook his head, and shrugged a few moments later, but kept his mouth shut. He did not want to offend anyone. They knew more of him than he was comfortable with. Even Leopold wasn’t continuing his plead to sleep in the castle.
Arthur nodded. “Dormitory sounds good enough. I am just a protector of Smith, also nobody special.”

The mess hall was cleaned up when they returned after the walk around the Academy, and there were already a lot of new students and their parents.
Smith looked around to see if there were six empty chairs close together, but there were no such groups.
Smith shrugged. “Well… I thought we could have our last meal here together and with Master and Wilco, but it seems that everyone already has a place. It is a bit sad to see that the children tend to stay close to their parents, and one empty seat between the families. Katie, William, split up and go and sit next to someone you think is interesting. Don’t talk too much, but listen. I’m going to do the same thing, and see if I can give someone else a chance to sit next to or opposite of the king.”
Master looked a bit surprised. “You don’t want to sit next to our king? I have never seen him this happy, happy because you are around, even though you don’t want to sleep in the castle.”
Smith politely shook his head. “I don’t see him as a friend. I like to meet new people.”
Master nodded. “I understand. I like your attitude, never be afraid of change.”
Smith nodded. “I’ve had so many changes in my life that I’m afraid I get bored if I stay too long with the same people. I have met the Human woman of my dreams, and if I’m not working I want to meet the people she knows. Between starting my new smithy and meeting Katie I have spent almost ten years with the same people. I had the feeling I was dead, but now I’m alive again. Nice talking to you, and now I’m going to sit over there, between that Leopardess and the She-Wolf.”
King Leopold grinned slightly. “Good luck.”

“You are not going to sit next to our king?” the Leopardess, the same he talked to at the front door, noted when Smith moved his chair to sit down.
Smith shook his head. “No, I have seen him enough for today. It would have been a private dinner with biltong with him, but they don’t have that stuff at the castle. And, to be honest, I am not sad about that.”
“You like biltong?” The She-Wolf asked.
Smith politely shook his head. “No, I don’t like it, but the king’s brother, General Leon, did and I thought the king would like it too. He does, but there is no biltong, and now we are sitting here.”
The She-Wolf nodded. “I understand. They say that this is very unusual, normally we just leave the children at the door, and wait for a glimpse of the interior, but this time we even get to eat and sleep here for free.”
Smith nodded. “It might be because of me. Special guest.”
The She-Wolf nodded. “Yes… You have done some marvelous things, I guess he wants you around.”
Smith shrugged. “Maybe… He even invited me to sleep in the castle, but I’m no different from you. Although they say I do get a separate room at the dormitories.”
“Ah, here you are.” a servant interrupted the conversation between Smith and the two women. “The king wants you to speech before dinner is served.”
Smith shrugged. “All right… These are not my people, but I will come up with something.”
The servant smiled. “I know. I was there too when you held your first speech in the Neutral Zone. Here you only have to speak Inimal.”
Smith smiled and stood up. “Right… where can I stand so everybody can see me?”
The servant handed Smith a chair. “Here is a chair you can stand...”
But before the Dog servant could finish his sentence Smith interrupted him “Oh right, the balcony.”
Smith grabbed the chair and helped himself upstairs. It was quite easy for someone who climbs steep roofs to install caps and cowls on chimneys for work, and trees and rocks for fun, and Smith expected it to be forbidden to get upstairs this way. And he also guessed that he surprised a lot of people with his agility.

“All right ladies, boys, occasional gentlemen and one little girl.” Smith started speaking at a rather loud tone. “The king has asked me to hold a little speech until dinner is served. In my opinion it’s a bit of an odd request, I always had the belief that the king himself holds the first speech, but I am a Human, maybe that is why I see things differently… But all right, welcome to the Academy. Many of you will fail… That being said, there is one thing that can pull you through, and that is friendship. Not only being friends with your own kind, but also with people who can complement you. If you can’t reach something ask a Wolf to give you a boost, and throw down a rope so that your friend also can climb up, and together you can take on the next obstacle where you might need strength as well. Trust and friendship, those are the two most important things you will learn here. And about Humans? Well… I’d say just kill every Human who is a thread to your way of life. I do the same, but I don’t discriminate between species, I also have done my deal of killing Humans and, I’m sorry, Wolves. Because if I didn’t do that I would have been dead now. We Humans are second best at everything, and we don’t need each other, but you, Inimals, complement each other. You can’t build a nice house with stone alone, and a wooden house won’t last forever. Archery, strength and agility, combine that and you also will have an army that is hard to stop. I have no idea what else I can talk about… I see that the first amounts of food are being brought in, I am… going to find a way down, because climbing up is easy, but climbing down isn’t, I… erm… hurt my leg.”
“You can find stairs at either the other end of the training fields or at the castle. There are no shortcuts here, except jumping.” Master called at him.
Smith looked around a second time, and saw a length of rope. He tied that to the railing, and climbed down and grinned. “If there isn’t a way I create one.”
Master also grinned. “It’s a miracle that railing held you, the other end of it is rotten.”
Smith nodded. “I noticed.”
Master continued to grin. “You are very subtle and not very subtle at the same time. Normal people walk straight back to the place they stood, but you walked a few paces to your left.”
Smith nodded. “Don’t tell me what I have done, ask the students about what they saw. You noticed it, how many children you think have noticed that too?”
Master sighed. “Not many.”
Smith patted the big Tiger on the shoulder. “It’s your task to teach them.” Smith whispered in Master’s ear while standing on his toes. “Now, let’s eat.” he spoke at a louder tone again.

When Smith was almost done eating the Leopardess suddenly caressed his chin without saying anything.
When Smith looked to his left, not knowing what to say it was the She-Wolf’s turn to caress him on the cheek.
She smiled when Smith turned his head again. “You are so smooth. Even smoother than my husband was when he had shaved himself.” and did not even take her hand of Smith’s chin and kept caressing him. The Leopardess also resumed caressing him, but stopped when she noticed that Smith ignored her.
Smith looked better at the She-Wolf, and her son who who was sitting opposite of her at the table. “Mixed Wolf, a little more brown than your son?”
The She-Wolf nodded and smiled. “Yes… And he is fine. He has work to do. I could have guessed that you are the one who sold him that razor.”
Smith nodded. “And this must be your son… Exactly six years old. Give or take a few weeks. The result of a cold winter that started early.”
The Wolf boy nodded. “I’m Harry.”
Smith grinned in his usual friendly manner. “You’re hairy Harry. Just like your father was. He wanted to get rid of those bristly parts like you also have on your chest. I have a few very good razors for sale. Cheap.”
Harry looked at his plate and said nothing.
“He is a bit shy. But he wants to be a soldier.” his mother apologized for his behavior.
Smith smiled. “Don’t worry Hairy… I mean Harry… Just do your best. You can give that Leopard boy on your right a boost to get up something, he can lower a rope to help you up. Being shy doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Harry sighed. “I’m afraid I will miss my mommy and daddy.”
Smith nodded. “You will. You will miss them, you will be scared, you will cry a lot… But if you can survive all this you will be a strong Wolf. You will make your family proud.”
Harry nodded. “I will.”

“All right parents, children” King Leopold announced when they were done eating “It is time to say goodbye to each other. This is the last time you will see each other in a long time… Tomorrow we have a ceremony for the children and the… their first year begins. I ask the parents to leave for the dormitories, and I bid you a good night. Children have to stay here.”
Smith sighed and stood up. It was never easy to say goodbye to someone you loved, but he had to do it again.

William was already next to him. Smith put his hands on his shoulders. “Be brave. Remember what you have learned in your time with me. I won’t repeat the words I have spoken at home, because those might be a bit… out of place here.”
William nodded. “I understand. See you in a couple of years. I hope sooner, because I’ll try to convince them to practice in the Neutral Zone.”
Smith shrugged. “That’s fine. Although I have no idea what they can learn there. You are an Inimal, and Inimals are supposed to stay on their side of the border.”
“That’s because we… you live of the trade. If people skip the Neutral Zone you will be obsolete.” Katie spoke while she climbed on a chair to give Smith a farewell hug. Standing on the chair she was already taller than Smith was.
Smith nodded. “Yes, that is a fear I have. But I don’t want you to worry about me, just give me a challenge. You try to do the best for your people, I do that for mine.”
Katie nodded. “I will.”
“Starting a war again?” King Leopold interrupted Smith and his children.
Smith shook his head. “No sire, just giving them advise. They must do their best for you, and I will do the best for the Neutral Zone. Might be a conflict of interests, but I’m sure we can figure something out.”
Leopold nodded. “I understand. You have said your goodbye, now please go to the dormitories, long night ahead.”

“What did he mean with that? It’s not that late yet.” Arthur remarked when they were walking towards the dormitories.
Smith shrugged. “I have no idea. Now I bid you a good night, and hope those Canines don’t snore too much.”
Arthur grinned while he looked up ahead in the hallway. “Oh… Now I understand what he meant. Good night, I have to turn left here for the place where I can sleep. Your bed is through that door where that Leopardess and other Felines are waiting… Indeed a long night ahead for you, and see if you can live up to your reputation. You are famous here, and now they could meat a living legend.”
Smith grinned. “Pleased to meet you, and no, you won’t see my sausage… although… No, I just stopped caring. You can tell Chester what I have done here. I will only say ‘no’ if a Cheetah wants, and no Cats.”
Arthur shook his head in disbelief, but said nothing and left for his place to sleep.

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Forge of Kingdoms - Chapter 33 - Troubled North

#37 Post by Neutral Smith » Fri Jun 16, 2017 9:13 pm

Chapter 33
Troubled North


“Ah, it's good to be home again.” Smith remarked when he saw the familiar path again.
Arthur nodded. “Indeed. A few more days of walking, and then a warm bath... I still can't believe what you have done... Eleven smiling women leaving your room, and those villages.”
Smith grinned. “Neither can I. But at the Academy it was five in the evening, two in the middle of the night, and four in the morning. And not all of them got what they wanted, I have also used my hands on a few of them, especially the Lioness and the Cats, and the same for a Tigress who woke me up too early in the morning. Villages was just four or five for the whole night. The weirdest part was some of the husbands watching. And also there some manually, I just don’t have it in me any more.”
Arthur nodded again, and grinned slightly. “Chester would be so jealous if he knows... Am I allowed to tell him?”
Smith shrugged. “I don't care. I will only tell him when he asks.”
Arthur grinned slightly. “You are a legend. Everyone knows what you have done in your past. Now they know that these stories are true. Melany already was impressed with your skills, and especially your endurance, and now I am convinced too. We Felines are the intense sprinters, the Canines are slower with a lot more endurance, and you are a good balance between those traits.”
Smith grinned. “Just like with everything else. Humans are second best at everything… Just a few more days of walking, I wonder if they already know it.”
Arthur nodded. “It is astounding how fast news can travel… Should I have avoided those villages again?”
Smith laughed a bit. “No, I didn’t quite enjoy it, but now they know who I am… Feels a bit like a few weeks before I met my previous wife.”
Arthur nodded. “But I am no civilian with a skillet, I am a skilled fighter, and so are the others. We are also willing to die for you, just like those from your old village.”
Smith sighed. “I hope it will never come to a fight again. It’s a pity I didn’t get to be with the Canines, I might have gotten more information.”
Arthur shrugged. “I doubt it. Those Wolves are much more closed than we Felines are, you might think that they are more group-minded instead of individuals, but their orgies are only with other Wolves, and you did the Felines one at a time. But the males are the more liberal, just look at Rolph with his Linda and Minou’s former lover.”
Smith sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it. It makes me feel dirty. I want Mary, and only her.”
Arthur nodded. “I understand.”

“<You look even more beautiful than I could remember>” was Smith's greeting for Mary when he saw her walking back home with some groceries, meat from a few Canine butchers in the west part of Smithsville.
Mary turned around, but did not drop the items she was carrying. “<Smith! You're back!>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… It was quite an experience, but I’m glad I’m home again, here I only have two women.>”
Mary looked at Smith and shook her head in dismay. “<I don’t know what you have done, but given your reputation I can make a guess. Did you know that there are at least four other Feline women, besides Charlene and Melany, who secretly love you?>”
Smith shrugged. “<I don’t care about those Feline women here. I… think I have broken a record at the Academy. You are almost too much for me, but my new record is eleven in one night.>”
“You did what?” was Chester’s greeting when he was within Smith's hearing range, he came running as soon as he saw that Smith and Arthur had returned.
Smith grinned. “Eleven. We got to sleep at the Academy, and eleven Feline females left the room they assigned to me with a smile on their face.”
Chester nodded. “Now I understand, you can’t get any Inimal pregnant, that’s why you had and apparently still have so much success with the women. I really wish they can create something to catch the sperm, that would have doubled my chances without pregnancies. And you don’t have claws or a rough tongue like I have, although the human tongues are very wet with that saliva in your mouths.”
Smith shrugged. “But your females are very nice when it’s cold, no need for a blanket, only socks. And I do happen to know a method of catching the sperm, my brothers used animal intestines when they had women visiting them, there are no children. I think I’m going to use those as well.”
Chester nodded. “I’ve heard that and we’ve tried that, but that is more usable for Humans.”
Smith shrugged once more. “Fertile Inimal female is easier to detect than a fertile Human female. Use that.”
Chester also nodded again. “Of course I do when I have the opportunity… and be very careful for diseases, but lucky for me most of those can be smelled too.”
Smith sighed, but said nothing. That was a thing he hadn’t thought about. His youth was so much easier.

“<People who wear socks in bed are disgusting… Please tell me you are not going to wear those when we are old, like I heard the Bergvolk does.>” Mary spoke when they were walking back home again.
Smith smiled. “<Of course not… As long as you don’t complain when I pull the blankets back over you, sliding from your bottom across your back to your neck, and over your head, and then kiss you.>”
Mary hugged Smith, who was now carrying both the groceries and his backpack. “<Who says you are going to be the one on his back while I do the work? I know you like women on top doing the work, but when I’m with you I want to relax.>”
Smith grinned. “<Already making demands? You don’t know me lady, I don’t know how much experience you have with other Human males, but if you end up being like my previous Human wife I’m afraid you have to look further.>”
Mary got a shocked look on her face. “<You… what? But… my father says you are the best son-in-law he could wish for. Are you threatening to abandon me?>”
Smith nodded. “<You don’t know me. I used to be alone for a very long time, the most important people in my life were me, myself and I. The Inimal companions I had were just for fun. You said it, there are plenty more women interested in me, and if those have a better offer for me… well… I’ll take that. You better put some effort in our relationship.>”
Mary stopped walking, and Smith was glad she wasn’t carrying anything, because she would have smashed it to the ground. “<You are unbelievable… but also… you are right. I grew up like a princess, very protected. If I wanted something I could have it. That’s why I became involved with the Inimals, it just gave me something to do, a bit of an impossible task. You on the other hand grew up… well… like an Inimal. You had to fight to be where you are now. You have skills while I have nothing.>”
Smith shook his head. “<That is not correct. You can talk. You can think. You even can do those two things in the correct order… As I promised, you and I are going north, to meet the Vulpine there. I have talked to King Leopold, and I threatened him a bit that if he didn’t provide proper protection for them I will welcome them into the Neutral Zone. It would be fun to see if you can convince them to do that, change sides without a fight. People are a bit hesitant to trade with them, and it would be easier if they move the border to the west side of their village and surrounding lands.>”
Mary shook her head in disbelief, but smiled at the same time. “<You have a lot of confidence in me and what I can do. What if I fail?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Then everything will stay the same. But don’t worry, I will be there to help. On a different subject, I see there are some changes on and around my house.>”
Mary nodded. “<Yes there are. Shall we first bring the groceries inside, then I’ll show you what I have done in your absence.>”

“<Shutters and a… stable for horses?>” Smith noted when he and Mary walked around his house. Everything else was like he had left it.
Mary nodded. “<Yes, for my horse. It’s incredible how fast people can build here, they finished it the day before yesterday.>”
Smith sighed. “<You know about my relations with horses? We do have plenty of other places to put them away from me.>”
Mary smiled. “<Of course I do, but my Antoinette is different. They say that the farrier here loves horses, but she kicked him, he… has some trouble peeing these days.>”
Smith grinned. “<Ouch… must be a nightmare for Harold. Let’s see how it… she responds to me. I am different, she is different, we actually might like each other. I have to walk beside her for our journey north, or you must want to walk the entire distance.>”
Mary nodded. “<I am curious as well… But you did have a donkey that listened to you.>”
Smith smiled. “<I used that donkey because I couldn’t walk and I had… work to do.>”
Mary nodded again. “<I know. Melany and Siegfried have told me about it. Awful, but it was necessary what you have done. If you look at Melany you see a friendly Tigress, but that day she wasn’t.>”
Smith sighed. “<Everyone has his and her dark side. I just hope that mine doesn’t show again.>”
Mary gave Smith a hug. “<Then the ones you love are the only ones that are safe, or will be avenged.>”

When they entered the stable Antoinette was nibbling calmly on a bale of hay. Instead of bolting and neighing in fear she calmly walked towards Smith, who in turn petted her like many people have tried to teach him, but with sometimes disastrous and delicious results like broken legs for the horses and horse meat for a few families.
“<She… likes you. She is normally very picky with people, and here she just likes you.>” Mary spoke staring at Smith like he was doing something impossible, which he actually did. Smith had never encountered a horse like Mary’s Antoinette.
Smith gently patted Antoinette’s neck. “<Indeed. No horse meat tonight, normally it turns out to be panic and broken legs, but this is a fine horse you’ve got here. I am not going to try to put the saddle on and ride her, but walking next to her should be no problem. We’ll leave tomorrow.>”
“<But… You are barely home.>” Mary protested.
Smith nodded. “<Indeed. I’m going to say hello in the smithy, tomorrow I’m going to say hello to Belle and tell her that her son is fine and strong, and tell her that I wrestled him and won three out of five rounds, then a quick round through the rest of the village, and after lunch on our way north again. After we return I want to take Arthur and Boris for training, I found out that Arthur is afraid in the dark and summer nights are short but still dark enough for a good training. Help me remember to order some blindfolds.>”
Mary smiled. “<You are there for everyone. I like that.>”

“<How do you like the house?>” Smith asked while Mary was washing his back. It felt good to be home again, with chairs to sit on instead of logs and rocks, and not having to cook today.
Mary’s gentle washing changed to an embrace, like she was tired too. “<Odd, but practical. At first I couldn’t understand all these steps on the ground level, smithy two steps lower than the floor of the living room, kitchen floor three steps above that, bathroom five more and the bath itself even higher, a low and surprisingly cold cellar beneath the kitchen, but with some sort of a chimney with an opening above the kitchen window. It is a tall building with a lot of space on the first floor, but the attic is inaccessible. Single large room for receiving guests, eating and just sitting instead of separate rooms like I’m used to, and a lot of bedrooms and toilets, and some very thick walls, like those of a castle. And warm water for free. Odd, but everything looks like it was meant to be.>”
Smith nodded. “<And it’s built on a mound. If there Is a flood my house will stay dry… most of it. That high level of the bathtub is for easy siphoning, and for not too much height difference with the tank above the forge. When I saw the plans for the first time I thought the Bergvolk were insane despite knowing how they live, but it turned out to be perfect to serve as both a smithy and an inn. You have seen Olaf, now imagine more than twenty more like him, and of course the smaller Orks and Kobolder, all working together to build it… Heh, it did cost a lot of money, but there was no ‘start small, and expand’ for me. Just this building, and nothing much has changed since. Your shutters are the first change besides the normal maintenance, and to be honest, they seem odd.>”
Smith felt Mary nod, her hair brushing his cheek, and her hand sliding down his front. “<They do. But they give privacy. Shall I ask Charlene to shut them, so we can walk around naked?>”
Smith shook his head. “<No, I’m going to bed. To sleep. Alone. I’m sure you have your own room to sleep in.>”
“<You are no fun.>” Smith heard Mary say when he climbed out of the bath, and grabbed two towels. One to wrap around his waist, and the other to get dry.
Smith said nothing, and went to his own bedroom. He was still a decent Human, with dignity and shame.

“You are eager to leave” Smith noted when he saw that Mary, Charlene and Chester were already waiting for him, Mary sitting on her horse. He had forgotten to say goodbye to the people in the town hall, and had done that that after lunch.
Chester nodded. “Yes… See if we can reach the ruins of Tim’s house tonight. I’d love to see the place where… well… might not be pleasant for you, but I want to feel the power there.”
Smith shrugged. “It’s just forest, no ghosts.”
“Are we going to talk Inimal? Fine, gives me some practice.” Mary replied when she ordered her horse Antoinette to walk.
Smith nodded and went walking besides the majestic animal, a strong lady, just like Mary was. “Yes, we are going to meet people who only speak Inimal, and, to be honest, it is a language I prefer. Human sounds too aggressive… Although not as aggressive as Bergs.”
Mary nodded. “Even when they try to say something nice. ‘Du bist wie ein schmetterling’, I learned that from Olaf.”
Smith raised an eyebrow. “That’s new, them saying ‘du’ instead of ‘sie’… Normally they are quite formal, but, on the other hand, they like to say what you want to hear. You also know some Elfique?”
Mary nodded. “A bit. My father is… quite influential, and he wanted me to learn as much as possible. I might not be as good as you are in their language, but I can understand them.”
Smith nodded. “If you are talking to them and they say something to each other pretend you can’t understand what they said. That way you can learn a lot and gain an advantage in negotiations.”
Mary smiled. “I was afraid that you would say that you would do all the talking. You see me as a Human, and not as a simple woman.”
Smith nodded. “For me everyone is equal. Male, female, Human, Feline, Canine, Vulpine, Ursine, and everything else that eats meat and can talk.”
Mary giggled. “I had one… well… not really a friend… that refused to eat meat. Nobody took her seriously, although I think you could get very far talking to her, as long as you don’t mention it.”
Smith grinned. “You describe her as a person that should talk to Frank.”
Mary laughed. “Indeed, but without your warning that he must be nice. When I was near him he stuttered a lot. Said something stupid, apologized, and so on… I’m glad Robert was around to do some translation for me. I wonder how offended someone can be before she will burst into flames of rage.”
Smith continued to grin. “Frank learns from the best… Well… I could talk for a long time, and when he interrupts he is the one who gets hit. But he also has fists of iron, never lost a fight with an angry customer.”
Chester grinned. “Chasing someone in the evening with two glowing red swords while screaming… some people thought their devil was chasing some sinner, because they prayed for that to happen. A fun story to hear.”
Smith nodded. “But that was Robert who chased that customer. That was a really annoying Human, really mean… If I’m not mistaken they found a pair of soiled pants in the woods near a stream, some Ferals must have gotten him while he tried to wash them.”
Chester also nodded. “Robert is a gentle person, Willem is a nice person, I even like Frank… There are only nice Humans in the Neutral Zone.”
Smith shrugged. “It’s easy: If we don’t like you we make it very clear. We like a lot of people, but if you are intolerant towards others life could become… expensive. We prefer not to use violence, but use our relative remote location in our advantage. You can’t buy the things you need somewhere else.”
Mary nodded. “You don’t like Wolves… with a good reason, and you make things for them almost unnecessary expensive. But you will never send them away or do them harm.”
Smith smiled. “I hated them, but they are my most loyal customers. They took everything from me, and after that they helped me to become rich. Now I call some Wolves my best friends.”
Chester nodded. “Siegfried… At first I didn’t like him, but now I see him as the most loyal Wolf there has ever been.”
Smith also nodded. “And don’t forget Beatrice, Rolph, Walther and those at the quarry.”
Charlene grinned. “But you still don’t like kissing them.”
Mary also grinned. “But they do like kissing you.”

“This is the place where you killed?” Mary asked when they reached the remains of Tim’s house in the evening.
Smith nodded. “Yes. One of the many places where I killed. But this is the place where I killed the most.”
“You don’t even sound like you are proud of it.” Mary spoke after she got off her horse.
Smith sighed. “If you are proud because you killed someone you are doing something wrong… Chester, how did you feel about your first kill?”
Chester smiled. “I had the feeling I made the world a bit safer.”
Smith nodded. “That is the feeling you should have after a kill, the feeling that you did the right thing. Now let’s set up camp, and go to sleep.”
Mary shook her head in dismay. “You are unbelievable. You are talking about killing people like you are talking about swatting an annoying fly.”
Charlene shrugged. “Learn to live with it, Human. You will never understand how Smith was when he came back home from this. He lost friends. He lost people he cared about. We Inimals easily get over the loss of our loved ones, he also tries that, but most of all he tries to prevent more damage, and yes, sometimes that asks for desperate things, like killing almost a hundred of other Humans.”

“It doesn’t feel haunted at all.” Chester noted while he kicked a Human skull away.
“Chester, please, have some respect for the dead. That could have been a father or a loving husband. A Human.” Smith called at him while he prepared dinner, a boar he had shot with his armbrust.
Mary shook her head. “There was no love. Kick that skull over here, I want Antoinette to crush it.”
Smith quickly picked up the skull before Chester reached it again, and lowered it into the stream to let it float away until it sank, almost with respect. “Mary, respect the dead. I ordered the bodies to be burned because I didn’t want anyone to know what happened here, but it seems it wasn’t done properly. Only my friends have a proper grave, right over there, between that tree and the remains of the house.”
“A grave without a memorial.” Mary noted when she tried to discover the spot Smith meant.
Smith shrugged. “It’s somewhere between a Human burial and what happens after an Inimal dies. For them the dead are indifferent towards what happens with their bodies, but I wanted to give their bodies a safe place.”
Mary bowed her head. “I’m sorry.”
Smith shrugged once more. “You don’t have to feel sorry for them. I only want you to leave the dead alone.”
Mary sighed. “Being here changes me. I do believe it is haunted.”
Charlene nodded. “It’s gloomy. I don’t like it here.”
Chester nodded as well. “Indeed. Let’s move at first light again. It feels like we are being watched.”
Smith smiled. “After a fight is won you still see enemies. Be very careful with Arthur, because last time, after the fight with the Wolves he was quite unresponsive for a while. Same goes after a day of working in the smithy, you still hear the sound of the anvil ringing in your ears. You think there are ghosts here, and you… well… you believe there are here. It’s very interesting, but it takes too long to explain.”
Mary looked at Smith. “You know things you wish you didn’t know, you have seen things you wish you didn’t see.”
Smith nodded and sighed. “Yes. I have quite a few secrets I will take with me when I die. Don’t tell me yours, I won’t tell you mine. We go to sleep and tomorrow we move on like this place does not exist. Now you know about it, and if anyone asks you how this place is you just say that it’s boring.”
Mary hugged Smith. “But it is boring. Let’s make the night here short and use it for rest. Don’t speak.”

Smith was standing over the graves of his friends at the edge of the forest when he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“So this is the place. You lied.” It was Mary.
Smith nodded. “Yes.”
“All those nettles… Awful.” Marie replied, almost whispering.
Smith nodded again. “If you see a patch of nettles in a forest there is a big chance there was a body buried there in the last year.”
Mary briefly smiled. “You really know a lot for a smith… Don’t you think that a rosebush would be more appropriate?”
Smith shrugged. “Just another thorny bush… But with some beautiful flowers. Hard to reproduce in metal, but Robert can do that.”
Mary gave Smith a kiss. “I see beautiful flowers with some thorns.”
Smith smiled. “And how do you see me?”
Chester, who also had joined them, grinned. “Thorns and manure. But I’m sure something beautiful will grow.”
Mary was still laughing when she took place on her saddle to get going again.

“Smith! I never thought you had such a good taste in Human women! She is truly a princess.” Floris greeted Smith and his friends. He was sitting in front of his house on his bench.
Smith grinned. “She is the first Human woman who has shown true interest in the last ten years, I think I’ll keep her.”
Mary, who had gotten off her horse, swatted Smith on the back of his head, and kissed him. “I’m lucky I met him, and thanks to him a lot of interesting people. You are Floris?”
Floris nodded. “Indeed. Impressive how you speak our language.”
“You really seem happy. Florette pregnant again?” Charlene asked.
Floris nodded again and hugged Florette who also came outside when she heard Smith’s voice. “Yes, I did it again. I see that Smith is wearing a thick coat, is that the coat with our first daughter Johanna and John?”
Smith opened his coat and showed his friends the lining of his coat.
Florette snickered a little. “Not very pretty, that combination of colors, but I’m sure it’s comfortable.”
Smith smiled. “A bit too warm, but that’s better than too cold. How was the winter here?”
Floris smiled. “We all survived. Shall we go inside? Quail is a bit too expensive, a lot of those died, but Robin and his uncle have good geese, shall I get two of those?”
Smith smiled and nodded. “I shall give you some money for one more, but you also have to invite Robin and his uncle, I want to talk to them too. Last time we didn’t have the chance because of the kings, but now there are no kings, queens and princesses here.”
Floris grinned and took the money. “You are a generous king, and you know that.”

“So, how is life here?” Smith asked when they sat down inside. The sun was below the trees, and it was still a bit too cold to stay outside.
Floris sighed and stared out the window. “There is going to be war.”
Smith shrugged. “Officially there never has been peace. The war between Humans and Inimals is in the south, and these days the Human king has trouble in the east too, and king Leopold has trouble in the west.”
Floris nodded. “Yes, the Wolves want to expand their territory. They are coming this way.”
Smith shrugged again. “They know what I and only a few others can do. I doubt they would dare to cross the border… We are going to the village across the border, and see if they want to join us for protection.”
Mary sighed. “And you told me it would be for trade. I think it’s still better that you do the negotiations, this is… bad.”
Smith smiled. “Don’t worry.”
“Can’t we talk about something else?” Charlene interrupted.
Smith nodded. “Yeah… Let’s talk about this goose. I never liked geese, but this one is good.”
Floris, Robin’s uncle, nodded. “Yes, we saved the best one for you and Mary. I’m glad you like it. But I must admit, Florette really knows how to prepare them. This makes me really miss having a wife.”
Enforcer Floris nodded. “You are an exception here. You know that.”
“And if you even think about laying a finger on Mary I will cut your balls off. Don’t think I’m blind.” Chester added.
Smith grinned. “I think Mary can do her own cutting. I’ll give her some weapons after we return. But I don’t mind if you protect her for the time being.”
Mary grinned. “Eww… gross… But let’s change the subject… You have a Festival of the Touch, don’t you?”
Florette nodded. “Yes. That is for Vulpine couples, to get inspiration.”
Chester grinned. “You need balls for that. It’s an orgy. You might think that the Vulpine are boring, but they are not. We spied on them a few times during training, it was hard to keep the Foxes in our group silent because… well… hard.”
Enforcer Floris glanced at Chester, but said nothing. Smith tried to avoid all eye contact, because his sex life was not kept a secret. Half the Inimal kingdom knows, and after what happened at the Academy the other half also.

“I think we are making Smith a bit uncomfortable. We all know what he has done in his past, better leave it and go to your beds, I see that you are tired.” This time it was Robin who broke the awkward silence.
Smith nodded. “Good idea. I’m indeed tired… And Robin, thank you. I saw you as some sort of brother for Katie when we met you, but now you act like an adult. A bit like my father.”
Robin smiled. “Thank you. You were also like a father to me. Now go to bed, you are tired. You walked all day, and I know Smith can walk fast, like a Tiger.”
Mary smiled. “Never knew a Human could walk that long on that speed.”
Chester nodded. “I can outrun him, but I can never outwalk him. I am exhausted.”
Charlene grinned. “But you had a standing job, keep sentry instead of running messages. How often have I waited for you while we ran for the king?”
Chester smiled. “At least you waited. For me. Smith doesn’t do that.”

The remainder of the journey was easy, with some fat chickens to eat along the way, a gift from some of the White Foxes who were very happy that Humans had helped them with a new home and life.
“Well… here we are, at the border.” Smith remarked when they approached the pole.
Mary nodded. “I have worked my whole life with Inimals, but I have never been to their country. I wonder what it will be like.”
Smith shrugged. “Different. It’s not a single species, the Vulpine are the artists. I wonder why we are not greeted here, I suggest we just move on, and if we are shot we’ll know we made a mistake.”
Mary looked at Smith, not knowing whether he was making a joke, or serious. “What?”
Smith grinned. “They might be the best archers, but they are a bit near-sighted. It’s a thing I don’t understand, but maybe they just shoot and hit anything that moves.”
“You are correct.” A voice in the bushes replied. “But you better go back, an attack is imminent.”
Smith stared at the bushes to discover where the voice was coming from, but was corrected by Chester who pointed at an entirely different shrubbery, dense and large enough to hide in. And it looked well maintained.
Smith unsheathed his sword as if he wanted to attack it. “By me if you don’t show yourself. What in the forest is going on?”
Quickly a Fox jumped from behind it. “Wolves! They can be here any moment!”
Smith nodded and started to walk. “Better get going then.”
“You don’t understand!” the Fox spoke with fear in his voice.
Smith nodded again. “I do understand. What you must understand is that we have a bigger chance to survive if we stay together.”
The Fox shook his head, and tried to stop Smith again, but to no avail, Smith simply pushed him aside.
He started to pull Smith’s arm. “You have Mary with you! Flee while you can!”
Smith shook his head. “If the Wolves are here that means they have passed several Vulpine villages. What makes you think yours is different? Yours will be overrun as well, and then they come after us. Charlene, as soon as we have visual contact and know how much Wolves there are you run and get help. Chester and I will try to kill as many as we can, while Mary hides with the other women.”

“Floris! I told you to send them back! Red Brigade can handle it!” The Chief of the village greeted the odd little group.
“You have a problem, and we are here to help.” Smith replied with a calm voice.
“You can’t help us, only the ghost can help us!” the Chief replied looking fearful at the edge of the forest.
“What ghost?” Mary asked.
“The ghost of the Neutral Zone, we have his sword here.” the Chief replied, clearly nervous.
“I demand to see that sword.” Smith spoke at a demanding tone, even startling Chester.
“You can’t, sacred.” The Chief had regained his composure a little, but still looked very frightened. And offended, because Smith was very, very rude.
“It’s in the big hall.” the Floris that greeted them replied, and pointed towards a large building.
“I’ll kill you for that. No-one is allowed to touch that sword except the ghost.” the Chief replied, while drawing a little dagger.
In the blink of an eye Chester was behind him, with in turn his dagger held at the throat of the Chief. “You better listen to Smith. You don’t know what he can do. He doesn’t go through walls like the ghosts from Human superstitions do, he goes through them like… well… He goes through them, doing lots of damage. Let him have that sword.”
The Chief nodded as much as the dagger at his throat allowed. He was not in a position to make demands. And two more fighters was also better.

Smith entered the big hall. It was surprisingly light, with lots of lit candles. There was a shrine at the other end of the single large room. Smith slowly walked towards it, and dropped to his knees when he saw the object the Vulpine in this village were worshiping. It was his master’s sword, cleaned and sharpened as good as they could. The sword he had used to defeat the eleven Wolves at his old village.

Smith briefly smiled. He had work to do. He got up again, got the sword, and an unknown Human helmet and some chain mail to put on, blew out all the candles he could reach, and went outside again. Going to do what he could do second best, after forging. Killing Wolves. No time for religious feelings.

All the Vulpine outside knelt before him when he got outside again.
Smith looked at them and cleared his throat. “Arise.”
The Vulpine stood up again, staring at Smith, expecting him to save them.
Smith sighed, admired the sword, tugged at the mail to shift it a little, it was a bit too small for him, and then looked at the group again. “All right, Vince! Good to see you again! Everyone who is better at archery than fighting on the ground get on the rooftops at the edge of the village overlooking the field, take as much arrows as you can with you, even the unfinished ones, those can be used to shoot out eyes and into open nostrils. Those who can fight with me, we stand in the middle of the clearing but within range of the archers, we lure the Wolves towards us while the rest kill them. The rest fill buckets and bowls with water in case of fires. And get those practice targets from the field! No shelter for the Wolves.” Smith looked at Mary. “Mary, can you fight?”
Mary nodded, a determined look in her eyes. “Fencing, does that count?”
Smith nodded and unsheathed his sword. “That’s more for ladies, but good enough. Here is my sword, can you read the symbols on it?”
Mary looked at the blade. “Last… Resort… You named your sword Last Resort… You don’t want to fight any more?”
Smith nodded. “Usually I get out of trouble by talking, but this is a last resort. Even in my hands it’s not strong enough to decapitate a Wolf, but give a few of them a nice scar to remind them that they dared to attack you. Get with the other women, defend them, but stay out of sight. When the Wolves see you, you are the target they go for.” Smith also got his armbrust “And here is my armbrust.” Smith started to put tension on the string, and loaded a bolt. “Now you see how to load it, there are more bolts in the butt end, but that takes too much time to reload. Just point it at a Wolf, and pull this little lever. After that you can drop it and use the sword.”
Mary slowly nodded. “We are not going to survive this, are we? This is it, our end. Trying to kill as much Wolves as we can, while Charlene runs to warn others.”
Smith nodded. “If… If the Wolves come. How long have they been telling this story? How many times have they prepared themselves for battle… And nothing came. That’s why Charlene is still here. I don’t believe them.”
Chester nodded. “Countless times… But this time it’s different. Apparently they prayed for the ghost of the Neutral Zone to come to help them. You are that legend Smith, you have come…” Chester briefly glanced at the forest “Mary, get to safety! It’s time… Charlene! Run! Run like you have never done before! It are… it are too many.”
Smith looked at the edge of the forest. It was not a small group, but the whole edge of the forest moved, like ants crawling from an anthill the Wolves moved onto the field.

Smith clasped the hilt of the huge sword with both hands. His former master always carried it on his back, while he, the apprentice, carried the heavier backpack and other items they needed for their travels. The blade was sharpened a bit too thin for his liking, but dropping it on stones had done some damage, and they had tried to fix it.
It felt… good. Not as good as holding a hammer. It was good, but different. Out in the field, grass at his feet, birds singing. Smith closed his eyes. Today was a good day to die.

“Smith… Something’s wrong.”

Smith opened his eyes, and looked at Chester. “What?”

Chester nodded towards the approaching Wolves. “Their gear. More sticks and stones than actual weapons.”
Smith looked at the approaching horde, regretting that he actually had closed his eyes, but also wondering why they were still this far away. And walking instead of running.
It did not look like a trained group of soldiers, but there was still some order. The front row carried things that could be used as shields against arrows, planks and pieces of bark, but the Wolves behind them neither had proper weapons. Axes, clubs, but most of them had nothing more than thick branches and even sharp stones. Very few had something that looked a bit like a sword. Their power was in numbers, and they were desperate. Somehow Smith was glad he had left his sling in it’s pouch, because that weapon would have been useless against someone with something to use as a shield.
Smith sighed. No need for survivors. He wanted to help them in their desperation, but they did not want to be helped.

He and only Chester stood halfway the range of the archers on the roof. They were the only capable fighters strong enough to stand up against Wolves. And they had the advantage of archers on the roof, instead of at ground level, this time the archers could pick out the most dangerous Wolves, those armed with sharp blades, behind the Wolves with the shielding, and kill them.
Smith could take and deal a beating, and he was there for the stronger Wolves with blunt weapons, and Chester had to take out the rest, and prevent Wolves from slipping away and go somewhere where they couldn’t be stopped.

As soon as the Wolves passed an invisible line it started to rain, a rain of arrows, fired from dozens of bows.
The Wolves in the front line saw that they were useless with their shields, the arrows simply flew over them and hit the targets behind them. Those who raised their shields to catch the high flying arrows got arrows to their knees.

The first of the Wolves reached Smith. He saw a look of desperation in their eyes, but this was not the moment to talk about it. He raised his sword and started to cut down the moving trees of flesh, some with thorny branches. Back and forth his sword mowed, not held back by any armor.

“Smith! Retreat!” he heard Chester call, but he moved and mowed on, seeking empty spots of ground for bodies to drop on.
He felt a bump on the back of his helmet, he was surrounded. Instinctively he turned around and killed the Wolf behind him. He saw that he was far away from the archers, well out of their reach. He killed some more Wolves and saw Chester, taunting Wolves, but not fighting. Smith grimaced and started to mow again. He could breathe easier because the chain mail had ripped.
“Kill that Human! That’s Smith!” he heard a Wolf call.
‘Their leader… I want him alive.’ Smith thought, and started to mow in a different direction.

“Dammit! He is coming for me! Save me! Do something!” Smith heard the Wolf call again.
Smith grinned. His hearing was bad, but he could hear where that voice was coming from. There weren’t many Wolves left, and those who were left moved in front of him, to defend the owner of the panicking voice.
‘Why even fight? You are losing.’ Smith thought. The Wolves didn’t seem to notice, they kept attacking him. An arrow flew over him, killing one of the few wounded Wolves.

Finally he killed the last of the fighting Wolves, younger ones who didn’t even have weapons.
Trembling the last Wolf tried to get an arrow on the string of a bow, but Smith was faster, knocking the bow out of the Wolf’s hands with a flat side of the blade.
The Wolf dropped to his knees. He was defeated.

“How do you feel?” Smith asked the trembling Wolf.
“I… I just wanted to help my people.” the Wolf replied with a weak voice and let himself fall backwards.
Smith knelt beside him and gestured the approaching Foxes to keep their distance. “If you wanted help you should have asked. You know who I am, and yet you want me dead. And now all your friends are dead.”
The Wolf sighed and closed his eyes.

It took some convincing, but finally the Wolf was tied to a chair, and positioned at a table. Smith was the only one who didn’t want to kill him.
Smith, Mary and Vince of the Red Brigade were the only others in the room, the Chief didn’t want to talk to an enemy, and Chester neither.
Smith had some papers and a pencil before him, like he was some king going to write some things down, trying to look more impressive than he actually was. He was glad he had learned how to write, and would not be scribbling on paper if needed.
“So… Once again, how do you feel, right now, sitting at this table before the man you wanted to get killed and even tried to kill yourself with an arrow.” Smith opened the conversation.
“I hate you. You sent me away, you told me you didn’t want Wolves with bows and arrows. I went to the Inimal army, because you told me there I could do whatever I wanted. The king visits you and suddenly I was sent away there as well. I was the best Wolf with a bow and arrow!” the Wolf spoke at an angry tone. He still had, or had regained some fighting spirit.
Smith nodded. “I remember. I have never spoken with you, but I ordered Robin to send you away. It was the day I came back with Melany.”
The Wolf sighed. “All right… It was Robin who sent me away. And they were making fun of me.”
Smith nodded. “Safest place to stand was right in front of the targets you tried to hit. Same happened today, I took the time to watch where that arrow went, and you killed one of your own.”
The Wolf shrugged. “I guess you were right after all.”
Smith nodded. “I usually am… But let’s talk about you, you said you wanted to help. Who? Why?”
The Wolf sighed. “We are poor. We need a new place to live, with new ore veins or stones we can quarry. Going east was the easiest thing to do, to the Neutral Zone with their small army of rejects and deserters. We paid fighters to kill you all, and we moved north of the swamps killing the Vulpine.”
Smith nodded. “Those others Wolves tried to do what they were paid for, they also attacked us. But on the wrong day, when we were all outside for a walk. When they would have caught us by surprise in our homes and workshops we wouldn’t be sitting here, and if Vince didn’t show up we would also have been dead.”
Vince nodded. “Indeed. Do you also have a camp?”
The Wolf shook his head. “No, this was an all-out attack. We left our villages with over a thousand, and today we attacked with almost three hundred.”
“And you never thought that you wouldn’t make it?” Mary asked with a shocked expression on her face.
The Wolf shrugged. “Die here trying, die at home because there is nothing… There is not much of a difference.”
Smith sighed. “You attacked with almost no weapons. Why?”
The Wolf shrugged again. “Power in numbers. Usually we caught the villages by surprise, and even strangled the villagers, but here you had a better defense.”
Smith nodded. “They had me. How many arrows have hit a target, and how many has Chester killed?”
Vince snickered. “Chester is a coward… And I think that Mary has killed five. And our arrows? Don’t know, the forty-eight arrows you have given were our best, all of those have hit their target, and the rest was about two hundred arrows and about eighty of those have hit a target.”
Mary grinned. “I have pinned two Wolves together with my shot from your armbrust, and killed six with the sword. Those Wolves are really slow turners. The other women have killed three.”
Smith sighed. “Forty-eight, eighty, eight, three… That’s almost one hundred forty. You said you were with almost three hundred, that means I should have killed one hundred sixty if you told the truth about the numbers… Once again you are not telling the truth, given the duration of the fight I couldn’t have killed more than a hundred.”
The Wolf bowed his head. “All right… I admit. Two hundred fifty three, me included.”
Smith nodded. “All right… Vince, I want you and the others to count the bodies. If it’s more than ten off you have to go on a hunt. Capture if you can, not kill.”
Vince looked in disbelief at Smith. “Not killing them? Why?”

Smith took a moment to think.
Finally he smiled. “Wolf… I don’t even know your name, but can you tell me about home?”
The Wolf shrugged. “Only Canines, poor, depleted mines. Not much. And you can call me Robin, after your friend who has… tried… to teach me how to use a bow and arrow.”
Smith nodded. “All right… Mary, what do you think? We have captured ourselves a village filled with Canines. Have you visited Diego and Dora at you-know-where?”
Mary nodded and smiled. “Yes… And they do have far too much work for the people there. They really can use some Canine hands.”
Smith nodded. “I was thinking about the same thing… Robin, how many people do you have there?”
Robin looked a bit confused. “Five thousand… no four… A bit over three thousand… Almost half of them Dogs now, and now a lot of Wolf orphans and widows.”
Smith nodded. “I understand your confusion. The day before you left you think five thousand, but I think your numbers are off. My estimate is fifteen hundred adult male Wolves, two thousand females, children and elderly, a thousand adult male Dogs, with fifteen hundred females, children and elderly. That makes six thousand when you left. Now you are down a thousand male Wolves, I guess that starvation also has taken its toll at home, so that makes a thousand males, and twenty-five hundred of the rest.”
Robin nodded. “You are much faster with calculations, I think you are right again. We got people from the entire region.”
Smith sighed. “I haven’t thought of that. I was thinking about a few hundred for the quarry, and maybe a few hundred more to become something else useful like farmers, builders or soldiers. But not one thousand with their families, and a thousand more widows and orphans.”
Mary raised her hand. “Smith… You are already talking like you own these people. Why don’t you go talk to the Inimal king, and let it be handled by the council at the quarry, the Inimal king, and the people you are deciding about. You have only defeated them.”
Smith nodded. “That’s the best we can do. Mary, I’m sorry, but I need your horse. Robin, can you run beside a horse?”
Robin nodded. “I’ll do whatever it takes to help my people.”
Smith smiled. “In that case we have a deal. Mary, if you don’t see me again within a reasonable time send a messenger to the king to ask if he has seen me, and if he hasn’t, let him assemble an army to kill the Wolves, because that means Robin here couldn’t be trusted and he got me killed.”
Mary nodded. “Understood. Are you going to wait for Charlene to return?”
Smith shook his head. “No time to waste, and I want to keep Robin alive, I don’t trust the people here.”
Vince also nodded. “Now I understand why you want those other Wolves alive, if there are, because you care about them and their families.”
Smith smiled. “That’s just me being neutral, I prefer not to have enemies. I have killed enough.”
If it moves but shouldn't: Duct tape. If it doesn't move but should: WD-40. With a hammer everything fits, and if it still doesn't fit: bigger hammer. If it can't be fixed with a hammer it's an electrical problem.

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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 34

#38 Post by Neutral Smith » Sun Sep 03, 2017 6:42 pm

Chapter 34
Pieces


The journey towards the Inimal capital was easy. Riding a horse was also simple.
Smith was a lucky man that Mary also rode her horse astride, and had large stirrups, and not the smaller ones ladies usually had. It was like the saddle was also made for him, it was not a typical saddle for a lady.
Robin on the other hand had a bit trouble keeping up, he was a bit malnourished, and Smith had to wait several times. Despite Smith’s anger he was even allowed to sit on Antoinette a few times because he couldn’t continue running.

Finally they reached the capitol of the Inimal kingdom.
“I don’t know why you avoided those villages, but this is still an impressive sight.” Robin remarked.
Smith grinned. “Quite the opposite of how imagined it the first time I was here. Even Schotenburg is larger, and that is a small city, for Humans. And avoiding the villages was just for my own safety.”
Robin nodded. “You have seen much more than I have in my life, I guess you have had some bad experiences… You actually have met the king?”
Smith smiled. “A lot has changed since you left… The kings have visited me. I see Leopold as a friend, we respect each other. But I’m also friends with the Human king. They both visited on the same day with their armies, and there was no fight.”
Robin nodded again. “That must have been very impressive.”
Smith smiled. “It was not my doing, it was Katie. I made sure that both armies handed in their weapons, and Katie made the armies sing together.”
Robin also smiled. “Katie, the little Tigress you see as your daughter? How is she?”
Smith sighed. “She is doing fine, I guess. She is at the Academy at this moment, she is in her first year. We are not going to visit her, but I am curious if she can find out I am very close by.”
Robin smiled. “She is a clever little girl, of course she will. There was no stopping her when I met her, and I guess there is no stopping her now.”
Smith smiled. “Maybe, maybe not. Like I said, we are going to talk to the king about you and your people, me and my family are not important, you and your kin are.”
Robin sighed. “I wonder how many chances life is going to give me, and what I have to do to repay it.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t know, and I honestly don’t care. I’m going to tell the king what you have done, that was trying to kill me, and what I want with you, and that is you and everyone who suffers from the depleted mines from your and neighboring villages to work at the quarry, including the widows and orphans. And I will make sure that everything goes with messengers. At the town hall they are going to kill me if they hear what I’m doing right now, trying to do things without their permission. I will let them handle the paperwork.”
Robin grinned. “Indeed a lot has changed. I thought you were fearless, but you do have a weakness: rules.”
Smith shrugged. “From now on you have to follow them too… Now, let’s go see the king.”

“Are you that smith?” A Dog soldier asked when they approached the palace.
Smith nodded. “That’s what I do and what they call me. I need two things, a safe place for the horse, and I need to talk to the king.”
The Dog shook his head. “Impossible. You can’t talk to him right now, you have to fill in some paperwork first.”
Smith shrugged. “Then I need a place for the horse for a night, I can sleep next to it. All you have to do is inform the king I am here with a Wolf, nothing more.”
The Dog nodded. “Very well. You can stay at the stables of the Academy, over there. Don’t scare the children too much.”
Robin grinned. “He killed over a hundred Wolves, and you tell him not to be scary?”
Smith glanced at Robin, and then looked at the soldier again. “What he told is the truth. I killed, and now I want to prevent new attacks. Now go tell the king that I am here, I can find my way to the stables myself. Dismissed.”
The soldier saluted and left.
Smith grinned. “That’s how I do it. I’m not even a soldier, and yet they salute me.”
Robin nodded. “They really know you, my king. Now let’s find out if you told the truth, that the king also knows you, and makes time for you.”

There were some children working in the stables, the same age as Katie was. Smith gestured Robin to announce that they were there.
“Good afternoon sir… Wilhelm Wolf! Is that really you? Still have your bow and arrows?” It was really Katie who was the first who greeted him.
Smith also stepped into view. “No, far too dangerous. I used my sword to disarm him.”
Katie looked inquisitively at Smith. “Another fight, and you survived again. How many got killed this time?”
Smith nodded and walked on to the end of the stables to find an empty box for Antoinette. “Unfortunately yes. On our side nobody, but we killed over two hundred Wolves.”
“Katie! Get back to work!… Human! You must be Smith! What are you doing here?” A Wolf teacher greeted Smith halfway the stables and sending Katie away.
Smith smiled. “I am indeed the Human they call Smith. I’m looking for a place for this horse, and a place for me to sleep… Katie, meet me after dinner, I’ll sleep here, next to Mary’s horse.”
The Wolf shook his head. “That’s not allowed… Katie meeting you here after dinner. The children have to stay in their quarters. I don’t like the idea of you sleeping here, but horses are delicious, and I understand that this is not your horse and you want to keep it safe. I’ll allow it.”
Smith grinned. “Then make it a little game. Katie, you try to escape, teacher, you try to catch her between dinner and midnight. Extra points or whatever you get here if Katie succeeds and sleeps here, a fair punishment when you catch them. I also want to see William.”
Katie nodded, and got her broom again. William, who was standing in a corner, also nodded.
The Wolf smiled. “You are indeed as smart as William and Katie told me, and indeed the horses here are afraid of you… I notice the king is approaching… dragging a guard… by his ear… I wonder what he has done to make the king this angry, and why they are coming here.”
Smith shrugged. “I guess following some orders. That guard told me the king couldn’t be bothered, and in turn I told him he only had to tell the king that I and this Wolf I know as Robin, but Katie knows as Wilhelm are here, and it seems that the king got the message.”
The teacher nodded. “Seems like it. Now I understand why Katie and William are also such good examples, they do exactly as I say and do it fast, but when I’m not clear enough with my orders they use it… You had some creative punishments for them, I’m also using those, your kind of punishments are much more useful than just writing and reciting… The stables have never looked cleaner. William, Katie, you’re free to go, just like the rest of you children. No eavesdropping here, no matter how much the king likes you.”
Smith nodded. “Of course. I am a reasonable man, Human soldiers told me they had to clean with the tiniest brush they could find as a punishment. I punish, but I want to see quick results. You break something, you make something… make something clean again or create something as a replacement for the things you have broken. And I tried to teach them the value of time… There isn’t much that Katie can’t do, she was a brat, but has learned a lot with me.”

“Smith Human! Why didn’t you tell me you were here, and sent this Dog instead!” King Leopold called out when he finally found Smith.
Smith shrugged. “He told me you couldn’t be bothered, and I accepted that and would have tried again tomorrow or talk to someone else about this Wolf’s problems. Now apologize to that soldier for your confusing orders.”
King Leopold released the Dog’s ear and sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m not the best king.”
The Dog nodded, feeling his ear. “I understand. Am I dismissed?”
Smith nodded and pointed at the stable doors. “Stand guard. Don’t let anyone without a good reason, the horses, in.”
The Dog nodded again, smiling. “Yes sire, of course sire. Right away sire.”
Smith sighed. “Sir, nor sire. And I am a Human smith, giving you orders. I do not even have the right to do that here.” Smith looked at the king, who was dumbfounded staring at him. “Is that right sire?”
King Leopold nodded. “Yes, you are not… Soldier, go stand guard at the stable doors. Don’t let anyone without a good reason in. They are only allowed here for the horses, and they have to announce themselves.”
Smith shrugged. “I expected you would come up with a better idea, but all right, you and Robin go sit in the straw and talk. I’ll be outside.”
“Why?” Leopold asked, almost looking scared, because he was going to be left all alone with Wolves.
Smith sighed. “Because you are the king here. This is one of the people you are supposed to take care of. He and his people have problems, they assembled an army, and suddenly it was my problem. It was my problem because they dared to invade the Neutral Zone!”
Leopold smiled. “Dared… I assume they weren’t successful?”
Smith clenched his fists and sighed again. But said nothing and left, leaving Robin, king Leopold and the teacher behind.

“So… Any interesting things happened here between my previous visit and now?” Smith said to the Dog who was standing guard.
The Dog shook his head. “Not really. A few Wolves from the west causing trouble, but nothing special. They had a lot of weapons and money, and were bragging a lot that they would conquer the Neutral Zone. We had them executed.”
Smith nodded and without saying a word he ran back inside, almost colliding with the teacher who was leaving, and panicking the horses, except Antoinette, even more.
“Back already?” Robin asked, completely forgotten he was talking to king himself.
Smith sighed and sat down in the straw. “Yes. You told me you had two groups, yours going north with a large group eradicating the Vulpine, and a smaller, more elite group going south of the wetlands. I assumed the smaller group was killed in the attack that also killed Leopold’s brother, but I was wrong. And that also explains the timing of the attacks. The first attack had nothing to do with you. Explain!”
Robin sighed. “I guess those were from the Grays. Those also want more power.”
Smith nodded. “There were indeed more Grays in that group than you would expect… I think I understand, the Wolven kings were chosen from the different groups: Black, like Siegfried’s great great grandfather, Common, like you, White, Gray, Black again… but Siegfried, you might know him, was supposed to be the next king of all Inimals instead of Leopold here, but he did something stupid that made him meet me. But that doesn’t add up, because his great great grandfather was the Black Wolf king, the one who united the Inimals. It should have been a Gray that is supposed to be a king of the Wolves now, but now they were united by a Black, he choose a Fox instead of a Common, then a Leopard who should have appointed a White as a governor or something to do the right thing for the Wolves, and now we have king Leopold here neglecting the Grays… I guess the king and I understand what is going on.”
Leopold sighed. “Of course. ‘the Wolves are not a problem, everything is under control, you have nothing to worry about’… I’m glad I sent that adviser away.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, that is what I think as well, someone giving bad advise to the Wolves to make them angry and start a war. And now I realize I also have made a mistake, my guess is that the Elfique that is causing trouble in the West also had passed the now abandoned village where I wanted to learn Inimal symbolism, and those people, Canine, are now living at the quarry, where a lot of others are also are going to live… Very close to the Human border. This gives me just too much to think about, better change the subject and just let things happen, and act when they do.”
Robin nodded. “I understand. I am a leader, but not the big leader at home. There indeed was an Elfique, but before we were ready he left. I don’t know where he went, but us talking here explains a lot… Smith, what do you want us to do?”
Smith shrugged. “Follow the plan. Have your leaders executed, and move to the Neutral Zone, there will be a few generations of peace, and after that the fighting will start again.”
King Leopold looked at Smith. “What plan?”
Smith smiled and stood up. “Robin can tell you. I’m taking over your kingdom.”
Leopold smiled, something that Smith didn’t expect. “Sounds like a good deal. What parts do you want?”
Smith sighed and stood up. “None. But I want to help some people. Talk to Robin here about what he wants, and the details will be filled in later. Not by me, but by people living at the quarry and the town hall. I have made a choice, and now I regret it… Now let others solve the problems I have created, like you always do… I’m going to find a place where I can eat, I’ll be back after dinner and a bath.”
Leopold sighed. “I wish that William and Katie were here, they are far better at finding creative solutions for problems.”
Smith smiled. “They will. But first they have to solve the problem of getting here in the first place, because they are not allowed to. I made it a little game, some extra points or something like that if they succeed, or a fair punishment if they get caught by their teachers. I want to eat a bit earlier, maybe I can help them in some way, like by opening a window or something.”
Leopold grinned. “That sounds like a fun game to play, I can do that too. Me trying to escape my guards and sleep here… Enjoy your meal, and bath… You really need a bath.”
Smith also grinned. “Robin is a bit quiet, but invite him for dinner with you. He can scout your castle a bit, and if you get here you can give him a letter to tell the guards where you are in case he gets caught, because I want him to sneak in and sleep in your bed tonight.”
King Leopold and Robin both grinned. This Human was indeed a bringer of chaos. But the fun kind of chaos.

“Good evening sir, do you have something to eat?” Smith asked the Gray Wolf innkeeper.
The Wolf looked up from the book he was reading. “No Human dares to enter here, except one. You must be that smith. By name and profession. Can you sharpen my knives?”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t have the time for that now, I want to go back to my sleeping place next to my horse at the stables of the Academy, but is tomorrow after breakfast a good time?”
The Wolf grinned. “No delicious horse meat then. It’s a pity the war is almost over, those Humans had the most delicious horses. It were good times after a won battle.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t care for horse meat nor fur. I just want to live, and that means I have to eat. Do you have roast pork?”
The innkeeper nodded. “Of course, but my specialty is horse steak. One small silver and two big copper.”
Smith smiled. “That’s even cheaper than what I got in Schotenburg. Food was awful there. First time it was something that has seen pork, burnt on the outside and raw on the inside, and the second time I ordered beef, but got a piece of leather… One silver and free sharpening of five knives for this meal and a bath. Extra knives cost one big copper each. Deal?”
The innkeeper grinned. “Deal. I promise you won’t get too sick from the food I provide.”
Smith also grinned. “I can pretend to be sick. Last time that got a Tiger and a Cheetah out of a cage, maybe this time I can get some horses for free.”
The innkeeper continued to grin. “If you have more coins maybe you can buy a live horse, I have a very nice stallion, not too afraid of Inimals like me. That’s what kept it alive.”
Smith nodded. “Sounds good, I’ll take a look at it tomorrow. Now I want my food and my bath, I have to get back as soon as possible.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Of course. And thanks for the money, I had a lot of food bought for the parents who had brought the children to the Academy, but there was a change of plans and they ate and slept at the Academy. It was a good thing they compensated me, and we, me and an other innkeeper, held a big feast for the people here. Later I learned that you ordered it… You want your food… I’m sorry, I just keep talking, I really like you.”
Smith sighed. “I don’t want to be here. We in the Neutral Zone had another attack, by Wolves. I’ve killed too many of your kind again, I want to stop that.”
The innkeeper nodded and went to work.

Horse meat was indeed delicious. Smith missed the grilled vegetables, but this was the Inimal capitol, he wasn’t at home. And the tub with lukewarm water was also nice. Better than cold streams and muddy ponds. He had already paid for breakfast and lunch tomorrow, to the surprise of the innkeeper, he wasn’t used to people paying in advance.
When he got back to the stables he saw that Robin and Leopold were still talking, sitting at a brought in table, almost like friends. The guard at the door, a different one, let him in, but only after some reasoning that Smith really needed to be in the stables.

Antoinette was nibbling on a bale of straw, and Smith got a brush to give her the needed maintenance, but only to see that she was already groomed and brushed, and her manes were braided.
Smith pointed at the now even more beautiful mare. “Who is responsible for this?”
Leopold grinned. “Not you… William and Katie are. They asked for permission, and they have eaten here. We had springbok biltong at the palace, but we decided to come back here, much nicer for talking.”
Smith nodded. “Very clever. Grab some food and before their teacher could warn others about their plans they got here and ate and did their work. And I guess their teachers were being stopped because they didn’t want to come in for the horses, but for the children. Better not ask where they are now, but I suspect somewhere high, close to that ladder that has been pulled up.”
Robin nodded. “Indeed. Better keep quiet, teachers at the doors.” he spoke at a whispering tone.
Smith grinned, and made sure that the teachers did not see it. “Or it is just a decoy. Pull the ladder up and use the beams to climb down, and hide somewhere else.” Smith looked at the doors “Hey! Teachers! Why don’t you come in and search for them? I’m sure they are not here!”
The teachers attempted to come in, but were stopped by the Cat soldier at the door.
“What did that guard say? I couldn’t hear it.” Smith asked Leopold and Robin.
Robin grinned. “He said that you are not a king, and you can’t give orders.”
Leopold nodded. “Indeed. Clever. I wonder if I can escape tonight.”
Smith smiled. “You are a strategist. Just don’t do stupid things. I wonder if Robin can come in, because that means you have a very serious problem if he succeeds.”
Robin grinned. “I have seen a few weak spots… Even I can climb them. But I’ll take my time, Leopold told me the guards are predictable. Wait until you see a guard disappear, and then you have an opportunity.”
Smith nodded. “They aren’t prepared. At the first attack we in the Neutral Zone weren’t prepared as well, that was just pure luck that we stopped them, and with your attack we were prepared, but you shouldn’t have waited… or should have waited… a few days longer until the Vulpine alertness dwindled and I went home again, and should have attacked then. But that didn’t happen, and now we are sitting here, and you can do much more for your people.”
Leopold nodded. “Indeed. We will go through the details tomorrow, and handle the rest with letters. You are breaking quite a few rules here, but I’ll allow it. Please don’t do things like this again.”
Smith nodded. “I understand. I’ll have some things to do here tomorrow, I promised the Wolf innkeeper to sharpen his knives, he has a horse for sale I might be interested in, and then I go home, and tell the people at the town hall what I have done.”
Leopold smiled. “You just do as you please. I recall my previous statement, just be yourself, I guess that’s best for all of us. I bid you a good night, and I hope to see you within a few hours.”
Smith nodded. “And I hope that Robin manages to sleep in your bed tonight. Eleven nights with him in a tent is enough. He even tried to kiss me!”
Robin grinned.

Smith was fast asleep when someone prodded him. “I could have eaten your horse.” he heard someone say, someone with a familiar voice. Sleeping in straw but with a roof over his head, the uneasy scraping of a hoof on stones.
When Smith moved his arm he touched something soft. Katie was sleeping next to him.
He remembered where he was, and who that voice belonged to. “Lie down and sleep, Lion.” Smith mumbled.
Leon did as Smith requested.

“This is actually quite uncomfortable.” Smith heard him say a few moments later.
“Blanket open on the thick straw, lay on one side of blanket, and fold the blanket over you. This is not a bed with a mattress. Be glad we have given you the blanket.” William mumbled, also not in the mood to help the spoiled Lion.

“Robin gone?” Smith asked a few moments later.
“He got to my room even before I dared to open the door. He has the letter in case the guards find him in my bed, he snores more than I do.” Leopold replied.
“Good. Night.” Smith mumbled, and closed his eyes again. There was nothing to see in the dark stables.

Smith woke up to the sound of some commotion, people screaming things.
“I am here, behind this box divider.” Smith heard Leopold call out.

“Thank the spirits of the forest! You are safe!” Smith heard someone else say. Smith sighed. This was the right moment to open his eyes, trouble.

Smith’s eyes fluttered open, it was already later than he expected, the barred windows let in an astonishing amount of light. Finally he managed to sit upright. “What’s going on?”
“A Wolf has been murdered!” a Panther Jaguar soldier replied, not as surprised to see him as Smith expected.
Smith shrugged. “I guess that murders happen every day, especially among Wolves. What’s so special about this one?”
“He was murdered in the king’s bed. There was a letter on the nightstand, written by the king that this Wolf had permission to do this, and that it was a part of a game, and seeing the king here… My apologies sire, I… erm…”
Leopold nodded understandingly. “This Human here has a strange power… it is impossible to ignore him. Continue to brief him instead of me, I’ll listen.”
The Panther Jaguar nodded. “Well… He is murdered, and no trace of the killer.”
Smith nodded. “I want to see him and the room. Maybe you have overlooked something… Katie, William! Go back to the Academy, you can’t stay here. You have won.”
Katie and William nodded, and left. This was not for them yet.

The king’s bedroom was dark. Only a small window to let in some light and fresh air, and with shutters and heavy curtains when there was no need for light. The window was still closed. Then Smith’s attention was drawn towards the fireplace, a huge stone contraption, with some levers on the side.
“Bergs.” King Leopold spoke at a soft tone. The commander who had ordered a lot of bloodshed was truly shaken by the bloody mess in his own bed. The bloody mess that would have been him if he didn’t want to play a silly game, and had slept in his own bed.
Smith nodded. “I know the design. There is a huge hatch inside of it for maintenance and ventilation. Killer came in through this, levers are bent, he had used a lot of force to get it open because of poor maintenance. There is a little hook that prevents this, it’s a bit hidden, but if you put that over a ridge on the hatch it can’t be opened from inside the chimney itself.”
Leopold nodded. “It’s made out of metal, that’s why you noticed it.”
Smith nodded. “Indeed. In my home village we have chimneys and fireplaces of the same design, although a bit smaller. If you are a big man like me it’s hard to get children out of them.”
“You have children in chimneys?” the Panther Jaguar soldier asked.
Smith nodded. “Only once. Human children in love do stupid things. His parents didn’t allow him to go out for a walk with a girl he loved, and he tried to escape through the chimney, but got stuck. I had to climb on the roof to lower a rope through the chimney and pull him a bit up so his feet got off the hatch, Frank had to force the hatch open and pull him down. Good story, and he could sweep the smithy for moons to repay us.”
The Panther Jaguar grinned. “And what kind of stupid things have you done?”
Smith shrugged. “Ever heard the story from Schotenburg why the inn ‘The Prancing Pony’ got renamed to ‘The Kicking Pig’? I am the cause of that. Stupid enough?”
The Panther Jaguar started to laugh. “Oh yes. And you did it again. Although you promised flying Humans, but you helped Chester and someone else.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… And now I have the horse of the woman I love here, and I intend to buy another horse, my own. My job is done here, it’s a pity that the woman Robin loved will never know… Well, time for me to go, I’m hungry… This is your kingdom and bedroom sire, not mine.”
King Leopold had regained himself and nodded. “Indeed it is. Get this mess cleared! Smith, can you fix my fireplace?”
Smith shook his head. “I don’t have the right tools for that with me, only smaller things like my sharpening stones and lock picking set.” but nonetheless he walked towards the fireplace and bent the levers to the correct position. “A few more times and they will break, but for now this is enough. You have to order some Bergvolk to make a new set if it breaks, I’m not very good at this, I am more a weapon smith.”
Leopold nodded. “Of course. Can you sharpen some more guard weapons? They are a bit jealous of those who were with me when I visited you.”
Smith shook his head. “No sire, I won’t. There are plenty of smiths here. I know I am the best, but those also need an income.”
Leopold nodded again. “I understand. Enjoy your meal. That Wolf innkeeper is famous for his horse meat… You know, if you want to I can confiscate that horse and give it to you.”
Smith shook his head. “Please sire, don’t. You already have plenty of problems with the Wolves, and doing this won’t help you nor me. Just let me buy it, like any normal person has to do.”
Leopold nodded. “Right… I understand.”

The inn was not as empty as it was the previous day, there were two other guests, a female Panther Jaguar and another Gray Wolf were sharing a table.
“Good morning. I have my sharpening stones with me.” Smith greeted the innkeeper.
The Wolf innkeeper smiled. “Good, you are a man who keeps his word. Had a good night?”
Smith nodded. “The horse I arrived on is still alive. Groomed, brushed and her manes are braided. You might have heard it, but I have adopted a Tiger girl, Katie, and a Tiger boy, William, who are now at the Academy, and I made a deal with their teachers, if they managed to reach me before midnight they get some extra points. The king and I had some talks in the stables, and only people who had to be there for the horses were allowed, and they heard that and used that knowledge. The king also liked that game, and he escaped his guards and also joined us for a quiet night.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Sounds like a fun game, although a bit dangerous, the king sleeping in the stables without a guard.”
Smith shrugged. “If you don’t expect a king in the stables why would you go looking for him there? If you excuse me, I want my food and if you have no more cutting to do your knives, a table that can get dirty, and a pitcher of water.”
The innkeeper nodded. “Of course. I have a place where you can do your work, at my stables that double as the butchery. Then you also can take a look at the horse I want to sell you.”
Smith nodded. “Sounds good. But please, don’t try your knives while I am still around, I don’t like blood.”
The innkeeper nodded, and gave Smith his food.

The stables and horse pen were a nice walk away from the inn, a bit outside the Inimal capitol.
“Quite far from your inn, isn’t it?” Smith remarked.
The innkeeper nodded. “Nice and far away. It’s a good thing I have my son here, he takes care of the horses. The horses trust him more than they trust me. They even trust my wife more than they trust me.”
Smith grinned. “Might have something to do with your profession here. What shall we do first? My suggestion is keeping the other horses out of my sight, and the horse you thought I might be interested in into the horse pen? You might think that the horses hate you, but I have only met a few horses I didn’t scare, and I am only a friendly smith.”
The innkeeper nodded, and went inside.

Smith was waiting at the horse pen until the innkeeper came back with the horse.
It took some time, but finally the innkeeper and his son, and a magnificent looking horse returned. It pleased him to see that the horse did not panic as soon as he saw him.
“Are you going to give this horse to that Human?” the younger Wolf asked the innkeeper.
The innkeeper nodded. “Yes, that Human, Smith, may have this horse.”
Smith shook his head. “No, I don’t want to have it, I want to -buy- it. But now I’m worried I don’t have enough money for it.”
The innkeeper smiled. “You may have him. I wanted to give him to the king as a gift, but you are a far better person to receive this gift.”
Smith sighed. “I don’t want to get it for free. I have three big gold, seven small gold, eleven big silver and some small silvers, that leaves me some spare for the journey home. If you don’t want the money I’m going to give it to your son, and if he doesn’t take it your wife, and if she doesn’t take it I am going to give it to the authorities, and make sure they deduct it from the taxes you have to pay.”
The innkeeper started to grin and patted his son on the shoulder. “See, not all Humans are bad. He will take good care of it. He even gives us more than the value of the meat.”
Smith nodded, and walked towards the horse which stood there with a pose that suggested arrogance. It glanced at Smith and then looked the other way again, like Smith was of no importance.

Smith walked around it for an inspection, but stayed at a safe distance from it.
“Hooves need some cleaning, it could use a brushing, but this a very good looking horse. Do you have a saddle for it?” Smith finally said.
The young Wolf started to smile. “Unfortunately we don’t have a saddle for him, the person who sold us this horse threw that away. And you notice his outside. Most people that look at horses are here for the insides, the meat. But I do not like the wording you use, I thought that Humans see horses as noble animals, and you refer to him as an ‘it’. He is more male than you are.”
Smith grinned. “That’s not very hard, even in this state. But I see horses as a mean of transport, a thing, just like a hammer or my anvil. But alright, I’ll give it… him a proper name. I’ll name him Louis. Louis the sixteenth.”
The young Wolf started to laugh. “That’s a very strange name… Why?”
Smith smiled. “Because that name fits with the name the mare I borrowed and is currently at the stables of the Academy, that’s Antoinette, and the sixteenth because it will be the sixteenth horse I paid for… I have bought or borrowed.”
The young Wolf looked shocked at Smith. “But what happened to the other fifteen horses?”
Smith grinned. “Like I said, me and horses are usually not a good combination. First seven panicked so much when they saw me that they have broken their legs or injured themselves too much, then I had a few that bolted too much, I couldn’t ride them or use them for a cart, and when I finally had horses that trusted me and allowed me to ride them I released them by accident, I saw one run straight into Arthur’s, then a Feral White Tiger, claws. So this is the sixteenth horse I pay for, and I intend to keep it… him alive and well, I have some long travels to make… Now if you excuse me, we have a deal and now I have some knives to sharpen and then I want to go home. I’ll try to finish it before lunch.”

Smith and the innkeeper exchanged the coins and the knives, and Smith started the preparations for the sharpening of seven knives while the innkeeper went back to his inn. First thing that Smith did was moving a large table towards the door, he didn’t like facing a wall stained with horse blood.

“I’m surprised by the amount of horses you have here.” Smith spoke while he got the third knife to sharpen. He had been working in silence, the also silent young Wolf watching him.
The Wolf nodded. “It’s a thing from the past, Wolves were the first who had mounted cavalry, but somehow we switched to warfare on foot again, I guess because we couldn’t protect the horses with armor, and they are large targets. Now we target the Human soldiers on horseback first because we like the horse meat.”
Smith nodded. “And you don’t have to breed the captured horses. Just bring them here, and do your thing… or your father’s thing. It’s really delicious meat.”
The young Wolf shrugged. “I don’t like the killing of the horses, but it is a good source of income. I want to do something different, but I don’t know what. Looking after the horses is the only thing I can do.”
Smith nodded. “I thought forging and sharpening were the only things I could do. But look at me now, there is some trouble elsewhere, and the first thing I did was jump on a horse to get here to solve it.”
“What kind of trouble?” The young Wolf asked while he got a sharpened knife and a piece of wood and started to whittle it.
Smith quickly grabbed the knife out of the Wolf’s hands. “Please don’t do that with that knife. You don’t have a knife of your own? I’ll sharpen that one next, for free.”
The young Wolf sighed. “You didn’t answer my question. You ignore me, like everyone else does… What kind of trouble?”
Smith got the fourth knife and started to sharpen it after a short inspection. “Wolves… They are the trouble. I can give you the summary of my life, but it’s always Wolves that cause trouble. They have killed my first wife, they have killed a lot of my friends, and just over a week ago there was an attack at the Vulpine in the north. We, the Vulpine and I, fended off that attack with only one surviving Wolf. He told me what was going on in the West, and I wanted to help. There is a quarry in the Neutral Zone with a shortage of people, and I thought it would be a good idea to get people from the village where those attackers came from, now with a lot of widows and orphans, to work at that quarry. The surviving Wolf and I went to the king to talk to him about it, and that surviving Wolf got killed last night… Are these are the things a smith is supposed to do?”
The young Wolf stared out of the open door, to see his father was approaching with Harry, the Young Wolf that Smith had met at the Academy and also wanted to become a smith, riding Antoinette, and a Tiger teacher carrying everything Smith had left at the stables. “You are much more than that.”
Smith nodded. “It’s not what you want, but what you do, that takes you somewhere… I see that we get company. Hello hairy!… I mean Harry!”
“Hello mister Smith!” the young Wolf shouted.

“What are you doing on a horse that does not belong to the Academy, but a horse I borrowed from someone else?” Smith spoke at a friendly tone while he lifted the young Wolf off Antoinette’s bare back.
“She killed someone.” the Tiger teacher answered while he put the saddle and Smith’s other gear down “And this boy wanted to see you work when he heard you were working on metal.”
Smith got the reins and patted the horse on the neck. “Killed who? And Harry, sit down and observe, I’m sharpening these knives, and when I’m finished you can tell me what you have seen. I am a teacher by example. After that I’ll explain some, but unfortunately there are not many knives left to sharpen, and they are all the same type, although different sizes… Erm… I didn’t even get your name, but can you give Antoinette a place?”
The innkeeper’s son smiled. “I’m William… And I have a good place for this good looking, but dangerous horse for as long as you need. What happened?”
The Tiger teacher grinned. “A Wolf assassin had entered the stables, and this horse here had kicked him so hard the silvery powder he used to hide that he wasn’t a true Gray came off. I have his weapon here, William Tiger told me you could identify it.”
Smith nodded. “Of course… I know a lot of blades, and where they are from. Now, what shall I do first? I wanted to sharpen these last three and the knife that William Wolf has before lunch, but somehow I think you want to go back to the Academy as soon as possible.”
The teacher nodded and pulled the strange looking dagger out of a leather bag. “I have talked to the innkeeper, this blade has the priority. Can you tell me what it is?”
Smith looked at the strange looking weapon with the two prongs and the heavy butt end.
“This is a Berg weapon. It’s modified, it is not supposed to have a sharpened point. It’s a sort of baton, a weapon that is used for blocking swords. And there are supposed to be two of these, it’s a weapon that you dual wield. It is not an offensive weapon, you can block and even hold swords with it. It surprises me that you don’t know that.”
The teacher nodded. “Of course… We’ve had a demonstration of these weapons, but we didn’t want them because they were blunt. Thank you for reminding me… And two of these… Where do you think the second one is?”
Smith shrugged. “Two Wolves with each a good metal weapon is more efficient than one Wolf with two weapons… The real question is: Where is the second Wolf?”
The teacher nodded again. “Given the current circumstances I think it’s better we don’t talk about it here.”
William Wolf, who had just returned from the horse pen where Antoinette and Louis already showed a lot of interest in each other, nodded. “I understand. But I am a true Gray, I don’t have to fool other people.”
Smith nodded. “Katie Tiger has killed a black Wolf who was not a true Black, now a Gray Wolf who was not a true Gray is killed by Antoinette horse. Gray Wolves are causing trouble in the west, that’s a bit of why I am here… but I am just a smith doing my things. Teacher, you have your answers, you can return to the Academy, and I have a lot of thinking to do. And that is something I do not like.”
The teacher grinned. “<Thinking is for horses, they have a larger head.> That is a Human proverb, am I right?”
Smith nodded. “Indeed. Pronunciation is very good. You are the teacher who teaches the Human language?”
The teacher smiled. “Indeed. Although William and especially Katie teach me more than I can teach them. They really have an advantage of living for some time with Humans. You think Beatrice wants to teach here for a while?”
Smith shrugged. “No idea. Write her a letter and ask her, I don’t want to ask her for you because I, and the entire Neutral Zone, don’t want to lose her. And Siegfried, I also want to keep him. They are inseparable.”
The teacher nodded. “Understood. How do you think about our children going to the Neutral Zone for training and lessons?”
Smith shrugged again. “Again, don’t ask me, although I do like the idea… Now if you excuse me, I have work to do, and teach Harry here a bit of sharpening.”
The Tiger teacher nodded, and left. Harry sighed, a sigh of relief. This wasn’t the teacher that was usually nice to him.

Smith finished the sharpening of the knives, and showed the young Wolf how sharp they were, by shaving his arm again, and explained a bit about the process of sharpening knives. The knives were not as good as Diego had, but still a lot sharper than they were.
Harry nodded. It was still a bit too much for him to understand in the short amount of time, but he was happy he was away from the Academy for a while.

“I have your knives here!” Smith announced when he entered the inn.
The innkeeper nodded. “Your horse has killed one on my guests, and now the second one fled without paying. I’m not sure whether I should be mad or impressed.”
Smith shrugged and put the knives on the counter. “I haven’t told the entire story about what happened last night. The king slept in the stables, but I was here with someone else. A Wolf. He got killed last night, while he slept in the king’s bed. I really don’t care about what happens here, but tell your Wolf friends one thing: Do not come to the Neutral Zone for trouble. Your male guest was an assassin, and that female might have been another customer for him, but I want to live, and I want the Neutral Zone to remain neutral. I might be friends with king Leopold, but Wolves are my best customers, and I don’t want to change that.”
The innkeeper shrugged. “As you wish. I’ll let them know. Still good to hear that you still don’t choose a side, not between Humans and Inimals, and now not between the Wolves and the rest.”
Smith shrugged. “I couldn’t care less if I wanted to. I won’t give you a discount for my work, if you think that.”
The innkeeper grinned. “You have chosen your own side. A sixth kingdom. I’m sure we can do a lot of trade.”

Smith waited in silence until the innkeeper came back with his lunch.
“You really know how to sharpen these, I thought it would be impossible.” the innkeeper spoke while he put the plate for Smith on the table.
Smith nodded. “I do know my trade. What do you know about the coal?… Still no shipments of that from the west.”
The innkeeper grimaced. “Stupid king stops it, and confiscates it all. You should talk to him about that.”

Smith shrugged after he finished his plate, it was just too delicious to let go cold. “I do have different sources of coal, but from the Wolves was the cheapest, at a reasonable quality. It was just a remark, nothing personal… But I’ll see what I can do, but not today. I want to get the horses and get home. This is not my kingdom.”
The innkeeper nodded. “I understand. Have a safe journey!”

When Smith reached the stables and horse pen again William Wolf was already waiting for him.
“I have maybe good, maybe bad news for you.” the younger Wolf said with a grin on his face “Your Antoinette might be pregnant. She was in her fertile period when you got here.”
Smith shrugged. “They better have done it now than doing it while I ride on her to get home… No saddle for Louis, but I see you already packed him with my belongings.”
William nodded. “Yes. I think their offspring will be a beautiful foal… And I have a gift for you.”
William handed Smith a small horse head, carved out of a piece of wood. “I made this for you.”
“You are not a Fox, but still it’s rather good given you only had a knife to carve it. I almost can recognize the head of a horse in it. Will you be insulted if I put a small metal eye on it, to hang it on Louis’ reins?” Smith spoke while he admired it.
William smiled. “No, not at all. That will be an honor. Have a safe journey!”
Smith grinned. “You really look and sound like your father, he said the same. I don’t hope to see you soon, because that means there is trouble again.”
William grinned. “If you want to sell or buy a horse you know where I live. Although I don’t think there will be a lot of horses like your Antoinette or Louis… I have never seen the other horses more uneasy than when you were around.”
Smith nodded. “I know. Goodbye!”

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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 35

#39 Post by Neutral Smith » Mon Oct 30, 2017 9:24 pm

Chapter 35
Training


“<Good afternoon, did the town hall burn down?>” Smith greeted the people in his house, Charlene and a very tired looking Mary, but also Siegfried, Arthur, Rolph and Jacob.
Jacob shook his head. “<No, but Mary is too tired to come to the town hall to talk about what happened.>”
Mary stood up with some trouble and hugged Smith. “<It’s unbelievable how fast you can walk. For you it is a half day from here to Tim’s house, but for me it was a full day of walking. I came back the day before yesterday… How is my Antoinette?>”
Smith grinned. “<Pregnant, I assume. Now I have a stallion that likes me, and it was hard to keep him off Antoinette.>”
Mary continued to hug Smith, ignoring the other people, but her hands did not explore his body. “<We have to wait, I haven’t properly introduced you to my father. How would your parents have reacted when you would introduce me to them?>”
Smith’s grin could not be seen by Mary. “<Finally you have found the right one. Practice makes perfect, and you have practiced a lot with the Inimals… Just kidding, I don’t know what they would have said. My mother died when I was three years old, my father died when I was ten, and my last brother when I was twelve, so they have never known what I have done since my puberty… What about you?>”
Mary released Smith and sighed. “<No brothers or sisters, and my mother died when I was sixteen… I really don’t want to talk about it. Not at this moment.>”
Smith nodded. “<I understand. It’s also hard for me to talk about my past… The past is something we can’t change, we can only changes our views about it. We are here for the future.>”
Mary smiled, a warm and loving smile. “<The future can wait. Now show me your stallion. If I like him I might borrow him for a few rides.>”
Smith nodded. “<But please let me put my backpack down and visit the toilet first. When you walk it’s easy to take a break, but with horses you have to tie them first, and it’s rather awkward with horses staring at you when you do your thing.>”
Rolph grinned. “<So, you’re still not friends with Antoinette?>”
Smith shrugged. “<We had some rain.>”
Siegfried also grinned. “<You said that you have a stallion that likes you, and it was hard to keep him off Antoinette… Are you friends with him?>”
Smith started to laugh and shook his head. “<I really do not want to talk about that.>”

“<That’s… General Alexander’s horse! He… died a few years ago!>” Mary exclaimed when they entered the stables and saw Smith’s horse.
Smith shrugged. “<That’s why the horse ended up in the Inimal kingdom, horse meat is really delicious.>”
Mary nodded. “<I understand. They don’t know the value of horses, may I ask how much you have paid for him?>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course.>”
Mary slapped Smith on the back of his head. “<Please tell me you paid at least a small bar or gold.>”
“<Or more. He is a beauty.>” Jacob added.
Smith grinned. “<Guess.>”
Jacob walked around the large stallion, inspected him thoroughly. “<Knowing you, you must have made a very good deal. Eight big gold.>”
Smith shook his head grinning. “<Less.>”

“<Seven? I have never seen a better horse.>” Rolph guessed.

“<Less.>” Smith answered Rolph’s guess.

“I know nothing about living horses, but six?” This time it was Arthur.

“I would have said the same, but I’ll go for five.” Siegfried added to the list of wrong guesses.

Smith shook his head. “Nope.”

“Four?” Charlene asked.

“Getting closer.” Smith replied.

“<If you would have told me you have paid less than five I jump on it and give whoever sold you this horse five of your own big gold, but it’s not even four. You really robbed that person!>” Mary finally said, sitting on the straw.

Smith was still grinning when Jacob came back into view. “<He wanted to give me this horse as a gift, but I paid three big gold, seven small gold, eleven big silver and six small silver for it. And sharpened two knives for it, I had a dinner and a bath for one small silver and the sharpening of five knives where he asked a silver and two big copper for the meal only.>”
Jacob shook his head in disbelief. “<You are just unbelievable. Your new horse does need some grooming and the hooves need some work, but not even four big gold is not a quarter of what he is worth.>”
Smith shrugged. “<The innkeeper who sold me this horse was a Wolf, I couldn’t resist although I did have a few more big gold with me. He still got more than the value of the horse as meat.>”
Mary smiled and shook her head again. “<I still keep my promise, that innkeeper still gets your five big gold from me. That gives me a reason to visit the Inimal kingdom myself.>”
Smith nodded. “<It’s safe enough. Robin got killed though, but there is a deal. We have told Leopold… I mean the Inimal king about the plans, getting the Canines from their villages to the quarry, and I have told him I’ll let the town hall here make the decisions, and do it by letters. You can deliver the first one.>”
Mary needed some time to comprehend what Smith just said, she sat for a few moments simply blinking with her eyes. “<You told me two things: First you said it is safe enough, and second you said that Robin was killed. What happened? Did you kill Robin’s killer?>”
Smith shook his head. “<I didn’t kill him, Antoinette did. A Gray Wolf who was not a true Gray… Doesn’t matter, he is dead… Let’s go to the house again… I am surprised that you are not angry because I ran off and acted before any consultation of you.>”
Mary smiled. “<They are not angry, they are proud of you. I talked to them, they will give you what you need.>”
Jacob nodded. “<You are our, and many others, savior. We will give your horse a saddle and everything he needs, and we will assign someone to take care of him and Mary’s Antoinette.>”
Smith nodded. “<That’s very kind of you… And it’s not about what I or the horses need, it’s what the quarry needs to accommodate all those Wolves and other people that is important. My suggestion will be barracks again, and plenty of time for preparations. But I wanted to let the people in the town hall solve this problem.>”
Mary smiled. “<You don’t have experience with politics, but I have. Shall I take this from your hands and do it?>”
Smith helped Mary back on her feet and hugged her. “<That would be wonderful. I can go back to forging and doing the things I like and earn money, you do the things you can… and spend my money. Let’s go back to the house.>”
Mary nodded. “<Thank you… You know, General Alexander had named his horse ‘Bucephalus’, I assume you have given him a different name?>”
Smith started to laugh. “<Buce-what? Did he have something to compensate?>”
Mary grinned. “<Just like you… How do you call him?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Rather boring name. Louis.>”
Mary continued to grin. “<Louis, your sixteenth horse.>”
Smith nodded. “<And I want to keep this one alive. I assume you have heard some stories?>”
Mary grinned. “<You and horses are… were not a good combination.>”
Arthur grinned and nodded. “Your thirteenth was delicious.”
Jacob also nodded. “<That is settled then. Smith, you take a bath and some rest, you deserved it.>”
Smith shook his head. “<Bath, yes. Rest, no. I’ll leave tomorrow with Arthur and Boris for some training. After that I’ll go back to work, in the smithy where I belong.>”
Jacob smiled but said nothing, and left, and so did Rolph.

“Siegfried… Good to see you here. I want to ask you something.” Smith said while he sat down, feeling tired for the first time.
Siegfried also sat down, and smiled. “Go ahead… Did you know that the Vulpine in the north, the ones you defended, also want to join us? They accepted me as the second Wolf who was welcome there. They seem to like Walther Gray more.>”
Smith nodded. “Everybody seems to like him, but I want to ask you and Beatrice something… Do you want to go and become king Leopold’s adviser? At the Academy they want Beatrice to teach, and I need someone I can trust next to the king.”
Siegfried nodded. “And leave you here unprotected?”
Smith shrugged. “You have done a great job making the Neutral Zone safe for all of us, and now the biggest thread comes from the outside, from the Wolves. The problems with them are much larger than a few impoverished villages, and I want you to help the king to solve it.”
Siegfried nodded. “I understand. I promised to make the Neutral Zone safe for you and Mary, and now it means to go somewhere else. I guess these will be my last months here?”
Smith shrugged. “I honestly don’t know. The king has a lot of problems, and you marching in might add a few problems, like people thinking that I want to take over the Inimal kingdom, and king Leopold not having a problem with that.”
Siegfried shrugged. “Leopold is a weak king… I don’t think many people will mind being ruled by you. That’s why the Vulpine in the north want to join us.”
Smith sighed. “An innkeeper called us the sixth kingdom. Human, Elfique, Bergvolk, Wolves and the rest of the Inimals. He already saw the Wolves as a separate kingdom.”
Siegfried nodded. “Many Wolves see themselves not as a part of the Inimal kingdom. But you don’t listen, I said that the Vulpine in the north want to join us.”
Smith grinned. “That’s the third time you said that. Why are you telling me this? Mary is here for the things with Inimals whose names I don’t know… I won’t call it Inimal affairs, because that’s her previous job. I just take care of individuals.”
Mary nodded and grinned. “That’s indeed none of your business. You are almost like a king, Smith, delegating everything.”
Smith grinned. “So I can do the things I like, like working in the smithy.”

“Something on your mind?” It was Siegfried who broke the awkward silence.
Smith nodded. “I was hoping you would offer to accompany Mary on her journey to the Inimal kingdom, saying that you would talk to the king and at the Academy about you and Beatrice, that you would return with the reply from the king, again protecting Mary, and then I’ll send you away again with our reply, saving us the use of a messenger for the second letter, but you didn’t. Something on your mind?”
Siegfried nodded and smiled. “Beatrice is pregnant.”
Smith smiled. “Congratulations… But now I will revoke my question of you and Beatrice leaving the Neutral Zone for me. You are both adults, and you, only you, can make the best decision for your child. I won’t ask it again.”
Siegfried nodded. “I promised to make the Neutral Zone safe for you and Mary, together with Arthur, but from the Inimal kingdom, next to the king… Chester is running messages, and to be honest, he is useless. I easily get angry when he is around, and it’s also better for him that I leave.”
Smith sighed and shrugged. “Like I said, you are an adult. I won’t blame you. I’d rather have it this way than you turning him into a bloody mess. I really notice you are not yourself, you can’t seem to find the right words.”
Siegfried nodded and grinned. “I will give you a goodbye kiss. I promise. You go training with Arthur and Boris, Beatrice and I will accompany Mary to and from the Inimal capitol, and when we meet again you will be kissed like you have never been kissed before.”
Smith grinned. “Sounds like a fair deal. But I also want a kiss from Beatrice, and look her in the eyes. I don’t want you to make the decisions alone for the three of you.”
Siegfried nodded. “Of course… Beatrice says that teaching here is boring without Katie.”
Smith smiled. “Maybe Mary can give a few lessons at the Academy too… No, that would be impossible. Although she can try to ask if she may. That way she can get to know my Tiger daughter and son William.”
Mary nodded. “I can try, although I think I will spend much more time with the king, talking about politics.”
Smith nodded and smiled. “That’s even better. Now take your rest, I thought that you were sleeping.”
Mary grinned. “Listening. I am not deaf, like you are. I can hear what people say without looking at their faces.”
Smith shrugged. “Not entirely deaf. But my hearing is impaired, and I can tell by the look on people’s faces if they are true.”

The morning ritual almost felt boring for Smith, doing it in his own home without a pair of horses watching him. But it felt good to be home.
Everyone else in his house was still asleep when he opened the door to take care of the horses, but only to see that someone else was already doing it.
“<Good morning Harold!>” Smith greeted the older man.
“<Good morning… So many horses, and you end up with the best there ever was. I wish I could buy him, but he is one of the few horses left that tolerate you.>” Harold replied while he got a bucket.
Smith nodded. “<Yes… Take good care of him, I’ll be gone for… I don’t know, I hope for less than two weeks. After that I’m back at my smithy. I really don’t have a use for a horse, but it’s always nice to have one available when you want to go somewhere fast.>”
Harold nodded. “<Indeed it is. Have a good… training with Arthur, am I right?>”
Smith smiled. “<There are no secrets here. I never knew that Arthur is more afraid of the dark than horses are of me. Just a few days of playing hide and seek in a dark forest and hope that Arthur still recognizes me as a friend when I scare him.>”
Harold smiled. “<You are the friend everyone wishes to have… Be careful out there.>”
Smith nodded. “<I will. Are you also the person who has to take care of buying a saddle, bridle and other equipment for Louis?>”
Harold nodded. “<Yes I am. Jacob came to me me yesterday with that request, he told me you had a horse and needed those things.>”
Smith smiled. “<Don’t overdo it with gemstones and gold, but I want the leather to be embossed with the symbol of the Neutral Zone, so everyone can recognize where the horse is from. I’ll pay for it.>”
Harold nodded. “<That’s exactly what Jacob told me… Make it fit for you and your horse… Louis you said?>”
Smith grinned. “<I know his old name was Bucephalus, but I don’t like that name. So from now on his name is Louis. Louis the Sixteenth.>”
Harold nodded and grinned slightly. “<I have read a lot about him, I wished I could see this horse only once, but then I heard the news about his rider… but now I actually can take care of it…. And about the saddle and bridle, the town hall gives money the basic version, you pay for the luxury. Just like you do and have done for… many people. Although you can’t make a profit riding your horse.>”
Smith grinned. “<What do you mean? No profit? A nice trotting horse is still more than twice as fast as me walking. So that would be a four day journey in just two, and that gives me four more days of working after a journey to the quarry, or more at larger distances.>”
Harold nodded. “<Of course… I see we have more visitors, hello Boris, and hello Minou.>”
“<Still not funny, saying that you see me.>” Boris replied.
“<I can’t smell you, I didn’t hear you coming, these horses are not afraid of you so they didn’t notify me there was an Inimal entering the stables. How do you want me to greet you?>” Harold asked the blind Hound.
Boris shrugged. “<I have never thought of that… But I’m here for Smith, are you ready?>”
“Of course I am. I’ll leave my horse here, or do you want to ride him?” Smith asked.
“I’d love to” Minou replied “But I’m afraid we don’t have time for that. Arthur is waiting.”
“You are coming along?” Smith asked the timid Cat.
“Yes. In case things go wrong.” Minou replied while she adjusted her backpack.
“<Alright… Harold, here are two big gold. If it’s not enough just ask Charlene, I’ll tell her.> Let me get the things I want to take along, and let’s get going.” Smith said while he got two big gold coins from a pocket.
“<You always carry this much money with you, even when you don’t intend to spend it?>” Harold asked, staring at the coins.
“<Since I got home, yes. Mary was really upset about how little I paid for Louis, so from now on I carry at least six big gold and ten small gold along with the big and small silvers I always have. It’s heavy, but… well… an upset Mary is also not nice. And it might attract some robbers in the night, also good for training purposes.>”
Boris grinned. “You should jingle the coins a bit more, and add some big coppers, those sound better.”

“So, where are we going?” Arthur asked after they left the village.
“Around where Smith found me. I know the way there. Bit north of it is a very dark forest according to the man he killed. He didn’t dare to go there, but we do. We send Smith up ahead going back, and you try to track him in the dark.” Boris replied.
“Isn’t that a bit dangerous? We might get lost there.” Arthur asked.
Smith shrugged. “I managed to navigate a cart pulled by a donkey through it, it’s not too dense. Nice amount of Ferals there, at least a Tiger, a Fox and a Wolf, so that might give a sense of urgency to find me again.”
“That’s too dangerous! We better find a safer place for some training!” Arthur replied with a tone of fear in his voice. A tone Smith never had heard before.
Smith shrugged. “More dangerous than a White Tiger? More dangerous than a Bear? Really Arthur, if you are scared you can’t do your work. It’s a training, if Boris says it’s too dangerous we quit, no one else, and especially not you, we do it for you.”
“You are right… No other Human can do what you can. I wouldn’t be surprised if I find you doing your thing with a former Feral female.” Arthur replied after some time.
Smith sighed. “Mary after her father has given permission, and Charlene. No other women. Not even for political reasons.”
“Not even the queen if you meet her?” Minou asked.
“That would be a Lioness, and those are perverts. I didn’t like those, just like I don’t like Cats. You have seen the scars.” Smith replied.
Minou giggled. “Yes, but I am different. I really like my belly scratched.”

“I smell roast pork.” Boris suddenly said on a low tone, they were almost at the field next to the burnt down cabin where Boris’ owner lived. They had been walking for days, from early afternoon until well after dark.
“We are close to the field and the remains of the building where we found you, and beyond that is the river we pulled Minou out of. There are not supposed to be other Humans here, or even normal Inimals, so I think we have some poachers again. My suggestion is setting up camp on that open spot we passed almost an hour ago, and go back again to figure out how many there are.” Smith replied.
Arthur nodded. “You and I are the only good fighters, indeed better get Minou and Boris to safety first.”
“And get back after dark, to scare those Humans. We are here to train Arthur, not for your hunt.” Minou added.
“How much daylight do you have?” Boris asked.
“If I manage to kill some more food on our way to our intended campsite and everything goes as planned we will be back here a bit after sunset.” Smith replied
Arthur nodded. “Sounds reasonable.”

“Halt!” Smith suddenly warned the others. They were almost at the intended campsite.
“What is it?” Arthur asked.
“Boris, have those Humans passed here?” Smith asked the blind Hound.
Boris started to sniff the ground. “They have… Yesterday.”
Smith patted the blind Hound on the shoulder. “You are blind, but have an extraordinary sense of smell and hearing, I am almost deaf, but I have excellent eyes. This is a test for you, Arthur. Do you see anything out of the ordinary here? And I forbid you to set another step in that direction.”

Arthur looked at the forest around him. “I don’t see anything.”

Boris grinned. “Than we have at least one thing in common.”

Smith sighed, and got a branch. “Boris, you are not deaf. Tell me what you hear.” and Smith started to rake the leaves on the forest floor.

“Dead leaves… more dead leaves… you startled a mouse...”

“Minou! don’t you dare to move a muscle!” Smith warned the Cat, and continued to rake the leaves.

“You hit something hard… There! You did it again! It’s a… chain?”

Smith prodded the stick on a spot, and a clamp trap jumped up, snapping the stick at the thick base.

“How did you see that?” Minou asked.

Smith grinned. “It’s metal. That’s why. We missed it because it’s a bit to the side of the path, on our way to the field we walked more at the other side of the path. This is a nasty one, a locker. Even I can’t get out of this one… If I didn’t have the tools with me. Let’s take this one with us.”
“You think there are more of these?” Arthur asked.
“Boris, you can give a better answer to that question.” Smith replied while he got the tools to unlock the trap and the padlock that was used to anchor the trap to a tree root.
“Usually three or four of these on the outside of the area, and cheaper traps closer by, so trapped Ferals don’t have enough time to escape. Lots of screaming in pain, so lots of noise to alert the poachers.” Boris replied.
Smith sighed. “Again a change of plans. We, you, Arthur, and I, go back to those poachers, and Minou, you go back and get help from Humans. I know that the quarry is closer by, but I don’t want Wolves here.”
Minou nodded. “But what if I step into one of these things?”
Smith smiled. “You heard Boris, this trap marks the border of the hunting area. Keep your eyes open, and stay on the path, and avoid odd piles of leaves and other things you don’t expect. And although you have to hurry, don’t run. I won’t be there in time if you sprain your ankle.”
Minou nodded. “I understand. And food? Can I take all the leftovers with me? That saves me some time.”
Smith nodded. “Of course. Boris, Arthur, let’s give the brave little lady all our food.”

When Minou was out of sight Smith turned to the others. “Arthur, you have a plan?”
Arthur shook his head. “I’m usually not the one with the plan, that’s Siegfried, or one of the Humans we have. You Humans really have a talent for improvising.”
Smith sighed. “I’m sure that Melany or Siegfried has told you about my last time with a poacher, and if they didn’t Boris here can give you a summary. A part of me wants to walk away and let you solve it, but a different part… I’d rather not say it, but that is torture and kill. Find out where those other traps are, and kill the poachers if we have all their traps.”
Boris nodded. “That’s the best thing we can do. Let’s go, before Inimals get trapped. There even might be some living Inimals in cages they might have.”
Smith sighed. “I hope not… But if there are I will open those cages after they have seen what I have done, and see what happens next… Indeed, let’s go. Boris, guide us, and warn us if we have guests we didn’t invite.”

The two Inimals and the Human approached the open field, and crouched behind some bushes. There was a large camp with the horses in a corner of the field, a cart with what looked like large crates in another corner, and seven Humans, arguing about something while eating a late dinner, a large boar. None of them were near the burned down cabin or the river.
“Boris, can you hear what they are talking about?” Smith asked the blind, but definitely not deaf Hound.
Boris nodded. “Yes I can. They are arguing.”
“I can hear that too, I hear at least some sounds that sound angry, but I can’t hear the words. About what are they arguing?” Smith asked again.

Boris was silent for a few moments, but finally he understood what the heated argument was about. “They argue about a missing expensive trap. One wants to search for it now, while the others want to wait until tomorrow.”
Smith patted Boris on the shoulder. “Good. Keep listening and tell us.”

“They have all the traps but one.”

“A few want to leave.”

“Not happy about just seven Inimals, and two already dead.”

“They didn’t bring thirty-two cages for nothing… And now someone is blamed for being greedy for wanting too much, and being frugal for not spending money on equipment for processing if deaths occur… Again apparently. Someone else is saying that they keep repeating things.”

“One of them regularly rapes one of the women they captured. They are worried he gets feelings for her.”

“This is interesting… Someone is apparently trying to repair a few traps, and he says that these woods are haunted, things go missing and that something is destroying their traps, by dropping large stones on them and removing the stones again. Have you seen large stones?”

“I was not looking for stones, I can’t quite remember it.” Arthur replied.
“At the river. But stones can’t fly into traps, and I don’t think a Feral willingly searches and destroys traps. We have an ally here.” Smith replied.
Arthur nodded. “Let him or them handle the poachers, we are here for me and my training.”
Smith sighed. “Brave enough to destroy traps, but not brave enough to attack seven Humans. Let’s help a bit by scaring those Humans. Let them believe the ghost stories. The first one who goes out of sight to go with his pants down is for Arthur, second and third who come looking for the first one also, that silent one next to the fire gets a bolt from my armbrust, delivered through the air. Five, six and seven get to see us, and talk.”
Boris grinned. “I guess that must not be the prettiest sights. Fear of a killer you can’t see must be terrible.”
Arthur nodded. “Indeed. I think I am the most scary one for those Humans at this moment.”
Smith grinned. “Don’t underestimate me. Ask Melany and Siegfried when we get home.”
Boris also grinned. “He was quite friendly… to me. My monster met an even scarier monster.”

The Humans on the field had a lot to drink, and finally the first one got up to walk to the bush, right where Smith, Arthur and Boris were. The sun was set, and it was already very dark outside the circle of light that the fire made.

“This is easy.” Smith whispered.

“That’s because they use this bush as their toilet.” Boris replied.

“Hush now.” Arthur whispered.

The neck of the first poacher broke with a dry ‘snap’ sound, like a twig under water. Quietly Arthur and Smith moved the body behind a tree, underneath another bush.
Now the waiting game started again. But not for long.

“<Anton! Where are you! This isn’t funny! The entire evening you sit next to the fire doing nothing, and now you want to play games! Anton! Wh...>”

The sudden absence of sound alerted the remaining five poachers. They all stood up, and started looking around. One of them had a loaded crossbow in his hands.
He was slowly looking around, aiming his crossbow at the dark forest when Smith squeezed the trigger on his much heavier armbrust.
Smith’s bolt found its target, the crossbow the poacher was holding, just like Smith intended. He wanted to destroy the weapon, and not allow someone else to get the crossbow. Fighting with ranged weapons is not fair, and Smith fights to win.
The man was killed nonetheless, he was just lowering the crossbow as a reflex or something, Smith’s bolt grazed one of the crossbows limbs, damaging it just enough to let it snap due to the tension of the string, and flew on into the man’s nose. Four left.

When the man with the crossbow fell to his knees and fell backwards the bolt sticking out of his face it was an eerie sight in the light the fire made. One of the remaining men who was standing very close to him started to scream, and ran to the forest, opposite of where the death of his friend came from. His scream was also suddenly cut off.

“He gurgled a little, I think his throat was slit.” Boris remarked.

Smith grinned. “That answers the question where our ally is.”

Arthur nodded. “I think it’s time to show ourselves before he, she, it or they kill the remaining three… Boris, you stay here. Take some rest, we are going to show ourselves and if one runs we give him a head start.”
Boris grinned. “I won’t track him. That is something you have to learn too. I’ll go for the food.”
“Enough talking, let’s give this trap back. I hope that the other lockers are still functioning, that way we can hold the poachers without cutting up our rope.” Smith spoke when he lifted his armbrust with one hand, loaded again, and the trap in his other.

“<Alright, you three! Lie down on your stomach, face towards the fire, arms and legs spread, and the palms of your hands up!>” Smith spoke with a thundering voice, a voice he had never used before, not even for Katie.
The three men did it without hesitation. Not even a glance over their shoulder to see whose voice they heard.

When Smith was at three paces from the men he stopped, and tossed the trap he had found next to the left man’s head. “<Alright… Where are those other traps?>”
“<I won’t tell you.>” the man replied, keeping his chin on the ground and staring into the fire.
“<They are all on the left cart seen from here, under a cover.>” the man on the right replied, trembling with fear.
“<I will kill you for that!>” the man on the left spoke again, this time turning his head towards the right.

Smith got a knife from a wooden block, and tossed it next to the man’s head. “<Fine. Go ahead. Thank him for the information, and kill him… Remember, it is not wise to bring a knife to a swordfight, don’t even try.>”
The man looked at the knife, but did not move.
“<If you kill him I will keep you alive for a little bit longer. Get the knife and kill him!>” Smith spoke again, with a very eerie, calm voice.
Finally the man got the knife and stood up, facing Smith. “<You are a devil.>”
Smith grinned. “<Human skin and clothes look good on me, don’t they? Now kill him, I haven’t got all night, I’m getting hungry. Arthur! Take care of that boar!>”
“<Please… don’t...>” the man on the right spoke, almost whispering.
Smith knelt beside the trembling man and looked at him without any emotion. “<You betrayed your friend and I do not like to get my hands dirty. It is always nice when people make promises they will do the dirty work for me.>” Smith stood up again and gestured the other man to hurry. “<Go ahead, kill your friend, just like you have killed many of my friends.>”
“<I… can’t.>” the man spoke with a weak voice, and dropped the knife at his feet.
Smith sighed. “<Pick up that knife and kill him. You look like the boss here, not used to getting your hands dirty, but this time I outrank you. Do it to prolong your own life.>”

Finally the man did as Smith requested. It was an odd struggle, with a lot more stabbing than was needed for a clean kill but finally the struggle was over.
“Arthur, watch these two gentlemen for a moment… I need some time to attach some of these traps to a cart.”
Arthur nodded. “Very well. I’m guessing you are not going to use their rope to tie them.”
Smith pulled the cover from the cart. “No… Heh, indeed, many traps are destroyed with rocks, some which are beyond repair still have some gravel in the springs.”
“<What exactly are you going to do?>” Arthur asked, in Human, watching Smith because he wasn’t sure he should interfere or let his friend do what he wanted to do.
“<Attach these traps to this cart, let these men feel what the Inimals have felt when they stepped in this. And I want to eat and sleep without any of us having to watch these men.>” Smith replied when he clicked the first padlock shut.
Arthur nodded. “But that will result… Oh right, you don’t hear much when you sleep. But what about me, and what about Boris?”
Smith shrugged. “Nice of you that I had to explain what I was going to do in Human… Now the surprise is gone. You have to concentrate on the darkness, and this is a nice distraction.”
Arthur nodded. “I understand… I guess.”

“<You speak their language?>” the first poacher asked while he was pushed towards the cart with the trap attached to it.
Smith grinned. “Wissen sie nicht wer ich bin? Je parle toutes les langues. Doorlopen!”
“<You are truly the devil! You should have come for that other man! He is the one who spreads his seed on infertile land!>” the poacher started to protest.
Smith nodded and grinned. “<So… The other one surviving me is the one who likes to rape innocent and helpless women… That causes a slight change of plans. I’m sure you have some sturdy poles somewhere around here, hammer four of those in a square, two by two paces, into the ground. Not too shallow, not too deep. Then your friend undresses and you tie him to those poles, lying on the ground on his back with his arms and legs spread.>”
The man looked in disbelief at Smith. “<You are going to rape him?>”
Smith politely shook his head. “<Just wait and see. This, and then you can rest.>”

The man was very cooperative, Smith suspected that he would run sooner or later, and disappear into the darkness, but the fear of what was outside the circle of light the fire made was greater than the fear he had for Smith and Arthur. The trap could wait a bit longer.
In no time the four fence posts were in the ground next to seven crates, and the rapist was tied to them, naked and lying on his back with his arms and legs spread.
“<What are we going to do now?>” the first man asked.
Smith grinned. “Set your prisoners free. Je gevangenen vrijlaten.”
The man made a few steps back. “<You are insane!>”
Smith shrugged. “<Arthur, call Boris, and keep me safe, but no blood. Just hold them and when they are calm again release them. Show that I am not a thread.>”
Arthur nodded. “Boris is already eating. You are taking your time here, but it’s getting late.”
Smith smiled. “I understand. But do you know what would happen if I don’t talk this much.”
Arthur nodded again. “<Of course… Do your thing… One more thing mister poacher, I see that the lids of those crates are held by a single latch. What do you think what could happen if you captured a stronger Inimal like me or a Wolf?>”
Even in the pale light Smith could see the color leave the man’s face.

Smith opened the first crate. In it was a dead Leopard, with some clotted blood around his head, and the body starting to rot. Smith sighed. “<What a waste. Let’s find out what’s in crate number two.>”
“<Second dead one.>” The poacher answered Smith’s question.
Smith nodded. “<Location next to the first one, a bit away from the rest. I could have guessed that, but I want to see it with my own eyes.>” and he proceeded to open it. It was a dead male Fox with a bloody cloth over his waist.

The third crate contained a living Tigress. “Welcome back.” was Smith’s greeting for the scared looking woman, and he moved on to the fourth crate, even before she could give some sort of reply. Smith could hear a faint banging coming from it, like the inhabitant wanted to escape. Smith opened it carefully, and a dirty looking She-Wolf jumped out, only to fall to her knees again.
Smith smiled in his friendly way. “Take it easy, sit down for a while and breathe the air. And have something to eat, over there. That Hound next to the fire can give you some.” and quickly moved on to the fifth.
It contained a male Tiger. “Good to see you. Food is over there.” Smith greeted him gesturing towards Boris, and moved on.
The sixth crate also was the home of a Tigress. Caked with feces she crawled out of it. Smith sighed. “A few more days and you would’ve had maggots. There goes a valuable skin.”
The poacher stared at the ground, ashamed.

Before Smith could open the last crate a weird sound, like someone was hitting a pile of wet clothes with a hammer, combined with a shriek of agony, sounded.
When Smith looked around to locate the source of the sound he saw the She-Wolf with the big hammer, the hammer that was used to drive the poles into the ground, and the tied poacher with a bloody mess where his scrotum was.
Quickly Smith ran to the Wolf and grabbed the hammer.
“<Thank god, she would have killed him!>” the first poacher muttered under his breath, if Smith could hear him.
“No, not all for you. The others also must have their chance.” Smith spoke gently.
Finally the Wolf surrendered the large wooden hammer, and sat down, staring at Smith. The tied poacher was writhing in agony, gasping for air, and stared with wide open eyes into the starry sky, like he was waiting for an angel to rescue him.
Smith handed the second Tigress the hammer. “Go ahead.”
The Tigress nodded, and briefly smiled, like she understood Smith.
With a large swing of the hammer she landed the hammerhead on the ground beneath the tied poacher’s head. All the way through the skull. If someone had taken the time to cut the head off the torso she would have held a hammer with upside down Human ears.
Smith sighed. “I said ‘go ahead’, I did not say ‘go for the head’. What are the other Tigress and the one in the last crate going to do? Hitting an already dead man is no fun. And don’t you dare to harm that other man, he is for the king.”
The Tigress nodded.

Smith proceeded to open the last crate. There was a dead Vixen inside.
“<Some men, like him over there, spread their seed on sunny patches of infertile lands, lands that are not suitable for his seed, like this Vixen. Every evening and morning since we caught her. Others spread their seed on fertile lands, the same species, but on a place where the sun doesn’t shine and with each other. And there are men who spread their seed by hand when they are alone. It’s all a sin, and he has met his demon.>” the startled poacher spoke, but at a rather firm tone, like he was preaching.
Smith shrugged. “<Nice words… But they have no meaning here. Your work is done. In my opinion all the other women have seen what he has done, and wanted simple revenge.>”

Smith finally pushed the last poacher towards the waiting trap. “<Like I said, I don’t like to get my hands dirty. Now step on it!>”
“<But, that thing will break my bones! All those Inimals have stepped on normal traps!>” the poacher protested again.
Smith grinned. “<You won’t break your legs if you step the right way on it. You want to do that? I promised to keep you alive. I didn’t specify for how long, but it will at least be for a few weeks, but this is only for tonight. I need some time to strengthen a coffin for you.>”
The man nodded. “<Alright, tell me the right way to step on this thing. I have deserved it.>”
Smith grinned. “<Let the clamps hit the inside and outside of your leg at the same time. That way you won’t break the shinbone, and if you are fast enough you even get some support from your foot instead of the metal digging into your flesh.>”
The man nodded. “<Alright… You don’t seem to be the devil I thought you would be.>”

The trap shut, and the man screamed out in pain. There was a lot of cursing. “<You told me this is the right way! You lied!>”
The man lurched forward despite his hurting leg, but only to learn that the chain was rather short, and his adversary knew exactly where to stand to stay just out of reach. If he wanted to he could barely touch Smith’s toes, but nothing more.
Smith could have kicked the man in his face if he wanted to, but he turned around and walked away from the screaming and swearing man. “<Don’t walk away!>”

“I see that you are all eating.” Smith greeted his friends and the liberated Inimals.
“They were quite hungry. Good thing we have this boar, although those Humans can’t cook, even your food is better.” Boris replied.
“Have they already said something?” Smith asked, nobody in particular.
Arthur shook his head. “No… I don’t think this is the right way. It’s not confusing enough. You brought Melany back with how you smelled and acted, Beatrice with how you smelled and acted, me with how you acted… I still can’t believe that you managed to stop Tim, a common Tiger who could kill a boar with his bare hands… and finally Belle because we fought side by side, but she already knew who you are.”
“Sometimes they start to talk. Often it’s just gibberish, but I don’t know what would happen if I had more time, because they were killed before I got to know them well enough.” Boris added.
Smith nodded. “Very well… Boris, would you be so kind to escort them to the river so they can wash themselves?”
Boris nodded. “I could, but I can’t see if they are clean enough or not. I don’t think the women are strong enough to wash themselves, and they really stink. I think it’s better you and Arthur go. I smell lamp oil, so I guess there must be some torches around here, take a few of those. I think I also can find some soap.”
Smith sighed. “It might be a bit awkward, me as a Human washing them between their legs after all they have seen a Human do, but I’ll try to be gentle.”
Arthur grinned. “Or you do the male and the Wolf, she is strong enough to make it very clear when you are going too far.”
Smith nodded. “That’s an even better idea… I see the torches. Boris, if you provide us the soap we can get these ladies clean before we go to bed. I hope they won’t object to sleeping in a Human tent. I’ll sleep in that large one, I’m too tired to put up my own tent, that’s something for tomorrow, and I see seven other tents. I don’t think that Minou will be back within a few days.”
Arthur nodded. “Going to sleep like nothing happens around you. With four Ferals walking around, someone in the forest killing people, a screaming man… I wonder if I can sleep… But let’s get these ladies and one gentleman clean.”
Smith nodded. “I see that Boris has found some soap. If the ladies and gentleman want to follow me to the river we can get you clean enough to sleep without an itch and smelly fingers when you scratch it.”

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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 36

#40 Post by Neutral Smith » Sat Nov 04, 2017 1:59 pm

Chapter 36
Work


Smith felt a bit like a shepherd when he lead the Inimals towards the river.
“Alright ladies and gentleman. Let’s get you clean. The bank is a bit steep… but I see that the water is not as high as last time I jumped in. Just… stand next to the person you want to wash your bottom. Me or that big White.” Smith spoke while he took off his clothes, except his underpants.
The two Tigresses went standing next to Smith.
Smith sighed. “This is not what I hoped for. I have a history with female Felines, and I want to quit that habit.”
The two Tigresses stepped even closer.
Smith sighed again, and pointed to the She-Wolf. “You first. You can make it clear when I do things you don’t like, and the rest can see what I am going to do… On your knees in the water, bottom downstream.”
The She-Wolf complied without saying a word, and Smith washed her.
Smith lathered her dirty bottom the best he could. Lying down in a crate that almost was like a coffin, with only food and water but no means of a clean secretion of the waste made a mess of the fur. It took quite a few lather-rinse-repeats but finally she was clean again.

She smiled when she got up again, but still didn’t say a word.
“Next!” Smith called.
The first Tigress that Smith got out of her crate was pushed forward by the second. Uncertain she took a few steps towards Smith.
Smith smiled. “Looks like your friend wants to spend more time with me.”
Arthur sighed. “You know there is also a male waiting?”
Smith shrugged. “Old habits die hard. But it’s a clear sign that they are not fully thinking about their actions yet. But she is after this one, and as soon as I declare her clean I stop.”

The Tigress wasn’t as dirty as the others, and Smith suspected she was the last captured one. Smith did what he had to do, not going more towards the front than was needed, but nonetheless the Tigress moved in such a way that touching the genitals occasionally happened.
Smith grinned “You are not dirty there, just the butt and the base of the tail, and after that you are free to do whatever you want.” and tried his best to keep his hands away from the areas he didn’t want to touch, but the Tigress wanted to be touched.

“Alright, we are done. Not nice pushing up and backwards in the rhythm when I move my hand down, but I am not going to wash you again. Now get up and let me wash the really dirty one. My guess is that she is the one who has been the longest in a coffin, even before the dead Leopard.” Smith spoke when he was done washing her, giving her a gentle grope above the tail.
The Tigresses’ response came in the form of a quick turn, and knocking Smith over.
With some pushes and pulls the Tigress had Smith in a position she wanted him in, and sat down on top of him.
Smith sighed. “Lady, no matter how much I like being in this position I have some work to do. Go wash that male Tiger, that way we are done much faster and can go to a tent.”
The Tigress climbed off, and extended her hand towards the male Tiger, who stood staring dumbfounded at her. Finally he smiled, and allowed the Tigress to wash him.
‘Those are not Feral any more, they are just pretending’ Smith thought. ‘Just play along, they trust you.’ the other thought added.

The second Tigress stepped forward.
“You are not Feral, you are just pretending. You have a different look in your eyes. None of you are.” Smith spoke despite the thoughts he had a few moments earlier while he got ready to receive another dirty Tigress bottom.
The Tigress nodded and smiled. “Y… Yes. As soon as the Humans started screaming something snapped back.”
Smith nodded. “Confusion, you didn’t expect this to happen… Now get in the water, I want to wash you… I mean you need to be washed. Remember what I said when I opened the crate you were in?”
The Tigress grinned. “You don’t like to get your hands dirty. And yet you do this.”
Smith also grinned. “Different meaning of getting my hands dirty. I don’t like killing. I am also not allowed to do that here. We’ll talk about that tomorrow.”
The Tigress went down on her knees in a very sexual position. “You are Smith, aren’t you?” the Tigress giggled “Me, being washed by the most powerful and sexy Human in the whole world. What have I done to deserve this?”
Smith grinned. “Made a few mistakes. But you must be lucky you didn’t step on a locking trap… This might take some time, don’t try to enjoy it too much. Have you been on your stomach in your crate?”
The Tigress nodded while Smith was lathering her whole waist, from the tail to the front. “Yes… I hoped that would keep me cleaner, but the side where my feet were at was a bit higher than my head, everything ran down.”
Smith sighed. “I noticed… Oh well, you know who I am, that’s a good start.”

The Tigress wriggled and giggled. It was hard for Smith to wash her, she had far too much interest in his underpants.
Smith managed to hold her, and washed her as fast as he could, with Arthur handing him the soap and splashing water when needed.
“Don’t you dare to think naughty of me!” The Tigress said giggling because Smith was using his hands again.
Smith grinned. “Infertile grounds, nothing will grow there, no matter how much seed I sow.”
“Smith! Keep it elegant!” Arthur spoke at a rather demanding tone.
The Tigress giggled. “Is he always this serious?”
Smith nodded. “He was a Feral I helped as well, just like his wife. He is a former Elite, and that never leaves him when he has work to do. And that is protecting me.”
The Tigress nodded. “I understand. That blind Hound, did you help him as well?”
Smith sighed. “Yes… I helped a lot of people. You are clean again. Do you want a happy ending?”
The Tigress giggled again. “Yes please!”
Smith grinned. “Good, then the other one can sleep with me if she wants to. And a night of sleep for me if she doesn’t.”
The Tigress stopped wriggling for the right touch. “That’s not fair…”

Smith woke up and was a bit confused about where he was. This wasn’t his tent, and there were two soft Tigresses left and right of him, cuddling him. And he still had his underpants on.
“Good morning ladies.” Smith mumbled, deciding who would go first.
“Good morning Smith!” someone called from outside the tent.
Smith sighed. “Good morning whoever you are… Your voice doesn’t sound familiar.”
“I am that male Tiger.” the voice from outside the tent replied.
Smith shrugged the two ladies off. “Alright… I’m coming.”
“You, you, or the ladies?” Smith heard Boris ask.
Smith grinned, it was good to have a friend with the same sort of blunt humor. “My whole body. Little me is somehow still covered, and my fingers also don’t smell.”
“You can’t remember we were arguing about who should have come first, and you just went sleeping early?” The Tigress on the left, the second one who got her freedom, asked.
Smith shrugged. “I don’t. Sometimes it’s something else that takes over my body. I do or don’t, and can’t remember it afterwards, just like being Feral. Now if you excuse me, I have people to talk to.”
The Tigress nodded. “That blind Hound and White Tiger explained me some yesterday.”
Smith smiled. “That’s good. That saves me some time… But the trouble is, I also don’t remember your names. Can you tell me again?”
The Tigress nodded. “I’m Tina, that’s Tina, the Tiger outside is also called Smith, the She-Wolf is Lilith, and the male Wolf is Wulver.”
Smith grinned. “I will call you Tina Too, because you are the second I let out of a crate. Or just Too.”
Tina Too nodded. “I’m fine with that. It seems that our parents weren’t very creative.”
Smith smiled. “That would be the third Tina Tiger for me. Unfortunately the Tina I already knew is dead, killed by the Minister of Inimals’ wife. But the good news is that I killed that woman as well. And the rest of the people who were with her.”
The first Tina nodded. “I have heard of that story. It was pretty bloody.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. I still can’t believe it that I have done that alone… Now let’s have breakfast, and talk.”

“Good to see that you are all back to normal and I see a new face… Wulver, that’s an odd name.” Smith spoke while he sat down with a plate of fish.
Wulver nodded. “Yes… And thanks for helping us, I couldn’t have done it alone. And I’m sorry the boar is gone, we are not quite alone here. I’m surprised by the amount of Ferals that dared to come here now that the Humans are gone.”
“<Can anyone help me? I’m hungry too!>” the poacher, who was still in his trap, but further unharmed, suddenly said.
Smith looked at the others. “What were the times you got your food?”
Lilith shrugged. “I can’t remember, but it wasn’t much. Let’s give him the leftovers.”
Smith nodded. “Fish… Who has caught these?”
Wulver raised his hand. “I did. But I used your gear. Do you mind? The others said you wouldn’t have a problem with it. You also have a nice crossbow.”
Smith smiled. “Armbrust, quite a bit heavier than a Human crossbow… They know me. I don’t mind at all if you use it for a good cause, helping others and not selling it. You can keep the fishing gear.”
Wulver smiled. “You don’t know how much you are helping me with this… You have been here before, haven’t you?”
Smith nodded. “That burned down cabin over there is my work. Boris here is alive because of me and he lived there, within a few days a Cat will return with help. I pulled her from the river over there, but I think you refer to the fish we left for you here last time I was here with more others.”
Wulver nodded. “Indeed. Smith Tiger and that dead Fox were here too when you were here.”
Smith smiled. “Then it was Smith’s… is your name really Smith?… shadow I saw on my tent. Good to see you are still alive.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Could be… You are that smith from the Neutral Zone? You sent me a letter that you wanted to learn symbolism, but unfortunately I had to leave because the army needed me and my skills.”
Smith nodded. “That explains why it took so long until I got permission. Your smithy and all the equipment is still there, but the people of your village have moved, they now live at a quarry east of here. If you want to I can arrange your belongings to be moved there too. I can give you a new building, but half of your profit will be mine.”
Smith Tiger nodded and sighed. “Can I think about it?”
Smith smiled. “Of course you can. Your successor Casper Cat is dead, his brother is dead, doctor John Panther Jaguar is dead, Charlene Cheetah is living in my house, Katie or Kathryn Tiger is at the Academy, she was orphaned when I arrived at your old village and I had adopted her with Charlene, the Cat carpenter brothers are dead, Floris and Florette Fox are living in a village north of mine, and finally Diego and Dora Dog are living together at the quarry.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Of course a lot of things have changed in my absence, that’s a constant. Can I work for you, in your smithy?”
Smith nodded. “Of course you can. We could really use someone who is good with the smaller metal things, like locks. We had some Cats who could do that, but those are… also dead. We’ve had a few attacks and a lot of people have died.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Those things happen… A lot has changed between since I left my home and now… Peace between Humans and Inimals, I never thought I would live to hear that.”
Smith nodded. “Peace between Inimals and Humans yes, but now the Wolves are getting restless again. And the Human king also has some separatists in his kingdom. The Neutral Zone grows while on the opposite sides of the continent the kingdoms crumble. It will be a matter of time until the area that is now the Neutral Zone also sees war again, but I’ll be dead and forgotten by then.”
Smith Tiger shrugged. “I’m glad I don’t have these responsibilities… Just let me work in your smithy.”
Smith laughed. “I try to avoid responsibilities, and I want to work in my smithy as well. Can’t you go on adventures in my place? I thought I would be here for a simple training with Arthur and Boris, and look at me now, talking with four former Ferals, and of course some killing again.”
Tina the first smiled. “I want to go on adventures… I had a very boring life, but now I have the opportunity to change that.”
Tina Too nodded. “But I want to stay home. I have seen enough to hate the outside world. Let me be a household Tiger.”
Lilith grinned. “And I want to kill Humans.”
Smith shrugged. “As long as you keep me alive, and the Humans that will arrive in the following days to help. I sent someone away to get help, but not from the Wolves from the nearby quarry because I know they won’t be friendly, and you showed that yesterday… Who is that Tiger tending the horses?”

Wulver looked for a few moments, and shrugged. “I really don’t know their names… Feral you know. There are dozens of Ferals here. You arrive, and suddenly four are back to normal… I think I’m not confusing enough.”
Smith smiled. “Doesn’t matter, I see that the horses are not afraid of him, and he reminds me of a Tiger coachman, this might even be his son.”
Wulver nodded. “Could be. Just go and ask him then.”
Smith grinned. “I’ll just wait until he comes here. Me and horses are not a good combination, there are only two horses that won’t panic when I’m standing next to them, and those are not here. Give him some time.”
The people watched the Tiger feed and brush the horses, and disappear into the forest again.
Smith shrugged. “Pity… I hope he will return, I guess he is cheaper than Harold who is tending my horse at home.”
Arthur grinned. “You are back to normal again. As soon as you were done washing the ladies yesterday and they started to fight over you, you just closed. Sighed a few times, did what you had to do and went sleeping. You didn’t even bother to put your backpack in the tent.”
Smith shrugged again. “As long as I don’t harm the wrong people I don’t care. Just kill me if I start doing that.”
Arthur nodded. “Of course.”

Smith sat for a few moments in silence, and finally stood up. “Not much to do… Let’s take inventory of what these poachers have… If someone else gets bored give that poacher something to eat. Grin a little, scare him a little, as long as he lives long enough to be able to walk to his execution it’s good enough.”
Lilith nodded. “I’ll do it.”
Smith nodded. “Good… We have four Tigers, maybe one of you can reinforce a crate for him, he has been long enough in that trap. Like I said, I don’t like to get my hands dirty, and working with wood is not the best thing I can do.”
Wulver nodded. “I can do that… I think I’m going to use the rest of those crates to build a shelter.”
Smith shrugged. “Go ahead. Take everything that can be used, I don’t see a better way to use those. Tell me what more you need, I’ll take the money and buy you whatever you need and make sure it will be brought here.”
Wulver smiled. “That’s very kind of you, but I don’t need many things. I live like a Feral, that way they trust me more. If they see me with all kinds of Human things they might think I’ll betray them.”
Smith nodded. “In that case I’ll take everything I can sell, including the horses and carts. I won’t leave much for you.”
Wulver nodded. “That’s fine.”

A crate was reinforced, and Smith unlocked the poacher.
“<I have changed my mind, I want to stay in the trap!>” The poacher suddenly said while Smith guided him towards the reinforced crate, now with a lot of hinges, latches and extra planks. Wulver was not a carpenter, but he had made one solid crate out of four of them.
Smith sighed. “<That means that Wulver has done all this work for nothing. But I understand… You have seen the Inimals when they came from their crates, and somehow I don’t think you want to be naked in it to keep your clothes clean.>”
The poacher nodded. “<Yes… Anything but that.>”
Smith nodded. “<Fine… I’ll wrap a few clothes around the jaws of the trap to protect your skin, and you can put your other leg in. I don’t want to hear you.>”

The poacher sat down, and Smith slowly allowed the trap to close on the man’s leg, the latch slowly ticking like a clock.
“<There. Don’t walk away.>” Smith spoke at a soothing tone when he stood up again.
The man smiled despite his pain. “<I hate being locked up. This way I still can see the sky and the horizon.>”
Smith grinned. “<We’ll get rain soon. The lid of the crates would have protected you from that. But it’s too late to change your mind again.>”

“Do you really have to be that friendly?” Lilith asked when Smith walked back again.
Smith shrugged. “It’s only for the few days with me. He will be brought to the Inimal capitol, and I really don’t care about what happens next. I try not to be an evil person.”
Lilith smiled. “But you are also not a good person. You are truly neutral.”
Smith shrugged. “Yes… I guess so. Let’s find out what more those poachers have, what I can use or sell, and wait for the others. I have found nothing of interest yet.”
Wulver nodded. “A lot of traps. I don’t want to see those again.”
Smith Tiger smiled. “I have an idea for a special kind of hinge for doors. With a spring to close the door again. You have done a lot of damage, but if I can salvage thirty springs from these traps it might be worth… six small gold, maybe more.”
Smith nodded and smiled. “I like you. You already see a profit in something, in a way I couldn’t imagine. Humans hate it when other people leave doors open, and with a spring hinge they’ll close themselves. I’d say four silver, but for a complete set of hinges, your spring hinge and a matching normal hinge. And some good latches and locks, but those have to be bought separately.”
Wulver shrugged and grinned. “I’m sorry for the damaged ones. Never knew these traps could be reused.”
Smith nodded. “You are a ghost, they were afraid of you. You also have stolen things?”
Wulver nodded again. “”Yes… A few knives, tools, rope, a sword, food, a bucket… They were with nine, but I killed one before, and those poachers had some fights over the stolen items and they also killed one of their own.”
Smith nodded. “That explains the eight tents. Two were sleeping together.”
Wulver grinned. “Yes… And they even were cheating with each other. How can you cheat when it is impossible to get children?”
Smith shrugged. “They are Humans. We have feelings for others, even if we can’t get children with them, and it feels like betrayal when someone loves someone else… I must admit that I also have feelings for Inimals, like a partner, but also fatherly feelings. I fell in love with a Cheetah, adopted a Tiger girl, and I would do anything to keep them safe. I don’t know what I would have done when she started to love another Human, but now I’m happy for her because she has a Cheetah male. The child is now at the Academy, so she also gets the best she can get.”

The first Tina caressed Smith’s cheek. “You have also feelings for me?”
Smith shrugged. “To be honest… No. Not love… A little lust, but I promised myself to keep it with only Charlene as long as she doesn’t want children with Chester, and Mary, the Human woman I love. I have had enough sex with other Inimals, and I want to quit that. From my thirteenth until my eighteenth I really have been abused by the female Felines of the village I lived in, when I met my wife and got her pregnant that was over, and when I found her murdered by Wolves it was really over until I met Charlene more than ten years later. Then came Melany, Arthur’s wife, but I stopped with her when I met Arthur, and a few moons ago Arthur and I went to the Academy to bring Katie and William, another adopted Tiger, there and had eleven women in a single night, and a lot more in the villages on our way home, and that really made me feel dirty… You really have met me at the wrong time.”
Tina nodded. “I understand… Sorry for asking.”
Tina Too also nodded. “And I am sorry too.”
Smith grinned. “If you want to stay close to me in case I change my mind I suggest you come and live with Smith Tiger. I live in a large house with six bedrooms, three of them are occupied, one by me, one by the Cheetahs, and one by Mary, so I have three rooms left. You and Smith Tiger can use one of those. Tina can use one of the others until an adventurous Tiger comes along, I really hope to see that Tiger who takes care of the Horses comes back again, and then I’ll have one room left for guests, I don’t think that Lilith will like living in an almost Human village.”
Lilith nodded. “Indeed… I think I’ll stay with Wulver. Two can do more than one.”

Smith spent the rest of the day moving and stacking and counting everything the poachers had. They had a lot of things, but not much of value. There was no money.
Smith Tiger had borrowed the armbrust, and together with Tina Too he came back with a large boar.

The Tiger who took care of the horses also came back, took the piece of meat they left for him near the horses, but he did not join the group around the fire, despite Tina’s attempts to talk to him.
“Are we going to train tonight?” Smith asked Boris.
Boris shook his head. “No… It’s really too dangerous here for you to go alone. If I have to be honest I’d even say it’s too dangerous to stay here, but we have to wait for the others to arrive.”
Smith shrugged. “Alright… I’m going out of sight early. It’s too dangerous for me to guard, my suggestion is that you do that… Or not, last night it also went fine, except for our food… Just let the Ferals have their feast.”
Arthur nodded. “You want me to stay with you in your tent?”
Smith shrugged. “I now know the Tinas and Lilith, if there is suddenly another woman in my tent… Well… Let’s hope nothing happens. Goodnight.”

Smith was again the last to wake up the next morning.
“Good morning. Indeed a feast. They even have given the poacher some food.” Wulver greeted him.
Smith nodded. “My tent is empty, so everyone left again. Did anyone have a visitor?”
Boris started to sniff Smith’s tent. “A few have opened it, but none have entered. I guess that I am mistaken, and that the Ferals are not as dangerous as anyone thinks.”
Smith shrugged. “Good to know. And a very good reason to kill everyone who is a threat to them. I’ll have that crossbow fixed, and I’ll give Wulver a few more bolts for it. And a few more fishing hooks and line. Is that good?”
Wulver smiled. “Yes… That way I really can hunt poachers. These already were a bit afraid to come here, but this way they really have something to fear. I think I will hang the corpses along the path so everyone can see what happens here!”
Smith shrugged. “You are a Wolf… If you ever meet Mary please don’t tell her this… Or do, because then she’ll understand me better. People always say that I am too cruel towards Wolves, if they want metal they always pay too much, but this way she’ll know what some Wolves do to Humans… what happened to the woman I loved before I met her.”
Wulver nodded. “It must have been bad for you. But you and your people have nothing to fear from me. A Wolf is very loyal to his friends, but you don’t want to be his enemy.”
Arthur nodded. “And you don’t want to be Smith’s enemy. Last fight he killed over a hundred Wolves, before that almost twenty, some more before that and he also had killed the eleven Wolves who had murdered his wife and village he came from.”
Wulver nodded and grinned a little. “I think I have a lot of killing to do to match those numbers.”
Smith also grinned. “I also befriended Rolph, he has killed more Humans than I have killed Wolves. But in a Human city it’s easier hunting than in an Inimal forest. And I want you to leave some Humans for Lilith.”
Lilith also grinned. “You don’t sound Human. Did that poacher call you a devil?”
Smith shrugged. “A god to some, a devil to others. I’m neutral.”

Smith and Smith Tiger were busy disassembling the traps when Boris interrupted them.
“I hear an approaching horse, coming from there.” He said, while pointing at the path which lead towards the Neutral Zone, instead of the path through the forest where they came from.
Smith looked in the given direction, and started to smile. “Just when you thought you have seen it all, there is Minou holding on to Harold, on my horse.”
Boris swatted Smith on the back of his head “That’s still not funny!”
Smith patted his blind friend on the shoulder. “Make some deaf and not being able to smell jokes, and we’re even again.”
Boris grinned. “One of us will have sex tonight.”

“You… Really made a mess here.” Were Harold’s first words when he got off Louis.
Smith shrugged. “Inimals leave their dead alone, and I am doing the same.”
Harold pointed at the poacher. “And him? Why is his leg in a trap?”
Smith shrugged. “An itch is terrible when your arms are tied. He could choose between this trap and a coffin like they used to store the living Inimals in, and he choose the trap. I’ll have him transported to the Inimal capitol for trial as soon as possible.”
Harold shook his head, pulled his dagger from its sheath and with a few quick stabs the trapped poacher was dead.
“Only god can judge him.” he spoke while he wiped the blood of his dagger again, with the poacher’s clothes.
Smith shrugged. “He’s dead. There’s nothing your god can do.”
Smith Tiger looked from Harold to Smith, and back to Harold again. “You speak Inimal?”
Harold smiled. “Minou, that Cat over there, told me it would be wise to talk in a language you understand, so yes, I speak Inimal. A lot of Humans in the Neutral Zone speak Inimal.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Wise… I’m Smith by the way, the Tigresses are both Tina, the male Wolf is Wulver, and the female wolf is Lilith.”
Harold nodded. “And that Tiger next to those horses?”
Smith shrugged. “We don’t know. He’s a Feral, he doesn’t dare to come closer to us, and I don’t want to get closer to those horses. Take Louis with you and you talk to him. Wulver is the only one who wasn’t Feral here, the rest were. It is still confusion that brings them back.”
Harold nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Is more help on the way?” Smith asked Minou, who was unpacking her bag.
Minou nodded. “Yes… Most of the Inimal soldiers, and a coachman with Simon. It might have been better that I also had a look at what was needed here… I just… asked everyone I saw and we left at first light.”
Wulver nodded. “Good… There are a lot of Ferals here, there might be a few injured ones, I helped a few escape, but they didn’t allow me to touch their legs, they just limped away. I see you have bandages and other things, maybe you can help them better.”
Minou smiled. “I’ll see what I can do. Simon is the real doctor, I’m just a nurse. The only problem is, he is a Human.”
Wulver shrugged. “Those have the best results. A Human helping them is better than a Human hurting them.”
Smith grinned. “I hope there are no open wounds, because he has something that really hurts. But it also heals.”
Minou nodded. “Yes… But he has improved it, it now doesn’t hurt as much as it hurt you when you had your wound… Although I am not sure, you have a very high tolerance for pain.”
Smith shrugged. “But that is for later. When will the rest arrive? Before dark, or tomorrow?”
Minou looked at the sun and the path. “I guess the soldiers can be here any moment. The soldiers come running, and Simon is with the coachman. The coachman might take a bit longer, I thought we might need him and his cart to transport the wounded back.”
Wulver nodded. “But first they have to want to be helped… But thank you.”

“Good to see that you are alive!” a Tiger soldier spoke when he saw Smith. He arrived not too long after Harold and Minou with the rest of the soldiers, who all five went standing around Smith, like they expected him to take command.
Smith nodded and pointed at the last poacher. “Good to see you… All the poachers are dead, the last one died not long ago, Harold killed him.”
The Tiger looked at the dead poacher. “His foot in a trap? Has Harold done that?”
Smith nodded and shook his head. “I wanted to keep him alive to be brought to the Inimal capitol for trial, but Harold said that his god is a better judge… Either way, he is no longer our problem. In hindsight your help wasn’t needed here, but it’s good to have you here… I see that they have borrowed my armbrust again, and I see Wulver already returning with some fish. We’ll just gather as much food as we can and have a big feast. If we see an unfamiliar face we just give them food, and see what happens.”
The Tiger nodded. “We ran day and night to catch up with Harold, some food is very welcome. Your horse is fast.”
“It’s an impressive horse. And a beautiful saddle with all those gemstones.” The Tiger who took care of the other horses interrupted.
Smith nodded. “I know… You can call me Smith, your name is?”
“I am Casper.” The Tiger who took care of the horses introduced himself.
Smith nodded. “Casper… Coachman?”
Casper smiled. “Yes, Casper Coachman, just like my father was.”
Smith winked at the Tiger soldier, who understood that he mustn’t say that he and Smith had met this Tiger’s father.
“I have other things to do.” The Tiger quickly said, and walked towards the other soldiers and whispered something. The other soldiers nodded.

Smith sighed and went standing on a cart. “Alright ladies and gentlemen. I take command here… This is what we are going to do: Here in the forest live a lot of Ferals. All the Ferals I have brought back are back because of confusion. Melany White Tigress because I smelled like Katie Tiger while she wasn’t there, Beatrice Wolf because I smelled like Siegfried Wolf while he wasn’t there, Arthur here because I stopped Tim Tiger from attacking him and Melany defending me, and Belle Bear because we fought side by side against Wolves, and now Tina, Tina and Smith Tiger, and Lilith Wolf because I, a Human, attacked other Humans and helped Wulver with that, he is the only one who wasn’t a Feral… My suggestion is that Harold and I are going to sit on opposing sides of the fire, in clear sight, and just talk to you like we are all friends. If anyone has a better idea let me hear it.”
Tina Too raised her hand. “I see you also have two Wolves… I am here because of Wolves. Wolves, please don’t sit next to each other. Pretend you are friends with everyone.”
The Leopard soldier nodded. “We don’t have to pretend, we are friends. Smith got us out of the prison of Schotenburg, and here you… What have you done here?”
Smith Tiger smiled. “He got us out of some sort of coffins the poachers used to store us… I see you have a beautiful set of daggers, Smith Human made these?”
The Leopard nodded. “Yes… He made all our weapons. You are the best Inimal Smith, but he is a Human.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… Please keep your weapons in sight but don’t draw them. I don’t know what we can expect, but last night a lot of Ferals have eaten our food.”

It was a large feast with two boars and a lot of fish. And a lot of Inimals came from the forest. They didn’t say much, they were rather shy, but they were not afraid of all the unfamiliar Inimals and two Humans around them who gave them food and shared drinks.
“I see at least seventeen from the forest… and I see that the Cat is already taking care of some. This is really impressive, and it’s not even fully dark.” Wulver noted.
A Wolf soldier nodded. “You are standing next to Smith, he can do impossible things.”
Wulver smiled. “You don’t have to tell me that… A few days ago there were only a few Ferals that dared to show themselves, Smith Human arrives and helps me a bit and four of them are back to normal. He told me there was help on the way, and you arrive with an entire army. You might think that scares the Ferals, but look at them, they are everywhere.”
Smith shrugged. “Just pretend it’s nothing special. Not all of them are back to normal, and this is not my entire army, we have a few more Inimal soldiers. I wonder why Chester isn’t here.”
“That coward doesn’t dare.” Walther Wolf replied.
Arthur sighed. “He is not a coward… he is…”
Smith nodded and grimaced. “He is a coward. He left you to die and ran. In the fight with the Wolves in the north he did nothing but mocking and running away. He isn’t strong, and Charlene runs circles around him. And most of all Siegfried doesn’t like him, and despite his reputation Siegfried likes a lot of people and is really liked himself… At the Academy they said you were lucky to have Chester as a friend, but I think he used you to keep the others away from him.”
Arthur nodded and stared at the fire. “I guess you are right. He is not brave, he just runs away from his problems. Or let me solve them.”

Smith patted the strong White Tiger on the shoulder. “I’m going to take a piss. Don’t worry about me, and no, I am not going to watch you when you go in the dark.”
Arthur nodded. “The most scary thing in the dark is not hiding in the bushes, it’s just going to take a piss there.”
Smith grinned. “And the real dangerous thing, the one who kills pissing people in the bushes sits next to the fire.”

The poachers had some alcohol, but Smith had only drank a lot of water with some herbs that Minou had made, and that wanted out again. The bodies of the two poachers who got killed first by Arthur had been stripped of their belongings, and had been hung upside down in nearby trees by Wulver and Lilith, tied to them with a lot of rope so their skeletons would remain hanging in the trees for a long time. Smith looked at the naked bodies illuminated by the large fire while he unbuttoned his pants. It was not a pretty sight.
Something rustled in the bushes at his feet, and when he looked down he stared into the eyes of a crouched Tigress, a few steps away from him.
‘Confuse her’ his thoughts said, while at the same time his bladder screamed at him to be emptied.
Quickly he made a sidestep, and aimed the stream that could no longer be contained away from the Tigress.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there… Please forgive me.” Smith spoke after the rush of relief had come and gone.
“I… I thought you were going to rape me.” the Tigress spoke when Smith shook the last droplets.
“Rape you? Lady, Tigresses have raped me in my youth, I never want to touch your kind again.” Smith replied when he was done and had put everything back in his pants and buttoned it up again.
“There is… a Wolf… who has raped me. He is sitting over there.” the Tigress spoke again, with a tone of fear in her voice.
Smith glanced at the group of Inimals. One unfamiliar Wolf was a bit more alert than the rest. “I see him. The one sitting more upright, or am I mistaken?”
The Tigress smiled. “That’s the one. Can you send him away?”
Smith shook his head, and looked again at the leaves on the ground. A glistening of metal had caught his eyes, and now he had to find it again. A few moments later he found it again. It was a dagger that one of the poachers had lost, the second one had an empty sheath for it.
He gave it to the Tigress. “You tell him… And don’t worry, I’ll make sure you will be safe.”
The Tigress nodded and got the dagger. “You know I can kill you right where you stand with the weapon you just gave me?”
Smith shrugged. “I know. But you won’t. Now go before it gets suspicious.”
The Tigress nodded and started to run.

A quick stab between the shoulder blades, and as soon as the Wolf was on his back the Tigress went for the stomach. With a few slashes the intestines came out, gutted with skill, and the Wolf was dead.
Smith gestured Wulver, Walther and the other Wolf soldier to keep their distance.
Finally the Tigress stood up again, and gave Smith the dagger back.
Smith looked for a few moments a the dagger, and tossed it into the fire. “Happy?”
The Tigress nodded. “Yes… Very. Thank you.”
Walther nodded. “He was a bit more alert than the others, looking around. I guess he wasn’t a Feral and has done some bad things?”
The Tigress nodded. “Yes… The forest is a lot safer now.”
Walther smiled. “Smith always knows exactly what to do. While most people won’t give an angry person a weapon he does.”
The Tigress nodded again. “If I would have been in his place I would have killed me. He told me he hates Tigers.”
Smith shook his head. “That’s not correct, I said I did not want to have non-consensual sex… Ask that White Tiger, Arthur, over there why.”
The Tigress nodded. “I will… But first I want some food.”
Smith gestured towards Wulver. “For food you need to ask Wulver, that Wolf with the fishes.”
The Tigress sighed. “That’s a nice Wolf. He helped me. It’s because of the Wolves I am here… They attacked my village.”

“Smith! Someone is calling for help! Forest, That direction.” Boris suddenly warned.
Smith looked in the direction the blind Hound was pointing, and saw an injured Leopard.
“A miracle he came back. Terrible wound on his leg.” Wulver noted.
Smith nodded. “Minou! Patient incoming. Have some patience!”
Minou nodded, and got her ointment and bandages ready. “I know. Boris was sitting right next to me when he heard him. Good for him that he is not a Feral.”

“Alright… Let me help you.” Smith spoke while he lifted the wounded Leopard in his arms.
“Human trap, and now a different Human helping me. I’m not sure what I must think about Humans.” The Leopard spoke with a weak voice when Smith placed him on the cart that Minou used as a table.
Smith smiled. “Good… you being confused. That means you have to think, and that brings you back from being a Feral. Now be prepared for a lot of pain, what that Cat is about to put on your leg almost made me go Feral.”
The Leopard nodded. “Feline recipe. You are a Human. It doesn’t hurt us Felines as much as it hurts a Human. I once heard the story of a Human who tore of the sides off a bed when they put that on some scratches on his back.”
Smith grinned. “Ask this Cat, Minou, if she also knows that story. I’m sure she has heard it too… My work is done.”
The Leopard nodded. “Thank you.”
Smith nodded. “No problem… But now we have some other problems… Minou, how many sleeping mats and blankets did you bring?”
Minou smiled, but the smile quickly dropped from her face. “Thirty… But those are on the cart, and will be here tomorrow. What are we going to do now?”
“And I have forgotten mine.” Harold added.
Smith sighed. “I have one spare, Harold can use that one.”
Walther grinned. “Remember when you got us from the prison? Puny Human is still in need of clothing and a blanket.”
Smith started to laugh. “Yes I do remember. You were the most passionate one.”

It was another night for Smith with Wolves, in the open air. Walther, Wulver, the other Wolf soldier and a few Wolves from the forest, all males.
It wasn’t cold, but nonetheless the Wolves crept very close to Smith.
“Oh rub my belly.” One of the Wolves whispered in Smith’s ear, waking him up.
“Two problems: You are a male, and you are a Wolf.” Smith replied, still half-sleeping.
Smith felt the Wolf jerk awake. “What? Oh… crap. Forgive me! Don’t kill me!”
Smith grinned, and did as the Wolf had requested in his sleep, and gave him a good rub over the Wolf’s stomach, as rough as his sleeping arms allowed.
“Ow, stop! You also have two problems! You also are a male, and you are a Human! This is… actually quite nice. A little lower if you please.” The Wolf spoke at a rather teasing tone.
Smith stopped rubbing the Wolf. “I don’t know what your problem is, but all the male Wolves seem to like me, just like the female Felines… Now please let me sleep, we have a few more hours until daylight.”
“Something scary happening over there Smith?” Arthur called.
Smith grinned in the darkness. “I turned a Wolf’s good dream into a nightmare, into something good again, and into a nightmare for me. I think we should leave him a the quarry, at a safe distance from me.”
“I’m fine with that. No more fighting.” The Wolf mumbled and went to sleep again.

The cold water of the river washed the smell of the Wolves away. No wet patches, and Smith assumed that the night had been not too passionate. It had been different for him with Melany. They had been closer, with her sitting on his lap.
“<Had a good night of sleep?>” Harold greeted him.
Smith shrugged. “<I’m getting used to it. Wolves have strong emotions, the Wolf soldiers and Wilfred have done the same thing when I got them from the prison. And a lot of them have kissed me at the quarry and in the old Inimal village.>”
Harold nodded. “<I understand. They adore you, almost like some Humans think you are a god.>”
Smith shrugged again. “<Or a king… I’m neither. I’m just a Human smith who takes care of friends… Now let’s take a look at Louis, I heard you have a saddle with gemstones for him? I saw a glimpse, but now I have more time.>”
Harold nodded. “<Yes… Buce… I mean Louis’ old saddle. Someone had brought it in a long time ago, and I still had it in one piece. No need to waste money.>”
Smith smiled. “<Let’s see it… Just bring it to me, I don’t want to scare the horses.>”
Harold sighed. “<Yeah, sure. Let me do the work. I should ask money for that.>”
Smith grinned. “<You haven’t done much since you came here. Rode my horse, talked a bit with Casper, gave some Inimals a bit of food and something to drink… Terrible life you got here.>”
Harold also grinned. “<Us making jokes about putting more coins in your purse to attract Human criminals you can send to god, but instead you attract Inimals.>”
Smith shrugged. “<And those go to heaven… At least Tina, Tina, Smith and Casper do, those can stay in my house with a warm bath for as long as needed. Smith Tiger because he is going to work for me, Tina Too is a good partner for him, and Casper can bring a lot of orders to the Inimal kingdom, and the first Tina I got out of a coffin wanted a life of adventure, and that happens when you travel. How many do you think will stay?>”
Harold also shrugged. “<I don’t know… Most already left. I think that we will go home with twelve of them, including those four. I think we can leave the three Wolves at the quarry, the Leopards can stay together, the Jaguar, and another male Tiger and the female Tiger you almost gave a shower. Those are still here.>”
Smith nodded. “I think that too. We’ll leave the blankets that will arrive today here, and take the usable things with us.”
Wulver nodded. “I understand a bit of Human. You don’t have to switch languages for me. But thank you.”

“This saddle is rather ugly.” Smith spoke while he inspected the saddle from all sides.
Harold grinned. “Those men-lovers like it, but they couldn’t afford it. Who in his right mind puts purple gemstones on a saddle?”
Smith nodded. “Get rid of those… No, give me those, I can use those for pommels of swords, someone in the east was looking for those… Silver and gold plated buckles… I can replace those… Well… All in all it’s better than nothing.”
Harold started to laugh. “Smith, This is the most expensive saddle that has even been made. I… Like you for your honesty. It is ugly. Just like that attempt of a wooden horse head that hangs on the reins.”
Smith shook his head. “You don’t understand. That wooden horse head is a gift, made by a Wolf, the son of the innkeeper who sold me this horse. I never liked decoration, but this is the only thing that stays with Louis.”
Casper nodded “I agree. It’s far from practical as far as I can understand saddles. It’s made for parades instead of for working. And I like the horse head, a Wolf friend of mine also has made one for me.”
Smith nodded. “The saddle is more beautiful than practical. Vanity, one of the sins if I’m not mistaken… Have you laid a greedy eye on the horses and a cart that will be yours? The previous owners of these carts and horses are dead, you can choose whatever cart you want.”
“I… can choose?” Casper spoke with an honest tone of surprise.
Smith smiled. “Yes… If I were you I’d choose that large covered one, with four horses. You can handle that?”
Casper nodded and smiled. “Of course I can… My father has two horses, I am doing better.”
Smith patted the Tiger on the shoulder. “Congratulations with your new cart and horses then. I think I’ll already have a few orders for you, chisels and saws for a Feline village a few weeks away. But since you have a large cart you’ll get me and Mary as extra passengers, I want her to see the world. Second trip is to the Inimal capitol, I think we know the same Wolf there.”
Casper nodded. “Very well. Sounds like more fun than the military, I went Feral on our first trip.”

The cart with the blankets and other items and doctor Simon arrived just when Smith was getting ready for lunch, some leftovers of the boar and a fish.
“Good morning Alex and Simon! You are early! And please talk Inimal here, there are still Ferals here!” Smith greeted the coachman and the doctor, leaving his plate behind.
Alex nodded, and got off his cart, and shook hands with Smith. “I understand. That’s a lot you’ve got here.”
Smith shrugged. “Two thirds of them already left, those are still Feral. What I got here are the ones that are back to normal.”
Simon nodded. “Still confusion that brought them back? I see you had some fights here.”
Smith also nodded. “Yes… Boris smelled the boar the poachers were roasting, we intended to set up our camp at a safe distance from them for Minou and Boris to stay while Arthur and I would take care of the poachers, but then we found a trap and sent Minou back in a hurry for help… We waited in the bushes where those two poachers are now hanging around for the first to go with his pants down, and the second followed soon. When I shot the third one number four started to scream and ran to be killed by Wulver, and that was the moment the Inimals who were caught by the poachers understood we were on their side of the fight. First night the Ferals from the forest ate all our food without showing themselves, second night again, and last night we had a large feast with the soldiers, and they showed themselves… That gutted Wolf wasn’t a Feral, he was killed by a Tigress because he was a rapist. More things happened, but those are not as important as the things I told you.”
Simon nodded. “I understand… I see you have some food, I’m hungry.”
Wulver handed Simon Smith’s plate of food. “Here… You are the doctor? Your help wasn’t needed after all, but thank you for coming.”

“I was talking about the things… A lot of… Disassembled traps?” Alex spoke after a walk around and an inspection of the carts.
Smith nodded. “Yes… This male Tiger is also a smith, and he said he could use the parts. Already disassembled them because there was not much else to do. That other male Tiger over there is a coachman. You are still not allowed into the villages of the Inimal kingdom, that’s what he is going to do, together with a Tigress.” Smith looked at a third Tiger and the Tigress he almost gave a shower in the bushes. “And what can you do? You really gutted that Wolf with skill. Butcher?”
The Tigress smiled. “It turns out we are both basket weavers, from neighboring villages. I heard there is a large demand for baskets in the Human kingdom?”
Alex nodded. “Yes there is… Smith has given shelter to another couple of basket weavers, but they got killed by the minister of Inimals’ wife.”
Smith smiled. “I might even have their gear, my house was a basket weaving workshop for a few weeks until that fateful day they got killed. You can have it. I promised them a house with a workshop, half the profit for me, and now I’m offering you the same, although you have to live with me for a while and also help in the household. We have a lot to build, and you are last on the list.”
“And what about us?” A Leopard from the forest asked.
Smith shrugged. “We have a few empty houses, you and the Leopardess standing next to you can live there, and the same for the Jaguar… What can you do?”
The Leopard smiled. “Construction… I really like building high buildings.”
The Jaguar nodded. “Me too… Although I prefer to stay on the ground, with a saw in my hand.”
Smith nodded. “In that case I want you to stay at the quarry… We had an attack by Wolves in the north, they left their homes with a thousand, and now there are a lot of widows and orphans who need a new home because the mines around their old villages are depleted, and I need some help at the quarry, they can do that.”
The Jaguar nodded. “Wolves… I don’t like them, but they love you once they know you… I will not like working there, but it’s better than nothing and being Feral.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t like Wolves either, they killed my first wife, got attacked by a group of them while returning home from Smith Tiger’s village by them, got attacked by them in the Neutral Zone while we were out for a stroll and a few weeks ago we had an attack by them in the north. I don’t want to be attacked by them again, and the easiest way for me is to befriend them.”
The Jaguar nodded. “You understand that. Human metal, Feline wood and Canine stone… Let’s go?”
Smith looked around and shook his head. “No, not yet. I still want some food, and I want to ask Wulver what he needs more besides his repaired crossbow and fishing hooks. And I want those horses and carts, and those are not ready yet.”
Wulver smiled and gave Smith a kiss and a plate of food. “There is nothing more I need. Seventeen blankets and sleeping mats, the things the poachers had except the traps, carts and horses… Now I have medicines and bandages… You will repair that crossbow and give me more bolts and fishing hooks… I can’t think of anything. You write the king about what happened here? You know you are in the Inimal kingdom, and what you did here is not allowed… Officially.”
Smith nodded. “Of course I will. And that Ferals should not be hunted. The king said about the first time that it wasn’t a problem, and I think he will say the same again.”
Wulver nodded and grinned slightly. “Arthur has told me about the visit of the kings… You treat everyone equal and you won’t even change clothes for him.”

“Now we are ready.” Smith announced when he put backpack on his back. “I see that Harold and Simon also have a cart… I’ll ride Louis up ahead and make some reservations at Diego’s inn, that’s the easiest I think… We are with a large group and his inn is rather busy.”
Alex nodded. “But that Human inn is cheaper, and despite being smaller they have more rooms empty.”
Smith grinned. “Think about why that is… Now, see you soon!”

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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 37

#41 Post by Neutral Smith » Thu Mar 15, 2018 9:49 pm

Chapter 37
Taking care


Smith had never ridden Louis before, but the horse was much gentler than he expected. A nice trot and even canter, not too much bouncing, but at the same time also a will of his own, never wanting a full gallop. Smith allowed it, despite his lessons that the was the master of a horse. He only had to steer him onto the right path, the path towards the quarry.
Traveling by horse was definitely a thing he could do more often, instead of walking. But the mandatory breaks for the horse to eat a little and rest were bothersome. Smith could walk all day with only one break.
Despite all the breaks Smith managed to reach the quarry and Diego’s a few hours after dinnertime, he just wanted to ride on and sleep in a bed. He had eaten a little, and wasn’t very hungry.

The greetings at the quarry were affectionate, and the news about what he had done in the north had already reached the Wolves at the quarry.
“You take care of us.” was the most used sentence by the Wolves.
Smith just politely smiled. “Your kind tried to kill me once again, and I do not like that. I have killed plenty of Wolves, and I want to stop that.”
The leader of the Wolves, Wilhelm, nodded. “We understand. But nobody cares about us like you do… How many of the north will come here?”
Smith sighed. “We, Robin and the king and I, think about four thousand. But Robin got killed, and it’s out of my hands. You really are asking the wrong person… I am here for something entirely different. Arthur, Boris and I were on a training mission and now there are twelve former Ferals on their way here. I have done the impossible again.”
Wilhelm kissed Smith again. “No wonder the Humans call you the son of their god. What have you done this time?”
Smith grinned and washed his mouth once more, his canteen that he had filled before entering the village was almost empty. “I killed some poachers and sent Minou for some help, but not from you because you can be a bit… emotional. Both good and bad, and that was not something I needed. Wolves are causing a lot of trouble in the west, and I think there were at least seven Ferals because of that… And those are back to normal and on their way here. I don’t think you would have been of a lot of help to bring those back.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I understand. It would have been very bloody if we helped you with those poachers.”
Smith grinned. “There was a Wolf who was taking care of the Ferals who killed one and one earlier, and a former Feral She-Wolf smashed the pelvis of a poacher with a big hammer. He was put out of his suffering by a Tigress. Four were killed by Arthur and me, and Harold Horsekeeper killed the poacher I wanted to send to the Inimal kingdom for trial… But now most of these former Feral Inimals are on their way here with my people, and need a place to stay.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I understand… I don’t think that Diego has a place for all of you, but I’m sure we can find something… We’ll kick that other Human innkeeper out and you can use his inn. He doesn’t have guests as far as I know, everyone wants to stay at Diego’s.”
Smith nodded. “Humans are second best at everything, including innkeeping and cooking… But please, no fights with those Humans. They tried to make a new start, don’t make it too hard for them.”
Wilhelm shrugged. “Not all Humans are bad. Diego has a few working for him, they take care of the horses. Your horse is also with them, in case you wonder.”
Smith nodded. “I saw them walk away with Louis, they were really admiring him and I think he will get a good place for his nights… I’m going to say hello to Diego, Dora, Dory, Donald, Diana, Dick, Hope and Faith, and tell them the bad news that I am going to eat and sleep at that other inn. Maybe I can tell those Humans what they are doing wrong, because no guests while the other inn almost has too many is really bad.”
Wilhelm grinned. “You get what you pay for. We even had to lower the taxes he has to pay, and it’s still nothing. No wonder his wife left him.”
Smith shrugged. “In the early days of my smithy it also doubled as an inn, I still know how to do it. If the food is as bad as I got in Schotenburg I’m going to buy better food, and I am going to kick that incompetent Human out for the time I stay there… No, something better, I am going to show him how to do it properly. My friends and the people that work for me only deserve the best.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Sounds good. Are we also invited?”
Smith shook his head. “Highest amount of people I have cooked for in my house was eleven, if the cooking skills of that Human are as bad as I fear for it will be at least twenty-five I have to prepare food for.”
Wilhelm nodded again. “I have heard the stories of the Wolves who took over Diego’s inn while he was at the feast in your village, and that was awful. So much work they had to do.”
Smith nodded. “Innkeeping is something you love, or hate… I like it, but I don’t want to do it as a primary source of income. Forging is much more fun, and I can’t hit annoying guests.”
Wilhelm nodded. “He does… And they say he steals.”

“Good evening Diego!” Smith greeted the busy Dog.
Quickly the Dog placed the last plates on the table for some late guests. “Smith! Welcome! Everything is full, but you can still use a bed in our private quarters! I heard you have a horse, he can stay for free!”
Smith politely shook his head. “I just wanted to say ‘hello’, for tonight and next night I am going to take over that other inn, I’m sure they won’t mind. Nice of you that you take care of my horse. I have to take care of over twenty people.”
Diego grinned. “You are almost as good as I am, show him how it’s done. People are sleeping in tents while they wait until a room is empty here. I even had to raise the prices, but that doesn’t help.”
Smith nodded. “I went on a training with Arthur, Boris and Minou, and suddenly it changed into helping Ferals. Minou got help, and tomorrow there will be no less than twelve former Ferals, five Inimal soldiers and three Humans my guests.”
Diego nodded. “Sounds like a challenge. Have fun.”
Smith grinned. “Work I normally have friends for, not fun. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
Diego nodded. “Of course. Although there are no quiet hours here. As you can see I still have people eating.”
Smith nodded towards the late guests, a man who looked a bit familiar and his apparent wife. “Eet smakelijk!”
The man smiled. “Danke!”

“<Good evening, I’d like something to eat and a place to sleep.>” Smith greeted the lazy and uninterested Human sitting on a chair with his feet on a table of the other inn.
“<Kitchen’s closed.>” was the short reply the man gave, not even bothering to open his eyes.
Smith stood perplexed for a few moments. He was used to rudeness, but this was a new extreme.
“<Excuse me?>” He finally managed to say.
“<Said kitchen’s closed. No food. Come back tomorrow.>” the man replied again.
Smith sighed. “<Listen… We can do this the nice way, or the little bit less nice way. Do you have any idea who you are talking to?>”
The man removed his feet from the table, and looked at Smith with an uninterested look. “<You listen. I don’t care who you are or where you are from. My wife left me and I run this inn to earn some money. I’m out of food for the moment. Now get out>”
Smith sighed again. “<Now imagine… The kitchen is open, and there are beds available. How much would a meal and a bed cost?>”
The man shrugged. “<Big Silver for the night, Big Silver for each meal.>”
Smith nodded, and started to count his money.

Finally he put a single Big Gold on the counter. “<One dinner, night and breakfast for me. One lunch, dinner, night and breakfast for me and twenty-three friends. You can keep the change.>”
The man stared at the coin. “<As long as there are no filthy animals this is fine. Staying here in competition with those Dogs is already bad enough, but I won’t be bullied away again.>”
Smith nodded. “<No living pigs, no cows, no sheep, not even chickens, geese or rabbits. I understand.>”
The man sighed. “<I was talking about those other furred freaks. You smell like them.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Wolves can be quite enthusiastic when I meet them, they see me as a very good friend. On the other hand they can be quite violent… When I said ‘the little bit less nice way’ I meant just ask the Wolves to do what they wanted to do in the first place, kick you out of your own inn for tonight, tomorrow, and next night, and let me run it.>”
The man nodded. “<Fine. Go ahead.>” and left, taking the coin with him.

It was not Smith’s intention to send the innkeeper away, the man who just told him that he would stand his ground and not be outcompeted by the more expensive and often fully occupied Diego’s inn, but it just happened.
Smith sighed and slightly smiled. He was again an innkeeper. No guests yet, and everything unfamiliar.
Finally Smith understood. The man did not leave because he had his money, the man left because he had his money, and there was no food… And that man was not going to buy food.

Someone knocked on the door, and opened it. It was a grinning Wilhelm.
“I saw that idiot leave. I have some meat for you. One Big Silver.” Wilhelm said while he put a packet on a table.
Smith started to laugh. “That idiot is not as stupid as he looks… He just ran off with my money, and I don’t think he is going to buy food… Oh well, it was one Big Gold wasted. It’s been a long time since I have been robbed… I actually have never been robbed, only a few attempts.”
Wilhelm grinned. “Don’t worry… You telling that you paid a Big Gold for you and your friends makes me want to go and get it… He is going to pay, and I am going to buy you the best food. How many Humans do you have? Those might want to have some bread and vegetables.”
Smith also grinned. “Go and catch him before he spends it. I’ll leave a Small Copper for him on the counter when I leave. And Humans? I have Alex, Simon and Harold… And myself of course, so that’s four Humans.”
Wilhelm nodded, and left. Grinning. Because there were also taxes that had to be paid.

It was a very good piece of pork that Wilhelm had brought. The kind that only Wolves could produce. There were no good herbs and spices in the kitchen, but a good piece of meat doesn’t need that.
Just when Smith was putting the plates back in the cupboard someone knocked on the door. It were a Human man and a woman, the guests that Diego had given food.
“<Good evening. I guess you heard the little talk I had with Diego, the other innkeeper.>” Smith greeted them.
The man nodded. “<Yes… You have a place for us to sleep?>”
Smith shrugged. “<I’m not the innkeeper here, but I guess we are the only ones here for tonight. I haven’t taken a look at the rooms upstairs, but I think there are beds here.>”
The man smiled. “<Diego told me that other guests had told him the rooms are terrible, but he has a lot of confidence in you that you are a good host.>”
Smith nodded. “<One Big Silver for a bed, and breakfast also a Big Silver, although I am not sure where to buy the best food… Today a late dinner for you, and tomorrow maybe a late breakfast.>”
The Woman also smiled. “<You are just incredible. You don’t say that you can’t do something, you just do.>”
Smith took a slight bow. “<Indeed… Now if you excuse me, I have a bed to find. Double bed, or two single beds? And I have no idea about the toilets, I think it will just be a bucket, but maybe there are no good buckets as well… If you would be so kind and use the downstairs toilet, that saves me some cleaning, I’m officially a smith, and not an innkeeper.>”
The man nodded. “<Of course we will… A discount if we help you?>”
Smith smiled. “<If you help me by leaving this inn tomorrow in the same state as you entered it today or better it will be a Big Silver for breakfast alone.>”
The man nodded. “<Two rooms for us. I’ve spent enough time with my wife.>”
Smith grinned. “<Very well… She is in her fertile period?>”
The answer came in the form of a slap to Smith’s face from the woman.
“<Menstruating… That was the word I was looking for.>” Smith mumbled, wiping the blood from his nose while the woman stomped upstairs.
The man nodded. “<She can be a bit aggressive… But yes, she doesn’t follow the moon.>”

“<This was the best breakfast ever… And you even had chocolate.>” The woman spoke while she handed Smith two Big Silvers the next day after breakfast, but she didn’t stand up to leave.
Smith nodded. “<I know… I’m a bit surprised it could be bought here, Canines get sick when they eat it. But there are also a lot of Humans here, maybe that’s why they thought there would be buyers for it.>”
The man grimaced. “<Elfique… They really know what they are doing.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… The Wolves have their pride, and will never decline gifts… As long as you don’t give chocolate to those Canines everyone will be fine.>”
The man nodded. “<Yes… What’s your purpose here? I understood you are going to have more than twenty guests?>”
Smith also nodded. “<I assume you know what Ferals are, and apparently they can be brought back. I am a smith, I have a smithy, but I also take time for my friends. I went with a friend who was afraid of the dark on a training mission in a dark forest with a lot of Ferals, and now there are twelve of them on their way, with the people who helped me. I rode ahead on my horse to find sleeping places for them.>”
The man nodded. “<Sounds impressive… It’s not your first time if I’m not mistaken?>”
Smith smiled. “<News spreads fast. This was the fifth time. First four were individuals, but now it’s a group… I think it’s confusion that makes them think again… But let’s change the subject>, verstehen sie was ich sage?”
The man jumped up and embraced Smith. “[You recognized me!]”
Smith nodded. “[I thought you looked familiar, I thought you were family of the man whose name was not important for me to know, but you are really him… How has life been for you?]”
The man sighed. “[Being hunted is not nice. I changed everything, and still you recognize me, something that even old friends couldn’t do.]”
Smith nodded. “[So… We are not going to practice with our rods outside?]
The man smiled. “[Better not… Although I must admit it was fun. You were and I guess still are a very good fighter.]”
Smith sighed. “[I don’t practice as much as I would like… It’s… fighting to kill these days, it’s far from safe here, with new enemies.]”
The man nodded. “[Yes… Those things go on. When you think you have peace at one front the next war starts. The king is flooding the east and south-east with soldiers, nobody is safe.]”
Smith shrugged. “[My idea. I want to keep the Neutral Zone safe, and I don’t want unemployed soldiers here who will become criminals… Strictly business, kill them all. I don’t want them to rekindle the war here.]”
The woman shook her head in disbelief. “[That’s horrible… But from your point of view completely reasonable.]”
Smith shrugged. “[I’m neutral. I only care about the Neutral Zone.]”
The man nodded. “[We wanted to start a new life here.]”

Smith nodded, but before he could open his mouth someone knocked on the door.
It was a grinning Wilhelm Wolf. “<Good news Smith, we found the owner of this inn, hanging from a tree.>”
The male guest started to smile. “<That’s wonderful. Do you mind if we take over this inn?>”
Wilhelm shook his head, not surprised of the guests. “<No problem at all. Half the profit for the village.>”
Smith nodded. “<I have a problem with that… Wilhelm, how would you react if your leaders abandon you and start a new life somewhere else?>”
Wilhelm stared at the table. “<I would be upset. You send others away to start a new life, but if you are the leader you will die on and for the land you live on.>”
Smith nodded. “<And that is exactly what this man wants to do. Just like the Wolves in the west his people want more independence. Last time I met him he was alone, and he told me he was a leader, curious about how his people in the Neutral Zone were doing, and now he tells me he wants to start a new life here too, abandoning the people in his homeland.>”
Wilhelm nodded. “<If that is the case we will ask you to return home. We don’t want trouble here. If you are who we think you are the Human king might come marching in with an army, and we don’t want that.>”
The man slowly nodded, and the woman started to cry. “<We will die there… Please help us!>”
Smith shook his head. “<I won’t. I don’t want a foreign army here to apprehend one or now two people. I asked both kings to waste their armies on their own conflicts to keep the Neutral Zone peaceful, and unfortunately you are a victim of it. A lot of Wolves will die, a lot of Humans will die… I assume you have a large prize on your head, if you want to keep your head on your shoulders I suggest you disappear again. Help your people, kill as many soldiers as you can. Glory is not to die for your country, but kill as many others defending it. The Wolves have tried the same, and they failed, maybe you will succeed.>”
The man nodded. “<If we are not welcome here we might as well go back.>”
Smith smiled. “<I will talk to the king about you when I see him.>”
The man looked up in surprise. “<You know the king?>”
Smith nodded. “<You overestimate yourself, and you underestimate me… You have had your night of sleep and your breakfast, now go. The people I am waiting for can arrive at any moment, yours are probably wondering where you are.>”
The man and woman nodded and left, without saying a word.

“You really are a master of words.” Wilhelm noted while he made himself comfortable on a couch.
Smith nodded while he cleaned the tables. “Yes… And I told the truth. Both kings have their troubles, and I want them to waste their armies. Unfortunately I have a weak spot for Wolves, and that’s why I am helping your kind instead of telling king Leopold what happened and let him solve it. Now we have the problems.”
Wilhelm nodded. “You did the right thing… I know you are the best Human smith, but looking at how you work in this inn I think you are also the best Human innkeeper.”
Smith smiled. “I am far from being the best Human smith, I don’t like decorations on the things I create, those don’t add to function. Just some flat etching is enough for me. And a nice grip on the blades and tools, but I have a Cat working for me who makes those… I just bring it all together… And the best innkeeper? Also no, because those people only got their breakfast, they had to do the rest themselves.”
Wilhelm nodded. “You bring it all together… Canine stone, Feline wood, Human metal, you can talk like an Elfique and can trade like Bergvolk.”
Smith grinned. “Indeed. I’m neutral. Bringing the best together.”
Wilhelm nodded. “A king.”
Smith sighed. “Not a king. Not a son of a god, but the son of a lumberjack who became a smith. Lost everything he loved to Wolves, but has no hatred towards them. Just… a friend who can forgive, but does not forget.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I have known Wilco’s… or Will’s father. He was a strong Wolf. It’s a pity not all Wolves see what friendship can offer, they only see themselves. You only see others, and you forget about yourself.”
Smith shrugged. “I have changed much since I entered your old village for the first time. But that’s a thing of the past.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I know. You really looked scared when I first saw you, sitting on the bench in front of Diego’s old inn. Scared, but brave, sitting outside on then enemy territory without a sword. Playing with Katie.”
Smith smiled. “Things have changed, and they will change more. That’s a constant… But to change the subject, I want you to leave. I’m expecting guests and I need to buy them food.”
Wilhelm grinned, but remained seated. “No, you don’t. You already have paid for food, and you can use this inn for free. Sit down, and let us do the work for you this time. You have done, are doing and probably will do so much more for us, let us help you for a change. Because if you don’t we’ll have to tie you.”
Smith grinned. “Congratulations, you are the second Wolf who succeeds in telling me what to do.” and sat down.

Smith and Wilhelm sat for quite some time until the door opened, and Rolph entered the inn.
“<Good morning Smith, I see that you have taken over this inn?>”
Smith smiled. “<No, and apparently I am not allowed to work here. One moment Wilhelm here tells me that I am the best innkeeper, and the next moment he tells me the Wolves are going to work for me.>”
Rolph nodded. “<But not before you managed to clean everything. Last time I was here it was… a bit more messy.>”
Smith also nodded. “<Yes… I don’t mind feet on the table, but take off your shoes, and wipe the sand and dirt from between your toes. That innkeeper did neither, there is even a worn spot on the table where he used to sit… That innkeeper is dead, if you happen to meet some capable Humans who won’t mind competing with Diego they can take over this inn… There were a man and a woman who wanted to take over this inn, but that was the leader of the Human separatists in the east, and he has a large prize on his head, I sent him away again.>”
Wilhelm nodded. “<I might have fallen for his lies, but I’m glad we have Smith.>”
Smith nodded. “<Thanks… But also thank you for your input. You said that you send other people away to start a new life… Rolph, how do you think about receiving some exiles from the east? We get a lot of Wolves here, a lot of elderly, children and women, and not all of them can work at the quarry. Many can become pig farmers, or other occupations with food production. What do you think about more Humans producing fodder?>”
Rolph smiled. “<That’s exactly why I came here. There is really no opportunity to talk to you, after that battle you jumped on Mary’s horse and leave with an idea. You get home again and leave the next day for training with Arthur, that too didn’t go as planned and you needed help. Mary is gone talking to the Inimal king, Siegfried and Beatrice are with her, and you have Walther and the other soldiers with you. Now you sit down and we talk.>”
Smith nodded. “<I understand you want to talk, but I really am waiting for those I helped to come here. They are late, and especially Alex is not someone who does that.>”
Rolph smiled. “<They are at the bathhouse… They can arrive at any moment.>”
Smith nodded. “<That is a very good reason to be late. The guests I had tonight helped me cleaning this inn a little, they wanted to use the bath here, and that’s why it’s a bit cleaner than you expected. They only had to pay for the food I bought them… Although I didn’t make a profit.>”
Wilhelm grinned. “<You got two Big Silvers for two meals, Diego asks two Big Silvers for each meal. But I heard you bought the woman chocolate, and that’s expensive… But like I said, you are the best Human innkeeper, you get the people what they need, instead of what they want.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… I see that the people I am waiting for are finally arriving… And a lot of Wolves. As I promised, I am going to sit down and won’t do anything unless asked.>”

“So… we are going to stay at this inn? I see you already have made some improvements, it’s clean.” Alex noted when he entered the relative clean inn.
Smith nodded with a smile. “Yes… Welcome in my… this inn. The previous owner hung himself, and now I… I mean the Wolves are in charge. I had some guests last night, and they helped a little, for a discount. You can all stay for free, and I already have paid the prev… I mean the Wolves for food.”
Alex nodded. “I see… And where is Louis, Smith’s horse?”
Wilhelm smiled. “He had the sign of the Wolf Cavalry hanging on his reins, anyone who even attempts to harm that horse will… end up much worse.”
Smith nodded. “And I thought it was just for decoration. It was a gift, and I didn’t want to insult William, the son of the innkeeper at the Inimal capitol, who had made it for me.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I know him. Good boy, knows a lot about horses, but he is the last of his kind. I wish we had more like him. There are only a few Tigers left who can handle horses.”
Casper nodded. “That are my father and I. We are also the last of our kind.”
Smith smiled. “And we, you, Tina, Mary and I, are going to visit your father, and show him that you are still alive and doing even better than he is doing, with a large cart and even four horses. I haven’t told you everything, but the Tiger soldier and I know your father. It was a pity that he didn’t want to work for me, but now I have someone better, who can transport more and further into the Inimal kingdom and is cheaper… for me. I want others to pay you the full price. Half the profit for me.”
Tina Too grinned. “I thought you were just a generous person, allowing Smith Tiger and me, and Casper and Tina to live in your house. But it just saves you money, you don’t have to pay us in money, just give us food and a bed.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… And again a pair of basket weavers with a workshop I own… But I also own Diego’s inn, and a tailor’s workshop… The smithy and sawmill here are also mine, but those are not for profit.”
Rolph grinned. “Smith is the wealthiest person here. He asked me to take care of the Humans like he is taking care of the Inimals, and I have met a lot of Humans including the king and his daughter, but nobody is like him.”
Smith nodded. “Trade like Bergvolk… But I don’t like to talk about how much coins I have, let’s talk about food… Wolves, was the Big Gold enough for the food you are going to buy us, or do you need more?”
A Wolf carrying a side of pork nodded. “It is enough… even my wife and I can eat from it. Do you mind?”
Smith shook his head. “I don’t, but some of the Inimals from the forest are here because of Wolves, they are from the west, keep that in mind.”
The Leopard nodded. “Yes, but you are different. I am here to help you build homes for the Wolves from the west.”
The Wolf nodded. “Canine stone, Feline wood and Human metal… Welcome to the Neutral Zone.”

It were an interesting evening and night, a lot of the Wolves remembered Smith Tiger, and were very happy he was ‘back’. They were also happy for the other Felines, even the carpenter Cat brothers were remembered, they still missed them. The Leopards and Jaguar would have a hard time replacing them, but they were willing to try.
Smith was still not used to wake up looking at the underside of tables and chair legs, but male Wolves cuddling him unfortunately was. And the awkward jerk they made when they woke up realizing they were cuddling a Human male was too. Apparently a lot of the Wolves from the quarry wanted to stay at the inn, and had to sleep in the dining room as well because there were not enough bedrooms.
Smith smiled and went from lying on the floor to sitting, but still on the floor. “Good morning gentlemen. Yes I wore a skirt once, but that doesn’t make me a beautiful woman.”
One of the Wolves grinned. “Clothes are a Human thing, and I don’t think you would have been beautiful if you were a Wolf… But somehow I think we are not the first ones to wake up next to you like this.”
Smith grinned. “Women can make delicious meals… Shall I make breakfast? And no, I won’t tell how many times this already has happened. Although never nothing more happened, just a belly rub.”
A sword was suddenly held at Smith’s throat. “Belly rub yes, you working no.” The Wolf holding the sword spoke at a menacing tone.
In the blink of an eye Arthur was behind the Wolf, in turn holding his sword at the throat of the Wolf. “Smith is not going to do anything. That includes bleeding and dying.”
Smith carefully grabbed the blade that was held at his throat, and pulled the sword from the Wolf’s hand. After a quick study of the metal he held the sword at the pommel and smashed the blade on the bricks next to the fireplace. The blade was not as bad as the usual Wolven swords, but after a few attempts the blade broke.
Smith grinned. “I am going to work, but not today… You are going to buy a new sword, and I will make it. I will even give you a discount, you are going to pay the Human price for it… And for today? Not working as an innkeeper, but there are some things we need to talk about I think… I want to go home today, but I don’t think that Rolph will like that, and maybe we also have some things to discuss with Wilhelm.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Indeed. I want you to go and get those Wolves. We can do our part here, now with more help.”
Smith shrugged. “Alright.”
Wilhelm looked up in surprise. “I told you to go to the west, for Humans the most dangerous place to go, and you say just ‘alright’? That’s insane!”

Smith shrugged again and got up to sit at the table, the Wolves were already busy with making breakfast, and it smelled delicious. “It’s a thin line between bravery and insanity. Yesterday you told me that I was a brave man because I came to your old village, and now you say that I am insane because I am willing to do exactly the same thing, going in peace to a place that could be dangerous… When do you want them here? There are some things I want to do before I go there, but them leaving their homes after harvest?”
Wilhelm nodded. “That sounds reasonable… Gives you a little bit more than a moon to do the things you want to do and then you have to leave.”
Smith sighed. “I never considered it to be such a long journey… But alright, I’ll try to reach the villages where those attacking Wolves came from around Harvest Moon. I know that my horse has the symbol of the Wolves, but I’ll go walking.”
Wilhelm nodded. “I understand you want to walk, but I advise you to go on horseback. You are the victor of the battle, and you must show that.”
Smith shrugged. “And on the way back I can walk next to Louis. Sitting on a horse makes me feel distant… Louis is the second best horse I have ridden, Mary’s Antoinette is the best, she wanted to gallop, and that is something Louis refuses.”
Harold grinned. “You don’t only feel distant, it’s a long way down when you fall from a horse. It’s a good thing you were agile, I have seen people die when they fell from their horses.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… Me too… I scared that horse. Oh well, I didn’t like that man anyways.”
Alex grinned. “You don’t like a lot of Humans. I’m glad you like me.”
Smith also grinned. “I could send you on safer deliveries.”
Wilhelm shook his head. “You are even more insane than I thought… I thought that Humans were sensitive beings, but hearing you talk like this makes me reconsider it.”
Simon nodded. “Smith, Frank, Harold and Alex are exceptions, and I also feel myself a bit of an exception. I think it’s because you live among Inimals, that makes you also act like them. I hope you don’t mind?”
Wilhelm smiled. “No, not at all… Nothing personal. I like it.”

Smith sighed after eating. “If I’m away for a long time I can’t earn any money. I have people to take care of, and I said that the Diego’s inn, and Melany’s tailor workshop are mine, but in reality half the profit goes to the Neutral Zone.”
Rolph nodded. “I understand, but we can’t make an exception for you… Although there is one way, we could declare you king.”
Smith nodded and then shook his head. “It would be nice to pay a little less taxes, that leaves more money for me to spend, but I don’t want to be called a king.”
Rolph grinned slightly. “There is no other way. We can’t treat everyone equal, and you a little bit less equal. You are either royalty who own and can keep all their money, you are paid by us because you work for us, or you are a civilian who pays us for your safety and everything you need but can’t buy.”
Smith shrugged. “The declare me a king, and Mary a princess. But only for tax reasons, we do a lot for the Neutral Zone, and this is a gesture of good will from you and the others at the town hall. No ceremonies.”
Rolph nodded. “That’s no problem. Although you do get a desk at the town hall.”
Smith grinned. “I do have a suspicion you have planned this a long time ago, but you never had an opportunity for talking to me about it, with agreeable conditions.”
Rolph nodded again. “Indeed. We were afraid you would demand a castle, but instead of costing us a lot of money you want to spend the money yourself… There only will be one condition: You can only keep the money that is brought to your house and smithy for metal, the other people in your house not working with metal have to pay their taxes.”
Smith sighed. “Very well… That’s settled then. I assume you can keep this, me becoming a king, a secret?”
Rolph nodded. “Of course. You will have the title of a king, but you are more like a diplomat. You are hard to put in a labeled box. You founded the Neutral Zone, you brought peace between the Humans and the Inimals, you are a fighter, you are a large employer… There are so many things you are.”
Smith nodded. “And now I am a king too. But for tax reasons.”
Smith expected the Wolves to burst out in cheering, but instead they politely nodded. “You don’t need a title to be special. You already are special, for us.” Wilhelm spoke on their behalf.
Smith nodded. “Very well then… I’ll leave now, and as soon as I get home I’ll have a warm bath. That way there will be warmer water again in the evening for the Tigers when they return.” Smith looked at the Wolf who threatened him “You want to follow me today, or will you come and buy your new sword a bit later? I think there are some suitable swords for you in stock, just some finishing.”
The Wolf nodded. “I’ll follow today. I’ll accompany the others.”
Smith smiled. “That’s settled then. Remember you threatened me, expect no further help from me, you have to pay for everything… Although you have to pay a Human price.”
The Wolf nodded. “I understand. The deal I get is not as good as Siegfried got, but still reasonable.”

“<Smith! You’re back! Everything alright? I heard the water in the tank above the forge.>” Frank greeted Smith who entered the smithy, clean and shaven, although it was early in the afternoon.
Smith nodded. “<Yes… I see that Charlene and Chester aren’t home? >”
Frank shrugged. “<They come and go. You really did something, and fast messengers are needed. You have seen Rolph?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes, and I have talked to him. I assume you have an idea what happened?>”
Frank shrugged. “<I guess Ferals. Minou came with Harold, and they left on your horse. And a few moments later the soldiers left running, and Alex and Simon collecting things and also leaving.>”
Smith nodded. “<Arthur’s training did not go as expected. There were some poachers and a lot of Ferals. We killed the poachers, and helped three former Ferals, and in the evening and night even more Ferals showed up. We returned with twelve former Ferals, and now six of those are coming here, and live in my house. Three males, three females, and I have to be careful with fire, because they are all Tigers.>”
Willem nodded. “<And knowing you not without a reason.>”
Smith smiled. “<Indeed. You remember that Tiger coachman?>”
Robert, who had also joined them, started to laugh. “<Of course I do. He went feral, and you brought him back? Last time you met your deal was not as good as he already had.>”
Smith grinned. “<No. Even better this time. He has a son, and I got that one. With a large cart with four horses for him. And a Tigress who wanted more adventure, good wife for him, I also helped her. And again a pair of basket weavers, I still have Timo and Tina’s equipment… And a Tiger smith, the old one of the village across the border, also with a female to keep him here.>”
Willem grinned. “<You are unbelievable, but it somehow doesn’t surprise me. You managed to convince me that you are just a Human, but I still have my doubts.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I don’t care what you think about me, as long as you don’t try to kill me. A Wolf did that, and now he has to buy a new sword, he and the others will be here late in the afternoon or tomorrow, we spent a night at the quarry. I wasn’t in a hurry, and I don’t know if they are.>”
“<And something else?>” Frank asked, his head a bit tilted, something he rarely does.
Smith shrugged. “<I’m a king now. But only for tax reasons, I don’t have to pay those for metal made in this smithy. That’s because I do a lot for the Neutral Zone, as soon as Mary gets back I’ll take her and Casper and Tina on a trip to meet Casper’s father, and after that I’m away for moons to get the Wolves from the west, I won’t be back before winter.>”
Frank grinned. “<Finally, you officially a king. That has taken a very long time.>”
Smith shrugged. “<As I said, a king for tax reasons. It’s good to be king, but even better to be a smith. Time to do some work, before my entourage gets here.>”
Frank nodded. “<As you wish, sire. Large order of chisels and saws. I would have sent a message to that Tiger coachman when they were ready, but now you can bring them yourself with your new coachman.>”
Smith smiled. “<That was the plan. And even if that order didn’t come I would have gone.>”
Robert smiled. “<Of course you would. You really have changed over the past few years… Sire>”
Smith sighed. “<For tax reasons… Never forget that part. I’m not a real king, and I do not want to be a real king.>”
Willem grinned. “<Whatever you say… Sire.>”

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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 38

#42 Post by Neutral Smith » Wed Jun 06, 2018 7:01 pm

Chapter 38
Not a runner


“<Your guests are still not here?>” Frank noted when he entered the smithy for a new day of work.
Smith had already begun with the work, he really missed it after the days of being away. “<No… But I don’t mind, Mary is also still away. This way I can do some work.>” Smith distractedly spoke while he was sharpening a sword he wanted to sell to the Wolf who tried to kill him. He already had brought the crossbow to François.
Frank nodded. “<Indeed. I assume you left yesterday late in the morning, and riding a horse is much faster than walking, or horses with heavy carts. It might have taken some hours more and spent another night in the forest, or they have done some talking behind your back, also resulting in a night in the forest.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I really don’t care what they are talking about, as long as I can keep my money, and you earn me more money… And about traveling faster, that really messes with your feeling for time and distances. I’m not sure about when I should leave to get the Wolves from the west. My intentions are to get there at Harvest Moon, but there are also some things I want to do here… To change the subject again, how is our order for the Tigers? I see that the handles are done.>”
Frank nodded. “<Yes… Only a few more chisels to go, but that’s your specialty, mine are never sharp and durable enough. And I’m sure that Mary also wants some rest in a bed, you can even finish those when she is home.>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course, I’ll start working on those as soon as I can. That crossbow I brought to François and this sword won’t earn me money. Between when this is done and Mary is ready to leave I want to earn some more money. Charlene is running for me, I don’t think she will earn enough for the first weeks when I’m away and the others are not settled and have sold baskets, transported a lot of goods or produced a lot of metal.>”
Frank smiled. “<I think you have made a very good deal, keeping the money you otherwise would have had to pay for taxes. This way you can help others starting a new life.>”

Before Smith could reply a panicked Robin entered the smithy. Panting like he had run like there was an army of Ferals chasing him. “Smith!… You got to… help me!” he shouted, despite being exhausted.
Smith nodded, looking at the as good as finished sword. The Wolf who was getting it wouldn’t know it wasn’t perfect, it still needed a bit more sharpening. “What’s the problem?”
“A Vixen… She is stuck… between two rocks… I’m not strong enough...” Robin managed to speak while Robert handed him some water.
Smith sighed. “Very well… <I’m sorry guys, I have to leave you again, helping another one… I’m expecting six Tigers, I’m sure Frank still knows the way in my house, he can show them around. I’ll move bedrooms again. I, Mary, Charlene with Chester, and Casper Coachman with his Tina can sleep upstairs because they won’t be home much, the rest of the Tigers can sleep downstairs, with the toilets… I’ll get my backpack, and run… Oh, and before I forget, if I’m not back the day after tomorrow I have a first trip for Casper, get the repaired crossbow from François, some bolts and the entire stock of fishing hooks and ask Jacques if he has a spool of strong silk, buy a Big Silver worth of it, that’s for Wulver… And this sword is for a Wolf, I broke his old one. Human price.>”
Frank nodded. “<Understood. Good luck sire!>”

“I said we are here!” Robin spoke, apparently for a second or third time.
“How long did we walk?” Smith asked, looking at the unfamiliar surroundings. They were north, not as far north as the Vulpine village, and a bit more to the west.
“We did a day worth of walking in a little bit over four hours. It’s a good thing you have that bit of being Feral in you, and having a high tolerance for pain… But the Vixen is over there.” Robin spoke, clearly less panting than he did at the smithy.
Smith looked at Robin and shook his head. “That just doesn’t add up. I believe you when you say we ran for four hours, but you were rather early at the smithy.”
Robin sighed. “I tried to help her, I stayed here all night, but I couldn’t help her. You are the only one can do that, so I started running at first light, and I am still faster than you are. But please, help her!”
Smith nodded, and started to walk towards the stuck Vixen, who was about Robin’s age. Apparently she had climbed the large boulders, slipped climbing down, and now a leg was wedged in a narrow crack. It did not look like the leg was broken, but it sure did look very uncomfortable.

“Don’t worry, I’m… not here to hurt you… I’m sorry, I ran to get here… and now my legs are starting to hurt.” Smith spoke at a soothing tone while he clambered the boulders. “Just sit still, don’t go anywhere… I’m going to climb behind you… Don’t be scared… I’m going to pull you out. That Fox over there is not as strong as I am, that’s why I am here. ”
Slowly Smith lifted the Vixen from the crack. He was not in the most comfortable position, his feet on the edge of the stones, sitting behind the Vixen pulling her up and trying not to think too much about how it looked.
Finally the Vixen was out of her perilous position, and Smith allowed her to lean against him. There was no other way to hold her than to pull her close.
The Vixen apparently didn’t like it, and started to struggle.
Smith looked where Robin was, and saw that he was standing beneath them. He shouted “Catch!” and released the struggling Vixen. If she didn’t want to be helped that would be her problem, not his. She was a Feral after all.
The Vixen made an attempt to jump down, and Robin did an attempt to catch her.
They did not fall very hard, but the Vixen lost consciousness. Smith clambered down, and inspected the Vixen. There was a bit of an abrasion on the leg, but it was not broken or even sprained. She just had slid down and got stuck. Robin just didn’t know what to do.

Smith put his backpack back on his back, and carefully lifted the Vixen in his arms, the torso in his left arm and the legs in his right, the Vixen in a half-sitting position. It was for him not the most comfortable way to carry the somehow not completely limp body, but there was no alternative.
“What are you doing?” Robin asked.
Smith started to walk. “Going back home. My brain stops working and I can’t remember sometimes, but my muscles don’t. They work, and the pain I will get is a memory of that work. I guess I’ll have a few hours until I can’t walk any more, and I want to rest next to a path that is used by carts.”
Robin nodded. “I understand. But isn’t it wiser to take the shorter way home?”
Smith looked at the path leading south. “No chance of carts.” and walked on.

“Smith! Wait! What are we going to do with her?” Robin called from some distance behind Smith.
Despite the load in his arms and on his back Smith pushed on, ignoring Robin. His legs protested, but he choose to ignore it too. Just like the lack of food and the thirst, his last meal was breakfast, and it already was between lunch and dinner.
“Smith! Wait!” Robin called again.
Smith slowed down a little, but did not stop. “If we stop my leg’s won’t continue.”
Robin nodded. “I understand. You Humans are not used to run, although you are an exception and can walk long distances at a faster pace.”
Smith smiled. “Yes, walk long distances. I just want to keep my legs in a rhythm, that way we can go on for as long as I can.”
Robin nodded. “A little bit slower would be my walking rhythm, but I understand, you do the work.”

They had walked on in silence for some when Smith noticed that an arm of the Vixen was slipping away, and a few steps later it was dangling.
“Robin! Can you help me please?” Smith asked.
Robin caught up with them, he was a few dozen steps behind. “What is it?”
“Her arm is dangling, and I’m afraid she will dislodge her shoulder when I continue to walk like this. I’ll stop for a few moments, you put her arm back on her chest, and I start walking again… I can’t go on like this for hours, but I want to reach the main road between the Vulpine village and Smithsville.”
Robin nodded. “Good. Ready when you are.”
Smith stopped, Robin placed the dangling left arm of the Vixen back on her stomach.

“Ow… Stopping is not the problem, but starting to walk again.” Smith complained when he started walking again.
A few moments later the hand slipped again.
“Robin, you know how I screamed when I dislodged my shoulder. Can you put her hand back again? I promise to be more careful, and not bounce too much walking.”
Robin smiled when he placed the Vixen’s hand back on her stomach. “Are you sure you want to go on like this? I can see you have trouble walking, you don’t have to do this for me.”
Smith sighed. “We have to. I want to stop at the crossing, and hope we will encounter a cart that has enough space for me and this Vixen. I don’t care which way it goes.”
Robin nodded, put the hand back as soon as Smith stopped, and walked on. He was also getting tired.

Instead of walking behind Smith, Robin was now walking ahead.
Smith noticed that the Vixen in his arms was moving, she was regaining consciousness again. Smith winked at her when she looked at him, and she dropped her arm again. Smith shook his head, and she put her arm back.
Smith started to recognize the surroundings, they were very close to the crossing with the road between the Vulpine village and Smithsville, he already could see the large tree that marked the old border.
“Robin! One last time!” Smith called, winking at the Vixen.
The Vixen lowered her arm just when Robin turned around.
Smith smiled. “Just in time, I saw her arm slipping. We are not far away from the crossing, but hitting her hand with my knees is not something I want to do. This time I will move her body a bit away from mine, and you try to put her fingers between her body and mine to prevent it slipping away again, but in a way that won’t break her wrist.”
Robin nodded, and walked back towards Smith, who could barely stand.

Smith’s legs screamed in pain, but there was nothing wrong with his arms. He raised the Vixen so she could hug Robin.
Robin screamed too.
“You can stand?” Smith asked the Vixen, still supporting her.
The Vixen nodded, still holding on to Robin.
Smith also nodded, let go of the Vixen, and staggered on towards the large tree, with the road with hopefully carts behind it.

Smith staggered on in the general direction of the tree, swerving from left to right.
As soon as he saw a good spot to put up the tent he dropped his backpack, and staggered on. His legs had lost all the strength.
As soon as he reached the intended spot Smith turned around and dropped to his knees, and when he saw there were only soft dead leaves and moss he threw himself forward, landing on his stomach, feet towards the road, where he wanted the opening of the tent to be.

“Are you alright?” A worried Robin asked.
Smith managed to grin. “Do I look alright? I ran for four hours, and then I carried someone for another hour… Of course I am not alright.”
“Do you need help?” The Vixen asked.
Smith smiled, this Vixen was not as helpless as Robin. “Get my sleeping mat from my backpack and place it next to me, then put the blanket on it, I will roll onto it, and you can build the tent over me, the only thing that I am going to do is hold the head-end pole. And I want something to eat, I’m not sure who is hungrier, you or me, but my last meal was a simple breakfast.”

Smith’s legs felt like they were filled with sand. There wasn’t much pain, but there was also no strength.
When Smith was on his back the Vixen started to tug on his shoes.
“Thank you for helping me, but shoes are a Human thing. You have to untie them first.” Smith spoke with a weak voice. He felt weak, like he had left all his strength a few paces behind him.

“Shall I take your pants off too?” the Vixen asked.

Smith felt like he woke up again from a long sleep, but was still tired. It wasn’t a long sleep, it were just a few moments that had passed. He didn’t even bother to open his eyes. “What?”

“You peed them. There is a urine stain at one of your knees.”

“I did not pee my pants. I don’t know what you know about Humans, but my penis is not that long to leave a stain at the knees and leave everything between my waist and down there dry.”

“It… smells Vulpine.”

Smith sighed. “Robin… Did you pee my pants?”

“I’m afraid so. You scared me.”

Smith managed to grin, still with his eyes closed. “If you were still a member of my militia you would have worn pants, and then you would have peed your own pants. But I forgive you, long time since I made a new friend.”

“What?” The Vixen asked.

“Long story. I really hope the first cart that passes goes towards my village, because then you also can meet some other people who have gotten me wet, and all those have become my best friends. Robin has not done that, until now.”

“I think I like you. I never thought that a Human would help me.”

Smith smiled. “You’re welcome. Now help me.”

Smith felt that his pants were being unbuttoned, and a few moments later the two Foxes were pulling them off. His feet were one large blister, and despite the numbness it was rather uncomfortable when they hit the ground again.

The Vixen giggled. “Indeed… Not long enough.” Smith’s underpants had come off too.

Smith sighed after what felt like a few moments later. “Please cover me again… I’m not used to be naked outdoors and with others… And Robin, I don’t know what you are doing, but hunt for some food and get me some water.
“You were asleep, there are already some rabbits on the fire. Do you want some water?” The Vixen replied.
The Vixen splashed some water on Smith’s face. “Now we are also friends.”
Smith quickly grabbed the canteen, also ‘accidentally’ splashing some water. “I assume that Robin has told it, but it doesn’t work like this. It have to be accidents, carrying someone on your shoulders who is either in heat, too young for full bladder control, or too aroused, or someone sitting on your lap during the night and letting go of her bladder in the morning, or being poisoned and vomiting while being carried, or being pushed into the mud because someone didn’t know how strong and fast he was. Or simply sitting in the rain talking and not noticing it started to rain and getting soaking wet. Not like this.”
The Vixen nodded and smiled. “I’m sorry… I have no experience with Human feet, but yours look like bladders filled with water. Is that normal?”
Smith sighed. “Those are called blisters, that’s a disadvantage of wearing shoes and running while you are not used to run, and they are very painful. What you can do is get my small knife and a cloth from my backpack, put the backpack underneath my legs, clean the small knife with fire, and make small incisions in those blisters to drain the liquid. Use the cloth to keep my backpack clean. That will make them heal faster, although I don’t think I can walk again tomorrow.”

“You could have filled a cup with that.” Robin remarked when the blisters were drained.
Smith shrugged. “I’ve never had blisters like this before. Let’s hope it’s worth it… I think I have forgotten your name, but who are you?”
The Vixen smiled. “My name is Marian. Your name is Smith? Weird name, a smith called Smith.”
Smith sighed. “I have changed my name thanks to Wolves… Yours is beautiful, it’s almost like my old name.”
Marian also sighed. “Yes… Wolves are the reason I went Feral. They attacked the village.”
Smith nodded. “If you are from one of the northern villages I know. I and some others stopped them at the last village before the border… You may not like what I am going to tell you, but there are a lot of widows and orphans in the villages those Wolves came from, and I am going to help those.”
Robin nodded. “She knows, I told her.”

“Smith! Can you hear me?” Robin suddenly asked.
Smith opened his eyes, and noticed the sun was almost down. “How long?”
Robin grinned. “Several hours. Unresponsive, eating, and giving the rabbit in that burrow over there a very bad day, because you used it as a toilet… I noticed your breathing changed so I called.”
Smith nodded and grinned. “Good… My body is still working while my brain isn’t.”
Marian smiled. “Just like being Feral… I don’t remember anything between the attack, and you suddenly pulling me out. I thought I was attacked by another Feral until you yelled ‘catch’ and released me. Lucky for me Robin was at the bottom for some sort of catching me.”
Smith looked at the sky. “No tent?”
Robin grinned. “I shared a same size tent as Smith has now with Siegfried Black Wolf, with you and Marian it would be too crowded. Although a good thing you still carry two sets of mats and blankets.”
Smith shrugged. “You don’t have to share the tent with me, and Marian can have a choice. But alright, no tent tonight. Saves time when a cart passes.”

Marian put her sleeping mat and blanket next to Smith, the open side toward Smith’s open side. Smith noticed it when the Vixen’s tail brushed his face.
When Smith opened his eyes he was staring at her underside, she was putting some leaves underneath the mat as a pillow. Smith closed his eyes again, even though she was an Inimal he respected her privacy.

“Why are you doing this?” Smith asked as soon as Marian was done and was also lying down.

“I need something under my head, that’s more comfortable.” Marian replied, her face very close to Smith’s.

“No, I mean, why the open end towards me.”

“I like you.”

“We’ll talk about this tomorrow. Now it’s time for rest.”

Robin was unusually quiet.

“I hear a cart approaching.” It was Robin who was the first to wake up.
“Get up and stop it… My legs feel like they are filled with sand.” Smith replied.
The approaching cart stopped.
“Sir, can you help us?” Marian instead of Robin asked.

“Aber natürlich… Schmied! What are you doing here?” A familiar Ork, the same coachman as who helped him the previous time when he couldn’t walk on came into Smith’s view.
Smith grinned. “[Did you know you can reach this place in under four hours on foot?… Well… A bit more west of here, and then carry this girl for an hour to get here.”
The Ork also grinned. “[It’s… almost a day to get home from here for me, I slept just around the corner… And now your legs hurt and the soles of your feet are shreds of skin?]”
Smith shrugged. “[I’m not a runner. Can you give us a ride home? Three Big Silver.]”
The Ork smiled. “I think it’s better we speak a language everyone understands… You with your friends are always free if you need help… I have heard some very good things, you are helping people again.”
Smith shook his head. “I don’t know what you have heard, but you are getting competition, now there’s a Tiger coachman living in my house, he can do the western routes. And yes, I helped him too, a few days ago… My horse is not here because he also needs a rest, in case you wondered.”
The Ork smiled. “That’s no problem, I know that you came back the day before yesterday. I saw you coming back when I left… It’s getting dangerous in the west these days, trouble with the Wolves, and I’m glad there is someone else willing to do that region.”
Smith sighed. “That’s not good news… Oh well… Can you help me get on your cart? I have the feeling that my legs are filled with sand, and my feet are drained blisters.”
The Ork nodded. “Natürlich, as you can see plenty of room, I had a delivery of materials, they were out of it, and nothing to take back… Are you naked?”
Smith shrugged. “At this moment I still don’t have the strength in my legs to put on some pants. Just warn me when we are getting closer to Humans, hopefully I’m a bit more rested then and able to put on some pants before they see me like this.”

“That’s really looking awful.” The Ork noted when Smith was finally with his knees on the cart.
Smith, who needed a rest from simply climbing on the cart grinned. “I don’t have a tail to cover my butt-hole. Quit staring at it!”
“I meant the soles of your feet… Now I understand why you can’t walk. And you are still far too hairy for my liking, I like my women big, round and bald. You only have big muscles.” The Ork replied while he helped to put the sleeping mat and a folded blanket on the right place for Smith to lay down on.

With his backpack at his feet Smith made himself comfortable. It wasn’t a cold morning, but it was nice to have a blanket to cover his nakedness.
Robin sat down next to the coachman, and Smith expected Marian to do the same.
Instead of climbing on the front seat Marian climbed on the empty cart bed, and laid down next to Smith, pulling the blanket that covered Smith towards her. She made herself extra comfortable, and wriggled herself against him.

Smith closed his eyes and sighed. “You are aware of the fact that I am an almost fully functional male? Only my legs and feet are not how they are supposed to be, but the rest is. And I am naked.”

“Yes.”

“You are aware that this is… really nice for me? I’m used to have sex with Felines, and you are even softer.”

“Yes.”

“Why do you choose me instead of Robin?”

“You have to explain us.”

“Explain what?”

“Copulation.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirteen.”

“That’s not the adult age for a Vixen like you.”

“They show how it’s done at the last Festival before you turn fourteen.”

“But Robin is twelve.”

“I know. They only do it with the females.”

“When is that Festival of the Touch?”

“Last full moon before shortest night.”

“That’s… five days from now.”

“Yes.”

“Alright… Now please, let me think, and don’t do anything stupid.”

“I’ll save myself for the festival, with you.”

Smith sighed. “That’s what I’m worried about. You see, there are a lot of differences between the Vulpine and the rest of the species I know… I, as a Human, do it for pleasure, and I always try to pleasure the female for as long as possible. I can go on for as much as fifteen minutes… I have no experience with Vulpine, I don’t know what you would like, so I can’t tell you what is nice and not nice. The only thing I do know is that your males have a knot like the Canines have, but at least Floris, another Fox I know, doesn’t push that in… Or at least, that’s what he told me when we talked about it, he called that boring. For him and his Florette it’s over in seconds.”

“What else can you tell me?”

Smith sighed again. “Let’s see… I am a Human, I don’t have a bone in my penis, it isn’t hidden in a sheath like you have seen, it’s longer and thicker when erect, mine is very small for a Human but perfect as the Feline females would call it, no spines, no knot… And I really feel uncomfortable talking about it.”

“Is that why you wear extra pants under your normal pants?”

“Yes, that’s one of the reasons. And to keep it in place, running without pants results in the Human balls and penis slamming the legs, and I don’t want to imagine how much it would hurt when it slips into one of the pants when I run without underpants under my overpants.”

“What do you know about females?”

“Too much, and too little… I think I’ll send Floris and Florette a message, and ask if they can come over for a few days. There is an other couple of Foxes in Smithsville, and together those can teach you better than I can.”

“But I don’t want to get pregnant yet.”

“It has taken Florette a long time before she got pregnant, maybe they can tell what they have done. I guess they are in their twenties, and they introduced me to their first child. Maybe it was excitement and spilled seed, maybe it was something else, I don’t know, ask them.”

“I will… Do you mind if I stay in this position?”

Smith shrugged. “I hope I won’t forget who you are when I fall asleep… Don’t touch anything.”

“I won’t. That will spoil the fun.”

“Yes… Now, rest.”

“We are approaching Smithsville!” The coachman announced after hours of traveling a surprisingly smooth road. Smith always preferred walking on the grass next to it, but now he understood why all the gravel and larger flat stones were used.
Smith opened his eyes. “Well… Time for me to try to put my pants on again.”
Robin turned around in his seat and grinned. “That night with Katie and Charlene you promised chastity, but Katie has seen it all, and now you threw Marian off because she touched you. Back then you said you wanted to try a Vulpine, today you had a chance… Look down.”
Smith looked down, and saw that he not only had his underpants on, but also his normal pants, he was fully clothed, except for his shoes. “Did I hurt you?” He asked Marian who was now at the other side of the cart, on an other set of blanket and mat.
Marian smiled. “No… I broke my promise while you were out again. You just gently pushed me away and put your clothes on, and went sleeping again. I’m sorry.”
Smith smiled. “It’s alright… I’m not myself when I’m in pain.”
The coachman nodded. “Schmied is very strong. But he also has his limits. He is a good Feral.”
Smith grinned. “Guess so.”

“<Good, you are here.>”

It was doctor Simon who greeted Smith when was finally sitting upright, figuring out how to climb down without proper working legs.
“<Good afternoon doctor. How did you know when I would arrive?… I see you are all here, waiting for me?>” Smith replied, sitting at the side of the cart, preparing himself to jump down.
Simon shook his head. “<Don’t do that>… Charlene warned us, and yes, we all waited, even those from the quarry. Some things to talk about at the town hall.”
Robin nodded. “Charlene came to find us, we gave her a summary of what happened, and she ran back.”
Charlene nodded. “Yes… You really are going to give me a lot of work with more basket weavers.”
Smith shrugged. “I can’t let them sleep in the open air while I have the rooms for them. And don’t forget the new smith and coachman… Can someone help me down?”
Wilhelm and the Wolf who has bought the sword helped Smith down, and carried him inside, and placed him on the couch, feet on the armrest.
Simon followed them and started to examine Smith’s feet. “When you don’t know what you are looking at you might think it’s terrible, but they are actually drained quite nicely. How fast did you say?”
Smith grinned. “A day worth of walking in four hours, and then carry Marian for another hour.”
Simon nodded. “That’s… really impressive. They told Charlene you passed out a few times?”
Smith shrugged. “That’s my response to extreme pain. Normal Humans go unconscious, normal Inimals go Feral, and I go somewhere in between.”
Simon nodded again. “You are almost not Human, although you really look like one. Keep your legs in motion, otherwise they will get lazy, you need to keep the blood flowing.”
Smith grinned. “Easier said than done. They feel like they are filled with sand.”
The Wolf who had bought the sword grinned. “I can make you run. It is a very good sword you sold me.”
Smith shook his head. “Please don’t do that… Marian, that Vixen over there, got Feral because of Wolves, and you chasing me wouldn’t be nice… Although I wonder how far you could go before people like Arthur and especially Boris get you, would be a nice training for them, again. Give you a head start and catch you in the night.”
Simon shook his head. “With ‘keep your legs in motion’ I meant short walks, not entire nights of running… But I suggest you take a bath first, you really stink. Tomorrow I want to see you walking… If there are no sudden things to change that.”
Smith nodded. “Good suggestion… Do you advise a warm or a cold bath?”
Tina Too grinned. “I’m sorry, we have used all the warm water today. Yesterday when we arrived we had a warm bath, and today early in the afternoon the water also was already warm enough for a nice bath, we thought you wouldn’t be home today because Robin lives further away. We did fill the tank again, but I’m afraid the water is not warm enough.”
Simon nodded. “It’s just a personal preference, some people like to cool down, some like to relax. It’s a pity you have no choice but a cold bath… I’ll be going now, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Smith nodded. “I really hope so. Making plans and actually do what you planned to do. I’ll just say ‘hello’ and return back home.”
Simon nodded. “Good plan. Now good luck with getting up again.”

“Getting up is really the hardest part.” Smith spoke after he finally managed to get up. “Time for a bath, and no, there is no need to help me. I believe what the doctor said, I have to keep moving, and sitting still while you wash the sweat off is not what he meant.”
Tina Too grinned. “Indeed. Washing the sweat off your back is not arousing. I’ll pass.”
Smith nodded. “But I’m also sweaty between my legs… But I am going to do that myself too.”

“Smith… Dinner is almost ready.” It was Charlene who woke him up.
Smith smiled. “Thanks… Falling asleep in a cold bath… Never thought that would be possible.”
Charlene also smiled. “I don’t blame you, you are a walker. Still regretting that you forgot about your horse?”
Smith shook his head. “No… Louis also deserves a rest… Let’s see if I can get out of the bath.”
Charlene nodded. “That’s why I said ‘almost ready’, because I know you’ll need some time. Dry yourself, and get dressed. You must have been in a lot of pain because you were naked with Marian.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… Why don’t you work with me for a few days in the smithy? Then you can haul sacks of coal and use the hammers and other heavy tools a lot. Maybe then your arms will feel like my legs are feeling right now, then you won’t be laughing.”
Charlene grinned. “I know the feeling. My first days as a messenger were also bad for me, and I had the choice to stop for rests, Robin didn’t give you those. Too bad you are a slow runner, Robin really rested on the way back. You ran full speed, while he ran at half speed. But you are a better walker.”
Smith nodded. “I know. He was panting less when we arrived at the rocks where Marian was stuck than he was when he arrived at the smithy, and the first part of the journey with Marian in my arms he was ahead of us, but in the end he was walking far behind.”
Charlene nodded. “Now I have to get back. You are awake, out of the bath!”
Smith nodded. “I’ll try… And I think I’ll sleep in the living room again, I don’t think I can climb the stairs.”
Charlene nodded. “Tigers and buckets are awful, good thing you don’t act like a king and claim a downstairs bed.”

“You all still here?” Smith asked Wilhelm and the Wolf who had bought the sword when he entered his living room again, just in time for dinner.
Wilhelm nodded. “Yes… Buying food and sleeping on the floor of your living room is cheaper than a meal and a room at Uwe’s inn, for me and Wilfred. You brought in a lot of money, and now we have to economize.”
Charlene also nodded. “I invited them. It’s nice talking to people from my old village again.”
Smith sighed. “I wish I had the chance to talk to people from my old village again. I wonder how they would see me today.”
Robin nodded. “I think they would be impressed… But those from my old village also are impressed about me. Young, but I know and can do a lot.”
Smith smiled. “I can imagine… What were you doing at those rocks? That’s far from your new home.”
Robin shrugged. “Looking for new fowl. My uncle made a few mistakes, and now everything is gone. I knew there were a few chickens and geese around there, and I wanted to catch those.”
Smith sighed. “Half of it was yours, and now you have to suffer because your uncle is stupid… Wilfred, do you mind if I hire your services for a few days? I don’t think you are scary with your new sword, but maybe Robin’s uncle thinks different.”
Wilfred nodded. “That’s… Good.”
Wilhelm also nodded. “And I’ll go with him. Two Wolves are more impressive than one. At the quarry they can do a few days without us. It would be nice to talk to some old Vulpine friends over there.”
Smith smiled. “But I won’t pay you… Charlene, I know you are busy, but can you bring Floris and Florette a message? I want to talk to them about Robin and his uncle, and I don’t think it’s a smart thing to do that with many others, only those I trust.”
Wilhelm nodded. “She can’t be missed, she is fast with the messages, and I don’t think that Floris and his wife want to come here, it’s close to their festival.”
Smith sighed. “I don’t care about their festival, and I don’t think they do neither. Just… tell them I want to talk to them about Robin.”
Charlene nodded. “I’ll leave tomorrow at first light, it’s good we have these long days, because I think I’ll be back before dark.”

Smith smiled when he put his cutlery down after dinner. “That was a delicious meal, I can taste that a Tiger has made this.”
Tina Too nodded. “Yes. You really have delicious spices here.”
Smith grinned. “Having a Tiger daughter helped. Since she left it’s less spicy, but with you here I guess it’s going to burn twice again.”
Smith Tiger grinned. “For you maybe, but I really like it.”
Smith shrugged. “I’ll have to learn to live with it, again. But take it easy when Mary is here… Speaking of Mary, is Chester with her?”
Charlene shrugged. “Yes… But I don’t mind. I take the messages from here, he takes the messages from the Inimal king. We don’t see each other very much, but it’s fine. I have you, he has Mary.”
Smith grinned. “I’m not going anywhere for a while, but Robin and Marian can use my bed for the following days. Like I said, I use the living room floor for the next few days. You have to wait.”
Charlene nodded. “Very well… I’m sorry Marian, but we… are pretty close.”
Marian nodded. “I understand… Can we talk in private?”
Charlene shrugged. “No problem. Bathroom?”

“I want to buy some quill pens that make the kings jealous.” Smith spoke at a firm tone, breaking the silence, and also stopping the eavesdropping the Wolves did.
Robin nodded. “That wouldn’t be a problem, but I have no geese… or swans.”
Smith smiled. “I know. I am going to give you ten small gold, and you provide the quills. I’m not sure what the Wolves are going to do with your uncle, but let’s say that the previous less friendly person I met hung himself recently, and you need to start anew too.”
Wilhelm grinned. “He’s not lying.”
Robin nodded. “I think you have something to do with that.”
Wilfred also grinned. “Second-to-last person. The last one had to buy a new sword.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “I sharpened it a little, Frank told me you left in a hurry. But you sure know what you are doing.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… And about those quills, you know what it’s for?”
Robin nodded. “You will be declared king and now you need some formal writing gear.”
Smith shrugged. “Not quite, but I wanted to interrupt the silence. I saw that the Wolves were trying to hear what Charlene and Marian are talking about.”
Wilhelm grinned. “We did… Sorry. But I think you’ll need a desk at the town hall, and a nice set of beautiful writing equipment will look good on that. And the best part is that you already offered that you are going to pay for it.”
Smith shook his head. “I’m a king for tax reasons. But yes, some formal writing items is nice to have.”
Wilhelm also shook his head. “No… Rolph and I decided you also get a more ceremonial function, you are going to sign the laws we write. Not paying taxes means you do work for us. In your case being a king.”
Smith grinned. “Once a moon, let’s say last quarter. And darkness shall follow.”
Wilhelm nodded. “That’s perfect, then the new laws will be in effect at new moon. Signed at last quarter gives a few days to spread them.”
Smith shrugged. “No problem. I tried to make a joke, but you are far too serious.”

“Smith, can you join us?” It was Charlene who interrupted the awkward silence this time.
Smith shook his head. “No… I’m going to sleep on the floor here… What you and Marian want is also why I want Floris and Florette here. And Violet and Felix.”
Charlene nodded. “So you know?”
Smith shrugged. “Yes. And I don’t want it. Go tell Marian.”
Charlene smiled. “I knew I could trust you.”
Smith shrugged. “Yes, and Marian also knows that but still she tries… Now if you excuse me, I’m going to do my evening ritual and I’m going to lie down here behind the table. I suggest that Robin and Marian are going to use my bed, and the Wolves can figure out who is going to use Mary’s bedroom for the time being… If Mary gets home while they are still here we’ll find a different arrangement.”
Wilhelm nodded. “That’s… fine. Sleeping next to you on the floor is nice, but a bed is nicer. Even with Wilfred”
Wilfred agreed. “Yes… You are a bit rough with your belly rubs, Wilhelm doesn’t do that, he only snores.”

“Smith… Now it’s really time to wake up!”
Smith opened his eyes. “Good morning… Tia?”
The Tigress smiled. “Tina, with an ‘n’. The first.”
Smith sighed. “All those names… It’s late already, isn’t it?”
Tina nodded. “Yes… We left you sleeping. Charlene is already gone, Smith Tiger is taking over your smithy, and the basket weavers want to use this corner of the living room, they are already talking to people about what kind of baskets they want, and Casper and the other Tina are away with the items for Wulver, and the Wolves are at the town hall… How do you feel?”
Smith managed to get on a chair. “It’s getting better… I think I’m going for a walk after my late breakfast, as promised. My legs are like an hourglass filled with wet sand. It takes some time, but they are not broken… You didn’t mention Robin and Marian, how are they?”
Tina smiled. “Also still asleep. Robin kept himself strong yesterday, but he ran the distance twice. And Marian was stuck for two days, she is also exhausted.”

“That was a good breakfast… It seems you like living here.” Smith remarked while he stood up again, with a little bit less trouble than he expected. Robin and Marian were still asleep.
Tina nodded. “I never thought I would enjoy living in a house with a Human, but I like it. And I like the Neutral Zone. Good food.”
Smith nodded. “I know. It’s a pity I won’t be around at the Harvest Feast, just… ask others about the previous time. I am going to prepare myself for a walk… and I think I’m going to buy new shoes too, my old ones are a bit worn.”
Tina nodded. “Indeed… Good thing I don’t need clothes and shoes.”
Smith nodded. “Don’t stay at home, also walk around the village. Do as I do, walk around and learn to know the people here.”
Tina nodded. “I will, but first there is plenty to do here. I am really going to help Charlene with cleaning here, it’s a bit neglected.”
Smith shrugged. “Maybe because we are all busy, she with the messages, and I with my things… If I’m not back at lunch just come and find me, may be trouble, may be something else.”
Tina smiled. “Your trouble is usually the good kind of trouble, you helping people. I’ll go and find you when you are not back at dinner.”
Smith shrugged, and left.

“<Good morning Simon!>” Smith greeted the doctor, who was busy in his little kitchen.
“<Morning Smith! You are late, some trouble?>” Doctor Simon replied, stirring something in a beaker.
Smith smiled. “<Slept a bit longer than I intended, but nothing bad… Is the feeling that I want to run again normal?>”
Simon grinned. “<Yes it is. It is a pain you want to feel again… You know...>”
Smith also grinned. “<I know. Whips and chains for you and Sylvia… But who am I to judge?>”
Simon nodded. “<Nobody… Any other plans?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Maybe buying new shoes, or wait until my feet have normal soles again, and not the remains of blisters.>”
Simon nodded again. “<That shoemaker from Schotenburg really knows his trade. He is still a bit sad about the loss of his house there, but I think he enjoys it here… Tell him he should drink a bit less, you also have a good influence on Frank.>”
Smith nodded and smiled. “<So Peter and his wife Helena also came this way… As long as he knows what he is doing and doesn’t cause trouble I would have said nothing, but I will relay your message.>”
Simon smiled. “<You really know everyone… You and Mary were the people who sold him the house?>”
Smith nodded. “<Indeed… And now I have to go, I have an uneasy feeling.>”
Simon grinned. “<Wait until your feet are healed a little, now your soles under the blister are as soft as baby feet. It needs a new layer of callus, and that doesn’t grow in a day. A few days of calm walking is better.>”
Smith nodded. “<I will. And when Mary gets home I’m going with Casper, Tina and Mary for a delivery in the west, just sitting in a cart and walking when I want to.>”
Simon nodded. “<Walking instead of cuddling is not very romantic. Uwe told me about your dinner with her, and asked if you were normal.>”
Smith grinned. “<If you said something different than ‘no’ I would be disappointed.>”
Simon also grinned. “<I told him I wasn’t sure.>”

When Smith was outside again he was in doubt about what he should do. Find Peter and see what the possibilities are, or take the longer way home, with a brief visit to the town hall. He choose to go to the town hall, his shoes could wait until Mary got back, and his legs were still a bit stiff, trying to get the right size would be difficult. And he could buy some cherries for Robin and Marian, that was also in the direction of the town hall, an hour of walking south-east, very nearby when you have the time. There was a lot to do at the smithy, but Smith didn’t feel like doing it. He wanted to move his legs, not his arms.

“<Sire! You are walking again!>” It was Jacob who greeted him.
Smith shook his head. “<I’m only a king for tax reasons.>”
Jacob grinned. “<You know you are much more than that. I heard you already ordered a set of quill pens, and we have a nice desk for you, at a safe distance from the fireplace.>”
Smith shrugged. “<But I only will use it at last quarter, and that is quite a while away. When Mary gets home we will go for a delivery, and she can see how common Inimals live.>”
Jacob nodded. “<Of course. This village wasn’t built in a day, and you can’t go from normal smith to king in a day either. There are laws that need to be written, and the majority of the people will have to accept you as their king or your head will end up on a silver plate. Being a successor or heir is much easier, now we really have to compare laws, and find out what is best for us. And then the other kingdoms have to accept you, you won’t understand how much trouble the Bergvolk here are going to have when they suddenly are living in a kingdom. The reason why they are here is because our laws are common sense, and they don’t follow other laws, it’s forbidden for them… It might even take you to travel to their king for negotiations.>”
Smith shrugged. “<They know who I am, when a normal person like you would be declared king there would be much more trouble I think, but I already have passed their first test.>”
Jacob nodded. “<Olaf told me about it some time ago. You were very close to becoming their king those days, but you wanted to go home.>”
Smith shrugged. “<I wanted to go somewhere else. I didn’t like it there. And I had an opportunity I took… Not a bad choice I made, I think.>”
Jacob nodded. “<And many came with you.>”
Smith smiled. “<Yes… Thanks for giving me more time… Does this also mean I still have to pay taxes?>”
Jacob nodded. “<Unfortunately for you yes.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Pity… I’ll be going on my way again now, my legs are getting tired from standing still, but I want to buy some cherries. I’ll just put those under ‘Relationship expenses’.>”
Jacob smiled. “<Clever… Still impressive to see you already walking, and also those distances. Came home the day before the day before yesterday, the day before yesterday you ran a day worth of walking in four hours, carried a Vixen for more than an hour, slept a night in the open field, got home yesterday, slept a night on the floor, and now you are already walking again… I think I would spend a week in bed after that.>”
Smith shrugged. “<But I’m used to walk… Time to go get some cherries, and sit for the remainder of the day.>”
Jacob grinned. “<There is really no way stopping you.>”
Smith nodded. “<Not a runner, but walking can get me a long way.>”

With a large basket full of cherries Smith opened the door of his home again.
“Floris… Already here?” Smith asked when he saw his Vulpine friend.
Floris nodded. “Yes… With Florette and our son.”
Smith smiled. “Congratulations… I see that he is already walking around… Hey little one!”
The little Fox stared at Smith for a few moments, and ran towards his mother.
Smith shrugged. “It’s alright you are a little bit shy… I have bought some cherries, do you like some?”
Florette nodded. “Of course he does… It’s a pity we don’t have cherry orchards. Plants and trees are a Human thing. We do have some strawberries, but not many. They are hard to grow when you don’t have the patience like you can have with walking animals you can see grow in weeks.”
Smith smiled. “Take your share… What were you doing this close to Smithsville?”
Floris smiled. “We were looking for Robin, but apparently he went to you for help… We saw you leave your house, but we were too far away to catch you, we already have done some talking… Shall we visit Felix?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, that’s the best we can do. But after my… again late lunch. He already knows that I’ll come with Robin and Marian, but you, Florette and your son will also be a pleasant surprise.”
Charlene grinned. “You see Tina, Smith has never been in trouble… Those cherries are from… over an hour of walking away… That’s really impressive. None of us have eaten, we thought you could have come home any moment.”
Smith shrugged. “I walked a bit slower than usual, but no problems. I tried running again, but that was just for a few hundred paces. It’s a pity I have to work again, because the soldiers invited me for their morning run. That’s why I already talked to Felix… Sorry for being late, I couldn’t run the entire distance.”
Charlene continued to grin. “You are the best Human on the assault course, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you are also the fastest runner.”
Smith shrugged. “I doubt it. There are a few Humans who can beat me in practice fights, there are a few Human civilians who are better than anyone on the assault course, and I think there also will be faster Human runners. I’m only better than the soldiers.”
Floris nodded. “But being the second best at everything instead of just one thing is also impressive… I’ll get Smith… Tiger.”

“That was a delicious meal, although a bit spicy.” Floris commented while he brought his own plate to the kitchen.
Smith shrugged. “Old days with Katie again, and she liked it even spicier… Tina, next time we have visitors keep in mind that not everyone likes their food the way you do.”
Tina giggled. “Sorry, I have never cooked for a Human and Vulpine in my life.”
“I really enjoyed it.” Smith Tiger added.
Floris smiled. “I didn’t say I didn’t like it. Here it’s just eating different food. My old village was more Canine, and I liked that too.”
Smith nodded. “I like the different kinds of food too. Florette also knows how to prepare chicken, she gives chicken a very delicate taste.”
Florette nodded. “Yes… It’s good to taste different food, that gives inspiration… Shall we go?”
Smith nodded. “Yes… And we are the only ones who like cherries, so we take those as well.”

“Smith, Already here! And Floris!, good to see you as well. That hint that kits move before they pee was really helpful!” Felix spoke when he saw who knocked on his door.
Smith stepped aside to introduce the other Vulpine. “You already know Robin, but this young lady here is Marian.”
“And these are my wife Florette and our son. And it was Smith who gave us that hint, he avoided our daughter’s pee. Twice.” Floris added.
Smith scratched the young Fox who was standing next to him on his head “I don’t even know your name.”
Florette shrugged. “We don’t know it either. Giving a name might take some time, with Johanna it was easy.”
Violet, who came standing next to Felix, smiled. “Our daughter also has no name yet.”
Smith nodded. “Shall we go inside? There is a couple here who doesn’t have a child. And this basket of cherries is quite heavy.”
Felix nodded and gestured his guests to come inside, and closed the door.

“I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to do, so I’m going to sit here, and wait until I’m needed.” Smith spoke, and grabbed a couple of pillows and sat down in a corner.
The kits had lost their shyness, and sat down next to him, each with a bowl of cherries and an empty cup, like they instinctively knew how to eat them.
“I think that… I will be doing the talking.” Florette spoke after an awkward silence.
Violet nodded. “Yes… What is this about?”
Marian sighed. “It’s about me… I’m thirteen, and the Festival is four nights away.”
“She wants to do it with me for the first time, but I don’t want it.” Smith called from his corner.
Felix nodded. “I understand, but in my opinion that festival is a disgrace for the Vulpine. It has nothing to do with love, only with lust.”
Floris also nodded. “I agree with that.”
“When exactly did those Wolves attack?” Florette asked.
Marian shrugged. “Six days before my thirteenth birthday.”
“So if we deduct the period when you were a Feral from your age you will turn thirteen a few days after the Festival… We can decide you are too young, and go again.” Smith remarked.
Marian stared at the table. “You can say that… And I will be happy with that. That gives me another year.”
Violet shook her head. “It’s not about time and age, it’s about when you want it. You have a choice.”
Marian shrugged. “I want it.”
Florette shook her head. “That didn’t sound very convincing. Why do you want it?”
Marian shrugged. “I think it’s nice.”
Violet shook her head. “No, it’s not as nice as you think. Some men are nice, others are not nice. Do you really want to know it?”
Marian nodded. “Yes… Somehow I think that Smith thought of you when I told him because… You have experience.”
Violet nodded. “Indeed. I was a whore in Schotenburg, I… Know a lot.”
Marian smiled. “So you can… tell me what to do when I don’t want to get pregnant?”
Violet also smiled. “Don’t do it with a Vulpine. And avoid Dogs, they feel like a reverse birth.”
“Or…” Florette added “Use the other hole… Like we have done for too many years.”
Smith accidentally swallowed the whole cherry he had in his mouth. “What?”
Floris shrugged. “We… didn’t know. Doctor John had to explain it.”
Smith nodded. “Of course… That explains why it took so long. You enjoyed it?”
Florette shrugged. “We don’t like to talk about it.”
Smith nodded, and stood up. “Very well… I’ll be going home now. Do whatever you want, don’t do what you don’t want to do.” Smith reached in his pocket and got two coins. “Here are four small gold, I want you to stay here for the night and eat here, I want to sleep in my own bed, I have the feeling I can climb the stairs again. If there is change left I want Robin and Marian to have half of it, other half for the children. If it isn’t enough ask for more.”
Floris nodded. “Very generous of you… Smith.”
Smith smiled. “So you know?”
Floris nodded. “As soon as I got here Wilhelm informed me. It was a funny joke to call you a king, but I hope I won’t offend you when I see you as a normal person.”
Smith smiled. “Of course not, Enforcer.”

“That was quick.” Charlene greeted Smith when he entered his own home again.
Smith shrugged. “I wasn’t needed after all. All the Foxes are going to stay at Felix’ home, I’m going to do some work in the smithy.”
Charlene nodded. “I think that Smith Tiger is really taking over your smithy. Did you know that he was more famous than you are? At first he didn’t want you to come to study, but in the end he agreed, but then he had to leave for the army. He saw some potential in your strength, and your skill in trade, getting the order for the Red Brigade was really upsetting for him.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Indeed. He was the best Inimal smith, and you are just a Human smith, but friendly with Inimals. And now we as the Neutral Zone have him, although the money he brings in will be yours.”
Smith shrugged. “If you want me to pay taxes I won’t buy expensive quills and I won’t pay people to help me help others. But that will take moons, I talked to Jacob, and there is a lot of trouble to solve before I can keep my own money.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Yes, I know about that trouble… I’m glad we have Rolph to think about laws for Humans and the others, my head hurts from just reading just a few pages… And we’ve talked to Floris about Robin’s uncle, and Floris agrees. We, Wilfred, Walther Grey and I, are going north and tell Robin’s uncle how we think about him. He isn’t liked, I don’t expect much opposition.”
Smith nodded. “That’s fine. The Vulpine will have their festival in a few days, and I think it will be a lot better with Robin’s uncle gone. I have seen him once, and I don’t like him either… Just… try to keep it civilized.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Of course we will. We’ll leave tomorrow… Or as soon or as late as the Foxes want, but my intention is to go without the Foxes.”
Smith shrugged. “Good… I don’t care. Now, time to see if there is still a place for me in my smithy. And the time to actually do something between now and dinner at a normal time.”
Wilfred nodded. “Do that. And improve yourself, Smith Tiger has sharpened my sword because it wasn’t sharp enough.”
Smith shrugged. “Blame Robin. If he was an hour later your sword would have been perfect… for me. I wonder how he thinks of the others.”
Charlene smiled. “He is also neutral, I think he’ll appreciate the differences between the people working for you. Creative, strong, practical, handy… I think he’ll ask you to do a lot of things, and will even more try combining those skills.”
Smith smiled. “That’s perfect, that’s why I asked those people to work for me as well.”

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Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 38

#43 Post by Neutral Smith » Mon Apr 22, 2019 8:07 pm

Chapter 39
Delivery


Smith Tiger was really taking over the smithy. His enthusiasm was catching, and the ideas he brought in were fresh, like the special hinges that close doors.
He really appreciated the cooperation between the different skills that Smith had collected in his smithy. Strength, creativity, practical solutions, and creating what the customer needs instead of what he or she wants or what is easiest to make. He was also a very skilled smith, but lacked the strength the Humans had. The tools for Casper’s home village were done in no time, and added some tools Smith nor the other Humans could think about, like new types of fine tools like the Vulpine had, but more suitable for the larger and stronger Feline hands.
Everything went as smooth as it should be.
Also at home the things were back to a new normal, within a few days everything was cleaned and a lot of debris from the basket weavers accumulating.
The Wolves also returned from helping Robin and Marian with Robin’s uncle, and they were quite shocked. They never expected the Vulpine chanting ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ when they understood why the Wolves were there. Walther didn’t want to kill, Wilhelm neither, and also Wilfred refused. In the end it was Florette who killed Robin’s uncle, she also had a deep hatred towards him.

Mary came home the day Smith expected, almost three weeks after longest day. She was accompanied by a small company of soldiers.
“Good afternoon Mary! I see you have brought your own army.” Smith greeted her.
Mary smiled and hugged Smith. “You are not surprised?… Yes, the king gave me a bodyguard.”
Smith grinned. “That’s no bodyguard, these are soldiers who need their weapons sharpened.”
The Panther Leopard captain nodded. “That too. But we are the guards of the king. After what happened when you visited we try to do things better.”
Smith shrugged. “Playtime is over, things are getting more serious these days… But with you here the king has less protection, aren’t you worried about that?”
The captain also shrugged. “In my opinion he went from too lax to paranoid… They are running double shifts at home right now, while it isn’t necessary in my opinion. Antoinette killed the assassin, and we have no signs of more trouble.”
Smith nodded. “I see… Very well.” Smith turned to Smith Tiger. “What was your price for sharpening?”
Smith Tiger grinned. “Twice as high as here, for the same quality. Shall we meet in the middle? Then we both can do sharpening, and be done before dinner.”
Mary looked at the for her unfamiliar face. “You are working here as a smith?”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Indeed I am. Another smith named Smith. Pleased to meet you… Mary, I presume?”
Mary nodded. “Yes… I am.”
Smith Tiger smiled. “There… is something about you.”
Mary sighed. “Yes… I like Felines too, just like Smith does.”
Smith shrugged and hugged Mary again. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. As long as your father hasn’t told me he likes me as the father of his grandchildren we have to… do it other ways. Including the king?”
Mary grinned. “He is as perverted as you told me Lions would be. And it was over in minutes. He really likes me, although I do not really like him. I must admit that Tigers are the best of the Felines… I have taken a look at some Canines, but I didn’t like what I saw. And they were not convinced they would enjoy me.”
Smith nodded. “I like the Tigers as well, just like a very flexible Human, never afraid to try something new. And I never had a chance with a Canine, but knowing how long they can do it and their size I don’t think I’ll be good enough for their females. I’m between a sprinter like the Felines, and the long distance runners the Canines are. They really like my size combined with my endurance, for the Canines I think I’m just too small and don’t last long enough to compensate.”
Smith Tiger looked at Smith in disbelief. “I know you like sex outside your own species, but you have never made a move at the other women in your house, only Charlene. Why?”
Smith shrugged. “I made a promise… A few promises. Until Mary’s father has given permission I will be loyal to Charlene… At least, I’ll try. When I brought Katie to the Academy there were some women… Charlene told me she doesn’t mind either, but my second promise is only one woman of a species at a time, and with three Tigresses that would be impossible, so it’s none of them instead of all of them.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “I understand… Unfortunately for me I can get them all pregnant, and I want only to be the father of my Tina’s children. But she is enough for me.”
Mary smiled. “<Smith Human, can you introduce me to the other people? I assume that we and the Cheetahs are no longer the only people in your house. Although Chester is running some messages to the west, he will be home in a few weeks. And we need some messages from here, and Charlene can do those. Like what is needed here, Leopold wants to help us as much as possible.>”
Smith nodded. “<Fine. Let me introduce you to a few of the new people in my house, and then I’ll go back with my sharpening task. And sorry in advance for the mess, there are a pair of basket weavers among them.>”

“<Arthur’s training in the dark didn’t go as planned.>” Smith spoke when he opened the door between the smithy and his house. “<You already met Smith Tiger, the Tigress with the cleaning cloth is Tina Too, Smith Tiger shares a downstairs bedroom with her, we have changed rooms again… Let’s just give a summary of what happened… We went to the part of the forest where I have been before, where I killed the first poacher and burned his cabin down, it’s also where I met Boris and Minou, who were with us this time as well. This time there were some more poachers, and we killed those, these Feral Inimals returned to normal, and we had a feast. The people here can tell you the rest of the story, I’ll have to go back to my work, I want those soldiers going back home tomorrow.>”
Mary nodded. “Thank you… The water is warm I assume?”
Smith grinned. “We had some arguments about that, we agreed that I, Smith Tiger and Tina Too take the second warm bath, the others can take a bath whenever they want, but there has to be time for the water to warm up for us.”
Tina Too nodded. “Yes, we… and I assume you too, have to wait, or you must want to take a bath with Casper, his Tina, Tom and Therie… You want something to drink? The milk is not as good as I had at home, but it’s not as bad as I feared it would be with all these Humans around.”
Mary smiled. “Yes… Please. Feels good to talk to normal people again. You Inimals think you have good wine, but it was like vinegar. Even water was better, but I didn’t want to be impolite.”
Tina Too nodded. “Jij ook bijna normaal.”

It took until an hour after dinnertime when the Smiths were finally finished sharpening the weapons.
The others did not like the late dinner, but the Smiths liked the coins. Some weapons were already sharpened by Smith in the past, and only needed some maintenance, there had been a redistribution of the weapons. Now they all had razor-like weapons.
The soldiers didn’t want to stay, and as soon as the payment was made they left.

“The Inimal king wants to see you before you go west.” Mary spoke after the dinner in silence. She sounded more serious than ever.
Smith nodded. “Very well… And I want to make a delivery. I want us to accompany Casper and Tina on a delivery, I have met his father, and it would be a nice surprise for him to know that his son is alive and doing well. There is an order for a lot of tools for the Felines in his village, and all tools are finished. My intentions were leaving to go there a few days after you got home, for you to meet more normal Inimals instead of politicians. But if the king wants us to make a detour… well, what do you think about it Casper?”
Casper shrugged. “Leave tomorrow. Despite the huge order there is plenty of room for you on the cart, even to lie down to rest while we travel, for both of you. The whole order fits in three crates. And the detour is an opportunity for me to say ‘hi’ to William, to show him the horses I got.”
Mary nodded. “The son of the innkeeper… I know him too. He also gave me a carved horse head.”
Casper smiled. “Hang it on the reins of Antoinette, that will keep her safe from the Wolves. Just like Smith has.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… Although I do not want Mary to go to the west alone. On this delivery we already go further west than I am comfortable with. After the delivery we head north to the capitol, listen to what the king has to tell me, and then get back home again for me to get Louis, because then I’ll already have to leave again.”
Mary nodded. “Good… Although I prefer the day after tomorrow, then I can make some arrangements at the town hall, just a few details.”
Casper nodded. “No problem, it’s Smith who is in a hurry, not me.”
Smith shrugged. “Even two days is fine, I am not the one who is suffering, the Wolves in the west are. You know how bad they have it?”
Mary nodded. “Famine, depleted mines, no working force because we killed most of those… The sooner we get them, the better. We can wait until they are all dead, but there will always be a few not affected, and those can’t be trusted. You told the king to execute the leaders, and besides that this is the best we can do, get those who want to come here as soon as possible.”
Smith nodded. “Very well… Let’s get our last two nights of rest in our beds, because for almost a moon you’ll sleep with me in a tent.”
Mary grinned and got a small packet. “I’m looking forward to it. I have a lotion that will make your hands a bit softer, and a little file for your nails. Not for sharpening, but to make them a bit less sharp.”
Smith grinned. “I know that lotion, it dissolves the callus. If you stop using it the callus comes back twice as thick, and it itches. I’m sorry, but I am not going to use that… But thank you for the nail file, I have sold mine.”
Mary nodded. “I understand… You just sell everything you don’t need.”
Smith sighed. “I’m sorry I don’t have gifts for you… I’m not used to giving gifts, I’m a bit of an Inimal myself, everything in this house is for the people who live here. The personal things I give have to be useful, and I honestly can’t think of anything. I can give you jewelry, but you are already beautiful, you have clothes, you have good food.”
Mary hugged Smith. “<I want you.>”
Smith smiled. “<The best you can get. And I’ll try to be better.>”

Casper’s cart was large, almost a wagon, with big and strong wheels for the rough terrain, but also comfortable, with Berg suspension and a canopy large enough to stand under, if you were a bit smaller. Casper had chosen the four strongest horses the poachers had for this journey.
Smith didn’t mind that the other carts and horses weren’t sold, but other coachmen could rent them, at a fair price.
Smith alternately walked a few dozen paces behind it, or sat opposite of Mary on one of the small bench on the left side of the cart. He was not at ease on the cart, his eyes constantly scanning the dark forests and empty fields around them, he had pulled up and tied the canopy to do so. It was between breakfast and lunch, and nothing better to do.
“There is nothing here, relax a little.” Mary spoke, trying to draw the attention to her. Neither of them had spoken more than needed for days.
Smith sighed. “I can’t… I don’t feel safe. I haven’t seen anything.”
“These are old battlefields. Everyone fled or got killed.” Casper replied.
Smith sighed again. “That’s why I don’t feel safe. There are supposed to be dozens of Ferals here.”
Tina smiled. “We all moved further to the north-east, towards you. The old Neutral Zone was a buffer, and the new one is too. I don’t know what it was, but we all tell the same stories, even Belle, and she has traveled quite a distance to get to you.”
Smith shrugged. “But Wolves chasing you are also a good reason to move ahead.”
“You are no fun. An explanation for everything.” Mary spoke while Smith prepared himself to walk again, getting his armbrust and hanging his canteen and sword on his belt, and his backpack on his back.
Smith shrugged again, ignoring Mary. “How far today?” he asked, standing and leaning on the back of the front bench.
Casper smiled. “When we exit this forest we will be on the charred fields, a huge mistake the Humans made. They set the forest on fire, but the wind changed, and a rain of embers set their part of the forest on fire, and as a result they killed themselves. My village is just on the other side, the wind changed when the fire was just a few hundred paces away.”
Smith nodded. “I remember. It was the reason why I could make my masterpiece. Humans attacked from the north, and a few days later we could smell it, for weeks. We had a rain like we never had before after a drought, I guess that was our luck. It was a bit hazy even where I lived, the smoke must have carried a long way. I could make my masterpiece because my master thought there would be no Inimal clients left, but not even a moon later I already had the orders for chisels piling up again.”
Casper nodded. “I think my grandfather has told me about you, although I’m not sure. You are not fat.”
Smith nodded. “And I don’t want to be fat again… I’ll walk again.” and jumped off the cart.

“There’s some movement on the forest edge, can you see what it is?” Casper called from the cart.
Smith climbed back on the cart to have a higher point of view. “Tiger… Tigress… running… damn! She’s being chased by four Wolves!” Smith got his Armbrust again, checked his sword, and threw everything else he was carrying on the cart and jumped off again. “Hold your horses! I’m going to help her!”
Casper stopped the cart, and tried to calm the horses because they suddenly saw Smith. Smith disappeared into the bushes with charred remains of trees, still standing after all those years.

The forest was slowly reclaiming the field, and the saplings provided plenty of cover. When he was out of sight of both the people on the cart and the Inimals on the other side of the field he took his time to load his armbrust, and started to run again. The shrubbery was dense, and Smith decided to get back on the path again. The Tigress was close to him, and the Wolves behind her were also closing in. They hadn’t seen him yet, but that was about to change.
He dropped on his knee for a better aim, and a better cover. It didn’t take long until he had the opportunity. Smith pulled the trigger, and the leading Wolf fell. Smith carefully put the now useless armbrust on the ground, stood up, got his sword, and started to run towards the Tigress.
The Tigress stopped, and Smith quickly grabbed his dagger and tossed it in a way that was easy to catch.

The Tigress held the dagger the way she had caught it, in a perfect manner holding it up into the air, like she wanted to show it. Smith nodded when he ran past her, attacking the first Wolf who didn’t seem to understand what was about to happen to him. The Wolves hadn’t drawn their weapons, like they wanted the Tigress alive.
Smith knew that his sword wasn’t good enough for attacking, but nonetheless he sliced the soft stomach of the first Wolf he encountered. The second remaining Wolf was too far aside for a continued running attack, so Smith moved on to the third one, and killed him with a perfect stab. When Smith had pulled his sword out of the torso with the help of a kick he finally had time to turn around, to see the Tigress attack the second Wolf from behind. After a few stabs in the lower back the Wolf dropped to his knees, and had his throat slit.

“You alright?” Smith asked while he pulled a cloth from his pockets to clean his sword.
The Tigress nodded. “Yes… Thank you.” and returned Smith’s dagger. She stood a few moments awkwardly with it in her hand because Smith hadn’t finished cleaning his sword yet.

“Not Feral?” Smith asked while he finally cleaned the dagger as well.
The Tigress shook her head. “No… Not yet, thanks to you.”
Smith nodded. “Good. Where are you from?”
The Tigress pointed towards the edge of the forest. “The village over there.”
Smith nodded. “We are heading in the same direction. Want to ride along, or walk?”
The Tigress started to laugh. “Ride?”
Smith nodded. “Yes, ride. I have some friends just around the corner with a cart. You are not afraid of horses?”
The Tigress shook her head. “No, they are good animals. We have a coachman in our village too, that’s why I know horses.”
Smith smiled. “And I am here with his son. I’m… going to move the corpses to the side of the path, and take a detour, because horses are afraid of me, and I want to get my armbrust back, I left it somewhere there in the bushes.”
The Tigress nodded. “Good. I’ll follow the path.”
Smith smiled. “You want the dagger back, in case I lied?”
The Tigress shook her head. “No, I think can trust you.”
Smith nodded. “We’ll do the introductions later.”
The Tigress smiled. “You are Smith. There are no other Humans like you.”
Smith shrugged. “See you around the corner.”

Smith retrieved his armbrust and spent some time cleaning it, he had put it too close to an anthill. And nature called, there was no shortage of food and the waste wanted out. Mary had learned the trick of hanging over the side of the cart while traveling, but Smith had too much decency to do the same.
When he climbed on the cart he startled the people on it a little, they hadn’t noticed him, they were busy talking.
“Good, I’m here… It seems that the Casper and our new passenger know each other.” Smith noted.
Casper nodded. “Indeed. Last time I saw Tine was when I left, and she was just a little girl.”
Tine nodded. “Yes. And he came back with four horses… Your father has only two.”
Smith shrugged. “I’m on the cart, let’s go.”

“There’s a cart coming from the north.” Smith noted while he sat down again, on the floor this time, Tine had taken his place.
“There is nothing wrong with your eyes… That must be Casper’s father.” Mary noted when she saw it too.
Smith shrugged. “Get moving, then we’ll meet at the crossing.”
Casper nodded, and gently ordered the horses to move again.

“Four Wolves… Awful… Bloody…” Mary spoke with disgust when they passed the dead Wolves.
Smith shrugged. “I shot the first one, sliced the second, and pierced the fourth, Tine killed the third. Welcome to the Inimal kingdom, where real life is hard.”
Tine nodded. “Indeed. Every seven days the Wolves picked a woman for their raping. The day before yesterday I should have been the unlucky one.”
“Is there no defense?” Mary asked.
Tine shook her head. “We want it, but we won’t get it. Our village is too small, we even don’t have an inn.”
Smith sighed. “We are going to make a detour to visit the king, I will talk about this too.”
Tine shrugged. “Good luck, he won’t listen to us.”
Smith nodded. “But he has to listen to me.”

“Look who we have there!” Smith spoke at a rather loud tone, making sure the other coachman also heard it, but also startling all horses.
“Hello father!” Casper added.
The other coachman nodded. “Hello… Smith.”
Smith sighed, this was not the greeting he wanted. “In the Human kingdom it’s custom that carts coming from the right have right of way. Since you are coming from our right, I’d say: go ahead.”
The other coachman ordered his horses to walk again, seemingly irritated. “This is the Inimal kingdom, we ride on the left side and left has right of way.”
Smith shrugged. “Just ride ahead of us, I want to talk to you, sitting on a chair that isn’t moving.”

“It is a good question why we ride on the right side, while the Inimals ride on the left side of a road.” Mary said when the village came into sight.
Smith shrugged. “We hold our swords in our right hand, that makes it easier to attack when you pass each other when you pass on the left side. Someone in history thought it would be less violent when we ride at the right side of the road… That, or that way we can defend ourselves against people jumping from the bushes, when they come from the left they have a road to cross and that gives a little more time on the unprotected side… I don’t know.”
Mary grinned. “So… Not an explanation for everything, but an honest ‘I don’t know’ as an answer.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t care.”

After they entered the village, and getting a few stares from the villagers but nobody really surprised the other coachman parked his cart and unharnessed the horses and brought them to a corral with a simple shelter. Casper wanted to do the same, but was stopped, without words.
“I’ll pay for it.” Smith called.
“Hmpf… fine.” The other coachman replied, and stepped aside to allow Casper to park his cart.

“You don’t seem to be happy seeing me here.” Smith spoke while he climbed down from the cart.
“Not at all. I was supposed to get the order.” The gruff Tiger replied.
“Not happy to see your son alive?” Mary asked.
The Tiger shrugged. “Not really. He should have died.”
Smith sighed and got some coins from his pouch. “Tine… You can go home, it’s safe again. Carl, I want food and a place to stay, for all of us.”

Carl stared at the coins that Smith had given. “This… is too much.”
Smith nodded. “I know. It’s too much for four people to eat and sleep, but you really seemed upset about a missed order. I can understand that. I hoped you would be happy to see your son again, but you aren’t. The extra money is just a compensation for your missed order, it’s a long way to the Neutral Zone and back, and it would have earned you a lot of money.”
The Tiger shrugged. “Thanks… I guess.”

“So, how is life here?” Mary tried to reopen the conversation.
Carl shrugged. “Awful. Wolves keep attacking. Seeing you here, arriving with Tine might be something positive.”
Casper nodded. “Smith killed four. How is mother?”
Carl shrugged. “Killed as well… I went to the capitol for help, but they won’t listen.”
Smith sighed. “But they will listen to me, your king wanted to talk to me, and now I want you to come with us, and the most important person here as your passenger. I’ll pay for it.”
Carl shrugged. “The shopkeeper and I are the most important people here, and he can’t be missed… You have the tools?”
Smith nodded. “Yes. Shall we bring them? That way I can talk to him too… You have a wheelbarrow or something? I’m not letting Mary carry one of the crates.”
Carl nodded. “Small pushcart.”

“Good afternoon Carl, I don’t have an order… Oh, you have a Human with you, you are the smith?” the Jaguar shopkeeper greeted them.
Smith nodded. “Yes, and I have your order for tools. And a few more, but those are included in the price.”
The shopkeeper looked at Smith and the cart he was pushing. “You here with that cart?”
Smith smiled. “No, I’ve met Carl’s son, I’m with him. And this woman is Mary.”
The shopkeeper started to smile. “You came with Casper! How is he?”
Carl finally started to smile. “He’s doing even better than I am. He has a true wagon with four horses. And he has a woman. And some very powerful friends.”
The shopkeeper nodded. “Maybe they can do something about those Wolves.”
Smith shrugged. “We already killed four. But I am not here with soldiers, I’m with a coachman and his wife, and this woman I love. And I killed three, and one of the locals killed the fourth.”
The shopkeeper grinned. “Four Wolves were bothering us, you arrived, and now they are dead. Human soldiers are worthless, but you are far more than that.”
Smith shrugged again. “I have a history of killing Wolves. This time I killed one with a ranged weapon, and two with my relative agility. I had to skip one of them because he was too far aside, but Tine took care of him.”
The shopkeeper sighed. “Her house is lost. The attack was the day before yesterday, good to hear that she made it through the night.”
Smith also sighed. “Is there a place she can stay?”
The shopkeeper nodded. “Yes, one of the Tiger carpenter apprentices has lost his wife, she can replace her. I’ll talk to him.”
Smith also nodded. “I will ask her or others that if anything happens to her she doesn’t like to notify me. She has now some powerful friends too.”
The shopkeeper shook his head. “You just can’t barge in and take over the place of the Wolves.”
Smith grinned. “I am not a Wolf. I can be… much worse when I want to protect the defenseless.”
The shopkeeper shrugged. “It’s a long way from the Neutral Zone, but… thanks. I guess.”

“That was not very friendly, but very effective.” Carl spoke when they were walking back. The shopkeeper didn’t have enough money, but an arrangement was made that there would be a delivery of some woodwork at a discount price.
Smith shrugged, and adjusted his pouch with coins again, he wanted larger coins, but now his purse was filled with mostly Small and Big Silvers. “I do what I want, that’s why I am here. And I have a letter for the king. With things you never thought about, thanks to Mary.”
Carl nodded. “I understand. We Inimals are just… single minded. Minding our own business. You Humans take care of others, that’s why your kingdom is much larger and more uniform.”
Smith shrugged. “The Human kingdom has Humans in the north of the kingdom, Humans in the south, Humans in the east and Humans in the west. The Inimal kingdom has roughly the Vulpines in the north, the Canines in the west, and the Felines in the south, the problem is that you only want to take care of your own group. You will only get help from the Vulpine or others because the king orders it. And in turn you have to do the same for the others. Thanks for helping the Wolves when we pass through.”
Carl also shrugged. “But we wouldn’t when nobody important asks. That will be our downfall… United we stand, divided we fall. You did a good job uniting the Neutral Zone.”
Smith sighed. “When I’m dead and forgotten it will fall apart again… The Bergvolk have a black powder that can burn very rapidly. When you ignite a loose heap on a table it will only leave a black stain, but when you pack it tightly in a metal cylinder and ignite it, it will explode, doing a lot of damage. Loose powder harmless, packed tightly dangerous. Different tribes of Inimals harmless, forcing people to like each other dangerous. Dangerous to others, when you can make them work together, or dangerous to themselves, when you are neglectful.”
“You have seen that powder?” Mary asked.
Smith nodded. “Yes. And I even know how to make it. Never ask.”
Mary also nodded. “I understand. It could decimate cities in hours if Humans or Inimals ever learn that recipe.”
Smith shrugged. “Flatten a city like Schotenburg in hours is a bit exaggerated, but a large wagon with several barrels loaded with it could blast a large hole in the walls… Do you know where the horses go at an explosion?”
Carl looked at Smith. “What?”
Smith grinned. “The pieces go everywhere.”
Mary swatted Smith on the back of his head. “That wasn’t a funny joke.”

“You are already making food?” Smith noted when they entered Carl’s house again.
Casper nodded. “Yes. I got bored, and got food and prepared a meal. Everyone was happy to see me again. Father was out of spices, but I have used mine, and he can have those I don’t need… Although I have forgotten I am with Humans… Sorry in advance.”
Mary smiled. “I really don’t care. I want to try everything. Vulpine cuisine is also delicious, and so is Canine. And now I have the chance to eat real common Feline food. Somehow I don’t consider the food I get at home as ‘common’.”
Smith nodded. “I have eaten meals with the kings, and I also like the normal food more. Good chicken, beef and pork… Good meat that doesn’t need much spicing.”
Carl nodded. “But chicken is a bit… bland. You can do anything with it to give it taste. But I agree on the beef. Those cows in the Neutral Zone are the best, and don’t need any spices. Thanks, son, we do need some spices here, these are delicious.”

“That was a delicious meal, and you working with Humans really gives you access to the best spices, they really know how to grow plants. How did the Humans like it?” Carl asked.
Mary put her milk down, and wiped the tears from her eyes. “I regret saying that I don’t care, this was really spicy. Charlene never made it this spicy.”
Smith shrugged. “Katie would have liked it even spicier… Now let’s prepare for the night. Let’s find out what the underside of your table looks like. Mine looks… boring.”
Mary grinned. “Smith has slept under his table a few times because he had too many guests. And he doesn’t mind to sleep under the table when he is a guest as well.”
Carl nodded. “I understand… You just… invite yourself. But alright, we don’t have an inn, I’ll allow it. And you already payed for it.”
Smith grinned. “I can be very persuasive. I thought you already knew.”
Carl also grinned. “But not persuasive enough to convince me to work for you… Although you understood that I can make more money here than competing with Humans and Bergvolk.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t care, as long as you are happy. If Casper wants to stay here that’s also not a problem. I’ll buy his other carts and horses, and then he has three more trips for me to do, the first is going to the capitol with me and Mary as freight, and the second is getting me and Mary home, and the third is getting Tina and his belongings here again, I’ll pay for that too.”
Tina shook her head. “No… I don’t want to live here. It’s not safe.”
Casper nodded. “The Neutral Zone is a much better place to live. When we sell my carts and horses I might be the richest man here, but my riches can’t buy me safety. On the contrary, having a lot of money in this region might even be dangerous.”
Smith nodded. “In my early days of my smithy it also was dangerous. Even I have killed some people who thought I was an easy target. But I know how to fight because I always practice with my customers with the weapons I have made for them, that’s something you can’t do, you only can ride away on your cart.”
Carl nodded. “Yes… And thanks for taking me along for a second trip to the king, I wonder what you can do for us… Time for sleep, I want to leave as early as possible.”

Smith was the last to wake up again, which was rather embarrassing. At home when there was nothing important to do he was the first to wake up, but when he was away from home he slept like a log.
When he opened his eyes he saw an unfamiliar face, another Jaguar.
“Good morning. You have time for some sharpening?” the Jaguar spoke, at a tone that wasn’t friendly, but also not hostile.
Smith went sitting upright, and cleared his throat, he still could feel yesterday’s food. “Yes, I have my sharpening tools with me… Does Carl know you are here?”
“Yes I know. Sharpening doesn’t take a lot of time, does it?” Carl replied from the kitchen.
Smith shrugged. “Depends. What?”
“Head saw for the sawmill.” the Jaguar replied.
Smith shook his head. “I can do two blades in the morning, and two in the afternoon. If I’m not mistaken you have a seven blade head, with two more spare blades.”
The Jaguar started to smile but quickly the smile dropped. “Yes… I guess made by you… But… sharpening them would take at least two whole days… You have more important things to do for us. It’s still sharp enough.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… After all these years you still consider it sharp enough with only your maintenance, although I think you use them at a low speed… I have a lot of things to do, but I will return. I’m sure you have heard what I want to do, and when I pass this village I want my sharpening equipment here, and maybe some help from a Tiger smith, he is also working for me, and in exchange for you helping the people I am helping I will sharpen everything for free, the saws, chisels, knives, swords… everything that needs an edge. It might take more than a few days that we stay here, but I want to make sure that the people I help won’t starve.”
The Jaguar nodded. “In that case we have an agreement… You want your woodwork before or after sharpening our blades?”
Smith shrugged. “I have no need for woodwork, but your shopkeeper didn’t have enough money for the chisels I sold him, and that would have been woodwork with a discount. You don’t have to make it for me.”
The Jaguar nodded. “I understand… Thank you for everything you are doing for us.”
Smith smiled. “I hope to see you again in a few moons, I want those I help home before winter.”
The Jaguar nodded again. “And thanks for killing those Wolves and saving Tine. I haven’t seen my apprentice, so I guess he is… busy.”
Smith grinned. “Tiger is better than Wolf… I think. I want something to eat, and then we’ll leave, it’s getting late.”
Carl nodded. “Yes… and we are going to have rain today. You are lucky you can sit under a canopy, the only things I can keep dry is my freight.”
Smith shrugged. “Most of the time I walked… I have been on small ledges in the mountains where the Bergvolk live, I have been on a large boat at sea to return home, but I don’t feel comfortable on a cart, or even on a horse… I’ll walk, at a safe distance behind the carts.”
Carl shrugged and handed Smith his breakfast. “No problem… Here, eat this, we leave as soon as you are done.”

The journey between Carls village and the Inimal capitol was uneventful. There were no Feline villages, and Carl and Casper avoided the Canine villages. There were also no Ferals.
The only eventful day was when they met a few soldiers. They set up camp together, Smith sharpened the weapons for free, they ate together, and the soldiers ran ahead to the capitol to inform the people there that Smith and Mary would be there in a few days. They weren’t very talkative.

When they approached the Inimal capitol Smith sat on Carl’s cart, dozing a little.
“Halt!” They were stopped by a different group of soldiers.
One of the soldiers, a Dog, walked around the cart, and when he saw Smith he smiled. “Good, you are here… Castle, immediately!”
Carl nodded, and ordered his horses to walk again. Mary was sitting in plain sight, and without words the soldier ordered Casper to move along as well.
“Why are you not sitting on Casper’s wagon with Mary?” Carl asked.
Smith smiled. “To make you look more important than you are. If you were alone on your cart you could have been sent in a different direction because you have no business here. A few things are happening, and not all of those are pretty… The soldiers we met along the way and the soldiers here are not acting like I’m used to. We are lucky I have met that Dog before, otherwise you would have to answer a lot of questions, I guess.”
Carl nodded. “Why I am here again.”
Smith also nodded. “Yes… And don’t speak until spoken to, I… have the feeling I have to become a politician, to be very careful with my words.”
Carl nodded again. “I understand. Something I couldn’t and can’t.”

“Two carts and six horses?” the Cat soldier at the gates of the stables asked.
Smith grinned. “Congratulations, you can count. Is there a place for them?”
The soldier nodded. “Yes… We had some training, and now there is plenty of room.”
Smith shrugged. “Fine… If you don’t have people who know how to keep horses alive and well here I want the son of the Wolf innkeeper, William, here to take care of them.”
The soldier nodded again. “He was broken when we also took his horses. This will give him a purpose again.”
Smith smiled. “If there are no new horses coming I want to ask him to come to the Neutral Zone, I have a few horses he can take care of.”
The soldier shrugged. “Fine, I think he’ll like that. I’ll go and ask him.”
“And leave the stables unguarded?” Smith asked.
The soldier shrugged again. “You are here. I’m just a Cat, you are a far better fighter I heard.”
Smith smiled. “Tomorrow before lunch I want to practice with you. With practice weapons, on the Academy’s proving grounds. I see that your weapon of choice is a spear, that would be very interesting. Just provide me with some protective clothing, and two practice swords, I want to work on my dual wielding. Last client I had asked me to do that, and he gave me a severe beating with a staff… And he didn’t even want to buy a weapon, he wanted cutlery.”
Tina grinned. “The unbeatable Human beaten by an other Human with a stick… That was a fun fight to see.”
Smith shrugged. “He was from the far east, people are different there, with a lot of contact with the Bergvolk. I have a small rod that is also a painful weapon, I wonder if Siegfried wants to practice fight too.”
Mary shook her head. “We don’t have time for all your practice fighting. We are here for the talks with the king, and then we have to move on.”
Smith shrugged again. “A few days without work won’t hurt.”
Now Mary started to grin. “Are you sure?”

“Smith! Mary! The king wants to see you! At once!” a soldier called.
“These two Tigers are with us, and I want to see the Wolf innkeeper and his son William at the table too!” Smith replied.
The Tiger soldier nodded. “Very well… I’ll make arrangements.”
“William has to tend the horses first.” the Cat soldier guarding the stables noted.
The Tiger soldier shrugged. “You can do that too. I’ll get William and his father.”

“Smith! Welcome!… And Mary! Drop those clothes, no need for those here. If you are cold say so, and I will get a fire lit.” Leopold greeted them in a large room with a table with a lot of chairs.
“You wanted to talk to me. And you get to talk to these Tigers as well. And the Wolf innkeeper and his son William will also be here in a few moments.” Smith spoke at an annoyed tone.
King Leopold nodded. “Ahem… Well… You are really strict to business… But to be honest, I just wanted to see you before you head west. Do you mind that William and Katie also join us?”
Smith shrugged. “These Tigers and the Wolves will be my advisers, but this is not a place for children. But if you are inviting children I want Harry, a common Wolf with patchy fur, also here. He is the one who told I could identify the weapons of the assassin and came to see me at the stables where I was sharpening the innkeeper’s knives. And Boris Bear. And the teachers Master White and Wilco Wolf.”
Leopold smiled. “You really know who to ask.” Leopold gestured at one of the guards in the room “And get Siegfried and Beatrice for me too.”
Smith nodded. “Yes… But I don’t know what people from the Neutral Zone could add… While we wait I can give you a summary why I specifically asked for those people. This younger Tiger is a coachman from the Neutral Zone, he has a large wagon with four horses, and can transport a lot of goods. I want you to to make arrangements with him about the last part of the journey the Wolves will make. What is needed, and what he can transport, that sort of things. This second Tiger is his father, also a coachman. I have visited his village, I have done some things there, and now they are going to help me too. I am going to do a lot of sharpening for them, but they also have demands in exchange for a safe passage of those Wolves, they have a letter for you, and I want you to meet those demands because I have done things there you were supposed to take care of. The innkeeper from here has a lot of contacts with the Wolves in the west, might also be helpful, but there is something with coal I want to be resolved before I enter Wolf territory. I trust his son more, that’s why I also want him here. Harry because he also might have some information, he comes from a village that borders the villages the Wolves I get are from. I understand that he is a child, but when you are asking children I am asking children too. Boris because he is a minority from the region the Wolves are, and Mary and I are also a minority here, at least we have that in common. And lastly the teachers because I trust those, and they can explain things to the children… Now, why do you want people at the table who can’t add to the conversation?”
Leopold shrugged. “I don’t know… I thought they were smart. You really think about what your people can add to the conversation.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. You prefer to do the thinking yourself, I am not smart enough for that, but I am smart enough to ask others.”
Leopold smiled. “Yes. You have taught William the same thing. He even came to me when he had a question about the Inimal kingdom.”
Mary nodded. “But I encouraged him a little, after teaching him about the Human kingdom.”
Smith shook his head. “William nor Katie are more special than the other children. I do not want you to treat them like they are your successors… Your kingdom is crumbling sire, you have trouble with Wolves, and yet you forget the troubles these common Tigers have with Wolves as well. You want to spent time with me while you have a kingdom to rule. You feast while others live in fear. You have fish in a barrel on a boat while you can have a large net.”
“What… do you mean with that last thing?” A very puzzled Leopold asked.
Smith smiled, he secretly loved this game of words. “You can have fish in a barrel, easy to catch because there is no escape for the fish. The walls of the barrel are your best soldiers surrounding you, while in the waters outside the barrel might be even bigger fish. Fish that might be a danger when you go swimming. You have fish in a barrel, you can catch them and you can eat them. The fish in the water surrounding you are your enemies. Growing, because there is no chance they are getting caught. Catch the fish that might become a danger, and thrive.”
Leopold nodded. “You are telling me that I shouldn’t have all my soldiers here? But that’s dangerous!”
Smith grinned. “Figure out who the dangerous fish in the barrel are, kill those, and throw the rest of the fish back into the lake. Most of those are too small to eat, you can use them as bait, and use them to lure the larger fish… I see that the innkeeper has arrived. Welcome, I haven’t forgotten about you.”
The Wolf innkeeper nodded. “Thanks… But why am I here?”
Smith smiled. “You represent the Wolves from the west, We had a chance to talk earlier and I trust you. Not completely, that’s why your son William will also join us. What have you already heard of my conversation with the king?”
The innkeeper grinned. “I want to be in a different lake.”
Smith smiled. “Good. I haven’t forgotten what you told me when I asked you about what happened to the deliveries of coal. When I leave I want you and the king and his people to talk about it, and come to an agreement that is also safe for me. There is nothing more I can do for you… William Wolf, I heard that there are no more horses here, is that correct?”
The younger Wolf nodded. “Yes… They have killed them all.”
Smith smiled. “How do you feel about working for me? Taking care of my Louis, Mary’s Antoinette and the horses Casper has?”
William started to smile. “That would be great!”
Smith nodded. “And how does your father feel about it? Your son access to more horses because we Humans breed them, and someone, Casper, who can bring them here?”
The innkeeper started to smile. “That would be wonderful!”

“We are not here to talk about horses, we are here to talk about Wolves.” King Leopold interrupted.
Smith nodded. “I understand… Katie, you have been listening. Can you tell me what I am doing?”
Katie thought for a moment. “When I entered you were telling a strange story about fish in a barrel and a net… an anal… log… ehh..”
“An analogy. It’s to tell a story to clarify something.” Master White explained.
Katie nodded. “Yes, that’s what I meant… Although I would have chosen for a cage with metal bars and spears for hunting.”
Smith looked in surprise at the young Tigress. “What… Where did you learn that?”
Katie smiled. “From you. And a bit from François and Jacques.”
Smith shrugged. “Fine. And what about the rest we were talking about?”
Katie continued to smile. “You have a small kingdom, you know everyone, and talk to everyone. Our king should know all groups, and should talk to all groups.”
Leopold nodded. “Yes… I should be doing that… But we are not here to talk about this, we are here because I want Smith to leave to get the Wolves as soon as possible.”
Smith sighed. “So not going back home, but leave tomorrow, without my horse or an other horse that tolerates me, and walking? Good thing I have new shoes.”
Leopold nodded. “I would say today, because I want you to make a detour. You have to go north of the Wetlands, because that’s safer.”
Smith sighed again. “Very well… What do the others think about it? Hairy?”
The young Wolf grinned. “My name is Harry!… It is safer, you avoid the larger villages where you don’t have to be. I approve.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. Innkeeper?”
The Wolf smiled. “My name is Old Wilco, and I agree with Harry. More south is where the Greys live, you won’t be very safe there, you do have to sleep at night.”
“And I agree. We Greys here like you, but not everyone else does.” Wilco Junior added.
“Why don’t you just kill all Wolves? Then we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.” Boris remarked. He didn’t like to be in the same room as the nine other Wolves, including the guards.
Smith shook his head. “That is an option, but I need people at the quarry. Or do you happen to know dozens of Bears willing to give up their job and go and work for me?”
Boris shook his head. “No… I don’t.”
Smith nodded. “That’s what I thought… Siegfried, Beatrice… Good to see you, how is the pregnancy?”
Beatrice looked at the floor. “Miscarriage, they think it’s still the poison. But that won’t stop us from trying again.”
Siegfried nodded. “Yes… And I think going north of the Wetlands is the safest option. I have heard some reports that things are… not going well in the west.”
Smith nodded. “They want independence, Old Wilco here can tell you more about it. He called the Neutral Zone the sixth kingdom, and as far as I know there are only four kingdoms. I really don’t care, as long as I can benefit from it. Cheap coal from the west means cheaper metal to the west. But you all will talk about this when I am gone.”
Leopold nodded. “Yes… Eat, sleep, eat and leave.”
Smith shrugged. “Very well… I wanted to practice fighting with a soldier tomorrow, but I’m afraid that has to wait… Sire, I want you to tell the Cat soldier, guarding the stables when I got here, personally I can’t practice tomorrow.”
Leopold shook his head. “I am a king. I don’t talk to common soldiers, I order their superiors.”
Smith sighed. “I am a smith, doing what a king is supposed to do… You, Lion, talk to that Cat, and I, Human, will do what you ask me.”
“You can’t just order our king!” Carl shouted.
Smith nodded and smiled. “See sire, you still have loyal people, take care of them… I am going to talk to that Cat, and Wilco, do you still have some edible food and a bed? I’m not a king, I am not going to eat and sleep in this castle. I don’t care what the rest want.”
Wilco nodded. “Yes. My wife is still at the inn, she can help you.”

The bed was good, the food was good, and when Smith approached the castle again the soldiers saluted and knocked on the door.
Smith sighed and politely smiled. “I am still not a king. I am not more important than you are. I am a smith who is asked to do something.”
The soldiers nodded. “We have our orders, sire.”
Smith looked at the happy looking soldiers. “Orders by who?”
The Jaguar started to smile. “The king himself. Yesterday evening he came to our barracks with your Mary, and talked to us personally. Things are… better when you are around.”
Smith nodded. “Very well then. I am here to do the things he is supposed to do. I hope you, normal people, don’t mind me getting the best people instead of him.”
The Dog soldier shook his head. “When we are united in peace there won’t be a competition between the kingdoms, then we will be one.”
Smith shrugged. “It won’t be me uniting you. I’m just getting my parts, and a bit extra.”
The Dog soldier nodded and stared at the ground, too afraid to talk more, because his current king had opened the door.
“Good morning Smith. Had a good night? I’ll show you the map of where you should go.” Leopold greeted him.
Smith smiled while they walked the empty halls. “Yes, thank you. You also had a good night of sleep? You are a bit… curt.”
Leopold grimaced. “Mary kicked me in the nuts, and Casper threatened to hit me with a chair.”
Smith grinned. “Maybe you deserved it.”
Leopold nodded. “Yes… They already left because of the incident. They know they will see you again and they agreed there was no need saying goodbye. They left everything you might need behind.”
Smith sighed. No chance for a goodbye hug.

“Here is the map I wanted to show you.” King Leopold spoke when he opened a door. He really looked like a lonely man in the morning light.
Smith nodded. “Very well… I can take this map with me?”
Leopold shook his head while he unrolled the map. “No, that won’t be possible. As you can see there is a straight line north of the wetlands, I have ordered a boardwalk there. It is a secret, and I don’t want too many Canines knowing about it. From here you go a little bit north-east, you will encounter the first boardwalk heading north, and at a boardwalk crossing you head west, you can’t miss. It’s narrow, but you can navigate it as long as you can keep your balance. At regular intervals there is a place to rest, on a mound or an elevated platform. They are approximately one day apart, when you encounter one early use it, when it takes a bit longer don’t despair, it’s a bit further, but not very much.”
Smith nodded. “Looking at this map I’m afraid I will end up too much east when I go straight north-east, I don’t see villages on this map I can use as way-points. I think I’ll head straight north, until I can’t go any further because of the water, head east for a few days maybe, find the first boardwalk and head north again, until the crossing where I can go west again. Any things I have to look out for?”
Leopold smiled. “Not much. Empty lands, plenty of wildlife and fish. A man like you would have no problem crossing it. You mentioned you have new Human shoes made of the best Canine leather from Feline cows, you already have the best Vulpine tent money can buy, you have a powerful ranged Berg weapon, you know how to handle your other weapons, you know how to talk in all languages… Allow me to provide as much food as you can handle for the first part of your journey, and you can be on your way. I will take a shorter route and I will meet you in the west.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. See you in a few moons! Good to hear that you are willing to leave your castle.”
Leopold nodded. “But I have an army, you are alone.”
Smith grinned. “I have defeated armies. And now I will conquer people.”
Leopold shrugged. “Useless people. But you taking them is cheaper than killing them. Even with all the things they need.”

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