Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 43

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thelvaen
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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 37

#46 Post by thelvaen »

I just updated the ePub with a foreword providing link for this thread as well as the fact that the story is not complete.

But as the link is only provided here, I think people will already know about that :)

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Neutral Smith
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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 40

#47 Post by Neutral Smith »

Chapter 40
The West


The boardwalk was not easy to find, but finally Smith was walking on the narrow structure suspended over the marshes and swamps. He was glad that he didn’t bring a horse, because traversing the boardwalk on horseback or even leading a horse would be impossible.
The boardwalk was not new, far from it. It was an old structure, with occasionally a new plank, or a new piece of rope holding it together, or even a new section because a fallen tree or other damage had destroyed a section. It was a simple wooden structure, two planks wide, with countless poles and beams, tied with rope, holding it above the water. It was not even a straight path, sometimes with bends to reach a sandbank or a fallen tree for easy support or a simple resting place. Someone had been lying to the Inimal king, and probably walked away with a lot of money.
What was correct was that there was a place to rest every night on a larger platform, even with a place for a fire on some stones and clay, and dry firewood, which was most welcome. Smith didn’t care about how it got there, he used it all. Maybe someone with a canoe to supply all those resting places.
The hammock, rope and tarp that Smith got before he left were also very handy. When there wasn’t a place to put a tent there were a few trees close together where he could put his hammock with the tarp overhead to keep him dry from the rain.
Gently swaying in the hammock above the water with the sound of rain on the tarp overhead, and the water beneath him made him dream he was on a boat again.
Smith suspected the too friendly Badger had a hand in it, he knew exactly what Smith needed.
Food was also not a problem. He was given extra fishing line and hooks, from his own smithy, and some ammunition for his sling. There were plenty of fish and waterfowl he could kill and eat, although bait for the fishing was hard to find.
It was a wet summer, and the water level was occasionally very close to flooding the boards, but Smith managed to keep his feet dry at all times.

The only thing Smith regretted was taking his second sleeping mat and blanket with him, with the extra gear he got his backpack was almost too full. He would gladly have given those away to the first person he met who needed them, but he encountered nobody. Just him and animals, and at the same time he was glad for not meeting anyone, because passing each other on the small boardwalk would have been impossible without one getting wet.
The only thing he really wasn’t happy about were the insects, despite his bad hearing he could hear them buzz. The itching of the bites and stings wasn’t too bad, but nonetheless Smith choose to wear long sleeves and pants, the legs tied with pieces of rope so nothing could crawl in. On some days he even put socks over his hands to keep the insects away.
Days were slow, he couldn’t maintain his preferred walking speed due to the uneven, slippery and springy planks. He constantly had to watch where he had to place his feet. But the resting places made him stop every day, sometimes a bit earlier than he wanted, but the next day would be a longer walk.

It was hard to understand the landscape, sometimes grassy, sometimes shrubs, sometimes trees, many times fields of reed, but the ground always had a layer of water over it. Sometimes deep, sometimes shallow, sometimes just mud or peat, but water was never far away and there was always a need for a raised boardwalk, even if it was just planks directly on the soft soil, with some poles preventing them floating away.
‘The land here is a ripple in fabric.’ Smith philosophized while he was walking along. ‘A ripple, the Inimal capitol on higher ground, these wetlands lower, the northern Vulpine territories higher again, then the sea as an absolute low, and then the mountains. A nice green tablecloth that someone pushed, and I really don’t care about it. Leave that to the ladies. I want food on plates, I only get stains on a tablecloth.’

‘The wetlands are four days wide when you manage to cross them in a straight line south to north.’ Smith thought another day. ‘I didn’t have to do that, the east-west boardwalk goes right through the middle. That was correct, because it took two-and-a-half days from the first step onto the boardwalk and until I could go west, and a half day going west until the first resting stop there. No resting place at the crossing to discourage people using the boardwalk. From the east to the west it was sixty-eight stops, but there were twenty-seven stops to the east of the crossing, the forty-one nights next to the boardwalk were also correct. The maker of that map really knew what he was doing.’ Smith’s thoughts continued when he broke up camp after another night, the seventh on dry land. ‘Now it was eight days on dry land, if I am not mistaken. Considering I can walk much faster on this dry land instead of those horrible planks, I think I will reach the Wolves today.’
Smith grinned. ‘I don’t need a map in my hands. Seeing one is remembering it. Just like I do with everything and everyone else… well, unless I go Feral. Then I won’t remember anything… I have no idea what I ate the day before yesterday. And was seven days ago a tent or the hammock?’

Late in the afternoon he saw civilization again. Not starting with a few huts and gradually the numbers increasing with even more people, but suddenly he was on the large dot on the map. His destination.
It was a true Canine village. What could be made of stone was stone. Low buildings without first and second floors, because you need a lot of wooden beams and planks for that. The wood that was visible was rough, like it had been hacked and split with stone tools. Instead of fences there were stone walls, and instead of the wooden steps the Feline and Vulpine houses had there were large flat stones leading up to the rough looking front door.
There were some Wolves outside, but none of them gave Smith the attention he expected, they just glanced at him and walked on. He couldn’t blame them, he was responsible for the deaths of a lot of their husbands, fathers, sons and brothers. There were no Dogs visible.

“Hello sir.”
A young and very dirty White Wolf girl greeted him.
Smith smiled. “Hello young lady. Is there someone I can talk to?”
The little Wolf smiled, almost grinned. “Yes. Me.”
Smith shrugged. “Very well. You have a place we can sit?”
The little Wolf was a bit startled, she didn’t expect that her invitation would be accepted. “What… Why do you want to talk to me?”
Smith smiled. “I want to talk to everyone. You are a good start, because children are the most honest people I know… So, do you have a place where we can talk?”
The little Wolf pointed to a large pigsty. “Yes. Over there, where I sleep.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. You have a name?”
The little Wolf looked at the ground as they walked towards the pigsty. “Pebble... My father is gone, and my mother is looking for him, and the house burned down.”

Smith’s face showed no emotion, he didn’t want to hurt the young Wolf’s emotions, but finally he grinned. “You look more like dirty marble. I have never seen a pebble walk, but when you are clean you can be the Whitest Wolf there has ever been. When you lie down in the snow you will be invisible. Do you know why I am here?”
Pebble nodded. “You are the Human named Smith, and you have come to take us away.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. Now let’s sit down for a moment. You have eaten?”
Pebble shook her head. “No… sir.”

Pebble jumped over a wall of a pig pen, and Smith used the gate to enter an empty pen with the cleanest straw, and sat down.
Smith produced some leftover meat from his backpack, and handed it to Pebble.
“What kind of meat is this?” the young Wolf asked while she sniffed it.
Smith shrugged. “I have no idea. It were birds I killed, that’s all I know. The meat is a bit dry, but edible. I’m a smith, not someone who can identify birds. A bird is either between delicious and disgusting, or I haven’t eaten it before. These were just a very easy kill, but I’m not killing a bird like these again for food.”

“You like it?” Smith asked after there was nothing left but bones.
Pebble nodded. “Yes. Not as bad as you told me.”
Smith smiled. “I never said it was bad, I only said that I am used to better meat. Shall we go for a walk? It’s getting late, and now I am the one who is getting hungry, and maybe you want some more too. Do you have an inn here?”
Pebble nodded. “Yes, on the other side of the village. But it is not a good place.”
Smith nodded. “Not a good place for a Human like me, or not a good place in general?”
Pebble shrugged. “Not a good place for a Human. And the innkeeper doesn’t like the king.”
Smith also shrugged and stood up again. “I may not like the innkeeper as well, but I want to sleep in a bed. You want to share a room with me? It seems that I might need some protection tonight, and you screaming that I have to wake up to defend myself against the innkeeper or his friends sounds good enough.”
Pebble needed some time to think, but finally she stood up as well. “Good. I want to see the look on his face when I get to eat the meat of the last pig I had to kill instead of leftovers.”

When they walked through the village there was a bit of a commotion up ahead.
“I hear them shout something about that the king is here.” Pebble remarked.
Smith nodded. “Good. Let’s meet him.”
Pebble looked in disbelief at Smith. “You can’t just say ‘hi’ to our king. You have to be formal.”
Smith grinned. “I don’t.”

King Leopold was flanked by Walther and Arthur when Smith met him on a square.
“Good afternoon sire, good day for a walk, isn’t it?” Smith greeted him. He choose the more or less formal way to greet the king.
Leopold smiled. “Good day Smith. When did you arrive? I see you have adopted a new child.”
Smith shrugged. “This afternoon. This is the first person that greeted me. Her father is missing, and her mother is looking for him, and her house burned down. Leopold, meet Pebble, Pebble, meet King Leopold.”
Leopold nodded and knelt. “Pebble… I had a White Wolf bodyguard from this region, with a daughter named Pebble, and she must be your age. I’m so sorry about your father, but until your mother returns Smith is the best person to take care of you, trust me on that.”
Pebble nodded. “Smith is nice.”
Smith nodded. “Arthur, Walther… Good to see you here. Had a good journey?”
Arthur nodded. “Yes sir. We were a bit worried about the timing because of a small holdup due to high water in a river, but it seems that you are also later than expected.”
Smith shrugged. “Boardwalk was hard to find, I ended up a bit too far east, and went even further east looking for it. That took me a few days. But here we are, arrived at the same time. Very impressive planning, even with the delays… I wanted to eat and sleep at the inn, but Pebble here warned me that they aren’t friendly, I suggest that you sleep in your tents.”
Walther nodded. “Innkeeper is a Grey, I also advised against staying there for the king. Speech after breakfast, and then assemble for a first night, with packing the carts, setting up camp and seeing how it goes. We leave the day after tomorrow.”
Leopold nodded. “Indeed. For the first few days I will accompany you, and then head home again. Because for the first few days we are heading the same direction.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. See you at the speech. And thanks for the warning there will be a speech, that gives me time to think about what I want to say.”
Leopold grinned. “You don’t have to think. You just talk, and say whatever the people want to hear.”
Smith shrugged. “If you were a better king we wouldn’t have to be here.”
Leopold nodded. “Yes… If I were a better king. Now you will be their king.”
Smith shrugged. “I am not a king, and I won’t be a king. I am Smith, by name and profession… I bid you a good night, and I will see you tomorrow.”
Leopold sighed. “But I do want some food. You think that will be possible?”
Smith shrugged again. “Yes, I think so. I have some experience running an inn, I will do the food.”
Walther nodded. “Yes. You can do that. You need some soldiers to accompany you?”
Smith grinned. “In the early days of my current smithy it doubled as an inn, I didn’t have help at the inn in Schotenburg making breakfast for several people, and I didn’t have help at the second inn at the quarry when I stayed there without the innkeeper but with guests, I think I can handle this one too. And I have experience with Wolves.”
Walther nodded again. “Very well sir. See you at the table.”
Smith smiled. “Good. Like friends, not like kings.”

“Are you sure this is the inn?” Smith asked when he and Pebble arrived at a tall building with a large wooden veranda. It seemed a bit out of place, with having a first floor and a lot of wood.

Pebble nodded. “Yes.”

“This… looks more like a Feline whorehouse.”

Pebble nodded again. “Yes.”

“Do… they have whores here?”

Pebble nodded for a third time. “Yes. Two. But they are Dogs.”

Smith shrugged. “Very well then. Might be interesting.”

Pebble nodded once more. “Yes.”

When Smith opened the door he was greeted by the innkeeper, an older Grey Wolf.
The Wolf adjusted himself to a more formal position, and coughed.
“One room, two beds and two breakfasts for tonight and tomorrow, five people for dinner tonight, and you stay out of the kitchen because I don’t trust you and I will do the cooking. Tomorrow we’ll see how much more I need.” Smith spoke at a firm tone even before the Wolf could speak.
“You think you own this place?” The Wolf replied after some time. He needed it to process the requests because Smith and Pebble were just two people.
Smith nodded and put his backpack on a table. “Yes. I am told that you can’t be trusted. The king and two more friends will eat here tonight, and I can’t afford it that you attempt to poison us… There are two things you can do. You comply, or you protest. The more you protest, the less friendly I will become… Now, what is the price for these requests? And name the normal price, although you don’t have to do any work in the kitchen.”
The Wolf stared at the floor for some time, but finally he smiled. “It’s free. You really are like my cousin wrote me. Rude.”
Smith shook his head. “No. Four Silver for each bed, two Silver for each meal. I’ll give you four large Silver now, and the rest when we leave because I don’t know what plans the king has for food, maybe invite me in return. Does that sound like a fair price?”
The innkeeper nodded. “Fair like he said you would be. You really are rude, but honest.”
Smith smiled. “I try. Kitchen is in the back?”
The innkeeper nodded. “Yes. I’ll retreat to my private quarters, but I have some errands to run later, but I will use the other exit. Have a good evening and night.”
Smith shook his head. “You stay here, just sit at the table. I might have questions, and as I said, I don’t trust you.”
“He is never this friendly. You scare him.” Pebble whispered.
Smith shrugged and moved his backpack to another table, within sight of the kitchen. “Insincere. But he is out of the way for tonight. Let’s make some proper food. Let’s find out where he keeps the pork, we have friends to feed.”
“And a king.” Pebble added.
Smith smiled. “Another friend.”

Pebble was a good help in the kitchen, and just when Smith wanted to ask Pebble to get washed his friends entered the inn.
“Where is the innkeeper?” Arthur asked, looking around.
Smith looked at the empty table. “I asked him to sit at the table. I didn’t want him near the food, but you telling me that he is gone...”
“I had to use a toilet.” The innkeeper said while he sat down again.
Smith shrugged. “Very well. Sire, please sit down, food is almost done. It’s a good piece of meat, Pebble has killed this pig, enjoy it.”

“This is not the way you are supposed to treat a king.” The innkeeper called from his chair.
Smith shrugged. “I treat people the way I want to be treated. And this king has a mouth, when it’s empty he can speak for himself.”
Leopold smiled. “Innkeeper, this Human here is a friend. This Grey Wolf and White Tiger are also his friends. We are all friends here, not a king and subordinates. When I leave this inn I am a king again, but here I am not.”
“Are you really friends?” Pebble asked.
Smith grinned. “Yes. Our first meeting was quite memorable. He arrived unexpectedly, I wasn’t prepared and he had to use the toilet. Let’s say it was quite awkward.”
Leopold nodded. “Indeed. These days I have a hole in the bottom of my carriage. Occasionally I hear some muttering behind it, if you know what I mean.”
Smith shrugged. “I’m sorry Pebble, but the king is just another Lion. Outside this inn I want you to treat him like a king, with all the respect you can imagine.”
Pebble nodded. “Yes.”
Arthur smiled. “She is quite the opposite of Katie, but I like her.”
Walther nodded. “Indeed. You have any idea where your parents are?”
Pebble shook her head. “No.”
Leopold nodded and smiled. “We shall place a sign in the middle of this village telling people that you have left, and where you can be found. Smith is more than capable of taking care of you, you aren’t the first child he adopted. Before he had you he had a little Tiger girl, the Katie Arthur was talking about, and she is doing very well at the Academy.”
Pebble smiled. “Thank you.”
Smith nodded. “That is the best thing we can do. You want me to pay for it?”
Leopold shook his head. “No. This time you don’t have to do that, the only felines that are here are my own soldiers. You take good care of her, and hope her parents are still alive and will find her again.”
Smith smiled. “Thank you. And how do you like the food? A Berg schlachteplatte. I didn’t expect to find all the ingredients in large quantities here and some unexpected items like the cast iron kettles and pans in the kitchen, but I suspect the Wolves still have some contact with the Bergvolk.”
Walther smiled. “It’s like an aunt used to make it… Truly delicious. The potatoes give me a bad breath, but I like these as well.”
Arthur nodded. “A bit fat, but a very good taste.”
Leopold also nodded. “Common food for the Bergvolk, but I like it too. How does the innkeeper like it?”
The innkeeper briefly smiled. “Thanks for the food. Better than I can make it. Especially those potato pancakes. I have trouble with them, but as a Human you are more used to work with other things than meat.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. Now that the food is gone I’d like to take some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day, I have walked quite a distance over the last few moons, and I want to sleep early and in a bed. What room can I use?”
The innkeeper shrugged, but did not stand up from his chair. “Upstairs, end of hallway is a room with two beds. Just rotate the sign at the entrance of the room you use, we don’t have many doors with metal locks here.”
“You don’t need someone at the entrance?” Walther asked.
Smith shook his head. “No. I have Pebble with me. She can warn me. And I ask you to kill everyone here if something happens to me. If I am dead there is no reason to help these Wolves anymore.”
Leopold nodded and also stood up to leave. “As you wish.”

The room was not very large, and had a lot of animal skins and pelts on the floor, and two larger piles of skins acting as beds. It was dry and clean, but smelled a bit musty.
It was totally unlike what Smith was used to as a bedroom. As a Human he used a bed with a mattress which was raised from the floor and blankets, the Felines from the Neutral Zone preferred the same, just as at the Academy, but without the blankets, and the beds the felines between the Inimal capitol and his village had were just a thick mattress on the floor, filled with wool or feathers and no wood because they wanted to keep their work out of their sleep, and those who didn’t work with wood had a ‘normal’ bed again. Smith wondered what a genuine Vulpine bedroom would look like, the room he used in Floris’ house was almost Human with a bed with blankets.
The last time he slept in a Canine village it was at Diego’s old inn, and that was also Human, dating from before the war when Humans frequented that old inn. This would be truly a first time in a Canine bed for him.

“So… This is not what I expected.” Smith noted.
Pebble smiled and hugged Smith. “This is so much better. Thank you for taking care of me.”
Smith shrugged. “Very well… I think I have to go back downstairs again for my evening ritual, it was indeed good food. Do what you have to do, wash yourself, and enjoy your first night with me. Tomorrow another night, and then a few moons in a tent. And then a… normal home with a normal bed.”

“Why did you hesitate? Aren’t you normal?” Pebble asked when she followed Smith downstairs.
Smith smiled. “I am not an average Human. Most normal Humans are boring, it are the exceptions that make life interesting. I have lost my first wife to Wolves, and that has changed me. I became some sort of Feral, and ended up with Elfique and Bergvolk, and those made me who I am today. I can’t change the past, but I am here for the future… Keep in mind that Humans are strange beings who mostly don’t want others to see them doing their natural business… can you please go somewhere else while I use this toilet… I feel a bit exposed with you standing in front of me while I use this toilet.”
Pebble nodded, and occupied the next stall.

When everything was in place with his sleeping mat on top of a pile of skins and his sword and dagger within reach Smith finally laid down. The first night with a solid roof overhead in moons.
Pebble needed a bit more time, and convincing of the innkeeper to sell them some soap, but finally she also was on her ‘bed’. But convincing people, especially Wolves, was one of Smith’s specialties.

It felt odd, there was a ceiling overhead, but he was almost on the floor, and the pile of skins made it feel like he was sleeping on something that was between sand and a pile or fabric. Not soft, not hard, a lot of bumps and dents because the skins were not perfect square and it was hard to create a flat surface with them with some sheep and a lot of rabbit, but also not uncomfortable if you sleep on your back. Which was something Smith normally did with Charlene on top of him.
Smith felt like he was dozing a little instead of sleeping when something screaming fell on top of him. He had his hands underneath his head, and it took some time to realize what was going on. This wasn’t a nightmare where you are helpless, this was real. There was a screaming male Wolf on top of him, and a dagger with a familiar design impaled in the skins next to his head, the flat side touching his wrist
He managed to get his hands free, and pushed the screaming and struggling Wolf upwards again.
When he finally saw what was going on he realized that Pebble was stabbing the innkeeper from behind, with his sword. Several time Smith saw the blade protrude from the innkeeper’s chest, retreat, and pop up in a different spot. Or pop down, as a better word for it, with the tip dangerously close to his own chest.
“Pebble! Stop it! He is almost dead, but I don’t want to be stabbed as well! You don’t have to push the sword all the way through!” Smith shouted, genuine afraid that the little Wolf would kill him too.

The stabbing stopped, the screaming stopped with a gurgling sound, and the innkeeper went limp, he was dead.
With a final push Smith tossed the dead Wolf aside, and checked himself. He was soaked in blood, but none of it was his own.
“I think I am going to wash myself. And find another clean bed.” Smith mumbled while he sat up.
“Yes.” Pebble replied, carefully wiping Smith’s sword clean with a cloth she found somewhere. A sign that she was a butcher, despite her young age, and being careful with the tools.
“And thank you for saving me.” Smith spoke when he went downstairs, followed by Pebble.
“Yes.” Pebble replied behind his back.
Smith looked up at the young Wolf. “You are still clean. You don’t have to follow me because there are more rooms upstairs.”
Pebble smiled. “Now we can sleep in the special ‘Bed Room’.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t know what that is, but every room with a bed is a bedroom. What makes this one special?”
Pebble passed Smith on the stairs, and when Smith came downstairs Pebble was waiting at a doorway with a curtain and behind that an actual wooden door. “It’s this one. But the door is locked.”
Smith sighed. “Then go find a key. Nobody is going to punish you for that, and if someone does, tell me.
Pebble pointed up behind a curtain. “The key is up here, but I can’t reach it.”
Smith sighed, grabbed the key, unlocked the door and left for the bathroom. The so called ‘Bed Room’ could wait until he was clean again.

When Smith entered the so called ‘Bed Room’ he was surprised. The room was filled with large and smaller, softer and firmer pillows and cushions, blankets and even feather filled duvets. The whole room was literally a bed. In the moonlight everything seemed pale, but Smith imagined everything to be very colorful.
Pebble was asleep on a large pile of cushions, she apparently fell asleep in a patch of moonlight, but Smith needed more time than she thought and Pebble was now barely visible. It was the movement of her breathing that betrayed her. Smith smiled and quietly started to move some pillows and silk to create his own sleeping place and laid down on his back again. He was too tired to choose between his left or right side.

“Sir! Are you awake?” A woman asked.

Smith had trouble opening his eyes, but through the narrow slit he saw that it already was broad daylight.
“Pebble… stay down. She is friendly… I hope.” he mumbled.

“It’s one of the sisters… She works here.” Pebble replied, also sounding very sleepy.

Smith needed some time to recall where he was, but finally it dawned on him, like the harsh sunlight stabbing his eyes. “I’m not interested in your services.”

“That’s a pity. You look ready for some action… Although I expected Humans to be larger.” The woman replied.

Smith sighed and grabbed the nearest pillow to cover himself. He apparently didn’t put on clean underclothes after his midnight cleaning. He still didn’t have the willpower to open his eyes and face the bright day.

“No need to be ashamed. I can’t believe you are the same person.”

Smith’s eyes shot open, and after some focusing and adjusting to the light he stared up at a well-maintained older female Dog.
“What do you mean?” Smith asked, after some time of being torn between looking at the face and see a bit more, or being polite and look somewhere else. It was a Dog he was looking at, not a Feline or a Human, so he decided to look up.
The Dog crouched in a sensual way, allowing a good view, and started to caress Smith’s chest. “Do you happen to know a Lioness from the old border town between the Humans and the Inimals? Do you still have those scars on your back?”
Smith nodded, secretly enjoying the soft touch of a woman. “Yes. A long time ago. She was one of the many… clients I had. She moved to the West, a friend of mine told she became a whore with the Wolves.”
The Dog smiled, and her hand moved down. “She started a bit further south” and moved her hand up again “and then came here and started here because we are nicer. This is her old room. She died seven years ago, and the good business died with her. Did you know she was the oldest sister of the queen?”
Smith shook his head. “I didn’t know. She left, I found a Human wife, you had a change of kings somewhere around that time, I left to hand in my masterpiece to my king, and when I got back my home was gone and I went some sort of Feral. I came back, I started somewhere else with a different name and now a lot of people are my responsibility.”
The Dog smiled. “She liked you. Never stopped talking about you. You were… so good… Other people never could compare to you. She didn’t like the Felines, she couldn’t go to the Humans, so she came here, but she missed you. She was very sad when she heard what happened, and was relieved when she heard you returned, but she didn’t dare to go back.”
Smith smiled. “That’s… good to hear. I never went full on her… I used my hands. I am better than a Feline, but never as good as a Canine… You won’t have pleasure of me.”
The Dog gave Smith’s bare chest a lick. “Here I am the whore. You have the pleasure.”
Smith gently pushed the Dog away. “You know what happened upstairs?”
The Dog nodded and smiled. “You killed him. We are free now. My sister is telling the king.”
Smith nodded. “Thanks to this young child here who will see everything we do. He tried to kill me with a dagger I made, she killed him… Can someone get me my clothes?”
Walther entered the room with a grin on his face and put Smith’s backpack down. “Bloody mess you made upstairs. Despite being a Grey too I told you he couldn’t be trusted.”
Smith shrugged. “I always find the murderous children. First Katie and now Pebble.”
Walther nodded. “And horses… We let you sleep for a while, but your breakfast is ready. We are waiting for you in the dining room.”

When Smith entered the dining room there were a lot of people. Not only the king and his entourage, but also a group of Wolves and Dogs that looked a bit like they were of importance, but were not used to this role.
The room fell silent when Smith entered, like they expected him to hold a speech.
Smith shrugged. “Welcome everyone. I hope you enjoy your meal as much as I will. Unfortunately the innkeeper got killed last night, don’t try to kill me when Pebble is around… and also don’t try it when she isn’t… Now I’m hungry, I will hold my official speech after the king has held his, outdoors and for everyone to hear.”
King Leopold nodded. “I see you are already getting used to your role as a king. Have a seat, as equals.”
Smith shrugged. “We are already equals here. Not as kings, but as friends.”
Some people looked between King Leopold and Smith in disbelief.
Smith shrugged again. “You might think that you are important because you are here, but to me you are not important. For me the important people are outside, helping others. I see that many of those who live here are not at ease here with the king and I, but I assure you, I am a nice guy, just don’t do stupid things that might harm me. Now, let me eat in peace and think about the speech I have to hold later, because I hate speeches.”
Some people applauded, some people started to laugh, Arthur shook his head in disbelief and Walther grinned. King Leopold simply nodded, because this was exactly the kind of speech he expected.

“Do you think it is safe outside?” Smith asked Pebble and Walther who accompanied him to his second room.
Walther shrugged. “I don’t know. You killed the innkeeper, but there might be more. You gave him a very clear warning yesterday, but he still tried to kill you nonetheless, there might be other people he fears more. We don’t have Vulpine with us, only a few climbers. Taking your armbrust to the speech might be useful, but that might scare people. I’d say dagger and sling, but keep them hidden.”
Smith nodded. “Very well then… Pebble, I assume your father was one the King’s bodyguards, I want you to do the same for me. Keep your eyes and ears open, and tell me, Arthur, Walther or one of the king’s soldiers if someone is out of place, but do it unnoticed, without someone screaming… How did you manage to bring the innkeeper to his knees to kill him?”
Pebble shrugged. “Sliced his legs. You have a really sharp sword. I heard him come upstairs, I took your sword and I hid in the shadows.”
Smith nodded. “Very well… Next time just… do the same. At least, when I’m asleep and can’t be woken up in time without sound.”
Walther grinned. “Siegfried told me that when Smith is asleep a building can collapse and he won’t notice it. When we have some spare time I will give you some proper training. Katie Tiger was for Arthur to train, you are for me.”
Pebble smiled. “Thanks.”

King Leopold was giving a speech, Smith couldn’t hear half of it, but what he could hear were exaggerations of what the Neutral Zone where the people would go to was.
Suddenly Pebble tugged on his sleeve. “Wolf on the roof, to the right.” she quietly whispered in Smith’s ear when he bent down to listen.
“Spotted.” was all that Smith mumbled when he saw the crouched figure on the roof, hidden from the king behind a chimney.
Pebble grinned. “He isn’t spotted. He even doesn’t have any stripes. It’s a Grey again.”
The Wolf on the roof was moving slowly, like he was winding something. Armbrust!
Without hesitation Smith opened his pouch, got his sling and a projectile. If he couldn’t hit the target he could at least warn people and distract the Wolf on the roof.

The projectile didn’t miss. It hit the Wolf on the shoulder, the armbrust fired, and the bolt went flying over the rooftops. It shouldn’t have been a few moments later.
In an instant two Leopards and a Tiger were almost running up the walls of the building the Wolf was on. A few moments later they reached him, but the narrow rooftop didn’t have enough space for them all, and they all slid down together. One of the Leopards managed to dig his nails into some exposed wood, but released when the Wolf grabbed his tail. Some bushes cushioned the fall, and there were no further injuries.

“You belong here?” Smith asked the Grey Wolf who was sitting on the ground with the soldiers surrounding him. One of the Leopards held the Armbrust.
“What kind of question is that?” the other Leopard asked.
Smith shrugged. “If he belongs here he is my problem, if he’s a stranger here he is your problem.”

“Does this man have a home here?” Smith asked the group of people surrounding them, because the Wolf refused to answer.
Various people shook their head. “He does not belong here.” “I have seen him a few times.” “He is family of the innkeeper.” were some of the answers they got.
Smith nodded. “Very well… Not my problem. Do whatever you want with him.”
“And what would you have done with him if he was your problem?” King Leopold, who also had approached the little group, despite being in danger a few moments earlier, asked.
Smith shrugged. “Set him free. Set him free so he can tell that he failed, hit by some Human with a sling. But first tie him for as long as we stay here, give him food and water, and a good view to see and hear how the people think of me… Or just let the people here decide. As long as we haven’t crossed the border they are your people, obeying your laws, but without you deciding for them.”
Leopold nodded. “Very well then, the law of the land.” Leopold gestured at one of the Dogs. “Attempted murder, what do you say about that?”
The Dog shrugged. “Death, like with a lot of things. Normally it would have been a stone to the head, to crush the skull, but I think this time ‘The Stones’ are more appropriate, as a warning. This time we won’t have to clean them afterwards.”
Smith also shrugged. “Tonight I got to sleep in the so called ‘Bed Room’, which turned out to be the entire room as a bed, and now I guess ‘The Stones’ are also something big.”
The Dog nodded. “Yes. Think of a large see-saw, one large stone at one end, and a large basket of smaller stones on the other end. Once we start removing stones from the basket the large stone will lower, and eventually crush whatever is underneath it. Last one literally splattered like a full bladder when his rib cage caved in.”
Smith sighed. “Very well… I’ll stay at a safe distance, if you don’t mind. I already have had enough blood over me last night. Pebble stabbed the innkeeper with my sword while he was on top of me because she sliced his legs first.”
The Dog grinned. “I have seen him. It’s even leaking through the ceiling below. He got what he deserved. That dagger won’t be touched by a Wolf again.”
Smith shrugged. “I made it very clear that even attempting killing me would be stupid. Wolf, tell me, what is it you fear more than us? First the Grey innkeeper trying to kill me, and now you, another Grey, trying to kill the king.”
The Wolf prisoner looked briefly up, and back down again. He did not dare to tell.
“Have him executed, we are wasting time here!” King Leopold spoke at a firm tone.

The soldiers dragged the Wolf to his feet, and led him to an odd and old looking contraption just outside the village, close to the path leading south. The whole village followed.
The Wolf did not try to resist, he calmly laid down on the large stone that would be his deathbed. It was a custom that the sentenced wouldn’t be tied, but be held by the victims or relatives of the victims, but this was only an attempted murder, on the king nonetheless, so the guards stood around him to hold him if he tried to escape. It wasn’t necessary.
The wicker basket holding the smaller rocks wasn’t in the best shape, and as soon as one of the village’s Wolves tried to remove the first stones the basket tore and spilled its contents.
The large stone slammed down with a dull ‘thud’, the bed stone cracked, an arm fell, and the execution was over.
“Pity. I wanted to see him struggle.” One of the villagers, a female Wolf, noted.
“And how do you feel about me?” Smith asked.
The woman smiled. “I already like you. You really care about us. You don’t want to send us to our deaths or let us starve like they did.”
“I don’t want to be here. You attacked, I defended, I won. I feel like a stranger, why were you ignoring me?” Smith asked.
The woman shrugged. “We didn’t know what to expect. Us Wolves are normally not this generous.”
Smith also shrugged. “I don’t know what the king has told you, my hearing is a bit impaired by the hammering on the anvil I do. Do you mind if I hold my own speech?”
The woman shrugged once again. “Waste of time. King Leopold told us basically that you are just… you.”
Smith grinned. “He knows me. You know what we are going to do?”
The woman nodded. “Yes. Load up, load off, set up camp for the first time next to our homes, find out what more we need to take along, a second night next to our old homes, break up camp and leave.”
Smith shrugged. “Yes, that’s it, although I didn’t know I’d have to spend a third night here. Travel for a few moons, and then arrive at your new place to live.”

One of the king’s soldiers, a Jaguar, the same he met at the Capitol, tapped Smith on the shoulder. “Lunch with the king.”
Smith looked at the sun. “Already? Time flies when you are busy. Where?”
The soldier took a slight bow. “At the river.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. Clothing?”
The soldier grinned. “As you are. You may be a king, but not the Human king.”
Smith sighed. “I am king of the Neutral Zone for tax reasons. I am the only one who doesn’t have to pay taxes for the metal that is produced in my smithy. But that is because I am away from home a lot of times, I have others working for me. I do have a desk at the town hall, my official title is ‘King of the Neutral Zone’, but I am just being myself.”
The soldier’s grin got a bit wider. “So you are a king. No more ‘sir, not sire’ from you. Sire all the way. Make way for the king of the Neutral Zone!”
Smith looked at Pebble. “Do you want to come along?”
Pebble shook her head. “No. I want to eat with Walther.”
Smith sighed. “You have a choice. I wish I could do the same.”
“This way sire!” The soldier called, still laughing.
Smith sighed again, and followed the laughing soldier.

“What was that all about?” King Leopold asked when Smith sat down next to him. All the seats were next to each other, facing the river.
Smith shrugged. “I told him a secret… You know what, you all may know. I do have the title ‘King of the Neutral Zone’, but in reality it’s just a desk at the town hall and I don’t have to pay taxes for the metal that is produced in my smithy.”
Leopold nodded. “So you know how I feel?”
Smith sighed. “Yes… Nice weather, isn’t it? All those rainy days, and finally a bit of sunshine while we are here.”
They both stared at a Wolf corpse that floated by in the river, coming from the south. They didn’t really have something to talk about, but a dead Wolf wasn’t an appropriate subject as well.
Leopold shrugged. “Yes. Nice weather.”

After a few bites Leopold put his food down and stared at Smith. “You don’t like me, do you?”
Smith shrugged. “No. Not really. Just look at yourself, having a decadent meal with your back towards a village where people die of starvation. I wanted to say that you have to be more considerate of your actions, but I don’t see any other way for you. You are not happy being a king, you want to ignore it, just as I am not happy being called one… But people have expectations. You are like people expect a king to be, decadent, mostly far away, and can’t be approached by normal people because of all the guards surrounding you. I am here to help people with their problems, and to me it seems like you are here to run away from yours.”
Leopold nodded. “Indeed. It is good to be away from home, and talking to an honest person again. It indeed feels… wrong, sitting here with a decadent meal. I wanted to have the biltong again, like I have had many times before on this journey, but the people tell me that I am a king. I have to show people that I am a king. I have to behave like a king… But you gave the right answer. Unlike you the Canines here are not deaf, look behind you.”
Smith turned around and faced a large group of people. He sighed. “You heard it all? How I think of Leopold? how he thinks of being a king? How I want to be?”
One of the few Male Wolves nodded and knelt. “Yes. You killed many of us, but you are my king. My life for you.”
Smith stood up and pulled the Wolf back on his feet. “I don’t want your life, I want you to not take mine. Live your life, be happy, and don’t do stupid things.”
The Wolf smiled. “Thank you.”
Smith grinned. “And don’t try to kiss me. Go do something useful, see if there is someone else who needs help. We leave the day after tomorrow and standing here doesn’t help… If there is nobody for the inn just take anything useful or what can be sold along the way. At least get that dagger the innkeeper used to try to kill me with, find the sheath for it, thick leather with silverware if I’m not mistaken, and give it to Pebble, she can have it. I wish I could help loading the carts, but I am here with another friend who needs more help… And one more thing: figure out how much we can take along. I prefer leaving some things along the way over needing them while we have left them behind. I don’t want to do things in the last moments.”
The Wolf and the other people nodded and left, there was a lot of work to do.
Leopold smiled. He had planned this, and it was exactly like he wanted it to be. The people liked Smith, their new leader, and Smith was leading them.

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Neutral Smith
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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 41

#48 Post by Neutral Smith »

Chapter 41
Last Feast


“I told you I didn’t want that dagger to be touched by a Wolf again.”

Smith looked up from sharpening one of the soldier weapons. There was nothing else for him to do today, everything was arranged. “What you want is not important. It is a good dagger, and I don’t want to leave good things behind.”

“He killed my wife with it.”

Smith looked at Pebble who was admiring her sharp dagger, and then looked behind him. It was the Dog who spoke the verdict of the would-be assassin. “So? Wolves have also killed my first wife and unborn child, and several times they tried to kill me. Even if that dagger managed to get my blood on the other side of my skin I would have taken it. I don’t know what is exactly going on here, but this is Canine territory, if those from the south come looking here those might take it, and do harm with it again. And as I said, it is a good dagger, I made it, I sold it, I obtained it again, and now I want Pebble to have it.”
The Dog nodded and shrugged. “As you take everything from here… Although I don’t see any other way. The mines are depleted, there is nothing here… If they didn’t decide to attack you would have never heard of us, and we would have died here in silence.”
Smith smiled. “And how do you feel about it? Feel like they have won?”
The Dog nodded, shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know. We Dogs get a better life, but a lot of Wolves had to die. If they had won us Dogs would have been slaves in a different location. Now we are still slaves, but with better conditions.”
Smith shook his head. “You are not slaves. You are free to go wherever you please, but now you are welcome in the Neutral Zone because we have a purpose for you. It would be nice if some of you actually left.”
The Dog grinned. “They didn’t conquer you, you conquered us, and now we are going to enjoy it.”
Smith nodded. “I won by killing those Wolves. I lost because this isn’t cheap and I don’t know if you all will have a good shelter before the winter. I don’t think I am a good king.”
The Dog patted Smith on the shoulder. “Still better than the Lion. Want to go hunting?”
Smith nodded. “Yes. This sword is almost done, and plenty of time to do the rest of the weapons on the first days of our journey when we are still together. Let me get my armbrust. And let’s hope the Lion isn’t busy so it wouldn’t be too awkward because it is in the you-know-what-I-mean room.”
The Dog nodded again. “That’s why I asked, you have a powerful ranged weapon, and we Canines have some trouble with ranged weapons. We have plenty of pigs we can take along, but meat from the forest is cheaper. And you killed our strongest… And I don’t mind what the Lion is doing. Just a few more coins for the Dogs.”
Smith shook his head. “That is not a nice thing to say… And about the strength and weapons: I am not stronger than a Wolf, the vulpine are not stronger, we simply had a better strategy… You want to hear what happened on that day?”
The Dog nodded. “Yes, I’m curious.”
Smith smiled and went on with the sharpening, the sword was almost done. “A summary of that day was that we, I, Mary, Chester Cheetah and Charlene Cheetah crossed the border. We were warned that an attack was imminent by a Fox hiding in a dense bush, and he told us we had to go back. I wanted to stay and help. I was a bit rude and got the sword of my fallen master, it was a sacred weapon for them, they told me that only the Ghost of the Neutral Zone was allowed to touch it, and I was still alive… I had given Mary my armbrust and my own sword, ordered the archers to stand on the roofs, and that’s how we fought. I am a bit more agile than a Wolf, and I had borrowed a better sword. We had a lot of Foxes standing on the roofs for a bit more range and making the makeshift shields obsolete, I was on the open field luring the Wolves towards me, Chester was behind me to get those who got past me, and Mary was defending herself and some women and Charlene went running for more help as soon as we saw the Wolves… That’s how we won, a hail of arrows and a windmill of steel. Only one survivor, and he told me about you. I have a fairly good relation with your king as you might have noticed, I could use some people, so that’s how I conquered you while defending others… Do you have anyone who can handle the second armbrust?”
The Dog nodded. “Good story, those Foxes are really going to believe it is a magical sword that can summon a defender to wield it. And yes, we do have someone for that second armbrust. He is just a boy, but he has shot a few times with one. And we have retrieved the bolt that was intended for the king, it has three bolts now.”
Smith stood up, made a few practice swings with the sword he was sharpening to check the balance, and gave it to the waiting soldier and put his equipment away. “Get some soldiers to accompany that boy. We’ll hunt in two groups.”
The soldier saluted. “You don’t need protection? You don’t have that magical sword here, but your own small sword.”
Smith smiled. “No. Two groups, one north, I’ll lead that one, and one south, for a future leader. Might be more dangerous there, that’s why I don’t want to go there. If I have to use this sword there are much bigger problems, but those won’t be mine any more because I’m dead and you as well. This is really my last resort.”
The soldier saluted again. “As you wish.”
Smith gestured at the Dog. “Get that boy to me, I want to see how he aims. It’s easy to do it the wrong way. No time for practice and I don’t want to damage a bolt nor the armbrust, I just hope he knows enough.”

A Wolf boy a few years older than Pebble was brought before Smith. He was shy, and definitely not a fighter.
“So… You are the brave hunter who knows how to handle an armbrust?” Smith spoke at a firm tone.
The boy nodded. “Yes. I have made a few shots with one.”
Smith smiled. “And how many hit where you wanted?”
The boy shrugged. “Only the last one. Because they told me what I did wrong.”
Smith nodded and handed the boy the second armbrust. “This is now your armbrust. It belonged to a now dead Wolf, and unfortunately the front sight is broken off so now you have to trust your instincts. It is not loaded, I want you to aim and pull the trigger, I want to see how you do it by looking over your shoulder, and tell you where I think the bolt would have gone.”

The boy aimed at a tree, and pulled the trigger.
“Looked good, I saw you were aiming at that small twig with the yellow leaf at the base of the tree over there. You took notion of the drop of the bolt and aimed higher, but a bit too high to hit that yellow leaf if that was a real shot, cross of the front sight used to be a bit higher, about the size of your fingernail higher, and not at the stub at the top of the arms that you used as the front sight. You jerked the trigger a bit too much, and moved the armbrust a little bit to the right. If you fire for real be more gentle, and be aware of the recoil. I’m not sure when this armbrust releases, but alternate a little between looking at your target, and at how much trigger you have left, this one is a bit worn and the string can’t be pushed back unless you have very strong fingers. Your stance was perfect, for someone who walks on his toes.”
The boy smiled. “Thank you.”
Smith nodded. “Very well. I see you already have your people waiting for you… or are there also people for me, who help me carry the boar and deer I hope to kill?”
Arthur smiled. “No soldiers, but I will accompany Walter for protection, with six others to carry the kills, you get Walther and two messengers because we don’t know how much you will kill.”
Smith nodded. “Good. I also want Pebble to join Walter, if he can’t kill she can. I can both shoot and make the final cut, and I know that Pebble also knows how to cut, and she has a good dagger.”
Pebble nodded. “Yes.”
Walter also nodded. “Yes. Work together, that’s what we Wolves do.”

“You said it isn’t safe in the south. Why did you say that?” Walther asked when Smith slit the throat of his seventh kill, a roe deer.
“You weren’t facing the river when the king and I were eating there. A dead Wolf floated by, with his throat slit. He has not been in the water for days.” Smith spoke while he got the rope to prepare the kill for transport.
“Maybe less than a day… That worries me. Shouldn’t we warn the others?” One of the messengers, a Hound, asked.
Smith shook his head. “If south of the village is as much wildlife as here they don’t have to be in the forest for long. River runs fast, and I don’t think that body has been stuck somewhere. And I don’t think that their armbrust will last long, seven shots at most if they don’t lose the bolts first. And as you saw I am quite capable with a sling too, they aren’t, you are the only hunting hound as far as I saw.”
The hound nodded. “Impressive. Nice throw, for someone with flat feet. But there are more hunters, but they wanted to spare them. We have supply points every four days, but we are afraid it wouldn’t be enough. More people than anticipated want to come along.”
Smith nodded. “Understandable. You can’t walk every day and hunt every night as a replenishment for the supplies and I guess that hunting is also not your main source of food… The wildlife here is quite different than I have at home. Here are more wild hogs and roe deer, while the Neutral Zone has more boar and common deer. And we have larger fish.”
The hound nodded. “Yes. Those boar and deer taste better, and were hunted more here… I hear the carriers, and I think I have the scent of another offspring of an escaped pig. Eastbound.”
Smith nodded. “No need to tell me, the ground is still wet and soft. You use your nose, I use my eyes and the trail is right there, adult and some yearlings. This adult is for my armbrust, and Walther, can you do the yearlings?”
Walther nodded. “If you also take whatever you can.”
Smith nodded and together they killed in silence. The sow with the armbrust, and the seven yearlings with the slings and stone daggers. Some ran, but not fast enough.

“I think that’s enough. We already have more than enough meat for tonight, we are supposed to take along what we hunted today, and that is even more.” One of the Wolf carriers noted when he saw Smith return from the forest, dragging two of the pigs along.
Smith shrugged. “I guess so. If you follow my trail there will also be another roe deer. Those are plenty here, and they are stupid.”
The Wolf grinned. “Or they are not used to Humans with ranged weapons. I rarely see one, and you killed three today.”
Smith shrugged. “Last day of danger for them. Indeed enough, let’s head back… If you can promise I can get a warm bath I can carry two yearlings and a roe deer on my back.”
The Wolf nodded. “You don’t have to prove that you are strong. You are helping us, and we make sure you’ll be comfortable. And after your bath you’ll get food.”
Smith shrugged again when they were walking. “This gives me the feeling that I am actually doing something. I am not someone who ‘is there’ to help, I actually do something… Or maybe I am not smart enough to give orders and trust others enough to do what I asked them.”
The Wolf grinned. “We are the smart ones. You want a hot bath, you will get a hot bath. And the best soap the inn has to offer. Just give us some time… I have to walk ahead of you so I can prepare it… Don’t walk that fast… You want some more pigs?”
Smith nodded and dropped on his knee. “Just stack one more yearling on top. If I want something done I almost always have to do it myself.
The Wolf grinned. “Walking slower is also something you could do yourself. But thank you, I’ll take care of your bath.”

The bath was nice. Pebble was already clean and gone, the armbrust they had in their team lasted only for four shots, and they only managed to kill three animals.

“Are you getting ready for the feast?”

Someone interrupted Smith’s slumber. Actually doing something instead of walking with just a backpack is tiring, and the water of the bath was very nice. It was the Wolf who had prepared the bath.

“Feast?” Smith asked after a few moments of wondering where he was. His whole back hurt, his legs hurt, and a part of him wanted to stay in the bath.

“Yes. Our last normal evening here, eating together and talking about the memories we have about this place. This time tomorrow we will be one day closer to our new home.”

Smith shrugged. “Not my memories. I don’t want to remember my past, I only don’t want my past to repeat… Will Leopold also be there?”

“No, just you and us. You are our king now. And I don’t think he feels safe here at night on the open field.”

Smith sighed. “Very well then… Do you think a king has to speech?”

“Yes sire. All the time. And sit on a throne and take long baths.”

Smith grinned. “I have been long enough in this bath… If you tell me that a king has to take longer baths I believe you.”

“A good king knows when the time to do something else has come. See you outside, although we don’t have a throne for you yet.”

Smith shrugged. “A nice chair is good enough.”

“Wolves sit on the ground or on a stone, but for you, our king, we will get you a throne: the best chair from the inn.”

Smith smiled. “Thanks.”

It was already much later than Smith anticipated when he came outside, almost dinnertime.
“Ah, there you are. Food is not done yet, roasting whole pigs takes some time.” the Wolf greeted him.
Smith nodded. “Good. You want me to speech to fill some time?”
The Wolf nodded. “I was joking, but I heard you are very good at it. You know your audience, and you tell them what they want to hear.”
Smith nodded, and grinned a little. “I told Wolves what they wanted to hear, sold them what they needed, and got the price for the metal that I wanted, and that was much more than others had to pay. You are far too easy to manipulate. But alright, get everyone who can be missed to the town square, little speech there.”

The square was filled with people when Smith climbed the small podium, a group of larger stones with a flat top. All eyes staring at him, feeling very exposed, but Pebble was in the front row, she could warn him if someone wanted to attack him from behind.

“You might see me as your new king, but I am not.” Smith started his speech. “The Wolf here on the front row, I assume he asked you all to come here, told me that a king has to hold long speeches, sit on a throne and take long baths. I just had my bath and now my Human skin is all wrinkled… I could make a very long speech, that would be handy because the food is not ready, but, to be honest, I don’t even know how to open a speech for you. I could say ‘beloved people’, but I do not know you well enough to say that. I could say ‘dear people’, but you have lost loved ones, some maybe killed by me… But in my defense, they tried to kill me and the people I tried to protect. But you must know I am also willing to do the same for you… I just say: Greetings.”
Smith sighed. Thinking was hard. More than a moon without seeing anyone, and talking when you are alone is odd, but he had to fill some time.
“You all know what we are going to do, I assume everything is arranged, I came here a few days ago and I honestly don’t know anything. Except that I am going home, and you get a new place to live. The journey will be long and hard, but I have no idea about how long and how hard it will be, it took me more than a moon to get here, but I had to take a longer way, but carts are slower… I understand that many of you see me as your new king, officially I am a king, my title is ‘King of the Neutral Zone’, but I don’t want to be treated as a king. I am a normal smith who also can do some other things, and I want to be treated like that, just a normal person. On the journey we are going to make towards your new life, my old life, I want you to remember one thing: I am not here to lead you, I am here for those who fall behind… That is all I wanted to say.”
Many of the Wolves nodded. Some smiled, some looked relieved. They agreed.

It was a huge gathering on the open field, the entire field was filled with people sitting around fires. Smith estimated it would be at least five thousand people, twice as much as he expected. It were not exclusively groups of Dogs and Wolves, but all mixed, like it was ordered. A bit uneasy, but not hostile.
Preparing the meat took a lot longer, and Smith didn’t want to be the first to eat, so he took his time to put up his tent. He was a Human after all, and not quite used to sleep in the open. And there was still a chance of rain, and he wanted to keep his belongings dry. Last night in this village. Or at least, on a large open field east of the village. This field was not for hunting rabbits and target practice, or killing Wolves, or just a site for a camp for soldiers a field like this usually was, but this time it was for a gathering. The last gathering of the people of this region. After today the forest could reclaim the field again.

The pork was good. Smith was sitting against a tree, a bit apart from the large group at the edge of the forest where the path leading east and his tent were. Pebble, Walther and some other Wolves and Dogs and the Hound who was with Smith at the hunt were sitting close to him around a fire, also enjoying their food.
“What are you thinking about?” One of the Wolves, an old female, asked.
Smith sighed. “Home. My home. What they are doing at the smithy. My horse. What the weather is like. What things have changed. Who has children and who died.”
The woman nodded. “Very normal thoughts. I can only dream about what I lost.”
Smith sighed. “Don’t be sad. Everyone here has lost things in their past. Sometimes the lost things can be found again, but many times the past is gone, and those things and people as well. This is your last day of your past here.”
“You talk like Elfique. I don’t like that.” One of the other Wolves replied.
Smith shrugged. “I have spent a few moons with them. Their influence goes deep within me, but I have never lost my sanity… At least, not as far as I know. There are a few gaps in my memory. Like the one time I woke up surrounded by Human corpses, but that was because they killed my friends.”
The Wolf grinned. “I have heard of that story. Good job.”
Smith sighed. “I want a proper trial, for everyone. Even a chance for redemption if there is a chance they can be useful again. Like you.”
The Wolf shook his head. “You can’t hold an individual accountable for the sins of his kind.”
Smith grinned. “Now it’s your turn to talk like an Elfique.”

There was a bit of a commotion next to another fire at the eastern edge of the field, south of the fire Smith was at. It looked a bit like a fight with some unintelligible screaming. Some Wolves ran away into the forest, and it looked like others were trying to help a Wolf very close to the fire.
Smith jumped up to assist.

“What happened?” Smith asked the little group standing around a very frightened looking young Grey Wolf woman.
“Some cowards kicked my daughter Rose from behind and fled into the forest.” One of the Wolves, presumably her father, replied. It was a Wolf he had seen before, always when king Leopold was around, so Smith suspected he was someone of importance.
“You can’t track them?” Smith asked.
The Grey Wolf, a bit older than Siegfried was, shook his head. “Unfortunately not, too many smells for them to stand out.”
Smith sighed. “I know one individual who can do that, but he isn’t here right now.”

“I have a sense to know when people are talking about me. It’s hearing.” Someone with a familiar voice suddenly said behind Smith.

Smith spun around, and there were Boris, Minou, Wulver and Lilith. After a few moments of blinking with his eyes he concluded this was real. “I’m sorry, but we have a little situation where a young woman was kicked from behind and the attackers fled into the forest. I was talking about that you are the only one I know that can track them… Please, I know you had a long journey to get here and it’s getting late, but can you help?”
Boris nodded. “Off course. Where is the start of the trail?”
“It’s over there.” One of the Wolves replied. “We didn’t want to contaminate it with our own smells so our best trackers could follow it, but it’s all Wolves here. We already have an armed group ready.”

“Nice that you point me in the right direction, but I am blind.”

“Oh, I’m sorry… Maybe you could smell Rose’s back where they kicked her, but she is deaf.”

“As long as I don’t have to smell her butt.”

“What?… No, you don’t have to do that. She was sitting next to the fire. You can start there.”

Boris was led to the deaf Rose, and after some awkward moments he grinned. “I know enough. I have heard and smelled them on the path. They quickly left the path when they noticed us, I think that they thought that we were more soldiers.”
Smith nodded. “People of the west, meet Boris, the tracker of the Neutral Zone. I don’t know what’s better: his sense of humor, or his senses of smell and hearing. Make sure he gets a nice meal after his work is done. And some food for my other friends, I wonder what they are doing here. Arthur: join Boris in case the Wolves want to do things I won’t allow.”
The father of the deaf she-Wolf nodded, and gestured at some other Wolves, who almost immediately came with food and water.
One of them looked at Minou, and smiled. “I remember you, long ago. We still don’t have any milk today.”
Minou also smiled. “No problem. Water is fine.”
“You have been here before? I know you have some… history, but we have plenty of time to talk about that later. I want to know what happened here.” Smith spoke when he sat down again. There was nothing he could do but talk.
Minou smiled. “Yes… We all got a message that the king wanted to see us, and I wanted to meet some old friends, so, now we’re here. We decided to walk on because Boris could smell the meat.”
Smith shrugged. “Sounds reasonable. You are all free to do as you please, no reason to stay at home because I am gone. Although I would have avoided me.”
“Why?” Wulver asked.
Smith shrugged. “I don’t know. I like to see new faces and listen to their stories. So, Greys, who are you, and why were you attacked?”
The Grey Wolf sighed. “I’m Edward Grey. Nobility. I’m…”
“Black king, White king, Common king, and you are, or were, in line to be the Grey king of the Wolves.” Smith interrupted.
Edward sighed and nodded. “Yes. But there is another Grey family in the south who also wants to be on the throne.”
Wulver raised his hand. “But… The last Black gave the throne to the Vulpine, and now we have a Lion. You can’t be king.”
Edward smiled. “Just like Smith is not a real king I am not a real king. People respect me here, and I was a bit afraid that Smith did not want to talk to the important people.”
Smith shrugged. “We are all equal. If you didn’t brag about being nobility I would have thought that you are just like me, a nice person but nobody really special. People like you, you do a lot for them and they do a lot in return. Now, let’s talk about your daughter. She is deaf?”
Edward nodded. “Yes. Just like her mother. Shall I translate?”
Smith smiled. “))That won’t be needed. I also know sign language((“
Rose emitted a sound of excitement and jumped up to sit in front of Smith. “))Why did you learn?((“
Smith sighed. “))I am a smith. A smith makes a lot of noise. Bad for hearing. Afraid to lose hearing, so learned this.((“
Rose smiled. “))Not afraid, already deaf. I can work for you, I want to make a metal rose.((“
“What are you doing? I also want to learn it.” Pebble interrupted.
Smith made a gesture of apology towards Rose, and turned towards Pebble. “It’s called ‘sign language’. Instead of speaking with our mouths we use our hands to form the words. That way a deaf person can communicate.”
Smith turned towards Rose again and said something in sign language, and Rose eagerly began to nod.
“What did you ask? I understand that her answer is ‘yes’, that’s hard to miss.” Pebble asked.
Smith smiled. “I asked her if she wants to help me teaching you. Tomorrow after setting up camp we begin. Gives us something to do along the way. Sharpening weapons is not important, it’s just a pastime.”
Edward smiled. “That’s wonderful. Others never wanted to learn.”
Smith nodded, and turned his body a little towards Rose to both speak to Edward and use sign language for Rose. “I assume you were always busy helping others. Never thought of others helping you. You would be surprised of how many people in the Neutral Zone know sign language. I know of at least twenty.”
Rose smiled. “))I know the Neutral Zone is a good place.((“
Walther nodded. “))Yes. All the soldiers know sign language. It is important that we can stay silent. Humans have bad hearing, but talking is just too loud.((“
Rose smiled, but didn’t sign anything. Smith suspected that if she were a Human she would be blushing. Walther was also acting different in a very subtle way.

“I hear screaming.” One of the Wolves noted.
Smith nodded. “I guess they have found them. Good, get some rope to tie them. How many were there?”
Edward shrugged. “I don’t know. It all happened too fast. Three or four I think.”
Smith also shrugged. “We’ll see when they get here. You have any idea how far they are? I want to look them in the eyes, see that they are properly tied, and go to my tent for some sleep.”
The Wolf who heard the screams also shrugged. “I don’t know. He really screamed at the top of his lungs. I really hope that the Tiger can save him.”

Some time later Boris, some shocked looking Wolves and a bloodied Arthur returned.
A tired looking Smith looked up in surprise. “No prisoners?”
One of the Wolves shook his head. “We couldn’t save them.”
Smith sighed. This was not the answer he wanted. “Could not save who? What happened? Why is Arthur covered in blood?”
“We couldn’t stop the Tiger… He killed them all… All twelve of them… Armed Wolves… The look in his eyes… Like he was… Feral.” A second Wolf answered.
Smith sighed. “I forgot to mention that Arthur is afraid of the dark. And I forgot to mention that Arthur has been a Feral… He has been like this one time before, and I was able to stop him then… And now I have more questions, for Edward… Twelve armed Wolves attacking… What in the forest is going on here? This is almost politics, and that is your area of expertise.”
Edward stared at the dying fire. “They don’t want us to go. They want us to think that you can not protect us. They want to divide us.”
Smith sighed and stood up. “This really is politics, and that gives me a headache. They did not want to kill, they wanted to maim. Kick your daughter into the fire, maybe injure some more to prevent them and those who want to help them from leaving, giving others fear… Walther, I want you to protect Edward’s daughter until we get home.”
Edward stared in disbelief at Smith. “This doesn’t make any sense. Killing you is far more effective. You are the one who needs the protection.”
Smith smiled. “I don’t know where Arthur is, but Minou is also gone, so I think she is taking care of him right now. He will protect me. Goodnight.”
“You want to know how we met Smith?” Was the last thing Smith heard Wulver say when he left for his evening business. He could only hope Wulver was not the exaggerating kind, that would make his life more difficult with people expecting too much of him.

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Neutral Smith
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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 42

#49 Post by Neutral Smith »

Chapter 42
Journey


It was a good night of rest in the tent with Pebble. ‘Being there for those who fall behind’ meant that they were the last to leave, and that gave them a bit more time to pack. And as a Human Smith was the only one who almost always uses a tent, even when it was good weather.
It was a long procession, led by some Wolves who Smith had seen a few times at the town hall of the Neutral Zone, but somehow had managed to escape his attention here. Like Edward almost did too. Smith could not determine whether they were local Wolves or in service of the king. Or local Wolves in service of the king.
Leopold would be somewhere halfway the long string of walking people and loaded carts, and he was about to leave.
“Being there for those who fall behind… Are you sure you are not a descendant of the old Human kings? You are really here for the people.” he spoke when he saw Smith standing besides the path, nodding and patting people on their shoulders to encourage them.
Smith grinned and slapped the Lion on the shoulder. “Move on Lion, you are halfway there. It’s a miracle you are not in your cart but actually seeing people.”
“You can’t do that to our king!” A shocked Pebble called out.
Smith grinned. “I can’t do that when he is my king. I can do that because we are friends… I think it’s time to empty our bladders for a last time here, because the last people on the field are moving.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes… Although I disapprove that you are the last one walking, attacks from the rear are a possibility, and you can’t hear them coming. Boris is walking a few hundred paces ahead of the king to smell and listen for danger there, that’s why he was asked to be here. If they are just too far away…”
Smith shrugged and walked away to do what he really needed to do, emptying his bladder.

Smith smiled when he returned. “Don’t worry about me. I got here without trouble, Pebble saved me once, she noticed the Wolf on the roof and saved the king, and I think she will help again as long as I feed her enough. I am even willing to carry her if she can’t walk, and she won’t be the first Wolf on my shoulders.”
Arthur grinned. “Don’t tell her what happened then, let Siegfried tell her. He has told it dozens of times.”
“Siegfried Black? Descendant of the Black king? You know him as well?” Edward asked.
Smith nodded. “Yes. That one. But he isn’t home right now, he is now at the court of king Leopold, I think he has a lot of power right now… You could say he is the deputy king… But I am sure you will meet him one day.”
Edward smiled. “I’d love to. It’s time to go.”
Smith nodded. “Yes. Although I don’t like it when you walk with me, I want you to walk at front. Not as a leader, but to slow down those who want to go too fast.”
Edward smiled and shrugged. “Yes. I will. Tomorrow.”

The pace was a little bit slower than Smith liked. But there were some heavy carts loaded with pigs in the long line of people, those couldn’t be pushed and pulled at a normal walking speed.
A few times he almost had to wait because someone needed to urinate or take another break, but as soon as Smith got to them they briefly smiled and hurried back to their place in the line. It was just a bit too awkward to have a Human staring at you while you were doing your business, so running ahead, do the thing and if it took a bit too long run back was the way to do it. No need to ‘be there’ for Smith.

“Are you not upset about last night?” Arthur asked while they were walking.
Smith shrugged. “You are alive, that’s all that matters. You made it a bit safer here. Weren’t you scared?”
Arthur shook his head. “No… It’s odd. We didn’t have torches, but I did not even think of it. I… woke up when everything was over. Thanks to Boris.”
Smith shrugged. “Feral again, but because you knew you were not alone and the danger was gone you turned back. When you go Feral and you are alone you will never know when the danger is over.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes, that is a good explanation… Just look at Walther and Rose. He finally has someone to care for. Thanks to your quick thinking.”
Smith looked at Walther and Rose walking some distance ahead of them, with Edward walking in front of them.

“Hey Walther!” Smith shouted.

Walther and Rose unlocked their arms to turn around to see what Smith wanted to say.

“))Hello.((“ Smith signed.

Walther made a rude gesture in return.

“Did you salute Walther?” Pebble asked.

Smith shook his head. “No. That was the sign for ‘hello’. A salute is more focused on the hand towards the head, a hello is more focused on the hand away from the head.”

Pebble nodded. “I understand. A salute is more a forced hello, and you are friendly… What did Walther say?”

Smith laughed. “Something between copulation and go away, often used by Humans. Better forget that one.”

Arthur grinned. “That was not a very nice thing to do. You brought them together, and you forced them to release each other to see your stupid hello.”

The day was as slow as the walking speed, but the weather was nice. Smith was wondering if Leopold had taken the slower speed of the carts into account when he planned the supply points. But he would be disappointed if the Lion hadn’t.
There was not much to talk about, and it seemed that the Wolves liked it that way, walk in silence. Humans and Felines were always talking. Or the Wolves just had nothing to talk about, knowing each other for all their lives, and Smith was walking a bit too far behind them to talk to over your shoulder.

In the early afternoon Smith saw an older woman who was leaning against a tree, head hung down like she was tired. It was the same woman Smith had talked to the evening before.
“Looks like we got another straggler.” Smith noted.
“Shall I also wait?” Arthur asked.
Smith shrugged. “I don’t know… I have the feeling this is not a normal break to rest.”
The old woman shook her head and sat down. “You go on to your house, smithy and your horse. This is my final resting place.”
Smith shook his head and also sat down. “Arthur, Pebble… You go on. I don’t know how stubborn this old lady is, but I am far more stubborn.”
Arthur nodded. “Very well. See you… Tomorrow?”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t know. Good thing we all have rations with us, so I can take my time. And there is some fowl here, although not the good tasting kind. You teach Pebble some sign language, I’m afraid I’ll teach her the wrong things to say first. Katie was also terrible with that in Human, she also learned how to swear in Human first. And somehow even some Berg swear words.”
The old woman smiled painfully. “It won’t be long. I can feel that my heart is giving up.”
Smith nodded. “I just hope there won’t be others dying without me knowing. Dying of old age is nice, dying alone in a forest is not… But that’s me as a Human talking.”

The woman smiled some time later, after the others were out of sight. “They know you, that’s why they didn’t argue. I wish I had time to get to know you better, but my grandson is waiting. I can see him.”
Smith politely smiled. “You are delirious. You want some water?”
The woman shook her head. “No. He is right there, behind you in the bushes!”
Out of courtesy Smith looked over his shoulder. There was indeed a Wolf crouching in the bushes at the other side of the path. “He is alive. But Feral.” Smith noted.
“His body is here, but his mind is gone. And I am going with him.” the woman spoke with a weakening voice.
Smith sighed. He did not want to argue with the old woman in her last breaths.

When Smith was absolutely certain the old lady was dead, no response for a fly landing on her eye, he carefully moved her in a more decent position, leaning against a tree and looking up towards the sky, like Inimals do when they have to move a dead body out of the way. The old woman looked peaceful.
Smith sighed, stood up and turned around, facing the Wolf who was now standing where Smith first saw him. “You knew her?”
The Wolf nodded. “My father’s mother.”
Smith gestured the Wolf to sit down with him, sat down himself and opened his backpack. “You want something to eat? You have… missed a few things and I want to fill in the gaps.”
The Wolf nodded. “Yes… What’s happening? War? Here?”
Smith shrugged. “Something like that. I won.”

“I still can’t believe you won.” Will spoke louder when they were walking again. He had mumbled something earlier, but Smith couldn’t hear him.
Smith shrugged. “If I didn’t win we wouldn’t be walking here and disturbing you, I would have been dead and nobody knew of them. And you would still be Feral.”
Wallis nodded. “Sounds reasonable. You want to walk on, or rest?”
Smith shrugged. “Walk on. Until dark. We even may catch up with the rest, I don’t know where they planned to stop. It is a long line of people, I think twice as long as anticipated so if they want to give everyone a good rest the leaders must stop rather early.”
Wallis nodded. “Yes. Good thing you have some rations, and killed those birds. If we catch up with the others we can toss those away, if we don’t we can prepare and eat those as soon as the sun goes down.
Smith smiled. “Now I have someone with better ears. If I say we camp but you say the others are nearby we’ll walk on, even after dark. It wouldn’t be the first time someone was just a few minutes of walking away from me in the forest.”

They arrived at the large group a bit after sundown. Smith wanted to stop, but Wallis heard them.
“That didn’t take too long. I see you have another Feral brought back.” Wulver greeted Smith and Wallis.
Wallis nodded. “Yes… You act like this is normal? I’m Wallis.”
Wulver grinned. “I’m Wulver. And yes, with Smith the weirdest things are normal.”
Arthur nodded. “Indeed. I was a Feral too, and so was Lilith, and there are some more but those are not here. My name is Arthur.”
Wallis smiled. “So I am in good company?”
Boris nodded. “Yes. I heard you coming. Smith really stomps the ground when he walks. I think the food is coming, a roe deer Smith killed yesterday. Pebble is going to get it.”
“You are blind?” Wallis asked.
Boris nodded. “You have good eyes. Yes. Boris, blind tracker. I smelled you earlier, but I didn’t consider you a thread, so you lived. We had only three people trying to rob the king today, so it was a good first day of walking.”
Smith smiled. “Boris has a good sense of hearing and smell. And a good sense of humor too. Now, let me introduce you to my other friends. First there’s Boris, not a Feral, he worked for a poacher and I was… not very friendly for that poacher. Over there we have Arthur White, former Feral, what would you think when you saw me wrestle a Common Tiger to save him? Saving Arthur from that Common I mean.”
Wallis grinned. “That would be very stupid… I mean confusing.”
Smith nodded. “The male Wolf is Wulver, also not a Feral, but he was on the other side of a field where we killed some more poachers who were hunting Ferals, the female Wolf next to him is Lilith, former Feral and one of those captured by those poachers, don’t make her angry, and the Cat is Minou, also not a Feral, Boris heard her in a river, I pulled her out with some help. Over there at that fire is Walther, I got him from the prison in Schotenburg. The others are not from the Neutral Zone.”
Wallis smiled. “I recognize some of them. Edward and his daughter… The king is also here?”
Smith nodded. “Yes. If you want to say ‘hi’ tell them I sent you… I understand there was some trouble?”
Boris shrugged. “Same as at home, people wanting to rob travelers, I hear them, others get rid of them. I don’t know what happened, I only warned. Only difference was that the king’s soldiers did the dirty work this time.”
Arthur nodded. “But I dragged the bodies a bit further away from the path like we always do, maybe that’s why you missed them. They just left them on the side of the path.”
Smith shrugged. “Welcome to the Neutral Zone. Although this is not the Neutral Zone. Wallis is also a soldier.”
Wallis nodded. “Yes. Far south. Is that Pebble? She has grown much since I saw her last time.”
Smith smiled. “Yes. That’s Pebble. Her mother is looking for her father, and until they are reunited my friends and I will take care of her. She saved me from the innkeeper, and she saved the king from another Grey.”
Wallis nodded. “Just like her father. A good guard.”
Pebble nodded and handed Smith and Wallis a large piece of roe deer. “Yes.”
Smith grinned. “And as talkative as ever. How are the lessons going? It’s a pity I couldn’t be here, but I trust my friends enough to leave her with them.”
Pebble stuck her thumb up.

Arthur smiled. “So, you are a soldier. We could use that ourselves. Smith may have told you about the battles, and we have lost a lot of soldiers. You want to join us?”
Wallis nodded. “Yes, of course. Smith already promised me a sword, a shield and armor. Something we didn’t get. It seems that our king followed the Human strategy to get rid of the soldiers, just send more instead of better equipped. And that even before Smith told him.”
Smith raised his hand. “Your past is over, and your future in the Neutral Zone is more than a moon away. The food is gone, and now it’s a time for rest. In contrast to others I won’t tell you what to do in the following days and weeks, but I will observe. So far you disappoint me a little, you are polite but didn’t tell something was wrong, namely the blood on the path.”
Wallis looked a bit shocked at Smith. “I didn’t tell you because I saw that you saw the blood. You turned your head to look at where the trail was going to. I did not want to state the obvious.”
Smith shrugged. “Then I recall my last statement. You are better than I thought. Time for sleep.”

“Smith?” Wallis asked when Smith was almost asleep, on his sleeping mat, but he hadn’t put up his tent.
“Hmm? What?” Smith mumbled. He was almost asleep.

“Can I kiss you for everything you do?”

“Yes, you can do that.” Walther replied. He apparently was also still awake, and close by.

Before Smith knew what was going on he was on his back and received another Wolven kiss.
Wallis was a bit more gentle than the other Wolves, but on the other hand Smith was a bit too surprised to actually struggle.
Smith sighed. “Go to sleep, Wolf.”
In response Wallis lied down, against Smith. From the other side a giggling Pebble dragged her sleeping mat closer, and lied down at Smith’s left side. “Mommy and daddy” she giggled.
Smith grinned in the darkness. “I’ll be the daddy.”, and hugged Wallis, who in response rolled away and put the sleeping mat which he had gotten from someone a bit further away and lied down again, just out of Smith’s reach.

The days were slow, and to the surprise of Smith nothing really special happened, nobody died and no children were born. Minou had to treat only a few minor injuries.
Wallis got along well with Arthur and Wulver, and in the evening Smith sharpened the soldier weapons and occasionally spoke a few words with Rose, teaching her a bit about sharpening. The only real surprising thing was that Harry’s mother who he had met at the Academy was also in the group. It were not the inhabitants of a small region, but of a much larger region, all the way up to the sea in the north, where he got people from. They joined the original group on the first day, but Smith walking at the back didn’t notice it. But they were also friendly and were told about what Smith has said and done.
Everyone was healthy, thanks to the help they got in the moons before Smith arrived. It seemed that the help was sent as soon as Smith left the castle.
And even the boardwalk was not a secret for the Wolves. They knew it exists, but they didn’t use it because they can’t take all the food they need along, and hunting and fishing is hard for them. The Hounds can not use their slings and metal fishing hooks are rare and expensive.
And Smith was wrong about the ‘Canines walk in silence’, on the first day they were just a bit overwhelmed with emotions. The only disappointing thing was that Smith didn’t get to talk much with the Dogs and Hounds, it seemed that there was still some fear, and they didn’t want to interrupt the Wolves. Only on the hunts for more food Smith got to talk to them, albeit briefly.

Arthur, Walther, Minou, Edward, Wallis and while Smith was sharpening their weapons even some soldiers were teaching Pebble sign language in a very clever way. Rose sat in Smith’s tent, invisible for them, and Pebble sat in front of them, mimicking, not mirroring, their gestures while they spoke the words aloud. If Pebble had it wrong Rose couldn’t understand what they said, or they couldn’t understand what Rose wanted to say, and Pebble had to try again until she got it right, and the conversation was one word further.

After ten days Leopold and his entourage left the column of people and carts to head north, back to the capital. A few days later than everyone thought, and he took Boris and Wulver with him. Boris for protection, and he wanted to discuss something with Wulver about the poachers that entered the Inimal kingdom. Minou and Lilith stayed with the rest to go home. After the king left the supplies at the supply points got larger and there was less need for hunting. It was like a message was sent, that the group was much larger. But that was no surprise, as a king you don’t admit you were wrong in front of your people. Smith really missed the hunting parties.

The landscape was barren, only dense forests and open fields, no signs of people living there, only paths and roads, many old paved ones. But the Inimal kingdom was sparsely populated, with large areas of no-mans land. It was roughly Vulpine in the north, Feline in the south, Canine in the west, and the mixed capital and surrounding villages in between, with the now abandoned Canine/Vulpine village across the border as the most eastern example.
The Feline village they would pass would be the most northern village of the Felines.

“Edward, can you assemble everyone. I want to say something about where we will be in a few days.” Smith asked Edward, who was eating. They were six days away from the Feline village where Smith promised to sharpen things.
Edward nodded. “Yes, but let me finish this first.”
Smith nodded. “Of course. Take your time. It’s about the village we will visit.”
Edward smiled. “Don’t worry about it. I already have sent messengers ahead, they know we are coming, and they are most helpful. At our next supply point we’ll meet Carl and Casper.”
Smith nodded again. “It’s not about the village, and what they can do for us. It’s about us, and what we can do for them. I promised them some sharpening of everything metal that is supposed to be sharp, but you, the Canines, also can do a lot of things. We will enter Feline territory and they… had some trouble with Wolves in the past, and I want to show them that not all Wolves are bad.”
Edward shook his head. “Smith… You have nothing to worry about. Nine blades of the head saw, five sets of chisels, but not the ones you made, nine handsaws, twenty-three axes and a lot of knives and smaller tools for you… they also got them from surrounding villages, and we are going to help with the foundations of three buildings, dig a lot for drainage, some heavy logs that need transportation and a lot of cleaning and other things.”
Smith sighed. “You think of everything. Or was it the king?”
Edward smiled. “Bit of both. That Smith Tiger is already at that village, you don’t have to do all the sharpening.”
Smith started to laugh. “Why am I even here?”
Edward grinned. “You are here for those who fall behind, watching them piss and poo.”

When Smith reached the supply point in the evening a few days later he saw that Carl, Casper and Tina were there, surrounded by Wolves who were admiring their horses.
“Those are not food.” Smith spoke loud enough to be heard, but not loud enough to startle the horses.
Some Wolves turned around and laughed. “It’s been a long time since we have seen horses. Horses are a Wolf thing, not a Tiger thing. Although they all have the sign of the Wolf cavalry.”
Smith nodded. “Ask Lilith how Casper, the young one, got his horses.”
Lilith grinned. “We killed some Human poachers for them.”
The Wolves also grinned. “Is there a time when you create life to do something good?”
Smith sighed. “I have created life, but Wolves have taken it away. My first wife was pregnant with my child, a few weeks to go, when an attack by Wolves happened. I have created that life, your kind has taken it away, and if you had not done that I would still be a simple smith making chisels.”
Carl nodded. “Best chisels ever. Be prepared for a lot more orders. Smith Tiger is very busy sharpening, but also collecting orders for chisels and other tools. And my horses got the little wooden horse head at the quarry. I’m… now officially a friend of the Wolves.”
One of the Wolves, a Grey, nodded. “Yes. I got a message that my cousin William is now working for you. Did he carve the heads?”
Casper nodded. “Yes. You should have seen the smile on his face when he saw the pregnant Antoinette and Louis again. And it got even bigger when he heard that Harold Human spoke Inimal, and was looking for someone to replace him.”
Smith smiled. “That’s good to hear.”

The journey to the village was uneventful. Smith was walking at the rear, and did not have a chance for long talks with Casper while walking. The only opportunity was in the evenings.
He learned that at home not much happened, everyone at home was very busy with making baskets, forging and quite a few orders to deliver, and Mary was away on Louis while William took care of Antoinette and the other horses. Recently a large group of Humans had arrived, but Casper didn’t know the details of it.
The news about the Humans worried Smith a little, and he fell silent, remembering what happened last winter, and the next cold of winter was just a few moons away. But Rolph and the Humans of Smithsville took care of those, Smith had nothing to worry about. When he was sunken in thoughts a few Wolves patted him on his shoulder, and assured him that they would help the Humans when they got the chance, just like Smith was helping them.
Smith sighed. What could he do? Those Humans were not his problem. His problem was the large group he brought in. They were building barracks, but not for this many.

Smith, Pebble and Arthur walked as the last people into the village in the early afternoon, and headed straight to the sawmill, which was located on the west side of the village. The rest of the people went to the field south of the village, over a wooden bridge large enough for a large cart.
“You are going to do your sharpening work?” Pebble asked.
Smith nodded. “Yes. I promised to do this work in exchange for their help. Normally I ask money for sharpening, but it’s useless to ask for money for the sharpening, and giving them money for the help they give. It’s a good thing this is the only village we encounter, if I had to sharpen everywhere it would take until next summer to get home.”
Pebble nodded. “Or give a lot of money.”

“Good afternoon Smith, I see you are already busy!” Smith greeted his colleague who was working under the roof that was for storing wood. Smith imagined that on normal days this working area would be full with tree trunks, timber and lumber, but now there were a number of makeshift shelves with a few items that were sharpened, makeshift shelves of items that needed sharpening, and two working tables.
Smith Tiger nodded. “Yes, a few simple things. Some knives, and an axe they need.”
“I thought you would be with the Canines.” the Jaguar owner of the sawmill greeted Smith.
Smith shrugged. “I have been long enough around them. This is the only one I want to keep around. This is Pebble, her mother is looking for her father, somewhere, and I take care of her until they are reunited. The White is Arthur, he is here for my protection.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Katie’s successor I reckon. I just hope she is… not as mischievous. I heard some stories. Black as Panthers, and you were the smart one. You got the old general to shut up, the only thing I could do was hammer a bit more on the anvil to drown out his voice.”
Arthur grinned. “He didn’t dare to enter the smithy, and he sent his adopted son in first.”
Smith shrugged. “And I was thinking the old general was teaching his son something. Good to hear the story from the outside.”
Arthur nodded. “Yes. Katie, William and Pebble… I wonder what your own children will be like. At least you have some experience.
Smith smiled. “Yes. They are quite different. And the same at the same time. But they are not Humans, or Foxes, or Dogs.”

“Why don’t you take a little break?” John the sawmill owner asked Smith a few hours before dinnertime.
Smith stood up to look at the sun for an estimate of the time. “Why? It’s still early. I have not finished this set of chisels.”
John smiled. “Because I say so. You have done so many things for this village, you deserve it.”
Smith shrugged. “I am not doing this for you, I am doing this for the Neutral Zone. We need people, and I have these people, and I want them home as soon as possible.”
John shook his head. “No. You are going for a swim, and you are going to enjoy it. The water in the millpond is clean and still warm at this time of year.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Yes. You have walked the entire day, you enter the sawmill and start sharpening without a break. Go and relax. You didn’t even notice me taking a break.”
Smith sighed, and got his bathing pants from his backpack. “Pebble, you also want to go for a swim?”
Pebble shook her head. “No. I’m going to the others. And I already swam today. The people here are nice.”
“Arthur?” Smith asked.
Arthur also politely shook his head. “No, I… also have other things to do. I think it’s safe enough to leave you for a while.”
Smith shrugged, and went to a secluded part to put on his bathing pants.

The millpond was a nice body of water held by an old stone dam with some sluices. The water wheel was a simple breastshot in a medium sized mill race, but that was a good model for the limited height the water fell. It was an old mill, and Smith could see that there were some Canine influences, mainly in the foundations and dam, but no Berg. The Bergvolk used more the overshot and pitchback kind of water wheels, and Smith had even seen some reversibles during his time there.
When Smith entered the water he understood why the others didn’t want to come. Tina, Tine but also Tina Too were already in the water, and swam towards him as soon as they saw him. Nobody told him about them being here.
“Good afternoon ladies.” Smith greeted them. He had been alone and without privacy for far too long, and didn’t care about his promise of one of a species at a time.

“You enjoyed your evening swim?” Edward greeted Smith when he walked onto the field to put up his tent somewhere.
“Yes. Almost lost my bathing pants.” Smith replied.
Edward smiled. “You want something to eat?”
Smith nodded. “Yes. That would be nice.”
Edward shrugged and handed Smith some meat. “I thought you would… show more emotions.”
Smith sighed. “I’m not proud of what I have done. You talked to Arthur? About what happened at the Academy when we were there to bring Katie there?”
Edward nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. You do have a reputation.”
Smith grinned. “There’s a third Tigress at home. She can get a whole night with me. If she wants to… You must know about my… outside my own species activities, but Wolves are also not shy of it.”
Edward nodded. “Yes… Thank you for killing… those. It would have made being here a bit more difficult, but now we can build the best buildings here. Stone foundations that will never rot.”
Smith nodded. “We all must enjoy it.”
Arthur who also joined them also nodded. “They asked me if you would be fine with it.”
Smith shrugged. “I’m not fine with it, but I needed it. It felt good.”

Days were slow, with a lot of items that needed sharpening. Especially the head saw blades were tedious, with all sets of teeth looking alike. It felt a lot longer than the two-and-a-half days it actually took to sharpen all nine of them to perfection. But the normal handsaws were also boring to sharpen. In the evenings a few women were interested, but Smith declined.
The Canines also had done their part of the deal, and they were just lingering around in the village, talking to the people and doing tasks they could do. Even the Dog whores had a few clients, the Wolves that Smith and Tine had killed had been around for quite some time and they had taken a lot of women.

“Smith, do you have some time to talk?” John Shopkeeper suddenly asked. He was accompanied by John of the sawmill, Carl, Casper, and Edward.
Smith looked up from sharpening of one of the last knives. “About what? I’m almost done.”
The shopkeeper sighed. “It’s… about us. This village. We want to join the Neutral Zone.”
Smith also sighed, and inspected the blade he was sharpening. “In my opinion you all are free to go wherever you want, if you want to come to the Neutral Zone that’s no problem, but the only problem is that we don’t have people to help you settle. There are a lot more people coming than anticipated and I promised those a stone and wood shelter, we can’t reassign builders to build for you. You can offer more money to do their work for you, but in the end that won’t benefit you. Wait until after winter, then we’ll have time for you.”
The shopkeeper nodded. “I see. And what if we help you?”
Smith shrugged “Depends. With how many are you?”
The shopkeeper sighed. “About a thousand. This village and a half day around.”
Smith also sighed and started sharpening again. “That’s too many. When I left home to get these Canines I thought it would be about three thousand, but it turned out to be six thousand. That already are three thousand that don’t get the shelter they deserve before winter… But I have an alternative for you. There is a now abandoned village four days west my home, you can live there. Still in the Inimal kingdom, but close to us. It is mostly Canine buildings, a few Feline, and it’s surrounded by empty Vulpine farms. It has an inn, a store, a smithy, doctor’s office… The only thing it doesn’t have is a sawmill. Smith Tiger can tell you more about it.”
Smith Tiger nodded. “Indeed. My old village. Just as Smith told, good enough. Only one building is occupied, a Cheetah messenger who sleeps in her old house when she has a delivery in the Inimal kingdom.”
John of the sawmill nodded. “We can build what we don’t have. If we can ‘borrow’ some of your Canines it will be perfect. That way you don’t have to give them all a place to stay.”
Edward nodded. “I think some will be willing to do that. A few have second thoughts, they thought they would live closer to you. But it’s still four days instead of five.”
Carl nodded. “Closest village to us is six days away, and then four onto the next one, or nine from here. A lot more people, all kinds of people, only four days away, is much better. A lot of trade.”
Smith nodded, and grinned. “A Wolf is responsible for housing the Humans that come to the Neutral Zone, I am responsible for the Inimals. That village is outside of the Neutral Zone and my mandate, so it’s not my responsibility. I welcome the trade, but don’t you dare to cause trouble on my side of the border.”
The Jaguars nodded. “Sounds like a deal.” they spoke in unison. They did not look they were related to each other, but it was still creepy.
“And what about all the work we have done here?” Pebble asked.
John of the sawmill shrugged. “We didn’t think of that. We talked about it yesterday.”
Smith also shrugged. “Use messengers about what you want. I don’t know what your king has promised you, but I think he won’t be happy if he suddenly has to defend an abandoned village.”
Edward nodded. “I am willing to stay here to help them with the paperwork.”
Smith also nodded. “Edward, Smith… When everyone is settled I want you to return here, not sooner. You know more about your old village than I do, help them making a list about what they need. Casper, you also return here because you know what we have in the Neutral zone.”
Smith Tiger and Casper nodded. They did not look happy about what they were asked, being far away from home in winter, but they were willing to do it. For their own kind.
Edward smiled. “I understand why everyone calls you a king, and soldiers salute you. It would be an honor to work for you.”
Carl nodded. “Indeed. That village is a good location for a transportation hub, there are also a few Wolves interested in handling horses, those are easier to obtain from you than from us. At first I wasn’t happy about moving towards you, but now I’m looking forward to it.”

The last supply points were manned by Bergvolk and Humans from the Neutral Zone, the Bergvolk on the Inimal side of the border and the Humans on the Neutral side.
The Canines were relieved that the Humans spoke Inimal, and the Dogs and Hounds already tried to speak some Human, to the amusement of the Humans because of their accent and misuse of words.
The remainder of the journey was easy and on the last days the speed was really slow. And on the last night Smith missed a lot of familiar faces, including Walther, Rose and Edward. Lilith left a few days earlier, there was no reason for a detour to her home. Minou headed north to go home as soon as she entered the village, her task as being the medical support was done.

When Smith finally entered the quarry village around noon he saw that there were some large Human military tents with neat queues of Wolves and other Canines. As soon as one or a family left a tent the next in line entered.
“Pebble, come along. I want to see what they are doing.” Smith spoke at a firm tone, but relieved at the same time. He was almost home.
When Smith entered a tent through the back entrance he startled the people inside a little, but as soon as they recognized him they smiled.
“Welcome. Normal people have to wait for their turn, but I assume you have a place to stay.” Wilhelm greeted them.
Smith grinned. “Yes. And also for this young one, assuming my smithy didn’t burn down.”
Wilhelm nodded. “Erm… What’s his name… Edward already told me yesterday.” and flipped through some papers that were on the table. “Pebble White Wolf, age four, daughter of Marble White Wolf, housewife, and William White Wolf, king’s guard. Occupation: child, education needed. Wants to be: unknown.”
Pebble nodded. “I want to be a guard.”
Smith grinned. “What you want is not important. Where your life takes you is. I wanted to be a lumberjack, strong and always outside in the forest, but became a smith and now I’m becoming even something else… I assume you do this for every Wolf and other Canine that I brought here today?”
Wilhelm nodded. “Indeed. I do this in this tent, Diego, Rolph and some other Wolves and even a few Humans are in the other tents. Writing down who they are and what they want. In this tent we have seen approximately eighty people yesterday and today, and already seven of them said ‘cesspit cleaner’ on the question of what they want to be. And I don’t think they were lying, they really were desperate to do something useful.”
Smith nodded. “Very well… I’m going to do some walking around and talk. I don’t know what else I can do here, my work is done. I didn’t have time for a lot of talking on our journey.”
Wilhelm grinned. “And being kissed?”
Wallis who just entered the tent for his turn to give his information also grinned. “I can do that too.”
Smith laughed. “Wallis. Adult. Former Feral. I don’t know his living family relations, I was there when his grandmother from his father’s side died, trained soldier, and I want him far away, guarding that bridge beyond my old village. No kisses from him today.”
Wilhelm grinned. “It’s good to have you. Soldier… Kick that Human out so I can write down the correct information. Don’t worry, you are not the first Feral, so not a lot of questions about how you feel.”
“We’re leaving.” Smith spoke when he walked out again, Pebble following him.

The greetings of the other Wolves of the quarry village were passionate.
“So we were allowed to kiss him?” One of the Wolves who were done with the registering noted.
Smith laughed, and shook his head. “There is no law that prohibits it, it’s just me who doesn’t like it.”
The last Wolf who kissed Smith grinned. “But we do like it. Welcome. Had a good journey?”
The other Wolf nodded. “Yes. More food than we had at home, and I even got to talk to the king.”
The villager nodded. “The Human king was here too. He was proud of what Smith was doing, helping us. He provided us the tents for the registration, but I think Mary also has something to do with it, she also does a lot to help. I heard he stayed at the smithy in Smithsville, because the owner wouldn’t be home for some time.”
Smith nodded. “If the others allowed it and he behaved I’m fine with that. Sturdy walls, easy do defend, no secrets. Safer than a tent or the inn, and free warm water when the forge is used.”
The villager nodded. “That sounds very reasonable. Do you want to see what we have for the newcomers?”
Smith smiled. “Yes, of course.”

“As you can see we have a lot of dormitories.” The villager explained when they approached the buildings on the south side of the village, relative close to the quarry. “Twenty large eight-room buildings with their own kitchen with water pump and lavatory, twenty-four sleeping places in each room, and sixteen smaller but twelve-room buildings, eight people in the downstairs rooms, and six in the upstairs, but those dormitories don’t have their own kitchen, every four of them have their own separate buildings with kitchens, and lavatories for every two buildings. And a lot more space between those buildings for more temporary shelters, that’s why the kitchens and lavatories are larger than you would expect.”
Smith smiled, but quickly his smile dropped. “You really sound proud of your work… The buildings… that’s… about eight hundred we don’t have a place for. I got more at the village than we thought, and along the way even more people joined us. We got six thousand instead of four.”
The villager shrugged. “You are fast with your calculating. But we have the second inn, and I think there are still some other buildings not occupied in Smithsville. Humans don’t dare to live in a building where people have died, some kind of superstition. They prefer to stay in tents… Just a few days a bit cramped with more people in a room than intended, and when everyone and everything is sorted out the people can move to their destinations. I think a lot of them want to be farmers, because of the good supply of the fodder the Humans produce, those can move in with Human farmers, leaving their place at the dormitories for others.”
Smith shrugged. “The Humans and their superstitions are not my problem. The Canines I brought in today are. But I think everything is arranged, I think we can go home tomorrow.”
The villager nodded. “Yes, you could. But we want you to stay here for a few days. Relax. Not thinking about walking or working.”
Smith sighed. “I miss home. I want to go home… But alright, we’ll leave the day after tomorrow. I have a young Wolf I have to take care of, she deserves a good bed, good food and someone figuring out where her parents are. It might involve a lot of letters I have to write, and fast messengers. And I have two Cheetahs at home.”
The villager nodded. “I’d say the day after that, and go with the people who are going to live in Smithsville. You know a lot, and we might need your advise here.”
Smith smiled. “You work with Wilhelm, and you already talked to Edward, haven’t you?”
The villager nodded. “Another village coming, but Felines. Going to our old village. We want to know more.”
Smith nodded. “Yes, that’s a good reason to ask me questions I don’t have answers for. I’m going to put my tent somewhere around here I think. If you have a question you can find me, and this way the newcomers still have a familiar face around. Are you fine with that?”
The villager nodded. “Yes. It’s good to have you as our king. The Human king wanted the entire second inn for himself, you just sleep in your own castle you take along.”
Smith grinned. “Inimals sleep in the open air when they are away from home, normal Humans prefer solid walls and a roof so that’s why the Human kingdom has so many inns, taverns, lodges and other buildings where travelers can sleep and eat, and I am in-between, in a tent.”
The villager nodded. “We will bring you food… By the way, we have one of those Human tents left, we could put that one here, with a table and some chairs so you can talk to the people here.”
Smith nodded. “That’s fine. There’s rain coming, make it quick.”

When Smith and Pebble were sitting in the entrance of the tent Walther and Rose walked by.
Smith and Pebble greeted them, surprising them, they didn’t expect a hidden Smith sitting behind a table.
“))What are you doing here?((“ Rose asked.
“Pebble, tell her that we are here to talk to people.” Smith asked Pebble who was sitting next to him on a higher chair from Diego’s inn. The same one that Katie had used a long time ago.
Pebble nodded. “))We here to talk to people. People ask stupid questions, Smith give silly answers.((“
Smith grinned. “))Yes. I think they want to talk about the people of the Feline village who want to move here, but they are still too busy registering people, and let us wait here, for a few days.((“
Walther nodded. “We are going home. My home. Edward stays here, so, see you in a few days.”
Smith also nodded. “))See you in a few days. You want to borrow my tent?((”
Walther shook his head. “No, we are not Humans. And we don’t care about privacy.”

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Neutral Smith
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Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 43

#50 Post by Neutral Smith »

Chapter 43
Return


The afternoon was boring, not a lot of people had time to talk. Everyone was busy with giving people a place to stay or getting a place to stay, even after a few days. It seemed that not all the dormitories would be for the Canines Smith brought in, but two of the smaller ones would be for Humans from Schotenburg, and that gave some additional problems.
Pebble was not the usual bored child. She also sat calmly on her chair, looking around.
“Why don’t you go and play with some children? Or at least inform me how Hope and Faith are doing, children of people I helped, those are working at the inn, Dory and Diana Dog.” Smith suddenly said.
Pebble shrugged. “I’m tired. I want to sleep.”
Smith sighed. “I’m tired as well. I also want to sleep, but in my own bed at home. Just five more days of walking is all it takes, but nooo, they want to keep me here, I could give them advice.”
Pebble grinned. “You sound like a cow. Moo!”
Smith nodded. “Yes I am ‘moe’, m-o-e, the Human word for tired. Pronunciation is pretty good.”
Pebble briefly smiled and closed her eyes. Smith wondered if she could sleep upright.

“<Smith is here.>” Someone said.

‘Mommy!” Pebble shouted.

Smith’s eyes shot open. Was he really sleeping on a chair, sitting behind an empty table?
There were two heavily armored soldiers on horseback, and a white female Wolf between them. Tied.

“<Release that Wolf.>” Was the first thing Smith said.

“<No.>” One of the soldiers replied.

Smith stood up and walked slowly around the table, keeping as much distance between him and the horses as possible.
“<Do you have any idea who I am?>” Smith asked.
The other soldier nodded. “<Peter… Bob… Smith… A fourth name lost in history… A murderer.>”
Smith nodded and slowly walked forward, making the horses uneasy. “<So yo know who I am. Your horses are smarter than you are. Don’t you feel how uneasy they are?>”
To add to the tense atmosphere it started to rain again.
“<By the might of the glorious leader.>” The other soldier muttered while he had some trouble controlling his horse.
“<Second and final warning. Release her. Otherwise I have to step forward and cut the rope with my sword, and your horses don’t like me that close.>”
The first soldier snickered. “<You don’t have your sword.>”
Smith held his left hand out, and Pebble gave him his scabbard with sword. “<Now I have.>”
The soldier whose horse the woman was tied to hastily untied the knot that bound her and the saddle.
The woman ran towards Pebble who immediately started to cut the rope that tied her hands with her dagger.
Smith looked at the soldiers. They were not the normal soldiers of the Human kingdom, they were different. The color accents on their clothes, armor and shields were not the royal blue, but purple, and even the fact that they were so well equipped was odd, they had helmets, more armor plating than the royal guard, and they both even had chain mail.
“<Who are you, and why did you bring that Wolf to me?>” Smith finally asked, taking a few steps backwards.
One of the soldiers produced a piece of official looking paper. “<Our glorious and benevolent leader has decided that this Wolf was allowed to live as a sign of good will. She attempted to enter our capital of Schotenburg to ‘get her husband out of prison’, or so she declared.>” He read, or pretended to read.
Smith nodded. “<Good. You stay here.>”
“<You can’t force us to stay! You have no mandate!>” The soldier hastily spoke. This was not according to his plan. They did not like being here, surrounded by Wolves.
Smith jumped forward and waved his arms. “Yaaa!!!” He shouted.
The reaction of the horses was predictable. One broken collarbone and one badly injured foreign soldier.

Smith saw that the horses were captured, sighed, and got to get his backpack. The soldier with the broken collarbone was beyond swearing and simply stared at Smith, clasping his shoulder. The other soldier got his foot tangled in a stirrup, and was dragged along for quite some distance until he got loose and got kicked by the horse.

“What do you think you are doing?”

Smith turned around and hanged his backpack over his shoulders, and faced Wilhelm. “Getting a certain male White Wolf out of the prison in Schotenburg. And the rest of the prisoners… Get some help ready at the border.”
“You can’t do that!” Wilhelm protested.
Smith shrugged “Talk to the people of the town hall of Smithsville, they declared me king. I can do whatever I want.” and started walking. Not east, but northwest, towards the smithy of the quarry village, there was something he needed first.

There were a few new faces working at the smithy, but they were most helpful with Smith’s request. Two hours later Smith finally walked east with the special tool he needed. The only thing he hoped for was that the gates of Schotenburg weren’t fixed.
Someone tapped on Smith’s shoulders. It was Rolph.
“<I thought you were gone.>” He finally said, after a few moments of contemplating whether he should kiss Smith or not.
Smith shook his head. “<No. Not yet, but I leave now. Remember the gates of Schotenburg? Big crack between them?>”
Rolph nodded. “<Yes. And now I understand that strange thing you have on your backpack. Something to lift that block that keeps the gates closed from the outside. Clever.>”
Smith shrugged. “<These soldiers… Last thing I know about Schotenburg is that there was a lot of trouble. And seeing these different soldiers makes me think I need a different approach. Wish me luck.>”
Rolph grinned. “<You don’t need luck, you just need to be yourself. No diplomacy.>”
Smith nodded. “<Treat that White Wolf well, send her to my smithy to stay there with her daughter, and I need some help at the border when I return. I know it’s much to ask in these times, but I’m getting all the prisoners here… If they are still alive… I’m worried.>”
Rolph sighed. “<You should be. Things are awful there. I heard horrible things from the Humans that have fled from that place… I know I’m not in the position to say this, but do your worst.>”
Smith grinned. “<I will. Do they still have wooden stakes there?>”
Rolph also grinned. “<I don’t know… What do you want to do with those soldiers?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Heal them. Keep them here until I have returned. Interrogate them. Show them how we live. I don’t care, but mainly keep them here. Maybe send a letter to the Human king, tell him what we caught.>”
Rolph nodded. “<Yes. That’s the best we can do. All of that. Have a safe journey!>”

A day before Smith reached the border he left the path, and headed through the woods and fields towards his destination. He did not want to encounter anyone.
When he could see the gates of Schotenburg in the distance Smith hid in a small valley, more like a deep ditch with steep banks where a small creek flowed through, ate something and took some rest.
He was close to a farm, but everything was burned down. There was nobody around, and if someone was… they would be dead.

Smith waited until dark to move again. There were some clouds, but the moon gave just enough light to see where he was going, and it was windless, no noises to mask his own. Slowly, creeping from bush to ditch to ruin to boulder he approached the tall city walls while the moon disappeared behind some clouds.

The first thing Smith noticed was that the pavement next to the gates was removed. There was only compacted dirt and gravel, and some boulders too large to move by one person.
The second thing he noticed was that the gates weren’t closed, the right gate was slightly ajar. Smith looked around to make absolutely sure there were no sources of light to betray his silhouette or patrols outside the city walls, and moved on towards the gate.
It started to rain again. A gentle drizzle, not a lot of sound, just very uncomfortable cold droplets. A perfect time for guards to take shelter in the gatehouse, and notice that the gates were not properly closed.
Smith stood still for several minutes, scared to make a sound.
On the other side of the gates nothing moved, nobody coughed, talked, or scraped his or its feet.
Nothing. A dead silence.
Carefully Smith tested the large wooden door. It moved, but the resistance of the rusting hinges made it move back. Pushing through the resistance would make an awful noise, so Smith moved it very slowly, one tick of a creak at a time until the opening was wide enough to slip through, but without moving it further.
He was in.
There was nobody. Only one lonely sputtering torch, almost burned out. An empty city, where all the buildings had their shutters closed.
There was something else missing. The pavement. Where the cobblestones used to be was now bare dirt and a few patches of gravel. Smith looked around in disbelief, even under his feet there were no stones, and there was a crack the height of the missing stones beneath the gates. Finally he saw the block, repaired, that was meant to keep the gates closed, balancing on the hook of the other door, as much to the left as possible, like someone tried to make it look it was still there like it was supposed to be and the gates were closed. Smith silently sighed, he also had to make the gates look closed, and that meant he had to move the noisy door again. He should have brought some grease to at least silence the lower hinge instead of the hook he had.
After several minutes of repetitive ticks, it almost sounded like large drops hitting something hollow, he had the gates ‘closed’ again. He was in. Time for the next part, some rest inside the city walls. Preferably close to the prison. The burned down house of Peter and Helena was perfect, a detached building where you could walk around in search of a quiet place to sleep. It could have been a doctor’s home and office with a garden with herbs around it, but thanks to Smith a shoemaker briefly lived there. Smith wondered what happened to the intended owner, it had not been claimed between his first previous two visits.

There were patrols in the city. When Smith saw the flickering lights of the torches approaching he panicked. Quickly but quietly he ran back and dove into an alley, and hid behind some large barrels. Six armored soldiers with four large torches marched past him. Blinded by their own lights and bored they marched on, not noticing Smith’s backpack.
Smith sighed. ‘Next time put my backpack behind me’ he thought. Time to move on, if all the patrols are like this it would be easy.

Finally he reached the burned down house.
Smith found a good, clean sleeping spot to rest, against the fence, hidden from view when you stood at the gate. He did not bother to undress, just did his evening, or this time almost midnight business behind the house, and went to a semi-sleep sitting in an upright position against the fence, his blanket wrapped around him. It was a good thing he had rested a bit during daytime, but he still was tired. He could have lied down alongside the fence, but he deemed sitting upright safer. It still was a sturdy fence, it did not buckle or creak.

Something or someone was prodding Smith. It felt a bit like a dream, but not the good kind.
When he looked up he saw the silhouette of a man, gently kicking him.
Smith sighed. “<What?>”
“<You are on my sleeping spot.>” The silhouette replied, whispering.
Smith shrugged. “<Didn’t see a sign.>” Smith also whispered.
The man sat down next to Smith, turning invisible in the darkness again. “<You are not from here, are you?>”

“<Not really.>”

“<Who are you? Are you here to help us?>”

“<Not you. Inimals from the prison.>”

The man sighed. “<Then I know who you are. They already killed seven. As a warning for the king when he showed up.>”

“<Species?>”

“<Five Cats and two Dogs. I know those won’t be missed… Quiet now, patrol coming. They always look in and behind the house, but never here.>”

Smith could hear the marching feet and saw the glow of the torches through the cracks in the fence.

“<I’ll go. I also have to take a dump.>” Smith heard one of the soldiers say.
“<You ate too much. Just admit it, you glutton.>” Another said.
“<Very funny. You go on, there is nobody here, never has been and yet we still check this. Just write this down as a very thorough check of the entire site.>”
“<You know what has happened here. He might return.>” A third one, presumably the commander, added.
“<He won’t catch me with my pants down. Nobody is here, just me struggling with my armor like I have done a few times before, remember? Why do we have to remove the leg pieces when you want to remove the crotch piece to unbuckle your pants? Who made these? I really want to tell him what I think of it.>”
“<Don’t know, don’t care. We take your torch. Lone torch might attract people. Stay quiet.>”
“<Yes I know the drill. Just go and give me some privacy.>”
“<We are going to check out that whore.>” A fourth soldier added to the conversation.
“<You know that’s not a whore. But if mister poopy wants to spent some time here we might as well spent some time there.>” A fifth added.

The five soldiers marched away while the sixth went behind the house.

“<He’s dead.>” Mumbled Smith while he got his dagger.

“<Are you…>”

“<Yes and yes. I will catch him with his pants down in the moonlight.>”

Smith did not catch the soldier with his pants down, but the pants were completely off, and the soldier was leaning against a post and grunting. He had not bothered to take his helmet off, only the parts of his armor and clothing that made defecating clean and easy were hanging on a large piece of wood.
Quietly Smith sneaked behind him, covered the soldier’s mouth with his left hand and used the butt of the dagger to slip his right hand holding the dagger under the armor and chain mail that protected the torso.
There was not much room to move the wrist under the armor, but finally the sharp dagger was stirring the guts and the soldier slid down. With a final deep stab Smith could rotate his dagger to pull it back out.
The dagger and the hand that held the dagger were a black mess with chunks in the pale moonlight, but luckily there was a clean cloth in the shape of pants available. There was also a cloth in the shape of underpants, but Smith doubted that was clean.

“<Is he dead?>” The man asked.

“<Yes.>”

“<You have a tipped knife?>”

“<No. I used my double edged dagger. But I also have an assortment of knives and cutlery for hunting and eating, my sword, my armbrust with six bolts, but I can also use my sling with an assortment of projectiles as a ranged weapon, and my razor for shaving.>”

“<That’s illegal.>”

“<What?>”

“<You really are Smith. Remember me? I’m Bart, from the inn.>”

“<Yes… but illegal? What’s going on?>”

“<New government, but really scared. We had some murders so they took all the sharp things, every household is allowed only one sharp blade but with a rounded tip and it has a number etched, and then they were scared of riots so they took all the loose stones so those couldn’t be thrown in large numbers.>”

“<Including the pavement?>”

“<Yes. When you can take one stone out you can take them all out. So the glorious and wise leader has decided to take them all out.>”

“<That’s insane.>”

“<We all think so, but we can’t fight them. They can do whatever they want.>”

Smith sighed. “<I noticed. Time for some rest.>”

“<How can you rest when you just murdered someone?>”

“<How can you sleep when you tortured someone?>”

“<The faces of those Inimal women still haunt me. That torture we did was nothing.>”

Smith woke up at the first light, just when Bart walked through the gate.
“<We have to leave. Now.>” He hastily spoke, while he handed Smith some raw but washed carrots and a late apple.
“<They found two dead guards at the city gates.>” Bart added, while he grabbed his belongings together.
Smith shrugged. “<Not my doing. I only killed this one. But the gates were open when I got here.>”
“<You think they are going to believe that?>” Bart asked while he stuffed his last belongings in an old burlap bag.
Smith shrugged. “<I don’t think so. I’m going to the prison.>”
Bart grinned. “<Has anyone told you that you are insane?>”
Smith also grinned. “<Too many times.>”

Smith felt lucky that he didn’t encounter anyone on his way to the prison. All shutters closed, nobody outside, but also no sound of chickens or other animals that people kept, even in a city.
He wanted to go the side entrance of the prison, a bit hidden from view in case he had to wait until the door was opened, but when he approached the prison the front door opened, opened by the warden himself.
“<Come in. Quickly.>” Were the first words the warden said.
Smith entered and the warden quietly closed the door again.
They entered the warden’s office again, and the first thing Smith noticed was that the animal skins and pelts were gone. It was a bare room with only a table, three chairs, one of those close to the window, and some books and writing equipment.
“<Things really have changed here.>” Smith spoke, opening the conversation.
The warden nodded. “<Yes.>”
Smith sighed. “<And not for the better.>”
The warden shook his head. “<No… How did you get in?>”
Smith shrugged. “<Walked in. The gates were open tonight.>”
The warden nodded. “<Escapees. Lucky.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Yes. But they killed two guards, that might complicate things for me.>”
The warden briefly smiled. “<A challenge for you. I’m sure you can handle it.>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes… I’m only a bit worried about the armor those soldiers have, it might be enough to compensate for their lack of skill. I think I have to use words again.>”
The warden nodded. “<I think you can do both. Fight and talk.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Yes. Now I want to see the Inimal prisoners. That’s why I am here.>”
The warden nodded again. “<Yes. Given the current circumstances you can have them for free. It’s hard to explain the money while the prisoners are gone.>”
Smith smiled. “<Thank you. Now I want us to go to the Inimals, we can talk there more.>”
The warden looked at Smith. “<Why?>”
Smith grinned. “<Because I say so. I want them to understand my actions.>”
The warden nodded. “<Of course. But I want to ask you some questions first.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Go ahead.>”
The warden smiled. “<How do you know when an Inimal can be trusted or not? We have a lot of troublemakers here, murderers and thieves, but there may be some innocent people in that group.>”
Smith nodded. “<I understand your question. Unfortunately it’s experience… I could give examples, but there are always exceptions.>”
The warden also nodded. “<I understand. Tell me.>”
Smith sighed. “<Alright. The basics are speech and behavior. You first have to know what is normal, and what is not. Felines and Canines differ greatly, but their normal behavior is quite similar. It’s when they are up to no good when they start to differ, a bit like Humans getting drunk. Some get quiet, some get excited, and with Inimals it’s no different, although you can see on the outside what to expect. When Felines lie they tend to talk a bit slower, and become more careful in choosing their words, while the Canines get more excited, try to talk a lot to avoid the subject. When they are on a target, whether it’s something to steal or someone to kill their approaches are also different. In battle they are mobility for the Felines and straight lines of attack for the Canines, but when a single Feline or Canine has his or her eyes on a target it’s quite different. Felines tend to stay in one spot, a bit hidden, keeping their eyes on the target, while Canines tend to circle their target constantly. Both waiting for an opportunity of course.>”
The warden nodded. “<I understand. I never learned to know what is normal.>”
Smith shrugged. “<A prison is not a normal environment… I have to be very careful. You say there are troublemakers, and last time I was here I have seen them. Don’t be surprised when I kill a few.>”
The warden nodded again. “<I understand.>”

Smith and the warden entered the Inimal part of the prison.
The warden sighed. “<These Inimals are the only prisoners left. They let all the Humans go, and many of them joined their ranks.>”
“<You… have returned.>” a Dog in one of the cages spoke, sounding a bit weak. Or just sleepy, it was still early in the morning.
Smith nodded. “<Yes. I try to keep my promises. Although I wish it would be under different circumstances.>”
“<Shall I get the keys?>” The warden asked.
Smith shook his head. “<No. Not yet. First a few more questions from me.>”
The warden shrugged. “<Fine. Go ahead.>”
Smith sighed. What he was about to ask could lead to a lot of trouble.
“<How many of the guards want to leave this city, don’t have people they have to care for, and are here right now?>”
The warden needed a few moments to think.
“<All of them. All of them. All of them. Being a prison guard is not a job that is loved, family can be blackmailed so we selected those who don’t have living family, and this prison is the safest place to sleep for us. And we are hiding a few former soldiers.>”
Smith nodded. “<I want them all in full gear here. The gear your guards have, all of them looking alike… And I want all the prisoners, including those who came in later.>”
The warden nodded. “<Yes. But why do you want all the guards here?>”
Smith smiled. “<I want the guards to accompany us. The city is not safe, maybe even right up to the border we need protection.>”
The warden also started to smile. “<Us? Including me?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. You are also allowed to come along. Although I will not protect you, I don’t know what the others are going to do when they get the chance, but I am also not going to stop them… maybe it’s not me, but you who needs the guards.>”
The warden almost saluted. “<You want me to get them now?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. But give me the keys first, I know how locks work.>”

Smith proceeded to open the cages, and hesitantly the Inimals left them, forming a group that slowly followed Smith around the area.
When Smith was halfway the warden and twenty people returned. Some of them briefly looked shocked when they saw the Inimals out of their cages, but quickly they regained their posture.
Smith smiled when he saw them. “<Welcome. You don’t have to salute me like some of you did last time. I do have the title ‘King of the Neutral Zone’, but that’s mainly for tax reasons.>”
“<Why are we here? I know you want the prisoners, but why us?>” One of the guards, a true guard, asked.
Smith shrugged. “<I don’t know, I just thought about it. Everyone who wants to stay in this city turn around and go back to your quarters, the rest has to follow us for protection. I know that some of the prisoners here can’t be trusted...>” Smith spun around and hit a Cat who was standing very close to him in the face with his elbow, drew his dagger and killed the Cat “<Like this Cat who tried to grab my sword… Or from outside attacks because this city is not the nice place that it used to be.>”
The guard who spoke first nodded. “<You… want to help us escape? Just pretending we are protecting you? And that what you just did was very impressive. How did you know?>”
Smith smiled and also nodded. “<Yes… Although I can’t promise you will make it out of this city alive, and I don’t know how you will be treated in the Neutral Zone… I don’t even know if I am going to survive, but I want to give you a chance to get out.>”
The guard knelt before Smith, and the rest of the guards followed his example.
“<My life for yours.>” They one by one spoke.
Smith sighed, walked past the kneeling guards, and stopped in front of the cage with the White Wolf and the Lioness. “Thank you.”
The Wolf nodded. “You understood.”
“<What was that about?>” The warden asked.
Smith smiled. “<I noticed that that Cat was standing too close to me, and that White Wolf pointed at his hip where I have my sword. I thanked him for that, and he was glad I understood his subtle hint. Now let’s get him out. And that Lioness of course.>”

“<Is there still some food left?>” Smith asked while he opened the last cage, the cage with the people he actually came for.
The warden nodded. “<Yes. Not much, but we have some reserves. In three days we would have had a problem, so you are just in time.>”
Smith also nodded. “<Good. We eat what we can eat, but not too much, and take the rest with us. I want to be as far away as possible from this city tonight, so it’s going to be a two meal day, one now and one when the sun goes down. Are there horses?>”
The warden shook his head. “<No. They reasoned there was no need for horses when you are not going anywhere, and they took them away.>”
Smith sighed. “<Anything of value? Weapons?>”
The warden shook his head. “<No… They have taken everything except the things they thought we would need. We only have one sword, although the tip is cut off. And we have one knife, but that’s registered to this building, we are not allowed to take that outside.>”
Smith sighed. “<Is there also a bit of food for me? I only had two carrots as breakfast. And I was given an apple, but that was rotten on the inside.>”
The warden nodded. “<Plenty of salted meat. And clean water from our own well>”
Smith shrugged. “<Fine.>”

The meat was not as bad as he had at the Kicking Pig in the past, but there were a few fights and Smith had to kill a few more of the inmates because they were absolutely unmanageable, even though there was enough food they were stealing it from others and starting fights.
One-hundred-and-fifty-two. One-hundred-fifty-two mouths he had to feed. Two he wanted immediately, eighty-six he wanted some time later, a few of the second group he trusted, the rest he didn’t want. And twenty-one Humans. Not as bad as thinking there would be three thousand Wolves to give a place that turned out to be six thousand, but still… It was a lot.

“<Everyone has their sleeping mat, blanket and the food for tonight? Unfortunately I only have one tent, my own, I did not expect to be here at this moment, but I will tell you at the border why.>” Smith announced.
The warden nodded. “Time om to leave.”
Smith laughed. “<Almost correct. It’s just:> time to leave.”

Smith was the first who stepped outside, and he was met by six soldiers, none of them having swords, but the batons they had also hurt a lot. They didn’t kill their victims, but when you are in severe pain because of a beating you also can’t work to pay your taxes.
“<In the name of our glorious leader: Halt! Where do you think you are going?>” The soldier closest to the door called out.
Smith stopped, and looked at the soldiers. He could have taken them in a fight if they didn’t have all that armor.
“<What?>” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“<You are under arrest.>” The soldier replied.
Smith shrugged. “<I am not the one who has a problem then. Do you have any idea who I am?>”
“<You killed two of our men.>” Another soldier answered. Discipline was not their strong point.
Smith shrugged. “<I only killed one. But I guess you haven’t found that one yet. Those two at the gates are not my doing.>”

There were some more soldiers in the distance shouting something.
“What are they shouting about?” Smith asked a Dog who was standing next to him.
“Ik begrijp je niet.” The Dog replied.
Smith shrugged. “<Sorry. What are those soldiers in the distance shouting about?>”
The Dog grinned. “<Riots, and they need reinforcements. Quite early, normally those riots start late in the afternoon, we can hear them from the prison. And the previous riots were three days ago, normally it’s once every seven days.>”
“<Stop your talking with those animals. What do you mean that you are not the one with a problem?>” The first soldier commanded.

Before Smith could answer one soldier on horseback, this one did have a sword, approached the group.
When he recognized what was going on he got really scared. “<By the might of the glorious leader! That’s Smith! Get away while you can!>”
The first soldier smirked. “<This is just a Human who just confessed a murder.>”
The soldier on horseback now really started to panic. “<Don’t you understand? Who confesses a murder like that and stands there like it’s nothing? Who can defeat an army all by himself? Who can defeat Wolves? Who can walk among Inimals like they are equal? Who has a sword!>”
Smith grinned and pointed at the soldier on the horse. “<He is the smart one. I am indeed Smith, the leader of the Neutral Zone… Before I left I made sure that if I am not back in time a seven nation army will be assembled, and nothing is going to hold them back. First army you will see will be my own, well trained Inimals and Humans, trained together so even the Humans are better than the Royal Guard the Human king has. Second is the army of the Human Kingdom, power in numbers. Third army are the Inimals, like my own army, but more and no Humans. Fourth army are the Humans from the east, might take a while until they get here, but they have permission from King Alexander to cross his kingdom to assist me, and they are the better fighting Humans. All you can do with your sticks is pleasure each other, they can really fight with them. Fifth army are the Wolves. Just like you and the Humans from the east they seceded from their kingdom, but they are also my friends. Sixth and seventh army are not great in numbers, but they are the Bergvolk and loyal Elfique with their technology and skill, helping the others with machines and knowledge… So, what were you saying?>”
The first soldier sighed. “<Fine. You win this round.>”
Smith nodded and pointed a the soldier who just arrived. “<He also wants to ask you something. My guess it has something to do with riots… So, what is it going to be, stay here and fight us for real and let the rioters defeat the others, or join your colleagues and let us go?>”
The soldier on horseback nodded. “<Let them go. We have no time to lose. The riot is on the south square, heading towards the west gates. March!>”

The six soldiers marched away.
They were not trained soldiers, two started to run, four started to walk, one who ran walked again after not even fifty paces, of those who started walking three started to run when the distance between them and the first two became too great, and the fattest one, barely fitting his enlarged armor, never ran.
Smith sighed. “<They are heading towards the gates. Give them a head start before we catch them?… No, I’m just kidding. One dead last night is enough for me. Let’s go to the gates. At a safe distance behind them.>”
Most of the second group of prisoners dropped everything they had and also ran away.
Smith shrugged. “<Let them run. I don’t need them. But do get what they dropped. I have a tendency to need more blankets and sleeping mats than I have.>”
The rest nodded, and gathered everything. One of the guards headed back into the prison, he remembered a cache of money.

“<I can hear fighting.>” One of the remaining Cats noted when they approached the last bend before the gates.
Smith nodded. “<Hammering metal has damaged my hearing, but I am not surprised. I wonder if I am going to see an old friend.>”
The soldiers in front of them all started to run, and Smith unsheathed his sword.
“<What are you going to do?>” One of the guards asked.
Smith grinned. “<Help them. The people of this city. But don’t worry, I fight like a coward and run away when it’s too dangerous.>”
“<But the armor? We never got that much.>” The guard, presumably a soldier disguised as a guard, asked.
Smith nodded “<Forgot about that.>”, and gave the White Wolf his sword, checked his dagger and pulled his sling and a heavy projectile from the pouch. Losing an armbrust bolt would be too expensive.
“Last resort?” The Wolf asked when he read the inscription on the blade.
Smith nodded. “If that thing gets blood on it I have failed talking.”
When Smith saw the two groups, the soldiers with their backs towards them and the civilians facing them he shook his head and put his sling away. “<Too dangerous. To the gates! And Willi… Wolf, I want my sword back.>”

Smith lifted the block and tied it to his backpack. “<Little souvenir. Or some dry wood for the fire.>”
The warden grinned and pushed the gate open. “<Good luck making a new one when you don’t have the tools.>”
Smith sighed and started walking. “<I will attend to this problem as well… Schotenburg wanted to join the Neutral Zone, they did secede, but I don’t think this is the way the common people wanted. But first get these people here a home.>”
The warden nodded. “<You have your reasons to hate me, but you don’t. You just tolerate me being here.>”
Smith smiled. “<You have proven yourself to be a reliable person, you kept the prisoners alive. I know that seven have been killed, but those were from the second group.>”
The warden nodded. “<Indeed. How did you know? Last moon nobody escaped, tonight have been the first in a long time.>”
Smith shrugged. “<People tell me things. Tiny bits of information, and I put them together. Last night I talked with an old friend here, he gave me some information, and when we left the prison and those other soldiers started to call in the distance I asked one of the Dogs what they were saying, and he told me that the riots usually start late in the afternoon, never this early, and not expected today. I have not seen my friend, but I guess he has a hand in these early riots, to give the soldiers a distraction.>”
The warden nodded. “<Always nice to have people you can trust. Unfortunately I don’t have those outside the prison.>”

They walked on in silence, at a quite decent pace given the time they had been sitting in a cage. It would be a nice distance they would be away from Schotenburg tonight, just a few days away from the border. And they had enough food to reach the border, where help was expected.
In the distance a large group of armed people, walking and on horseback was coming towards them. Smith didn’t see them immediately, his view was obscured by others because he was walking at the back, but when the rumors reached him he forced his way to the front of the group.
He smiled when he saw who or what the group was. “<I see people with and without ears on top of their head, round ears and pointy ears, even a few bald people with the little bit of sunlight we have reflecting on their heads. These are people of the Neutral Zone. We are far from home, but I think they crossed the border to help us.>”
“<This far out? We are not even close to the border, are we?>” A Cat noted.
Smith sighed. “<No. They are not allowed to be here. This could be seen as an illegitimate invasion. Quick greeting, and walk on westward until dark.>”

It was almost the entire army of the Neutral Zone, not only those from Smithsville, but also a lot of Foxes, armed with bow and arrow. There were even some Kobolder and Orks with their heavy armbrusts and carts with barrels of something.
And there were also a lot of civilians, many Humans but also a lot of Wolves that came to the Neutral Zone with Smith not too long ago.
Mary was the first to greet Smith. All she could do was smile and hug him.
Smith sighed. “<I’m sorry I had to leave just after I got back. There were… more important people I had to get home.>”
Mary kissed Smith on his cheek. “<You have the queen. That’s the most important.>”
Smith sighed. “I wanted to keep that secret until we got home.”
Mary looked at Smith and smiled. “Everyone from the Neutral Zone knows. They were even making plans to get her out without your permission.”
Smith nodded. “<Shall we continue in Human? Most of the Inimals I have with me only understand that.>”
One of the Cats nodded. “<I understand both languages. We all knew the Lioness was the queen and that White Wolf was her bodyguard. And I think he has found his wife and child again.>”
Smith nodded and pointed to the west. “<Alright everyone! Time to go home. I… may have done some things in Schotenburg that were not permitted, like taking this block that is supposed to hold the gates closed with me, and I want to be as far away from Schotenburg as possible.>”
One of the Humans from the Neutral Zone grinned. “<That’s the best thing you could take. But knowing what you have done in the past that’s probably the least of the things you have done in Schotenburg. Can we have that block?>”
Smith nodded. “<Of course you can have it.>” And untied the dead weight from his backpack.
The Human gently handled the block, admiring it from all sides. “<Did you know we have encountered six people who escaped?>”
Smith nodded. “<Yes. Not the number, but they left the gates open. The are here?>”
The man shook his head. “<No, we sent them on.>
Smith shrugged. “<Pity. I wanted to thank them.>”

“<We’re being followed! Horses!>” someone called out. They had been walking for some hours.
“Defensive lines! Archers ready! Civilians move on!” Arthur called out.
Like it was trained a defensive line was set up across the road, extending into the fields. Humans and Wolves with long spears at the front, crouched, the ranged weapons behind them with enough space between them for the swordsmen to come forward to defend them if needed, and mixed groups with a bit more Felines at the flanks. There were already some Wolves on horses, but they lacked the experience, and those moved on westwards with the rest. The guard with the prison sword got a few strange looks because of his weird sword, but his face was pure determination.
“Smith! You are a civ too, get behind the line!” Arthur called.
Smith shook his head and got his sling and went standing in front of the soldiers. “No. Those soldiers from Schotenburg have too much armor and chain mail… Archers, aim for their faces, I don’t think our standard armor piercing arrows or even the armbrusts are good enough. Blades are also not going to be very effective, what we need are accuracy, heavy projectiles and hammers.”

It were twenty-four soldiers that came. Eight with swords, eight with spears, and eight with long batons like they had in Schotenburg. Stopping at what they considered a safe distance, halfway the range the archers of the Neutral Zone had. They looked very uncertain.
Smith loaded a projectile in his sling, and without saying a word he knocked a spearman off his horse.
The others were scared, but remained on their position while Smith loaded a second projectile.
He saw that one of the soldiers with a spear closed his eyes and sighed, like he was accepting death. He would be the last to be killed. Or spared if he decided to run, that’s what Smith hoped for, fleeing soldiers who could tell there was an army facing them.
Another throw, twenty-two left, one swordsman down. These were not the main attack force, these were the distraction. That’s why they didn’t all have proper weapons. They were supposed to hit and run, spreading chaos and slow Smith and the people he left Schotenburg with down until they could properly be disposed off.
“Kill them, get the horses, and retreat. Good thing we brought an army, because I expect another attack. Smith, quit your playing.” Wallis called out.
Smith nodded, and crouched so he was not in the way of the arrows and bolts.

Some of the arrows hit the armor of the soldiers and were indeed ineffective, but there were far more arrows than soldiers, and in a few moments all the remaining soldiers were dead, shot in the face. You can’t compensate lack of skill with armor there.

“Good call Wallis. It seems that you fit in nicely.” Smith spoke while he dug out his projectile out of the skull of the first soldier. His aim was still very true, he had hit the target right between the eyes.
Wallis nodded. “Thanks. You taught me that I have to talk and listen. We have some former soldiers from Schotenburg, they have given a lot of information in a few days. I don’t speak Human, but a lot of the others do, and they did the translation for me.”
Smith nodded. “Good. Don’t let those horses get away, seems like a nice addition to our cavalry.”
Wallis grinned. “And it seems that not all archers are good. Who released that arrow that Smith has sticking out of his backpack?”
One of the Humans stepped forward. “It was me, sir.”
Smith checked his backpack. The arrow had penetrated the bundle of rags he had on the outside, with no other damage except for a minor chip off of a sharpening stone. “You are as good as a Wolf with your bow and arrow. Not good enough for me, you train with the Wolves from now on, until there are three Wolves worse than you are. And Wolves, don’t be gentle. I don’t like being shot, this is a punishment. Train him as one of your own, but don’t be unfair.”
The Wolves nodded, and patted the soldier on his shoulder. He dared to shoot Smith, and lived.

All twenty-four horses were caught. Only six of them had minor injuries because not every archer was very skilled, but they could make the journey to their new stables. Better stables, they were skinny.
“Time to move! Double speed! We have to catch up with the rest!” Arthur called out.
“No, wait!” Smith replied while he got one of the spears the soldiers from Schotenburg had.
“Why?” Arthur replied, a bit annoyed.
Smith pointed at the dead soldiers. “I want their armor and chain mail. And I want to do something else, but that after they are stripped of their valuables. Leave the helmets, but erase all of our traces. No arrow left behind.”

When the first of the Schotenburg soldiers was stripped of his belongings Smith got his knife and cut the head off. Two of the Neutral Human soldiers started to vomit when they saw what Smith was doing, but Smith ignored them and continued. A few of the Wolves followed Smith’s example.
A short time later the headless bodies were in a ditch, and the heads with their helmets on were in three rows by the side of the road. Eight impaled on the spears, eight impaled on the swords, and eight in front of them on the ground, all easy to see when you came from Schotenburg.
Smith grinned when he admired his work. “<Let this be a warning for those who dare to follow us.>”
One of the Humans who vomited nodded. “<Indeed. If I didn’t know it was you who ordered this I would run away screaming.>”
Smith nodded. “<Noticed how easy the Wolves did this? Imagine seeing this for the first time, but with your wife and unborn child… Time to move, you get a horse, I’ll walk.>”

The camp the people from the Neutral Zone had set up was not very far, just a few more hours of walking, on the edge of a forest. When Smith, Arthur, Wallis and a few more soldiers for his protection arrived they were just setting up roasting spits for some boar that were killed by the Bergvolk.
They arrived just before dark, but there were no torches ready to be lit, and the fires were in pits, surrounded by stones. In the dark and from a distance nobody would suspect an army would be there.
Again it was Mary who greeted Smith first, this time accompanied by Pebble and her parents, and the Lioness and the warden.
“Welcome William… And Marble of course. Sorry I was so rude and did not even introduce myself. And some Lioness, but you are not important. A few days of rest at home and then I’ll get you home. We have enough people who can do administration.” Smith greeted them.
The Lioness smiled. “I am the Inimal queen. A bit more respect please.”
Smith grinned. “Your older sister may have told you about a Human boy she had as a lover. I was that boy. I have used all my respect for her, she is the reason I don’t really like Lionesses any more.”
The Lioness shrugged. “Pity. I could use some action, at some point I would not even mind a Human. William treated me with a bit… too much respect. He just looked the other way when I wanted.”
Smith shrugged. “Too much happened… Let’s say that your husband had a lot more action, but we have plenty of time to talk about that… To be honest, I don’t even know your name.”
The Lioness smiled. “Lilian. Most people describe you as ‘does too much to summarize’, and they really adore you. My husband really hated Humans, but it seems that he has changed.”
Smith grinned. “Our first meeting was… Well… Ask Arthur.”
Arthur also grinned. “Smith was working in his smithy, and was not properly dressed at the first meeting. Everyone in nice clothing, except Smith. Smith told Leopold to be as he was, and he did. He really needed to go to the toilet, and he didn’t say that in the most diplomatic way. But our relations with both kingdoms are good, we only couldn’t get you out sooner because that might have raised some suspicion.”
Lilian nodded. “But thanks to Mary life in prison before the regime change wasn’t that bad. Smith really shook things up, they feared him.”
Smith looked at the warden. “<You understand what we are talking about?>”
The warden nodded. “<A bit. Seems like we had the Inimal queen in our prison for three years, could have been a good hostage for our demands. Explains why that White Wolf was so protective.>”
Smith shrugged. “<Yes… But now I have her. And I want to return her, if Mary approves.>”
Mary kissed Smith again. “<Yes… But I’m not coming along, we have a lot to do at home. I’m sitting behind your desk at the town hall.>”
Smith nodded. “<And I think you are much better at that. You are not strong enough to destroy the furniture when you are angry.>”
Mary grinned. “<The calculations you shouted were correct after all. You were only two tenths of a percent off, in our advantage, the meat was a bit cheaper. But the smashed furniture nullified that.>”

It felt odd, being in a tent with both a Human female and a Lioness, but the sleep was good, with them both cuddling him.
In the morning it was again a bit awkward, but they were all satisfied.
Smith was the last one to leave the tent, he needed a bit more time to recover. Moons with nothing, three Tigresses, and again a few weeks of nothing had taken their toll. At least he had soft hands after not using tools in a very long time, only a bit of sharpening, weeks ago.
“Good morning, anything happened?” Smith asked some Inimal soldiers who were guarding.
“No, not really. You have to be more gentle, you don’t have to be that gentle, try to avoid the tail, and you really moan a lot.” One of the soldiers replied, grinning.
Smith shrugged. “And besides that? No attacks or spies?”
The soldier shook his head. “No, not here. We had some scouts watching the road, they reported over a hundred torches, but when they reached the point where we fought they turned around and left faster than they came, like a ghost was chasing them.”
Smith nodded. “Good. Ask the Vulpine if they also know of a ghost.”
Vince put his hand on Smith’s shoulder. “We do. And now those Humans are going to believe it too. Time to get our queen home.”
Smith nodded. “I left for the Wolves, came back with them, was forced to sit behind a table for a few days because people might want to talk to me, Marble was brought to me, she turned out to be Pebble’s mother, people kept telling me that Pebble’s father was a King’s Guard, then I remembered the White Wolf and the Lioness at the prison of Schotenburg and I left to get them. Now I have them, and I firstly want to go home, and take a few days of rest. And I want to wait for Casper, I am not going to let the queen walk home in bad weather.”
Lilian nodded. “Impressive what you have done. I wonder if there is a kingdom left when I get home.”
Smith shrugged. “I don’t care about kingdoms. I care about happy people.”
One of the Wolves kissed Smith again. “Yes. Like a king is supposed to do.”

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