Re: Forge of Kingdoms (NSFW) - Chapter 40
Posted: Thu Dec 26, 2019 7:37 pm
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.
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.