(a furry adventure story (C)02-Jun-2002 by Dario Abatianni <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
Commissioned by Silber
Dusk was painting the western sky in red and violet. The soft colors turned the hills and forests into places of another world, silent and peaceful. With every minute the land lost more of the day's light, surrendering to the darkness but surely awaiting the sun to return the next morning. Every evening the first traces of the beginning night told the wandering folk to look for a convenient place to rest and gather new strength. So did the three comrades that came down the broad path leading through the wood lands. Gentle sounds from clawed paws playing a lute accompanied them while they searched the area for a good spot to stop and stay for the night. Finally one of them pointed to a place next to the road - it was just as good as anywhere, so they made their camp there.
Darkness fell early in this time of the year, when the leaves started to change their color and slid down to the ground. The companions were still in good condition and none of them wanted to go to sleep very soon. Paliach, the sturdy bear unfastened his broad belt, lay his sword next to him and looked over to Kitim, who was sitting across the fireplace, carefully lowering his instrument to the ground. »Don't put that thing away already, pal. The night's still young and you could tell us a story or something.«
The weasel looked up to him and smiled. »Thank you for asking me. But I think, this time it shouldn't be me, who is telling a story. You know that I know a lot of songs and legends, but as it is, a bard's never contented with his tales and tunes, as long as there is more to hear and learn. Tonight I'd like to learn something new.« He turned to the third person that had remained silent all the time. »Thial, my friend. Would you like to tell us your story? We've been wandering with you for some time now, but you never revealed a piece of your life to us.«
There was a moment of silence until the wolf turned his head to the bard. The dancing flames were reflected on the grey fur of his face. He never talked very much, but when he spoke his voice was deep and clear. »You want to hear my story, Kitim?« he said. »Why? I'm not one of your princes and lords of all the other stories.«
»I know,« the weasel replied. »But it's not them, I want to tell a tale about now. I don't care if a person is rich or poor, famous or unknown. I sense you've led an interesting life, and this is, what I want to hear about.«
»Yeah, tell us about it!« Paliach agreed. »Even I told you about me some days ago, remember? And I really doubt you found it interesting at all.« He grinned and took a sip from the big green bottle he always carried around. »So it would be only fair to let us know what you've been doing before you met us two.«
Thial growled deeply, but not with anger. Kitim could clearly see memories coming back into the wolf's mind. For a moment he regretted asking him, but then he felt it would be the best for him to talk about it. Whatever it was that haunted him, it surely would help him unfolding it to his comrades. But he didn't seem to like the idea.
»All right, then,« Thial said, inhaling deeply. »You want to hear a story about life, and I'll tell you one. But be warned: I'm no storyteller at all, and this story isn't going to be a very happy one. And - forgive me - I won't tell you about my own life - not now. It's easier for me to start with somebody else's.« He turned his head to the fire and fell silent for a while - the silence was so deep that even Paliach did not dare to break it before Thial began to speak again.
Silber watched Sizka, while she carefully cut another piece from the small wooden stick. Only half a day and it was already gaining shape. He always enjoyed it to see her working on a new figure, watching the progress of turning a raw branch into a piece of art. Sometimes she used her claws to scrape away smaller pieces or clean up places she could not reach effectively with the knife. Every now and then she held the stick into the flickering light of the fire and continued to work. He was very curious to see, what it would become this time.
When Sizka noticed him watching her, she smiled and put the figure down into her lap. »Silber, would you please stop staring at me? You're making me nervous, and you know that.«
He nodded. »Yes, but I like to watch your paws working.«
»I bet you'd like to watch them work at some other place right now,« another voice from across the fireplace said. Fedon was a bulky badger mercenary, who was just cleaning his leather armor.
»Would you please mind your own business, stripe-head?« Silber answered sweetly but alert.
Fedon just shrugged. »Well, if you don't, I'd always volunteer for a substitute.«
Silber was about to stand up, but Sizka warned him with a quick flick of an ear. »Thank you for your offer, handsome,« she said to the badger while toying around with the knife, »but as you can see, I already have some stick to carve. Yours may be next, if you really want to.« The knife started to cut again.
Silber grinned brightly and Fedon growled, grabbing his shoulder straps to rub off the dust from the streets.
Just at this moment Hachea returned from scouting. He looked about and instantly saw that he had missed something. »Oh well! Why do I always have to be gone when something's happening?«
»Must be your feline body-scent,« Fedon said, still a bit grumpy.
»Ah, yeah. Whatever.« He sat down and began to unroll his sleeping blanket. »Nothing to be seen around. I think, this land's as deserted as can be. Boring, if you ask me.«
»All for the better,« Silber replied. »I'll take the first watch.« The other comrades got ready to rest for the night while he found himself a comfortable position to sit near the fire. One turn was taken over by another and soon the night was over.
On the next day they were on their way again. The warm weather made traveling easy and relaxing, and there were only about two more days until they would reach the next small village. Sizka had finished her carving during their midday rest and Silber was full of praise for her new work. It resembled a wolf, like herself, but this one had a slightly longer muzzle and larger body, so she must have taken him for her model. Her red wolf form was quite similar to his, but being a gray wolf, he bore some different features she accurately had copied into her wooden figure. »I'll make another one soon,« she said. »One for you, one for me. What do you think?« Instead of an answer he just pulled her close and licked her cheek.
»Look there!« Hachea suddenly cried. He peered into the distance where the sun was just about to set. »There are wagons on the street.«
They turned their attention to the road again and saw what Hachea meant. About half a mile down the road there were some fabric covered vehicles, painted in a multitude of colors and slowly making their way southward. Every wagon was pulled by one or two bullocks, and their wheels made crunching noises on the sandy road. Fedon took his broad axe from his back, but to Silber the trek didn't seem to be dangerous.
About an hour later they reached the caravan. While they were approaching they could hear music and laughter coming from the wagons, and sometimes one or two of the travelers could be seen. They seemed to be some kind of showmen on the way to the next town. While they came nearer the smell of weeds and tobacco filled the air.
It was not long before they were noticed by the traveling people. One of them jumped from the last coach in line and stood on the street to meet the group. He was a lean raccoon, about mid-age and not very tall. A warm smile showed on his face while he patiently waited for the others to approach. A worn out cap sat on his head and he wore a pair of ragged harem type like pants.
»Hello, fellow wanderers!« he said, when they finally met. Without hesitation he started walking again and joined the newcomers. »How delightful to see some new faces on our journey eventually! My name's Hathas and I'm the leader of our little group over there.« With fluent motions he lifted his cap and made a bow to them, never slowing his pace. He pointed at the carriages that slowly continued their way down the street. »We were just about to rest for the evening meal, and we'd be glad to be accompanied by you.«
Silber shook his head with a smile. This guy was weird, all right. He obviously was used to talking to strangers and the way he moved spoke of agility and speed. The wolf checked his money bag and kept his distance from the raccoon.
Hachea seemed to be less suspicious. »I think, we'd like that, don't we?« He turned to his comrades and they agreed. »The meal always tastes better with nice company.«
»Then I'll tell my people, that we'll have guests at our campfire. This grassy plain over there seems to be the perfect place for our rest.« He smiled again and went back to the trek double-time. The others kept on walking and watched the coaches leaving the street and setting up a rough circle on the grass next to the road. Just a few minutes later they reached the trek. The camp was buzzing with life - cubs of all species ran around, chasing each other while they enjoyed to break out of the limits of the wagon for a short time. Older males and females set up the camp with a good deal of routine. A bonfire was ready in no time and some musicians took out their instruments and played. In less than five minutes the quiet plain had been turned into a fair.
Silber and his companions stood at the edge of the circle and watched the travelers. Soon after the camp was ready, Hathas came up to them, smiling as usual. »Well, don't keep just standing around. Be our guests! We have palatable meat roasting over the fire, and wine and beer to clean the throat. Only the best is good enough for our friends on the road.« He put his arm around Hachea's waist and led him towards the center of the circle. The others followed, more alert than the cat.
It seemed as if they had crossed the border of two worlds when they entered the circle; the merry mood of the evening camp heightened their spirits and shut away the world outside. They forgot about their weak muscles and looked around like cubs seeing a country fair for the first time. The fire was burning high already and two huge kettles hung over it, cooking some rich stew. Hathas led the companions to a log that had been put down near the fire and sent a young girl to get them some dishes. »I hope you'll enjoy yourselves. If you'd excuse me, I have to go and care for the animals.« He bowed again and left, walking over to the makeshift corral where the bullocks were patiently waiting for their share of the meal.
A few moments later the girl came back and gave each of them plate, fork and spoon for the stew. She was a small ermine, Silber estimated her age around fifteen summers. But despite her youth she already knew how to show herself to the males, and the wolf wasn't surprised, when he saw how Fedon was looking at her. He only hoped that the badger would keep himself under control. There was no need for getting in trouble on the road with people like those.
The ermine led them to the kettles, filled their plates and gave them some bread. The hot stew was smelling wonderful and Silber was already eating before they were back at the log again. When they sat down he spilled a little of his meal onto his paw and licked it clean in embarrassment. Sizka laughed and started to eat herself. The young girl giggled and left to get herself her share. Fedon's gaze followed her until she disappeared in the small crowd of the traveling people.
»That's some neat set of hips, dont'cha think, cat-head?« Fedon growled with a wide grin and nudged Hachea in the side. »I bet she can do more with them than just dance.«
»Oh, well! Cut it out, Fedon,« Hachea giggled. »She's only a child and besides - you don't know if she's already promised to someone else, do you?«
»That shouldn't be too hard to find out, pal,« the badger laughed and started to wolf down his food. »You see,« he continued between mouthfuls, »whoever she may be promised to, I'm sure he'd be no match for me. Look at them! They're just a bunch of gypsies!«
»At least they're kind enough to invite us to eat with them,« Sizka said. »I don't think they deserve it, that you talk low of them.«
»My apologies!« Fedon replied with a grin. »I just happen to like a piece of flesh to my meal.«
They finished their dinner in silence. All around them the travelers were either eating too or going about their business, checking the carriages' wheels for cracks and tending the leather straps of the harnesses. Others were making music and some of them even danced. Silber was glad that they weren't in a hurry, so they could stay for some time and enjoy the easy way of life.
When they put down their plates, Sizka stood up and grabbed Silber's paw. »Let's walk around a little! Now that we're at their camp already we can just as well enjoy ourselves.«
Silber laughed and rose. They wandered over the open place inside the circle and started to stroll around the camp. Sizka was wide eyed, curiously taking in all the details of the traveler's coaches. At one time a woman appeared in front of them and before they knew it, they both held a mug of hot wine in their paws. Smiling at each other they sipped while the music from the center of the circle suddenly started to pick up pace. More and more of the travelers had gathered around the fire and were dancing in pairs. »Look there!« Sizka suddenly said and pointed at the group of dancers. Silber followed her gaze and saw Fedon, who was dancing with the young ermine. »It seems as if he doesn't waste any time.«
»Probably not,« Silber answered with a smirk. »You know, people of his profession never know when they'll get their next f-«
»Hush, love!« Sizka said giggling. »The wine seems to be loosening your tongue.«
»So tell me, did the wine loosen your tongue, too?« He smiled and put an arm around his mate. After a deep kiss they walked around for a while, matching their steps with the rhythm of the music and letting themselves be enchanted by their surroundings.
»Silber! Look at that!« Sizka suddenly stopped and pointed to a wagon some distance away. It was not part of the circle but it still seemed to belong to the trek. Its walls were painted in lots of colors, and scraps of fabric and other decoration hung from the top. »What do you think is that? Why's it so far away from the others?«
»I don't know. Maybe the owner of this carriage doesn't like the music.« He smiled. »We could always go and have a closer look.«
They approached the secluded wagon and quickly found out, what purpose it was serving. »A fortune teller! Silber, let's go in and find out about our future!«
He looked at her in amusement. »You really believe in this?«
»No, but it'll be fun! Come on!« She tugged at his paw when he wasn't moving immediately. »What do you think? They won't bite us!«
»You sure?« he asked and laughed, when he saw her ears going down. »Sizka! Don't look at me like that! That was just a joke!« Instead of an answer Sizka just yanked at his paw and dragged him along towards the entrance of the wagon. »Hey! All right, I'm coming, you win! But stop tearing me into pieces!«
Laughing they went to the small stairs that led up into the carriage. The entrance was covered with loosely hanging straps of fabric, each one in another color. The smell of herbs and strange mixtures was coming out of it and they heard a soft voice chanting. Carefully Silber parted the fabric and peered inside. Sizka entered the wagon silently next to him and he followed.
Inside the smell was much stronger, the air was filled with thin smoke and they saw candles standing everywhere. The noise of the camp was now nothing more than a murmur. At the opposite wall an old rabbit woman was sitting cross legged on the floor. Her eyes were closed and she kept on singing in a soft voice. Without looking she picked up herbs and small vials that were arranged around her, mixed them together in a bowl in her lap and started to move her paws above and around the vessel in a complicated pattern. Suddenly there was a hissing sound, and the contents of the bowl started to smoulder and emit a thick white smoke.
The rabbit put the bowl down before her and finally opened her eyes. She stared into the smoke, inhaled deeply and let her breath out again. »Sit down, children,« she said finally, waving her paw to a pile of furs at one side of the walls. Her voice was surprisingly deep and, despite her age, crystal clear.
Sizka and Silber looked at each other and finally made themselves comfortable on the furs.
The woman patiently waited before she started to speak again, »Time is like a wanderer we meet on our way through life. Some of them fall behind to show their faces, yet fading in the distance; others are staying at our sides, clearly revealing themselves to us, close enough to the touch and smell. Then there are those, who only just emerge in our field of vision, turning their backs to us and hiding their faces, until we manage to catch up.«
She took another vial, opened it and let a few drops of a red liquid fall into the still smoking bowl before her. They dissolved with a hiss and the clouds disappeared quickly. The surface of the bowl had become a perfect liquid mirror. »I can see the face of those you will meet on your way, for I am already at the end of your path.«
Sizka looked at Silber, but he looked at her as if he wanted to say, »It was your idea, so you try to make sense out of her.«
»I'd like to know-« Sizka started, but the old woman lifted her paw so shush her. Her face showed concern.
»I'm aware of what you want to see. But your future leads through a thick bank of mist even my eyes can't see through.«
Silber perked up his ears in alarm, completely forgetting that he usually didn't believe in fortune telling. »Is there something going to happen to us?«
»Your path, son, is as clear as the sun on a mid-summer's day,« she said, moving her paws about, only a small distance over the surface of the liquid in the bowl. »I see trouble, but I also see joy. It depends on you which of them you will face.« She stared at the liquid mirror for some time and looked again at Sizka. »You confuse me, little wolfess. I can't find a way to lift the veil that disguises your future. I believe fate has something in mind for you.«
Sizka moved a little closer to Silber. He could feel her tremble slightly. »Tell me,« she said, »what shall I do? Can you give me advice?«
»There is nothing I can tell you, that you don't already know. Whatever fate is meant for you, you will meet it.« She turned around and opened a small cabinet that was standing behind her. When she faced them again she held two small wooden cases in her paws. »I can't prepare you for what's coming, but I can give you something that will help you to look after each other.« She gave the cases to each of them and they looked at them in confusion.
Silber took a deep breath and opened his case. A golden necklace was lying in a soft cushion of white fur. A small black stone, like a polished pebble, was dangling from it. »What's this?«
Sizka had opened her case, too, while the woman continued to speak. She also had a golden necklace, but her gem was brightly green.
»These necklaces are connected to each other by their own magic. Put them on, and you will see for yourselves.«
They looked at each other and slipped the necklaces over their heads. When both gems were resting on their chests they felt them start to pulsate, as if they had suddenly come to life. Sizka flinched and started to remove her necklace, but the bunny held back her paws.
»Don't take it off, unless you really want to!« she said with a warning voice. »The gems are beating with the heart of the other. Nobody will be able to steal them from you. The only way to remove them is by your free will.« Silber closed his paw around the small black stone and felt the pounds on his pads. It was just like when he put his palm on Sizka's breast. He looked over to his mate and saw that she had put her paw on her gem, too; her face spoke of a mixture of fear and fascination.
»Do you think, we'll need the gems? What will happen to us?« Silber asked. Suddenly he was afraid that he could lose Sizka.
»I can't see this,« the woman said with sorrow. »It's all I can do at the moment. Don't be afraid, though. There's no immediate danger ahead and it's not sure that there will ever be. Please, go now. Leave this wagon. I wish you all the best.«
The wolves rose. Sizka looked at the fortune teller as if she wanted to say something, but the old bunny was already singing and chanting again, probably listening to voices only she could hear.
Silber led his mate out of the car and moved to the side, when another couple approached the entrance of the wagon, their looks stern and in anticipation. The traveling people obviously took the fortune teller more seriously. »What do you think,« Silber started. »Will she give them some necklaces, too?«
»I don't know, Silber. Maybe there's something in the words she said. The gems are just like our heartbeats, so there must be some magic in them. I only hope we won't need them.«
»I hope so, too.« He stopped and pulled her close. Their looks locked into each other's and then they kissed passionately. They wandered away from the camp into the dense woods nearby. Both of them had the strong urge to hold another until the morning came. The stars were looking down from the clear black sky when they made love under the trees.
»Who's there?« Paliach growled and was on his feet in no time. He already had his sword in his big paw and stared into the darkness.
Thial interrupted his tale and he and Kitim rose, too. A lean figure in a black cloak was standing just at the edge of the illuminated area of the campfire. The head was mostly concealed under a dark hood and the paws were drawn into the sleeves of his cloak. While they watched, the figure made a step towards them and lifted one paw to greet. »Good evening,« he said. His voice was sounding very young, yet it showed no trace of fear. »I was on my way down the road and just looking for a place to stay overnight, when I saw your fire and heard someone telling a story. Would you mind, if I just sat by your fire and listened to your tale? I just need some rest, and I have my own food with me.«
»While I can't speak for all of us I believe you're welcome to join us,« Kitim said and looked at the other two comrades. Paliach nodded and Thial just turned to the fire again. »So I take this as a yes,« he said cheerfully. »Sit down here and make yourself comfortable.« The companions took their places again.
»Thank you.« The stranger approached and sat down near the fire. He stretched his light-colored paws out to the fire.
»So Thial,« Kitim inquired with a smile, »what was it you told us about the wolves in the forest?«
During their travels the sun had lost its warming powers and reluctantly let the winter take over the lands. There had been no snow until now but the air was chilly. Sizka and Hachea had draped themselves in thick capes and boots, and even Silber wore a padded coat and pants now. Due to his wanderings through all kinds of lands he was more accustomed to the low temperatures than the others were, but this didn't mean that he enjoyed it very much.
Fedon had left them a week ago. While they stayed at a pub in one of the bigger cities of this realm he was offered a lucrative job and so he left his companions. Silber, Sizka and Hachea had decided to stay together until they found a place to live for the rest of the winter.
But although the badger was no longer traveling with them, there still were four people in their party. Since a few days a young arctic vixen was with them. Cari joined them on the way north when they met her at a fork in the street. She told them, she was a hunter on the way back to her family, after she had lived a long time in the western lands. And since she was a very good shot with the crossbow she could help Silber bringing in more food.
Just like this evening, when she came back early from hunting. Hachea and Sizka had built a big campfire and they were glad to see the three fat rabbits Cari had shot. Only minutes later Silber returned from his prowl. He hadn't been so lucky but at least he had killed two wild ducks that had not yet left the cold lands for the south. His long bow was already disassembled and neatly packed away on his back when he came into the light of the fire.
»Ah, you've made a good game,« he congratulated the vixen. »All the better, for luck wasn't with me tonight.« He dropped the fowls at the fire and went over to Sizka to lick her muzzle briefly. »Thank you two for building the fire,« he said, turning to the flames and stretching out his paws to warm them. »My fingers feel all numb from holding the bow so long.«
»Yes,« Cari said apprehensively. »The chill's making your paws freeze.«
»Warm yourselves up a little, then,« Sizka said. »I'll start preparing the ducks in the meantime. Hachea, could you skin the rabbits? We can fry them to make them last longer.«
The cat nodded but his face showed clearly how much he hated this kind of work. He always was careful not to get his fur messy, and he knew that this was going to be gross.
Silber relaxed and stared into the fire. Unconsciously his paw traveled up to the gem on the necklace he was wearing. They nearly had forgotten about the words of the old fortune teller but still the gems were pounding with the same strength as before. Somehow they had become a part of their life, and they both frequently touched their trinkets to feel the heart of the other beating. The meal was ready soon, and they started to satisfy their hunger.
»So, where are you going after we reached the city?« Hachea asked, addressing the vixen. »I don't believe you want to stay there for long, do you?«
Cari looked up from her meal. »No. I'm going to continue traveling north. My home's still more than two weeks away by paw, and I don't want to delay my coming home too much.«
»So your family's waiting for you already?«
»Yes, at least, my mother is. My father died a couple of years ago in the mountains.«
Cari smiled. »It's all right, I got over it quickly, I never knew him very much.« She took another bite from her duck haunch. »What are you going to do, once we reach the city?«
»I don't really know,« Hachea answered. »I'm not very fond of the idea to wander around in the cold for very much longer. I saved a little money and this'll bring me through the dark season quite nicely if I find some work for me.« He turned to the two wolves who were sitting next to each other at his right side. »How about you?«
Silber looked at the cat with a thoughtful expression. »I think we'll stay for a while, too. But I don't know if we'll be there the whole winter. I'm not the type that easily settles down, and Sizka said she doesn't like the big cities. So probably we'll move on eventually, but it's not for sure, yet.«
»I hope it'll not be too early,« Hachea said, while he poked around in the fire with a stick to lighten it up a bit. »The time in the city will be a bit boring without my fellow friends.«
»I'm glad you like our company, Hachea,« Silber said with a wide grin. »I'm sure we're-«
»Hush!« the cat said, his ears perked up, twisting and turning to locate some noise he had heard. »There's someone coming.«
Silber put down his meat and grabbed the long bow that was lying behind him on the floor, quickly starting to fasten the string. Cari had fetched her weapon, too and Sizka lay her hand on the knife at her belt. Hachea stood up, but kept ducked low. He stared into the woods and tried to penetrate the darkness with his strong feline sight. When he saw a body quickly moving towards the camp he grabbed his sturdy staff. »Who are you?« he shouted but at the next moment a dark shape crashed into him at high speed and tore him to the floor.
The others were on their feet in an instant and ready to fight. More figures were coming out of the darkness. Hachea hissed loudly and threw the attacker off of his body. They weren't very large but they seemed to move incredibly quick and their shapes were hard to see, as if they blurred in and out of existence.
Silber put an arrow on the string and shot at one of the strange creatures. A loud shriek followed and the figure toppled over. He ran over to the fallen body and found his arrow, but he couldn't find the creature lying there. The arrow was coated halfway with a dark, sticky liquid, so he knew that he actually had hit it. »They're demons!« he shouted. »Pack your stuff and run! We can't fight them!«
But they were surrounded. Black shapes attacked them from everywhere, blocking their way out to all sides. With clenched teeth they fought them off as good as possible, but Cari ran out of bolts quickly and Silber didn't have an infinite amount of arrows himself, too. And only Sizka's knife and Hachea's staff weren't enough to protect them all.
Suddenly Sizka screamed and fell to the ground. Silber turned around instantly and saw his mate being held down by at least four of the attackers. He reached into his quiver and took out his last arrow. With quick movements he tightened the bow and shot at the creatures. Again one of them shrieked but he could see, that Sizka's body was quickly lifted from the floor and dragged away from the camp. »No!« he screamed. »Let her go!« He ran after them but more of the creatures blocked his path and he had to fight his way on. Sharp claws dug into his flesh, while he stroke out with his paws again and again. But eventually he was brought to the floor, too. The attackers were just too many and seemed to be immune to pain or damage.
He growled and screamed in anger, threw off one of the creatures and tried to get up, but the attackers kept him down. With their teeth and claws they jabbed and bit him, causing pain that made his escape impossible. From a distance he heard Cari's and Hachea's screams, so they were attacked like him, too. The thought of his mate being carried away by this strange creatures made him mad with fear for her, and he summoned all his strength for his final struggle. He actually managed to sit up, and then the dark shapes suddenly started to disappear. They didn't run or fly away, they just faded and were gone in a second or two. Shaking his head in disbelief, Silber looked around and tried to stand up. He made it to get up on his knees when one of his legs gave way under his weight. But before he could hit the ground he was grabbed by strong paws that held him upright.
»Careful, friend,« Hachea said, standing behind him. »You've been hurt badly. Take it slowly.«
With help from his feline companion he finally staggered to his feet. His left leg still burned like fire but it held his weight. »Where is Sizka?«
»I saw them carrying her away,« Cari said with a gloomy face. »We couldn't stop them. They've been too many.«
»We've got to« - Silber's face was momentarily distorted by the pain that was surging through his body - »We've got to find her! Who knows what those demons are going to do to her!«
»They left clearly visible tracks on the ground,« Hachea said, after he had peered into the direction the attackers had taken their companion. »It shouldn't be too hard to follow them.«
Silber picked up his bow and some of the arrows that were still usable. »Then we shouldn't waste a moment.«
Within a few minutes they got their stuff from the camp, put out the fire and followed the trail. As Hachea had said, it was easy to see where they had gone, so the followers made good progress. Silber cursed under his breath, for he was slowing the party down considerably. His leg was hurting like hell.
Only fifteen minutes later they saw light before them. The forest was opening here and a vast clearing was taking over. About a hundred feet ahead, in the middle of the opening, they could see a circle of strangely glowing stones. In the center of the circle were two figures, one was standing upright, moving its arms in a peculiar way and the other lay motionless before it on the ground. Silber instantly recognized Sizka's form and started to run as good as he could. »Stop! Let her go!« he cried and put an arrow on his bow.
The other person in the circle briefly froze and turned around to him. She was an old woman of indistinguishable species. Even from this distance he could feel her cold eyes lying on him before she started to speak. »Stay where you are, you fool! She's mine now and her perfectly balanced soul will bring me back my youth again!« The woman lifted her arms high and screamed, »Go! Run away as long as you still can!«
»No!« Silber cried. »You have no right to do that!« He still was moving forward and suddenly saw something rising from the floor before him. With a quick glance around he saw the same figures starting to populate the space between him and Sizka that had attacked them earlier. Again they fought them, Hachea and Cari were doing their best to protect their already badly hurt comrade, but they couldn't get any closer to the circle.
A few minutes later the clearing was hit by a loud crack of thunder and a bolt of lightning that struck the center of the glowing stones. The comrades were hurled back into the forest by the force of the impact. When they got up to their feet again a few seconds later they saw, that the whole clearing was in flames.
»Sizka, no!« Silber cried. »This cannot be!« He tried to run towards the flames but the other two held him back. »Let me go! I've got to find her!«
»Silber, stop! You can't do anything now!« Hachea shouted and held on to his friend's paw. »Don't go there, you'll be killed!«
Silber stopped struggling and grabbed the gem in his fist. At first he thought, that he was feeling it pound, but then he recognized that it was his own pulse that was throbbing in his paw. »Sizka!« he cried again, sagging to his knees when the pain of loss hit him with full force. »Sizka, I love you! Please ... don't leave me!« Tears welled from his eyes and he finally collapsed on the forest floor, the dancing flames reflecting in red and yellow patches on his white fur.
For some time he lay there, shuddering with tears. He felt the paws of one of his companions around his body, holding him while he cried out his pain. When his tears finally subsided, he felt numb, a hollow shell, being deprived of his core, the most precious thing in his life. If it hadn't been for his strong survival instinct he would have just kept lying there, until the cold and exposure would finish him off, too. But he knew he had to live to find the person who was responsible for this. He wouldn't let Sizka's death go unavenged.
These thoughts were keeping his will to live strong, but he didn't notice them consciously. The only thing he felt was pain and loss. When the arms that were holding him finally helped him to get up, he followed, nothing more than a toy doll in the paws of a puppeteer. He placed one paw in front of the other, led by Hachea and supported by Cari, moving away from the still burning clearing where his old life had ended.
They wandered on for many hours, the sun rising slowly and driving away the cold a little. About noon Hachea spotted the first buildings of what seemed to be a small town and they hurried ahead to reach them. Cari had been at Silber's side all the time, tending wounds he didn't even feel, caring for him when his tears came back and comforted him with softly whispered words. She was there when he broke down crying again and helped him up to his feet, when he was ready to go on. Time and time again he grabbed his amulet, feeling only the cold stone in his paw; and every time this sent a jab through his heart, the truth of losing Sizka was settling slowly.
When they reached the town they found a small tavern. Hachea got them a room and they led their wounded friend to their quarters. Cari lay him down on one of the three beds and took out some more bandages and salve to clean and cover the rest of his wounds. In his attempts to save his girlfriend he had been hurt seriously and this was taking its toll on him as well as the mental pain he felt for her death.
Silber closed his eyes and let everything around him just happen. He didn't care how badly he was wounded and he ignored how his body was screaming with pain, when Cari applied some of the medicine to the open cuts. He just let the tears flow anew, drifting into an uneasy slumber that was often interrupted by nightmares and flashes of remembrance.
When he woke the room was dark and only one lonely candle provided dim illumination. The figure of Cari sitting at the table was barely visible. She seemed to have fallen asleep there, her arms were resting on the surface of the table, supporting her head. When he tried to roll around on his side he let out a short yelp of pain. Instantly Cari opened her eyes and rushed to his side.
»You're awake!« she said, with a slight tone of relief in her voice. »How do you feel?«
»I don't really know,« Silber replied. »What time is it?«
»About midnight, I'd guess.« Cari looked briefly at his bandages and lay her paw on his. »Silber ... I'm so sorry about what happened. If there's anything I can do, just call me.«
Silber nodded and lay down on his back again. »Thank you, Cari. But there's nothing you can do to give Sizka back to me. I don't know what I'm going to do without her. She was the most important thing in my life.« He closed his eyes and let a few tears flow down his cheeks. »It hurts so much ...«
»Yes, I know.« Cari stroked the fur on his forehead softly. »Even though I only knew her for this short time I found, that she was a wonderful woman. If you ever feel like talking, just tell me, will you?«
»Yes,« the wolf replied with a whisper. »I can't understand what happened that night, but I don't want to let her death just go without bringing her murderer to justice!« He growled deeply and clenched his fists. »She wasn't ready to die so soon! There was a whole life waiting for her! Nobody has the right to-« He started to sob and cry again, his words became indistinguishable. Cari put her arms around his head and drew him close to her, holding him while he let his grief flow freely. Softly grooming his head she murmured words of reassurance and comfort until she felt that he had gone to sleep again.
Daylight filtered through the closed shutters at the window when he opened his eyes the next time. The candle on the table had been put out and he heard Hachea's soft breathing behind him. His head was hurting terribly from yesterday's efforts and the crying. Again he put his paw on the gem, closing his eyes at the returning feeling of loss and sighed. With slow, deliberate movements he sat up and took of the necklace for the first time since the fortune teller had given the stones to them. Now he remembered her words and shook his head in sorrow. He never would've believed that they would finally come true.
Looking around he found his backpack lying under the bed. He reached into the side pocket and took out the wooden case. He opened it and let the necklace slide into the silk cushions. He couldn't stand wearing this trinket any longer, the memory hurt too much. When he finally would have accepted that she was gone forever he would take it out again to remember her.
With a sigh he shut the lid and put the case back into his backpack. Then the door opened and Cari entered the room, carrying a small tablet.
»Good morning, Silber.« She put the tablet on the table, got a small plate with Silber's share from it and knelt down at the side of his bed. »How're you doing today? Are the wounds still hurting?«
»I'm doing better, I think.« He shifted a bit to check out, how his body was coping with the bruises. »I want to thank you for caring for me.«
Cari smiled. »That's the least I can do for you. I brought bread, cheese and water. So if you feel like eating, you should at least take a bite or two.«
»I don't know if I ...« Silber started but then he heard his stomach growling. »Oh, well ... I really think I should eat something, even if I won't taste much, I'm afraid.«
»You definitely should,« Hachea said, rising in his bed. »You'll need the food to make your wounds heal. Good morning, my friends.« He swung his legs out of bed to walk over to the table. »Silber, I can't say how sorry I am for you and your mate. This whole thing is so terrible.« His ears went down and he shook his head in sorrow. »So terrible.«
The three wanderers ate for a while in silence. Silber managed it to eat more than he thought he would and instantly felt a little better. He finished nearly his whole plate and put it down to the floor, before he let himself sink back to bed.
»When I was in the tavern to get our breakfast the waiter asked me about us and why you were in such a bad condition. When I told him about the attack and the witch he said, that he'd heard about her already. It seems, that the old woman is well known in this part of the land.«
»What?« Silber was up again in an instant. His head started to spin with this thoughtless movement, and he had to steady himself with one paw behind his back.
»While nobody really knows where she came from, they all agree that she must have her home somewhere to the south-east, near the river.«
»Then I'll go there tomorrow,« Silber said, his mourning starting to turn into hate. »I-«
»I don't think you're in any condition to go anywhere soon,« Hachea said, pointing at the bandages. »You should stay here and rest a while until your wounds have healed.«
Silber sat up again, more slowly this time. »I just can't stay here, lying in this bed, while that witch is sitting in her house, thinking about more evil she can do!«
»And what do you think you'll do, once you reached her home?«
»I'm going to make her pay for what she did to Sizka!«
Hachea looked him straight into the face. »And how're you going to do this? Kill her?«
Silber opened and closed his paws in anger. »I'm going to find her at least.«
»And then what? She's so much more powerful than the three of us together. Why should you try and find her at all? You're going to get yourself killed, nothing more.«
»I don't care if I'm going to die!« Silber snapped. »Without Sizka, my life is worth nothing. I'm going to get revenge for her, and if this means that I'm going to follow her, so be it!«
»You fool! Sizka's dead! You cannot bring her back by sacrificing your own life!«
Silber's eyes narrowed and he snarled at Hachea. »You don't know what it means to lose the only one you ever loved, do you? This is not your problem, you don't have to come with me!«
»And I won't!« Hachea stood up, grabbed his pack and looked at the wolf with a mixture of anger and sorrow. »I'm sorry to break up our friendship like this, but I can't throw my life away in a quest that's bound to fail from the start. I wish you all the best, Silber. May the Gods have mercy with you in the afterworld.« With that he went to the door and slammed it shut.
With a quick movement Silber grabbed the plate from the floor and threw it across the room, where it crashed with a loud bang into the wall. Then he began tearing like mad at his bandages. »I won't leave you, Sizka! Your death shall be avenged!«
Cari had ducked out of the way of the plate and was now kneeling at his side, holding his paws and trying to calm him down again. His face was drenched with tears and his teeth were bared. The vixen finally held his paws firmly against his chest and hugged him tightly, effectively pinning his arms and preventing him from hurting himself anymore. He struggled against her but finally broke down, crying like a small child and resting his head on her shoulder.
During the next few days his physical wounds constantly healed. The bandages went away one after another, only the worst bruises still needed care. Cari was always around him to help and watch over him. Two days after Hachea had left it became obvious that he wouldn't return. So they moved into a smaller room to save as much of the little money they had as they could. Silber often woke up, groping to all sides to find Sizka, and when he realized the truth he started crying.
Once again, Silber snapped out of the dream that had haunted him since that fatal day and he instantly reached out for his mate - this time however, his arms wrapped around a warm, comforting body, and he realized only a moment later, that Cari was lying next to him. At first he was a little embarrassed. He hadn't expected to find her there, let alone embracing her so tightly.
»Silber!« she gasped, slowly shaking off the sleep. She looked over her shoulder and continued, »Is everything all right?«
»I ...« He drew his arms back, unsure of what she must be thinking about him right now. »I'm sorry.«
»Don't be,« she said, holding his paws gently and pulling them back to where they had been. »I thought you might appreciate it, not to wake up alone again. But, if you'd rather be by yourself, I-«
»No, please, don't go!« Silber interrupted her. »I don't know if this is right, but I can't bear it any longer to be be alone.«
Cari turned around to look at him. Her face was only a dim shape in the darkness of the room, but he could see her eyes sparkling a little. »Silber ...« She lifted her paw and softly stroked his cheek fur. »I know I can't be like Sizka, and I surely could never take her place, but if you ever need some comfort, don't be afraid to come to me.«
He closed his eyes and pulled her close. Tears started to flow again, but this time, they didn't come out of pure desperation, but they were caused by mourning and loss. He buried his head in the fur of her shoulder, eventually finding a place for all his emotions to settle down. »I miss her so much,« he sobbed under his breath.
The vixen returned his embrace and softly stroked her paws over the fur on his back. »I know, Silber. I know.« She held him and comforted him, until he fell asleep again.
During the next two days, the dreams did not return. Cari slept by his side every night now, and he obviously started to get over the pain for his girlfriend. He woke up refreshed and went to sleep more quickly than before. They had their breakfast and lunch in the main hall of the tavern and he started to pay more attention to his surroundings again. But even though he recovered very well his mind kept set on finding the old witch and making her pay for what she had done.
»Cari, I'm going to leave town tomorrow,« he announced, when they were preparing for bed. The vixen was already lying on the straw mattress and turned to him, while he went on. »You don't have to come with me - it's going to be very dangerous and I don't want you to get hurt.« He sat down on the bed's edge and looked at the wall. »I'll try to find the place where the old woman lives. And even if all the odds are against me, I just have to try to defeat her.«
»You're serious about this, aren't you?« Cari's face showed concern and she sat up.
He nodded. »I just can't let her get away with this. Hachea was right, there's no way to bring Sizka back to life, but even though, the witch has to be punished.«
She got up on her knees and slid up behind him. Her arms wrapped around his chest and her paws stroked his soft fur. Softly she pulled his back against her belly. »Don't think about tomorrow right now,« she whispered, while her paws wandered up to his neck, gently ruffling the fur. She put her fingers under his chin and tilted his head slowly upwards until she could look into his eyes. »Maybe we can make this night something to remember us by.« She lowered her head a little, let go of his chin and started nuzzling his neck. Her nose went through the dense pelt and traveled over to his cheeks. She could feel him breathing a little deeper and this gave her the confidence to explore a bit further with her muzzle. Then she put her paw under his chin again and turned his head to her. His eyes were filled with sorrow and uncertainty but he offered no resistance. And when she put her mouth over his he opened his lips slightly to welcome her tender kiss.
When their lips parted he was looking at her with a puzzled expression. »Why are you doing this?« he asked. »You don't have to -«
She silenced him by putting a finger over his lips. »No, I don't have to. But I want to. I like you, friend wolf, and maybe we can spend a little time tonight to drive away the dark feelings.« She kissed him again and this time he put his paws around her head, stroking and caressing her fur. They lay down on the bed, taking in the scent and the presence of the other. And when they made love the image of Sizka's smiling face appeared in his mind, but seeming a little faded somehow, like a memory from times long ago. It started to worry him for a moment, but Cari's warmth blew all of his sorrowful thoughts away, scattering them like leaves in the autumn wind.
When he woke he felt the soft wet tongue of his companion licking over the side of his muzzle. He opened his eyes and saw Cari, already fully dressed. She smiled at him and wished him a good morning.
»I brought breakfast up here,« she continued while he sat up and rubbed his eyes. »I thought it would be nicer to eat here before we depart.«
He looked up. »We?« he asked. »You want to go with me?«
»Yes,« she said and turned around. She went to the table and poured something hot into two clay mugs. »Why not? I'm your friend, and I want to help you.«
»But it's going to be dangerous,« he explained. »It's not even sure that we're going to survive! And your family will wait for you.« He rose and went to the table.
»I know all that.« She sat down on one of the chairs and took a piece of bread out of the basket. »But I can't let you go there on your own. You mean a lot to me, Silber, and I want to be wherever you are.«
»But it's not your fight!« he argued.
»You're right. Losing Sizka hurt you much more than me, but if you're going to get revenge for her and don't come back, then I would feel much the same as you are now.« Silber looked at her with big eyes, not believing what he was hearing. She smiled and continued, »I couldn't stand the thought of losing you while I wouldn't be there to stand at your side.«
»But I can't ...« Silber started, but he couldn't bring himself to finish the sentence.
»Of course not. I know, Sizka owns that very special place in your heart. But if you allow me to become your friend and companion on this fateful journey, maybe sometime you can accept to claim that very special part in mine.«
While they were finishing their meal Silber's thoughts were tumbling over each other. Was he misinterpreting the things she said - and those she had done last night - or did she really care for him this way? He didn't want her to take that risk but he couldn't stop her to do so. On the other paw he was glad that he didn't have to face this alone.
Mist lay over the city streets when Cari and Silber finally left the tavern. He pulled the folds of his coat closer around his body to protect himself from the biting cold. While he had been in their room he had almost forgotten that the winter was coming fast, blowing his chilly breath all over the land. But somehow it was easier to accept, in an eerie way it resembled the mood he was in since his thoughts had wandered back to the quest. Cari stood next to him, shivering a little and adjusting her backpack. Silently they turned and started walking towards the southern exit of the town.
The land outside the city was still covered with white hoarfrost. The air curled in soft white clouds before their muzzles, and the constantly blowing wind was biting in their eyes. With long steps they followed the narrow street, trying to warm up a little by moving ahead quickly. No one else was out here at this time, so they had the road for themselves.
By midday they heard the water for the first time. A few minutes later they saw the stream flowing through the land, and the street slowly approached its bed. High, leafless trees were growing alongside of the water, mourning the warm season gone away. Silber and his companion reached the tree-line and decided to rest there. They didn't care to go out for game but ate some of the food they had bought at the tavern for provisions. Since their departure they hadn't talked a lot, and their meal went on without words, too. Silber was lost in thoughts and Cari didn't dare to break the silence.
Time flowed slowly as they traveled on along the river. They crossed a few small woods and finally entered a bigger forest, the trees looking ragged and dead, like skeletons of people frozen in the grasp of the winter. Maybe it was just because he knew what he would find further down the road, but Silber believed, that the forest looked more evil and daunting than any he had ever seen. There wasn't a single sound of animals living here, not even the faint rustling of mice or the fluttering of some bird's wings. The wolf wondered if these trees would look any different in summer.
The darkness came early to even amplify the dark air of the forest. Silber noticed that Cari started to walk more slowly and he looked over to her. She kept her eyes fixed on the path before them, her ears lay flat against her skull, and her fur was standing upright, more than just to protect her from the cold. »Does the forest frighten you?« he asked softly.
»Yes,« she replied. »It's not alive, Silber. Somehow I think, that there's nothing natural living in this woods. You can feel it, too, can't you?«
Silber nodded. »It seems like we are strangers here, living beings in a dead world. I bet the witch has enchanted this forest to keep the curious away.« He bared his teeth. »But it won't work for the grieving!«
»I only hope the forest ends soon,« Cari said. »I don't want to spend the whole night in here.« She started walking more quickly again.
Fortunately they came into open land only one hour later. The stream cut through the dead plains before them and skirted the western rim of a big hill that rose at the horizon. On top of the hill towered a large building, set in black against the dark sky behind it.
»This must be the keep,« Silber said firmly, but his voice carried a faint air of nervousness. »Only one more hour and we're there.«
»You still want to go through this?« Cari asked, but she already knew his answer.
Silber didn't look at her, when he spoke. He stared at the dark building in front of him, his eyes narrowed nearly to small slits. »You know I will. Sizka was my love and my life, and no one has the right to take the life of anybody just to serve their evil deeds. Sizka may be lost forever, whatever I do, but I can't let this witch just live and do more evil to the world around her. Even if I fail, this has to be done.« He turned to her, and his face became much gentler than before. »You know that you don't have to come with me?«
»Yes, I know, Silber. But I can't let you go alone. This is my own decision and you can't make me stay here.«
Silber nodded. »So we should move on now. The night will conceal us from their view, and we can use any help that we can get.«
They continued their approach to the keep. Since the hill was falling down to the river in a steep cliff they left the water and encircled the base of the hill to ascend on the eastern slope. As they came nearer and nearer to the building, it kept on losing on its intimidating power. From this distance it looked much smaller than before, maybe one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet on either side, but the walls were still high. During the whole approach Silber expected to be discovered or to run into guards, but the keep just lay there in complete silence. There was no sign of life, not even a lit room or smoke from a fire. As far as they could see there was only one huge gate in the wall facing them.
»Now what?« Cari asked and stopped. »We can't just knock on the door and ask for her, right? How do you plan to find her?«
»I don't know,« Silber said, looking at the keep intensely. »We have to get in there somehow and look for her. The keep seems to be unguarded.«
»That doesn't mean that they aren't watching,« Cari replied. »Maybe we should have a closer look at it.« She ducked low and started running towards the building before Silber could react.
»Cari! Stop!« he softly called, but her shadow was already halfway to the keep. Cursing under his breath he took his long bow from the pack and assembled it to be ready for a possible fight.
Up to this moment he had never thought about what he would do, once he reached the keep. Maybe he had never expected to find it so easily or to even get near to it without fighting. Maybe he expected to be found and held prisoner to the witch that was so much more powerful than him or any of his comrades. Maybe he even expected to be dead right now, maybe he even hoped to be. But to find the keep just standing on the hilltop, waiting for him and Cari to come, without even trying to defend itself, was something he could never have imagined. He kept on staring at the building until he finally saw a small figure approaching him.
Cari slipped back to him as silently as she had gone. »The keep is rock solid stone at all sides,« she reported, »no way to get inside. But I saw that the western wall is covered with strong vines, growing from the river. I believe we could climb over the wall there.«
»And there is no other entrance? What about the windows?«
Cari shook her head. »No windows as far as I could see. This'll give us an advantage, though. We can stay hidden more easily this way.«
»Very well. Can you show me those vines?«
They ran around the keep silently. Cari led him to the cliff on the river's edge and he could clearly see, that the wall there was covered entirely with thick branches and vines of some creeping plant that grew from the steep slope. He looked up to the top of the wall, and then to the river down below. They would have to climb about sixty feet high, but if they should fall, the way down was about two hundred feet more. Silber shivered slightly.
»So, are you going up there?« Cari asked.
Silber nodded. »I must.« With slow, deliberate motions he reached out for the nearest vines and tugged hard to test their strength. Carefully he extended one foot and finally shifted his balance on it. The plant creaked and rustled under his weight, but the vines were indeed very strong. He tried not to think about the long way down behind him and concentrated on finding firm footing. His paws ached with the cold of the the chilly wind that blew up the slope and the moisture coming up from the river had made the vines slippery and hard to grasp. His claws dug deeply into them while he moved on upwards. Fortunately the weather had not yet become so cold that they were frozen. He could hear Cari right behind him and he sincerely hoped that she knew what she was doing.
When his first paw reached the upper edge of the wall, his strength had nearly worn out. He still wasn't in perfect shape again and the old wounds started to hurt again. He dragged himself over the rim and dropped to the floor behind it. Still there was no sign of life. He was on a narrow rampart, both sides lined with three foot high walls. The inner courtyard was deserted, and the main building was not very large.
He heard a rustle coming from the wall, and only seconds later Cari dropped down behind him, panting hard. She crawled up to him and peeked over the rim of the inner wall. »What are we going to do now?«
»I think we should try to get into the courtyard,« Silber answered. »The door in the tower before us probably leads to a stairway down.«
Without waiting for a reply, Silber started walking to the tower, keeping his head low. Cari followed him closely, her claws softly scratching on the floor behind him. When he was in arm's reach of the door, Silber lifted his paw to push it open.
Suddenly the room behind the door was glowing white and with a mighty blast the door was thrown open. A powerful blow and a bright flash sent Silber flying backwards on the rampart, and he heard Cari screaming loudly. When he had come to his feet again, he was alone, the fox girl was nowhere to be seen. In front of him, in the entrance to the tower, stood the old woman who had taken Sizka from him. She was an old vixen, as he could see now, and her fur was grey, if from age or from birth he could not say.
»Now I found you!« he screamed. »You took my love from me, and now I'll kill you!« Tears of rage filled his eyes and left icy cold traces in his facial fur.
The witch stared at him and started to laugh. »It's you again! I knew that you would at last come back to me!«
Silber took his bow from his back and grabbed an arrow. »Now you're going to pay for murdering her!«
She laughed again, but then her face grew hard again. »I never killed her, you fool!«
»I saw it! I was there on the clearing, when you struck her with lightning!«
»This is nothing you can understand,« she replied. »Why should I kill her? She was much too precious for me to do so. And, in fact, you are, too!«
The witch moved one of her arms and suddenly, a green glowing rope-like ray of light stretched out from her paw and encircled his throat. Silber gagged and dropped the bow, trying to pry the rope from his throat, but his paws just went through the green glow, as if it just wasn't there. Then he felt that he was being lifted from the ground by his neck. He started to struggle and claw at the rope, but he could not grab it.
»I wanted to use the power of your friend's balanced soul to give me back the years of youth, but the amulet she's wearing is protecting her. I know that you have the other gem, and I need it to overcome the power of hers. Give it to me!«
A gleam of hope had grown inside of Silber since the witch had told him, that Sizka maybe was still alive. »No! You won't get it from me!«
The witch raised her other arm and lifted him even higher. She directed him to the side, so he was moving past the outer wall and floating far above the river. »Give it to me, you fool! Or I will drop you into the river and kill her!« When Silber showed no reaction, the rope around his neck loosened a bit and he slipped a little. »Give me the gem, I command you!«
Slowly his paw moved to the small case hiding in the side pocket of his backpack. The amulet slid into his fingers and he felt his palm pounding slightly around it. Suddenly another voice came from the rampart. Cari was standing there, her body glowing with a strange reddish light. »You are history, witch!«
»Cari! Run! Don't risk your life for me!« Silber croaked.
»You?« the witch said in surprise. »I didn't expect to see you here as well. Stay away from me, or I will drop your cute little wolf friend!«
»Go ahead, then,« Cari replied coldly. »He's none of my friends, merely my key to get to you. Now I'm going to take over the keep, you have delayed your departure long enough!«
Silber couldn't believe, what he was hearing. »But you said, you love me!«
»I never said, I did,« she laughed. »You were nothing but my bait for her!«
»No! You can't do this to me!« Silber cried, struggling anew against the magic coils around his neck. Suddenly the gem crossed the green glowing ray and burst into flames. The rope broke with an audible snap and recoiled into the body of the old witch, exploding in a bright red ball of fire. Silber screamed as he fell and just barely managed to grab one of the vines growing on the wall of the keep. He held on for dear life, dangling more than two hundred feet above the river.
When he finally found his footing he heard Cari's voice from above. He looked up and saw her, looking down at him over the wall.
»I guess, I have to thank you for killing her! She was one of my worst enemies. You saved me a lot of trouble this way!« Then she moved her paws and pointed something at him.
Silber remembered the strange powers, the gem had shown just a few seconds before, and held the paw with the stone protectively over his head. He could feel his clenched paw pounding strongly around the amulet.
»Oh, I see,« she said, smiling devilishly. »But I don't fear the stone! It was made for defense, not attack. And it only defends magical attacks, no quarrels from a crossbow!« Silber watched in panic when he realized what she was holding in her paws. »So, farewell now, friend wolf. And thank you again for the help and the good time we shared together.«
Silber squeezed his eyes shut when he anticipated the crossbow click. But the impact did never come. Instead he heard a gurgling scream and he looked up to see, what was going on. Cari toppled over the outer wall and fell past him towards the river, an arrow of a long bow sticking in her back. A second later Sizka's face appeared at the top of the rampart. It was only then that he realized, that the pounding in his fist was not his own heartbeat.
Thial sat back with a deep sigh, his story finally coming to an end. »As it was found out later, the witch and Cari were two members of a circle of magicians, fighting each other for the keep, because it was built on a special place, that made it very easy for them to regain their powers and build magical artifacts. It also protected its keeper from intruding magic, thus shutting off the bond between the two gems. The old woman used the mental powers of her victims to lengthen her own lifespan, making her able to get more powerful than one life time could provide. This all happened years ago but the memory of this time stayed fresh in Silber's and Sizka's minds for a long time.«
The wolf fell silent, one paw lying on the stone he wore on his necklace, feeling it pound softly but steadily.
During the whole time of Silber's tale Kitim had been staring into the fire's constantly shrinking flames, lost in concentration. When he looked up, he smiled warmly and his eyes wandered over to the wolf. »Why didn't you tell us the real names of Silber and Sizka?« he asked.
»So you found out,« Thial replied, but his voice wasn't angry. »I never was very good at lying.«
»What did he find out?« Paliach asked. »What's that about real names?«
»He tried to fool us,« Kitim explained with a grin. »Silber was actually Thial. And Sizka would probably be his mate, waiting for him to return home.« The weasel pointed at the wolf's paw, that was still holding on to the gem on his necklace.
»So it's all true what I've heard,« the stranger suddenly said, while he put another piece of wood into the starving fire. »I know, who you are, Thial, and I knew about your story before I came here.«
The wolf looked at the hooded figure, a glimpse of anger glittering in his eyes. »What do you mean? Who are you?«
»Cari told me all about it,« the stranger continued. He stood up and lifted his paws to draw back his hood. He was quite young, as they had expected, a white furred canine, yet bearing both the features of a wolf and a fox in himself. »She is not dead, you know. She survived the fall and the wound of Sizka's arrow. Witches are not easy to kill. When I was old enough to understand, she told me everything about you and what had happened in those days. And until tonight I could only imagine, who Thial might be. Now I know.«
He put on his hood again and turned around to leave. »I wish you all the best. Farewell father.«