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I found myself looking at everything, my head swiveling like a metronome, only a lot slower. Victory Keep took my breath away. I estimated the outer walls, constructed of a dark blue-green stone, rose to maybe fifteen point twenty four meters. The crenelated top allowed archers to rain arrows on enemy armies. Scattered through the battlements, gargoyles leered down at all who dared trespass upon the road. Towers at each corner soared about fifty meters higher than the wall. The thoroughfare terminated at an immense coppery-gold gate. Above the gateway, a high relief of a colossal silver dragon clutching a dozen spears in one fist and the throat of a vampire in its other sat embedded in the fortification. The drake gave the impression of roaring at us as we passed beneath.
Angriz seeing me staring up at the relief, leaned down and whispered, “The herald of the Orwen family.”
I nodded in acknowledgment without looking at him. When my companions and I approached, the gate creaked up, sliding into a disguised recess. We trekked through a torch lit corridor. I noticed arrow slits at various levels in the walls and caught sporadic glints of light reflecting off sharp tips. ‘Are they all pointed at me?’ I swallowed hard, praying no one’s finger slipped. Moments later, the passageway ended at another odd metal door which glided without sound to the left, at our approach before disappearing into the wall. We exited in time to see the draw bridge lower. An acrid stench filled my nostrils as we crossed the expansive moat, causing my eyes to water and burn.
“The channel contains acid and Slitters,” Angriz said sotto voce, pointing.
“What are Slitters?” I inquired.
Before he could answer, Lady Orwen halted the party. She tugged on a shiny ebony gauntlet and gave a sharp whistle. Seconds later, I heard a low hiss, then glimpsed a flash of gray. I blinked, fascinated by something strange perched upon her hand. A bipedal creature the size of a toad crouched in her palm. Long and ungainly arms descending from beside the animal’s chest. Reverse articulated legs settled into big, toad-like feet complete with a trio of toes, from the ends of which protruded razor-sharp claws. On its large hands were four digits. These, too, ended in wicked talons. Its hide was rubbery and gray. The thick, ropy hair quivered with its own dark energy. My jaw dropped when a greenish-black fluid dripped from its maw and hissed as it touched the gauntlet.
“This is a Slitter,” said Lady Orwen, staring at the beast, “so named for their preference of making hundreds of slits in their prey.”
“What do they hunt?” I asked with some trepidation.
“Everything,” came the swift, yet ominous, response.
“The ones here in the fosse were raised and trained by Her Highness,” Angriz said. “They only allow her to handle them. You’ll want to stay away from them.”
The Slitter poised on her hand surprised all of us, me in particular, when it vaulted to my right shoulder, placed its hands on my ear and peered in. The creature then brought its face up to my eye and stared for several seconds. I stopped breathing, waiting for it to decide to make slits in me. Instead, the Slitter crouched on its perch and seemed to be comfortable doing so. I worried about the green goo escaping from its maw, but the other-worldly drooling appeared to have stopped. I looked at the others and spotted the Lady staring slack-jawed.
“Seems you have made a friend,” said Mordecai.
I grinned as Angriz nodded and showing surprising gentleness, shut Lady Orwen’s mouth with his left hand. Without uttering another word, she turned on her heels and continued towards her family’s home. We walked across the sturdy wood and stone drawbridge and approached a second tremendous fortification. The portal here was protected by crisscrossed thick iron bars. The vertical pieces disappeared down into the ground, the horizontal ones shifted left, into the wall. The striated adamant door spiraled open. ‘Cool.’ We passed through, entering the outer bailey.
The clash of steel had me peering about, attempting to locate the source. When I did not, I continued my examination. I discerned the grounds were well cared for; flourishing flora and fauna of myriad varieties. Off to the right was an abbreviated thicket of trees, their lush and green branches neatly trimmed. To my astonishment, one got up and walked further in towards the castle!
“Whoa, is that a treebeard?” I wondered out loud.
Mordecai answered, “Yes. That one is called Caretaker.”
I took in the tree man’s movements and marveled how he was able to stroll about and yet keep in full contact with the earth. ‘I wonder if the guys would think this is as amazing as I do.’
Angriz tapped my shoulder. I glanced back, he motioned to our left. I rocked to a halt when I spotted what was there, which I thought to be a corral for horses. I grinned as I realized the ring’s purpose: a training area for infantry. I asked if we could go closer, and when Lady Orwen smiled with a nod, I raced to the oak log walls of the ring.
Two soldiers, wearing only leather pants and boots danced around each other, swinging dull, heavy swords. One brandished a longsword and shield. The shorter dual wielded with a short sword. The metal of the weapons clashed in rhythm. I recognized it as the clanging from before. The only additional sounds were grunts of effort, the scrape of feet on dirt and an occasional curse as one would score a hit. The dust they kicked up would obscure the view on occasion. I was annoyed by the dirt cloud as I enjoyed watching their expert use of weaponry.
A gentle shower began to fall. Within moments, the precipitation was a heavy downpour. I failed to notice, mesmerized by the conflict. Soon the rain was more obfuscating than the dust had been. Still the two battled on, ignoring the elements. Angriz tapped my shoulder and indicated we head inside.
“May we stay a while longer?” I asked
He shook his head. Concentration broken, I felt the chill through my sodden clothes. I saw for the first time that everything seemed grey and washed out. I followed the half-dragon at a brisk jog into the castle proper. My soaked clothing clung to me like another layer of skin, making me shiver. The tower walls muted the pounding rain to a gentle thrum. Angriz led me into a tower up the spiraling stairs, past several landings. At the top, he swung open a six foot pine plank door. He gestured for me to enter first. I found myself in a large, beautiful room. The stone floor was covered by a hand woven rug, depicting a hunt. An antique, hand-carved armoire stood across from me, doors wide open, outfits swinging from the rods and others folded upon its shelves. No telling what was in the drawers. More garments, I assumed.
On the right, two comfortable chairs sat in front of a big fireplace. A blaze roared within, warming the entire room. To the left, perched at the top of four steps, was an immense canopied bed ringed by emerald curtains. They were drawn, allowing a view of numerous bright colored silk pillows stacked at the head, pulling my eye upwards to the family herald hanging above. A stoic cedar chest resided at the foot of the bed. To the left, was a well-worn mahogany roll-top desk. The long forgotten Slitter reminded me of its presence when it leaped from my shoulder to the desk and began cleaning itself like a hamster. I made a mental note to ask Lady Orwen why this one had adopted me and why it stopped drooling while sitting on my shoulder.
“Please make yourself comfortable, Carter. His Majesty Redigar will return from his hunt soon,” Angriz informed me. “You might wish to bathe and dress in proper attire for your audience with him. I must attend to Lord Mordecai. Pull the rope by the bed if you have need of anything.”
I nodded, too overwhelmed for words. He then exited, pulling the door shut after him. I noticed a large book shelf that had been hidden by the angle of the open door. Over a thousand volumes must have rested on the shelves.