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The speaker was Jarod the innkeeper, and he addressed a small room of men who ranged in age from thirty to eighty. The Town Council usually held its meetings outside in the town square, where all citizens were free to attend and participate; but today the men met in the rarely used meeting room of the Scholar's Inn for an emergency session. The other members of the Council present were Samuel the blacksmith, the mayor Caine Moran, retired soldier Malic Freman, Jonathan the provisioner, Serevon the herbalist, who ran one of the local reagent shops, and Al, who was himself a respected member of the Moonglow community despite living in the woods outside of the town. Tucked away in a corner of the room, Annalise sat restringing her bow and pretending not to listen to the loud discussion that raged on not ten feet from her.
"The mages have their own priorities," Serevon responded, "their own goals. You know as well as I that they don't care one lick for us, so long as their precious reagent supply doesn't fall into the hands of another faction. And that means they will only spare as many mages as it takes to hold the town from complete loss, and not a fraction more."
"Aye," rang in Malic, "I hate to say it, but Ser's right. The mages won't risk their own hides here any more than necessary to keep their reagents. I say we cut them off! We stop selling them their spell components and see how long they can go without addressing our concerns then!"
Caine shook his head. "Don't be ridiculous, you old coot. Do you want the Council of Mages leading assaults against us on top of the Minaxians? We start to threaten them, and we may lose the only defense this town has. Like it or not, we have to work with the mages. Without them, we are doomed."
"Why?" Al spoke up for the first time since the Council had filed into the room half an hour earlier. "Why are we doomed without the mages?"
"Don't tell me you're agreeing with Malic's half-cocked schemes now!?" Jarod gasped.
"No, not that." Al turned to address Malic. "We have no need of another enemy right now, and the mages are enough of a hassle to deal with without starting more troubles on our own." He turned to face Caine. "But why do we need to rely on them to defend our town? The people of Moonglow have always been a tough lot. I bet we could build a defense of our own to keep the Minaxians at bay, and anyone else who would try to bring harm upon our town. If we put our backs into it, I think we could turn Moonglow into a fort only a fool would attack."
Jonathan nodded, and Serevon spoke up, "That's not a bad idea...we could construct a new fence around the town, a wall big enough to keep even the damn ogres out. Perhaps we could reinforce it with-"
"With pikes all around," Malic burst in, "like the orcs use for their encampments! The smelly brutes may be half-wits most of the time, but a good idea is a good idea. Lets see Minax's ogres try to rush our town then - they'd impale themselves before they could even touch the wall!"
Caine turned questioning eyes on Al. "What do you think Al? You're the best woodworker on the island, so if anyone knows, it would be you. Is it feasible, this wall?"
Al tilted his head to the side, pondering the amount of work that would be involved in constructing such a thing. He nodded. "To build a wall big enough won't be an easy task, but if everyone pitched it, we could probably get it up in two weeks, give or take."
"So be it. We begin construction tomorrow," Caine declared. "What else?"
Jonathan spoke up: "A watch, a town watch to warn us when attackers are approaching. If it weren't for Malic charging into town shouting about a horde of ogres this morning, we never would have been to the gates in time to keep the attackers out of the town. If we assigned a few people to take turns each day patrolling the island, and maybe even set up a watch at night time, we could be prepared before any future attacks reached the wall."
"That's a good idea," said Samuel. "We could even set up a watchtower in town, to keep an eye out from above for any signs of attack. My smithy is one of the tallest buildings in town. When we get the roof rebuilt, we could add some height and put a lookout post on top."
"And see what from up there?" Jarod asked. "The edge of the forest? By the time anything is seen coming out of the forest, we won't need a watchtower to spot it."
"Aye," Al said, "but what if we cut the forest back? We'll be needing lumber for the wall from some place, so why not take it from the trees nearest the town? We could push back the forest far enough to give us the visibility needed to spot anything that approaches the town long enough before it reaches the wall."
"Good ideas, all of them." Caine agreed, "It will take a lot of work on our part, but I know this town, and I know everyone will be glad to pitch in, if it means saving our town...and our loved ones. Too many people died today, because we weren't prepared. Because we put our faith and our safety in the hands of the Council of Mages. That will not happen any more. From now on, Moonglow will stand up for itself! We will not lose our town and our community to the accursed petty struggles of the factions." Comments of approval circled the room, and Al began discussing plans with Malic and Samuel.
"You are all forgetting the most obvious problem," a voice, Anna's voice, broke in from the corner of the room. Every Council member's head swung toward that corner. Anna stood now, bow propped up in one hand, the other hand on her hip. Standing as she was now, so sure of herself, so...experienced, Al reevaluated his earlier estimate of her age and began to think she might be closer to thirty than twenty. He also noticed for the first time how well her small body filled out the tight suit of dark-green leather armor she wore.
"And what is that?" inquired Jarod. Al could see the man visibly balancing his anger at her sharp criticism with his appreciation for her bow-work during the attack. The man had been shocked when Al informed him earlier that the marksman who saved him from the vicious ogre had been an outsider, and a woman at that.
"Mages," she responded flatly, "and not the ones from the Council. You were all there today, you saw the mages in black. Two at the south gate and another at the east. Al tells me the first attack months ago brought with it a band of mages as well. What if next time they bring more? What then? Walls and watches are all good when it comes to ogres and trolls, but what of the magic-users? How do you plan to deal with them when the time comes?"
"She's right," Serevon said. "Without the Council of Mages here to protect us, how are we to keep attacking sorcerers at bay?" Samuel and Malic voiced agreement.
"You find your own sorcerers, that's how," Anna responded. "Hire a couple mages to lend their arcane craft to the town's defense."
"Mercenary mages, you mean," Jonathan shook his head. "How could we possibly count on men such as that to show up in a crisis?"
"You underestimate the value of our reagent crops, Jon," Serevon chuckled. "A mage for hire would probably be looking for spell components more than money, and reagents are one thing we have plenty of here in Moonglow. If we kept their pouches full of reagents, I bet we could convince some mages to stick around and lend their assistance to defending the town."
"You're right about that," Samuel agreed. Before long, the others assented as well. Al glanced at Anna, who was now smiling slightly and nodding her head with satisfaction.
Caine spoke up. "Then it's settled. I'll send pigeons right away to a friend in Britain who I'm sure could find just the mages we are looking for. Meanwhile, let's see about cleaning up some of the mess and calming some nerves. See that everyone understands our plans, and we will begin work early tomorrow morning." With that, the men filed out of the room together, discussing plans for the next day. Al was the last of them out, and Anna followed close behind.
The two of them departed the inn, and took the south gate out of town. They strode down the dirt path side by side, discussing various ideas for defending the town, until coming to the area where Al's cabin lay. After preparing his guest room for Anna, Al went out to his shop to drag away the now stinking corpse of the ogre he had slain what seemed like days ago. He burnt the thing's remains in the fire pit behind his cabin and then returned to his workshop to clean up as best he could.
Anna came and joined him as he was trying to scrub the ogre's dark blood off of the wooden floor.
"Here, let me help," she said with a smile, as she kneeled beside him and grabbed one of the stained towels sitting nearby.
"Thanks." Al returned her smile, then turned his attention back to cleaning.
As Anna scoured the nearest board, her hand began to slow, and finally came to a complete stop. Al looked up at her inquisitively, and noticed that she was looking directly at him, her lips parted as if beginning to say something. "Al..." she began, then hesitated and no more words followed.
"Yes?" he prodded, trying to encourage her to say what she was trying to.
"I..." Again, a pause. Then she blinked, smiled and said "I was just wondering how long you've lived here in Moonglow. Did you grow up here?"
That's not what she was about to say... Al wondered to himself, but pushed the thought aside. "I've lived here all my life. My father was a carpenter - ran the shop on the north side of the town. I grew up assisting him in the shop. He..." Al's eyes dropped to the floor, glazing over just the slightest bit as he concentrated on a blood stain in the board. "He died in the Orc Wars when I was barely fourteen. Went off to fight in Lord British's army. He wasn't a soldier though...just a carpenter, damn it."
Anna's blue eyes rested on Al, small tears forming in their corners. Her expression was one of pure empathy.
Al continued. "After that, my mother raised me. She was the sweetest woman in the world, and I was her only passion in life after my father died. She worked in the bakery, often long hours, but she always made it up to me by bringing home the most superb pastries." Al smiled, and Anna giggled a bit. "Anyway, I tried to help out by continuing my job at the carpentry shop. A nice man named Malthus took over after...Well, anyway I worked with Malthus for about twelve years before my mother passed on from a bad fever. That's when I decided to move out to the woods here and build this cabin. Been living here ever since.
"What about you?" he asked, blinking nostalgia from his eyes. "Why did you leave Skara Brae?"
"Oh, I just felt it was time to leave. I'd grown up among the beautiful forests and sylvan meadows around Skara, but as I came of age I desired more. I wanted to travel, to see other forests, to explore the outside world. So one day, I just said goodbye to Jarek - my master at the ranger guild, and the man who adopted me as a baby - and headed into the deep forests away from town. I don't go back there very much these days, though. Jarek died a few years back, so I don't have much reason." Her face was stone, but she looked down at the floor instead of meeting Al's gaze. "I spend most my nights sleeping in the woods as I go from place to place. I usually just visit towns when I need some supplies.
"Or for a real bed," she laughed, winking at Al. "Thanks for putting up with me. It's very kind of you."
"Not a problem, Anna. I'm glad to have the company. Speaking of which, forget about this floor, it's good enough. Why don't you go back inside the cabin and make yourself at home. I'm going to go visit some of the nearby farms in the area and let them know of the plans, see if they can help out with the work tomorrow. I'll be back in a few hours." Anna nodded. They both stood and exited the workshop. Al departed to the west with a wave as he watched Anna make her way into the main part of the cabin.
When Al arrived back at his cabin late that evening, he was greeted by the delightful smell of venison. Anna had apparently taken advantage of the time she had while Al was gone to kill a deer in the woods and prepare a fine meal of it. After the delicious meal, which Al's empty stomach much appreciated, the two of them headed off to their rooms to get a little rest before the long day ahead of them.