The two-night journey proved to be an exercise in tension and stretched nerves.

Leaving Nora’s cottage locked, bolted and barred, they moved through the forest as quickly as good sense would allow. Hampered by his bundle but unwilling to give it up to others, Alec reluctantly rode in the middle of the group, next to Her Ladyship, who’d gone back to ignoring him, while trying to secretly keep an eye on the so-called puppy he cradled in one arm.

Reaching the Royal Highway mid-afternoon moved the tension from being a sensation of possibly being watched by hidden figures, to that of definitely being watched by fellow travellers, their gaze and whispers drawn by the unusually alert and action-ready state of his squad. They were good, solid soldiers, but didn’t yet know how to be ready for trouble without showing it.

He was tempted to push through, past their first scheduled stop, but reason won out. The inn was booked and ready for their company, a large one for most establishments, and was comfortably situated in the middle of a large and bustling market town. Somewhere things of strange aspect and unnatural origin would be spotted and remarked well before they could get close enough for danger.

Nonetheless, the squad rotated through high watch that night, and the pairs taking their turn in the stableyard below the windows of their allocated rooms reported strange noises and agitated horses through the night.

Kid had also been anxious, trying to hide it under a facsimile of his usual bright manner for the sake of The Lady. Unfortunately it was undone by his poorly concealed panic whenever Alec moved more than an arm’s length away.

Alec resigned himself to more puppy duty the next day. He had hoped to be able to share the wriggly bundle with Nathan or Nora for part of the journey but couldn’t risk Kid’s well-being or disguise for the sake of his wish to scout.

The second night had the whole group tightly wound. They were staying this time with a friend of Lord Humphrey’s and the house, while large and comfortable, sat in a large park, secluded from the road with ample woods and groves for concealment.

They were right to expect trouble. Shortly after retiring, the window shutters on Alec and Nathan’s third floor room began to thump and shake as something outside tried to tear them off their hinges.

Tucking Kid deep into the bedclothes, Alec took stock. The rest of the squad were either on guard, inside or patrolling the outskirts of the house, or asleep in the general barracks in a separate building.

Mellisande, Nora and Rosalind were sharing a room below theirs and he was torn between defending Kid, who was doubtless the target of this attack and the fulfilment of his duty to protect Lady Mellisande.

The decision was taken out of his hands when the three women bundled into the room, accompanied by two of the four guardsmen assigned to them. Mellisande shot him a challenging glare before he had a chance to speak.

“We heard something, several somethings, climb past our room. Your men secured it, two of them are still there keeping an eye on things and we came up here so you don’t need to try and divide your forces.”

His nod and thanks clearly took her by surprise but she herded Rosalind over to the bed concealing Kid and tucked them both out of the way, a dagger he hoped she’d never use drawn and ready.

Nora wielded a knife of her own and moved to stand by the bed, affording protection, but also giving the soldiers more room should they need it.

The shutters continued to crash and shake and Alec wondered what had happened to his outside team. He soon received answer in a series of thuds and an unearthly screech of pain as the men below opened fire on whatever was clinging to the wall.

The screech was enough to wake the rest of the household, with yells and lanterns blossoming throughout the house and grounds.

The screech repeated in fury as clawed hands finally managed to wrap themselves around the top of one shutter and began to gouge and splinter its way through it. The extra light made the bowmen more accurate, caterwauling filled the air and the sound of a heavy body hitting the ground was quickly drowned by the screams and yells from the crowd below.

The end of a sharp, razor-toothed muzzle appeared in the new nook in the shutter, biting at the wood. Nathan darted forward, opening the glass, slashing the creature across the nose, then closing the window and spinning away before the creature beyond could react past the pain.

It descended into a mindless frenzy, desperately biting and clawing at the shutter, the wall, anything keeping it from its prize, splaying out across the window and presenting a perfect target to the archers. Finally it too fell and quiet loomed behind the concealing shutters.

Alec stilled the general movement toward the window with a look.

“Nathan, go down, see what’s happened and what we’re dealing with. Everyone else, stay here and ready, Her Ladyship said several creatures were heard going past her window, I would prefer to assume there are more until we know otherwise.”

His deputy nodded and left, the room settled in for yet another tense wait.

“What WAS that?”

“I have no idea Your Ladyship, I just know I really don’t like it. Nathan will tell us what he can, but I’m hoping we have a couple of corpses below that can be sent to the King’s Command for analysis.”

A sharp knock and Nathan identifying himself preceded his entry, “We’ll get a better look come daylight but we’ve got the bodies of what appears to be two very nasty pieces of merge-magic secured for delivery to the capital.”

Alec looked at the two other men in the room with them, “What you are about to see is highly secret. One word outside this room or this group could kill us all.”

The men nodded, one gulped audibly as Alec moved to uncover the target of the attack. Kid was curled in tightly on himself quietly whimpering, so deep into terror he hadn’t registered the change beyond his cocoon. Moving slowly and carefully, Alec rested his hand near, then on Kid, talking quietly until the whimpering eased and Kid could be gently lifted out of the blankets.

Alec winced slightly as the child anchored his arms around Alec’s neck and clung hard.

A glance showed the two men staring in shock.”I never knew you were a father sir!”

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