~ Chapter I ~

 Grägok scowled at the smith, who was reshaping his helm. He knew better than to interrupt, though, and turned away to pace, instead. How long the trolls would be about their strange, foolish actions, he didn’t know; but they wouldn’t be at it forever.

The longer it took them to get ready, the more likely that the rest of the foul things would return from wherever they had gone. And if they returned…

Best not to think about that.

He watched the smith at work, the froglok’s clever hands wielding the hammer with efficiency. He shook his head, and looked down at his own hands. His hands were large, and powerful. And not his.

He had started out the same colour as all the rest of them – a mottled and striped green, with light underbelly, and red eyes. His eyes were the only thing that had not changed. Like most of them, the first thing he had done on returning was find a mirror. Anyone who had known him before would not recognise him now. He had become a dark rust, fading to tan on his undersides, with black bands marking his back and flanks. Where he had been smooth, his skin was rough, and dry, and his shape… All of them wore it, and proudly. They had, after all, been Changed by the touch of Marr’s own hand. He made a fist, looking at his knuckles. He would get used to his body eventually, he figured. He had already begun to put it through its paces, making sure that he knew how his balance worked with the changes. And it kept surprising him.

He was far from young. For more years than he had ever counted he had served his people as a war-leader, defending the home they had taken for themselves from the trolls outside, and from the Cursed ones inside. He was certainly not the only such leader, but he had done it far longer than most, and had retired at last. When he dared look at the truth, he would admit that he hadn’t expected to live much longer. But the years had given him more experience than nearly any of his people. He suspected that was why he had been Chosen, in fact.

But the change had given him another gift… youth. Or relative youth, anyway. His body moved with an agility and speed that he vaguely remembered from his prime. The joint-pain that had crippled him these last years was gone entirely. He shook his head again. The shamans would figure it all out, and explain it to the rest of them. That was what they did, after all. Them and the priests.

The priests were different. Unsettling. There had only ever been one or two priests, in all of Guk. The out and out worship of their god was never really of great importance, although it had been there. But now… There were quite a number who had been Chosen, who said that they had been Called… and who suddenly had powers that the old priests had not dreamed of. It was strange.

But no stranger than feeling yourself change, he decided. They were all called, in a way. That he himself had heard the voice of his god… He straightened himself proudly. He would serve, as best as an old soldier could.

Or a not-quite-so-old soldier, at any rate. He flexed his hand again, watching the muscles move under his skin, then opened it, to look at his palm. His calluses were still there. He nodded. A good thing, too. It would make it awkward to hold a sword without them, when he was used to them being there.

The smith cleared his throat, and Grägok turned to him, nodding politely at the craftsman. He tried the helm on, and nodded again.

“Thank you,” he said, as the other bowed. “It fits now.”

“Good,” the smith said, reaching up, to tug at one of the straps, with a frown. “It still needs a little work, though. These will have to be lengthened, Dar General Grägok.”

Grägok shook his head. “Just Grägok, for now. It seems things are going to be changing for us.” He smiled at the consternation on the smith’s face. “Just pretend all of us are Vis or better. It’ll be easier in the long run.”

“But.. If you abandon your castes… how will you know what you are allowed to do?” The smith’s face wore shock, and fear. “It would be chaos! Anyone doing whatever they wanted! Talking to anyone! It’s madness!”

“We’ll figure it all out,” the warrior said dryly. “I’m sure we’ll manage somehow.” He pulled his helmet back off and fingered the straps. “And I’ll see if I can’t find something to lengthen these with. I’ve got a few rivets somewhere.” He fixed his eye on the still-stunned smith, and nodded to him again in thanks before departing.

He sniffed as he hurried away. There was supposed to be a meeting soon where they would be discussing their plans. He had been worried that he would miss it. He would be leading one of the two groups that would be taking the front gate. He and the brilliant young Bok Warrior who had been…

Grägok snorted. He was falling into it himself. Did it matter what caste Faltip had been? Bok, Ton, Dar, Vis… castes didn’t matter now. He’d just told the blasted smith that, hadn’t he? Best stop thinking in those terms himself.

But Faltip was a skilled warrior, for all that he was so young. He was perfect for the position of the Commander of their army. People needed someone who inspired to lead. Faltip had that indefinable charisma that made others look to him. He also had the wisdom to ask for advice from those who had more experience when he was getting in over his head, as well as the ability to make a quick decision. Admirable traits in anyone… a perfect combination in a field marshal.

The only problem was… the field marshal was going to have to lead one of the prongs. There were only the three of them who had had the necessary experience to lead in battle. Which was why Giidib, who was more experienced, would be going alone to the back entrance by the river with his division, leaving Grägok and Faltip to attack from the front. Faltip would have the old general’s experience beside him, to guide him when needed.

The warrior scratched his eye-ridge as he headed towards the meeting-place, thinking about what would await them.

The mushroom garden was the place picked for the meeting. It was one of the few places that would hold them all. They looked at each other as they gathered, and their hearts were joined as one.

Mithaniel Marr had wrought well. They would be the hand that would sweep the trolls from the swamps for good. They would be the weapon that won freedom for their people.

They counted themselves, then, when all had finally arrived, and they were quiet as they contemplated how few they truly were. But their numbers did not daunt them, for they had had visions of their success. They again turned to the talk that had begun in the swamp, of how to best compose the three divisions that would act out the plan that they had devised.

Some debate began, then, over the females. So few of them had been Chosen, although they were spread through all the castes. Many thought that they should be left behind, spared the fighting, to ensure that the fledgeling race would have a viable future. Some disagreed, saying that there would be no reason for them to continue once the trolls were driven away forever, and that the thought of founding a new race was foolish.

“We don’t even know if we will breed true!” one exclaimed in frustration.
But the debate was put to rest by the females themselves. One stepped forward as a voice for them all.

“We are as much a part of this as you are. We are larger, stronger… we are equal in power where power lies. We will stand with you, and you will not deny us. We are Chosen, as you are.” The pale blue female had a powerful voice. It carried through the gathered Chosen, and they listened. And they responded.

“It’s only a moon – less! – before the time of breeding is on us. You are bearing, as all females are. It will slow you…” A warrior stood out from the crowd and frowned at the female.

She straightened her shoulders, and stood proudly. “Not that slow. We bear, yes. But we are not so great yet that we are unable to fight. My robes fit me now as they ever have. Even if I must loosen my sash.”

Another female came to stand beside her. “And my armour fits me yet. We are not so changed that we must give up everything. The chain of our people… of our cousins… is flexible, and can be bent to our purposes. The only real problem is helms.” The pale brown froglok smiled at the blue, and they exchanged nods of respect.

“In short, the only way you will keep us out of this fight is to imprison us. We are with you.” The blue female’s eyes shone a pale silver, and she turned them from one of the leaders up on the ledge to another.

Grägok smiled to himself as he watched her. She was strong-willed, that one. He nodded abruptly.

“Let them come,” he said to the warrior beside him. Faltip turned, and looked at him. “If they all have so much spirit as this one, they will carry the day on their own.”

The young warrior laughed. “Those are words of Truth, if I’ve ever heard them,” he agreed. He raised his voice. “They will not be left behind. We will all go together. They are Chosen, as all of us are. Lord Marr did not set us to be one against another. Now, of all times, we need unity.”

The murmurs of the crowd of transfigured frogloks showed that the debate was not over, but that the decision was accepted. They moved on to other things, one of the priests, an older, quiet froglok addressing the crowd.

Grägok smiled again, and found his eyes seeking out the female who had spoken. “Who is she?” he asked of the warrior beside him. “Do you know?”

Faltip shook his head, but nudged Giidib, who stood on his other side, and muttered to him as they listened to the priest. He turned back. “M’jou. Wizard. Powerful one, too. Her caste…”

“Doesn’t matter,” the old froglok said, grimacing. “We’d best get that sorted soon, Faltip. As soon as possible, after the fight.”

The young warrior stared at him, then nodded. “That’s a good point,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Whatever else we are, we will not be as we were. We have a chance here to shape something better.” He looked back out over the people gathered before and below him. “We are all Chosen. We should stay equal, if nothing else. We’re all the same to Marr.”

Grägok nodded, his eyes straying back to the outspoken wizard who had championed her sex. “M’jou, eh?” he muttered, watching her. “She’ll likely have some thoughts on that to help us out. I’ll go chat with her, I think.”

“See if you can get her to join us. I’d like a wizard’s opinions on some of what we plan. These are good plans, but another mind, and another pair of eyes would be welcome.”

 

“Excuse me? I would like to interrupt, and steal this lady away for a little while.”

M’jou turned from her discussion with the priestess who had stood beside her in the meeting, and blinked in surprise at the figure who stood watching them speak.

“Which of us would you like to steal, sir?” she asked after a moment, suppressing a twinge of irritation at the interruption. It was another warrior by his stance. This would be the third that had sought her out to complain about her words to the assembly. What made males who put on a helmet and picked up a sword so obstinate, so certain that their way was the one, true way? And so willing to argue about it?

“You, if you are M’jou.” He bowed slightly. “I was hoping you would be willing to answer a few questions.”

“I am M’jou. You have the advantage of me.” She kept her face polite, and waited to see how he would respond. Most so far had not bothered to even introd…

“I am Grägok. I would like to know if you had any advice on how to best deploy those of your skills in battle. We have some ideas, but thought it would be best to ask someone who would actually know the answers. And you impressed us earlier.” He smiled slightly. “Would you accompany me?”

He made a gesture towards one of the exits. “We’ve found a small unused chamber to work in. Giidib will be taking over in here, and setting up the general ranks, and the healers.”

She stared at him, then belatedly bowed herself. “I would be honoured,” she said, and nodded to the priestess before turning to follow him.

She took the opportunity to study the warrior as they hurried through the corridors towards whatever meeting place the leaders had snuck off to, after the initial explanations were given to those gathered below. The few who had the skills to lead….

“Did you say your name was Grägok?” she asked suddenly, her step slowing as she stared at him. “Dar General Grägok?”

“I was called so. But the ‘Dar’ part doesn’t seem to fit well now, although it seems I’ll be ‘General’ again.” He nodded, and there was amusement in his eyes. “There is an old saying, ‘The more things change…'”

She smiled. “I’ve heard that one.” She quickened her pace again, as she worked to hide her amazement. She had heard of the General. More precisely, she heard that he had died some years past. He had been old when she was a novice, learning her first spells. And yet…

He doesn’t look that old, she thought to herself. But the changes they had undergone were profound, and if he had been rejuvenated by it… that could mean many things. She looked down at herself as she pondered the possible meanings of this aspect of the Change.

Her changes had been bizarre, and she still did not entirely understand them all. For instance, the colouration of her people had a purpose. Their dappled and striped green made them blend into the swamps from above, while their pale underbellies made them disappear into the brightness of the surface of the water when viewed from below. Even Grägok’s new colourings bore this same template, for all that his rust and tan were not so well suited to the swamp. But her colouration…! It was as if Marr had amused himself with paints. The palest of sky blues with shadings of white, and orange, and marked with spots and circles of the same hues could have no camouflage purpose. If it did, she would rather not see such a place that could make her blend in with it. And there were others more bizarrely marked than she. And that was not all…

Their arrival at the chamber where the plans were being refined put an end to her musings, and she paused on the threshold to take stock of those already within.

There seemed to be a debate going on as to whether or not it was viable to send a small squad up the stream which flowed beneath the bluff. Grägok motioned her into the room, indicating a place she could stand while the argument went on. He stood with arms crossed beside her, listening. After a time he cleared his throat.

“Needless complication,” he stated, stopping the discussion. “To what purpose? We drive them out. They won’t swim out that way. And we’d be better off getting as many of us in as quickly as we can, to take out what adult males remain. Drive the rest out towards Giidib and his bunch.” His tone was matter-of-fact. “Getting a small team in would only separate them from the rest of us, and cost us numbers that we don’t have.”

One of those around the table blinked at him, then nodded slowly. That one rubbed his chin, and stared at the map in front of him, then sighed. “You were right, Guib,” he admitted after a moment. “My apologies.”

“Never apologise. Just make the new decision, and move on.” The old general snorted. “Lesson seven.”

The young warrior looked up from the map and laughed. “I’ll keep it in mind. Did you…?” He looked around, and spotted her then, and she straightened. “Oh, good. Come over here,” he said, beckoning. “We were hoping for a wizard’s input on this…”

She drew near – the warriors making room for her – and the questioning began. How close would a wizard need to be? How good a view did they need of a target? It went on and on, and she answered as fully and carefully as she could, making certain these warriors understood before she answered the next question. Maps were studied, and distances carefully plotted, and the questioning finally ceased. They began, again, to discuss among themselves. She retreated back to the edge of the room and leaned against the wall, watching them.

The three who discussed were so very different from one another. The youngest warrior was thoughtful and questioning, and very earnest. He listened carefully to the input from the other two before making a decision. It was obvious that he was the leader, and was being instructed on it. She nodded to herself. He would be a good one, if what she saw was any indication.

The next oldest spoke quickly, his words tumbling from his mouth as he tried to explain the details of the strategy that seemed to be his basic design. The other two would listen, and try to get him to clarify himself when he went off. She knew that type well. The wizards tended accumulate such people of vision.

But it was the old general that drew her attention most frequently. With a dry comment, he would pierce through to the core of each problem that arose, laying it bare and open so that even she could see the clear solutions. She found herself waiting to hear him speak, trying to anticipate what would bring his entry into the conversation.

Her mind wandered a little as she listened to them, until the maps and lists were finally set aside and agreement was reached. The tone of the talk lightened.

She wondered if she should slip away as they seemed to have forgotten her, but before she could do more than turn her head to see the distance to the door, they broke up their meeting. The two younger warriors departed, and Grägok – who it seemed had not forgotten her after all – turned to her with a polite nod.

“Thank you for your patience,” he said. “I should have spared you that last part. You had no need to be driven insane by us.” He gestured toward the door. “We’re going off to see what Giidib has set up. You should be there, as you will need to be assigned a position.”

She nodded, and accompanied him back towards the garden. “It would look pretty bad,” she smiled, “if after that speech I managed to get myself left out.”

He laughed. “That it would. Let’s avoid that, shall we?” He bowed to her as they reached the assembly, and hurried off towards the other leaders.

She watched him go, wishing she could have drawn him into conversation. But she knew he had more work to do than she could readily imagine. There was a battle to prepare for. She spotted several of the other wizards together, and headed over to join them. They would have their own preparations to do.

 

It was four days of preparation, planning, prayer, and fasting. Four days of organisation and armouring. Four short days to shape a disparate force that shared a vision into an army bent on conquest.

Four days after they emerged from the swamp wearing the Change that had lifted them from what they had been, the frogloks returned to the dark waters, to move in swift silence towards the city of Grobb.

 

M’jou swam smoothly, all too aware that her simple robes were no armour against the weapons of the trolls. Her best work, as she had explained to the listening warriors, was done from a distance. But the limited amount of armour that could be found was better used to equip those who would be fighting hand to hand. Her ability to stand off and attack from afar would protect her well enough.

She was certain that her skills would be well utilised. A glance ahead and to the left, between two others who swam by her, gave her a glimpse of General Grägok, who led the particular squad she had been attached to, as well as the division that followed them.

That she attached herself to. When Giidib had come to her – sent, she suspected, by the general himself – asking her aid to disperse the wizards amongst the divisions and squads, she had agreed instantly. She had studied the organisation he had arranged, and placed the others of her profession where they would best serve. When she realised that Grägok’s own squad would be one of those places, she had taken that spot for herself without hesitation.

Now, thinking about it, she wondered at her temerity. Such rash behaviour was not like her. Some odd force was at work on her, and she frowned suddenly. When she realised her eyes were drifting back to catch another glimpse of the old warrior, she frowned again. Was she bespelled by him? Had he done this to her? She thought about it as she swam with the rest. No, he had not touched her with magick. She was not being coerced.

Then what was it? Whatever it was, it was insistent. She was drawn to him as strongly as she had been drawn to the swamp to feel the touch of the Change.

She thrust the thoughts back into the recesses of her mind. Whatever it was, it could wait until they had dealt with the task at hand. Once the trolls were driven forever from the swamps that they had invaded, she would have the leisure to investigate this strange phenomenon. For now she swam, keeping her eyes resolutely on the young shaman who swam just ahead of her, and prepared herself for battle.

* * * * *

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