Merai let out a little puff of breath as she set down her last bag on the pack horse's back. After tying down the satchel and checking all the straps and buckles for the third time, she sat down on a nearby crate and wiped her brow. As soon as they had returned from their trip to the mountains, Raven had begun making preparations to set out again. They had spent the rest of the day procuring supplies and tying up loose ends around the temple; they would likely be gone for a few weeks, the Lightbringer said, and it was important that they leave nothing unresolved that the acolytes would be unable to handle. The two priestesses retired at the earliest possible hour and arose roughly two hours before dawn; now, with the light just beginning to brighten the eastern sky, they were almost ready to set out.
Merai sensed the familiar aura behind her even before her sensitive feline ears detected the sound of boots on cobblestone. Turning around, she saw Daria hin'Leon -- scout, Squire of the Red Stallion, and her best friend -- step through the door of the stable. With her long red hair pulled back in a ponytail and a rapier hung at her belt, and dressed in her trademark green-and-leather scout's uniform, the young warrior-woman was ready to ride.
"Good morrow, Merai," Daria said, in the friendly but quiet way that the predawn hours tend to promote. "Headed afield today? You're out of uniform, I see."
Merai cast a glance down at the jerkin, leggings and boots she was wearing, all of which made her look rather like a scout herself. It occurred to her that it had been almost two months since she had appeared in public in anything but her robes of office. Then, as now, she had been headed on an errand in the countryside; but that had been a brief afternoon excursion to one of the outlying towns, not a mission to some far-off land.
"Aye, but I fear it is a rather longer journey than my last," she replied.
"I gathered that from your beast of burden, here," Daria said, gesturing at the stocky little horse. "Where are you headed?"
Merai hesitated, but she could never lie to Daria. "South, then east," she said. "The Lothanasa and I are on a mission of the utmost importance -- I fear we shall be gone for several weeks."
Daria's bright blue eyes widened a little. "It surprises me that the Lightbringer should leave the Keep unattended for so long."
"Oh, 'tis no concern," Merai said, gesturing dismissively with her tail as she stood to check the straps on the luggage again. "The acolytes are most capable. The Keep shall want for nothing, I am sure."
"Of course," Daria agreed. Merai could hear her stepping closer, but she kept her back turned, her eyes on the horse in front of her. "What I meant," the scout continued, "was that I am surprised there is a matter at hand that is both so distant and so grave that the Lightbringer herself must journey so far to attend to it."
Merai shrugged uncomfortably. "These are strange and dangerous times," she said. "Much is required of all of us."
Daria said nothing in reply. Stepping up close behind Merai, she put a hand on the priestess's shoulder.
"You are headed into danger, aren't you?" she murmured.
Hanging her head, Merai nodded.
"You should not travel unprotected," Daria advised. "Two priestesses of Metamor, alone in the Midlands? It seems a recipe for disaster."
Merai shook her head. "Our mission is secret, Daria. It requires the greatest discretion."
"At least let me come with you, then," Daria insisted. "I may not be a knight yet, but I am well trained. I could be of at least some protection to you."
Even as Daria said the words, Merai was already turning around to face her. Her expression was filled with the sadness and fear that was churning inside her. "I'm sorry, Daria," she said, looking into the other girl's eyes with her soft mahogany-brown ones. "I wish you could come, but the gods have forbidden it. There are innocent lives at stake in this mission -- we dare not disobey their instruction."
The red-headed young woman sighed heavily. "So be it," she said, putting a hand behind Merai's head and drawing it near so that their foreheads touched. "But I shall miss you every moment that you are gone."
"As shall I," the priestess replied gravely, wrapping her arms around her friend in a tight embrace. "Pray for our safe return."
"I shall," Daria promised.
They drew apart and stood looking at each other for a long moment.
"Go on," Merai said with a small, sad smile. "You have a patrol to ride."
The two young women gazed into each other's eyes for a few seconds more; then Daria nodded, turned, and went to the stall where her horse was waiting. She fitted the young gelding for riding in silence, then led him out past Merai and the pack horse. As she climbed onto her mount's back, she looked once more at her friend the priestess. "Godspeed, Merai," she said.
Merai nodded. "And to you, as well."
Without another word, Daria turned and rode out into the quiet predawn street.
"You are headed afield."
Raven frowned, taking a few steps further into Wanderer's quarters. The bard was sitting on his windowsill, gazing out at the Keep below, strumming his lute softly. He did not even turn his head to look at her as she entered.
"How did you know?"
"Riding boots," the wolf-man said quietly. "That, and the normal sound of your robes is missing."
She half-smiled at that. Wanderer's ears were keen, that much was certain. "In that case, how did you know it was me?" she asked, coming up to stand behind him. Gentle hands reached down to touch his shoulders, and at last he looked up and smiled.
"Come now, my lady. I'd know that scent anywhere." Laying his lute aside, he turned and swung his legs down to the floor, presenting his lap to the priestess. She sat down, lightly, and kept one hand on his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
"So," he said, after a moment. "Where are you going, Raven?"
She sighed, lowering her head to rest it against Wanderer's. "I wish that I could say," she said. "It is a place far to the east of here, a land of legends ... but the Oracle could tell me no more than that."
"Hmm." The bard pondered that for a moment, his hand lightly stroking across Raven's thigh. "And for what purpose have the gods summoned you so far from home?"
"Someone is in great danger," the priestess said soberly. "They have called to us for help, and we must answer that call."
Wanderer drew back and looked at her quizzically, a small frown creasing his brow. "Who is going with you?"
"Only Merai," Raven said regretfully, her crystal blue eyes already refusing the bard's unspoken request. "The gods will permit no one else."
The wolf-man seemed incredulous, his mouth opening in a soundless laugh. "Wherefore? What can two priestesses do against such a danger?"
Raven smirked. "You should know the answer to that by now, Sir Charles the Worrier," she scolded playfully. "Merai and I handled ourselves well against those Moranasi last December. We'll be all right."
"Do you give me your word on that?" Wanderer asked, looking her squarely in the eye. Raven held that gaze for a long moment, tasting the pain and sorrow and loss that had been theirs too often of late. At last she decided that there was no room for joviality here.
"You know that I cannot," she said, her voice sounding hoarse to her ears. "But I must obey, Wand'rer. There is something important at work here, something that was set in motion a very long time ago. I cannot explain how, but my spirit tells me that the lives of countless mortals hang on the success of this one mission." She shook her head slightly. "I have no choice."
Wanderer continued looking at her a moment longer, then lowered his gaze. His arms held her more tightly against his chest, as though he were afraid that she would vanish into mist should he let go.
"I understand," he said quietly. "As much as any man could, at any rate. 'Tis just that, with all that has happened to us this year..."
"I know," Raven said, wrapping her arms around his neck and resting her head against his again. "I couldn't bear to lose you again, either."
They sat like that for a while longer, soaking in each other's touch, until at last Raven stirred and rose to her feet. "I should be going now," she said. "Merai will be waiting." The wolfish bard rose beside her, and the two stood facing each other with their hands clasped together.
"Please come back to me," Wanderer said.
There was another long pause. Raven longed to speak words of assurance to him, to say "Of course I shall, my darling", or "I swear by the stones of Metamor that I shall" -- but she could make no such promise, as she had already told him. Nor could she say "I shall try", for the Lothanasi did not believe in "try" -- only do, or do not. In the end, she said the only thing that she could.
"If a mortal woman can, I shall return to you," she whispered.
They drew each other into a tight embrace, their lips meeting in one long, bittersweet kiss. Then Raven turned and walked to the door, pausing as she held it open. She looked back at the wolf-man, the friend who had so recently become much more. The only person she truly had left in the world. "Farewell, my love," she said softly.
"Godspeed, my lady."
Then the door swung quietly shut, and she was gone.
The road to the Midlands, as expected, was even quieter than the city at this hour; Raven and Merai traveled for several hours without seeing a single soul. Even the small towns they passed through seemed nearly deserted, though by the time they approached the southern mouth of the valley the villagers had begun to rise and go about their daily business. The priestesses rode straight through, neither stopping nor speaking to anyone - - the two pack horses they led behind them carried sufficient provisions to last them as far as the Outer Midlands. They made excellent time, and by midday they had left the valley behind and were well on their way to Midtown.
For Merai, the journey was strange and exciting and a little frightening. She had lived her entire life at Metamor, rarely journeying much farther than Mycransburg and, with the exception of her recent trip to the Dragon Mountains, never leaving the comfortable familiarity of the valley. Her entire life thus far had been lived in the imposing but reassuring shadow of the mountains; thus it was quite unsettling for her to find herself in the midst of such _openness,_ with the land extending to the western horizon and no sign of the familiar Dragon range to be found. They stayed close to the Great Barrier Mountains on the left as they rode, and that provided her with some sense of security; nevertheless, Merai found herself constantly glancing furtively to her right, as if unconsciously expecting an attack on their vulnerable western flank.
No attack came, however, and they rode for days without incident, pushing their steeds as fast as they dared. In the evenings they would stop in a forest clearing, or a farmer's field, or one of the Lothanasi temples that dotted the landscape -- and then they would be off again in the morning, traveling from the break of day until the sun slipped below the all- too-flat western horizon. Whenever possible they traded their horses for fresh mounts at the stables that most of the temples kept; this allowed them to drive the horses faster, and thus make better time.
After journeying southeast for two days they angled due south just outside Komley, following the highway that led from Metamor to Kelewair. Around suppertime on the fourth day they turned off of this road onto a slightly narrower and less-used path, one that headed due east. They had rounded the edge of the Great Barrier now, and Merai felt more vulnerable than ever as they made their way through Elarial, then continued even further east, following the path of the Marchbourne, the river that flowed through that part of the Southern Midlands. By the time they reached the town of Bozojo they had been traveling for almost two weeks.
"We shall have to load up on supplies here," Raven advised as they passed through the western gate of the town. Both she and Merai were dressed in long hooded cloaks that shielded their faces -- the people of the Midlands could be erratic in their dealings with Metamorians, and the priestesses didn't want any trouble. They could have worn their robes of office for the journey into town, thus ensuring that they would be left unmolested, but to do so would have drawn unnecessary attention to themselves. Their mission was secret -- so secret, Merai thought ironically, that even they didn't know what it was -- and word might easily reach some unknown enemy if two Metamor clerics were spotted here, so close to the edge of the Outer Midlands.
"Aye, Lothanasa," Merai agreed softly, her eyes scanning the streets ahead of them for potential assailants. "Is there a temple here that can help us?"
"There is," Raven confirmed. "I sent word to them last night of our impending arrival. They will be expecting us."
Merai eyed the Lothanasa carefully, but she could see nothing of the older woman's face beneath the cloak. "How did you send word to them?"
There was a touch of amusement in the Lightbringer's aura. "That is one of the things you will learn in due time, Merai. Suffice it to say that we are not completely cut off from our allies, even out here."
"That's some comfort, at least," Merai said, more to herself than to Raven. Again she turned her attention to their surroundings, keeping a wary eye on anyone who looked suspicious. Out here, in a city with so many strangers and no fellow morphs, there seemed to be an unusually large number of suspicious people about.
An acolyte from the Lightbringer temple met them as they neared the plaza at the middle of town. He was a tall, dark and serious man, dressed in a simple brown robe, his hair cropped short and even.
"Good afternoon," he hailed them as they approached. "The kindness of Yajiit shines down upon us this day."
"Aye, 'tis so," Raven agreed with a nod. "And Lord Dvalin will grace us with his presence before the night has fallen."
The acolyte smiled grimly as Raven gave the proper countersign, confirming their identities. "Follow me, Mistress," he said. "I shall show you to our temple." "You honor us, sirrah," the Lightbringer replied. "Lead the way."
The temple assistant directed them to a small but elegant stone building, with a silver- plated dome that gleamed in the waning sunlight. The twin cross that rose from the top of the dome identified the structure as a Lothanasi temple. The acolyte led them around to the back of the building, where a wooden stable stood at the far end of a small courtyard. Two more acolytes, a man and a woman, came up to meet them, taking the reins of the horses as Raven and Merai dismounted. As they pulled back the hoods of their cloaks, Raven saw the eyes of the acolytes widen a little; but all three were well-trained, and in a moment they overcame their surprise and continued their work. While their mounts and the pack horses were led into the small wooden building, the tall acolyte guided them to the temple's rear entrance.
The temple priest met them inside, attended by two more acolytes. A thinly built man, his face worn and his hair grayed with age, Brother Lemuel had served the Order with honor, if not distinction, for over forty years. He was a quiet man, kind and capable, who happened to have been born in a part of the world where no high official of the Order would ever take notice of him -- or so he had thought, until the Lothanasa had contacted him last night in a vision-spell. Raven suspected that he would quite happily go back to his ordinary, daily routine once she and Merai were gone; but for now he was a gracious host, seeming to completely ignore the outlandish appearance of his guests.
"Lothanasa, Sister Merai, you honor us with your presence," the priest said, with a courteous and pleasant expression that did not quite carry the warmth and informality of a smile. "On behalf of all the faithful of Bozojo, I welcome you."
"I thank you for your hospitality, Brother Lemuel," Raven replied, matching his tone. "I assure you, we will not impose upon you for long."
"'Tis no imposition, Lothanasa," Lemuel said, giving a nod of respect. "If you have need of anything, you have only to ask."
"I fear we shall have to accept that offer," the wolf-woman answered, as she began removing her riding cloak. The priest made a small gesture, and the two acolytes behind him moved quickly to help her take off the long black mantle. Merai followed her example, removing her own cloak and handing it to one of the acolytes. After taking both of the garments the two temple assistants disappeared down one of the temple's corridors, presumably to place them in the wardrobe for safekeeping.
"We have been traveling for nearly a fortnight, and our provisions are running low," Raven continued. "I do not wish to draw attention to our presence here, so if one of your acolytes could go to the market in our stead..."
"Of course," Lemuel replied. "The supplies will be on two fresh pack horses come the morning."
"Thank you," Raven said, genuinely grateful. Letting out a tired sigh, she allowed a small smile to form on her lips. "Other than that, all we ask are a hot bath, a good meal and a place to sleep."
The priest broke into a warm grin. "All three are waiting for you, Lothanasa. If you'll follow me..."
Merai leaned back against the edge of the wide circular tub, purring softly in contentment. There were some things that even the Curse couldn't erase; cat or not, she still enjoyed the soothing comfort of a hot, leisurely bath.
Overall, she reflected, the journey hadn't been too difficult thus far. They'd ridden hard for many days, but the Lothanasi were well-established in the regions they'd traveled through and the local temples had been more than willing to help, even when they passed out of the Metamor Chapter and into the lands under the jurisdiction of Ellcaran and Kelewair. Raven had told Merai some days ago that her mother grew up in this region, and as a result she had a good understanding of which temples were most likely to help them and -- even more importantly -- keep their presence a secret. Bozojo itself was beyond the edges of Raven's own experience, but she seemed to have some second-hand knowledge that indicated they could trust Brother Lemuel. Given the sumptuous way the Bozojo acolytes had fed them this afternoon, Merai was in no mood to contest her decision.
As she lay there -- head back, eyes closed, submerged up to her neck and breathing in the scent of bath salts that wafted through the room -- Merai caught the sound of feet approaching from the hall. *It must be Sister Raven,* she thought, not bothering to move. She sent out a casual tendril of thought towards the person, lightly brushing against their aura.
Then she frowned. It wasn't Raven. She vaguely recognized the aura, as one might recognize the face of a person she had briefly met some hours before, but she couldn't quite put an identity with it. She ran through her memories of the acolytes she had met during the day, trying to find the one that matched the energy signature she was feeling now...
A moment later it became a moot point. She opened her eyes just in time to see a young acolyte walk past the tall wooden screens that hid the baths from view of the hallway. It was a man -- not much more than a boy, actually, and probably about Merai's age -- and at first he didn't even seem to notice her presence. He was halfway through the process of removing his outer robe when his eyes drifted to the left and he caught sight of Merai. He did a double-take that almost made it look as if he would jump out of his skin. "Oh, gods!" he exclaimed, frantically wrapping his robe around him again as he stared at her, wide-eyed, like a deer frozen before the gaze of a predator. His cheeks were flushed brilliant red, a colorful contrast to his straw-blonde hair. "I -- oh, gods -- a thousand pardons, Priestess," he stammered. "I di-didn't know there was anyone else in here -- no one t-told me that you were ... were..."
In spite of the intrusion, Merai had to suppress a grin. Had she been merely a peasant girl, she thought, this boy likely would have taken no notice of her existence, and wouldn't have cared if he had. But since she bore the title of Priestess, while he was "merely" an acolyte, he was tripping over his tongue and practically cowering before her in remorse over his offense.
She gestured dismissively. "That's quite all right, Brother--?"
"C-Calvis," he said, still transfixed.
"Calvis," Merai repeated, nodding in satisfaction. "I've been in here long enough, in any event. Would you be so kind as to hand me that towel? If you're done staring at the Keeper girl, that is."
"Oh. Oh! Um, aye, of course, Sister Merai," Calvis said, blushing even more fiercely as he realized just what he'd been doing. "M-my apologies." He quickly grabbed the towel from where it lay beside the tub, handed it to Merai, and finally averted his eyes as she rose out of the tub and wrapped the towel around herself. She walked over to the far side of the room, where another set of screens had been set up as a changing area. Merai watched out of the corner of her eye as Calvis's eyes wandered back to her when she walked past.
Hidden behind the screen, Merai almost laughed at the young man's discomfort. Other acolytes and priests they'd met on the road had reacted with surprise or wonder at the Keepers' appearance, but she had never yet seen one thrown so totally out of sorts by it. *He must have lived a rather sheltered life,* Merai mused as she began drying herself off.
"So, Brother Calvis," she said casually, hoping idle conversation might take the young acolyte's mind off of his blunder, "what do you do here at the temple?"
Calvis cleared his throat. "Well, um -- you know, a little of this, a little of that. Mostly I take -- take care of the d-doves for the dawn sacrifices."
"An important job," Merai said seriously. "I imagine that must be very peaceful, caring for the birds. I'm very fond of them -- no, not like that," she added, laughing suddenly as she caught an image from his mind of a cat with feathers between its teeth. Normally she couldn't read minds, but the man had practically thrown the image out at her. "I like them because they are beautiful, gentle creatures. Living in this body has not changed that."
"Oh," Calvis said, his voice a strange mix of emotions. He fell into thoughtful silence, and Merai began putting on her nightclothes, a silk shirt and pants fashioned in what the Kelewair tailors called Elf Cut, though no one quite remembered why. "So -- what has changed?" Calvis asked suddenly.
Merai's ears twitched. "Pardon?"
"With -- your body," he said, sounding like he was uncomfortable phrasing it that way but couldn't really think of a better way to put it. "What is different?"
"Well ... several things," Merai said at last. "The hearing and the sense of smell are very queer, at first -- much more sensitive. Having a tail takes getting used to, as well. It changes your center of balance, but it also seems to make you more steady in high places. I don't much fear falling anymore." She chuckled. "And then there is the fur. 'Tis very odd to feel that short, wet hair all about your body when you leave the bathtub!"
Calvis laughed, still sounding a little nervous -- though not nearly so much as a few minutes before. "Aye, I can imagine." Another pause. "Do you ... like it?" he asked, hesitantly.
Merai smiled. "We Keepers had best learn to like what the Curse gives us, or we should go mad," she said. "We have little choice in the matter. Still, it has not been hard to learn to live with this form. I still have my hands and my thumbs -- and my eyes and my hair, which were really the only parts of my old body that I loved. I was quite plain, really." She chuckled again, as she came out from behind the screen. Calvis was still standing rather rigidly in the middle of the room, his eyes fixing on her as soon as she appeared. "Of course, as far as Keepers are concerned, I'm still rather plain now," she conceded, looking down at the uniform tawny fur on her arms. "But I think it suits me."
If possible, Calvis's eyes grew even wider. "Plain?" he repeated, looking dumbfounded. Merai looked up at him, wearing a look that was halfway between amused and puzzled.
"Aye, plain," she said. Then she laughed, once, at the expression on his face. "Why, did you have a different opinion?" Half-jokingly, she turned around in a slow circle, as she sometimes did when presenting her clothes to Celine to make sure everything fit properly.
Calvis was still frozen in place when she turned to face him again. His expression was almost comical -- his eyes still wide, his mouth slightly agape.
"I ... I think that you are beautiful," he said at last, his voice shaky and a little stilted. "More beautiful than anyone else I have ever seen. " If it hadn't been for the look of awe on the acolyte's face, Merai would have laughed out loud. But Calvis was radiating utter sincerity, with such force of emotion behind it that it almost took Merai's breath away. She gazed at him, astonished, for several long seconds. And then, abruptly, a broad grin spread across her face. Stepping forward, she reached up and placed a light peck of a kiss on his cheek.
"Thank you," she said, and meant it. With that, she turned and headed for the hallway.
"Will I see you tomorrow before you leave?" Calvis asked, as she neared the screens guarding the exit.
Merai turned back and smiled. "I hope so."