The dawn came earlier than Ethan would have liked. The sun light slipping through the room's window had awakened him, something quite unexpected given the precautions Ethan took last night.
Because he was tired last night, he had decided to simply sleep backwards on the bed, so that he might be able to sleep a bit more that morning. It was not the wisest of the ideas, given the fact that he was expected in the Duke's meeting room that same morning, but on top of the fact that Ethan was a sleepyhead his whole life, the events of last days had been very tiresome..
His recently acquired feline nature was likely to assure that such habit would remain intact – or even worsen-.
He opened his eyes to find the reason behind his sudden awakening. The window was placed right at his side, definitely not where it was the last time he saw it. Apparently, it just moved itself through the wall in order to accomplish its task circumventing any measure Ethan could take to prevent it.
It was clear what happened, but it took a few moments for Ethan to realize the apparent prank played at him. The "Lady" – he had no other way to call her since her name was still unknown to him – was going to make sure he will be awake early from now on.
Ethan got up from the bed realizing how badly he had slept that night. His body was aching, probably due to a bad posture while sleeping, and it was not a pleasant feeling to have. It was not too long until the pain dissipated much to his relief.
The fire was out and as such the room was really cold. Having left the bed just a few moments ago worsened the feeling. He dressed and left the room, making his way to the Duke's Palace.
The morning was colder than the last, and only thanks to his coat it was nearly passable. Seeing other Keepers in a similar situation was a sign that this time at least it was not only him. The thought that this morning could end up not being the coldest he would have to face was worrying.
Ethan reached the entrance to the castle, but was stopped by two guards in front of the main gate.
"Name your business" Said one of the guards, a male TG.
"My name is Ethaniel Dilandau, and I'm here to attend a summoning made by the Duke"
The guard looked at his companion, a white horse-morph, who nodded at the cougar's statement
"Yes, I was informed of your summoning. The Duke is not available yet, but you may pass and wait for him".
Both guards leaned to one side and let Ethan in. Soon after that he was waiting outside of the Meeting Room. Nobody was there, aside of the usual guard on its routinely patrol around the castle, and nervous as he was, being alone in a corridor was not very pleasant.
Several footsteps could be heard approaching the corridor, right before the sight of the Duke and three other people alongside him was evident. The Duke's expression was nowhere as unfriendly as it was two days ago, which freed Ethan from his anxiety.
"Ethaniel, I am right?" The Duke asked to the cougar standing in front of him. Ethan bowed and replied with simply with a "Yes".
"Come inside, and don't be worried. Things changed a bit since the last time we meet".
Other things changed quite a lot...
One of the Duke's escorts unlocked the door and made a gesture to all of the presents to get inside. The Duke was first, followed by his escort, then Ethan.
The room had several chairs placed around a table, not exactly what Ethan expected. It was a Meeting Room after all, but he couldn't help to imagine it as some kind of judgment room.
The Duke invited him to take a seat, something that Ethan didn't hesitated to do. The Duke sat in a chair placed on the other side of the table. One of the Duke's escorts stood right at Ethan's side without taking a seat.
"Ignore him, he will just check you while we talk" The Duke said, borrowing Ethan's attention from the apparent mage. With his palm a few inches away from Ethan's body, the AR mage stood there without saying anything, evidently concentrated on something, as the look on his eyes gave out.
"I was told by George that Murikeer took the initiative and the liberty to check you while you were unconscious on the infirmary two nights ago". Ethan recalled that George told him the same thing. "I trust his word, and I trust in Murikeer's judgment".
More than the fact that this pretty much meant he would not get casted out of the Keep, the thought that no weird spell - or whatever Rupert could have come up to - was inside him was the most reassuring thing of all. After the manipulation he experienced with the illusory spell, the idea of something even shadier still residing on him wasn't overwhelming...
"Since George had the bright idea of telling me about Murikeer's precautions late yesterday, the letter notifying you on this summoning was already in your hands by then".
"Nonetheless, leaving this whole matter as solved is not wisest thing to do, so I didn't annul this meeting. It would give me the chance to be really sure with a quick check and also to tell you a few things".
The AR mage left his arm loose and with a shook of his head he confirmed that nothing was wrong after all. "Aside from the magic of the Curse, there doesn't seem to be anything in him" was all he said in a voice that contrasted with the serious expression his young face displayed. Were all the AR that cute?
The Duke nodded, and continued
"Very well Ethaniel, this is what we are going to do. First of all, I will assign you a 'watcher'" Ethan perked his ears and widened his eyes on surprise after that.
"A 'watcher'? Why is that?" He asked confused.
"Let's be honest. There is a reason for your forced presence here, which is still unknown to us. This is just a normal precaution, and should not prove to be a nuisance for you"
"Take it as if he were watching the people around you, more than you. If this man you talked about the other day appears on the Keep, the watcher can take the necessary actions to avoid any unwanted event".
Ethan sighed and agreed.
"Also, I will require you to not have any kind of contact with any person foreign to the Keep or its surroundings. This also means that you should avoid such contact on your future patrols with your squad".
Ethan was surprised with such request from the Duke, but in the end it was a good idea and not too hard to fulfill. It wasn't like he would step onto many people foreign to the valley, even on his patrols...
"Do you agree with this?" The Duke added.
"Yes, as long as I can live in a relative peace, I'm fine with that" Ethan said.
The Duke grinned at him
"Tell me of a single place in the world where you can have a peaceful life. That place would be my first choice to move in" The Duke joked, and Ethan smiled in agreement.
Certainly, as a Duke, his life was sure to be hard one. And if you put Metamor Keep in the equation, you have an assured restless and stressful life.
"How have you taken the change up to now?"
"It's hard to explain, my lord. Not only I have to deal with a new body, but with the feelings coming from it aswell. Before this curse I completely lacked the sense of touch" The Duke nodded
"I was told of that detail, and I suppose it's quite an experience"
"It really is, and I have the hope that this will make the change more bearable" Ethan said confidently.
"Good then. You may leave now" The Duke concluded.
The day was cloudy and definitely colder than the last, but that didn't stopped Ethan to take a walk around the Keep. The meeting wasn't nearly as bad as he envisioned it, and the Duke was much less inquisitional than the last time. He even sounded friendlier than what can be usually expected from a monarch. Perhaps the coming marriage put him in a good mood.
The only other monarch Ethan met was obviously his uncle, Lord Yentel Dilandau, the most apathetic and cynical - and a few other adjectives that escaped Ethan's mind, or were more of a personal thought - human being he had the misfortune to know closely.
With such reference is not hard to be impressed at Duke Hassan's manners.
Ethan had already got the hang of his new legs, thus walking wasn't troublesome anymore. He tried running and jumping to test his reflexes and the responsiveness of his body. Amazingly his jumps were at least two times wider as they used to. That was surely to be of great use in battle.
Back on his room, Ethan picked up his spear and armor. The upper body parts fitted fairly well, unlike the ones for his thighs. Both his upper legs were thicker than before and as such his old armor couldn't fit anymore. He would have to replace it.
Wanting to get some exercise, Ethan then headed to one of the training grounds.
Where he was tested by George days ago were now a bunch of soldiers being instructed by a female TG.
Ethan approached the training soldiers hopping to have a good match and get used to his new body on the battlefield as soon as possible.
"Hello there, want to join us? We are having a few practice matches" The woman said when she saw Ethan getting closer.
"Sure, that's what I wanted. I just went through the change and need to get used to my new body soon if I want to be of use for the scouts" Ethan answered
"You are new around here I see. Ok, lets get warm then".
It happened that the woman was actually Linna, one of Ariadna's fellow squad members. She hadn't recognized Ethan at first – for obvious reasons -, and embarrassingly, Ethan did not recognized her either.
During the next two hours or so Ethan fought with a few of the soldiers and Linna. The hardest part for him was maintaining his balance, and - as he foresaw last morning – the sensation of his weapon when wielding and using it.
His movements were as swift as before, and with every passing moment he was getting better. His new body also showed more endurance and flexibility than before.
Ethan was pleased to know that the digitigrade shape of his legs ended up being of help instead of a problem after some time, especially when not wearing shoes.
"All right, that's enough for me" Ethan said, thing that most of the present people agreed with. It was around noon and the hunger was noticeable. He also seemed to be more tired as he usually gets after a few hours of training or fighting.
Granted it was the first time in weeks that he confronted 2 and 3 adversaries at once and not only a one-on-one fight, thus perhaps he forced his body a bit being the first time he fought after the change.
"Your fighting is impressive. I hadn't seen such style with a spear before your Lutin-slaughtering dance two weeks ago" The woman praised. "Save for the little trip where you almost amputated your own tail on one of those swings on your back, it's obvious you had an excellent training".
Ethan smiled at a memory
"More like an excellent master. And thanks for the praise" He said, elongating his limbs to relax the tension on his muscles.
"Just make sure to keep in mind that new long tail of yours when swinging around your spear. The next time you may not have the luck of getting hit with the spear's body"
Ethan laughed, although he knew she was right. That hit he took hurt pretty much actually.
"You should pay a visit to Ariadna, she was really interested in you. Have you seen her after you changed?"
That comment made him realize he hadn't told Ariadna how did the meeting turned out! After leaving her worried for a matter that ended up being nowhere as bad as he thought it could be, the least he should've done was talking to her before doing anything else, and letting her know everything was fine now.
"Damn! Thanks for the reminder Linna, you go ahead to the mess hall, I need to find Ariadna first" Ethan said, and after getting all his things he headed to Euper.
Minutes before arriving at Ariadna's door in Euper, the sky decided to fill the ground with a bunch of extra inches of snow. The feeling of the snowflakes falling on his muzzle and the rest of his head was captivating, albeit a bit odd and chilling. A quick shake of his head with the help of his hand freed him of the scarce remaining flakes, but those who melted had already wet his fur.
Add to that the flakes that kept falling on him and you get one pissed wet cat.
He started to shiver. The sudden snowfall had apparently lowered the temperature and his wet fur wasn't of any help. Slowly a wind started to blow, and all that Ethan wanted then was to be between four walls and a roof; Anyone's.
He knocked the door praying for someone to be at home. Otherwise he could swear he would just fall frozen in no time. The door opened and the same man as the day before showed behind it.
"Hello Mr. Would you mind if I get inside the house? It's wicked freezing out here" The cougar asked stuttering.
"Sure, get inside" The man said, letting him pass.
He was able to feel the heat from the fireplace almost instantly on his whiskers, and without losing time he placed himself in front of it. Getting one of the most pleasant feelings he had experimented until now, he relaxed his muscles and even started to feel sleepy.
"I'm really sorry for the sudden irruption. I came here to talk with Ariadna and this snowfall took me by surprise" Ethan said after getting warm enough to utter intelligible words
"Well, she is outside too. On the back of the house actually, yet she didn't get inside desperately and shivering like a wet cat". Such words came from one corner of the room, in a noticeable unfriendly tone. A child of about thirteen years old was looking at Ethan seated on a dining chair, with - of all things - a cat resting on his lap.
Ethan was disconcerted for both the answer and the sudden appearance of the child. It was obvious he had been there the whole time, and simply went unnoticed due to Ethan's desperate search for a source of heat.
"Gaius, there is no need to be such a jerk. It's really freezing out there now" The man said scolding the child.
"Let me introduce myself, I'm Lucian, Ariadna's 'mother'" The man said smiling. "Gaius here is her father. Just ignore him; he has the body of a child but the tongue of a snake". The AR simply made a disdainful sound with his mouth before looking away.
Lucian offered Ethan a chair, which he placed next to the fire. He wore off the coat and seated on the chair. Soon after, a noise of a door opening and clawed foots hitting the ground while getting closer could be heard coming from the adjacent room, along with a cold gust and a female voice speaking.
"Mother, you have to see how things are outside. There are flakes the size of an ETHAN!" Ariadna got startled at the sight of the cougar morph in front of the fireplace.
"Ethan, when did you get in here?" She said while shaking off the few remaining flakes on her head and clothes and leaving a sword leaned against the wall.
"Uh, about five minutes ago. I didn't plan on stepping in if you were absent, but the wind started to blow and it froze everything from my feet up to my thoughts" Ethan ironized.
"I see" She said getting closer. "Did you come here to tell me about the meeting? How was it?"
"Yeah, I'm here for that. Everything went just fine. I'm not going to be banished from the Keep or anything like that. It seems that I'm 'clean' after all" Ethan replied.
The answer caught Gaius's attention, who until then was busy on his own business.
"Banish you said? You were facing the possibility of getting casted out of the Keep? What exactly did you do to put yourself on that kind of situation?"
Gaius question sounded like if the receptor was some kind of criminal and evidently that was his thought.
Ethan was definitely disconcerted. His sudden irruption was not worthy of such despise from a man who didn't knew him at all. Were he a complete stranger for any member of the family then it would be comprehensible.
"Father, that's enough! He didn't do anything. I would never befriend a criminal and you know it" Ariadna shouted angrily.
"And you know I want the best for you" His father replied.
"Hypocrite" She whispered, and headed to other room in the house. Immediately she was back with a thick blanket; she thrown Ethan his coat and pulling him from one wrist she led them both to the door.
"I'll be back later, mother". She closed the door after that.
Ethan thanked her good sense when getting that blanket for him. The icy wind was terrible, nothing compared with the cold in the morning. Ariadna was suffering aswell, but her coat seemed to be enough at least for the rest of the walk ahead.
"Please, tell me this is the coldest the winter will get this far north" Ethan muttered. His nose was pale white and his whiskers tight.
"It is very cold indeed, but I've passed through worst" She answered, much to his grief
"Just what was all that back there?"
"Let's talk inside the mess room, I haven't lunched yet and I suppose you didn't either".
The mess hall was full of people, and luckily as warm as any inner ambient should be. Ethan took the blanket off his body and also wore off the coat. That relatively short walk was exactly what he wanted to avoid when entering Ariadna's house the necessary time for the snowstorm to pass, but ironically she was the one who made such walk happen.
Ethan saw both Eric and Linna on a table nearby. He told Ariadna to join them, but she refused stating "If you want me to explain my father's attitude, then lets eat on a different table". That was certainly intriguing...
Ariadna seated on a table, and Ethan went to get something to eat. Back on the table he placed both plates over it, and seated by her side.
"So, why did your father see me as a bug waiting to be squashed?" Ariadna was quite annoyed and her was tail twitching behind the chair.
"It not you, he is like that with any male keeper close to me. You heard him saying 'I want the best for you'. Well, that was a blatant lie as you may suspect. It's all because of his own selfish ambitions, pretty much spoiled ever since the Battle of the Three Gates" She started. "He used to work on the lumbers, but the curse left him unable to keep doing so. My mother took his place in the lumbers since then". She couldn't avoid a seemingly mischievous grin to show on her face, which didn't last. "What he wants is simple: A convenience marriage between Eric and me"
Ethan listened amused and chuckled at the thought of the child imposing his intention to Ariadna. Given her reaction and answer towards his father attitude, it was obvious he was not the one in charge in the house.
"Eric has a fair wealth, being the son a merchant from the midlands. His father is not in the valley, nor cursed. The battle from eight years ago only saw Eric's presence" She continued. "His father comes here from time to time on his usual business travels, and he is of the few people who maintained contact with their cursed siblings. Luckily for us there are a few of those people in the world".
Ethan thought of his brother and mother then.
"Obviously, Eric will inherit the whole wealth and patrimony on his father's death. And there you have my father's 'wish for the best' towards me".
"And what is Eric's position on this matter" Ethan asked, still amused with Gaius's situation.
"He likes me, and as such I'm sure there would be no problem from his side. If he were uninterested on me the whole thing would be null. His father isn't interested in the least to marry him. He has nothing to win".
Certainly this situation was unique, since the person behind such intention was in no position to impose it. And in the end, it was more of an ambition from one party than an agreement from both...
Ariadna acquired a somewhat sad expression before continuing.
"Eric is not a bad guy. He is nice, and being on the same squad than him is good, because his priority is mine and Linna's safety before anything else. And there lies the problem"
"Eric being a good person is a problem?" Asked Ethan while munching his meal, delighted once again by the warm feeling of the food on his mouth.
"Yes. If he were a jerk, or at least shown no sign of interest in me, my father wouldn't have anything to do. He is the one encouraging Eric to ask me to marry him". Arianda then started with her meal.
"I suppose then you don't like him, or at least don't see him that way, am I right?"
The question made by Ethan made Arianda look at him out of the corner of his eye, still busy with her food.
"I am not interested in marrying him, if that's what you meant" She said. "He is not my type, and I haven't found a person for which I've fallen in love yet".
Ethan choked after that, and found that Ariadna was looking at him with a grin drawn on her muzzle.
"What's the matter?" She asked
"Nothing, I just choked with a small bone from this chicken" He answered. It was true, to an extent at least.
"Just in case, no, I'm not in love with you. I really like you, but not like that. I met you two weeks ago, and I've been with Eric in the squad for about two years" She said smiling. "You certainly are more interesting than him, but such things require time".
Ethan stood there looking at her. After the insinuating remark made by the Mongoose the last night on the Deaf Mule, he was almost sure that she was interested in him in that way.
Ariadna finished her meal a few moments after, and then broke the uncomfortable silence
"I'm going to get something else. Want me to get you something aswell?" She asked in a natural tone. Was she mocking at him for having thought about her feelings in that way?
"No, I'm full, thanks anyway" He replied trying to not look disconcerted.
After she left, a near coarse laugh made Ethan's ear twitch in that direction. It was an old shrew Morph seated on the other side of the table.
"She ditch ya, lad" He said between laughs. "And I bet ya 're not the first".
Ethan stared at the shrew with a mixed look of despise and astonishment, but didn't replied to his mockery. A short time after that, Ariadna was back to the table. The shrew had already made his way off the mess hall. That twit heard everything and twisted all up to his liking, Ethan thought...
It was not much later when both morphs were done with their meals. The cold wind had stopped, but the snow was still falling over the roofs and streets of the Keep. Nonetheless it was colder than in the morning.
"Say, do you want to have a quick match with me? Before you came to my house I was training on the backyard. I feel like having some more exercise" Ariadna said as they walked through a street in the Keep with no defined destination.
"We have just eaten. Can't you at least wait half an hour to give a chance to our stomachs to digest?"
"All right, no problem then. Lets just walk a while"
Ariadna was willing to 'lose' half an hour walking alongside Ethan just to have a quick match with him. That made him sure that she really liked him, otherwise she would have just said to simply meet on a training ground sometime in the afternoon.
Ethan wasn't sure of what he thought of her. She was really nice and charming, and also the first woman with whom he had a close relationship.
Certainly he started to feel more attracted to her ever since he changed, but as she said, such things require time.
The need to return to Ariadna's house to retrieve her sword and the spear Ethan had left there carelessly when his mind was focused on rushing straight to the fireplace wasted enough time for their purpose, and as soon as they arrived at a training ground they started their match.
Ariadna was good with the sword - as Ethan has already seen the day he arrived to the Keep -, but it wasn't hard for him to defeat her. Linna was definitely better than her.
The spear's long reach was decisive in the battle, unlike in situations where the wielder of the shorter weapon was an experienced warrior, such as his match with Oberon.
Ethan went easier after that, avoiding complex movements and the usual acrobatics he resorts on hard battles. She didn't take that bad, since it was clear for her that Ethan had many more years of training over his shoulders.
"The way you use the spear is much different of what I've have seen around here. Where did you learn that?" Ariadna asked after they chose to take a break.
"It was my master's teachings. He said it was a variation of his own style, which I barely had the chance to really see more than a few occasions" Ethan said.
"His weapon was really odd, and his ability with it was outstanding".
The exercise had warmed Ethan a lot, and now he barely felt the cold temperature that so many troubles had caused to him.
Wanting to get his things back Ethan catches the sight of a man standing next to his belongings. His distinct red hair was enough for Ethan to recognize him as the guard who killed the lutin the former day near the Keep's walls on Euper.
"What do you want? Those are my belongings" Ethan said in a normal tone. He didn't bear any kind of grudge against him for the events of their first encounter. Guarding the surroundings of the Keep was really his duty after all.
"I was just waiting for you to end with your clash so I could be able to introduce myself" The TG replied.
"You are really good with the spear by the way. When you confronted that lutin I thought you were just an inexpert trying to improvise a weapon using a broom. But watching you fighting now made me see that I was wrong".
Ethan DID tried to improvise a weapon with the broom, but undoubtedly he didn't look like a capable fighter wearing simple clothes and a blanket...
"My name is Johann, and I just got assigned as your 'watcher'" He concluded
Ethan stood there speechless for a few seconds, before asking "I thought you were going to keep an eye on my out of sight. Or at least in disguise..."
"There is no need for that. Besides, it would be a pain to follow an animal morph without being discovered sooner or later. I'm no spy, you know?"
"I was told that essentially the only need was to keep an eye on any stranger who tries to make some kind of contact with you".
Ethan mind was processing many things in that same moment.
"Hold on a second. Are you saying that you are going to be following me the whole time?" Ethan asked quite upset at the idea of a man - although formerly a woman – being with him wherever he went.
"Hell no! Neither of us would like that, nor get any benefit from it!" He said almost yelling. "But if it were necessary, I would have no choice. Luckily for the both of us I'm just going to be with you full time in your squad, and inside the Keep only when necessary. Discard the idea of having me in your room" Johann concluded sarcastically.
"Find someone else to play fool with" Ethan said showing his sharp set of teeth, before picking up his belongings and leaving the grounds.
Johann looked perplexed as the cougar made his way out of the grounds.
"I wouldn't mind him if I were you" Ariadna said - who was close and heard everything – as she approached the archer. "His world changed drastically in a mere two weeks. He must be thinking that having someone following your steps the whole time is the straw that broke the camel's back"
Johann sighed "I understand that, but still, I think he overreacted. This was not my decision to begin with. Though, to be honest, it is more interesting than being on patrol around the Keep's walls... and I'm getting a fine wage" He said smiling.
"Just don't annoy him too much, at least not until he adapts to his situation and become less sensitive" Said Ariadna, who was about to leave the grounds as well
"Thanks for the, uhm, advice" He said, captivated with the morph's peculiar eyes. "And who may you be?"
"My name is Ariadna, and I'm a scout. Pleased to meet you Johann" She replied smiling
"Pleased to meet you too" Johann said, before both keepers took their own ways off the grounds. His destination being wherever the pissed off cougar may be in.