Clearing the Courtyard

by Ryx

Muri watched Llyn's back as she disappeared down another of the enigmatic passageways leading deeper into the heart of the castle, his hands tucked under the straps of his weighty backpack. Watching the passageway for a few more seconds, he took a deep breath and let out a long sigh as he looked around. The courtyard was surrounded by a vaulted arcade, spotted here and there with large islands of well maintained vegetation, the largest raised plot containing a tall tree all of its own.

Wandering over to that center dais of stone and greenery, he removed his pack, dumping it upon the ledge of stonework and sitting down beside it to rub his shoulders. The sky above had taken on a muted pink glow as the sun finally passed over the distant western horizon, heralding the coming night. He could hear the quiet conversations of Keep residents as they wandered through the arcades along three sides of the courtyard, few of them wandering directly into the central garden areas where Muri had stopped to rest. Torches flickered from the depths of the arcade, casting the shadows of those passing them across the gardens, sending them dancing dementedly as they moved past. The windows above on all sides stared like shifting eyes upon the dimness of the courtyard, watching the lone skunk for several minutes with quiet regard. The cool drizzle had ceased, leaving the courtyard itself slightly damp, the drip of water loud from the branches of the one lone tree.

"Hello." Whispered a quiet voice from somewhere in Muri's vicinity, causing him to glance up and look around quickly, but he noticed no one near. A rustling chuckle filled the air as he looked around, sending the fur of his hackles up. "Behind you, the tree." The voice whispered again, the sound like the wind through leaves, through there was no wind in the clearing at all. Muri turned and looked up into the tree, but could see no one, even with the diffuse flickering light of the torches planted not so far away.

"Who speaks?" he challenged, using his spirit sight to examine the tree again. That was a mistake, he swiftly realized, the entire place was aglow with shimmering, bright energies of a hundred hues from vibrant green to bright blue-white. He blinked, swiftly returning to his normal vision, rubbing his temples.

"Laracin." The voice whispered, "The tree speaks." The voice sounded humorous, light and quiet. "You are new."

Muri nodded stupidly at the tree, startled by the unfocused voice as it whispered from somewhere within the dense foliage, "I am." He said at length, "Murikeer."

"Murikeer." The tree echoed, distinctly male in timbre, which was another confusion for the skunk. He had never encountered a male spirit of the land, if this was indeed a spirit too timid to reveal itself. "Greetings and well come to Metamor."

"Thanks." The skunk replied, scratching the back of his head in confusion, "You are no spirit, are you?"

"No, I was once a man, as you once were." The voice whispered, a rustling lament accentuated by a hiss of water cascading from its. his, branches. Muri's muzzle dropped open in a silent 'oh', the skunk nodding in realization. Animals were not the only result of Nasoj's diabolical spell. If one could become a tree, what other strange occurrences may have come about with the effects of the magic. "What brings you finally to Metamor? You walk like one well familiar with your new form, and Joy is a resident of many years here."

"Joy?" Muri asked, his brow furrowing. He had heard Dream use the same word when they first encountered him the last evening.

"Llyn's common name here is Joy." The tree clarified, "For she was one of the first to find acceptance and new joy with the form she had been given."

"Oh." Muri said as he sat back down, crossing his legs upon the cool stone ledge surrounding the tree's plot of earth. What would it be like, Muri mused, to be trapped forever in one static form, unable to move at all? He shuddered at the terrible thought, knowing pity for the tree, but did not let that show. "Llyn convinced me that living alone in the forest did not suit me."

"Life alone suits very few." The tree agreed, its limbs rustling, "Even life alone in a vast crowd." The tree's voice trailed away ruefully.

"Yes, I agree, on both counts." Muri turned his head to watch a set of dancing shadows on one wall of the western arcade. The pale hues were swiftly bleeding from the skies, the courtyard darkening with the last waning diffuse light of the sun. "Though this place has me on edge, there are too many here."

"It is easy to become lost in the crush." The tree finished, knowingly, "With numerous souls in such a small place, a single soul becomes anonymous."

"I had not thought of it that way, but you're right, Laracin." Muri nodded, shifting slightly at the sound of footsteps moving across the marble flagstones of the courtyard. No claws accompanied those steps, the soft hiss of boot leather on stone.

Human footsteps; several of them.

"Yet with many souls comes greater knowledge, greater support." Laracin continued as Muri scanned the surrounding gardens for the source of the footsteps he could hear. The careful landscape consisted of small hills, stone terraces trickling with water, and many different heights of greenery. The effect of which was to soften the cold, stark lines of the stones surrounding the courtyard, and broke up the sounds created by those occupying the area.

The skunk swiftly stood as four humans rounded the edge of the tree's landscaped terrace, all of them setting their eyes upon him at the same moment. Three were female, tall and willowy lithe, their angelic faces garishly decorated with pastel hues, garbed in diaphanous gowns of light silk that shimmered in the torchlight. Semi transparent against the light cast by the torches, Muri could see the silhouettes of their bodies within the light fabric, though could not tell to what extent they were garbed beyond their gowns. The fourth was a male, also possessing of the same perfect physique, but dressed in light, tight leather hose and a silk shirt.

"You see, Laurana." One of the women cooed to her companions, gliding toward the startled skunk on light feet, her gown shimmering about her like a self contained fog, "I knew I saw a newcomer come in the south gate today."

"Oh, and a skunk." One of the others commented, her voice smooth and sultry, her bright red lips parting in a lascivious smile, "They are so very rare." She stepped a little closer as her tongue languidly stroked her vibrant red lips. The man stood behind the threesome, obviously their paramour or nominal pet, smiling enigmatically at the skunk. "And he's such a ladykiller." She noted, smiling aside at the third member of their troupe.

Muri held his hands up slightly from his hips, a calm warding gesture as he backed away from their advance, his tail darting rapidly at his back. "Please, mi'ladies, I do not wish to be disturbed at the moment." He murrled, his hackles rising reflexively as the three ghosted closer to him on quiet feet.

"Ladies." The tree whispered, its voice harsh and rattling, like hollow branches tossed in a gale, "He desires solitude, not a cheap night." The third, as yet silent female, cast a gesture of disregard in the tree's direction.

"He's new come, and such the rogue." The second of the trio observed, looking him from paw to ears, her eyes full of hunger. "A rustic, with clothes like that." She licked her teeth, moving up close to the tallest of their menagerie, who had been the first to speak. Casting a coquettish sideward glance to their leader, she smiled and spoke in a silkily smooth, sultry voice, "Cheap would not be an issue for such a handsome fellow." She said, more an inquiry toward the first speaker, "Especially not on his first night at the Keep, now would it Amber?"

They had come to stand close enough to Murikeer for him to feel their breaths upon his fur as they looked down upon him. Had he not had fur he knew he would have been able to feel the heat of their bodies. The one addressed as Amber smiled over to her follower and nodded, "Oh, indeed." She cooed, "A welcoming night would be free." She turned her dark blue gaze upon the skunk, who stood somewhat shorter than she. "And I am curious to know just how you skunks are built." She growled, a feral sound like a wolf, and reached forward to grasp the skunk firmly between his thighs, cupping his entire anatomy in a warm grasp.

Muri's jaw, already opened in a slight snarl at their closing proximity, suddenly fell slack as the grasp fell upon his sheath. He fairly sprang up into the air, every fur standing on end, with a trilling hiss of complete shock, and spun about in mid air. One paw caught the lip of the terrace, claws scrabbling upon the rough stone as he launched himself away from the all too forward woman and her companions. Leaning forward as he spun, his thick tail arched into the air over his back, gracing the three women and man with a brief view of his backside before a sudden stream of pungent skunk musk blasted across them. Shrieks and human howls of surprise and disgust broke the previously peaceful quietude of the courtyard as the skunk charged across Laracin's plot of greenery as the tree rustled, "Harlots!" at the women.

Plunging out the opposite side, he continued in a straight line into the next terrace, crashing through a dense azalea shrub like and panicked bull. Breaching the opposite side of the azaleas he found himself facing a startled looking group of richly dressed aristocrats lead by a tall, robust looking stallion in courtly garb. Swords sang from scabbards as the skunk closed at in a full, blind charge, bright steel gleaming in the torchlight as they were raised in defense of the group.

Darting around the first guard, barely avoiding the swift downward gleam of his blade, Muri's claws shrieked upon the polished flagstones as he ducked under the swing of a second guard. He dodged around a startled ring-tailed Lemur aristocratically garbed in rich purple, vanishing into the passageway they had been standing in front of.

In full flight, Muri barely even realized the actions of the guards to protect whomever it was they had been charged to keep from harm. He pelted down the long, narrow hallway, from light to shadow between the widely spaced torches. Reaching a corner, he seized the base of a sconce with one hand, sliding around the corner, and charged up the stairs he came to.

Reaching the top he took the first cross passage he came to, and was brought to a sudden, rattling halt.

Colliding with a rat with enough force to send them both sprawling upon the stone floor, something small clattering across the floor to strike the wall and scatter itself with a crash. Muri skidded into a wall with a gasp and grunt of discomfort, then quickly sprang to his feet. The female rat, stunned by the impact, was sprawled on her backside in a pool of pastel blue fabric, hands and tail splayed behind her as she struggled to sit up.

"Damnation." He chuttered, his voice a shrill burr as he scrambled over, "I am most sorry, milady." He offered, though it was obvious by the simple weave of her dress that she was no aristocrat. He gently assisted her back up onto her paws, shaking his head angrily. Seeing that she had regained enough of her senses to keep her feet, he quickly made his escape, moving with more care though, lest he strike something a great deal less yielding in his haste.

He moved rapidly through the castle aimlessly, trying to come to grips with the sudden, unreasoning terror that had prompted him to act so poorly. He finally came to a stop in an unused corridor, leaning against the wall and dropping his head into his hands, moaning at his pure foolishness.

Panting for breath, he closed his eyes, trying to force back the images that spilled like foul water from his memories.

Humans surrounded him on all sides, their chain-and-mail uniforms bright with much wear, swords held levelly upon him as their horses pranced and champed their bits at him. The sky was dark and heavy with rain, the cold heralding his own doom.

Newly changed, he had not yet come to terms with his own body, and thus had been clumsy in his flight from Heiorn's small hamlet, allowing the hunters to track him easily, running him into the open. They dismounted their horses, smiling evilly and making jibes to one another about the 'demon pelt' they would be hanging from their longhouse wall.

His sudden musk had sent them all scrambling, retching uncontrollably as their horses bolted.

Further north, days later, more humans had found his trail and treed him with hounds, their makeshift weapons dull with rust and pitting as they grinned up at him, throwing curses and stones to force him out of the tree. A dog had savaged his leg when he fell from the tree, but he had managed to escape, leaving them gagging in the grass behind him.

A wind scoured cliff high in the bitterly cold mountains, he had thought himself free from the evil of humans. Ten of them had pursued him even to the ends of the world, forcing him up against the cold cliffs of the Northwall mountains, where they had thought to cut him down. With claws and terror, he had managed to ascend the sheer cliff face before they found out where he had gone to ground, and only one of them had enough bravery to attempt following the skunk into the frigid heights.

For five days the two played a bitter game of cat and mouse in the snow and ice, the human finally ambushing Murikeer on a narrow ledge a thousand feet above the unforgiving rocks below. In the cold, lost world where none but the strongest survived, Muri had given his last effort, weak from many days without food. Plunging his dagger into the red-bearded man's chest, he had found himself then without a weapon as the man's death plunge ripped it out of his numbed hand.

At every turn it had been humans, sinister and calculating, who drove him onward, further and further from any home he had ever known.

And once more, he felt they might continue their vile task.

He ground the heels of his palms into his aching eyes, his body suddenly feeling very heavy, tired from so many years of fear and the terrors of his own memories.

"Excuse me?" a female voice broke into the spiral of his own torment, bringing his head up with a snap. Standing a short distance down the corridor was yet another of the Keeps many residents. A skunk.

A skunk. Another skunk.

A female skunk, at that.

He chuffed, at first thinking he had stumbled into a mirror, seeing a visage so like his own watching him with a concerned expression, whiskers drawn back against her muzzle as short, rounded black ears lifted toward him. Yet for the similarity of species, they were two very different physiques. Where he was broad of shoulder and chest, she was more built slightly more slender, and covered in a smoky bluish gown that accented the flare of her hips and the curve of her bust nicely, yet without screaming her sexuality at him. The humans had been a group unto themselves, Muri knew, their choice of wardrobe not in keeping with the general styles he had seen while passing through the crowds of the town.

"I saw what happened in the courtyard." She continued quietly, not moving any closer, thick tail a white-slashed shadow waving slowly in the air behind her. Muri winced, rocking his head back against the cool stone of the wall and closing his eyes for a moment as he tried to gather himself. "I'm sorry, but those four are, well, not like most around here." She looked to one side, out one of the deep casements. Where her view settled Muri was unable to tell.

"I hope never to see them again." Muri growled, prompting her gaze to return, "Murikeer, once of the Watchwoods."

"Kayla." She replied with a brief curtsy, to which Muri offered an awkwardly angled bow from the wall. She was a marvelous looking creature, but Muri had to reserve judgment on her true beauty, for he had seen few of his own kind in his travels, so had nothing save for himself to compare. "Where are the Watchwoods?"

"North." Muri waved a hand loosely in the stated direction, "This is my first visit here."

"I'm sorry that you received such a poor reception." She murred, her voice gentle, with a soft burr that added warmth and depth. Muri smiled wanly and nodded, looking briefly at the floor, then back up as he shrugged and shook his head.

"Your kindness is appreciated, milady Kayla." Muri said quietly as he stood away from the wall. He found that she was slightly taller than he, and built more human in physique. She had a willowy femininity about her that belied her species, lacking the long torso typical of the other mustelids Muri had seen. She also lacked the aura of imperturbable strength about her that Llyn had, her stance and look was of calm compassion rather than careful consideration. In the flickering light of the torches Muri could see that her eyes were not dark, like his own or the eyes of any of the other animal morphs he had seen. They were a soft grey in the wavering light of the torches, with a depth to them that Llyn's lacked entirely. With a conscious action of will, he closed his loosely sprung jaw, and let his gaze shift beyond the spectrum of normal vision.

Filtering out the bright background light of the Keep's magic, he could see that she was no mage, there was no aura of contained power about her. She did possess magic though, a deep blue web of intricately woven energies that centered upon some bauble he could not see under her blouse, resting between the furry curves of her breasts. The magic was subtle, but powerful. The primary weave was of the air element, with small degrees of fire and earth, and served plainly to obscure her natural skunk musk. He found he could not smell anything about her save a tiny hint of lavender, which was most likely from her dress or the soap she had used to bathe.

The pendant was a simple device, but the spell was intricately bound to her, and self contained. Unlike Muri's magic, it did not require a link to the surrounding energies, which made it ultimately far more valuable. No mere friendship gift, that, he presumed. It indicated that she was spoken for, which was a minor regret, though he hoped it would not deny him her companionship.

She did not move away as Muri joined her at the casement and looked out onto the courtyard several floors below. The humans had left, most likely within seconds of his own hasty departure, leaving the courtyard empty. The flickering orange glow of the torches cast deep shadows around the carefully landscaped planters patterning the courtyard, the lone tree that called itself Laracin standing silently in the center.

"Tsamut." He cursed quietly at himself in Sathmis, "I fear I have gotten myself lost, milady Kayla." He sighed, waving a hand toward the view below, "I do not know this place, and. in my haste I left behind my belongings."

Kayla chuckled softly, her smile brightening his morose mood, and nodded, "It is but a short trip to return." She turned slightly, suddenly struck in profile to Muri by the light of a distant torch.

"I am in no hurry." Muri smiled, moving over to walk at her side, his arms clasped in the small of his back. The female skunk nodded slightly as the moved away from the casement, into the shadows between widely spaced torches.

Llyn walked swiftly through the Keep as soon as she left Murikeer, intent upon reporting her return to the irascible old jackal, George, and returning as soon as possible. She was going to have to take Murikeer before Thalberg either this night or immediately upon the next morning so that Muri's presence would be acknowledged and he could be given lodgings.

She did not bother going to Misha's apartments, which was her customary habit, instead directing her path toward the offices of the patrol master. George's rooms were directly opposite the hallway, and it was upon those doors she rapped firmly upon reaching her destination. At this hour he would be eating his dinner, just as most of the Keep's residents would be.

"Wot?" a gruff voice hollered from the other side of the door, the rough edges muffled by the thick wooden portal.

"Scout to report in." Llyn replied.

"Come back after I've eaten!" the same voice barked from the other side of the door, followed by a muffled exchange of voices that Llyn could not follow. She figured he was most likely talking to his assistant, who also shared an anteroom of the same apartments.

"Long to report in." Llyn growled, rapping the door once more. A grumbled curse came back, sounding irritated and curious at the same time. From the guard's statement at the keep gateway all of the Longs were out, so one reporting in might get the old jackal's attention. She was about to pound on the door with her fist when she heard the latch rattle and the door was drawn open.

A slender, finely chiseled woman's face appeared in the gap, her dark blue eyes inquisitive at first, then startled upon identifying the mink standing at the threshold. "Joy?" the woman gasped, quite amazed by the mink's arrival.

"Who is it, Diane?" the jackal barked, his voice louder and sharper with the opening of the door. The woman, Diane, quickly stepped back and opened the door further. Llyn followed, entering the room as the door was opened. Though she had been in these rooms many times in the past for various reasons, she was always amazed at its opulent clutter.

The walls were covered floor to ceiling with all manner expensive paintings, sculptures, and other items of rare artwork. The furniture was of artistic yet comfortable design, the best that the patrol master was able to afford with his hoarded wealth of many years as a bandit. The jackal himself was seated at a massive table of maple and ash, a large meal spread out before him. "Long Scout to report in, sir." She said as she navigated her way around a display case holding a small army of intricately detailed miniature warriors.

George, looking up from his meal, very nearly dropped his engraved pewter flagon when he spotted the mink. He set the drinking vessel aside as Diane closed the door behind her, placing his hands upon the table as he leaned toward her, his ears perked alertly forward as his narrow muzzle pulled into a hard grin, "Where by all the hells have you been, woman?" he growled, though with more amazement than anger.

"Well into the north, sir, it's a long story."

The jackal nodded, picking up a slab of freshly baked bread. "We have plenty of time, with the rest of the Longs out." He growled, his voice lightening, and motioned toward a nearby chair. The mink did not move, standing in a pose of respectful ease across the table from him. Noting her immobility the jackal turned one ear toward her and tilted his head to one side as he chewed a muzzleful of bread, "Well?" he rumbled around the bread, "Have a seat."

"I can't give a detailed report right now, sir." Llyn replied, her voice as strong and crisp as her pose, "I brought someone back with me, who helped me survive, but Garnid and Jylian did not make it."

"Dark news indeed." The jackal growled heavily, pausing in his meal for a moment to bow his head, staring at his reflection in the polished base of his flagon, "We seem to be suffering losses on all sides of late." He looked back up, dark brown eyes fixing upon Llyn, "You witnessed their deaths?" Llyn shifted on her feet, turning her head slightly to the left to bring her stronger ear into focus on the jackal. She did not want to reveal too soon that her hearing had been damaged, which would threaten her place in the Longs if it hampered her abilities.

"Garnid's, aye, but was swarmed before I could throw myself upon their spears in a similar fashion. As for Jylian, we ordered her to fly, and I do not know her fate."

"She has not reported in several weeks. Why was she with you?"

"She followed me, sir, I did not realize until we were well beyond the dikes, and she refused to turn back. She said she wanted as much of a chance to join the Longs as Garnid had."

"Neither of them need to worry about it at this point." George took a swallow of wine from his flagon, sighing, "I will want a detailed report of the deaths, or whatever. And detailing the actions of both prior to that point. What did you find?"

Satisfied that his interrogation concerning the loss of a friend and promising new member to the Longs would not drag on further, Llyn let out a slow breath, then launched into a very abbreviated report of what they had encountered. "Nasoj's forces were building a road, approximately a hundred feet in width, from an undetermined location to the north. Their apparent aim of this construction was to facilitate the movement of five great towers toward Metamor. Garnid, myself, and Jylian had managed to penetrate their van and witness the construction of the road, and turned back at that point to return and report."

"Excuse me," Llyn paused, glancing aside as Diane spoke up from the end of the table. She had a wooden tablet in one hand and was quickly noting what Llyn said, "Did you say this road was one /hundred/ feet wide? You measured it?"

"Not that precisely, no, but yes, it was wide enough for fifty men to stand shoulder to shoulder from one edge to the other." Llyn clarified, turning her attention back to the jackal, who had not ended his meal with her arrival, his ears pricked alertly forward as he listened intently. "We were spotted by the Lutin scouts while attempting to break through their lines again southward, and that's when Garnid was slain, attempting to charge through. We had ordered Jylian to fly at that time, so that she might give her report if we did not escape.

"But I was swarmed shortly after Garnid fell, and they captured me alive. Five of the enemy human mages then took me to some place called the 'Murk' for purposes I never knew. I was rescued by a skunk, whom I brought back with me once his own mission was ended.

"As he had his own agenda, and I was by then very lost, I agreed to assist, and we went northward. A couple weeks later we found the towers that the road was apparently built to help transport, and destroyed them."

"How big were these towers, what was their construction?" Diane asked, and George nodded, his sharp teeth working on a succulent bit of meat.

"Murikeer, the skunk, estimated them to be roughly fifty feet in height and eighty feet in width, with one tower being eighty feet tall."

"Eli," George muttered, "So huge?"

"I won't refute his estimations, sir, they were very big. They had to use six stone wheels a piece to move, each of those wheels being taller than the ceiling of this room."

"And yet you and this Murikeer destroyed them?"

"All but one, sir, yes."


"That is involved sir, and I have him waiting in the east courtyard. He's not very comfortable with the city, having spent two or three years alone in the northern wilds."

The jackal nodded, "Get him some place to stay for now, and bring him to me for a report tomorrow, if Misha has not returned."

"Where are they, sir?" Llyn asked, her voice pitched with curiosity.

"They went to raze Standing Rock."

"Raze it?" Llyn chirruped, surprised. The old keep had been standing for centuries as a raiding post for Lutins, and had never been directly attacked by Metamor Keep in all of those years. "Why?"

"Vengeance." The jackal growled, his ears going back as he snarled, white teeth gleaming in the light. Llyn scowled, tilting her head to one side in confusion. "Lutins captured a Long patrol. They slew Craig."

Llyn gasped, one paw going to her muzzle. The prairie dog had been a boon companion, patrolling with her many times in the past few years. He had never been one for his cups, but made a good drinking companion in that he could pry her away from the tavern before she became too stupidly drunk. Her whiskers folded back against her muzzle as she slumped, ears flattening. He had been a friend, a true friend, with a wife and two hyperactive children. "When?"

"A week ago."

"Who was on patrol with him?"

"Caroline, she survived, but they. did things to her I would rather not wrap my muzzle around repeating."

Under her fur Llyn paled, her flesh going icy cold at the thought of something the blunt voiced old bandit was too sickened to repeat. She also knew, immediately, some of what had been done, having lived through similar some years ago. "How badly is she hurt?" They two of them had never been friends, the otter having stolen Misha's attention away from Llyn, who'd had aims on him. Jealousy had been a barrier between them, though Llyn had given up on Misha soon enough after her gaining his attentions.

"They beat her very badly, and broke her hands. She barely survived, and would not have had Rickkter not found her."

Rickkter, the warrior mage turned raccoon, a personality nearly as irascible as the jackal before her if she had heard the right of things. Llyn had heard of his arrival not long before she left on her ill fated patrol, but she had never met him personally. Llyn winced at the news, flexing her own hands. Like Caroline, she prided herself with her skill with a bow, though it was not nearly as honed as the otter's had been. Yet she also knew of the rabbit, Phil, who lacked any real hands. One could make due without them, but working hands were an integral part of being a scout; a Keeper, charged with the defense of a narrow defile through an otherwise impenetrable wall of mountains. Hands were nearly as important as sight for Llyn, the loss of which would be like losing half of her soul.

"Where is she now?"

"In the infirmary, recovering." The jackal had set aside his food, seeming too ill at east to continue eating, "Misha and the rest of the Longs went to lead a final assault upon Stepping, and took a hundred of Andre's best with them. With luck they will have made the assault last eve, and should be returning this eve or tomorrow morning."

The smoke they had seen upon the northern horizon, Llyn suddenly realized, was the final end of Stepping Rock, "Let us hope that they were successful."

George nodded solemnly, "Caroline needs friends, Llyn, and to know that one they had feared dead has survived will help bring up their spirits."

"I will see her." Llyn nodded, head bowed. George gave her a quizzical look, knowing the friction that had existed between the two female Longs for the last few months, if not years. Llyn waved a dismissive hand, banishing the old emotions with a scowl, "As you said, she needs friends." And understanding, she appended voicelessly. "I have to get Murikeer a room, sir."

"Go. But I want you to bring this skunk of yours to me tomorrow."

Without another word Llyn turned, her military precision lapsing as her mind stumbled over recent news and old memories, her turn being smooth but not crisp. She stalked out of the room, letting the door slowly thump closed behind her.

Retracing her steps as swiftly as she was able, Llyn returned to the courtyard only to find it empty. The powerful, lingering reek of Murikeer's spray hung heavily in the still air, causing her to wrinkle her muzzle in distaste. Breathing in short, quick gulps through her teeth, she searched around until she found the skunk's pack upon the stone lip of a landscaped terrace. The books in that pack were of great importance to the skunk, she knew, as were many of the other things in it. Something drastic had caused him to flee, assailing the source of his fear with that lung-burning musk of his.

Working by the light of the many touches, she looked about in an effort to determine the cause of his flight, one hand held over her muzzle. It was amazing, she thought, that working so close to him in the forests she had never noticed just how powerful his attack could be. Contained in the still air of the castle courtyard made its potency that much more noticeable. Apparently his victims had fared quite badly, for Llyn was soon able to locate a discarded shoe and several threads of fine gossamer torn in a bush. Spattered across the smooth flagstones were the last meals of whomever the skunk had gotten angered with. Added to the skunk's reek, the vomit was very nearly too much for Llyn, who quickly retreated into one of the side passages to regain her breath.

She regained enough control over her queasy stomach to brave the courtyard once again in an attempt to recover the skunk's forgotten pack. Pausing as she hefted it, she looked up into the shadows of the one tree in the courtyard, as if seeking the skunk within their concealment. "Where'd he go, Laracin?" she queried in a muffled, nasal voice.

"He was offended by some harlots who cornered him here." The tree responded, his whispering voice unaffected by the heavy reek the skunk had left behind. "He fled through the eastern passageway, they fled south. Thomas and his retinue retreated north, toward the throne room."

"Thomas?" Llyn quailed. If the skunk had attacked or otherwise offended the lord of Metamor his petition for residence, or even acknowledgement, would be in jeopardy. The tree's branches rattled lightly, though there was no wind.

"They were in his path, he did not spray them." The tree reported calmly, which brought a great sigh of relief from the mink. She hoisted her pack, her ears pricking up when she heard the familiar baritone burr of the skunk, echoing from the easternmost entryway. A second voice, light and very feminine, echoed gleeful laughter in the wake of Murikeer's voice. Llyn's hackles suddenly stood as she navigated her way toward that passage, ears and whiskers flat.

Muri and Kayla came to an abrupt, startled halt as Llyn's silhouette filled the opening of the hallway down which they were walking. Companionably side by side yet not touching, they stopped as the mink stalked toward them. Muri could sense the tension about her, assuming that her report had not gone smoothly, or that she had been frightened by his disappearance.

Kayla, though, knew that cold, hard look from experience. Looming into the light, the taller mink leveled a scalding glare upon her, causing her to melt back a step. Llyn let out a sharp hiss through her nose, gasping the relatively fresh air of the hallway as she glared down the female skunk. How had she, the one and only other skunk in all of the Keep, find Murikeer so swiftly?? Llyn knew that Muri's musk was powerful, but there had been no breeze to send the reek wafting into the edifice itself, and she hoped that the keep would see that it did not either. "Thank you, Kayla, I was wondering where he had fled off to." She offered, her voice tight and frosty. Flicking the tip of his tail quizzically, Muri stepped forward.

"A quartet of scantily clad humans accosted me in the courtyard, I'm afraid." He explained as he accepted his pack from the rigid mink, his brows drawn down in some confusion at her sudden anger. "I panicked, and fled."

"So I could smell." Llyn turned her gaze to him, her expression suddenly changing dramatically. From a hard, cold glare upon Kayla, to a bright smile as she turned to Murikeer. "I'm sorry for leaving you there alone." Further startled, Muri could only nod and wave a dismissive hand.

"You had to put me somewhere, hon, and that was as good a place as any." He glanced back at Kayla, who had taken another slow pace backward, her bright mood wilting under the dark gaze Llyn was pinning on her. Her tail shrank as she drew the fur flat, the lush appendage deforming the fabric of her dress as it tried to tuck between her thighs. "Kayla observed what happened, and was kind enough to lead me back so that I could retrieve my pack, and continue waiting for you."

"Why, thank you Kayla." Llyn offered with a patently false smile, resting one of her hands upon Murikeer's forearm, "I'm so pleased you could help him, but I have to take him to see Thalberg now."

Kayla slowly, her eyes darting from skunk to mink and back, "It's okay." she murred quietly, not meeting the mink's stony gaze, "I'll... see you another day then, sir." she offered to Murikeer in a soft, defeated whisper. Turning slowly, she paced away, her tail low and still behind her as she retreated. Muri scowled slightly at the slump of her shoulders and the dejected attitude of her tail.

"Why the ice, Llyn?" He asked some minutes later as they paced across the courtyard, heading toward the northern passageway.

"Oh, her, well."

"Ice?" The mink asked lightly, her voice gentle and calm once more, though strained as she tried not to breathe too deeply of the lingering stench about the courtyard.

"Well what? She was a big help, and I would have been lost otherwise."

"She's a bit of a nobody, Mur, no need to worry over her." Llyn patted his arm with one hand dismissively as she led him up several flights of stairs, toward the castle steward's quarters. "It's time we introduced you to the castle steward and got you a room."