Dream's Aria: Repudiation

by Ryx

November 3, 706 CR

The autumn sun felt pleasant on Egland's shoulders as he sat upon the one bench placed near the doors of the infirmary. Lush greenery filled the stone planters at each corner of the atrium and on the many intricate levels of the central fountain. A light breeze wended its way through the walls of Metamor Keep to rustle the plants with a cool autumn touch and pluck at Egland's cervine coat.

It was new, this atrium, having not been through the similarly new glass-paneled french doors when he awoke that morning. None of the night nurses knew when the doors appeared or when the rooms had been shifted to give the atrium room to be where it was.

That alone gave Egland pause when he stepped from his recovery room that morning to visit the privy. Sunlight near blinded him after the weeks spent in the rush-lit gloom of the infirmary, but it was welcome light. After being assured that it would not suddenly vanish in a crush of castle stone he went out to enjoy the fresh air and light.

Coe instructed Angton to move Egland's exercise rig, a frame with a rope and single pulley, out onto the atrium. The rope had a bucket, now full of weighty stones, at one end and a leather pocket at the other for Egland's hoof. With the simple apparatus the elk was able to exercise his legs with variable weight in the bucket. Through use of the simple apparatus Egland was able to strengthen his legs and escape the constrained travel of his crutches. Now his ability to get around was limited only by the stamina of his atrophied muscles and not the discomfort of cumbersome crutches as he was able to get around now by use of a cane.

Those strenuous exercises had been completed some hours ago but the sun and breeze felt too comfortable for him to abandon them. The world, for such a brief time, expanded around him in an inverted sea of sky blue and shoals of cloud supported by gray granite pillars and rustling greenery. The surf of the upside-down sea was the distant roar of life; hammers at work, the joyous chorus of children at play, the muffled squeak of wagons pulling their loads, and the background din of nature that lived amongst all of those sounds.

So like Yesulam.

Wood smoke and sealing pitch, the smells cleaving closely to the surrounding castle walls to escape the breeze, came to his sensitive nose. As well scents he had never experienced so clearly; evergreen boughs and ivy vines, late season blooming Snowcaps, freshly reaped autumn wheat, and the pervasive stink of a living city underlying it all.

"Will that be all, Your Grace?" Egland's acute ear caught the purring female voice as it swiveled quite without the elk's conscious direction. Your Grace, that voice said, lancing through Egland's contemplation of peacefulness with the speed of a loosed arrow. Of all those who sent prayer to Eli in this heathen northern fastness only one would be addressed by such term.

Egland's head snapped around, both ears pinning toward the owner of that purring voice. One of the atrium doors was slightly ajar and through the glass panes sunlight spilled into the common room. Egland could both hear and see the starkly white, lushly furred feline backing out of Bishop Vinsah's room. In one arm she carried a tray laden with dinnerware and two books while with her other she drew the door to the Bishop's room shut.

"Yes, Your Grace, I will see what my husband can find for you."

Egland grabbed up his cane and lurched to his hooves with a spasming protest from his legs as he returned hastily to the infirmary. He recognized the white-furred feline as Irene the cook who prepared meals for the patients. Her husband was an archivist in Metamor's extensive libraries so she was often able to bring them books to read as well as meals. When he barged in through the atrium doors she flinched, fur bushing under her simple dress in startlement making her appear considerably more full-bodied for a moment.

"Milord!" she rasped in feline surprise, "I did not see—"

"He has awakened?" Egland interrupted with a glance at the two books. Both were texts concerning interpretations of differing translations of the Canticles.


"The Bishop, he has awakened?"

The cook looked confused and frowned with a droop of whiskers and backing of ears. "Y— yes, milord."

Egland tried not to loom. "How long ago?"

"Not long after yourself, milord. Some two, near three weeks now?"

A hissing snort of irritation escaped the young elk knight's nostrils and his ears backed in ire. The serving woman tried to shrink away from his overbearing presence, tail tucked low against the back of her dress. "And he has been in there ever since?" Egland demanded sharply.

"To my knowledge, milord, yes!" She explained hastily and retreated a pace.

"In all that time no one had thought to tell me? " Egland fumed angrily, "Why?"

"Because, sir, he asked that no one be told." Interjected the Master physician Coe upon coming from the room from another patient with a stack of soiled dressing in the crook of one arm. "Irene, you may go." Coe dumped the stained dressings into a basket and set his medical kit upon a table. The feline sketched a hasty curtsy and retreated toward the door. "Sir Egland, I am little pleased having my staff berated for things not within their control." Said the raccoon healer levelly once Irene had closed the outer door.

Egland scowled down at Coe, "He and I are all that remain here of the Patriarch's entire retinue, and I am left ignorant of his status?" Egland paced in irritation with only the control drilled into him by years of discipline keeping him from lashing out in frustration. "The Bishop is all I have left, I've no one else to serve!"

"You are still a Knight of your Church, Sir, you still serve that. You are a Knight in, and of, Metamor and Duke Thomas, you serve him as well." Coe pointed out flatly while washing his hands from a basin. "Father Hough has come to you, he could use your aid, and Sir Saulius as well. The Bishop has his own reasons to desire solitude at the moment."

"From me?" Egland moaned and thumped his broad cervine chest in frustrated desperation.

"From everyone, Sir. " Coe took up a clean towel to dry his nimble hand paws, still remarkably human for his having become a raccoon. Egland was left with hands that were more like hooves, with two thick fingers and a stout thumb that lacked much of the dexterity he had once enjoyed. "From you, from the Lothonassa Raven who has asked after him, even Father Hough. Not even our Duke knows more than the fact that he is recovering from his injuries."

Egland looked toward the featureless hardwood door separating Vinsah from the world around him. "I do not even know what injuries he suffered." He walked toward the door leaning heavily on his cane and Coe paced him, moving to stand before the door. "You still say 'he', which I guess is some comfort. How has he been touched by Metamor?" The elk knight stopped a pace away from the raccoon and the door he warded.

"That is his counsel to keep as well, Sir."

Reaching over the healer's head Egland rapped upon the stout wood with his knuckles. "Your Grace, it is I, Yacoub." Coe did not move at the reach behind his warding presence and continued to block the door from more than a reaching knock by the elk. Only silence returned from the room beyond the door.

"He has asked to be given peace, Sir Egland." The raccoon scolded warningly. Egland glowered down at him.

"He is the only Master I have left, healer. I would speak with him." He rapped the door again. "Your Grace, I wish to speak. It is your knight, Sir Egland." Once again he was greeted with several seconds of silence.

"As I said, Sir, he does not— "

"Be silent, healer." Egland hissed furiously with backed ears and his voice pitched low.

"I hear you, young Yacoub." Came a weary and muffled voice through the door. Egland's ears raised back up to pin forward at the door and he completely ignored the raccoon's affronted hiss. "I— I am not desirous of company, lad, but your concern is well received."

"Are you well, Your Grace? Can you not open your door that we might speak face to face?" Egland made to reach for the door latch but it was still blocked by the angry raccoon.

"I am well, lad, I am well. I do not wish audience, though, if you could grant me that peace."

Egland blinked in surprise. Did not wish audience? He spoke as if Egland were merely a petitioner. "I am your retainer, the only other left in this place, Your Grace!"

"Peace, young Yacoub, peace. I am pleased to know you are well but I— I desire solitude for the nonce." Vinsah's muffled voice was weary and rough edged through the thick barrier of wood that stood between them. "I need time yet to— to come to grips with all that has happened." The voice fell into silence for some long moments and was much more quiet when it spoke again, as if the speaker had turned away from the door. "Please, lad, allow me this peace. Your service is not needed for the time being."

"Your Grace?" Egland asked at the door with a sinking heart at his unexpected dismissal. He tried to swallow the lump constraining his throat and the un-knightly tears burning in his eyes. "Your Grace? Bishop?" The elk fought to maintain his fast eroding composure as the last shred of his existence was torn away and dashed. Of all that he had known since he was but a boy of twelve the Bishop was all that remained and now even that was slipping away. "Vinsah?" Only silence was returned at his query.

"He has asked to be left in peace, Sir knight." Coe said levelly from somewhere below the tall elk's chin. "Please retire to your own room, or the atrium if you wish." Egland took a step back, anguish flashing to anger in the span of a single heartbeat, and glanced down at the raccoon.

"Step aside." He snorted furiously, "I will speak with him directly." Coe did not move from the door and blocked Egland's reach for the latch with a return glare up at the elk. Egland drew his hand back as if to deliver a forceful backhand blow to the healer but did not strike.

Incensed Coe snarled and poked a single finger at the center of Egland's chest. The finger was tipped with a stout and sharp claw that dimpled both tabard and fur to dig with painful intensity at the muscle of the elk's chest. "Lower your hand, boy!" Coe snarled, his voice pitched in a low hiss, showing his sharp white teeth. "You will raise no hand of violence in this house of healing, knight or no as some undisciplined child having a tantrum!" Coe's finger drove another grinding poke into Egland's chest forcing him back a step. "This is my realm and I rule here, you will heed my word as the Duke's own." Another poke and another grudging step back. Egland's hand fell to his side in ignominious defeat. "If that does not suit your knightly self so be it. You are free to remove yourself at any time."

Coe stopped in the center of the infirmary common room with his hands upon his hips glaring angrily at the elk a pace away. Jutting from the back of his robes the raccoon's thick tail lashed back and forth in his anger with the striped fur abush.

Egland stood numbly, taken aback by his own unexpected burst of pointless anger and the master physician's response. His emotions were in complete turmoil that outpaced his ability to rein them in. For several moments he stared dumbly at the irked raccoon wondering how fickle fate could ever be to throw his life athwart such tumultuous shores. How it could bring him, a Holy Knight in the peak of his life and in the company of the most august of peoples of all the world, to such extremes that he would find himself arguing with an animal. Or that he would be an animal, himself, as well. It seemed like the most vile of dark nightmares.

Unable to find his voice for fear of the sound that might escape his muzzle, be it helpless beastial bleat or blasphemous tirade, Egland at length nodded his head woodenly. He turned away from the animal garbed in healers' robes and walked slowly to the door. The heavy iron-banded wooden portal closed behind him with a weighty thud of finality.

Egland walked the corridors blindly, emotions and thoughts thrown into chaos by the sudden unexpected turn of fates. Never would he have expected to be turned away by his own so callously, the last and only family he knew. Then to be likewise repudiated and cast out by the healer was salt upon a fresh wound. And upon that he had nearly lost himself by almost striking the unarmed healer for doing nothing more than holding to the well being of his patient. Egland had heedlessly assaulted the hapless serving woman with harsh words and manner in a state of anger the likes of which he had not experienced off the battlefield in years. Those two alone were crimes against his discipline and principal and frightened him greatly.

What was this change sweeping over him eroding his self-discipline and careful balance of calm? Was the fey magic of the curse affecting his mind as dramatically as his body or was the trauma of so many dire circumstances tearing at the foundations of his being? Father Hough had tried to assure him that the Curse did not affect the mind; that sameness of self creating much of the problems faced by the physically changed. Sir Saulius however, while also concurring with Hough's assurances, cautioned that the Curse was fey and fickle in its touch; or that in some the spirit was weak and with change of body came a change of spirit. Saulius explained that he had suffered something of that but in time recovered himself and came to accept what he had become. But he had not done so alone, he'd had others changed in ways like him, rats all, to help him return. The Whalish prince, Phil, had similar problems but, again, had many friends to help him.

Who did Egland have? Who to call truly friend as Bryonoth and his fellow knights had been?

Father Hough? The boy-priest had become his spiritual healer and confessor during Egland's recovery, but was he a friend? Egland had to ponder that as he crossed along a battlement wall ripped by cool autumn wind and felt that to not really be the case. Hough was compassionate and wise but the young knight felt him to be his superior, both spiritually and in his position of rank within the local Diocese. He would hear Egland's confessions but as a Priest before a Friend.

Sir Saulius? Egland felt less of connection with the elder rodent knight than he did with the boy-priest. Saulius was a Steppelander and had connected more with Bryonoth than Egland. True to his sense of camaraderie and honor Saulius had come to the infirmary a couple of times to assure Egland that his mount, and Bryonoth's, had survived and were well cared for in the Duke's stables. As well the elk knight's now largely unusable armor, those parts not crushed in the tumble which shattered Egland's legs, was in good hands. But, good intentions aside, Saulius was a transitory companion acting with honor toward a fellow Knight. Egland did not feel a connection of friendship there.

He found himself in a small courtyard crowded with fancifully sculpted topiary so densely that it felt more forest than fortress. Narrow paths wound through the artfully arranged living sculptures interspersed with small fountains. From a gargoyle spout above a cascade of water tumbled onto a series of slate terraces into a pool in which lazy golden carp circled. Egland, weary from his aimless wandering, settled on the stone lip of that largest pool to watch the fish. Around him the green sentinels stood watch concealing all but the top of the surrounding wall and slate roof tops. The fish clustered at the surface of the pool waiting for handouts he could not provide. Golden bodies shimmered dully in the shadowed depths. Even they had their companions, Egland observed ruefully, golden coins in a watery purse.

What of the one person who had come unbidden to Egland's bedside in the infirmary with nothing more than that one thing to offer; friendship. Beyond an impromptu duet at a tavern weeks before the musician had no need to seek out the stricken knight but had done so out of his own accord. And that was before either of them had known of their mutual connection through a shared love lost. Such were the convolutions of cold fate that served naught but to confuse simple mortal minds.

The odd minstrel, so different in outlook and manner than either Hough or Saulius, had come to him to share music and then to help him learn once more how to make his own music but they had shared more than Egland had expected. In secluded darkness the minstrel's compassion and simple offer of friendship had sundered the vaulted secrets of Egland's innermost heart. And he had listened and accepted them without rancor or judgment, had accepted those things about Egland that the young knight was not yet sure to accept about himself. That voicing of the unvoiced depths had allowed Egland a freedom he had never thought possible since the loss of Namir.

Like this minstrel Namir had been one who listened for the mere sake of listening, without judging. Egland sighed at the memories and felt the burn of tears kindled afresh in his eyes.

Ahh, Namir, how I am falling apart, Egland thought morosely, I wish you were here.

He could almost hear the laughter of his lost love. But I am, D'ahshan. Listen. So Egland listened. Wind moaned and topiary sentinels whispered sibilant secrets while water rushed and burbled merrily like gossips across a fence. Interwoven with those sounds Egland began to hear music and realized that he had been hearing music all along. It took the admonishment of memory to bring him to listen.

The elk's ears twitched seeking out the source of the quiet music. It took him but a moment to understand both the instrument, a hammered dulcimer, and the type of music; a hymnus typical of Ecclesiastic services. While he was hearing variations upon an underlying theme he was soon able to name the musical score as The Wedding at Kheni, typical to most Follower marriage ceremonies.

Memory and grief seized Egland's heart anew at the familiar music. He used to play it upon his viola as it was one of Namir's most favored musical compositions. During Mass or at the occasional exchange of vows he would also sing it to Egland's accompaniment.

After Namir was sent to the distant east Egland had never again played that piece.

The music stopped and after a brief pause began afresh. Egland gathered up his cane and stood to follow that music. He slowly wound his way through the labyrinthine convolutions of the topiary garden until he found himself standing before a door. The solemn tempo of Yashua's Wine came through the wood while the unseen musician continued to practice beyond.

Instead of the typical iron-banded dark hardwood of which most doors were built at the Keep this door was pale ash and heavily worked with intricate carving where most were unadorned. The carvings depicted forest trees and vines surrounding a clearing in which two figures stood frozen in mid-dance. The frame and lintel were similarly carven pale white marble. To either side stood artfully sculpted topiary dancers, both of which appeared to be animal-morphs due to tall ears and animal legs. As to exactly what they were intended to depict Egland could not identify.

The music faded away to silence while Egland regarded the door and contemplated disturbing the denizen given such an opulent entry. Who did he expect to reside behind such opulence but some noble who would be wroth with the intrusion of a lowly elk garbed in nothing more than an ill fitting tabard, even if that tabard depicted the white-on-green heraldry of the Order of Yashua. During his hesitation the music began once more from the opening movement, paused on a missed note and then started again.

Where else had he to go, he thought, but here for whatever aid or ill became of it. He raised his hand and rapped upon the second closed door presented to him that day. The music trailed away at his knock and a few moments passed before Egland heard the bolt being drawn and the latch raised. The door opened not a cautious crack but bravely wide to frame the interrupted musician in a spill of warm light.

"Sir Egland?" Dream chuffed with a smile of pleased surprise. "Come in, ts'amut, come in, if you please. Jae kusae jhu kusae." He stepped back and bowed his head in a gesture of summons for Egland to enter. He was wearing a light night-robe of black silk embroidered with white satin birds that shimmered in the afternoon light. The robe had been hastily donned if the loose black sash and need to hold it about himself with one hand were any indicator. At the ritual Steppes greeting, 'my tent is your tent' Egland bowed his antlered head solemnly. He stepped through the doorway that Dream drew fully open.

Due to the angle of the afternoon sun and tall windows of Dream's receiving room facing west it was brighter within than without. Egland blinked at the sunlight shining brightly in his face and paused just within the threshold. The door latch rattled as Dream closed it and then shot the bolt.

"Welcome to my home within the Keep, Egland. It's not many who come to pay me audience here." Egland felt the gentle touch at the small of his back urging him forward and guiding him toward the center of the opulent receiving room. "Sit, ts'amut, make yourself at home. My door is ever open to you."

Egland was almost wary of sitting upon the heavy-framed, plushly upholstered lounging couch that Dream guided him toward. The marten's residence was considerably less garish than the wardrobe he favored but it was still astoundingly luxurious. The lounge alone, near twice as long as Egland was tall, was trimmed with soft buttery-hued leather and adorned with thick cushions of wheat colored silk. Beside it were matching chairs all of which loosely faced a low table fashioned from thick planks of an ivory pale wood set upon a single pedestal of heavily engraved white marble. On the table was a silver and alabaster tea service and crystal liquor service. The crystal decanter was perhaps half full but not in use while the tea service was missing one cup and the pot steamed.

The floors were rough-faced tile laid out in some mostly obscured mosaic and covered with heavy, ornate rugs. There was not a rush in sight nor for that matter dust or cobwebs. The walls were hung with ornate tapestries save where carved wooden pillars rose to the gables above. Those, too, were fashioned in pale wood and artfully worked. The roof looked to be freshly thatched. A single curtained doorway lead to another room. In a pool of sunlight was a music stand and the dulcimer whose voice had called to Egland.

Dream's hand pressed lightly at the small of Egland's back again. "Sit, Yacoub, you shant break it." Egland did as he was bade and settled gratefully into the soft embrace of the lounging couch. Dream paused a moment to tie the sash of his robe before taking up teapot and cup. "Your arrival is precipitous, I've still got some heat in my tea." He poured a cup and handed it to the elk.

"Dor Avhenes." Egland raised the cup in a toast to honor in the same language Dream had spoken in mutual accord for their link from the past. "My thanks, Dream."

Dream moved to sit on the arm of the couch and waved a hand in a complicated gesture of acquiescence. "Jae, jhu." He reiterated, "The door is ever open, as I said. What brings you from the healer's fief?"

Egland cast his eyes down and stared into his tea for several long seconds but Dream did not push his inquiry, merely waiting patiently with a slight forward lean and tilt of his musteline head. "At least someone's door is open." Egland said at length without looking up. "I am lost."

"In your wanderings?"

Egland shook his head. "No, I've been cast out." He heaved a sigh as the tumult of emotions rose up in his breast with renewed heat. "Bishop Vinsah turned me away and the master healer sent me from his hospice." His large, clumsy hands shook and he hastily set down the fragile alabaster and silver cup. Tea lapped over the edge and to puddle upon the pale wood of the table but Dream made no move to dab it up. Egland looked up at the animalistic musician in anguish as the emotions he had tried to quash welled up anew. "I almost struck him, Dream. I raised my hand to an unarmed man for no other reason than wounded pride."

Sensing the crushing weight of despair falling about his visitor's shoulders Dream slipped from the arm of the lounge to sit alongside him. The elk was taller than he by a couple of hands and out massed him by a measurable sum but side by side upon the lounge they were of comparable size. The marten put an arm across Egland's broad shoulders. "Almost, my friend, you almost did such a thing but did not." He churred reassuringly, leaning close. "I have witnessed the theft of life for much, much less." Egland reached up to place his hand atop the marten's on his shoulder. "What of this turning away? I avoided as much of the visitation as I possibly could, but for plying my music at banquets and the more rewarding music we shared before your departure."

Egland's regal head dropped and he stared down at his free hand. Thick digits of pale earthen brown tipped with blunted hoof-like finger calluses of burnished brown. Upon the green of his tabard his hand was an ugly thing the hue of dog droppings. He clenched the offending hand into a fist. "Today I learned that I was being lied to. Each time I had asked about the Bishop's health I was told that he had yet to awaken from the severity of his injuries.

"Today I learned that he has been awake as long as I have. When I tried to speak with him he sent me away as if I were a mere petitioner." Egland's voice trembled through a broken tenor as he laid out the details of his disastrous failed audience. "He banished me away like some child of no import."

Dream squeezed the elk's strong shoulders consolingly with his arm and let the distraught knight lean against him. "And the healer, Coe?" Egland could only look at dream with one eye because the marten's face was very close; keen brown eyes alert as they gazed upon him.

Close, so very close. Egland could follow the contours of his musteline muzzle and jaw; see how the rich red-brown of his facial fur faded to the cream hue of his chin and the broad swath of cream-on-brown that lead down the front of Dream's throat. That band of pale fur flared broad across his upper chest and vanished beneath the collar of the marten's night-robe. He felt strangely aware of the marten's proximity and it only added another layer to his already chaotic emotions.

"Coe would not let me in to see the Bishop, he blocked the door. When I tried to force my way past him and he did not move I almost struck him!" The elk dropped both hands to his lap and wrung at the finely woven cotton of his knightly tabard. It did not entirely fit well but none of his old garments fit his new body at all and he had not gotten them altered or replaced. "He became justly wroth and ordered me from his hospice." Egland's throat ached, his breast ached, and his eyes burned with the tears he refused to shed. "Now…

"Now I've no where to go! No one to serve, no purpose." He moaned brokenly.

Raising his free hand Dream lightly touched the side of Egland's strong cervine muzzle. "You've here, ts'amut. Service and purpose can be found later but for now you've this place." The musician crooned softly as he stroked the elk knight's jaw. "And me." Egland turned his head into the touch and closed his eyes. Dream leaned close to raise his muzzle toward one of the road, scalloped ears and whisper; "Weep, my friend, none here shall gainsay your sorrow. Let it free."

Egland's tall ears slowly backed and his head dropped to Dream's chest. With a single strained gasp for breath the elk clutched at the minstrel and wept as he had not done so since learning of Namir's death.

When he returned to himself the room was dimly lit by the last fading rays of sunlight dropping behind the western peaks. Dream was stroking his upper back lightly with one hand while his other supported the elk's head against his chest. Egland found his nose buried in the cream hued fur of Dream's chest and the musician's scent filled his breath. The marten smelled of florally fragrant soap foremost with the dryness of fur underlying that. Hints of a deep, earthy musk tickled Egland's sensitive nose; a masculine scent. Mingled amongst the lot was the acrid odor typical of all mustelids. As a bouquet the musician's personal scent was not unpleasant.

Egland blinked and raised his head slowly. "I'm sorry." He croaked ashamedly with grief-roughened voice and released his drowning man's grip upon the marten. He saw dark stains upon the fine black silk from his tears and damp smears upon the marten's roughed chest fur.

"Do not be sorry for grief, Yacoub." Dream lightly stroked the elk's tear-stained cheek fur. "Grief withheld leads to nothing but a cancer of the spirit."

Egland turned his head into the touch and took a deep, shuddering breath. "I have not— allowed myself that weakness in many years." His body felt drained and boneless, weak from the mightiness of his released sorrow. "Your robes—" The marten's whiskers tickled his nose.

"Can be laundered, and fur washed, ts'amut." Dream admonished gently and inclined his head to brush fine whiskers and soft fur across the elk's nose and lips. Egland shuddered. "You do no one service by not allowing yourself to grieve, Yacoub. Even if you only do so in empty solitude." The marten's short cheek ruff and stiff whiskers crossed along the line of the elk's jaw slowly and Egland raised his hands to Dream's upper chest in a futile gesture to push himself away but could not find the strength. "That is what your Bishop is very likely doing, hiding behind his fear and grief in the solitude of his recovery room, brooding upon it and allowing the dark wound to fester." Dream drew his head back and raised his gaze to meet Egland's, nose to nose. "It is for him you should embrace your own grief, gain strength from it, and be there when he can no longer hold his to his breast and needs someone to help him release it."

Egland stared into the minstrel's gentle brown eyes and heard his words but felt no comprehension. His ears slowly turned back and a quickness that was not grief stole into his breath. The hands lain against Dream's chest to push him back turned to catch at the open lapels of his robe. One of the marten's hands raised to rest lightly in the center of the elk's upper chest. Egland leaned close against the pressure of Dream's hand while using his grasp upon the musician's robes to pull him in.

The elk's kiss was rough, desperate with the intensity of urgency for the pliant, compassionate musician in his grasp. A pained moan escaped Egland's throat as their lips met and his hands released the silken fabric of the night-robe. Without breaking his kiss, breath gusting swift and hot from his nostrils, his hands slipped under the silk. The texture of Dream's fur was as silken as his robes, deep and lusciously dense under Egland's fingers as they slid up across Dream's shoulders.

"No." The word was as gentle as the marten's touch, muffled by the rough intensity of the elk's hungry kiss and went unheard. Egland's hands slid over Dream's shoulders and drew back the neckline of the robe spilling it down the marten's back. It pooled at his elbows and waist, held only by the knotted sash about his midriff. Dream's hand pressed more firmly at Egland's chest but beyond that he made no attempt to break the kiss or escape. "No, ts'amut."

Whether heard or felt the second utterance of the word found its way into the small corner of Egland's mind that had not become totally lost in the overwhelming physical responses and need burning through him and the elk thrust himself back with a snort. With eyes white-rimmed and his ears rising and falling in confusion Egland snorted heavily. "No? NO?" he groaned and clutched his head in both thick fingered hands. "Will e'en you refute me now? You turn me away?" Aghast and ashamed at the shreds of dignity fast being stripped away by his tumult of emotional loss and physical need Egland turned to rise but the marten was more swift.

With his night-robe still hanging akimbo about his waist Dream leaned forward and pushed Egland back down with a strong hand upon his shoulder. Before the elk could break away again the marten moved to straddle his thighs and captured his powerful muzzle with both hands. "No, my ts'amut, no." Dream held the cervine muzzle and looked once again into Egland's sorrowful eyes. The elk could not return his gaze, rolling his eyes away and dropping his hands weakly to the cushions afraid to touch the minstrel, not trusting himself.

"What you feel, ts'amut, you feel not out of desire or love but grief and fear." Dream said gently with his muzzle close enough for Egland to smell the tea on his breath. "Never passion in the depths of grief, dear one. It serves naught but to cut deeper though you think it assuages your agony." He shook his head slowly, "It is a false vessel into which to spill your pain."

Spiraling once again into the dark abyss of despair Egland moaned, "'No', you said." He countered, trying to turn his head away but the marten's gentle grasp was too strong. "You desire me not!"

As if to deny the claim Dream kissed the elk. Not with the furious intensity of urgent need but a more tender caress of lips. "Nay, Sir Yacoub Egland Knight of Yesulam, nay." He smiled and shook his head, "I desire you very much." His hands caressingly stroked Egland's muzzle. "But t'is you I desire, not the heedless grief that burdens your heart."

"What, then, shall I do?" Egland groaned in sorrow, "I know nothing but this burning sorrow." He sighed sadly, dropping his head between Dream's forearms to get away from that kind and gentle kiss that still burned upon his lips. "And fear, Dream, this terrible black fear."

Dream kissed the top of his nose once more before sidling back and standing. Without repairing the spill of the robes that exposed him to his waist he extended one hand. "Firstly, my handsome young friend, you sleep." Egland looked at the lounging couch upon which he sat with a moue of consternation that caused Dream to chuff. "And you shan't sleep in my parlor!" Dubiously Egland accepted the hand and carefully stood to his hooves. Dream retrieved the cane from the floor where it had fallen and passed it to him before walking toward the curtained archway. He shouldered the robe loosely back into place as he went and drew the tapestry aside.

The room beyond was darker still than the now dim receiving room as there was only a single narrow casement in one wall. Egland followed Dream into the shadows and gauged the room by the deeper shadows within the murk. Most dominant was the looming shadowy hulk of a canopy bed against the far wall but not one but three wide wardrobes along the left most wall. A broad desk, or vanity, at which Dream stood striking a flint to the wick of a lamp, dominated the right wall near the casement. Near the archway was a hearth not currently in use or laid ready.

A moment later the lantern sputtered to life and a warm yellow light chased away the shadows when Dream set it in front of a polished reflector. Crossing toward the wardrobe he passed Egland who still stood a pace within the room looking around and traced his hand across the elk's chest in passing. "The bed is right there, ts'amut, make use of it." He smiled and waved his other hand toward the huge canopy bed. Egland looked toward it dubiously even though it did look more comfortable even than the lounge had been. He felt terribly self conscious and lost. Dream went to one of the wardrobes and began ruffling through the crowded rack of garments. "I have to go out, Yacoub." He said while selecting an armful of clothing. "The night is young and a musician has to earn his coin." Egland watched the busy marten as he carried the neatly folded heap of clothing over to the vanity to drape over a chair.

Despite being intimidated by the opulent excess of the marten's taste Egland had to admit that the events of the day, more especially the last couple of hours, had left him so exhausted he feared he would fall on his muzzle very soon. With a faltering shamble he crossed to the bed and noticed that it was actually elevated on a pedestal that he had to step up onto just to reach it. The stone of the pedestal was warm under his hooves, heated by some mechanism beneath the floor he did not know, but it was not hot. He sat down upon the edge of the bed and rested his elbows on his knees to watch Dream because his mind was slowly shutting down bit by bit and he could not contemplate any other course of action.

The musician's vanity was dominated by the single largest mirror Egland had seen outside the parlor of a King that threw back the light of his single lamp and sketched half of the marten's frame in shadow. Dream removed his night robe and deftly folded it into a loose bundle and set it aside and stood before the vanity to examine the fur of his chest. Egland merely watched dumbly without feeling even the slightest stirring of either self-conscious shame or interest in the ungarbed minstrel.

Dream glanced in the mirror and caught his empty stare. "Doff your tabard, ts'amut, and lay down before you fall." He admonished gently at the reflection in his mirror. Taking up a brush with short bristles he dipped it into a nearby basin and scrubbed at the fur of his chest lightly. Egland looked down at his tabard, at how the yellow light turned the green to a muddy brown and the white to flat gold, and let out a slow sigh. A touch upon his face brought his attention back up to find Dream standing before him, now fully garbed and the room considerably darker.

"You're dozing where you sit, Yacoub." He pointed out with a gentle smile and dropped his hand to move slightly toward Egland's side. Drawing back the heavy down coverlet he patted the silk sheets, "Sleep, ts'amut, stop fighting it like an unruly child doing war with naptime." With a yawn Egland did as he was bade for there was little else he could do. Dream captured his shoulders as he turned and deftly unlaced the stays of his tabard to draw it off and let it drape over one of his arms while Egland stretched out onto the inviting soft coolness of the silken bed.

"And might I tell you something, ts'amut?" Dream leaned over once Egland had let his head drop to one of the many pillows. The elk nodded slowly up at the shadowed face leaning over him. "What you did, I caused you to do, okay? Think on that as you sleep, and what did happen in the end."

Egland narrowed his eyes slightly as that percolated through the morass the stresses of the day had left of his thoughts and emotions. "I almost…" he started to say but Dream laid a staying finger upon his lips.

"Exactly, ts'amut, almost. Twice, almost. You fear that you're losing yourself, the core of what defines you, but you are not. Twice you came close to violating those vows, and twice you stayed yourself. Do you understand?"

"But," Egland tried to formulate a cogent response but the room was steadily growing darker and the weight of exhausted sleep was pressing ever more heavily upon him. "What if… if I had not listened to… your… 'no'?" He yawned again trying to keep his eyes open. Dream laughed softly and leaned over to lay a hand upon his chest and touch his lips lightly with a kiss.

"My second appellation is Serpent for a purpose, handsome." He winked, "Sleep now, I shall return… at some point." Dream swept away with a swirl of his dark cloak carrying Egland's tabard and disappeared through the curtained archway. On the vanity the lamp guttered with the merest hint of a flame while pale moonlight defined a ghostly line across the foot of the bed. Egland watched the flickering wick of flame until the darkness of his falling eyelids doused it.