by Hallan Mirayas

Why? Why does it always fall apart?

Be strong. You've only got yourself left to depend on.

Edward dragged a felled tree down the mountainside, digging each of his four paws hard into the earth, his tongue lolling from his white-furred muzzle, panting with the effort of keeping himself cool in the unseasonably warm weather that had started in mid-February. The muscles of his six-limbed body burned with effort as the pine tree seemed almost deliberately, spitefully to twist and snag at rocks on the path, jerking painfully at the hauling harness around his lower chest and pulling fur from his haunches whenever the leather straps twisted.

Am I to be nothing more than a beast of burden?

Keep going. Father would want you to keep going.

His father had raised him to be the latest in a long line of tinsmiths. He'd spent his growing years helping at his father's forge, hoping to continue the trade and make his father proud. But his father had died on patrol near Glen Avery, stabbed through the heart by a lutin blade. Edward had buried him next to his mother, who had died in childbirth six years before. A month later, the Curse had wrapped him in the long, thick fur of a Samoyed, a sled-pulling dog from the far north, banishing him from the forge his father's will had left to him, gasping for air and leaving sweat-soaked trails of paw prints on the floor. He still had nightmares about the one time the fur on his arm had caught fire. It had burned like a lit fuse, and only a plunge into the cooling tub had saved him.

Is this all I am meant to be?

Don't think about the fire. Don't think about the smell.

He'd sold the smithy after that, splitting the money with his older sister, formerly his older brother, who had taken up service in the Duke's guard. She, in turn, had brought him into her home and gotten him a job under her husband at the grain storehouses, helping keep the inventory. The work had been mind-numbingly boring, but at least he wasn't handling anything that burned.

At least not until Nasoj came.

The winter assault had left his workplace a smoking ruin, and both his sister and brother-in-law dead. His sister had died to assassins, his brother-in-law had been found weeks later in a back alley, frozen to death.

Is this all I am fit for?

Don't remember his face. Don't remember her body.

With so much of the town burned, the call had gone out for timber-cutting crews in numbers before unheard of. Living at an inn, watching what few meager coins he had left dwindling away, he'd signed on to help. Remembering what he'd read about his breed in the library, he'd offered to help bring in the logs, using sleds to get over the snow left behind by Nasoj's storm. And it had worked... until he'd tripped over the dead body of a Lutin buried in the snow and cut his left hind leg open from ankle to knee on its rusty sword, still frozen in its hand.

Is there nothing more?

Don't think. It's not safe.

He'd spent the rest of January healing. Healer Coe had done his best, but it had taken the Lightbringer to deal with the lockjaw that nearly killed him. It shamed him that he'd had to ask for that help. Now he, a Follower, owed Akkala a favor and Eli help him if he knew how he would pay. All the Lightbringer had said was that he'd find out in due time.

Is there -nothing- more?

Don't think.

The tree snagged again, hard this time, pulling him up short. Hot, angry tears spilled down his white-furred cheeks as he twisted around, grabbing the ropes with his hands and yanking hard, but this time the tree stayed stuck. Laughing at him. Mocking him.

Is there -NOTHING- more??


He threw all his weight against the ropes, straining against that Eli-damned tree... and they snapped, throwing him to the ground. He rolled to his paws, coughing and spitting dirt and dead leaves, his body shaking with rage and pain and anguish and...

"IS THERE NOTHING MORE???" he screamed at the sky. "IS THIS ALL THAT IS LEFT FOR ME???" His voice gave out in a soul-deep howl of agony, and he collapsed back to the ground, face in his hands, sobbing for his lost hopes, his lost family, his lost faith... his lost self. "Who am I? Who am I to become? What is to become of me? What am I to be? What am I to be?"

Edward felt a pair of strong arms wrap around his upper torso, holding and gently rocking as much as his taur body would let him. He twisted around to face his comforter, his nose telling him who it was when his tear-filled, muddy eyes would not. He buried his face in the plaid jacket, clutching the fabric like a drowning man, and wailed out his hurt like a lost soul.

Lindsey wrapped Edward in his arms, gently rocking him back and forth and waving away the rest of the lumber crew that Edward's screams had brought running. "It's okay," he said quietly to those who hesitated, gesturing for some privacy for the sobbing Keeper. "It's just been a bad day. Get back to work." He'd been expecting this. He'd seen the quiet desperation on Edward's face the day he signed on, felt the ribs under that snowy pelt that spoke of lean meals and hard times. He'd seen the pride trying desperately not to buckle in how white the Samoyed managed to keep his fur in spite of how hard he worked, in the brittle smile he gave when complimented on it. He'd asked around about the young man's family and history, and learned how little he'd grieved, how stone-faced he'd been when he'd buried the last of his family. He'd read it in the name Edward had signed on under.


"It's okay," he said softly, stroking the dog-taur's fur as tears soaked through his shirt. "Let it out. I've got you. Let it go. It's all right.

"You're going to be all right."

Drift walked back through Metamor's second gate, feeling staring eyes watching him from all directions. His ears flushed at a merchant's open gape, and he scalded the man with an angry glare as he walked past. It wasn't his fault. He'd switched to the taur form at the job site so he could pull the logs, and his pack had torn when he fell, spilling his clothes in the mud. If only he'd noticed that -before- Lindsey sent him home for a day of rest, he might have asked for help. As it was, he walked four-footed down a main thoroughfare of Metamor, mud caked down his front and right side, arms crossed and head down in a posture that hastily parted the crowds to let him through.

Stop staring at me.

All he wanted to do was get to the baths in the Keep. There was no way he'd be able to make it up the stairs to his room at the inn as it was; they'd collapse under the weight, and he didn't think he could manage the turn on the landing like this anyway. He could wash his clothes at the bath. They'd be wet, but at least he wouldn't be walking back to his room clad only in his fur.

Stop staring at me!

A small child pointed at him and tugged on her mother's sleeve. "Look at the funny doggy, mama!" Even though the ottermorph mother shushed her child, Drift's ears went flat and he hastened his walk to a trot. "I hate crowds," he muttered to himself as he finally cleared the busy marketplace, the crowds closing behind him like algae on a pond after a boat passes by. Faster he ran, the pleasure of the speed marred by the looks he was still gathering.

Stop staring at-


A wagon pulled out of an alley ahead, squarely in his path, and he was moving too fast to dodge around. Before he even had time to realize what he was doing, he was already airborne, vaulting cleanly over it. The look on the age-regressed driver's face as half a ton of white fur and brown mud hurtled past within a foot of his face made Drift truly smile for the first time that day. "Next time look before you pull out!" the taur yelled over his shoulder as he accelerated away.

Okay, -you- can stare at me.

The Keep was toying with him. He was sure of it. He'd been past this door three times now, trying to get to the baths. He'd even rubbed a little bit of the mud off his hand high above the doorway to mark it the second time he'd noticed and, sure enough, there it was again five minutes later. He stared angrily at that mark, nearly shaking with all the day's frustrations and humiliations.

All I want is to get clean and dressed! Is that too much to ask?

His stomach growled at him, but he ignored it. He didn't have the money to buy much more than bread anymore, and he'd gotten used to being hungry. Maybe tomorrow he'd be able to get something to eat from the food wagons at the logging camp. If not, well, payday was only three days away. He'd figure something out.

I wish Erin was here. She would know what to do.

He leaned his head against the wall, fighting down more tears. "Not here, not now," he murmured, trying to pull himself together. "Just hold on for a little while longer." He heard footfalls approaching around the corner behind him and hastily straightened up. He wiped, rather futilely, at his eyes, succeeding more in smearing the mostly-dried dirt than anything else.

Oh Yahshua, I miss you, Erin. I miss you, big sister.

Whoever it was, they were coming- Sweet Yahshua! A small coyotemorph streaked past, trailing a quick "'scuse me!" as Drift flattened himself against the wall. Hand clutched over his heart, the taur watched in slack-jawed amazement as the Keep messenger skidded around a curve and out of sight. "Um, sure," he said, flexing his hand and trying to calm down. The double beat of his pulse in taurform still felt odd to him.

"Are you okay?"

Drift stumbled forward with a startled yelp at the unexpected voice behind him, tripping over his forepaws and landing in a heap for the second time today. "Ow."

Why can't I have a normal day for once?

His vision swam for a moment, as he'd managed to smack his chin on the floor during his fall. When his eyes finally focused, they saw... four massive fox paws? How had he not heard them approaching? He looked up to see a one-eared foxtaur stooping down, offering his hand, tail swishing in amusement. The green vest with the crossed bow and axe, the belt and the dagger were unmistakable.

Oh, no. Not Misha Brightleaf. Anyone but Misha Brightleaf In the name of all mercies, -anyone- but Misha Brightleaf.

"Sorry if I startled you," the fox said as he took Drift's hand. "My name's Misha."

Oh, hell.

Drift's face burned under his fur as he got to his feet. "I- I know who you are, Sir Misha Brightleaf," he said, fixing his gaze on one of the fox's whiskers rather than meet his eyes. "You're only the most famous warrior in the entire kingdom." His ears resisted every effort he made to get them upright, and his voice steadfastly refused any tone other than unmitigated awe. He clamped his jaw shut rather than continue babbling, and tried to step past.

Damn it, tail, get out from between my legs.

Misha gave a short yip of laughter. "Thank you for the high praise, but you can call me Misha. Everyone else does." His voice was softer, quieter than Drift expected.

Not everyone has been idolizing you since he was able to swing a stick.

When that didn't stop the white-furred taur from trying to edge past, Misha put a hand on his arm and gave him a warm smile. "At least tell me your name before you go."

That got Drift to pause, and Misha noticed a slight tremble in his arm as he replied, "Edw- Drift. Just Drift."

Please don't ask.

The fox was silent for a moment before answering, whiskers forward and eyes thoughtful. "all right, Drift. It's good to meet you."

Thank you.

Misha looked the dirty dog-taur over, and his warm, friendly smile returned. "I hope you're headed to the baths," he said. "I'm headed there myself if you're willing to join me. Nothing like a good long soak and some wine and cheese to make all your worries go away."

Drift was tempted. Drift was sorely tempted. He could smell that Misha already had both in the saddlebags across his taur back and it had been a long time since he could afford good wine and cheese. Indeed, it hadn't been since Healer Coe's that he'd had much of either at all. But then he'd have to go with Misha when all he wanted was a chance to get home to bed, to someplace safe where he could try to put this day behind him. "I don't know..."

His stomach made the decision for him, growling loudly. Misha laughed and grabbed Drift by the arm, gently steering him down the hallway. "Sounds like at least part of you is saying yes. Come on. I insist. We taurs have to stick together." Drift followed along, not quite able to work up the nerve to pull away from the living legend about whom he'd grown up begging his father for stories.

Now what do I do?

By the time Drift finally worked up the courage to decline Misha's offer, they were already at the baths and the foxtaur was already helping him out of the chain shirt Lindsey had insisted he wear while out with the logging crew. "Wait. Wait, one moment," he said, untying the plaid bandana from his left bicep and unbuckling the dagger strapped hilt-downward beneath it. Misha shook the dirt out of the chain links while Drift unlaced the protective leather chestguard underneath.

"That's a nice dagger," Misha said, setting the chain shirt next to it on the nearby bench. He reached for it, but paused. "May I take a look?" At Drift's nod, the fox drew it from its sheath and admired it, testing it by drawing it in a shaving motion against the back of his thumbclaw. "A fine edge," he said when it immediately bit into the claw. "Not much reach for protecting your taur body, though," he added, putting it back down.

The dog-taur nodded, still not quite looking the fox in the eye. "I know. I'm better with a staff, but those are a bit unwieldy out in the woods."

Of course he knows that, you idiot, he's the head of the Long Scouts! He uses a five foot long axe!

Drift didn't mention the real reason he'd bought that dagger. He'd bought it after a particularly vicious nightmare where he'd been trapped inside a burning building. He would -never- let that happen to him. He'd rather die by his own hand than be burned alive.

Misha watched the samoyed closely, recognizing instinctively that there was a lot being left unsaid by the young Keeper. Despite how much Drift tried to maintain a calm, unconcerned expression, the fox could smell a metallic tinge of fear and see the taur's tail trying to tuck back under his body. With a visible shake, Drift seemed to throw off whatever bad memory was bothering him and continue, "If there were such a thing as a collapsible staff, I'd grab for it in a heartbeat." His mouth twitched slightly. "Or even a double heartbeat, as it were," he added, putting a hand over his upper chest. Misha smiled to see that whatever was bothering him, Drift hadn't quite lost his sense of humor. Still, his gut said that there was still something not quite right about the canine. The feeling intensified as time in the baths passed, with how thin the samoyed looked despite his fur when they both shifted out of taurform, with how slowly he ate the cheese Misha offered him and how carefully he savored the wine. It finally clicked when he saw Drift half-rise out of the water to reach for something in his pack, his soaked fur clinging for once instead of concealing.

"Drift, when was the last time you ate?"

Drift froze and his ears shot back as he sank back down into the water. Embarrassment radiated off the Keeper, his shoulders hunched and his back to the fox. "Y-yesterday. Afternoon. At the lumber camp. Some bread and stew."

Misha's jaw dropped. "And you've been out hauling logs, in taurform, since the beginning of the week?"

"Two weeks. Lindsey makes sure I get extra, because I work hard."

"Drift, Lindsey makes sure you get extra because he's figured out you're starving. You need to eat more!"

Drift whirled, sending splashing ripples cascading out through the bath, both hands clenched into angry fists. For the first time, he looked directly into Misha's eyes, his face streaked with tears of shame. "Misha, I can barely afford bread and a roof over my head! The last time I had regular meals was when I was in Healer Coe's sick room, recovering from lockjaw!" He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to get his hands to stop shaking, and looked away again. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to yell." He wiped at his face to dry his tears, then gave a snarl of vexation when all he managed to do was get his face even wetter than before. He splashed the hand angrily into the bath, then leaned back against the side of the bath and put the heels of his fists against his forehead, heedless of the water that coursed down his face as a result. "Oh, Eli, why won't this day -end-?"

"We've all had some rough times lately." Misha said with a tenderness that was surprising for such a ferocious warrior. "First, we'll get some food into you and then we'll see about getting you a better paying job here at the Keep."

Drift's voice was suddenly hard, marshalling what few scraps of pride the samoyed had left. "The snows do not take charity, Misha."

Misha was momentarily taken aback, puzzled at the seeming nonsequitur. The snows do not take charity? What did that mean? And, more importantly, where had he heard that phrase before? The proud, stubborn tone and the narrowed eyes rang dimly in his memory. Suddenly, he remembered a curmudgeonly old goat Keeper and a sign: Snow's Tinsmithy. 'The Snows do not take charity, sir. Not even from the great Misha Brightleaf,' he'd said in an irritable burr when Misha had offered to pay a bonus after receiving a set of gears for Madog. 'You'll pay the proper price like everyone else.' He'd meant it for what he considered exceptional craftsmanship, but he hadn't known until later that the smith had been struggling to keep his small forge in business amid stiff competition from another tinsmith. The fox had tried ordering the gears from the other smith first, having heard that he was better, but had not found the quality up to his exacting specifications. Snow had taken longer, but the quality of the work put the lie to the rumors. "Are you, by any chance, related to Alan Snow?" he asked.

Drift nodded. "His second son."

"What became of him? I lost track of him not long after I finished rebuilding Madog."

"He died on patrol," came the short answer from across the bath. "They say a lutin got him." From the sound of his voice, Drift didn't believe it. Misha said as much, to which the samoyed nodded sharply. "I don't. My father was too stubborn to get killed by a lone, wandering lutin. And yes, I know I can't prove it."

Not that I haven't tried.

"Are you anywhere near as good a smith as your father was?" Misha asked.

"I used to be. He taught me everything, especially after my brother- my sister got tired of his temper and joined the Keep's infantry regulars."

"You used to be?"

Drift grabbed the fur on his arm and pulled it out to full length, his ears flattening toward the sides of his head. "This isn't just for show, Misha. When the Yule attack first hit, where were you? Inside or outside?"

"I was inside- there was too much to do inside. Too many lutins to kill."

Drift gave a sharp, impatient sweep of his hand, annoyed at his own poor phrasing. "Before that. During the blizzard, but before the alarms went up."

Misha laughed. "We were parting to celebrate the holiday when Madog brought us warning. Why?"

"I was out in the fields outside the Keep, enjoying the weather. I thank Eli that I blend in, because by the time I realized what was going on, the Lutins had already closed off any route that would've gotten me back inside the walls. I was trapped -outside- for the entire attack. I couldn't even get back to the -town-."

Misha gaped at the samoyed in sheer disbelief. "You spent the whole time out in that nasty storm? You deliberately went outside to -enjoy- that weather? That coat of yours must really be thick!"

Drift slid down the wall, seating himself on a ledge built into the bath's sides for just such a purpose. "Misha, it had been so long since I actually felt -cold- that I considered it a blessing. The guards thought I was crazy when I asked to be let through the outer gate. They almost didn't let me go, but my fur is so thick and dense that when it's dry you can barely get a finger through to the skin." He paused a moment, and fixed Misha with a steady gaze. "Now imagine that kind of insulation in a working smithy."

Don't even think about what happens when it catches fire.

"Is that all?" Misha asked, sounding relieved. "There is magic that can easily fix that problem. I have a simple spell I use to protect me from the heat and prevent burns."

"I have no talent for magic," Drift replied. "And I sold the forge after I nearly passed out from heat shock for the fourth time." It was a lie, but only a small one. He'd sold it after he'd caught on fire.

Forgive me, father, for not being strong enough.

"I can cast the spell for you," said Misha. "It's a simple one, really." He sensed an objection coming and elaborated. "Here, I'll make you a deal: I'll cast the spell on a ring or something else you can wear. In exchange, you'll make me a few items I need for Madog and my clocks."

Drift frowned, but the doubtful look was traced with a faint glimmer of hope. "That still doesn't change that I don't have a forge to work with."

"You forget: this is Metamor Keep!" Misha smiled and spread his hands in a sweeping gesture, Drift hastily ducking a spray of droplets. "If you want a forge, just ask for one and Kyia will make it appear."

The conflicting expressions of doubt and hope became more visible on the samoyed's face as he considered that.

Could it be?

"I... don't know what to say."

Misha couldn't quite keep the mischief out of his smile as he replied, "Try, 'Kyia, ma'am, if you please, I'd like a tinsmith's forge."

Drift gave Misha a sharp 'you'd-better-not-be-pulling-my-leg' glare, then quietly, warily, almost grudgingly mumbled, "Kyia, ma'am, if you please, I'd like a tinsmith's forge." He looked around after a moment, as if expecting the forge to appear in the very room, then settled back down with a look of disappointment. "Well, whatever happens, I still need to wash out my clothes if I'm going to have anything decent to wear out of here." He half rose out of the water, duplicating the move that had brought on Misha's questioning in the first place, and pulled a muddy pair of pants from his pack. A bare yew branch on a twine string, without any of the normal decorations for a Follower, tumbled out along with it.

Misha stiffened suddenly when he saw the simple, bare yew. "Are you a Rebuilder?" he asked in a soft tone.

Do I trust him enough to say yes?

Drift watched Misha closely for a long moment, then nodded. "I never understood all the pomp and ceremony in the Ecclesia. It just seemed... wrong. Like the focus was more on those in higher 'authority' than on Eli himself." He picked up the yew branch with great care and wiped away a speck of mud that had fallen on it before walking across the pool and holding it out to Misha. "This was my father's before me, and his father's before him. According to family legend, it was given to -his- father by Maarten Lourenz himself."

It was Misha's turn now to talk in a voice of awe as he cradled the small branch with the reverence an Ecclesiast would give to a True Branch of the Tree itself. "That's amazing, Drift. This has been handed down through four generations?" At Drift's nod, he said, "My family has only been Rebuilders for two." Taking gentle hold of the simple twine, he lifted the yew and hung it around Drift's neck, then held him out at arm's length to look it over. "It looks good on you, brother."

Brother. I like that.

"Thank you." Drift smiled slightly. "It's good to finally meet you, Misha Brightleaf. Now I understand what Father meant when he called you 'good people'."

The foxmorph tilted his head in puzzlement. "'Good people?'"

"It was the highest compliment I'd ever heard from him. If you remember his name, then you almost certainly remember what a grumpy old cuss he was."

Misha laughed. "That I do. That I most definitely do."

Drift joined in the laughter for a while, and then waded back across the pool to put the yew branch back in his pack. With an apology for further muddying the pool, he started washing out his pants, and muttered a curse when he found a rip across the seat of the threadbare fabric. "Would you pass me that pitcher while I get this sewed up?" he asked, pointing toward a brass pitcher by the side of the bath before fishing out a short fishbone needle from his pack and tweaking a loose hair from his neckruff. At Misha's startled laugh, he grinned. "What, you thought this was only good for keeping me warm out in a raging blizzard?" He threaded the needle with it and continued, "In previous springs, I've had offers from a few nobles to -buy- my shed fur. Heaven knows I shed enough to weave a blanket or two."

Or three.

The icy cold of the brass surprised Misha out of his reply. He'd noticed that the pitcher had only appeared a minute or two before, but the sheer chill of the water inside was startling. Dipping a finger into it, he swore he hadn't felt water that cold since he'd been up near the glaciers of the Great Barrier Range with Charles! A smile crossed his face as he carried the pitcher to Drift, who had finished fixing the tear with a few practiced swipes of the needle and set the cloth on a bench to dry.

The fox was not disappointed by the Drift's startled jump when he touched the icy pitcher against the samoyed's shoulder. He was, however, surprised by Drift's delighted "Oh, wow," and quick grab for the handle and even moreso by Drift's blissful expression as he lifted his chin dripping from several long seconds of noisy, thirsty lapping. A heartfelt "That's -good-" was all Drift managed to say before his face contorted into one of the silliest expressions Misha had ever seen: eyes squinched closed, tongue half sticking out between closed teeth, one ear askew, and arms pulled tightly, spastically, against his body. "Oooh, headache."

Misha roared with laughter.

Two taurs walked out of the baths, still damp but drying. Drift had given up on wearing wet pants back to his room. "I've been meaning to ask," said Misha, "how you figured out your taur form. It's not exactly a common sight around Metamor."

"I know. I got stared at the entire way through the markets on the way home today. Two reasons, actually." Drift held up a finger. "First, you and your friend, the rat. I never caught his name."

"Charles," Misha prompted. "Charles Matthais."

"Charles. I saw you two walking in the gates last year, both of you taurs." Drift grinned when Misha started laughing. "I see you remember it well. Good." Once the fox calmed down, he held up another finger. "Secondly, Fox Cutter, the librarian. I spent a lot of time in the library figuring out just what I was, and more when I got bored of Healer Coe's sick room but still wasn't well enough to work. I admired the grace and strength of the form, and kind of daydreamed my way into it myself. After that, well, it kind of grew on me." For a moment, his vision unfocused, and he rubbed the left underside of his jaw, where the mark of Akkala lay hidden under the fur. It had been there since the Lightbringer healed him. He turned his head to ask Misha what kind of favor might be expected from him... just in time to nearly brain himself on a sign hanging from the wall.

"Are you all right?" Misha asked, bracing the staggered taur as stars burst in the samoyed's vision. He reached up to still the swinging sign and tipped it toward him, eyes widening as he read the lettering.

Meanwhile, spotting a familiar brown mud stain over the door, Drift gave a yell of outraged frustration. "This gods-be-damned door again! I've walked past it four times now today! Why?" In a fit of temper, he lashed out at it with a forefoot, and nearly stumbled when it swung open readily.

Misha tapped the canine taur on the shoulder and, smiling, drew his attention in a new direction. "Maybe because it's yours." The sign in Misha's hand read 'Snow's Tinsmithy', with the insignia of a snowflake over an anvil.

For a long moment, Drift was shocked into speechlessness. "You... this has got to be a joke," he finally stammered. "This is..." But he knew he couldn't call it 'impossible'. He'd been born and raised at Metamor, and he knew what the Keep could do. "This is..."

But still, to have my own father's sign?

And it -was- his father's sign. He smiled involuntarily as he recognized the corner he and Erin, then Aaron in younger years, had broken while playing at swordfighting.

Heh. Neither of us could sit down for -hours- afterward.

Misha ducked his head into the dimly lit room, sweeping it with his superior low-light vision to confirm his suspicions. "There's nobody inside," he said with a smile. "Care to take a look?" Hesitantly, Drift agreed, and was nudged inside with the same 'no time like the present' manner with which Misha had gotten him to the baths earlier.

Drift made it two steps before he started shaking. This couldn't possibly be true. It just couldn't. "This... this is my father's forge," he finally managed in a trembling whisper. "It's as if he left it just yesterday." A few more steps and he reached for a hammer hanging from a well-worn peg in the wall. The handle was blackened from fire, and the head... Drift collapsed to his knees and wept, clutching the tool tightly to his breast. The hammer's head had the snowflake engraving he'd helped his father etch into all his tools, the evening after the two of them had run off a pair of thieves.

This is impossible.

This simply can't be.

I -sold- this hammer, and all these tools!

"How?" he breathed. "How is this possible?"

A strong, steadying hand descended on his shoulder as Misha moved soundlessly up beside him. "I told you Kyia would do this if you asked. Would you like some help moving your things from wherever you're currently staying?" He gestured to an open doorway on the far side of the room, beyond which a bed and a bookcase could be seen.

Drift shook his head, taking a deep breath before trusting his voice enough to reply. "No, thank you. I shouldn't have much trouble carrying things over."

The foxtaur smiled quietly. "Okay, then. I'll start work on that ring of yours. It should be ready in a couple days." He turned to depart, then paused and smiled. "It looks like you're going to need it."

Yeah, it looks like I am.

Drift stopped him with a quick grab of his hand. The samoyed taur looked up at Misha, brown eyes gleaming with newly found joy. "Thank you, brother. For everything." He squeezed the fox's hand tightly between his own before letting go. Just as Misha was exiting, he added, "Please don't forget to send me designs and specifications on the parts you wanted. I'll be expecting them."

He smiled at Misha's departing laughter, then gently shut the door. Shifting back to morph form once he was in private, he stooped down once more and kissed the stone floor. "Thank you, Lady Kyia. Thank you." As stars began to twinkle in the evening sky outside, the stones of the forge echoed softly with a whispered prayer: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want..."

The early morning sun found Misha trotting through the city streets, his beloved Caroline riding sidesaddle on his broad taur back. She was wearing a flowing blue dress that he thought particularly lovely, and balanced a blanket and a picnic basket on her knees. "What're we doing up so early?" Caroline asked, yawning. "Somewhere special you have in mind?"

Misha affectionately squeezed the hand she had hooked against his belly to maintain her balance. "That I do, but I also need to catch up with someone before he leaves for the day. I've been trying to get this ring to him for two days now. Ah, there he is."

The white-furred taur was unmistakable, gleaming like polished ivory in a sunbeam, milling about with the lumber crew as they prepared to depart. "Hi, Misha!" Drift called when he noticed the foxtaur and trotted over, clad (over his chain shirt) in a handsome brown vest, pack, and saddlebags. "And you must be the lovely Caroline Hardy," he added when he saw Misha's passenger. Stepping forward with a forepaw and curling the other under his taur chest, he stooped an elegant bow, his right hand clasped over his heart as he bent at the waist as well. "It's a pleasure to meet you. Drift Edward Snow, at your service."

Caroline's giggle was joined by a chorus of whistles and amused laughs from the lumber crew, but the otter offered her hand. "How gallant," she said when Drift kissed it. "So how long did it take you to figure out that bow?"

The samoyed smiled wryly. "Two weeks, counting the twisted ankle and the mild concussion. I promise I'll teach Misha when I'm next available."

Over Caroline's laughter, Misha asked, "Speaking of available, why are you still heading out with the lumber crews? I would think you'd be busy getting your forge back into operation."

Drift drew himself up, chin high with pride. "The Snows -still- do not accept charity, Misha. Lindsey was kind enough to give me an advance on my pay so I could get some new clothes and some decent food, so I'm going to stick with him until they get the flumes open and can send the logs down the river rather than overland. Besides which, if I can't pay Kyia herself for giving me back my forge, then I'll pay back the people she cares for. And the people she cares for need lumber."

"Fair enough," said Misha with a nod, then held out a pouch on a string. "This is for you." At Drift's quizzical look, he snickered. "Not the pouch, you goofball. Your ring. I didn't feel like wearing it myself after it tried to turn me into an icicle. Let me know if it's too much, and I'll ease off on the cooling spell."

That got Drift moving, and the ring was quickly laid bare in his palm. He stared at its silvery gleam in wonder, stroking a black-padded thumb over the runed surface. He slipped it onto his finger and suddenly went stock still, as still as if he'd been frozen in ice.

"Drift?" Misha asked worriedly after a long moment. "Drift, are you okay?"

"I feel... cold." Drift's face slowly blossomed into a joyful smile. "I feel cold! Misha, do you know how long it's been since I felt cold?" Without waiting for an answer, he grappled the foxtaur in a bearhug that nearly unseated Caroline, then went bounding around the square in an ecstacy of delight! When one of the lumberjacks asked to try on the ring, the giddy dog-taur pulled his hand away protectively and yelped, "No, you may not try my Precious!" much to the amusement of the rest of the crew.

Lindsey stepped forward and corralled the boisterous taur with a practiced grab of the wrist that brooked no argument. "Okay, you lot," he yelled. "That's enough show and dance. We've got a busy day ahead, so let's move out. We're burning daylight!"

Drift waved to Misha and Caroline as he departed, the silver ring flashing in the sunlight. "I'll start work on those parts you wanted right after-" A poke in the ribs from Lindsey and a reminder of the conversation they'd had regarding overworking oneself changed what Drift was going to say. "I'll start work on those parts next Monday! Goodbye!" He galloped off before Lindsey could grab him again and swung an animal Keeper up onto his taur back. Misha recognized the plaid beaver at the same time as Drift's voice echoed back down the streets: "C'mon, Michael, you walk too slow!"

"Gah! Your hands are -freezing-!"

"I know! Isn't it great? Hang on!"

"Drift, you crazy mutt! Get back here! And quit jumping those carts!"

Misha felt Caroline leaning against his back, quaking with laughter, and gladly joined her in it. "There goes one very interesting young man," he said finally as the crew passed out of sight through the gates. "Did you see his tail wagging? I think he stirred a small gale!"

Caroline nodded. "It looks like you've found someone else quite willing to experiment in taur form with you. And did you catch the pun he made of his name?"

"No, what?"

"Drift 'Ed' Snow."

Misha groaned.