by Ryx

March 24, 707CR.

The trails and paths of Glen Avery had shaken off the pleasant chaos of the past week, only a few tattered remnants of banners and streamers fluttering from the occasional limb. A thin fog drifted among the trees, driving by a southern wind cutting up from the Midlands, its warm breath chasing the morning frost from the grass.

Few moved about among the great pillars of the forest, the greater majority returned to the forests to resume preparing secluded fields, to hunt, or patrol the valley for danger. Those that remained were the home keepers, not all being necessarily housewives, those whose labors were not tied to the land, or merely those who simply chose not to work that day. The hubbub of the last week had died back down to the usual quietude of the forest glen only broken occasionally by one resident calling to another.

Kits had not yet awakened and spilled out into the green spaces between tries to light the forest up with their raucous laughter and play. For the nonce a shroud of peace lay across the village nestled among the trees with a calm, comforting serenity. Kimberly, looking through the small portal above her kitchen basin, thought of the chaos those kits would foment when they awoke with a warm smile. Her hands, of their own volition, went through the motions of cleaning the half dozen wooden bowls that made up the entirety of her tableware in the hot water of the basin, her mind lost to thought.

Her own kits would be much similar, she mused with a tired smile as she leaned her distended belly against the edge of the basin stand, her tail tip curling about the leg of a kitchen chair pushed up to the table behind her. Rituals had lent her to know how many children she would have, an amazing five, and what they would be. Like the Avery’s young boys, who had been born the same species as their parents, hers would be rats, as she and her husband were rats. How would they live, in a world of prejudice and oppression beyond the bounds of their small, beleaguered kingdom of Metamor? Would they prosper, or suffer strife to protect an uncaring southland from the rapacious hatred of the violent north? How would she cope? She had been born into a family with many sons and daughters before and after her, and knew just how trying it was upon her mother and the household staff. Here, in this tiny hamlet so far below her station of birth, she had no household staff, no servitors, and her house was very small. There was nothing about it she would give up, however, to return to her previous life and family. Questions and more questions, worries layered upon anxieties weighed upon her mind. Would her birthing be an easy one, or frought with pain and danger? Would she be a good mother? Would disease and unfortunate accident overlook her small family and grant them long lives?

She could not know.

At least she could easily imagine that there would be far more pleasant days than unpleasant, and those memories could succor her through the days of sorrow. Such was the nature of life and the nature of Eli’s grace.

Drying the last bowl, she glanced up through the window once more as she reached over to place it upon the others continuing to dry nearby. Upon seeing, not the open green outside her window, but a black and white face peering back at her, she let out a startled squeak and staggered back into the table, the bowl clattering into the others and spilling them noisily across the countertop. Eyes wide, whiskers and ears flattened against her head, she coughed for breath as the visage in her window lost its warm smile in an expression of concern, one dark eye cocked toward her curiously.

“Are you well, milady?” he skunk asked gently, crouching outside to better look into the window, which from his vantage was quite low to the ground.

“Murikeer Khunnas!” she snapped, waving one finger at him as she scowled, frowning, her whiskers atwitch as her tail lashed agitatedly behind her. It was bad enough having the nerves of a rat, always slightly on edge and looking for some manner of unseen danger, but to have those annoying instincts leap to the fore was even more disturbing. Despite the fact that she had seen little of him in the past month, his return was unpleasantly abrupt.

Yet she could not find it in herself to be angry with him for his surprising and silent appearing act outside her window, finding it difficult indeed not to laugh at her own twitchy nerves. Lips twitching as she tried to fight down a nervous, tittering laugh she waved for him to enter, though not through the window, pointing back over her shoulder toward the door. His face disappeared from the window as he stood and walked around the tree, giving Kimberly a few moments to compose herself and stack the bowls again before they fell to the floor and require further cleaning.

Not that they were bad, but the wood had an unfortunate habit of holding onto certain things with a tenacity that was as bad as a badger in a burrow. She contemplated the bowls for a few seconds before wiping her hands upon her apron and turning toward the door. Smoothing down the front of her dress as she passed from the kitchen and into the common room, she smiled as she felt the curve of her belly. She would be a mother soon, a fact she looked forward to with much heady anticipation.

Her family would become truly whole in a traditional sense. Her own parents, siblings, and family had been lost to her the day she defied their wishes and remained at the Keep, suffering through the changes it wrought upon her and leaving her cast adrift, bereft and alone. By Eli’s grace her aimless drifting had brought her across the path of a handsome rat (how delightful, she had to think to herself, that she found a rat handsome. As a child she had despised the beasts) whom had brought her up from the depths of her loneliness and fear at what she was becoming.

Moving toward the door, she had to chide herself for the curtains, which were still drawn over the round windows set into the natural, living wood of the walls. Due to the comfortable, confined nature of their home it was necessary to curtain the windows lest an unfortunate passerby glance in at an inappropriate moment and find her or her husband about the house clad in naught but fur. She busied herself drawing back the curtains and securing them sashes, knowing that Muri would wait patiently for her to open the door.

Despite his familiarity with her and Charles and their often-repeated invitation that their home was open to him, he never entered without allowing them to first open the door and invite him within. Not so with the Avery boys, who were prone to spill into the common room with bright gaiety to regale her or Charles with another of their adventures. Or, for that matter, the mistress Levins, who was so motherly that she considered the entire village her house, and went where she would at her own whims. Never that her intrusions were not unpleasant or at bad times, but it was often surprising when she appeared without introduction by pushing the door open with her back and hauling in a cart or heavily laden tray full of freshly prepared food.

Such were the eccentricities of small town life, Kimberly mused as she gave her dress one last smoothing pat before lifting the door latch and drawing it open. “Good morning, Muri.” She chirred with a warm smile, beaming up at him. The skunk returned her smile, his good eye gleaming as he ducked through the doorway and stepped into the common room. He paused there for a few moments to let his vision adjust to the comfortably dim lighting afforded by the two windows, then looked around.

Kimberly surveyed him as he stood there in his simple, commoner’s clothing, and then glanced past him out the door before she closed it. On the ground just beyond one of the tree’s buttressing roots was a heavily laden backpack. The skunk held a small package in one hand as he turned slightly to look toward her. “You are going somewhere, Muri?” she asked quietly as she closed the door, head tilted slightly in curiosity.

“I am, milady.” He replied with a slow nod, his tail drawing up behind him in the loose curve typical of his species, his good eye dark in the planes of his face shadowed in the dim light of the room. “Pending motherhood graces you well.” He said with a smile toward her swollen belly.

Kimberly glance down at herself and sighed, patting her tummy. “It would grace me better if I was not hauling it around, Muri.” She chirred softly with a warm smile, crossing the room toward one of the chairs, motioning for Muri to do the same. “As much as I look forward to it, I look forward more to easing the strain in my spine.” She explained as she drew herself into the simple yet comfortable chair. Muri settled into another nearby, the distance between them occupied by a small table. “Though I’ve been told that having a tail makes the burden a great deal easier to carry.”

The skunk chuffed out a small laugh as his tail draped around the front of his legs, the chair creaking quietly as his weight shifted in it. He reached out and placed a small, wrapped bundle on the table. “Those are things such as I would not know of, milady.” He churred warmly, his whiskers angling forward as he smiled with good humour. Leaning back in the chair, he crossed his hands in his lap as Kimberly looked down at the package curiously.

“Milady Kimberly, I will not be here after today. I came to bid you a pleasant farewell.” He started slowly, bringing the rat’s eyes up to his own, his expression warm as he smiled across to her. “I will be making a long pilgrimage through this spring and summer season, into the southern territories of Sathmore.” He explained slowly, glancing across at one of the windows and the green beyond. “A… I guess you might call it a quest, for I must find and return with my father, and tender him a proper burial beside my mother, who now rests in the cemetery here in Glen Avery.” He leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his knees as he spoke, hands moving slowly in accentuation of his words. “I do, in time, hope to return here, as this is my home, but in the event that I fail, I wanted to leave you knowing that I had not simply abandoned you.

“As a mage your training, that which I can grant you, is about as complete as I can attain at this point, considering your pregnancy. I would not want to place the younglings at risk of misused magic as you learned new techniques. You have a good grasp on most of the basics and advanced low school masteries. You lack the sheer power to be a great wizard, milady, but what you possess, even in the small doses you can muster, has limitless uses.” He stood slowly and crossed to the window, peering out into the light for a moment as he spoke, then turning, his tail defining a half circle around his hips as he rested his hands one upon the other in the small of his back. “You have not yet reached the full grasp of your strength or abilities, which will come with practice, but I am confident in your grasp of magic.” He glanced down at her belly once again and smiled, the pensive hesitancy melting from his face, “You may also teach your young what I have shown you. Even if they do not have the grasp for magic the tenants of use will serve them well through life.”

Kimberly raised her hands toward him, gesturing for the skunk to come closer, and she grasped his hands, drawing him down onto his knees to place him at eye level, “You will teach them yourself, master mage Murikeer Khunnas, because you will return to us safely and triumphant, Eli will see to it.”

“Eli’s grace and Artela’s blessing be on it, yes, I trust in their grand plans that they will see me safely back home.” He said as he bowed his head and rested his brows on her hands for a moment. “Yet it will be some months that I will be gone, with Artela’s mercy to safely guide my path. As such things have a tendency to change in the doing, it may be years before my path finds its way back Home, which is why I needed to bid you a gentle farewell, until such a time as sees me home.” He said slowly as he raised his head once more, his dark eye warm as he smiled.

Releasing Kimberly’s hand, he reached across and picked up the package. “I have brought a small gift for you and Charles, which I hope will serve to aid in the needs of your new life.” He explained as he rested back on the backs of his hocks, tail spilling across the floor behind him, swishing slightly. With a curious moue pursing the features of her muzzle, Kimberly set it in her lap and undid the strings binding the cloth bundle together.

The first thing she found was a note, exquisitely written in a careful, talented hand, addressed to the Matthias family. Muri smiled slightly, his whiskers twitching, “I penned that in the case that I found no one here upon my leavetaking.” He explained as he set it aside on the table. Kimberly nodded as she finished unwrapping the bundle only to find a fist-sized collection of bits and pieces of a silvery metal.

“Silver ore?” she asked curiously as he poked at the raw lumps of metal, most of the clinging substrate having been chipped free in the process of collecting them. Muri laughed softly, smiling.

“No, milady. Not silver, something much, much more rare and precious. Mithril.” The skunk said slowly, his tail waving behind him as he dropped his hands to his knees. Kimberly looked at the lumps curiously for a few seconds, mouthing the word.

“I was always told that this… mithril… did not exist. It was merely a story created by elves to lord their superiority over humans.” She said quizzically, stirring her finger through the bits and pieces. Each alone was large enough to fashion into a ring or pendant, the total taken together would suffice to make a respectably sized goblet, but she could see little use for them beyond that.

Muri nodded slowly, “Mithril does indeed exist, but it is so rare and precious that a single of those pieces could buy you this entire village were you to so wish to. Indeed, in many places you could buy an entire keep with only enough of the metal to make a single ring. But there is a mine that will begin producing much more of the ore, so the value will fall somewhat.” He picked up a small piece and rolled it between his fingers, the matte silver glow flickering in the muted light. “Mithril also bears a great propensity to hold and control magic, which makes its worth all the greater. There are very few known mithril weapons or other items in the world, four of them known to exist in Metamor Keep at this time. Only, to my knowledge, do elvish kingdoms possess more items in a similar area.”

Kimberly’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as she looked at the small collection in her lap. Shifting up onto his paws, the skunk returned to the table. “I would have fashioned something from the ore, but my… debilitation made it very difficult to concentrate to a level needed to soften the metal enough to work with.” He said with a small sigh, rubbing his left temple close to his eye, shifting the patch somewhat.

Kimberly nodded slowly as she set the small bundle upon the table, “How is your eye healing?” she asked, too stunned at the moment at the largesse of the gift to want to think too much more about it for the time being. Muri readjusted his eye patch and sighed.

“It heals, but slowly. The flesh knits, but magic is still an agony, which passes a little each day. If it continues the way it has been in the past month I believe it will finally be gone in a year or two.”

Kimberly winced at that report. Two years perhaps before the young mage could once again enjoy the magic that was his whole life without experiencing a pain too debilitating to take pleasure in it.

“I was, for a time, using a mixture of herbs and other chemicals that was strong enough to kill most, using a magical device to protect myself from that fate, but they did not last indefinitely, so I was forced to simply learn how to deal with the pain. While I cannot easily hold the greater magics without unlivable pain, I can work simple spells with only sharp discomfort.” The skunk let out a soft, rueful laugh, “Finding the mithril vein put me down for the better part of a day. Only having an unexpected friend on hand prevented my death.”

“Muri!” the lady rat gasped, placing one hand to her lips as she stared at him, aghast, “You should have more care with yourself!” she admonished, “All the mithril in the world is not worth your life!”

Muri shook his head slowly as he reached across and gently captured her paw, drawing her hand back down, “Metamor is worth my life, precious lady.” He said gently, earnestly, “I would lay down my last breath, and thought I had, in defense of her, my home, my friends.” He released Kimberly’s hand and rested his arm upon the table, toying with a loose piece of the mithril, “Were I not immune, I would have laid my life down in her defense at the same moment Llyn was struck down.”

It was a story not unknown to the kindly rat, she had heard it many times before, and coaxed it from him whenever she felt it was weighing particularly heavy upon him. “But you survived, and you vanquished your pupil. Llyn even came to you in your dreams to hear your words of apology and love.” She reassured him gently, resting her hand upon the warm fur of his forearm. Muri raised his head and nodded slowly.

“I know now why she was able to do so, and not be a mere figment of my fevered mind.”

“What?” Kimberly asked, brow furrowing slightly.

“That friend of Llyn’s, the musician who was also her lover in times before I met her? He’s a dreamer, he lives a dual existence in both the waking world we know and the realm of dreams, which are also the demesne of Nocturna, mistress of the first hell of the Lightbringers.” At Kimberly’s gasp upon the revelation that Llyn’s lover, before Muri, was a daedra worshiper the skunk held up a forestalling hand. “Apparently he is well regarded by his goddess, for he begged a boon of her when he looked in on the tortured hell of my dreams while I lay in the hospital healing. He asked of her to bring back Llyn’s soul from Eli’s domain.” He looked up slowly, meeting the stunned rat’s eyes with his own haunted vision. “And the boon was granted. Eli relinquished Llyn’s soul that I could find surcease from my own guilt and take peace in knowing that she was truly ascending to a better place.”

“A… a daedra did that for /you/?” Kimberly asked, amazed. Muri nodded slightly, then shrugged.

“For whom she did it, or for whom Eli granted the wish, I don’t really know. That’s the whim of gods, unfortunately. Was it for me, the tortured one, or for Malger, the petitioner? Or was it even for Nocturna, to give her a feeling that her existence was worth the attention of the All Father? It is not for our mortal thoughts to understand, merely to offer thanks for that boon.”

Kimberly smiled softly, looking a little confused at the skunk mage’s words, “You talk like a believer, Muri.” She said at length, her voice quiet.

“I am one, milady, in both my goddess and your Eli.” He asserted gently with a smile, patting her hand where it rested upon his forearm, “But I cannot accede to His tenants, as written in the Canticles, for magic is my life and my existence. My faith is for Artela, for I have, in my own person awake and coherent, experienced her presence in a very understandable and palpable way.”

“As you have the nymphs of the mountain, Muri, and even called upon one when death looked you in the eye, but does that mean you also worship her?” Kimberly countered with a challenging smile, her strong rodent teeth gleaming between her lips.

The skunk’s eyebrows shot up in surprise as he looked at her for a moment, “No.” he said at length, the word drawn out as he considered the challenge, “No, I guess I do not, you are right in that. It was more… like calling upon a friend to help out when alone I could not triumph.” He admitted with a slight shrug. Standing, he leaned across the table and placed a light kiss upon the short fur of her cheek, “The day waits for no mage, milady, and I have much to do while there is light in which to do it.” He said gently, “Until I return, I bid you good grace and Eli’s blessing.”

Not inclined to move her bulk from the chair, Kimberly could merely nod as she smiled at the mage, who was in truth some years younger than she but wise beyond his years, and her own mentor in the magical arts. “And the blessing of Eli upon you as well, Murikeer, and Artela.” She added with a smile as she watched him go with a soft sigh, fervently hoping for the success of his adventure. Resting her hands in her lap she bowed her head and began to pray.

Owing to the small, comfortably intimate size of the hamlet of Glen Avery, it only took the skunk a little less than five minutes to make his way to his next destination. He had already bid farewell to the Innkeeper and his wife that morning when he woke and left, packing along the possessions he had left behind during his trip back down to the Keep a couple weeks ealier.

The signboard above the door was simple; a thimble and a needle, the mark of a tailor. Not that tailoring was the only profession that was actually practiced behind the large iron bound plank door, but that second profession did not need any sort of visual announcement. Its practice was palpable to the nose from nearly a half-mile downwind, the succulent aromas of fine cooking drawing at the nose and leading anyone so interested to put in an appearance in the cook’s home.

It was not the smell of food, however, that brought the skunk to the large dwelling built between the trunks of two huge trees, it was to visit the tailor.

Not for clothing either, which made his visit all the more unthinkable. Despite her obvious skill and popularity seen in the many residence donning her garb, the acerbic tailor was not known to entertain social visits. The affects of the curse had left her, previously ‘him’, terribly bitter and jaded at her changed lot in life. Her wife had become a hedgehog, which while not frightfully terrible to look upon, was not particularly comfortable to share a bed with.

And the fact that both were female made their relationship one of sisterhood than matrimony, rendering them both widows in the conventional sense of marriage.

Not that, since Nasoj’s inimical retribution for his defeat, had anything been left in a state of conventionality in the valleys of Metamor. Animals had and were even now being wed to humans, seeming children wed individuals who had born to their same gender. Women were wed to women and similar situations existed for men, all under sufferance of the curse.

Such was the root of the tailor’s bitterness, for having been born a man and brought up a man, becoming a woman had been unutterably traumatic. Even becoming feminine she had gained no desire for male company in an intimate sense, turning her inward pain into outward waspishness that prevented many from getting any closer to her in other than the most professional sense. No one knew how the bright and always pleasant hedgehog maintained any love for the acerbic tailor, but that was a secret only the two of them shared.

Pausing at the door, Muri gave it a light knock as he set his travel pack down nearby, with all confidence it would be there, undisturbed, when he came back out, weather it be an hour later or a day later. While crime did exist within Metamor, just as it did everywhere else in the world, it was relatively limited in scope. Since the destruction wrought by the winter siege it had fallen to near inconsequentiality, drunken brawls and scuffles being the greatest problem. Thievery had all but vanished, despite the great need everyone had for resources to rebuild their homes and businesses.

A moment later the latch rattled and the door was drawn open widely, the portly shape of the mistress Levins, the cook, appeared in the portal and beamed a cherubic smile up at him, “Murikeer! Welcome lad, please do come right on in. I have a batch of meat-cakes in the oven that is just about ready, so you’ll be the first to enjoy a luncheon feast.” She piped merrily as she grasped his wrist and verily hauled him into her home.

Not surprised at the effusive greetings, Murikeer smiled warmly as he followed the diminutive, portly hedgehog into the main room of the large home, which was also the kitchen. Counters dominated three walls, shelves and hanging pots festooning every available inch of space above and below the countertops, no less than three ovens busily churning out the delectables she had awakened far before dawn to begin preparing. When she actually got any sleep Muri did not know, but she was always full of energetic good cheer and resourcefulness. Rumor and legend had it that she had turned frying pans on lutins who had broken into the caverns the Glenners had taken shelter in, fighting as tenaciously as any of the larger males, eventually putting a true fear into the horde to such a degree that they retreated, granting enough time for reinforcements to arrive and secure the breech.

The same rumors had it that the tailor, tending to the children and wounded, had also leapt into the fray wielding a large pair of cobblers’ leather shears, striking down a handful of Lutins before they realized the attack was amidst them. Since then everyone had noticed a palpable shifting of her normally cold bitterness to something more approaching genuine affection, though it was taking her time to banish the specters of her past attitudes.

“Good morning, mistress Levins.” Muri stated as he glanced about the kitchen, soaking in the warm aromas and the simple, comforting aura of the country kitchen, “Is Walter in?”

“Oh, yes dearie, she’s in the back room there.” The hedgehog crooned pleasantly as she slipped on a pair of oven mitts. “She’s been expecting to see you about the past couple weeks.”

Eyebrows raised, Muri could only look on in some confusion as he turned and walked through the tapestry serving as a door-curtain separating kitchen from tailor shop. The room beyond was well light, a chaotic profusion of colors meeting the eye from every conceivable direction. Rugs, tapestries, garments, all hung or draped or folded and stacked on devices of every conceivable design for such purposes. At a table in the far center of the room the sole master tailor responsible for the creations and repairs in progress sat at a large table working on some noble’s tattered riding cloak. Pins in her mouth, she could only mutter and wave a hand toward him beckoningly as she noted his arrival. As he wove his way between clotheshorses she secured her work with the cloak and set it aside, fishing the needles from her mouth and poking them into a pincushion.

For her age, in her early fourties, she was not a bad looking woman in any regard, a fact that Muri had heard noted on those occasions he had been in public areas to hear them. Many of the men about the Glen were often heard to speak about the reclusive tailor in favorable manners. Concerning her comely good looks and tailoring skills, usually, the punch line of the running joke being that she had been cursed with the personality traits of a shrew because of the curse, which rendered her pleasant appearance unapproachable.

“Muri, my dear nephew, it is good to see you again and in good health.” The woman said. Her usually harsh expression vanished as she smiled, actually beamed radiantly as she stood and strode toward him. The change in her outward attitude was so amazingly different that Muri came to a startled halt, his eye blinking in surprise. Walter smiled even more broadly still as she stepped forward and grasped the skunk’s arm. “Come, come, seat yourself.” She said as she led him over to her worktable, depositing him on a fitting stool.

“Walter?” the skunk quavered, his voice sounding lost in his throat as he looked across at her while she resumed her previous seat.

“Tut tut, lad, don’t look so terrified, I am not going to carve you up with my shears.” She chided as she smiled warmly, a foreign expression to the frown lines pulling at the corners of her mouth and eyes.

“No.” Muri heard himself saying distantly, “No, those are for the lutins.”

“Indeed!” the woman exclaimed, flourishing her polished silver sheers with a jeering grin. “Indeed they are, but it takes forever to clean them, so I’d rather have a sword next time.” She continued as she set the shears back upon the table. “But that’s not why you came by, now is it, nephew?” she asked, her voice taking on a serious touch as she rested a hand upon his shoulder.

“No, aunt Walter. I actually came by to bid you farewell, at least for some months, because I am going to travel back to Sathmore.” He explained, starting slowly as he tried to regain his scattered wits. To see such jocularity from his aunt was as astounding as it was mysterious. Walter’s eyebrows raised in curious surprise as she leaned back in her chair, hands falling to her knees.

“Sathmore? What ever for?” she asked, voice serious once again, eyebrows drawing into a scowl of concern that gave her face a more familiar cast.

“To bring back your sister’s husband, m’am.” He said slowly, “He was never given proper rites when he was buried, so his… his soul is not at peace, and I have… felt that unrest beckoning me for some months.” He explained, turning his gaze up to meet the older woman’s concerned stare, “He needs to be brought back to his home, and laid beside his wife.”

Walter nodded then, a slight frown pulling at the corner of her lips. “Having never known what it was to be haunted, I cannot say I am at all familiar with what you’ve felt.” She ruminated quietly, chewing the inside of her lower lip. “But it would be nice to know that Justin had finally returned home to his wife.” Walter said with a rueful smile, “You will go alone? You know where he was buried?”

“I will be traveling with a companion, the minstrel Malger Sutt.” He explained as he leaned back in his chair slightly, “You likely may have seen him, as Jurmas has a ready room for him at the inn, though he called himself Dream Serpent up until this past January.”

“Ahh yes, the lord of the sensates.” The woman said after a moment of thought, “Spurns my best work as too rustic.” She said with a frown, “Not that he has any taste, mind you, but I’ve seen him play with those swords, he would be a good ally on the road.” She nodded slowly.

“Lord of the what?” Muri chuffed, scowling for a moment as he nodded.

“Sensates. He created that annoying mob of idolaters and hedonists a few years ago.” She explained with a look of distaste twisting her features, “We made it very clear that they were not desired here.” She shook her head slightly and looked back up, schooling her expression to calm, “As much as the entire idea of their choices, I have to give him some grudging respect. When we let him know his sycophants were not wanted, he made them leave, and has never allowed them to return.” Pausing, she shrugged slightly, “At least, in a manner that furthered their group. Whenever he is here he acts quite civil and enjoys entertaining the folks here.”

Smiling, Muri nodded, “Even if he does believe your good work to be too rustic for his garishness.” The skunk laughed gently, “He’s never led me to believe that he’s associated with those people anymore. He… well, he’s a casanova, to be sure, but not blatant about it, not like the sensates were that I had the unfortunate displeasure of meeting.”

“You never did tell me much about…” Walter began, her attention shifting toward the doorway as Muri heard footsteps enter. He turned his head curiously to see who was entering, for no pleasant greeting had heralded the presence of company, which he would have expected of the chef.

“Mother Anna wanted to…” the child began before noticing that Walter had company, her eyes going wide in momentary consternation as she stopped a couple steps into the room, glancing from human to skunk and back. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mother, I was not told you had a customer.” She apologized hastily, offering a brief curtsy as she backed toward the door.

“He’s not company, dear child.” Walter crooned softly, one hand outstretched toward the young girl, who was perhaps six or seven years of age, her hair tousled from sleep. Muri could not help the startled expression that played across his face, his jaw dropping slightly as he shot a look back toward his aunt. “He’s your cousin, on my sister’s side, Eli bless her soul.” Turning, then laughing softly at the skunk’s startled expression, Walter smiled brightly. “Murikeer, this is Elyina.” She said as the young girl approached tentatively. Grasping her hand, Walter drew her back against her lap as she turned the young girl to face the stunned skunk mage. “Elyina, meet your cousin Muri. He’s a great mage, you know. Second only to the high Magister himself.” She said, sparing Muri a wink at her exaggeration of his position and rank.

Dubious, the child looked Muri up and down with appraising, fierce blue eyes, “He doesn’t look like a wizard. His clothes are all… simple.” She stated with the blunt observations of a child. “He smells too.” She added, covering her nose.

Blinking, Muri stared down at his newfound cousin, then back up to Walter before he found himself laughing. “Elyina, precious, I am a skunk.” He observed as he waved his hands to take in his physique, which was indeed dressed in the worn, faded clothing of a commoner. “And wizards can dress each morning just like you yourself do, dear child, in whatever they feel like wearing for the day.”

“Oh. Show us magic then.” She demanded, crossing her arms as she looked at him, unimpressed, then pointed at the sheers lying on the table, “Turn those to gold.” Over Elyina’s head Walter smiled brightly as she watched Muri’s bemused expression, the skunk glancing across at the shears. With a shrug he raised one hand and pointed at the steel utensils.

“Bala nox, uvenum pas khotalan, ranasss BOOSH!” he intoned solemnly, stabbing his finger toward the shears, which obediently flushed a gleaming, polished hue of brilliant gold. Elyina gasped, clapping her hands delightedly as she climbed up onto the edge of Walter’s stool and reached across to grab up the shears, looking at them with great wonder.

“Mother, mother look!” she cried out as she showed them to Walter, then leapt down and ran toward the kitchen, “Mother, the stranger made gold!” they could hear her cry out toward Mrs. Levins in the other room, which made them both laugh softly.

“Her father was killed in the attack this past Yule.” Walter explained as she turned her attention, soft and distantly appeased, back toward Muri. “Her mother succumbed only a week after to the winter lung. Everyone feels that she just gave up living when she heard Landon had fallen.”

“You adopted her?” the skunk asked gently.

“And two others, who do terribly much enjoy sleeping in until the scholar’s bell tolls the high hour.” Walter admitted as she nodded slowly. “When Nasoj’s curse stole what I believed was my identity and my strength, I felt hate for everyone because of what I’ve become, as you may have felt as well.” Muri could only nod as he listened to her words, crossing his palms across one knee. “For the past seven years all I knew was bitterness and pain because I… I always felt that women were the fairer gender, the weaker half of what made a man truly male.” Shoulders rising, she sighed as she leaned back against the side of a rug loom. “I was very wrong.” She shook her head slowly.

“Nothing and no one could show that to me except myself, and it took the terrible fire of a protective mother to sear away that which I thought was my terrible weakness, in being female.” She held her hands up slightly. Slender hands, small but strong, with slender fingers beginning to show the first blush of her years. “These hands struck down Lutins to protect the children and the injured. I felt a fire, in my heart, as fierce as any man’s warrior heart. Then I knew, after so many years, that I had never lost anything.”

“Learning is often slow in the coming, Walter.” Muri said gently, reaching across to rest one gentle hand upon the woman’s shoulder, squeezing lightly.

Reaching up, she patted his hand as she nodded, “Yes, but I finally knew again what it felt like to feel strength in my spirit and heart. I am no warrior, nor will I ever be, but the passion for life I had thought lost I have regained. When I learned that those children had lost their parents, I did think of you, and of my sister, and the sons Nasoj stole from me. How would their lives be without the succor of a parent to guide and mold them?” she smiled as she stood and crossed around the table, walking toward the corner of the room. “So I asked my wife if we might adopt them.” Walter laughed as she collected several carefully hung garments and brought them back to the table. “She was ecstatic, of course. I was not sure, though, before I did ask. When the battle of the gates came and we lost our first sons, she was grief stricken for over two years, though she hid it well.” She explained quietly, “As a man I had been taught to contain my emotions, but they came out in the shield of bitterness I’ve hidden behind for so many years. The fact that the curse rendered us incapable of beginning a new family, we were stuck in the fact that we would never have children of our own again.” She frowned and looked at the clothing arrayed around them in the small room. They could hear Elyina chirping to Annette in the other room happily. “Unless we tried elsewhere, outside of our marriage. Neither of us had any desire for aught but one another, however difficult that became since the curse.” She spoke as she stood, throwing words over her shoulder as she walked across the room. “Not that our adoptions have lessened the memories of Andrew and Anthony in our hearts. We truly feel that their heavenly spirits, to soften my heart and fill Anna’s, guided these younglings to us.

“That aside, these clothes are for you.” She said as she laid her hand upon the stack of well-fashioned garments of pale, shadowed burgundy, gray, and forest green. “I’ve been working on them in my idle moments since I learned of our kinship last fall. I had intended to gift them to you this past Yule.” She left the reason for failing to do so unspoken.

Muri stood and lifted the top garment from the stack, a simple woodsman’s shirt in forest green suede that had been carefully tanned to offer some protection from the weather. Steel eyelets across the shoulder and neck were matched to similar eyelets around the neck of a matching cloak in deep brown. As he examined them with warm pride he felt her hand upon his shoulder and looked up to meet her eyes.

“Our first meeting may not have been a pleasant one, so long ago, but you are family to me, as much as my sister and your father ever were.” She smiled and drew him into a warm embrace, “So I want you to return, and safely, with all due haste and care.” She said into his ear as she hugged him with strong arms. Muri laid the garment back down and returned her hug warmly, a smile drawn across his muzzle.

“Knowing that I truly have family to return to, and a place that will always be home, is all the incentive I require to urge my swift return, aunt Walter.”

Thrusting him to arms’ length, Walter beamed as she quickly drew one hand back and dabbed her cheek, “Oh, go now boy before I break down entirely.” She laughed, sniffling, her soft brown eyes warm with carefully held back emotions. Smiling a broad grin, Muri hastily snatched up the stack of clothes and bowed deeply before turning and making his exit.

Just beyond the doorway he came upon the other half of the family, the hedgehog looking at the golden shears with some confusion as Elyina looked on with radiant triumph. Turning, the child pointed a finger at Muri, “Him made gold for us, Mother! He’s a great and powerful magikan!”

“Magician, child.” The hedgehog corrected in a habitual mumble as she turned and proffered the shears to the skunk, “An illusion I hope?”

“Oh, most certainly, auntie Annie.” Muri affirmed with all due deference, wiggling his fingers at the shears in an exaggerated gesture, the golden gleam melting away to reveal once more the same mundane looking steel they had been previously.

“Awww, mother!” the child cried, crestfallen as she captured the shears and frowned at them. “Batric needed a new pair of boots and ashwood staff for Master Angus’ battle class tomorrow.”

Patting the child’s shoulder, Mrs. Levins merely shook her head, “Dearie, don’t worry now. Walter will find some boots for your brother, and Mater Angus has staves aplenty to go around.” She chided as she sent the child back to return the shears to her mother.

Shifting the burden of new clothing from one arm to his shoulder, Muri smiled as he watched the child leave, “I am quite honestly surprised at your new family, aunt.” He said warmly as he crossed toward the door. Stepping outside, he knelt and carefully worked to pack the extra weight into his small travel pack. “I would offer some garrets to your son’s warchest, but I have none with me.” He said after a few moments, standing and turning back toward the door. Stepping back inside, he dug into one of the many small bags strung from his belt. “But all I have are a few pieces of raw mithril which I was going to have one of Metamor’s jewelers fashion into a broach or something.” He said as he extended his hand, a few weighty pieces of the soft silvery ore rolling about in his fur. He laid them on the table beside a tray of fresh rolls with a smile.

“What ore?” the hedgehog piped, her tiny eyes peering at the metal.

“Mithril. It’s enough to buy a few pairs of boots and staves.” He admitted as he smiled, picking up a fresh, warm roll and biting into it. He left it unsaid that the few small pieces would be enough to buy boots and staves for the entire village. “Though unfortunately it will be some time before anyone will be able to actually exchange the metal for currency.”

With a shrug Annette scooped up the bits of metal and dropped them into the pocket of her apron, “No matter. I’ll just put them somewhere out of the way until they can be made useful.” She piped with a smile, crossing over to one of the many shelves lining the walls. Taking down a small bundle she walked back and handed it to him. “A little to tide you on your return to Metamor, my lad.” She said as she patted his hands, “Save journey and safer returns. Perhaps we’ll see you again before the snows close the pass.”

“It is my hope that the winter will indeed find me here in good health, aunt.” He said, watching her bristly back as she went about preparing lunch as if unknowing of the true length of his journey. With a smile he tucked the package under his arm and stepped back out through the door into the brightening midmorning sunshine.

Glancing to the south he shouldered his pack. With luck and swift feet he would reach Metamor well before nightfall.