Finding the Range

by Christian O'Kane and Hallan Mirayas

Sometimes enlightenment can come from the place you least expect it.
- Drift Edward Snow

Drift and Wolfram stood in the entrance to Long House, jaws slightly agape as their eyes wandered the room. Sunlight streaming through large windows lit the hall illuminating banners and tapestries on the walls and rich carpets on the floor. Drift’s gaze fixed on the chandelier overhead as he wandered in the room. Wolfram split off to admire a tapestry of the Battle of the Three Gates hanging on the wall. After the noisy hustle and bustle of the Keeps hallways this place was almost unnaturally quiet. They could hear the sounds of children playing somewhere in the distance and thunk, thunk thunk of footsteps on stone.

They were quiet and crafty hunters. They approached from downwind to mask their scent and moved with a silence that belied their massive size. Drift didn’t realize they were there until he turned around and found himself at eye level with a set of teeth. A VERY large set of teeth that were attached to an even larger wolf! The Samoyed's mouth went suddenly dry, he had seen many different animals in his life, but he had never seen a wolf the size of a horse and weighing at least a ton!

Drift opened his mouth to yell in alarm, but all that came out was a half-strangled yip as his tail tucked under and his ears went down. Looking around, the Samoyed found himself smoothly and quickly surrounded by a dozen of the massive wolves, each seemingly larger then the one before. A particularly large one in front of him, cloaked in gray and white fur, stepped forward and sniffed at the dog.

The dog stood perfectly still, his eyes wide, forcing his tail to wag an 'I'm friendly, please don't eat me' swish when all it wanted to do was hide between his legs. "Ummm… Misha?" he asked nervously, then yelped and whirled. "Hey! Stop that!" he yelled at the one that had just goosed him in the tail with its nose.

"Relax, Drift. They mean you no harm. They're just curious," Misha explained, suddenly appearing in the midst of the wolves. Caroline stood next to him, a hand on one of the wolves' necks.

Drift puts his hands behind him, guarding against a repeat performance ears half-down in embarrassment. "Yeah, I noticed. What are they?”

“What are they and do they eat sheep?” Wolfram asked nervously. The ram had his back to a wall and was being investigated by two wolves, one fully black, the other black with white markings on her head and forelegs. Wolfram’s hands were up defensively and the female tilted her head before swatting playfully at them with a forepaw.

Misha laughed. "They’re dire wolves, Drift and they've never seen a dog like you before. No need to worry, Wolfram. They've been fed already."

"I'm not going to ask about housebroken. Really, I'm not,” Drift said, backing up carefully. The pack slowly followed, still curious.

The fox laughed again. "Just watch where you step!"

Drift finally got his back to a wall and felt safe enough to bring his hands forward again. He carefully reached out and stroked one along the bridge of the muzzle.

"For something so big they’re surprisingly gentle. They helped saved many lives during the Yule assault,” Caroline said.

"Wow." His confidence grew with each one that let him touch them. "I kind of envy them... all that grace and power."

"They’re powerful and beautiful creatures,” Misha commented. “I'm honored to be a part of saving their species."

"Saving their species?” the ram asked.

"Yes. Several sages say that the dire wolves are dying out. They used to live in the whole of the Midlands and the Giantdowns. Now they are only found in a small part of the Giantdowns."

"Wow," he said again, but with a saddened twinge to it.

"Ironically it’s the Lutins who are helping save them. Several tribes have struck up a strong friendship with the wolves."

Drift finally dared to scratch one behind the ears. A small one, to be sure, but still...

"They seem to have taken a liking to you," Caroline said. "That one is called Bright eyes. One VERY brave, little female. She helped kill a werewolf!"

Drift nodded. "I heard about you," he said directly to Bright Eyes. "Very impressive."

"Very. They have become permanent residents here in Long House. Misha is hoping to train them as friends. I think we might even use them as cavalry someday."

“Are you sure about this, Drift?” Misha asked. They were standing on the archery range located in Long House along with a small crowd of people including Caroline, Finbar and Danielle.

“Yes, I could really use the help with my long range.”

“Have you ever shot a bow before?” Misha asked.

“Ummm… once. It wasn’t pretty.”

“Drift. Before we start, I need to ask you something. I need some supplies both for the Longs and for George’s scouts. Can you make me a few things?"

“Hmmmm. Let's see..." He reached out and tapped Misha on the head. "I hereby make you a fox with a penchant for axes. Hey, what do you know? It works!" He laughed. "Sorry. What do you have in mind?"

Misha shook his head slowly. “And people say I’m crazy. I need some canteens. Can you make me a few?"

"Sure,” Drift answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Canteens are easy: just solder two curved disks together and add a spout. How many do you need?"

"Well, around two hundred,” the fox replied, ears and whiskers tipped forward in a hopeful smile.

Drift blinked, his own ears rocking back in surprise. After several long moments, he finally replied, "You have a very elastic definition of the words 'some' and 'a few'."

Misha laughed and shook his head. "I take that as no?"

"How fast do you want them?”

"Soon. I need about two dozen for the Longs. George needs the rest for his scouts. They lost a lot of equipment during the looting in the Yule attack."

"Hmmmm.” The Samoyed stroked his chin, pondering thoughtfully. “This won't be cheap, Misha. I'll have to ask Alexis for help with the supply side of things for that many, and she has a saying: When scrounging, you can get things fast, in good condition, or cheap. Pick two."

Misha laughed. "All right. I need two dozen in good condition fast, and the rest within a month or two. Is that all right? We'll pay gold. Two per canteen."

Drift nodded. "I'll get on it as soon as I can." He glanced out a window set high on the wall, checking the sun’s height above the horizon. "Which would be... tomorrow, I think. Alex and I have a date tonight. Anything else you need? A small moon to circle you, perhaps?"

"What night -don't- you two have a date? You two have really hit it off." Misha asked with a smile before returning to the main conversation. "Two hundred canteens are plenty for now. Unless, that is, you can make me about three thousand arrows?"

"With you two at it every night, when will he have the time to do our canteens?" Finbar added sarcastically.

Drift shot Finbar an icy glare. "You had -better- not be suggesting what I think you are."

"Who me? I'm not suggesting anything. I’m just saying you two are always together.” He paused for a moment. "Alone."

Drift smirked. "You're misinformed. Most of the time we're out on the town."

Wolfram spoke up, sitting on the edge of a table. "Leave him alone, Finbar. Somebody who can be chaste with a girl that gorgeous deserves some respect."

Drift chuckled. "Thanks, Wolfram." He turned away, waited a moment, and then added, "I think."

Misha shook his head. "Drift he just complimented and insulted you at the same time!"

"I didn't hear any insult in that. I'm just waiting until the wedding night. Anyway," Drift said, ignoring Finbar with only a slight tip sideways of the ears and a small rippling of the lips, "I think the arrows would be more in Gordon Artentarge's realm than mine. Good man. He does good work.”

“I know, but I need three thousand arrows fast,” Misha explained. “We’ve used up a lot in the last few months and we lost a lot during the Yule attack. I wonder if Alexis can get me the arrows.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I can’t make any promises.”

“That's all I can ask. Thanks, Drift." Misha produced a small bundle of cloth and rope. “Now, let's try a sling first.” The fox deposited the bundle in Drift's hands.

After several moments of fumbling, Drift managed to keep the stone in the sling. The sling started spinning, slowly at first but then faster and faster, its whirr drawing the Samoyed's attention, ears tipping forward. He slowed it slightly, listened to the pitch change, and then sped it up again even faster than before.

“Release it, Drift,” Misha ordered. "You can play with it another time."

Drift jumped, startled. The stone sailed downrange, still wrapped in the sling, and bounced off the target.

“Not bad, but you’re supposed to hold onto the sling,” Finbar commented wryly. "It makes it easier to reload."

Drift's ears flicked back, stung. "Sorry, Misha. It kind of got away on me.”

“You have to watch those slings. They're wily and dangerous. So let’s try again,” Misha ordered as he held out his hand to Drift. In it was another sling.

Drift took the offered bundle of twine and leather and loading it with a little less fumbling then before. He glanced quizzically at the fox, and asked, "How many of those do you have?”

“Several,” Misha answered vaguely, stepping clear of the rearmed canine. “Now, try it again.”

The dog-man started spinning the sling, whirling it up to speed until, with a resounding SMACK, the sling wrapped itself tightly around Drift's hand, the still-loaded stone cracking against some of the only thin fur on his entire body. A yelp followed, trailed closely by a string of curses as Drift gingerly unwound the twine from his hand.

“Anything broken?” Misha asked, concerned.

“I don’t think so,” Drift answered, shaking his hand. "Ow."

“Then try it again.”

This time, the stone flew straight up, ricocheting off the ceiling 20 feet above as everyone scattered for cover, fleeing in all directions and leaving Drift standing alone.

“Drift, look-” Caroline started to say.

THUNK! “Oww!!!” Drift dropped the sling and clutched the top of his head.

“He’s getting worse, not better,” Finbar commented from under a table across the room.

“Let’s try a bow,” Misha suggested. “Before you kill yourself.”

“Sounds good.” Drift said, ruefully rubbing the bump on his head.

“I bet five gold the dog draws blood at least once,” Finbar heckled.

Danielle smacked the ferret lightly on the muzzle.

“What?” Finbar looked at the pine martin. “I have the gold.”

Drift grumbled, reached into his pocket, and tossed five gold coins onto the floor midway between himself and the ferret. "So do I," he growled, ears down.

Finbar grinned and tossed five gold to match Drift's, and then reached for his money pouch. "Here's your five, and I'll raise you 50!"

Danielle's quick hands intercepted his. "His bet stands at 5."

"No, it doesn't!" Finbar protested loudly.

"And if you lose it, what are you going to use to buy me dinner tonight?" Danielle asked coldly.

Finbar chittered something under his breath and folded his arm angrily, sulking until Danielle distracted him with a kiss on the nose.

Drift slowly raised the bow up and pulled the string back.

Finbar muttered a curse under his breath and both him and Danielle ducked under a nearby table. The rest of the crowd scattered in all directions, looking for any sort of cover.

“You’re not inspiring confidence,” Misha said. The fox morph had not moved from his location next to the dog. “Go ahead and shoot, Drift.”

Just as Drift released, the arrow hopped off the nock and made an upward Z in the air before slamming to rest in the ceiling overhead.

Misha slowly stood up and brushed the dirt off his pants, having dropped to the ground the instant he saw the arrow go astray. He looked up at the ceiling and the arrow that was buried in a crack there up to the fletching. "Drift, my friend, my brother. Have you ever consider taking up the javelin? It's basically a stick with a pointed end."

Drift's ears drooped to hide his embarrassment, but his nervously swished tail and lips-pursed smile give him away. "Sorry."

"I see. You have to watch those arrows. They're wily and dangerous."

Drift snorted. "That's what you said about sling stones, too."

“Face it - you just aren't a long distance person. I'd hate to think of the havoc you could cause with a crossbow."

Drift nodded his head. "That's what I tried to tell you thirty minutes ago. But still, there’s got to be something . . .”

Misha laughed, his tail waging back and forth furiously. "I'm from Marigund, and EVERYONE there can shoot a bow. Even the little girls!"

"I can shoot a bow, too," Drift replied. He glanced upward significantly. "Just rarely in the direction I want it to go."

Misha looked up again at the arrow. "Drift, the whole point of archery is to shoot the arrow where you want it to go. You’re supposed to be dangerous to the enemy - not your own people!"

Drift sighed. "Let me guess... try it again?"

“Try it again, and this time try not to hit anyone standing BEHIND you,” the fox ordered.

Drift aimed the bow, and everyone scattered as Finbar fell flat on the floor with his hands over his head. Even Caroline ducked behind a table.

The dog blushed furiously, ears settling somewhere between embarrassed and angry. This time the arrow whizzed in the correct general direction, but the accuracy was still poor.

Drift yelped and sucked on his two string fingers. "Ow, dammit! How do you keep your claws from hooking the string when you let go?"

Misha laughed loudly. “Two things help that. One I've been using a bow since I was five years old, and two, we foxes have retractable claws on our hands!" he said and waved five fingers at Drift.

Drift replied with only one finger. And a nonretractable claw.

"You ever consider clipping that nail?” the fox asked. “It's not like you need long claws to survive. You're a dog, not a cat."

"I lost my clippers a month ago."

"You need a nail clipper? I've got just the right sized one for you." Misha pulled out his axe. The massive five foot length gleamed darkly in the light.

"What the? Where did that come from?" the dog asked pointing at the weapon. “It wasn’t there a minute ago.”

Misha swished his tail and squinted his eyes. “What axe?” He held out his hands which were suddenly empty.

“How did you do that?"

Misha swished his tail and squinted his eyes. "How did I do what?" he asked innocently, the axe appearing and vanishing from extended hands.

“How do you keep doing that?”

AH! You mean THIS!" he said and the axe reappeared. "It's the fairies."

Drift tilted his head and gave Misha a raised-eyebrow smirk. His tail swished once. "Teleport spell, with an extra helping of showmanship?"

”It’s the little folk I tell you. The fairy folk."

“Drift held up his hand. "Uh-huh. You were mentioning something about a claw trimmer?"

"Are you sure about this?” Misha asked as he hefted the massive weapon. “Do you really want to go thru with this?”

Drift's ears tipped back for a moment, then forward again in challenge. He held his hand out, expecting to call a bluff. "Go ahead."

“You’re kidding, right?” the fox asked.

Drift remained rock steady.

"All right. Hold perfectly still," Misha warned. He lashed suddenly out with the axe, swinging it down too quickly to be seen. All Drift felt was a whoosh of air, a faint whisper of sound the only noise.

"All done!" Misha announced calmly.

Drift stood frozen. Only after several seconds did he remember to blink. Then to breathe. Then to look at his freshly trimmed claws. Then he fell over in a dead faint.

The fox sighed and shook his head. "Why do they always do that?" he asked. "I didn't draw blood, did I?" Misha upended a pitcher of water onto the unconscious dog. "C’mon, Drift. Nap time is over."

Drift jolted awake with a yell. "Gah! Misha! What the hell?" He looked at his claws again. "Holy... that's incredible.” He looked up at the fox with a mix of shock, awe, and stupefaction that Misha was very familiar with. "That's incredible," he repeated, and then held up his other hand. "Do it again... I want to watch this time."

“Again?” Misha shook his head and laughed. "Weren't you watching the first time?"

Drift shook his hand expectantly. "Nope. Too busy panicking."

The fox just shook his head in amazement. "You scare me sometimes, Drift. If you really are serious, then hold out your other hand."

Drift held out both hands. "You've already demonstrated that you've got the skill to do it. Why -shouldn't- I trust you?"

"I'm touched by your trust in me," Misha said, smiling. “I also think you’re CRAZY!” He brought the axe up for another swing. Again the massive slashed through the air with barely a whisper.

"Done!” Misha announced cheerfully. “I should start charging people for hair cuts and nail trimming."

The dog-man laughed and flexed his fingers. "Thanks. Between your canteens and construction work this is the first break of any length I've had in some time." Drift swept up the shorn pieces of claw with a hand, lifting one to admire the sliced edge. "That really is amazing, Misha. May I see your axe?" he asked in innocent curiosity.

Misha hesitated for a moment. "SHE tends to be picky about who touches her."

Drift rolled on his hands and knees, shook dry, and then rose to his feet. His head tilted quizzically as he leaned in for a closer inspection of the axe. "She? Picky how? What happens?"

Misha shrugged his shoulders. "Depends. If she just wants to make you let go, she will give you a good jolt. But if she truly hates you or she’s decided you’re evil, the results can be... " He hesitated. "Really ugly."

Drift pieced that together with a rumor he'd heard about that wolverine Keeper’s white throat and hastily pulled his hand back. "Um. Okay, never mind. Sorry, miss." The last was directed specifically to the axe, an apology for his nosiness.

The fox morph laughed. "She likes you, Drift. That’s rare for her. Touch her. Seriously. She won’t harm you. But I warn you, touching her can be a learning experience. She tends to pass along some lesson to people she likes.”

Drift gave Misha a worried glance. After Misha urged him on a second time, the Samoyed reached out and laid his hand against the flat of the blade. When he did, his ears snapped forward and his eyes widened as he pulled his hand back. He looked at Misha in surprise. "It's... warm." One ear flicked backward, but couldn't manage to settle into a single position, his brow furrowing in confusion. “It felt almost... alive?”

Misha nodded his head. "Go ahead and touch her properly. She won't bite."

Drift looked askance at the fox, putting his free hand to his mouth to hide a rapidly growing smile. “I’m going to pass up on the opportunity for a dirty joke.”

Finbar snickered. Caroline blushed. Wolfram laughed out loud.

"Are you sure you don't want to rephrase that, Misha?" the Samoyed asked, starting to shake with suppressed laughter.

Misha openly laughed. "No. Even she found that funny. But I will rephrase it. Lay your hands on Whisper again."

When Drift put his right hand back on the flat of the blade, Misha frowned.

"Don't be shy, Drift. GRAB HER!" Misha said. He grabbed the dog by the arm and placed his left hand fully on the shaft of the axe.

Drift's ears tipped back again and he resisted the pull for a moment, before a sensation of peace seemed to ripple through him. He took the axe shaft in both hands, then, and carefully lifted it from Misha's hands. A look of wonder crossed his face. "Wow," the Samoyed said, his tail starting to wag ever so slightly. “She’s lighter then I expected and yet . . .” That wag stilled a moment later as his voice trailed off, his eyes getting a distant look in them, another expression Misha recognized. She was speaking to him, showing him something.

The Samoyed stirred after several long moments, a sobered expression spreading onto his face. "I... I never knew." He swallowed, addressing no-one in particular as the axe suddenly seemed to weigh heavy in his hands. "I never understood." The Samoyed looked up, his face sad and a bit uncertain. "Misha? You met my father. What do you remember of him?"

"Remember?" Misha hesitated. "I remember a man with a lot of pride in his work. Why do you ask? "Has she spoken to you?" Misha asked calmly.

Drift nodded and offered the axe back. "Do you remember his temper?"

"I do remember that temper,” Misha answered, not taking the axe back yet. “It was like yours."

Drift's ears went down. "Sorry. I'm working on that."

"We all have our differences and problems."

Drift looked away. "Do you... remember me asking you not to grab me by the jaw?"

"I do,” Misha said slowly. “You said it was how your father held you."

Drift nodded slowly, dropping his gaze to look on the flat of the axe rather then into Misha’s eyes. "Usually right before he hit me with something. He was always a perfectionist, but after Mom died, he got a lot worse. He drove my older sister, Erin, clear out of the house with his rages. She signed up in the Duke's army out of sheer spite, rather than follow his orders any longer."

The fox shook his head. "I never knew!"

Drift set the bottom of the axeshaft on the ground so he could massage his temples with the fingers of his right hand. "And now, I think I know why." He sighed. "My mother died in childbirth, Misha. It was to be their third child, but something went wrong. She went into labor early, at our home, and died before help could arrive. My father was never the same again." The Samoyed slid his hand down to hide his eyes. "I... I saw him at her bedside, helpless to fix things, having to watch her slip away. I saw him put away everything that reminded him of her. And then I saw myself, creative like she was, reminding him every day of what he'd lost."

Misha nodded his head. "I see."

"Now I think I understand why he was always so angry with me, and always pushed me to follow his path. He couldn't stand the thought of her being gone. And I'm still trying to please him even now that he's dead."

"And what do you intend to do now?" Misha asked softly.

Drift wiped at his face, glancing sharply over at Finbar as if daring him to make a wise crack. Then he turned his attention back to Misha. "I think... I think that I'm still going to do tinsmithing, but not as a profession. Just something to help out around here. Other than that, I think I'm going to devote more time to my ideas and creations."

"You have to follow your dreams, my brother."

Drift nodded. "Yeah." A smile started to creep onto his face as his gaze slid from the fox to the axe. "Also, do you remember that last picture in my book? The one -after- Alexis' drawing?"

"Who can remember anything except Alexis? But yes, I do,” she answered.

Drift chuckled, glancing aside at Caroline. "Careful..." The otteress just rolled her eyes and gestured for the Samoyed to continue.

Finbar snickered.

"I think I just figured out what that is. Build it big enough, attach a bar underneath to hold onto, and maybe a sling, and I think you could fly with it. They're giant wings. I saw an image, up among the clouds, the wings a solid frame above and the earth far below. I could feel the bar in my hands and my body in the sling, holding me level with the... glider?"

Misha looked at his friend for a moment, ears drooped. "Are you sure about that? Trusting your life to it?"

The dog put a knuckle to the tip of his muzzle and chewed on it gently, lost in thought, the axe forgotten in his left hand. "Build it strong enough and I don't think that would be a problem," he mused, eyes flicking rapidly back and forth as if visualizing connections and braces. "But it would have to be light, too..."

"How light?" Misha asked. "I might have the metal you need."

"Light enough not to fall out of the sky, but strong enough not to bend and deform. I'd have to do some testing, I think.”

"How about the metal I used for the skin on Madog? It's called Aluminal. It's light, but VERY tough."

That got Drift's attention. Both ears flick full forward, then drop back again. "That's -got to be horrendously expensive."

Misha shrugged. "Not too expensive. Certainly cheaper then the gold and mithril I used in him was. How much would you need? I still have some left lying around from rebuilding Madog."

"I don't know... I'll have to do several more schematics before I can give you any sort of answer." He finally remembered the axe in his hand again and held it out for Misha. "Um, I think this is yours."

Misha took the axe back this time. "I'm glad she helped you see the way. And that metal is yours whenever you need it. I never use it except for fixing Madog."

"If it's spare parts for Madog, I'm not sure I should be using it. Who was your supplier?"

“A merchant in the Midlands whose name I do not remember at this moment. It took me months to find enough to work with."

"Hmmm. I'll have to think on this. Maybe do some experimenting.”

"Aluminal is an alloy used for making weapons. Hard to find. I could add some runes to the finished parts for you. Like the ones I used on Madog."

Drift pondered some more before shaking his head, setting the idea aside. "I'll get back to you on it. In the meantime, weren't we causing a general health hazard trying to find a ranged weapon I'm halfway decent with?"

"True!" Misha answers.

"How about javelins?" Finbar asked.

Drift took the javelin Finbar held out to him and examined it, originally holding it across his body like a staff before bringing it up in his right hand into a throwing position. Of all the weapons tried so far today, this looked the most natural in his hand. "Light, evenly balanced, can double as a short-range weapon in a pinch," Drift mused aloud. "Let's give it a try." He flung it downrange, where it hit the target with a loud thump. It hit it out near the edge, but still, there was a hint of proficiency there.

"You actually HIT the target this time and didn't hurt yourself!" Finbar commented sarcastically.

Drift gave a surprised chuckle. "I'm as amazed as you are, Finbar. I can't believe it worked, either."

Caroline chuckled lightly. "I think we've found your weapon, Drift."

Drift nodded. "Agreed. I always wondered where the inspiration for Whirlwind's spiked ends came from..."

“I think with some practice you could be really good with the javelin." Misha commented. “But you’ve done enough damage for today. Take a few more throws and we’ll try more practice tomorrow.”

“HA! Practice is over and Drift hasn’t drawn any blood!” Wolfram announced loudly. “That means he wins!”

“He hurt himself!” the ferret countered angrily.

“Yes but he didn’t draw blood.” The ram started to gathering up the coins on the floor, grinning. “I could have told you he wouldn’t. Drift is a different person when he’s backed into a corner. Which you did.”

Finbar opened his mouth to say something but Misha cut him short. "He's right Finbar. You made a bet and lost. Your choice and no one else’s."

“You’re blunt Wolfram but a sneaky bastard,” Finbar said.

"And proud of it. Just ask the guy I dropped in sparring practice yesterday," Wolfram said with a grin.

Drift winced, the motion throwing off his next javelin throw. "That hurt. Brat."

"Practice hurts Drift." Misha answers. "Better to be bruised in practice than killed in battle."

"How about unconscious on the floor?”

Wolfram gave an aw-shucks shrug. "I said I was sorry. Once you woke up again."

Misha laughs. "Just how hard DID you hit him?"

Drift grumbled, and the next javelin THWACKED into the target.

Wolfram snickered. "He went taur form on me again," the sheep said, gesturing with a rising hand to suggest Drift's increased height as he starting to act out the parts. "So I stepped in close, right between his front paws, reached up, grabbed the fur right where his jaw meets his neck, in the thick neckruff of his and pulled down until his head bowed over. Once he was low enough..." He tilted his head back and then feigned a head butt. "Right to the top of the head,” Wolfram chuckled. “He dropped like a sack of potatoes. I don't remember the next thirty seconds very well... For some reason, I had a real hard time breathing." He smirked at Drift, who smirked back. "It might have had something to do with the half a ton of dog collapsed on top of me."

"You've grown real fond of that taur form of yours haven't you, Drift?" Misha chuckled. Being hit by half a ton of dead weight really hurts. Remember that, Drift. In a fight you can do some real damage just by throwing that weight around."

Misha pointed to the ram. “And you need to remember to duck and cover. I like you Wolfram. You’re blunt and straightforward to the point of being insulting. Finbar is right. You ARE sneaky when you have to be and you fight in unconventional ways. I think you’ve been taking lessons from George.”

Wolfram smiled, flushed with pleasure at the compliment. “Thank you sire. I have to say though, that I’ve had good teachers and role models,” he said giving Misha a deeply respectful nod.

"Are you blushing Wolfram?" Misha asked. "A hardened warrior is not supposed to blush."

"Then it's a good thing I'm not a hardened warrior." He rapped his knuckles on his horns. "Well, okay, not completely."

"Hard headed, not hardened," Finbar joked.

Drift put a third javelin into the target, then retrieved them and put them back in the quiver. "For a while, it balanced out his lead in skill. Now? Now he's uncovering whole new ways to make me look completely inept." His lopsided smile suggested that he'd become somewhat resigned to the arrangement.

"He is a warrior, Drift and that is how he earns his living,” the fox explained. “That gives him the edge in training and skill. You are a smith and that is how you make yours. But your aim is getting a lot better Drift. You seem to be a natural with the javelin."

"Thank you." Drift started took the coins he’d won from Wolfram and tucked them away.

"You'll be a dangerous opponent in combat with those, Drift. Sort of like a Peltist," Misha commented.

Drift tilted his head quizzically, one ear forward, one to the side seeming to have no idea how ridiculous he looked when he did that. "What's a 'peltist'?"

"A Peltist is a person who specializes in the javelin." Misha explained. "It's an old name from long before the empire came about," Misha answered. "They were respected and feared."

Drift smiled and Wolfram laughed. "Careful, Sir Misha. Don't go giving him any ideas."

"How many of these do you think I could carry as a taur, Misha?” Drift asked. “If they were all bundled up in a quiver or something."

Misha shrugged. "At least a dozen or more. Maybe two dozen."

Drift smiled wider, a smile that did not bode well for whoever would wind up on the receiving end of those javelins. "Interesting."

Finbar laughed. "I like that idea!"

Alexis appeared suddenly behind the group putting a finger to her mouth to quiet those who had noticed her arrival. With surprising skill, she slipped up behind Drift, who was still unaware of her presence and wrapped both wings around Drifts torso, fanning her wings to hide him from the waist down. "Hiya, cutie. You're late."

Drift jumped with a yip, the javelin in his hand falling to the floor with a clatter, and his ears went bright red. "Sweet Yahshua, Alexis. Don't do that. You scared me!"

Alexis clicked her tongue in a lightly scolding tone. "You boys, always losing track of time when you’re playing with your sticks." She moved her right hand up from where it had been hidden by her left wing, and tickled through his chest fur for a moment before switching to rubbing his belly.

She apparently had some practice doing it, judging by how soon Drift’s leg started twitching in pleasure going thump, thump, thump, on the floor. "C'mon, handsome,” she said, smiling at the silly grin her bellyrub had put on his face. “Time for dinner." And with those words she grabbed him by tail and started pulled him towards the exit.

The Samoyed’s arms windmilled as the unexpected pull put him off balance. "Hey!" He backed hastily to keep from falling. "Alex!" He tried to turn, but Alexis kept her pace just ahead of his ability to catch up, his protests broadening her grin. "My stuff!" he yelled, making a grab for his backpack and book, missing by a hand’s breadth.

"I'll bring it to your room for you, cutie," Wolfram teased.

Drift shot the ram a dirty look just before he passed out of view.

"I guess that means the lesson for today is over." Misha commented

Wolfram walked over to the fallen javelin, picked it up, tested it for balance, and threw. It went half a foot wide of the target. "I'll be damned. He finally found a weapon he's better at than I am." The ram grinned. "Good. I'll just have to work harder."

Caroline wrapped her arms around Misha. "And YOU promised me dinner and a walk through the gardens."

Danielle hugged Finbar tightly and kissed him.

“You are my lucky charm. I never lose money when you’re with me,” Finbar said as they kissed and slowly walked towards the door.

Wolfram watched as the two couples left the room arm in arm. He grinned at the three males corralled in succession by their ladies. "I love being a bachelor." And with that he went back to practicing his javelin throwing.