Grave Digger

by Ryx

October 29, 706 CR

“Yer’s be a new face ‘ereabouts.” Said a rough, gravelly voice stumbling drunkenly through the words as Murikeer felt a large, heavy hand come down upon his shoulder. He hissed a startled grunt through his nose as he looked sharply up toward the owner of both voice and hand, trying to keep the mouthful of mead he had just taken from spewing back into the mug before his muzzle.

The skunk swallowed convulsively, thudding his mug down upon the table as the owner of the hand circled to the opposite chair and dropped into it bonelessly. Muri barely held back the disdainful snarl that threatened to ripple across his muzzle when the man’s stench struck him. Sweat, earth, decay and the incongruous heady starchiness of Lars’s ale clamored about within his nose as the man settled into the creaking chair.

“Knowin’ of ye, us ‘round ‘ere do.” The beardless, dirt smudged face split into a gap-toothed grin, “Fix ‘at dere’s cist’rn a coupla months back, ay?” he continued, not noticing how the skunk leaned further back into his chair drawing mug and trencher away. “Wot brings ye away fr’m da Kee, ay, wit’ th’ ‘arvest fest a comin?”

“Because I dislike crowds.” Murikeer offered in a stifled half-growl after finally swallowing his drink, “And humans.” He added after a brief pause, his expression frosty.

The statement was for the most part true. He had not been looking forward to the massed throng of Metamor citizens that would come with the festival. Already, in the days before it was to begin, hundreds of travelers had come. Merchants and performers for the most part, coming to prepare stages and stalls. Even the proximity of those hundreds had begun to fray at Muri’s anxieties. The thought that they only presaged a few thousand more left the young mage cold.

Sensing this, even separated as they were by the cold iron bars of her dungeons cell, Llyn had banished him. She reminded him of the oath that Jurmas, the innkeeper in Glen Avery, had made after Muri’s repair work. She also told him that she feared for his very safety. The last day of the festival would be but a single dawn away from Daedra Kema. Since Metamor was a favored haunt of the daedra, and Muri had thwarted the plans of the Daedra’s pawns, she did not want them to cross paths.

His newfound instructor, the battle mage Rickkter, had concurred with her assessment. He also banished Muri from the keep for the duration of the Harvest Festival and Daedra Kema. Shoving a handful of rare, nigh priceless, books at the skunk with instructions to study and prepare. He did not say what to prepare for, however, leaving his pupil in the dark as to his intentions.

This it was that, one day prior to the opening festivities, Murikeer had headed north to Glen Avery. Jurmas’s steward met him at the door of the Mountain’s Hearth with effusive welcome and the lynx ushered him to a gloriously appointed suite more suited to visiting princes than lowly journeyman mages.

After several hours of peaceful solitude in the room studying Rickkter’s book he had ventured forth seeking food. Unfortunately, with the major festival being held at Metamor Keep, there were few cooks to be found. Jurmas had taken his wife and much of his staff, and the gracious Mrs. Levins had gone as well to sell her skills and the seamstress Walter’s wares, leaving only Lars’s brewery to provide food and sustenance to the thin crowd remaining. That was the reason Muri could be found at the small table in the secluded back corner of the tavern.

Oblivious, or simply uncaring, of the warning in Muri’s words, the man remained seated where he was. So great was his temerity that he even dragged a stool away from a nearby table and propped his muddy boots upon it. “Ahh, do poor paws good t’ rest fer a spell.” The man groaned, arching his body into the long stretch, then thrust his hand across the table toward the skunk. “Kunma Malenos.” He said simply, voice slurred drunkenly, filthy hand outstretched.

“Murikeer Khunnas.” The affronted mage responded without making a move. After a moment the offered hand was withdrawn and rubbed against the breast of the man’s shirt. Both being equally grimed with dirt it was difficult to know which profited from the rubbing.

“Ya, guessin’ ah kin un’erstand th’ crowds thing.” Kunma said at length as he assayed a slow nod, “No bein’ too fond o’ ‘em meself.” The man was silent for a few moments as he took a spare sip from the simple earthenware mug in his large hand. “We all gots ghosts.” He muttered at length, staring into his ale pensively. Muri regarded the man dubiously as the pause stretched in an uneasy silence broken only by the muted murmur coming from other tables. “Don’ be fergetting yer plate, ‘keer.” He finally said, “Alyss a right fine girl, e’en fer a ‘coon, a right fine cook she be.” He coughed a strange laugh as he squared his shoulders slightly. “Were a scary sight ‘afore the ‘Gates, tainted grain wh’n she were a tot twisted ‘er right bad.” He looked over one shoulder toward the curtained door separating the taproom from the kitchen. “Curse undo alla that, be a fine girl now.”

Spearing a tender slice of mutton with the top of his dinner knife Murikeer brought it to his mouth as he pondered the viability of finding another table. Few suited his wont for solitude, and he figured that the foul smelling, dirt encrusted drunk would follow him anyway. So he merely tuned out the man’s words, needing little in the area of matchmaking.

“Alladay, is no wha’ I want’d to’ speak ye up fer. Were curious t’ know a’out yer rile in ‘th gates?” Kunma asked as he leaned forward over the table, rolling his mug between his calloused hands, “Rumor speak ye’ from bein’ northern come.”

It took several breaths for Muri to grasp the man’s words, which rolled from the left corner of his mouth with the verbal consistency of half-chewed gruel. The statement was delivered in a conversational inquisitive, but it was more direct than the skunk had expected. Pointed, and a definite breach of whatever privacy Murikeer would have expected, certainly not something to ask of in casual conversation.

Especially of a stranger.

“I was too young.” The skunk answered at length after swallowing a mouthful of simply made but pleasant mutton and chasing it with a swallow of mead.

“A kid? At th’ gates?” Kunma continued, his black brows crawling up his forehead.

“Not at, but in the Keep when the curse was laid. Too young for it to strike me immediately, though. That came years later.”

“Be ye ‘ow many summers then?”

“Nearly eighteen now, why?” he countered, his voice defensive.

“Oh.” Was the only immediate reply, then lapsed into another lengthy silence. Muri watched the dirty man for a short time before returning to his meal. “It jus’ th’t we was hearin’ a’out sommat sort of enclave up to th’ north was place where’ Nasoj’s cast off curse-morphs be ‘oled up. Who were yer father? Hown’ th’ curse take ‘im?”

Muri frowned as he shook his head and chewed on a hank of coarse, dark bread. “I’ve never heard of anything like that, but I would not be surprised.” He shrugged, “Justin Windseeker. He was far to the north when the curse full, working for the long patrol to harass Nasoj’s supply lines, so he was not taken by it. When he returned he hoped to spare me the curse as well and took me far to the south. Alas, the curse already had me.”

“A, a name I be knowin’, that.” Kunma nodded slowly, chewing the inside of his left cheek.

“Windseeker?” Muri asked, his attention abruptly focused.

“Oh, aye lad.” The dirty man said with a slow nod, raising his cup to his lips and taking another small sip, “Know ye where ye were whelped?”

Murikeer scowled at the strange man, then shook his head, “No, my father never spoke of anyplace other than Metamor, and only of the Keep as a warning of the curse.”

“Nor yer mae?” Kunma asked further, digging deeper and deeper into Muri’s private history with the blunt force of an architect using a plowshare, “Kin unnerstan’ th’t I guess; pain were harsh fer ‘im.”

“Pain? My mother dying within the year of my birth?”

“Aye, that.” Kunma nodded, “An ‘ere. Too many mem’ries.”

Muri leaned forward abruptly, his tail stilling behind his chair, “You knew my father?”

Kunma reached out and grasp his forearm with one hand, “In passin’ only. Knew yer mae a tad better.” He said as he stood with a nod, dragging Muri to his feet with a gentle but powerful hand. “Come wit me, lad, I’ve aught t’ show ye.”

At that point Muri was hardly concerned about the grime staining the man’s hand as he rose hastily and dropped a single coin of gold amidst the half empty mugs and plates. A few patrons glanced up as he was led into the gathering gloom of late evening.

There was a brisk, wintry nip to the evening air, raising a thin fog from the ground into which browning leaves silently fell. The dirty man paused briefly at the door to grab and light a torch before continuing forward into the deepening shadows. Muri almost summoned a witchlight out of habit but decided to let the human command the light, falling into step beside him.

Night had not yet fully claimed the peaks of the eastern mountains, the sky above was still a shadowy blue chased with crimson clouds, but the western flanks of Metamor valley were already cast into shadowed darkness. Only the diffuse glow of the sky kept the Glen from being lost in utter darkness. High above Muri could already see the brilliant eye of the Archer glimmering against the cobalt sky.

Pulling his attention away from the heavens the skunk paced a few strides behind the dirty, pungent smelling human. Kunma swayed to the right as he walked, weaving a drunken path through the towering trees, passing from the Glen proper and into the thicker forest bounding it. The path he found to follow, revealed only as a slice of fog-dapped darkness through the undergrowth, led slowly down slope to the north into ever-thicker forest.

It was a well tended, if not extensively used, cart path between well-tended hedges and meandering around massive trees. The two spoke little as they walked while the sky above faded from cobalt to indigo and finally to a star dappled canopy of black. Their existence dwindled to a mere flickering point of torch light through which trees passed in a slow march.

In the distance Muri could hear the crashing rush of a large mountain stream and before long the forest thinned away from the wan circle of light cast by Kunma’s torch. Out of the gloom appeared an ancient, worn pair of stone plinths enwrapped in carefully tended flowering vines. The man spared them not a glance as his drunken, meandering path meandered between them, the light of his torch sketching more shapes out of the heavy darkness looming around them.

Headstones, worn and ancient nearest the plinths and progressing to newer markers with each row they passed. “Been folks lyin’ ‘ere centuries.” Kunma spoke, breaking the long silence of their journey, his voice hushed to a rough whisper muffled further by the low fog curling about the stones and their legs. “Th’ firs’ stone I kin read say two-oh-three, I figger it be followin’ the Reconing years. Kin no more read th’ names though.”

“Lutins leave the place alone?”

“Oh, aye.” Kunma nodded, “Thems little uglies right afeared o’disturbin’ th’ restin’ dead.” The man snorted as he slowed, glancing at the stones sliding into the torchlight. “Watched ‘em meself up on th’ ridge this pas’ summer, an they watched me, but na’er loosed a shaft at me.”

“Any idea why?”

Kunma shrugged, “I be handlin’ th’ dead, sommat only they’s shamen can do. So, my guessin’ they figgers I a shaman wit lots o’ dead at my beck.” He stopped before a tall, spender spire of polished stone veined with the local jadeite. “Ah, ‘ere we are lad.” He offered as he dropped the torch down low and waved it toward the stone. Etched words jumped out from the stone, dancing in the torchlight and shadows, “Yer mae, Em.”

Coming to stand beside the human Muri gazed down at the pale gray marker. Against the light of Kunma’s torch the letters carved into the stone seemed to float up from the smooth surface and dance in the flickering orange glow.

Here rests Emily Diaun Windseeker, Beloved wife, mother, sister. 665-689 CR. May He love her as we loved her.

Kneeling, Muri reached out and laid the tips of his fingers upon the cold stone.

“Died o’ th’ winter lung some months a’er ‘er first were born.” Kunma stated gravely as he raised the torch once more, the etching settling into quiescence.

“A son.” Muri whispered.

“You, lad.” The man’s voice seemed strangely clear as Muri bowed his head in silent lament, unexpectedly powerful grief welling up in his breast.

“Me.” He moaned at length, dropping to his knees before the stone, “Father never told me where I was born, naming my mother only ‘Em’, or ‘Beloved.’ I never knew her, even through him.”

“Ah, but I be sorry, lad. She were knowin’ ye, afore He called ‘er to Him.”

Muri looked back at the human, “How do you know?” he asked with a tired sigh.

Kunma’s hand rested upon his shoulder again, more gently than the strong grasp offered a mere hour before. “A’cause, young lad, were me ‘usband an I wot laid ‘er ‘ere.” He explained as he turned away, “Kun na’er saw wot Nasoj did t’ me. ‘E fell early on when fightin’ firs’ began.”

Muri shifted back slightly and stood, his hand resting on the top of the marker. He remained there for some moments, gazing down at the only physical presence he would ever know of his mother. Heaving a deep breath he dropped his hand away and turned to follow the mist-shrouded orange glow of Kunma’s torch. Behind him a tiny light, barely more than a candle’s glow, flickered up the spire of the marker, gathering at the topmost point. He did not look back at the tiny, flickering blue beacon he fixed into the stone, confident that should he ever wish he would be led back by that tiny gleam of magic.

“Na’er knew yer da, lad.” The man offered as Muri caught up with him, “Took ye away jus’ a coupla weeks later.” He shrugged as he wandered slowly back through the markers, drunkenly swaying to his right but managing a relatively direct course. “Did come back now an agin, but always when it be dark.”

Memories of Muri’s earliest years were sparse to the skunk’s recollection. What he could call to mind most vividly were images of wilderness with his father. Those images that lacked his father were of stone walls and dusty, unused halls lit by sparse torches. He now knew that those ill used, lonely places were the deeper storage areas of Metamor Keep.

What smacked most strange of his memories was the lack of them, considering the clear recall he now had of events even three years past. Heiorn had shown him the way of the clear mind and the window of memory. None of those teachings had opened the memories of his childhood any more clearly than they had always been.

Brief snippets, still images in his mind’s eye like portraits in faded paint.

And no friends, no childhood companions, not even a single solitary name or youthful face sprang to mind. His childhood had been one of solitude, but not loneliness, sequestered away from the world by his father. His heartbroken father who, in grief or selfishness, had taken all that his lost wife had left him and withdrawn into the wilderness.

Muri did not know whether to praise or damn him for that selfishness. While it had well prepared him for the hardships he has suffered over the past three years, he had been left ill prepared to understand and fit into human society. Heiorn had taught him culture and social graces, expanding upon the more broad overall knowledge his father had supplied, but using that knowledge in practice, after becoming a skunk, had proved amazingly problematic.

His father had done what he thought best, Muri could not find it in his heart to fault his father. What was done, was done, and it was up to Muri to overcome the limitations he now suffered.

“’Ave me ‘ouse jus o’er there a pace, lad.” Kunma spoke as he passed between the vine sheathed plinths at the cemetery’s edge, “Won be ‘eadin back Glenways fer th’ eve.” His slurred voice was apologetic and edged with weariness. “Back op th’ trail a tad pace’ll be two great trees. Ye’ll find a watcher there ‘at’ll guide ye back.” With that he raised one arm and gave Muri’s shoulder a squeeze with his calloused, dirty hand.

“My thanks, kind sir.” Muri returned as they parted. He stood there for several minutes, casting a glance back toward the cemetery. In the mist shrouded darkness he could not see the dim candleglow he had fixed to his mother’s grave marker, but he felt the direction its magic pulled upon him. Darkness descended fully upon him as the grave keeper withdrew with the torch. The fitful orange glow almost completely swallowed up by the fog before Muri found his voice again. “Master Malenos?” he called out, turning toward the distant pool of orange in the mist. The light stopped, wavering as its bearer turned, the shadow of his body looming for a brief moment as he turned. “The marker named her ‘sister’. To whom was she sister? Do they yet live?”

“Aye, lad. A brother she ‘ad.” Came the fog-softened reply, “Bein’ now th’ clothier, Walter.”

“My thanks again.” He acknowledged as he turned and headed once more back to the glen. He summoned a witchlight to banish the darkness and watched for the trees that the grave keeper had spoken of.

The watchers at the trees found him first, one of them gliding silently from the mists to meet him. The opossum’s weapons were sheathed, her bow slung, and she introduced herself as Bearle. They had seen him pass with Kunma, and had expected his return. As she led him through the misty darkness of the forest Bearle talked lightly about many things and flirted quite brazenly, to no avail. Muri had Llyn, even though she was for the moment imprisoned, so he responded disarmingly.

He learned as she carried the conversation, letting her dictate each subject as it arose. In due course she revealed that Kunma the grave keeper was not actually a drunkard, but that he had suffered a brain storm two years previous that left him in his impaired state. Kunma hid his affliction behind the façade of inebriation rather than have people pity him for his infirmity. He also learned that the reason for her brazen flirtatiousness was the result of a recent ending of a lengthy relationship with the glen’s resident skunk and master-bowyer, Bercham, sergeant-at-arms of the glen’s archers. Of course, she assured him, Muri was far more handsome, well spoken, and polite.

When he inquired about the reason for the break-up she hedged and dodged until she could switch subjects to talk about the failed raid staged by Calephas that past summer. Muri let her dodge the painful subject and let her lead him back to the edges of the glen, listening with only half of his attention, still confused and at a loss about the discovery of his mother’s grave. Bearle stopped at the edge of the glen and watched Murikeer’s back appreciatively until the fog shrouded him. Smiling to herself she turned and made her way back toward her post, whistling softly.