Kneeling in the only patch of sunlight penetrating the thick canopy of the thick forest, in the center of a churned path threading its way between the trees, Murikeer examined the tracks in the earth as Llyn stood to one side, watching. Since leaving his home some twelve days earlier they had moved slowly to the south and west, following the flanks of the mountains that the skunk had once called home. Llyn, having once thought her self quite woods wise, had found that she was not so strong in her knowledge.
She had always known that Misha Brightleaf, her teacher and superior, knew far more than she. Yet she had learned well, and come to nearly equal the fox in her own particular talents. For instance, she was the only Long who could follow a trail through water.
Yet this skunk she had come to travel with knew far more than she had ever considered. He could point out a single turned leaf in a bush and explain what had caused it, and how long ago it had passed. Misha had explained more obvious signs, such as broken twigs, blades of grass, or the odd bit of snagged fur, but the skunk saw more with each sign than she had realized were even there. Thus she followed his lead, quietly learning what he could teach her.
And a good teacher he was as well. He explained that one of his tasks had been teaching new apprentices for his master, Heiorn, because he had a talent for it. A natural storyteller, he engaged the mind without overwhelming it with pedantic formulae. He explained in stories and by showing, rather than pacing back and forth in a classroom scratching designs on a slate board. That he had a charismatic personality only helped.
And she found herself drawn to that charisma, his quiet self confident charm and quick, warm smile. She had known others with similar traits in the past, but they lacked the skunk's calm wildness, for he was a creature of the forest rather than stone walls. Wearing nothing except that which he used to carry his few possessions, he was always leasing to look upon as well. Yet for his nudity and strong masculine presence, he never made more than the occasional quiet compliment at her own nudity.
Unlike many she had known, who would most likely have taken her lack of clothing as an invitation for more blatant advances. Regardless of the fact that many of the animorphed Keepers walked around with little or no clothing to cover their fur. Murikeer gave her space, and treated her as more than 'just' a female to leer at or condescend to.
Murikeer shifted the massive pack upon his back and stood slowly, brushing dirt and leaves from his knees. "Probably eighty or more folks on horseback, heading northward fast." He supplied after a few moments of perusal of the churned hoof prints. How he came to a quantity of horses Llyn had yet to determine, only the last five or so horses had left any prints that were even remotely readable. "Perhaps your keeper friends ran into the van of the Lutins."
"You think they got the road this far south so swiftly?" Llyn asked as she fell into step beside the skunk, shifting her own pack. For a hermit living in the wild the skunk had an interesting collection of esoteric items in his cavern. Many were items he had created while living there; books scribed on pale birch bark or other items, intricately carved wands, leather and fur worked items of arcane uses she did not much want to know a lot about. He carried most of the books in his much larger pack, carefully wrapped in leather, which he claimed were given to him by his master before he was send fleeing north some years ago.
Muri glanced aside at the mink as she fell into step with him, reaching out to rest a hand lightly upon her shoulder, "Not likely." He offered as a stray splash of sunlight glimmered across the deep mahogany fur of her muzzle, making it glow briefly, "They were only doing about a mile a day, most likely a little less, so would not have gotten much further than they were when we first saw them." He grasped her shoulder lightly, then removed his hand.
As ever, he enjoyed the warm softness of her fur, and the strength underlying it. Despite her fetching form, she was a powerful female; both of mind and body. She was both leader and follower when the situation suited, and switched those roles so smoothly it often seemed as if she was an extension of his own actions rather than independent of him. Muri had never known a woman such as this in his days apprenticed to Heiorn. Most of those women that came to him were fawning sycophants in need of the ancient's magic, and willing to pay with far more than the copious gold coins their lords gave them. Muri had learned a great many worldly things in association with those courtiers and court followers, but had never learned a respect for them. Thus he had never gained a respect for ladies, though he learned a great deal about wooing and bedding them.
Llyn was an ever changing mystery to him, one which he was most pleased to work with. She was both strong and independent, and her charms were entirely unconscious rather than affected to achieve a goal. In her he found another kindred spirit, a creature of the forest likewise comfortable with the trappings of society, but not relying on them to survive. She had a quick mind, her knowledge less than his own, but not for lack of intelligence, merely for lack of education.
And she learned with the swift alacrity of a child.
Llyn turned her ear slightly, its scalloped contours cupped to catch his words, but failing, "What?" she asked lightly, catching him with a look from one eye. That was something uniquely animalistic about her, something he had never noticed in himself. He suspected that many of the animal morphed denizens of Metamor were similar. Her eyes, like those of any mink, were situated more toward the sides of her head, on either side of her short, tapered muzzle. The primary visual focus was forward, moreso than canines, but less than a feline. Thus, when she looked at him she could only do so with one eye, or she had to turn her head directly to focus on him, just as he would have to do.
Muri spoke a little louder, directing his voice more toward the trees beyond her so that his voice would echo from them and she would hear better from her stronger ear. Her hearing had come back somewhat over time, revealing her right ear to be the most damaged by the loud ring of the giant general's armour as his spell shattered it. Her left ear had only been affected temporarily, losing only a tiny bit of its normal sensitivity. Her right ear, on the other hand, had suffered nearly a fifty percent loss.
Muri could only hope that the healers of Metamor could repair the damage he had wrought in saving her life.
"They were not building the road fast enough." He said again, sticking his thumbs under his pack straps and shifting the weight of his load a little higher on his shoulder. Glancing up through the thick canopy of low-growing trees, he watched the sky. A light rain had fallen the day before, just as they reached the earthen formations she had called the 'Giant Dikes', but the sky had cleared swiftly enough after the rain passed. This day had been a comfortably warm one, without too much water in the air as the lush growth of the valley's trees drank up the bounty of the skies. The sky had taken a particular lavender cast as the sun reached the crest of the western mountains in the far distance. Very soon they would be plunged into the shadows of those mountains, a shadow which would darken slowly over the next three hours. "I think we should find a place to camp before too long."
Llyn tilted her head, listening more to his voice echoing from the trees than his speaking directly. She had learned quickly enough how to exploit that little trick, actually bringing it to his attention. "We're not far from Glen Avery, we should be able to find a place there for the night."
Muri nodded, grasping the branch of a tree as their path took them over a particularly steep incline. They had not traveled far enough to the east to reach the main roads leading from the north into the south, instead working over the flanks of the mountains west of the actual entry to the passes, shortening their trip by a day or more in the process. The fact that the large mob of cavalry had used the narrower, more difficult forest paths this high into the mountains cause Muri some concern. The only logical reasons he could think of for this occurance was the probability of a large force of Lutins in these heights somewhere, or that the mounted forces were trying to reach their destination undetected. Undoubtedly the main roads were watched by Lutin scouts.
They walked in companionable silence for the next couple of hours as the world around them continued to darken, the sky going from pale blue to lavender to deep blue as the forest around them began to disappear into its own shadows. Muri, walking amiably behind Llyn as he idly watched the sway and twitch of her tail, was preparing to ask how much further to Glen Avery when a faint, lilting tremello came to his keen ears. He stopped, turning his head first one way, then the other, trying to focus on the sound, which was not as far away as the light notes would imply.
"Llyn, hold for a moment." He called as she continued walking. The mink came to a stop and turned to look back at him, her form a silhouette against the overall darkness. "Listen, music." He pointed south and roughly east as his ears focused upon a rising trill of notes. "My Love in Shadows Dances." He identified the song after an entire bar of music, which echoed eerily alone in the forest, rising above the din of crickets and other night sounds. It was a song from the southern coast of Sathmore, which had been popular some years back after a terrible storm had sank many ships. Turning, he followed the music.
Whomever had the bravery to play music in a forest not wholly held safe from Lutin incursions must be foolish indeed, or not alone. Perhaps the music came from the place Llyn had called Glen Avery after all. Llyn, turning her good ear toward the music, smiled and fairly leapt into motion, passing the skunk in a few short strides. Muri hastened to follow as the music flowed around them with the effortless gaiety of a mountain stream.
They found the source of the tune not two hundred strides further down a side trail, its creator perched cross legged on the shattered remnants of an old, crudely built catapult. He glanced up as the two ghosted out of the surrounding shadows with the unconsciously silent movements they had adopted in the north. He did not lower his instrument, which gleamed bright silver in the waning light, smiling across it as they arrived, his dark eyes going from mink to skunk and back. The song trilled away as Muri came to a halt a short distance away. Llyn was far less reserved, advancing rapidly upon the dimly revealed creature.
"Joy!" the musician called out as the final note faded away into the evening orchestra of crickets. He slid fluidly off the smashed sling arm of the catapult, catching the charging mink in a one-armed embrace as she caught him in a hug of her own, literally lifting his paws from the earth. She uttered a very animalistic churr of enjoyment as she swung him around once, then set him back down. To one side, Muri could only watch in confusion.
"Dreams!" Llyn cried lightly, her voice a strange mix of girlish glee and animalistic burr, "What are you doing here?"
The fellow she identified as Dream glanced over at Muri, who was able after a few moments to identify him as some form of marten, though in the growing darkness he could not be entirely sure. His body was long and stoutly built. Too stout for a weasel or ferret, but not so much as the Mink giving him an enthusiastic embrace. "My dreams told me I would see you here." He murred quietly, nodding toward Muri in greetings, his rueful smile lost to Llyn but not the skunk. "Who is your handsome companion, hon?"
Llyn chirruped and released the marten, turning to wave one hand toward the skunk standing quietly nearby. "Dream, this is Murikeer, friend and savior." She supplied, to which the marten offered a short, regally accentuated bow. Muri immediately pegged him as displaced aristocracy for his actions, and not some mere minstrel.
"Murikeer Khanna, milord." The skunk offered, giving a short bow in return, though with no aplomb. The weighty pack on his back forbade anything flashy, though his tail gave him enough balance to offer a decent bow.
The marten laughed, a deep, rolling sound that was companionable without being boisterous, "I am no lord, my kind fellow." He responded, taking a step closer and extending his empty hand. The other was at his hip, his flute held with unconsciously gentle care, "I am Serpent Dream." He supplied as Muri grasped his hand in a firm, confident greeting, "Though most here simply call me Dream."
"Serpent?" Muri asked, releasing the marten's hand after a couple of short pumps. The marten was lithe and seemed athletic enough, but the name did not seem to fit overall. Llyn chuckled as she moved over to stand once again at Muri's side, smiling at the taller marten.
"You'll have to watch him fight, Mur, or dance." She said, her voice amazingly light. "Though, dream or not, you're well out of your element, dear." Muri glanced aside at the mink at the appellation, raising an eyebrow but saying nothing.
"I was up to the north teaching young Khardis how to dance again, hon." Dream offered, turning and moving back to the broken down catapult. Muri could see that the design was quite primitive, with Lutin markings carved into the wood. That they could get such a device into the south, or even hang around long enough to build one, said a great deal about the security of the passes north of the Keep itself.
"Who is that?" Llyn asked, not moving from her stance beside Murikeer, as Dream carefully broke down his flute and stowed it in a dark wooden case. Placing the case in a heretofore unseen pack, he hoisted the load onto his back, shifting it into place as he came back to them.
"The scion of the Nimbrid barony, up at the northeastern most limits of the passes." He nodded his head to one side, turning as he did so, and began walking. Llyn moved to follow, and after a brief glance around, Muri followed. "The poor lad became a snow leopard last year when he reached his fourteenth year, and the change left him quite ungainly."
"I can understand his problem." Muri replied, nodding. Coming unheralded upon him when he turned fourteen himself, the change had been quite traumatic. Yet not so traumatic as the terror that would follow, and pursue him for almost a year into the northernmost edges of the civilized south.
"He prided himself on his dancing, before the change, but lost his coordination when he became a cat." Dream led them down a narrow, winding path that ascended a steep hillside, then turned directly south. Through the gaps in the trees Muri was able to spot several flickering motes of light perhaps a mile distant, lower in the valley. "It was the tail, he had never learned how to dance with a tail, so it threw him off pretty bad."
"Poor fellow." Llyn's voice rumbled lightly from the shadowed form ahead of Murikeer.
"Spoiled fellow." Dream laughed lightly, "But a good enough sort. I taught him how to use that tail of his to good use, and he learned how to dance once more." His voice trailed away for a few moments, prompting Muri's ears upright as he sought to hear the rest of the conversation, "He was... most grateful." The marten finished with a quick glance back over his furry shoulder, "Glen Avery is just ahead, we should be there before too long."
"Good!" Llyn churred gleefully, her tail switching from side to side, brushing across Muri's knees as it did, "I'm for a long soak and a good tankard of Lars' mead." The marten glanced back, the action pretty much lost in the shadows, and chuckled a light, warm laugh.
"I don't see how you can pay, lassie." He commented, his voice taking on a piratical brogue, "Ye not be wearin any clothin!" he drawled, cackling like an old sea dog, "I be a willin ta bet yer friend dere be havin no end o fun, 'im bein without clothin as well."
Llyn let out a short, displeased though humorous exclamation and kicked a rock at the shadow of the leading animal, striking him squarely in the buttocks and eliciting a grunt of surprise, "I did not have much of a choice, Dre, and I do have gold." Behind her, Muri simply laughed and nodded unseen at the marten. Sometimes he did find himself simply admiring the mink, though he did not let on about it. He was as enamoured of her mind as her comely form.
"How long were you out this time? I missed seeing you go, being up there with the Nimbrid lad." Dream switched back to his normal mode of speech, rubbing his bruised rump with one hand, remarking quietly to himself at the mink's stellar aim in the dark, with a kicked rock. He made a mental note not to jibe her face on in daylight, he did want to have kits, after all.
"More than a month." Llyn responded, her voice light as she applauded her lucky kick, "I'm just now returning from my last patrol."
"A month?" Dream churped, glancing back over his shoulder in surprise. Ahead of them the lantern lit trees of Glen Avery were just coming into sight through the forest shadows, "I thought your patrols only lasted a week or so."
"I got caught." She huffed, "Muri here rescued me, then we went further north to do some more scouting. It took us this long to get back."
"I don't recall seeing him around the Keep." He said as he turned his attention once more back to the path, "I think I would remember a skunk well enough."
"He's never been to Metamor."
"He's one of Nasoj's??"
"No." Muri growled from the shadows at the end of the line, "I had some problems when I changed, and decided solitude was better than dealing with more humans."
"Oh, poor fellow." Dream nodded, coming to a stop as a voice called something from the shadows of an especially large oak. Llyn and Muri drew up to either side of the taller marten as a rotund, ambling woodchuck stepped out of the darkness, a stout spear held out before it, the tip unwavering.
"Who goes?" it challenged. Muri canted his head to one side as he looked at the thick bodied sentry, catching the sounds of bowstrings under tension in the trees around them. The soft sound of metal links sliding against one another revealed a second sentry in the shadows of another tree, the wind carrying the scent of wolf to the skunk's nose.
"Dream and Joy, of Metamor." The marten offered, genuflecting before the beady eyed woodchuck, the tip of the rodent's spear following the marten 's fluid movements warily. "Murikeer the hermit."
A warbling whistle drifted down from the trees above, and the woodchuck lifted his spear away, "You may pass, and welcome to Glen Avery." He smiled, the expression doing wonders to change his face from hard bitten soldier to welcoming host.
"Our thanks to you, brother." Dream said as he strode by, the mink and skunk following in his wake. The rodent watched them all pass, then stepped back to his post in the shadows of the oak.
"Impressive sentries." Muri offered, casting a glance over his shoulder into one of the trees. He knew there was an archer up there, but he could see nothing, even with his spirit sight. Of course, the life here in the valley was unharmed by the ravages of Lutin hordes, so its energies flowed bright and strong through the earth here, obscuring the individual images of living creatures. "There were at least six out there."
"Or more." Dream nodded, the light of passing lanterns casting shadows across his pale auburn fur, "Lutins tend to make raids on out-of-the-way villages like this, so they have to keep on their toes."
"Paws, hooves, et al." Llyn commented idly, her tail switching from side to side behind her amiably as they marched through the town. Muri felt a pang of envy, and a touch of trepidation as he watched the residents of the village go about the mundane tasks of their daily lives. Children screamed gaily, rampaging across the road ahead of them in a complex game of some sort, giggling as they chased one another around the thick trees.
Many of the trees had hollows throughout their massive trunks, most of them set with carefully carved wooden doors. Much to Muri's surprise, though, the presence of such extensive modifications to their trunks did not seem to harm them in the least. Their life energies still flowed pure and strong through them, completely involving the hollows fashioned into them. High above there were even residences built into the very branches of the trees. No where were there traditional huts, hovels, or other obvious signs of construction. The village was completely a part of the forest, and the forest was an integral part of the village.
"Beautiful." Was all he could say, stopping to stare in wonder at a trickling fountain that poured from a broken branch of one thick tree into a basin of carved wood at its base with a soft trickling sound. A young squirrel, panting heavily from his games and dressed in nothing more than a loose shift, stopped at the fountain for a quick drink, then cried out gleefully as another squirrel charged around the side of the tree itself, launching a tackle that sent them both sprawling. Llyn looked back at him, smiling, and nodded.
Ascending a hill, they came to what appeared to be some sort of cavern, the dim rumble of a forge echoing from its depths. A wall of stone was the only sign of construction Muri had yet seen as they walked past, the shutters lowered for the evening. Not far away was an actual 'building', constructed of wood and plaster rather than into the several shallow caves or a tree. A plaque hung over the door, a mazer and platter painted in fresh, bright colors swinging slowly in the light breeze. Below the platter was a single word in trade common, "Lars." The din of the patrons rolled from the open windows to fill the evening air with boisterous laughter and bawdy singing. Dream could not help but wince at the poor tunes, but pushed the door open with his customary flourish, waving a hand to his companions to precede him into the establishment.
Muri halted abruptly at the door, his fur rising as a sudden sense of fear slammed into him with the force of a giant's charge, causing him to take a short rearward pace. Only the marten at his back, somewhat startled by the wall of the skunk and his pack before him, prevented Muri from retreating entirely. The place was not crowded, but neither was it empty. A few of the patrons looked up, smiling as they gave Llyn a once over, a few of the female furs glaring at her near complete nudity, which gave her some pause. She gave a wan smile, suddenly feeling very exposed and self conscious of her own lack of garb, and make quickly for the bar. The massive frame of a bear emerged from the back carrying a cask under one arm. He gave Llyn a cursory nod, his gaze moving toward the door where Dream was attempting to sidle around the suddenly immobile skunk as the patrons returned to their entertainments.
Unshouldering her pack, Llyn leaned onto the bar, rubbing one shoulder where the strap chafed, "Anything for a thirsty mink, Lars?" she asked quietly, tucking her tail as she felt eyes boring into her back. The stares were not overly hostile, but she sensed the distaste of some, and the outright lechery of others. "And a place where I can get a good soak."
The bear placed the cask in one of the many niches along one wall which was festooned with a wide assortment of other casks, barrels, and urns. "If ye've the silver, lass, Lars 'as the brew." He reached up to a rack above the bar where his collection of drinking vessels was hung. With a glance at Llyn to determine how best she would drink, he bought down a customary mazer, "What'll ye be wantin?"
"I've been on the trail, don't have any silver left." Llyn unfastened one of her belt pouches, lifting it to pour a trail of glimmering fire agates across the bar. A few curious looks and some awed gasps radiated out through the furs nearest her, "But if you're willing to take some stones in trade?"
"Don't have much need of pretty baubles, lass." The bear rumbled, looking at the stones, stirring one thick finger through them as he admired their fiery beauty, "Lars brew, he don' make pretties."
"Ahh!" a sharp voice called out from the end of the bar, "But I do, missy." A weasel slipped off of his barstool, swiftly ambling over to stand beside the mink, his dark, glassy eyes roving over her hungrily. Only the hand of a marten, coming down firmly yet decisively upon the bar between them, brought his attention away from the mink. Dressed in gay blues and greens, Dream looked the part of a wandering minstrel and fop, his calm eyes regarding the weasel closely. Llyn, self conscious in her lack of clothing amidst the other patrons, did not immediately notice that she and Dream were the only members of their little group at the bar.
"You going to make an offer for the stones, friend?" he asked, his voice disarmingly light, silken smooth.
"Oh! Yes." The weasel quickly stuck his hand out toward Llyn, under Dream's arm, "I'm Fanden, jeweler and silversmith, lass." He churred, his voice slightly slurred and smelling strongly of honeyed wine, "I'd be willing to purchase those stones, if your paramour would but allow me to see them." He turned his gaze back toward Dream. Llyn chuffed through her nose, turning to look back at Muri, who had backed out through the door, out of sight. Concerned, she turned her attention quickly back to the jeweler.
"What's your price?"
"Five silver for the lot." The weasel offered quickly, and Llyn was almost willing to accept, though she knew the collection of fine stones was worth ten times that.
"Don't yah be rippin da lady!" someone, female, screamed from somewhere down the bar, her own voice heavy and sinister, "Yah thief, give 'er a fair price."
The weasel did not even look in the direction of his detractor, merely sighing. With a shrug, he amended his offer. "Fifteen gold?"
Llyn nodded, fishing three stones seemingly at random out of the stack and placing them back in the pouch, "In silver, for the lot, and they're yours."
With a sigh, the weasel muttered, casting a venomous glance in the direction of the female jackal who had called him down. She merely grinned toothily at the jeweler, and winked at Llyn, which did brighten her spirits as the jackal returned to lapping at her own drink. "I don't have that much on me." He complained with a brief shrug, "Keeps me from getting too deep into the cask." He glanced at the bear, who had watched the entire exchange with a calm impassivity, flashing a brief smile at the much smaller weasel, "And the bruin here does not keep a tab."
"But Lars does keep your deals, you furry snake." The bear rumbled, ambling into the back once more. The weasel grunted and rolled his eyes after the bear, hopping up and sitting on a barstool as he raked over the large pile of glimmering stones. Worked properly in his fine silver he knew the collection of stones would bring him in twice the quantity of Garretts as he had just given in silver. Lars returned a few moments later and set a money pouch down before Llyn, and an empty one before the weasel, who immediately began shoveling the stones into it.
"As usual, Lars, you're a good business bear." He sneered, good naturedly, and cinched the pouch shut, "You'll have the balance come the dawn."
"Lars better." The bear rumbled, setting a mazer down before Llyn, "Or Lars will wake you up." His huge grin showed more teeth that Llyn supposed she even possessed.
Llyn quickly requested a small cask of mead, bread, and meat, paying the bear's requested bronze. The bear's price was apparently much lower than most of the other patrons were used to, for it caused quite a stir, which the bear ignored as he directed her to the nearest (and only) inn. Shouldering her pack, she quickly carried what she could outside, Dream carrying the rest as he followed her.
They found Murikeer leaning against a tree across from the tavern entrance, his arms wrapped around himself as he stared at the ground. His tail was lowered, circling his legs, the tip listlessly switching at the dirt. He did not look up until the stopped in front of him, the spicy scent of fresh meat filling his nose, mingled with the softer smell of bread and mead and the mink's own individual bouquet.
"I'm sorry, fellow." Dream offered, placing a hand upon Muri's shoulder, "I did not think that you might not like crowded places."
Muri nodded, giving a brief shake to settle his fur, "It's been a while." He whispered, looking once more at the ground, seeing Llyn's clawed foot a few inches from his own, her toes flexing her claws into the dirt as she shifted her balance. "I've been alone for a long time."
"Not anymore." Llyn said, "Let's go get clean, then get some sleep."
"Yes, my friend, let us escape the crush of fur and ale." The marten smiled, turning to lead the way, "And I'll sing you a song or three."