Winter Horizons

by Chris Hoekstra and Christian O'Kane

November, 706 CR

Kayla’s knee batted at her tail as she walked down the corridor. With a sigh she picked it off her skirt and shoved it behind her, where it belonged. After seven years the long, furry appendage wasn’t something she ever really thought about any more. Well, besides mornings when she was getting dressed, when the damned thing had to be threaded through the hole in the back of her clothes. She had tried to wear normal cloths from time to time, leaving her tail hanging under her skirt around her legs, but that just never felt as comfortable as having it free, out in the open. She couldn’t understand how some of the animal morphs could stand it otherwise. Well, except in instances like this, when the abominable thing seemed to have a mind of its own and wanted to wrap itself around her body from the cold. Walking a little quicker, she made a conscious effort to hold it behind her. The fact that such resulted in the tail swishing back and froth behind her as she walked was of little concern.

It was this damned cold weather, she thought as she headed towards one of the hallways lining the outside of Metamor’s walls. The days had been growing both noticeably shorter and noticeably colder. And this morning they had received their first snow fall of the year. Almost a foot of light, fluffy snow had fallen by the time she had awoken and more was continuing to fall softly now. The windows that lined the wall ahead were each a blinding white glare. Working where she did, with no windows to the outside, she always hated coming across windows on bright winter mornings and almost being blinded by the sunlight reflecting off the snow. Her ears lay back and down as she squinted and turned her head away from the intense winter sun and turned into that hall.

Thankfully her eyes were able to adjust to the harsh glare if she just kept looking towards the wall as she walked along. It was then that her nose picked up a very familiar scent. Her nose twitched as she kept sniffing, her whiskers partly folding back as a smile pulled at her thin black lips. Altering her chosen path a little, she sauntered up behind a figure leaning on a near by window frame, peering out at the Metamor’s snow covered grounds.

“And just what are you doing here?” she asked, slipping an arm around the waist of the male raccoon.

Rickkter had started when he first felt her touch but quickly settled down once he realized who it was. He wrapped his own arm around Kayla’s shoulder, pulling her close. “Nice to see you, too, love.” Lifting his other arm a bit, he waved across the window, the center pane of which had a ripple in it that split the sunlight into a rainbow of colours across the glass. “I was just looking out admiring the, uh… snow.”

Kayla murred softly at that, snuggling herself a bit more under Rick’s arm as she looked out the window. Somehow she didn’t seem to mind when her tail crept up and wrapped itself around Rickkter’s legs. “Well, it’s quite late this year, but I suppose the first snowfall of the year always does have its charm.” She was never one for winter weather and was privately quite glad that winter had held off the snow until almost the middle of November this year.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rick said softly, shaking his head a little.

It took a few moments for what he said to sink in. When it did Kayla pulled out a little from Rick’s arm so she could look up at his face. He turned down, looking back at her inquiring gaze. He couldn’t help admiring how dazzling the winter sunlight was on her white fur and vivid azure eyes. Those eyes were now giving him what amounted to an inquiring, disbelieving gaze. Kayla shook her head a little. “No. I can’t believe it. With all the traveling you’ve done, all the lands you’ve seen, everything you’ve done… this can’t be the first time you’ve seen snow!”

Rickkter snorted back down at her, one of his ears folding over a ways. “Well, I HAVE seen it.” He turned and looked back out the window. “I was just usually at the base of the mountains at the time.”

Kayla burst into laughter, slipping out from Rick’s arm and facing him, placing her paws on his upper arms. Her lips were pulled back in her special smile, just showing the bottoms of her canines. “You mean to tell me that you’ve seen deserts, jungles, and everything in between, but you’ve never set foot on snow before?”

He had turned away from the window and was looking at her paws on his arms. “Well, that’s just it. Deserts and jungles are warm places.” He nodded out the window. “I bloody well hate the cold.”

Kayla’s lush tail flicked about behind her as she let her muzzle hang open a little in a smile. She began to back up, slipping her paws into his and giving them a tug. “Oh, what’s this? Big bad warrior who can face armies, lycanthropes, and dragons is afraid of a little cold?” Rickkter was still leaning against the window sill, though his arms were now stretched out full length with Kayla hanging off the fingers. “Come on.”

Rickkter acquiesced and let her pull him along, though by no means looking enthusiastic about the prospect. “I much prefer a little hot, thank you.” Kayla just snorted and flicked her tail about at that. “Come on, Kayla. It’s freezing out there!”

“Get used to it,” she said. “You’ll have a good six more months of this to deal with.” She gave his arms a good pull, bringing him almost right up against her. “Besides, you have that thick, ratty fur coat of yours. That should serve to keep you warm.”

Rickkter could only laugh and flick his own tail about behind him. He squeezed her paws. “Okay, okay, I give in. But you’ll be responsible for thawing me out later!”

The skunkette gave him a sly wink over her shoulder after letting go of his paws and heading towards the nearest outside door. “Oh, I think I can manage that.”

Thankfully the weather wasn’t as bad as Kayla had expected it to be. She could feel the cold though the thin leather boots she was wearing, but at least there was no wind today. It was still snowing, though, albeit very lightly. She squinted up at the slightly overcast sky, her whiskers and ears twitching about as some of the thick, wet flakes landed on them and melted. That was always an odd feeling, one she always had to get used to each year. She gave a quick snap of her muzzle at a falling flake.

“You know… this really isn’t so bad,” said Rickkter. He had walked off a ways into the snows that covered the gardens at the south-west corner of the Keep, the area between the Keep proper and the Duke’s Palace. His long, lustrous striped tail twitched about behind him, tracing an arc through the snow as he stood and gazed up at the clouds. He had his arms spread out to the sides, palms up to catch the snow. “It feels like small splashes of cold are raining down on me,” he commented of the flakes that were slowly covering his face.

It was quite a pleasant distraction, one that caused him to miss the large chunk of snow that had been hurled in his direction. It impacted against his shoulders with a loud thump that caused him to jump into the air in surprise.

He hunched his head down against his shoulder and turned back slowly to glare at Kayla. She was laughing merrily a good distance away, packing another handful of snow into a snowball. Her muzzle was open in a wide smile, her tail flicking around behind her and her breath pluming in the cold winter air as she looked back at Rickkter. The poor raccoon’s neck and tail fur were all bushed up giving him the appearance of a perturbed hedgehog.

“Now that you’re going to regret,” he growled at her before stooping down to gather a handful of snow of his own. Kayla let out a playful shriek as she tossed her snowball at him and started to run away.

The two keepers continued their running battle, laughing and throwing handfuls of the thick snow at each other. Rickkter was a little better at dodging the soft projectiles and Kayla often found herself using her tail for an impromptu shield. She let out a little squeak as one of Rick’s snowballs hit her on the shoulder before she managed to launch her own snowball back at him. The raccoon managed to sidestep at the last moment and was preparing his own return volley when they both heard a startled squeak from below.

Kayla quickly rushed over to where Rickkter was heading for the steps down to the terrace ledge below their level of the garden. “Ambassador,” Rickkter called out to the black and white figure who was dusting the impact of the snowball from his purple robe, “we didn’t see you there. My deepest apologies.”

Yonson looked up at the approaching raccoon and skunk and twisted his muzzle into a bemused smile. “No need for that, wizard Rickkter.”

“It was my fault, actually,” Kayla admitted as they reached the ambassador. “I was the one who threw it.”

Yonson finished with his robes and waved a paw dismissively in her direction. “As I said, my lady, there is no need for that. I’m sure that if I hadn’t been distracted by this enchanting weather I would have been able to avoid being hit.”

Rickkter smiled as she slipped an arm over Kayla’s shoulder. “It is something, isn’t he?” he said, looking up at the sky. “We don’t get anything like this back in the southlands.”

The lemur ambassador laughed at that, his long stripy tail swaying back and forth behind his back. “Indeed it is.” Yonson was dressed much like Kayla and Rickkter, with only a single outer garment and a pair of leather boots against the snow. While Kayla was beginning to feel the cold, she wasn’t feeling it as bad as Yonson’s aids must. The human female he had with him was quite prepared for the cold. She had her hands stuck beneath her arms to keep them warm, despite being bundled into what appeared to be a very thick winter coat and a scarf around her neck. In contrast to her, the hawk morph, Weyden she recalled his name being, was only wearing his usual vest. While the feathers probably provided some insulation, Kayla could only imagine how cold it must be for him walking around through the snow in his bare feet.

Yonson looked over at the woman huddled near him, a smile quirking his muzzle. “Maud actually woke me up in a panic today, claiming something was horribly wrong with the sky. While I’d never seen natural snow, it was easy enough to recognize.” The lemur stepped off the walk a ways and kicked up a puff of snow, adding some magic to it to produce a brief cyclone of glittering ice crystals around him. His muzzle was upturned in a smile that showed off the small teeth there and his small grey ears were tilted back as he danced along with the snow. “You have no idea how truly glorious it is for a weathermonger such as myself to experience new weather first hand.”

Rickkter laughed at the whole display, his tail tucking in behind Kayla. “I think I get the general idea.”

Yonson brushed at some of the snow that had settled on his furry ears. His large amber eyes were glittering with pure delight. “Maud, Weyden and I have been out in the woods around the Keep itself seeing the effects of the snowfall first hand. It’s so bright out here, the air so crisp.” He closed his muzzle and blew a plume of steam from his nostrils. “I’m looking forward to studying this in depth over the next few months. It will be wonderful!”

“Then we wish you the best of luck,” said Rickkter. Yonson accepted it gracefully before him and his entourage resumed their journey back to Metamor.

“There’s one southerner who seems to enjoy winter,” Kayla commented, nodding her chin towards the back of the departing lemur. Yonson’s tail was describing lazy arcs through the snow filled air as he sauntered down the path.

Rickkter laughed and started them off towards Euper. “Yonson is a weather mage. Give him any new phenomenon to play with and he’ll be happy for hours.” His breath plumed into the air as he exhaled into the winter air. “We’ve already missed some of your lunch hour, Kayla. Any idea where we can go to warm up and get something quick?”

Kayla ppiirrrred a little, her bright eyes lidding over as she gave Rickkter an affectionate tap on the back of his legs with her thick tail. “There’s a restaurant in town called the Poacher’s Arms that always serves this special spiced cider on the first snow day of the year. They’ve got good food there, too.”

“Sounds like something that might be popular with a lot of keepers. Do you think we’ll be able to get in?”

“Well, I know they always set up a booth outside for just the cider. They get a lot of people coming just for that, so it’s easier on the diners that way. But I think we’ll be able to find something.”

Rickkter grinned back and returned Kayla’s tap with his own tail. “I don’t doubt that.”

Kayla murrred deeply in satisfaction as the warm steam from the cup of cider in her paws tickled her whiskers. At least the clay cup was good and hot, letting her warm her paws up once more. Her muzzle twitched into a slight smile at that; at least she had a good reason for digging around in the snow with her paws. And she had got in the first shot.

Across the table from her, Rickkter was doing the same thing. “You’re right, this does smell good.”

Before Kayla could respond to that, Rickkter had lowered his muzzle into the cup and taken a lap of the cider. The skunk across from him couldn’t quite suppress her smile as Rickkter gasped and twitched, trying not to spill the rest of his drink. He hunched down into his shoulders and panted onto his tongue while shaking his head back in forth.

“It’s hot, too,” she said.

“’Tho I note’ithised.”

Kayla twitched her whiskers back against her angled muzzle as she tilted her cup up and gingerly took a sip. Hot apple, a little cinnamon, a few other spices. Definitely something to remind her of winter. For once today she didn’t mind her tail wrapping itself around her knees. “Your tongue is more sensitive than it used to be. I wouldn’t advise lapping at something now that you would have sipped at before.”

“Yes, I agree.” Rickkter flicked his tongue against his teeth a few more times before setting his cider on the table. “Something for later I think.”

“It still catches you off guard some times, doesn’t it?” she asked.

Perking up his ears, Rickkter cocked his head to the side. “What does?”

Kayla blew on her cider. “Your animal half. I’ve seen enough people changed over the years to tell that you’re still not totally comfortable with it.”

Rickkter grimaced and took a small sip from his cider. “Yes, well, I just find the needs of it too trying at times. At least I didn’t shed too much when my winter coat came in. Even so, the grooming required by this body is a pain at times.”

“Ah, the infamous unwashed warrior that you once were comes through again,” she commented, her ears twitching in merriment. “That explains why you had a beard.”

Rickkter snorted and drank some more cider. “I can see you never had to deal with shaving. Besides, I wore a beard for other reasons.”

“Such as?”

He lifted his chin in an elegant pose. “It made me look dashing.” Kayla laughed. “Actually, it was my instructor in magic, Darkarai, who had one. It looked good on him, and in an effort to emulate him I grew one also. And, yes, I kept it over the years to avoid trying to shave out in the field.”

“Well, I think you look just as good now as you did back then,” she said, accepting her lunch from the server. Both her and Rickkter had ordered plates of spiced sausages and potatoes. They both eagerly began to pick at the steaming food. “How often do you go around in the fur?”

Rickkter paused and looked up at her. “Rather personal question.”

“Anywhere but here, perhaps. You were around in the summer, you saw how little some Keepers wore. That saves dealing with another problem of being an animal morph, namely the musks and oils that build up.” She saw Rickkter grimace at that. “How long did it take you to find out that little fact? I figure two weeks, tops.” She smiled at his reaction, her shoulders moving with contained laughter. She ate another morsel of food. “I thought as much. Just be thankful that you weren’t here at the beginning, right after the Battle of the Gates. Some of the smells around this place were positively overwhelming.”

“Oh, what are you doing tonight for dinner?” Rickkter asked as he poked at his potatoes.

Kayla blew on a piece of sausage held between her teeth before swallowing it. “I had nothing in mind.” She nudged his leg with her foot under the table. “Why, do you?”

He smiled back and returned to his food. “Something like that. I saw Andre Maugnard earlier this morning. He mentioned that he and his wife Jenn were having a dinner at their house with Misha and Caroline this evening, and he wanted to know if we would join him.” He looked up and her and popped a final piece of the spiced meat into his muzzle. “I hope that you don’t mind, but I told him yes.”

Kayla couldn’t help but lean back a little in her seat, her tail sliding down her legs a little ways. “Oh, my. He asked for both of us?” Rickkter nodded. “Um… Okay. When will we be going?”

“Don’t worry,” said Rickkter, his whiskers twitching up in a smile. “I’ll be over to get you later.”

“I must admit, this was unexpected,” Rickkter said coldly.

“What did you expect?” Misha answered slowly as the group walked down the street.

“I was just thinking the four of us.”

“They’re Andre’s and Jenn’s friends as well, and so just as welcome.”

“You could have at least gave me some warning.”

Misha shook his head. “Would that have changed things?”

“… Possibly.”

“That means no. Now you know why. I do hope that the two of you can behave yourselves tonight. You will be guests in their home.”

“Well, as Kayla said earlier, this looks to be a day of firsts. There may very well be some miraculous event by which he does not cause trouble. ”

“Just be sure you do the same.”

The Maugnard home was located on one of the countless side streets that filled most of the outer ward of Metamor Keep. The street was named Cobblers Way, although no cobbler had lived there in over a hundred years. The sheer number of animal morphs in and around the Keep wouldn’t be helping that situation in the near future, either. The street was paved with cobblestones worn smooth and gray with the passage of endless traffic over the centuries.

The buildings here were tall and packed so close together that they leaned towards each other, overhanging the road. This cast the street in gloom all the time and it was only at midday that the streets saw bright sunlight. Today, however, it served to shield the denizens of the street from the worst of the inclement weather. What had started as a gentle snowfall in the morning had slowly but steadily increased as the day wore on and now had a respectable wind blowing it around also. The Keep, exposed on higher ground as it were, got the worst of it. There was a bit of smug satisfaction had by those of the Way to know that the buildings that blocked out the best of the summer weather were now shielding them from the worst of what winter would have in store.

The house itself was third from the corner with the wine shop, an ever popular destination in the lower ward, and was three stories tall, four if you counted the high attic with its dormered windows. The house was of timbers so darkened by age that they were almost black, which contrasted sharply with the white plaster of the walls around them. A single door was set in the middle of the façade. The thick, iron bound wooden door was just large enough for a person to fit through. Off to the left was a tall archway closed off with doors of the same black oak as the rest of the building. That archway led to a courtyard behind the house that was as light and airy as the street was dark and dismal.

A small group of six animal morph keepers made their way down the street. Bundled as they were against the cold with thick fur coats and with hats and hoods pulled down close it was hard to tell who they were. Even defining their species was hard.

The small group walked up to the house and stopped into front of the door. The center panel of the door was elaborately carved, gilded and painted. A stallion and bear flanked a shield of red and blue with a deep orange gauntlet in the center. Below this was a door knocker of brass in the shape of a bear’s paw.

Misha grabbed hold of the knocker and gave three sharp raps. The knocks seemed to echo loudly on the quiet street.

The door opened and a young woman of no more then twelve years of age appeared. She had long, black hair that flowed down to her shoulders. Her slim figure was covered by a dress of blue and yellow that highlighted a body just entering puberty. She looked at them with bright sparkling blue eyes and smiled. “Good evening, Gentlemen and Ladies.”

Misha bowed to her. “Good evening, Adelaise. We’re here for dinner.”

Adelaise opened the door wide and beckoned them inward. “Welcome. You’re right on time.”

The group quickly divested themselves of the overcoats they were wearing, revealing the clothes they had each selected for dinner and making it possible to distinguish species for the first time. Two were rats, male and female. Charles was wearing a good tunic and breeches both of dark blue with a back belt and matching sash. Kimberly was wearing a long, woollen dress of light blue. Around her waist was a belt of gray that was filigreed with gold and silver.

Misha was wearing a tunic and pants both of dark green and trimmed with broad swatches of light brown silk edged with gold thread. He had a broad, black belt around his waist with a simple brass buckle.

Standing close to the fox morph Caroline was wearing a floor length dress of deep purple. The front was cut low revealing and enhancing her cleavage. Dangling from a pearl necklace was a blue jewel in a gold setting.

Closest to the door was Rickkter and Kayla. Kayla was dressed in a full length gown of deep maroon, her collar up near her neck. The white of her neck fur stood out quite strikingly against the deep colour and the only jewellery she wore was the thin gold chain attached to the amulet that Rick had fashioned for her several months back.

Rickkter had also chosen red, though the jerkin he had chosen was dark to the point of almost being brown in colour. Contrasting that was the white doublet, complete with frilled sleeves, underneath. A small, stylish dagger carried on a thin belt was the only ornamentation he wore.

Each of the Keepers was sure to shake off any residual snow that was still in their fur and tails. The Maugnards, like many others, had taken this into account and draped the walls of their entryway with thick canvass sheets. Animal morphs in winter had a tendency to emulate their wilder cousins and vigorously shake off any moisture upon entering a dry house. A large rug of wool, woven into a simple pattern, had been put down for the same reason.

The group was led into a room that was dominated by a large table of a golden blonde wood. Against one wall was a low cabinet in the center of which was a bronze statue of a knight on a rearing horse. Spaced evenly around the table were seven chairs of the same color. On the table in front of each chair was a place setting with a plate, cup and matching knife, fork and spoon, all of fine pewter. There were two platters piled high with large hunks of black bread. Between them was a small bowl filled with slices of fresh butter. On the walls around the room were paintings of different sizes and subjects. One showed a pair of wolverine morphs dressed in fine clothing that looked down upon the room.

Lighting the whole room was a large chandelier of highly polished bronze. From each of it’s twelve branches dangled a burgundy colored candle. Brightly illuminating the entire room.

They had barely a moment to examine the room before their hosted entered in through another door. The wolverines walked up to the two couples and bowed deeply. “Welcome to our home,” Andre said cheerfully.

Andre was dressed in a tan shirt, over which was an electric blue vest. He was wearing pants of the same startling shade of blue. Jenn was wearing a light blue, dress that was brocaded in silver and dark blue. Around her neck was gold necklace and on her fingers were a pair of silver rings. “I’m glad you could all come,” she said cheerfully.

“I wouldn’t miss this for anything,” Caroline said as she hugged the female wolverine.

She turned and hugged Kayla. “Thank you for coming.”

“It’s a pleasure,” the skunk answered. “Thank you for inviting us.”

Jenn had to bend over a little to properly hug Kimberly but the rat woman didn’t seem to mind and returned it happily.

“Good lord, Andre, you two have really put out a great feast. We celebrating anything in particular?” Misha asked.

Andre shrugged. “Do we need a reason to get together with good friends?”

“No,” Misha answered “But it’s been too long since we had such a fancy dinner!”

“It was Jenn’s idea really,” Andre explained.

“It’s been far too long since we’ve all been together,” Jenn explained. She gestured to Rickkter and Kayla. “And we have new friends, who have not been here before. I thought it might be a nice thing to have everyone together for a good, hardy meal.”

“It’s a wonderful thing to do,” Caroline commented.

Rickkter took a glass of red wine and sipped it. “This is a fine vintage.”

"The wines are from Sathmore! They are from the famous Armouth winery!" Andre answered proudly.

“You really spared no expense,” Misha exclaimed.

“Only the best for our dear friends!” Jenn explained.

The group was seated around the table At one end sat Charles and Kimberly the other Rickkter and Kayla. Between was Misha and Caroline on one side and Andre and Jenn on the other.

They could smell the food long before it arrived in the room. The wonderful smells wafting through the whole first floor of the house.

First came bowls of mushroom soup. The thick creamy soup had large chunks of mushrooms floating in it along with all manner of herbs and spices.

“Delicious!” Caroline exclaimed as she ate spoonfuls of the soup.

“Those are wild mushrooms,” Jenn explained. “Grown under the keep itself.”

After the soup was finished Jenn and Adelaise cleared away the empty bowls and then left of the kitchen. When they returned each was carrying a platter piled high with small crescent shaped pastries.

“And now my favourites,” Andre said cheerfully. “Pierogies!”

The platters were placed on the table giving them all a closer look. Each platter had two types of pierogies. Half seemed to have been boiled and the rest fried till they were crunchy and golden brown.

Charles looked at the two platters and sniffed. “They smell delicious.”

“What’s in them?” Kimberly asked.

Jenn pointed to one platter. “These are filled with cabbage and mushrooms.” She then pointed to the other platter. “And for the carnivores these are filled with beef and lamb.”

“Both taste great!” Misha added.

Adelaise placed a large bowl in front of Andre.

“This is called Chlopski Posilek, Peasant’s meal,” the female wolverine explained. “It has bacon, cabbage and sausage.”

“Do I smell garlic in there?” Kayla asked.

“Garlic and onions,” Jenn explained as Andre used a ladle to pour some into a smaller bowl.

The rest of the meal did not end till the last of the food was gone and the empty plates and bowls taken away.

If the main meal was good the dessert was amazing. A large, beautiful cheese cake was the center piece and with a bowl of oranges and pears.

“Fruit?” Misha exclaimed and quickly snatched up a pear. “Where did you find fresh fruit in the middle of winter?”

The wolverines didn’t answer but Jenn laughed. “That’s one of my little secrets.”

This room was smaller then the dining room but felt warmer. Several chairs and a large couch were arraigned in a semicircle around a fireplace in which a large fire burned adding warmth and light to the whole room. Several small statues were scattered around the room attesting to Jenn’s skill at sculpting.

Conversation was surprisingly mundane, the weather, the coming winter, local politics and all the local gossip. Being from Marigund both Misha and the wolverines instinctively avoided all talk of religion and the topic of work was avoided by the unspoken consent of all present.

“What we need is something to help pass the evening,” Andre announced as he stood. Going to a cabinet at the back of the room he was quick to retrieve and returned to the table with an ornately designed box. While square, the top was darkly polished wood and held the design of an equal cross defined by inlays of blonde coloured wood. Paths between equally spaced holes were also defined with the same colour inlay. Andre slid out a draw from the bottom of the game board to reveal thirteen geese carved from ivory and a single fox statue of gold.

“The game is called Fox and Geese,” Andre announced. “It's a game of strategy in which the geese try and corner the fox without getting eaten themselves. Typically, one player elects to be the fox and the other the geese. As we have group tonight, more than one of us can take control of the geese and we’ll alternate turns.

“The geese are placed so as to fill up all the points on one side of the board. The fox can be placed on any vacant point remaining. The fox moves first. On their turn, each side may move one counter. Both fox and geese can move along a line, forwards, backwards, or sideways, to the next contiguous point.

“The fox may move along a line or jump over a goose to an empty point, effectively eating the goose and removing it from the board. Two or more geese may be captured by the fox in one turn, providing that he is able to jump to an empty point after each one. The fox wins if he depletes the gaggle of geese to a number that makes it impossible for them to trap him.

“The geese cannot jump over the fox or capture the fox. They must try to mob him and hem him into a corner making it impossible for him to move. The geese win if they succeed in immobilizing the fox.

"Well, I think I know what I’ll play," commented Misha, his tails flicking up against Carol, as he reached forward for the little golden statue.

“In that case, honey,” said Caroline as she reached for a goose, “you’ll be able to tell us what it feels like to be nibbled to death by geese.”

That got a good laugh out of everyone in the room.

But it was the wily fox who was victorious the first few rounds. Eventually the rest managed to get him cornered and it was Charles, for having made the final, pinning move, who took over the fox. He fell swiftly to Caroline the next round. The pretty otter stuck her tongue out at him, playfully stating she had no choice but to avenge her man. Even so, she barely managed to hang on to the fox for another two turns before Jenn took it over. And such went the game, couples switching off for the group and even a few individual matches.

Andre leaned back in his chair away from the grudge match between Charles and Rickkter. “You’re wondering about that painting, Kayla?”

The skunkess nodded as she leaned back and folded her arms over his front. She had been staring at the painting on the wall to the side of her for a few minutes now. “I was looking at the coat of arms, actually. There are some parts of it that I can’t recall seeing elsewhere, or if I have, I can’t remember what they are.”

“Well, those belong to my esteemed grandfather, the man in the picture,” Andre answered. “Andrew. He saved the life of Lord Albemerle at the battle of Marsten Fen after Maldred’s horse was cut down. Andrew held the attackers at bay for over twenty minutes. For that he was knighted and awarded a small fiefdom.”

The artwork in question was a large oil painting of a short man in battered armor wielding a large halberd. He was standing over the sprawled body of another man, this one dressed in the fine regalia of a nobleman. Beside it was a beautifully done coat of arms, echoing the one on the Maugnard house’s door. But this one, being made out of an almost full size shield, was more detailed.

The pattern on the shield was that of a per chevron, the shield divided in half with the middle of the lower portion rising into the top. Red was on top, blue on bottom and it was filled with the usual heraldic elements. Flanking it were sculptures of its supporting animals, the very top holding a crest with a knight’s helm and the wreath.

“Well, that does explain things,” she said and nodded. “I know that the red is always associated with military strength and battles, but I usually see that on the decorations. The armoured gauntlet with the pike shown as orange here meaning it was worthy ambition that lead to leadership. Usually the two colours are reversed.” She nodded again. “The lower half of the chevron as blue again says loyalty.” Kayla turned and gave Andre a quick smile as she named off the symbol in the lower right corner. “A white Star of David. I didn’t know you were a Predecessor. The helm and wreath at the top are standard, the crest again echoing the main colours of the shield, those of a loyal warrior.”

“Very good,” Andre said as he smiled and nodded. “The bear on the right represents ferocious protection, the way Andrew fought so intensely to defend Lord Albemerle. Like a bear defending her cubs.”

“The stallion flanking it represents of course the King, and its position allows the bear to be shown as the King’s right hand,” Kayla finished. “It’s the crescent that I can’t recall.”

“The crescent means he had been honoured by the king,” Rickkter interjected. “The purple implies it doubly so.” His muzzle hung open in a smile as he moved one of the ivory pieces into position and looked up at Charles. “Nibbled to death by geese.”

“Oh, I just remembered something,” Jenn exclaimed. “I have a batch of mulled wine that I’d put on during dinner, as something we could all have after. I forgot to tell Adelaise to get it. It should be ready by now.”

“Sounds good to me,” Andre replied, giving his knees a slap. “I’ll help you bring it in.”

“No, no need for that,” Rickkter said, waving the wolverine down. “I would be more than happy to help, Jenn. I’ve been sitting on my behind all day with Muri in the library. I could use the excuse to be up and about.”

Jenn nodded and gave Rickkter a small smile, showing just a little of her muzzle full of teeth. “Since you insist. It’s just in the kitchen out back.”

“Don’t let the cold get to you,” Kayla added with a wink.

Jenn took a shawl off a hook in the back room and wrapped it around her head and shoulders. “Oh, don’t worry about the cold, Rick. The kitchen is right out back.”

“Hee, somehow I think I’ll live.”

“You’ll take any excuse to avoid losing the rematch, won’t you?” Charles called after him.

The kitchen itself was a small stone building in the middle of the yard out back, placed a good twenty feet back from the house itself to avoid possible fire damage. Despite the snow, Rickkter could see a small curl of smoke rising from the chimney. Jenn quickly ushered him in through the door to the nice, warm inside.

“Ah, that’s wonderful,” said Rick as he briefly warmed his paws over the oven’s fire. From an iron hook over the fire was a small pot filled with a red liquid that bubbled quietly. From the smells rising from it, he was sure the pot was filled with the spiced wine. On one side of the wall of the kitchen was a door leading to what he assumed was the pantry, a second door leading to a root cellar. He knew that, because even in winter the area around the cellar had a particularly earthy smell to it. He glanced over briefly at the female wolverine where she was gathering up goblets for them to use. “Jenn, may I ask you something?”

“I suppose so. What is it?”

Rickkter leaned back and tucked his paws under his arms. “I was just wondering why you hadn’t told Andre that you were pregnant.”

Jenn almost dropped one of the goblets. “How… how did you know?” she stuttered.

Bowing his head a little, a slight smile on his lips, Rickkter leaned back against the cutting table in the centre of the room. He moves one paw and tapped his temple. “Don’t forget, I am a mage. I can see certain changes in energy patterns around me. Not that I go around using true-sight all the time you understand. I also can feel energy. Thus, when we embraced in greeting earlier this evening, I was able to feel something was different with you. A quick look confirmed things.”

Jenn’s short ears where against her head. “That’s extraordinary. We’ve been trying for years for a child and were beginning to give up hope of ever having one. I’ve only known for certain myself for a few days now.”

Rickkter allowed himself a fuller smile. “For someone like myself it’s not difficult to see these things. When I look at you with true-sight,” he said, holding out his paws for demonstration, moving them as if to trace the shape of something, “I don’t see a person, I see an arrangement of energy patterns. The most obvious is the Curse; it wraps your body like a black gauze cloth, with small tendrils throughout. There is a constant motion, an ebb and flow, of it and the counter curse always at work against each other.” Jenn shifted a bit self consciously at that and Rick hurried on. “But beyond that, the most striking thing I see is here,” he said, stepping closer and pointing at the centre of her chest. “Here is a small knot of very tightly woven, very complex energies. That is your life force, your soul if you like. And leading off that,” he moved his fingers slowly down her front to just over her belly, “is a small thread of that energy feeding a tiny spark of life right here.”

Jenn still had her ears crooked back as she placed one of her paws over her belly. “I… I never even imagined anyone would be able to tell for a few months yet.”

“And in most cases you would be right.” He smiled and shrugged. “There are always exceptions.”

“Can you tell me anything else? Is the baby healthy?”

Rickkter shook his head. “I’m sorry, no. It’s too early along. I wouldn’t be able to tell you very much for at least another month, month-and-a-half.”

“You know, you don’t strike me as the kind of person who would have a lot of experience with pregnant women and babies.”

“Believe it or not, many years ago now, I used to work for a healer. I was in love with her” He bowed his head once more, smiling as his tail swished against the table behind him. “She was one of only a handful out in a rather remote area. There were a few small hamlets, mostly farms. A few larger estates. Suffice it to say, aside from the odd physical injury, pregnancy and births were the most common things we dealt with.” He laughed a little. “In all my years, I’ve seen many kinds of births.”

“I’m still unsure when I should tell him.”

Rickkter shrugged. “The sooner the better, I think. While I may not have known him as closely as you or Misha, Andre strikes me as the kind of person who would greet such an announcement with nothing but great joy.” He laughed. “In fact, I think this snow is about all that would keep him from shouting it as loud as he could from the walls of the Keep himself.”

Jenn finally laughed, nodding as well. “Yes, he is that kind of person.”

“If what you said was true, about the two of you trying for years for a child, then I think that the only thing that could even compare is when you accepted his hand in marriage.”

Jenn chuckled and flicked her tail a bit as she turned back to pick up the goblets.

“Ah, there you two are,” stated Andre with a smile as Jenn and Rick walked in, the raccoon taking up the rear, holding the heavily steaming pot of wine by its chain. “I didn’t expect it to be snowing so hard you’d get lost just yet. We were about to send Adelaise out to search for you.”

Jenn giggled a little as she went over to her husband and ran the fingers of one paw through his fur. “It’s not quite that bad out yet, love. Though it is getting worse.”

Andre churred very softly under the touch of his wife’s claws. “So what were you two doing out there.”

Turning her head, she looked back at where Rickkter had hung the pot of wine over the fire and was giving it a few slow turns with the ladle. “We were just discussing something… very important.” Jenn moved around to the front of her husband and took his large brown paws in hers. She looked into his deep brown eyes as she traced little patterns in the fur on the backs of his paws with her thumb claws. “After all this time we’ve done it; I’m pregnant.”

The silence in the room that moment was profound, with only the crackling of the logs in the fireplace to be heard. “You’re… what?” Andre said as he leaned a little more forward in his chair, his muzzle hanging partly open.

“I’m carrying our child, my love,” Jenn responded, giving his paws a squeeze. “Some time in late August, maybe September, we’re going to be parents.”

With a loud shout of joy, Andre almost jumped up from his seat and wrapped up his wife in a fierce hug, lifting her to the point where he could press his muzzle against the thick fur of Jenn’s neck. Laughing, Andre ended up lifting her clear off the floor and swinging her to-and-fore before setting her back down. He kept laughing the whole time. “You’re certain of this?” he asked, his paws stroking her cheek fur.

Jenn reached back and stroked Andre’s fur in the same manner. She could see his eyes shining with the tears of joy she felt in her own. “Yes, my love. It’s finally happened.”

The moment ended with clapping and polite cheers from the couch where Misha and Caroline where seated. Both stood up and came over, Misha clasping his friends on the back. “You’re pregnant?” Misha said amazed. “You’re pregnant!” he announced loudly That's great! I'm delighted!”

“Congratulations to the both of you,” Caroline said cheerfully. “I just know you’ll make wonderful parents!”

"Congratulations, good sir!" Charles crooned, face bright, whiskers twitching in delight. "That is simply wonderful news!"

Kimberly smiled to Jenn and with one hand pushed her fiancé/husband back into his seat. "We're both so happy for you."

“Do you have any ideas for names yet?” Misha asked.

“Ilyana if it’s a girl and Andrew if it’s a boy,” Jenn answered.

“I thought we said it was going to be Judy if it’s a girl and Aaron if it was a boy,” Andre said.

“No, you’ll agree with Ilyana if it’s a girl and Andrew if it’s a boy,” Jenn told him, patting his chest. “I’ll see to that.”

The rest of the room got a good laugh from that. Misha held up his glass. “I’d like to propose a toast,” he announced and bowed to the two wolverines. “To the future! May it always be bright!”

“To the future!”

From that point onwards, the evening seemed to acquire a much more jovial atmosphere. While the men tended to stick to the games and own conversation, the women split off into their own group. Their discussion naturally leaned towards babies.

But, such things, pleasant as they may have been, inevitably come to an end. Everyone at the house had duties to attend to in the morning and all acquiesced when Andre stood and announced that their evening was over. Standing in the entryway, illuminated by lamplight, each passed in turn to give Jenn a hug -- Misha taking the opportunity to give her a quick lick on the cheek -- and congratulate her and Andre with their good news. Everyone agreed that her and Andre would make wonderful parents.

The weather outside, though, was very much the opposite of the warm, friendly atmosphere within the Maugnard. The howling wind did it's best to peel back the layers of clothing the Keepers had wrapped themselves in and drive its icy fingers through their fur. Each bent their head and scurried through the streets as best they could, hugging the buildings as much for assistance with direction as attempts of reducing the wind. Misha's sense of direction in blinding snow was a good as any other time, and he was able to lead the little troop up to the walls of the Keep without getting lost in the streets of the ward. Much. Well... twice.

Rickkter and Kayla split off from the rest of the group, Misha, Caroline heading towards The Long House and Charles and Kimberly headed off by themselves. Once the raccoon and skunk had made it inside they took a few moments to pause for breath and savour the sensation of warmth and a lack of cold wind whipping ice and snow over their muzzles.

The main entrances to the Keep were all equipped with coverings like Andre's house had been, something Kayla was quite thankful for as she gave her sodden tail a few good shakes to help dislodge all the snow that was built up in it.

"And we have... how much more of this?"

Kayla gave him a crooked smile as she rubbed a paw over one side of her muzzle in an effort to warm it up. "Oh, only about four, maybe five months."

Rickkter grumbled as he shook his overcoat, attempting to get the mass of snow on the shoulders and back dislodged. Kayla laughed and took pity on him, going over and reaching up to his shoulders to help clear them and his head off.

"Most days aren't this bad, you know." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "At least if you have someone to share it with."

"Is that so?" he asked. Sliding his arms under her winter cloak he pulled her up into a kiss. "You know... I have this lovely fire place upstairs that is just perfect for sharing as well."

Kayla's ears perked up as she feigned surprise. "Do you now? I may just have to see that." And she pulled him into a deeper kiss, her body pressing up against her.

Breaking the kiss, Rickkter looked down at her once more, his paw still running slowly up and down her back. Her eyes shone with the light of a nearby torch. “So… you say we’re in store for another four to five months of this weather?”