They were both sitting in his apartment with nothing between them and an adequate fire that popped and crackled in the fireplace but a thickly knit quilt and their own fur. The two animal morphs had reclined upon the couch and were snuggled deeply into it and against each other. Kayla sat enclosed tightly in Rickkter’s arms, idly enjoying how his fingers were slowly, rather absently, playing with the fur on her chest.
Not that there was anything sexual about that gesture, nor their position at all, really. After that final battle, the final push to expel the invaders from the keep had been completed and the majority of the injured and wounded taken care of, the pair of lovers that now reclined on the couch had made their way to the baths. Luckily for all, the invaders had not reached that point, or if they did had not though anything significant of it. And luckily for Rickkter and Kayla, they managed to get one of the small, private rooms. While some may have objected, none did. No one was in the mood for another fight, let along with a blood red raccoon.
No one was in much of a mood for anything, really, and a pall hung over all of Metamor. For the first time in well over a thousand years, the great edifice had fallen to an invader. But the inhabitants had rallied, repelling those who had sought to overwhelm them. The keepers routed the Lutin army and reclaimed their home.
But the price, oh the price was a high one to bear. From the number of dead being taken out in preparation for burial, the losses on their side looked to be almost one in five. Almost one in five dead. The wounded from the battle numbered many more thousands above that, almost the entire fighting compliment of the entire Keep having injuries of one manner or another..
Everyone had been affected in some way by what had happened.
For Rickkter an Kayla, it was a marked lack of enthusiasm in anything. Whereas the bath would have most likely been a sensual affair at any other time, now it had simply been a means of washing away the blood and grime that had accumulated over the many days and battles. Neither had spoken a great deal during the course of the whole affair. When it was over, they had come to an unspoken agreement to return to his place for the night. Neither one wanted to be away from the other right then. That was also probably the feelings from the rest of the keepers; few wanted to be alone at such a time.
Rickkter stopped his idle scratching and smoothed over the longer white fur of the skunk’s chest. He took one deep breath and then began to slowly nuzzle his cheek against Kayla’s head. This had in fact been the most sensual gesture he had made all night; Kayla’s grooming kit and the massage oils still sat untouched within the nearby bedroom.
“Some first Yule together, isn’t it, love?”
“I suppose you could say that,” said Kayla as her paws moved up to close on top of her raccoon’s. “I’m just glad that you made it out of all those battles alive.”
Apparently done with his nuzzling, Rickkter pulled back and planted a small kiss on the back of one of her round, black ears. “I’m glad we both made it. My greatest fear in all this was that something might happen to you. If anything did, I don’t know what I might have done.”
Closing her eyes, Kayla wriggled a little against the soft fur of his chest. “What do you think will happen tomorrow?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really care, either. I’m too tired to do much else besides sleep.”
“So do you want to do that here or go to your bedroom?”
“I don’t care either way,” he said, adding a small shake of his head.
Kayla knew from both his manner that night, and from the feel of his sheath where it pressed against her back, that he was telling the truth in his desire for simple sleep. “Then let’s just stay here; it’s warm.”
“Okay, my dear. Okay.”
“Merry Yule, Rick.”
“Same to you, love.”
The two lovers fell into a deep slumber, each holding the other in their own embrace, to the slowly dying flames of the fire and the light tinkle of snow on the windows outside.
December 30, 706 CR – Time indeterminate
They’d managed to stay at the outskirts of the battle for the past few days. The storm’s death throes had allowed Neska to keep track of the battle from afar, and when it became clear that the assault had failed, he’d given their orders.
It’d been a long march northward, especially after the river stopped and they’d had to go over the mountains, but he’d insisted; otherwise, they could have brought a Keeper force down on their heads, and that wouldn’t have been productive at all.
They’d finally settled into a valley just past Giant’s Dike that was a little far into the mountains, but not so far enough as to make travel between them and the Keep valley impossible. Kesk didn’t like that part of the plan, but he was being kept around precisely because of the strategic paranoia that endengered that dislike, so he wasn’t to be criticized for that opinion.
After all, perhaps once that petty attempt at a mage overlord finally got his back stabbed, maybe at least one Lutin tribe could thrive despite the changes that were surely coming. And if Orrusk Blackhand had been taught anything by his father, it was to adapt to changes in the world. And besides, he had no more intentions whatsoever of following any other moronic self-appointed “leader” again, especially Nasoj.
Of course, the memory of the assault would still be fresh in the Keeper’s minds. He’d have to wait a few months before trying to send an emissary of any kind. Fortunately, in these matters, Orrusk is paitent.
With luck, he figures, he might not even have to fight for the land.
Daria gripped the blue tunic tightly in her hands, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Two of the duke's own bodyguards had personally delivered the tattered piece of cloth to her sometime that afternoon, accompanied by her mother Caitlyn. Daria had asked to be alone, and they complied with her wishes. The tears flowed for a time, loudly and fiercely, but now the tears were dried and she remained sitting in silence. She wasn't sure how long she had stayed like that, but it surely must have been hours.
Footsteps at the doorway. Daria didn't turn to acknowledge them. She heard the quiet rustle of linen robes as the woman sat down beside her.
"I remember when my father died," Raven said quietly. "For weeks I would go to bed and cry myself to sleep. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and, just for a moment ... I would imagine that I could hear him out in the hall, talking to my mother." There was a pause, as the wolf-woman shifted position in her chair. "The first few times it happened, I would jump out of bed, summon a light and run into the temple ... and, of course, it would be empty."
Daria turned over, carefully, to face the priestess. Her voice was haunted as she spoke. "Somehow, part of me always thought that he had survived ... that he had been the lucky one. And then, this..." She held up the tunic half-heartedly.
Raven nodded slowly in understanding. "When my family died— mother and father, Aramis, Talia— I kept holding on to the thought that I could somehow bring them back. Sometimes, in the darkest hours of the night, I still believe it."
The young warrior shook her head in disbelief. "Your whole family ... gods..." Reaching up, she wiped a newborn tear from her eye. "How did you go on?"
The Lightbringer sighed. "For a long time, I didn't," she admitted. "But eventually, I began to find strength in the people I still had in my life. Wand'rer, most especially. Celine and the other acolytes. Merai. Kyia— aye, I have a rather unusual friendship with her," she said, chuckling at Daria's dubious expression. "Love does not make the wounds go away, Daria, but it does help you to stop tearing open the scars. Eventually, you come to terms with your loss and learn to move on— and you learn how to cherish the friends and family that are left to you."
Raven smiled a little. "You still have much, Daria. Your mother, your aunts and uncles, Merai— all of them are there for you." She put her hand gently atop the younger woman's. "As you grieve, try to remember that."
Daria nodded thoughtfully. The priestess rose gracefully to her feet, giving her a careful look that seemed to go well past the blankets that covered her. "There will be a memorial service tomorrow noon, to honor those who have fallen," she said. "Duke Thomas has requested your presence, if you are able. I believe we can safely move you to the balcony where we will be sitting, if you feel up to it."
Daria looked down at her clenched fist, opening it to reveal the emblem of Metamor Keep emblazoned on her father's tunic.
"I'll be there," she said.
January 1, Year 707, Cristos Reckoning.
A chill wind rushed through the streets of the town of Metamor, kicking up ash from the blackened remains of the shops and houses as it passed. Merai drew her cloak more tightly around her and tried to keep her teeth from chattering. Still, she had to admit that it was far warmer than they had any right to expect, given the season. Overhead the sun shone brightly in the clear blue sky, as if it were trying to repay the Keepers in some small measure for the weather that they had suffered through in the previous week.
The young priestess stood in the terrace that faced the front gate of the Keep, together with her parents and most everyone else who was still able to walk after Nasoj's assault. Duke Thomas sat on a balcony overlooking the square, together with Prime Minister Malisa and the Keep's two spiritual leaders, Raven and Father Hough. Daria sat off to one side, wrapped in several thick blankets and looking solemn and attentive. Actually, Merai thought, that pretty much described the attitude of everyone present.
The bell in the south watchtower rang slowly, and the crowd stiffened noticeably to attention. On the balcony, Malisa rose from her chair and approached the edge of the platform.
"We have come here today to pay respect to those who have fallen in defense of our homeland," she said, her voice strong and clear. "These men and women, sons and daughters of Metamor, have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our safety. Today we honor them, and their memory."
The slender, dark-haired woman turned her head to the side for a moment, glancing back at Raven and Hough. "I would now ask Lothanasa hin'Elric and Father Hough to come and dedicate this time to divine Providence."
The wolf-woman and the boy stepped forward to the front of the balcony, side by side, as the Prime Minister returned to her seat. Raven looked at Hough, but the Patildor priest gestured to her deferentially and stepped off slightly to the side. Nodding once, the Lothanasa turned to address the crowd below.
"Among those of my Order, the first ten days of the new year are a time of healing and renewal," she said, gripping the edge of the balcony in her hands. "This is a time when we endeavor to make peace with those around us, to seek restoration and wholeness so that we may face the new year with confidence.
"Today, as we begin the seven hundred and seventh year of the Cristos Reckoning, we find that we are in need of more restoration and healing than usual," she continued. Merai could hear the emotion in her voice, but Raven maintained her composure. "The past year has seen moments of great hope ... but we have seen great tragedy, as well. We have been beaten and battered and scarred, in our bodies and in our souls— and though we have survived, we have paid a terrible price."
The Lightbringer let her words hang for a moment, as she scanned slowly over the crowd of Keepers. "It is clear to me that we shall not survive the coming year with our lives and freedom intact unless we face its hardships and challenges together," she said. "For too long, suspicion and mistrust have separated us from each other. Religious disagreements and personal rivalries have sown discord among us— and though it has never grown into the sort of violence that we see among our neighbors to the south, it has kept us apart in spirit. But we are all children of Metamor, and we must all look to each other for strength and encouragement as we confront the struggles ahead of us."
Raven turned to look at Father Hough, giving him a warm glance. "There are many things about which we may never come to agreement," she said, "but unity does not have to mean unanimity. We may have our disagreements, our differing beliefs, without allowing that to divide us as a people. Lothanasi, Patildor, or otherwise, we are all Keepers. If we embrace that unity, we shall honor the memories of those who have fallen for our sake— men and women who did not lay down their lives for a religion, or a philosophy, but to preserve our kingdom and our way of life. And in that unity, we shall find a strength that can scarcely be imagined."
Turning to fully face the audience again, Raven lifted her head and stretched out her arms to heaven. When she spoke again, her voice was louder and surer. "Lord Kammoloth, I beseech you and all the gods of heaven to show your favor on us today. Of Akkala, we ask healing and renewal for our bodies and our souls. Of Velena, we ask love for all our brothers and sisters. Of Samekkh, we ask wisdom, that we may face the coming year with sound judgment. And of Artela, we ask mercy, that this may be a year of peace and safety for us. All this we ask, king of heaven. Hear us, I pray."
There were murmurs of agreement from the crowd, and Raven turned and gestured to Father Hough. Giving her a brief smile, he nodded and took her place at the front and center of the balcony.
Hough surveyed the crowd, and dismal faces, though with a flicker of hope in them, stared back at him, expectant. The short blonde curls on his head were touched by the white of fallen snow, giving that young face an ancient cast it had long ago shed. Yet he remained firm, bundled in the black cassock of a priest.
Holding his hands out, palms up, he let his voice sound forth, as deep as he could muster with his child's body, not speaking, but chanting his words with a reverence rarely experienced even in the Ecclesia Rituals. "Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine:" The Keepers were suddenly spell bound at those strange words, familiar to some, but to many, as unearthly as any foreign tongue. Raven's ears tilted slightly at the sound of words she knew. Yet her face betrayed nothing.
"Et lux perpetua luceat eis," Hough continued, his chant focussing on a single tone, one that strove to drive deeper. "Te decet hymnus, Deus in Sion: et tibi reddetur votum in Yesulam." At the name of that Southern city, the center of the Ecclesia faith, some in the crowd were forced to blink, wondering just what the young priest was doing. Though they were caught up in the chanting, some of them mouthing that tone along with the priest, if not the words themselves, they could not help but wonder what power those words carried.
"Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis caro veniet." Hough let his
gaze fall from the sky and descend once more back upon the Keepers gathered
beneath him. His face was stone cold, as if holding back a terrible sadness,
as if he had to appear confidant for them. Yet the next words he cried out alone,
holding onto the last syllable of each, as if terrified
that it would slip from him.
Hough stood for several moments in silence even as the single note faded across
the fields. He breathed deeply, his chest rising and falling visibly beneath
the thick folds of the cassock. And it was in that silence, as the last of the
echoes ebbed, that he closed his eyes and let
his hands fall, as if bringing down that silence upon them. The Keepers stood still unsure of what to do or to expect from this priest, unsure if the boy were all right, or if this was intentional. Even Duke Thomas looked concerned, leaning forward slightly as if to reach out to the boy.
Yet the moment passed nearly as quickly as it had come, for Hough returned his gaze to the people before him, his lips pursed tightly, chapped with the cold air. He brushed his hand through his hair, dislodging some of the snow from the blonde curls, returning that youthful vigor to his expression. Father Hough then let his voice sound once more, but the musical chant was gone. "I have not been a Keeper long, barely eight months now have I lived within these walls, a child forevermore. For a child, there is so much magic in this world, so much to wonder at, so much to question. I sometimes have found that boisterous spirit overwhelming, and I'll soon catch myself out chasing frogs by the lake in Summertime, or collecting leaves in Fall."
He shook his head, eyes falling once more to the crowd. "I do not feel like a child right now. I am a man, no matter how I appear. You know I am a man. Many of you have come to the Penitential Rite, and saw a man, and had no qualms telling that man of your shortcomings. That man had no difficulty in treating you as men also, with dignity and respect. Many times this last year we have felt the surge of hope that others in this world would see us as men, and many times we have seen that hope dashed.
"And then, on the most Holiest of Days, we were asked to demonstrate
to the ungrateful world that not only are we men, but we can die like men as
well. I know that each and every one of us has lost another dear to our very
souls. We have watched our brothers, our sisters, our parents, our children,
be slain cruelly and without mercy. Our struggle was not one
that the other kingdoms of men may note, or consider worthy of note. It is a terrible burden to feed a dog who snaps at your hand, but that is our burden here, at Metamor."
He gestured slightly to Raven with one hand. "We know what we must do now. But we must also never forget, never let their memory fall from our hearts or our minds. Those that fell here on this battlefield have not disappeared from this world, but have gone to another place. They remember what happened here, whose lives they saved by giving their own. Their battle is finished, their sufferings done. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord."
Hough's face twisted in a fury that was not familiar to the priest's visage. "I watched several I knew and loved slip into death. There were so many, that I could not be at all their sides, doing what a priest should do in those last hours of a man's life. Their own right to peace was stripped from them by that enemy of Yahshua and all that is good. He may think that he dealt us a blow so serious that we shall never recover. If so, he is mistaken. Our commitment to being men, and to have the rest and peace we deserve, as befitting our station, shall be claimed. Hard labor lies ahead, yes, but to grant the eternal rest to our brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, we must rely on our Creator, and strive harder than ever before.
"And there is one other thing we must do: we must never forget those that died on this field. Those whose blood was shed for us so that we might live. For the Followers of the Way, Yahshua, the only Son of Eli, came down from Heaven, and was born of the Virgin. He shed his blood for us, so that all men might know true life. Our own brothers and sisters here have done the same. We must remember their sacrifice, and strive for the peace they have obtained."
He closed his eyes once more and lifted his hands over the banister. The chant filled his voice, that tone rising loftily into the sky. "Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine: cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine: et lux perpetua luceat eis." He opened his eyes, the powerful words, words few understood, then resounded forth again, as clear as a tosin bell ringing in their minds. "Eternal light shine upon them, O Lord: with all thy saints for evermore, for thy mercy's sake. Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and may light perpetual shine upon them." His voice fell into sudden silence, as his body still held out towards the sky. And then, Hough stepped back, his head bowed low, his body once more that of a child.
"Amen." Merai found herself saying the foreign word together with the Patildor around her. She was momentarily surprised at herself, but then shrugged and turned her attention back to the balcony. For some reason, it had just seemed right...
Raven and Hough had withdrawn to their seats, and now Duke Thomas himself stepped forward to face his subjects. The Horse King was dressed in a heavy coat, one that was no more ornamented than might be seen on any number of his fellow Keepers. That seemed right to Merai: this wasn't a time for regal pomp and circumstance. Right now, the Duke looked like just one more Keeper who had come to pay respect to the dead ... and that was probably exactly how he wanted it.
"Seven and a half years ago, our world was changed forever," the stallion began, his deep voice echoing around the square. "The forces of darkness and tyranny descended on the lands of the West, threatening to destroy all we held dear. In the face of such a powerful enemy, it would have been understandable for us to give up. To surrender." Thomas clenched his fist tightly. "But we chose to stand up and fight. To fight for our homeland, for our families, and for our way of life.
"Many would have said that it was impossible. Many would have said that we stood no chance against such a foe. But we won. Against overwhelming odds, we rallied and drove the forces of evil back into the Northlands they came from. In doing so, we saved not only ourselves, but the lives of everyone in the Midlands, Sathmore, and all the other lands of the West.
"But our Enemy did not accept defeat so easily. After we thwarted him in the heat of summer, he turned to treachery and attacked us during the holiest time of the year, tainting a season of good will and kindness with innocent blood. So we were called upon again to stand against the darkness— and now, a week later, we once again stand in victory."
The duke rested his hoof-like hands on the railing, as Raven had done some minutes before. "But this victory did not come without a price," he said. "Our mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters— men and women of courage and valor— have shed their blood so that this kingdom may continue to stand. And so we have come here today to dedicate a portion of this land, this battlefield, as a memorial for those who here gave their lives that a nation might live."
Merai looked down at the circle of empty ground that had been cleared in the terrace, roughly ten yards in front of the main gate of the castle. Several of the Lightbringer acolytes stood between the crowd and that patch of ground, dressed in heavy brown cloaks, watching the duke attentively.
"It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this," Thomas continued. "But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate— we cannot consecrate— we cannot hallow— this ground. The brave men and women, both living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above and beyond our feeble power to add or detract. The world will not long remember what we say here, but it shall never forget what they did here. Instead, those of us who remain among the living must dedicate ourselves fully to the unfinished work that those who fought here have so nobly begun. Darkness still threatens the world, and we must commit ourselves to the great task remaining before us. From these honored dead, we must take increased devotion to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. We must resolve, here, today, that these dead shall not have died in vain— that the evil that took their lives shall be utterly vanquished— and that this great kingdom, with the ideals of justice and personal freedom on which it was established, shall not perish from the earth."
Turning to look over his shoulder, Thomas nodded to Raven. Lifting her head, she prayed something under her breath—
And then, out of the stones of Metamor itself, a slender young woman stepped forth.
Her hair was silver and cropped short, her eyes as grey as the stones from which she had emerged. Diaphanous robes fluttered around her as she strode forward to that bare circle of ground, seeming to glide along the terrace stones like a breath of wind. Some in the crowd gasped, but most watched in awestruck silence as the ghostly woman approached them. Some of the guards drew their swords, but the duke held up a warning hand and shot them a stern look, its meaning unmistakable.
For Merai the woman's identity was unmistakable, as well. She had never seen Kyia like this before, but she would have known that aura anywhere.
The spirit of the Keep came to a halt at the edge of the circle of ground. She stretched out her hand into the middle of the circle, and there was a ripple of light around her body. Then, suddenly, a stone column, the same shade of grey as the walls of Metamor, rose out of the earth, shaping itself into a four-sided tapering spire twelve feet high and three feet square at its base. The crowd around Merai murmured in awe.
The whispers ran through the crowd, and some pressed forward to get a better look at the benefactress who had saved them from certain death in Nasoj's attack. The acolytes closed ranks and formed a barricade, warning people to keep a respectful distance.
Kyia rose a few feet off the ground, insubstantial as a morning mist, and took a long look at the men, women and children who lived within her walls. A hush fell over the crowd, as everyone waited to see what she might say.
Then, after a long moment, the nymph smiled broadly, an expression that radiated joy and pleasure— the sort of joy that a person might have upon seeing her family again after a long journey. Then she turned, and with nary a sound, vanished once again into the stones of Metamor Keep.
Thomas let the silence hang for a few moments before speaking. "Let this monument be inscribed with the names of every man, woman and child who has given his or her life for this victory," he said. "Whenever we pass before it, let their names remind us of the task that still remains before us, so that we may gain strength from the memory of their sacrifice."
The duke beckoned to Raven and Hough, who came forward again and each gave a brief benediction for their respective followers. Then the watchtower bell rang again, three times, and the crowd began to disperse, many of them stopping to touch the smooth granite spire as they made their way back to the Keep. It would take weeks to compile a list of the names of the fallen, and weeks more to carve the names on the spire; but for everyone who had lost a loved one in the battle, it seemed as though the name of that parent, child, sibling or friend was already etched in the proud stone monument.
Merai turned in a slow circle, taking in the view of the town around her. Even the stone houses would not be habitable again for months, and it would take years for everything to be rebuilt. Just dealing with the thousands of bodies, invader and Keeper, would take weeks to complete.
But in spite of all that weighed on them that day— the pain, the loss, the hardship to come— Merai saw hope in the eyes and auras of those around her. Though they were all grieving for the loved ones they had lost, there was a greater optimism that shone behind that grief. Deep down, they knew that they had struck a decisive blow against Nasoj this time— a victory that Lord Thomas seemed committed to follow through on. Together, they would stand against the wizard and show him that a people dedicated to goodness and justice could prevail over the forces of evil and tyranny. Together, they would fight on.
And someday, once and for all, they would win.
The room was silent went the story teller finished speaking. He wasn’t surprised as most of his audience was asleep. In his lap his daughter looked up at him with sleep filled eyes.
“You’ve never lost your magic as a storyteller Muri,” an adult voice said from the doorway to the room.
Looking up he saw a male fox morph and a female otter morph stood just inside the room. In spite of the fine burgundy silk shirt and pants he was wearing his missing left ear and the long scar that ran along his muzzle still gave him the look of a street thug. Hardly the image of a wealthy nobleman and his wife showing off their new home.
“Thank you Caroline but I can’t take all the credit. The story tells itself. The party is still going on?”
“Beginning to wind down a little,” Misha answered. “It is after two am you know.”
“Your wife has been asking for you,” Caroline commented. “You promised her a dance.”
Muri carefully stood up, still cradling his daughter. With care he deposited here on a soft blanket in a corner.
“Me like story,” a soft voice said.
He knew without looking up that it was Madog. The automation was sitting in a corner by the window. Muri hadn’t seen the metal fox arrive or how long he had been listening.
“Thank you. Did you like your part?”
The metal creature nodded. “Me not fail. Castle not taken,” he said with pride.
Caroline took Muri by the hand and pulled him slowly towards the door. “You have a dance date. Don’t worry about the kids, Madog will watch over them.”
Muri allowed himself to be pulled through the door and into the party. Among his friends and family.