Muri wandered back in the front door a couple of hours later and found Llyn still seated at the table where she had been when the buck lead him out. Seated in another chair was Dream, his dulcimer once again broken down and sitting in the chair next to him. The remnants of their meal were scattered about the table, three mugs and a couple of pitchers placed amongst the ravaged loaf of bread and bony remains of some sort of bird. Llyn smiled as he wandered it, pouring cider from one of the pitchers into the third mug and handing it to him as he returned to his chair and sat down.
With a grateful smile, Muri tipped back the mug, letting the cool, spicy liquid ease his parched throat. So much concentration made him ignore the needs of his body, often leaving him with a parched throat, cramps, and immediate, more pressing urges to satisfy. Which was why he came in the front door rather than the kitchen, the jakes had been around the far side of the building from the kitchen entrance. Reaching over, he ruffles the fur of her shoulder, "Thanks, that certainly helped."
"Why did you do that?" she asked, smiling.
"Do what? Work?"
"Yeah, Dream was covering the costs."
"I like to earn my own way." He smiled disarmingly at Dream as he refilled his mug, "No offense to you, Dream, I didn't want to ride on your coat tails too much."
"Hey, there's no problems with that." The marten replied, his voice as smooth as new spun silk, his smile as cold as a winter trout, "I play for my friends, and they give me a place to stay and some food to eat." Llyn scowled briefly at him, catching the sudden tension in the normally unflappable marten's posture and voice. They all glanced up as the doe, Nylin, came over to the table, flanked by her taller, more broadly built mate. She set a plate of succulent meat, fresh bread, and fruit down in front of the skunk, giving a brief curtsy and a smile before turning and moving over to another table. The buck pulled over a chair and sat down opposite Muri.
"Thanks, skunk." He extended his hand across the table, and Muri clasped it firmly, "What be your name there anyway, mage?"
"Murikeer." The skunk responded, "Though as for 'mage', I am not, merely a hopped up apprentice."
"Yeah well, whatever you be, Murikeer, you're an honored guest here. You did a right pretty job out there."
"My pleasure, sir." Muri beamed, his tail flicking in the air behind his chair happily, "Before you fill it, though, rub a good coat of wax into the stone."
The deer blinked, leaning back slightly at the odd request, "Wax?"
Muri nodded, taking a bit of the meat, which was subtly spiced and wonderfully tender, "On the outside, it will keep a lot of the water from getting onto the cracks and such of the stone, and prevent most of the winter damage." He said after swallowing the meat, which he spent a bit longer chewing on than might otherwise have been the case. It tasted just too good, "But not the bottom, it's a little hot."
The deer nodded, looking at him curiously, "Will do that then." He stood, smiling over at his mate, who was speaking with a few new patrons. The timber workers were gone, replaced by others who did different jobs, "Love, we won't need to port in that cauldron tomorrow." He said across to her, which brought an immediate sigh of relief and a smile, "I got the cistern fixed." He said, a bit louder, for the crowd in general. A light smattering of applause filled the room, making Muri feel quite self conscious. The buck then turned toward Muri, a genuine smile on his muzzle, the lines revealing that he did not smile often, "As I said, your tab is covered for as long as you wish to remain, Murikeer." With that, he turned and clopped back to the kitchen, his ambling gait broken by a short jig, followed by a brief titter of laughter from the doe.
"You make swift friends, Muri." Dream observed, shaking his head at the retreating buck's back, "He's been complaining about that cistern for months."
Murikeer merely nodded, involving himself busily with the enjoyment of his meal. Llyn patted his shoulder, "He has that sort of personality." She smiled over at the marten, who only grimaced and rolled his eyes. "Is there a tailor in this town?"
"A seamstress, yes." Dream nodded, looking her up and down as much as the table would allow, "Though you don't need what she has." He winked. Llyn snorted, shaking her head humorously.
"Flirt, yes I do." She stroked her fur, "I don't feel comfortable around all these folks without some clothing." She reached across and gave Dream a light cuff on the cheek as he leered at her, not noticing how Muri looked up through his eyebrows and smiled around a muzzlefull of bread. "We might have fur, but wandering around clad in just that is not considered in the best taste." She chuckled, adopting the stereotyped pose of an offended courtesan.
Another hour found them at the front door of the seamstress' shop, one of the few humans who still lived in Glen Avery, or so Dream informed them. Muri felt a slight pang of fear at the idea of facing a human, even if just to get himself some clothing, which Llyn insisted she pay for regardless of his protestations.
Out in the daylight Muri was able to see that the town had once indeed been a town, the remains of walls and buildings interspersed among the huge trees. Obvious by their position and size, and the size of the massive trees, was the fact that the town had always been intended to be a part of the forest, rather than separate from it. He had missed that in the darkness of the night before, just as he had missed the fact that there were as many if not more homes in the trees above their heads. Suspended walkways traversed the perilous heights between massive limbs, obscured for the most part in the foliage. Muri knew there were also sentry posts in those trees, for he had heard the draw of bowstrings high above the ground when they were challenged the night before.
It was not unusual to post archers in trees, admittedly, but when there were houses in those trees as well it made sense that there might be true watch 'towers' as well.
Like many of the buildings in the town, the one before them was built primarily into the base of one huge tree, but a thatch addition expanded the size of the house between two trees, easily doubling or more the limited space provided by the tree alone. Muri was easily able to believe that a large family lived within. The smell of baking surrounded the place with savory aromas of berries, pastry, and nuts. Absent was the scent of cooking meat, which Muri could easily overlook. Breakfast was over, and the noonday meal was swift approaching. Most would eat a light fare, which was customary in Muri's experience, consisting of pastries and more vegetarian fare.
Dream rapped upon the door, the sound echoing through the home.
A few moments later a latch was lifted and the door cracked open slightly. A narrow, chiseled woman's face blinked at them from the narrow gap, "Yeah?" she asked curtly, her brown eyes narrowing as she gazed from Dream to the silent skunk and mink standing at his flanks. "Och you two be a sorry sight, come in then." She swung the door open further, stepping aside behind it as she waved a hand for them to enter. There was a curt, direct tension in her movements that struck Muri as seeming highly displeased at their intrusion into her home. Her brown eyes, framed by a face of angular beauty, were hard and uncompromising as she closed the door behind them. Muri felt a twinge of unease at the angry glare directed in his direction, sidling in just ahead of Llyn, his tail held up tight against his back.
She was one human, alone, in a small house, without a weapon in her hand, but Muri could feel the malice of her look as he moved past. The same cold, hard hatred as any human had ever expressed toward him since that dark day not so many years ago when he suddenly found that he was losing his own humanity. And yet he had never once lost his compassion, his sense of honor; or right and wrong. It seemed to him that the world around him had gone topsy turvy, humans suddenly became these ravaging monsters out to spill his blood.
Simply because he had been tainted by the dark curse of a mage who never even knew or cared that the child Muri had been was within the influence of his disastrous spells. Humans had become the monster that all children are taught to fear, the fanged predators that sneak from under beds in the dark of the night to terrorize children's dreams. They had become that, and moreso, to Murikeer. They had become his pursuers, his hunters, his doom.
They haunted his dreams, sending him into wakefulness with terrified screams into the darkness of his cavern home. They robbed him of his dreams, leaving him to weep in the darkness of his home, lamenting his state, lamenting his loneliness.
Loneliness caused by their hatred.
Once inside the door, Muri hastily backed a few steps away, stepping behind Llyn as he gave the place a swift glance, looking for all possible avenues of escape should this woman, like so many other humans, suddenly leap at him with a sword.
They found themselves in a rustic common room that, lacking interior walls, was delineated in purpose by a simple, if elegantly woven, rug. The other two thirds of the main room was a kitchen. No housewife's kitchen, this, it appeared more like that of an inn or pub. Two massive hearths and a steel box over a charcoal pit were set in three separate sections of the kitchen. Tables were set up, spaced well apart, all of them covered with the fresh leavings of some well prepared meal. Several trays of pastries and a couple of pies were stacked in a rack of intricately carved wood. Of the cook, though, there was no sign.
The woman stalked past Muri as she let the door fall shut with a buzz of rope and a heavy thud, the latch clattering noisily into place. Llyn cast Muri a startled glance at the acerbity of the seamstress, who showed no sign of having been the denizen of that marvelous kitchen. She cast aside a curtain of some intricate weave consisting of brown primaries and deep greens, giving the illusion of a forest passage, pausing as she waited for the three to follow.
"What you see is what I have." She muttered, waving a hand toward a pair of heavily laden racks of clothing. The colors were not bright, but they were well tailored for what the woman had available to her. Most of the garments were of various ochre hues, with splashes of deep red and green thrown in here and there. Dream, dressed in his vibrantly garish minstrels' garb, gave the racks a dubious look, but said nothing as the woman leveled a heavy glare at him. "I'll have to modify whatever you choose, so don't worry about the fit."
Giving the woman a sidelong glance, noticing only the threat she posed rather than her slender, graceful beauty, Muri moved over to the clothes racks. He circled around them until he could see the woman as he made his selections, grabbing something, anything, out of the rack. He first pulled out a delicate, burgundy chemise, earning a chuckle from Llyn who was digging through the other rack. Dream, with a wary glance at the woman, bowed and quietly retreated, leaving them to their own devices. His manipulation of the latch was a lot quieter under his hand than it had been for the woman, the buzz of rope ascending and dropping through its guides punctuating Dream's exit.
Llyn produced a garment of simple, yet utilitarian design for Muri, who was far more inclined to watch the woman than what he was looking at. She had returned to her loom, the shuttle rattling smoothly back and forth through the loom under steady, experienced hands, not bothering to watch the two animals rooting through her clothes. With barely a glance, Muri accepted the black and deep green shirt and trousers which belted at the waist and cinched around the mid-shank.
Glancing back after making a few passes of the shuttle-cock, the woman noticed Muri, with the clothing draped over one harm, standing between the racks and staring at her. She scowled at his stare, standing as she moved toward a large table with drawers. Muri's eyes widened, his fur fluffing outward as he saw her open a drawer and reach into it for something out of sight. He silently called forth the most powerful of his ranged magics, preparing to strike the woman down, when she brought out what looked like a narrow belt of tightly woven threads. She turned once again, and simply stared at him for several moments, looking somewhat put off and confused.
"Well, lad, come on, I haven't got all day to stand here waiting on you." she muttered, rolling her hand for him to approach. He made one step, letting the simmering magic fade away slowly, but his legs failed him, halting his progress.
"Oh." Llyn gasped, looking up, and moved over to place a hand upon his shoulder and nearly causing him to jump in fright, "He's had some problems with humans, I'm sorry." She explained as she guided him over toward the table. At first his feet remained firmly rooted upon the wooden flooring, but eventually he managed to lift one and place it before the other, and they got easier after that.
"Like I had a choice in this?" the woman hissed at Llyn, waving a hand to indicate her slender shape. The mink's eyebrows rose at the woman's harsh tone, taken aback. She had known many who were never comfortable with what Nasoj's curse had done to them, but never had she encountered someone so openly hostile about it.
"I was hunted." Muri growled, unable to speak any other way past the constriction in his throat and past the hammering of his heart. "From Sathmore all the way across the mountains." He leveled his own defiant glare at her, focusing on her own anger to breath through the barriers of his fear, "By humans." He spat.
"Well I can't be responsible for that." She snapped back, causing the skunk to bristle, his hands flexing. Llyn shifted her hand around on his shoulder, pushing him back slightly as she glared at the seamstress.
"He's mad, your mad, woman, and neither one of you are right in it." She warned darkly, her hand going to the hilt of her sword. The woman's eyes narrowed at that action.
"Do you wish to walk all the way home without clothing?" She muttered, the fires of her anger banked only slightly.
"If I have to." Llyn responded, "A day more will not matter a great deal to either of us." She lifted her money pouch and let it fall heavily on the table, "You can have our bronze or look at our tails, woman, what'll it be?"
"Eight silver." She said at length, her voice softening though her eyes remained as hard and cold as glacial ice. Llyn growled at the exorbitant price, but did not wish to march into the halls of Metamor as naked as the day she was born, regardless of the leniency shown toward the furred denizens of Metamor in regard to the necessity of clothing. She nodded shortly, tossing her own selection of clothing onto the table.
Muri stiffly suffered the woman's hands upon him as she took his measurements. She measured his shoulders, chest, arms, and legs in the standard methods he had been used to as a child, but there were added measurements of his shanks, tail thickness and length, as well as a measure around the thickness of his tailroot. "You plan on spraying with your clothes on?" She asked, both in jest an jibe, as she finished the measure of his tail. Muri simply glared and nodded; he was a skunk, the question was rather moot.
Next the woman performed the same set of measures on Llyn before putting her tape away, "I'll have them done shortly, so you might as well wait." She looked at them through narrowed yes, hooking her finger toward the curtain, "Out there." Muri gave a shake of his shoulders as he moved away from the woman, his tail lashing in agitation as he waited for Llyn to finish, then turned toward the curtain as the human's words reached his ears. Llyn said something unintelligible to him and followed.
They almost literally ran into another creature on the other side of the curtain, bringing the skunk to an abrupt halt and causing Llyn to collide with his back, the curtain falling across the doorway behind her.
The portly seeming female that was regarding them from the distance of a single arm was covered with bristles, her small face narrow and tapered, with a prominent and quite mobile nose. She smiled at them as she clasped her hands together, bristles shifting across her back as she smiled up at the skunk, "Why hello lad!" she chirruped, her voice as bright and cheerful as the human's had been dour and acerbic. "You must be the kind skunk who fixed master Jurmas' cistern!"
Muri, caught with his mood foul and not expecting to encounter anyone, was at a loss for words for several breaths, merely nodding affirmatively until his voice returned. "Y- yes m'am." He offered brokenly as Llyn slipped out from behind him, looking curiously at the hedgehog.
"Oh but that was most kind of you, lad." She smiled, nodding her small head, the action sending a ripple through the long grey spines festooning her back, "My name is Annette, but most around here just call me Mrs. Levins." She piped, extending her small hand, her short arm not bringing that hand all that much closer to the skunk. Muri, with complete disregard for years of careful instruction, merely extended his hand, clasped the hedgehog's in a gentle grasp, and shook it.
"Murikeer." He offered, his voice lightening, though still a bit of a rough growl. Llyn chuckled, batting aside his wrist, as she stepped forward and gave the shorter, spiny female a welcome hug, careful to push the spines down slightly as she did so.
"I'm Llyn." She offered, breaking the hug as Muri stepped clear of the duo, watching with a bemused look on his muzzle, "We haven't met before, but I've been through here quite a few times, and enjoyed your cooking up at Lars' place whenever I get a moment."
"Oh, you haven't tried Lars' own cooking?" the short female asked, her voice light and cheery, a welcome relief from the seamstress' bitter sound. She smiled as she turned and ambled over to the rack of freshly cooled cooking. "Here, please do try one of my blueberry tortes, they're the last batch this season made with fresh berries."
Bemused, Muri followed Llyn's lead as she followed the hedgehog, accepting one of the light, flaky pastries as it was pressed into his hand. Taking a small nibble at one corner, he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as memories of times long, long past flooded back to him with the sharply sweet bite of fresh blueberries.
"You will be the hero of the whole town for weeks, Murikeer." Mrs. Levins reported as she set the tray of pastries down on the cooking island dominating the center of the kitchen, "Jurmas has been complaining about that cistern all year, since the last freeze caused that crack in it."
"Why didn't he get someone to come fix it?" Llyn asked the hedgehog as she eagerly worked on her own pastry, the dark blue juices staining the mahogany fur of her muzzle, dripping dark spots onto her wrist.
"Oh, but the traders don't come here much anymore, what with the curse and all of those nasty little Lutin beasts." She rattled off, drawing another tray of pastries from the rack, "In fact, we had to call up a group from Metamor just a month ago to chase a way a band of the ruffians. A right dangerous row it was, their dragon got shot up pretty badly."
Llyn perked up at that news, having been away from the keep since shortly after the spring festival on one errand or another, then stuck in the north when her last patrol went bad. "Any losses?"
"Dearie no." the Hedgehog piped, shaking her head as she smiled up at the mink, "They took a pretty full swing at those Lutins, sent them packing for the hills."
"Who was here?"
"Oh, that fox with the big axe, Misha? Him and a rat who came by and asked Walter to do some work on his clothes. He was a writer from all I was told." The hedgehog went busily about her tasks even as she spoke, her two visitors moving out of her way silently, "If you want another, please feel free." She waved a skillet over her shoulder in the general direction of the tray of tortes while digging in one of the lower cabinets. Muri, finished with his own pastry, was not about to turn down the offer of another, though he chuckled at the way she flourished that pan. She could do a lot of damage herself if she got irate enough to wield that heavy circle of dark iron against a Lutin's skull.
"The writer rat? Charles Matthias?" Llyn asked, her voice pitching up in some disbelief, "I thought he refused to fight."
"I don't know, my dear, because from the stories I was given, he was quite the doughty warrior up there in the hills with the fox and his crew. He even took grumpy young Garrigan under his wing as a student." She set the skillet on a countertop as she dug a sack of ground wheat from a shelf, "Though I don't think he's going to teach that ferret how to write." She turned at looked at Llyn levelly for the first time, "I assume you don't know about Loriod?"
"The fat lord?" Llyn shrugged, taking a small bite out of the corner of her second torte and savoring the bright flavors, "No. The last I knew he was lording over his farmers like a self styled king."
"No king was he." She said as she poured flour into a large mixing bowl, "But a mage he was, apparently, he put his lot in with some dark evil and Thomas had to kill him."
"Thomas?" Llyn nearly dropped her pastry.
"Yes, not long before they came here there was a great battle at Loriod 's estates, and Thomas had his mages blow up one of the towers because of some vile magic." She shuddered, her quills shifting as she set the sack aside and returned to rooting around in one of her other cupboards, not noticing the look Llyn cast Muri, or the skunk's own rueful smirk. "Then he went and cut the fat lord down in a fight."
"One month and the entire kingdom flips onto its ear." Llyn said quietly as she shook her head, polishing off the last of her pastry and casting a longing look at the tray. Mrs. Levins laughed, using the edge of a scoop to shove the tray toward the mink, who smiled back winningly, her teeth stained a dark purple, and accepted a third pastry. "Please, tell us more? I've been gone for quite some time."
Leaning against the side of the tree, Dream watched a group of Glenners lined up across the clearing going through a rough sequence of toughening exercises and stretches. The badger pacing back and forth before them, howling orders and watching his soldiers work was Angus, the sergeant of the town guard. Having been a resident of the glen for his entire life, so far as Dream had ever learned, the badger knew well what sort of evil that could be leveled against their small town at a moment's notice. Indeed, where now great tress stood, creating the deep, forested feeling of Glen Avery, there was once a true town. It had been razed in the great battle of some years past, which had caused the changes that now affected those of the glen.
Indeed, those of the entire Metamor valley. Dream had not been a citizen of Metamor at the time, having come only four years past in order to escape a certain assassination. His past was not an evil one, though the family that had given him his truename had been quite infamous. That was his past, and as much, he had discarded it when he learned that their ambition had caused their downfall. Only by becoming what he now was, an animal, had he managed to escape the same fate. Yet he was not yet truly free of the hatred that was aimed at his family name, and was always alert for the knife that would put forever an end to the dreaded name he had himself ceased using.
These things were seldom far from his thoughts, the fear of an assassins blade ending his comfortable life. He knew that at least one had pursued him all the way to Metamor, and had likewise been affected by the curse just as he had, though what became of the man he did not know. He had only seen the face of his death once, and escaped by an equal measure of luck and desperation five years ago. He did not like the fact that he had been changed into an animal, that fate trapping him forever in Metamor, but he made the best of a dreadful situation, settling in well enough and earning something of a name for himself. Generally, though, he liked the night, which was his time.
Darkness and night had always been his time of choice, the shadows comfortable to him though he did not consider himself evil, despite the common conception that those of the night being sinister, dark souls. Only the need to train the young noble of the past month had forced him to change his common activity times, in order to suit the young lad's schedule.
Not that he had taught the fellow nothing at night, but dancing had not been in that regimen.
Watching as those training across the clearing, he quirked one corner of his narrow muzzle in a rakish grin. Those lessons had been at the leopard's behest, and demanded, not that Dream had argued to vehemently. At sixteen years of age the lad was old enough to make his own decisions, no matter what his parents thought. Once Dream had given him back his ability to dance, the fellow tired quickly enough of other things, which suited the marten nicely, who left when he knew he was no longer needed, his company no longer desired. With a heavy purse of garretts and a new, very expensive wardrobe, Dream was making his way back to Metamor.
His dreams had assured him that he would encounter Llyn along his path, and not alone, though he had not known who she would have in her company. He had hoped that, with that meeting, that he could once more return to her graces, one of the only females with the strength of mind and body to suit him. Many tended often to be far to vapid, or far too masculine, to suit his wants. One of the natures of the curse meant that, unless they were an animal or child, every woman that he encountered in the entire demesne of Metamor would have in their past been male.
Though he had no qualms either way in whose bed he shared, male or female, he found it off-putting to find the responses of a male in the human women he knew. He also had no desire for the age regressed members of the Keep. He had known those who preyed upon the young, as it was a common practice in some areas of the great northern continent. The kingdoms might couch it in benign terms, such as fellowships, mentoring, or apprenticeships, but in they end they often came down to the same end. Older using younger to satisfy their hedonism.
As a noble, Dream knew and understood these to be acts of the powerful against those less than they, but he did not have to follow those paths. Thus, despite knowing that a thirteen year old in appearance might indeed be older than himself by many years, yet he still could not bring himself to do more than treat them as the children they appeared to be. That was a mistake, and he knew it; a mistake that those that knew how make use of it. He knew without witnessing that the underground network of spies and such used by Metamor used those age regressed souls as infiltrators, assassins, and spies.
He could say nothing against it, as those seeming children had the maturity to make their own choices.
Not so for the slim ermine trying to keep up with the training regimen that Angus was currently putting them through. He had given each of the trainees a long, tapering broadsword and was churning them through a series of parries, thrusts, and swings. Many of the trainees were able to keep up, some better than others. The larger members, bears, horses, and the lone human kept up gamely, but the smaller members, notably the ermine and a mouse, were being dragged around by the weight of their weapons. Thus they were almost constantly berated by the broad bodied, stout sergeant.
Dream shook his head at the display, which would do nothing but destroy the confidence of those smaller warriors, and leave them exposed to their enemy when they tried to go to battle with such unwieldy weapons. Righting himself, he ambled across the clearing until he was standing to one end of the training queue, watching as the ermine, a lad by his actions and movements, struggled to control his heavy blade.
"Milord sergeant?" Dream finally spoke up, using a tone of respect, couching his words carefully to not give any seeming condescension. The badger, caught mid tirade with the horse, stopped and turned a small-eyed glare upon the marten, his wide muzzle pulling into a growling snarl.
"What?" he barked, his voice a rough burr, as he turned on the marten.
"Might I have a moment of your time, sire?"
The badger glared at him, then scanned his line for a few seconds, puffing up his fur. "Yah." He growled, "Sheath em and take a break, I'll be back as soon as I run off the minstrel." He then stalked over to stand before Dream, who towered another foot over him, and glared up. "What?"
Dream turned slightly, waving a hand for the badger to follow him, and led him off a short distance, around a tree where the inevitable yelling that would shortly commence would be muted. He had seen many such good soldiers, who know one particular style of fighting, otherwise train their subordinates incorrectly. They often taught what they new, not what was appropriate for the student, and Dream himself had suffered through a few such.
"I don't think the ermine and mouse can keep up with those big swords." He said simply, stopping in the shadow of the huge tree. The badger stomped to a halt in front of him, hands on hips as he glared up at the slender marten.
"No shit." Was the response, which was not exactly what Dream had expected, the badger's voice was pitched low and harsh, "They'll get stronger, and will know how to use some weapon at least."
"And they'll get slaughtered the first time they see a Lutin's face."
"Not if they learn how to stand up and fight." The badger growled, still not moving or even raising his voice.
"With a sword heavier than they are?"
"I never said they had to use it."
That caught Dream off guard, and he felt as if he had just jumped into a pond of freezing water without checking first, "Then why are they?"
"Because they're too scared of me to ask for a different kind of weapon." The badger grinned hugely, showing a gleaming array of sharp teeth. Dream's tail dropped along with his jaw, then he had to snort a short laugh, his impression of the badger doing a quick hundred eighty degree change. He suspected that the soldier would not allow any of them into a fight until they had gained enough courage to brace him first.
"And if they never do?"
"Then they're fools and will hide with the oldsters and children because I will not let them stand and fight."
"How long have those two been slugging along with broadswords?"
"Longer than most, they're new to the glen, coming from further south."
"Lorland?" Dream asked quietly, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.
"As a matter of fact, aye."
"Then they're unlikely to countermand you without some sort of example to lead them, sergeant."
"Angus." The badger grumbled, nodding, "Yeah, I fergot what that fat monster did to his folk. Any suggestions?"
"Yeah. I challenge you." Dream smiled, resting his hands upon the hilts of his swords. Heretofore unnoticed because of the long tassels dangling from their pommels, they were short, narrow, and very light. In their scabbards they looked more like decorative additions to his garish blue and green costume than functional weaponry.
Angus looked down at the long shafted weapons, eyes narrowing, then back up at the taller critter's face, "So be it, if you can get either of those two to demand I train them in a better style I'll count it a good challenge." He grinned again, showing those teeth once more, "If you think you can do anything against me at all, fop."
"We shall see." Dream smiled. Angus snorted, turning about and stalking around the tree, suddenly adopting a posture of absolute, livid fury. Dream took a breath, suppressing a smile at the sudden guise of wounded pride the badger affected. The fellow was actually a much better trainer than the marten had at first given him credit for, but had walked himself into it, so would follow through.
"The minstrel has seen how sorry you lot are." He bellowed, his fur ruffling under the badger's heavy jerkin and chain armour, "He thinks I can' t train ye proper because some of you," he pointed a shaking finger at the ermine, then the mouse, "can't pick up a bleeding sword." A general surprised murmur rippled though the assembled students, the ermine quailing, cowering visibly when the badger's thick finger jabbed in her direction. The mouse merely swallowed visibly, glancing over toward Dream as he came out from behind the tree, purposely rearranging his own vest as if he had been through a rough moment. "You kids watch how a good longsword can beat any opponent."
Dream cast an exaggerated look of exasperation at the badger as he walked onto the open, grassy clearing where the classes were being held, "The badger thinks just one weapon is the best." He responded derisively, "But there are many other weapons out there, so keep your eyes open. If you can't use one, find another that works for you."
Angus rounded on him with a growl, brandishing a stout longsword in one beefy hand. Dream merely watched him, hand on the hilts of his sheathed swords, "You sure you don't want a buckler old sod?" he challenged, sidestepping as Angus moved to circle him, snarling and shaking his head negatively. He held the gleaming length of polished steel with practiced ease, switching it from one hand to the other with swift motions, the tip never wavering.
Dream had to move swiftly to avoid the badger's sudden forward leap, which came far more swiftly than the lithe marten would have expected. He took a quick leap to the side and drew his own swords. Unlike the longsword, which was straight and double edged and a good foot longer, Dream 's blades were single edged, slightly curved along the squared back of the blades, with a distinct, sharply angled tip at the end of a uniform blade length. His hilts were half as long as the blades themselves, allowing for a two or three handed combat style. Of course, no person could wield a sword with three hands, but the design was such that there could be a substantial space between two hands in that style, which gave it the 'third hand' area of space to work with.
At the end of both short blades was a tassel of bright fabric, white for his right hand and red for his left, and as the swords moved the twirling sashes in complex, eye straining patterns. Dream's swords came out with the same blinding speed that Angus's attack closed with, yet his blades did not leap out to counter the longer sword's thrust. Instead, the marten held the back of the blades down against his forearms, the tips extending beyond his elbows by six inches. Steel rang on steel as he blocked Angus's attack with one blade, batting the sword wide as he spun away from the direction of the lunge.
To his credit, Angus was swift on the recovery, spinning at the same rate as the marten turned, swinging his long blade down and across to bring it up and parry a lightning swift crossing slash of one rear angled blade. The badger hissed and snapped as the twin sashes whistled rapidly across his field of vision. His lunge had been merely to test the defenses of his oppo nent, expecting the marten to leap back and hold on the defensive, not to so swiftly close for the attack.
Steel rang a staccato song in the silence of the clearing as Dream pressed his advantage, his arms moving in a complex pattern of ellipses, focusing his attacks upon the rapidly parrying blade of the badger. Caught off guard by the sheer ferocity of Dream's attack, Angus was forced back step after step, vainly trying to parry each of the marten's blinding attacks. None of them packed a great deal of power, the way he held those short blades preventing him from putting a great deal of strength into each strike. Yet Angus was familiar with the method, which was swift, and brought his opponent in close enough to kick, punch, or in the case of his opponent, even bite. It was all he could do to keep those short blades at bay until he realized that he was not the target.
His weapon was.
It was no tactic any Lutin had ever employed against him, going after his weapon to keep it at bay while preparing for another method of attack. With a grim rumble, he changed the direction of his retreat into a forward lunge, shouldering the marten aside as he charged past and spun, swinging the sword around and high with one hand, extending his arm all the way as he swung blindly over his shoulder. He figured that the marten could block, having proven himself a capable swordsman with that first assault.
There was nothing to strike though, for Dream had moved away to take up a defensive position before the line of quietly watching students. The ermine was whispering furiously into the ear of a horse, who nodded slowly in response to the small mustelid's gesticulations. Angus recovered from his wild overhand swing and moved a little more carefully on the marten, who was breathing lightly through his open muzzle, the corners of his maw pulled up in a grin. "See kids," he said over his shoulder, "a heavy weapon is not always the best."
"But nor are puny metal strips." Angus added, wading in with a vicious overhand swing. Dream brought both blades up, arms crossed, the swing ending with a distinctive, ringing grind of metal against metal. One handed, Angus repeated his swing rapidly, giving Dream little time to do more than block, steel ringing once more, driving the marten to one knee, his face pulled into a rictus grimace as he impact rocked through his arms and shoulders. The third swing drove him to both knees with a grunt, sparks showering from the softer metal of the practice sword. Angus drew back and swung once more, breathing freely at that point, but Dream was not about to accept another shattering blow. Where he had used both swords in a crossed block above his head, he suddenly dropped one as the sword whistled down at him. Angling his own parry, he deflected the sword aside, his other arm snapping up, wrist rolling back as the tip of his sword snapped out and upward.
Angus hissed and leaned back abruptly, the tip of the shorted blade shrieking past his nose close enough to stir his whiskers. Dream leapt up with a flurry of short strikes, using a parallel pattern, blades a few inches apart as the badger worked rapidly to hold off the assault. Both combatants were panting heavily as the rapid fire ring of metal on metal echoed through the trees. Attacker became defender in the span of a couple of swings, the battle surging back and forth for several long minutes as both combatants sought to gain an advantage on the other.
Dream had to respect the badger, never having thought that the fellow could hold out for even a minute against two swords against him without a shield, but the badger was amazingly swift for all of his bulk. He had to notch the teacher up several places on his level of respect as he tried to penetrate his defenses. His offense could do little against the barrier of steel the marten could put up, though the badger could put up a very strong wall of steel himself.
Angus himself grimly gave the minstrel a few points for his skill and uncommon technique. He had seen the swords back technique used a few times in the past, but never by any Lutin or other enemy from the north. The marten, both swordsman and minstrel, seemed to dance through his moves, as if executing a training pattern rather than engaging in a heated battle, his blades striking with deceptive lightness but making an impressive song as they pounded nicks into the soft metal practice blade. The tassels were new to Angus, and very distracting, like angry birds darting and diving around him as he fought. He made several mental notes even as he fought the nimble dancer, from stance and technique to the use of those tassels.
Stepping back to resettle his defense before another forward assault, the badger stepped on something loose, which rolled under his foot, upsetting his balance, translating up through his body to affect his next parry. He bared his teeth and took a quick jump rearward, slashing wildly to keep his opponent at bay, a swing which was knocked aside easily as Dream lunged in, arms coming up toward his shoulders, blades flashing out.
Like a mantis attacking prey, the tips of his swords lanced forward, gaining extra range as his wrists rolled back. The tips of the blades pricked Angus at either side of his throat, but not before the badger recovered, reaching out with one quick hand to grasp the marten's throat, the tip of his sword coming in to poke at the marten's belly, which he quickly sucked in.
"We die." The badger grinned, panting heavily, and the marten nodded at the mutual end of their fight. The two broke off, Dream examining his blades for damage, and pleasantly surprised to find none. Angus's practice blade, though, looked as if it had been the target of a blacksmith's anger. The blunted edges were chipped and notched from the fight, one side having an impressive divot literally carved out of it.
Giving the badger a bow of respect, inclined deeper than would otherwise have been the case due to his increased respect, and after a moments' pause the badger paid his blade flat against his chest and bowed in return.
"There, you happy now, tree weasel?" Angus growled as he tossed the useless practice blade aside for later re-forging, "You see what a good longsword can do?"
"But is it the best weapon?" Dream responded, sliding his swords back into their wooden scabbards without taking his eyes from his opponent. His muzzle hung open as he gulped air, trying to catch the wind the badger had so smoothly worked from him. To his credit, though, he had forced the badger to work himself breathless as well, which said something for the heavy creature. He had indeed been the better of the two, using one weapon with enough skill and finesse to fend of an opponent skilled in two.
"What say you?" he barked, quite suddenly, toward is students. They all stood in shocked silence, their poses frozen as they riveted their gaze upon their overbearing instructor. "Isn't my blade a better weapon than his flimsy swords?"
No one moved for several moments, until one small head shook negatively. The badger's withering gaze turned and speared the mouse, puffing his deep chest and thumped his fists into his hips. "No, lord Angus." A voice came, not from the mouse, but from a raccoon at the other end of the line, who earned the same venomous glare.
"Well, it's not sir." The raccoon continued gamely, "I mean. you have a strong arm, and some of us don't, the longsword is too heavy."
"Then you get stronger."
"Some aren't built like that." The horse said slowly, steadily, not wilting under the badger's glare.
"So? What, you think you should learn speed over force?" the badger yelled at the line of students in general.
"Not just speed, milord Angus." The mouse finally spoke, "But better fighting." He stepped forward slowly, and was swiftly followed by the taller, more slender ermine, "We're too small for your sword, but if we had smaller swords."
"Faster swords." The ermine chimed in as behind them heads were nodding.
"You saying I been teaching you *wrong*?" Angus bellowed, eyes narrowing as Dream stood quietly behind him, trying to catch his breath without appearing as winded as he truly was. Image was important, after all.
"Not wrong, milord Angus." The mouse quailed, "Just. your way."
"And what's your way?" he glared, bearing down upon the mouse, one thick finger jabbing forward, causing the rodent to shrink further and further away. The ermine tried to offer the mouse some support, but she could only hold up so well under that same withering regard.
"Fast, milord Angus, in and out." The mouse squeaked, his voice getting lost.
"So, you just want to snipe a fellow?" the badger growled darkly, his voice lowering, "You skulk about and stick your enemy in the back?"
The mouse gulped, mouth falling open as it's voice left it entirely, and the ermine took up the slack, "If that's what we have to do, milord." She offered bravely, "They are more than we are, and if we stand and fight they'll cut us down like autumn wheat."
"Bravo." Angus whispered, his voice heavy, but no longer the angry growl, "You finally realize what your strengths are, and your weaknesses." The mouse, gaping, simply slumped down, sitting at the ermine's feet as he looked up at the suddenly calm badger. Dream snorted a quiet laugh through his nose, crossing his arms over his chest. "But STOP calling me LORD!" Angus bellowed, which caused the mouse to throw his arms over his head protectively, the ermine wincing away as the rest of the class jumped. Even Dream, grinning, was given a start at the thunderous roar. "I work for a living." He finished, somewhat more quietly, and turned back toward Dream.
"Well, minstrel, I'd call that a good challenge." He stuck out his hand and smiled, prompting the marten to grasp it firmly and smile in return, shaking the badger's strong, callused hand. Releasing his grip, the badger turned back to his students, "Class is dismissed for today. I want you all to find something to fight with that you think suit how you want to fight, and bring them to me tomorrow. I don't care what it is, be it a blade, a bow, or a plowshare." He grasped the mouse by the jerkin and picked up onto his feet, "Then we shall see just what you think you know, and what I can teach you."
Clapping Dream solidly on the back, the badger turned to pick up the discarded sword, "Well, minstrel, I think we advanced training today by an entire month." His heavy teeth gleamed as he spoke up toward the taller marten, "I'd say that's worth a drink."
"Or two." Dream smiled, glancing over toward the thatch hut where he had left his two companions. They were standing just outside the door, each with a tray of food in their hands, while Mrs. Levins stood between them, staring over toward the badger.
The two animorphs had gone through striking changes with the addition of clothing. Llyn was still pleasing to view, even with the fetching ensemble of a deep green vest over a suede jerkin and matching cream hued suede leggings. She had braided a few sashes of green fabric on the black leather of her scabbard, and one from the hilt of her sword as well, matching them to her wardrobe. The skunk was in darker colors, but just as handsomely tailored. His leggings were of a light, black dyed leather which was almost indistinguishable from his natural color save for the way it altered his shape. The baggy leggings cinched at mid-shank with a hand-long cuff of very dark red broadcloth, laced with black leather strips. His shirt was of a light, baggy black broadcloth and hung loosely from his shoulders, though not in a disheveled manner, unlaced from neck to chest. He wore a vest of pockets over that in the same color as his shank-cuffs, laced together with black. The only thing that threw off his wardrobe was the sun-faded grey of his bandoleer.
"What was all that yelling about, Angus?" the hedgehog asked with her uniquely piping voice. She could also sing quite a tune, Dream knew, when she wanted, in spite of her limited range.
"Just putting the final touches on a good class, Ann." The badger responded, his voice suddenly soft and mellow, a cultured baritone that had never learned to sing a single note. He was a good counterpoint, if he could ever get the rhythm of the music. Dream liked country villages, for all of their drab dinginess, because almost every member had some sort of vocal talent. "And we're off to Lars' place for a drink."
"Ah good, I was just taking the last pastries from this season's berries up there as well, with the aid of these kind helpers."
Angus smiled, offering an arm to the hedgehog, "And well fed helpers at that, no doubt." He rumbled humorously, which earned a titter of laughter and a nod from the hedgehog.