Author's note: Special thanks go to Matt and Misha for keeping me from pitching this whole thing out the window over two years of writer's block, and to Ryx for the battle scene, which would not have happened without his advice.
Mid-October, 707 CR
The morning dawned clear and cold, but that didn't stop Drift from his daily run outside the curtain wall. As a matter of fact, he relished it, the late autumn air singing crisply in his lungs. The first frost of the season had turned the grass of Metamor Ridge to crystalline silver that rolled away into the plains below. Although the sunlight had not yet reached the Valley itself, it had reached the tops of the Great Barrier Mountains beyond it. Their white-wrapped peaks glowed like beacons, stretching away to the north and the south as far as the eye could see. A gentle breeze tugged at Drift's deep green vest and breeches and rippled his fur as he paused to admire the snow-covered evergreens just began to gleam along the mountain flanks. Below them, the broadleaf trees on the lower slopes were in the last weeks of their fall color, a glorious patchwork of reds and golds and browns. All were reflected in glints of color in the Metamor River as it wound its meandering way between the mountain foothills and Metamor Ridge. It wasn't cold enough yet for the river to freeze, but that would change in a few more weeks.
When it did, he would be ready. With a wave to the gate guards, he started down the descending road to Euper. Even from this far off, he could see his ice-house standing nearly finished at the edge of Euper's cluster of warehouses. The white shingles had not been cheap, but they and the white-painted walls would keep the inside colder during the warm months. Between that and the insulating sawdust inside the double walls, he hoped that the ice would barely notice the temperature outside as the seasons passed.
The ice-carving sleds and the transport sledges were almost completed, and he had quite a few prospects for workers and haulers picked out. The investigations of their backgrounds were currently in progress; there had been enough attempts at theft and sabotage while building his icehouse that he had considered the investment wise. Something going deliberately or even accidentally awry in the middle of a frozen lake could be deadly. Now, if he could just find the cause of his troubles...
So engrossed was Drift in his thoughts that he didn't notice the shadow fall across him until it was too late. A cheery "Good morning!" arrived just before impact.
"Hello, Alexis," Drift groaned a moment later, face down in the dirt.
Alexis leaned down from astride his back and smooched him on the cheek. "A little distracted this morning, dear?" the she-bat asked, amused.
"Ow," Drift replied.
Alexis' smile faded into concern when her fiancée didn't try to get up. "Hey," she asked, giving his white-furred shoulder a shake. "Are you all right?"
"I landed on my keys," he grunted. "Please get off before they puncture my thigh."
Her ears dipped in apology, Alexis helped Drift to his feet. She couldn't hide a giggle, though, when Drift fished a ring of iron keys out of his hip pocket. One was slightly bent. Before either could speak, however, a high-pitched voice called down from above.
"Ahem-hem-hem. Excuse me?" A hawk-sized sparrow stood perched on the edge of the curtain wall overhead, the double cross of the Lothanansi hanging from his neck. "I'm very sorry to interrupt," he said, "but I have a message for you, Mr. Snow. The Lothanasa has asked that you come to the Temple as soon as possible. Your first Task is upon you."
Drift stood, his back against the wall, outside the door to Misha's office in Long House, and tried not to fidget. Raven and Misha had been talking for some time, and Drift felt very conspicuous standing there waiting. The yellow-eyed stares of the three young dire wolves grouped around him didn't help matters, either. The rest of the pack was spread through Long Hall, but these three seemed to think it their job to keep an eye on the newcomer. Their collective gaze unnerved him. So Drift stood there and fidgeted, wishing Raven and Misha would hurry up with whatever they were talking about.
Finally, he couldn't take it any more. Glaring at a passing male gendermorph who couldn't quite hide his amusement, Drift growled under his breath at the trio. "Stop staring at me."
The wolf on the left, a slim black female still a bit gangly with adolescence, sat down. The other two, gray— and black-marked brothers, merely blinked. None looked away.
"I said, stop it!" Drift hissed, louder, his ears starting to flatten sideways. This time he looked straight at them.
The middle brother, who looked like he'd be massive when he finished growing into his dinner-plate paws, yawned insolently.
The entire group turned their heads as Misha's door opened and Raven and Misha stepped out. "Thanks for the warning, Raven," Misha said. "We'll be careful." Once the Lightbringer had departed with a courteous nod and a sweep of her white robes, the fox turned his attention to the guarding wolves, who had resumed their threefold gaze. "All right, you three, that's enough. Drift is a friend, not food. Go on." He gestured with a shooing motion, and the three dispersed with an air of mild amusement.
"I'm sorry if this throws a snag into your plans," Drift said, ears lowered slightly in apology. "If I had my choice, I'd stay here: I've got a lot of work to do."
Misha put his hand on the samoyed's shoulder. "So I've heard. I'm notified whenever someone shows interest in the books on siege engineering in the library."
Drift brushed off Misha's touch, leaned back against the wall, and groaned. He put the fingers of one hand to his temple as if he felt a headache forming there and complained, "Not you, too. Wolfram's been on my case all week. Did you hear what he did yesterday?"
"I heard he literally had to drag you out of the library."
"By the tail, no less," rumbled a new voice, low in the bass register. "If you had picked this up yesterday as we'd arranged," Oberon said as he approached, "that would not have happened. Catch." A thick metal rod came spinning through the air from the white tiger's underhand toss.
It bounced off the fingertips of Drift's hasty, unprepared grab, and Misha caught it when it rebounded off the wall. "So this is Whirlwind?" the fox asked, turning it in his hands to examine the complex etching along its length. "Looks nice. So how does it work?" His eyes picked up a mischievous spark, and he pretended to rap it against the wall. "Wait, let me guess. You bang it against something to get it to extend?"
"Not quite," Drift replied, holding out his hand with a look of mild amusement he might have stolen from the lupine trio. Once Misha handed it over, Drift stepped away from the fox and tiger, held the metal rod out level, and tightened his fist around the center. With a distinctive 'chik-chik-chak!' the weapon deployed to its full six-foot length. The samoyed smiled and started to spin the staff, matching holes drilled through the ends making a whirring sound like blowing wind as the staff swung. "Good. Not too heavy, but not too light."
Misha winced when Drift tested the staff by bouncing each end off the wall at a full swing, the metal ringing off the stone and echoing throughout Long Hall. "Nicely made, Oberon," Misha said when the staff passed the test without bending or kinking. "It's definitely up to your usual excellent standards. A little noisy, though," he continued, rubbing his one ear.
"That's by design," Drift replied, his tail wagging delightedly as he ran his hands over the metal. "If I have to be quiet, I can fill the holes with putty or clay, but we both know I'm not exactly a stealthy combatant. I might as well go for the distraction factor." Grasping the center of the staff between both hands, he twisted it. With a sharp 'shing!' a javelin-tip spike extended from each end, and then retracted when he reversed the twist. The samoyed smiled. "Excellent." Collapsing the battlestaff, he spun it once in the fingers of his right hand and then slipped it into a long pouch on his belt that he'd purchased for it. "I'll have the rest of your payment delivered to you before the next watch bell, Oberon. Is that all right?"
"That will do," the tiger confirmed before turning his attention to Misha. "I regret that I have foul news for you. It's been confirmed: Garan has what you call the measles. Don't worry; I've already had it when I was young, but I need to stay home and tend him. I won't be able to go along on the mission."
"No need to worry. Stay and care for your son," Misha replied. "We'll be all right. We've just picked up a replacement here that is almost as good with travel in snowy landscapes as you are. Please give my best to Kristinai, and I hope Galen feels better soon." Once Oberon had departed, Misha patted Drift on the shoulder and gestured for him to follow further into Long Hall. "Come on. I'll introduce you to your traveling companions for the next several days." Turning a corner into a long hallway, he stopped at the second door and opened it, revealing a large room with six people, all involved in checking packs and equipment.
"Laura!" Misha called out and waved his hand to draw attention.
A woman separated from the group and joined them. She was tall and her shoulder length red hair was braided and bound close to her head. She wore a thick padded jacket and pants that were colored a fall camouflage of dull green, brown, and black. A crossed bow and axe stitched in black decorated her left chest.
"Laura," Misha said, speaking to the woman, "this is Drift Snow. He'll be going with you on this mission."
Laura frowned, and Drift furrowed his brow in puzzlement at her oddly concerned tone. "Is it wise to be taking yet another civilian along with us on this trip?" she asked.
"Raven insists," Misha replied levelly.
"Hmm. I see... All right. I remember him from the Harvest Festival party. At least he won't have any trouble if we run into cold weather."
Misha turned. "Drift, Laura is in command on this mission. You'll be under her orders until your return to Metamor."
"Okay. I've been on patrol before; I don't have a problem with taking orders."
Continuing the introductions, Misha pointed to a short but muscular man checking the contents of a large pack. "That's Ralls, the healer of the group. I know you've kept yourself in good shape, but you'll likely be traveling harder than you've done before. Let him know if anything starts hurting."
Misha pointed next to where two canine morphs were hugging each other, tails wagging. One had the black, white and tan markings of a border collie and was wearing the same warm clothing as Laura and Ralls. The other had the black and brown of a beagle and little more than a short pair of breeches to keep him modest. "The woman there is Arla. For this mission, she is the most important person in the group aside from Laura. She's the link between you all and the pack: she can communicate with the wolves as easy as you and I can talk with each other."
"And the beagle?"
"That would be her husband Skylos, saying goodbye," Misha replied, smiling as the pair nuzzled noses once more before separating, the beagle waving farewell as he departed.
Drift recognized the massive form of the brown bear keeper Meredith, who was carefully examining the string and trigger mechanism of an equally massive crossbow. Looking quite dwarfed by his companion, a young man stood next to the bear, looking to be about fourteen or so years old. His clothing and armor seemed out of place on his young body, but Drift knew that Allart was older then he appeared and a deadly fighter. The young man looked at Drift and scowled. "I remember hearing about you. You're on a Task for the Lothanansi gods, aren't you? Is that how Raven pulled you into this?" At Drift's nod, his scowl deepened. "Yeah, I thought so. I'd better make sure Ralls packs extra medical supplies."
Merideth looked up at Allart's tone, reached over, and swatted the youth upside the head (nearly knocking him over in the process). "Be nice," he rumbled at the boy. To Drift he added, "Welcome aboard. Don't mind Allart; he's not happy unless he's complaining."
This actually got Allart to smile a little, but he quickly squashed it. In a tone that sounded suspiciously like a whine, the boy asked, "This one seems okay, I guess, but did you have to saddle us with that grumpy cat?"
"You know why I added that one," Misha countered. "The weather up in the mountains at this time of year is as changeable as the whims of a Pyralian princess, and I want somebody along who can give you warning if it's going to go foul."
"Someone else to have to babysit besides the wolves?" another person grumbled. A brown rabbit morph was at work at a table off to the side, his long ears hanging down on either side of his head, dressed in the same clothes as the rest. Six hand axes lay spread out on the table in front of him, being sharpened one at a time on an oiled whetstone.
"This is important, Padraic," Misha replied, his tone frosty.
"More important than tracking and killing lutins?" the rabbit asked.
"Yes," Misha answered. "It's a lot more important. This is for the survival of the wolves as a species. The dire wolves are slowly dying out in the wild. This might be their last chance for survival. They saved our home last winter. We should help them find a place of their own."
Padraic thought about that for a few moments, lifting up an axe to the light and then putting it back to the whetstone when he saw his reflection in it. "I can understand that," he said finally. "My people have been fighting for survival for centuries; first the Seuilman, then the Hordes, and now Nasoj." He paused for a moment, propping his chin on his fist in rare contemplation, and then added, "I guess it just feels odd to fight for survival without actually fighting something." As if that admission made up his mind, he set down the axe and turned toward his boss. "Tell you what... put me down for something straightforward and involving a lot of fighting afterward, and I'll call it even."
"Fair enough." He turned slightly further in his chair and looked the white samoyed up and down. "So," he said, "aside from being fluffy and indebted to the gods, what does Drift here bring to the party?"
Before Drift could reply with a defensive retort, Misha beat him to it. "You be careful about underestimating him," Misha warned the rabbit. "He's more resourceful than you think. I look forward to hearing how many times he surprises you when you challenge him to a practice duel... I know you will eventually." Misha paused, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "He might even be able to help handle the mage we enlisted for the trip. I'm told he hasn't taken the news of his recruitment very well."
Drift flipped one ear back in dismay as he put the pieces together. "Oh, no... You drafted him? He's going to be absolutely—"
Xavier's black ears lay nearly flat to the sides as he rode along on the wagon, the badly rutted road nearly jouncing and bouncing him off the seat. "Drafted," he growled, clutching the seat with one hand while he pulled his cloak tighter around him with the other to ward off the cold of the morning. "Drafted to be a glorified weather vane." He glared at the cloudy sky for a moment as if it had betrayed him, and then hunched down in a sulk. "Absolutely intolerable," he muttered, just before another sharp bump in the road nearly threw him entirely out of the wagon. He grabbed his spectacles out of the air as they started to come off his face and then rounded with a snarl on the youth holding the reins next to him. "Must you hit every single one of them?"
The wagon was small; more of a cart, really, than a true wagon. It had just enough room for the two riders and a covered bundle of supplies in the back, light enough to be pulled by a single mule. That mule turned its head and, in spite of its more mundane heritage, fixed one eye on the noisy black leopard with as venomous a glare as any Keeper. The boy at the reins, however, took the jolts in stride and clucked his tongue at the mule to get it moving again. "If you don't like it," Allart replied without turning his head, "you can always get out and walk."
They were not on the main roads, but a narrow side road through the woods, not much more than an extra wide track. The logging crews that normally used it were accustomed to a less opinionated cargo than food supplies and a cranky mage, so they didn't spend as much effort maintaining it as the Duke regularly spent on the caravan routes. Drift walked just to the side of the wagon, at the edge of the trail where the ground was more level. "Xavier, it's been at least three hours since we left Metamor. Will you please give it a rest?" Realizing that wouldn't be nearly enough to placate the sometimes prickly nobleman, and might actually irritate him further if given time to ponder it, he added, "Please, come down and walk with me. There's something about your magic I've been wondering ever since we met, and now seems as good a time as any to ask."
"Come down?" Xavier replied. "And get 'greeted' by your entourage? I think not— oof!" A thick root in the trail interrupted him and sent him scrambling for a handhold. Once he was secure, he snapped, "And what in the nine hells are you so cheery about today? You haven't stopped smiling since we left the main road."
"Has anything fallen from a window and landed in my general vicinity yet?"
Xavier's brow furrowed. "No," he said, stretching the word out slightly.
"Has anything of mine broken yet?"
"Has the Watch been by to ask me where I was last night, what I was doing, and with who?"
"With whom," the leopard corrected. "Where are you going with this?"
"Has anything bad happened to me at all?"
"Drift." Xavier's tailtip, already twitching in annoyance, threatened to start lashing.
If Drift was at all concerned by Xavier's growl, he didn't show it. "Answer the question, please."
"Then my bad luck has taken longer to find me today than anytime in the past three months. Eli willing, it won't find me at all," he said, and reached over to scratch behind the ears of the young black-furred dire wolf walking next to him. "I'm helping out on a Long Scout mission, working on my debt to Akkala, and making Wolfram crazy jealous all at the same time. I'm getting paid Long Scout wages for a walk in the woods, those storm clouds in the mountains don't look like they're heading our way, and now that I found the perfumed scarf Alexis slipped into my bag, these three have apparently decided I'm better to walk with than to sniff at. Life is good."
The three young dire wolves from Long House trotted along near the wagon. The two brothers, who had been introduced as Silent Stone and Cloud Walker (and whom Drift was still having trouble telling apart), were spread out forward and to the sides, while their sister Swift Shadow walked beside the samoyed. The rest of the pack and the other Longs were arrayed in a rough circle around the wagon, out of sight, sweeping the area clear of any potential ambushers. So far, it had made for an uneventful day.
Drift eyed Xavier as the leopard went back to sulking. Whether it stayed an uneventful day looked like it depended on whether or not he could distract one very grumpy cat. "Why do you carry so much 'charged' metal, Xav? Can't you just pull the energy out of the air?"
Without turning his head, Xavier asked, "When you are working on a large project, Drift, do you gather the materials as you need them, or do you get them all together beforehand?"
"Ah. Good point."
Xavier patted the belt around his waist, from which hung eight metal rods a little longer than the length of his hand. "I am well prepared for whatever these next few days should throw at us."
Something about that statement furrowed Drift's brow, but before he could comment on it, he was distracted by the sound of axes biting into wood. He knew the sound well from his time hauling logs the previous spring. "I thought the lumber crews were on the other side of the valley this time of year," he said, looking toward the wagon driver for confirmation. The boy, however, looked just as surprised as Drift and Xavier. Only belatedly did Drift notice that Silent Stone and Cloud Walker had vanished from their posts ahead and to the side of the wagon. The samoyed Keeper laid his hand on Whirlwind, and he saw sparks start dancing around Xavier's fingertips.
Thankfully, it didn't turn out to be a danger, just a tree fallen across the path, its base half-split and its top wedged in a tree on the far side. Two Keepers, a man and a bear, were chopping at its half-split stump with the hand axes that Drift had seen hanging from their belts earlier in the day. "Having trouble, Ralls? Meredith?" the young driver called out to his comrades.
Both wood choppers took a break from their work. "Hey, Allart. Good timing." the man said, mopping sweat from his brow. He took a swig from his waterskin, shook it with a frown, and held it out to the bear. "Meredith, didn't you say you smelled a stream nearby? Would you get me a refill while I see if they packed a bigger axe on the wagon? Thanks."
Drift stepped forward to offer to help, already shifting into taurform, but Xavier stopped him with a raised hand. "Hold the mule, Drift," the leopard said, leaping smoothly down to the ground, his velvet black tail swishing with... excitement? Something about the motion made the samoyed's fur frizz, but it took a moment for him to figure out what. Then it struck him. For the first time in the entire day, Xavier was smiling.
"Xav? What are you— Oh, shit!" Drift's eyes widened suddenly as Xavier's rapier flashed from its sheath, and he lunged for the mule's harness. As the blade came into line with its target and electricity started to arc through the basketed hilt guard, Drift shouted "Cover!" and pulled the startled mule's head in close where he could shield it from what was coming. His arm came up just in time to shield his eyes from the lightning bolt.
Skrak-BOOOM!! Shattered pieces of wood scattered like shrapnel as the half-split stump detonated. What was left of the smoking trunk swung down and out of the way, pivoting around its entangled branches, and left the road clear for passage. Drift's ears rang as the thunder echoed back and forth off the surrounding hills.
"There," Xavier said over the mule's panicked braying, turning away and sheathing his blade as blasted, blackened splinters rained down all around. "Problem solved."
Crashing in the brush heralded Meredith's return, along with a visibly startled Cloud Walker. All were overshadowed by Allart's shout as the age-morph tried, with Drift's help, to keep the frightened mule from kicking the cart to pieces. "Are you out of your mind? You could've gotten somebody killed!"
Nearly dancing to keep his feet out from under the mule's hooves, Drift reached for his dagger in its arm sheath, intending to cut the harness and get the beast away from the wagon. The mule had other ideas. It laid its ears flat against its neck and bit down on the samoyed taur's left arm, just below the shoulder where Drift's leather vest ended. "Aooww!" Drift yelped, and pried unsuccessfully at its jaws. He even dragged on its nose trying to get it to let go. "Why, you miserable little— ow!!" The mule started shaking its head back and forth, snorting with fury and dragging the taur painfully by the arm. "Well, if that's the way you want it," Drift finally snarled, drew his arm back, and punched the mule square in the head. The animal staggered. Its eyes rolled slowly back and it collapsed, out cold. "Ungrateful brat," Drift growled, massaging his arm and picking at shrapnel pieces of wood caught by his thick fur. "See if I ever try to save your worthless hide again."
"Nice punch," said a new voice as Laura, the leader of the expedition stepped out of the brush, flanked by the rest of the Longs and most of the wolf pack. "Now would someone tell me what in the hells is going on back here?"
While Allart and Xavier argued their way through an explanation, the brown hare Padraic circled around and knelt to check the mule for injuries and get it out of harness. "Nice punch," he echoed while Drift rolled the cart back a short distance in case the animal thrashed while waking. The rabbit's ears rocked back and forth in a silent laugh. "Have they been teaching new tricks in the basic training classes?"
"This is my smithing arm," Drift replied, flexing his right arm as he returned to the mule's side. "Add that to some good close-quarters skills picked up in training and practiced in barroom brawls, and—"
"They weren't in any danger: I made sure all of them were clear before I started!" Xavier's snarl jerked Drift and Padraic's attention back to the rest of the group. The leopard, his ears down and his tail twitching, looked like he was at least trying to rein in his temper. He took a deep breath, closed and then deliberately opened his hands with claws retracted. "All right. Fine. I trust you to know your business, but if you don't trust me to know mine, then I guess I'll just have to settle for weathervane duty for the rest of this... escapade," he growled. "The road is now clear, so the sooner we get wherever we're going, the sooner we can get back to decent civilization." The touchy nobleman turned toward Allart and Meredith and, though it sounded like it was being ground out of him, apologized for his 'excessive exuberance'. That done, he climbed back on the wagon and quietly stewed.
"What's the matter with him, anyway?" Padraic asked Drift. "Is he always like this?"
Drift frowned, concerned. "No. He's had an occasional flash of temper, but nothing like this. It's just been since his last visit home that he's been this touchy."
"Bad news in the family, you think?"
"I don't know," Drift replied, "and he doesn't welcome questions about it. I was going to ask Alexis if she'd heard anything, but with the short notice craziness of getting asked along on this, it slipped my mind."
"Alexis Nightwind, my fiancée. You've seen her, I'm sure. She came to the Long Hall Ball with me last month at the Harvest Festival."
Padraic whistled through his teeth. "Yeah, I remember her now. Wow, she had nice legs."
The frankness of the remark flipped Drift's ears back. "What did you say?"
Padraic smiled ingenuously, his eyes sparking with mischief. "What, you don't think she has nice legs?"
Belatedly recognizing he was being baited, Drift replied with a snort. "Very funny." Nudging the mule with a forefoot, he changed the subject. "Is he going to be all right? I didn't hit him too hard, di— yow!" The samoyed taur jerked his foot back just in time, barely a finger's breadth ahead of the awakened mule's snapping bite, and his body compacted back into its standard form as he got out of reach. "Yeesh. Are you sure that thing isn't part snake?"
"Mr. Snow," Laura called out, "why aren't you riding the wagon? We've got a long way to go and almost all of it is uphill."
"I don't handle bumpy wagon rides well," Drift replied, rubbing the side of his neck in embarrassment when he saw Padraic start to smirk. "After five minutes of this road, I knew it was either time to start walking or time to start heaving. Don't worry, though. I can handle it."
And handle it he did. True to his word, he was only a little sore when the group settled into camp for the night, in the shadow of a high rock outcropping. Xavier was not so fortunate, and settled with a groan into the tent that Drift pitched for him. The samoyed passed some cooked mutton and bread in after, and then settled down around the fire to eat and to talk with the Longs. "May I ask where we're going now?" he inquired. "Misha was a bit vague on the details. Also, why is the entire Long House pack coming along with us?" All around the circle, dire wolves chewed on bones left over from the three deer they had caught for their own dinner, or drowsed, or kept watch around the campsite. The two young brothers, however, had settled down on either side of the samoyed, and each greedily eyed the half-finished leg of mutton still held in his hand.
Laura glanced over at the pretty collie-morph sitting next to Drift. "Arla, you were the first to propose this mission. Why don't you tell him?"
Drift's tail started wagging the moment she looked his way, thumping against Silent Stone and Cloud Walker's sides. "Hey, a little room, you two," he protested, prodding them with his elbows. Turning his attention back to Arla, he apologized for his distraction. "I'm sorry. You were saying?"
The collie smiled in amusement at the trio's antics, but didn't comment on it. "Last winter, during the Yule attack, these wolves came to Metamor as part of the attack force. When they arrived, however, they decided Kyia's pantry was better to eat than the average Keeper was, so they switched sides and helped us defeat the werewolf that Nasoj had sent along with them. After that, they lived with us Longs in Long Hall. It was hoped that they would settle in and perhaps work with us to protect Metamor." Arla looked down and stroked her hand gently through the neckruff of a dire wolf lying next to her, a relatively small she-wolf that had been introduced as Little Tail. After a moment, the collie continued, and Drift's ears flicked at the note of regret in her voice. "Unfortunately, with only a couple of exceptions, life at Metamor doesn't suit them. They need open spaces and room to roam, and we can't provide that. They were not meant to live in cities. So... we're taking them to a new home."
"Here? This close to—" Drift asked, looking around just in time to save his leg of mutton from getting stolen by Cloud Walker on his left. He jerked it away to the right, and then pulled it left again and then up just ahead of Silent Stone's attempt from the other side. "Ha!" Holding the mutton leg above his head, the samoyed stood up with a triumphant wag that lasted until their sister Swift Shadow, hidden in the darkness behind him, hopped up and plucked it smoothly from his hand. "Hey!" he yelled, wheeling around just in time to see all three siblings dart off into the underbrush.
Before he could take off after them, Arla put a hand on his side and stopped him. She couldn't quite hide a smile amid the laughter around the fire, but she handed him another piece of mutton without comment. "Not here," she continued once he sat down, and then pointed upward to the west, where the outline of the mountains could be seen by the stars that they blocked. "Up there. There's a small valley up in the mountains, where they can be safe and free, with plenty of elk and moose moving through for them to feed on. For us, they'll also be securing our flank up there, which is better than they could do in the halls of Metamor."
Drift looked up toward the dark mountains in dismay. "All the way up there? Eugh. I am not looking forward to trying to get the supply wagon up there."
"Don't worry," said Laura from across the fire. "There's another team that's already been up there setting up supply caches for us, and they'll meet us on the way back. We'll spend tomorrow sorting gear and waiting for them, and they'll take the wagon back to Metamor while we continue on."
Drift thought about that for a moment and then, with a hopeful smile that brought more laughter from around the campfire, asked, "Will they take that mule with them?"
"Daydreaming again?!" Alan Snow lashed a cane down across his young son's shoulders. "You lazy slacker!" he yelled down at the cowering boy. "When will you get your head out of the clouds?" A broad, soot-stained hand crumpled a scribbled drawing and tossed it into the forge's fire. "Honest hard work is how you make your way in this world, not pie-in-the-sky ideas."
"But Mama said—"
Alan Snow's face became, if possible, even more red and furious. The cane lashed down again, and he roared, "Mama's not here anymore, and no son of mine is going to waste his days dreaming! Now get back to work!" The cane lashed down a third time.
Drift jerked awake with a yelp. Since he was traveling with Long Scouts and dire wolves, that yelp woke up half the camp and he spent the next few minutes apologizing. Fortunately, there was a rock close at hand that he could pitch into the darkness and say that it had a sharp point that he had rolled onto in his sleep. Better to be chided for not properly clearing his sleeping area than to admit to waking everyone over a "bad dream".
He stayed awake for a while afterward, unsettled. Ever since he'd let Misha talk him into pursuing his inventions, he'd felt like he was being pulled in six directions at once. If he was going to be supporting Alexis and her refined tastes, he would need a solid, dependable job. Depending for his daily bread on the income she made, however lucrative, just didn't sit right with him, and neither did continuing to depend on Misha's largesse as an investor. Smithing was a solid money-maker, it was the family tradition, and it was sometimes enjoyable, but shaping metal all day didn't leave much time for anything else. On the other hand, he truly enjoyed creating new things and new ideas, but inventing wasn't exactly a financially secure path. Inventions had to work, something that wasn't guaranteed, and people had to be impressed enough to buy them. If they weren't, then it all came apart.
Drift already knew that someone didn't want him to succeed. The price of nails, already high from the demand of all the rebuilding, had gone through the roof just as his icehouse had started construction. Tools and supplies had repeatedly gone missing. Ropes that had been thoroughly examined for soundness at purchase as early as the day before their use (or been made by the workers themselves!) had split and snapped with abandon.
He'd switched his plans to mortis-and-tenon construction to compensate for the shortage of nails, a slot-and-post construction style that dated back into antiquity but that still worked well. Tightly fitted wooden pegs secured each joint so that it wouldn't pull apart under stress. He'd hired guards to watch over the supplies when work wasn't being done. He'd even designed a new type of scaffolding that didn't use any rope at all to hold it together and used geared chains for pulleys. Even so, what should have taken a single month was now approaching three. The Watch believed a black market in building supplies was to blame caused by the high demand of Metamor and Euper's massive rebuilding effort. Drift had come to think otherwise. This stank of sabotage. Every time he overcame one obstacle, another appeared. He could almost feel opposing forces building up against him.
But if it really was sabotage, then who was doing it, and why? If he decided to continue inventing, what was to keep someone from stealing his designs and selling them as their own? If he stayed a smith, how was he to deal with the never-ending troubles in his metal supply and the constant, malicious rumors being spread about his skill? More importantly, how was he to put a stop to it? The heavens knew that the Watch, that group of incompetents, wasn't likely to be of any help in finding out that, of course. How could he expect them to find a saboteur when they hadn't even been able to hang onto a petty thief, much less find his father's killer?
That brought to mind one final thing to consider, and Drift laid his hand on Whirlwind, resting beside him, to reassure himself that it was still there. During the attack last winter, he had felt absolutely helpless, unable to do anything but hide and pray that he wouldn't be found. Whatever path he chose to follow would need to leave time for him to train, because he never wanted to feel that way again. Never. And he would do just about anything to avoid it. He was finally getting a family back. He would not fail them this time, whatever the cost.
With that thought in mind, he shifted down into full canine form, curled up against the night's chill, and went back to sleep.
Arkos Linafex tucked his daughter into bed in a new-built house near Metamor's curtain wall. Using the back of his fingers to keep his claws away from her soft skin, the red-furred canine Keeper stroked her long black hair as she slept. As he did every night, he leaned down and kissed his child's cheek with the tip of his tongue, committing the scent of her once more to memory with the keen nose of a Southlands hunting hound.
He and his wife had had such trouble having a child. They'd had one miscarriage before the Curse, and then two more after. That the Curse had changed his wife into a long-necked swan had not made things any easier. Mariah had come only when they had almost given up hope, and he had promised her as he cradled her newborn form in his arms that he would do whatever it took to give her a better life than his own.
That promise was proving very difficult to fulfill. It had taken years of effort and finally a deal with a daedra lord to drive his competitors out of business and ensure a monopoly in the smithing of light metals. If he could get that, and keep it, he was certain that his daughter would be able to marry into a higher station when she came of age.
He was so close now. So close... but for that damned Snow! He wished a curse on that entire family. He'd been able to encourage all of his other competitors to relocate to other towns within the realms of Metamor, but not the Snows. What was it about them that kept them standing in his way? He'd tried persuasion, he'd tried threats, he'd tried robbery, bribery, everything, but he'd finally had to kill that damned goat in order to get him out of the way. And now the son, whom he had been sure wouldn't be trouble after that fire scare he'd arranged, was an even worse obstacle. The elder Snow at least had been antisocial and easy to coax customers away from. His son, on the other hand...
With an effort, Arkos pushed his irritation aside as his daughter sensed it and stirred in her sleep. "Shh, shh," he said, stroking her hair and humming a soothing lullaby until she slept peacefully again. His sharp ears pricked at the sound of a chill breeze outside, and he glanced to the window near her bedside again to make sure that it was securely and tightly sealed against the coming winter cold. No harm must come to this child, he thought. She must have only the best, the very best. He would make sure of it.
He nearly snarled aloud as the special moment with his daughter was marred by the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Only one creature allowed in his home sounded like that when it walked, and at this moment it was most unwelcome. His canine muzzle wrinkled to bare sharp teeth, and he quietly rose and strode from the room. The moment he was out the door, his hand was on Thestilus' throat, lifting the imp off the floor and pinning it to the wall. The imp was currently in his disguise of an age-regressed Keeper, and made very satisfying choking sounds as Arkos throttled him. "I told you," the canine Keeper growled low in his throat, "never to come near my daughter, especially not when she is sleeping." He drew himself up to his full height and loosened his grip just enough that the little brat could talk. "There had better be an excellent reason for this intrusion," he growled.
"Report," the child-creature gasped. "Report on Snow."
Arkos was certain the little imp was putting on more of a show than an actual struggle for breath, and he tightened his grip a little. "I have a lot of questions for you, you infernal wretch. Why isn't his icehouse a pile of ashes yet? Why am I still hearing comparisons between his work and my own, favoring his?" He put his face close, laid his ears back, and snapped, "And why isn't he out of business already? That mongrel's family has been a thorn in my side for far too long and, as per my agreement with your lord, I want him gone! Why is he flourishing, when he is supposed to be suffering?" The last word, whispered only for his daughter’s sake, still ended with a click of his teeth from the force of his snarl, and it gratified Arkos to see the child-thing flinch.
"Snow has— urk#8212; has powerful allies, milord," Thestilus gurgled, but inwardly he reveled as Arkos tipped his ears forward in interest. Linafex was reacting just as the imp had predicted he would when provoked by an approach near his daughter. Alexastra isn't the only one who can play a mortal like a harp, he thought with smug satisfaction. He tugged ineffectively at the red canine's grip and continued, "They have done much to shield him from our initial tactics."
"Who are they?"
"Misha Brightleaf and Xavier Marcus bankroll him and his fiancée Alexis Nightwind is countering most of our efforts to disrupt his supplies. The woman is a fiend of logistics. I'm amazed that Metamor's army leaders haven't asked her to join their quartermasters." The child-creature scowled for Arkos' benefit as he wove truth and lies into highly tempting bait. "She is also hampering our rumormongering. That woman could sell water to fish." The imp gave another ‘ineffective’ tug at Arkos’ hand to keep the fool’s ego sated.
Arkos' muzzle rippled in a snarl of disgust. "Women have no place in the field of business. Their purpose is to tend the home and the children. Damn Nasoj... he's turned proper society on its head."
Diplomatically choosing neither to criticize nor defend a former tool of Lord Ba'al, Thestilus continued as if he hadn't heard. "His curl-horned lackey— Wolfram, I think his name is— has broken up several of the fights and brawls we’ve fomented around him or provoked him into and even Kyia—" Here the imp spat, as if in loathing. "Even she protects him. With his home and forge inside her bounds, it is much more difficult to sabotage or burgle them. Believe me, sir, I have tried." He waited just a few moments more, watching Arkos add up the numbers, and then added the final twist. "I regret to say it, master Linafex, but the forces arrayed against you are many and powerful."
Arkos cursed, his face twisting in frustration and anger. "Just once, I’d like to be the one protected by those in power instead of having to claw against their efforts." As if moved by an afterthought, the canine Keeper set Thestilus down. Smoothing out the clothes his grab had rumpled, Arkos turned on the full measure of his charm as he shepherded the disguised imp down the hallway toward the living area of his home. "My dear friend," he said in his smoothest and most gracious tone. "I apologize; you know how my temper can get away from me. It has been a stressful day, and I appreciate having at least one person I can count on." Gesturing to a cushioned chair, the desert hound invited Thestilus to sit and he poured wine into two small glasses taken from a mahogany cupboard nearby. He gave one to the boy, paused to light a small stick of incense, and then settled down on another chair. "So," he said, swirling the wine gently in its cup as magic-imbued smoke wafted up from the burning incense to block any scrying spells that might be watching. "You've spelled out the difficulties facing us. Snow has allies. Clearly, this presents a problem. Do you and your lord have any advice as to how this problem might discreetly be—" He paused, as if to consider the most appropriate word. "...handled?"
So did Arkos. He leaned forward in his chair. "Good. I thought you might."
Xavier might have been in a better mood the next morning if he hadn't awakened with a wolf muzzle two inches from his own. The mischievous Cloud Walker, apparently deciding that Xavier's tent would be much more comfortable than the forest floor, had crept in during the night and burrowed under Xavier's blanket while the leopard slept. (Since Xavier's was the only tent in camp, there was some logic to this decision.) Drift looked up from cooking breakfast just in time to see Cloud Walker bolt from the tent, his tail tucked tight and his fur sticking out in all directions. He took out one tent pole and two tent pegs in his haste to leave and Padraic whistled in admiration at the chaos that erupted. "For a dandified rich boy, he sure has quite a mouth."
"I think Wolfram and I have rubbed off on him. Watch the fire, would you?" Drift asked. He got to his feet and went to help Xavier sort himself from the tent.
The rest of the morning passed relatively uneventfully, with most of it spent unpacking the wagon and caching any food and gear they didn't plan to use until the trip home. The three yearlings enjoyed the activity, gleefully joining in whenever there was digging to be done, whether their help was wanted or not. Most of the older dire wolves looked on in amusement but the pack leader, Crooked Jaw, seemed to find it boring and paced at the edge of the encampment with his eyes toward the mountains. Drift watched the pretty collie Arla walk over and talk with him, but both eventually parted with visible frustration.
She passed close enough for Drift to reach out and stop her, and he beckoned her close so he could speak privately. "Are you actually able to understand them?" he asked. When she nodded, he continued, "How? I know it's not a canine thing, or I'd be able to do it, too."
Arla sat down on a fallen log, and brushed some moss off a spot next to her for the samoyed. For a while, she didn't speak, instead listening to the pack while she figured out how to phrase her reply. "To be honest, I'm not really sure how. I just do. Raven thinks I might have some aedra blood somewhere in my family history, perhaps some servant of Artela's. That's not as simple as it sounds, either. They understand some of what we say, and I understand some of what they say, but the more abstract the concept, the harder it is to translate. They aren't humans in furry bodies: they're entirely different creatures with very different ways of perceiving things."
"When the Curse changed you, what was the first difference you noticed?"
"You mean aside from being broiling hot? The smells."
Arla wagged a laugh at the slack-jawed, tongue-lolling face he made while saying 'broiling hot', and then continued. "Now imagine you've been born that way, and so have your parents, and theirs, all the way back to the beginning of time. For a human, scent is usually a secondary sense at best. For them, though, that's just the start of it. Memory and recall, rank and hierarchy, even their senses of place and time are different from ours. Top that with generations on generations of instinct instead of culture, and I'm amazed that we understand each other at all, even with whatever talent I have."
Drift's ears flicked, his expression nonplussed. "Culture? What do you mean?"
"Think about it." Arla started counting off on her fingers. "We can write things down, so we don't have to remember everything we learn. We mingle between groups, between nations, and we share what we learn. We invent things when what we want doesn't exist. We create music and art. We change things, Drift. Not just the world around us, but ourselves as well. We adapt to changing situations, and we do it rapidly." Arla looked over at Crooked Jaw, who was still pacing, and her voice turned sad. "They... don't. And I think it might kill them."
"You can speak to them, though. Can't we teach them?" the samoyed asked. "Can't we help... somehow?"
"I've been trying since I first met them. You might have noticed that the older wolves tend to have names that are physically descriptive— Crooked Jaw, Ragged Ear, Little Tail, while the younger ones have more artistic names. I've done what I can to broaden their knowledge, but there's so much they don't seem able to grasp, or that we just haven't had time to talk about. Metamor is too confining for them, too ordered and restrictive. They want... they need to roam. They want to live as their ancestors have lived. Even if it means they might die."
Drift shifted his seat on the log and folded his hands, resting his arms on his knees. "So they're really not that different from us, are they? We live in a war zone. If it wasn't for the Curse, it would be easy to move off and let somebody else deal with the Northlands. Well, not necessarily easy, but...."
"I know what you mean," Arla replied.
"It's home. It's where we grew up, and where our families grew up. It's not something that's easy to walk away from. They want what we do: a safe place to raise their children, in the way that they themselves were raised."
One of the dire wolves, a black-furred older female just starting to gray, rose from her spot in the shade, and walked over to Crooked Jaw. Arla watched her go, and chuckled softly to herself as the she-wolf's glance passed across them. Drift's puzzled look only made the collie laugh harder, and she put a hand to her mouth until she got it under control.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, and then burst out laughing again as Drift's puzzled look turned into a suspicious one once he put the clues together. "That's Evening Storm, the pack's lead female and Crooked Jaw's mate."
"What did she say?" he asked, drawing the last syllable out in an 'I'm-not-sure-I-want-to-know-the-answer' lilt, one ear half laying back to complete the image. "I know she said something, Arla, or you wouldn't be laughing."
The collie-morph took a moment to compose herself, and even Drift could recognize the amusement among the wolves nearby when she spoke. "She said 'smart puppy'." When Drift didn't appear to understand, she explained. "Our names don't translate well into their language, so they tend to give us new names in theirs. Most of the time, it's just a basic description: Padraic, for example, is 'Tough Rabbit'—"
"They got that right!" Padraic called from across the clearing.
"Be careful, 'Tough Rabbit'," Arla yelled back. "I'm still not quite sure whether their 'tough' means 'strong'... or 'chewy'."
The rabbit paused in lifting a wrapped bundle off the wagon to thump his chest in raw bravado. "Let 'em try," he replied cheerfully.
His ears quirked in bemusement, Drift drew the collie's attention back to their conversation. "So she decided to call me 'Smart Puppy'?"
"No, she said that you were smart." Arla's tail started to wag. "The whole pack has been calling you Puppy ever since Swift Shadow found you sleeping curled up in a ball this morning."
"Wonderful." Drift rolled his eyes, but he couldn't stop his tail from thumping against the log in shared amusement. "So what were they calling me before that?"
"How very appropriate," Xavier interjected, approaching from behind. Rounding the end of the log upon which Drift and Arla sat, he handed each an apple, keeping a stick of jerky for himself. Pausing to stroke his chin in lightly exaggerated thoughtfulness and resting his foot on a lower portion of the log, Xavier continued, "Now, if they called Snow here 'White', that would most likely make me either 'Black', 'Cat', or..." He paused and tilted his head slightly, one corner of his mouth twitching up in a hint of an apologetic smile. "'Grumpy'."
Drift looked up from digging through his pack for a knife to carve his apple with, and laughed. "You? Xavier Marcus? Grumpy? Never!"
Xavier rolled his eyes in bemusement. "The wagon's unloaded of all we'll need, by the way," he added as an aside to Arla.
"Actually," the collie replied, with only a slight wag of her tactful tail, "they call you 'Skyfire'. Loosely translated, it means—"
The leopard man held up a hand to interrupt. "No, wait, let me guess. Lightning?"
"Among other things."
One eyebrow rising slightly, Xavier tipped his ears forward, intrigued. "An interesting response. Perhaps I'll ask you later what 'other things' are included. From the tone of your voice, I would guess that there are many." Turning his attention to the samoyed, who had found his knife and was now chewing a wedge of apple, the leopard said, "Once you're done, Padraic has asked to see you." He smirked. "I believe his exact words were he wanted to 'see if Gimmick Boy could actually fight'."
"And what did you tell him?" Drift asked in reply.
"I told him he'd made a wise choice." The leopard calmly flexed out the claws on his left hand and examined them, buffed them once on his shirt, and then let them retract. "It will be a good opportunity for him to work on his arboreal skills, climbing down from the treetops into which you've kicked him for underestimating his opponent."
Several dozen thumps and bruises later, Drift and Padraic faced each other again in the center of the clearing, cheered on by the Longs and watched curiously by the wolves. Padraic had disabused Drift of a habit for straight-line fighting with lightning-fast sidesteps and swats with the flat of his longsword, and Drift had bewildered Padraic with the ease and rapidity with which he changed forms and combat styles. One moment the rabbit would be blocking a staff swing and a forepaw kick from a 'taur, in the next he'd be swinging over a dog's head as it bolted past his knees, and then narrowly dodging a spear strike at his back from a morph-form samoyed a moment after that.
"You're quick," the rabbit said, panting from the exertion. "I've never seen anybody shapeshift that fluently, not even Misha."
"Lots of practice... with padded floors," the dog replied, shaking out his stinging hands and favoring his left side where Padraic had swatted him most recently. His smile acknowledged the combat veteran's superior experience. "It's a good thing, too. Ow. If I don't keep you guessing, you'll mop the floor with me."
"I'll bet you're glad for shapechanging armor."
"You have no idea. Clothing, too."
"Can't have you fighting naked," Padraic joked. "You'll catch a cold."
Drift laughed. "Do I look like someone who gets cold?" he asked, collapsing his battlestaff into a club and ruffling it through the thick fur of his forearm.
"Why am I not surprised that you've got a weapon that changes shape?" asked an unfamiliar voice from behind Drift, and the startled samoyed's collapsed staff clanged off the flat of a steel dagger as he whirled. "Nice reflexes... for a deaf person," Finbar said with a smirk, holding Drift's weapon high and wide. Behind the ferret, the rest of his Long Scout team was just arriving, flanked by Swift Shadow and Silent Stone, who had found them and led them in.
"How... Where did... what?" Drift stammered, pulling back his weapon as he took in the new arrivals. He had completely missed the bird call and reply about a minute earlier that had signaled the newcomers' approach.
"Ah... Shock and confusion," Padraic said with a chuckle. "The hallmarks of a proper Long Scout arrival. Well done. Hey, Danielle." The rabbit waved to a pine marten Keeper bringing up the rear of the group before returning his attention to Finbar. "Have a good trip?" he asked.
The ferret spun his dagger down into its belt sheath just as Laura walked up to talk with her fellow team leader. "Good," he said. "You're here. I don't have to tell the story twice. You've got a slog ahead of you. The stairs are blocked by a rock fall, probably from sometime this summer, and the high path is going to be outright dangerous. We got tagged by the edge of that big storm in the mountains just as we were getting down, and I could hear thunder rumbling back in the mountains all night. I don't envy you going into the aftermath if you decide not to turn back. On the other hand..." He smirked and thumped Drift on the shoulder, making the still mentally off-balance samoyed flinch. "At least one of you will have great camouflage along the way."
"Um. Excuse me... 'the stairs are blocked'?" Drift asked. "Who would build a set of stairs out here?"
Laura, Finbar, and Padraic shared a glance, and then Laura said, "Padraic, why don't you explain the lay of the land while Finbar and I talk over this new development with Arla and Crooked Jaw?" The two departed, heading toward Arla and the gathering wolf pack. Xavier, who had been watching Drift and Padraic spar, rose to follow them but Laura gestured him toward Padraic instead. "You should know this, too, Xavier, just in case we get separated." The leopard agreed that made sense and angled toward Padraic and Drift while the two team leaders continued on.
Padraic and Drift crouched down, the hare using a stick to draw a map in a patch of dirt that he scraped clear of fallen leaves with a few sweeps of his footclaws:
"This is where we're going. Ice Lake," he said as he drew, tapping the kidney-shaped lake on the left of the drawing. "We Longs discovered it during a scouting mission several years ago. It is surrounded by mountains on nearly every side except one. From the lake, a broad, U-shaped canyon leads down through the mountains, eventually ending in a cliff face on the other side of that hill to our west. The river we stopped at this morning starts at that lake, follows the canyon, and then drops in a waterfall down the cliff face before continuing on to join with the Metamor River not far north of Euper. If something goes badly wrong, all you have to do to get home is walk downhill." He held up a finger to forestall questions. "I don't expect anything will, but you'd be amazed at how fast things can go bad out here. I don't believe in waiting until the plan goes to pieces to start thinking about what to do next."
"That sounds like a smart attitude to have," Drift commented.
Padraic rocked his long ears in agreement and then drew an X on the east side of his map in the middle of several teardrop-shaped marks. "We are here, in what we call the Teardrop Hills." The hare gestured to one of the nearby hills, and then another. "Three sides steep, one side shallow," he said, and both Drift and Xavier nodded. Even draped in tree cover, the shape was distinctive and clearly visible. The hare then scratched in two sets of dotted lines, both ending at another X near the lake.
"Now, normally we would have two choices for getting to where we've scouted as the pack's new home: the Low Path along the canyon, and the High Path around Scarred Mountain." He paused again, pointing to a mountain rising a few hours' hike away beyond the Teardrop Hills. Its north and east sides rose nearly vertically from the forest, its upper slopes sparsely scattered with trees amid numerous avalanche runs leading all the way up to its snow-capped peak.
Drift whistled through his teeth at the forbidding sight, running his fingers through his thick ruff. "Yikes."
"Scarred Mountain isn't the one I'm worried about," Padraic replied. "All Scarred Mountain generally throws at us is a long hike up." Tapping his stick against the northern line of dashes, he continued, "It's these two after it that I'm concerned about. We'll have to be very careful. Still, the path itself is fairly straightforward: once we get around Scarred Mountain, the path follows the cliff face almost all the way to Ice Lake."
"And the Low Path?" Xavier asked. "The... stairs?"
Padraic flicked his ears and a smile displaced the concern in his expression. "That's right. I was going to explain what that was, wasn't I?" He tapped the southern route, next to the cliff with the waterfall. "Right around here, there's a narrow crack in the cliff, leading into a cave system which winds upward to an opening in the canyon wall above the waterfall. We call it the Stairs. Unfortunately, Finbar says it's been blocked, and we don't have the proper gear with us for digging or mining. It really is a shame, too... the canyon's relatively sheltered and an easier route, and the cave itself is beautiful."
The hare returned his attention to the northern route, absently snapping a twig off his drawing stick and gnawing on it while he pondered. "If Laura, Finbar, and Arla can't talk Crooked Jaw out of wanting to go, though, it's the High Path we'll be taking."