There were perhaps fewer things he dreaded than visiting the Keep's Steward, Thalberg the alligator. While Sir Edmund assured him that the arrogant and demanding demeanor of the stalwart reptile masked a tender and protective devotion to the House of Hassan, it did little to improve Stealth's opinion of him. Ever since the incident with the chicken and the mouse with the frying pan, any time he was forced to deliver a message to Thalberg it took him half the time just to build up the courage to face the massive scaly beast. Every time those yellow eyes surveyed him he felt as if the alligator was looking for an excuse to consign him to working in the kitchens as he'd once threatened.
But this time was different. He'd tried to take a long route through the Keep, but the geometry stymied him. Every time he turned a corner there was the familiar door to the Steward's office. The guards outside were probably getting sick of seeing him run past. After the fourth time, Stealth decided that he couldn't put it off any longer and marched up to the door and presented his summons.
The guards let him through and Stealth tiptoed into the very warm office. A fire roared in a nearby hearth, and light from the sun streamed through unseen windows. It was actually quite comfortable for the cheetah. He stretched a little as he stepped into a pool of light in front of Thalberg's desk.
"Ah, Stealth, I'm so glad you came so quickly," Thalberg intoned with a faint hint of dry sarcasm. The alligator was dressed in a heavy woollen red robe that cover him from neck to tail. His green-scaled hands extended from the voluminous sleeves and offered him a small letter. "I need this delivered to Baron Samuel Christopher of the Iron Mines. Today if you could."
Stealth blinked and nodded. "The Iron Mines? I know of them but not where they are."
"Take the southern road past Lorland. Turn east when you see the sign of the pick and sword at the next crossroads." Thalberg offered him the letter. "It is very important that this letter arrives with all haste. I have heard good things about your recent services. I will be expecting the same diligence on your part."
Stealth took the letter and held it carefully between two fingers. "I'll be on my way at once." Anything to get out of the Steward's office!
The alligator cracked his jaws in what was either a smile or a sign of ravenous hunger. "I'm delighted to hear it. Now hurry. This is very important." Stealth was out the door only a second later.
Being a crisp winter day, Stealth felt grateful once again for the suit the tailor in Euper and his mage friends had made for him. After several adjustments and his trial runs it felt comfortable and kept him warm as he ran along the southern road and unlike the first time he thankfully had a place to put his back pack. His legs moved in tandem, paws bounding across hard packed snow and the occasional patch of frozen mud. His chest swelled with each breath, golden eyes focussed upon every twist and turn as the road made it's way through a series of low hills and white frosted trees.
The road south from Metamor Keep was travelled far more than the northern road which made the cheetah feel both safer and more conspicuous. After only a quarter of an hour running alongside the road he passed two wagons and a pair of riders. All of them glanced at him with a far greater curiosity than he appreciated. But with as fast as he ran, he knew they wouldn't see anything on his body he didn't like strangers seeing. Still, the exposure reminded him just what his suit didn't cover.
But after a while Stealth found he could ignore the others passing him on the road. His eyes strayed to the scenery. The sun stayed behind the grey clouds to the south which gave the valley a sombre and quiet cast. The trees thinned as he journeyed south, soon broken by more than watchtowers. Farms and small hamlets dotted the countryside. Several times he caught the scent of cooking meat rich in salt and had to keep his paws from veering off the road.
The Iron Mines were about as far from the Keep as was Glen Avery, and in the opposite direction. But the road to the Iron Mines was easier than that to the forested Glen, passing as it did by the relatively flat Lorland. To his right he stared at the long rows of field covered in snow. In four or five months the fields would be full of peasant digging and planting. But now they were populated only by scarecrows.
His heart lifted when he saw the castle of Lorland set amidst those selfsame fields. It's once gaudy accoutrements had been torn down and the old fortifications were restored. The excess stone had been reshaped into new barracks and a town commons. Stealth remembered hearing how the people of Lorland were all brow beat by the thrice-damned Loriod, but just looking at the town none would have ever guessed.
Stealth suddenly felt grateful for living at Metamor. He'd been afraid of the beast inside him for a long time, but Sir Edmund and others had shown him how it could be a powerful ally. But he'd never been afraid of tyranny from Duke Thomas. He tried but failed to imagine what life would have been like under a ruler who would have insisted that he live out his animal shape.
Stealth took one last look at Lorland castle and pressed on, shutting the thought out of his mind.
Ten minutes after taking the left fork, Stealth had his first glimpse of the Iron Mines. A long city wall stretched in a semi-circle around a tightly packed cluster of wooden and stone homes as well as several far larger buildings. Some Stealth recognized as towers for defence, but several were wholly unfamiliar; from the tops of these issued a steady stream of smoke. Beyond the walls lay a long field of grasses and tree stumps. The city walls drove into the side of the mountain at which the tallest towers stood. The mountains rose into the impenetrable sky, and with the low clouds, were lost to view.
It took Stealth another two minutes to run down the road to the city gates. Tall, wide, and fashioned from bronze, they seemed both dull and imposing. And to his surprise they were closed. Stealth blinked and paced back and forth to keep his muscles from tightening.
"Hallo down there!" a voice shouted from above. Stealth glanced up and saw a human man who looked old enough to have been touched by the curse waving down to him from the top of the wall. Next to him and sitting on the crenellation was a small red squirrel man. There was something odd about the squirrel's tunic, but he couldn't tell from the ground.
Stealth sat down on his haunches and stared wide eyed at the two. The man said something to the squirrel who laughed and flashed his tail back and forth. Stealth growled under his breath.
"Messenger from the Keep?" the man yelled down. Stealth nodded his head and the two guards conferred again. The man yelled, "Wait a minute while we open the door. Krystoff here will take you to the Baronness." While Stealth waited the man shouted to somebody else on the other side of the wall. The bronze doors creaked as they ground inward. Beyond Stealth saw the main road lead between the thick walls and another gate at the end. Those little killing zones always made the cheetah nervous, and this time was no different as he crept through the massive bulwarks of stone.
"Lookout below!" a newer higher pitched voice shouted. Stealth glanced up as he passed out of the killing passage and gaped as the squirrel jumped off the city wall. He stretched out his arms and legs and a flap of skin between them stretched and billowed in the air. To the cheetah's surprise and to the amusement of the guards, the squirrel glided down to the ground and landed comfortably. The folds of skin drew back against his sides as he lowered his arms. The squirrel turned back, claws ticking on the stone road, "Sorry to surprise you. I love doing that! I'm Krystoff. Follow me."
The red squirrel was definitely smaller than Lady Avery had been, and judging by his awkward gait, it looked as if he'd be better off falling to all fours and scampering like his arboreal brethren. Stealth followed him at a leisurely pace while glancing around to get a better view of the city.
The Iron Mine looked to be about the same size as Euper with a similar variety of shops. The homes were small and fit together like pieces of a puzzle. The main road was cleared of snow, but Stealth could hear children playing in the drifts beyond the line of houses. The steady clang of blacksmiths resounded from the east, as well as a deeper groaning coming from a large pyramid shaped building stained black. Smoke billowed out of the top, dark and carrying a very dirty scent that he couldn't identify.
The squirrel led him nearly all the way to the mountains and then up an incline toward one of the larger towers. Krystoff gestured to the mountains and the network of cables, pulleys, and wooden planks leading into several gaping holes in the mountainside. Several large animal morphs pushed cranks that kept the contraption moving. "And that's the Iron Mine. Richest deposit of iron in all the valley. We've dug pretty deep into the mountains. There's even some tunnels underneath the town now. The Baron has talked about opening some new tunnels to the north and to the south, but until we can build the defensive works, it's still not safe enough."
Stealth turned his head in surprise. Krystoff laughed. "Yeah, we don't see many Lutins this far south. We used to, but these days its pretty quiet. But there's plenty of thieves and bandits still. Any we catch the Baron'll make into miners. We've got one fellow down there who hasn't seen the sky in two years. Course, he raped and murdered one of the Baron's cousins."
Stealth wasn't sure whether he should be amazed that the murderer was still alive, revolted at what he'd done, or more revolted at his sentence. Either way, staring at the gaping hole in the mountainside and watching men, women, and many age regressed coming in and out covered in dirt, he knew that he didn't want to get on the Baron's bad side!
The squirrel continued on his way to the tower, oblivious to Stealth's confusion. The tower door was flanked by a pair of older male guards who in heartiness reminded Stealth of George, despite the fact that both must have been female before the curses changed them. They nodded to the squirrel and let him pass through the wide doorway.
The tower was wide and flanked the mountainside. Inside, it appeared a little cramped with close walls and low ceilings. There was carpeting and tapestries bearing a silver pickaxe on a black escutcheon, as well as several other symbols and decorations the cheetah didn't recognize, but they were the only signs of opulence in the otherwise drab interior.
Krystoff led him to another small room off the main foyer and bade him sit down. "Wait here and make yourself comfortable. I'll go fetch the Baronness." Without another word, the squirrel flicked his tail and scampered out the main door. It swung shut behind him, effectively trapping the cheetah inside.
Stealth stretched a little and glanced around. He stood in a sitting room with a quartet of upholstered chairs whose backs had been opened up to allow for tails. A bookshelf occupied part of one wall, though the shelves were filled with more brightly coloured rocks than with scrolls or tomes. Hanging from them all next to it was an old pick with rusted head and worn handle whose value could only be sentimental. A liquor cabinet stood next to it with several bottles and glasses.
Stealth was about to risk shifting to his morph form (Changing in a room where anyone could enter at any time did trouble him as opposed to changing behind a bush) and replace the clothes in his back pack when he noticed the bundle of clothes resting in one of the chairs. He walked over and nosed it, blinking in surprise when he glimpsed the parchment that lay atop the pile. On the parchment was a drawing of a cheetah. Curious, he nosed the paper off and stared at the clothes. Tunic and breeches. Were they for him?
Very curious, Stealth finally did risk shifting into his morphic form. The running suit and armour stretched and slid along his frame as he shifted. Once he could stand on his hind legs, he removed his pack and took the tunic in his paws and pulled it over his chest. A little baggy but it fit. The same with the breeches. The breeches had a rope belt sewn into the sides. This he pulled tight to keep himself modest then replaced the pack. The clothes were a dusty tan that blended well with his fur, and he smiled as he ran his paws over the fabric.
He heard footsteps approaching. Stealth straightened up and smoothed the clothes down against his running suit. The doors opened and an enticing woman stepped one pace into the room. Her cheeks were hard but faintly plump. Raven black hair fell behind her without a curl in sight. Pert breasts accented her chest. And then Stealth saw that her belly was distended in an obvious sign of pregnancy. It was then that he finally noticed that she was also wearing clothes of a simple but elegant weave. At the cuffs silver lace was embroidered in the blue wool of her blouse and gown. But she eschewed the many petticoats typical of female nobility.
And then it finally dawned on Stealth that this lady must have once been a man. Her smile and voice had a pleased turn to it. "Ah, you must be the courier Stealth. Welcome to the Iron Mines. I'm Baroness Stephyni Christopher. Do you like the clothes?"
Stealth nodded. "They look very nice on you, milady."
The lady's lips drew back in a chuckle. "I meant yours."
The cheetah blinked and glanced down at himself. "Oh yes! I have my own clothes but it's very nice to have something waiting for me when I arrive." He blinked again and then removed his pack. "I have a message for your husband somewhere in here."
"Take your time to find it."
He did so. His tail flicked nervously from embarrassment as he opened a side pocket but quickly found the letter and handed it to Stephyni who took the letter from his outstretched hand. "So, milady Christopher, I was told that a reply was needed. How long will it be?"
"Don't be in a rush to return. It's already past midday," Stephyni smiled as she sat down in one chair. She ran one hand over her swollen belly and sighed. "My husband will be here soon. I sent Krystoff to the mines to fetch him."
"He works in the mines?"
"Every day he can," Stephyni replied with a fond smile. "Would you like something to eat while you wait? It may be a few candlemarks before he returns."
Trying not to look too closely at his hostess, Stealth nodded. "Thank you, milady. I would like some food."
She smiled and clapped her hands.
It was an hour later that the Baron finally arrived. During that time Stealth enjoyed a meal of roasted duck and potatoes. The cook lacked the fine artistry of the Keep's kitchen staff who were capable of the most delicate of flavours, but at least he wasn't stealing these delectable morsels.
When they were finished, Stephyni introduced him to her two children, a young boy and girl both of whom were only a few years old. The children were amiable but were more interested in chasing each other waving toy mallets around. Though both were human like their mother, the boy's black hair was marred by a streak of white like a badger down the middle of his head. Stephyni proudly said he took after his father.
The boy reacted to this praise by smashing Stealth's foot with the mallet, at which the baroness admitted sometimes he took too much after his father. After having the children taken back to their chambers to rest she apologized to the cheetah who continued to hop up and down cradling his bruised toes.
So it was when the Baron arrived that Stealth had a cold cloth wrapped around his paw and could neither rise nor kneel to greet him. The Baron was a stout badger who stood shorter than either Stephyni or Stealth. But his arms and chest strained within his russet doublet. The cheetah stared in amazement at his arms, noting they were thicker than he was in his middle. This Baron probably ripped trees out of the ground for fun!
The Baron was flanked by a child similarly muscled who dressed in slightly less fine clothes. Both of them, though freshly cleaned, smelled of soot and stone. The badger put his paws akimbo on his waist and smirked. "I see you've met my boy. Little Samuel wants very much to be a miner like his father. He's the only child I know who wants to receive rocks for Yule."
Beside him the boy who looked only twelve but must have been much older began to laugh. "That's one way to keep the poor fellow in town, Sam! Break his foot!"
"It's not broken," Stealth said, feeling quite uncertain in the face of these two. "Just bruised. I can make it back to Metamor." He wasn't about to have his abilities questioned!
The badger's grin widened and he began to nod. "I'm sure you can, lad. I'm sure you can. But I hear you have a message for me that requires a reply. Since my son has done you injury, I insist that you enjoy my hospitality for the night while I compose my reply. It smells like you've been enjoying my dinner already, so you may as well as enjoy my bed."
Stealth flushed with embarrassment. "Oh no, my lord, I couldn't possibly impose for the night."
The age regressed man laughed again. "Hear that, Sam? He thinks your offering him that lumpy pile of dirt and rocks you call a bed."
Stealth groaned and clutched his face with a paw, "I didn't mean your personal bed."
Baron Samuel Christopher glanced at the youth and then smacked him across the back of the head with the flat of his paw. The youth neither stumbled nor did he stop laughing. Returning his gaze to Stealth, the badger replied, "Aye, I wasn't offering you my personal bed just a bed inside my home. It's better than anything you'll find at the inns and it's free." He cast a quick glance at the youth who still chuckled to himself. "And despite what my cousin here says, I don't actually sleep on dirt and rocks."
"Not if he wants to share a bed with me!" Stephyni said with obvious admiration in her voice.
All of them laughed except for Stealth who felt slightly uncomfortable. It was always that way when in a group who he didn't know but who knew each other well. These three were family whereas Stealth was an outsider. Friendly though they may be, and far less intimidating than Steward Thalberg despite their physique, he'd still only met them today.
"But where are my manners?" the Baron asked.
"You probably left them back at the mine," his cousin interrupted. This rewarded him with another swat to the back of his head.
The Baron walked into the room and stood beside the seat where Stealth reclined with one leg propped up. "I'm Baron Samuel Christopher of the Iron Mines. And this is my cousin Daniel. You'll have to forgive him. He's both incorrigible and intolerable."
"Hey!" Daniel objected with a twinkle in his eye. "Why don't you tell him about some of my bad qualities too?"
Even Stealth laughed at that. Somehow the repartee between these cousins set him at ease. "My name is Stealth. I'm a courier for Metamor. Your wife has the message already."
Samuel turned to Stephyni and smiled as his eyes admired her form. "Good. I'll read it later. Did you really run here on all fours from Metamor?"
Stealth nodded. "Yes, this morning."
While Samuel settled into the chair next to his wife's, Daniel rocked back on his heels where he stood just inside the room. The youth's eyebrows raised incredulously. "This morning? How long did that take?"
"Maybe four hours."
"Four! That's better than some horses. What kind of cat are you?"
"I'm a cheetah. According to the library at Metamor, we're the fastest runners in the world." It was very hard not to let the pride slip into his voice. There were times when he still feared the beast inside of him, but making it serve him and Metamor had helped immeasurably.
Daniel's grin widened. "I guess I don't want to race you even with that injured paw."
"I'd definitely beat you," Stealth admitted as he looked the youth up and down. He was strong from his time working in the mines, but Stealth knew he could outrun him hopping on just one leg.
Daniel stretched his arms. "Running's good and all, but how well do those twigs of yours work?"
Samuel rolled his eyes and Stephyni shook her head. Daniel grinned and waved his fingers. "Your arms. Come on, I'm just a kid. Surely you can beat me."
Stealth blinked "Arm wrestling?"
"Of course! Arm wrestling!"
Stealth blinked again and stared at the kid's biceps. An uncertain chuckle lodged in the back of his throat. "Uh, no, I don't think I'd win. Your arms are much stronger than mine."
Daniel's grin fell a little, but he nodded and settled into a seat next to him. His feet almost reached the floor. "Good! This one's got some sense about him, cousin!"
"Stealth is our guest," the badger baron reminded his cousin with a light-hearted laugh. "And since this is my land, I would like, with your permission, to show you much of what we do here at the mine."
The cheetah flexed his still sore toes. "Mind if I rest my foot a little bit longer?"
"By all means," Samuel waved one paw and grinned revealing his mixed set of teeth. "Tell us news of Metamor! As a courier, you are privy to many things that I will never hear down here!"
Stealth wasn't so sure about that, but found it easy to share what he knew with the affable Baron and his wife.
"So those belts carry the ore out of the mine and into that building over there?" Stealth asked as he pointed at a long series of pulleys and rollers across which cloth had been sown. The cloth strip was a few feet across, an inch thick, and hundreds of feet long to make the full circuit carrying the heavy ore. The entire system was connected to a tower that turned with the strenuous pushing of several bulky animal-morphed Metamorians. They toiled at what looked like a set of wheel spokes without the wheel and with spokes thicker than Stealth was around.
The badger beside him nodded and waved his claw in the air following the belt from the opening in the mine to the pyramid shaped building which continuously belched smoke. "That's right. And that's the forge. All of the ore is smelted inside that building. We send shipments of fresh iron bars to Metamor every two weeks, but many things we build here. Swords, plowshares, and everything in between."
Stealth admired it all as he stretched. Baron Christopher's tour of the Iron Mines had been delayed until the next day not because of other affairs, but because the four of them had got to talking so extensively about Metamor, the Valley, its history, economy, and everything else that by the time Stealth realized his paw felt like normal again, the sky was already darkening with twilight. So instead of a tour they reclined at dinner, then that squirrel Krystoff showed him where he could sleep. The bed was comfortable and much like the one he had at Metamor, so he slept peacefully.
Anxious to make his way back to Metamor in the morning, he nevertheless felt some duty to his host to see the Mines. And they were quite fascinating, though it was a way of life he wouldn't want. Daniel's bravado the day before had a more serious edge to it than Stealth had realized at the time. Many of the miners were cutthroats and thieves caught by the Watch and sentenced to work off their debts. There were minerals other than iron in the mine, some far more valuable. Daniel and Samuel had to stay strong to help their men keep the involuntary miners from causing any trouble or from stealing anything else.
As a cheetah, Stealth wasn't built for the brute strength the life of a miner required. As a badger, Baron Samuel Christopher was uniquely suited to it.
Stealth listened as the badger rattled off more facts and pointed to more and more places about town. Though a small community, it was welcoming and Stealth felt very comfortable here. He secretly hoped he could run a few more messages here in the weeks and months ahead. He had never received so kind a welcoming as he had here.
But he still had to return to Metamor at some point.
"So," Samuel said as they made their way back to the family tower. "What do you think of my city?"
"Much smaller than Metamor, but at least it looks like a city. I don't think I'd fit in here very well."
Samuel chortled and patted him gently on the back. "A few years swinging and you'd build up the muscles. But I think you're doing exactly what you should be."
"Thank you, my lord." Stealth smiled a little as they climbed the road.
"The message to Thalberg is waiting for you. I take it you wish to return soon?"
"Yes, I would like to get back."
The Baron nodded. He swayed a little as he walked up the slope, but he never looked likely to lose his balance. "I understand. I always yearn to rush back here when my tasks at Metamor are done."
Stealth fingered the loose clothes he still wore over his running harness. "Thank you for the clothes too. It was nice to have something to change into when I arrived. I'll fold them back up before I leave."
"That reminds me," Samuel said with a broad grin. "I do have one more thing for you." He reached into the satchel slung over his shoulder and drew out a flat leather pouch with hooks at all four ends. "If the measurements are right, this will attach to your running harness without all the bulk of your current back pack. You can carry the clothes in this and dress yourself whenever you wish."
Stealth blinked and took the pouch in his paws. He rubbed the tough leather hide with his thumbs and stared bewildered. "Why are you doing this for me? You don't even know me."
"True enough. I'm not doing it for you," the Baron said with a sad smile. "But after meeting you, I wish I could say I was. It was Thalberg's idea."
"Thalberg? But he's... so..."
"Cold? He was like that before he became an alligator or so I hear. This is his way of saying he was wrong about you. You'll never get him to admit it, but that's what this is." Samuel smiled at him with an almost fatherly affection. "He told us your measurements and had us make both pouch and clothes for you."
Stealth blinked and continued to stare at the pouch. "So this whole delivery here was a ruse to say he's sorry?"
Samuel shrugged. "Not a ruse. His letter was important. But these are gifts from him to you, and I hope you think of them as from us as well. You are always welcome here at the mines, Stealth."
"But it was..."
"An act of kindness," Samuel said, a gruff certainty pervading his voice. The cheetah looked up and nodded. The pouch would fit onto his harness easily, and it would be very nice to have a proper pouch for his full suit to carry his clothing in. A little less awkwardness over the winter months.
"An act of kindness," Stealth murmured, then he too began to smile. "Thank you, my lord. Do you think I should tell him too?"
"Who, Thalberg?" The badger laughed. "I don't know if I'd thank him personally, but I'd wait a month or two before stealing another chicken from his kitchens."
Stealth grimaced and held the pouch tighter. "You heard about that?"
The badger laughed long and loud. He patted the cheetah on the back and with one arm scooped around his slender shoulders, herded the feline up the slope to the tower. "Heard? I used to steal food from the Keep's kitchens when my dad was the Baron. You should have seen Thalberg then!" Stealth suddenly liked this badger a whole lot more. Together, they laughed as they returned to the tower to fetch the letter. Stealth knew now that he would definitely come back this way any chance he could. And maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't quake in his fur the next time Thalberg called for him!