Admissions and Applications

by Charles Matthias

It was already late afternoon. Michael could easily see the shadows slowly sliding along the floor towards the far wall of his room. Soon the entire room would be in shadows. He did not want to leave quite yet. Having holed himself up in his room for the last day and a half, he didn't think he could ever leave again. Perhaps Charles had been right? Yet, it was still so strange to look at himself and not see the baize flesh and the straggling hairs and the bony legs. His last few weeks with his family had been terrible, the food having been bad, and not much he could do about it. Watching them die slowly about him had been more than he wanted to see. When they all had died, he had left, joined a travelling caravan, been attacked by Lutins as they passed through the mountains, and left here at Metamor Keep to recover. He'd had nearly a month with very little change, except the gradual darkening of colour of the fur that had sprouted along his back. Now, it was time that he faced life.

His change was almost complete, he knew that it was not yet fully done, as there was still a bit of his face that he could see in his mirror that retained the vestiges of his humanity. That short muzzle that had only yesterday begun poking its way out was slowly subsuming it. Michael wanted to smash that infernal glass, but he could only stare at himself as his eyes darkened, the blue iris's shifting to a deep brown. His ears were nice, rounded, furred, and poking out from the sides of his now sloping forehead. Matthias had been correct in his guess, he did have two large front incisors; they were very large in fact. He glanced down at what remained of his headboard. It had once been a nicely curved piece of wood that arched over the frame. Now, it had been chewed to pieces and lay scattered about the room.

Michael slipped off the bed. He felt ridiculous. He certainly looked ridiculous; there was no way he could deny that. His thick tail slapped at the back of his legs. He grimaced in irritation. How he wished his legs had not shrunk like that. Oh, he was not as short as the rats, thankfully, but he had shrunk some. Still, he couldn't hide in his room forever. Others would come looking for him. Plus, that notice he had received form the Steward's office had told him that he did not have much longer to hide. He had to find work in the next few days so that he might start paying his taxes or he would lose the rights to sleep in the room that they had loaned him. Could it have come at a worse time? He had been doing odd jobs about the keep for the last month, and he had enough money to sustain himself for a few weeks at best, but he certainly did not have a job. What could he do though?

Michael looked at the closed oaken door of his room. He did not want to leave it, but he knew he would have to. Otherwise he would be thrown out. He really did not relish that idea. Still, he'd have to find a job somewhere. Perhaps one of his friends could help him out? Copernicus would certainly have many suggestions for him. Matthias might know a few things too. He sighed. They were usually at the Deaf Mule at this time of the afternoon. Might it not be a good idea to see what they had in mind? That would mean showing what he had become to a lot of people. The thought sickened him, yet what choice did he have. It had to come at some point. He had stayed hidden here ever since the end of the festival. It was now Tuesday; he had been locked up and out of sight for nearly two whole days. Yet what had it accomplished? He glanced over his dark furred body, with its peculiar anatomical oddities. From his feet to his tail to the teeth, he was unusual. He did not remember ever seeing anybody who looked quite like him at the Keep before.

He grabbed a pair of his trousers. The backs had been torn to accommodate his tail already. He pulled them up over his legs, noting that they were too long. Grimacing, Michael slashed at the ends with his claws, tearing a strip a good four inches wide off the bottom of each leg. He'd have to spend a lot of money at the Tailor's to get his clothes refitted. Of course the Tailor was by law supposed to offer him a discount for the work, he still quailed at what it was going to cost him. At least his shirts still fit him, though a bit oddly. He looked at the robe he had draped himself in for the last couple of days of the festival. He held it in his hands, feeling the smooth fabric against the animal paws. With a sigh of resignation, he dropped it back on the bed; he would have to do this as he was; there could be no more denying it.

Michael did not want to hesitate for fear that he might change his mind. He yanked open the door, and nearly bolted through the opening. He slammed it shut behind him, then remember that he had a big tail now, and was very thankful that he had been lucky this time. Of course, slamming the door only drew attention to himself, and the eyes that came around to look at him felt like knives stabbing into his chest. He kept his own to the tiled ground beneath him, and tried to walk quietly down the corridor. Just like most everybody else though, the claws at the end of his feet made staccato clicking noises every step he took. He quickened his pace, though he still felt the eyes on him. It was like walking to an execution.

He passed out an archway, glad to be out in the golden sunlight and out of their view. Heads turned as he passed, but he tried his best to ignore them. The weather was warming up, and he did feel pretty comfortable, his fur coat one nice thing to have. Still, the wind licked at his face and his tail. He smelled the air about him, amazed by the sudden array of scents: flowers blooming, the fresh loam being tilled, and the scent of freshly cut grass. Taking a peek off to his right he could see that Metamor Fields looked just as it did on the day he first arrived, except that there was no snow. The tents and pavilions that had taken a week to set up for the Equinox-Easter festival had all been torn down in the course of a single day, and the laws were restored to their original luster. It had been an enjoyable holiday, though he had spent most of his time worrying about what was happening to his body.

His tail thumped against his legs again as he nearly tripped on a lose cobblestone. He righted himself and cursed that infernal thing. It was simply too wide. Getting back up to his feet and walking on, Michael noted all the stares. He wished that they didn't have eyes, or were just looking the other way. Having them stare at him like that was more than he could deal with. Nearly running on his short stumpy legs, he managed to make his way to the Deaf Mule. Normally he would have taken the main entrance, but he imagined his arms were not strong enough to pull open the door - he'd barely been able to open them up as a human, but he'd attributed that to his weakened condition.

Michael walked to the smaller entrance, and easily stepped inside the much lighter doorway. The alcove he stepped into was pleasant, and it did not draw eyes. The scent of sweat and ale was intense, and it almost knocked him over at first. He had never realized how bad farmers really smelled. He could see a bunch of them, though he noted a bit dismayed that the far end of the barn was a bit blurry. He'd have to ask about that. Staring about, he could see the pool table, but Copernicus was no where in sight. Sighing, he spotted the table where they usually sat, and wandered on over. He had to wonder about the others, how they cold deal with their chances. Matthias himself could barely see over top of the pool table without his stool, let alone the regular tables. How did one cope with something like that?

His heart fell when he saw that not only was Copernicus out, Charles did not seem to be there either. The three misfits, as he likened them, though were there. Having gotten to know them through Matthias over the last month, he was happy to call them friends, though he was not sure about Nahum; the fox seemed a bit too excitable. Tallis was, well Tallis, he seemed eager to go with the flow more than anything else. Zhypar however was a guy that he found himself liking a lot. The kangaroo would probably understand his problems; he was probably the only one with a bigger tail than Michael for his size at the Keep. They were all eating dinner and drinking; probably a bit too much, but they were drinking.

"Mind if I join you three?" Michael asked in a small voice as he came up to the table.

"Michael?" Nahum was the first to speak, one side of his muzzle caked in flecks of mud; it also seemed a bit swollen. Of course, that was not really unusual for Nahum.

"Yes, it's me. May I join you?"

Habakkuk pushed a seat over, "Sure, come on up. Always glad to see you." The way the kangaroo's ears twitched and his eyes beamed made Michael feel a bit better.

Michael climbed into the seat, making sure that his tail slid into the hold in the back. It was a bit tricky, because it was so wide, but it did not take him more than a few seconds to get it in right. He looked a bit uncomfortable sitting there, but at least he was eye-to-eye level with them. They did not seem to take any sort of malicious glee or find his form in the least bit humorous. His heart felt a little lighter, and the impending sense of doom began to ebb. This really wasn't too bad, he realized, just a bit intimidating.

"So, you're a beaver?" Nahum asked, leaning across the table on both elbows with the large decanter of mead in his paws. Tallis grunted after hearing that, looking about the room, probably for the barkeep to have his mug refilled.

Michael nodded slowly, "I guess so. I mean, this tail should be enough to figure that out."

"Not happy about it?" Habakkuk asked.

Michael shrugged, "Well, I guess I could have become something worse. I don't know. I guess beaver's just look so odd."

The barkeep came around then and Habakkuk quickly spoke, "Another round of meads, I'll be paying for my friend Michael here." The barkeep nodded and went back to get the drinks.

"Thanks, Zhypar."

"Don't mention it" The kangaroo turned about in his chair a bit. Michael was surprised that he could do it, what with that unbelievably thick tail of his.

"Where are Copernicus and Matthias? Aren't they usually here at this time?" Michael knew that something was wrong when even Nahum looked uncomfortable at the question.

Each looked away for a moment, their eyes meeting once before Nahum finally spoke in a soft voice. "They're not here at the Keep right now. They left yesterday. Charles wouldn't tell us what it was about, but he seemed pretty angry about it. However, I've never known Matthias to leave the Keep for any length of time since I've been here. Something weird is going on, if you ask me."

"Nahum, you always think something weird is going on!" Tallis pointed out.

"Well, something is!" Nahum insisted.

"So they're not here?" Michael asked, a bit disappointed that he'd missed the very two people he'd really wanted to talk to.

"No, I'm afraid not." Habakkuk shook his head. The barkeep returned with four more tankards of mead, and quickly returned to his other duties. Michael took a sip of his, savoring the hot flavor in his mouth. It was hard to resist the temptation to chew threw the cup, especially when he held it to his lips. The aroma of the drink almost made him dizzy and lose control, but he was not going to make a scene here if he could help it.

"You aren't happy with being a beaver are you?"

"It's not that I don't want this, I'm just afraid of it."

"What's wrong with being a beaver? It can't be any worse than having to hang around with an ugly-looking fox." Habakkuk pointed to Nahum, who whimsically tried to bite the finger with his jaws. "See what I mean?"

Michael chuckled a bit. "I just don't know what to do."

"Well," Tallis chimed in, "Charles always tells us that when writing our stories that we should never take a look at anything as a disappointment, but as an opportunity. What he means by that for us is to not be afraid of doing nasty things to our characters. He says that an injured character can create more problems and make a story more exciting. It certainly helped me with my stories."

"I still can't believe you made a crippled old lady a hero," Nahum admitted.

Tallis shrugged, "Hey, I'm as amazed as you are that I won. I didn't think my story was that good."

"Anyway, what Tallis was trying to say is that don't think of being a beaver as handicap. Think of it as an opportunity." Habakkuk took another quick drink of his mead, giving Michael that reassuring glance that he always seemed to wear.

"An opportunity for what?"

Habakkuk shrugged, "I don't know, you have to figure that out."

Michael slumped a bit in his chair. Great, he was a beaver, and it was an opportunity for something, but nobody could tell him what that was. What kind of opportunity was that then? If there was nothing anybody could suggest to him, then what in the world was it? He sighed, contemplating just what could be in store for him in the future. He took another drink of his mead, wondering just how it would take him to lose himself in a drunken stupor. His tolerance had been pretty mediocre before, he wondered if that had changed too.

Before he really had a chance to get drinking, a kid came up to their table and dropped a small traveling satchel on top of it. "Have any of you seen lizard lips about recently?"

"Mark!" Nahum said with some mild surprise, "Fancy seeing you here. When did you get back?"

"Just this morning. I'll be leaving again this evening. I was hoping Copernicus was about." the kid didn't bother asking if he could sit down, but instead just pulled up a seat and joined them. He looked to be about fifteen, just old enough so that his voice was mostly baritone. After being in the Keep that long he knew that this was one of those who had been made young, and that the age fifteen was as old as they ever really got.

"Copernicus left yesterday, he didn't say where he was going. He won't be back for several days yet." Habakkuk replied noncommittally.

"Blast." Mark grimaced. "I was hoping to see him before I left. I'm going to be gone a long time. Duke Thomas isn't even giving me time to catch up with things going on around here. I already had to miss the Equinox festival, and now this assignment. I had just put my things back into my room, when I get a summons from the Prime Minister. Do you know where I'm going now?"

"No, but I bet you're going to tell us." Nahum said winking his unbruised eye.

Mark scowled at the fox for a moment and then continued, "Well, I'm being sent to the Chateau Marzac. It's on the southern border of the continent, right where the Sea of Stars meets the Great Sea of the South."

Zhypar looked up in surprise, and took a very long drink of his mead. He wiped his muzzle with one paw and then asked, "Isn't that about a month's ride on horseback?"

Mark nodded reluctantly, "Unfortunately. From what the communiqué said they want to begin trade with us. Seems they are interested in our literature. You scribes may be busy doing some transcribing work when I get back sometime late Spring, maybe even Summer if the negotiations take long enough or if we get delayed by bad weather."

Michael cleared his throat, "Why can't you just sail by way of the Sea of Stars? You said this Chateau borders it."

"I'm sorry, I don't believe we've had the pleasure of being acquainted." Mark smiled then, holding out his hand, "Mark van Sciver, Court diplomat for his highness Duke Thomas."

"I'm Michael. I'm sort of new here. Hey, aren't you the one Copernicus calls 'pampers'?" Michael finally recognized the name, though the face meant nothing to him. He vaguely recalled meeting Mark on the day Copernicus had given him a tour of the place.

Mark laughed shrilly, "Yes, that's what old lizard lips calls me. Blast, I wish he were here so I could greet him."

"We'll let him know you stopped by. We'll tell him that you had some choice words to say to him too," Nahum barked in laughter.

Mark stood up from his chair, "You do that. I have to be heading out now; I've got important things to attend to, like packing. Gosh, and I just got it all unpacked this morning! Have you ever felt like you would just like to strangle somebody before? Well, that's what I'd like to do to our wonderful Prime Minister right now. We've got other diplomats, couldn't he have sent them?"

"You are the best, Mark, think of it as an honour."

Mark nodded dryly, and then looked back at Michael, his eyes studying him curiously. He was sitting on the other end of the table, so probably hadn't seen his tail. "So what do you do around here Michael? Are these three loonies trying to drag you into the Writer's Guild or anything?"

Michael shook his head, "I don't really have a job yet, but I should start looking for one."

Mark nodded, "I offer you a job on my staff, but I don't think that the people of the Midlands, or even the Southlands would react too well to seeing a five foot tall, um, rodent. What are you anyway?"

"I'm a beaver," Michael said the words with a tinge of regret. He hated having to admit it, but it was true. He was a beaver, and he was going to be a beaver for the rest of his life. He might as well get used to it, but he really didn't want to. He missed his pink flesh, his hands, and his long legs. He hated having that tail, so thick it prevented him from doing much of anything. The way it slapped against the back of his legs was very frustrating. And his feet! They were webbed! Webbed of all things! He couldn't wear shoes anymore, but then again, about half the Keepers couldn't; the young folk had to have at least five different size clothes depending on how old they wanted to be.

Mark nodded, "Ah, we have never had a beaver before at the Keep. You are the first. Welcome, Michael, I'm glad we had a chance to meet." He then looked to the others, "Well, I really have to be on my way, I'll see you all in the summer."

"Wait a second, " Habakkuk asked suspiciously. It was the first time Michael had ever heard him sound like that. "Why summer? I know it's a months ride, but just how long were you planning on staying down there? Summer is still three months away. Are you going to be there for a whole month?"

Mark nodded, "If it takes it, but the real reason is because they also want me to make a stop in Ellcaran for a week on my way down. Some minor depositions, nothing to worry about."

Zhypar took another drink of his mead then, looking a bit lost in thought. Nahum reached a paw over and patted van Sciver on the back, "Well it was good to see you again. Don't worry, we'll make sure that Copernicus knows."

"Thanks, and good luck in finding a job to you, Michael" Mark then dropped from his chair, picked up his brown satchel bag and walked back towards the entrance. Michael had never heard of the places that Mark was talking about, and given what he had become, he most likely would never see them either. For the remainder of his life he would be bound to the Keep, and there was nothing that could be done to change that. He took a long drink of his mead, hoping that it wouldn't take long for him to get drunk.

However, Nahum, being too inquisitive for his own good, was quick to distract him. "So what sort of job are you looking for?"

Michael shrugged, "I don't really know. I used to work on a farm, but I really don't want to do that again. Too many bad memories. I just don't really know what else I can do."

Tallis laughed, "As Mark said, you could join the Writer's Guild. It doesn't pay that great, but it's enough to live on and then some."

Michael took another drink, and quickly caught himself as he started to nibble into the wood of the tankard. He set it down, looking a bit embarrassed, "I'm no writer."

"Well, you could always do scribe work. That's what most usually do when nothing else is available." Tallis pointed out.

Habakkuk then stepped in, his eyes carefully watching him. "I think Michael is more of a physical person, am I wrong? You like to do things with your body."

"Yes, I guess so."

The kangaroo leaned in closer, 'I think I know just what you might enjoy doing."

"Oh?"

"Well, I have a friend that works with the timber crews. They go out almost everyday and bring back all the lumber that they can. It is a bit dangerous, because Lutins do wander the woods, but we do need the wood. I think that a beaver would be very welcome. You could probably cut their working hours in half, or at least by a third. They should be back by now; I can take you to see my friend if you wish. Only if you want to though."

For some reason, Habakkuk's suggestion sounded appealing to Michael. Tallis had said to look at his predicament as an opportunity. Perhaps this was it. Maybe he could work with the timber crews, the gods knew he was well suited to chopping trees down now. He quickly finished off the last of his mead, and then nodded to Habakkuk, 'Yes, I would like to see him. When can we go?"

"Right now if you wish."

"Good, I want to get on with this as soon as I can." Michael scooted out of his chair, pulling his tail back out through the hole. It was almost harder to get it out than it was to slip it in. He would get better with practice. The kangaroo didn't seem to have much trouble with it, even though his tail was larger. Well, all things would come in time.

"I'll pay off our tabs, then be with you. Catch you two later." He patted Nahum on the back. The fox grunted once, but didn't say anything. Michael didn't stick around any longer than he had to. He walked briskly back out the door, begin careful not to close the door on his tail. He could feel it brush against his legs with every step, and that alone irked him more than anything else. But if he could get a job working in a place where his body was an asset and made others respect him that would make up for it.

Habakkuk was quick to join him, standing well over his own head now. He always seemed an affable fellow, and right now he was more than that, he was a friend. He needed them, and it felt good to know that not everybody was laughing at how ridiculous he looked. Habakkuk pointed towards the outskirts of the town, and they both started walking down the cobblestone streets. It was getting chilly, and the wind was stronger than before. The sun was beginning to dip below the horizon, and in another hour it would be night. Habakkuk did not say much as they walked; though Michael wished he would. After all, Habakkuk was a strange looking fellow himself. As a matter of fact, Michael could never remember seeing anything quite like him, from the long feet, to the thick tail and the wide berth in his lower torso. His upper body seemed dwarfed by what was below his chest line. Still, he never seemed to talk about it.

"Hey, Zhypar, do you mind if I ask you a question?"

"Go right ahead, Michael."

"How did you react when you became a kangaroo?"

Habakkuk looked down at him a moment, his eyes curious. "How did I feel? Well I don't know. It was a while back. I guess the first thing I wondered about was what the heck I was. Nobody had ever seen anything that looked like me. We asked the dragons, especially Cerulean who has been around the longest of anybody here at the Keep. Cerulean didn't even know. It took a month before somebody managed to dig up a picture of it from an old book in the library. I kind of like it though. Kangaroo. It has a nice ring to it. I'm glad I became something nobody had ever seen before, gives me a kind of mystique I guess. It was the talk of the Keep for that month, but once people found out, they sort of lost interest. Still, it was kind of nice. I got invited to be with the Duke three times that month alone. I don't think I've been invited back that many times since then. Amazing how that works out."

"I guess." Michael grunted.

"Well, we're here at any rate. His name is Lindsey. And don't be intimidated by his size. From what I've heard he was nearly this big before the change." Habakkuk cautioned as they came upon a small building made from a square brickface. There was smoke trailing out of the chimney to the side. The grey façade was lined with deep gouges along the front. Habakkuk reached out and knocked loudly on the doorframe. There were loud thumping footsteps and suddenly the door was yanked inwards. A large man stood there, even taller than Zhypar. He had a huge red beard that was braided in places and long scraggly hair that reached to his shoulders. His chest was broad covered in a mail shirt. He had a buckler along his side, and there was a place for a huge sword at its side, but it was empty at the moment. With a start, Michael realized that he was human and male. That meant that he had been female before the change. From what Habakkuk had said, that meant that Lindsey had been this big as a woman too! Michael really wanted to run at that point, but the booming laughter that echoed from the man's cavernous mouth froze him in place.

"Well if it isn't Zhypar! Are you here to challenge me to an arm wrestling contest again? Have you lost enough of your money yet scribe?"

Habakkuk gave him a defiant look, "Actually, I am here on behalf of my friend Michael. He is interested in joining the timber crew as he needs a job. I knew that you are on the crew so I brought him to speak to you."

Lindsey looked down at least two feet to stare at Michael. He felt like he would wither under the big man's gaze. Lindsey's big hands reached out and lifted his chin up. A thumb poked his incisors and Michael quickly put his own arms up and pushed the man's hand away. "Please don't do that."

Lindsey smiled a very broad grin, "All right, Michael, come on in, you too Habakkuk." Lindsey held the door open for them, and waved them inside. Michael stepped through the doorway and underneath the man's nearly red arm from all the hair that he had growing on it. Habakkuk followed after him. The place was well lit, with a roaring fireplace in one corner, a pile of wood stacked beside the hearth. There were weapons arrayed along the wall next to the firepit, a broad blade, and a decent sized mace, as well as a thick axe. There was another doorway to the back, probably his bedroom, which had a thick black and red cloth draped over it so that he could not see into it. The floor had a huge bearskin rug laid out in the center. There were no chairs in the room, nor any other real decorations except for the pantry on the opposite end. Lindsey walked over and pulled out a bottle of wine, "Can I interest either of you in something to drink?"

"Absolutely." Michael agreed. "I think I could drink all night."

"That's my boy!" Lindsey roared with laughter. "Don't tell me that you are going to be a woman and not have any, Zhypar."

Habakkuk laughed himself, "Of course I'll drink with you, Lindsey."

Lindsey bellowed again, and collected mugs for the three of them, and quickly poured them a thickly aromatic wine. Michael took a sip of it, and then took another. "This is good stuff."

"No half measures for me, lad." Lindsey drank almost all of his down in one shot. He then sat down on the bearskin rug, and belched once. He motioned for both of them to sit down as well, "Pull yourselves up a skin and sit down. Don't just stand there gawking like you've never seen a man burp before."

"I thought you were a woman before the change," Michael blurted without thinking.

Lindsey laughed, "Maybe on the outside, but I've always really been a man. Come on, sit down."

Michael breathed a sigh of relief. Lindsey seemed quite exuberant and very blunt. He grabbed another fur and dragged it over and hunkered down on it. It looked to be that of a wolf. He felt a bit uncomfortable doing it, as now he too had a fur coat. He wondered how Lindsey got away with having these items at all. Well, who was going to tell him to get rid of them? He figured it was just something he better not ask about.

"So, you want to join the timber crew?"

"Yes," Michael admitted. "I figured that since I'm now a beaver, it was the most suitable thing for me to do."

Lindsey nodded, "I can see that. Yes, you would be very helpful. I can talk to the chief about it, I'm sure he'll only be too glad to have you." He glanced quickly at the weapons on the far side of the wall. "Still, there are some things that you need to know."

"Like?"

"It is very dangerous. That is why I'm out there. I can handle most anything that might try to attack us, but we all have to be prepared for the worst. You'll need to get used to wearing a mail suit at all times. Plus, anytime you are out there, you will be armed. I recommend that you get some serious sword training in."

"I'm pretty good with a sword," Michael insisted feeling a bit injured.

"Are you?" Lindsey pointed over at the smallest sword he had on his wall. "Go and grab that sword, and carry it to me. If you can manage it without the tip touching the ground, I'll believe you."

"That's not testing my ability. That's testing my strength!" Michael objected. Habakkuk nodded, "That does seem rather silly."

Lindsey ignored the kangaroo, "Bring me my sword."

Michael sighed, getting up from the rug. He set his mug down and walked over to the huge weapon. He could not believe that it was possible to even lift such an item, much less any of the ones heavier than it. The handle looked to be carved out of the horn of some large beast. Placing his hand upon it, he tried to feel the leverage. There was no way he was going to be able to carry that thing to Lindsey, at least not with his meager beaver paws. There had to be another way to handle the thing. Glancing back at the others, he tapped his webbed foot thoughtfully. "Hurry up, I hope I don't have to drink two bottles of this stuff tonight." Lindsey urged rather brusquely.

Michael walked back over, moved his mug and then carried the rug back over to the wall with the sword. He quickly felt the seam of the rug, it was very sturdy, and it would not break easily. It seemed Lindsay had tanned them perfectly. They were tight and would not come apart without very intentional slicing. Michael held the rug up, and gripped the sword about by the blade and handle, and pulled it from the wall. He staggered backwards a moment, the weapon nearly toppling him to the ground, but he quickly took a few steps back and was able to set the weapon down on the ground, still tightly wrapped up in the rug. He then pulled the four legs of the wolf's hide up into a knot, and tied it off. All the while Lindsey sat watching him without saying a word, only drinking from his mug. Michael then hoisted the package over his shoulder, the weight still pulling him down, but not quite as bad as before. He then quickly but calmly strode to the bearskin rug where sat the timbersman. Setting the package down in front of him, and untying the knot, he felt a bit of pride for coming up with that solution.

Lindsey picked the sword up in one hand, and then looked at the undamaged rug, and roared with laughter once more. With his free hand, he patted Michael firmly on the back, "I like you, Michael! You are a smart kid. You really are. I'll talk to the chief tomorrow morning about bringing you on the crew. Then if he says yes, which he probably will, I'll make sure to get him drunk first, I'll take you to get fitted for a mail suit and a sword. I guess you don't really need an axe to cut down the trees do you?"

"No, I think I'll use my teeth."

"I thought so. Well, welcome to the timber crew my young friend! We'll be going for more wood on Thursday at dawn. You'll have to meet us at the north gate, at dawn. We like to get an early start because the Lutins aren't as active in the morning. But I'll see you tomorrow at the blacksmiths after breakfast. Now, drink up. Don't waste my wine. I'm trying to get you good and drunk." Lindsey seemed very full of good humor and for some reason Michael found himself to be liking this man already. He quickly finished off his drink, and Lindsey poured him another glass. Habakkuk was laughing right alongside him.

Habakkuk ran his finger along the inside of his cup for a moment. He then got a mischievous grin, "Now, Lindsey, did I recall hearing you say something about a arm wrestling contest?"

Lindsey winked at Michael and then gave Habakkuk a very leery look, "Are you man enough to challenge me again?"

"Challenge you?" Habakkuk seemed taken aback. "I beat you last time." He winked at Michael as well.

Lindsey laid his arm down on the stone floor, "All right then, lets see what you have, my friend."

"The usual bet?"

"Of course."

Michael looked between the two as Habakkuk put his paw into Lindsey's hand. Lindsey's arms dwarfed Habakkuk's but he had seen the kangaroo in action before, he was no weakling. He took another drink of the wine, "What's the usual bet?"

"Loser has to start the singing," Habakkuk replied chuckling. It was obvious that Habakkuk was becoming drunk. Michael felt a little lightheaded himself. He had no idea whether Lindsey was drunk or not.

"Oh my."

"Just wait till you hear how badly Lindsey sings," Habakkuk gurgled as he stared at the bigger man.

"How badly I sing? You make the Lightbringer howl in pain!"

Michael laughed, feeling for the first time that things were going to be all right. Perhaps Tallis had been right, this was an opportunity. Well, so far, he liked what it was offering him. He took another drink lapsing into a contented state as he watched the two combatants continue to harass each other.

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