It was a bright, vibrant day, the sun shining brightly upon the pale grey stone of Metamor Keep. The final birdsong of the season was filtering, bright and gay, through the wooden shutters of Caroline's chambers. Despite the fairness of the weather and the beauty of the day, Caroline had no desire to go beyond the confines of the Keep. Nay, she had no true desire even to leave the warm, safety of her own rooms.
Her friends, however, had other intentions.
The heavy wooden door echoed under the gentle knuckles of the female ocelot standing on the other side, "Come on Carol." Her voice came through the door, muted by the heavy oak, "You've been in there too long. It's a wonderful day!"
"Go easy, Elisha." Another voice filtered quietly through the door, the speaker's voice much softer, but familiar. "It's only been a few weeks." Kimberly admonished the taller ocelot, standing as close as her instinctive caution would allow to the slender spotted feline.
Elisha's voice was altered by the mass of the door as she turned to speak toward the female rat, "Hiding inside won't help anything." She said, her voice smooth despite the harsh feline rasp imparted by her throat, "She needs to get back out in the sunlight. It'll help her heal."
"I'm coming, all right?" Caroline responded in a tired voice from the other side of the door, where she had been standing, listening to the conversation beyond the portal. She drew in a deep breath, knowing that the day would be miserable, the voices of her friends flat and grey despite the brightness of the sun. They would be consoling, condescending she thought, like so many others that seemed so compassionate yet fell flat in the face of her pain.
When she finally opened the door, the image that was revealed to the two standing just beyond was not that of a woman going out on a calm stroll in the sun. The otter was girded for war. She was dressed in a drab, featureless brown cotton blouse and leggings. Over this she wore a faded, aged leather jerkin scarred with the nicks and creases of many years of constant use. Leather lathes hung from the belt around her hips, providing a slight degree of protection to her upper legs, and a shortsword was slung low on her left hip. Strung from a shoulder scabbard above the hilt of the sword was a slender dagger.
The Ocelot's cool amber eyes widened at the otter's warrior appearance, Kimberly putting a hand to her muzzle as her dark eyes looked Caroline over. For their own part, the two were dressed much more in keeping for the day. Kimberly in a soft, deep cinnamon hued blouse and skirt that draped down near her slender paws. Elisha was garbed in a warm blue shirt and leggings, both trimmed in black lace.
Caroline looked more like their body guard than their guest.
Kimberly's mouth opened, her words silenced as the ocelot waved a hand toward the otter standing in the dim shadows of her doorway, "You look prepared to face down an army."
Caroline quirked an eyebrow and shrugged one shoulder, "Come on then." She responded shortly, stepping out and pulling the door closed behind her, "Let's get this over with."
The three progressed slowly through the town just beyond the walls of Metamor Keep proper, the ocelot and rat chatting amiably back and forth. Caroline stalked along beside them, silent as a ghost. "How's your husband Meredith doing?" the rat asked, her voice as ever pitched to neither of her companions in particular, inviting Caroline to join the conversation. She did not.
"Good," Elisha replied immediately, nodding and waving toward someone she found familiar as they passed, "he took the kids fishing down by the river. Little Meredith and Sally weren't too thrilled about it, but Silma loves it, she's turned out be quite the fisher."
Kimberly giggled merrily, her whiskers twitching as she pulled the hem of her skirt away from a murky looking splash of mud to one side. Being a rat may have had its disadvantages, some she had to come to terms with, but the nimble length of her tail was an added advantage. And Charles was her saving grace. "Amazing." She smiled over at Elisha, who had circled around to Caroline's off side, "How old is Silma now?"
"Twelve." Elsiha responded with a particularly toothy feline grin. Kimberly suppressed a shudder, no matter how humorous she knew her friend's grin to be, it always sent a twinge of instinctive unease up her spine.
The trio continued down the width of the main boulevard leading through the town, the sun a shining beacon in the cerulean blue of the western sky. The broad thoroughfare was crowded with throngs of people going about the business of their daily lives, many moving with swift purpose. Others, like their small group, moved with a much more leisurely pace, pausing now and then to examine some merchant's wares. Kimberly tried to get Caroline's interest piqued in a shimmering bolt of fine blue cloth from the east, but the otter's attention was half-hearted, her mind wandering over the recent past.
Kimberly chose a few small items from the merchant, tucking the small package into the sash around her waist as they moved on. As they passed one of the many side streets, the high, delicate sounds of music drifted down the avenue, lilting above the murmur of those nearby. Caroline's ears turned toward that music, which seemed hauntingly familiar to her, but alien at the same moment. Suddenly she came to an abrupt halt when a particular bar of music reached her ears. The music was whisper soft, coming to her from some distance, but seemed to slice through the mutter of the crowd, reaching her ears with crystal clarity.
Somehow, that high, lilting tremolo of notes reached far deeper into her than mere listening. It stirred something deep within her, the shards of nightmares, scattering them hither nigh from her consciousness, banishing the harsh, sharp edges into darkness. Her companions had not immediately noticed her sudden halt, taking several more steps before stopping as well. Glancing at one another, they turned and walked back, their furry faces showing some concern and curiosity at the otter's strange pose. "Caroline, what's wrong?" Elisha asked, tilting her head to one side as she turned a single ear to the music, her other ear taking in the mumble of the voices of those nearby. Kimberly's whiskers twitched as she stood to one side of the otter, watching with some concern.
Caroline turned suddenly, the ocelot dancing back a step as the scabbard of her shortsword whistled past her knees. She began walking down the narrower side street, the two others trailing in her wake, looking at each other and shrugging helplessly. Kimberly took a couple of steps, moving closer to place a hand lightly upon the otter's shoulder, "Caroline, honey?" she asked, her quiet voice edged with concern. The female otter merely reached up and patted the rat's hand as she continued down the street.
The street twisted and turned, narrowing as they progressed into murkier depths of the town. Eventually it was little more than an alley, barely wide enough for an ox-cart, the tall buildings seeming to lean toward one another like gossips over a fence. Caroline moved with sure steps, guided by the trilling lure of the flute music. The mutter of the crowded main boulevard faded behind them, finally silenced as they moved beyond the main market into the residential end of the street. The gay laughter of children echoed to their ears under those alluring notes, the music growing even as the hubbub of the market faded, going from swift jig to a reel.
They came upon the small square at the end of the street quite abruptly, stepping around the crumbling shoulder of an old abandoned house and into bright sunshine. Buildings crowded close on all sides of the small plaza, in the center of which was a fountain dominated by the faded, pigeon painted statue of a mermaid reclined on a rock. The siren held to her lips a set of wooden pipes, the song of which was said to lure foolish sailors to their doom upon her rocks.
Most of the buildings surrounding the plaza were quite run down, the gaping holes of shattered windows covered primarily with slats of wood, though ragged sashes of fabric fluttered from some. The smell of home-cooked food lingered heavy in the air, mingled with the heavier smell of old wood and trash. Only one building, directly across the plaza, seemed to be in a decent state of repair. The open door was framed by two large windows of piecemeal stained glass, the signboard swinging over the door decorated by a singe symbol.
A chord of music painted in dark blue.
The plaza was tiled in a faded terrazzo of pale granite, four large stone terraces set at the cardinal points of the compass. A single large maple grew from each bed, surrounded by small herb gardens. At the moment, most of the terraces were being used as impromptu seats by children, many of which were too young to have gone through the change yet, though there were indeed a few young there that were changed; most likely those who were born into their forms. A few mixed species of creatures revealed older children, those still human losing themselves in with unchanged. Several of those in the plaza were dancing in the open between the terraces and the central fountain, moving to the gay music provided by the lone flautist standing on the edge of the fountain.
Clad in a brilliant, shimmering costume of satin brocade and silks, the deep brown fur of the marten seemed drab in comparison. He held a the glimmering silver rod of his flute to his lips as he pirouetted upon the wide stone lip of the fountain to the tune of a swift reel, his tail balancing the intricate moves of his dance. Caroline came to a startled, sudden halt as they rounded the last corner and burst into the plaza, the rat and ocelot coming to a stop to either side of her.
All three were amazed at the display before them, each for differing reasons. A few of the poorly clad younglings smiled and waved in their direction, then turned their attention back to the musician and those dancing on the terrazzo. The music of the flute was crisp and clear, each note as sure as the dancer's steps, mingling with rather than riding over the muted burble of the fountain around which they danced.
Glancing up from his impromptu orchestra, the marten's eyes fell upon the newcomers to his show, his lips quirking up into a smile as he let the reel reach its crescendo, ending abruptly. Applause came swift and hearty from the marten's appreciative audience, to which he bowed with a flourish of his arm. Standing once again, he turned his attention toward the threesome standing at the street entry, and brought the flute to his lips once more.
Sunlight shimmered from the polished silver as his breath filled it, notes singing forth slow and smooth, moving into a slow waltz. The marten's audience turned its attention back upon him as the first bar of the waltz filled the silence with bright music, the dancers taking some time to rest, sitting on the edges of the surrounding terraces.
Not even the musician danced as his attention settled upon Caroline, his eyes seeking out her own. He stepped down from the lip of the fountain, never missing one perfect note, and approached the threesome.
For Kimberly and Elisha the music was beautiful, but not otherwise remarkable.
For Caroline, though, it was altogether different. It held a power to it that evoked memories, calling up the shattered pieces of her recent dreams.
Nay, her recent nightmares.
Since her rescue a week earlier, when her living nightmare was commuted to one that came back to haunt her each time she closed her eyes. Craig's blame, the shattered visage leering up at her from his bier. Each time, her nightmares transported her from blame to terror, plunging her back once more into the dark cold of the dungeon cell in which she had lost the very last shreds of her dignity and pride.
Very nearly the last of the humanity she had clung to since Nasoj curse changed her from woman to otter.
Those nightmares had tortured her, but something else had been her salvation. Something else had shattered those horrifying images like cheap class upon the very terrazzo upon which she now stood immobile as she faced the approaching musician.
Not just any music, but the soothing tones of a flute. Each evening since the third day of her return to Metamor, the same night that her mate had led a bloody raid upon Stepping Rock. Yet it was not merely simple flute music in her dreams, the notes that had enabled her to find some form of focus in her dreams, banishing the evils of her sleeping world to grant her at least some rest.
It was this music; the very notes and tempo of this particular musician. This one song, which she had found herself whistling for the past few days, but not this song alone. Many others, all bright and gay, never somber. The music of the flute had become her dreams, a sound that enabled her to turn aside the dark images of Craig's blame and her own humiliation.
It was a focus that, of the past few nights, had enabled her to step beyond those images, and see them from another perspective.
His music had given that focus, but how? How had this nameless marten invaded her dreams? How had his music come to fill her soul? Misha had said nothing about hiring a musician to play to her while she slept, never had she heard a single note of his music while she was awake.
She stood there, utterly immobile, her jaw hanging open as she stared fixedly at the marten, who had come to a stop some five paces away. His dark eyes were bright and consoling, but held a certain knowledge in their depths that told her he knew quite well that his music had been in her dreams.
Eventually the song reached its conclusion, the last notes fading away slowly, leaving a cloak of hushed expectancy upon the plaza. Many of the children that had been cavorting gaily during his earlier songs had left quietly while his long waltz played itself out, a few of the older ones remaining. They did not move, nor did any of them speak a single word, merely relaxing with their own thoughts.
Caroline did not immediately notice, but her friends were swift to realize that the otter's cheeks were stained with the darker trails of tears wetting her fur. Yet she did not weep. Indeed, she seemed exultant, her breath heaving swiftly in her lungs as she clutched her hands before her chest. Her fingers were still bandaged, but the splints had finally been removed, allowing her fingers at least a small modicum of mobility. Coe had given her instructions to flex them to work some mobility back into them, but they were still quite stiff and tended to ache. The bandages did not help either, making her feel as if she were wearing heavy winter gloves all the time. She feared that the injuries would so damage her hands as to make her worthless as a scout.
"What song was that?" she whispered, her voice husky with barely restrained emotions.
The marten smiled brightly, his flute slowly lowering from his lips, "Ahh, my fair maiden, that song is given many titles through the lands, though the most commonly accepted one is 'Sweet Protector'." He responded, his voice a calm tenor, his smile reaching his eyes. He took a step back and bowed deeply to them, gracing each with a genuine smile. "I am given the name Serpent Dream in these parts, my fair ladies." He crooned as he stood once more, his voice as silkily smooth as any court follower, the accent one of culture and aristocracy. What he was doing here, near some of the lowliest of the homes in Metamor Keep, entertaining those seen as little more than urchins, struck Elisha as quite strange.
Kimberly stepped forward when it became apparent that Caroline was still recovering from whatever mix of emotions that the marten's music had wrung from her. It was not healthy, she considered, that stress. "My name is Kimberly." She offered as she watched the marten with glittering, dark eyes, one hand motioning toward the ocelot, "This is Elisha, and Caroline." She placed a hand upon the speechless otter's shoulder.
"Ahhh yes, Lady Kimberly and miss Caroline." The marten nodded, "My friend Llyn has spoken well of you, all." He gave the ocelot a close look, not having known of her before. He reached out to catch one of Caroline's stiff fingered hands, leaning close to place a soft kiss upon her bandaged knuckles. "It is a pleasure to meet you." =20
The otter winced at the attention paid to her ruined hand by the marten's kiss, frowning as she pulled her hand away with a broken sigh. She felt Kimberly's consoling fingers tighten upon her shoulder briefly. Her eyes fell upon the flute held in the marten's other hand, the polished silver glimmering in the afternoon sunshine.
"May I hold it?" she heard herself ask, suddenly, pointing toward the flute. The musician's eyebrows rose as he held up the flute as if realizing for the first time that he held it.
He extended the long, slender instrument to her with a smile, "You play?"
Caroline accepted the offered instrument gingerly in her hands, her stiff digits curling stiffly as she tried to feel the cool metal, but the bandages denied her touch. How strange, she thought, that such a simple bit of finely crafted metal could produce such sweet notes as those she had heard from this very item, both in her dreams, and now in her waking moments.
A difference of forging, and this same metal could be used to slay, rather than delight.
"No." she responded sadly, her bandaged fingertips tracing across the intricate valve mechanisms. Misha would love to work with such an intricate device, she mused as she pressed one of the plates.
The marten tilted his head to one side slightly, the corners of his triangular muzzle pulling back to reveal the white of his molars briefly. "Why not learn?"
Caroline blinked, looking up from the flute to find herself looking into the marten's dark brown eyes, and found a calm, considering regard there. "No." she sighed again sadly, "I couldn't."
"Of course you can." He beamed back at her, and moved a step closer, pausing and gazing at Kimberly for a moment before the rat tittered a self conscious giggle and stepped out of his way. Dream moved up beside her, his hands coming up to hers, taking control of the flute though he did not remove it from her hands. He gently changed how she held the long length of polished metal. "Like thus." He said softly as he held her hands at two places along its length. Her hands gave a brief twinge as she attempted to curve her fingers over the fingerings but she ignored the discomfort. "Now, all you need do is blow a soft breath across the opening." He raised the flute, pressing the warm metal lightly against her lower lip, "It's been modified slightly to account for a muzzle rather than lips."
She looked down the length of the instrument in her hands from the corner of one eye, taking a hesitant breath as she pursed her lips and blew across the opening.
The resulting, harsh FFFWEEEET! caused many ears to flatten back, making the otter shudder and attempt to release the flute. Only the marten's hands over her own prevented her from turning the instrument loose and fleeing in shame. Kimberly tittered, her voice sounding very much like the flute itself in that instant, her round ears folding back as Elisha winced behind her.
"Hmmm." The marten said, nibbling his lower lip briefly, "I'm sure that there are a couple of birds around here that would think that a marvelous mating call." He said with humorous aplomb, patting the otter's shoulder gently. Caroline looked over at him, seeing the warm smile crossing his muzzle, and did something that none around her had heard since her rescue.
She laughed. At soft, tremulous sound at first, then deepening into a warm chuckle of mirth as Dream twitched one eyebrow and smiled back. "Try again."
Caroline lifted the flute, not noticing how Dream's hands remained unmoving as she lifted the instrument from them, until she felt it under her lower lip as he had shown her, and let another breath across the opening. The note that issued forth was a pure, warbling sound that filled the small plaza with a clear note. A smattering of applause came from those children still remaining. Kimberly's tail tapped against her ankle with a gentle touch as she herself applauded. Elisha moved out before her and sketched a brief pirouette, and smiled.
"And thus." Dream crooned, his muzzle pulling in a wide grin, "Quite good, you should have heard my first few notes." He chuckled as he prompted the otter to try once more, "My tutor complained that I sounded as if I were torturing a cat." He winked at Elisha as Caroline produced a second warbling note, pressing down on one of the stops with a clumsy, stiff finger as she did. The note climbed, the tone escalating as she toyed with the stop, and shattered in a discordant shriek. Elisha's ears flattened back and she looked wounded while Kimberly giggled.
"Quite nice there, until the end." Dream rasped in a passable imitation of that trailing wail as he stepped forward, gently shifting Caroline's fingers, "This, I daresay, will help you limber up your hands." His voice took on a more serious note as he glanced up to meet her gaze. "I'd say you don't sound like you are torturing a cat as I did, which means you would be a good student, if you would desire to learn." Caroline laughed once more and nodded, the dark trails of her tears fading upon her cheeks. Elisha grimaced and cuffed the marten on the shoulder, and merely got a grinning leer in return.
The badger moved slowly towards the door leading to her daughter's room. It had been long hard time since she had been rescued. The friendly playful otter that had been her daughter had died in the terrible lutin stronghold. In her place was a frightened and sorrowful tattered wreck. Undoubtedly her door would be locked and barred as it always was. She'd have the shade drawn and he would find her sitting in a corner staring into space. He wanted to help her but didn't know how.
He stopped in front of her door and stared in surprise. Far from being locked and barred, the door stood open. Moving carefully he looked inside and found was startled to see sunlight streaming through windows whose curtains were pulled back.
His daughter was seated by the window, doing something really strange. She seemed to be kissing a stick.
"Caroline? It's Papa."
Standing up, Caroline made her way over to her father and hugged him. "Hi Papa!"
William relaxed and returned the hug gladly. This was his old daughter back again. After a long moment the two separated. "You're looking good today."
"I feel good!"
"That's great! Can I ask you what you were doing when I came in?"
A broad smile crossed his daughters face. "I'm learning to play the flute!" she answered excitedly.
"The flute? It looked like a stick."
She laughed and held up a long stick. "This is a stick. I'm using it to practice my hand movements. Dream says my fingers need to heal more before I can work on a real flute." A dark look crossed her face and she stared at bandaged fingers.
Seizing the moment the badger clasped his daughter on the shoulder. Why don't you show me what you've learned so far?"
Her face brightened up again and put the stick to her lips like she would hold a flute. Then she moved closer to the window and back into the light.