The trio did not manage to pull themselves free from their new friends until late into the afternoon, recovering their personal belongings from the inn room they had shared the night before. They left Glen Avery behind as the sun's muted illumination was dimming, the thick clouds hanging heavy overhead holding with in their dark greyness the promise of more rain yet to come.
Llyn and Dream both assured Murikeer that they would reach Metamor before night, as it was only a few miles distant. Llyn explained that, for all of it's importance, Metamor was actually a very small kingdom, with much of its territory to the south of the Keep itself. There were only two or three villages north of the defensive bastion that was Metamor Keep, one of which was Glen Avery. From the northern curtain walls, it was only seven or eight miles direct to the Giant Dikes, which defined the northernmost limits of Metamor's influence.
The curse that Nasoj has laid upon Metamor did not extend that far north, but Llyn did not know the exact coverage of the curse. Folks from the furthest northern border fort were affected by it just as much of the southern lands were, though there were baronies to the extreme southwest and southeastern limits of Metamor's lands that had managed to escape the curse. Regardless of their immunity, they were the home to many of Metamor's curse affected souls, and freely accepted them.
Much of the walk was made in companionable chatter, which allowed them to cover a great deal of ground without seeming to realize it. Cresting one of the taller ridges on their path, Dream happened to glance back, then churped, bringing them all to a halt.
"What is that?" he asked, pointing back toward the north where a thick, inky black column of thick smoke was rising swiftly into the clouds some distance away. Several miles, they quickly determined, far beyond Glen Avery, and even the Giant Dikes. "There's nothing up there I can think of that could create that much smoke."
"There's an old keep north of the Dikes." Llyn commented, rubbing her whiskers, "Though the Lutins have control of it. They use it to stage raids against the northern farms and towns." She narrowed her eyes as she watched the smoke billowing into the air, staining the clouds an inky black as a cinder red glow painted the grey sky. "Perhaps some idiot Lutin knocked over a lantern and finally burned the place down."
"Would that we were so lucky." Dream snorted, "It's built of wood?"
"Stone and wood, but a fire would make it unlivable regardless."
"For Lutins?" Muri commented wryly, he knew that the beasts could live in some incredibly harsh places.
"Hmm, well, you've a point there." Llyn nodded, and shrugged. Whatever had happened was several hours done, and all they could do was make guesses. Llyn would have to find out by taking patrols in into that area. She had gone there before, which was always a very dangerous path due to the number of Lutins living in and around the old, run down keep. Anyone caught would most likely be tortured and slain, if not eaten outright. "I'm sure Tomas will send a force up there to clean the place out and make sure it's ruins once and for all."
Muri tilted his head to one side as he stared at the thick column of smoke as a fresh drift of glimmering ashes raced up its flanks, "If that's not him doing so as we speak." He commented, then turned to follow the others down the slope toward the last valley before the Keep itself. Already he could see some of the taller towers of the place, which brought a sense of awe to him that they would be so tall, graceful yet with a solid power about them.
Noticing his gaze and following it, Dream dropped back to walk next to him, "Channing's tower." He pointed at the single lofty spire, "Though last I heard he had left on some errand or another, so it's just a weather tower for the time being."
"The whole place like that?" Muri asked, waving a hand toward the tower, which was becoming slowly blurred as a light, misty drizzle began.
"Pretty much, though it's quite sprawled." The marten replied, glancing down as he deftly avoided tripping over a root. Muri merely stepped over it, unconsciously altering his pace to do so, then resuming. So long in the wilds had given him a sense of his surroundings that he often did not consciously acknowledge, though his actions responded to whatever was happening in the forest around him.
Dream nodded, "There's two keeps, actually, the older one, part of which you see there." He nodded toward the tower, a distant form plunging from the parapet, spreading wings, and drifting out of sight to the east. "Then there's the outer curtain walls, which surround the town of Metamor inside the Keep, and another town outside the west walls. The old Keep is surrounded by a bailey, with a gate leading to the town of Metamor in the largest area to the south."
"The true Keep itself, Metamor Keep, is an ancient building. I don't even have a clue how old, but many say that it's been there over a thousand years, and it has a magic all of its own. That's where the battle of the gates took place, the last time Nasoj got beyond the outer walls and tried to take that Keep. There are three huge gates in the outer walls of the Keep, the only parts that never seen to move, and that's where he leveled his spells."
"The spells that caused this?" Muri waved a hand across his chest. Llyn, several paces ahead, turned a look over her shoulder for a moment, not slowing to join them. Her feet sank into the softened earth of the path with each step, staining her fur and the lower cuffs of her leggings with pale brown mud.
"One of them caused this, yeah." The marten nodded, "Another simply switched the gender of the victims, and the third made children of them." He glanced over at the skunk, shorter than himself by a good eight inches, though far more broad of shoulder and chest, "You did not know this?"
"No." Muri admitted, waving a hand before his face to chase away a loudly buzzing deer fly, "I was just a kid when the battle was joined, ten years old at the time." He smacked the fly as it lit upon his ear and tried to bite, but missed, sending it zipping out of reach, "My father fled south after the battle, I guess he was outside the spell's area and did not want to get caught."
"But you changed?" the marten watched the fly, a tiny black dot against the overall dimness of the forest around them, "I thought the spell did not affect anyone that young."
"It did not, but it did fix on me." Muri sighed, shaking his head as he shifted the straps of his back upon his shoulders. He had removed his new clothing for the walk, not wishing to get them sopping wet so soon after receiving them. And they chafed irritatingly. He was sure that it was because he had gone so very long without wearing any clothing. Indeed, the last time he had ever done so, he had been human. It was a saddening reminder. "The spell triggered when I reached my fourteenth year, but at the time I was far into Sathmore, my father dead."
"A bandit's arrow a year after he left Metamor, while he was patrolling some baron's lands."
"Yeah." The skunk nodded, swishing his tail at another insect, "I was apprenticed to a mage when the change began, and he helped me flee, sending me north." He looked aside at the marten, who's attention was on the path, "But other humans hunted me, like a fox of some noble's Sunday hunt."
"They have a habit of doing that to us." Dream nodded, "Away from Metamor we're not too highly looked upon." He shook the rain from his light crimson cloak, some sort of oil rendering it passably water resistant, resettling it across his shoulders and over the pack containing his instruments. He had explained that he could play almost anything, though he preferred the dulcimer, flute, and violin, which were what he carried with him.
"Which is why I." he took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a few steps as he gathered his thoughts, "Which is why they scare me so highly." He admitted finally. Dream looked at him from the corner of one eye, noticing how Llyn had fallen back close enough to hear the conversation, her tail swishing lightly behind her. "That woman back there almost got a surprise I doubt she would have liked."
Dream's teeth gleamed whitely in the dim shadows as he chuckled, "No doubt." He nodded, "She was one of the transgendered, and has not accepted it."
"Is that unusual?"
"No, unfortunately." Dream shook his head, "Some put an accepting fašade on it, but never truly accept."
"Some? Many?" Muri asked further. He had come to some level of acceptance at what he had become, but there were days that he despised the change and what it had done to him, what it had cost him. Yet in order to survive the wilds, he had forced that anger away, because he needed the animal nature the curse had given him in order to live from day to day.
"More than I think any of us know." Dream nodded, "Even I have my moments."
"How long have you been like that?"
"You were not here for the battle?"
Dream gave the skunk a level sidelong look, and shook his head negatively, "I came here later, for other reasons, much like many of the newer members of Metamor."
"I was there for the battles." Llyn interjected without looking back, her attention on the path ascending before her. "A few of us do accept." She paused, looking back, her eyes hard, "Completely. I am better now, as a mink, than I had ever been as a simple human."
"No one is arguing your acceptance, Llyn." The marten said as they drew abreast of her, "And there are many, new and old, who have accepted their new changes wholly."
Llyn followed the tallest member of their small group with a stern expression, damp whiskers drawn back against her muzzle as she moved once more, "It's a rather futile gesture to lament what Nasoj's curse as done, since there's no way to undo it."
"You would not want to if there was?" Muri asked, genuinely curious.
"No." Llyn shook her head shortly, falling into step beside the skunk as they drew near the crest of the hill, "I was a homely, unremarkable nobody working a field like a plow horse before Nasoj's last attack." She extended one arm, looking at it, "Now I'm no longer so ugly, and I am actually doing something that helps, that has some honor to it."
"There's honor in farming." Both skunk and marten echoed at the same moment.
Muri looked curiously toward the musical marten, raising one eyebrow at the odd statement, "Without farms there is no food, and thus no Keep."
"And Nasoj would have nothing to stop him from invading the midlands." Dream finished, coming to a stop a few paces ahead as his attention turned toward the vista before them. Muri and Llyn caught up and came to a halt to either side of the marten. Llyn took a deep breath and smiled at the sight across the shallow valley before them. Even softened by the thin, misty drizzle, the sight was always magnificent to her.
Muri could only gasp.
Only once before had the skunk seen a place so large, during a foray into a Sathmoran city to listen to the chorus of the bells during the midsummer festival. Across the valley, upon the crest of a steep ridge, was a huge castle within towering walls of plain grey stone. Beyond the outer curtain wall rose a dozen towers of various heights, walkways arching between them, sloping rooflines of greyish black slate glistening wetly in the wan afternoon light.
In the valley at the foot of the distant ridge were a handful of sprawling farms, already shrouded with the shadows of evening, glimmering amber lights flickering from their windows. Livestock were being called to the fold as farmers came in from their fields. Several tracts of nearly mature wheat shimmered darkly in the deepening shadows as the threesome gazed upon the distant edifice.
Beyond the shoulder of that ridge and the castle upon it, thin tendrils of smoke rose from unseen chimneys in the town on the distant slope to the south of the castle.
Muri felt both awe and fear. Crowds had never settled well with him, and here there was a true crush of life. He could not even say humanity, though both Dream and Llyn had pointed out to him that the animal changed people were only a third of the total population that numbered well into the thousands. He found he could not move, indeed, he almost turned and went back the direction he had come, but a gentle hand upon his shoulder stayed his movement.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Llyn asked, leaning close and waving a hand at the vista, "If we get there soon enough I'll be able to secure you a room, after I make my report."
Muri cast a swift glance at her, Dream already several strides down toward the valley below, "You want me to /live/ there?" He churred quietly, his fur completely fluffed in agitation.
"Not if you don't want to, Mur." She gave him a hug across the shoulders, going so far as to nuzzling his neck, "But I would be pleased if you would."
"I. I will have to think on it." He whispered, his throat tight as he looked once again upon the distant castle. "But. I don't have any intention on going back to that cave I used to live in."
"Good." She chuckled, sliding her hand down his arm to grasp his hand, and led him in Dream's wake.
The castle, up close, was even more daunting than it had seemed from a distance. They had to move around the eastern side of the long curtain wall, circling all the way around to the south, where the only gate leading into the city was built. Muri thought it a very dangerous manner of constructing the curtain wall, for it made the castle into a trap should it find itself besieged. It was a good defensive measure, forcing attackers to attempt scaling the forty foot walls after ascending the steep wall of the ridge upon which the keep sat.
"It would have taken them weeks to get those towers up to the wall." Muri noted as they reached the crest of the ridge to the east of the castle. Llyn looked back along their trail, and nodded, bemused. Why the would have gone to all the effort to get those massive towers there only to be stopped by the ridge made no sense to her.
"I would think they'd have their road builders keep working until they could get them up there."
"Under constant barrage from your own installments?" Muri pointed up at one of the taller watch towers, at the upright silhouette of a massive catapult arm standing starkly against the deep slate grey of the clouded sky. Llyn merely shrugged and shook her head.
"They would have done something." She said, then looked aside at him and smiled, "But won't, now. You saw to that."
Muri smiled, clapping her lightly upon the shoulder, "We." He amended, "We saw to that."
Llyn nodded, smiling, her whiskers silvered with a light sheen of water. The drizzle had not increased by any marked degree as they passed through the valley at the foot of Metamor's perch, though it had left her new clothing wet and loose upon her slender frame. Dream's was likewise dampened, but he had used his cloak to keep as dry as he might against the directionless wet haze in the air. "That we did, hon." She churred lightly, placing a hand upon his shoulder and stopping him in the shadow of one massive wall.
"Even with fur, hon, we animals don't go wandering around completely nude." She smiled, the quick drift of her eyes down to his muddied paws and back up giving the skunk a very heated feeling. He chuffed, nodding, feeling slightly embarrassed that he had actually come so close to Metamor as nude as any natural skunk. He shrugged out of his pack, hanging it from the post of a nearby slat fence, doing the same with his bandoleer.
With a smile and a cocky pose to Llyn, he held out his arms and shook himself vigorously, like a dog coming fresh from a lake. Water sprayed from his thick monochromatic fur, making Llyn giggle and take a step back. Some distance away Dream had stopped, leaning against a slender tree growing along the fenceline, and watched the skunk with a gaze very similar to Llyn's. His life experiences were far different than either of theirs, leaving him with an equal appreciation of males as females, though for true companionship he preferred the ladies.
Partially dried, Muri wandered over to a ditch of relatively clean water and washed the worst of the mud from his paws, shaking them dry like a fastidious cat before returning to his pack and fishing out his new clothes. He had to laugh along with his two companions as he stumbled and staggered attempting to don his leggings, a feat that he knew would come back soon enough, but rusty with lack of practice. Llyn moved quickly to assist, while Dream hummed to himself.
None of them were challenged at all by the quartet of guards standing at the open outer gate, which neither Dream or Llyn found to be out of the ordinary. They merely joined the throng of creatures moving into the keep as their daily jobs outside the walls were completed. Muri stuck close to Llyn's heels, letting the tip of her tail swing against his belly as he tried to look everywhere at once.
There were humans all around them, laughing and shouting to one another over the din of a thousand other voices. The stench of the place was almost overpowering to the skunk, who had never experienced the mingled musks of ten thousand varied animals and humans living in painfully close proximity. At least one of the things he did not detect within the overall miasma of mingled scents was the heavy stench of their effluence. By some mechanism unknown to him, and probably to most of those living within the tall walls surrounding them, the daunting amount of pungent wastes was disappearing with each passing hour.
Coughing, he clapped a hand over his nose, giving Llyn a brief, panicked look when she glanced back at him. She smiled and nodded, wrinkling her own nose as she twitched her whiskers. Having been free of the place for so long, she herself had been broadsided by the overwhelming mix of animal scents.
The closer they got to the central keep the more the crowds thinned, until they found themselves standing relatively alone before the towering gateway into the Lower Keep bailey. The four guards here, two humans, a wolf, and a boar were much more alert to them as they approached. They did not challenge the few residents who were passing both ways through the gate, but Muri caught their immediate attention.
"Name?" the wolf growled, stepping before the skunk as they reached the gate. There were four polearms propped against the gatehouse walls within easy reach, and the four guards had swords of their own. Muri stopped when challenged, his fur rising and falling as he gave the wolf a once over.
"Murikeer Khanna." He replied.
"Purpose within the walls of Metamor?" the wolf continued. He looked the others over as they stopped nearby, identifying both swiftly as previous residents. The marten was a minstrel of some note, the mink a missing Long Scout. He knew their faces and physiques, if not their names. Muri looked over at Llyn, and shrugged.
"I'm taking him to Misha." She said as she stepped forward, "Llyn, of the Longs." She reported as the wolf turned a grey eyed stare at her, "He has information pertaining to Lutin movements and strengths north of the Dikes."
"The Longs are not currently at the Keep." The wolf nodded, stepping aside, "Please report to the castellan or Steward Thalberg as soon as possible, Murikeer, and announce your arrival."
"Where are the Longs?" Llyn asked, surprised to hear that they were all gone. It was not out of sorts to have most of them out on one patrol or another, but for all of them to be missing was unusual.
"I can't say, George is currently in command, pending Misha's return." The wolf rumbled, waving a hand for them to pass the gate while the boar was making some notation on a slate. Muri swiftly moved past, eyeing the two humans, both fetching specimens of man and woman, no matter that they were hidden mostly under layers of chain and the underlying gambesons. Despite their looks, the skunk was leery of their intentions, the swords at their hips looking plenty lethal.
Crossing the open expanse beyond the gates, Muri's gaze was drawn upward at the stone edifice that spread out before them. The stones of the inner Keep were of a different sort than those used throughout the rest of the overall layout. The grey was deeper, more smoothly worked, almost new in appearances though they had told him that this building was far older than the rest of the keep, or even the kingdoms that the Keep protected.
There was also a deep, almost palpable power about the place that Muri could sense without even using his spirit sight. It instilled a sort of calm upon him, but also an awed fright at the power that had built and kept the castle in shape for so many centuries.
"To the west," Dream was saying, "the Ducal palace." He waved one hand expansively at the walled bailey surrounding the western half of the keep. Muri stopped to examine the interface of the newer walls with the older stones of the keep, quite surprised to see that the stones of the older construction were actually built around those of the newer wall. He pointed it out to Llyn, who seemed likewise amazed, but also laughed.
"That's the power of the old Keep." She said as Dream joined them, standing slightly behind and to one side of Llyn, a shadowed silhouette against the dark blue sky. "It tends to shift its layout around at a whim."
"It moves?" Muri leaned away from the polished grey stones of the Keep wall, looking at it as if expecting it to engulf him at any moment.
"Not from its foundations, no." Llyn laughed, "But it makes and removes rooms, switching passageways around now and then." She placed a hand upon the skunk's shoulder, guiding him toward the nearest tall gate. The twin portals were closed, with a smaller door open in one of the gate leaves to allow the few denizens wandering around to enter and exit. "That's one of the gates that the defenders based their last stand at during the Battle of the Gates." She explained as they approached. A large kangaroo ducked through the doorway as they approached, pausing to look at the trio for a moment before moving onward, a book tucked under one short arm.
"The south gate." Dream said as he stepped through ahead of them, "This is the gate that was the hardest fought, but stood stronger than the others."
"The first gate to get bespelled, but luckily it was the gender switching spell that was cast here." Llyn continued as she followed Muri through the doorway, stepping aside to let a ferret through on her way somewhere in a rush, "But the spells are so commingled now that it makes no difference which gate a person goes through when they first arrive, the end result is entirely random.
"No one since the last battle, that I know of, has been affected by more than one spell, though." She smiled at Muri's look of trepidation at the doorway. They had entered a short passage lined with murder holes and a portcullis at either end, which opened into a courtyard at the far end. "So you don't have to worry about being made female, or a child."
Muri nodded woodenly, his gaze roving about the gateway, then the courtyard as they stepped out into the open. Lanterns were being lit along the walls and paths through the greenery which occupied the large open area.
"I'm off to dump my gear, Llyn." Dream said, turning sharply to the left when he cleared the passageway, "I'll catch up with you two later." He waved one hand as he moved along the outer wall of the courtyard, disappearing into a torch lit passageway at the southern end of the courtyard.
Llyn scowled at the marten's sudden departure, then snorted through her nose as she twitched her whiskers, "Thanks for the help, Dream." She muttered, continuing across the courtyard with Muri in tow, "I am going to have to make my way to Misha's apartments to give my report, Mur." She explained as they made their way down another passageway. Doors and alcoves opened to either side, most illuminated by torches and many of the doors engraved with the name or names of their occupants. "Until I get my report made I can't show you around, and can't take you with me." She led him to another courtyard, this one smaller and lit with many more torches. The greenery here was carefully tended, the paths made of highly polished marble. "The crowds here should be minimal, so I'll leave you here to wait." She looked around, seeing only a few of the locals going about their own business, overlooking the newcomers, "Once I get this business out of the way I'll see about getting you some rooms, so don't run away."
Muri nodded, looking around as well, mildly surprised when she bent to give him a light kiss upon his furry cheek, "It'll take some time, so if you do decide to wander, don't go far, okay?" She murred into his ear, hugging once lightly, then turning and quickly striding away, her tail swaying from side to side in her wake.