The sun was up high in the sky, though there was still a deep chill throughout the mountain air. Michael scuffled his webbed feet through the snow that clung to the peaks, as he followed after Lindsey. He tried to ignore the plaid shirts his fellow timbersman were wearing, even as he did his best to hide his own fur.
"So, what is our quota for today?" Michael asked skipping forward a bit to stand beside the massive giant.
"The Chief only needs a few trees downed today. The river should be deep enough for us to begin fluming in another week or so. Once that happens, we should double or triple our production."
Lindsey cupped a hand over his eyes and peered up into the sky up at the towering summit before them. "Isn't that quite a sight!"
Michael gazed at the bright white spear that pierced the very clouds. The treeline was much farther below that, and several streams cascaded along the slopes in every direction; those on the western side fed into the river that flowed through the Metamor Valley. "Very impressive."
Lindsey seemed to be talking more to himself than to anybody else. "That is Mount Gascon. Named after the Metamorian who tried to climb it almost a hundred years ago. He never came back, and nobody else was strong enough to follow after him. Every single face of that peak is a sheer wall of ice. It's the tallest mountain for leagues in every direction."
Michael noted that the others were getting ahead of them, so he picked up his pace, his thick tail slapping the back of his legs again. "Come on, Lindsey."
"Oh right!" Lindsey quickly took two big strides and was once agian beside the beaver.
They continued walking along the forest trails a ways till The Chief gave the stop order, and selected a few trees to bring down. They were all moderate in size, and would not take very long.
As they broke up into groups, Michael tugged at the collar of his shirt. It was very cold up here, but with his fur, his undershirt, his meager chest of mail, and the extra shirt he'd worn to hide his odd colorations, it was growing increasingly warm. And as he hefted the axe, it only grew warmer.
Lindsey and Michael took turns working at the tree. Although his teeth were very good at chewing down trees since they were so large, Tathom had wanted him to develop his upperbody strength more, especially considering his accident. So he took turns swinging and gnawing.
However, he spent much of his down time panting like crazy. He could feel the watchful eye of th ebull on him as he languished in the snow, enjoying its chilling embrace. Sometimes, he would roll about in the snow just to get some of the heat off. There was no question he looked a little crazy, but it was better than looking like a freak.
However, sometime around noon, when Lindsey sat down next to him, breathing heavily, the tree still defiantly standing tall and firm, Michael realized that he was just too overheated to continue.
"Michael, are you going to go at it?"
"I can't," he replied weakly as he lay there motionless in the snow.
"I'm just too hot."
Lindsey chuckled. "You shouldn't be wearing all that clothing then."
Michael grimaced, noting the mismatched colors of Lindsey's own shirt. Though they claimed it was a sign of respect for him, it still irked the beaver to no end.
However, when Tathom came over to see what the problem was, Michael knew that he was not going to get away from the arguement. "What's wrong?"
"Chief, Michael here's overheated."
Tathom, looked down at the beaver who lay sprawled out on his back in the snow. "You are wearing too much," the bull surmised, snorting once for emphasis. "Take off the shirt."
"You heard me, take off the shirt. You can't do anything if you overheat like that. What if a Lutin party comes? You would die lying there on the ground like that."
Struggling to a sitting position, Michael glumly began to wiggle out of the shirt. As he pulled his arms from the sleeves, he could see the black and red fur come free. He cringed at the sight of it, but there was not much more he could do.
The fur was also damp, since the snow had soaked through his shirt. His mail shirt was dripping with the icy chill, and if he didn't get it cleaned, would certainly rust. Michael did feel more comfortable without his shirt on, but now everybody could see his fur.
Tathom took the shirt, squeezed the water from it, and then handed it to Lindsey. "Use your teeth for now, till you feel better."
Michael nodded, and walked over to the tree, feeling the eyes of many on him. He tried to shut them out, but it seemed a fruitless effort. Setting his head in the opening that the axe had created, he began gnawing at the wood. The cedar was not the most pleasant of tastes, but at least his teeth felt better.
At least with his head inside the tree, he could not seen his own mismatched markings. Ever since he had become a beaver, Michael had wondered what life would be like if he'd never come to Metamor Keep. He had left his home, his family dead, and the farm in ruins. And as he traveled to find a new life, he had been beset upon by a party of Lutins.
What if they had never attacked? Would he still be looking for a home, running low on cash, maybe even forced to beg in the gutters and sidestreets where people emptied their chamberpots? It was a horrifying thought, but a reality for so many people about the world. At Metamor Keep, he had a life, and a livelihood. There were poor here in this place as well, but at least for the most part compassion was the rule of the kingdom.
Still, if he'd never even heard of a Lutin, he'd still be a human, inconspicuous and normal. Now he was anything but. Already he'd been the only beaver at the Keep. While the Support Group gathered all the rodents together, their company was still a bit too remote. How much of the animal instincts had become his own? Who had he sought for comfort after his change? He'd gone to Pascal.
Michael bit deep into the wood, feeling the tree start to sway. Pulling his head back out of the toppling tree, he scampered back a bit. Lindsey got to his feet, and came to stand beside him. "Are you going to give it a push?" Lindsey asked.
"No, I'll let you do that," Michael replied as he tried not to look at his own flesh.
"Of course." Lindsey handed the beaver his shirt, and stepped up to the tree. The snow afforded little traction, but the large man was able to get a good foothold, and with his mighty arms, toppled over the resilient cedar. The branches cracked and shuddered as it slammed into the ground, spraying the powdery snow high into the air. After it settled, Lindsey pulled out his axe, and began to whack away at the larger branches.
Michael looked at the shirt in his paws, dropped it, and then came to help his friend. Lindsey may be wearing plaid, but he was still a good man who cared. Hefting th emuch smaller axe, Michael set out to help his friend delimb the trunk.
"So," Lindsey asked between strokes, "why were you wearing that shirt anyway?"
Michael ground his teeth together. "Why do you think?"
"Because of your fur?"
"What else could it be?"
Lindsey sighed, snapping a smaller branch free with one hand. "Michael, why is your fur like that?"
"Because Pascal gave me one of her little experiments," the beaver replied sourly.
"Did he give you a choice?"
Michael was taken a bit aback, but glumly replied, "Yes, she did."
"And why did you agree to it?"
Michael shook his head. "I don't know. I guess I just wanted to make her happy. She was the only person about tthat looked anything like me, and well, I suppose I needed that support."
"Michael, one thing you should know about the Keep is that it gives you a new life to live, whether you like it or not. Look at me, I'm a man." The burly figure leaned a little closer, huis flaming red beard dngling before the beaver's eyes. "And to tell yout he truth, I never wanted to be a man. I make jokes about it, but I wish that it didn't have to be this way. But I don't have a choice. Unless somebody can reverse the curse, I'm going to be a man for the rest of my life.
"You are going to be a plaid beaver for the rest of your life as well. The beaver is not your fault, nobody can decide their own change. But you agreed to try Pascal's experiments knowing full well what it could mean for you. There is nobody you can blame but yourself. You have to live with it now."
"But why does everybody keep reminding me about it?" Michael slammed the axe into the tree, spraying wood chips over his stubby legs.
"You mean the shirts?" Lindsey gestured to his plain outfit and the beaver nodded. "Michael, we wear them out of respect for you. If you are going to be plaid, we are going to be plaid too. SO cheer up, you didn't just paint yourself, you painted the rest of us too."
Michael glowered, even though he knew Lindsey was just trying to help him out. "But I didn't want that!"
Lindsey raised an eyebrow. "Do you think any of us wants this? How many people do you know here who has everything they want in life?"
Michael lowered his eyes, staring at the creamy yellow skin on his paws. "I cannot name any. But so many seem happy as if they do have everything they want."
"No, they don't," Lindsey countered. "They just have accepted who they are, and continue living." The large man then broke free one last branch, wiped hsi sweaty brow with the back of one hand, and then glanced back at the other timbersman, who were finishing up their own work. "It looks like we're getting ready to head back shortly. I'm going to treat you to a meal at the Mule. And of course, a few drinks."
"You aren't going to make me sing are you?" Michael asked out of jest.
Lindsey let out a raucous laugh. "Now you're talking!" He then reached down and picked up the dropped shirt. "Just promise me you won't hide who you are anymore."
Michael took the shirt back, stared at it, and sighed once more. "I promise. I still don't like it, but I guess I should accept that this is who I am now."
Lindsey grinned, twirling one of the braids with a finger. "And that is all anybody can ask of you." He then turned and with the help of the beaver and others, began to process of getting the lumber back to the Keep. Michael's shirt was tossed in the wagon, and forgotten for quite some time.