October 31, 706 CR
Pausing before the doorway, Murikeer steeled himself for the encounter he was preparing to initiate. Their first meeting had not gone well, and he had little relished a repeat of it. Self consciously straightening his shirt he took a long breath, then pushed the door open slowly. Rope muttered and hissed through guides while the counter weight thunked upward in its track as the door opened and he stepped in.
He could hear the faint crackling from the stoves along the left wall, the heat rushing past him out the door as he glanced around. The wall to his right was dominated by shelves neatly stacked with all manner of kitchen items with a single tapestry-curtained door set in the center of the wall surrounded by cooking implements. The curtain rustled quietly at the sudden breeze of escaping hot air, but no one was present in the kitchen.
Not surprisingly, as the usual cook was likely up to her tiny ears with customers at the Keep as the Harvest Festival began in earnest. “The harvest loaves will not be ready until evening.” A sharp, irritated feminine voice groused from the room beyond the tapestry, “Go away.”
“Walter?” Muri hazarded as he eased the outer door closed. He heard an exasperated sigh from the speaker as he approached the tapestry.
“What?!” the voice snarled, “I’ve got fifteen different things to do, all of them annoying. I don not have time to mend another shirt.”
Muri frowned and swallowed as he stared at the tapestry, almost afraid to pull it aside and enter the seamstress’ sanctum. “I just wanted to talk for a moment, I do not need to have my clothes mended.”
A muttered expletive preceded a pause of several seconds before he heard any understandable reply. “I do not have time for inane banter, whoever you are, spit it out and get yourself gone.”
“It’s about your sister.” He ventured to the tapestry. Silence was the only response to that phrase for such a lengthy span he was about to repeat it when the curtain was yanked back with such violence it startled him. Hard eyes glared at him from a face pinched by bitterness and anger, a single pin lodged in the corner of a mouth drawn into a thin line. Those eyes raked down to his paws and back up with a distasteful sneer.
“You?” she snarled, her eyes narrowing to slits, “What insanity brings you here asking about my sister?” the woman asked sharply, thrusting a slender finger at his nose. “Mind you to speak with care, I brook no one to gainsay her.” Walter warned.
“I wish to know of her?”
“To what end?”
“I do not know of her.” He continued, trying to both stand his ground against her palpable dislike of him, and keep his own growing disdain from his voice or posture.
“Of course not, she is dead.” Walter sneered, folding her arms across her chest.
“She was my mother.” Murikeer expected surprise, or even disbelief from her, but what he did get was quite unexpected. The sudden, powerful blow across his left cheek delivered by a surprisingly strong hand sent him reeling back a step in shock. Even as he fell back she advanced, shaking a finger in his face.
“Do not speak lies over the grave of my sister” she screamed, forcing him back several steps as the sting of her attack became a dull throb. “Do not hope to usurp your name by lies and false entreaties, I will not hear it!”
Muri’s jaw dropped as his fur bushed under his clothing, tail doubling in size as he felt the surging fire of instincts race through him with such power that he felt his breathing shorten to shallow, wheezing gasps. Each step that she drove him back heightened his sense of mind numbing fear, bringing back flashes of terrible memories. Then something broke; some tenebrous veil, tough like old gristle, snapped with a force almost audible as he felt that welling tide of terror swell with each harsh thrust of the woman’s finger near his eyes. That fear, dredged up like the forgotten corpses on a lake bottom, born of years hounded by hunters as a demon-spawned beast, filled his throat with a taste like bile. Then it was gone, commuted to a sudden, chilling rage that iced through his veins in a single heartbeat, banishing the fire of terror and unbowed his fearful spine.
With a swift surge he reversed his retreat and stepped forward, one hand capturing her wrist and the other her jaw, propelling her back as he charged forward. Shelves rattled as she was born back into them. Upset crockery clattered and rained down to smash at foot and paw. The seamstress gaped and gasped as the air rushed from her lungs, raking at his arm and face with her free hand.
“Justin Windseeker and Emily Diaun were wed in the year of 687 Reckoning.” He growled, ignoring the futile efforts of her blunt fingernails to penetrate his fur. “Two years later she bore him a male child, a son they named Findahl.” He continued, hammering her back against the shelves once more, then releasing her abruptly. “In that same year she passed because of the winter lung.” He growled as he took two steps back, “That was his undoing, that broke my father like no hardship ever could.” He hammered his chest with one hand. “He took his son, me, and left those bitter people that hate, full of anger.” His jaw muscles twitching, barely making his animal growl understandable, “People like you.” He finished, thrusting a finger at her.
For her part in the argument, Walter merely stood, leaning back against the disordered shelves, and rubbed her throat as she listened. They stared at each other, both breathing swift and hard, until Muri turned his back on her and strode for the door.
“Wait.” Walter croaked as he reached for the latch. “I did not hate him, not because of Em’s death, not for anything.” She continued as she watched his stiff back and squared shoulders, the thick plume of his tail drawn up against his spine. His hand rested on the latch, but he did not raise it. “He was my closest friend, my brother even before Em’s love made him family.”
Muri turned slowly, “Then why do you repudiate me, his son?” he asked carefully, his voice hurt and angry.
Walter sighed, dropping her hand from her throat, “Who are you to me?” she asked without rancor, “A skunk named Murikeer? Why did you abandon the name given by your mother?”
“I am a mage. Our true names have a power of their own, a power we do not offer up lightly.” He explained as he leaned back against the door, suddenly feeling terribly drained. Running his fingers through the short fur between his ears he took a long breath and let it out in a gust. “I am sorry I lost control.” He offered apologetically.
Walter frowned and looked down at the shattered crockery at her feet. “I will be when the missus gets back and finds that I’ve broken her mixing bowl.” She mused as she gingerly stepped over the remains of two large earthenware bowls.
Muri chuffed lightly, “It’d take me a couple days, but I can repair them.”
Walter shook her head as she crossed to a large oven slowly, arms crossed tightly over her chest. “No, that’s fine.” She said as she hugged herself for a minute, then unfolded her arms and took a long wooden pole down from a hook near one of the ovens. Opening the metal door, she thrust the pole in and hooked it on the lip of a pan within, drawing it out and sliding it onto an empty rack. “I’m her temper anyway.” She explained as she took a fresh pan of uncooked pastries and placed it in the oven, taking a second pan out. “She’s miss bright and cheery, I’m miss shrew.” She sighed as she replaced the second pan, following it with two more.
“Does not really need to be that way.” Muri said as he crossed to the shelves and began picking up pieces of broken and unbroken pottery. Walter shot him a strange glance as she finished transferring trays and hung the pole back on its hook.
“You say. At least you’re still male.” She groused as she examined the finished trays.
“Huh?” Muri grunted as he looked over his shoulder at her, “Maybe, but I’ve become an animal. A rather noisome one at that.” He flicked his lush tail, the fur no longer bushed with agitation. His magic kept his natural, potent musk to a barely perceptible scent, but he knew that he was rare in having that ability. Almost every other animal morphed keeper had to deal with the animal scents that they produced, and everyone else just got used to the heavy miasma of odors that lingered over the Keep.
Walter grunted as she spared him a sour look and adjusted the wood below the oven and closed the grate. “This cursed changed our entire culture, social mores, morality, and a hundred other things in… pfft… a mere breath.” She said as she flicked one hand from her lips with an open gesture with her fingers. “The whole cultural and moral outlook on mates of the same sex was just thrown aside, but where its roots are,” she tapped her head, then heart, “is not so easily changed.
“Do you have any idea how difficult it is to be a good husband when you’ve been raised a man, and cursed to womanhood?” She asked, some of her old bitterness creeping back into her voice. “When your wife has become something you can barely comprehend? Intimacy, closeness, just sleeping in the same bed, all rendered nigh impossible?”
“Nigh.” Muri reiterated with a slight upward quirk at the corner of his muzzle.
“Oh, aye, nigh. Not entirely. In seven years we’ve figured each other out somewhat well, but it is still painful to feel male here,” again she tapped her heart and head, “but see this in the mirror each morn.” She finished, sweeping her hand down her body.
Tracing the claw tip of his left index finger down his brow, the length of his musteline muzzle, and off the tip of his nose, he flicked his fingers and favored her with a sardonic half smile. “You have a mirror?” he asked laconically as he crossed his arms over his chest and pointedly swept his tail back and forth.
“Touché.” She said with a half-laugh. “Putting such matters aside, tell me of your father? I have not seen him since shortly after Nasoj was thrown back.”
Muri bowed his head slightly and frowned, countenance grieved. “It pains me to say that he has passed, aunt Walter.”
She gasped, and then moaned in soft, quiet grief. “How?”
“A bandit’s arrow, near six years ago, in Sathmore, where he still lies.”
Unexpectedly she stepped forward and drew him into a solid, comforting embrace. It took him a surprised moment to return it. “I loved him as a true brother.” She said, her voice rough at the edges. “It hurt when he left, saying that he could not return, but I understood. He left for you.” She continued, bowing her face to his shoulder. “But I miss him still.”
Though he knew that her grief was spilling over, Muri was surprised to find his own rising in its echo. When hers broke in a sob he found his heart squeezed by aching grief, reducing them both to tears.
The lady Levins returned some time later, backing through the door with an armload of freshly scrubbed baking trays, to hear the incongruous sound of laughter coming from the back room. Walter’s workroom, where no laughter had been heard in it seemed years if ever. After setting the trays upon the preparing table that dominated much of one side of the kitchen she turned around, and suffered her second surprise.
The kitchen was a wreck. Not much of a wreck, to be sure, but in Mrs. Levins’ orderly bakery the disarrayed shelf of crockery looked glaringly out of place. One of the wooden shelves was even slightly upended and cracked, the crockery upon it tossed haphazardly against the back of the shelf. On the counter was a broad bowl filled with broken pieces of some victim of the events that had damaged the shelf. Beside it was an empty bottle that had once held port wine, dusty from years spent in the little used wine cellar.
More laughter, raucous and tipsy, issued through the muffling curtain separating the kitchen from Walter’s tailor shop, prompting the confused hedgehog to investigate. She knew one laugh to be Walter’s, but the other was an animalistic churring sound she could not place. Drawing back the curtain was no more informative, for the source of the rapid-fire churring was seated with their back to the door. The source was a skunk, but it was not Berchem the archer because he was markedly different in physique; not quite so broad of shoulder or heavy of frame.
“… when Berchem could not immediately open the door he grabbed at it with both hands,” Walter was saying, modeling her explanation with expansive gestures. In one hand she held a beaten bronze chalice, the other a pair of scissors like a door’s handle, “braced his feet, and yanked for all he was worth.” Walter took a draught from her chalice, eyes bright and merry, face flushed with considerable tipsiness. “Of course, all that did was yank the stay pin out of the wagon’s rear gate, and the chock from under the wheels, when he hauled the door open, and you can imagine the results! There was manure and slop everywhere! While it was spilling out of the back of the wagon it started to rolling, knocked Berchem on his rump before he knew what had happened, and rolled right on over him, down the hill, and into Master Angus’s front door with the most almighty crash.” Walter rattled a nearby footlocker with one foot, brandishing scissors and chalice emphatically while her guest laughed that hissing, churring staccato exultation of breath.
“Anne!” Walter crowed upon spying her wife and sidling past her guest to greet her. The skunk turned and looked over his shoulder, but the hedgehog could still not identify him. “I was just regaling Murikeer here about the time Justin tied the old slop wagon to the barn door when we were kids.” Putting an arm bravely around the hedgehog, Walter led her into the cramped confines of the clothier’s shop.
“Walter, my dear, you are drunk!” Annette Levins exclaimed of her once-husband, now wife, completely and utterly amazed. Walter had never been one for her cups.
Walter made a dismissive sound with her lips, waving the hand that held her scissors, “Ahh, pooh, I… er, well, we had a good cry and I figgered a good port would blunt the raw edges a little.”
Anne looked sidelong at her typically acerbic, waspish wife, “A good cry?” she blurted, spines rustling under her apron and kirtle and looking toward the skunk. She saw that he, too, held a beaten bronze chalice recently dusted clean. He looked somewhat familiar, she had seen him about, and he had even come into the shop a few months earlier. Walter identified him as Murikeer, but that meant little. “Dearie, you haven’t cried since Justin left.”
Walter sobered a little and nodded ever so slightly, “He will not be coming back, either.”
Confused, Anne frowned, crossing her stout arms across her ample chest. “He said as much last he was here, afeared of Nasoj’s handiwork he was, and wanted his boy clear o’ the same touch.”
With a slow shake of her head Walter shifted her hands up to Anne’s shoulders, “No, love, he will never be coming back.” She watched the slow realization dawn in her animalistic wife’s eyes and nodded soberly, “His son brought news of his fate. Would that he had known, he may have remained with us.”
Anne’s gaze flicked to the skunk who had not stood from his seat, watching the pair of women quietly and taking a slow draw from his chalice. “Had he known what, Walter? You’re vexing me with these riddles.”
“The boy was touched by Nasoj’s magic because he was here, in the Keep, when it was laid upon the land. Justin did not know, because the lad was too young to show the change.” Releasing Anne’s shoulders Walter turned slightly and waved one hand toward her guest, “This is Justin’s son, Anne, dear. Findahl. The curse came upon him in the south, some years after Justin took him away.”
Walter stepped aside as Anne sidled past her closer toward their guest, eyes looking him up and down. “Justin’s son, Emily’s son.” She said slowly, wonder crossing her face followed by a warm smile, “Their legacy, come back to us.” She held out a hand to Murikeer who reached up to grasp it, a small surprised chirp escaping his lips as she smoothly pulled him to his feet.
“Aye, our nephew.” Walter beamed.