Triumphant Returns the Dogs of War

by Ryx



The day dawned bright, clear and pleasantly cool for a late summer day. A recent passing storm had left the air smelling clean and heavy with moisture, tinged with the slight tang of mountain trees. Llyn had put the uneasy emotions stirred up earlier in the dawn of the day aside as she went to the small room in the secluded corner of the Keep where Thalberg had secured a room for Murikeer. Considering the scene he had created in Laracin's courtyard the previous evening, the crocodilian steward had been prompted to place a guard on the skunk's rooms. The previous evening it had been a stocky, rather irritable badger, but the guard she met that morning was a slender ermine dressed in light leather armour and wearing the insignia of a minor rank.

The ermine rose from the chair one of the previous guards had secured and placed to one side of the door, nodding familiarly to her as she swaggered down the passageway. "Good morning, miss." he cocked his slender white head to one side, black eyes glittering curiously as he switched his ears forward, waiting for her to identify herself.

"Joy Llyn Wanderer, patrol." She replied, her steps never slowing as she approached the door. The ermine looked uncomfortable for a moment, the previous guard having told him that the skunk would be free to wander the Keep, but under watch lest he spray anyone again. No one had said that he had friends already. "You going to follow us all day?" she asked, coming to stop in front of the shorter, much more slender ermine, who could do little more than nod, cowed by her presence. "Okay then, who are you?"

"Carver Seth, m'am." The young ermine managed to stammer as the larger mink put her fists on her hips and regarded him with one upraised eyebrow. "Ensign of the Keep Guard." He trailed off nervously, leaning away from the aggressive mink's stare.

"Ah, okay Ensign Carver Seth -"

"Seth."

"Seth then, just stay back, kay? My friend there's been out in the woods a good long time, and he's not too comfortable with strangers poking pikes at his tail. You follow?" she smiled, revealing her teeth as the expression narrowed her eyes and drew her whiskers back. The ermine leaned further away as he clutched the short pike in his hand tighter.

"Yes'm." he nodded emphatically. With that the mink nodded in return, seeming to deflate as she moved past him to rap lightly upon the door. "I don't think he's alone, miss Joy, I heard him talking to someone a few minutes ago."

"Joy or Llyn, no 'miss' anything, kid." She returned without looking at him, "Muri?" She called a little louder through the door. She heard the skunk's voice calling from within the room, and the door was pulled open shortly thereafter.

She had expected to find the skunk awake, as he tended to be something of an early riser, but he had not expected to find him already prepared for the day. As he met her at the door she detected a slightly confused cast to the angular features of his muzzle, but the look was banished almost immediately by his warm smile. Llyn glanced past him at the small room, more a cell than anything else, with but a single shelf and bed. His packs were propped in the far corner, but other than the skunk the room was empty.

"You have company?" she asked quietly, tilting her head to one side as her short ears twitched forward. Muri blinked, then nodded, his eyes shifting to the white furred guard standing nearby.

"Yes, actually, most confusing." He muttered, rubbing his jaw with one hand, "I got a visit from the castle spirit herself, Kyia."

"Oh? I did not know she personally greeted newcomers." Llyn said, her fur settling slightly. She did not move as Murikeer tried to take a step forward but the mink refused to move, a smile crossing her muzzle as she raised a hand and placed it on one side of the doorframe. She leaned against the other side as the skunk's step was aborted, forcing him a pace back, a look of confusion on his angular, black and white furred muzzle.

"She. I got her attention unintentionally." He explained distractedly as he regained his balance. She stood barring the door, and he could have sworn he saw a pike-wielding guard in the hallway just beyond his door before being halted. "Am I under house arrest?"

Llyn laughed lightly and shook her head, "Until you put on some clothes, yes." She churred quietly, her eyes roving down across his frame. For the first time Muri actually felt the warm touch of her regard upon him, the fur of his muzzle flattening down as he backed his ears, tail fluffing, then settling as a sudden rush of embarrassment raced through him. He blinked, then laughed self consciously as he retreated into the room. His shirt, vest, and leggings were hanging from the hooks under the single shelf in the room, and he hastily snatched them down.

Not bothering to close the door, conscious all the while of Llyn's unwavering gaze upon his back, he stepped into his new pants, muttering to himself as his toeclaws got snagged in the weave of the cloth. He heard Llyn snicker behind him, his tail darting about in agitation as he hopped about on one foot, working his claws free. After some moments he finally did manage to get his pants on, pulling them up and lacing the hock-cuffs. Cinching the waist tight, he pulled on his shirt as he turned back toward Llyn.

"Don't worry," he muttered, rolling his eyes, "I'll close the door next time." He assured her as he stepped through the portal. Llyn continued to giggle quietly to herself as she drew the door shut, nodding.

"Not with me in the hallway you wont." She winked, securing the latch. Security had never been a great issue at Metamor, as Kyia was quite alert to unwanted intruders getting onto places not their own. The ermine, Seth, fell into step behind him as Llyn led the still dressing skunk down the hallway.

"Hungry?" she asked back over her shoulder, which elicited a short nod from the skunk as he finished donning his vest. "Good, but I am not going to take you to the commons, I doubt you would enjoy the crowd right now."

"I rather doubt, yes." Muri nodded as he drew abreast of her. Seth fell to a half dozen paces behind them, hefting his short pike as his short legs worked rapidly to keep pace with the taller, heavier mustelids.

The breakfast she shared with him was purchased from a small eatery outside the walls of the Keep itself. It consisting of a large selection of pastries and a strange, dense bread purchased from a strange looking rodent running a bakery just beyond the gates. Llyn led him in a circuitous path around the outside of the keep for much of the morning, deftly avoiding areas that would be crowded; either by showing them to him before they were in use, or after that use was completed. The market was a bustle that Muri found he could not force himself to approach, and Llyn seemed satisfied to show him from the battlements of the Keep walls.

As the noon hour approached, Llyn became secretive in explaining her destination, leaving Murikeer rather confused as she led him through all manner of twisting passageways and narrow halls. Their ermine guard puffed along in their wake, the tip of his pike clattering from sconces as the mink led the two males down a series of serpentine, cobweb festooned corridors. "Where are we going now?" Murikeer muttered as he clawed a cobweb from his face. Seth was lucky at least for having the pike held out before him, which captured the cobwebs before they soiled his pristine white fur.

"A marvelous place." Llyn assured, as she had assured him minutes before, and minutes before that. She had seldom actually gone there herself, which was the entire reason she found herself quite lost in the twisting passages of Metamor, as if Kyia were teasing her with each new turn. She muttered to herself, the object of their journey fixed prominently in her mind, yet she was having little luck finding it.

Eventually, though, luck seemed to turn in their favor. After finding themselves deposited in a groundskeeper's closet they opened the door onto a broad, vaulted colonnade of thick marble pillars. At one end was an open courtyard of brilliant greenery and sunlight, the other dominated by a set of ornate double doors. A varied assortment of Keepers wandered the sunlit colonnade and the arcades branching off at either end, though the crowd was relatively thin. Llyn let out a long suffering sigh as the focus of her destination finally came into view, and waved a hand toward the doors.

"If I let you through those doors, Muri, I will lose you." she said with complete calm and assuredness, turning to lead the way toward those very doors. The skunk furrowed his eyebrows as he looked over at her, his tail switching back and forth behind him. For the most part Seth had not remarked upon his omnipresent musk, even in the confines of the narrow passages Llyn had led them through.

Muri guessed that his personal and rather potent aroma was not too much out of the ordinary in a place where roughly thirty percent of the population was some sort of animal or another. Living in such close proximity they must have long ago grown used to the particular, sometimes pungent, musks given each particular species. Even Llyn's own musk, as another mustelid like himself, had a certain bite to it for the unwary nose. The ermine behind them had a much subtler musk, but noticeable nonetheless.

"Then why are you taking me there?" he asked, watching an amazing creature covered with brown spots on a deep yellow pelt walked down the center of the colonnade. It's coloring was striking, but the length of its neck was amazing, it seemed at any moment that the creature would smack its forehead upon an architrave, yet it seemed to walk comfortably beneath them without fear.

"One of Ambassador Yonson's aids." Seth supplied from behind the skunk, whose pace had faltered as he stared, awestruck, at the towering creature. "A Giraffe, or so I was told."

"Ambassador?" Llyn asked quietly, turning about to stare at the strange creature. The ermine shifted his pike from one hand to another as he came to a halt, nodding.

"A recent ambassadorial entourage from Chateau Marzac arrived a couple of months ago out of the blue." The ermine wiped a cobweb and attending spider from the shaft of his pike, "They're hoping to open trade relations with Metamor."

"Chateau Marzac is cursed." Murikeer reported suddenly, turning a curious gaze on the shorter, slender ermine, who could only shrug helplessly. "Nothing good has come from that place in centuries."

"Come." Llyn cut in, grabbing Muri's upper arm, "Let us leave the game of thrones to those who know how to play it." She pulled him onward, the skunk easily falling into step beside her with a rueful nod. Seth once more lofted his pike and fell in behind them. The great doors the mink led them to were relatively unadorned, little more than huge wooden beams wrapped in age worn iron with brass fittings. The massive gates were girded for battle, leading the skunk to believe he was being led to an armoury rather than the sight that greeted his eyes as he stepped through the portal created by one leaf of the door which stood open.

Books.

Shelves upon shelves upon countless shelves of books, stretching from the floor to the gabled roof high over their heads. The skunk staggered at the entry, his jaw dropping in absolute shock at the sight. Llyn stopped as he did, turning to fix him with a bright, gleeful smile. A small lad of perhaps fifteen paused as he weaseled past the duo standing rooted in the center of the portal, grinning at the skunk's moue of stupefaction.

"First time?" he asked Seth quietly as he made his way past the skunk and mink. The ermine nodded slowly, the lad's grin infectious.

Muri blinked back to his senses as a massive wall of dark brown fur occluded his vision, drawing his gaze upward until he found himself looking onto twin pools of limpid brown that looked inquisitively down at the skunk. "Lost?" the elk asked with ponderous grace, her scalloped ears turning forward. Muri took an involuntary step back as he looked up into the much taller keeper's face.

"No." he affirmed strongly, his muzzle drawn in a beatific smile, "I think I've come home." The lady elk's broad lips pulled in a smile as her large nostrils dilated, ears twitching.

"I am glad, and welcome to the great library of Metamor." She said with a ponderous flourish of one huge arm, sweeping it in a slow arc around as she turned slightly, urging the skunk to enter. Muri did so, stepping from the portal and moving into the library, his eyes trying to drink in every shelf, every faded spine tightly packed upon the hodgepodge of wood, brick, and stone that made those shelves. As he stepped clear he heard the elk chuckle deeply behind him as she exited, a quietly humorous mutter "Tourists." on her lips as she strode away.

"You're right, Llyn." Muri whispered in awe as he walked slowly through the magnificent edifice, his neck craning as he looked up at the floors ascending into the shadows, four that he could see, with a central stair climbing the highest, darkest floor. "I can spend my entire life here and not even scratch the surface of the knowledge contained here." He breathed in absolute amazement, trying to look everywhere at once.

A single massive desk was positioned prominently in the center of the open atrium within the doors, a fox sitting at it with a small book in his paws. By his appearance and the fact that, while there were many tables there was but one desk, Muri judged him to be the library's keeper. As he approached the fox looked from his reading, watching the trio approaching over the rims of is reading glasses.

"Yes?" he asked quietly as they neared, his triangular ears swiveling forward. His dark, slitted eyes looked from skunk to mink to ermine and back, settling on Murikeer, whom he had never seen before. The mink had the walk and bearing of a long time keeper, and the ermine wore the surcoat of the Metamoran guard. Seth had left his pike on a rack just within the door, though he still wore his shortsword, as did Llyn. "You're new here, I take it?"

Muri nodded, still smiling stupidly at the magnificence around him, "I am." He extended his hand, which the fox clasped in a firm, friendly handshake. "I am Murikeer Khannas, newly arrived."

"Fox Cutter." The vulpine librarian supplied as their hands separated, seating the flyleaf between the pages of his book and closing it. "Keep librarian."

"You have a most enviable job." The skunk affirmed, "What must I do to join whatever guild is allowed access to this place?"

The fox tilted his head slightly in some confusion, his eyes switching over to Llyn, who could only snicker and shrug. "Nothing, Murikeer, this place is free to all."

"Everyone?" the skunk blustered, amazed.

"Well, yes, of course. Knowledge possesses more power than any weapon ever forged by the hand of man or god." The fox supplied with a smile that revealed his sharp teeth. "It is a blade best kept honed to a keen edge."

"Truly, do you have books concerning magecraft?"

"Magery? Of course, yes, why?"

"Magic?" Seth quipped from behind them, his eyes springing wide as he leveled them on the skunk's back. Llyn turned and fixed him with a quiet stare, which effectively silenced him, but did not leave him feeling at all reassured.

Murikeer did not seem to notice his guard's sudden pang of fear, his attention drawn to the conversation at hand, "Lofani's 'Est Tratus son Aerth?' perhaps?"

The fox flicked one of his ears, "What are we becoming, the Metamoran Mage's Collegium?" he asked sharply, his ear backing briefly as he sighed. "Yes, and two copies of translations thereof, but they are restricted reading."

"Restricted?" Muri muttered, standing from his unconscious forward lean, "I thought."

"Those treatises are something of a powerful sort, and the wards on them can be quite dangerous to the uninformed and the unknowing, so we do not put them out where the general populace can touch them." The fox explained, cutting the skunk's protests short, "And despite everything, there are still those who would destroy anything that speaks of magic, so you understand our caution."

"I do, I do." The skunk nodded, "I assure you, I would have no desire to damage such rare works."

"How do you know of Lofani?" the fox asked, stuttering over the syllable break that came natural to the newly arrived mephitis mage standing across the desk from him. Lofani had been an elf, and his name was almost impossible for most to pronounce, the second vowel silent and the last convoluted into two sounds. That the skunk could pronounce it so fluidly spoke well for his knowledge of what he sought. Fox was used to petitioners simply rattling off titles that they could barely pronounce just to sound erudite, invariably coming across as boorish instead.

"I read a few pages recovered from a copy destroyed in the sacking of Fellos, but they were a scarce few."

"I see. The actual illuminated script of Aerth I cannot bring out, but I could allow you to see either of the translations if you wish. I would need Duke Thomas' clearance to give you access to the rest of those texts." He was not about to tell the skunk that the original had a nasty habit of shocking the hell out of his fingertips every time he touched the book, and made his bones ache just to be around it. One of these days he would ask someone to remove the book's wards, he thought.

"All very well." Murikeer nodded with a warm smile, "Once I have become familiar with Metamor I will definitely get the Duke's word, and become a regular at your fine library, sir Fox."

"Just 'Fox', Murikeer, I'm no lord here, just a simple librarian." The vulpine chuckled with a dismissive wave of his hand. Murikeer nodded, turning away from the desk slowly, wistfully casting his gaze about the vast expanse of the library. In the few travels he had taken to cities near Heiorn's estates he had never encountered a library even close to the one in which he now stood. Indeed, none of them could have filled the main atrium, and that included the buildings themselves!

Seth retrieved his pike as they wandered from the library, Muri having to stop once before actually leaving to look back over his shoulder, just to assure himself that it would not vanish like an illusion the moment he passed through the doorway. Llyn laughed and even the nervous looking ermine was forced to smile at the shudder of delight that raced through the skunk.

Due to his longer examination of the library, Murikeer was the last to notice the subtle changes that had come over those around them. Llyn and Seth had changed as well, their ears pricked upright and alert, whiskers vibrating. He looked around, a brief surge of unease racing through him at the sudden hustle of the keepers moving about the colonnade and the courtyard at the far end. They all seemed to have a dedicated purpose, turning and moving almost as one toward an unseen destination.

"What?" he asked, moving up to Llyn, "What happened?"

"They're back." Seth announced, his entire body rigid with a suppressed urge to join the throng. Llyn did not seem so animated, merely curious at the sudden change of activity. She turned her eyes on the young ermine.

"Who are back?"

"The raiders, Andre's troops."

"Raiders?" Llyn queried further.

"A bunch of Caroline's friends and a hundred mounted troops left a couple days ago, headed north. They were going to actually directly assault some Lutin camp or another, and now they're coming back."

The muscles of Llyn's jaw worked as she ground her teeth and nodded. Turning, she began striding swiftly down a side passage. Muri followed mutely, giving the ermine a brief look of confusion that little exchange. The ermine was swift to follow, dropping his tailgating protocol to stride on the heels of his taller companions, hiking his pike up onto his shoulder.

Reaching the end of one arcade, they turned and hastened up a set of narrow stone steps cut into the gap between a tower and the wall adjacent, Llyn's scabbard clattering against the stone to one side while she braced her running ascent with her hand upon the cold stone of the outer wall. Muri was close behind, her tail bushing the front of his vest, Seth a few steps behind him. Even in their haste the white furred keeper was maintaining a certain uneasy distance that seemed more conscious now than it had been before their visit to the library.

Llyn led them out onto the parapets above the southernmost of the three gates into Metamor Keep proper. Several other keepers, both adult, child, and animal had already arrived before them, but the crowd was relatively thin. Marching through the town below was an orderly line of mounted cavalry, behind which straggled a disarrayed group of battle weary keepers on foot. These last, though, did not seem disorderly in their apparent haphazardness, merely marching in a formation alien to most military doctrine. Those where the most weary of the soldiery returning, which was logical as they were on foot.

Yet they were also the most visibly battle scarred. All of them were coated eartip to paws in mud and long dried blood. Every one of them wore garments shredded in battle, and no few sported hasty bandages. Narrowing his eyes, Muri looked at the procession briefly using his spirit sight.

Each and every member, from the commander of the cavalry to the last spectator in his line of sight glimmered with a muted skein of magics, the vestiges of the curse that had been laid upon them. A few stood notably from the crowd returning, some wearing amulets or trinkets of magical power. Two glimmered with obvious but confusing weaves of intense magic, yet neither was like any aura Muri had yet seen. The magic of a black robed fellow was all focused inward and shimmered with a sullen power like a banked forge fire. Another who walked not far from the black robed one, also garbed in black and visibly a raccoon, had a disquieting darkness about his aura, which seemed a mix of magics too intricately woven to be easily picked apart. He was a mage, that much was easy to note, and a powerful one at that, yet he also had an inwardly focused power very similar to the black robed fellow. Their powers were roughly equal, despite the less evolved nature of the black robe's aura, which lead Muri to believe them to be masters of two entirely distinct magical disciplines rather than one the apprentice of the other.

"Who are they?" He asked Llyn, who was leaning far out over the edge of the parapet to watch the procession approach. Her tail was lashing swiftly from side to side as she watched, not even glancing at the inquisitive skunk. Raising one arm, she began pointing out those she knew.

"The wolverine there is Andre, leader of Metamor's cavalry." Her arm moved from the head of the column to the line of keepers on foot. "The fox is Misha Brightleaf." She leaned further forward, as if that could enable to see them more clearly. "Damn but he looks pretty bad off. He's still walking at least, though. The raccoon and the one in the black robes I don't know. The badger is Will Hardy, the father of a. friend. Finbar, the ferret there behind Will, he looks injured too." She rattled off names almost too fast for the skunk to follow, not acknowledging him as she counted off the names, letting out a sigh of relief as the last was accounted for.

"Friends?"

"Most, yes."

They waited there atop the walls as the crowds gathered thick in the bailey below to greet the returning raiders. After a cursory examination, Seth reported that there appeared to be no losses, at least among the casualties. He could say nothing of the others following in the wake of the cavalry, and Llyn merely shrugged. Those of foot were soon lost in the growing throngs following in the wake of the cavalry, not seeming to realize that they were also members of the raid. Passing beyond the town gate, the cavalry was brought to a brisk halt by their commander within the first courtyard and ordered to dismount as a bustle of liveried servants closed on them, taking the reins of their mounts and began leading them away. The entire courtyard was almost immediately plunged into chaos, crowded with servants, soldiers, and curious onlookers trying to pry information from the returning combatants.

Even the wall upon which they had stationed themselves to look down upon the apparently triumphant return of the cavalry soon became uncomfortably crowded, something which Muri noticed occuring long before the crowd became dense. A mumble of curious voices rumbled among the gathering Keepers as they moved close to the parapets to look down upon the scene below. Llyn eventually pulled her attention away from the scene below, elbowing her way past a couple of muscular keepers in smocks smelling powerfully of coal and metal. They paid the mink little attention as she squeezed herself sinuously between them and caught Muri's arm. "Let's get out of here before we get crushed." She called over the buzz of the conversation growing louder as the crowd grew. The skunk was not about to argue, nor was the ermine whose slight frame was almost entirely lost among the gawkers.

Those keepers ascending the narrow steps to the parapets swiftly pressed themselves to one side as the glaring mink stalked down the stairs with Muri and the pike-wielding ermine in her wake.

The crowds thinned dramatically as they made their way back into the Keep proper. Llyn led the way as she had earlier in the day, down twisting hallways and sunlit arcades, across unfamiliar courtyards in a seemingly circuitous rout. Eventually they found themselves walking down a long, wide corridor with a high, arched ceiling decorated with faded paintings of old battles. At the end of the corridor was a massive, open atrium brightly lit with sunlight streaming in through high celestory windows. The atrium was crowded with a motley mob of keepers that Llyn seemed to find familiar though her wandering eyes gave the impression that the hallway itself was not so familiar. Muri's pace slowed as he found himself getting closer to the loose mass of milling Keep citizens, many in common clothing. The focus of their attentions seemed to be the small group that Llyn had pointed out to him from on top of the walls, the small group having scattered itself amongst their companions.

The entire mood was more somber than celebratory, the newly returned combatants standing about with friends and curious bystanders chatting in subdued voices. Most had removed their battered armour and turned in their weapons, replacing hopelessly soiled gambesons with loose garments of simple brown material. Many held various containers of drink to ease throats parched by hours of marching and roughened by the cries of battle. From somewhere food had been procured for the raiders as well, hanks of fresh bread trading places with mugs at lips as the crowd muttered to itself. Llyn grasped his arm gently as she smiled back across at him, "Come, Mur." She urged as she pulled him toward the crowd, "They're my friends, you've no need to fear them."

Muri could only nod woodenly as he was dragged down the corridor, past small knots of people, and into the thick of the crowd itself. Muri's tail fur was laid flat, his tail pulled tight up against his back as he followed the mink through the crowd. The ermine followed close behind them, hiking his pike up against his shoulder lest he injure someone. The skunk's breathing quickened at the tight, closed in feeling imparted by the milling, overly loud throng.

Humans stood together with animals, their bright smiles holding a sinister edge of malice as their voices seemed to cut into his hearing like claws across a dry slateboard. He sensed the cold hatred of their eyes raking across him as he walked, his whiskers drawn back and his ears backed flat against his head.

Not seeming to notice her companion's growing discomfort, Llyn pushed her way up to a tall, slender collie in sliced, bloodied leather armour who was chatting amiably in her high, rolling voice to a smoke-grey fox wearing a smith's apron and a couple of muscular, youthful looking men whose work dusted, bronzed skin gleamed with sweat. The foursome stopped their animated discussion as Llyn interrupted, smiling at the collie. "Arla!" the mink churred deeply, her muzzle drawn back in a bright smile as her whiskers angled forward, "I need to see Misha, where is he?"

The collie's colorful description of hamstringing a Lutin sudden came to a halt as her gaze turned to the mink. Tall ears pricked up in startlement as she blinked, the large wooden mug in her hand nearly falling to the floor. "Llyn!" she yapped, her piercing bark sending a sudden hush over the nearest conversations as she fairly leaped forward and grabbed the mink in a solid, companionable hug. Her drink spilled at Seth's feet, the ermine dancing back adroitly as Muri's ears sprang up in surprise. The sudden attention turning to the Mink's small group fell upon him like a pall, sending a rush through his skin as he felt the closeness of the crowd growing tighter still. "Llyn where have you been!??" the collie barked, her weapon callused hand smacking the mink's back solidly as she released her hug. "We thought you'd been slain." Her muzzle briefly wrinkled, "Or worse."

Llyn beamed, releasing Muri's arm only to slip her arm around the startled skunk's shoulder and pull him forward, "I think it would have been much worse." She nodded, "But Murikeer here saved my tail." She raised her other hand, turning it palm up as her fingers pointed to the dumfounded skunk. "Where's Misha?" she asked once more.

"Misha's asleep." A new voice cut in as Arla was turning to point toward a distant door, her voice trailing off. A large avian head appeared over the crowd to one side, his piercing, beady black eyes gleaming in a featherless head of dark brown flesh. Muri blinked quietly in amazement as he found himself staring at, of all things, a bird; a huge bird at that, a condor. The curse worked in ways far stranger than he had ever imagined, sending yet another twinge of disquiet through him. What else might he encounter here, he wondered as his gaze slipped over the press of fur and flesh.

"I am sure he will be most pleased to see you when he wakes." The collie grinned, giving the mink's shoulder a solid squeeze, "The fox was pretty exhausted from, well, the entire ordeal."

The mink nodded silently and dropped the subject, "George then?" she asked.

Arla slapped the mink's shoulder once more, her teeth bright as she smiled, quite giddy with the long hours they had all put in with their raid and return home. The strong ale did not help any, as she had eaten little other than small nibbles of hard trail bread in the last two days. "Yes, yes, George!" she barked, "Welcome home, Llyn! This is a triumphant day indeed!" The crowd nodded as one, a smattering of applause and a few slurred 'hurrahs' filling the atrium as those around them returned to their earlier conversations. "Who's your new friend?" the collie smiled, waving her half empty mug at the skunk standing ramrod stiff at Llyn's side.

"Murikeer." Llyn offered when Muri failed to speak up for himself, "I found him living some days journey north of the dikes. Would you believe he never knew about us here?" Llyn replied as her arm loosed its embrace upon the skunk's shoulders, slipping down to his elbow, "He pulled my furry butt out of the frying pan, but took me right into the fire."

"Fire?" someone else, a bear standing nearby, asked. His voice was like a heavy peal of distant thunder, rolling across Muri's hearing in a slow rumble. He held a much larger mug in his own massive paw, but the scent revealed that he was drinking little more than a mix of fruit wines and honey. The huge beast dwarfed the skunk and everyone standing nearby, his fur wet and smelling strongly of soap. Much of his fur was still roughened in places where her armour and straps had chafed, but otherwise looked a great deal more presentable than the tipsy collie.

"Meredith!" Llyn crowed, reaching out to clasp one the bear's massive hands in greetings, "It's a long story, you know how it is. Can't say much until after I speak with George and Misha."

"I'm not sure when you'll see Misha, Llyn." The bear rumbled, releasing the mink's small hand, "He's in a bad way." He pitched his thunderous voice low, though the rumble still carried above the other conversations, "I don't think he got a single wink of sleep since he learned about Craig and. Caroline."

Llyn hastened to end that tack of the bear's conversation by laying her hand upon the bear's thick arm, "I know, I know." She nodded sadly, "I learned of it last night."

The bear nodded, taking a long swallow of his pungently sweet drink, "At any rate, he's going to be down for a while." His deep, warm brown eyes turned to settle on the skunk at Llyn's side, "Welcome to Metamor, master Murikeer." He smiled, brilliant white teeth gleaming in that huge muzzle of golden brown fur, and extended one huge paw.

Briefly startled, Muri could only look at that massive, furry hand for a few moments. He could only see the thickly corded muscles of the bear's arm and the distressingly long, polished claws extending from those fingertips. The beast could take him apart without ever ruffling its own fur, he realized. Yet. Merideth was like him, an animal, cursed into his current form. He never would have run, Muri thought, he would have fought.

And died, of course. But fear did not seem to be so much a part of the bear's bearing. He extended his hand and clasped that huge paw as best he could, "Th. thank you, sir." He stammered out in a ragged rush of breath, his tension easing perceptibly with that open, friendly contact. The bear laughed warmly as he pumped the skunk's hand a couple of times, the crushing strength reined in to a warm yet firm handshake.

"I'm a bear, not a knight." He winked one large brown eye down at the skunk, "You can just call me Meredith." He rumbled, releasing Muri's hand. "Any friend of Llyn's is a friend of ours." He waved his heavy arm in a half circle at those surrounding them, many of whom, curiously watching the strange skunk, nodded in response and held their mugs up in quiet greetings. Human and animal alike, their smiles suddenly losing the sinister, hard edge Muri had thought he had seen in them when he first entered their space. Muri took in a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment as he let out that breath, trying to center the chaotic, teetering balance of his will.

"Muri, you all right?" Llyn whispered, cocking her head as she watched his brief moment of inward struggle. He nodded his head once as he opened his eyes and smiled wanly.

"I could be better." He admitted, reaching over to pat the hand gently clasped at his elbow, "The crowd got to me for a bit."

"I know what you mean." The bear rumbled after finishing his mug. He wiped his muzzle with the brown sleeve of his tent sized shirt, "I much prefer the solace of the wood to a crowded castle, myself."

Muri could only nod, a soft chuff escaping his lips, "Alone is alone, Meredith, solace or no." He took in another breath and let it out in a gust, giving himself a brief shake to let his fur settle out once more. The fur of his tail fluffed, the curve softening into its usual soft curve. "I' ve been away from. civilization for quite a few years, it takes some time to adjust to these crowds again."

"Hay, Mere." The collie poked at the bear's elbow with the tip of one slender finger, "How many are upstairs washing up?"

"Three or four, I was too tired to count. I passed Matthias on my way out."

"Oh, good, not too busy." She smiled at Llyn, clapping her on the shoulder once more as she handed her mug off to someone walking past. "I'm for a bath then, this funk is just too deep in my fur." She ruffled the fur exposed at the collar of her breastplate, "I don't think I'll ever get the stink of Lutin out."

The bear gave her a staggering thump on the back as she wandered past, laughing. "Soap works wonders, Arla." He called in his booming voice, "Better than using your tongue; I suggest it." The collie smiled as she worked her way through the crowd, holding one hand up back toward the bear, fingers splayed in a vulgar gesture, then disappeared into the crowd. The bear merely laughed and looked into his empty mug. "Well, I'm for a refill." He mused, "George is in the Long House if you need him."

"The what?" Llyn asked as she followed in the bear's wake toward a door to one side of the atrium. Meredith looked back over his shoulder, ears turned back curiously.

"Long House, new headquarters." He supplied as they escaped the crowd. Muri stuck close to the mink's heels, her tail brushing his stomach as she walked. Seth was forced to stick far closer to the skunk that he desired because of the tight crush of Keepers, watching the skunk closely lest some magical influence reach out and taint his immaculate white fur. He never seemed to pay attention to the occasional brush past armour clad scouts whose soiled fur and leather left dirty streaks across his tabard and fur. "You've been away a long time indeed."

"Almost three months now." The mink nodded, "That Rickkter fellow was new arrived when I went out on my patrol."

The bear grunted as she pushed through the doorway. The heavy wooden door was swung wide open, leaving plenty of room for the bear and the retinue trailing in her wake. "That's got to be one of the longest scout patrols ever." The bear grunted over one broad shoulder. Two sentries stood just within the door, their armour just as battered and soiled as the others, but the fur of the slender female marten was recently cleaned, as was the muscular woman's hair who stood opposite. They moved to stop the armed ermine and skunk following the two known scouts, causing Muri a brief moment of panic as he saw the human bearing down on him, a gleamingly sharp pike held in one strong hand.

"The skunk is with me, 'Gette, Danielle." Llyn spoke up quickly, intercepting the woman's staying hand with a quick touch of her fingertips, "The ermine is his escort." The woman raised an eyebrow at the mink curiously as she lowered her hand, letting out a tired sounding sigh.

"Nice to have you back." She commented as she resumed her post, "Misha does not want too many folks in here."

Llyn nodded quickly as she moved past the woman, motioning for the startled skunk to follow. Beyond the two guards was a short, narrow foyer a few paces from one end to the other. Muri glanced up, one corner of his muzzle lifting unpleasantly as he saw the handful of dark holes in the vaulted stone ceiling. If raiders ever managed to get so far into the castle for that particular set of murder holes to be put to use things would have to have gone very badly for the Keep indeed. The walls were also decorated with smaller holes, through which pikes or other weapons could be thrust, or arrows fired. Trying to penetrate that small room by force would be sheer suicide.

At the end of the short portico was another heavy wooden door that was propped open, leading the foursome into the much larger room beyond. Llyn stepped through that door following the broad beam of the bear, her confident footsteps slowing, and she came to a stop within a half dozen paces. Muri was brought to a halt in much the same manner; startled awe.

The room beyond the suicide passageway was not what the skunk, or the mink, was expecting. Muri had expected a barracks of some sort from his glance at the portico, but what met his gaze was something else entirely. Llyn was expecting little more than yet another glorified office, most likely a great deal like George's, but bigger. It was that, though; bigger. Much bigger.

It had the look of an ornate ballroom rather than any sort of military edifice. Ten massive brass and steel chandeliers stretched the length of the peaked, many gabled room that was a good two score paces from wall to wall. The chandeliers were not lit, nor were the torches set in sconces between the closed doors lining the walls. Bright sunlight spilled into the room from intricate stained glass windows set in large, vaulted casements high on either wall above a deep balcony with a gleaming banister that looked like polished mahogany. A single door was set into the far wall over which was a choir loft currently curtained off. Above that was one more stained glass window featuring a small group of assorted animals and a single human, all secreted in a small forest glade while the central figure of the fantastic window, a fox, pointed off to one side at something. In the center peak of that window was a heraldic symbol; a brown bow laid across a woodsmans' axe on a circular field of green.

Ancient tapestries adorned the walls along either side of the hall between the doors and the blackened stone around the sconces. Two newer seeming tapestries were hung to either side of the door at the end, and two large hearths glimmered with banked fires a little further to either side. There were a few more Keepers in this much larger room, but as the human woman had said, it was apparently still rather private. Most were still unfastening the adornments of their assault; battered leather armour and weapons. There were others, either servants or friends with the freedom to be in the large hall, assisting them. A few tables were set along either wall, most empty, though the two nearest the door had been stocked with food and a few large barrels of drink. The atmosphere within was more quiet and subdued that the crowd outside, owing to the smaller number of those within, and the quiet nature of their activities.

Whistling softly to herself, Llyn could only shake her head at the impressive hall that had replaced the cramped, spartan living quarters that Misha also used as his previous offices.

"Ohh. wow." Llyn breathed as she took in the new home for the Long Scouts. It was quite impressive, if spartan, the expansive floor free of many trophies, statues, or other decorations. Turning, she smiled briefly at Muri, who was still looking around, his muzzle hanging open, and looked back toward the two guards at the other end of the portico. "Where can I find George?" The woman raised one arm and pointed down the length of the hall toward the single door set in the center of the far wall. Her arm was bruised in several places and cris-crossed with small nicks, many in the uniform circular pattern of chainmail. "The fight was a bad one?" Llyn asked, pausing as she looked down at the human's furless arm.

The marten standing on the other side of the door chuffed loudly through her nose as the human nodded, "It was pretty rough, but the odds were in our favor."

"Yeah." The marten quipped, her voice sounding tired and no little irritated, "Thirty to one odds balanced against us." She switched her pike from one shoulder to the other, "I'd call those favorable odds, yeah."

"Did we lose anyone?"

"No." the human, Georgette, replied with a warm, triumphant smile, barely covering the yawn that threatened to split her face. "A few injuries, but nothing major. Misha went absolutely berserk, though. He took payment in blood for what those monsters did to Craig and Carol." She grinned at the remembered image of the fox rampaging through a panicked mob of fleeing Lutins. "It was Matthias and Rickkter accounted for some of the bloodiest fighting though." She nodded briefly as a smile worked its way across her tanned, weather toughened cheeks.

"The writer Matthias?"

"One and the same, aye."

Llyn could only chuff, shaking her head as she lead Muri down the length of the hall. They passed the bear, who was raiding a jumbled stack of fresh bread as he quaffed another massive mug of the pungent fruit drink he favored. Across the hall a raccoon in a long robe was kneeling before a ferret seated on one bench, carefully wrapping a fresh linen bandage around his torso. The ferret looked up and raised one hand toward Llyn as his muzzle broke into a wide grin, then his face wrinkled up in discomfort as the raccoon gave the bandage a tug. Llyn raised her own hand in response, not turning from her path down the center of the brightly lit hall.

She stopped before the door and looked over her shoulder, "You'll have to stay out here, ensign." She informed him coolly as she raised her hand and rapped upon the door. The door was unadorned other than the symbol of bow and axe was carved into the age darkened oak just above eye level. There was no name or any other heraldry added below that simple carving, making the door look no different than any other. The ermine nodded shortly, stepping over to one side of the door as Llyn turned her attention once more to the wooden portal as it was drawn open a crack.

The same chiseled human face she had seen the night before met her gaze, the woman saying nothing as she drew the door open further. Her dark eyes looked back at the skunk as she moved out of the way, holding open the door. She held a long feather quill in her other hand, her fingers stained with dark ink.

"Llyn!" the jackal seated behind a massive desk barked as he looked up, his shrewd eyes leveling instantly on the skunk following in her wake. The human woman quietly closed the door as the two entered and strode across the office. The mink moved with confidence, the skunk following out of pure reflex and the urge to put some distance between him and the woman at the door. Not that it mattered a great deal, for there were two other humans at the desk bent over the scattering of maps and drawings littering the desktop. One was small and weasel slender, her long black hair drawn back in a simple tail. She was so diminutive she had to stand on a chair to see across the entire desk, her attention focused currently on the two new arrivals. Upon seeing the mink her expression went from cool regard to a sudden warm, gleeful smile. She hopped down from the chair she had been standing on and fairly charged across the room to wrap her arms around the mink.

"Llyn!" she crowed happily, burying her small face in the fur of the staggered mink's shoulder, "When did you get back?"

Llyn, momentarily winded by the small female's sudden powerful hug, could only stammer for a moment as she returned the hug and smiled, "Yesterday, Lisa. I'm glad you all came back all right."

The girl released her, giggling brightly as her face was pulled into a cherubic smile, "Oh, it wasn't all that bad, hon." She released the mink, taking a short step back, her dark gaze shifting over to the skunk standing a pace to one side. "Who's your handsome friend?"

"Murikeer." Llyn supplied without looking, her attention turning toward another approaching figure, "He saved my furry be..hind!" her statement trailed away in a startled chirrup as she was pulled bodily from her paws and embraced in yet another hug.

"Llyn, why do all the good looking men end up saving your ass?" the taller woman asked as her strong arms crushed the smaller mink in a powerful embrace. Llyn giggled, her laughs squeezed into breathless squeaks. "We thought you were dead you were gone so long!"

Muri staggered a step back as Llyn was swung about by that massive woman, his jaw dropping open in shock. No human that Muri had yet seen could be considered anywhere close to heavyset, but this second female came as close as he would have thought. She stood close to six feet tall, wavy red hair cascading about her shoulders as she shifted the regard of piercing brown eyes toward him. Her shoulders were broader even than those of the foundry lads he had seen outside the long house, and her torso was proportioned to match. She still wore her armour, the chainmail gleaming where the blows of her foes has pulled open the links. The leather underneath was nicked and scored, but it was obvious nothing had penetrated. She wore no weapons, though he could see the rings upon her baldric where a sword had once hung. Other rings on the leather of her belt revealed that she had worn a good many weapons. Not, Muri thought, that she would have needed them. Her arms, while not corded with the thick, heavy muscle of a forge worker, looked plenty strong enough to push her fist through the face of almost any foe.

"I'm hard to kill, Laura." Llyn chuckled, cuffing the woman's upper arm lightly, "Plus I had Muri's help." She hooked her thumb in the skunk's direction.

Muri could only gape at the towering hardwood woman as she set Llyn down, smiling warmly over at the stunned skunk. Even weaponless, she seemed far too dangerous to get close to, and his steps faltered as a result of her calm regard. Releasing the mink, she took a step toward Muri, whose fur suddenly fluffed, his tail drawing tight up against his back as the thick fur stood on end. He could feel a chuttering warning growing in his throat, barely fighting it back as the woman extended one deceptively gentle looking hand.

Muri stared at that hand as if it might fold into a fist and pummel him in the next heartbeat, but knew her action was far less malicious. Tentatively, he extended his own hand, which was actually a little larger than the taller woman's, but not nearly as strong. She smiled as she pumped his hand, completely oblivious to the posture of terror gripping the skunk, paying no attention to the growing reek of his fear. "You have my gratitude for saving Llyn's life." She said, her voice a surprisingly soft.

"Our gratitude." The other female chimed in, smiling back at Muri as she made her way back to the desk, pulling Llyn along with one small hand on the mink's elbow.

"Yes, our." The amazonian woman reaffirmed with a nod, "If I, we, can help you in any way, you have merely to ask." Muri could only nod, stammering as she released his hand and shifted her grip to his shoulder for a moment. Then she turned and strode back toward the desk, her long legs covering the space in a few distance eating strides.

"Is that the skunk ye were talkin' about, lass?" he jackal continued, his deep canine voice cuttingly sharp but with a deeply masked tinge of humor. Muri started, turning his attention from the danger of the human to the stern, arresting voice of the jackal. He stood behind the desk, the tips of his ears barely reaching the much taller woman's shoulders. Grey streaked his temples and dusted the bridge of his long muzzle, but there was no other concession to the years about him. His moves were sure and precise as he raised one arm and beckoned the skunk forward.

Muri moved only because Llyn was well ahead of him, picking up his feet and angling slightly toward the corner of the desk nearest the girl standing in the chair. They came to a halt before the cluttered desk, the jackal's intense gaze boring into the skunk's own dark, hesitant glance.

"Yes, sir." Llyn said confidently, not looking down at the desk. She knew what the maps and diagrams were about and knew she had no particular right to examine them. The raid had been for the other Longs. She had been away doing her own thing, even while important events were continuing to unfold at the Keep despite her absence. She felt badly that she had not been there to help avenge Caroline's humiliation or Craig's death, but had to concede that her own activities were just as important. "Murikeer Khunnas, this is Patrolmaster George." She nudged his shoulder, breaking his wandering thoughts. He blinked, banishing that deer-caught-in-the-open unease that the jackal's intense stare cast over him, and coughed self consciously.

"Sir." He stammered, his tail swishing agitatedly behind him. The woman that had opened the door for them moved around to the back of the desk and was standing to one side of the jackal, a slateboard held in the crook of her free arm as she tapped the feather of the quill in her hand against her shoulder, watching the skunk calmly.

"Llyn tells me you stopped some siege towers north of the dikes, son." The jackal rumbled, leaning forward on the desks, his palms stirring at the papers as he placed them flat upon the desktop.

"We did, sir, yes." Muri nodded, reflexively clasping his hands in the small of his back. It was a posture Heiorn had taught him to adopt when reporting his findings on a particular bit of research or another. It became a habit he suddenly realized that he could not willingly set aside.

"Tell me about them, then." The patrol master grumbled as he sat back in his chair, waving a single strong hand toward the woman at his side. She nodded slowly, a wry grin pulling at one corner of her mouth as she placed the tip of her quill upon the slate she held.

"It would be easier, sir, if I simply showed you." Muri offered, stepping up to the desk. The jackal raised one eyebrow, his sharp gaze switching to Llyn, who merely shrugged and grinned, then back to the skunk.

"Very well. You are a mage, I take it?"

"Of minor note, sir." Muri nodded as he unclasped his hands from the small of his back and brought them forward. Raising them slightly above the surface of the desk, he drew forth some of the power that the mistress of the Keep had allowed him to take that very morning.

One day, he mused inwardly, how amazing. So much had been revealed to him in such a short time it seemed nearly a lifetime ago that he had awakened and inadvertently met Kyia face to face. Taking a deep breath, he wiped those thoughts aside, clearing his mind as he delved deep into his memories, pulling up the towering citadels.

Letting his power flow freely forth, he wove it into the distant images of the huge towers as they had first seen them entirely, rumbling sedately down that broad thoroughfare. The jackal let out a short grunt as one of the assembled females let out a slow whistle and Muri smiled thinly.

Murikeer was dismissed a little less than an hour later after he had reported the extent of his involvement in the destruction of the towers and given a brief history of his life. Llyn then began her own report by voice, which she assured would take a good deal more time than Muri's illusory byplay.

Securing a small roll and a mug of slightly watered down mead, he wandered out of the Long House, the ubiquitous ermine following a few paces at his heels. He managed to avoid being waylaid by any of those who had seen his arrival earlier. The crowd had changed subtly as the Scouts, as he had learned them to be, came from washing up or left to wash themselves. They had been relieved temporarily to do so while George went over the reports given by the Long Scout team leaders. After turning in what armour and weapons they did not personally own to the Long Scout armoury they were free to enjoy the food and drink that had been provided by those who made up the scouts' support.

They had yet to be formally dismissed yet, so were still lingering in the atrium outside the Long House to enjoy the company of their acquaintances. The bruin Meredith had waved to him over the heads of his coterie when he spotted the skunk ghosting surreptitiously from the single entry to the Long House, and the skunk waved back hesitantly and made his way to the periphery of the crowd.

He was leaning against one wall of a side passageway staring at his feat as he nibbled upon the roll he had procured when a quiet form walked past him.

At first he paid it little mind as he sensed the approach from further down the passageway. The steps were not human; claws clicking on stone as the unseen Keeper approached, limping slightly. It was not until they passed him that he sensed something familiar about them. A scent, one that he had encountered before, which penetrated the permeating mix of other musks within the Keep. It was the scent of a rat, kitchens, and the mild touch of lavender. Looking up, Muri watched the slender female rat as she reached the end of the passage and met another rat with a warm hug.

The two embraced warmly, rubbing cheeks as their tails twined together in the softer shadows of the side passage. Neither seemed to notice Murikeer, who was almost lost in the deeper shadows with his black fur. The stark white of his stripe was covered for the most part by the shirt and pants Llyn had insisted, rightly enough, that he wear. Only his tail, curled loosely at his far side, may have been noticeable, had either of the two been looking. They were lost in each other, though, and Muri was loath to interrupt their reunion.

It was the best moment he had for an apology, though, for he knew neither of them or where he might meet them again in the future. The male rat, slightly taller than the female, was wearing the same simple breeches and shirt as the rest of the scouts who had bathed. His soft brown fur was dark with moisture though the surface looked relatively dry. The female was garbed in a pale lavender shrift over which she wore a well used apron of age-worn, stained canvas.

Stepping away from the wall, Muri turned and approached slowly. "Excuse me?" he murred quietly as he moved into the light of the atrium. The male rat looked up from his embrace, which had him facing into the passageway, his dark eyes curious. Muri realized that this was the one he had seen in the ragged black robes on the avenue as he watched the returning cavalry from the top of the wall. The fact that he was some sort of mage stirred uneasily at Muri, added to the fact that he had worn robes of black.

The color, in and of itself, did not speak of evil practices despite the stereotyped mythos behind that color in robes. Muri knew that a great many magical circles wore black at some point in their hierarchy; usually rather high in those ranks. That meant that this male rat might be a mage of some considerable power despite the odd nature which magic worked with him.

The female rat turned her head, ducking her long nose under her apparent mate's chin as she looked back at the skunk. She had seen him as she passed down the hallway, but failed to recognize him.

"Yes?" the male asked calmly, his whiskers twitching forward as he held the smaller female gently against his chest.

"I must apologize for interrupting your reunion, sir; milady." Muri said quietly, bowing slightly as he came to a stop a few paces away. "I fear I may have caused the limp that the lady expressed as she walked past me a moment ago."

The male rat's eyebrows rose as he glanced down at his female companion, a quiet churr of inquiry escaping his throat as he looked her over swiftly. The smaller female tucked her head, her small ears flushing in sudden embarrassment as she embraced the male rat self consciously. The rat looked up to Muri again, his curious gaze hardening a little. "Explain?"

Muri swallowed and nodded, worrying his hand against the cool curve of the mug in his other hand. "I encountered a few here when I arrived last evening, and I must admit the put a bad fright in me." He explained, pulling his gaze away from the suddenly defensive rat. His tail tucked and curved about his ankles in a posture of subtle submission, something he knew he could hardly control, and never would have found himself doing before his change. "In my flight, I mistakenly ran into the lady there, and knocked her off her paws." He sighed, motioning toward the quiet female with one hand. "I did not know I had caused her injury, though I do remember that I forced her to drop something, which broke."

"You should be more careful when running about then, sir.." The male rat rumbled, his rodentine churr harsh with supressed anger that his lady had come to harm.

"Murikeer, milord, Murikeer Khunnas." Muri had no fear to give that name, even to another mage, for it was not his true name, and thus could never be used over him.

"Murikeer." The larger rat nodded, "This is the Lady Kimberly, and I am Charles Matthias." He said quietly, running oen hand gently down Kimberly's back. "You should have more care."

"I know that now, Charles." Muri nodded, his tail curving up behind him, "Which is why I came forward now to offer my apologies, and offer to repair or replace whatever it was I caused your Lady to break."

"A perfume bottle only." Kimberly chittered quietly into the hollow of Charles's throat, watching Murikeer with one dark eye. "I am not so badly hurt as that, Murikeer, it is merely a bruise."

Murikeer sketched a half bow toward the pair, "It is a bruise I caused in my careless flight, milady, for which I offer profound apologies." He stood slowly, "As for the perfume bottle, I shall endeavor to replace it as swiftly as I am able."

"You are new here?" Charles asked, his voice softening slightly as the skunk worked to mollify his lady's hurt.

"Very, indeed. I arrived just last evening."

"What brings you here, to the Long House, then? You have friends among the crowd?" the rat continued as the pair broke their close embrace. Charles stood with one arm around Kimberly's waist, their tails loosely twined about one another behind them as she leaned her head lightly against his shoulder.

"One of your scouts brought me down from my hermitage to the north, well beyond the boundaries of this great Keep."

Charles raised his eyebrows curiously, his short round ears flicking at that revelation. "How is it that you were affected by the curse? Your accent is certainly not northern."

Muri smiled, calming a little in the conversation, "I was here, but much younger, when the curse was laid. Until this. curse, took a hold of me I was a student in the south. I fled persecution once this change came over me, and avoided Metamor because of that persecution."

"Unfortunate." The smaller rat nodded, her voice soft and smooth despite the changes that had overcome her throat. A singing voice, Muri mused to himself.

"Most, yes. Which scout brought you? I did not notice anyone new during our return."

"Llyn, a mink."

"Ahh, I see." Charles nodded, then glanced over his shoulder as a murmur filtered through the crowd behind them. "Ach, they are calling a final gathering before we are formally dismissed, Murikeer. Perhaps we can get together at another time, once you have settled in."

Muri stepped forward and extended a hand impulsively, both rats looking down at it for a moment before Charles reached out and clasped it firmly, "I would be pleased to." Muri nodded, "Once I am properly a part of Metamor and can replace that perfume decanter I inadvertently destroyed."

Charles smiled as they shook hands, then nodded as he turned and led his lady into the milling crowd.