Oren didn't notice it at first. When the first rays of dawn lit his bedchamber, Oren saw only the beautiful face of the woman lying next to him. He watched the rainbow sparkles play about on the tips of her black and white fur, listened to her gentle breath as it passed over her soft, green lips. And when her eyes opened, it was as though the floodgates of Heaven had opened and poured love into his heart.
"Oren?" said Vitra as she gazed at her brand new husband. "What happened?"
The otter smiled. "We were married, remember?"
"Of course I remember, silly." said the weasel. She smiled a smile that seemed to coax forward the very sunrise. "How can I possibly forget a night like that? But Oren..."
"Stop staring at me and look at you self."
Oren did as she asked. He held up a paw and studied it. The mere fact that he had a paw said it all. "I'm no longer a man." he said, a little sadly. "The effects of the potion were temporary."
"Does it make you sad to be otter I fell in love to?" asked Vitra.
"Well, no... but of course... there's..." Oren looked down in the direction of his legs.
Vitra smiled broadly. "I fell in love to you for more than you body, Oren." She said in soft, loving tones. "Come. You and me, we go get food to eat."
"Where are we going?"
"Someplace new. We go for nice, rom... romen..."
"Romantic walk in sunrise. Come!"
Oren rose and stretched. "It seems a shame to have to put on clothes again." he said.
"Who say we put on clothes?"
"I not mean that. I mean this." Vitra crouched down on the floor and began to shrink, transforming herself from a generally humanoid shape to one that was purely mustelid. Following his wife's example, Oren began changing as well. He was quite surprised. Normally, the change to full lutrine form was very difficult, and followed the invariable steps of female, cub, full morph. This time, however, the alterations were so easy, they seemed to flow on their own, and at the end, Oren was a fully grown male otter. He looked to Vitra for some hope of an explanation, but even if she understood what had happened, she was currently unable to speak anyway. She did, however, seem quite pleased at the development.
Rarely did Oren get outside the Keep anymore, since he'd been sentenced to extra training sessions and guard duty. Vitra, of course, never got out. It had been too dangerous until now. Today, however, the outside world just seemed to beckon to them. With a full seven days' leave to enjoy their honeymoon, there was no reason not to go see the world.
Together, the two mustelids scurried all over the Keep and eventually out the main gate. They would not have stopped there except that Oren heard the sound of arguing.
"And I told you to keep them OUT of my GARDEN!"
"And I told you not to plant your garden here. What else did you expect?"
"And where else did you expect me to plant it? Flemwort has to be planted on the west side of the Keep to catch the evening sun!"
Signaling to Vitra to wait for him, Oren trundled off to investigate. Naturally, Vitra followed. When he reached the location of the confrontation, Oren saw a huge woman squaring off against an aged Hipocci, who had turned part-way into a kangaroo. She was holding a small boy in her arms, trying to keep him from sobbing. Changing just enough to allow himself to speak, the otter inquired what was going on.
"This little wretch ruined my flemwort!" bellowed the big woman.
"It was an accident." explained the other. "You see, we've been mixing up mud..."
"For chinking." She pointed to where some logs were being laid to form the beginnings of a small cabin. "We can't live in the lighthouse, forever, after all."
"I see. Go on."
"Matthew wanted to do like the grown-ups and help mix mud. Only he did it a little too close to the flemwort patch."
"And that little brat ruined the whole crop!"
Oren and Vitra looked at the patch of herbs. They seemed to be just fine. "How so?" he asked.
"These were supposed to go into a magical cold remedy. Now, they've got no magic at all in them. That boy sucked the magic right out of them!"
"I'm very sorry." said the kangaroo-woman. "I'll pay for the crop if you'll just..."
"I'm not worried about money. I'm worried about this year's flemwort crop."
"I know what to do." said a little striped weasel. Vitra, of course, who had changed just enough to speak. "Hipocci build you fence. Put new soil down."
"That's right." said Oren. "Any adult Hipocci knows how to use magic containment spells. They'll work every bit as well on antimagic as magic. They can renew the soil without neutralizing it."
"And what about the plants themselves?"
"I doubt they've lost ALL their magic, or they'd probably be dead. They should regenerate at least partway of their own. If they don't, Light has some related herbs you can borrow to supplement them."
The compromise seemed acceptable to everyone, which of course meant that somewhere down the line, it was doomed to failure. For now, however, it eased the flare of tensions between a local and a refugee. Such flareups, unfortunately, were becoming all too common. Just last week, Wessex had been attacked by a thirdak. Understandable, if one takes into consideration that such a magic-laden morsel was just too tempting a treat for a magic-muncher to pass on. Wessex wasn't so understanding, especially when all of his defenses served only as appetizers, and the only way he was able to stay alive was by climbing up a tree and waiting several hours to be rescued.
Oren forcefully put the incident out of his mind. This was not a time to dwell on his troubles. This was a happy day. It was his first day as a married man, and he was going to spend it with his bride. Shifting back to fully animal shapes, Oren and Vitra ran together away from the keep and what was looking to develop into "New Hipocc".
For hours upon hours, the weasel and the otter chased one another, played, gamboled, and did a few other things more normal for a couple on their honeymoon. They never did eat breakfast.
By the time the sun was going down, both of the newlyweds were incredibly tired, and their hunger had finally caught up with them. In the distance, there was a small town. They decided to venture there in search of something to eat.
The first thing that told either of them that there might be anything amiss in this town was when someone spotted them approaching and ran away yelling "SKUNK!"
"Wait!" cried Vitra as she zipped into her humanoid form. "I not skunk! I zorilla!"
Now she had done it. All activity on the streets had ceased as everyone stopped to stare at the strange weasel-woman with the green lips. Somewhat fearfully, Oren rose up to stand beside Vitra. The two of them now stood in the center of a vast empty space, surrounded by nervous-looking people.
"Haven't they ever seen a keeper before?" asked Oren. "This place is less than a day from the Keep."
"Look around." replied Vitra. "Only humans. No children like grown-ups. I no think there any other keepers here."
"Um.. Wut wut hello everybody!" said Oren, wagging his bulky tail. "How are you all? I'm Oren, and this is my wife, Vitra."
"Hello." said Vitra, smiling warmly but being careful not to show her teeth.
"I can see you're all a little bit nervous, but you don't have to be. We're friendly types, really."
"Friendly." Vitra verified. The crowd seemed unconvinced.
"We're just a couple of cute, fluffy animals." said Oren, starting to feel a little desperate. "And we even do tricks."
Bending down, Oren scooped up three small stones from the ground. A few people in the crowd seemed to flinch, but Oren quickly allayed their fears of being stoned when he began to juggle the rocks. He didn't juggle well. What little coordination Oren had came primarily from having the reflexes of a mustelid. His performance was passable, though, and he managed to elicit a few smiles from the younger members of his audience.
Vitra was quick to join in the act. Placing her hands on the ground, she upended herself and began walking about upside-down. An unusual application of her lutin strength to be sure. However, it seemed to be just the thing. Even the adults were now giggling aloud.
Throwing dignity (and his three rocks) to the winds, Oren tumbled and cavorted like a clown, with Vitra beside him all the way, to the delight and laughter of the crowd. Then, just as the hilarity was building to it's greatest crescendo, Oren held up his paws for silence.
"My friends," he said. "It is a privilege to bring to you the gift of laughter, but ere we go, we would have you see us for who we are, and so I would share with you a poem." As the people braced for the unexpected, Oren turned to Vitra and taking her hands, looking deeply into her eyes, began to recite. "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Nay, a summer's day is much more fair." He forgot the rest of the poem. Thinking quickly, he began to improvise. "The rays of yon life-giving sun are brighter than thy stripe-d hair."
Vitra began to get a quizzical look.
"The green that thrives within the grass, the pink that lives within the rose, are greener than thy verdant lips, and pinker than thy weasel nose."
"The clouds which wander slowly by and follow what wind doth prevail are fluffier and how by far than is thy great and fluffy tail."
"And though in these it fairer is, in one true way, it cannot be. I do not love a summer's day. My dearest weasel, I love thee."
Vitra's apprehensive look melted into a smile of joy as she embraced her husband, to the cheering and applause of an audience which seemed truly moved.
Then, suddenly, out into the open shot a little boy, no more than five, who running up to Vitra exclaimed "I like you Missus skunk can I pet your head."
A woman began slowly advancing after the child, the mother, obviously. She seemed concerned, but slowed to a halt as Vitra knelt down and allowed the child to stroke the fur of her head. One by one, other children came forward to play with and pet the friendly animal people. Bit by bit, the empty circle began to pull itself closed as the townsfolk bade the strangers welcome.
"It's like these people have never seen a keeper before." said Oren.
"Sir," said a local woman. "We have not."
"But the Keep is less than a day away, how can you..." Oren didn't get to finish his question. The crowd dispersed rather suddenly as a dozen large, uniformed men bullied their way through to the otter and the weasel and placed them under arrest. Being completely unarmed, Oren thought it best to go quietly, at least for now, and Vitra was in complete agreement.
Baron Fressfuss was an abnormally calm man. When Oren and Vitra had been brought into his chambers, they received the distinct impression of confronting an inanimate object. The man seemed to have a distinct dislike of ostentatious display. He was dressed in tasteful but plain garments and sat at a rather boxy desk instead of in any variety of throne as most nobles seemed to enjoy. "Thank you." said Fressfuss to the guards. "You may go."
"Thank you, Sir." said Oren, rising.
"Not you." said the Baron with obvious irritation.
"I wasn't serious." said Oren, taking his seat again. On the surface, it was pure tomfoolery. In reality, Oren had just scored several points in what he knew was going to turn out to be a rather serious game.
"Oren and Vitra of Nerr." said Fressfuss in a drawn out manner. "Recently married, both fairly new to the area. One a soldier from a secluded villiage in the south, the other formerly a lutin."
"How you know all this?" asked Vitra.
Fressfuss leaned back in his chair. "The municipality you are currently in is known as 'halfway'. We are exactly halfway between Menth and Midtown. Generally speaking, we are a rather high-traffic area. We are not, however, open to Keepers."
"I don't understand."
"Nor do I expect you to. The fact that you are here at all says that you know very little about this area. The fact that you are both completely naked tells me that you have very little regard for social propriety. Not that the fact itself bothers me. I personally think that it is ridiculous for animals to parade around in vests and trousers. However I am familiar with customs that our neighbors to the north practice and it is obvious that you do not view these customs as important or pertinent to you in the slightest. You are nothing but disruptive.
"I'm still completely confused."
"Let me spell it out for you. Halfway has enjoyed a time of unparalleled peace for many years. Partially because I have a very efficient means of enforcing the law, and partially because it is widely understood that individuals affiliated with Metamor Keep are not welcome here. That place brings only strife and bloodshed and I will not allow that to touch my barony. Do I make myself clear?"
"Oh! I get it!" cried Oren in a dramatic voice. "You're a coward!"
Before the last "d" had passed his lips, Oren found himself pinned against the wall with Fressfuss' hand around his throat. "You dare?"
"Would you have attacked me so quickly if I were armed and armored?"
"I should kill you for your disrespect."
"If you do, I should warn you, there's a zorilla holding a letter opener an inch from your throat and she will be very, VERY upset if you do.
Baron Fressfuss cast a glance sideways and smiled at the brave weasel. "You are courageous. Both of you." He released his grip on Oren's throat. "I will not kill either of you. I will, however, make public examples of you. Not enough to rouse the ire of anyone who might be your allies. Only enough to make the public say that you were treated harshly but justly and to demonstrate to others that the presence of Keepers will not be tolerated. GUARDS!"
The room filled with soldiers, and Oren and Vitra were hauled away.
Vitra was not to be punished herself. Being a woman, even if not a human one, she would not be made to suffer physical harm. Instead, she would be forced to watch as her husband was whipped. Oren grimaced as he stood, his hands tied to a hitching post, awaiting the first crack of the whip. The hulking man beneath the black hood gauged his distance, lifted his hand, and snapped his wrist. The whip he was holding cracked. Oren stiffened, but he did not cry out. Five times the lash came down, but Oren never made a sound. At the end of five lashes, Oren and his wife were brought to the edge of the town and instructed to leave. Once they were out of eyesight, Vitra insisted on having a look at her husband's back.
"I'm fine." Oren insisted.
"You ARE fine." Vitra echoed with confusion. "Why you don't got lash stripes?"
Oren smiled slyly. "Baron Fressfuss prides himself on his military strength, and so he should. After all, his army is supplied with a stunning array of enchanted weapons."
"And you antimagic! But it still a whip. So how...?"
"A common misconception about antimagic is that all it does is passively neutralize magic. Not entirely true. There are many varieties of antimagic, and in this case, I simply used a magic-repel spell, or anti-spell, I should say. That whip, loaded with magic, never had a chance of touching me."
Vitra looked at her husband with wonder. "You so strange and fascinating."
"The feeling is mutual."
"So what we do now?"
"Well, we could go back home and never return to that dreadful place."
"You want to do that?"
"In that case, we recruit some performers and go put on a show for several days, just OUTSIDE of Halfway. If you can't reach the Baron, reach the people until they bend their leader to their way of thinking. And if..."
"I no think I should tumble around upside-down no more, Oren."
"Oh? Why is that?"
"I is with childs."
Oren froze for a moment and then shook his head in disbelief. "How can you know that? We only just..."
"I is know." said the weasel, her eyes sparkling. "I is feel spirits of little ones inside of me. They is two of them, Oren."
Oren touched his wife's stomach and imagined he could feel what she felt. What astonished him the most was that for a moment, he thought he did feel something. Two tiny little minds, not yet even capable of thought or sensation, but simply being. In that instant, Oren's heart leaped for joy, and the delicate link which the parents shared with those two unformed minds was bathed in rich, wonderful love.
"I'm a father." said Oren. Not "I'm GOING to be a father." No. He had, for an instant, touched his children, and they was as real as if he held them in his arms.
Oren and Vitra had experienced many things that day. Anger, fear,
aggravation, humiliation, resentment, and hostility, but as they bedded
down in the grass beside the river to await the dawn, they both knew that
they would remember this day as a day of pure joy.