January 20, 708 CR
Thalberg drew his red robes tighter about his chest in the wintry coolness of the Ducal chambers and regarded his liege and lady with reptilian fondness. They were sitting across from each other and enjoying a meal of steamed oats, syrup, and bits of fruit, all complimented with slender chalices of wine. Only crumbs remained of the fresh loaves of bread they'd been served first. It was very nearly the first time Thomas had seen his wife since they'd risen in the morning and Thalberg was loath to interrupt them.
It brought great joy to his heart to see his Duke, his dearest friend, married and happy about it. After so many years worrying about the end of the Hassan house the solution, peculiar as only things in Metamor could be, presented itself. Now they merely needed to have a child and all would be well for Metamor's continued stability.
The great alligator liked to recount such good news to assuage his sense of duty before he asked something for himself. His yellow eyes caught Thomas's chestnut brown orbs and held them silently for several seconds. Thomas then turned to Alberta who was regaling him with her plans to improve the breeding stock for the Valley's horses and interrupted her midstream. "I'm sorry, Alberta. I think my friend Thalberg is waiting to ask something."
Alberta's long ears folded back and she turned toward the hulking reptile. "Ah, the good Steward hath a desire in his heart to share with thee. I wilt retire to our chambers to allow thee a moment's privacy."
"There is no need, your grace," Thalberg replied with only a trifle chagrin. "I merely wished to remind your husband that tomorrow is the Fellowship's Winter gathering. I was hoping to introduce Miriam to the rest of the Fellowship. You recall Miriam of course."
Thomas nodded, equine ears lifting in contemplation. "Of course. One of the Brandanes refugees; she's become an alligator like yourself. How is she adjusting to it?"
"Fairly well," Thalberg replied. "She has already distinguished herself as my new Mistress of the Kitchens. I've introduced her to a few of the other reptiles and birds but it will be good for her to meet the rest." What he didn't say, and what he didn't want to admit to himself, was that he always felt an odd comfort when surrounded by others adorned in scales or decked in feathers. It was as if for a short time he could allow the tight discipline he maintained to relax. It was something that none of his still mammalian friends understood, nor could they. Not even his liege and most cherished friend Thomas.
But Thomas did understand better than most. "Take her and introduce her to the rest. And tell Copernicus while you're there I'll want to see him by week's end. He has a few reports he owes me." The horse smiled an array of wide flat teeth and then cast a quick glance to Alberta who listened with polite interest veiling a wanton desire to hear more. "And tell Malqure that I want him to teach Alberta more of the Valley's history as well as the history of her new family. He can start whenever he's ready."
Thalberg allowed himself a slight chuckle at the thought of how the over-anxious ibis would react to that news — he'd likely molt on the spot in excitement. "I will pass on your messages. If there is nothing else, your grace, I will retire for the evening."
"Enjoy your day tomorrow, my friend," Thomas replied with a swish of his long tail. "And do not worry about us. We'll manage."
The alligator's eyes narrowed and his jaws tightened. "A servant's duty never ceases, your grace."
"True," Thomas admitted, "and your duty tomorrow is not to worry about anything but the well being of Miriam, yourself, and the others in the Fellowship. Now go get your rest. I will see you again in two days. And not before."
Thalberg rumbled a little laugh and felt more grateful than he deserved to have such a friend and liege in Thomas Hassan. "I will do as you say, your grace. Good Night. Good Night, Lady Alberta." He bowed to them both, long tail lifting from the ground to balance himself as he did, and then turned to leave them to their dinner.
January 21, 708 CR
Emily rolled over onto her belly, closed her eyes, clapped a hand-like forepaw over the end of her snout, and tried her best to ignore the hisses and squawks of several dozen arguments. It seemed to happen before every monthly meeting, and was especially bad before the semi-annual celebrations, such as this one. What really set her head to throbbing was just how inane the arguments' causes usually were. Disagreements between her fellow Followers and the Lightbringers over the manner in which the Fellowship should celebrate holidays and the hatching of children would at least be reasonable causes of friction, but to squabble over trivialities like the best way to adorn one's self?
"I am beginning to understand the truth behind Thalberg's refusal of the Perch. ‘I don't want create a conflict between my duties to the House of Hassan and the Fellowship,' my cloaca! The real reason is he didn't want to have to listen to the endless fighting," Emily said to the ghostly Tened seated next to her, which only she as the holder of the Perch could see and hear.
"They remind me of a group of adolescent clutch-mates, always jousting for position and status," Shirazz said with the growling whistle of Tened laughter.
Emily's fixed reptilian snout attempted a smile but all it did was reveal the many sharp teeth the Curse had given her. Eight years ago when Nasoj had cast his devastating spell, Emily had been tending the wounded one moment and then fighting the ravenous desire to eat the little squirrel whose human leg a moment before she'd been splinting. That day she'd crouched on her knees never knowing it would be the last time in her life she'd ever stand on two legs. Even after the counter Curses took effect, Emily's legs were still too short to raise her heavy body beyond a crouch. Like the komodo she appeared, that great beast of the southern jungles and oriental coasts, she spent all her days in a typical reptilian four-legged sprawl.
At first she'd cursed Nasoj and beseeched Eli why this was so. Even looking at her husband Raymond who had no legs at all, but only the mottled and sinuous body of a viper with stunted arms brought little relief. But in time, with so many others like her, and so many worse than her, touched her heart and she was grateful to discover that they were not as cold hearted as often thought. When she had first climbed upon the Perch, a padded divan atop a granite base carved in ancient runes that none at Metamor knew how to decipher, she finally began to understand Eli's purpose in her change.
Those now clothed in scales and feathers needed protection, help, and leadership. Though there were many who were still mammals that she loved dearly and called friend, not a one of them could truly understand the hardships her kind faced. If it was her duty to be their strength for a time, she would be. She just wished they wouldn't argue so fruitlessly all the time!
"Was it always this way in your time?" She asked the ghostly Tened.
Shirazz lowered her pale translucent snout, feathers thrumming along her long backside to the tip of her pointed tail. "It is this way in all times," came the reply. The Tened, a race long dead, had once lived in the Metamor Valley. The Keep had preserved the Perch in hidden chambers where no man had tread until the day it had been needed. No other race had need of their wisdom for no other race was like them. Not until the Curses.
Emily nodded long and slow and dug her forepaws into the edge of the divan. "Well, I suppose I had better break this argument up. Excuse me." She pushed her heavy body off the divan and raced as quickly as she could across the sand toward the cluster of contentious carnivores.
Miriam's quarters were not too far from the kitchens, if anything could be said to be near or far inside the Keep. But on nearly any day in the cool winter air, Thalberg found the Keep to be a friend which brought his heavy footfalls quickly to whatever destination he desired. And after a brief stop in the Kitchens to ensure that his staff were prepared for the day, a day in which he would not be henceforth supervising them, he thought of Miriam and walked into the halls. A moment later and he stood before her door. He knew it was hers because it was large enough for their size and blissful warmth radiated from the wood.
"Is that you, Thalberg?" a deep but airy voice boomed from behind the door.
"It is I," he replied in his resonant bass. "If you're ready, I will take you to the Fellowship gathering today like I promised."
He could hear something heavy drag across the floor – a familiar rasping sound he'd long grown used to with his own ponderous tail. Then the latch sprang and the door swung inwards bathing him in an almost visible cloud of steamed vapour. Miriam was keeping a kettle of water boiling like he suggested. Good.
After the flow of warmth came a large alligator, green-scaled maw with bright yellow eyes emerging from a heavy grey tunic and cloak drawn tight with a bit of cord about the front. Thalberg noted her drab clothes with a curious gaze but said nothing about it. "Did you take your kettle off the fire? You don't want to ruin it."
Miriam nodded, the gesture still a bit exaggerated. "I did so just as you knocked. Thank you for suggesting it. I am surprised at how good it feels to make the air in my quarters humid and hot. It does not sit well with my drapes and quilts, so I only use one pot and then only in the morning when it is so cold. Is that what you do to stay warm?" Her yellow eyes stayed fixed upon his toothsome visage, a feat few in Metamor could perform.
"No. I only do that on the coldest of days. A good fire is usually all I require. I'm not so cold blooded as some you will meet today." He gestured for her to walk beside him. She closed her door and then fell into step at his right. Miriam was a hand shorter, and she still dragged her tail as she walked. Thalberg leaned forward a bit, lifting his tail higher. "Walk like this. It will help some. You don't want to scrape the bottom of your tail too much."
Miriam followed his lead. After a moment the corner of her jaw lifted in a reptilian smile. "Thank you. That is much better." Her eyes gazed down the corridor ahead of them. Although it continued straight, the carpeting turned to the left and away from the narrow windows. "How much further is it? I don't recognize this hall."
"Then I expect we are almost there." And as they turned the corner Thalberg saw that they had already arrived. A large set of double doors inlaid with serpents, lizards, and birds was flanked on either side by a human warrior carrying a ceremonial halberd festooned with banners in a scale pattern and a reptilian creature with long, thick tail, draconian jaws, longs claws on both arms and legs, as well as a sickle claw on his inside toe. Miriam started having never before seen anything quite like him.
"Good morning, Thalberg," the strange reptilian beast who was neither lizard, snake, nor alligator said. "You must be Miriam. We met last week. Jon the Artificer."
Miriam's yellow eyes blinked. "Jon the Artificer? But weren't you a deer?"
He tapped the green glowing pendant that was his only adornment. It fitted snugly against his deep chest and around his tall neck. "I was. I found this Tened artifact while digging two years ago." His voice was a whistling tenor that trilled r's and hissed s's. "When I wear it I become this. The Fellowship has helped me learn much since then in exchange for guard duties like this."
Miriam's long tail drew closer to her legs. Thalberg observed her closely, noting a certain reservation in her eyes that she likely did not know she betrayed. "They do not permit you beyond these doors?"
"None but members may go beyond these doors. Only those clad in feather or scale all their days may enter," the human man said with a pleasant laugh. "My rooster assures me I am not missing much."
"Your rooster?" Miriam almost stumbled backward for a moment before she understood. "You were once a woman?"
The man nodded. "Norbert, ma'am. And yes, I was once a woman. My rooster, Richard, was once my betrothed but I can't help but love him still. And I have a deep fondness for all of you covered in scales or feathers, so I'm happy to stand guard while you gather and help each other out as only you can."
Thalberg grunted, sartorial manner returned, and gestured to the door. "I hope your day is pleasant. I've asked my staff to bring something around for you both a little later."
"Thank you," Jon replied with a bird-like bob of his head. "That would be much appreciated."
Norbert opened the door for them and the two alligators passed through. The antechamber beyond was a wide but short hallway ending in another pair of double doors. Curtained alcoves lined either side each bearing the crest of the Fellowship, a blue banner with a white egg. Standing in the middle of the room was a bird long of leg, neck, short of wing and broad of tail and body. He bore no clothes and his beady eyes scrutinized their heavy garments with obvious distaste.
"Kelly," Thalberg said with a subtle growl beneath his breath. "How have the monthly arguments over clothing gone?"
"Concluded," Kelly replied with a clipped tongue. "They went as usual. Emily brought them to an end a moment back. It would be easier if everyone would go without then we wouldn't have to spend money providing and cleansing garments each month — we are short on money as it is as you know, good Steward. Now, I know your preference so I won't bother arguing with you. But I don't believe I've met you before." His gaze turned sharply on Miriam and the lady alligator's yellow eyes widened in yet another surprise. Thalberg chided himself for not warning her of all that was going to come.
"Miriam. I only arrived at Metamor a month past." She glanced at the far door warily. "Do you really mean we are not supposed to wear clothes?"
Kelly stomped one leg as if striking a pose. "Outside clothes carry mammal scents and those are upsetting to many of our members. You are not permitted to enter bearing those scents if you can help it. Besides, you don't really need them inside. It's warm for all who bear scale or feather. Nor do we have anything to hide. You will find most do not wear anything at all within these walls."
"Aren't you exaggerating, Kelly?" Thalberg said as he loosened his sash.
The obstreperous bird tilted his head from side to side and groused. "Oh all right. About half do not wear clothes. The others wear just what their modesty allows them. If you insist, we do have robes you can don. You'll find them on your left. You may change in there, but then give your outside garments to me. I'll make sure they are kept safely stowed away for the meeting."
Thalberg and Miriam slipped into one of the alcoves where a single lantern illuminated a long closet extending back two dozen paces. A side passage led into another section and Thalberg gestured for her to go through there for privacy's sake. Miriam stepped through and found another room just like it. She paused and half-turned back and asked in a growling whisper. "Just what is Kelly? I've never seen anything like him."
"An ostrich," Thalberg replied in a subdued voice quieter than he ever used in the kitchens. "They're a race of birds that roam the savannahs of Sonngefilde. They can't fly, but they can run, or so I'm told." He turned his back and let his red robes fall over his tail exposing his broad speckled green back. Miriam slipped quietly into the other room.
When they emerged from the alcoves, Miriam's body was draped in a long white robe that obscured her body apart from head, hands, feet, and tail. Thalberg bore only a red bandolier with the Hassan emblem inscribed in the upper left corner. Kelly snorted at both of them but took their usual robes and gestured with a twitch of his head at the far doors. "You may go in now. I expect the meeting will be starting soon."
As they walked to the double doors, Miriam leaned over and asked, "Isn't that outside clothes?"
"I wash them before each meeting so they have no scents. Someone must represent the interests of the Hassan family here and there is none other than I more appropriate." He pushed open the door and stepped into the Fellowship Hall.
Miriam followed with a curious expression and tilt to her yellow eyes. The first thing she noticed as she stepped through the portal was a blast of heat. No longer was the hint of winter clinging to the air but the brightness of an early Summer midafternoon thronged her breath and every caress of breeze. Never since her arrival had she ever felt so thoroughly comfortable. She savoured the heat even as her eyes began to absorb all that lay before her.
The room into which they'd stepped was a long hall with a rounded arch ceiling that allowed the interior to remain fully open. This was all the more impressive given the width and breadth of the hall which was at least half as long and wide as the Cathedral. Curtained alcoves lined both left and right, with torches interspersed between, the smoke disappearing into small chimneys within the arch. The periphery of the floor was solid granite, but nearly the entire middle was filled with bright yellow and white sand. Logs and benches lined the nearer half and upon these perched many birds of every colour and hue, and squatted an equal number of reptiles. Lizards and turtles of all varieties and of all shapes, as well as any number of snakes, some with arms and legs, and some with only arms. There were even a few others similar in appearance to Thalberg and Miriam, but the jaws and eyes looked different.
Quite a few greeted Thalberg with delight as they entered, and several took note of Miriam with alien eyes that nevertheless seemed kin. She recognized only a few of the faces but knew that in time she'd learn many more. One of them, a chameleon approached her with a long lashing tail she recognized as delight. "Miriam! So good to see you here. Master Thalberg." He bobbed his head ever so slightly, one eye focussing on each alligator.
"Patric," Miriam replied with unhidden delight. "I didn't realize you would be here."
"I've been a member for four years now, ever since I changed," Patric said with a faint shrug in his shoulders. "I've found no end of support from them ever since I started studying for the priesthood under Father Hough. He's given me the faculty to bring the Host to those Followers who cannot leave the Hall. I'm looking forward to the day when I'll be allowed to say the Liturgy myself. We need a priest here too." His enthusiasm dwindled ever so slightly as if he were recalling some old lesson. "We aren't really supposed to talk about the Fellowship to anyone, but Emily gave me permission to tell Father. Still, keep it to yourself."
Miriam appeared confused by this, so Thalberg decided to explain before one of the more excitable members chose to do so. "There are some here who cannot leave the Hall." This he said gently with one scaled hand upon her robed shoulder. "What the Curse has done to them has made it impossible for them to look upon any mammal without fear. For their sake, and for the sake of our community, we keep this a secret amongst ourselves."
"So many of us here can keep such a secret?" She scanned all those gathered and marvelled at the numbers. Almost two hundred at least were here. Conversations in hisses and caws swirled around her, bouncing off the walls and impacting the membranes that were now her ears. She flexed her hands, broad, green, and covered in hard scales. A sense of belonging settled into her and she felt as if some unknown burden were momentarily lifted.
One of Patric's eyes roved behind him where a large lizard approached on all fours. "It is not really so hard. Simply do not speak of the Fellowship when you leave the Hall. Do not lie of course; just do not speak of it." He opened his jaws in an approximation of a smile, long tail curling at its end. "You'll adapt in time."
"Yes you will adjust. We have all had to do so." Thalberg couldn't help but recall his own first days after the Curse. There had been many things to adjust to and not just in his new body. The worst had been the different way people treated him. But he now used his intimidating body to his advantage as the Duke's Steward. "There may be costs but that is one reason the Fellowship is here. Speaking of which, Miriam, I'd like you to meet the Fellowship's leader, Emily." He gestured to the large lizard who even now approached.
The lizard placed her forelimbs on the nearest log and lifted herself as high as she could go. She then extended a mottled, dirty brown-scaled arm and opened her broad muzzle. "As Thalberg said, my name is Emily and I am a komodo. I sit on the Perch which means I try to lead the Fellowship. Welcome to Metamor and to the Fellowship of the Egg, Miriam. It is a long way and a very different life than you knew at Bradanes."
Miriam was uncertain what to do until Thalberg knelt down in the sand before the log bringing his head almost even with the komodo's. She then did likewise and accepted the offered hand as if it were noble. The sand was warm beneath her and Emily's hand, which served her as a foot, was warm too. Other than the thumbs on Emily's hands — and the fact that she spoke — there did not appear to be anything to distinguish her from a beast. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Emily. It is so very strange for me. Thalberg says I can speak well now."
A growling rumble echoed within Emily's chest and it took Miriam a moment to realize the lizard was laughing. "It took some of us many months to learn to use our new tongues. You are doing very well. And Thalberg has told me that you have been adapting to being an alligator too. Please consider this Hall your home and I an older sister."
Miriam felt strangely pleased at the suggestion. "Thank you, Emily."
Emily lowered her hand to the log and did a sort of bow, tail sweeping out the sand behind her. "Now I'm afraid I must go and welcome the rest of the newcomers. You folk of Bradanes are very welcome here. We'll begin the gathering shortly. I'm sure Thalberg can show you around."
"That I shall," he replied.
The komodo crawled away on all fours, moving faster than Miriam would have expected with such an awkward looking gait. Miriam glanced between Thalberg and the Patric the chameleon, then stood and brushed the sand off the front of her Fellowship robe. In a quiet voice she said, "I did not know some had become so much like animals."
Thalberg nodded. "Some are in even worse shape. One of the gardeners, Roger, is a very large snail and has no one like him. Laracin is a tamarack in the gardens whose only companions are those who visit him. We are very fortunate." He grunted and straightened, his dutiful and distant demeanor returning. "Emily considers herself fortunate too and even if you offered her the chance to be human again, I doubt she would even consider it." He gestured along one wall. "Come, let me show you more of the Hall before we begin."
Miriam followed wordlessly.
Thalberg introduced Miriam to a few more notable members of the Fellowship, some of which, like Copernicus, she had already met at the Ecclesia Cathedral, and others like Bryan the cobra she had heard mention of but hadn't seen, and quite a number of others that were wholly unfamiliar to her.
Her alligator guide also showed her the chambers where the dozen or so eggs lain by members were kept warm. This took Miriam by surprise as it had not yet occurred to her what was meant by calling their gathering the Fellowship of the Egg. Were she to have any children, they would not be born crying and in need of mother's milk, but they would be hatched from an egg and ready for chewed meat. The thought did not unsettle her as much as it would have were she still human. Some of the mothers and fathers were there to dote on their eggs, singing songs to them and stroking their smooth surface as they were kept half-submerged in the sand and even warmer than the rest of the hall.
Thalberg was only able to point out the places where members could relieve themselves when everyone hastened to find a place to sit or sprawl. The komodo had climbed atop the Perch and stood as tall as she could, head swerving from side to side, long tongue sliding in and out of her mouth until she saw that most were listening.
And the rest were quickly seated when Emily finally bellowed for attention, voicing a great honking sound that no komodo should have been capable of making. "Good morning, and welcome to the eighth Yuletide gathering of the Fellowship of the Egg. As is customary of our Yule and Midsummer gatherings, I would like to open the celebration by greeting our newest members; those who have been recently stricken by Nasoj's Curse, and our beloved hatchlings who have survived their time in the egg. Welcome, all of you, to the Fellowship of the Egg. Know that, even as you face disgust and scorn in the eyes of the mammals, the Fellowship will never forsake its own."
"What did she mean, disgust and scorn?" Miriam asked Thalberg.
Thalberg opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted by a crocodile seated on the other side of Miriam. "Isn't it obvious? We are little better than the cold slimy creatures that we bear the forms of, or so They would have us believe. We are scorned because we are primitive creatures that need the Sun or warm sand for our body heat. We are objects of disgust because we share love through the same portal we use for our toileting. We are laughed at because our women don't give birth to babies, but instead lay eggs that have to be incubated. And the looks on their faces when our children are fed...
"Treasure any friendships with mammals that survived your joining us, because you will likely never have another."
Miriam stared appalled at the suggestion but neither her nor Thalberg were able to speak as several seating nearby were quick to disagree. An osprey cawed and glared. "I have made many friends with mammals while serving as a scout!" A crow flapped her wings and bobbed her head as if to peck the crocodile, "Some of my best friends are the children who like to have a friend that can fly!" A frilled lizard standing less than four feet in height and thinner than Miriam's arm jumped up and down and shouted his support for mammals too.
A moment later a half dozen other nearby voices rose to denounce mammals and any not of scale or feather as untrustworthy and suspicious. Thalberg crossed his arms over his chest and grunted, an impatient anger building in him. Emily hadn't even been able to get through the welcome this year before the first official fight broke out. Beside him Miriam floundered and tried but failed to crouch out of the way.
And then Thalberg did something he never did at Fellowship meetings. He bellowed with the full capacity of his saurian heritage. "Enough!" Everyone nearby was stunned into silence. He did not slacken his volume. "We are brothers and sisters of the Egg. There will be time for quarrels later. For now, she who sits on the Perch is trying to speak. I will not tolerate this disrespect shown to the Perch!"
The crocodile who'd launched the first contra fur bromide almost managed to look chastened as he scooted on his tail an inch or two away. The others all turned back around to face Emily, though many feathers were still lifted anxiously.
Emily felt an immense surge of relief when Thalberg shouted the others into submission. That an argument would break out during a Fellowship meeting was not unusual. In fact it almost always happened. Squabbles were frustrating but apparently inevitable. And it was usually she who had to bellow the room to silence. But no one could bellow like an alligator and Thalberg was better at it than she recalled.
But why do it this time when he usually never even spoke up during meetings except to defend the Duke?
As if sensing her thoughts, the spectral Tened at her side whistled in appraisal. "The bull is protecting his sow."
"Miriam? She just arrived at Metamor. Thalberg was asked to help her because he was an alligator too," Emily replied sotto voce glancing at them briefly and then back to Shirazz.
"Perhaps not," Shirazz's body hunched as if she were shrugging. "Or perhaps he doesn't even know it yet. I do hope there are hatchlings in their future. That one has long denied himself any happiness."
Emily nodded and found that she too hoped it was so. She honked loudly to return attention to the Perch but she needn't have done so as all eyes were on her already. Lifting her head high she continued in a broad bellowing alto, "As I said, welcome all of you to the Fellowship of the Egg. If this is your first gathering, know that there are only a few rules to observe. First, never speak of the Fellowship to any not of the Fellowship. It is not for them to know and it is safer for the rest of us."