Lois smiled to himself as he noted how much quieter the library was on the day of the Yule. He had honestly been quite surprised to find the doors ajar on this morning where most everyone was celebrating something, but it was a pleasant discovery nonetheless. On this day he had no more to celebrate than any other day, and so he meant to make some use of it at least.
It was already well past midday when he had finally regained consciousness, his face stuck to the half-dried ink on a page of his journal. He had managed to separate the two without damaging either too much, although the ink smudge on the page was more or less irreparable at this point. He managed to remedy the matching one on his cheek without too much trouble, although the recent addition of fur made it take far longer than usual. He was certain that, even with his dedicated attempts to clean it, there would always be a deep blue tint somewhere in that area of his face. As long as it didn’t make itself too noticeable, he would not mind it.
Now he was half-buried under about a shelf’s worth of books, switching between four or five of them for the moment while scrawling down notes on a personal notebook. He had many threads that he was curious enough to explore on most days, but today he was here for entertainment, and after the patrol that he had just endured he was not intending to look at anything too seriously.
Of course, as always, he found something that amused him enough to have him knee deep in books by the time of the next meal, which he would rarely attend until much later. This time it was some treatise regarding prevailing theories about flight as seen in the animal kingdom. The work that had first sparked his interest was one that was old enough that even though the book was written in Common, he had some trouble understanding parts of it.
To cross-reference that book, he had since found several books of sketches by various artists, showing different views of flying animals. Some of the books contained rough measurements of each sketch, but some were drawn by hand and intended only for beauty’s sake, and so had no such interesting tidbits.
One such picture he currently had braced against a shelf an arm’s length from him, open to a folio that depicted a northern landscape with a dragon taking wing in the background. It had caught Lois’ eye because the picture, while it struck him as ‘right’ in an artistic sense, seemed to demonstrate an impossible flight posture for the creature. He would glance at it every now and again as he searched through the books, but he had yet to find an annotated sketch of a dragon anywhere.
He had looked over several different bird sketches, and felt confident that any knowledge of those creatures would only help his study into their own species, and not into that of dragons. He had then turned to a book with several bat studies. Although they were different sorts of creatures to be certain, he noted that the style of wings depicted in art for both seemed to match closely. He set about to formulating theories on why from that point, and his current exploration was still focused on that.
Lois stared at a number of rough sketches he had just drawn in his book. One side depicted a bat’s wing, which he had set against the creature’s body to compare their lengths. He frowned at the matching picture on the other page. The ratio of wing to body of the dragons seemed horribly skewed in comparison. He could stack a bat alongside its own wing several times on average, but the length of the dragon’s body, even omitting the tail from the consideration, was still comparatively large next to its wings.
Another thing that bothered him was that bats were never seen as particularly ferocious, whereas dragons were universally shown with vicious claws and jaws, not to mention the scales that could easily be mistaken for solid metal. He tried to find some sort of figures regarding the weight of either of the two creatures, but any such information regarding dragons was nowhere to be found. Lois shook his head and leaned his head back against the ledge where he had done much of his studying during his previous visit to the Keep.
It seemed clear to him that something was wrong with his considerations somewhere, but he could not figure out what. Even if the picture of the dragon was horrible off scale, considering what a dragon should look like to be flightworthy just made him shake his head. The wingspan would have to be so incredibly massive that they should become unusable.
Lois finally mused that the dragons had to be far lighter than they seemed to even be able to exist. Either that was true, or they were actively using some sort of magic for the duration of every flight they took. That either meant that they were either not as tough as they seemed, or they were perhaps even more formidable magically then they were physically. He hoped to never have to test either of those theories, but preparation was, as always, the key to victory.
When Lois raised his head from the ledge he noted that the room was quite a bit darker than he remembered. He sighed and began to gather his things together, setting the books in as organized a stack as he could. He took one last look at the picture and shook his head. It might look right to him from an aesthetic standpoint, but he could not see a dragon flying with wings that short. He shut the book with the others, and slowly went about placing them back on the shelves.
He stepped out of the library just before dusk, and exited the upper Keep a few minutes afterwards, making his way towards some place he could eat. Given how little experience he had with it in the first place, and now that he had been away from the Keep for several weeks, his direction was not exactly set, and he allowed his eyes to roam back and forth, watching the flow of people. He sniffed a little bit to try to get a feel of what was available to eat, but he had yet to discover how to filter certain scents out from the background aroma of the city, and all he got was a mess of unconnected smells that made him wince. He went back to pacing along, watching the crowds, until something caught his eye.
As it turned out, it was not a crowd that caught his eye, but two people who were off on their own. Or rather, as he noticed as he watched them, one girl, pursued covertly by a young man who seemed somewhat skilled in remaining unseen. Lois watched them for a few moments, and then fell in step behind the young man.
He wondered first if they were together trying to perform something covert, but the girl’s manner didn’t match the theory. She seemed interested in staying out of sight, but didn’t have an objective in sight. The young man, partly changed into some species that Lois didn’t recognize, had a definite target in the girl. Or rather, in the small bag of coins that she kept tied to her belt.
Perhaps it would have done her some good to put her money somewhere that would not attract so much attention, but Lois guessed that she was simply doing it out of habit. She was old enough to have been changed, and the way she was avoiding the other people in the area made him suspect that she was not yet entirely adjusted to her new life.
Lois managed to creep up behind the young man, but kept at a safe distance, sticking even closer to the shadows than his target. The young man seemed to have lost interest in checking his back, but Lois was not going to let overconfidence be his downfall in this case.
The woman stopped before too much longer, looking at her destination. It didn’t have a very extensive flow of people into it, but she still hesitated, and that was when the thief acted. He reached for the moneybag, not taking very much care at all in doing it, but at least he picked his spots well enough that she shouldn’t feel it at all.
What happened next made Lois blink several times before he reacted. Without turning her head at all, the young woman reached her opposite hand around and caught the thief’s wrist, drawing him forward suddenly until his head struck her elbow with a sharp report, and he was left sprawled on the ground. She turned, pulling out a short knife, and held it threateningly above him.
“Watch your hands, thief,” she said coldly. Her hand was shaking as though she was nervous, but her stance was fully composed, and it was clear that she would not let the thief have a second chance. He scrambled away quickly, begging her pardon copiously as he went. He was so focused on making sure she didn’t call the Watch that he ran right into Lois. The ermine grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet. Even at full height he wasn’t anywhere near a match for the assassin’s own.
“I would suggest you reconsider your occupation if you mean to continue living in the Keep,” Lois growled at the young man. The look on the man’s face was one of abject terror, even after he had enough sense to realize that he was not looking at a Watchman. Lois let the young man go, and watched as he tripped over himself to make his way into the nearby alleyways. Perhaps once he had calmed down he would notice that Lois had placed a few coins in his once-empty money pouch.
The assassin turned to look at the young woman, who had placed her dagger back in its sheath and was watching him. He nodded to her, pantomiming a tip of his hat.
“You did quite a good job of defending yourself there. I had expected to catch the thief after he had stolen your purse, but it seems that my good intentions were unnecessary.”
She nodded, still shaking a bit. She placed her hand on her pouch once more to make certain that it was still there, but kept her eyes on him.
“He was sloppy. I felt a tug on my pouch, and people have tried to steal my purse before. None have succeeded, but I don’t give them an opportunity all the same.”
Lois looked at her incredulously. His approach had been sloppy, yes, but she had already been moving when the thief had first touched her pouch. She must have already seen him before he attempted his attack. Now that he could see her, Lois thought that the young woman looked familiar. He squinted.
“I… don’t suppose we have met somewhere? Ah, blast it, asking is no good. I look nothing like I did two weeks ago. My name is Vincent Lois, you wouldn’t happen to have met me while I was still human, would you?”
The young woman considered for a moment. “I am not certain,” she said slowly. “It’s unlikely that you would recognize me if it was two weeks ago, either. I have changed since that point.” She visibly winced as she said this, but she was no longer shaking as she had been a moment before. Suddenly her eyes widened and she looked up, first at the weapons on his belt, and then at his face.
“Ah, Vincent Lois! Yes, we met in the training rings. You were demonstrating some of your combat moves in the training rings. You were injured in a duel a little later, and I hadn’t seen you anywhere since.” She smiled. “I’m surprised that you recognize me, especially since I’ve been Cursed.”
Lois smiled. “I remember now. Yes, well, I always try to remember the people that I meet, even if it’s just by their faces. What is your name now that you’ve been Cursed?” IT was not as direct as telling her that he did not remember what her name was, but it would have the same effect.
“Paula,” she replied. The way she soft-touched the word indicated to Lois that she wasn’t quite used to it yet. He nodded.
Lois gestured to the building she had been making for before the thief tried to steal her purse. “You were going to get something to eat?” he asked.
She nodded. “My father… He’s either still working or getting himself drunk right now. I have to find myself some food, or I’m not going to eat at all,” she explained.
“Would you like some company?” She looked at him incredulously at this question, but he didn’t relent. “I mean it. I just finished my own business and was looking for some food anyway. May as well have some conversation with the food.”
Paula chewed her lip for a moment. She had started trembling again, something that made Lois somewhat uncertain. He had met shy people before, and he had also seen a few people who had been Cursed shortly before while he had been touring in the first days of his stay. But none of them were nearly as reserved as Paula seemed. She was jumpy and nervous, and he couldn’t help but feel that there was unseen as a reason.
She agreed though, nodding before voicing her agreement. “Yes, I think some company would be very much appreciated,” she replied. “I’ve been eating alone a lot lately. Having some company would be quite welcome.”
Lois smiled and entered the small building with Paula. It was a smaller establishment than many that were currently active, but the mood was still festive because of the holiday that everyone seemed to be celebrating. The smell of honeyed ale was intermingled with the spicy smells of cider and spiced rum. The inhabitants of the Keep lent their own peculiar aromas to the bouquet, and Lois found himself momentarily overwhelmed by the abundance of them all. Paula ended up having to pull him towards a table before he reacted again, and he apologized profusely for it.
“Don’t worry,” Paula said with a bit of a smile. “I’ve seen far worse. I’m one of the last of my friends to be Cursed, and many of the others took the animal portion of the Curse. I think the Keep prefers it to the other two, honestly. At any rate, I gave them no end of ribbing when their instincts were giving them fits.” She looked away for a moment. “Now that I’m on the other side of it, I’m beginning to think that I did more harm than good.”
Lois looked up as a waiter managed to squeeze past a few more groups. Lois deferred to Paula’s judgment of what would be a good meal, since she had been the one heading in this direction in the first place. He waited for the waiter to leave, and then turned back to Paula. “Does your family not celebrate the Yule?” he asked.
She turned away, unconsciously flicking a lock of hair back over her ear. “My father claims to be a practicing Follower, for what good it does him. I think he clings to it because of my grandfather, and because of his own inability to let go. As it turns out, he has not attended any meetings at the chapel in the upper Keep since the first service. Tonight I suppose he is getting drunk at the Mule again, or simply finding a way to avoid coming back and seeing me…”
Paula turned back to look at Lois suddenly, eyes wide. “Oh, I’ve said far too much!” she said, running a hand through her hair in exasperation. “I hardly know you. For all I know, you and that thief a few moments ago are cut from the same cloth, and you’re just a bit more clever in your methods.”
“You don’t seem to hold me in a very high opinion. I certainly hope it isn’t my demeanor that has caused you to think this of me.”
Paula shook her head and looked away again. “I don’t really think that,” she admitted in a quiet voice. “I guess it’s just a little hard to admit to myself that I actually am still capable of having a real… normal conversation with someone now. Ever since the Curse, all of my interactions with others have been awkward… at best.”
Lois considered what she said for a moment before saying anything in response. She was down about the Curse, more so than anyone he had met so far. “Well, I hope to be the exception to your general rule, then,” he replied finally. “You don’t have to tell me about your problems. If all we end up talking about is the political situation here in the north, it will be far more interesting than most of the conversation I have been a party to over these last few weeks.”
She chuckled a little bit, but nodded. “I suppose the same could be said for me. All right, I’m curious, then. What is your history; what has your life been like this far?”
It wasn’t a question that Lois had hidden from over the years, but it still took him the rest of their meal to answer the Paula’s satisfaction. He dropped hints about the nature of his work, but mostly just referred to it as mercenary assignments, and more recently bounty hunting. She seemed quite fascinated with both ideas herself, and he managed to glean some relevant information from her as he went along. She was apparently being trained in heavy two-handed combat. He had been forced to admit that he couldn’t see that in her current form, and she had only laughed bitterly and agreed with the sentiment. A little more subtle prodding, and her father’s presence returned once again. He was the one who had prescribed the training for his daughter, and absolutely refused to let her pursue anything else. She seemed resigned to her fate, but the way she hung on every word he said regarding his own activities in contrast to her downcast view of her current situation intrigued Lois. He kept mulling it over as the evening went on, and was finally left considering it for a few quiet moments once their meal had been finished.
“Paula, I’ve been thinking,” he said after a little while. “You showed some excellent awareness tonight when you foiled the thief’s attempt on your pouch. That sort of thing is exactly what I use in my own work, my fighting style. Based on what you have been telling me, you don’t feel that you were cut out for being a heavy arms fighter. What if I were to train you, at no cost to you, to use these same techniques?”
Paula stared at him for a few moments before shaking her head. It was jerky, though. She did not want to say no. “Lois, I’ve promised my father that I will pursue my training in that direction. I have to do it. I can’t change my mind now, not after I’ve given my word.”
“You wouldn’t have to give up your other training,” Lois replied. “Night is ideal for this sort of training anyway, and that should at least give us some time in the day after your regular training.”
“I don’t know,” Paula said simply after some hesitation. “I have trouble standing up to one training regimen in a day, let alone two. I’m sure my father would not be very happy if he found out, either.”
“Well, there is nothing saying you have to tell him. If you’re here right now, and he’s supposed to be a Follower and celebrating appropriately right now, then I doubt you’ll have much trouble getting other evenings free.” Lois drummed his fingers on the table, his new claws adding a staccato accent to each tap. He watched as she considered the proposition.
“I suppose that it wouldn’t be a problem to try it for a few nights at least.”
“That’s all I ask,” Lois responded.
“Where would you even be training me?” Paula asked, looking up into Lois’ face again.
“I prefer some flexibility where that is concerned. If we could meet at that same corner where the thief tried to take a stab at your purse, I think we can work from there. If you can be there at about the same time we first met there, it should be fine.”
“That would mean that we’d be training until rather late, wouldn’t it?” Paula asked.
“It might,” Lois replied. “If you would like to meet earlier, it shouldn’t be too much trouble. It would be a good idea to have something to eat before training, however, so keep that in mind.”
Paula nodded. “I suppose that it wouldn’t be too much trouble to train so late. I certainly don’t have much going on at that time of night.” Once again, the odd melancholy returned to her voice. Lois watched her for a moment, but finally shrugged it off. It was probably nothing more than the lingering doubts that she had mentioned to him in passing during the conversation starting up again. He hoped that with some training she would get past them. “I should get home for now, anyway. Thank you for giving me someone to talk to.” She smiled hesitantly.
“It was a pleasure. I suppose that I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then?”
She nodded slowly, then more earnestly once she had thought about it. “Yes. I will be there. It’s something that I need to do.” Lois didn’t respond. She clearly had not been seeking a response. “Tomorrow… All right, I will leave you until then.” She nodded and walked off. She seemed doubtful, as though she was not sure if she should say anything more, but finally managed to leave the establishment after only a few moments of indecision.
Lois watched her, deep in thought. He had not considered taking on an apprentice while he was here at the Keep. It simply struck him as something that would be of mutual benefit. Paula was clearly in need of something to help her confidence, and perhaps her combat skills at the same time, and Lois simply felt that the concept of having an apprentice seemed right somehow. It didn’t require him to be an assassin, and yet it would allow him to apply his talents regardless. He let himself slip down further into the chair as he thought.
It only concerned him slightly that he had not considered how to train yet. He knew she had something, and finding out what all she could do would have to be the basis of his training regimen. It would be useless to decide on a solid method until he first had time to evaluate it.
As it was, however, he did want to do a few things in his room before he slept, and he hoped to at least sleep in his bed tonight. If he hoped to accomplish either goal, starting now would not be a bad idea. He paid for the food he had eaten and made his way to the upper Keep to end his day. Perhaps he would find time to meet his fellow patrolmen before training tomorrow. Only time would tell.
Gerard waited in Coe’s office as the raccoon worked his paws over the stag’s injured leg. Every now he would wince or grunt, but he kept himself stoic for the most part. The healer was usually not too annoyed by conversation while he worked, but he had only tolerated a few words from Gerard thus far. Perhaps the raccoon was as grudging with his time on the Yule as Gerard tended to be, and was just showing it. After all, he had agreed to visit Gerard’s house in order to check on the injured leg.
The stag had been surprised when Coe revealed that he had brought a mage in for a second opinion, but both of them had been unobtrusive so far, only touching the injury when absolutely necessary. They occasionally took council together, but only ever for a few moments, and they never said anything that Gerard understood when he could hear them. Finally, the raccoon stood up, brushing his brow with a bit of a sigh. He sat down on the bed beside Gerard while the mage stood up in front of him, arms crossed.
Coe stretched. “Well, Gerard, I’m not really sure what to say at this point,” the raccoon said finally. “It’s not an easy path either way.”
Gerard didn’t like the sound of this. “Either way? Where does this path split, Healer?”
Coe winced a bit, rubbing a hand along his chin. “It splits right under your knee,” he commented humorlessly. “Yesterday, when you came in to see me, it looked bad. That said, it was, without a doubt, the best looking wound of that age that I had ever looked at. It gave me some hope, and I let that hope gain too much of a foothold to tell you how bad it was before you left.”
“Doctor, forgive me if I truly do not like where this is going,” Gerard said under his breath.
The Healer managed a chuckle. “Well, I’ll lay it on the table for you. It might be possible to save your leg.”
“Yes, might.” Coe sighed, rubbing the ridge of his muzzle so hard that Gerard wondered that he hadn’t prodded himself with his claws yet. “There are a lot of ifs involved right now. First, I do not see much chance of saving your life with medicine alone. That’s why I had my friend accompany me today.” He gestured to the mage.
“We think that we could save your leg, but it would mean throwing everything at it, medicinal and magical. You’d be off your feet for weeks, maybe months. Even then, there’s a chance that it wouldn’t help. There’s even a slight chance that the infection would spread…” The raccoon tapped his claws together and shook his head.
Gerard stared at the Healer, then back at the mage.
“And the cost?” he ventured.
“Considerable,” Coe replied quietly. “You know me, Gerard. I’ll give you what time you need to pay, but I do not control what a mage will charge, and no matter how much I trust them personally, I cannot guarantee that what they do will be sufficient.”
Gerard felt like a stone had been dropped upon him. This had been the happiest day he could remember having for ages. Even if he was half-crippled, he was with his family, and he could not remember any day that he was happier to be with them all. Now, with the day closing, he found out that he could be losing his leg? What was happening?
“May I speak to my wife?” Gerard asked quietly.
Coe patted him on the back. “Take the whole night to talk about it. The infection should be controlled for now, and we can afford to delay a day for now. We do not want a hasty decision about this one way or the other.”
Gerard nodded, placing his muzzle in his hands as he waited. He hardly noticed as both Coe and the mage exited the room. A moment afterwards, his wife entered. She sat down beside him and wrapped her small arms around him gently.
The stag didn’t respond for a moment, and when he next spoke it was not to her. “How could you let this happen?” he demanded in a quiet, broken voice. “What did I do? Did I misstep somehow? Have I blasphemed against You, either in thought, word, or deed?”
His wife embraced him. “Gerard, I love you. We can make it through this.”
“Oh, Eli…” Gerard could say no more. Amber quietly held him, brushing her fingers through his fur as his body rocked back and forth with his sobs. So often he had been her rock in the hard times. After the Curse, she would not have survived her own despair if it had not been for him. Now, she would return the favor. Heard or unheard, she continued to whisper comfort to her husband. His own sobs, moans, and incoherent groanings were meaningless to her. She simply hoped that Eli had sent his emissary to interpret Gerard’s cries, for she certainly could not.
December 26, 707 CR
Gerard woke the next morning, alone in his room. His wife had clearly gone to take care of the things around the house, and she could not blame her. It seemed that it could not be far from noon now, based on the sunlight coming through the window.
Through the window he could also catch glimpses of his children. None were quite old enough to be Cursed yet, although the day was fast approaching for Caleb, their eldest. He was twelve, and an early bloomer at that. Gerard would not be surprised if he saw the change in the boy by the coming summer. The uncertainty that the Curse caused about how to raise their children had always made their lives interesting, but Caleb was strong-willed, and had told his father than he would accept Eli’s will when the Curse came. There had been a time when they had considered sending him to the south to live with Gerard’s brother, but the boy had overheard the conversation, and had stalwartly refused any justification for the possibility. He would stay in the Keep and become a great warrior.
What would happen to the boys resolve if his father lost his leg? He had always insisted that Gerard was the entire reason he wanted to be a warrior; what would he think if he found out that such a life had cost his father his leg, and nearly his life?
As he watched the window for glimpses of his children, he saw that Caleb was playing with Adrian and Karl. Adrian was the second born; he was less enthusiastic than his older brother, but no less determined, and excelled in his letters far beyond Caleb’s ability. He had long ago resigned himself to the fact that he would not be as strong as his older brother, and so he prided himself in being the smarter of the two, even while four years younger than him.
Karl had been adopted after the Winter Assault of the past year. He was barely a month younger than Adrian, but he was still often withdrawn, even though he never suffered any ill will from his adopted brothers. No one in the family would begrudge him the quiet time when he needed it, as even the youngest of them understood war and its consequences, and knew at least intellectually what the young boy was suffering. It did Gerard’s sorrowing heart good to see the young man laughing as he played with the others.
Still, Gerard could not see his youngest. The four-year-old Peter was always wide-eyed and full of overwhelming joy. Gerard’s heart sank when he thought of how this would affect him. He couldn’t imagine a world without that constantly-beaming face. The loss of a leg might be bearable, but if it marred his son’s cheer, Gerard knew that he would hate himself forever.
“Eli, what would you have me do?” Gerard asked again. He could only hear the murmurings of his own heart, though. He had to keep his leg, even at the cost of what money they had. When he was back on his feet he could earn the money back. He would even stoop so low as to ask help from a local merchant at a hefty rate of interest. Still, he could not hear Eli’s guidance in that idea, and he hated himself for it. Was he drowning out Eli’s still, small voice with his own thoughts? What did He want? Why did He not speak louder?
Gerard turned to see his youngest, propping the door open carefully, but leaning so far that he nearly fell into the room. Gerard smiled as well as he could, although he knew the tears had left streaks through his fur.
“Hey, bud,” Gerard replied quietly. His voice nearly cracked just saying that, but he wanted to stay positive for his son.
“Mommy had cry-marks on her face; did something bad happen?”
Gerard motioned to his youngest to enter the room, and the boy followed the gesture, eagerly climbing up to sit beside his father on the bed. He clasped Gerard’s arm between the two of his, hugging it eagerly. He had never seen the deer as anything but a father, even in those few times when Gerard had practiced his animal form in case he needed it during a patrol. If he ever saw a deer in the wild, Gerard half expected that he would laugh and run off to try to play tag with it.
“Are you sick, Papa?” the boy inquired.
Gerard nodded halfheartedly. “My leg is sick, yes,” he explained as simply as he could. He could not keep the forlorn tone from his voice, but Peter didn’t seem to mind.
“Mama can’t kiss it better?”
Gerard managed a half-hearted chuckle. “No, mama can’t make this go away by herself.”
The young boy was quiet for a while, but he continued to hug Gerard’s arm gently. He finally spoke again a few moments later. “Will the healer have to make your leg go away?”
Gerard coughed to hide the sobs that wanted to escape. “I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. He might be able to make it better, but he might have to make it go away.”
“Did you ask Eli?”
The simple question made Gerard want to pull away and storm off, but the irony was that his crippled leg prevented him from doing this. He let his hurt fade for a few moments before speaking. “Eli isn’t answering me right now,” he said simply.
Peter looked hurt for a moment, as though the concept that Eli might not be answering was altogether foreign to him, but he seemed to shrug it off after a moment, and looked back towards the window with his father. He didn’t seem to want to leave it at that, however. “Eli, can you help my Papa’s leg be better?” he asked quietly. Gerard managed to choke back the tears that wanted to come. He raised his left hand to his mouth, letting it slide smoothly to a more hooflike form, and setting his teeth against it to keep the desperate cries from ringing out aloud.
And then Peter spoke again.
“Eli wants you to let the doctor make your leg go away,” he said quietly. His grip of his father’s arm never wavered, and his eyes didn’t stray from the window, but the words spoke stung like a spear’s tip in Gerard’s heart.
He lowered his left hand from his mouth, no longer caring if his son heard him cry. “What?”
“He wants you to give up your leg. He told my heart; isn’t that how he talks to us?”
Gerard was speechless, looking up at the ceiling, seeking some way of expressing the feelings that cascaded through him. His mind was far too clouded, though; it was all he could do to keep from sobbing openly.
Peter turned to look at him, hugging the arm tighter when he saw the fresh tears spilling from his father’s eyes. “Don’t cry, papa,” he begged quietly. “I love you, not your leg.”
Gerard was caught off guard. It took him some time to grasp exactly what his son had just said. Once he understood it, though, he wrapped the boy in the strongest embrace he had ever given, sobbing freely as the boy returned it as well as his shorter arms could manage. Gerard tried to choke out a reply, but he couldn’t say anything. His son had humbled him with his simple faith. What could he say in reply?
Peter said nothing as he returned the hug. The position couldn’t have been comfortable for him, with his father folding him so tightly that it was a wonder the child could breathe. He bore this without complaint however, somehow well aware of the fact that his father needed him then. He did nothing to push him away.
The embrace only ended several minutes later, and Gerard managed to smile a bit at his son. “I love you too, son,” he said quietly. He ran his rough fingers through his son’s hair, chuffing a chuckle that showed some relief, but also betrayed the pain he still felt. “Could you go tell mama that papa would like to see her?” he asked. Peter nodded urgently and jumped down to perform the task quickly.
“Yes, papa?” the young boy asked, turning before leaving the room.
His son said nothing, instead just smiling and leaving the room to complete his task.
Gerard stared at the ceiling for a few moments, trying to think of the words he should say. “Eli, I’ve been so wrong,” he whispered. “I was too focused on what I wanted to happen to let myself hear you. Thank you for giving me a son who can so innocently rebuke me.” He choked back a sob before he could continue. “Lord, I do not know what you would have of me, or how you would have me live with only one leg, but I believe that you will provide for my family. Please, give me the faith that my son has shown to me. Give me strength, Eli…”
When Amber entered the room to see what Gerard wanted, she found that he had managed to bring himself to a kneeling position. She placed a small hand on his shoulder, but she could tell that he had passed through the worst. Whatever came next, they would all face it together, as a family. Together, and with Eli’s help, they would find a way through.
Lois spent most of the day setting up for his first day of training with Paula. He considered many different ways of introducing her to the basic concepts that she would need to know, and was able to immediately throw out strength training. He decided that she would be getting well more than enough of that with her training in the early part of the day. At first, anyway, he would be able to focus more on honing her instincts, quieting whatever fears she had, and training her reflexes until they were razor sharp.
If last night’s demonstration had shown him anything, he had high hopes that her reflexes would not be much of a problem. What little trouble might appear all stemmed from the way she reacted when a reflex was triggered. If he could get her to react appropriately in a wide variety of situations, she would already be well on her way to mastering the concepts he could teach her.
Perhaps the one thing that could be a problem was her confidence. It was clear that the Curse had dealt a blow to what confidence she possessed, and she had continually second guessed herself throughout their short conversation together the evening before. He might have to spend a good amount of time on that before they were done.
The question that truly bothered him was more personal. He had come to the Keep in search of a way to bury his past, to forget about who he had been in his younger years, and to start a new life, however short, in the one place he felt comfortable calling home. Patrols did not interfere with this plan; they were a completely valid way to use his talents, and they would provide him enough coin to live from day to day easily. Taking on a student was an entirely different matter. His style of combat was mostly self-built, and every inch of it, even the things he had been taught by others, had been designed for assassination. If Paula joined Metamor’s army using Lois’ set of tricks, she would be classified and thought of as an assassin, whether she was often used that way or not. Doubtless, Andwyn would seek her out not long after she proved herself, giving her an opportunity to use such a skill set in the more shadowy political affairs of the Keep. Even if everyone simply thought of her as a skilled fighter, it would not take long for an intelligent young woman to realize where she could find the most money using her skills.
It grated on Lois, but the idea of leaving her to fend for herself at this time grated on him more. Who knew what became of other young women, pulled out from what they thought their calling was and finding themselves in an entirely new and threatening environment? She could take care of herself against one careless thief, but there were worse people lurking in the dark that would be able to overpower her regardless of her reflexes. With tender family relations making her home life miserable, she would be even more susceptible to such attacks when she sought escape from her father.
Lois had to do something about it. No one said it had to be training, but it seemed like the best idea all around. Give her the skills to deliver strikes that would strain men twice her size, and the threats of the world would grow far less. At the same time, it would prepare her for the looming day when she would be assigned to a patrol. It was simply the best choice.
Lois now waited beside the small eatery that they had attended the night before. The sky was already darkening, and a few streaks of color were visible in the west as the sun retreated over the horizon. Lois considered this briefly. He had never felt a particular interest in art, but the ability of the world to produce its own beauty had always interested him. It amused him, in fact, how the modern artist sought out symmetry as the essence of beauty, when the most beautiful things in the wild tended to be the uneven crags of a mountain, or a wide vale, stretched out with hillocks and rivers joined in defiance of the idea of beauty that so many humans seemed to hold. Whether Lois truly appreciated the beauty of it, he enjoyed any such defiance of the norm.
Paula finally did show. It seemed that she had done him the kindness of attending the baths before meeting him now, as he hair was only just dry enough to keep from dripping as she walked. She had a bit of a limp; most likely it was simply soreness in her muscles, and nothing too major, but he hoped she would not let it get in their way this evening. She walked briskly regardless; that much pleased Lois well enough. She had some enthusiasm for now. Hopefully the feeling of accomplishment would outweigh the feeling of exhaustion as they moved along, and she would continue to show that same enthusiasm as they continued. She had remembered the meeting place he had designated, and so she was standing at the corner of the street where the thief had made an attempt on her purse before she turned and saw Lois. He motioned for her to join him, locking step with her as she joined him and walking towards his choice of venues with her in tow.
“How are you feeling this evening?” he asked. He could see a few stars on the far horizon, although the sky was still slate gray in the setting sun.
“Well enough,” she replied. There was some exhaustion there, but more determination. “Master DeMule worked us somewhat harder than usual today. The majority of us will be joining patrol come spring. Rather, those of us who are so far unassigned.”
“The others changed earlier, correct?”
“Most of my fellows have been Cursed for a year, some more. I am the last of my friends to change.”
“I’d say that makes it harder on you,” Lois noted. “You had longer to become familiar with yourself, long enough perhaps to choose your way in life.”
She managed to chuckle bitterly. “I was never particularly suited for the life my father decided I should live. As a boy I was somewhat stronger, and I could keep the muscle I gained far more easily. As a girl…”
“A young woman,” Lois corrected. Referring to herself as either boy or girl was well enough on its own, but the way she said it made it clear that she was cutting herself down in her mind. He could not allow her to continue to question herself if the training was to succeed.
Paula looked at him for a few moments as they turned from the alley onto a wider road, leading back in the direction of the upper Keep. She opened her mouth as though to counter, but simply shook her head. She had not accepted it yet, but she did not reject it either. It was a good start, anyway.
“Regardless, it is far more difficult to build lasting strength in this form,” she finished.
Lois nodded. “Strength will come as you continue to work. Regardless of your father’s feelings, that is why I would have wanted you to continue your training with Master DeMule. It may not help your skills with a two-handed blade much, but it may help you grow stronger. We will work on strength together in the future, but a head start is always appreciated.”
She nodded, although Lois gathered from her face that she did not give his statement much credit. He wouldn’t push it; she would learn the validity of his statement by experience.
The rest of the trip was passed in silence, until Lois had finally led her to a small room in the upper Keep, only a pair of turns and a set of stairs from the main gate.
“I discovered this place last night as I was thinking about how I wanted to train you,” Lois explained. He looked off to one side, revealing why they could still see despite the total lacks of torches or lanterns. The wall was not so much a wall as it was one giant door to a balcony, hanging off from the upper keep so that they could see out into the lower Keep, all the way down to the gates at the far end. The buildings were built too far away from the upper keep to be reached from here, but the view was nice all the same.
“I always perform better in the open air, but a room this high up also afford the convenience of some privacy. People may be able to see us from down below, but I find it unlikely that anyone without mage sight could identify us without giving themselves away.” He pulled off his coat, and then the leather armor he had taken to wearing on a daily basis years ago, which also served as a repository for most of the tools of his trade during his youth. It was an unnecessary hindrance now, and so Lois removed it in favor of a light linen shirt underneath.
Paula followed his lead, dropping all of the things that she didn’t need until she was also in light clothing. Lois raised an eyebrow.
“I had thought you would need a little thicker clothing; I would if it wasn’t for my fur.”
“I’ve lived in the Keep all my life,” she countered. “A little cold has never hurt me, and I expect that we’ll be doing some work that should help keep me warm. Even so, I will probably feel worse once I’m on patrol; the wrong armor is a deathtrap if you get caught in a rain storm in this weather, and I doubt I will be able to afford the right armor.”
“My father,” she corrected. It was the first time she had done so with a smile. More progress.
“All right, let’s get underway, then.” Lois led her through a stretching routine. They would be unlikely to extensively use half of the muscles that he was having her prepare. Later on, though, this sort of stretching would be the only thing between a graceful run over the rooftops of the lower Keep, and a messy mistake that could cost her months of training.
Paula surprised Lois with her discipline. Most of the stretches she executed without asking what he meant, and she picked up on the others with relative ease. Even those which required some measure of physical strength went well, and she showed remarkable skill in stretches that tested her flexibility.
She seemed a bit winded after the stretches, but no less determined. She was skilled enough that it shouldn’t have bothered her; the morning’s training was taxing her still. Fortunately, he did not intend to physically exhaust her anymore.
“All right, take a moment to rest. I’ll explain what we’ll be doing next.” Lois walked over to his armor and pulled out a small bag. The appearance of the bag and the sound it made when he pulled it out gave him away. Paula raised an eyebrow.
“Marbles?” she asked.
“They will serve my purpose as well as anything else,” he replied. “I was trained using rocks, and the person who chose them wasn’t picky about how rough they were. My hands never looked very good afterwards.”
Paula said nothing as she watched Lois open the bag wide enough so that he could reach in with both hands at once. This feat did produce a comment, however. “How did you manage to keep a bag like that hidden on your person without it showing?”
“Part of my job has always been keeping things hidden,” he explained. “The armor makes me look larger than I am altogether, so having one spot thinner than the others allows me to hide things without them producing a suspicious lump. Now, I’m sure you want to know what they’re here for.” Her only response was a nod. “All right; I saw your reflexes last night, and I was impressed, but I want to see how you handle a lot of things coming at you at once. I’ll be throwing marbles at your upper body; I want you to catch them before they hit you, dropping each after you have a good grip on it, and never having more than one in either hand. You will need to do this from a combat stance; in addition to testing your reflexes, it will test how well you respond to the position of the marbles. You should catch each marble with the hand that you would use in blocking a blow to the same place.”
Paula nodded. “That’s comfortingly simply,” she muttered.
Lois smiled. “We’ll see.”
She took up her chance, and Lois took a few moments to adjust it. Her original stance was technically correct, but more suited for a physical fighter. She would be best suited by a more flexible combat stance, and so he positioned her accordingly.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Whenever you are,” she responded. Good; she was looking at the marbles, not at him.
He began slowly, one at a time. Once or twice she used the wrong hand, and he briefly corrected her. To his surprise, she never made the same mistake twice, and was soon able to wait between each of the throws because of how quickly she reacted. He began using two hands, and she slipped up more often, but no marble hit the floor before touching a hand. He had to do more correcting, but she continued on without frustration, and with astonishingly few mistakes.
“All right, rest,” he finally said. He took a marble in his hand and turned around, looking out towards the lower Keep. She was good, better than anyone he had seen, except for one man that had trained with him in his early years. But that man had an unfair advantage. Rather, an inborn advantage that no one else in their group had possessed. That few in the world otherwise possessed.
Lois looked at Paula. She was looking through her things, checking on one thing or another. She stood up, still looking at whatever she held in her hand, facing away from Lois. Lois looked at the marble in his hand, then back at her. He took a quick breath, throwing it at a moderate pace towards he back.
She flinched while it was still a foot from her back, her right hand snapping around to where the marble would have hit her, catching it flawlessly before she even turned around. She looked at the marble, then back to Lois. He was smiling, handpaw still pointed at her back.
“I knew it,” he said breathlessly.
She looked at him. “What? How… How did I do that?”
Paula looked at him, clearly not understanding. “I don’t know what you’re talking about; what does that mean?”
“It’s the reason your reflexes are so good. It’s the reason you felt the thief tugging your purse before he touched it. It’s the reason you could catch something thrown at your back without ever looking at it. I met a man once who had your abilities; without even thinking about it, he could feel, see, even smell things nearly a second before they happened. You literally know what could happen in the near future. Given enough time, you can even change what could have happened. Like beating the thief before he touched you.”
“Why didn’t I find out about this before?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. Where combat is concerned, it’s likely because having a heavy sword slows your reactions down. Otherwise, it could just seem normal to you. When you caught the thief, you attributed it to him being careless, even though he hadn’t touched your purse yet. Your mind simply comes up with reasons for why you react as quickly as you do.”
Paula nodded slowly. “So, what now?”
“Now, we move on to other things. I will still work on your reflexes; with normal reflexes I would be satisfied right now. With you, I want perfection. Every marble caught, using the right hand every time. It’s not vital now, however. We’ll work on it as we go on. For now, let’s see what else you can do…”
Alex looked at his friend quietly. It was early evening, and he had just arrived a few minutes before, after the news of Gerard’s difficult decision reached his ears by way of Lucy. She had been on her way out of the city when she had been informed, and had tasked herself with finding and informing any of Gerard’s close friends she could find. As a reasonably recent addition to the group, Alex was surprised that she knew so much about Gerard’s friends. The news she bore took any mirth from the situation in the next heartbeat.
“You need to reconsider,” the lynx said in a quiet growl. “Think of your family!”
“I am thinking of my family, Alex,” the stag responded. He spoke in a voice that was infuriatingly calm and quiet. “First, we have no money to fund the necessary operation. Second, even if I did, it would be a long process, with no guarantee of success at the end. Third, I believe Eli is leading me in this direction.”
Alex just fought the urge to spit angrily at the mention of his friend’s god. He normally respected the opinions of his friend, but this just seemed like taking it a step too far. “Gerard, making this decision will lose your livelihood. You may be able to survive it better at first, but where will you get the money to feed your family in the months ahead? Putting your sons to work? You know as well as I do the perils of putting them to a craft before they are Cursed.”
“Eli will provide a way.”
“What if Eli provided a way to save your leg?” Alex asked pointedly.
“I am well more than enough convinced that no such provision is forthcoming. I have received word that I deem sure enough to claim Eli’s voice behind it, and I would be forced to condemn anything less as a trick of the Enemy,” Gerard responded.
“You’re not making sense!” Alex spat. “Listen, I have well more than enough gold to be able to live for several months without income. My income as a squad commander was well more than enough to take care of my small needs. The most I ever spent in a week was when I went with you and the others to have a meal at the Mule. I could afford to pay for Coe’s procedure, and I am offering that provision to you now.”
“I have heard tell that you are no longer a scout commander,” Gerard said slowly. “The regular scout’s pay would keep you alive for a while, but expenses would pile up, and then you would be the one in need of help.”
Alex glanced out the window, shaking his head for a moment before looking back at his friend. “I could ask George for my command back. He would give it to me; he made that much quite clear when I requested a demotion. It was not his will to strip my rank; it was my own when I thought that I had caused the deaths of two good men. If I can help save your leg, then I would consider myself fit to return to the field.”
“If my disability is the only reason that you are holding out of your command, I beg you to return,” Gerard responded. “I do not wish your help in a course of action that I have decided not to take; it would go against my faith, and against my conscience. Still, it was no fault of yours that Lois and I were forced to make the long journey on our own. I told you to run; had I died, it would have been my own choice, and I would not have wasted any of my last thoughts on earth, nor any of them in Paradise blaming you for the loss of my life.”
“And the loss of your mind?” Alex said bitterly. “I ran into Lois this afternoon. He filled me in on most of the details of your trek. I know very well that the lutins had decided not to kill you Immediately, at any rate. What if, perhaps, those magic stones eviscerated the immortal soul you hope will one day be in your Paradise? We have no proof one way or the other.”
“Ours is not to question such things. My faith is, though, that Eli is powerful enough to create this world, and he would not let a soul that he created, belonging to a man who trusted Him, to be destroyed in such a way.” Alex moved to object again, but Gerard held up a hoof. He halted once or twice before he spoke again, but managed to begin speaking before Alex could interrupt.
“I am more worried for you now than I am for myself. Your loyalty is a great strength, and I would never have you throw it away, but blaming yourself for everything that happens will kill you if you let it. Suppose I had been killed that day. You returned here and resigned as a commander. What then? I do not doubt that your guilt and your anger would have driven you to make foolish decisions if you were presented with the opportunity for vengeance. You could have been killed, and that would have been the greater tragedy.”
Alex continued to look out the window, but he nodded. “I always blame myself for those people who die under my command. I do not remember all of their names, but the faces of the men we fought beside in the Winter Assault still haunt me. Could I give my own life to see one of them survive, I would do it without a moment’s hesitation.”
“I believe Eli is working on you, my friend,” the stag said with a hint of a smile.
Alex chuckled, but shook his head. “I don’t need any god to tell me that I should feel regret for their loss.”
“I do not speak of regret for their loss, although I am certain that you feel that as well. I mean that self-sacrificing love that would drive you to save another man’s life, even if you did not know their names. For that you do need Eli. I hope you realize that someday, and put that in place of your own regret.”
Alex sniffed and blew a small breath of air from his nose, calming himself down. “When will they be removing the leg?” he asked, finally conceding defeat.
“I wait for Coe to return. He should be along before long, and he will have to decide when we need to perform the surgery once I tell him what my decision will be.”
“Coe has been here for the last ten minutes. I saw him walking down the road through your window. I believe your wife was hoping I could talk you out of this.”
Gerard smiled and shook his head. “She may have that hope, but only because I have not told her how I came to my conclusion. If she heard that, I am certain that she would understand, and that she would be more willing to stand with me.”
“How did you come by your decision?” Alex asked.
Gerard smiled. “I had avoided saying specifically, because I know your opinion of Eli’s work. However, I think that I should tell you since you asked. My son asked Eli about what I should do; my youngest son did, I mean. He relayed to me what he was told. I know you might contend that it was just his opinion wrapped in such a way so as to seem to come from Eli, and I might be tempted to agree, had he told me to keep the leg. I cannot see even the most selfless child deciding that his father should give up a leg of his own mind, though. No child who understands what that means would even suggest it.”
Alex nodded slowly. It was true, he would usually have dismissed the notion, but there was a feeling in his heart, something that told him that his friend’s reasoning was sound. Perhaps it was not Eli; other gods had been heard speaking to their followers in any number of ways. Perhaps the Fates had, in one way or the other, decided to relay their decisions to Gerard directly. Whatever the case, Alex would not try to convince him otherwise.
“I will go fetch the healer, then,” he said quietly. “And Gerard?”
“Yes?” the stag looked at him attentively.
“I intend to retake my command position as soon as George will let me. Count on me to provide for your family for as long as I have the resources to do so.”
Gerard opened his mouth to object, but Alex left before he could say a word. Perhaps this was Eli’s first method of provision. It might not last long; Alex had himself to feed, after all, and suddenly taking on the entire financial burden of a five-person household was not something that most bachelors were suited to. Still, Alex had always been excellent when it came to adjusting to situations on the fly, at least on the battlefield. Perhaps he would be able to adjust effectively.
Not that Gerard planned to make it necessary for too long. He would not force anyone to shoulder a burden that should be his to hold. If he had to hold the burden on the strength of a single leg, he meant to do so.
Coe entered the room a few moments after Alex left, closing the door behind him and latching it. He then closed the curtains over the window so that none of the boys might see more than they should because of their curiosity.
“How are you feeling today, Gerard?” Coe asked as he began to remove the bandages from the injured leg. He worked carefully, but the leg was still tender.
“I feel about as well as I could expect in this situation. Pain notwithstanding, I am at peace with my decision.” Coe spared him a glance, but returned to working with the bandages shortly thereafter.
“I heard from your wife that you intended to have me amputate. Is that still your decision?” he asked.
Gerard nodded. “Yes. I have given it a good bit of thought and more prayer, and this is what I believe that I should do.” Coe finished unwrapping the leg, and began to inspect the injuries again. Gerard wasn’t sure if the raccoon was looking for a reason to argue with his patient, but the look on the man’s face seemed to indicate only the opposite was to be found during his inspection.
“One of these days, even if I don’t live to see it, I hope future healers find a way to avoid this,” he said, shaking his head.
“Even if that does occur in the future, I still wish to take this step in the present,” Gerard said. “When would you be able to do it?”
“The sooner the better,” the raccoon said. “The infection is moving, and the longer we wait, the more I may have to remove. If you can bear to part with it tonight, I am ready and willing.”
Gerard was fully resolved to let Coe amputate the leg, but the suggestion of that night still hit him like a brick in the face. “So soon?” he asked.
“Soon is relative,” Coe responded. “This is two days from my initial diagnosis, but this infection has been growing for weeks. Soon would be making the decision the day after the injury. Now it is merely just soon enough. Are you ready?”
Gerard looked into Coe’s dark eyes. He opened his muzzle to speak, but words failed him. Instead, he nodded, slowly, but with strong conviction.
“All right. I’ll have your friend Alex help you up to my office. I could bring my tools here, but I’m certain your family would not appreciate the implicit additions to your décor. Just wait here, I’ll be back shortly.”
His conviction remained unmoved, but Gerard still prayed from that moment until the attending mage induced the deep sleep that would spare him the pain of the surgery. Things were falling together quickly, but things were changing even more quickly. He simply prayed that Eli would stay with him throughout these troubled days.