July 14, 708 CR
“I thought they would not stare. We are all Cursed aren't we?”
Miriam's worried question made the large alligator turn his head slightly toward her as she followed at his side through the tight streets of Euper. The main thoroughfare was choked with wagons and merchants as it always was in the Summer, making foot traffic all but impossible if the travelers had any intention of reaching their destination. The narrow streets behind the Inns and other trades along the main road were filled with people rushing from errand to errand, soldiers on patrol, and street sweepers making sure the offal was rinsed into the sewers. All eyes turned to the pair of large reptiles as they also made their way between buildings they could touch on either side and still hold scaled hands.
“We are,” Thalberg replied in his basso rumble. His jaw hung open without moving as he spoke in the way of many reptiles and birds at Metamor. “We are still larger and more impressive than most, almost dragonish, Miriam. And dragons are always a source of awe.” He then turned his head more fully, jaws closing a moment as one yellow eye peered behind them. A subtle tightening of the eye and slighter opening of his long jaws conveyed what Miriam had learned was mirth. “We also walk with ducal guards.”
Miriam turned to look at the quartet of soldiers who followed them through the city. All were dressed in the blue livery with horse-head insignia of the ducal house. One lizard, a sparrow, some sort of spotted canine the name of which she could never remember, and a human woman. She felt a rush of chagrin; she'd spent almost all of the last seven months serving with Thalberg in the Keep and now she'd stopped thinking the ubiquitous soldiers were unusual. She knew all four by name and had even bought meaty broth to the green anole when he'd been ill last month.
Her gaze returned to the Steward. His stocky and broad-shouldered frame confidently marched down the street. He leaned forward enough so his long green tail would not drag along the close fitting stones beneath them and the effluence yet to be cleaned. For the same reason he was not wearing his usual red robes, so she could see the green and yellow scales adorning his body along his neck, hands and arms up to his elbows, and all along the wide and long tail.
Seven months ago to see them not only on him but also on herself had been an escape from one nightmare only to land in another. Now she admired the toughness and the variety of texture, and especially the way they moved as Thalberg walked, barely cloaking the muscles beneath. This alligator who had welcomed her to Metamor and had found a place for her working and helping run the Keep kitchens was, to her great surprise, handsome.
And now he was taking her some place she had never been before. He'd almost seemed embarrassed when he suggested it during his inspection of the kitchens the night before. But the number of days it was easy for alligators to roam about outdoors in Metamor were few. The mid-morning sun was already hot and where the streets allowed its golden rays to bathe them they always slowed their steps to soak in its radiance. Today would be a bristling day, uncomfortable to those covered in fur who would pant endlessly; even those still human would wipe sweat from their brows and soak their tunics. Not even the sewage system, a marvel of the civilized world, would be adequate in the face of the heat, bringing the stink of the city to its malodorous zenith.
“Have you come this far into Euper before?” Thalberg asked as they rounded one of the Inns catering to merchants. Amid the din of shouts from the main street she could hear the familiar clanging of a smithy ahead. She could hear little else.
“No.” She took an extra step to keep pace with him. “Not since I arrived last Winter. I have only been to Euper to visit with Emily and a few others from the Fellowship.” Both anole and sparrow guards gave slight nods at the mention of the leader of the Fellowship of the Egg. The human and dog-thing either didn't hear it or were accustomed to pretending to not hear the conversations of those they protected.
“I rarely venture beyond the gates of Metamor either,” Thalberg admitted with a faint shrug. “I do journey to the farmlands surrounding Metamor once or twice a year to personally inspect the crops, but usually only as Harvest nears. I never leave in Winter.”
They fell silent as they reached the smithy. The scent of hot iron and slag burned their snouts and the ringing of the hammer made her head tremble. Thalberg's hand steadied her shoulder, strong claws soothing her at their touch. Together they leaned forward, tails lifting four hands from the ground as they rushed past.
When they were past Thalberg lowered his hand. “There are many things you will adjust to in time. Some sounds and scents hurt more than they once did, others will seem pleasing you once found unpleasant. It took me more than a year before I felt at home as an alligator.”
“So long, truly?”
“Compared to a lifetime, it is nothing. Look, we are at the gates.”
Miriam followed Thalberg's arm as he pointed down the narrow street. A dozen or more paces beyond the last bend in the road she could see the gray stone walls of Euper. The ground beneath the wall had been cleared, though wildflowers and clover sprouted in patches of bare earth. Miriam let her jaw dangle an inch, emphasizing the crocodilian grin ever etched upon her cheeks.
They left the maze of tight roads behind and turned to the left toward the main gates. Even though there was now a wide path of beaten earth between the last of the buildings and the wall, the two alligators continued to walk side by side. The four soldiers following them spaced themselves apart, spreading into a wedge-shaped fan behind their charges.
Merchant caravans dominated the gatehouse, with ostlers and pages scurrying about to tend to the horses as the soldiers inspected every carriage. The merchants come to sell their wares or attempting to leave grunted in annoyance at the delays but few did more than grunt. Thalberg walked past them, his bearing commanding and confidant. Miriam fell a pace behind him, hands clasped at her waist, one eye ever upon the Steward, the other upon the soldiers who stiffened at his approach.
“Milord Steward!” A white-furred bear who stood taller than both of them growled, snapping a spear to his breastplate. “Where are you headed? Do you need a carriage or more soldiers?”
“Only to the wharves, Sergeant Cassius, and the ducal guards will be sufficient. We should return this afternoon. Tend to your duties; you appear to have more travelers than usual.”
The bear nodded and almost belched a laugh. “Cursed and uncursed alike, and none of them happy. Good day to you both.” He offered Miriam a polite, measured bow, then stomped toward the nearest caravan shouting, “Open your curtain, young man! Do not even think of hiding anything! All your wares must be inspected!”
Miriam felt exhilaration and trepidation as they walked together beneath the portal, the heavy portcullis secured above them. The gatehouse and Euper wall had been under construction when she'd first come to Metamor. Nearly finished, it still lacked a sense of utility as if it were a brave front put on for friends rather than real courage. Now it felt imposing and strong, the final marker between civilization and the wild beyond.
The portal faced the south and so before they finished passing beneath the stone archway and wide-swept iron doors they stepped into the sun. Two soldiers stood next to either door with spears held straight, their stature fixed and imposing, one a large gray-skinned creature with a nose as long as his chest, the end of which wrapped about the spear like a third hand, the second a massive cat striped orange and black. Miriam had heard the names of both fantastic creatures but could not recall them. She wondered if they'd been selected for this duty due to their imposing size. The doors looked very heavy.
The road beyond the gates was fitted stone for only twenty paces before being replaced by hard-packed earth. The main portion of the road ventured to the east and south where it forked along the eastern face of the hill on which Metamor perched. A more modest road continued to the west and down toward the river flowing through the valley. To this Thalberg turned.
Miriam followed, casting one glance back at the gate. “What are the inspections for?”
“Since the plague this Spring every wagon coming into Euper must be inspected.” Thalberg turned his head a little so his eyes could find her. He gestured for her to come to his side again. “At least one mage capable of seeing magic is always assigned as well.”
“Do the soldiers take anything they find?”
“Not if they wish to remain soldiers for Metamor,” Thalberg replied indignantly. “Duke Thomas compensates them as generously as he can; far more generously than most lands. If our men started extorting from the merchants we'd have fewer merchants come, and we need them to survive.”
Miriam closed her jaws before another question could slip past. Instead she took several quick steps to catch up to the Steward. The road followed the city wall before descending a steep hill toward the river. The eastern bank of the river was cleared along the road so only rocks, grass and scrub remained, but the western bank was flush with oak, pine, and birch.
The river channel had been carved wider around the city providing a small lake on the eastern bank where the current was gentle. The wharves were adequate but not extensive, catering mostly to local fishermen and their boats. Miriam had heard the river was not navigable; fierce rapids choked passage toward Lake Barnhardt and toward Lorland. Generation-old plans to dredge the river and clear out the cataracts lay fallow from lack of money or men.
As they started down the first of the switchbacks leading to the docks, Miriam found the courage to ask, “Why are we going to the river, milord?”
For a moment something seemed to dance in the Steward's yellow eye. He gestured with the sweep of one arm and slapped the end of his tail on the ground with a thump. “We are alligators, Miriam. I want to show you what our animal bodies are made for.”
“For swimming? We have the baths. The water is so delightfully warm there.”
“The baths are... not the place for what I want to show you.”
“But won't the water be cold?”
His jaw closed half-way, and in a quiet rumble he replied, “You will see.” He shut his long jaw, the flap of scales at his throat swelling for a moment as he swallowed whatever else he might have said.
Miriam followed in silence, listening to their footfalls, the chirp of birds in the trees, and the voices of fishermen down at the docks sorting last night's catch. The road twisted back and forth five times before they reached the shallower land abutting the river. Walls of stone held up the steeper hills and cliffs to the north, while to the south several buildings stood for the fishermen to keep their equipment and even to live if necessary during the peak fishing seasons. The wharves stretched from the buildings a good hundred paces with a dozen moorings jutting into the river, each fashioned from stone pilings and wooden slats.
The fishermen were too busy and too near the buildings to notice the two alligators and four ducal soldiers who turned to the northernmost dock. Thalberg motioned for the soldiers to stay at the landward side while he and Miriam continued on to the end of the pier. The four quickly arranged themselves in a semi-circle with their backs to the alligators.
Thalberg stopped and stared down into the gently rippling water. Miriam followed his gaze, noting first the glint of sun shimmering upon the dark surface. Slowly little darting shapes below became visible. A few moments later she knew they were minnows and could see the dull colors on their scales. Beneath them specks of dirt, bits of tree bark, and the occasional leaf floated with the current. And deeper within she could see fronds of some plant growing up from the bottom around each pylon. As she drew her eyes back to the surface, she noticed the little insects darting about the surface until they were snatched by a minnow from below.
Her gaze returned to the Steward who was shimmying out of his trousers. “Milord? You really mean for us to... swim?”
“I do, Miriam, I do.” He stepped out of the pants and folded them in his arms. Her eyes noted the dark-green of his scales along his legs, the bent knees, and the lighter, almost yellow scales along his inner thighs. Self-conscious and ashamed, she turned back to the water and then glanced down at her own garments. She had seen him before in the baths, but... outside where so many eyes could be watching?
“There is nothing to fear, good woman.” He set the folded pants aside and then removed his bandoleer. Only his tunic remained over his chest. She could tell from the subtle slow creep of his slit black pupil he was admiring her tail. “Go ahead and remove your garments. We will be swimming in our beastly forms this day.”
“But the cold?”
“I have something to keep us warm.” He patted one of the pouches on his bandoleer now resting atop his folded trousers. “I believe I have it sized for you, but you'll need to change first for me to be sure. It would not do to lose it in these waters. We alligators can survive even if the river should freeze, so long as we can keep our snouts above the ice. We do not need to fear such a fate this day, but still, I would rather not take any risks. With you, good woman.”
Miriam closed her jaws and took a deep breath. She could see out of the corner of her eyes her nostrils swell and retract at the end of her snout. “Will not the fishermen see if I undress here?”
Thalberg's reply was almost a growl, but from his throat it seemed gentle, merely the Steward's uncomfortable attempt to whisper. “Perhaps, and if they do, they will think me the most fortunate of men.”
A rush of heat filled her chest and her arms tightened about her waist. Thalberg turned away and undid the lacing of his tunic with his thick but nimble claws. A few seconds later he slipped it over his shoulders and folded it in his hands. The scutes along his back shifted ever so slightly back and forth as he moved. Her eyes followed the ridges of scutes down to his tail where they blended into two ridges at each side.
Miriam closed her eyes and did as the Steward bade her. She loosened the strings at her waist and chest, before wriggling free from her blouse and gown. Both fell to her feet and tail in a rumpled pile. She bent low and did her best to fold them presentably. The warm air and sun felt exhilarating to her bare scales. For a few seconds she remained with narrowed eyes and hands spread across the wooden slats of the dock, exposing her back and tail to the sun to savor the warmth filling her reptilian body.
“Miriam,” Thalberg's voice woke her from reverie. She opened her eyes and looked at him also crouched next to her, one hand spread upon the docks, the other holding a locket with pewter chain. His legs already appeared shorter and splayed to the side of his hips so his back and tail ran in a single angle down like a wedge. “When you are ready, change into your full animal form. I want to make sure this will not slip off in the water.”
Only a few times before had Miriam used the latent magic bestowed on her by the Curses to change into a full alligator. Apart from once in her quarters where she had done it out of pure curiosity, she had only ever done it in the heated baths where the steam made it difficult for other Keepers to see her. As a beast her arms and legs were short, and her tail swung side to side with each step, knocking things over. Foxes and cats were graceful, wolves possessed a wild beauty. Alligators were frightening and primal, scraping their bellies across the earth like monsters. None had seen her as a beast before save Thalberg in the safety of the steaming baths.
But out in the open here, any who turned would see. Thalberg had been an alligator far longer than she. If he assured her it would be safe, the guards would not look nor the fishermen, and they would remain warm as a good reptile should, then she would trust him. She closed her eyes and pictured herself with the short arms and legs, the long body, the forward facing head with its broad, rounded jaws. She felt the warmth increase for a moment as a massaging sensation rippled through her muscles. Her hands had to reach forward more as her changing proportions dragged them across the wooden planks. She felt her chest bounce atop the wood, her legs push to the sides, and her center of mass settle down low in her belly. She was an alligator true.
Her eyes opened and looked upward at the half-man crouching above her. She felt a faint urge to lunge forward but made herself keep still. He slipped the locket beneath her throat bulge and draped the pewter chain across the back of her neck, tangling it in the scutes for a moment to keep it from falling back down. He shifted on both feet and one hand so he could lean closer over her. Her nostrils swelled and she swung her wide tail across the dock hitting one of the stone pylons.
“A moment more,” he rumbled as he crouched on his belly, both hands reaching behind her head to secure the chain. She could see a similar charm dangling from his neck. It appeared to be brass with a bit of red glass or cheap gem inside. Behind the glass was a sigil in the shape of a flame; it seemed like a campfire; not too close to burn, but not so far away they could not feel its warmth. Miriam wondered if the image were magic or merely a trick of the glass lens.
The chain tightened about her neck for a moment before relaxing. The locket was pressed against her scales, but not so tight she couldn't breath or move her jaws. “There,” Thalberg announced. “You should be protected now. It is safe to swim. I will change now; mine is already sized.”
Miriam pushed herself forward, tail slapping back and forth. She could not see below herself with her eyes perched atop her broad snout, but she could sense where her nose passed beyond the edge of the dock. Her back tensed as she put her front paws on the edge of the last plank. The rippling water was a good six to seven hand drop, and with a shove from her hind legs, she thrust herself into the air. The wood scrapped against her belly for a moment before she splashed into the cool river water. She could feel the minnows darting away from her form as the water sloshed up over her scutes and down her tail as it slapped from the deck to the water. She swung her tail from side to side, all four legs pawing at the water on either side, and glided easily into the eddying current.
Warmth radiated from the locket at the nape of her neck. The water was cold as she'd expected, but she did not feel any lethargy. Instead, she almost felt more energy than when swimming in the heated baths of Metamor. She shot like an arrow further into the river current, the rippling bearing her southward past the docks for several seconds before she swung her tail again, guiding herself effortlessly back into the small lake carved out for the fishermen.
As she started back toward the docks she heard a heavy splash and glimpsed another alligator in the water. He swam in a lazy semi-circle near the current for a moment, his snout submerged but for his nostrils and eyes. She found a small eddy which kept her steady and watched, swimming higher in the water so her whole head was visible. Thalberg slowly neared her in the water, never rising higher. There was something comforting in his approach and so Miriam merely watched.
When Thalberg reached her he slid alongside so their legs brushed across each other. The scutes on his back breached the surface as he passed, and she nosed at his tail once. He slipped further away out into the river. Like she had done a moment before Thalberg had to swing his tail more firmly to fight against the river. He pushed upstream for a few minutes and Miriam tentatively followed.
All around them little schools of fish parted at their approach. Miriam turned away from the other alligator to venture back into the calmer waters near the shore. She lowered her jaw and pushed her tongue against the back of her mouth. The water drifted across her teeth and tongue, cool, with a taste of dirt and plant. The occasional flexing of her legs was all it took to keep still. Little ripples danced across her back and tail. Fluttering motions brushed against her tongue. She could not see anything but knew the fish had returned. Did Thalberg expect her to eat some like a wild animal? Did she dare? Would the beast the Curses made her do so on instinct?
Miriam was so afraid to find out she closed her jaws slow enough for the minnows to escape.
A sudden splash from upriver startled her and she thrashed with her tail until she was turned toward the sound. Thalberg was at the northern end of the small lake carved from the river shore. Tall trees dominated the short cliff from which the lake had been carved in ages past, their boughs stretching out over the water. A broken branch thrust up from the surface and lay wedged between granite boulders peeking above the water. In front of this glided Thalberg amid a fast rippling ring.
His body was sleek as an arrow, dark and glistening in the sunlight. His eyes, no longer the yellow she was accustomed to, but now a dark yellowish brown, met her own, nostrils flaring with a basso rumble as he emptied his lungs. The sound shimmered in the water and made her hide tremble.
And then, Thalberg lifted his head out of the water at an angle, before dropping first his lower jaw into the water, followed by his upper jaw in a sharp snap. It made a loud clapping sound against the water, and a new set of waves rushed away from him before mixing with the river. Miriam swung her tail behind her once, drawing herself closer. She watched him, finding a part of herself deeply impressed with his display.
Thalberg performed his head slap again and this time the waves brushed across her snout before dissipating. She swam toward him, and he swam in a long arc until he came in beside her. It was strange not being able to say anything, and yet she found in his few motions more words than he could normally ever say.
The Steward of Metamor was master of Duke Thomas's household. There was none save the Duke and his daughter who had more authority inside the Keep. He commanded a staff of at least a hundred servants or more, as well as managing the ducal guard. He had earned the respect of all of the ducal advisers and had a stern reputation among the people. Few would dare cross him and his word was often the last heard in a room.
Yet with Miriam he was often strangely reticent. He who rarely had difficulty making himself heard was suddenly speechless. Miriam wondered at the war between duty to his lord and friend and whatever feelings he had discovered on finally meeting a woman who had become as he had, a woman who also understood the rigors of serving and keeping a noble house.
She admired his devotion to the Duke and his firm but understanding dominion over the servants in the Duke's house. When illness struck those who served the Duke, Thalberg saw to it they had what they needed to make a full recovery. He was always one of the first to arrive at the kitchens each morning and the last to leave it each night. Miriam could not imagine the Duke himself with a more commanding bearing than Steward Thalberg.
He was handsome and noble even without the title. Her heart yearned for more from him.
And now they swam as two alligators in the water, side by side, tails and snouts brushing as they glided. How like Thalberg to say as an alligator what he could not as a man.
For what seemed an hour they swam and did nothing more. Sometimes they swam side by side, brushing snouts and tails as they went. Other times they would turn and face each other. Thalberg would rub his snout atop her own, often across the middle of her snout and sometimes just beneath either of her eyes. She would push upward at each touch even as he pushed down. The water rippled about them, and for a time she completely forgot the fish swimming around them, the guards at the landward side of the dock, and the fishermen at the storehouse still cleaning their nets and counting their catch.
After pushing away from Thalberg for what must have been the tenth time, he swam up to her side, and pushed atop her back, legs and chest pressing her down into the water. Miriam rolled beneath him, spinning through the water to back away. Thalberg let her slip away but a moment later chased after her. She spun around in a wide circle as he followed before launching herself atop his back. Her tail curled around beneath his as he lifted his back against her. She nudged the end of her snout behind his eyes.
It was Thalberg's turn to roll beneath her, and he swam a short distance away, only to return to her, face to face, tails swaying on opposite sides. They circled each other, snouts staying close together, first his atop hers and then hers atop his. They took turns rubbing their snouts against each other along the top of the snout and everywhere along the sides near the fangs. Sometimes Thalberg would also nuzzle at her neck and shoulders. Sometimes he would submerge beneath the waters only to emerge with his snout beneath hers to rub at her throat.
Miriam realized she was not even thinking about her actions, only responding as her body knew to do. Sudden uncertainty filled her and she swam away from him out into the river proper. Thalberg circled in the estuary for a minute, paddling idly with his paws, eyes and snout lifted out of the water to regard her. After staring for several seconds he swung his tail and darted out toward her. She swung her tail and pushed further into the flow. The current in the middle of the river was strong and after only a few seconds knew she would be carried beyond the docks. She pushed toward the far bank with powerful swipes of her tail. She even paddled with her legs.
The current was still stronger than she'd thought, and by the time she was within reach of the other bank – a collection of roots and rocks making it difficult to find any place to beach herself – she had been swept beyond the storehouse and the extent of the fishing lake carved in ancient times. Miriam turned herself around and swam upstream in the gentler eddies near the rocks. Thalberg paddled a few dozen paces ahead of her, gliding with only his head and scutes above the water.
Miriam felt foolish and blew a fluttering sound from her nostrils as she swam toward him. Thalberg paddled more to keep himself from slipping downstream as he waited for her to catch up. Her tail swung side to side in a sinuous arc and she forged upstream, sliding past the other alligator, before she swung her right legs to turn back into the current. A few moments more and she returned to the gentler lake. She felt Thalberg brush up beside her. He nuzzled her but did not press.
Together they swam for several more minutes, touching and nuzzling with their snouts. Thalberg put his snout atop her back at one point, but she submerged and swam out from underneath him. He chased after, clearly wanting and hoping. She always let him catch her. It both frightened her and comforted her, what she understood. Thalberg wanted her, but he listened to her too. How she hoped to hear it with his voice.
Their swim continued until the sun was high in the sky. Miriam did not see the bird arrive and greet the soldiers, but Thalberg did. His head lifted up from the water and he swam toward the dock, breaking away from Miriam who had put one of her legs atop his back. She followed, sensing a change in his manner immediately.
The anole soldier rushed to the end of the dock, waving his arms in the air to get their attention. Thalberg swam to the dock and then shimmered in the water. Miriam could see his body changing shape. Humanish arms hoisted the alligator onto the dock while water streamed down his body and tail back into the river. “Darach, what is it?”
The anole gestured to the magpie who was still in his beast form perched on the anole's shoulder. “Messenger from the Duke for you, milord Steward.” The magpie hopped off the anole's shoulder and glided down to the dock. He swelled in size as he did until he was large enough to form words, about half the anole's height. He waved with a wing for Thalberg to lean closer.
Miriam paddled in the water, uncertain what she should do. Her alligator's yellow eyes were curious at first as he leaned down. The magpie made some cawing noise close to his head, but Miriam could not make out the words. But those yellow eyes widened and his head swung toward her faster than she'd ever seen him move.
His voice thundered and made the water tremble. “Miriam! We must return to the Keep now. Darach, fetch the towels and tell the fishermen to return to Euper. Everyone on high alert. Now!”
Miriam moved faster than she knew she could. She transformed and huddled next to the Steward. He put his arm around her shoulders and covered her nakedness with his body while they waited for the anole to return with the towels. The magpie bobbed his head sadly and flew back toward the Keep.
Miriam slid her snout beneath his neck. He pressed down atop hers. The locket and sun warmed her as the water rushed from her scales. The fear in Thalberg's voice chilled her. She huddled in his arms, tails pressed close together. Her voice was low, but she managed to ask before the anole returned, “What's wrong, milord?”
“We're not safe here; none of us are. I will tell you more when we return.” The anole reached them and tossed the towels. Thalberg helped Miriam dry off and then rubbed himself down. A minute later they were dressed and rushing as fast as they dared back toward the gates of Euper. His arms were still around her, and her snout tucked beneath his.
“I will keep you safe... my love.”
“I know, my love.” She pressed close against his scaly hide, grateful the Curses had made her an alligator too.