It was raining steadily by the time the woman arrived at the inn. The rain was pattering down on her as she stood in the doorway. She was wearing a gray cloak with the hood pulled up over her head. It disguised her form effectively. The only parts of her that were clearly visible were the muddy boots she was wearing and the crossbow she carried in her right hand. Above her, swinging back and forth in the wind and rain was a sign with the image of a squirrel and a human skull. On both sides it proudly proclaimed to the world that here was the Squirrel & Skull inn. She didn’t care about the name, only that it offered her a warm and dry place for the night.
The woman walked past the groom standing at the doorway without stopping. Her horse had died days ago with a spear through its neck and therefore there was no animal for the groom to take and stable for her.
She opened the inn's door slowly and then stepped inside. She paused there to shake off the rain and remove her sodden cape. It also gave her the chance to quietly examine the room she was in for any signs of an ambush.
The room looked like any of a dozen inns she had seen in her flight, a bar lined with customers and a room filled with many tables and chairs. A massive fireplace held a large, roaring fire that kept the room nice and warm. After the cold rain the warmth of the fire was welcoming and she took a seat at an empty table close to it. She was careful to place her back to a wall so she could closely watch all around her. The woman dropped a battered backpack onto the chair next to her to stop anyone from sitting there. She wanted to keep all strangers at a distance.
Next to the backpack she placed her buckler, the small round shield that had saved her life so many time in the past few months. Its surface was battered and cut all over turning the design that had been carefully painted on it into unrecognizable scribbling. On top of the pack she placed her crossbow and the quiver holding the bolts for it.
The bright fire illuminated her form, for the first time revealing her to the room. She was of average height with a build on the slim side. Her ragged, brown hair was still wet and plastered down to her head. Her face was warm and soft but with a weather-beaten edge to it that spoke of many recent months spent in the outdoors. The woman’s hazel eyes were alert and darted about looking for any sign of trouble. She wore a tunic and pants that had once been a dark blue but had long ago faded to light gray. Both had been patched and sewn many times and looked ragged and well worn. Beneath the clothes was the bulky shape of chain mail armor. The fabric made of rings of interwoven steel was clearly visible at the collar and cuffs and also peeked thru where her pants were ripped along her right leg. Dangling from a plain leather belt was a scabbard whose short length told that it probably held a short sword. Next to that was a long bladed dagger. Her only ornamentation was a simple set of gold earrings that hugged her earlobes closely.
“Can I help you?” a young girl of around ten asked, appearing suddenly beside the table.
“Wine,” the woman answered. “What hot food do you have?”
“Mom’s made lamb stew,” the girl suggested.
The woman nodded. “I’ll have the stew and some bread.”
While she waited for her food and drink the woman looked about at the people with whom she shared this large room. In one dark corner sat a young couple undoubtedly husband and wife who seemed more interested in each other than anything else. Even the food laid out before them was mostly untouched. Nearby sat two men a lot older than the couple. Four burly-looking soldiers dressed in chain mail armor and carrying massive broadswords sat next to them. The two men’s fine clothing marked them as nobles and the four soldiers as their guards.
She marked the man talking with the bar tender as a traveling merchant. He was obviously trying to sell something to the man behind the counter, but with little luck.
One group of people caught her eye. Seated close to her were a dozen people. Unlike the others who stood out as merchants, traders, nobleman and mercenaries these people were none of those. Instead they were a mixed lot. Some young, some old and the rest somewhere in between. They lacked the fine clothes and soldiers of nobles yet they did not have the look of merchants or traders. All of them looked worn and tired and their clothes were stained and tattered from a long journey.
“We’ve had this argument before,” a man said calmly but with a touch of anger. Turning her head to the sound the woman saw that the speaker was one of that odd group sitting so close. The speaker wasn’t an old man but he wasn’t a youngster either. He had one of those weather-beaten faces that could be thirty or fifty years old. His hands were gnarled and the skin on them looked as tough as leather. He had none of the scars that a soldier would carry. All these spoke of a hard life spent working and toiling.
“I still don’t trust him,” a second, older man seated next to him countered. “Why would he be giving away land to just anyone?”
“Metamor needs people,” the first answered. “And the Duke doesn’t care where those people come from as long as they are loyal to him.”
“You know WHY he needs subjects?” the second countered. “It’s because of the…”
“Don’t say it!” the first said interrupting his partner.
“Why not?” the second asked angrily. ”We have to talk about it.”
“We HAVE talked about the curse. You keep bringing the damn thing up every time I see you. If you are so frightened of the curse then why don’t you go back, Lersun.”
The older man didn’t respond to that for a moment but simply sat in silence, a look of pain and anger on his face.
“I’m sorry, Deitan,” the first said softly. “I didn’t mean to bring that up.”
“Doesn’t matter, Neal. That’s all in the past,” Deitan answered in a somber tone. “This curse frightens me.”
“It frightens me too,” Neal answered. “But what choice do we have? We have nowhere left to go.”
The girl returned bearing a large tray laden with a bowl of soup, a loaf of bread and a wooden cup full of some dark red liquid the woman hoped was wine.
She waited silently as the items were placed in front of her by the girl. For her efforts the women rewarded the girl with two gold coins.
Famished from too many days on the run she ate the food quickly. The stew was hot and tasted very good. It was thick with vegetables and spices, a lot of spices, almost enough to hide the age of the meat. The spices burned at her nose and the inside of her mouth and she had to eat some bread to kill them. Stew. She hadn’t eaten stew before as it was a peasants' dish. It was really a dish made by throwing together whatever was available and boiling them till eatable. Hardly the dish of royalty but at the moment she didn’t care. It was hot and filling and that is all that mattered.
As the woman ate the stew and bread she listened again to the conversation going on nearby hoping she hadn’t missed much.
“Metamor is somewhere we can start over again,” Neal commented. “The Duke is well known for not caring about a person's past. Only their skills. Especially since that attack on the last holiday.”
“True,” Deitan answered. “Perhaps we can all start over again.”
The woman had quickly finished the stew and slowly finished the last of the bread, one small piece at a time.
“You left out one little problem, Neal,” the woman said interrupting the conversation.
The two men looked at the woman with suspicious glares. They didn’t like strangers eavesdropping on their conversation.
“My apologies for listening in on your conversation but I could not help myself,” the woman explained. “I, too, am headed to Metamor. Perhaps we can join forces?”
“Why should we trust you?” Deitan countered angrily. “A Sellsword.”
“Because what you need is someone with a sword,” she answered. “Do you think the road to the Keep is so safe that you need no weapons? What will you do if you meet a gang of raiders?”
“There are none left in the Valley,” Neal commented.
“Can you be so sure?” she answered. “You can’t take any chances. Metamor is not just famous for its openness but also for being under constant attack.”
“And you can help us for a price?” Deitan spit back.
“No price,” she answered. “But in numbers there is safety. And since I am headed to Metamor anyway, we can watch each others' backs during the trip.”
“Why are you headed to the Keep?” Neal asked.
“The same reason you are. I want a new life,” she answered truthfully, but leaving a lot of details out. “The Duke is always in need of a good soldier.”
“Do you have a name, Sellsword?” the older man asked.
“Kallie Evergreen,” she answered, partially telling the truth.
The caravan was a lot smaller than Kallie had expected. There were six wagons of various types around which were clustered about twenty people. She examined each one with a practiced eye, but all she saw was a group of weary and dirty peasants. A half dozen women who were of the right age to be mothers watched over a dozen children who shrieked and laughed as they raced about the yard. They played with the carefree abandon that only comes with youth.
Breina was a short woman. A good half a foot shorter than her husband Deitan, with broad shoulders and a stocky body that had the tough wiry muscles of someone who had worked hard all their life.
Tall and thin, Marcia looked younger then Breina but there was nothing frail about her. Her black hair was tied back in braids that hung tight about her face. The face framed by those braids was tough, worn and scarred, showing a hard life.
“Where we are going is dangerous. We’ll need to be able to protect ourselves. How many know how to fight?” Kallie asked. The silence she got in return answered her all too well. “Just me?” she said. It was a much a statement as a question.
“We’re farmers and craftsmen,” Deitan explained.
“If we knew how to fight, we wouldn’t be running from a war,” Breina added sarcastically.
Kallie scowled, “From here on everyone carries a weapon. Even if it’s just a club or a quarterstaff.”
“What good is a club against a sword,” someone asked.
“A club is a dangerous weapon in the right hands. After all, a mace is nothing more than a metal club isn’t it?”
All Kallie got in answer was silence. These were farmers and shopkeepers not warriors. None of them had ever seen a mace and probably didn’t even know what a mace was. She had to rethink her argument.
“It’s all about appearances,” she commented. “If we LOOK well armed, then they might just leave us alone and look for easier prey.”
All she got in return was dubious looks and shaking heads.
“A bandit doesn’t want a fight. He has no desire to be killed or wounded. He’s a greedy thug. All he wants is whatever riches he can take with no effort. If he thinks that he might be hurt he’ll run away or look for easier prey. He wants wine, gold and silver. Look at us. What do we have that they would want? Worn-out wagons and tatted clothes. Do you think he’ll expect to find piles of gold? I doubt there’s twenty gold pieces between all of us, and it shows.”
“If we look and act tough then the bandits will leave us alone,” Kallie said trying to sound convincing. She wasn’t too sure she succeeded.
They took the road north out of Laselle. The road showed signs of wear and tear and in some places was only dirt, now turned to a vast morass of mud with the wet weather. The wagons were forever getting stuck in the glutinous mud and were only extracted through the brute force of straining oxen and the heaving backs of the people themselves. The only saving grace was the river Metamor which paralleled the road. Too shallow to sail on, its water was surprisingly clear and fresh. After a long day in the mud, Kallie liked to sit on its banks and dangle her feet in the ice cold water to refresh herself.
It was a warm spring day and it hadn’t rained for several days. The warmth had dried the mud and the road was hard and dry for a change. They were moving at a good pace and the distance seemed to fly by, even at the slow pace of the oxen pulling the wagons. She was at the back of the group talking to Deitan’s youngest daughter, Sandra, when the wagon suddenly lurched to a halt. With her hand on the hilt of her sword and walking quickly Kallie soon found out why their little caravan had stopped.
In front of them was a wooden-rail fence that ran east from the river's edge on the west straight across the road and off into the distance before vanishing from sight. Kallie suspected that it ran completely across the valley mouth. Where the fence crossed the road was a simple gate that consisted of three thin logs. They weren’t even fixed to the posts on either end. Instead they hung freely on simple leather straps attached to the posts on either side of the road.
Attached to the gate was a sign at eye level and easily visible. On the sign were three figures; one looked like a woman with impossibly large breasts, the second was a baby holding what looked like a sword and the third was some sort of animal which was walking on its hind legs and holding a spear with its front paws. Below that, written in large, red letters was “DANGER. CURSED LAND BEYOND! DO NOT ENTER BY DECREE.”
“Well, this is the moment of choice,” Deitan said calmly. “The curse starts here. Once we cross this fence there is no going back.”
“Going back to what?” Breina countered. “There’s nothing back there for us.”
In spite of her comments no one moved at first, staring at the dire warning
on the sign.
“We’re wasting time,” Breina said as she walked calmly through the gate and into Metamor valley.
Kallie waited and watched as every else slowly filed past her. All of them walked into the valley and kept going. But she noticed that everyone of them stopped or at least paused just before taking that first step through the gate. Before long only Kallie herself was standing on the opposite side of the fence.
She stood at the gate and stared at the ground on the other side. It seemed so normal: just dirt, rocks and a few weeds. None of it LOOKED cursed. Even the rocks on the path were too small to trip over and looked harmless. But stepping onto it would change her life forever. A simple step wouldn’t do that. After all she could just step backwards and go back to her life. But what type of life did she have? Her old life was gone along with everyone she had ever known or cared for. Kallie had nothing left behind her. She couldn’t go back. There was nothing left to go back to. Her only path was forward. Kallie slid the three wood poles back opening up the road.
She stepped boldly forward without looking back.
The rain started coming down slowly at first, just a few drops sprinkling the ground and occasionally landing on the skin. Soon it grew stronger, and before long it was coming down in sheets. This rain was ice cold, not so cold as to freeze but enough to come down as a slushy type of rain that soaked through to the skin and froze a person down to the bone. Quickly the road turned to mud and the going got infinitely harder. Finally, with a wave of his hand Deitan directed the group off the road and into a grove of trees next to it.
These were tall, old apple trees and their broad branches gave welcome relief from the rain. Laboriously the travelers set up camp, pulling the wagons into a rough circle. Most made no effect to climb down but simply withdrew under what little protection their wagons could offer and waited for the rain to end.
The attack came suddenly. One moment there was just the sound of the rain smacking against the wagon and suddenly there were arrows striking the carriage. There was shouting, screaming and all manner of bedlam as figures rushed out of the darkness screaming as they hacked and slashed at anything alive.
Kallie reacted in an instant, reaching for her crossbow. The weapon shuddered and a bolt flew from it and buried itself the chest of the first bandit. She grabbed her sword and shield and charged the attackers. Fending off a sword stroke with her buckler she plunged her own sword into the stomach of a dirty-looking man. Without waiting to see if he was dead she turned away from the first man and slashed at a second one.
Another scruffy-looking man charged her with a spear and she tried to dodge out of the way but she felt a sharp pain in her side. Kallie smashed the spearman under the chin with the rim of her shield. He stumbled backward into the brush and she plunged her sword deep into the man's chest.
She brought her hand to her side and felt where the spear had hit her but Kallie didn’t feel any blood. The chain mail had stopped the point from penetrating. She would have an ugly and painful bruise but little else. The woman saw motion off to her left and spun around in time to dodge one spear point aimed at her stomach and deflect a sword blow with her shield.
Kallie fought with the skill of years of training and months of constant use and was putting up a good fight. She could spare her fellow travelers only a brief glimpse but it was enough to tell her that they were losing. She caught sight of several bodies lying motionless in the mud and realized that many were not the bandits. Her friends were dying.
Four big, burly looking thugs, all at least twice her size, rushed her and she had to step backward to keep from being bowled over. Her shield blocked one spear point while she deflected a second with her sword but there were too many of them. She felt searing pain as a spear penetrated her armor and sank deeply into her left thigh. Her leg started to buckle and she almost tumbled to her knees. Suddenly a black shape loomed up behind one of her attackers and lifted the man off the ground. The man jerked once and went limp, his spear dropping into the mud with a wet splash. The strange shape rushed into the other three attackers and she saw one of them go flying as if kicked by a horse. His body hit a tree with the loud crunching of bones. It dropped to the ground and didn’t move.
Kallie caught a brief glimpse of her rescuer. The strange figure was standing on four legs like a horse but she could see that this wasn’t some cavalryman riding a horse. It seemed to be some sort of centaur, but the upper body wasn’t human. It seemed to be some sort of animal, but she couldn’t get a good look at him in the confusion.
The figure scooped up a discarded spear, tearing it from the hands of the man he had just killed. Leveling it like a lance he charged straight at a group of bandits who were ripping open a wagon. She could hear children screaming.
Her strange rescuer charged across the distance to the wagon in a second, his lance level. Its wickedly sharp point caught one man in the back, lifting him completely off the ground. The massive form plowed through the group sending men and weapons flying in all directions. His spear came to rest in the trunk of a tree. Dangling from it were two of the raiders. Both had been killed before they could even realize they were in danger.
Kallie raced up behind the stranger and lashed out with her sword, cutting one of the bandits across the back and severing his spine instantly. She slammed the edge of her shield into the face of another, sending the man tumbling backward into the mud.
As suddenly as the fighting had started it ended. The few remaining bandits retreated back into the woods they had come from. Kallie saw them off with a crossbow bolt into the back of one and watched with satisfaction as the man dropped to the ground.
A deep silence fell over the camp and the only sound was the crackle of a fire from a burning wagon. No one moved or spoke for what seemed to be an eternity. Kallie coughed as smoke drifted past her.
Slowly the survivors collected in a circle around their strange rescuer and Kallie got her first good look at him.
Kallie was prepared to see a person who was a mix of animal and human. They had all heard the stories of how most of the people at Metamor keep had been changed into animals. From the waist up this figure looked like a mix of man and fox complete with the pointy ears and wet nose on a vulpine muzzle. But below the waist were not two legs and a long, bushy tail. Instead he had the body of a large, pony-sized vulpine. Aside from the size, it was the body of a male red fox, complete with four legs and a long bushy tail.
Kallie examined the odd centaur carefully for a moment. “What are you?” she asked breaking the awkward silence.
“What do you think I am?” the figure asked trying to sound witty.
“You’re a Keeper, I hope.”
“I’m Fox,” the figure answered.
“Is that your name or your species?” Breina asked.
“Both,” the fox centaur answered. “My name is Fox Cutter but many call me simply Fox.”
“Let’s see to the wounded,” Kallie ordered. “And worry about introductions later.”
It was a sad duty. They had to pick among the dead and wounded to find who of their friends had survived. About half the twenty adults were dead and the rest wounded. She found Breina tending to Deitan. The man’s stomach had been ripped open and his wife was trying to push his intestines back into his body.
Kallies leg suddenly gave out and she found herself sitting on the ground. Her left thigh was a mass of blood.
“We have to see to that wound of yours first. You lay still and let the others help the wounded.” Fox ordered. “There’ll be time for questions and explanations later.”
“What’s the final count?” Fox asked solemnly.
“Tom, Philip, Berlan and Diane are dead,” Kallie answered softly. “And everyone else is wounded. Including four of the children.”
“Bury the dead and we’ll load the wounded onto a wagon,” Fox ordered. “Metamor has an outpost nearby where there’s a healer who can help us.”
“How far away is it?” Kallie asked.
“About an hour's walk. If we’re lucky we’ll come across a patrol before then. Can you walk that far?”
“I can,” she answered, “as long as we take our time. Leave the wagon for those who really need it.”
“What about them?” Marica asked and pointed to the outstretched corpse of a bandit.
“Make sure they’re all dead and strip them of anything valuable,” Kallie ordered.
“These aren’t Lutins are they?” a boy asked. Kallie noticed that his right hand was bandaged. “I thought Lutins were green.”
“Lutins are green and brown and all other shades. These are humans,” Cutter answered.
“Who were they?” Kallie asked. “They’re not from Metamor, are they?”
“Bandits,” the fox explained. “From the south. They raid into the valley killing and stealing whatever they can and then fleeing south before we can catch them.”
“Surely the Ruler of Laselle doesn’t tolerate such things,” Neal commented.
Cutter shook his head. “Lord Farlamere is too frightened of the curse to get close to the valley. And the nobles who are close to it are greedy fools and tolerate the raids as long as some of the loot winds up in their coffers.”
“Their greed was greater than their fear of the curse.”
“They’re learning to fear US more than the curse,” the foxtaur commented. “We’ll track down the surviving raiders and kill them.”
Kallie took a few steps to follow the wagon and pain lanced up her leg and through her whole body. She had to lean against the tree to take the weight off of her wounded leg.
“Walking is definitely out for you,” Cutter said. He stood next to the woman. “We’ll put you on one of the wagons.”
She shook her head. “There’s no room.”
Fox turned sideways to the woman. “Get on,” he said calmly.
“What?” she asked, surprised.
“There is no room in the wagons for you to ride and you certainly can’t walk,” he explained.
“Ride you? Like a horse?”
“Why not?” the foxtaur countered. “I’m more then strong enough to bear your weight.”
“It doesn’t seem right.”
“Nonsense. Now get on. Your only other choice is to wait here alone until we can come back. Tomorrow.”
Being wounded and alone all night in these woods was not an option. There were too many predators both two and four legged wandering around.
With more than a little trepidation and a lot of flailing of her arms and legs Kallie managed to scramble onto Cutter’s broad back. The woman could feel the strong muscles of his back with her legs even through her clothing. She was surprised how powerful those muscles felt.
“You had best hold on,” He said. “This could be a rough ride.”
Kallie wrapped her arms around the foxtaurs torso and pulled herself up tight. The heat of his body seeped through her clothes filling her own body with warmth. She rested her head on his shoulder.
Cutter laughed. “Comfortable?”
For a castle it was not very impressive, merely a stone tower surrounded by a wooden stockade which was itself surrounded by a deep ditch. Still to the weary people struggling up the road it was a welcome sight.
No sooner had the tower come into view than they saw a half dozen riders come galloping down the road towards them.
Kallie was surprised when the lead rider pulled up in front of them. It was a mouse-like man dressed in heavy armor and riding a small pony. The troops with the rodent were no less strange. Two looked to be very young, two were women and the others were a wolf, a tan colored badger and some sort of brown furred cat that Kallie had never seen before.
“What happened?” the rodent asked in a surprisingly tough, masculine voice.
“Bandits,” Kallie answered.
“There are wounded in the wagon,” Fox added.
“Get them to the tower. Sammy will help them,” the mouse ordered. “Where did they go?”
“South,” Cutter answered. “We killed most of them but five escaped.”
The rodent nodded. “I’ll have their ears by sunset,” he answered and then rode off with his odd-looking troop.
The little castle was small and damp, but the weary travelers felt at ease there. The garrison made them feel welcome instantly. In moments the wounded were unloaded and carried carefully inside one of the wooden buildings that rested hard against the interior of the palisade. Kallie slowly limped after them.
The castle's healer was the oddest thing any of them had ever seen. She looked like some sort of scaled anteater with powerful claws, and was wearing a gray dress with the mortar and pestle stitched in gold on her right shoulder. Standing two steps behind her were two men dressed only in tunic and pants. Kallie had assumed she was some sort of servant till she started tending to the wounded. She looked long and hard at the bloody mess that was Deitan's stomach, moving the crude bandages aside gingerly.
Kallie didn’t have to look at the man's stomach to know what condition he was in. She had already seen it and knew it was a death wound. A person didn’t recover from having their stomach sliced open so completely.
“Hmmm,” the odd healer commented out loud. More to herself then to anyone in particular. “Bad but savable.” She pointed to Deitan. “This one goes first. Immediately.” After that proclamation she stood up and moved to another patient.
The two servants moved to Deitan's cot, one standing on either end and with practiced ease lifted him and the cot off the floor.
Breina grabbed the arm of one of the men stopping them both. “What are you doing?” she asked in an anguished voice.
“They are going to save his life,” Fox said suddenly appearing next to Kallie. She flinched in surprise. In spite of his massive bulk she hadn’t heard him approaching.
“How?” Marcia asked. “His stomach is ripped open and his innards are hanging out.”
“I’ll put his intestines and stomach back in and sew it closed,” the healer answered in a matter of fact tone. Then she calmly pulled the woman’s hand off the man's arm. Deitan was carried quickly from the room with the healer following after. Following closely behind her was Breina.
“He will be fine. Samantha is a fine healer,” Fox explained. “He’ll be up and about in a month.”
Kallie looked at the foxtaur with a dubious expression on her face.
“The keep has the finest healers in the Midlands. He will get care better than any royalty ever would.”
The woman scowled as she remembered the recent past. “I hope so,” she said softly.
A young girl who looked no more than about twelve came up to Kallie. She was wearing a tunic and pants made of gray cloth. Stitched in gold thread onto the right corner of her tunic was the mortar and pestle emblem of a healer. Without a word the healer started to examine her leg.
Kallie stood patiently while the girl tended to her injured leg. “The stitching is still tight with no bleeding. The flesh looks healthy,” the girl said in a voice far older then her young face. In a few moments fresh bandages were wrapped around her leg and the wound was safely covered. “Go easily on that leg and keep the wound clean for at least a month. Be sure to see a healer once you reach the Keep.” And with those words the girl rushed off to work on other wounded.
“I don’t even know her name,” Kallie commented as she looked at the back of the retreating healer.
“Tabitha,” Fox said. He had stood silently during the examination watching everything intently. “And do not let her looks fool you. She is actually over fifty years old.”
“Fifty? Is that part of the curse?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered and nodded his head.
Kallie tried to stifle a yawn but with little success.
“I think you need a good night’s sleep,” Cutter commented.
The vulpine led Kallie away from the infirmary and out into the little courtyard of the castle. There was barely twenty feet from the walls of the small, wooden infirmary to the stone walls of the tower. Turning right the two walked slowly around the tower and past the small buildings sandwiched between the palisade and the courtyard.
“When was your last good night's sleep?” he asked with a touch of concern in his voice.
“Several months,” the woman answered honestly. All the long months of running and being chased caught up with her and a great weariness crept over her.
Cutter suddenly turned and stepped into a building. From the outside it looked a lot like the infirmary they had just left. A simple, two story, wooden building with a slate roof. A stout wooden door was meant to keep out invaders and the valleys harsh weather.
The two found their way through the door and into a large room. Lining the walls of it were a score of beds all neatly arraigned. At the foot of each bed was a small wooden chest. In the center of the room were several large wooden tables with chairs arraigned on either side. She recognized many of the people from the caravan had already settled into some of the beds. They all were silent. Moving about without saying a word. Even the children were strangely quiet.
Fox led Kallie along the line of beds past the silent people till they came to an empty one in a corner.
“It’s not private but it is dry, warm and the mattress is reasonably soft and comfortable.”
Kallie took off her coat and dropped it onto the bed. Her crossbow and quiver she placed carefully under the bed along with her backpack and shield. She removed the sword and scabbard from her belt before placing it next to the backpack. The sword she placed on her bed within arm’s reach.
Cutter looked at where she had placed the sword but didn’t say anything at first. “You’re safe here,” he said finally. “Those people who aren’t scared off by the curse won’t get past the magic and the guards protecting this place.”
She slowly stripped off her armor leaving her in the thick, wool pants and shirt that made up the under padding. Kallie draped the heavy, chain link vest and pants on the chest at the foot of her bed.
Without bothering to pull back the blankets she stretched out on the bed and closed her eyes. Kallie was asleep in seconds.
Kallie woke to the sound of rain gently pattering on the roof. Opening her eyes she could see a thin beam of grayish sunlight streaming through the window. She tried to sit up quickly and aches and pains assaulted her with each movement. Kallie waited for the worst of the aches to subside before finally slowly sitting up.
“Good morning! Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Kallie looked up at the voice and found Marcia sitting on the bed next to her, patiently sewing up some holes in a shirt.
“How do you feel?” Marcia asked without stopping her work.
“Terrible,” Kallie answered honestly. “My entire body hurts.”
“We were worried if you’d ever wake up.”
“What?” Kallie asked more than a little confused.
“You slept through an entire day--nonstop,” Marcia explained.
Kallie stood up and stretched her stiff and sore body. “I didn’t know I was that tired.”
Marcia nodded. “You’ve been though a lot the last few weeks.”
“We all have,” Kallie added. “What happened while I was asleep? How is Deitan?”
“Deitan is doing well,” came the answer in a voice that was filled with equal parts confusion and amazement. “That strange healer has kept him alive. She actually sewed together the wounds and he’s getting better!”
“Metamor Keep has the finest healers in all of the Midlands,” a voice said.
Turning to the voice, Kallie found herself looking one of the animal Keepers. This one was a fox and was standing in the doorway on two legs like a human. The vulpine was leaned lightly on a large wooden cane. This fox looked familiar.
“Cutter?” she asked, confused.
“Yes?” the fox man asked.
“You’re different? What happened to your back legs?”
“I changed. I’m not limited to just two forms. I can take three, fox, foxtaur and this two-legged form,” Cutter explained.
“Can all keepers change like that?”
“No,” Cutter explained and shook his head. “I only recently learned it from my friend Misha.”
“I prefer my four-legged form but that is too big for the cramped rooms and halls here. Metamor Keep has wider halls, thankfully,” Cutter explained, walking over to her, his cane tapping on the stone floor.
She watched him for a moment, the look his face showing how much each step pained him. Instead of allowing him to walk the length of the hall she stood up and walked to his side. “Do you need a healer?” she asked.
The vulpine shook his head. “There is nothing that any healer can do for me. Some of the muscles in my leg have died and they simply cannot be brought back.”
Kallie thought about that for a few moments, the image of this man, every step causing him pain, strikingly at odds with the man who saved her. There was no pain in that man, no hurt, and much more strength. It was like he lost a part of himself when he lost his hind legs.
“That is horrible,” she said.
“It is the price that I pay for who I am, but enough about my legs. Would you like some breakfast?” the vulpine asked. “I have a small meal prepared.”
She smiled and nodded her head. “I am famished. I’ll eat anything as long as it’s not trail rations. We’ve been eating those for weeks and I’m sick of them.”
He laughed. “No trail rations. Mutton, vegetables and fresh bread.” Cutter turned and the two started to walk down the hallway. Cutter moved slowly leaning hard on the cane and limping badly.
“What was it like to change?” she asked suddenly as the moved.
Cutter seemed to pause for a moment, a small smile crossing over his face. “The initial change is different for everyone. Some happen in hours, some take days. The change to a child seems to be the worst, your body losing all the strength and skill that you had gained. I am pleased that such a thing didn’t happen to me.”
“So pleased that you took your new species as your name?”
“Oh no, that was a happy coincidence. I was known as Fox when I first came to these shores, and I returned to that name once I came to Metamor. The fact that I became a fox was simply a blessing from The Twins,” he said with a small smile, starting to slow in his walking. It was clear that even this short journey was taking its toll.
Kallie nodded her head and offered her arm to her new friend. He looked at it for a moment, then took it in his, shifting more off his weight off his bad leg. “Thank you,” he said.
“I wonder what I’ll become?” she asked as they continued their slow walk.
“Maybe it will be the female curse. That would change you the least.”
A slight chill went through her at that suggestion.
The vulpine stopped at door that rested partly open. He pushed it the rest of the way revealing a small room beyond. There was no bed but a large mattress on the floor next to a wooden table. The table had a spread of plates, cups and other containers filled with food on top and a single chair next to it. “Not a feast fit for a king but still a good meal.”
“It’s a feast for me,” Kallie answered honestly.” What do you think I’ll become?” Kallie asked suddenly as she moved into the room. She slowly closed the door behind her after stepping inside.
“What do you want to be?” he countered.
“I don’t know,” she answered honestly. “I wouldn’t mind being younger but I wouldn’t want to stay that way. So many things only an adult can enjoy,” Kallie said in a soft voice.
“Oh? Like what?” Fox asked.
“Lots of things,” Kallie answered and snuggled up closer to him. “Drinking, partying,” she explained and slowly and gently ran her fingers over his chest. Her fingers ruffling his white chest fur. “And love making,” she finished and kissed him softly on the muzzle. The woman wrapped her slender arms gently around him.
Cutter was surprised by her boldness at first but the heat of her body seemed to seep into him filling him with her warmth. He had been alone for so long, and the pain of the Yuletide battle came to his mind, making him shiver.
“Are you cold? I can keep you warm,” she said pressing her body tightly against his.
In her embrace all the pain and bitter memories flew from his mind like leaves in the wind. He returned her embrace, hesitantly at first but with growing passion running his hands across her strong and supple body.
Kallie leaned backward slowly drawing them both to the floor still locked in a passionate embrace.
It was a long walk to Metamor Keep from the mouth of the valley. All but the young walked as the few surviving wagons were loaded with the wounded. With so many wounded in the wagons their pace was glacial. The wagons couldn’t move at anything better than a slow walking pace.
The sun was shining brightly and it was making a good effort of burning off the water and baking the muddy ground into hard earth. The ankle deep mud had been turned into hard dirt that billowed up into clouds of dust with each step.
Breina walked anxiously behind the first wagon, her eyes never straying from Deitan’s still form on the wagon floor. Everything had been removed from it and a thick layer of blankets and mattresses laid on the floor. Onto that they had laid Deitan. They carried the man's bed out of the barracks and tenderly placed it onto the wagon without its legs.
Kallie’s leg was still too sore for her to walk any great distance on so she again rode on the foxtaur's strong back. He didn’t seemed to mind his passenger as it gave her and Cutter plenty of time to talk together. She enjoyed talking to him. As they moved along, Fox explained all the sights of the valley as they passed them. He proved an excellent guide and he seemed to know every town and village.
The people in the towns they passed seemed open and friendly. She still found it strange to see a ram fixing a wagon wheel and a wolf tilling a field.
The days passed quickly for Kallie and she had lost track of what day it was. It was late one morning when their little caravan had to pause when a wheel on one of the wagons worked loose. All they could do was wait. At least it wasn’t raining.
She took the opportunity to walk around and stretch her legs. Kallie glanced down at the road under her feet. Large, gray, stone blocks made up the road. She knelt down and ran her hands over the stones. They had been laid with a precision that told of great skill and care.
“Is this an empire road?” she asked. “These stones look too new to have been laid by the Seuilman.”
“We re-laid the stones last year,” the foxtaur explained. “In Metamor we try and take good care of the roads.” He looked at the ground for a moment. Then he knelt down and touched her hand and then slowly pushed her sleeve up.
“What?” she asked, confused but not afraid. Then she saw what had drawn his attention. The back of her hand was covered with a light down of black fur that went up her arm to just below the elbow. Above the elbow the black fur became reddish brown. Hastily Kallie stripped off her tunic and the chain mail vest underneath. Her stomach and breast were covered with a thick white fur that went from her chin all the way down to her crotch.
“It’s the curse,” he explained. “It’s magic has taken hold.”
Kallie started to speak but her entire body began to tingle. She felt her body begin to twist and change as she felt her bones and muscles shift and move about her skin which was quickly becoming completely covered with fur. She felt an odd sensation from her buttocks and turning around she saw a bushy tail growing, getting thicker and longer with each passing second.
She felt her face changing and shifting and saw a long muzzle grow from it ending in a black, wet nose. A horde of new smells and sounds suddenly assaulted her as her senses changed to their new form. For a few moments she was overwhelmed by the feelings from her new body, but then she started to feel normal again as her mind adjusted just as her body had.
“What am I?” she asked. Her voice sounded odd coming from a mouth and throat that was now vastly changed. Kallie knew she had changed to some animal but she didn’t know what kind.
Breina handed her a small, hand mirror and Kallie looked into it with some trepidation. A black-and-red-furred, vulpine face looked back at her. She smiled and the vixen in the mirror pulled back her lips revealing a muzzle full of sharp teeth.
“You did this!” she shouted and pointed a black furred hand at Cutter accusingly. “I don’t know how but you did this.” Her voice was a mix of anger and delight.
Cutter stepped back a few steps and held up both hands in dismay. “I don’t control the curse. No one does. The curse does whatever it wants.”
She nodded in agreement. “I suppose you’re right but could our lovemaking have influenced it?”
The foxtaur shrugged. “Very little is known about the curse itself.”
Stepping closer Kallie wrapped both arms around Cutter's waist. Her new vulpine nose brought the foxtaur's scent to her. The sharp tang of a male fox was more enticing than the most expensive cologne.
“Teach me how to be a 'taur?” she asked softly.