"I said, no!"
"Please, Raven", I asked again, "I have to try."
"Wanderer", she said, in the half-growl that both wolf and man in me recognized as coming from the very end of her patience, "you have been pestering me, every single day since the start of the Festival ... "
"I know", I murmured, knowing better than to actually interrupt a Lightbringer in mid-sentence.
" ... and I still say, no." For a moment, she sagged, as I was already beginning to do. "Look you, Wanderer, the Powers I serve have their own ideas of payment. Only They know what they would ask to restore Christopher's legs to him, and no other. As a bard, surely you know the stories ... "
"I do", I said into the pause that followed, a strange feeling in my belly quivering as my right hindpaw was wanting to do. "I have read every word of them, every word that has ever been set down concerning the gods and daedra -- "
"Careful", admonished the Lightbringer at that word. "They do not always come when called, but it is best not to tempt fate."
I bowed my head to that, accepting the rebuke. "My apologies, Lothanasa. I ... " The words caught in my throat.
"Formality?", she said, half-smiling. "You must have read more than ballads and legends to call me that." Then her face grew serious. "You truly mean to carry through with this, don't you?"
My muscles were faster than my voice, my head nodding even before the words, "I do", escaped my throat (which felt as though I were swallowing something the size of a fist). "I cannot fully explain it, Lady, but ... " I looked up, still on my knees, my heart hurting within my breast. " ... I must do this."
"You know", she said after a long moment, "that Christopher must also accede to this. There is no healing without acceptance."
"I know", I said, half in hope and half in dread. "And I must tell him."
"If you do not think -- ", she began, but for once I dared to speak first.
"No", I almost whimpered. "No. It's only fair. And only just". I rose then, and turned to go ... only to be stopped by a gentle hand upon my shoulder.
"Wanderer", Raven half-whispered in her gentle voice, "I truly am willing to do this for you".
I swallowed, through a throat that felt no broader than a beer tap. "No", I said flatly, hushing the part of me that truly wished to leave this entire affair to someone else. "I need to do this". And with that, I walked from beneath her touch and trod the halls of Metamor toward Christopher's apartments.
I knocked, timidly, at Christopher's door. "Come in", came a gentle woman's voice through the oak. His ward, I recalled.
"Are you certain it is all right?", I called through the door, half-hoping and half-afraid that it would not be, even as my stomach churned hard enough to make butter.
"Oh, certes", came the response, sinking the treacherous coracle that had been that hope. Gently, I opened the door.
A beautiful girl looked back at me from where she had obviously been sweeping the floors. "Ah, Lord Wanderer", she called with a hasty curtesy. "I apologize, but I could not come to the door until I was finished with that last corner."
I laughed, gently. "No offense ... Lurene, is't not? None at all. And, I pray you, call me Wand'rer, as others do. Pretty though it may be, the title of Court Poet has no peerage in't." I looked more closely at her. "Why, you have been studying. I can see where your days inside have darken'd your hair." She blushed rather nicely, then, but I determined to return to the point. "Is your master about? I have some business to discuss with him."
"Not at the moment", she replied, my non-peer status allowing her to return to the business at hand -- namely, applying the broom to a tidy pile of dust as she swept it toward the rug, where it would later be carried outside and shaken loose. "He has students today", she added with a grimace, "though neither of us think he will have much joy of them, this soon after the Festival."
I chuckled then. "Nay, of course not. There is no festival long enough that a child's mind will have returned by the end of't. 'Now let me think'", I said, assuming the character of a student, and a tremulous voice. "'Two plus two is a sword -- I mean, four. And four plus four is gate -- I mean, eight ... '" I broke off then, for my audience was giggling merrily. With a smile for such an appreciative "crowd", I sketched a bow.
"Too true, my friend", came the voice from the still-open door, starting me in place. "For every figure I showed them, I had first to drive out jousts and festivities with a stick -- and then they would creep back in as soon as I turn'd my back on 'em."
I turned, even as Lurene flew past me to enfold the short figure in the doorway. There, in the strange-looking contraption I had glimpsed during the festivities, was Christopher, smiling for all the world as though nothing had happened. But still, my eyes were drawn to his legs, where the concealing bracing held his dangling feet against the frame. His legs seemed smaller, now that I was close again ...
I pushed such thoughts to the corner of my mind that had begun circling within itself, and smiled, moving forward to grasp his arm. "Christopher", I said, hoping it sounded as friendly as I intended it, "at last I can see you -- and for once, the top of your head, I notice." I heard a gasp from Lurene at my boldness, but Christopher just smirked.
"Somehow", he replied with a smirk, taking his arm from me to wheel himself further in, "I knew ye'd have a line for the occasion. I suppose I should be grateful that ye did not call yerself superior to me, as well ye could."
"Nay", I rejoined him, "'tis too simple a play of words. You do realize, though", I added with mock sternness, "that ye've cost me a good half-dozen alliterations? I've had to discard 'bounding bear', 'bouncing bear', 'upward-going ursine', and 'stair-climbing scholar', to say nothing of 'galloping grizzly'."
"I am sorry to inconvenience ye", he returned lightly. "The next time I break something, I shall try to start it with a 'b'."
I could not help it, I think. I embraced him, as one does a long-lost relative, or a holdfast in a storm, my paws half-pressed against the padded framework behind him. "It is good to see you again."
He but looked at me a moment, his gaze grim. "Ye're here for more than my health, then."
My shoulders bowed. "There are moments when I would just as soon be less transparent", I said peevishly, feeling rather like a child caught in a fib.
"I doubt Lurene noticed it", he replied, his smile gentling his words. "Ye're well-trained at hiding yer feelings. Were I not so familiar with yer moods, I should never have known. Lurene", he called to her as he rolled his chair further into the room, "would ye fetch us some hot broth? I believe we have a long talk ahead of us." As soon as she had departed for the kitchens, he wheeled about -- and I inwardly winced at the pun -- to face me, the torchlight flickering along the metalwork of his conveyance. "It has been some time since I last saw ye", he began, scowling as a teacher does at a distracted student, "and it seems to have started from this", and here he laid a slap to his right leg that, had he any feeling in't, would have left him stinging for minutes. I could not help but wince. "Look, then. Satisfy your curiousity, as the others have. And when you can look at my face without your gaze falling constantly to my legs, we may talk."
I was silent a long moment, looking where he had laid the blow, then, "I'm sorry", I said. "It is just so great a change -- a part of me knows not how to deal with it." He said nothing, leaving me wallowing in shame. "I am told it does not hurt, at least", I threw out feebly.
"You hear rightly", he responded, more gently. "Neither pins, nor blows, nor anything else can hurt me there again. Is that the sum of your curiousity?"
My mind began to whirl, pain and hurt and anger and sorrow all jumbled into one vast, tangled mess worthy of Pascal's laboratory -- on a bad day. But, at last, I felt the drag on my eyes ease, and I looked him full in the face again. "I -- cannot help but wonder, you know."
He but grunted in reply, though a smile threatened like a thundercloud on the sky of his muzzle. "At least I can see yer eyes this time. It grows very tiresome, ye know, speakin' to people's foreheads all about."
I laughed, despite myself, and seated myself on a stool opposite. "Of that have I heard. Remind me to tell you someday of my first love, who was once called a fool's tower."
"A fool's tower?"
"Aye", I smirked in reply. "For she was greater above than below." To the stunned silence, I added, "She once told me the two worst things in her life were talking to people's foreheads and trying to go downstairs quickly."
"For fear of a fall?", he asked, then winced as he realized what I meant.
"Nay", I said anyway. "For fear of giving herself two blacked eyes."
"Shame on ye", he said, wagging his finger at me, "using such a joke on one who cannot run away."
"Nay", I responded tartly, "'tis braver than ever. Now ye can run me over like a cart."
We both chuckled for a moment. Then, into the more pleasant silence that followed, I threw out my courage. "There was another reason -- I came to see you", I said, my mind beginning to whirl like the caissons of a portcullis.
"Oh? And what is't, then?"
"I w-- ... I wi-- ... " I faltered, then, the words slipping from me like grain to the threshing floor as the spinning in my head threatened to engulf my sight as well.
"Will this take long?", the ursine scholar said jestingly. "Sunup is but ten hours away."
My sense of humor gone, I threw him an anguished look. "I wish to try and ... get Akkala to ... intercede for you."
He held up a paw. "Hold, hold", he said hastily. "Yer speaking is muddled. Let the silt settle a moment, and try again."
I took a breath, holding it until the room no longer seemed to tilt about me ... so much. "I have ... spoken with Raven. I-I", I stammered, pulling my words together with a wince. "I've found that I can pay Akkala's price for you. And let you walk again."
There was a lengthy silence. "Wand'rer", said Christopher at last, "I'm truly touched. The offer ye've made me is a rare and precious thing."
I sighed in relief, the aching of my head easing.
"And I'll not allow it", he said. As I raised my head to argue, he held up a restraining paw. "Before ye go to the trouble, I'll ask ye to hear me out."
At last, I closed my jaws and settled into my seat, allowing him to continue.
"First", he said, ticking it off on a finger, "when I accepted responsibility for Lurene, I didn't accept just the smiles an' the sunshine ... I accepted all the risks and duties that keeping her would ever involve. And I'll not go passing my duties off on ye."
"Second", he intoned, gazing steadily at me, "I had Coe inquire of Raven soon after this happened. In exchange for my legs, I'd be in service t' Akkala for the rest of my days. I've no reason to think ye'll get any better bargain, and I'll not be askin' the rest of yer life of ye."
"Now", he said, lowering the counting hand to his lap, "that said, I'll not give up hope. There may yet be some way of restoring my legs. And when 'tis found, I'll take it. It may even involve Akkala ... who can know? But I'll hear no more of yer playin' the scapegoat. Am I understood? Wanderer?"
The last, laden with concern, I could barely hear as I leaned forward in my seat, my ears back, my head feeling as though it was spun upon a potter's wheel. <Perhaps>, a mad part of my mind whispered, <I shall spin entirely out of myself, and, and, and, and ... > ... but the words spun with me, jumbling and jangling together like swords in a battle. I felt a whine escape me as my tail endeavoured to bury itself within the seat of my stool.
Then, I remembered his words. And I knew what I had to do. Slowly, reluctantly, the whirling in my brain subsided, leaving me with nothing worse than an aching head.
"Are ye all right?", Christopher asked gravely, looking askance at me. "What happened?"
"An ache in my skull", I temporized, rubbing the side of my shaggy cranium as I resettled myself upon my seat. "'Tis no great thing. I' faith, I feel better by the moment. How fare you with the training of Lurene?"
He looked askance at me then, for 'twas a clumsy change of subject, and we did both know it. "I'faith, then, she is coming along well. She has, yet, some good ways to go, but she is capable. And what have ye been doing of late, then?"
And so we talked, of poetry and festivals and wheelchairs, of Pascal and Michael and the Duke. Even of Matthias, though neither of us ken what goes on with him these days. On through Lurene's return, and two bowls of broth, and part of the eventide we talked. At last, though, I took my leave, and made my way back to Raven's temple.
Some would have it that those of us "blest" with a tail cannot lie, that our appendages give us away. What they fail to appreciate is that, at its base, lying has nothing to do with the body. It is simply a matter of truly believing something for as long as one needs it to be true. If needed, you mix in a bit of truth to help it along. At its heart, it is but acting.
And so it was that, when Raven asked me, "And what was his reply?" ...
I said, " 'Twas simple enough. He said that he wishes to be healed, and that nothing remains to be said."
And within my heart, I whispered, <Akkala forgive me ... >
"Then all that remains", replied Raven, "is to speak with Akkala. I shall summon you when I have learned more." With that, she gently shooed Wanderer from the sanctuary of Light. Closing the door, she leaned against it and sighed. Then, with a heavy heart, she ascended the steps to the prayer chamber. <Best get this done with>, she thought grimly, <and tell him the bad news.>
Lighting the central candle, she softly, reverently began her prayer to Akkala, the incense-touched wick filling the room with the gentle light of burning tallow. A light which, as she prayed, began to change ... slowly, the yellow light of the taper began to shade toward the red, until the room was bathed in the gentle rose of a sunset through clouds. Then, a pool of light seemed to gather at the other side of the room. First, it was a puddle of light, looking almost like a reflecting pool. Then, gently, it rose upward, and seemed to give birth to a woman.
The woman stood in a waiting posture, her arms loosely folded across her ample breast. Yet this was not the form of a summer's amusement ... rather, the gentle curves seemed to bespeak a life well-lived, and enjoyed.
"Good even, Raven hin'Elric", said Akkala with a gentle smile. "It is good to see you again."
Raven smiled, even as she recalled what she was here to do. "Good even, O giver of health and safety", she said through her weary grin. "I am gladdened by the touch of your light."
"You are troubled", replied Akkala, the formalities having been dispensed with. "What is it that occupies your heart?"
Raven sighed. "It is the bard, Charles, called Wanderer."
"Oh? What does he seek?"
Raven grimaced in anticipation. "He would give himself in the stead of the teacher, Christopher, in repayment of the healing."
"Is he capable?"
Raven nodded reluctantly. "In most ways, I would ajudge him fit to the task. Yet his behavior has become erratic of late ... "
Akkala's smile grew wider, ignoring the caveat. "And has Christopher agreed to this?"
Raven frowned. "I am uncertain. Wanderer gave me to believe so ... yet his words were too ready, too well-rehearsed. I have considered speaking with Christopher himself, or at least Lurene, his apprentice -- "
"Do not", interrupted Akkala, gently. "The bard's actions are known to me, and his plea has been heard."
The lupine Lightbringer sighed. "Then I shall inform Wanderer of your refusal -- "
Raven blinked, looking at Akkala in surprise. "No?"
"No", replied the goddess, who looked as though she knew some marvelous secret she dared not share. "The bargain he has made is acceptable to me. In a sevenday it shall be made so."
With that, Akkala began to fade. "But ... ", stammered Raven, and stopped at the most surprising sound she had ever heard.
With a grunt of exertion, I forced my left leg to cease its juddering and smoothed the white linen surplice I now wore. The week had been but little help in easing my confusion -- my poetry had been reduced to nothing more than doggerel, my concentration like to that of a sparrow. And every moment, spinning beneath the surface was the strange feeling that drove me ...
I jerked back to myself at the sound of Raven's voice. "I said, are you prepared to begin?"
"I am", I replied, still feeling guilty over my 'adjustment' of Christopher's words. A guilt that Raven did nothing to allay.
" 'Tis a pity", she said, "that Christopher's conveyance is incapable of traversing the sanctuary."
As scattered as I was, I could not stop my head and tail from bowing low. "Yes", I half-breathed, certain every moment that she would turn and order me out for daring to lie to her on such a matter. Yet she only looked at me oddly, and continued.
"Kneel", she said, indocating the edge of the dais. O Mistress Akkala", she began, turning to the central altar, "Lady of Life, in whose hands rest our lives and those of our children ... we would beg a boon of you."
So swiftly it seemed to paint itself into the room, the white light of the torches dimmed to a sunset rose. A figure of light rose up, and became a woman.
I, alas, could no longer hold up. Shuddering, I bowed my head, my thoughts a pleading jumble.
"Lady Akkala", I could hear Raven intone, "we ask that this of your worshippers, Wand'rer, be ajudged fit to pay the cost of a healing."
"Of what nature and kind is the healing you do seek, Wanderer?", came a gentle voice with a laugh hidden inside. There came a touch on my shoulder, and I looked up.
She was beautiful, and my eyes hurt, and my heart hurt and and and ...
Sternly, I tried to clear my thoughts. "The ... the s-schol'rrr Chrristophur", I stammered. "I-I-I would wish his lu-lu-legs ... restored to him."
"Come", she said, and I felt as though I was flying, though I was still confused. She took me through the wall, and through many rooms that I could not see clearly, until we saw Christopher and Lurene, in a room I did not recognize. Though I could not understand what they said, they appeared to be readying themselves for study, seating themselves across from each other.
"You lied, you know."
I dared not turn to look at her. "I ... I know."
"Do you understand why?"
I shook my head, no longer trusting my voice.
Akkala stroked my head, where I knelt beside her. "Dear, foolish bard. You have given poor Artela quite a time, you know."
I blinked, and looked up at her.
"To each of you that is gifted with an animal's features", said Akkala, "there is also given something of an animal's nature. And each of you is, in part, a child of Artela. But you", she chuckled, "you have made a terrible mess of yourself. You have clung so fiercely to Velena's gift of your voice, fought so fiercely to avoid the full shape and speech of Artela's wolves, that you have nearly set my poor sisters at odds."
"Now", she continued, "it shall be resolved."
She gestured to Christopher, and I looked to where he sat, positioning himself in his chair. "In him, your human self has found a friend. Your wolf, a packleader -- far more personal than the horse-king. And now, your two spirits engaged by his plight, you are so desperate", she said, her grip tightening upon my shoulder, "that you would lie to a Lightbringer -- and so, to me."
"I cannot affect Christopher directly", she stated, her voice tight. "He has not accepted me. Yet, through you, I can hasten the process he has but yet begun. Touch his hand."
My eyes riveted to him, I reached forward, my immaterial hand passing through and into his solid one.
"In your nightly prayers to me", Akkala said as Christopher and Lurene began whatever they were doing, "you offered me your hands, your voice, your humanity, and your mind."
A strange tingling began in my vision, a tingling that seemed to connect the two seated figures.
In a soundless explosion, I felt energy like a wind pass through me, filling my mind and sight with beautiful light and ... and ...
I awake. I stand, my four paws shaking beneath me. The Female is here, and The Other, and they are making noises at each other. Suddenly, The Other is gone, and only The Female remains. She turns to me and makes noises, but I only know my name. Wan-'rer. I wag my tail uncertainly, and duck my head when she gets loud, 'cause she's bigger than me.
Then I hear loud steps coming, and watch the door.
IT'S HIM! I leap to his side and nudge him lovingly. He makes noise in my head, but I don't care. I'm too happy to care.
He's back ...