I scratched again at the door, hoping he would answer before my claws wore away. As fond as I am of Christopher, he does tend to take forever to answer the door.
At last, the door swung wide to reveal ... Lurene. I sighed within myself, and elected to make the best of things.
"Wanderer!", she cried with a smile. "I'd heard you were feeling better. Come in, come in!"
I smiled (as best I could, through my long muzzle) to her as I entered. *And I,* I replied as the door shut behind me, *had heard that you had quit your shape for this one. How fares the fur?* Not for the first time since my 'awakening', I longed for the subtle gesture, the gentle lilt of a true voice in place of the bespelled speech that now I was limited to.
"Well enough", she answered with a smile. "Though 'tis a caution when tying a bodice. Have you come to see Christopher?"
*Aye,* I 'said' quickly, relieved at not having to dance my way around to't. *Is he at home, or could he not 'bear' to be without me?*
"Nay, he is in. I shall fetch him." She turned to go.
She stopped, turning to face me. "Aye?"
*Why do these rooms smell of musk so?*
She colored, though I could not tell the reason why. "Um ... I shall leave the telling of that to Christopher." With that, she hurried from the room.
As the moments passed, I busied myself about the room, finally settling down upon a small rug near the wall. It was not long before the moving wall (for so he seemed from my lofty height, no less than eighteen inches from the floor) that was my friend hove slowly into view.
*'Tis good to see ye,* he called, the lilt of his accent plain in his thought. *How fares the greatest rogue of Metamor?*
*I know not,* I responded slyly, *I shall ask anon.*
*To what purpose turns this visit?,* he asked, and settled on his haunches.
*Would you prefer the rug?*
*Nay,* he replied. *I am well. What boots a time upon the floor for these twin hams of mine? But came ye for naught but chatter?*
*Much as I would like it,* I replied, *I fear the answer is nay. I have a question.*
*Ask, then,* he said. *I shall try an I may answer it.*
He was silent for a moment, as though he knew not what to say. *How mean ye?*
*Christopher,* I thought to him in desperation, looking to him with a wild hope, *I dare not ask this of Raven, for I would not show weakness before her. Nor Lurene, for she may not know all I seek to understand. But you, and you alone, know me well enough to answer this question.*
*I -- I do not understand. Do you not remember ... ?*
*I remember,* I thought bitterly, *much. But my memory hath in it a space, a portion whereupon the wheel and axle of my mind do not meet. I would have thy knowledge for a chock, to fill the gap.*
*Wand'rer,* he seemed to whisper, looking half-scandalized, *I know not what to tell ye.*
*Tell all,* I begged him. *I care not whether 'tis good or ill, but I would know whence this hole in my memory was born. I pray, Christopher, tell me!*
For a long moment, he was silent, and my heart sank within me. I dropped my head to gaze at the stones beneath my paws.
*Very well,* came his response at last. *But ye know not what ye ask.*
*And care not,* I replied. *Not 'til I have learned what I do not know.*
A great sigh, such as would provoke a stiff breeze were it of the mouth and not the mind, resounded in my thoughts. *Do ye remember what came of Lurene's father?*
I nodded solemnly. *Aye. The blow that did rupture thy spine, and take from you your legs. How di -- *
*Nay,* he interrupted, eyes wide, *not yet. First tell me what else you may recall of't.*
I bent my mind over the tome of my memory. *I do not recall much,* I admitted. *But ... we spoke, did we not?*
*Aye ... * His voice, even in his mind, sounded hesitant.
*What did we speak of?* Suddenly I felt very small. To be so betrayed by my memory, the greatest tool of the bard ...
*What do you recall?,* he asked again.
*We were ... loud?* He nodded. *But why? Why did we argue?*
*Sacrifice,* he said reluctantly. *We spoke of sacrifice.*
*I do not under-*
<No!>, cried a voice ... Christopher's voice ... in my memory. <I'll not ask it of ye!>
*My sacrifice ... ,* he told to me, the real Christopher, not that of my memory.
*No,* I thought, amazedly. *Mine. My sacrifice to ... to restore your legs. But how ... *
*Think back,* he insisted gently, choosing his words with care. *What do you remember?*
<But I wish to help you!>, insisted my voice as it cried in my memory, to be met by, <And I refuse! I'll not ask such a sacrifice of any man, rather than pay it myself!>
*I ... was refused.*
He nodded, the shaggy head dipping solemnly in my blurred vision.
*I ... *
<What did he say?, asked Raven, as I knew she would, and I responded, honestly enow, that he wished nothing more to be said of the mat->
My own mind gasped for breath as I began to remember.
<I knelt before the altar in the white robe of supplication ... >
*Wand'rer!,* came the bear's voice as I struggled to keep my hold on mine own mind. *Wand'rer, stop!*
I screamed. Screamed as only a mind can scream, without air, without lungs, without throat, without voice.
<Pain, pain crush collapse words go 'way go 'way no no no ... >
I remembered. Remembered pain, and lies, and anger, and lies, and ... and ...
I slowly realized that my body was now pressed beneath Christopher's good right forepaw.
*Will ye quit thrashing about like an eel!?,* he cried desperately in my mind. *Wand'rer, 'tis all right. 'Tis all right!*
*No,* I replied quietly, sadly as I stilled my convulsions. *It is not.* I looked up at him. *That is why you are in this form, then, and I trapped in mine.*
He was silent a long moment, and, though I could see the worry in his face, I could not hold back. *Is it not? Did I not cause this whole thrice-bedamned coil!?*
I considered. *Let me up.* He looked at me slantwise, and I laughed bitterly. *I'm no such fool as will dash his brains out against the walls, Christopher. Let me up.*
Finally, he removed his paw from my ribs, though he remained close enough to pin me once more. *Are ye better, then?*
I barked, then, in voice and mind. *Better!? Godsblood, Christopher, I lied to you! I lied to Raven! I lied to Akkala! 'Tis no less than a miracle that I am not scattered about the Giantdowns in several small pieces!*
*'Tis done,* he sighed, *and cannot be undone.*
*'Tis true,* I allowed. *And I am sorry, Christopher.*
He seemed taken aback. *Sorry?*
*Sorry for not listening to you. For taking the choice away from you. And most of all, for dragging you into one of the greatest messes in history.*
*'Tis done,* he said again. *You have served your penance, and -*
*No, Christopher, I - ... what?*
He was silent once more.
*You were ... * He hesitated for a long, nerve-wracking moment. *You were a beast.* As I stood amazed, he went on. *You were gone from yourself, Wand'rer, gone entire. We did our best to make you comfortable ... * He trailed off.
*I ... that is the musk I smell, is it not? Mine?*
*Give Lurene my apologies,* I almost cried as I walked to the door.
*Where are ye going?*
I turned, to see him, his head cocked, staring at me.
*To make amends.*
Raven stood agape, a smile blazoned across her beautiful muzzle. Then, as she looked more closely at my face, I could see her begin to understand the change in me.
"What is wrong?"
She was silent. For a long moment, we stared each other down gravely, neither moving.
"I ... see."
*I would like to perform a rite of apology. Can that be done?*
"Of course", she said slowly. "To ... ?"
I sighed. *Akkala, Artela, Velena, Samekkh ... it is a long list of offenses, milady.*
"I see", she said again. "If that is all, all that is required is a spoken apology before the gods."
*It is not all,* I sighed. *Raven ... * I almost told her, then and there. *I shall explain shortly.*
She led me to the common altar. "O You that rule the Heavens and the Earth", she intoned, "hear this one. He has gone astray, and seeks to return to the path that you have set for him. Hear his words of repentance." She stepped back and nodded to me.
*O, Akkala,* I prayed, so loudly that I knew Raven could hear me, *hear me. I have betrayed you. It is only by your undeserved mercy that I yet live. I thank you, Lady.*
I turned my attentions to Artela. *O Mistress of the Wild, hear me. In vengeance of my falseness did you take from me my mind, and give me the mind of the wolf. In vengeance of the insult I have offered did you return it, that I may know what I have done. You are wise, Lady, to do so. I am sorry, Lady, for the trouble I have caused.*
"Wanderer ... " But I ignored Raven's voice, knowing that, should I falter again, I might never finish.
*O Daughters of Samekkh,* I prayed in earnest, *hear me. You have remained, though 'twas your gift I perverted in my falseness. I thank you, Ladies, for an honor of which I am unworthy.* I shook my head to clear my eyes, than continued.
*O Lady Velena,* I thought to the imagined figure of a goddess, *hear me. I have misused the gift of my voice. I have broken oath with that truth which you so adore. In return, you have taken ... * I hesitated ... for a voice born of the mind cannot break, as mine sought to do.. *You have taken it from me. You are wise, Lady, to do so ... for I have proven myself an oathbreaker entire. With the gift of voice have I betrayed you. In my impudence ... *
"Wanderer ... "
* ... in my arrogance,* I went on, my eyes welling up, *in my unmitigated pride did I seek to twist the truth to mine own ends. I have lied to Christopher ... I have lied to Akkala ... I have lied to a Lightbringer ... * I turned to face her. * ... and I have lied to the woman I love.*
She stood, seeming dumbstruck. *Aye, love,* I repeated as my tears ran down my fur. *And by this love did I use her most cruelly. By my friendship, by my love, and by my faith did I twist her ... and though she may forgive me, I do not feel that I may forgive myself. I am a monster, O goddess. I am liar, and oathbreaker, and rake, and worse.* I returned my gaze to the altar. *I ask only that I may, before I die, repay the faith of those about me in better coin than I have shown.*
Raven was still, there upon the wide floor of the temple. "Wh- what", she faltered, then regained her bearing, "what penance do you seek, child of Velena?"
*I do not think she would appreciate my receiving that title,* I mused bitterly. *I know not what penance I may do that could ever fade this blot. Nor,* I added, looking at her eyes, *what I could ever do to restore that faith which I no longer deserve of you. I ask only that the judgement be harsh, as was the crime.*
She stared back at me for a small eternity, her mouth grasping at the air for the words she could not find. At last she looked away, bowing her head as she turned and approached the altar. Kneeling before the basin where the blood of the doves was collected in the dawn sacrifice, she placed her elbows on the cold marble and buried her face in her hands. For a time it seemed as though she had forgotten my presence, but then...
"How could you ask this of me?" she said at last, her voice a ragged whisper.
"No!" She turned upon me, eyes flashing. "No titles, Charles. Not between us. I will not let you distance yourself from me so." She lowered her eyes again. "I cannot," she murmured.
I whined softly. *Raven, you do not understand...*
"You are wrong, Charles." Her voice was strong, but she did not raise her eyes from the stones in front of her. "I know the guilt that you now feel. The shame. The desperate wish that you could somehow turn back the hands of time to make things right. I know them, because I felt them myself .. when I realized that I had been partly at fault for your transformation to a beast."
*No!* I protested, my mental "voice" as forceful as I could make it. *I shall not place this blame upon y--*
" 'Tis not your place to keep it from me!" she retorted, looking up at me again. Her eyes were glistening with tears. "Blame is blame, Charles -- it cannot be parcelled out or taken back again like a bag of coppers!" She stopped, closed her eyes, and took a long, deep breath before she spoke again.
"I should have trusted you sooner, Charles," she said. "I did love you -- I love you still -- and I believe you knew that. But I didn't show you how much I relied on you for your strength, your support. I didn't show you I _needed_ you. I hid my weakness from you, refused to allow you behind this mask that comes with my office." She raised her eyebrows in an apologetic expression. "In truth, I was only dressing myself in dishonesty and calling it courage."
*Even if that were true, my lady, it does not excuse my actions,* I said.
Raven sighed and shook her head. "You did what you did out of love, Charles. Aye, it was a desperate and foolish sort of love, and one mixed with more than a little pride -- but it was love all the same. Christopher, to your mind, needed your help but would not accept it." She wiped a tear from her eye. "Perhaps if I had shown you that _I_ needed you -- and wanted you -- you would not have thrown yourself into such a fool's errand, good-hearted as it was." In a low voice, she added, "It was I, after all, who had done so much to convince you that I did not need you..."
I took an uncertain step forward, ears flattened back against my head. *Is there, then, no one who will pass judgment on me?* I asked. *Is there no means by which I may repay this debt?*
Another long silence seemed my answer. Then, just as I turned to leave, she spoke.
"There is one way," she said.
Some fifteen minutes later we stood facing each other in the midst of a swirling pattern of chalk lines and candles, laid out in lines of power leading between us and up to the altar. Raven had taken out her sword and was holding it at her side.
She shook her head and sighed again, as if to clear the cobwebs from some distant corner of her mind. "In all my life, I did never expect to perform this rite," she sighed. "Cautionary tales of it have been told within the Order for centuries. It has left supplicants broken in mind and spirit, shattered hundreds of lives. Nevertheless, I believe it is the only hope now for either of us." She gazed at me again with those ice-blue eyes, fuller with emotion than I had ever seen them. "I must ask you again, Charles, if you will consent to this," she said. "The trust I ask is great, but it is no less than I offer of myself."
Steeling my resolve, I bobbed my head once in a wolfish nod. *I told you I would pay any price, Raven. This scarce seems judgment enough.*
"I should wait until after the ceremony to judge that, were I you," she replied soberly. "Very well. It begins."
Raven bowed her head and began to pray in the Old Tongue, an ancient invocation whose words I could not hope to follow. Her voice rose and fell in a rhythmic cadence, as the lines of power around us began to glow with a piercing red light. There was a rush of wind from the window behind the altar, and suddenly that light leapt up from the floor to fill the room, bathing all in its crimson radiance. Raven looked up at me, held out her left palm before her, and drew the kryss-bladed sword lightly across her hand. Blood seeped forth from the wound, ran down the side of her hand, and dripped to the floor in the midst of a glowing red circle. There was another flash of light, and now the lines around Raven burned with blinding intensity.
Lying down in the midst of my own set of lines, I brought one paw awkwardly to my jaws. Bracing myself against the pain, I took a deep breath and bit through the webbing between two of my toes. Suppressing the urge to yelp, I hobbled to my feet and placed my now-bleeding paw in the circle before me. There was another flash of light, and then...
And then ...
Oh ... gods ...
In a floodwash of images, my mind reeled, almost recoiling from the amount of not-me that was being forced through its gates. And, too, I felt, rather than saw, a keen, unblinking gaze deep into that which I was ... into every dark corner of my heart and mind. And I would have withdrawn then, rather than show to her those memories, those dark corners of my heart. Yet the choice was made, had been made, and could not be unmade. Unable to turn from the procession of thoughts, of Raven's own feelings and memories rudely thrust into my awareness, I watched.
And I saw.
I saw first her memories of her family. Of a brother and sister who, in seemingly unnatural perfection, would always be wiser, brighter, better in every way. And I quailed with her as the well-meant words of others cut blindly into her heart ... so much praise and honor for them, never knowing or seeing that to raise such a mountain of praise was to ask the child to climb it ...
I watched as her parents tried, as some do, to ease the pain of that looming shadow that was named 'Aramis and Talia', surnamed 'brother and sister'. Yet knowing that, in the end, only she could determine the strength of that shadow ...
I watched as her father died. Died, from the attack of Nasoj, sparking a hunger for revenge in her breast that even my own wolfish temper found amazing in its scope. Died, passing on to her, as the new Lothanasa of the Keep, that strange sword she carried. And in my own breast awaked a cry like unto her own, as my heart quested blindly for the mother who, in giving birth to me, had passed on to Nocturna's embrace. And together, we wept.
I saw her realization of the fates of her mother, her sister, her brother, and her hope for ... and there, for a time, my mind quailed, shrinking from the horror of what she "hoped" had befallen them. Seeing from without, even with her full memory spread before me, I could not fully grasp the enormity of it. Her thought spoke of return, prayed and wished for it. And yet, to be so confined, without even the simple appetites of the body for comfort ...
... alone ...
The word shuddered through my mind, and I turned from it. For in that word, I saw that which was more terrible than this living of another's past, more terrifying than this revelation of myself to Raven.
I watched, then, as a foolish bard ... myself! ... came into view. Singing and jesting, trying so hard to lure her from the strict and strait path she had set for herself. I winced, at times, remembering how hard it had been to pursue one so devoted to her vocation ... the time she upended a chamberpot over me in the midst of a perfectly good song ... though thankfully one filled with clean water only ... the time she dried my bouquet of flowers into a potpourri for the altar ... and yet, through it all, I could see what I had only dimly glimpsed before. That naughty little girl who, in rapping my nose with such pettish slights, had smiled, thinking that I could not see.
And so, in time, she had become fond of the foolish bard. Of his endless stories, of his lewd jests, of his horrendous puns ... and of him.
I blinked, and would fain have held that moment for another examination. I had never before thought of myself as having an existence, apart from my voice and my wit. After all, what is a bard but wit and wind?
And, too, I watched as she withdrew from me, returning to the 'right' path, the 'proper' path. Truly believing, within her very heart, that love was not meant to be hers. That the Lothanasa of Metamor Keep could not afford such attachments. And so, she withdrew ...
Yet the tide of memory swept on. And in a moment, there I stood, before the altar, telling the lies that had slid so easily from my blasphemous lips. And she, that beautiful light, had never considered that I might dissemble such a thing, had never looked beneath the surface ... had never dreamed ...
I watched, through her eyes, as a strange light encompassed me, springing first from my head to ravage the rest of my body entire. And when it was gone ...
When it was gone, the bard was no more. Only a wolf remained, no longer with wit enough even to apprehend that which the bard had done. I watched as the Raven through whose eyes I saw raged against my lies, my falsity, my fate ... and more than that ... my leaving.
Gods, she had not hated me for lies, or for losing all that I was ... but for leaving! For leaving her, as her heart said all those who loved her had done. I shook within my mind at the anger, at the pain that sprang forth from that thought, *He has left me, too*. Blacker than the despair at her brother's and sister's fate, blacker and hotter than her anger at Nasoj ... and sadder than all those, as well. Even Kyia, that mysterious spirit of the Keep, had come to comfort her in those times.
Shamed, I watched as my mindless form slunk past her. Of these times, I remembered nothing of my own, for the mind that had been the bard was no more ... but there, with every sight of my former self, rose a spark of anger, to which she clung almost as fiercely as to the bard she had come to love ... and who now was gone.
Then, with a new rush of thought, a tide of anger and shock, the winter attack unfolded before me. I felt it drive her down, down within herself as the Keep she had labored to protect, the Keep her father had entrusted to her ... began to die. With a futility born of desperation, born of the dwindling options in that time, she tried once more to awaken within me some torchlight of the bonfire that had been my mind.
And then ... Lurene came. With gentle words that cut all the deeper for their civility, she peeled back a corner of the parchment that was Raven and showed her all that she had blotted from her mind. The anger, the hurt ... the loss. And beneath it ...
I could not understand.
Beneath the darkness of her anger and hurt, beneath all of that ... lay something I could not understand. A bright, glowing core of being that seemed to be love.
I shrank back, confused. How could she love me? I had no voice, no wit in that time ... I was not even a man! I had lied, even betraying the gods of my youth ... I was useless! How could she love me?
How could she love me!? I could give her nothing, do nothing, be nothing ... I was nothing! HOW COULD SHE LOVE ME!?
There, after the battle in which I had 'returned' had sped past, I saw myself asking the same question, and not understanding the answer. Trying desperately to make amends for that which she had already forgiven me, for that which, to her, was a dark and fading blot upon her memory. Blind to the fact that she had already accepted me back, I continued to beat my shaggy head against a wall that only I had raised, and only I could remove.
But HOW COULD SHE LOVE ME? I was useless, refuse, something to be tossed into the midden and forgotten! My voice was my entire being, all that anyone had ever cared for beside my wit! With it gone, how could she love me? HOW!?
And the answer resounded through her, *Because I do. Because you are the one I love, the one I have loved. Not your voice. Not your wit. Not your hands, or your human shape. You. The you that exists beneath all those outer trappings. You.*
And, there inside my mind, I cried. I did not understand ... but I wanted to accept. To believe that Raven could love me even when I had nothing left of what I was. It felt so wonderful ... to believe that there was someone in the world for whom my own existence was enough, unneeding of any proof or desert. That there was something to me beside my work, beside my wit and wind. And that she cared for it.
And then ...
There was another flash of light, and then I was back in the present, lying sprawled out on the floor in the midst of the now-faded lines of chalk. Raven lay a few feet away, unmoving, eyes closed.
A name came suddenly to mind, popping out of the flood of memories I had witnessed. *Karenna,* I said.
Raven opened her eyes and looked at me. I saw myself within her eyes, and I knew that she had experienced the same terrible exposure and revelation as I. For a long moment we simply stared at each other. No words needed to be said, for in that moment we understood each other more fully than any words could express.
At last I got to my feet and limped over to her, favoring my wounded paw. I lay down on my side next to her, and silently she put her arm around me, embracing me tightly from behind as she rested her head close to mine. We lay there until the sun crept below the western mountains and darkness fell in the temple hall. For the first time in a long time, the night did not seem lonely ... for either of us.
Misericardia: Latin, "heart's ease".