“MISHA!” Caroline shouted and touched Misha on the shoulder.
The fox morph yelped and jumped in surprise. He turned to see Caroline standing there, looking at him. “What? What’s wrong my love?” he asked and stroked the side of her face..
“You have been sitting at that desk, pen in hand and staring at that blank paper for over an hour,” she explained. Caroline wrapped her arms around Misha’s neck and nuzzled him softly. “Are you meditating?”
“I’m trying to write a letter to . . .” his voice faded and he looked down at the paper.
“To who?” she asked, puzzled. Misha had a tough persona and a reputation as a ferocious fighter but at times he was surprisingly shy and nervous. Right now she was seeing a frightened child.
“My parents,” he said finally. “I want to put it in with the engagement notices.”
“So what’s wrong?” she asked.
“How do I start it?” He asked painfully. “I . . . .”
“How about the obvious way?” she asked. “Start with ‘Hello Mom and Dad.’ “
He looked at her dubiously. “What if I put my heart and soul into this letter and they reject me again.” His voice cracked and his eyes were full of pain and doubt.
“You will never know unless you write it,” Caroline countered. “All you’ll have is your doubts.”
“But what . . . “
“How did Elizabeth react when you talked to her for the first time?” the otter said cutting off his objection.
“Happy,” he said and his voice mellowed and he sat up straighter.
“Then why shouldn’t your own parents?”
Misha didn’t answer her but just looked down at the paper. His whole body slumped down lower in the chair.
“Misha?” she asked in a soft tone, worried by her lover’s response. “Misha?”
“They . . they . . killed me,” he stuttered in a whisper.
Confused, all Caroline could do was look at him.
“They decided that rather then have a fox creature for a son they would prefer to have me dead. So they declared I had died in some far off war. They had a funeral and even had a tomb made for me with a life sized HUMAN effigy on it.” He voice cracked. “They want me dead!” He started crying and sobbing like a child. The tears flowing down his cheeks.
All Caroline could think to do was hug him, wrap her arms around him and hold him tightly as he cried.
“Have you ever asked Elizabeth how they feel now?” the otter asked as she stroked his head softly.
“No,” he sobbed. “Well. Yes. Sort of.” The crying slowed and he looked at her. “I asked a few times how they were doing but I never asked what they thought about me. I just didn’t have the courage.”
“And you never sent them any letters or anything else?” she asked.
He was silent for a moment and sniffled a few times. “I did send Dad a nice clock for his birthday. Liz says he really liked it.”
She saw the faint glimmer of hope appear in his eyes only to disappear again. “Why haven’t they sent ME anything? Why nothing. Not even thank you.”
“Why haven’t you contacted them?” she countered.
“I don’t like jokes,” he snarled angrily.
“I am not joking,” she answered in clipped tones. “You are afraid they’ll reject you. Maybe they’re afraid you will reject them if they say they’re sorry.”
Misha sat there totally stunned. “I hadn’t thought of that. Could it be that simple?”
Caroline saw hope rekindled in his eyes and grow brighter with each passing moment. “Only one way to find out.” She tapped the paper with her fur covered hand. “Write it.”
“Will you help?” he asked like a frightened child. “Please?”
Caroline kissed him on the muzzle. “Of course.”
The letter arrived in an unusual manner – a giant bat with a twenty foot wing span landed in the courtyard of the castle. It’s rider was dressed in brown leather that had been covered with a rubbery substance to make it waterproof. He was of medium height and his body was thin and well muscled. Shoulder length black hair was tied back into a pony tail. A short sword dangled from a belt on his him and a bow and quiver were strapped to his back.
The two stood patiently as soldiers streamed into the courtyard, swords and spears at the ready.
“Misha was right Camella,” the leather clad figure commented to the bat. “They weren’t ready for an attack from the sky.”
“Few people are Neal,” The bat answered in a feminine voice. “Why are you always surprised when this happens?”
The two were very quickly surrounded by a score of guards dressed in chain mail armor. Each was carrying a long spear with a wickedly sharp point. Overhead countless more soldiers aimed powerful bows at them from behind stone battlements.
“They certainly recovered quickly enough,” the man commented.
“Indeed,” the bat answered. Her body shivered and seemed to collapse in on its self shrinking and getting smaller and smaller till she was roughly human sized. Camella had stopped growing smaller but she did not stop changing. Her short bat legs grew longer and changed to something more resembling human limbs. A pair of arms separated from Camella’s wings which she folded flat against her back. What had been a bat was now an odd human like bat woman. It looked like a mage’s hybrid creation and more at home Mage’s Guild Hall then a nobleman’s castle.
A figure came out of a nearby doorway and slowly advanced on the two new arrivals. He was some six feet tall and looked formidable dressed in armor and with a sword in his right hand and a shield in the other.
The bat cocked her head. “Wow, he is tall!”
The rider opened his pouch and produced several envelopes. He handed one to the tall guard. “That one is for you Verner.” The rider handed the man a second envelope. “This is for your wife Elizabeth. I have others for Lord and Lady Brightleaf.”
The man looked at the envelope without opening it. “How do you know who I am?”
“Misha said he would be as tall as a church steeple.”
The figure looked startled. “My brother by marriage is dead.”
“People keep telling me that,” Neal looked at the bat and commented calmly.
“Misha certainly looks pretty good for a dead person,” Camella said nonchalantly returning the man’s gaze. “Perhaps we should tell him to lie down and be still.”
“Do you think ANYONE could tell Misha to do anything he doesn’t want to?” the rider asked.
“Caroline can,” she retorted with a chuckle.
“You know him?”
“We are here on his behest,” Neal explained.
Verner gestured towards the door he had just left. “This way.” It was not a request.
The party was a good one. The massive Long hall was filled with all the guests and it seemed as if everyone had been invited. Even the Duke! All had come. No one ever willingly missed one of Misha’s parties. The fox was famous for throwing some lavish and wild parties and this wasn’t just a party it was special! It was an engagement party! He has spared no expense and it showed. Banners and streamers covered the walls and ceiling. The tables were laden with the finest food set on fine china. There was even crystal cups for many of the guests. There was a five piece band that played for the guests as they ate the five course meal.
Misha and Caroline were well dressed and seemed to be everywhere. Talking with the guests as they all admired her engagement ring. The females admired the beauty while the males were impressed by it’s cost.
But for all the excitement and attention both Misha and Caroline had their minds somewhere else. They were thinking of two people now in Marigund and the message they were delivering.
The two had half expected to be thrown into a dark cell in the dungeon. Instead the room they were led into was finely appointed. The walls were paneled in the same deeply grained wood as the furniture. Paintings and drawings in gold frames hung from the walls and a richly woven carpet covered the floor.
“I’m impressed,” Neal commented as he looked around. “All this bought with wool.”
“There is a big market for Marigund wool,” Camella said. “The Brightleafs are among the biggest wool exporters in the country. The shirt you’re wearing is made from Marigund wool.” The bat woman sat down on a bench with no back being careful of her wings. “Did you think the whole family went around swinging axes?”
He chuckled and opened his mouth to speak but a door opened and in stepped a figure carrying a large tray. The girl was in her teens, just entering adolescence and maturing into a woman. The purple and green dress she was wearing was made of wool and trimmed with fine lace. The silver ribbons highlighted her black hair nicely.
She carefully placed the tray onto a table then turned to the two guests. “Welcome to Briarwood Castle,” she said. “Lord and Lady Brightleaf will see you shortly. The wine is a fine vintage and I brought some food in case you are hungry. You look like one of the fruit eating bats from the south so I brought some fruit. I can bring you something else if you want.” She didn’t seem the slightest bit disturbed by the fact that she was addressing a bat human.
“Fruit is fine,” Camella answered. “Thank you. Aren’t you surprised to be speaking to a talking she bat?”
The girl shook her head. “No. Aunt Elizabeth has had some unusual guests here from the Guild. Some of those mages are really weird.”
Neal shook his head. “I’m not sure I want to hear anymore of that.”
“You would be Amanda,” the bat said. “George’s middle child.”
The girl smiled at the recognition. “Yes my lady.” She stepped closer. “Are you really from Metamor?” she asked in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Where else would we be from?” Camella answered. “Do I look like I’m from Isenport?”
The girl laughed. “Have you really come from Uncle Misha?”
“Yes we have,” Neal answered and with a flourish he produced an envelope and handed it to the Amanda. “That is for you.”
She didn’t take it but looked at the envelope carefully. It looked like a normal envelope. On the front was written her name is a black flowing hand writing.
A figure appeared in a doorway next to the bat. “Take it dear. It’s not a trap or poisoned.” The woman was wearing a long, flowing, woolen dress of dyed a deep blue color. He hair was loose but fairly short
Camella stood up and gave as good a bow as her bat like body allowed. She kicked Neal in the ankle.
He bowed as well giving a deep, formal bow, his arm almost touching the floor. “Lady Elizabeth, Lord Verner. I bring good tidings from Sir Misha Brightleaf and Lady Caroline.”
“You knew we were coming?” Neal asked more then a little surprised.
“Misha contacted me this morning and told me the good news,” the woman explained.
“You’re Elizabeth!” Camella exclaimed.
“We have a letter for Lord and Lady Brightleaf,” Neal stated.
“I’ll take them,” Elizabeth said extending her hand. “This is something Reuben and Muriel should hear from family.”
“How will they take the news?” Neal asked bluntly.
The woman didn’t answer at first. But simply looked at them. “I’m not sure. I don’t think my parents themselves know how they’ll take it.”
“Then we are all about to find out,” Neal commented bluntly.
This room was a lot less ornate then the previous one. The paintings on the wall looked older and held images of men and woman dressed in outdated clothing. The bed was a massive affair of old wood and thick wool curtains. But although the furniture looked older and a bit worn it felt more friendly then the first room. Unlike the waiting room which had been for formally entertaining guests this place was more informal. This was a place used often by the Brightleaf family and their friends.
“If you need something please feel free to ask,” Amanda said.
“Thank you,” Camella answered as she looked around.
“About dinner?” Neal asked hopefully.
The girl smiled. “Dinner is at six in the evening.”
Dinner did indeed start at six pm and took place in a surprisingly small room. They had expected to be in some massive hall but instead they were in a small dining room about twenty feet wide and forty long. The table that dominated the room was of thick, black timbers and was polished to a high gloss. On the table were plates, saucers and other dinnerware of the finest porcelain. All were decorated with the blue floral pattern of some far east artisan. To go with the dinnerware the silverware was made of real silver and decorated with the same pattern as the plates. Glasses of cut crystal rested in front of each seating place.
Neal was given a seat with a tall back and well padded with leather. Camella was escorted to a place next to Neal and found her seat was a thickly padded bench with no back to it. She would have no problem sitting even with her large wings.
Already standing around the table when they arrived was a wide assortment of people. She recognized Elizabeth and her husband Verner, Amanda and several others who she didn’t recognize. All were undoubtedly close family.
A door at the far end of the room opened and two couples made their way into the hall. An older man wearing the clean crisp clothes of a trusted servant spoke loudly. “Sir George and Lady Rowenna Brightleaf.” He paused for a moment. “Sir Reuben and Muriel Brightleaf.”
George and Rowenna Brightleaf were finely dressed. George wore doublet and pants both of a dark red and blue color. He was shorter then Verner by a full head span but he was of stocky build. His body showed muscles with an edge of fat to them. Telling of a man used to hard work but whose body was starting to soften with age. His eyes were bright and he seemed to miss little of what was happening around him. They lingered on Camella for a long time looking her over from head to paws. Then he smiled and nodded to her in greeting.
Rowenna was slightly shorter then her husband but thinner. Her blonde hair showed little sign of gray and her face was smooth with only a small amount of makeup around the eyes and on her cheeks. The light yellow dress she was wearing had a border of flowers painted in bright colors and edged with silver. Several rings decorated her fingers and a long gold chain with pearls hung from her neck. She locked eyes with Camella and smiled broadly as her faced animated with friendship and delight. Her greeting seemed warm and sincere.
Reuben Brightleaf was of middling height and with a rough and weather worn face whose eyes missed little of what was going on around him. He hair was more gray then it’s original black and was thinning on top. His clothes were well made and finely cut speaking of money well spent on it but was just warn enough to speak of being his normal wear and not merely worn to impress.
On his right arm was a woman of about the same age as Reuben. Her hair was a dark brown and heavily salted with gray. Her long, flowing dress was of purple wool. For someone so rich Muriel was wearing remarkably little jewelry. A gold wedding ring was on one hand and a necklace of silver chain dangled from her neck ending in a broach of the same silver.
The pair bowed deeply to Camella and Neal who returned the gesture with bows of their own.
“It is a pleasure to have guests from such a distant place,” George said in a calm voice filled with a strength that belayed his age.
Neal smiled broadly. “Thank you for such a gracious reception.”
Camella nodded in agreement. “Especially for taking into account my wings. Many people forget the wings and bring me a chair I can’t sit in without crushing them.”
“Think nothing of it!” Rowenna said. “Elizabeth went through her ‘Fly like the birds’ phase as a youngster. It was a month before we could get her to remove the wings. At least we finally managed to get her to keep her clothes on.”
“Mother!” Elizabeth scolded and blushed a deep red. “I was eight at the time.”
“If you will all take a seat we’ll begin the meal!” Reuben ordered gently with a smile on his lips.
The meal was served efficiently and quickly by a half dozen servants. First came a soup of carrots, potatoes and mutton all in a rich, red broth.
“What exactly DOES my son Misha do?” Reuben asked between spoonfuls of soup.
“He is knight commander of the Order of the Axe and bow,” Camella explained as she sipped the soup. It tasted of the mutton but the spices gave it a sharp bite.
“How did he gain such a prestigious title? By killing more people then everyone else?” came the sarcastic comment from Reuben.
Neal shot the man a cold look. “Sir Brightleaf,” he said in a tone filled with anger. “Is a personal friend of the duke. He fought for the Duke and was instrumental in saving the Keep and the lives of over five hundred people during the Yuletide attack. His people have saved countless other lives over the years. Duke Thomas himself has honored him several times with titles.”
The elder simply nodded in response. “I see. But there is more to life then fighting and destroying.”
“I’ve heard he is making clocks,” Muriel said in a friendly tone. “And other things.”
The bat nodded in response. “Oh yes! He makes some of the most beautiful and complex clocks I’ve ever seen. They do all sorts of clever things like ring bells and have figures dancing. He gets a lot of coins for his clocks.”
“Does he own any property?” Reuben asked .
“Oh yes!” Neal responded as he took a drink of spiced wine. “He owns a fine inn in Euper called the Jolly collie. And a mill over in Mallen.”
“And those five buildings in Euper too. They pay him a fine rent!” Camella added.
“Ah yes! He also is part owner of a caravan.”
Amanda laughed cutting through the tension. “How does he find the time to do any fighting.”
“Well he is unmarried and single,” Neal answered.
“But only till June,” Camella added with a chuckle.
All further conversation stopped as the main course was brought in. A large platter held a roast leg of lamb basted in a red wine sauce. Encircling the meat was a ring of potatoes, carrots and four different kinds of string beans. Next came a large bowl of sweet potatoes their skins baked to a golden brown. For Camella they brought a platter filled with oranges, pears, peaches and a large grapefruit already peeled and covered with a sweet, blue colored sauce.
“My apologies Camella. We were not sure exactly what you could and could not eat but we did bring you a quantity of fresh fruit,” Rowenna commented.
“Your form is based off of the large, southern lunar bat,” Elizabeth commented. “They eat fruit and insects. The fruit we can provide but I’m afraid the insects are out.”
“Not in my household,” Muriel added and smiled. “I draw the line at bugs.”
“Fruit is fine,” Camella answered. She took a slice or orange and nibbled on it for a moment. “I know I should like eating them but I cannot bring myself to actually eat insects.” She took a larger bite and finished the slice in seconds. “Nasty, icky bugs.”
The whole group broke out into laughter.
“How is the fruit?” Reuben asked. “We had it brought in fresh from the south.”
“It’s delicious,” the bat keeper answered as she ate a slice of pear. “Thank you!”
“What of the rumors of this mechanical creature?” Muriel asked. “Are they true?”
“You mean Madog? Perfectly true. That mechanical fox moves and thinks on his own,” Neal answered between bites of lamb.
“And the rumors of it’s power?” Muriel asked looking up from her plate.
Neal nodded slowly. “He is one VERY powerful little metal fox. I’ve heard stories that he ripped a Moransai apart during the Yule attack. Literally ripped him to pieces.”
Camella nodded in agreement. “Lots of people saw that happen.”
“My brother owns that thing?” George said unnerved as a murmur ran through the room. The man put down his drink and peered at the two keepers with a frightened look.
“Not owns exactly. A better description would be he keeps him as a pet or a friend,” Neal answered trying to sound calm. The power Madog had showed that day had un-nerved a lot of people at the Keep.
“Madog’s really a sweet person,” Camella commented in a calm tone. “For something so powerful.”
“How much of Madog’s magic does he really understand?” the elder woman asked.
Neal shrugged. “I’m not sure. He says absolutely nothing about the magic behind Madog.”
Camella sipped her wine gently. “It is an entirely new type of magic.” She commented. “I’ve never seen anything like it. None of the mages at the Keep have.”
“It is Automaton magic,” Elizabeth explained. “Long considered extinct.”
Muriel leaned forward, closer to the Keepers. “Misha is actually casting Automaton spells?” she asked sounding surprised.
The bat nodded. “Misha has been casting a few spells and he recently repaired Madog after he was badly damaged. But exactly what Misha can do is hard to say. He is not revealing anything.”
“A smart move,” Reuben said.
Muriel shook her head. “I’m nervous that he is using such dangerous magic alone up there without guild protection.”
“Misha is no fool and he can protect himself,” Elizabeth countered.
Neal laughed. “He’s a very skilled fighter and he does have that big axe of his! That’s more then enough to scare off most people.”
“Still he is at risk,” the older woman said.
“Not as much as you think,” Neal countered. “To get this new magic from Misha requires going to Metamor and that means exposing themselves to the curse.”
Elizabeth nodded her head. “That alone would keep most people at bay.”
“Most but not all,” Muriel commented.
“Misha isn’t some wide eyed naïve apprentice,” the man answered. “He is a very skilled scout and he does have that axe of his. And for those who are more persistent there is always Madog. There are few who can defeat that metal fox. And together Misha and Madog make a formidable pair.”
“I’ve yet to see a spell that can effect Madog,” the bat said. “No one in the guild has. Although they are still trying.”
“Are you a mage Camella?” Muriel asked.
“Yes but I’m simply a low level caster. I am studying with the guild.”
She leaned closer and her face lit up with a broad smile. “What is your specialty?” Muriel asked.
“I was studying combat magic but I’ve switched to flight and air magic,” the bat responded.
Muriel laughed. “I can see why!”
“She can still cast a mean fire spell if she needs to,” Neal added.
Camella saw Reuben looking again and again at the same place on the table in front of him. She recognized the letter that they had delivered this afternoon. As far as she could tell it was resting against a bottle of ale and looked to be unopened.
“Camella,” Muriel asked in level tones. “You mentioned my son is only single till June.”
“Oh yes,” the bat woman answered and looked to the older woman. Her own contemplation forgotten. “The wedding is in June.” She points to the unopened envelope. “That is in the message we delivered to you today.”
Neal nodded energetically. “Oh yes! We’ve been delivering the engagement notices to people all over!”
“MISHA IS MARRYING?” Rowenna exclaimed and smiled broadly. “Finally! Who is he marrying?”
“What is he marrying?” George asked.
Suddenly all eyes in the room were focused on her.
“Caroline Hardy. Her father is a highly respected jeweler at the Keep,” Camella answered slowly.
“Is she?” Amanda put both hands up to the side of her head in imitation of fox ears.
“A fox? No. She is a river otter and one of the nicest people I have ever met,” Camella explained.
“And the second most beautiful woman in the world,” Neal added and took one of Camella’s hands and kissed it.
“What is she like?” Muriel asked.
“Caroline is a fine woman,” Neal said. “Smart, strong and certainly one of the finest archers in the Keep.”
“Caroline’s a few years younger then he is,” Camella added. “She likes to paint and can play the flute very well.”
“A warrior and an artist,” Verner said with a smile.
“I think they make a fine couple,” Camella said cheerfully.
“Are you two married?” Amanda asked.
Camella nodded. “Oh yes! Two years ago next month!”
Neal smiled broadly and kissed Camella on the muzzle. “You are the best thing to happen to me.”
“Do you have children?” Rowenna asked in a deceptively soft tone.
“Not yet,” Neal answered slowly. “But we are hoping to start a family soon.”
“My apologies for asking such a personal question but the question has bothered me. Muriel said and paused for a moment. “What will your children look like?”
Neal nodded slowly aware of the fact that there was more going on than a simple question. “I understand. We’ve asked that one ourselves. Many couples at the Keep have already had children.”
“And?” Reuben snapped in an annoyed tone.
“Mixed,” the female keeper explained. “Our children will be either an animal morph like me or a human looking child.”
“And what if you were both of different animal forms?” George asked.
The room fell silent and everyone was looking at the two keepers. Even the servants.
“Like Misha and Caroline?” Neal asked cutting to the real heart of the issue. “Even more mixed. Some will be fox, some otter and the rest human.”
“Nope,” Neal answered. “No fotters. They would all be of one species or the other.”
“Curious,” George said. “What if only one of the couple was effected by the curse? Could they still have children?”
“Yes,” Camella said. “An animal based Keeper like me can have children by an uncursed human.”
“I see,” Elizabeth said and the room fell silent again. “What if an animal keeper took a normal, animal as a mate?”
“No children would result,” Neal said in cold tones and frowned. He was unhappy with the way this conversation was going. “No more then if a human here in Marigund had an animal lover.”
“So,” Elizabeth said slowly as if measuring each word carefully. Her eyes were fixed on the glass on the table in front of her. “That implies you are still basically human in spite of your appearances.”
Camella looked at Elizabeth for a moment. She was sure there was a lot more to that question then the woman was revealing.
Neal’s face became fixed with a look of anger and he started to speak but his wife stopped him with a pat on his arm.
“Of course. Why?” Camella responded.
The tension in the room eased suddenly. “I’m sorry,” Elizabeth said, embarrassed. “But you just answered a question that has been the center of a debate that has long been raging in the Mages guild.”
“In the guild and in this family,” Camella thought to herself.
“My apologies if we have offended you,” Reuben said in a loud tone. “We have a lot of questions about the curse and until now no way to answer them. In our eagerness to answer them we have forgotten common courtesy.”
Neal smiled faintly. “I understand. You have been far kinder then most people in the Midlands have been.”
“Will you please open it!” Muriel barked in exasperation.
Reuben didn’t move or speak just but stared at the envelope resting on the table in front of him. He had held and examined the envelope a thousand times without once opening it.
Dinner was long over and the family’s unusual guests had retired for the evening. As had the rest of the family. It left the two alone in their own bedroom with their thoughts and the letter.
“You can’t just look at it forever?” she said. “we’ve been ignoring each other for too long. We should have talked to him a long time ago.”
Reuben stiffened and nodded his head. “You’re right!” And he boldly opened the envelope and took out the letter inside.
It was a bright, clear day with few clouds. A perfect day for flying. Camella and Neal were standing in the middle of the castle courtyard preparing for their departure.
Muriel hugged Camella tightly. “Thank you for coming and putting up with all our rude questions. “You’ve put a lot of minds at rest.”
“I’m glad we could help,” Camella answered.
George patted Neal on the shoulder. “You two are always welcome here any time.” He handed the man several large sealed envelopes. “Those are for my brother and future sister in law.”
Neal took the letters and carefully stowed them in his pouch being sure they were safe and secure. “I’ll deliver them safely.”
Reuben and Muriel approached him last. The man handed Neal a large envelope that was sealed with wax along the entire flap and not just one spot. This is for my son and his fiancé.” Reuben said solemnly. “Please see that it is delivered to them and no one else.”
Neal nodded slowly. “I’ll deliver it to them safely. Never fear.”
Misha sat staring at the top of his desk for a long time. Resting in the center of the desk was a tan colored envelope edged with a light blue line. Written on the envelope in black ink was the words ‘Misha Brightleaf & Caroline Hardy.’
“Well?” Caroline asked. “Are you going to open it or just stare at it forever.”
Misha took a deep breath and opened the letter slowly as if expecting it to explode or poisonous snakes to spring out. Inside were several pages of writing on vellum folded neatly to fit into the envelope. He unfolded the pages and read the top line on the first page.
“Our Dear son and daughter to be,” the letter began.