Llyn had never gotten along with Caroline, that much was truth. It was a well known fact among the Longs, and many others, who ever saw the two face off. Misha had been the cause of their disagreements, when he passed up Llyn for Caroline, lighting a fire of jealousy under the mink's tail so hot it had almost caused her to do something rash. Ever since that day almost three years ago there had been a simmering tension between the two that had been nearly impossible to banish.
Llyn, for her part, had dropped the jealousy once she realized how dangerous it was, to her and to those she worked with. She had never entirely forgiven the otter's intrusion, but could understand how Misha had chosen her over Llyn. At the time Llyn had a few problems of her own that affected her friendship with Misha, and many others.
She had never revealed the cause of her problems, because it was her own personal curse. She had never even confessed the taint upon her soul to any of the various priests she had seen over the years, when they condescended to visit Metamor. The only priest to ever do so with any frequency had been father Hough. Mrs. Levins had said that the curse had made a child of him.
So much had happened in the past five weeks she felt like a stranger in her own home. An insurrection had been crushed, yet another friend had been lost to the enemy. Caroline's humiliation, Hough's succumbing to the curse. Charles Matthias becoming a warrior, accompanying Misha and the rest of the Longs on an assault against Stepping Stone.
She shook her head quietly as she stalked, wraithlike, through the halls of Metamor. She had risen achingly early that morning, unable to catch more than a few hours of sleep, her dreams full of turmoil. Old memories were bubbling to the surface like a muddy taint from the bottom of a cistern, and she found that none were less traumatic for the intervening years.
The infirmary was quiet when she arrived, the main hall empty, lit by a single lantern on Brian Coe's desk. The racks and shelves of the room were crowded with the implements of the healers' art, giving the place a sepulchral stench. She stood there in the archway for several minutes, a cold dread in the pit of her stomach, until movement in the corner of her eye caught her attention. The raccoon healer was backing quietly from a room to the right side of the hall, a tray in his hands. Llyn moved across to him as he pulled the door of the room shut quietly, purposely letting her claws click upon the stone floor so that her sudden appearance would not startle the healer.
"Where is Caroline?" She asked as the healer turned, his black masked face cast in soft shadows by the light of the lamp. One dark eye gleamed from the black circle of his mask where the light touched it, the other lost in shadow as he looked at the mink. He nodded his head toward the room from which he had just come.
"In there." He offered, "But I don't think you want to go in there."
"I'm a friend, Coe, I'd like to see her. Is she awake?"
The raccoon nodded, his ringed tail curling around one of his legs, "For now, I just gave her something for the pain, so she'll sleep soon." He turned, carrying the tray over to a nearby table, "This is the first night she seems to be getting by without nightmares, so don't keep her awake overly long." He turned and looked down at Llyn's hip, "You can't take that in there." He pointed at the sword the mink wore. Llyn looked down at it as well, surprised to find she was wearing it at all. She reluctantly unbuckled her sword belt and laid it on the table next to the tray. The raccoon looked at it with some disquiet, shaking his head slowly at the necessity to wear weapons almost everywhere these days. "She's very weak right now, please try not to stress her."
Llyn nodded, and pushed upon the door. It opened with a quiet hiss as the cloth seal brushed across the floor, revealing the interior of small, utilitarian stone room lit by a single candle. The otter occupied the room's single bed, a brightly colored quilt drawn up under her chin. Her head was propped up on a pair of thick goose-down pillows, her fur recently cleaned and groomed so that it cast a muted shine from the candle's light. Her head turned toward Llyn as the mink entered, pushing the door closed behind her.
Llyn grimaced at the sight of the once proud, playful otter's damaged face as the light sketched it in soft relief. One eye was swollen shut, her jaw puffy with bruises. Cuts had been cleaned and bandaged along her jaw line, her whiskers almost entirely singed away by some torturous act. The hand draped across her body was swathed thickly in fresh bandages, hiding the damage to her fingers from Llyn's sight.
"Who is it?" the otter asked, her good eye glimmering as she peered toward the darker side of the room, unable to identify the mink immediately. She raised one thickly bandaged hand from her side toward the newcomer, waving it stiffly for her to approach.
"It's Joy, Carol." The mink said quietly, stepping into the light. The otter's face twisted slightly at the name, a sigh escaping her. Llyn almost turned and left right at that moment, feeling the old dislike bubbling to the surface, throwing up a wall between them. Frowning, she stopped in her tracks, clasping her hands before her belly.
"You're alive, at least." The otter rumbled, her voice hissing laboriously through her raw throat.
"I heard about Craig." Llyn said quietly, not moving, her heart shriveling at the old venom in the otter's ragged voice. "I'm sorry, he was a good friend."
Caroline merely nodded, looking over toward the candle, "Why are you here?"
Llyn sighed, moving over to the bed, close enough to touch, but not reaching out. "I don't want us to hate each other any more, Carol." The otter's gaze returned to her, the hardness in her stare boring a hole into the mink. "It happened to me too."
"What did? Hate?" the otter hissed, her face twisting as she glared up at Llyn, who could only shake her head.
"Four years ago. Have you ever heard of 'Moe'?"
"Side Show, yes." The otter nodded, confusion replacing the look of distaste on her muzzle. "He's been trying to capture Keepers for years."
"He has, at least twice." Llyn nodded, "I was one of them." Caroline's jaw merely opened slightly, her eye registering surprise. "Two weeks of his... I can't say it, even now." Llyn sighed, lowering her head as the memories came flooding back, the floodgates opened. They were dark memories, of humiliation and emotional anguish. He had never physically harmed her, beyond what his restraining her required, but that had not been his intent.
He had meant to break her spirit, and very nearly had. That he did not shatter her will was only a minor consideration, he had damaged a great many other things about her that took a great deal of time to come to terms with. Some of them had yet to heal.
"So?" Caroline hissed, the glare returning even angrier, "Did he do this?" she held up her shattered hand, waving it at the mink. Llyn quailed, falling back a step.
"No." she said in a small voice, "Carol, that's not the point, what he did... I cannot undo, and I am not asking for your forgiveness for his evil."
"Then why are you here, to torment me?" the otter whined, her voice cracking. Llyn could see the glimmering streak of a tear tracing its way across the otter's swollen cheek. That streak was not alone, mirrored by the twin trails at either side of the mink's own muzzle.
"No, because I know." She waved one hand impotently, the other wiping her tears away. Trying to, at least. All she did was smear them into her fur. "Some of your pain." He touched her hand to her heart, "Inside." The otter merely stared at her, futilely trying to wipe her tears away with her bandaged hand, wincing as she touched her damaged cheek. "And I don't want us to have this... hate, between us anymore."
"Now you say?" Caroline growled, turning away, "I don't need your sympathy, Joy."
"But what of my friendship?" Llyn choked, her voice faltering.
"What of it?" the otter hissed toward the candle flame, "You're offering it only now?"
"I could not offer it before, I was too... angry." Llyn sank into the chair next to the head of the bed, "Too prideful."
"Too jealous." The otter's voice echoed from the wall, difficult for Llyn to understand with her damaged hearing. She nodded.
"That too, but that I banished long ago. Misha is my commander now, a friend, but nothing more." She looked up at the back of the otter's head, "He's been that for a long time now."
"Not good enough for you?"
Llyn chuffed, sighing, "Plenty good enough, but yours. I may have pride, Carol, but I'm neither blind nor dumb. His heart is given to you." It still hurt, just a little bit, but that pain was mollified by the fox's happiness.
Though she could sympathize with the fox's pain now, with his mate so grievously damaged, physically and emotionally. The razing of Stepping would do nothing to assuage that anger, Llyn knew, merely give him an outlet to vent his grief. She looked up after several moments of silence, and discovered that the otter had fallen asleep.
her head sadly, she stood and walked out, quietly pulling the door closed
behind her. Recovering her sword without thought, she stalked
from the infirmary, ignoring the raccoon as he looked up from his desk
Continuing her aimless wanderings, her mind churning over the past and the present in a confusing amalgam of them both that left her mind spinning dizzily. Her footsteps led her aimlessly through the Keep, the passage of time forgotten for the moment as her mind boiled with turmoil. She was cognizant of little more than her own two feet as they entered and left her field of view upon the floor below them.
Some feeling, a strange twinge that raced through her body shook her out of her ruminations some time later, bringing her steps to a halt as she looked up. What looked back at her was nothing less than breathtaking; a vaulting stained glass window that glimmered in the first pale rays of the dawning sun. Towering behind the altar before that great wall of chromatic glass was a massive crucifix of pale white stone. Massive columns and colonnades of stone towered high over her, all focused down upon the massive altar at the head of the aisle in which she found herself.
She started as she noticed the pews to either side of the long aisle, and the single small human working at the altar. He was wearing the simple ceremonial smock of a priest, though appeared to be little more than a child. That in itself was not unusual for Metamor, thought the fact that she was standing in the middle of a chapel was to her. She had been told that the nearest priest of her order had come to live in Metamor during the absence of her last patrol. She had never been told the reasons why one was there now, but the fact that the Ecclasia had finally decided to bring a priest to Metamor full time had come as something of a relief to her.
Father Hough's sacrifice in accepting the change amazed her. She started to take another step toward the dais, but something caused her to pause, a twinge of guilt that stayed her steps. Furrowing her eyebrows she tried to understand what would make her not want to get any further into the chapel than she already was. Unable to locate any particular cause, she shook off the uneasy feeling and turned around. Striding to the vestibule, she unbuckled her sword belt and placed the sword upon one of the racks to either side of the great doors.
It took her a moment to actually release the simple leather scabbard and steel, but she finally managed to force herself to. The past two months of running about in the wilderness of the north had made the deadly steel a part of her and she found herself loath to part with it. Even if to enter a church of her own faith, where the last thing she needed to fear was eminent attack.
Securing the weapon, she returned, striding slowly down the aisle as she admired the intricate construction of the building, until she found herself standing a few feet short of the dais upon which the altar rested. The young man rubbing the polished marble looked up at her curiously, pausing in his work.
"Excuse me?" She asked, ducking a bit as her voice carried into every corner of the large stone chapel, which caused the boy to smile brightly.
"A most wonderful place, is it not?" he asked, his voice smooth with the wisdom of age yet bright with the gaiety of youth.
"Yes." She had to agree, "Yes it is. Could I speak with Father Hough?"
The child laughed yet again, his cherubic face pulled into a gleeful smile, "That would be me, my daughter." He intoned with all the solemnity his childish tenor could muster. "And you would be the scout Joy?"
The mink started, blinking at the slender young man in the simple smock of a priest. Not the robes of an acolyte she now realized, but a robe of one ordained. That it had been fashioned to fit his diminutive frame had caused her to overlook it at first, and the fact she had not expected a child to represent the entire power of the Ecclasia at Metamor. She was not exactly sure what she had expected, for she could not imagine the mother church to recognize an animal or female priest. "Yes father." She nodded at length, recovering her composure. "I am sorry, I have been away for quite some time on patrol in the north."
"That is very well, my child." The boy smiled, folding the stained white linen of his polishing cloth and setting it upon the altar next to a brightly polished silver candelabrum. "I am pleased that you might grace our new home here." He waved one arm toward the massive chapel, "It is magnificent, is it not?"
"It is most awe inspiring father, but I did not come here to gawk." She chuckled, covering up a brief sigh. "Though I daresay admit that I did."
"Gawk?" Father Hough joked, smiling brightly, his hands folded before his chest.
Llyn returned her wandering gaze to the slender child before her and nodded, "Gawk, yes. I-" she paused, searching for the words that refused to come easily to her lips, "I am not actually sure why I came here today, but I guess it is for the better. I need to speak with you father." She took another brief look around at the architectural wonders of the chapel before returning her gaze to the young man watching her attentively. "In private?"
The child nodded, turning to take up the polishing cloth with one sure motion of his small hand, "It would be an honour, Joy. Shall we retire to my office?" he asked as he motioned toward a tall, spartanly decorated door behind the altar. She nodded as he turned and walked down the seven steps behind the raised dais upon which the altar and crucifix was elevated to be seen by all those who attended the church services.
Beyond that door was more of a changing room than a true office, one other door leading from it into the child priest's rooms proper. An ornate desk of dark hardwood was nestled into one corner of the room, obviously sized for one much larger than the priest as he had become. To compensate the chair behind the desk was raised, with a single riser to the side. Hough brushed the worn cloth across the corner of the desk as he circled it and stepped up into his chair, losing himself in the massive, time worn frame.
"Kyia was so kind to provide me with rooms." He giggled as he placed his small hands upon the age-darkened wood, stroking it slowly, "But unfortunately my old furnishings from Ellcaran were never intended to be used by a child." He left the polishing cloth resting on the arm of his chair, leaning back and resting his small hands on the burled endcaps of the ancient seat. "So, my daughter, what do you wish to discuss with me at such a pleasantly early hour?"
Joy glanced down at her hands, which worried themselves in her lap, the dark fur of her fingers ruffled out of shape by the nervous jitteriness of her fingers. "I wish to absolve the sins I have committed in the past couple of months, Father." She found the honorific coming easily to her voice, despite the fact it was addressed to one who appeared half her age.
"Those sins are?" the boy priest prompted, his face taking on a serious mien. He leaned to one side of the chair, resting one elbow on the arm as he steepled his fingers, resting his chin on his upraised thumbs. Llyn could imagine how he might have looked in that chair when he listened to the admissions of his acolytes in Ellcaran, filling the large frame, elbows resting on both arms, fingers steepled before his previously aged face. She banished that image with a brief shake of her head, whiskers pulling back as she realized he would never again be the man he once was.
"I killed, father." She nodded slowly, the first words she had ever given him in any of her other confessions the few times she had been able to go before him in his rare visits in the past. For almost anyone that would not be an unusual sin around Metamor, for slaughter was one of the natures of Metamor. Few would have cause to say those words in the past few years, though, save those who patrolled her borders, or beyond them as Llyn and her compatriots did. The boy priest merely nodded, listening closely.
Gathering her breath, she looked up and continued, "I took an innocent into danger, and was unable to protect her from harm." She sighed, frowning. Jylian had not returned, which very well meant that she had run afoul of Lutins or some other creature and no longer lived. That the innocent young bat had come to such an untimely end left a cold stone of sorrow in her heart, one more among the many she had found chilling her blood in the past few days.
"How did you do this?" Hough asked quietly, his eyes inquisitive.
"She followed me on patrol, and I did not learn of her presence until we were too far into enemy territory to turn about." Llyn supplied in as general a description as she could. The Long Patrol was not open to the Keep in general quite yet, and thus their activities had to be kept as quiet as possible. She knew that Hough's dictates demanded that he say nothing of her confessions to any other, even his own superiors, but the less information she released the better.
"She went of her own free will?"
Llyn nodded, her whiskers twitching. Her tail switched from side to side behind the simple, upholstered chair she had deposited herself in, arms resting in her laps for the chair itself lacked any rests. "Of her own bullheaded stubbornness." Hough merely nodded briefly. Llyn looked back down at her slender feet once more, flexing the short, brown claws of her toes briefly before looking back up and meeting the boy priest's alert eyes.
"I practiced magic, father." She managed to choke out at length, her hands clutching together in her lap as she confessed that sinister truth. Father Hough's eyebrows shot up on his unblemished brow, his eyes growing wide though he did not otherwise move from his pose of attentive alertness.
"You, my daughter?" he queried, the expression on his face one of curious amazement. "How?"
"I was given an item by someone, a skunk, I met on my patrols. He said that, when I received his signal, I was to break and release the magic he had placed in it."
"So you did not cast the magic yourself?"
"No, Father, but I..." her voice failed as she looked away, her eyes coming to rest on the array of ceremonial garments hung along the opposite wall.
"You did not yourself cast magic, merely utilized an item of magic? To what end?"
"To destroy a threat to Metamor." Was all she could supply, still not looking toward the priest. Her eyes settled upon a woodcut hung on the wall behind his desk detailing some liturgical scene, but she could not see it. She could only see the vision of the blue flash that escaped the brittle twig when she snapped it, and the brighter flash glaring briefly from beneath those huge towers.
"For the greater good, in other words."
Blinking, she lowered her gaze to the boy seated in the chair on the opposite side of the desk from her. He was lost in that massive frame of wood and upholstery, but it seemed as much a part of him as his rumpled vestments. "I guess you might say that, Father." She supplied before trailing off and looking away. A sullen silence hung in the air between them for the span of a few breaths.
"What other sins have you to reveal, my daughter?" the priest's voice was pitched low, a curious tone within it that brought her gaze back to him once more. She blinked, momentarily at a loss for words. "Your fur is streaked, Joy." He supplied, his fingers unsteepling briefly as he raised one index finger and placed the tip of it just below his left eye, trailing it down and away. Tears.
The fur of her muzzle was still streaked with the tears brought upon by her brief, anguished dialogue with Caroline. She quickly raised her hands and roughed her cheeks, banishing the dark streaks in a brief moment of violent self-flagellation. The young priest merely raised his eyebrows and watched, steepling his fingertips once more, resting them against his lips. "I..." she began, then let out a sigh and slumped back in her chair, tail falling as her whiskers drew back, short ears switching rearward briefly in consternation. "It is ancient, father, a sin I fear to be greater even than magic."
Father Hough raised an eyebrow, looking suddenly ten years older than the physical appearance of his changed body. He tapped his steepled fingertips lightly upon his lips as he waited to hear what horror she had to confess to him.
"Do you know what happened to the otter Caroline Hardy, father?" the mink asked at length, looking up briefly.
Hough nodded slowly, "I officiated Craig's funeral. I know why they are raiding the old keep north of the dikes, though I do not exactly approve."
Llyn shrugged one shoulder and nodded, "What happened to her... happened to me." She forced that out, gritting her short, sharp teeth as she bit off the words, her furred lips peeled back in distaste. Hough fell back in his chair, his mouth falling open for a moment in true childish shock, fingers splaying as his eyes went wide. Llyn sighed, frowning, and looked down at her hands once more.
"Four years ago, not long after I joined the close patrol, I was working the southern borders, between Metamor and the northern midland baronies." She ground her molars, the confession bringing that entire dark affair boiling up from her memories like fetid grease from a cook's cesspit. "A human claiming the title of Side Show Moe and his men trapped me, threw me in a cage." She brought her head back up, looking toward the young priest but only seeing the stark black bars of her cage, the leering faces beyond as they carted her beyond the influence of Metamor's curse.
She raised her hands, clutching at either side of her angular animalistic head, digging her claws deep into her fur to rake across the back of her jaw line, eyes brimming with anguished tears as she felt herself reliving the horrors of those days. "They raped me, Father." She cried, tears streaming freely now, voice ending in a choked howl. "For a fortnight, I was theirs." She closed her eyes, raking her face with her fingers, the sharp pain of her claws helping to push back the horrific memories. She did not see the sudden shudder that raced through the priest as his own memories came bubbling violently to the surface. His own capture, torture, and abuse at the hands of the late lord of Lorland. Llyn could feel the boy priest's hands upon her arms as he responded to her growing alarm; she could hear his consoling alto voice in her ears.
But she was lost in her memories, the touch of her captors as they dragged her from her cage, the jeering jibes of the burly mercenaries under the trapper's command ringing in her ears. She rocked in the chair, her eyes clamped tightly shut, thrashing out against the hands that contained her, hissing at the voices.
Only a sudden, rattling strike across her jaw brought her eyes open with a start, her chair briefly leaning to one side before she instinctively balanced herself again. She blinked, choking off a brief cry and sucked in a gasp of air. The face that swam into focus before her was not the mustachioed visage of Moe, but the concerned image of a concerned boy. He was holding one of her wrists, the other hand held low by his hip. She had to blink again as she saw a strop held securely in that small hand, his body shaking as he regarded her.
Blinking away her tears, she flexed her hands spasmodically, the sharp bite of her claws ceasing as she rubbed at her eyes with the heels of her palms. "I am sorry, father." She quavered, choking back the last of her sobs, suddenly finding herself utterly exhausted. The boy sighed, relaxing as he settled back upon his heels, releasing her wrist. He looked down at his other hand, his face drawn into a distasteful moue as he cast aside the leather strop.
"All is well, my child, all is well." He reassured her, stroking the soft, short fur of her shoulder consolingly, "I must apologize as well, for I struck you."
Joy could not help but giggle, choking a bit as she wiped at the tears soaking into the fur of her cheeks once more. "You stropped me." She claimed, her voice giddy with unrestrained emotion.
Hough grimaced, and nodded. "I could not bring you around with a slap, Joy, I am not quite that strong anymore. You were doing harm to yourself."
"I know, I know, and I forgive you father." She reached out and pulled him into a hug, a startled squeak escaping the smaller priest. "I hid that entire event, I lied and avoided questions about it." She admitted breathlessly as she released him, "Eventually folks ceased asking about my two week absence, and I buried it as deeply as I could."
"Until I saw what they had done to Caroline." She nodded, "It brought the memories back, I knew I could not keep them silent forever."
"Does speaking of them help?" Hough asked, pulling himself up onto the front edge of the desk, resting his hands upon his knees as his feet dangled before the heavy desk. The mink nodded, rubbing one of her eyes with the second knuckle of one finger. "In not speaking of it before you did commit a sin, my daughter, but an understandable one. In using magic in the aid of Metamor I can see no sin. In taking another into danger, of their own stubborn will or not, as an innocent there was a sin committed. In slaying the enemies of what we hold dear and good in the defense of your own life there is little sin, but no true evil intent." The boy priest rubbed his chin briefly with one hand, contemplating the molding around the ceiling of the small room.
"In penance for your secret I ask that you conduct a prayer at each station of the cross, and for the rest..." he paused, pondering, then smiled, "I ask that you select one of the statues within the chapel, then clean and polish it." He giggled, the infectious sound carrying over to the mink, who merely nodded and giggled back, still giddy from the sudden release of a darkness that had weighed heavily upon her soul for many years. "You can come by tonight after Vespers to conduct your absolution." He hopped down from the desk, walking to the door, "Most will be gone by then, and I would be more than willing to listen to your secrets. I would like you to contemplate what you have so long hidden from everyone, and yourself, and tell me of your observances when you return this evening." He opened the door and preceded her into the chapel behind the altar, which Llyn suddenly noted was far shorter behind that in front, allowing for the shorter stature of the priest. Truly, Kyia had provided well for him. "Yet for now I fear I must prepare for the Prime services."
The mink nodded as she roughed away the last of the streaks left by her tears, giving Hough a thankful hug, then bowing before him. Clasping his hand, she raised it to her lips in a brief supplication. Father Hough smiled at the hug, then giggled with boyish glee at the supplication, ruffling the fur between the mink's ears with his other hand, shooing her on her way.
Walking the length of the chapel on feet lightened with the unburdening of her soul, Llyn smiled as she gathered up her weapon from the rack within the vestibule. Strapping it on, she left the chapel as she fastened the buckle of her sword belt. Placing her hand upon the hilt she proceeded down the long passageway just as the first solemn tones of the Prime services pealed from the huge bells within the new bell tower ensconced in the shadows of Channing's tower.
Suddenly she came to a sharp halt, her entire body swaying as a sudden fierce desire raced through her, setting her fur on end, causing her to clutch the pommel of her sword with an iron grip. Spinning about, her face set in a rictus snarl, she almost took a step back toward the chapel, the sudden nearly overwhelming need that claimed her urging her forward. She did not take that step though; she found she could not. A sudden panic had arisen within her along with that burning desire, subsuming it in terror and causing her to fall limply against one of the cold granite balustrades of the arcade through which she was walking. Sucking in a steadying breath, she shook her head in confusion and continued on her way, her steps once more subdued.
What she could not understand, though, was why she suddenly had that sudden desire to slay Father Hough.