"Muri?" Llyn's voice came through the door, muffled and indistinct as the quiet rap of her knuckles upon the wood brought the skunk's attention up from the book in his lap. He drew the flyleaf down between the pages and closed the book as he stood up from the bed and crossed the short distance to the door and lifted the latch. The mink stepped in almost before he could get the door fully open, then pushed it shut behind her and leaned heavily on it. "Let's get out of here."
"Here?" the skunk murred, flicking his ears forward as he raised one eyebrow. He was wearing a simple robe of heavy velvet that the old wolf had gifted him with the previous evening after he was found, shivering, in a corner not far from where an enraged raccoon had nearly ended his life. He had been unable to sleep for much of the night thereafter, and the old soldier had been more than sympathetic about his plight. Harragan blamed himself for the disaster at the Mule, and sat in the darkness of the south bailey for a good three hours talking the skunk out of his near catatonic panic.
He was still not particularly settled from the entire experience, having tossed and turned through a whole host of ill dreams until some time shortly before dawn when some music filled his dreams and chased away his fears. He had slept well after that, and felt rested, but tense.
"Here, Metamor." Llyn clarified as she stood away from the door, reaching for his clothing hung beneath the room's single spartan shelf. "I need to get away for the day, into the mountains away from the crowds." She did not mention that she had been feeling the same, subtle itch to spit a few of them with her sword for most of the morning. The event with Rickkter had left her unsettled, her nerves jangled and her muscles tense despite the massage she had gotten from one of Kwaanza's other students.
Muri nodded immediately, as eager to escape the closed, stifling confines of the keep as she was, though for different reasons. He felt that he was being hunted though he had only left his rooms briefly shortly after waking to get some food from one of the nearest kitchens. The guard that had replaced Harragan, at first, had been human, but the wolf had run them off, and would have remained on duty had his commander not sent the groundhog now standing outside to replace the wolf. Not nearly as talkative as the wolf, but not as stiff as the ermine had been, the groundhog had also been kind enough to show him to a small, secluded bathing room in one of the lower halls of the keep.
For that Muri had been glad, for his fur had smelled strongly of the smoke and ale fumes that had permeated the mule the previous night, and no small amount of his personal musk.
He pulled his clothes on hastily as Llyn stood silently by the door, watching with a peculiar hollowness in her gaze. For once she did not seem to take a great deal of notice of his unclothed form, though Muri did not notice. He picked up one of the other books he had borrowed from the library; a common treatise on the local history, and shoved it into a small pouch which he looped over his shoulder as he followed Llyn from the room.
"We're leaving Metamor for the remainder of the afternoon." She informed the groundhog, who merely nodded his small grey head slowly, rustling his thick pelt of bristles. "We will not need you."
"M'am I." the groundhog began in that flat, pedantic voice that Muri had grown familiar with. No matter what he was saying, that flat, nasal voice made him sound so bored he was about to fall asleep. Llyn, on the other hand, did not pay much regard for his bored drone. She placed the tips of two fingers flat against his tabard covered chest and pushed him solidly against the wall.
"We - will - not - need - you." She rumbled sternly, drawing each word out slowly as she stared directly into the startled guard's small eyes. "Understand?"
"Gotcha." He droned, nodding, and did not move further as Llyn led Muri down the hall. The skunk looked back over his shoulder and shrugged as he met the guard's solemn gaze. The groundhog shrugged in return. Turning back around, Muri found himself walking through a door, and directly out into the wide expanse of one of the outer courtyards. He blinked in surprise as he stepped out into the sunshine, his feet sinking into the cool, recently trimmed grass. The previous night it had taken him and the wolf a good ten minutes to reach an outer door.
He paused and turned to look back at the door, which looked just like any other door into the courtyard. He could never have missed such a door, he knew; not one that was so close that lead outside. "Come on, Muri, it's just Kyia playing tricks again." The mink urged him as she strode across the grassy courtyard. Two horses were tethered near a broad, dirt floored arcade that lead toward the open southern gate, and it was to these animals that Llyn led the skunk. She reached up and grasped the cantle of the saddle on a sorrel gelding that stood almost as tall as she did at the shoulder. Considering she was somewhat shorter than the average human, that made the horse a little less than average height at the shoulder. The grey spotted gelding that she pointed him to was shorter still, and narrower of barrel, his legs more slender than the stout trail horse that Llyn was riding. Llyn's horse sported a pair of very large saddle baskets behind it's simple, shallow saddle, their leather walls bulging with whatever gear she was carrying. A contoured slot in the cantle gave her a place to put her tail as she settled into her seat and smiled across at Murikeer.
The skunk paused and looked into the horse's limped grey eye for a moment before he lifted a paw to the stirrup and climbed into the saddle. "I did not know you owned horses." He commented as he pulled the reins, resting them lightly against the horse's neck, then pulling a bit to turn the animal when it failed to recognize the neck rein. Llyn chuckled as she clucked at her mount, flicking the reins for it to move forward.
"I don't. These are from the Duke's livery stable."
Muri let out a short, inquisitive murr as he looked down at the horse between his legs, not knowing if common Keep denizens had rights to the Duke's own steeds.
"No, silly." She smiled over her shoulder as Muri's mount lurched into motion, following its stablemate down the wide passageway. "You've seen the Duke, you think he rides horses any more?"
"I was not sure." Muri said as he drew his horse alongside Llyn's. The two animals shared a brief brush of their shoulders together before their riders steered them apart slightly lest their legs get caught between the two heavy animals.
"Oh, well, he still does." Llyn smiled, "He's got a few hot blooded chargers he keeps for ceremonial things and his Knights of the Red Stallion, but these are just hacks. I asked the stablemaster, and he let me borrow them."
"Nice of him." Muri nodded as he looked up at the inside of the south gate moving sedately overhead. Once beyond, they moved toward the gate leading into the walled town of Metamor itself, proceeding down the broad avenue toward the far gate. Somehow Muri found that the added height of being on the horse quelled some of his fears, the thin crowds on the street parting without incident to allow them passage.
Once beyond the dry, walled and gated bailey Llyn identified as the 'Killing Grounds' and beyond the walls of Metamor itself, Llyn turned her steed east. Hardly needing to bother with his reins, Murikeer let his own mount follow, breaking into an easy, distance eating trot as she guided them onto a trail which led up toward the mountain walls east of the city. The narrow path forced Murikeer to stay a length behind Llyn, who stood in the hiked-up stirrups of her mount and posted with the gelding's stride, sparing a smiling glance back at the skunk as the trees closed him behind them.
"Where are we going?" Muri called up to her after ducking a low-hanging branch. His longer legs enabled him to post with his gelding's smooth stride, though he had to duck a great deal more than the mink did. The path had grown narrow and twisting, switching back and forth as they headed further north and east with each passing moment.
"Up there." Llyn called back, waving one arm out and pointing east and up as they broke into a clearing. Muri cantered up alongside and followed the direction she pointed; toward a long cleft in the mountains high above. Sunlight gleamed from water somewhere up in the naked grey boulders of the defile as clouds curled over the white crest of the mountain.
"Above the treeline?" he murred curiously as his horse walked around a short shrub.
Llyn shook her head, "Close, but not that high. See up there, where the high meadow begins to thin out?" she reined in her horse, which snorted and champed at its bit for a moment before bowing its head to graze. Muri did the same, turning his animal so that he did not have to crane his neck sideways to look upward. "There's a stream on the southern edge of the meadow." She lowered her arm and shifted in her saddle, the well oiled leather creaking quietly. "It's beautiful country, I go up there for some peace."
"Or to escape rampaging raccoons." Muri muttered with a quirky smile. Llyn raised an eyebrow at him, then chuckled as she nodded. Raising her reins, she gave them a short flick, starting her horse into walking once more.
"I heard about your little.. incident last night." She laughed lightly as Muri drew his spotted mount up next to hers. He shrugged as he settled his hands on the front of the saddle and shifted his weight. Even though it had been redesigned at some point in the last few years, the saddle still wore at his furry backside. The cantle slot was too narrow for the muscular root of his tail, and his legs did not have the lateral flexibility they once had to grip the curve of the saddle.
"I am not sure if I'll ever be able to get along with those humans down there." He nodded back over his shoulder as they moved into the dimmer, diffused light of the forest once again. The trees here were broad limbed and spread out, their flat leaves blotting out a great deal of the sunlight and left the forest floor in a dim, evening gloom even in the middle of the day. Nothing much grew on the forest loam save moss and the occasional bracken, allowing them to continue side by side.
"There are still more of them than us." Llyn commented with a nod as they turned up a switchback, their horses chuffing as they swiftly ascended a small ridge and turned south. "But it seems that many of them choose to live in the town rather than the Keep." She called back to him as their horses surged up another small slope. Eventually the ground leveled out somewhat, allowing them to draw abreast again. "Which makes it seem like Metamor proper is the home of the animals." She chuckled. "A menagerie without cages."
Muri brushed aside a slender, low hanging limb, "How is it then that I seem to run across those few humans?" he churred, "The depraved or merely malign ones?"
"Luck?" Llyn giggled, giving a sharp flick of her reins as they came upon a long stretch of relatively clear path. The brown trail horse snorted, turning its ears back as it surged forward in a swift canter. Muri chuttered and shook his head at her simple and not particularly enlightening answer. Snapping his reins, he thumped his mount's ribs with his heels and galloped after her.
Llyn and her mount seemed to know the trail well, turning and weaving around trees and boulders as they loomed up without breaking stride. Muri was forced to rely on the instincts of his mount rather than any experience, and simply held on for the ride. They climbed the mountain swiftly, the burring chitter of Llyn's laughter reaching his ears as sunlight glimmered and flashed through the trees.
Muri could not help but to grin as well, leaning forward over the low front of his saddle and pressing his hands at the base of his mount's neck. His slender gelding had more speed than her thick riding horse, but lacked the brown animal's stamina, and began to falter after a good half hour canter. Falling back into a trot, they let Llyn move well ahead of them. The skunk had a few momentary fears that Lutins might not be all that uncommon in the wild, un-patrolled heights, but none materialized to halt their ascension.
Eventually the skunk and his tired grey spotted horse came into the long, narrow, green valley that she had pointed to from a clearing far below, and slowed to a walk. Llyn was already on the far side of the steep walled valley, turning her horse to look back at them and wave. Muri waved back and patted his mount's lathered neck. "Not far, fella." He assured the winded animal, which merely turned one ear back and continued its sedate walk through the grass.
"What took you so long?" Llyn chided with a smile when they finally arrived on her side of the valley, reaching out to catch Muri's reins and bring the horse to a stop. The skunk gratefully slid from the saddle and rubbed his aching backside with his hands as he looked around. Llyn laughed at the hilarious display, bringing Muri's attention back around. He grinned and flicked the end of his tail, catlike, and shrugged.
"Hay, I haven't been in a saddle in... heck, probably five years." He explained as he looked around again. She had brought her horse up onto a relatively flat, table-like plateau of earth piled up on a massive boulder jutting from one side of the valley wall. A stream, more a small river, flowed around one end of the table rock, its course clear down the center but foaming white through the rocks along either side. Few trees grew in the long defile, though they grew higher up along the walls and below them.
Below them... there was a lot of that. The valley fell away to the west, fanning out as it reached the depths of the broader valley of Metamor itself. The keep dominated the southern edge of their view, the keep town sprawled around the small looking castle dominating the northern limits of the town. Castle and town spread across the southern end of the huge pass like a carelessly dropped carpet of whitewashed buildings and varicolored roofs. Most around the furthest edges of the town were thatch, as well as almost all of the farmhouses dotting the valley floor. Within the town itself most roofs were of shale, the same dark, flat gray as the stones of the mountains themselves. Here and there a roof of paler southern shale shone like a beacon in an angry, dark grey sea.
The roofs of the castle were of the same dark gray tile of the mountains, but there was a deeper luster about them, as if they had just been quarried and had not faded with the years. The massive central edifice of the Keep, which Llyn identified as the library, was shingled in deep, burnt red tile which held the same fresh luster of newly laid ceramic. Glass gleamed brightly here and there; from the roofs of the greenhouses, solariums, and atriums as well as from the polished marble of the Keep's walls themselves.
Taken as a whole, the sprawling city of Metamor Keep looked dingy and grey, lost in the cold damp hinterlands of the north. Yet to those that lived there it was a vibrant, bright, living city that was constantly growing, evolving with the passing years to turn calamity into strength.
"Beautiful view, hmmm?" Llyn asked quietly at his shoulder as she looked down upon her home, the only home she had ever known. In all of her life she had never been further south than the nearest of Metamor's vassal baronies, and even then only briefly. She had been born and grown up on a farm within sight of Metamor's walls. Her parents had also been born Metamoran, and had never traveled north or south as far as their daughter had. They were born, grew, fought, bled, cried and died all within sight of the grey outer curtain wall of Metamor Keep.
To keep the unknowing, thankless lands of the south safe from their northern enemies.
Such was her own fate as well, she knew. A barely literate farmer's daughter for her first seventeen years, she had lacked the education to understand any desire to travel. Stuck now and forever in the body of an animal, she was forever trapped here, the only avenue available to her wandering paws populated by the rapacious tribes of the Giant Downs.
Muri nodded slowly as one of their horses let out an impatient snort behind them, wishing to be freed to graze upon the lush grass of the high mountain meadow. "It's a remarkable view." The skunk reported in a quiet voice of wonder. Llyn chuckled warmly as she turned to Muri's horse, removing its bit and turning it loose to graze. Her own horse was already grazing a short distance away, its long brown tail swishing at imagined flies, which had long ago fled the growing chill of the nights.
Muri wandered over to a large, long construction of aged wood and steel, looking at it curiously. It had the look of many years about it and grass had grown up thick about its thick wooden legs. A handful of old wooden buckets were stacked at the higher end of the apparatus, the long tray of which was littered with small pebbles. "What's this?" he asked over his shoulder to the mink. She looked up from one of the large saddle baskets she had removed from her horse.
"Oh, that's my sleuce."
"Sleuce?" he asked, stirring his fingers through the scattering of unremarkable grey pebbles. "What are you, looking for gold?"
"Mithril, actually." She said from close at his elbow. He turned and raised an eyebrow at her, awaiting any further explanation. "I found a nugget back down there." She pointed down along the stream, which disappeared into a copse of trees a short distance away, only to reappear much further down the mountain. "A few years back, so I've been working upstream trying to find the source ever since."
"Mithril." Muri chuffed, picking up a small pebble and looking at it. It was plain, unremarkable, pale gray shale with a chip out of one side. The metal of which she spoke was rare in the extreme, so rare in fact that some even said it did not exist. Mostly because of its expense and the ease with which is appearance was forged from lesser metals. Muri had seen a few examples in his life; small bits of intricate magical devices only, never as an entire item. "Any luck?"
Llyn nodded with a bright smile as she dug through the deep pan at the low end of the sleuce and pulled out another, slightly larger rock, which she tossed to him. "I've found a few bits and pieces, but not a lot." She said as Muri caught the rock, which was only a little more interesting at first glance than the pebble had been. "Pascal gave me an oil I can test my specimens with, to see if there's any good content."
Muri nodded as he turned the stone in his hands slowly. "Simple sedimentary stone." He reported, looking up at her, "I was under the impression that mithril came from metal veins in deposits like marble, or flint." Llyn nodded, picking up another stone, larger yet, and tossing it toward him. The skunk flicked the smaller one aside as he caught the last with both hands. This one was quite different from the others, though it was primarily the same drab grey. Slicing through it, though, was a paler vein of dense marble which gleamed with a hint of green in the sunlight. Muri's eyebrows furrowed as he tried to coax out that green gleam, only to be thwarted.
"Jade." he murred quietly, surprised. As a student of earth magics he had learned a great deal about the minerals that made up the medium of his magical sphere, though he was no actual geologist. Jade was one of the best for protective or healing incantations. He drew on some of the powerful surrounding flows of energy and focused them into the stone, then brushed the more brittle shale away with a few quick moves of his hands. Llyn let out a gasp as he removed the hard grey stone as if it were mere dust on an old book, watching as it flaked away and fell at his feet. When he was finished he held a flat slab of thickly veined, pale white stone with just a hint of green in its depths.
"That was a great trick." She gasped as she moved over to stand next to him. She reached out and traced her fingers across the clean, smooth surface as the skunk chuckled softly.
"It was no trick." He said as he laid the dense stone in her hand. "If you find wherever the main deposit of that marble is you might find your mithril."
"Your magic would certainly help in that." The mink smiled, turning the stone about in her hands, then setting it on the edge of the sleuce. "I had a long talk with Father Hough last night." She explained as she turned and moved back toward the saddle baskets. She began pulling wrapped packages out of one, setting them aside as Muri walked over to stand a few feet away. Pausing in her work, she looked up at the skunk, her expression solemn, "He gave me a bit of a different view on magic like yours."
Muri knelt, raising an eyebrow at her, "His view being?" Muri was not particularly sure about what an Ecclasiastic priest would have to say about magic of any sort. Most he had ever heard about saw magic as a direct enemy to the church, no matter how benign.
"That magic is. well," she held up a small knife, the blued steel gleaming in the bright noonday sunshine, "Is like this knife." She gave a negligent flick of her wrist and the blade struck the ground between the skunk's paws with a quiet chuff. "I could cut cheese with it, or cut your throat. What I do with it is my choice, not the knife's."
Muri looked down at the wrought steel hilt, "Magic is merely a tool." He nodded, reaching down and taking the knife from the earth. He brushed the clinging dirt away and tossed it back. Llyn nodded and caught the hilt, setting it on top of a half round of pale golden cheese.
She nodded as she turned to the other saddle basket and produced a large, deep green cloth and tossed over to him. "Hough explained that your magic in itself is neither good nor evil, only the intent you put behind its use." In the process of spreading the fabric about upon a flat expanse of grass a few paces away, Muri chuffed quietly and nodded. "Indeed. and this is the part that startled me, he said that not even the magic that Nasoj used was evil." Muri let out a quiet sound of surprise at that particular admission from a priest of the Patildor. He conceded that parish priests tended to be more worldly than many risen into the ranks of power such as their current bloodthirsty patriarch, but such an admission of tolerance toward magic, even the darkest of its uses, was a milestone. "The spells he laid on Metamor, and us, can be used to mend just as easily as destroy. That raccoon you saw last night had a disease of the lungs that was wasting his life away before he came to Metamor." She waved one arm at the view, "So, in that, Nasoj's magic was actually a boon rather than bane."
Muri helped her bring the wrapped food items over to the spread fabric, then sat down across from her as they began unwrapping the items. The mink had managed to secure a good deal of food, more than he expected they could eat in one sitting. "And for you?" Muri inquired with a warm smile.
The meal Llyn had procured consisted of a cleanly sliced loaf of fresh rye bread, cheese, fruit and recently harvested vegetables. One weighty bundle contained several varieties of freshly prepared, lightly salted meats. A handful of small earthenware pots contained smooth cheese for spreading, as well as a mildly tangy spread made from some southern herb. "What of me? What do I think of magic now?" She asked as they prepared sandwiches for themselves.
"No. what the curse did to you." Muri explained after several long, quiet minutes. They both finished their respective meals, occasionally turning their attention toward the brilliant vista of Metamor valley. Across the valley the mountains soared up once more to kiss the clouds which curled over their crests. A cool wind ruffled their fur, falling from the heights above them toward the valley below. Llyn shrugged one shoulder as she nibbled on a slender, deep orange carrot. The tasseled top had not been sliced off by whomever had harvested it.
Subtle changes in custom that went with the all encompassing effects of Nasoj's spells.
"To me?" she asked curiously, "It. gave me birth." She crossed her short, mahogany furred legs, tail curving around to one side. "That's why my friends call me Joy." She smiled, short white teeth gleaming for a moment in her musteline muzzle, "I was nothing, a mere farm girl. I was heavyset, stout of body but." she sighed, turning her attention once more toward the spires of Metamor, "But my image, what I thought of myself, was as a boar."
"A boar?" Muri churred with surprise, snapping his attention back from his own contemplation of the valley below.
"A human boar, yes." The mink responded as she wiped some crumbs from her fur, "I was left scarred by the pox when I was a child, for my parents were not of the Lightbringers, they did not believe in the healing magics your priests had to offer during my sickness."
"Lothanasi." Murikeer supplied quietly, "Our priests are Lothanasi and Lothanasa. That seems pretty harsh of your parents but, well, I guess if they knew nothing of the truths about the Lightbringers then it's not out of sorts." He curled his tail about one side of his hips, draping the thick fur across his lap as he shifted on the thick fabric of the blanket. "I thought your priests could also heal."
Llyn nodded, and shrugged one shoulder as she let out a sigh, "Healing, even at the hands of a priest of their own faith, was not seen as the natural progression of life, so they refused even that." She flicked a fly away from her muzzle with one negligent wave of her hand, her brown eyes settling on the skunk across the blanket from her. "I did not know any better myself, I merely lived with what that particular curse left me with, though I feared to be seen." She waved a hand toward her face, "I did not willingly look into a mirror for over ten years, and grew my hair long to hide the scars as much as I could. The Battle of the Gates changed all of that for me. It gave me beauty, strength, and a nimbleness I lacked as a human." She chuckled darkly, "I was taller than Duke Hassan himself when I was human at well over six feet. And heavier too."
"Now you are a mink." Muri smiled, "And not a bad looking representative of the species, either."
Llyn laughed, her shadowed mood brightening as she tossed a sprig of cauliflower at him. "I'm no goddess." She barked humorously, "I lost the soft curves I had as a human, and the past seven years as a soldier hardened me up even further. But the reason I was called Joy was that I accepted this." She ran her hand over the front of her body as her dark brown eyes gleamed at Muri. "I jumped into being a mink with both feet. I can look in a mirror now."
Muri chuckled, "You like to look into mirrors now." He chided warmly. His tail plumed behind him in a relaxed curve as he shifted slightly, crossing his legs and leaning his elbows on them.
Llyn smiled brightly, "Ahh, you have me there." She nodded, then stood and brushed the crumbs of their meal from her clothing and fur. She bent and picked up one of the remaining slices of bread and cheese as Muri stood. Nibbling on them, she led him back over toward the aged wooden sleuce. "Now that I was no longer afraid to leave the farm that was my home for so many years I began to explore the valley that had been my home. Stones had always fascinated me, because they hid their beauty." She picked up the slice of marble Muri had coaxed from the stone. The pale green shimmer had faded as the surface of the stone dried in the sun, but none of the strange depth had been lost. She turned it in her hand as she finished the bread and cheese, "It takes a patient hand and a good eye to see what stones have to offer."
Llyn hmmed and looked up at him, "Cathartic? Yes." She nodded after a moment of contemplation, "I could say so, yes. What was me." She placed her hand over her heart, "Was lost in the scarred giant I once was. I guess I could thank Nasoj for releasing it."
Muri reached over and ruffled the fur of her cheek with a smile, "Just so long as you don't thank him too personal like." He chuckled. Llyn growled a good natured rumble as she nodded and set the stone aside.
"My thanks come on the edge of a sword." she churred as she patted the hilt of her shortsword. She turned her head into the touch of his hand and smiled before turning and walking toward the quiet rush of the nearby stream. "Metamor lost a lot of people during his attack, and many since who could not handle what I embraced." She said over her shoulder as Muri followed. "I lost one of the only friends I ever had in that battle."
"We all lost a lot." Muri nodded as he followed her toward the stream, "Some more than others, admittedly. I was only a child, and apparently immune from the effects of the spell." He shrugged as he worked his way across a narrow neck in the stream by hopping from stone to stone behind the mink. "But only for a few years." The water hissed and roared around the carefully placed stacks of stones Llyn had constructed to cross the stream, which ran clear and deep through the center of its bed. Only along the banks where large stones broke the smooth rush did the water surge into white froth and swirl in eddies.
"You did not lose any family?" Llyn asked as they walked down the far bank on a narrow path along the tops of the larger stones of the bank. She was much more nimble across those rocks than Muri was, having familiarized herself with them long before.
"No. My mother died shortly after I was born, my father died six years ago in Sathmore." Muri explained without looking up toward her. He had to pay attention where he put his relatively narrow paws on those large, age smoothed rocks where Llyn merely hopped with blithe ease. His tail, as ever, was his greatest assistant in keeping him upright when a rock would shift or he landed slightly off balance. The loss of his human 'feet' took a great deal away as far as contact with the ground went. He lacked a heel in the truest sense, his legs having become long and slender, much like a dog or other animal. Skunks in the wild had plantigrade feet, much like humans, but for some reason Muri's had changed to the more animalistic digitigrade configuration.
Such an evolution helped in many ways, granting him speed and nimbleness even at a full run, the claws tipping the four main 'toes' of his paws allowing him to dig into the earth for traction, and helped him climb nearly as fast as a squirrel. They were looking pretty ragged, he thought as he looked down to carefully place his steps, since he did not have the tools to keep them cleaned or polished. The claws tipping his slender fingers were much the same, but not quite as noticeably as the much heavier claws of his paws.
"Where were you born?" Llyn asked, stopping before a vertical outcrop of massive grey stone that jutted out from the flank of the valley wall. Several stones about that massive rock face had been moved, exposing a pale vein of white marble that had forced its way through the boulder during some ancient age. The stream took a sharp turn at that huge rock, forming a huge, limpid blue pool between valley wall and rock face. "Here's where I found most of the rocks in my sleuce." She reported as she nudged a few loose stones with one of her own feet.
"Here in Metamor valley." He answered her question as he looked up at the sheer wall of the massive boulder. It towered some thirty feet above his head, a narrow slice of stone unearthed somewhere high in the mountains above during a rock slide or avalanche in the past. It had come to rest, like the discarded head of a broken stone axe, on edge in the softer earth of the valley floor. Off to one side the valley wall rose steeply, the narrow path leading up close along the face of the boulder and disappearing around its crest. "I do not remember the name of the hamlet my father said my mother hailed from." He continued as he ran a hand over the face of the boulder. He stepped over onto a smooth, flat shelf of stone jutting over the water as he knelt and examined the marble inclusions on the face of the boulder.
"There are not many small hamlets around here." Llyn, standing a little higher up the valley wall and leaning her hip against another heavy slab of grey stone, said as she tossed a lump of pale white marble from one hand to the other and watched the skunk. "Do you know her name?"
Muri glanced up and nodded, "Emily." He reported as his eyes scanned up the valley wall above the boulder, "She was born, lived, and eventually died of illness in one small village here. I do not remember her family name." He frowned at that. His father had never said more than her birth name when he had ever spoken of her, sober or drunk, within Muri's hearing. Into his cups, though, he had often sung to her, or reported his son's progress to some imagined vision of her within his inebriated memory. Standing, he pointed up toward the crest of the nearest ridge.
"This rock comes from up there..." he said as he leveled his pointing finger on a dark slice of shadow some five hundred feet up toward the peak. His statement ended in a startled yelp as the flat shelf of stone he had decided to stand on suddenly buckled and shifted, a shower of small rocks erupting from the butt end of the heavy slab as it toppled suddenly into the rushing water. Muri scrabbled at the face of the boulder as he was pitched over backward by the sudden movement, but there were no cracks for him to grip. From the corner of his eye he saw Llyn leap forward, extending a hand, but she was too far away.
He reached for his inner reserves of magic, but his sudden plunge into the bone numbingly frigid water shattered his thoughts as crystalline water closed over his head in a froth of white. The water reached his skin before he had even come to grips with the fact that he had sunk like a stone, his dry fur lacking anything to protect him from the water's chill bite. His lungs screamed as his body convulsed with the sudden icy touch, but he managed to reach the surface before he inhaled a chestfull of water.
Flailing his arms, he managed to keep himself above water long enough to gasp in a breath of air before the current pulled him under again. He could see, which was a small blessing, so knew which way to swim once he had gotten his bearings, and made it to the surface a couple of heartbeats after going under. His soaked fur threatened to drag him under with each passing moment. Fear clutched at his heart even as he felt his fingers beginning to numb, the strength draining from him like water from a shattered cask. Breaking the surface, he gulped in another gasp of air and looked around frantically. The boulder was a distressing distance behind him when he finally managed to locate it, Llyn's silhouette just reaching the crest as he watched. She pointed and screamed something at him as the water surged into a tight bend. Turning laboriously, Muri struggled to stay afloat and seek the surest method of escaping the water all in the same moment. The icy chill of the water was already beginning to send his mind into little circle of screaming panic, fogging his thoughts and slowing his reactions as he fought to keep himself from drowning.
A moment later he spotted what Llyn had been frantically trying to point out; a fallen tree some distance down stream, its branches jutting down into the current like some fisherman's seine.
The tree had fallen relatively recently, perhaps sometime during the past winter during an avalanche. Many of the thicker branches still existed, resisting the desire of the water to tear them away from the thick trunk of the tree. It loomed up with distressing speed as Muri swam toward the thickest nest of branches. A loud hiss began to grow in his ears, the sound of the water through the branches, and he feared he would be spitted upon them rather than save himself. Throwing out his arms, he pulled with the last of his remaining strength toward the thickest branch, then threw out his hand as the tree's shadow passed overhead.
The branches hit him with the force of a dozen angry soldiers wielding quarterstaves, slamming into his body from chest to ankles as he clutched at one after another. The first broke, the second slipped out of his grasp, and the third bent alarmingly before he wedged his other hand around a thicker limb and grabbed hold against the powerful pull of the stream. Water surged up and cascaded over his head as he dug his claws into the polished wood. He held his breath, inching hand over hand up the branch until his shoulders cleared the water. Llyn was suddenly there above him, crouched on the thick trunk of the tree and extending a hand, her face drawn up in a panicked snarl.
Working from branch to branch, she helped him work up the length of the tree and get into a relatively shallower eddy at the bank of the stream before he was able to find his footing and stand. His legs were weak and shook as if he were stricken with palsy. Llyn scrambled down the shallow bank and helped him struggle out of the water, his entire body quaking. Shadows loomed close about them, the stream having swept Muri some distance down from the clearing where they had left the horses.
"Don't do that!" Llyn admonished breathlessly as they collapsed on the ground, water dripping from the skunk's soaked fur in a steady downpour. He glanced at her, his face frozen in a momentary expression of shock.
"I s- s- slipped!" he managed to force out past chattering teeth as he wrapped his arms around himself. His tail was hopelessly waterlogged and lay to one side looking like a discarded woman's stole after a rainstorm. Llyn nodded and giggled; a half-horrified exclamation of passing panic, and wrapped her arms tightly around him.
"You scared me almost out of my fur!" she gasped as he crushed him close, trying to still his shaking with her proximity. She was unsure how much of it was from his immersion, or the shock of the entire event.
"Y- you?!?" he squeaked back, his teeth chattering uncontrollably. "I d- did not know if-f I w- would freeze or d- d- drown!"
"You still might freeze." Llyn said with a shaky chuckle as she pulled at a tuft of dripping fur. "You're soaked to the skin." Muri could only shiver and nod, feeling utterly miserable. "Let me go back and get my firekit so we can get dry before it gets dark up here." She said as she released him, "Get those clothes off, they won't help any."
Muri grabbed her arm as she stood, shaking his head unsteadily, "N- no, wai- t- t." He muttered, turning his attention on a small stone a few yards away. It took a great deal of effort to recenter the chaotic tangle of his power enough to focus it into a cohesive flow. The task was lent greater difficulty by his uncontrollable shaking. He had done the same thing every winter for the past three years, though, so the actual desired spell came more swiftly than most others would have. Within seconds the stone began to steam, a dim red light glimmering dimly from deep within the featureless grey mass. The nearby grass and forest litter rustled as the light grew brighter, curling away from the hot stone then suddenly bursting into flame.
With a sigh, Muri ceased pouring power into the stone, feeling utterly drained merely to cast that one spell. Cold had that unfortunate effect, to dampen the power inherent within himself as his body drew upon it to keep warm. It also had the effect of weakening his grasp upon the surrounding energies of the earth. Once he warmed up, he knew, his power would return, his touch upon the world energies around him would strengthen again. Turning his attention to his shirt, he fumbled with the laces of one wrist, gritting his teeth to keep them from chattering. Llyn took a few moments to put out the small fire that sprang up around the now glowing red stone, sweeping a small circle of earth clean to keep the stone from causing a much larger fire. Satisfied that they were not about to burn down the forest, she returned to help Muri closer to the stone.
He held his hands out to the blessed warmth of the magically heated stone, leaning close as Llyn unlaced his sleeves, then pulled his shirt of, draping it over a low hanging branch a few feet away. Muri shook himself, dog-like, as his soaked fur was freed from the confines of the fabric. Llyn laughed and danced back as water fanned out from his shoulders, hissing where it landed upon the stone and sending up a small cloud of steam. With the mink's help he managed to unlace the cuffs around the long shanks of his ankles, then the waist of his pants and struggled out of them as well, standing up to do so. Once more he shook his fur out, bracing his balance against a tree as he did. It felt as if he had unloaded half of his weight when he shook the heaviness of the cold water from his fur, ruffling up his fur as he wrung out his tail.
With a deep sigh, he sat back down close to the stone and extended his hands toward it, draping his tail off to one side to let it dry. He knew by much experience that drying his tail would take the longest, which was one shortcoming of the form he had been given. His tail was a lovely vanity, but it was a cumbersome beast to care for even in the best of circumstances. Llyn sat down beside him and helped wick some of the water from his back by rubbing her hand down firmly against his fur, wringing the water from the depths of his fur.
"The next time you go swimming what not ask me?" She chided with humorous good nature as she leaned close, the warmth of her fur against his shoulder helping warm him, "There's plenty of pools further down where the water is a lot calmer."
Muri wrung his hands together as the cold began to bleed out of his fur, the returning sensation causing them to tingle uncomfortably, and smiled over at her. "And war- rmer?" he chuffed, smiling from one corner of his muzzle. Llyn smiled and leaned close to nuzzle the side of his wet cheekruff.
"Well. I can't promise that." She murred as she slipped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. Much to his surprise, she had also removed her shirt and leggings, which had gotten soaked as well when she was helping him out of the water. "Water around here is pretty cold no matter where it comes from." She dragged her fingers across his chest, flicking them lightly through the thicker fur to force out the wetness. For several moments she continued her slow ministrations, ruffling the fur across the back of his shoulders and chest with each hand, then brushing it flat to force out more water. Muri merely sat there and enjoyed the assistance, which helped his fur dry a great deal faster, and worked on the much thicker fur of his tail. His paws were extended toward the stone, the shorter fur of his shanks drying easily with no more aid than the dry heat of the pyrock.
Eventually the heat began to soak through his damp fur and warm the underlying flesh, chasing away the chill and easing his shivering. The shorter fur of his legs, arms, and stomach was soon relatively dry, leaving only his thicker fur wet despite their best efforts to groom out the water.
Looking down at a snagged branch in his tail, Muri was worrying it out of the long fur when he felt Llyn's hand gently catch his chin. Murring with quiet confusion, he raised his head as she pulled up gently upon his chin, and suddenly found himself face to face with the mink, the short fur of her lips warm upon his own. His eyes widened for a moment and he blinked at the unexpected kiss, but he did not withdraw. He was too stunned at first as he met the deep brown of her eyes and saw the warm glimmer of humor within them.
Humor, and more.
With a short cough he drew back, raising his fingertips to his lips for a moment, "Ahhh, Llyn." he began, his words faltering to a halt before he could formulate any cohesive statement.
The mink murred quietly at him, tilting her head slightly to one side as she watched his eyes, "What?" she asked quietly as she ruffled the damp fur of his chest, "Have you never. done anything?" she smiled warmly as she leaned close.
Muri chuffed and chuckled despite himself, the brief surprise of her hungry kiss fading, "Oh, I have." He smiled, "You just surprised me, that's all."
Pushing against his chest, she leaned in and gave him another gentle kiss, licking across the fur of his nearest cheekruff before nibbling upon his whiskers. "Oh, I'm going to surprise you all right." She churred deeply, her voice a smooth tenor rumble, and gently forced him back down upon the ground.