by David Ihnen

Skylos' ear twitched as he heard a familiar, high pitched bark. It sounded like that little dog that was always tagging along with Arla. He raised his nose from the book and scented the air more deeply. A familiar and very pleasant scent greeted him. It was that pretty border collie morph, Arla, somewhere nearby. Setting the book carefully on a small table, he tracked her scent, following the air currents of the large library. He came to the railing that separated the level he was on from the central atrium of the library, and caught sight of her. She was about twenty feet away, below him and across the well. Her little mutt was sniffing the edge of a bookcase a few feet away.

The hound immediately ducked down, peering through the railing, afraid he had been seen. The border collie morph was studying a volume held in one hand with intense interest, tracing something inside it with the other. He watched for a bit, admiring her. Her fuzzy ears stuck up just a couple inches before flopping over to touch her forehead, off blance by the incline of her head. Her expression was soft, the short fur smooth over her relaxed expression, unlike the usual snarl of annoyance she had at other times they had met. The black and white patterns on her face-fur set off the shape of her muzzle in the most beautiful way. She seemed a little sad, but entranced by whatever was in the book. After a couple minutes she looked around like she feared being caught. She snapped the book shut abruptly before stowing it back on the shelf. She wuffed softly for the little dog as she headed out, the mutt trotting along behind her. Skylos tilted his head thoughtfully. He'd never seen her near the library or books before. She always seemed much more the type to spend time in the long house, practicing war.

He moved down to where she had been standing. He could still savour the perfume of her recent presence there. She had such a nice, gentle feminine scent. It was always mixed with the leather and sharpening oil from armor and weapons that she used. It wasn't hard to find the book. Not only was it the only dustless one on the shelf, but it clearly had her scent on it. He inspected it, scenting several older, fading layers under the fresh one. She had come to look at it at least several times before. The spine proclaimed "Instruments and musical traditions of the Westlands." He handled it carefully, opening it upon a nearby table. It fell open to a particular page, about a third the way through. The page had her scent on it too. He smiled and studied it closely.

The page was about an instrument called the "Morning Flute". A rather talented artist had drawn a picture of a metallic cylinder, with many complex levers and springs coiled across its surface. The text explained that rather than using ones fingers to cover the holes, it utilized soft pads under cups attached to the levers to cover or uncover the holes. The mechanisms allowed more combinations for better precision with unusual notes. The flute pictured was made by T Torton, whose instruments were reputed for their sound quality and portability. He glanced through the rest of the book, pausing to study the author's tips for creating a fife before placing it back on the shelf.

A knock came at the door, rousing Skylos from his slumber.

"Justa minit!" called Skylos, trying to disentangle himself from the blankets and Sam, "Roll OVER!" he grunted, shouldering Sam off his legs.

Sam grumbled, pulling a blanket back over his shoulder, "Ya shouldn't sleep there." he mumbled.

"You were out all night, and yer the one sleeping on top of me!" Skylos snapped, scrambling to his feet and opening the door. He neglected to put on any clothes.

Dart, the messenger, blinked at the image of the hound morph, standing in only his fur, rumpled from sleep.

"Well?" asked Skylos, looking right back at the avian, either oblivious or apathetic to his appearance.

"Um, are you Skylos the Builder?" he asked.

Skylos nodded. "Yup."

"A message for you!" he announced, pulling an evelope from his bag and handing it to the dog.

"Thanks, I'm sure." spoke the hound, inspecting the seal with interest.

"Um, you might want to put on some clothes?" mentioned Dart, settling his bag on his hip.

"Yeah, thanks." mumbled Skylos, turning and letting the door shut. He sat down on the bed.

"Hey, Sam, you ever hear of Riezar?" he asked.

Sam mumbled incoherently, his spotted nose poking out from the blanket.

Skylos pulled the blanket off him. "Hey, wake up sleepymutt!" he nudged the dalmation with an elbow.

Sam sat up, pawing the sleep out of his eyes. "What, what? Am I late for dinner?" he asked.

"It's morning, silly. Ever hear of a guy named Riezar? Some sort of Merchant?"

Sam shrugged, yawning. "Yeah, he lives in town. Is always TRYING to put on concerts. All sorts of strange instruments. He tries to get keepers to play them. From what I hear, you don't want to go to the concerts." He held his ears to his head with a pained expression. He then picked up the blanket and pulled it over his head. "Wake me for dinner" he mumbled, snuggling down.

Skylos sighed. "I guess I better go see what he wants."

Skylos returned to the apartment in the keep with an oblong wooden case under his arm. It was late in the day, the sun already nearing the distant peaks to the west. Sam was still curled under the blankets, snoring loudly. He nudged the dalmation firmly with a foot on his way by.

"What were you doing all night?" he asked as Sam sat up and stretched, his back making popping noises. The dalmation smiled slyly.

"Oh, you just wish you were there! I went to that Inn in town... Blue Turnip? Something like that, you know the one, over by the wall."

Skylos nodded, opening the case on a table and inspecting the contents. "The one with the willing barmaids, eh?"

Sam snorted. "Anyway, I made some new friends, nuff said." he chuckled gleefully to himself.

Skylos smirked. "Betcha they weren't as pretty as Arla!" he retorted.

"You didn't spend no night with Arla!" growled Sam, "She won't have anything to do with a mutt like you!"

Skylos grinned, snapping the case closed. "Not yet I haven't." he grinned, walking over to the window and swinging the shutters wide, taking deep breaths of the muggy afternoon air.

"Whatcha got there, mutt?" asked Sam, approaching the table and sniffing the case.

"Oh, a present..." Skylos turned and leaned against the window sill, watching Sam with a smirk. The dalmation had managed to find the catch on the case and open it up.

"Looks like one of Riezar's rediculous musical contraptions." he evaluated, picking up one of the pieces and peering at Skylos through the hollow tube. "How did you get your dirty paws on this? And what're you going to do with it? You're not playing it here!"

"I did some work for him this afternoon. Had to rework some repairs on his baths. It was a disgrace, didn't even hold water." he shook his head sadly, "some people take no pride in their work."

"Looks pretty valuble." he spoke, running his paws over the gold tinted pieces before returning it to the box.

"I wasn't going to do it. There are better ways to spend a day. I saw the flute when I was waiting to see him. When I suggested that he give it to me in exchange, he got all excited. When I told him I wanted it for a give for somebody that I was pretty sure could play it, he shoved it into my arms." Skylos smiled, "He almost forgot to have me fix the bath!"

"A present, huh? Who're you gonna give it to?" he asked, letting the wooden case close before putting on his usual loincloth.

"Arla." grinned Skylos, his tail wagging with thumping noises against the sides of the window.

Sam snorted. "Yeah, what use would she have of a flute? She fights with the staff and the sword! She wouldn't take a present from you anyway! She doesn't even like you!"

Skylos laughed! "You're just jealous you didn't think of it first! I do think she'll like it."

Sam shook his head. "Sure, sure. Come on mutt, lets get some dinner. You might as well get rejected on a full stomach!"

Arla panted, taking a break from her training for a splash of water. She had been firing a crossbow all afternoon. She was getting better, but the weight still felt strange in her arms. She poured some of the fluid into a bowl for her little companion, who looked at her adoringly before thirstily lapping up the water. She sat on the bench and lined up the bolts on the shooting table. A canine paw picked one of them up, knocking three out of line. She looked up sharply, growling until she saw who it was, then she didn't know whether to laugh or kick him. It was that mutt Skylos, the builder. He fitted the the bolt in and hefted the crossbow. He winked at her before sighting down the range. His tail wagged from beneath a small backpack visible as he turned.

She looked around for her little dog. She was laying nearby, chewing on a large bone.

*whuTHUNK* he fired. A bullseye.

Arla stared at the target, her mouth open a few inches.

"Betcha ya thought I wasn't good at nuthin!" he grinned, his tail wagging all the more.

Arla shook her head, reluctant to encourage the amorous canine. "Fine, so you can shoot crossbows. Good for you."

"I'll teach ya!" he offered.

Arla growled. "Look, builder, I don't need help to learn how to fight from you." she raised her hackles a bit for emphasis, paws on her hips.

Skylos giggled, and danced away from her a bit, ears held back submissively. "I'm not such bad company, really. 'Sides, I ve gotcha somethin I think you're gonna like!"

Arla shook her head again, glancing around. None of the long scouts seem to have noticed the exchange. She sighed. "Okay, what do you have?" she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"Ooh, you gotta promise me something first!" he grinned, tail wagging in enjoyment, rocking on his heels.

Arla sighed, folding her arms in front of her. "Yeah, promise you what?"

"Ifya really like it, ya hav'ta promise to spend an hour with me, whenever I want. And be nice and do what I ask."

Arla glanced around again. Nobody, particularly not any of the long scouts, was in sight at the moment. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously at the grinning hound. "I don't know..."

Skylos looked into her eyes sincerely, setting a paw on hers. "I promise I won't do nuthin bad. No humpin. Nobody'll even see you with me." he tilted his head a bit, looking hopeful.

Arla slowly pulled her paw away from Skylos's. She didn't know why she didn't slug him right now, touching her like that. Right between those big brown eyes.

"Just if you like it." pleaded Skylos.

Arla sighed. How bad could it be? She wouldn't like it anyway. "Okay. I promise. IF I like it."

Skylos pulled a slender package from his backpack, and presented it to her with a florish. He waited expectantly, paws behind his back and eyes alive, his tail wagging.

Arla smirked a little at the canine's eager behavior, sniffing the package curiously. It wasn't food. It smelled of oil and metal and wood. She tilted her head curiously and untied the wrapping around it, revealing a rectangular wooden box. A latch opened with a touch and a soft click, revealing a beautiful gold morning flute. Her jaw dropped twice as far as before. She ran her fingers over the metal valves, the polished mechanisms that moved with gentle pressure, their surfaces silky under her pads. With trembling paws, she fitted the three pieces together, assembling it to the full length. She raised it to her muzzle and blew. A breathy whistle sounded. She frowned and adjusted its placement, and blew again. A pure tone sounded, echoing off the far end of the range a moment after she ended it. She suddenly realized where she was.

She held the flute in her paws, looking up at the canine, who grinned fit to bust. "Where did you get this?" she demanded, "It must have cost a fortune!"

Skylos's tail wagged like it would fall off. "It's yours."

Arla shook her head firmly, disassembling it and placing the pieces back in their hollows in the case, her paws almost steady.

"No. I can't. It's too much." she said, holding the case out to the hound.

"Nothing's too much for you!" grinned Skylos, pushing it back up against her chest.

Arla shook her head, clamping her eyes shut against the emotions that welled in her from the size of the gift. She could feel her tail wagging, but she couldn't help it. And she wanted to slug him too.

"No, I can't." she managed.

Skylos chuckled happily. "Oh, you like it. I can tell."

Arla sighed, feeling trapped. Skylos turned for the exit.

"I'll see you in the morning!" called Skylos as he trotted off, tail still wagging, "Early!"


Arla started awake as her companion barked shrilly, bouncing and pawing at the door. Her eyes looked to the window for the time of day. It was pitch black outside.

"Who is it!?" she barked.

"Wake up Arla!" called Skylos in a sing-song voice, "The sun's coming up!"

"For crying out loud, you worthless mutt!" she barked in annoyance, "It's the middle of the night!"

"You promised! One hour whenever I want! And I want now!" he replied.

Arla looked over at the wooden case that still sat on the table near her bed. It was the least she could do, after all she had promised. She rolled out of bed and shook her fur out, pawing the sleep from her eyes.

"Okay, Okay! Gimme a minit!" she barked back through the door.

She splashed some water on her face and impatiently pawed her thick neckruff into some semblance of respectability. Fur was a pain sometimes. It still was bent to one side from sleeping. She pulled on her pants and boots.

"Come on!" barked skylos from outside the door, "And bring the flute!"

She sighed and picked up the case, opening the door to the keep hallway. Skylos was waiting there, his tail still wagging.

"It's too early in the morning for wagging tails." she grumped, stumping out into the hallway.

"Naw, never too early for that!" grinned Skylos, leading the way down the corridor. "Come on, I know a great place!" They wound through the keep and eventually up a very, very long staircase.

"You realize it's far too early to be climbing stairs." she growled, panting from the effort. Despite the hour, she was feeling more awake from all the excersize.

By the time they arrived at the top of the tower, the sky was already fairly bright. They could see the sunshine working its way down the far peaks.

"Just in time!" grinned Skylos, trotting to the east side of the tower and hopping into one of the parapets to face her, his back only a couple feet from the disaster of falling off the high tower.

Arla looked around, and frowned, lolling her tongue to cool. It didn't take long in the crisp morning air.

"What now?" she asked.

"Tell me about the flute." he said softly.

Arla sat down opposite him in another parapet, opening the case on her lap. She spoke softly as she ran her paws over the keys, making muted reverberations in the instrument.

"This is a morning flute. My mother had one of them." she mumured, grimacing as emotions welled in her.

"Why is it called a morning flute?" asked Skylos.

"Where we came from, it was played to welcome the sun. It was supposed to cheer the sun, making it brighter, so that the food would grow and the warm season would last longer. Each morning, especially on the equinox, they would play the morning song." she sighed, her paws sliding over the keys, moving over the flute, the instrument half raised to put her paws in the right position.

"What happened to your parents?" he asked.

"They died in the battle." Arla swallowed and shook her fur out. "Back when I became... this." she indicated her body.

"You're beautiful." said the hound simply.

Arla opened her mouth, then closed it. She looked down at the floor of the tower.

"How does it go together?" he asked. She could feel his brown eyes on her.

"It's simple." she said, picking up the pieces. "The beginning goes on here, and the end attaches." She held the assembled flute gently in her paws.

"Do you know how to play it?" asked Skylos.

Arla shook her head. "I did. Not any more."

"Why not?" he asked.

Arla held up a paw impatiently. "I learned when I was human, mutt. When I had real fingers."

Skylos shook his head. "I bet you could play it anyway. It's not like a fife, where your finger has to cover the hole"

Arla shook her head again. "I can't."

"You never know if you don't try." suggested the canine, "Besides, I heard you play it yesterday."

"I can't." she repeated, looking down, staring at the device in her paws.

"Okay." said Skylos. He turned around in the parapet and watched the ever brightening ridge to the east silently. He thumped his heels against the outside of the tower, his tail wagging gently.

Arla looked at the brown back of the canine. His ridiculously long ears brushed his shoulders. He'd been so nice. He'd actually found a morning flute. And given it to her. Even now she had a hard time keeping from smiling as she saw his tail wagging back and forth so gaily. She stood as the sun peeked over the eastern mountains, casting its first bright rays in her eyes. The melodies of her youth swelled up in her again.

She raised the flute, and blew. Her strange paws somehow found the keys, bringing out the minor melody in pure tones that disolved in the empty air around them like salt in hot water, the only reverberation in the mind.

When she finished the song, the sun was already hovering over the mountains. She looked down at the rough stones of the tower, the flute hanging, once again silent, in a paw. Skylos sat still with his back to her, tail wagging gently, his muzzle raised to the morning sunlight. She slowly disassembled it and placed it back in the case.

"Thank you Arla. That was beautiful. I'll take you back to your room now." said Skylos, smiling at her, his eyes looking into hers in an adoring way that made her ears feel hot.

She followed him silently back to the room, and paused at the door, shifting from foot to foot.

"I don't know what to say." She murmured, afraid to look at the canine.

"Then don't say anything at all." spoke Skylos, turning to leave.

Arla put a paw on his shoulder, and leaned close. She lapped the side of his muzzle, once, before turning and closing her door behind her.

Skylos grinned widely, his tail wagging furiously as he trotted through the halls of the keep.