Three Keepers stopped and looked at each other, surprised to hear thin metal clattering on stone. The panda, chicken, and komodo dragon paused, noting the snowflake and anvil sign over the door. Next, they heard a loud curse and an even louder crash. The door to the smithy slammed open, sending echoes down the hallway, revealing a thickly furred dog-morph, the color of freshly fallen snow, ears flat to the side, teeth bared in a snarl, and brown eyes snapping with frustrated fury. A rapidly growing patch of red marred the white fur of Drift’s left cheek, and he glared at the trio standing dumbstruck outside his door. "What?!" he yelled, teeth flashing. The trio flinched visibly, jaws snapping shut, and said nothing. Covering the long slash on his cheek with his hand, he stormed down the hallway in search of Healer Coe, his stride marred by a heavy limp favoring his right side.
"What strange customs these westerners have," Mong Ho commented once the samoyed was lost to sight, fluttering her feathers in agitation. "To leave a fire blazing in an open room? Very careless."
"Perhaps he has just had a bad morning," said the panda. "Let us bank that fire lest his morning grow even worse upon his return."
The komodo nodded. "A wise suggestion, Desuka, and one that I do not think will delay us much on our way." He stepped in, but paused to look at the broken, half-shattered bar of tin on the floor.
"What is it, Ye?" asked his friend the chicken.
"I see what his problem was, Mong Ho," said the komodo as he carefully banked the forge's fires. "His fire is too hot."
Brian Coe was jolted awake a week later and quickly tugged a nightshirt on over his tousled fur. "I'm coming, I'm coming," he yelled, trying to get whoever was pounding on the door to stop. After barking his leg against the corner of a table, he paused to light a candle, the lightening night sky not yet far enough into dawn for him to see without it. Opening the door, Coe sighed as he recognized the same Keeper at his doorstep for the third time in two weeks, clutching his left hand, ears flat with pain. "Drift, do you have any idea what time it is? Never mind, never mind. What did you do to yourself this time?" The raccoon beckoned Drift in and closed the door behind him.
Drift winced sharply as Brian made him spread the fingers of his left hand, revealing a nasty burn from the thumb down onto the palm. "I thought your ring kept you from getting burned?" Brian asked, looking startled. "And what's this white stuff?" he continued, noticing a white patch in the middle of the samoyed's right palm-pad. Drift's ears immediately dropped flat back, head ducking and tail curling, but the raccoon grabbed his hand and opened the fingers again for a closer look. "Makeup? You -didn't!-" He looked up sharply, eyes focusing on the Mark of Akkala just peeking out from where he'd had to shave Drift's cheek earlier last week for the stitches. Sure enough, the Mark itself was unmarred, but there was white makeup all around it, covering most of the shaved cheek. Where the makeup touched the Mark, it looked singed, and there was a slight burnt smell. Coe sighed and twitched his whiskers in an admonishing tut-tut as he rummaged up some burn salve from a nearby cabinet. "You did. Honestly, Drift, what were you thinking?"
Drift's arms came up, gesturing at the Mark and at his throat. His mouth moved as if he was trying to explain himself, but no sound came out. "It took your voice, too? Oh, dear. You'd better get yourself down to the Lothanasi temple right away and make an apology to Akkala." The raccoon looked around for a moment, as if searching for something, then shook his head. "Where's your cane? I told you not to walk on those toes without one." At Drift's disgruntled look and a second gesture at his throat and his hand, Coe sighed. "Never mind. I have a crutch you can use for now. And yes, you -will- use it until you get back to your cane or I'll have you confined to your room until those toes heal. Yes, I can do that. I don't want to, but if you don't stay off that foot as much as possible, there's going to be trouble. Understand? Good. Now, let's get some salve on that burn and wrap it up to protect it while it heals..."
Drift put off going to the Lothanasi temple as long he reasonably could, heading first to his room for his cane and then back to Healer Coe's to drop off the crutch. But eventually he could put it off no longer and, with a silent whisper of thanks to Kyia, quickly found himself at the ornately carved doors. He carefully settled down on the floor across the hall from them, since the temple had not yet been opened for the day, and prayed, Oh, Eli, please let it be the nice one. I don't know if I could handle the Lothanasa this morning.
He passed the time by studying the creatures and beasts carved into the door, and the precious metals and gems used to highlight them, trying to figure out how the metals were inlaid without actually going over and touching them. He'd just started to figure out the third when the sound of claws clicked on the floor to his right, and he turned his head to find himself nose-to-nose with a large grey wolf.
Greetings, o snow-furred one, said a voice in Drift's head as the wolf flopped down on the floor next to him, one forepaw draped over the other and his tongue lolling in a silly lupine smile. What brings you here this fine morn? Pray don't look so startled, friend! Your pardon, but my voice is not what it used to be, so a telepathy spell must suffice.
Drift's disgruntled frown drew a puzzled look from the wolf, his head tilting and an ear tipping back. Nothing to say? What is the matter? The wolf sniffed the air. And why do I smell burnt hair?
Both of Drift's ears went flat back as an unwanted memory flashed before his eyes, of flames sweeping up his arm. The samoyed's left hand started shaking and he quickly seized it by the unburnt fingers to make it stop.
Are you alright? came the wolf's unspoken question as he half-rose, putting a forepaw on Drift's arm. Please, talk to me. Tell me what's wrong.
A snarl rippled Drift's lips and he tried to say something, then thumped the wall with his fist out of sheer vexation and pointed at his voiceless throat, turning his head so the wolf could see the offended Mark of Akkala.
Oh, dear. How did you- Never mind. I'm sure the Lothanasa can help you set things right. When he saw the nervous look cross Drift's face at the mention of the high priestess, he nosed the samoyed's arm and gave him another lupine smile. Don't worry. I'll introduce you. Just trust me. Laughter followed when Drift gave him a quizzical 'who are you' look. Call me Wanderer. Yes, that Wanderer. Rest your mind at ease; you're not the only one here to have offended a goddess. But Akkala is forgiving, and I'm certain fair Raven will be able to get things straightened out.
Footsteps at the doors turned the heads of both canines. Ah, an end to our wait, came Wanderer's thought as the doors swung open. Stay put, sir, I'll ask him to help you up. The wolf locked eyes with the white-robed young boy who had opened the door, and he stepped toward Drift with an extended hand, smiling with a benevolence unusual on a face so young.
Between Drift's cane, the age-regressed youth, and the wolf's bodily support, the samoyed got back to his feet without trouble. Thanking both with a nod, he tap-stepped his way into the entryway of the temple, the sound of his cane bouncing noisily against the stone walls despite the frescoes and Elvish calligraphy with which they were decorated. The boy stepped around him with the regained nimbleness of youth, preceding him down the hallway, but Wanderer stayed beside him, a reassuring presence for which Drift gave grateful thanks in his heart. His tail kept trying to tuck between his legs, while his fingers tapped on the cane's head with nervous energy.
Relax, o canine snowdrift. I promise I won't let anyone bite you unless you ask for it. The wolf's tail wagged a laugh. Ah, here we are.
The temple doors opened at the end of the hall, revealing a long, wide room, spartan in its simplicity, without any of the carvings or tapestries that Drift would have expected in a holy temple, aside from the covered fire pit in the center, the altar, and the double-barred Lothanasi cross above it. He had vague, fever-skewed memories of the temple from when he'd been here last for Akkala's healing, but now, with the dawn's first light streaming through the window beyond the twin cross, he instinctively liked it because of that simplicity.
Wanderer darted forward, weaving expertly between a pair of acolytes carrying a wooden-planked stretcher between them, stacked high with tied bundles of parchment and vellum, his tail wagging wildly as he skidded to a stop by the altar at the Lothanasa's feet, eyes fixed on her and ears completely ignoring the objections of the offended acolytes.
Raven was just as beautiful as he'd heard, with long black hair still held on to after the Curse, dark grey fur with lighter highlights, a short muzzle, and a flowing white robe that cascaded like liquid light from her neck to the floor. Drift felt a sudden stab of envy for Wanderer, which he quickly quashed, ears heating with embarrassment.
The wolven priestess dropped to one knee and wrapped her arms around his neck, her smile complementing his wagging tail as he crooned a loving rumble into her dark black hair. The tone was unmistakable to Drift's ears, though it might have sounded like growling to a non-canine. "Hello, Charles," she said once they separated, in a voice considerably softer than Drift had expected from the highest Lothanasi priestess of Metamor, especially with her strict reputation. "How are you today?" No words came from the wolf, but Raven smiled after a moment. "I'm glad to hear it.
"And who is your friend?" Ice blue eyes came up to fix on Drift, who had stayed near the doors and out of the way of the temple's early morning bustle. Those eyes flickered for a moment as Wanderer looked at her. "Oh. Come closer, please. Don't be nervous. Show me what happened." As he tap-stepped closer, her brow furrowed as she scrutinized his face. "I remember you. You go by 'Drift', is that correct?" Her furrowed brow tightened when she saw the burnt white makeup and the burn on the upturned palm when she unwound and then rewound the bandage. "What did you do?" When the samoyed opened his mouth and pointed to his throat, she sighed and shook her head, rising to her feet with an expression of resignation mixed with mild annoyance. "Charles," she asked, looking down at Wanderer and running the fingers of one hand through his cheek fur, "would you run down to the acolytes' kitchen and give them a wolf's advice? Otherwise, they always overcook the morning sausage. Thank you, dear."
Once Wanderer had left, pausing only to give Drift an astonished look and a surprised You really -are- a snow Drift?, Raven gently shooed everyone else out of the temple, closing the doors behind them. "Kneel, please," she said, in a firmer tone than what she had used when Wanderer was in the room, directing him to a specific spot in front of the altar. Picking up a container from a nearby shelf once he had knelt down, she anointed his head with lightly perfumed oil, wetting her right thumb with the oil to draw a Lothanasi twin cross upon his fur. Putting the container back on the shelf, she directed him to open his mouth, placing her right forefinger on his tongue. "Bright Lady Akkala, please loosen this man's tongue, so that he may speak and explain what has transpired in his own words."
Drift's nose twitched from the perfume of the oil on Raven's thumb and on his forehead. "Og-" was all he managed before Raven took her finger from his tongue. "Thank you," he said, rubbing his nose to relieve the itching. "And the name is Drift Edward Snow, now. I am no longer a castaway."
"Mr. Snow, this respite is only temporary. Tell me what you have done, and why you spread white coloring over the Lady Akkala's sacred mark."
Both from his own embarrassment and from the increasingly forbidding look on Raven's face, Drift ducked his head, tipped his ears back, and tucked his tail. "It was stupid. I was angry at myself, arguing in my mind, and wasn't paying as much attention as I should have. I've used the white makeup for the last several days to protect my cheek from sunburn until the stitches are out and the fur grows back, but this is the first time I've been idiot enough to not pay proper attention to her Mark. The next thing I knew, my hand was burned and my voice was gone." He sneezed, grumbled, and rubbed his nose. "Sorry. It's the perfume. I never handled perfumes well, even as a kid."
Raven couldn't quite hide a flicker of amusement at the samoyed's discomfiture, but her questioning was strictly business. "So you did not intend to cover the Lady Akkala's Mark?"
"No, ma'am. It was an accident. I have no excuse for my carelessness."
The samoyed's blunt honesty and respectful tone brought a look of surprise to Raven's face. "I am impressed, Mr. Snow, that you would not try to make an excuse."
"It wouldn't do me any good, and I try to own up to my mistakes. It's the right thing to do." He looked up, a slightly lopsided smile tugging at his mouth as he lifted his bandaged hand. "Besides, would you want to fib to a lady who can do this?"
"A valid point, Mr. Snow," Raven said with a nod, then turned to the altar and raised her hands toward the twin cross. "O Lady Akkala, Bright Mother of all mankind, hear this one. He has gone astray, and seeks to return to the path that you have set for him. Hear his words of repentance." She then stepped back and out of the way, watching as the samoyed bowed his head and folded his hands in the Patildor fashion, his tail tucked respectfully as he repeated his earlier explanation and apology.
She noticed with a bit of curiousity that he did not genuflect before praying, and that feeling grew when he continued to speak after his prayer to Akkala. This was much quieter, as if spoken to himself and no other, but it was not so low that her keen wolf ears could not detect it. "Father in heaven, please forgive me, for I have sinned against you as well. I have again allowed my temper to override my judgment, and have wronged one who gave me aid. Father, please help me not to be frustrated with myself, to have patience when things go awry, and help me to make the proper amends. In your beloved son's name, amen."
Once she saw he was done, Raven stepped forward again and looked to the twin cross, silently communing, then turned her eyes to the kneeling Drift. "Akkala has accepted your apology and restored your voice. As penance, you are directed to join the acolytes here at least two days of each week for a month, delivering food, water, and medical attention to the poor, especially those who have lost their homes this winter."
"I know how that feels," Drift muttered quietly.
Raven gave him a slight admonishing glance for interrupting, and then continued. "You will report directly to Celine, the head of the acolytes, and she will let you know when your penance has been served." Taking a deep breath, she stepped away from the altar, her voice becoming warmer as she ceased being a messenger from on high and returned to being a priestess in the service of others. "Now, before you go, would you like me to tend to your cheek and your foot? I'm certain that must be painful."
Drift levered himself gingerly to his feet, leaning on his cane to keep the weight off his foot. "No, thank you, ma'am."
"Mr. Snow, are you sure you won't reconsider? It won't require another penance."
Drift drew himself up to his full height, white fur gleaming in the sun. "No thank you," he repeated. "Those two don't involve anything but my own temper, and I'll pay those dues myself." With that, he turned and tap-stepped his way out of the Temple, leaving Raven shaking her head at the strange mix of pride and humility in the canine Keeper.
Drift sat at the bar in the Deaf Mule later that evening, one ale in his hand and two more in his belly. "I have never known such a run of bad luck," he muttered, voice slurring perceptibly. His head buzzed from the drink, which put him even more out of sorts. He didn't remember ever getting buzzed from just three drinks before... "I mean, I expected to have problems starting tinsmithing again after so long, but with the metal breaking so often... I don't know what I'm going to do." He downed the ale in two long gulps, and then tapped it for a refill. Donnie shook his head. "What? You're cutting me off -already-? After -three- drinks?! This is outrageous! This is preposterous! This is-"
Whether it was Donnie's sharp glare or the pain in his foot that got him to sit back down and stop yelling was the subject of discussion around the bar for about ten minutes after, during which the samoyed could be heard grumbling irritably over a mug of mint tea, trying to resist the urge to scratch his cheek. The fur was starting to regrow, and it -itched-. He'd nearly pulled the stitches out the one time he'd given in to the urge to scratch it, and now kept his hand well away. At least the burn on his hand had healed when he made his apology to Akkala, which left him one less thing to worry about. But even so, the constant itching was making him even more short-tempered than normal, which he knew was problematic. He was his father's son, with his father's temper, and he had to be careful not to-
A shout of anger gave an instant's warning before a deluge of ale splashed across him from the side, soaking his fur and his lap in dark liquid. He leaped up with a yell that turned into a yelp when he came down hard on his injured toes, his leg buckling and toppling him into the lap of the next person down the line. This started off a domino effect as the bear he'd fallen against crashed into an age-regressed Keeper, who then toppled into a lizard just stepping up to the bar, a wooden cue stick in his hand. The bear shoved Drift off with a single powerful heave of his arm, right into the person who'd thrown the ale, a scraggly-bearded, heavyset man with a deeply lined face and the clothes of a caravan merchant. Not that Drift cared about his clothes. Or about the startled look on the man's face. His fist was already on its way.
He woke up in Coe's infirmary again the next morning, battered, bruised, and aching, with a headache fit to burst his head open. He groaned, and then gasped in pain as a blazing shaft of sunlight lanced through his eye and blasted out the back of his skull. Hastily bringing an arm up to shield himself from the barely opened window shutter, he hissed, "Oh Eli, somebody -please- close that window." After a moment's pause, he repeated, louder, "Will somebod- ohhhh..." His head was pure agony, and his stomach threatened to rebel at any moment. Groans and growled admonitions to shut up arose from several points across the room, laced here and there with profanity and an occasional threat. He rolled out of the thin line of sunlight, nearly toppling off the sickbed in the process, and looked around. Finding what he was looking for after a moment, he reached and pulled it close just in time. Nearly a minute later, his stomach long empty, he shoved the chamber pot away and finished his topple out of the bed, where he slumped back into unconsciousness for a while.
Drift's head ached as he stood before a large desk an hour later. Or maybe it only looked large compared to the age-regressed Keeper dressed in the uniform of the Watch behind it. Or maybe he was still dreaming. No, his head hurt too much for him to be dreaming. Meanwhile, the little girl frowned and said, "Mister Snow, do you know why you're here?"
"Oh, please not so loud," Drift begged in a pained, whispering voice, eyes trying desperately not to screw shut, hand clasped tightly behind his back so they wouldn't fly instantly to his pounding temples. He settled for plastering his ears as tightly as he could against his skull in hopes of muffling some of the sound. Beside him, the merchant mirrored his reply and didn't bother with clasping his hands.
"You and Mr. Farrell here," continued their torturer in a voice slightly louder than before, "are charged with drunkenness, brawling, disorderly conduct, and destruction of property. How do you plead?"
"On my knees, ma'am," was out of the samoyed's mouth before he could get a hold of his addled mind, a reply that deepened the frown on the child's mouth considerably.
She stepped out from behind the desk, reached up, and pulled Drift down to her level by a handful of belly fur, dropping him to his knees with a whimper. "Very cute. You just bought yourself another day washing dishes for Donnie. Want to try for some time in the stocks instead?" At Drift's small headshake, she let go of his fur. "Good. Stay down."
The young girl turned her scowling attention to the merchant next. "Since Donnie corroborates your story about a 'little guy' throwing the ale instead of yourself, I'm inclined to let you go. But for breaking a chair over Begging Boy's back," she said, thumbing over her shoulder, "and for punching Andrew in the snout-" At the man's look of confusion, she prompted, "The bear. For punching a full-grown bear in the snout, I'm going to call you quite possibly the -stupidest- man I have ever encountered and have you confined to your room at the inn until your caravan leaves. That is, unless you'd like to wash dishes, too. No? Good. Now, get out. Both of you."
Scrub. Scrub. Scrape. Splatter. Splash.
Drift whimpered, his fur soaked entirely through on his arms, chest, and belly. He had his ring off and in his pocket to keep it from getting lost in the soapy water, and he was hot. Between the humidity from the rain outside and the steamy heat of the dishwater, panting did him no good except to let him swallow soap whenever a dish splashed, which was often. Something else he did often was thanking Eli that it was his second and last day. When he'd discovered that the ale that night had been spiked, Donnie had taken pity on his new dishwasher and gotten his punishment reduced from four to two days, for which Drift was deeply grateful. He made a mental note to do something special for the bull.
The kitchen door swung open, and Drift turned to recognize a familiar face... just as he felt a tug in his right pocket and spotted a gray shape pulling away out of the corner of his eye. "Hey!" he yelled as the pickpocket bolted out the back door, a lean, long-limbed canine of some sort. “That’s my ring!”
The samoyed burst out the door in hot pursuit, tearing off the apron as he ran. Not enough time to switch to taur, but that body can't be built for endurance. He's a sprinter. He has to be. As long as I can keep him in sight, I can run him to ground. Drift's confidence died a sudden death as a familiar pain bloomed in his right foot. Ow! Ow! Stupid toes! Not now! Desperation crossed Drift's face as he dropped from a run to a fast limp, watching the thief with growing despair as the grey dog accelerated away.
Misha blasted past him in a thunderous charge, all four feet flinging clods of mud as he yelled and waved for people to clear a path. Drift recognized a frying pan he'd just finished washing, just before Misha flung it edge-on after the thief. It cut through the air with a strange wobbling whir, but the pan’s concave shape pulled it wide of its mark. The thief looked aside as the pan clanged off the wall next to him, and was just starting to laugh when the fox yelled, "Now, Madog!"
A silver-gray shape hurtled out of an alley just ahead of the thief, who barely had enough time for a scream of terror before being tackled. As Drift approached, panting and limping, his eyes widened. His sheer surprise temporarily drowned out the ache from his foot. A large metal fox pinned the thief down, its jaws clamped around his throat. From the sound of the thief's gurgling, the bite left just -barely- enough room to breathe. It growled and tightened its grip whenever he struggled, which translated into him getting very still, very quickly. At close range, he finally recognized the thief’s breed. A greyhound. A racer. "Thank you, brother," Drift panted, wiping rainwater from his eyes. "Thanks, um... Madog?"
Misha reached down and grabbed the front of the greyhound's shirt. "Let him go, Madog. I've got him." With an effortless heave, he lifted the gasping dog with one arm and patted him down for weapons with the other. Finding a long knife, he flipped it to Madog, who caught it in midair and ate it, his tail swishing in unfeigned delight. He also returned Drift's ring, then shook the greyhound to get his attention. "Okay, you worthless piece of gutterscum, start talking. Why Drift? Why someone in the kitchen of a tavern when there are plenty of people on the street?"
Despite Misha's implacable grip and fearsome gaze, the greyhound seemed more afraid of Madog and never took his eyes off him. The dog trembled with fear as the automaton finished eating the knife, licked his lips, and started nosing at the thief's pockets. "I s-s-saw his ring the other day," the thief stammered, "th-then spotted him through the window today with it off. I f-f-f-figured he- aaaah!"
The thief gave a shrill scream when Madog's questing nose found a heavy coin purse tucked beneath his clothes, close against his upper thigh, and the metal fox bit through the cloth to rip it loose for chewing. "He lies, Papa," said the fox matter-of-factly as he ate each coin like most Keepers would eat cookies, licking from his whiskers a few threads from the greyhound's inseam.
Drift watched Madog in slack-jawed amazement, and made a mental note to get the whole story of the metal fox later. Slipping his ring on, he gave a sigh of relief as the cooling magic flowed back through him, and then turned his attention to the growling Misha. The angry foxtaur gave the thief a shake that set seams popping throughout the greyhound's shirt. "The truth, or I'll feed you to him myself," the fox threatened, teeth bared and hackles raised all the way down his very considerable back.
"Okay, okay!" the thief yelped, tail so tightly tucked that it pressed against his belly. "Just keep that thing away from me! Some guy hired me!" He hastened on before Misha could shake him again, the words almost stumbling over each other in their haste to convince the murderous-looking fox. "I don't know who! I swear! He would only show up at night, and always wore a long cloak! I never got a decent look at him! Honest! He just said to steal the white guy's ring! Even said I could keep it if I wanted!"
Misha growled. "What did he look like?"
The greyhound whimpered. If possible, his ears flattened even further back against his skull. "I don't know! Black cloak, long!"
"You must remember -something- about him! His voice, how he walked?"
"Nothin', I swear! Normal voice, same as you'd hear out of any guy in the marketplace!"
Misha pulled the dog nose to nose, ears flat, lips rippled into a snarl, and yelled, "Give me -something-!!" The dog's shirt chose that moment to tear apart and deposit the thief in a sobbing heap on the ground.
The foxtaur wound up for a kick, but stopped when Drift laid a hand on his arm. "I don't think we're going to get anything more out of him right now. Let's hand him over to the Watch. They can try to get more out of him once he's calmed down, okay?" As a faint glimmer of hope flitted across the thief's face, Drift snuffed it with a smile. "And if you're not satisfied with their conclusions, we can always have Madog sniff him out later, right?"
Misha checked himself, realizing what damage he could have done if he'd kicked the dog-man while in taurform. "You're right. Help me get this sack of filth tied up, will you?"
Drift tried to take a step forward, but yelped and leaned heavily against Misha's side as pain shot through his foot and up into his leg. "Are you all right?" asked the foxtaur, steadying his friend and giving him a look of concern.
The samoyed winced, his expression pinched and his foot held off the ground. "No, I am not all right. I cracked two toes a couple weeks ago, and I think running on them was a big mistake. Ow. Can you give me a ride to Coe's once we're done dropping this guy off, and let Donnie know where I've gone so I don't get thrown in the stocks for a week?"
Madog got to his feet and enthusiastically wagged his grey tail. "I help, Papa! I go tell Donnie!" the mechanical fox yipped, and then scampered away before either of them could say anything.
Drift watched him go, listening to the yells of alarm that marked Madog's progress back to the Mule, and then turned to give Misha a long, questioning look. "One of these days, I have -got- to ask you how you made that thing." When Misha opened his mouth to explain, Drift held up a hand. "Preferably someday when I'm not standing on one foot in the rain in the middle of the street, okay? Besides, you have a thief to tie up."
Misha laughed. "It's a long story, Drift," he said as he started tying the greyhound by his wrists and ankles before hoisting him aloft. "A very long and very -old- story. Here, you climb on first, and hold him in place. As for you, you mongrel," he added, giving the thief a glare that tucked the greyhound's tail under again, "do you have a name?"
Misha growled impatiently, a dangerous gleam in his eye. "A name, mutt, not a nickname."
The thief cringed, cowed by the foxtaur's threatened wrath. "D-David."
"All right, David. Hold still, keep quiet, don't tempt my patience, and I -might- not feed you to Madog. Clear?"
"Yessir," the thief whimpered quietly.
Coe was -not- happy to see Drift again. "Didn't I tell you to stay off that foot as much as possible? Didn't I tell you what might happen?" His ears were flat to the sides, his voice carrying the edge of an angry chitter as he wrapped the samoyed's foot in bandages, two short sticks protruding from under the wrap. "Your toes -were- cracked. -Now- they're broken. You're looking at a month and a half of recovery time. For the -last- time, stay -off- them. If I see you walking with anything other than a cane or a crutch for the next six weeks, I will -personally- tie you to your bed. Got it? And no shifting. Period."
Drift's ears drooped with each sentence, but he was saved from having to answer by a thump against the door. Madog pushed the door open with a forepaw and stepped in, the mechanical fox carrying a cane in his jaws that he dropped next to Drift's hand. "You forgot this at Donnie's, Uncle Drift. I bring." He sat down and wagged his tail, tongue lolling in a helpful smile.
The samoyed twitched an ear back in confusion even as he smiled at the mechanical fox's happy expression. "Uncle?" he asked, reaching out without thinking to rub his fingerpads over the metal behind Madog's ears, and he seemed surprised when Madog tilted his head into it.
"Papa call you brother. Papa's brother- my uncle," the fox said simply.
Coe was not immune to the fox's charm, but he leveled a stern warning at Drift nonetheless. "I mean it, Mr. Snow. If you mess this up anymore, you'll need the Lightbringer's help again, and you'd probably be spending the next -year- working in their temple as payment. Understand?"
"Yes, sir, I understand," Drift said, picking up his cane and levering himself carefully to his feet. "I'll be careful. Thank you."
"I watch Uncle Drift for you!" the metal fox chirped happily, getting to his feet with a clickety-clink. "He do what you want. I make sure!"
A barking laugh from the doorway turned everyone's attention to Misha, who had just arrived. "Now you're really in trouble, Drift," the fox said, leaning against the doorjamb. "The last time he volunteered like that, he kept me stuck in bed for a week."
Drift, for as long as he lived, would never be able to figure out how a metal fox could look so thoroughly smug. "Papa got better, didn't he?" was the automaton's reply.
Misha laughed and walked over, leaning down to give Madog a pat on the head and fishing out a metal disk for him to eat. "That I did, Madog. That I did."
"I'll replace the pants you destroyed helping me get my ring back, Misha," Drift said, eyeing the new pair the fox was wearing.
Misha waved away the offer with a negligent flip of the hand. "Don't worry about it, brother. I'd been meaning to replace that pair for a while now. Caroline hated them."
The fox put a finger on the protesting dogmorph's nose, quieting him with a level, serious glance. "Drift, I mean it. Don't worry about paying anything back. You and I are even, and will remain so. Now, if you're done trying to convince me that you should be paying off a nonexistent debt, let's see about getting you back to your room. I've found out some things that I think you should know." Turning his attention to Coe, who had moved off to help a pair of assistants with a supply inventory, Misha said, "Thank you for your time, Healer Coe. Madog and I will make sure he doesn't darken your doorstep again anytime soon."
"Thank you, sir," Drift added.
"You can thank me by staying -off- that foot, Mr. Snow," growled the raccoon.
Drift flopped down on his bed, the simple wooden frame creaking slightly as the ropes under the mattress took the weight. Its construction was indicative of the room in general: simple and utilitarian, without much need for finery. The only exception to this was a beautiful stained glass window, through which the light of the fading sunset shone, a plain white glass cross in the center of a sea of reds, yellows, and blues. The mattress itself compressed softly and soundlessly under the samoyed's weight, suggesting a stuffing other than straw. Next to the bed was a covered wicker basket, from beneath the lid of which protruded a tuft of suspiciously familiar white fur. "Ah, that feels good. Pass me that brush off the dresser, would you, Misha? I need to get my fur brushed out before it dries, or it's going to itch like mad and be a hellish job to get untangled." He shifted uncomfortably and scratched at his chest, which had been bare since he tore off the apron back at the Deaf Mule. "Feels like I've already let it go too long," he added, taking the brush Misha offered him and starting to brush out the tangled fur on his arms. "Ow. Pull up a chair, if you would. You said you had something you needed to talk to me about?"
Misha pulled up a chair made of the same simple design as the bed, then spun it around and sat on it backward, his tail hanging off the seat and his arms resting crossed on the back. "Yes. I was wondering how things were progressing with the forge. I have those designs you requested finished, plus a few more."
The samoyed winced, both from pulling on a half-dried tangle and from Misha's question. "Honestly? It's going rather poorly. I don't know what's going wrong, but about a third of the metal I buy winds up as scrap. It just comes apart under stress. That's how I picked up this lovely little slice." Drift drew his finger along the stitches in his cheek for illustration. "It's also hard to judge whether the fire's the right temperature with this ring on, and hell itself with the ring off, which sends even more material into the scrap bin." His ears and shoulders drooped in disappointment. "I don't know... It might just be that I'm so out of practice, but I'm starting to feel like I'm not cut out for this."
Misha shook his head, ears set back in empathy. "You just need more practice. Maybe you're getting some bad ore, too."
"Maybe." Drift didn't sound convinced.
A few long moments of silence followed before Misha deliberately changed the subject. "That's a beautiful window, brother," he said, admiring the stained glass.
"Thank you. It was there when I moved in, but I appreciate it. I don't know how Kyia knew I liked stained glass."
"If you like stained glass," Misha said, "there are some windows at the Chapel that you really should see."
Drift's ears flipped back and he looked up as if he couldn't believe he'd heard Misha right. "Go into the chapel of the Ecclesia? Into the viper pit? I don't think so, brother. Sure, they -say- they're all nice and friendly, but I've had family burned at the stake down south. I trust the Ecclesia about as far as I can throw them."
Misha frowned, but a metallic clatter and a very distinct 'ptooey' from the forge area interrupted further discussion. The fox leaned back in his chair to look through the open door to the forge. "Madog, what are you up to in there?"
Madog was just barely visible, a piece of scrap between his paws, which he regarded with unmistakable disgust. "This taste -bad-, Papa. Yucky."
"What tastes 'yucky'?" echoed Drift, giving Misha a look of confusion. He couldn't see Madog from the bed, so could only guess what the automaton was up to. He made a mental note to ask later how a metal fox could taste things.
Misha frowned, sharing Drift's confusion, and beckoned. "It tastes bad, Madog? Bring it here, please. Let me take a look." Taking the piece of scrap metal from Madog when the fox brought it over, he held it up next to the lantern by the bedside. "That's odd. It -looks- normal enough. Do you mind if I run a few tests on it back at my forge?"
Drift shook his head as he finished brushing out the fur on his arms and started on his chest and belly. "Not at- ow, all. Take the whole scrap bin, if you feel like it. You'll have plenty of time to test it, with Healer Coe demanding six weeks of 'stay-off-that-foot-or-I'll-tie-you-down'." He managed a fairly passable imitation of the angry raccoon. "I'm not crazy enough to try forging while sitting down, so I guess I'll be pursuing other hobbies for a while." The samoyed paused to empty the brush, which had become clotted with fur for the fourth time since he'd started, carefully sifting through the resulting pile and throwing away any tangles before putting the rest in the wicker basket next to the bed, which Misha noticed was nearly full.
"What's that?" the fox asked, ears and whiskers tipped forward in curiosity.
Drift chuckled. "It's shedding season. What do you think?"
Misha's ears rocked back. "You really do sell your fur? I thought you were joking!"
"Nope. I don't need it, and it's a few extra coins." Drift thumped his mattress, then reached over and tossed his pillow to Misha. "I have all I need already. See?"
Misha gave the pillow a squeeze, and didn't feel any pricks from feather quills amid the softness. "This is all your fur?"
"That's right. That's a week or two of shedding for me. Honestly, it wouldn't surprise me if more of us who caught the animal curse don't reuse shed fur or feathers. I mean, it's free, it's simple to gather, and there's plenty of it."
Misha just laughed and shook his head. "You're lucky. We foxes have a thin coat. On the other hand, I have to admit I am proud of my tail," he said, swishing his tail back and forth.
"I'm lucky?" Drift snickered and held up his right hand, letting the ring glitter in the light of the lantern. "Yeah. Sure. At least you've got a tail that's straight. Mine keeps curling up against my back. Not a problem like this, but as a taur, it can be a bit embarrassing. No puns, please."
Misha grinned, his voice mischievous and his tail twitching with amusement as he replied, "Too many jokes to choose from, with a straight line like that."
"Thank you," came Drift's deadpan response. "I aim to please. And, hey, at least you're not a sheep. Can you imagine a sheep Keeper getting sheared?"
"Yeah. 'He-e-e-y! Watch the ha-a-a-ands, pa-a-al!'" quipped the fox, rolling several of the vowels in an approximation of an angry sheep's bleat.
Madog looked from one to the other as both laughed, his expression quizzical. "You're silly," he said when the laughter tapered off. This set off more laughter, but it also reminded Drift of a question he'd wanted to ask.
"Well, now that I'm not standing on one foot in the middle of a street, would you have time to tell me how you built this little guy, Misha?"
Misha glanced at the growing darkness outside. "It's a long story, Drift," he warned.
The samoyed settled back on the bed, the wooden bedframe creaking as he rested his back against the wall and propped his bound foot up. "Does it look like I'm going anywhere?" he asked as he laced his fingers behind his head, the brushing finally done for the night. "I have six entire -weeks- to fill."
Misha laughed. "Good point. Truth be told, I -didn't- build him. I found him and re-built him. It all started about a year ago..."
The story continued well into the night.
Deep in the dark hours of the night, long after Misha had departed, Drift Snow dreamed. In his dream, he was back in the Lothanasi temple, delirious with fever, body wracked with tetanus spasms. Through eyes that watered with pain, he saw a face above him, framed by long, golden tresses, and he felt a gentle hand stroking his forehead. Cool, wet cloths wrapped around his hands and feet, which poured with sweat, and a damp sponge gently wiped his dry, cracked lips and nose, careful to avoid blocking the rasping whistle of air through his locked teeth. "Dear Snowchild, let me help you," said the woman as she slipped a hand down along the curve of his muzzle. When her delicate fingers reached the back left edge of his jaw, they pressed inward, and a wonderful coolness spread from them. The samoyed's clenched jaws cracked open slightly, then suddenly released in an explosive gasp for air as the tetanus poisons were purged from his body. His chest heaved, sucking in lungful after lungful of sweet, blessed air, and tears started to roll from his eyes, blurring his view of this strange woman. Weak and exhausted, his voice was only a whisper as he asked, "Momma?"
The woman smiled and shook her head. "No, dear Snowchild. She is beyond my view. Now, rest. You will feel better in the morning."
But then the woman did something she had not done that night. She leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Beware, Snowchild. Beware, Heart of Fire. Beware of enemies both within and without. Both are stronger than you realize. Swallow your pride and accept Raven's offer, for six weeks of rest is time that you cannot afford. Beware."
The greyhound thief huddled in his prison cell that night, unable to sleep. Somewhere far, far away, a dark and handsome man watched the reflection of that cell in a ruby-studded golden basin. After gazing at the greyhound for a long moment, he leaned back in his throne, turning away in disgust.
"Fool," he scoffed, stroking a perfectly trimmed beard between fingers that dripped with emeralds and diamonds. "He tries to use the same tactics on the son as worked on the father, without adjusting for the differences between them. And -still- he tries to cut corners, to save his precious coins by buying cheap, while still expecting quality results. Twice a fool. Thestilus!"
A small shape darted into place before him, kneeling. "You summoned, milord?"
"Have that thief killed before the next dawn, before the investigators can wrest any information from him. Then go and tell our old friend to do it right or not to do it at all. Also, tell him that if he cannot figure things out for himself, then I'm sure another 'arrangement' can be made."
"Yes, milord. At once." The shape was gone in the span of an eyeblink.
Alone once more, the dark man smiled and rubbed his hands together and his silken robes rustled as both of his targets swirled into view within the basin. "These two promise to be most entertaining. I am going to enjoy this."