"Mmmm… mmp!" Drift grabbed for the edge of the rooftop as the fox-bat's leaning kiss put him off balance. Alexis giggled and wrapped her arm around him to keep him from slipping. He wrapped his arm across her shoulders in turn, for mutual security, and tilted his head back to watch the stars. "This was a good idea, Alexis. I should do this more often." The pair sat on a rooftop in Metamor, a cool night breeze wafting away the heat of the midsummer day.
Alexis pointed as a streak of light dashed across the sky, the third in as many minutes. "There goes another one!" The moon had not yet risen, the sky was clear, and the view was nothing short of spectacular.
"I wonder what they are," Drift mused, watching the tiny streak of light fade to nothingness. "They're beautiful. And why do so many come so quickly this time of year, and not every night?" He pointed, sweeping an imaginary circle in the sky, centered on a constellation almost straight overhead. "And why, when they do, do they always come from the Lady Rowena?"
"Don't tell me nobody told you the legend of Lady Rowena and her silver bow," Alexis said, sounding surprised. The story of Lady Rowena, with her hair the color of moonlight, was a childhood bedtime story of long standing. According to legend, it was she who led the people of the Midlands in battle long ago alongside the aedra, the dragons, and the elves, against the dark hordes of Ba'al who swarmed over the northern mountains intent on conquering everything in their path.
"Yes, I'm familiar with the story of the Great Alliance of Light, but that's not what I meant. Why not from another location? Why that particular-"
Alexis laid two fingers of her left hand across his lips, and Drift could see the silhouette of her head turned toward the building beneath them. "Shh. Keep your voice down."
Drift rocked back slightly, brow furrowed in puzzlement. "I thought you said you asked permission to watch from this roof."
"Well," Alexis hedged, drawing the word out for an extra moment, "they didn't specifically say 'no'."
"Oh, look two more!"
"Alex." Drift turned, and fixed the fox-bat in his gaze, his voice carrying a note of disappointment.
"If we damage anything, I'll pay for it. But we won't." She tapped the roof with her fingertips, her long wing-claws ticking on the slate shingles. "This is a good, sturdy roof, and brand new. You should remember, since you helped haul the materials for it." A mischievous note crept into her voice and she switched from playing with the roof tiles to playing with Drift's chestfur. "Now, would you please take off your ring? You're much more snuggleable when you aren't imitating an ice block."
Drift rolled his eyes with an amused sigh and took off the ring, threading it onto a leather strap that he looped around his neck. Immediately, the night breeze dispersed the cloak of cool dry air around him, leaving him coughing from the change in humidity. "Ugh," he said with a grimace, but Alexis cuddled in anyway with a sigh of happiness and smooched his cheek 'to make it better'. Mollified, the Samoyed went back to his earlier musings while Alexis stroked his side with her hand, her wing furled back against her elbow. "I wonder…"
"The Lady isn't the only place star showers come from, Drift. It's just the only one we can see this far in the north. Farther south, there are several each year."
"Absolutely. I don't know why, but it's true."
"Wow. I wish I could-" A cascade of shooting stars interrupted him, a barrage of arrows from the Lady's quiver arcing outward in all directions across the sky. "Wow. That's-"
A trap door flung open farther down the roof, and a woman's head poked through, followed by a lantern held high. "Hey! What're you two doing on my roof?" she shouted when she spotted Drift and Alexis.
Alexis swore when a small crossbow followed the lantern into view. "Run!" she yelled, rolling backward and twisting to get her feet under her as she started to slide down the slate-shingled roof, using the momentum to get airborne. Drift, caught by surprise, froze until he saw the crossbow coming into line. That got him moving, an undignified scramble down the roof followed by a leap across the narrow alley to the next roof over, vaulting the peak and taking cover behind it.
"And stay off my roof, you rotten thieves," the woman yelled. "You'll not be burgling my place, y'hear?" The slam of the trapdoor added an exclamation point to her defiant shout, both of which echoed in the sudden quiet.
Drift lay against the roof, panting and holding his hand over his heart. He looked around, his ears flattening, but the few dim lanterns down at street level weren't giving enough light for him to find what he sought. "Alexis!!" he roared as he got to his feet. "You've got a lot of explaining to do, Alexis!"
"Shh!" Alexis hissed as she winged by. "Brace yourself!"
"What?" Drift asked, just before the bat arced around and collided with him, sending him sprawling against the roof peak. "Oof! Ow…"
Alexis picked herself up from on top of him and dusted herself off. "Are you alright? I told you to brace yourself."
Drift looked up at her incredulously. "You're crazy!"
"No, just not so good at landings, and I don't feel like crashing into a chimney." The flying fox furled her wings against her arms and offered the Samoyed a hand up. When he took it, she surprised him by heaving him to his feet with barely a grunt. As if sensing Drift's surprise through his grip, she explained, "We bats fly without any of those hollow-bone cheats that birds use. It's all muscle power." She dusted him off in turn and stroked a hand against his shoulder. "I'm sorry," she apologized, her voice contrite. "I should have asked about the roof. You were right."
Drift harrumphed grumpily, but softened when she rose onto her tiptoes and kissed his cheek. "All right. Apology accepted." He sat down again, drawing Alexis down beside him, nestled her right hand inside his, and went back to watching the stars. A broad crescent moon started peeking above the horizon as he asked, "Why did that person assume we were thieves come to rob her?"
Alexis chuckled. "The rooftops of any city are called the Thieves' Highway, Drift. It's a good way to avoid the watchmen, if you can keep your footing." She smiled without turning. "Don't look so surprised, Drift. Information is my stock in trade, and thieves' guilds often have the best sources. I don't buy goods from them, the profit margin being too slim for the risk involved, but I will buy information. And I make it a rule to know about my suppliers." A frown was audible in her voice. "I don't like surprises."
They sat in silence for a while, watching the moon rise amid the shooting stars. Finally, Drift asked, "If you knew-"
"Please don't ask me that," Alexis interrupted.
"Don't ask you what?"
"If I knew a thief was going to break in and steal something, would I warn the guard."
Drift jumped as if jabbed by a pin. "How did you know I was going to ask you that?"
Alexis turned to look at him, reaching up to stroke his cheek. "Because you're sweet and honest and just a little naïve. It's one of your most endearing qualities, but it makes you a bit predictable sometimes."
"Do you see why I didn't want you to ask?"
Drift half turned away, his brow furrowing and his ears twitching akimbo. "Naïve?"
"Oh, don't take it that way," Alexis said, wrapping her arms around him, unfurling her wings to completely enshroud him. "Yes, you are a little naïve, but that's what makes you so attractive. A lot of people, going through what you have, would become jaded and cynical and even selfish." She ran her fingers through his headfur, playing with the longer locks in front that were relics of the longer hair he'd had before the Curse took hold. "That you can still hope and dream like you do is… admirable."
He sat there thinking for a while, enjoying her closeness and the scent of her perfume when she snuggled her head under his chin, until he slowly realized that she had never answered his question. He fought with himself over it, but finally decided. "So… would you?" He wasn't surprised when Alexis pulled away, hurt, and wrapped herself in her wings. He followed after, pulling her back into his embrace. "Please, Alex, I need to know." She sniffed, and Drift winced when he realized she was crying. Edging around down the roof until he was in front of her and closer to eye level, he whimpered and bumped his nose against hers. "I'm sorry. Please don't cry."
She unfolded a wing and wiped at her face. "If it was really bad, and I could do it without tipping off that I'd done so, yes, or arrange for conditions to be unfavorable. But you have to understand, Drift, most of the time you can't do that. It's never a good idea to sell out a source, especially if it's a Thieves' Guild. They tend to have nasty methods of payback."
"I understand," Drift said, and meant it. The earnestness of his reply brought a smile back to her face, which broadened when he snuggled back up against her side.
"Do you know how adorable you are when you're being earnest?" she asked.
"No, but maybe if you hum a few bars…"
Alexis laughed. "Very cute. I think that joke was old when the Suielman Empire was born."
"Some things never go out of style," Drift replied, chuckling.
"Speaking of out of style," said Alexis, grinning wickedly at the opening, "have you looked at your wardrobe lately?"
"Hey, my clothes are fine! Buying used is cheaper. Sure, they're a little worn, but they're comfortable."
"Uh-huh. And water is a little wet. Right. I think you wear old stuff just so you can rip out of it into taur form. Don't think I haven't noticed that little grin you get when you think nobody's looking, mister muscles." She paused to let that sink in, and then playfully added, "My, you must really be blushing for me to feel it through all your fur."
"Um… Er…" Drift stammered, at a complete loss for words, blushing so vividly he was amazed his fur wasn't glowing. "Uh… that is…"
Alexis giggled and let him off the hook. "I'll make you a deal: I'll take you to a tailor I know, and we'll design a completely new wardrobe for you," she said, sweeping her hand across before her in a broad gesture before counting points off on her fingers. "If you don't like it, I'll pay for every penny, do whatever you want with the lot, and never bring up the subject of your clothes again. Fair enough?"
Drift leaned back against the rooftop, pensive. "I don't know, Alexis. That sounds pretty expensive."
She put a hand on his belly, gently stroking. "It'll be worth it. I promise." She turned her big brown eyes on him, a move they both knew he was vulnerable to. "Please?"
"Aack! Not the Eyes again! That's not fair!"
Her lip started to tremble. "Pleeeease?"
"All right! All right!" Drift threw a hand dramatically in front of his eyes as a shield, his tail thumping a laugh against the roof shingles. "You win! I'll do it! Just enough with the cute already!" He chuckled and put his hand back down, snuggling her against his side. "Cheater."
Alexis giggled and kissed him on the cheek. "You'll like it. I promise."
"Do you get all your deals by making puppy eyes?"
"Oh, hush and watch the star shower, you!"
Drift's laughter rang into the night.
Drift yawned sleepily as he walked Metamor's halls later that night, tired enough that he had trouble keeping an image of his smithy's sign in mind. Instead, his overtired imagination insisted on wandering seemingly at random, free-associating with all the restraint and logic of a two year old who'd gotten into his parents' coffee beans. Not surprisingly, he was not watching where he was going when Madog bolted past him at a cross hallway.
Madog returned a few moments later and dropped a metal ball next to Drift's head, tail wagging a laugh. "You're silly, Uncle Drift." Even though Madog had dodged from under Drift's feet without any apparent effort, Drift had tripped anyway trying to avoid him and landed flat on his face.
"Ow," the Samoyed replied, and eyed the ball. Pushing up onto his knees, he picked up the heavy sphere and looked it over quizzically. "What's this?"
"It's a ball, Uncle Drift."
The Samoyed shook his head, rolling his eyes in wry amusement. "So I see. And why were you chasing it down the hall in the middle of the night?"
"We were playing," said a young voice behind him, and Drift turned to see who it was. The instant he did, the Samoyed's ears shot back in alarmed recognition. It was the Ecclesia priest!
Father Hough, his blond hair lightly tousled and dressed in a simple black smock, offered his hand. "Good evening. I'm-"
Drift pulled back as if the boy had offered him a poisonous snake. "I know who you are," he hissed through bared teeth. "You stay far- OW!!"
Madog spit out Drift's tail and growled a warning, his ears low. "You no be mean to Father Hough, Uncle. He is good person."
The Samoyed snatched his tail away, dropping the ball, and fixed the automaton with an incredulous gape. "You bit my tail!" Drift accused, massaging the offended limb.
Madog picked up his ball and bounced jauntily back to the boy's side. "Father Hough is good person, Uncle Drift," the fox repeated once he set the ball down next to the boy's feet.
The boy laid his hand on Madog's neck, gently petting the metal fox. "Why do you fear me, Master-"
Drift snapped his attention to Hough, his ears flat against his skull. "Snow, priest. Edward Snow. Last of that line. I have others to thank for that, but I have the Ecclesia to thank for making their job easy by leaving only one branch unburned on the family tree, and that not from lack of trying."
"Galador, priest," Drift snarled, all but hurling the name at that oh-so-innocent face. "Galador."
Father Hough twitched, his lips pulling down ever so slightly. "You speak of shameful times, Master Snow, but also of times well past. I was not yet born at the Burning of Galador." His head came up, looking Drift in the eyes with the barest hint of indignation. "So, again, why do you fear me? Why do you judge me for something I had no part in?"
Drift ground his teeth. "I am not afraid of you."
"But you do judge me, for no other reason than how I choose to worship."
"Don't twist my words, Ecclesia," Drift growled. "I can see where you're trying to go with this, and I want no part of it."
"Then what do you want, Master Snow?"
Drift rose to his feet, using all of his height to look down on the boy. "To be left alone. Goodnight, Madog."
As Drift turned to push open the door to his smithy, Father Hough asked, "Master Snow?"
"What?" Drift snarled.
Hough smiled faintly, the sort of smile that held an unspoken invitation, and said, "Yahshua, whom you love just as I do, told us that we should forgive our brother not just seven times, but seventy times seven. If we do not forgive each other, He will not forgive us. May His peace go with you."
Drift's jaw opened as if about to yell, and then snapped shut in a scowl that lasted until he vanished through the doorway, which closed behind him with a hinge-rattling slam. Madog looked up at Father Hough and thumped his tail on the floor. "Uncle Drift tired. He be nicer in the morning."
The youthful priest sighed, patted Madog on the head, and nodded. "I pray you are right, Madog. I pray you are right."
Inside, Drift slammed his fist against the wall, cursing himself for an idiot. "Stupid! Why did you tell him about Galador? As if things weren't crazy enough already without holding up a sign that says 'Rebuilder! Heretic!' Stupid!" He paced in his forge as if it were a cage, snatching up a rod of tin from his stock pile and bending and twisting it to deal with the stress. Finally, straightening the bar as best he could, he tossed it back on the stock pile. It landed badly, end-on and with sufficient momentum to send a quartet of tin rods scattering across the room. Looking at the mess, he growled, "Oh, to the hells with it; I'll clean up in the morning," and blew out the lamp. Growling incoherencies to himself, he flung himself down into bed without bothering to remove his clothes and was swiftly asleep.
The next dawn found Drift walking in taurform through Metamor's gates, turning onto the barren track along the city walls with a familiar nod to the sentries. A few waved in reply, having grown used to the Samoyed's morning runs, which he had been doing ever since a low-hanging branch in an orchard convinced him that running in town was a bad idea. Even if it had introduced him to a woman he found ever more fascinating with each meeting. He smiled as he ran, cherishing the thought of her after a long night of troubled dreams, and a morning when he'd slipped on the bars he hadn't picked up the night before. Looking up at the stars, nearly faded in the light of dawn, his mind ranged back to the scent of her perfume, the feel of her fingers through his fur, and the stress that sleep had failed to quell started to seep away. Meeting the priest had been bound to happen sooner or later, he knew, and while the timing could have been better, it could have been worse, too. Well, he knows who I am now, Drift thought. So, what next? He galloped past the gates again, his first circuit completed. Madog was with him. Playing. That says something.
"Good morning." Misha's sudden appearance running alongside nearly made the Samoyed stumble. The fox was in taurform, too, and despite his shorter legs, he kept up without any apparent effort. "I'd hoped to find you here."
"How do you do that?" Drift asked, incredulous, a hand clutched over his pounding heart. How did that fox always seem to step out of thin air?
"Do what?" the fox replied, his smile feigning innocence. Drift grumbled and stepped up his pace. Misha matched it, and they ran in silence for a while. "I heard," Misha said finally, "that you met Father Hough last night."
Drift scowled, his ears twitching back. "Madog told you?"
"Madog doesn't understand why you're so hostile to Father Hough," Misha explained. "He finds it hard to understand hate."
"I don't hate him," Drift snapped, louder and more harshly than he'd intended. "I don't," he added more quietly on seeing Misha's dubious look. "I just don't trust him. Especially not right at the doorstep of my home." Silence followed. "Stop looking at me like that."
"Alexis is right," was Misha's unimpressed reply. "You are a rotten liar."
Drift skidded to a halt. "I don't hate him," the Samoyed insisted, rounding on the foxtaur, his hands clenching into fists. "I hate what he stands for. A false hierarchy built more to please ambition and gather power than to worship Eli. Worthless made-up rules and purposely obscure rituals, all so that the Word as they speak it can be used to keep the 'lesser people' in their place. And heaven help anyone who questions their translation. It's not right."
The foxtaur nodded, stepping around to face Drift head-on. "No, it's not right. There is a lot wrong with the whole organization. I've met a lot of bad and just plain evil priests. But," he said, crossing his arms, "Hough is not one of them. He is a true and devout follower of Eli, and not someone to be wary of. I have found him to be completely trustworthy."
"Does he know you're a Rebuilder?"
Misha shrugged, letting his arms drop again. "I've never tried to hide it from him. To be honest, it's never come up." He gestured a suggestion that they continue the run, and Drift agreed, his expression thoughtful (if somewhat reluctant). "I trust him, brother," Misha continued. "So does Madog. You should, too."
Drift said nothing for several laps around the curtain walls, ears twitching this way and that as if unsure where to settle. Finally, he said, "I will… consider what you've said. I won't promise anything, but I will consider it. And now I should really be heading in: I have a busy day ahead."
"Working with the building crews again, are you?" Misha asked as the pair trotted back through Metamor's gates, turning down a side street to avoid the traffic already building on the main thoroughfare.
"That's Tuesday and Thursday," Drift replied, shaking his head. He paused to wave to the departing lumber crews, wishing them safe travels. "Today is the Lightbringer temple." Drift watched the crews pass through the gates, and his mood momentarily faltered. "I miss Lindsey," he said. "I hope he's okay… wherever he is."
"Wherever he is I'm sure he is doing fine," the fox answered. After a moment's consideration, he continued, "Regarding the Lightbringers, I thought you finished your penance for that makeup incident months ago."
"I did. But the job still needs to be done." His tail wagging amusement, he changed the subject. "So I hear you, George, and Oberon had an interesting time at the Mule the other night…"
Drift twisted his upper body around as he waited in front of Recos' orphanage, while several acolytes unloaded food from the wagon behind him. "You know, Priestess Merai," he said, fiddling with a harness strap, “it surprised me that you decided to come along and help out.” He looked up at the woman on the wagon bench. "I would've thought you'd have more pressing duties than this.”
"We're shorthanded today," the feline Keeper replied, leaning forward with her arms across her knees, looking over the Samoyed taur with the expression of slightly bewildered fascination she'd had since she first settled down on that seat. "And, like you said back at the Temple, it needs doing." She looked around at the ruined, desecrated buildings all around. How the orphanage had managed to avoid their fate was still wondered in the rumor mill even now. "A lot of things need doing," she continued, a hint of weariness starting to creep into her voice.
Drift smiled, one ear tipped to the side in amusement as he deliberately headed off her melancholy. "That's true, and we'll get it done, but are you sure there isn't another reason?" At her look of incomprehension, his smile widened. "Helping out today also gives you a good seat to stare at a taurform Keeper to your heart's content, doesn't it?" He laughed when she dipped her ears, abashed. "Don't feel bad. You've been considerably more polite than most: at least you have the courtesy not to point. I'll admit it's even a little flattering."
"You're larger than Misha as a foxtaur," she said after a soft chuckle at herself. "And thanks."
"That's because I'm taller than him on two legs, too. And you're welcome. I pity Oberon if he ever figures out how to do this. No doorway will be safe. Even I have trouble with them sometimes, and stairs are absolutely a no-go."
Merai tilted her head slightly to one side, her brow furrowing. "Balance problems?"
"No," Drift replied, shaking his head. "Size problems. If they are built to withstand my weight like this, which is rare outside of stone, it's rarer still that the steps themselves are broad enough for me to get a foot on. And don't even ask about spiral staircases or sharp turns at landings."
The feline lady smiled. "That sounds like the voice of experience."
Drift shook his head ruefully at the memory. "True. It was the first time I ever tried this. I daydreamed my way into taurform on the library balcony, the one for quiet reading, after having seen Misha, Fox Cutter, and…" He frowned and snapped his fingers near his head several times as if trying to jog his memory. "And Misha's rat friend, whose name currently escapes me."
The Samoyed taur held up a finger toward Merai in triumph. "That's the one. Anyway, here I am on the library balcony, my pants lying around me in shredded tatters," he said, gesturing with both hands in a low sweep around him, "a chair crushed underneath, and no way down except a metal spiral staircase." Drift waited until she finished laughing before continuing. "Those stairs groaned as soon as I put two paws on them, and continued to do so with each step down. So I'm clinging to the railing for dear life because the steps were only about half a paw wide, thinking that at any moment I could lose my footing and go down it facefirst…" He paused, his hand gripping an imaginary rail at about the height of his waist, his tail swishing in self-deprecating humor. "And that's when I realized I was stuck."
"Stuck?" Merai echoed, almost in disbelief.
"Stuck. In full view of everybody in the library, trying not to struggle or even breathe too hard so the staircase would stop making noises like it was going to wrench out of its mountings at any moment." He put a hand to his brow, his white fur showing a blush underneath around his nose and ears, but he smiled in spite of it. "I don't think I have ever been so embarrassed in my life."
"Couldn't you change back?"
"How?" Drift replied. "I didn't even know then how I'd changed in the first place. Mr. Cutter had to talk me through it, and he was not pleased. My sister thought it was hilarious, though." He smiled, though his voice was touched with a hint of sadness. "She always did like humor at my expense." He shook off the mood before Merai could comment on it and continued, "I'm just glad I was wearing a long, loose tunic as well as pants that day. If it had been a tighter shirt, I wouldn't have had any clothes left."
Merai leaned back in the bench, grinning. Her tail curled up into view and she ran it through her fingers as she spoke. "Well, all told I suppose I'm rather glad that I haven't had to worry about such things. It was embarrassing enough the first time I turned into a cat."
Drift shrugged. "It has its benefits, though. Strength, speed, and durability. A horse could outsprint me, but I'd outlast it without much question. Though that's also partly the breed of dog I am."
"Assuming you can find enough meat to keep you going," Merai said dryly. "I wonder if one horse would even be enough to make a meal for you."
Drift's stomach chose that moment to growl loudly, to Merai's delight. Drift swatted his taur body's side and quipped, "Be quiet. She wasn't talking to you." After that, he started to unbuckle the harness from around him. "I can eat other things besides meat, and if I have to eat in taurform, I try to pick things that are high in energy for their size. Potatoes are good, breads and cheeses, too. Stew is an excellent choice." He paused, adjusting the pack on his shoulders, which contained an extra pair of pants. "Of course, the more obvious answer is just to change back first and then eat." Tugging at an obstinate harness buckle around his upper midriff, he asked, "Is the brake set? The kids are looking pretty eager for their taur-back rides." The slight downward slope of the road would send the cart rolling over the people unloading it if the brake wasn't set.
Merai pulled the brake lever and locked it in place. "It's set." She leapt down from the cart to land lightly beside him, reaching for the jammed buckle. "Here, let me help you with that."
"It's alright, I've got-" the Samoyed started to reply, but Merai's smaller hands evaded his easily and had the buckle loosened with just a moment's effort. "Um, thanks." He glanced skyward when he heard a distant rumble, and saw storm clouds in the distance, moving closer. "Hmmm. The rides might have to wait for next time: I'd like to be back inside before the rain starts. I'd better help with the unloading."
He was about to say more when a terrified whinny came from up the street,
followed by the rumble of wheels and a shout of warning. "Look out! Runaway
cart!" Pulled by a bolting bay horse, a wagon careened in their direction,
full of debris from a building being demolished up the street. It bounced wildly
from wheel to wheel on the pavement stones, sending people scattering from its
Drift surged forward out of the harness, angling his body to shield Merai and the other acolytes. "Get behind me!" he yelled, bracing to meet the runaway horse head-on. That didn't stop Merai from ducking under his raised arm, a shimmering half-sphere barrier rippling into existence in front of her raised hands. It spread to shield herself and the taur just before the horse and wagon ricocheted off it, sending splintered wood and broken stone in every direction despite the angled impact. Drift snatched just past the shield's edge, seizing the horse's bridle. Rearing as the horse did to keep his grip, he swiveled to the left as the horse's momentum pulled him along. The taur yelped when he came down on the corner of the wagon, and another yelp followed as his left hindleg bounced off the wagon seat when he half-jumped, half was dragged along after. Once free of the wagon, though, he planted all four feet and pulled back hard, skidding, and the horse staggered to a shaky stop after a few more leaping strides.
"Ow," Drift wheezed, switching hands on the horse's bridle so his stronger right arm could hold the still jittery horse in place while his left checked his side. He winced when his hand ran along his taur chest. "Ow," he repeated, trying to breathe only from his upper chest while people converged, a woman running up to claim the horse amid a fountain of apologies.
Merai was the first to his side. "Are you alright?" At his quick headshake, she put her hand near his side, her eyes unfocussing. "Hold still… this might sting a little."
The Samoyed taur grunted and winced as the priestess magically realigned and knit the cracked rib, but he heaved a sigh of relief when it was over. "Thanks," he said, rubbing the area as if to check the healing for himself. "I owe you one. Nice move with the shield, by the way. Are you alright?" he asked when she slumped with weariness.
"I'll be fine," she said, leaning back against the edge of the cart. She closed her eyes and rubbed her hands over her arms. "The healing takes more out of me than the shield does."
"Good sir! Lady priestess! I'm so sorry!" the horse's owner stammered, visibly frightened that she might be hauled into court for the incident. "I don't know why he ran off like that: It's not like him at all!" Her distress split itself fairly evenly between Merai, Drift, and her horse and cart, and she ran a hand through her hair as she contemplated the damages. "Oh… Wait until Max hears about this…" Other voices joined in the growing din, many of them angry, overlapping each other.
"Damn horse nearly killed me!"
"My stand's ruined!"
"-broken window from the flying wood, priestess!"
Drift backed up, not liking so many people so close, where his feet could crush somebody else's with a single misstep, and the horse was still too nervous for comfort. All the people, however, seemed more intent on appealing to Merai for judgment than acknowledging the danger presented by either.
"Drift!" a familiar voice called over the hubbub, and the Samoyed spotted Wolfram's familiar curly horns fighting to get through the crowd.
"I tell you, something must have spooked him! He's not normally like this!"
"I don't care if he's gentle as a newborn kitten, he wrecked my stall!"
Wolfram pushed through to Drift's side as the Samoyed taur's hindquarters backed into the wagon. "Are you alright?" the black ram asked.
"Enough!" Merai's shout cut through the chaos like hardened steel just as an arrow shot between Drift and Merai from behind and above, narrowly missing both, and buried itself in Wolfram's shoulder.