‘Just a dip into black... and... A small... dab... there.’
He placed the fine-tip brush down on the desk and gradually began to release his breath.
‘That’s the nose done.’
When he wasn’t running around on four legs, training to be a scout or catching up with friends of multiple species, Stealth committed himself to small hobbies in his lofty apartment. The cheetah had a small collection of cards with images depicting animal-warriors which could be used to play a game with intricate rules – intricate as compared to the games played with a usual deck of cards.
In addition to the cards, a bookshelf was equipped with two board games. The first game had similar rules to the game with animal-cards. Indeed, the game pieces consisted of similar creatures, though free from the cards and standing proudly as small, wooden statues. One of which he currently worked to bring colour to. The other game had zombies.
These games however were quite pricy for the studying courier though they provided literally hours and hours of entertainment. The cheetah would spend many free afternoons with his friends playing those addictive games, however finding time for such ‘sessions’ was at best extremely difficult and problematic. Edmund for one almost never had the time, his work never ended.
The cheetah sighed and drooped from the thought while he dabbed on some more paint in even smaller amounts than on the nose, though without the same need for accuracy. He did this with his claws, a trick he heard a fellow feline, Roderick, had used in a task requiring much greater skill, though one that didn’t involve one’s claws becoming ingrained with paint.
Roderick, Stealth knew as a soldier serving under his paladin friend’s direction. They probably met one or even more times, though with so many soldiers Edmund was charged with leading, it was hard to keep track. He did get to know a few of them, usually in passing; the times he and Ed would go hunting as animals, Stealth would trade introductions and pleasantries with the troops guarding their steeds.
‘There.’ The cat thought to himself in relief, ‘one arm done.’
His mind returned fully to the task. Part of the fun of this board game involved to a great extent just painting the figurines to depict them in all their miniature glory and to this one he paid particular care and attention to detail.
‘THUD THUD THUD’
The cheetah sighed upon hearing the knock on his door, knowing full well to expect it courtesy of his ever twitching ears.
“Who is it?” He called out absently as he deftly obscured the figurine from view. Though it could be smelt, it wouldn’t be apparent among the others.
“It’s Edmund, please open the door.” The knight ordered bluntly.
“Come in, it’s open.” The courier stated bluntly and stood up, taking care to un-thread his tail from the chair.
The door quickly creaked open and Edmund walked in, however he stoped short of closing it behind him, “It’s freezing in here!” The knight exclaimed with concern; the hallway beyond practically had more warmth.
Stealth shrugged and offered a small smile. “It’s not so bad.”
The paladin knight looked him over and noted the clear body language of a person feeling the chill; though he may not have been completely aware, Stealth stood small and huddled up with his legs together and his arms close to his sides. Edmund walked over to the fireplace and noticed the fire hadn’t burnt out, it had never been lit... not for some time.
“You should keep a fire lit in this thing.” Edmund commented, already the cheetah reached for some logs stacked nearby. He lifted off the top most chunk of wood which pealed off from the rest to reveal a spider’s nest. Paying it no heed, the chilly knight threw it into the hearth with some kindling and went to work with the flint.
Stealth groaned, “You don’t need to do that.” He stated idly as he approached though didn’t intervene but stood near the knight.
Edmund continued to work with the flint until he turned a few small sparks into a weak flame. It slowly grew, at first feeding off the hay and then the small twigs and other bits of broken lumber, till it grew large enough to start on the larger chunk. The cat fed the fire two more small logs and tended it for a time.
The Knight eventually turned from the hearth to face the other cat. Stealth had his eyes closed as he took in the warmth. He almost appeared to be drowsy. However, his sensitive ears didn’t rest; Stealth opened his eyes a few moments after realising the Paladin had turned to face him.
The cat narrowed his gaze, “Ed, your face.”
Edmund ran a finger above one eye and looked at the tip. Having black pads, he couldn’t detect anything on them... Stealth walked over to a cabinet and retrieved a cloth from one of the draws. He offered Edmund the cloth, who soon rubbed his face clean with it. The once pristine white cloth now looked a sooty black.
“That’s better; I couldn’t see your tears.” Stealth reflected and relieved Ed of the cloth, placing it in a hamper nearby.
“Thank you, but please keep the fire tended.” Edmund reminded.
“I will, but you know I’m not good with a flint, I just don’t bother with it.” Stealth explained.
“Then practice and get better at it.” The Knight said, “You are training to be a scout, Stealth, you should know how to use a flint, I want you to practice with it every day when you get home until there is a fire in that hearth to last throughout the night.” Edmund lectured in trainer form.
Stealth nodded and mumbled his acknowledgment.
Edmund stared at him with his penetrating gaze, “Do not underestimate the cold.” He warned direly, “We are keepers now – we live in a cold climate. Both of us are a southern species of cat and the cold is our deadly enemy. And with winter fast descending upon us we need to be extra careful.”
“But my form isn’t as... animalistic as yours; I know its cold, but I feel fine.” The younger cat responded, though hoped Edmund wouldn’t take it the wrong way.
“You don’t have to feel cold; you can remain unaware to the full extent and become frost bitten. It is frighteningly easy to freeze to death!” The knight informed, stony faced.
“Okay, okay, I’ll keep a fire lit.” Stealth offered, hoping to end the matter. He turned his head down.
Edmund pat him on the shoulder, “I don’t mean to sound harsh, my friend, we almost lost you out there to the cold.”
Stealth looked up once more, “That won’t happen again.”
Edmund nodded, “I’m glad to hear it.”
Stealth motioned to the side of the bed for the knight to sit down. Besides the chair at his desk, the cat was severely lacking in seating furniture. At the very least, they needn’t worry about threading their tails. Edmund sat at the corner and noted the thick blanket with its running-cat-silhouette pattern. When he first met the other cheetah in the mule seven months prior, Edmund learned of the blanket that Stealth found the very night before and had used as a coat.
Stealth claimed to have been gifted with it by Kyia herself, by means of a statue identical to him. The knight marvelled at the quality of the fabric and care that went into stitching it. From what he could see of it Ed didn’t detect a stain from when he’d accidentally dropped a corner of it into his stew that day.
Remembering his purpose, Edmund removed a small backpack and reached in for a small book. “You asked me about my order, this book is small but it does well in detailing the Order of the Protectors, our roots, our oath and our true purpose.” He handed the book over.
“Thank you, I’ll take a look at it tonight.” Stealth offered and placed the book on his desk.
The paladin nodded, “take your time. Oh! One more thing...” he reached back into the pack and pulled out another, larger book. “I finished reading the Tales from the Woods to the Veldt, it was delightful. I liked the story about the man who became a real fox. It was a funny tale!” Edmund remarked.
Stealth smiled, “‘Chunks of Metal’” He quoted the title, “I’m glad you liked it, I grew up reading those though it’s been years and I forgot or missed out on many of them.” He explained and took the larger book, placing it next to the other on the small table. “It was great to find it in the markets, I was lucky to stumble upon it.”
“Aye, oh, one more thing.” The cheetah paladin reached into his back pack for another object. He revealed it to be a figurine and placed it on the desk with the two books, near the cluster of similar figures. A lone cheetah-warrior with basic carvings and paint work stood, seemingly gazing at the two living cheetahs in the room.
Stealth smiled, “I knew that would turn up, I didn’t have any time to retrieve it.”
“Well, at least you can keep track of them; you have quite a few cheetahs.” Edmund observed.
“Aye, I’m building an army. One day we will rule the world!” Stealth joked.
Edmund smiled though the paladin didn’t say what Stealth might have expected, “then does that mean you like your form?”
Stealth paused for a moment. “I suppose I do. It has grown on me and I did start using the form a great deal soon after the change.” He reasoned. “Mind you though, I think I’d much prefer to have remained a full human male. But if I must be cursed to live here then I am happy to embrace this form.” The cheetah answered honestly. “And you?”
Edmund didn’t answer right away though he knew what he was going to say. “I chose to remain here and let the curse take me, I was scared, I really was, I admit.” He began, “but from the moment my new senses revealed themselves to me, to when I saw the spots all over my body and then when my long tail revealed itself, it simply fascinated and excited me every step of the way.” The paladin said with eagerness to his voice. “I like this form, I like being a cheetah. I think Eli has blessed me.”
He saw Stealth’s droopy expression, “I think we’re both lucky to have these forms.” Edmund said objectively.
“Not everyone was as lucky as us; I have good friends that would have loved to have similar forms.” The cheetah reminded.
Edmund nodded thoughtfully, “I understand, though they just need time to adapt if they haven’t already. Every form the curse grants can be a blessing if you overcome bias and know how to look at it.”
“And if you became a woman or a prey animal how would you have felt about it?” Stealth asked, honestly curious.
He didn’t doubt the ability of women or ‘prey’, indeed, Alex and Terrant were fine solders, as were the... real women of the keep. So too were bunnies like Padraic and Cathal. However he still had no desire to have either of those particular curses, all the same, and he wondered how Edmund felt about it.
The cheetah shrugged, “before the curse took me I considered it and it honestly didn’t sound so bad. Compared to what else I could have become it’s a... normal form that I would be more comfortable with.” He offered, “Though I would be greatly concerned with my place in the Order, I told you of what happened following my decision to stay.”
Edmund never showed much emotion or let a situation get the better of him, however he was no enigma. The two cats had discussed much about their past as well as their hopes and thoughts.
“What do you think would have been the Knight Commander’s decision had you become a female instead of a feline?”
Edmund didn’t speak for a moment. “Though I felt afraid, it was not Sir Harrick’s decision; it was Eli’s will.” The cheetah answered.
His friend cocked his head to one side.
“I would have remained a paladin.” The cheetah paladin clarified.
Stealth looked at the knight. It did bother him when Ed behaved so cryptic, “...Do you mean, had you become a woman you would remain a paladin or that you’d have certainly become an animal anyway?” He couldn’t tell and whished to find out.
Edmund just shook his head, “Only Eli knows. But if you must know, it doesn’t matter.”
“And a prey animal, how would you feel about that?” Stealth reminded.
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter, it was an odd sound that Stealth had become accustom to, “have you met a Sir Saulius?”
“Hmm...” Stealth scratched his chin, “Describe him.”
“He’s a rat who speaks in the tongue of a Steppe Lander.” Edmund explained.
“Ah, yeah, we played on the same side for the ball game.” Stealth laughed, “I didn't know him before that, though I met his friends the day before I met you.”
“He’s a proud knight and a fearsome warrior; He could very easily defeat me.” Edmund intoned. “There are few in the Keep who could beat him.”
“I do feel a tad uncomfortable around him though.” The cat admitted.
“Then he’s not such a prey animal, is he?” Ed offered, “But tell me, why does he bother you?”
“It’s nothing big, it’s just the way he talks; I can barely understand him!” Stealth blushed under his fur.
The paladin nodded. “They do have a difficult to understand manner of speech. Very archaic. Few besides them still speak it.”
Stealth shook his head and changed the subject, “Besides being a rat, though, I’d hate to have hooves.”
The knight nodded, “fair enough but horses and deer are such beautiful creatures. And the duke himself is a stallion.”
“Okay, mayhap you’re right about the curse.” Stealth conceded at first, “What about a slug?”
Edmund shook his head, “I know of no slug-keepers.”
Stealth reclined on his bed and pondered more on the curse, “Hmm, you never think about it?” he looked over.
The paladin cheetah nodded, “I do, but YOU think about it too much.” Edmund stood up, “There is nothing that can be done about the curse, so don’t dwell on it so much. It will destroy you otherwise.”
“Or maybe we need to dwell on it more. If we wish to cure it, if there’s a clue to be found, perhaps in our mentality towards the curse or something.”
“Stealth, for the love of Yausha, just relax!” The knight implored, though with a light heart, “Answers do not come in a single sitting. Otherwise we’d know the secrets of the universe by now.”
Stealth sat up, “And I’m a cheetah; I want things done fast!” He stuck out his tongue.
“You’re young...” Edmund stated, “And you’ve been cooped up from the cold outdoors.” The cheetah headed to the door, “It will soon be time for mass. Afterward I’m taking Bridgette to the Mule to hear someone singing there. Terry will be there as well. We would be glad to have you join us. The more the merrier."
“Hmm, how would Bridgette take to me?” Stealth had met Terrant on occasion and got along well with her. On the other hand he didn’t really know the female maned wolf that well, just chatted in passing.
“She’s curious and friendly, and I’d like her to develop her vocabulary.” Edmund answered.
“That sounds nice, actually.” Stealth decided.
“Then I’ll see you in an hour and a half, till then!” The cheetah smiled. After the other waved, the door closed.
Stealth sat on the bed listening to the paladin’s foot steps becoming softer and softer before it was lost in the subtle din that his ears always picked up. The cheetah wondered if the footsteps were silenced ‘naturally’ or if the corridor Edmund occupied had moved... or did his apartment move and the outer corridor remained in place? Stealth remembered what his friend said about dwelling on things that couldn’t be changed and let go of the paradoxical thoughts... for now. He still didn’t agree that nothing could be done about such things but he no longer dwelled on them either.
Long after the door closed, Stealth reached over and gently revealed the intricately detailed – though far from finished – figurine.
The wooden figure had the construct of a fearsome warrior. A knight in armour with a long sword, the former had small dents and the latter bore an elaborate and beautiful hilt which the knight’s gauntlets rested on.
Stealth turned from regarding the unfinished work and glanced to the humble cheetah placed on the desk by Edmund... did it look jealous? No, must be the paint fumes. Time to open a window – and hope the contents of the desk doesn’t get blown out.
After letting some air in and detecting the refreshing scent of rain approaching, Stealth decided he’d done enough painting for a time and began to put away the figurines, intent on taking a look at the book his friend lent him.
However, one last time before putting it away, the cheetah spared a thoughtful glance at the unfinished figure. ‘I wonder if he’ll like it.’