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Chapter 02

Cassanya looked up, the dawn light shining in her amber-gold eyes, catlike ears attentive to the soft flutter of wings.

“Well hello there, Woody,” she smiled, holding up her strong leonin arm for the raven to alight upon, the small patch of white feathers upon his forehead making him quite unmistakable. Studying the bird for a moment, Cassanya realised that he had a small package tied to his leg.

“Whatever are you doing here?” she asked softly, having long since learned not to wonder how the raven invariably located his target, or how he managed to cover unlikely distances in short times. Both attributes seemed to be commonly associated with animals in service of magi, and Cassanya had concluded that she didn't really want to know any more than that. While she considered Tallow a dear friend, and their mutual employer had proven to be kind hearted and wise, there was always the potential for trouble when dealing with magic. Know how to handle the people who handle the magic, but don't get too deep into it, that was the trick, the leonin had decided.

Carrying the raven to a nearby tree stump so that he could hop onto it, Cassanya untied the package. Unfolding the cloth, she found a note, written rather hastily by the look of the handwriting, and a small metal device. About half an inch deep, two inches across, circular, and with a glass top it had obviously been made with care. The casing contained a tiny metal arrow, apparently balanced upon a needle in the space under the glass. Mystified, Cassanya decided to read the note.

Cass,

Change of plan. Master Forester says you need to find a young man named Feran Foxwood, who is his great-nephew. We don’t know what has happened yet, but we’ve got reports of a dangerous magical disturbance in his area and Master Forester is very concerned for his welfare. You are to find him and offer him any help you can.

I’ve sent you a pointer charm. The arrow will always point to Mr Foxwood, so you’ll be able to find him quickly.

The leonin paused to turn the device in her hand. Sure enough, the arrow remained fixedly pointing westwards no matter how she turned the metal disk.

He shouldn’t be too far away, so hopefully you won't find him hard to locate. I’m very sorry, but Master Forester says you aren’t to come back without him, even if the pointer doesn’t work and you have to search every town west of the Skystones! At least if it comes to that, you won’t have trouble spotting him in a crowd – see description overleaf.

Cassanya smiled as she visualised the apologetic expression that would be upon her friend’s face as she wrote that.

Don’t worry about escorting Mr Applebloom, he’s been called away on other business and won't need you after all.

Good luck,

Tee

Cassanya frowned. “Well,” she said to the raven, stroking his head with a finger. “I admit I didn’t see this one coming.” Woodward clicked his beak in agreement. “I wonder what this ‘major magic’ thing is… I guess it can’t be too dangerous now, else Tee would have warned me. Suppose it’s just lucky that I’m out here already.” She turned over the note and read the description on the back. “Hmm, I see what Tee meant, he should stand out a mile. Human-vulpani cross? Don't think I've ever met the like. Well, looks like we’ll just have to get going and hope for a bit of luck.” She held out her arm for the raven to hop onto again.

Woodward fluttered his wings, but merely shifted from foot to foot.

“Ah, you’re not coming?” Cassanya’s face fell slightly. “Tee wants you back already?”

Woodward dipped his head.

Cassanya sighed, and looked at the pointer charm. “I guess this is good enough,” she sighed, sounding slightly gloomy. “I’d just have enjoyed your company. Bit of a long way to travel all alone…”

With a flutter of wings, the raven alighted upon Cassanya’s shoulder. He nibbled her ear gently, a wordless offer of support.

“No, it’s ok,” she laughed. “I’ll be fine, really. You get back to Tee if she needs you.”

The raven tugged lightly at her ear for a moment longer, then with a soft caw flapped his wings and headed skyward. Cassanya watched him until he was just a black speck against the blue sky, then looked down at the pointer. Westward it was then.


Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

Wrapped in light but good quality leather, with a core of some unknown springy substance, the little ball bounced from blackened wall to dirtied cobblestones, catching an awkward angle and rolling off to one side.

Sitting on the low wall beside the road, Feral watched as the ball wobbled to a stop in the gutter. Quiet. On any other day, this part of the village would be full of voices, of footsteps, of the clunk and trundle of wagons, the ring of metal on stone from the blacksmith, or perhaps a jingle of music from the tavern.

Nothing but the sound of gulls and the distant surf.

Bowing his head, Feral covered his ears with his hands, as if to shut out the silence.

He couldn't stay here. He knew it already, but it wasn't a truth he wanted to admit to. If he stayed, maybe help would come... Except it would likely be days before any of the village traders were considered overdue at their destinations, and days beyond that before anyone was annoyed enough to make the journey to investigate.

And who would they help anyway, Feral questioned bitterly. The devastation had been complete and merciless. Nor, really, was there anyone for them to help when they arrived. A village that loses a fishing boat or a guard company can recover. A town whose fields are torched can be fed until the crops are replanted. A settlement whose buildings are razed can be rebuilt. A village without villagers... was a ruin. Feral didn’t think he counted as a population, not even if he got Shara – “Shara!”

The world snapped into focus around him, the haze of shock and fear seeming to dissipate suddenly. Every blackened edge, every sooty timber, the feel of the mossy stone on which he sat, the roar of the distant ocean and screech of gulls overhead all impressed themselves upon his senses.

Dear gods, what was he doing sitting in the gutter feeling sorry for himself? Shara had been taken, kidnapped for unknown purpose. His sister needed him, and he was moping around? In a flash he was on his feet, scooping up the ball, and bolting for the house.

Several of the windows had been shattered, diamonds of glass littering the floors, but it didn't matter. He wasn't staying.

“Get it together...” he told himself firmly, standing in the hallway. “What do you need?”

A backpack, sturdy leather and tight woollen weave, enough to hold a few candles, flint and tinder. From the store cupboard he grabbed a waxed canvas sheet with a buttoned flap, allowing it to act as both tent and poncho – a favourite of his step father’s when going on extended trips into the forest.

Padding into Shara’s bedroom, he sat for a moment on the edge of her bed, where he would often perch to wake her in the morning. His hand patted the flat, cold sheet. On the night stand, her wooden flute. “You’ll want this when I find you,” Feral said quietly, packing it. “I’m afraid I can’t carry much else.” Despite this statement, he gathered as many of her smaller, fragile possessions as he could and carried them to the closet downstairs, hoping it would protect them from the weather that would no doubt penetrate the windowless house. Maybe one day he would bring her back for them...

Hesitating in the doorway to his parents' room, his eye caught on a small painting beside the bed. Shara. Only six years old when rendered, but the likeness was good. Casting an eye around the room, almost expecting to be reprimanded, he slipped the small canvas out of its frame, rolling it tightly, tucking it into his bag.

“I'm coming for you,” he told the air. Turning to the room, he continued. “I'll get her back. I promise.”

The pantry contained several of his mother's pasties, baked the evening before. Made with heavy rye flour that would keep for several days and stand up to travelling, they were a favourite of fishermen and traders. He whispered his thanks as he packed them alongside a couple of apples, a small bag of oats, and a metal pot just large enough for one meal.

Setting it on the kitchen table, Feral eyed the bag and its contents. It wasn't a lot, but it would have to do. Should get him to the next town at least.

He emptied the cookie jar of the money hidden at the bottom of it, wondering how far it could take him. If he could even find out which way to go. What was he going to do anyway, ask people if they'd seen a dragon? Shaking his head angrily, he put such thoughts aside. “Just find people,” he decided. “Find people, get help, find Shara. I don’t care how!” he shouted, countering the thought that rose unbidden. “I don't care. I'll make them help me.”

Rangers’ boots, a birthday present from his step father, good leather, sturdy and waterproof. A hat from the previous year. Suddenly they were gifts that made a lot more sense. Simple utility, providing simple freedom – the freedom to choose a direction without fear of being ill equipped. Feral had always been on good terms with his step father, but somehow never managed to call him dad. For a moment, he wished he had.

“You never did let me use this,” he murmured, holding the older man’s hunting knife reverently. “But I think I may have need of it now. Please trust me. I'll try not to poke my eyes out with it.” He fitted the sheath to his belt.

From the pegs beside the door, Feral chose his mother’s travelling cloak, thick wool on the outside, lined with softer linen. Hard wearing, warm and comfortable. It smelled faintly of her favourite perfume and he froze with it in his hands, eyes tight shut against the sudden prickle of tears.

“Shara,” he told himself firmly, hearing the waver in his voice. “Remember Shara. She's alive, she needs you. You c–can't help mum now, but she'd want you to find Shara. Go. Go you son of a bitch!” he shouted at himself, the sound jarring him into action, fighting back the well of emotion that had threatened to overwhelm him.

As he left house, Feral turned, instinctively locking the door. Stopping with his hand still on the key, he glanced up and to either side, remembering the broken windows, the missing half of a roof, and the new hole in the rear wall. Under other circumstances, he might have laughed. Not this time. This time the key went into his backpack, tucked into the rolled up portrait of Shara. He wasn't going to use it again unless he could bring the real Shara back, he vowed silently. If he came back, it wouldn't be alone.

Eyes fixed on the horizon, shutting out the still smouldering ruin of the village, Feral set out along the road.


By the next morning, Feral had passed that horizon at least twice over. The first hill had been the hardest, unable to resist the urge to look back at what at once been a beautiful village among green hills, not far from a short cliff down to the blue ocean. Blackened and empty, it didn't so much look back at him as gaze without focus in all directions. The life had gone from it as surely as it had gone from all its inhabitants. The fishermen, the farmers, the energetic young teacher, the wise old preacher, the baker and his twin sons, the cobbler, the blacksmith and his numerous children. The guardsmen, the candle maker, the butcher and his pretty daughter, the tanner and the brewer. All of them dead.

His step father, dead.

His mother. Dead.

Shara... missing.

This thought alone had turned him back to the road, kept his feet moving, prevented him from falling where he was. He had to go on, he had to continue. Finding her was his job alone, his task, his mission.

The night had been harsh. Bivouacked in the shelter of a copse of beech trees, he had stared into the glow of his camp fire, fighting tears as he ate one of his mother's pasties, trying to imprint the flavour of every bite onto his memory, lest she be forgotten.

Above him, the moon and stars had turned as they always did, not knowing, or perhaps not caring, that one person's world was standing still.

Now, with the sun approaching its highest point in the sky, Feral came to a slightly dilapidated town about three miles inland from the ocean. As he approached, Feral packed up his hat, instead raising the hood of his cloak, hiding his inhuman ears from curious eyes. He didn't feel like attracting attention.

A broken and rather moss covered sign announced the town as Westwheat, population six hundred and something. The last digits had been re-chiselled into the wood so many times they were now unreadable. Feral wondered wryly whether the inhabitants could be described as having a love-hate relationship with each other.

Around him on the road, a number of carts were trundling their way into or out of the town, the hooves of the carthorses making a regular thudding on the ground as they passed him.

Beyond the road, the land had been cleared for a circle of a quarter mile around the town, and the soil appeared fertile and good for agriculture. A network of irrigation channels had been dug to supply the fields, though the water’s source was unseen. Feral guessed that a well had been sunk somewhere out of sight. Here and there, farm workers were tending to the crops, applying animal dung to fertilise the soil, and removing the weeds that competed for space with their livelihood. Scattered apparently at random, a number of wooden huts occupied the corners of some of the fields, either as cheap dwellings, or simply shelter for the field hands during poor weather.

A number of poorly maintained drystone walls divided each field from its neighbours. Numerous trees clustered along these boundaries, often seeming to have shouldered the walls aside as they grew, and from the chirruping as Feral passed a small cluster of them, he guessed the provided homes for a goodly number of birds. The only areas that seemed to have walls in good condition were the fields containing livestock, two containing small herds of cattle, one with a flock of sheep, the last holding half a dozen horses.

On the very east edge of the town, where the land was highest, a tall windmill dominated the surrounding buildings, its dark timber walls a contrast to the reddish brick that made up most of the structures nearby, the four canvas sails turning slowly in the light breeze. Feral noticed that one of them had a tear in it.

Dividing the fields from the outer limits of the town buildings was a small ditch, no more than six feet across and probably only a couple of feet deep. The murky green water smelled strongly of rotting things, and Feral hurried quickly over the small wooden bridge that carried the road into the town. The houses to either side leaned together at their upper floors, darkening the street below and giving Feral – who had spent much of his life in the open air and forest – an unpleasant feeling of claustrophobia. Looking upwards he could see a thin strip of grey sky in the gap between the buildings. He stumbled slightly as a loose cobblestone shifted underneath his foot, and moved his gaze downwards to the dirty street again.

The street led out into the town marketplace, a circular space with a tall monument at the very centre. A plaque at the base of it explained that the statue atop it's rather dizzying column was a likeness of Westwheat's founder, the Honourable Reverend Mellow Barley. Some brave local seemed to have climbed the statue and painted his round lutrani nose a bright red.

Above the noise of the traders hawking their wares, Feral could hear the ring of hammer on anvil from a nearby blacksmith's. He thought for a moment, considering that his equipment consisted solely of a small hunting knife. Could definitely use some additions. Slipping a hand into his pocket he checked on the money he had managed to salvage, a few weeks worth of decent wages. Time to see how far that would go.

The smithy’s shop was on the edge of the marketplace. The ground floor was open fronted, the upstairs being supported by a pair of black timber pillars. On one of these was a sign saying:

Jesett’s Blacksmiths. Armourer, Travel and Hunting equipment, Horseshoes. Other items negotiable.

Feral entered the shop. Hanging on a sidewall were a range of horseshoes, agricultural equipment, shovels and pitch forks, variety enough to make money from whatever land one might have access to. The back wall sported a range of less genteel equipment. Knives, swords, staves, helmets, gauntlets, and a large steel shield.

Standing over the anvil and currently pounding on a horseshoe was the blacksmith. He was a vulpani, a little over five feet six inches tall, and wearing only a pair of rough cloth pants, the pads of his bare feet apparently long since immunised to the occasional hot spark that fell from his anvil. As he swung the hammer, Feral could see the play of powerful muscles beneath fur of a similar russet hue to his own hair. The smith glanced up for a moment, nodded his acknowledgement of Feral’s presence then looked back to his glowing metal. Presently the vulpani, presumably Jesett, picked up the shoe with a pair of tongs and pushed it into the quenching trough. Water hissed and steamed for a few seconds before the smith pulled the horseshoe out and placed it on the anvil.

He turned to Feral as a smaller vulpani appeared from a doorway at the back of the shop, scampering over to the forge and heaping more charcoal into it. Hands freshly blackened by the dust, he received an approving nod from the smith, and promptly hurried away.

“What can I do for you, young friend?” the smith asked in a deeper voice than Feral had been expecting from one of his stature.

Feral glanced around the shop. “I need a little advice,” he admitted.

“That at least I will give you free,” the smith smiled. “At least, as long as you buy something afterwards, so my wife will not burn my dinner.” Feral couldn't help returning the smile. “What do you need advice about?”

How to find a dragon? Feral thought, wisely not opening his mouth just yet. How about, locating a crazy leonin woman whose entire purpose in life seemed to be to kill and kidnap? He decided to start smaller. “I think I’m going to have to get my own food for a while.”

“Planning a long journey?” the vulpani asked.

“Not really planning, but I... can see some travelling ahead of me.” That much he felt sure was true. Something told him neither the dragon nor the leonin were from anywhere within fifty leagues of here.

“Any good with a bow, my friend?” the smith walked over to a rack on the wall.

“Not really,” Feral shook his head. The smith looked at him for a moment.

“Hmm. Pity. Would you lower your hood please, my friend?”

Feral hesitated, his hands moving upwards but stopping short.

“You need to find a thicker cloak, if you want to hide your ears,” the smith told him. “They show when you move your head.” It wasn’t an insult, Feral realised. Just plain, free advice.

With a sigh, Feral did as the vulpani had asked. The smith studied him for a few moments.

“Which side?” Again, he didn’t seem to be insulting, just curious.

“Father,” the half-race said quietly.

“His ears suit you,” the smith smiled. “You shouldn’t hide them so readily.”

Feral blinked.

“No vulpani would tell you to hide your inheritance. To us, such a thing would be a gift, but I know that not every race feels the same. If I were to guess, I would say humans never quite treated you as one of their own,” he sighed as Feral shook his head. “Perhaps you are right to try to pass for pureblood out there,” the smith indicated the market place beyond the racks of his stock. “But in here,” he pressed a hand to his furry chest, over his heart. “You remember what you are, and you remember that you have as much right to claim vulpani heritage as I.”

Feral nodded silently, not sure what to say. He simply hadn’t come across such an attitude before. His village was, strangely, void of vulpani, or at least it had been since his father left thirteen years ago. He told the smith this.

“Then that is a shame. It happens of course, with all races. We all like to be with our own kind, and sometimes a town can fall out of favour for one reason or another. It is a pity that your father was the last and, if you will forgive me, a discredit to him that he left you behind when he left.”

“I wouldn’t worry about discrediting him,” Feral said quietly, an edge of bitterness in his voice. “I think he did that all on his own.”

“He may have had his reasons,” the smith said quietly. “But you would know better than I. Well, my friend,” he went on, changing the subject. “If you aren’t much of a shot, perhaps we can find you something a little simpler. A few snares, a fishing line perhaps?” the smith smiled, and Feral nodded.

“All right, I think I can manage that.”

The vulpani provided him with four wire snares, and told him how to look for the tracks where the grass was flattened and to find somewhere along that track that the snare could be set, ensuring that there was no way around the wire.

“It is not,” he added, “a clean way to hunt. I do not favour it myself, and you will need a strong stomach to deal with the results. Let’s find you something to fish with as well, that’s a little more bearable.”

From the back of a rack, he produced a short fishing pole that unscrewed neatly into five sections that Feral would be able to fit into his backpack.

“Where is it you are travelling to?” the smith asked conversationally as he located a roll of fishing line.

Feral rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “I'm not really sure. I'm trying to follow...” he trailed off.

“Follow what? Or whom?” the smith pressed gently, apparently sensing a delicate subject.

“My sister,” Feral sighed after a pause. “She was... taken. I don't know where.”

The vulpani's expression darkened. He let out a short, barking exclamation. “Once again terrible things happen to good people.” He sighed. “I am sorry, I do not know how to offer you help. Did you see those who took her?”

Feral nodded. “A leonin woman. Strong – a warrior I think. Cold as the north wind. Cruel.”

“What can you remember about her clothing?”

“Her clothing?”

“Armor? Shield?”

“Uh...” Feral thought hard. “Helmet,” he concluded. “Dark metal, a-a symbol on it,” he gestured to his forehead. “Stylised, like a gold cat on red?”

The vulpani looked thoughtful, then shook his head. “I'm sorry, my young friend, I don't recognise that, but it sounds intricate – not something a simple bandit or rogue might choose. Perhaps she belonged to a clan? Crime syndicate, perhaps, though not from around these parts I think... Ah, I'm sorry,” he sighed. “Here I am rumbling on and you in need of help. Let me suggest this to you: make for Stonebridge, east of here, some fifteen leagues. It is a long walk, but you will find two things, first a police force. Technically we're under their jurisdiction here. Practically – last I heard from them, they deputised the town guard. That was four years ago. Our guards do their jobs and don't get too cocky, but I wouldn't suggest you go to them for help.”

Feral nodded, though his heart sank. He had rather hoped to find a decent police force to appeal to for help.

“The second thing you will find,” the smith said, pacing to the shelves at one side of the shop. “Is the office for the South Counties News Scroll. I'm told they keep meticulous archives, indexed and cross indexed. You may find information about your kidnapper's crest, and if anyone can tell you if similar things have occurred, the editors can.”

That wasn't a bad idea, Feral had to admit. Anything of interest, from mineral finds and crop failures to crime reports and the known locations of pirates would crop up in the news scrolls. If other towns had been attacked... a dragon would be big news. And just perhaps if it was in the scrolls, someone would take him seriously. He had already decided not to try in Westwheat, for if a dragon had been seen, then everyone in the market would have been shouting about it. The complete normality of the town was all he needed to know that he would be laughed right out of it if he tried to gather aid.

“Now here,” the vulpani said, returning with a neatly folded parchment. “Is a map of the Freelands. I will also give you a compass, though my advice would be to stick to the coast. Stonebridge is two leagues upstream along the second river you will encounter.”

“Thank you,” Feral said earnestly, feeling a genuine swell of gratitude towards the smith.

“Don't thank me,” the smith said, smiling and shaking his head. “I'm telling you to buy some stuff and leave when I should be offering my assistance, but I have a family to feed and I fear I can do no more than this.”

“Really,” Feral told him quietly. “You've helped a lot. I... really wasn't sure how I was going to find my sister. Now I have somewhere to start.”

The vulpani nodded solemnly. “I wish you the best of luck, my friend. Now, I fear I must ask for something...”

Feral looked at him, reaching into a pocket for money.

“Do not tell my wife that I am sending you away without charging you,” the smith finished.

“You're a kind man,” Feral told him quietly, with great sincerity.

“That much at least I can manage. Vulpara,” he said, citing the name of the primary vulpani goddess and gesturing vaguely upwards. “Would not look kindly upon me were I to deny help where it is needed.”

“Then I thank her too,” Feral said, and the smith smiled broadly.

“Before you leave, go to the provisioner's shop on the south side of town, not the east. He will give you a better price, just...” he pointed to his large ears, and Feral understood.

“Thank you,” Feral said again, not knowing what else to say.

Rubbing the bridge of his muzzle, the vulpani smiled. “If you succeed, I should like one day to hear of it.”

Feral nodded as the smith softly ushered him towards the door. “I'll let you know,” he promised.

“Now put your hood up, and good luck!”

Feral nodded, raised his hood, and left, waving over his shoulder, and feeling very confused. After spending most of his childhood hiding his mixed heritage, suddenly someone had told him that it was perfectly all right. He didn’t feel quite ready to lower his hood in public though.


“Halt! Who goes?” the lupari guard challenged, torchlight glittering on the tip of his pike as he stepped across the path, his tall build and broad shoulders making him an intimidating figure. He wore no helmet, but a patch of dark fur sat atop his head, running down just past his eyes to form a natural mask. “And what’s your business here after nightfall?” he added.

“Balthor Lupino, if you don’t put that stick down I shall take if off you and snap it.”

This was probably the last response the lupari had expected. Blinking in confusion, he eyed the newcomer as she approached. Tall – pushing seven feet even, and strong of build yet elegant, carrying herself with a feline grace quite suited to her leonin ancestry. She wore a blue woolen tunic, close fitting and short enough to hide neither the bottom of her thigh-length skirt, or the gentle curves of her hips. Amber gold eyes sparkled with merriment as they gazed into the lupari's own.

A moment, then recognition, a wide grin spreading across his muzzle, his ears sharply erect.

“Cassy?”

The leonin nodded, smiling.

“I... wha...” the lupari’s pike clattered to the ground as he was suddenly enveloped in a bear-like hug. The second guard looked up from the board game he had been studying. Seeing that his companion wasn’t being attacked, he chuckled, and went back to planning his next move.

“Cassanya Northpride, bloody hell!” the lupari exclaimed when he could breathe again. “Been a while,” he added unnecessarily.

“Just a bit,” she stood back a little, her hands on his shoulders. “How’re you doing, Thor?”

The lupari shrugged. “I manage. But you look tired,” he added, looking at her more closely. “Are you ok?”

Cassanya nodded. “I’m ok, just…” she trailed off looking uncertain as to how she was.

“Wenst,” Balthor glanced at the other guard. “I’m gonna clear off for a bit, all right?”

The man shrugged, waving one of the playing pieces vaguely in the air. “Fine by me, mate, but the captain’ll have a fit if he sees you gone.”

Balthor snorted derisively. The captain was known for having fits at many things, and the lupari had long since given up trying to avoid it. “I’ll chance it.”

“No, Thor, look, don’t worry about…” Cassanya started to protest, but he had already leaned his pike against the wall.

“Come on, Cassy,” he smiled, his voice softening as his hand cupped her elbow, urging her through the arched gateway. “Let’s find somewhere to talk. Are you hungry?”

She nodded gratefully and followed his lead. The tavern he took her to was small, but the atmosphere was warm and friendly, a few of the locals nodding or raising a glass in greeting as Balthor entered.

“I didn’t think anywhere would still be open at this time,” she said quietly as the door closed behind her.

The furniture and the bar were made of a light pine, a contrast to the dark oak beams that spanned the ceiling and only just gave the leonin enough clearance for her ears. Oil lamps burned on shelves along the walls, while a candle was set upon every table. To one end of the room, a fire flickered in the hearth, illuminating a quietly steaming kettle sat on a metal frame above it.

“You just have to know the right places,” he smiled. “They stay open pretty much round the clock here, mostly for the town guards to get a midnight meal.” The lupari saw her settled into a seat near the fire, then headed for the bar, returning shortly with a mug of ale, and a large glass of wine.

“Fish and potatoes coming up soon,” he said, sitting across the table from her.

“Thank you,” she said softly, taking a sip of wine and allowing herself to relax a little.

“So how are you?” the lupari asked gently, watching her intently as she leaned back against the cushions of the chair.

Cassanya smiled weakly, closing her eyes. “I’m ok,” she said softly. “I’ve just been travelling a lot recently. Kinda tired,” she sighed as she let her head drop back onto the padding of the seat.

“Where you heading for?”

“I’m trying to find someone.” The lupari tilted his head and Cassanya continued. “Ok, I should give you the whole story. I work for a man who lives north of the Skystone mountains; his name’s Fellirion Forester. Kind man, but getting old, and doesn't like to travel too much so I do a lot of fetch and carry for him, sometimes go out to meet people and take them to see him. Right now, he thinks his nephew, or great-nephew maybe, is in trouble, and he’s asked me to come find him, and take him back home with me.”

“All right. You know where you’re going?”

“Kind of…” the leonin pushed the pointer charm across the table towards him. Balthor studied it with interest, watching how the little arrow behind the glass stayed pointing in the same direction as he turned the device between his fingers. He narrowed his eyes suddenly.

“Magic…” His fingers tensed as if he was resisting the urge to shove the device away.

Cassanya nodded. “I knew you wouldn’t like it,” she said sadly.

Balthor eyed it a little longer, then shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t trust magi, but I do trust you, and if you’re sure this man is ok to be working for…”

The leonin smiled and nodded.

“Then I’m not worried. What can I do to help?”

“You don’t have to do anything, Thor,” Cassanya said softly, feeling quite touched nonetheless. “This is my job, you have yours.”

Balthor snorted into his ale. “Yeah. I do, such as it is.”

“It’s a good job, Thor,” the leonin leaned forwards, looking at him intently, the candlelight catching her eyes. “People need someone to watch out for them. That’s what you do.”

“Maybe,” he said. “But I can’t say it’s everything I wanted.”

“Not paying much?”

“I sleep in the barracks every night because I can’t afford to be anywhere else.”

Cassanya sighed. “I know how that feels. This wasn’t my original mission. I was sent out here to meet up with someone and take him to a conference or some such. He was supposed to be paying our travel... but now I've been rerouted, and I doubt this Feran kid has any cash, and… to tell the truth, I’m out of money, and I’m out of ideas on how I’m going to get back, even when I do find him.” She picked up the pointer, looked at it for a moment, then put it back in her pocket with a shake of her head.

Balthor smiled. “When we were sixteen, you told me that money made no difference to how much you could do, that there was nothing you couldn’t manage, even if it was by naught more than grit and determination. You remember what happened?”

“Yeah, I talked us both into that damn mercenary unit.”

The lupari nodded. “And we made quite an impression before they worked out how old we were and threw us out.”

Cassanya looked at the tabletop. “And did a lot of things I wish I’d never done.”

“Cassy,” he reached out to touch her arm. “You were never in the wrong. We got ambushed, we didn’t go looking for…”

“What else did you expect?” the leonin looked at him, a pained expression on her face. “What else did I expect? That we could hang around, take the money, and never get into a fight? It was a stupid trick, and I should never have dragged you into it.”

“But we got through it,” he insisted, tapping the wooden table with a finger. “And you proved your point.”

“Maybe…” Cassanya admitted. “It was still stupid.”

Balthor smiled and shrugged. “Stupid or brave, fine line sometimes.”

“Stupid,” she insisted.

“Then I guess I just like to hang around with stupid people. I should be able to get you a room here tonight, and then we can set out first thing in the morning.”

We? No, Thor, I can’t ask you to…”

“You aren’t asking me to,” the lupari pointed out. “I’m deciding to. I’ve spent the last three years wondering why I’m stuck in this dead-end town. I got a couple of drinking friends, no relatives, no money, and no future. Time to get a better answer or get out. And I don't see any answers around here,” he glanced around the room.

“Thor…” the leonin leaned forward to put her hand on his cheek and looked at him fondly. “Oh gods I wish we’d stuck together. Remind me why we went our own ways?”

Balthor looked a little guilty. “Because we weren’t very good for each other. Neither of us would have been half as dumb solo. And my dad was always trying to scrounge money off you, and your parents always hated me, especially after we...”

“Gods dammit, Lupino,” a voice growled from behind him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Balthor looked over his shoulder to find a uniformed vulpani behind him, his russet fur highlighted a bright orange in the firelight, darkened only by his scowl.

“You’re on duty man,” the vulpani exclaimed. “What do you think you’re doing in here? Stand up and salute when I talk to you!” he shouted as Balthor opened his mouth to explain.

Slowly, the lupari did so, but his expression was dark.

“This is my friend, sir…” he began, but was interrupted.

“I do not permit the guards to leave their posts when on duty,” the vulpani snapped. “Except during designated break times, and I do not make exceptions for you. Nor I do not expect to see you with a lady of the night, not even during your off-duty hours. Especially one of this quality,” he eyed Cassanya’s travel stained attire.

“Lady of the…” she started, a crease appearing between her eyebrows, but Balthor had already taken a step forwards. Tall for his race, he towered over the vulpani who seemed to lose some of his bluster as the lupari’s shadow fell across him.

Captain Greenswell, this is a good friend of mine,” Balthor’s voice was low, but carried well in the silence that suddenly filled the tavern as heads turned to watch. “Her name is Cassanya, and if you speak of her again in any way that suggests she’s neither beautiful nor virtuous, I’ll tear those stripes off your jacket and feed them to you.”

Cassanya blinked mutely from the far side of the table, her eyebrows climbing her forehead.

“Don’t you dare threaten me, Lupino,” the vulpani’s eyes narrowed as he backed off a step. “Else I’ll have you out of the guard quicker than you can blink.”

“Fine, I already decided to quit.” With a quick movement, the lupari pulled the metal badge off his shirt and tossed it at the captain who fumbled for it as it bounced of his chest, landing with a clatter on the stone floor.

“Well… well good,” the vulpani growled. “Saves me the trouble of dismissing you! Less paperwork!” Turning, he stalked off to the far end of the room, glaring at the guards who had been taking their ‘allocated’ breaks and were now looking at him interestedly.

“Sorry, Cassy,” the lupari sat down again and picked up his ale. “You ok?”

“Fine,” she smiled. “You think I’m beautiful?” she asked with genuine surprise as he took a swig.

Balthor coughed into his mug and set it down hastily. “Well… yeah, I always did. Figured I’d told you before,” he said, his white furred cheeks taking on a pink tinge as the skin underneath reddened. “Shall we see about that room?” he asked, changing the subject quickly as she smiled at him.

“I’d settle for this place having a bath I can use…” the leonin said, and Balthor nodded, standing and heading for the bar.

“You’re sure you’re ok with this?” he asked a couple of hours later as he spread a thick blanket onto the floor of the room. It had been an uncomfortable moment when he realised he only had the money for one, and that he was not now going to be welcome to sleep at the barracks.

“It’s ok, Thor, I trust you to be a gentleman,” Cassanya told him. “But, um…” she paused and he looked at her. “Do you think you could ask the barmaid about maybe washing my clothes tonight? I feel a lot better after the bath, but I’ve been wearing these for far too long now…”

“Sure, Cassy,” he nodded, and then blushed as she asked him to close his eyes.

“So, uh…” he said, listening to the soft sounds of undressing. “Do we know what the guy you’re after looks like?”

“Description said half-race.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, go figure. Human-vulpani, apparently. Blue eyes, red hair. I’m going on the pointer, but Tee was right when she said he would be easy to spot once we’re close.”

“Tee?”

“Oh, she’s works for my boss too, she sent the message out to me. Hold your arm out please?” He felt her drape her clothes over his arm, hearing her pad over to the bed.

“Ok, you can open your eyes now,” she said, and he opened one cautiously, finding her safely under the bed sheets. “Please try not to be long,” she said, looking a little plaintive as he put his hand on the door handle. “I feel kinda vulnerable here…”

Balthor smiled gently. “I’ll look after you.”

“I know,” she nodded, and he exited the room, making sure the door was properly closed behind him and that there was nobody else in the hallway. When he returned, she laughed as he knocked, called her name, then when she asked for him to come in, stuck his head around the door with his hand over his eyes.

“Barmaid said she’ll leave them outside the door when they’re dry,” he told her, closing the door firmly. “Should be ready by morning, if she puts them by the fire.”

“Thanks, Thor,” the leonin smiled, snuggling under the sheets, the linen warm against her fur. She watched him settle down on the blanket on the floor. Blowing out the candle, she settled back onto the first soft bed she had slept on in weeks, wishing it weren’t probably the last she would sleep on for some time as well.

“Cassy?” Balthor’s voice floated quietly out of the darkness.

“Yeah?”

“I’m glad you came through town.”

Cassanya bit her lip. Even after she lost him his job and only income, he was still pleased to see her.

“I’ve missed you, Thor,” she sighed.

 

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