Sprinting up the stairs, Feral arrived at the top just as Cassanya opened her bedroom door. Exchanging a glance with her, he looked in through the open door to his room.
“Tee?” Cassanya raised her glowball higher, throwing light upon Tallow as she hunched at the end of Feral’s bed, clutching her right hand tightly to her chest.
“What happened?” the leonin asked quickly, kneeling next to her friend.
“It... it burned me! Careful, don’t touch it! It...” she stopped as Feral picked up the glittering silver cat. It remained a statue, quite rigid in his grasp, and completely inert. “It...” Tallow faltered, tears beginning to track down her cheeks.
“Come on, we need to get that dealt with,” Cassanya said, shoving her arms behind Tallow’s back and under her knees, lifting her bodily and carrying her out of the room with apparent ease as Balthor stood to one side to let her pass.
“Sorry,” Cassanya winced in sympathy. “Just be glad you always keep a jar of this around,” she indicated the green ointment she was dabbing on Tallow’s hand. “This is quite a bad burn.”
“I’ll be ok,” biting her lip, Tallow grimaced. “It’s Master Forester’s recipe. It’ll do the job.”
“It will now that it’s your recipe rather than his!” Cassanya smiled. “You’ll be fine in a couple of days with this goo on you. Now, I know genuine magical healing’s a rare gift, but I do sometimes think you must be the next best thing! You know, if you keep at it long enough I wouldn’t be surprised if...”
“Tee...” Feral asked quietly, returning from outside with a bucket of clean water, and pouring it into a basin. “Why were you in my room?”
Tallow looked away as Cassanya’s ears pricked up.
“And where did the pendant uncle Felli gave me go? I left it on the table by my bed, but it’s not there now.”
She closed her eyes, her lower lip trembling.
“And... why are you wearing travelling boots, and why is there a fully filled backpack by the door?”
Tears ran down Tallow’s pale face as Cassanya paused, looking up as Feral’s words sank in. Archer watched curiously from the side of the room, perched on the edge of the workbench, next to a potted plant whose twisting stems trailed all the way to the stone floor. Next to him, Balthor looked pensive, but remained silent.
“Tee? Where were you going to take them?” Feral finished quietly.
“I’m sorry,” she squeezed her eyes shut, unable to meet Feral’s gaze, even though his tone had been very soft. “I’m really sorry.”
“Tee?” Cassanya asked gently. “Tee? Were you going to take it?”
Miserably, Tallow nodded, holding her friend’s hand tightly in her un-burned left.
“But why?” Cassanya asked, confused. “What for?”
Tallow shook her head, her eyes still closed, face down-turned.
“Come on, Tee, I know you. You’re as honest as the sunlight, you must have had a damn good reason, and I can’t see that you...” Cassanya paused. “It wasn’t your idea, was it?” she sighed, suddenly understanding. “Was it?” the leonin insisted, her tone soft but clearly not being prepared to accept silence as an answer.
Unhappily, Tallow shook her head again, mouthing n almost inaudible, “No.”
“I see. So that’s the game. All right, Tee, all right, it’s not your fault.” Putting her arm around the young woman’s shoulders, she pressed her muzzle to her short cut hair. “Shush now, nobody’s blaming you.”
“Um...” Feral felt he had lost the plot.
“Tee wouldn’t do this on her own,” Cassanya looked up at him, her expression angry. “Your great uncle told her to.”
“Where’s Fellirion Forester?” Feral demanded the small apprentice whose image appeared in the pool.
“A-asleep, most likely, sir,” the young boy stammered. He looked to be about eight years old.
“B-b-but I’m just here to take m-messages overnight...”
“Then you take the message that Feral Foxwood needs to see him right now, and deliver it immediately, clear?” Feral growled, showing canine teeth just a fraction longer than quite usual in a pure blood human.
“Yes-yes, sir,” the small vulpani nodded hastily, and fled, his receding footfalls echoing around the room.
It took about ten minutes for Fellirion to arrive, during which Feral paced the underground chamber, casting only occasional brooding glances into the water and up at.the high rocky ceiling on the far end of the communication. Thus it was that he was out of the line of sight when the old man did finally arrive.
“Tallow? What’s so urgent? What happened to your hand?” he asked, noticing the thick bandage wrapped around it.
“This burned her!” Feral snapped, holding the silvery cat above the pool, glaring angrily at the old man.
“Oh dear,” Fellirion’s shoulders sank, his head bowing.
“Well?” Feral demanded, since it looked as if that was all the old man was going to say.
“I suppose you know…”
“It was you told her to take it? Yes.”
“The short answer? Because I need it.”
“It’s not your concern. This is a matter for the Order of Magi, you don’t need... shouldn’t have to get involved.”
“Maybe not,” Feral conceded, some of his anger dissipating as he saw Fellirion’s demeanour, reading neither hostility nor arrogance in the old man’s face. “But I’d like you to tell me anyway. Perhaps I can help you.” To his surprise, Fellirion neither denied this, nor seemed angry. Instead, he seemed to shrink, leaning more heavily upon the railing, his hands withdrawing into the long sleeves of his robe.
“I don’t want you to help,” he said quietly.
“Why? Uncle Felli… it’s all right…”
“No,” Fellirion raised his head. “No, it’s not all right, my boy, not in the least all right. You don’t understand.”
“That’s right, I don’t. But you could tell me.”
“I don’t want you involved,” the old man stated bluntly. “You have had quite enough trouble already, you do not need any more from me.”
“If you want this... cat...” he eyed the silver statue a moment, rather wishing it would take a shape that wasn't quite so mundane. It didn't, so he continued, “I don’t think you have a lot of choice,” Feral told him. “Tee can’t take it for you, and from what I can tell nobody else seems able to use it either.”
Fellirion looked at him closely. “Is that true?”
“It is,” Cassanya said quietly, stepping into view. “I’ve picked it up, it doesn’t mind me touching it, but it won’t do anything for me other than... be... whatever shape it wants to be today. I'm sorry, Master Forester, but he's right. If you want to use it, you're going to need Feral too.”
“I see,” Fellirion’s voice was almost too low to hear. “Well, I suppose that would tie in with what I suspected. It appears I have no choice, then,” he sighed. “Though I warn you, this is a long story.”
Feral smiled slightly. “I have plenty of time, uncle Felli.”
“Very well. How is your history?”
“Do you know of the Dragon War? No, well, it is not popular learning anymore I suppose. You are, obviously, quite aware that dragons are no fairy story. Legend, rather than myth.
“The origins of this draconic race are something of a mystery, not least because they seem to pre-date all other civilisations. There are those in the order here who could list a number of archaeological sites dating back thousands of years – or perhaps tens of thousands.”
“Dragon cities?” Feral wondered aloud, and Fellirion nodded. “But how would they, you know,” he mimed swinging a hammer, and the old man actually laughed.
“There is a theory that size and shape are something of a variable when one is talking about such an innately magical race,” Fellirion told him.
“It was never verified,” the old man continued. “But there are suggestions in the oldest records that among the uniquely draconine arts was the ability to modify biological size and composition.” Feral wasn't feeling particularly wiser. His thoughts must have shown in his expression because Fellirion sighed and added, “We think – or at least some of us do – that they had an ability to shapeshift.”
“Handy...” Feral said, eyeing the silver cat for a moment, a thought crossing his mind.
“I would guess that there's a time and a place for being the size of a barn,” Fellirion shrugged. “And it's not always and everywhere. Even if you are the original magic users.”
“Oh absolutely. They taught us you see,” Fellirion nodded. “It was the dragons who defined the art, who learned the ebb and flow of power, who peered into the infinitely vast and the infinitely small and saw a pattern that could be manipulated. They unravelled the mysteries that lie behind and beyond our sight, and learned to control the powers that bind the world together. And somewhere, into this world of burgeoning magic and draconic rule, our familiar races stepped. Fragile little things by comparison, at the mercy of the elements, prone to starvation and disease. I think perhaps they felt sorry for us, because here and there, they educated us.
“Much of our civilisation today owes something to dragonkind. Fire, that's one of theirs. And wheels. Inventions so simple and so ancient we take them for granted, but without which we might be living in caves, fearing the thunder.”
“Wow,” Feral said quietly. “Ok, that was pretty nice of them... but I thought you said there was a war?”
Fellirion nodded again. “Along with the simpler things, they had also planted the seeds of magical knowledge among the ancient peoples. Perhaps they just wanted to help us survive harsh times, perhaps they thought we'd never come to understand the way of things as well as we do now, or perhaps they simply never thought to separate the mundane from the magical. When one is imbued from birth with an innate talent in the art, it must seem commonplace. Ordinary.
“It took a long time of course – centuries, perhaps even millennia – but those seeds they had planted grew and blossomed, carefully cultivated by what became known as the Order of Magi. Those who studied the art began to think and research and experiment for themselves. Eventually, a two conclusions were reached. One by the magi, whose understanding of the art finally allowed them to realise the power that the dragons wielded. The other conclusion was made by the dragons themselves, who noticed that the magi were beginning to rival them.
“It's funny how hitherto friendly nations suddenly get tense when they realise they could do each other a lot of damage, isn't it?”
Feral nodded mutely.
“You may imagine of course that this is exactly what happened. The magi began to fear the dragons, the dragons began to fear the magi, though perhaps not enough. The magi had become afraid that the dragons would one day dominate this world, and that all other races would fall under their control. While they still remembered that it was the dragons who created the magi, the swell of feeling was that independence must be guaranteed, that there must be an assurance that control could never be imposed upon them.
“The goal became clear; ensure that the dragons could be controlled. Not killed, not harmed, but contained, their threat neutralised.
“It was not a simple task, as you might well imagine. Their first experiment served only to anger the draconic clans and resulted in dire threats to the magi should they ever attempt such a thing again. The subsequent attempts – there were of course, several – were viewed with less tolerance. The times that followed were some of the bloodiest in history, for the dragons had no intention of allowing themselves to be manipulated by their own students.”
Fellirion sighed, folding his arms defensively across his chest.
“Eventually, the magi succeeded,” he said quietly. “An artefact was created, an amalgamation of all the knowledge and wisdom of the order, an object imbued with the most delicate, powerful, and terrible enchantments ever conceived. Many of the dragons fell before the Dragon Staff, their power tamed and harnessed. You may imagine that this did not please those who remained free...” the old man looked rueful.
“The staff brought a stalemate. For every league gained on one front, as much ground would be lost elsewhere. The problem with a unique weapon is of course, that it is unique. One place at one time.
“The war lasted for years, and devastated both factions. Many of our greatest strongholds were destroyed, as were the draconic cities’. Several times a truce was declared, but none of them held, until the last. It was a fateful day indeed when both sides met that final time, for something happened that none of them had expected. The Dragon Staff was broken. Not by one of the dragons, nor one of the magi. History describes him only as ‘an adventurer,’ and none of the records seem quite clear as to the reasons for his presence.
“But the result was the same. The staff was shattered, and the resulting magical backlash from all the broken spellpaths within it flung the fragments out across the continent – and I should imagine sat everyone present down on their backsides. In the subsequent moments, the dragons, rather to everyone’s surprise, did not slaughter the magi. Instead they withdrew from the battlefield. To this day, nobody knows where they went. None have been seen since.”
“Until now,” Feral said.
“Indeed. What I still don't know is whether we are facing a single dragon, or all of them. Our problem however, is not confined to even that extensive problem. Two fragments of the Dragon Staff currently reside in the keeping of prince Tiernach Irontooth, expert magic user, and second son of Maximilian Irontooth, king and ruler of Lordenor. It is my belief that he is able to wield the power contained in those fragments of the staff, and that it is he who controls the dragon. Or dragons, as it may be. It is also my belief that he has used the dragon to provoke a war between the Freelands and his own kingdom.”
“What? Why? That’s mad!” Cassanya exclaimed, the first words she had said since following Feral into the viewing room.
“Yes,” Fellirion agreed sadly. “Yes, it is – at least based on the information available to us at this time. However, I am certain that Tiernach controls one or more dragons, and since it appears that it was involved in the initial attacks that have provoked the current conflict, the probability that Tiernach engineered these events presents itself strongly. But I cannot see his motive,” the old man thudded his fist onto the wooden rail on which he leant.
“I know Tiernach, I’ve seen him work, and I can’t believe he is acting out of simple desire for power. He's just not that possessive; he isn't driven by land or wealth, he's a natural scholar and an artist. He studies because there are things to learn, and he creates new forms of magic simply because nobody has seen them before, he's not interested in stuff. Never once would I have believed that he had any intention of using his abilities and knowledge to extend the reach of his kingdom. To improve the lives of the populace, to bring greater order, prosperity and security, most certainly. Indeed, I'm sure at one time he was planning an improved system of aquifers using lodestones and augmented quartz, now that is entirely in character – but to grow his lands with a rebellious population will cause decades of chaos. That does not fit Tiernach's style, not at all. Quality over quantity, always... I wonder... I wonder if someone doesn’t have something on him, something they are using to manipulate him... something so powerful that he would be prepared to sacrifice his principles...” Fellirion mused quietly.
“What should we do, sir?” Tallow asked quietly, breaking the old man’s reverie.
“Yes, of course,” Fellirion looked up. “Well, as you are now aware, we may eventually be facing a reforged Dragon Staff, or a large portion of it, and that weapon,” he leaned down towards the surface of the water. “Bears a remarkable resemblance to the one that once shattered it.”
Feral blinked, then the meaning hit home. “You mean, this is the sword... cat... thing... that...”
“That was once used to break apart the staff. I strongly suspect so. And it may yet prove its task to destroy it for a second time.”
“But how can the staff be reassembled when we... um...” Tallow glanced at Feral, who looked back at her, confused.
“What have I got to do with it?” he asked, feeling Fellirion looking at him as well.
The old man coughed, quietly. “I think it would be for the best, my boy, if you were to bring that pendant I gave you to Sanctuary – to me, that is. I think we should put it somewhere safe.”
Feral looked at him blankly for a few moments, then glanced at Tallow. Guiltily, she removed it from her pocket and handed it to him. He looked from it, to Fellirion, to Tallow, to Cassanya, and back to the shimmering object. One smoothly curving side, the rest fractured and random.
“I fear, my boy, I have given you something which Tiernach, or whatever power is behind him, will desire above all other things. It would be wise to look after it very carefully.”
“All right,” Feral nodded firmly. “We’ll bring this to Sanctuary. What then? What about the Dragon Staff? About Tiernach? Uncle Felli, he... he needs to be stopped. We can’t let this keep happening. What if...” he paused. “Wait, he’s controlling the dragon?”
“I think it very likely,” Fellirion nodded.
“Then he’s got Shara!”
Fellirion bowed his head. “Quite possibly. But even I do not have the power to search an entire kingdom, and nor does anyone in the Order, before you ask!” He didn’t mention that the whole Order could, if mobilised together, do so – if they wouldn’t react to a clash between kingdoms, there was no chance at all that they would be roused to find one missing girl. Even if the girl was Fellirion’s relative.
Feral swallowed the words he had been about to say. “But... we know she’s...”
“Somewhere in a particular quarter of the known kingdoms,” Fellirion sighed. “Presumably in a stronghold, belonging to Tiernach Irontooth.”
“Then... then I’ll go get her!” Feral exclaimed.
“Against an army?”
“I can do that,” he said, brandishing his silver cat over the pool.
“And fight a dragon?”
“You see, my boy? You can’t do anything without help. I understand why you want to, really I do. I am more angry than I can say, but that anger is not going to help me, and nor will it help you. All it can do is get you killed.”
“But... we’ve got to do something,” Feral felt a tear slide down one cheek, but didn’t care. “I have to find her. I have to stop him. He can’t... can’t keep doing this to people.”
Fellirion nodded gently. “I know. I will try, Feral, I promise you. I will talk to the Council again tomorrow, tell them that you have seen a dragon. Maybe I can convince them to take action. For now, please just let your priority be getting here. Tallow knows the way.”
Sniffing, Feral nodded. “All right.”
“Good lad. Now, why don’t you get yourself back to bed? You look exhausted.”
“Ok.” Feeling like there was no fight left in him, Feral stood up, as did Tallow. Together they moved for the door.
“Cassanya?” Fellirion spoke just as the leonin was about to follow her friends.
“Sir?” she looked slightly suspicious as she looked down at him.
“One more thing...”
“Look after Feral, will you? Let him have a few days to rest. Don’t let him get himself into trouble...”
The leonin smiled, her first genuine smile since entering the chamber. “I’d have done that anyway,” she said softly and left, leaving the old man to end the communication spell.
Cassanya sat down carefully on the edge of the bed, watching the lupari’s sleeping face. The moonlight coming through the window was quite enough for her feline sight to make out his relaxed expression, but she set the glowball down upon the sheets near him. Watching him for a few long seconds, Cassanya thought the lupari seemed so peaceful that she nearly changed her mind about waking him. Nearly.
“Thor?” she touched his shoulder gently, feeling his thick fur, soft and warm under her fingertips. “Thor?”
After a moment, the lupari’s eyelids twitched, then opened.
“I’m sorry,” Cassanya kept her voice soft.
Balthor looked confused, the alarmed as he sat up, the sheets sliding down his chest, the moonlight giving his white front a bluish tinge.
“Cassy? You ok?”
“I’m fine,” she nodded, smiling reassuringly. “I just… I really need to talk to you. I’m sorry,” she looked away suddenly, feeling herself flush and glad for the darkness. “I’m probably just being silly.”
Balthor smiled kindly, his posture relaxing as he realised there wasn't a new emergency just yet. “It’s ok, Cassy. You can talk to me any time, you know that.” Nodding, she chewed her lower lip as she looked at him. “What’s on your mind?” he prompted gently.
“I… look, Thor, I think I’ve really dropped you in it this time. If I’d known it was going to work out like this I wouldn’t have brought you here.”
Frowning, the lupari shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he said simply.
“No,” Cassanya touched his cheek gently. “Not yet you don’t. Thor… I think I’m about to get involved in a lot of trouble. I’m not sure what to do about it, and it’s not fair to drag you into it.” She told him about the discussion between Fellirion and Feral, about the dragon, about the war between Lordenor and the Freelands, how Fellirion thought that the sword-cat thing might be the only weapon they had against the Dragon Staff, and how it seemed that Feral might be the only person who could use it.
“And I can’t back out of this,” she said quietly. “I owe the old goat too much, and I can’t just let Feral go off on this alone. Maybe the Council of Magi will do something, maybe they’ll sort it out, but if they don’t… Thor, it’s going to get really messy, and I’m very sorry I’ve dragged you into it. I’ll take you into Riverwood town in a couple of days. We can get you passage back home, or maybe find some work there if…”
“Whoa,” Balthor held up his hands. “Cassy, wait. What? Why would I want to go home, or get a job in Riverwood?”
“Because…” she ran down, apparently unable to find words to finish the sentence.
“Cassy,” he said gently, reaching out to rest a hand on her shoulder. “You’re my best friend. I’d follow you to hell and back, if that’s where you were going.”
“I know you’re worried, and I understand,” he interrupted. “You know that we've got a fragment of the Dragon Staff, right under this roof, and that the Lordenor army are going to be searching for it. And you're worried that the magi might think that that there's only one way to put a stop to things, and that's to destroy the staff – or as much of it as might get put together, minus our piece. And you know that there's only one thing known that could break it, which we also have,” he laughed quietly. “That's all pretty scary right there. But more than that, you're worried that Feral might be the only person that weapon works for. And you know that if that's the case, he'll take the job on himself, because he'll do anything to save his sister. And you know you’ll go with him because you care about him, like I do.”
“Thor...” Cassanya tried again.
“And I know you’re afraid,” he brushed his fingers against her lips, quieting her. “You’d be a fool not to be, and I promise you’re not the only one. But I don’t think we have a choice. If we sit here and do nothing, we’re gonna get a war, or a dragon, or both, coming to our doorstep. We're not safe, even here like this. The bad things won't go away if we sit tight and wait.
“If we go and we take the fragment and that silver cat to the magi, and they tell us that there is only one thing can be done, we might find that instead of being in front of the fight and trying to keep ahead of it, we have to take ourselves right into the middle it. But you see, Cassy, that doesn’t make us any worse off. Either way, we're involved. We can't hide, we can't run – short of throwing away what we've got, and that means abandoning Feral's sister. He won't do that, and you won't let him go alone.
“So the only choice we have is whether Lordenor and their dragon hunt us, or we hunt Lordenor's dragon. Given that choice... I'd rather do the hunting than be the hunted,” he paused and shrugged his eyebrows. “Sometimes you just have to stand up and fight, even when the other guy’s bigger and stronger than you, even when you know it’s gonna hurt, because not doing anything will hurt even more.
“And,” he went on. “You’ve seen Feral fight with that thing, and so have I, and we both know he’s good with it. I can’t beat him, nor can you, nor can most. Give him time, he might well get better.”
“But he’s just a kid!”
“Yes, he is,” Balthor nodded. “But he’s also got guts, and he’s more reason than anyone push back at Lordenor. If he's really the only person can do the job, my money's on him managing it.”
“You don’t have any money,” Cassanya said sadly.
“True, but it would be if I did. Plus you’re still forgetting one thing.”
“I’m gonna be there with you, and I’m gonna be looking out for you. I won’t let you get hurt.”
A crease appeared between Cassanya’s eyebrows. “Thor?”
“You’re really stupid sometimes, you know that.”
“Yeah, I know,” the lupari sighed.
“But you've a way of looking at things that I really envy,” she smiled. “Sometimes I get so caught up in how complicated everything seems, then you come along and point out it's all really simple. Of course you’re right that staying here isn’t really going to be any safer, not in the end. We have to take that thing to the magi, don't we? Even if it's bad news when we get there. Even if that's not the end of it.”
Balthor nodded. Cassanya moved closer to him, and hugged him tightly.
“I’m glad you’re coming,” she whispered into his ear as he put his arms around her.
“Only because I cook better than you,” he grinned, his deep voice a soothing rumble.
“Well, yes, but also because I trust you. You know, this kinda feels familiar...”
The lupari chuckled. “Yeah, but the bad guys were a little smaller scale way back when.”
“I bet you can still take ‘em down,” Cassanya squeezed him tighter for a moment.
“Your friend, Tee… how long have you known her?”
Cassanya drew back to look at his face. “Long enough to trust her.”
“Of course I’m sure!”
“Even though she just…”
“Thor,” the leonin interrupted him softly. “What she did tonight, she did because she was ordered to do so. That’s not a dishonest action, it’s admitting you think someone else knows better and trusting their judgement.”
“Depends on your point of view,” Balthor’s expression darkened. “She is a magic user, you know.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“I… don’t trust magic users.”
Cassanya laughed. “And how many have you known?” she asked, smiling.
“Well, two,” Balthor admitted. “Including your friend. But that’s not…”
“So what you mean is,” Cassanya leaned closer. “You met one dishonest one.”
Sighing, Balthor conceded the point, looking away for a moment before returning his gaze to hers. “Yeah, I guess. I just want you to be careful, ok, Cassy?”
“I will, don’t worry,” Cassanya put her hand on his shoulder. “Thor?” she added, a sudden thought occurring to her as she looked at him.
“Are you actually wearing anything under this blanket?”
Even in the low light, she could see his cheeks darken, and she laughed, tugging the sheet up to his middle.
“Then I’m still gonna take you into Riverwood tomorrow.”
“I am. You need another set of clothes.”
“Unless you wanna stand around naked while I wash that lot,” she indicated the pile of travel worn cloth on the floor.
“Doesn’t sound so bad,” he stuck his tongue out.
“Depends on your perspective,” Cassanya raised an eyebrow.
“I'm thinking fair turnabout. Do I get to wash yours while you’re naked?”
“I have more clothes. This is my home, remember.”
“Then how about I wear your spares?”
Cassanya laughed. “I don’t think a skirt would suit you.”
“That’s the not the point,” Balthor waggled his eyebrows. “The important part is to deprive you of spares before you start washing.”
Cassanya punched his shoulder. “Well I can see one thing hasn’t changed since we went our own ways.”
“You’re still a mucky little puppy at heart.”
“Would you want me otherwise?”
For a moment, Cassanya opened her mouth without saying anything, then closed it again, suddenly realising that, in order to keep their conversation quiet, they were leaning rather close to each other.
“Thor? We’ll be all right, together, won’t we?” she asked, acutely aware that her nose was only inches from his but not really wanting to back away. Maybe it was the moonlight, but it suddenly occurred to her that he was really quite handsome. In a rugged, scruffy, lupari kind of way. Exactly the kind of handsome that wasn't a good idea.
“Yeah...” Balthor’s eyes flickered across her face, apparently also becoming aware of their proximity. “All right together,” he murmured, close enough that she could feel the warmth of his breath.
For a moment they stayed motionless, his eyes flickering across her face as her gaze fell for a moment. Unbidden, the thought occurred to him that her lips looked as soft as they had been even when she was a girl. Cassanya felt her hand lift, apparently on it’s own volition, as if to touch his arm, hesitating, not quite making it before the moment ended, both of them suddenly sitting back, she with a soft giggle and a blush, he with an embarrassed clearing of his throat.
“Sorry,” they both apologised at the same time, then shared a laugh.
“Yeah, um, anyway,” Balthor said. “Town tomorrow, next week the world. We’ll manage, eh?”
“Yes,” Cassanya nodded, smiling, standing, aware that she was still blushing. “We’ll manage. Thanks, Thor. Goodnight.”
“’Night, Cassy,” the lupari smiled as she let herself out. She stood for a moment in the hallway, closing the door behind her, leaning back against it, feeling oddly breathless. That wouldn't do, that wouldn't do at all. They'd been through all that long ago and made their choice already. She forced herself to breathe slowly for a few inhalations. Better. Still, despite the butterflies in her stomach, it was funny how reassuring she found her friend at times like these. He always made her feel like things would be all right in the end.
Smiling, the leonin turned, intending to head for her own bedroom but noticing a light shining under Feral’s door. Whatever was he doing still awake? She knocked gently. “Feral?”
She opened the door and looked around it. Feral was standing by the window, curtains wide, watching the night sky. On the bed behind him, his glowball lit the room with soft yellow radiance. It was, she suddenly realised, the first time she had seem him without a shirt. Though still seeming almost pure blood human in torso, a thin run of russet fur made its way down from the nape of his neck, following his spine until it disappeared behind his belt. He had removed his boots, too, revealing furry feet with that paw-like vulpani shape. He really was an odd little thing, Cassanya thought.
“Hey, boy, you ok?” she asked softly, walking up behind him, draping her arms loosely around his slender shoulders.
They looked out of the window together for a few moments, as a cloud moved across the moon.
“Archer said he’s coming with us...”
“Archer. I talked with him. He, um... says he owes me his life, and his freedom, or some such. Said he couldn’t go on with anything else until he’d paid that back...”
Cassanya chuckled ruefully. “Damn tree jumper,” she murmured. “Every time I think I have his measure, he turns out to be just a little bit more.”
“Yeah... he's like that.”
The cloud moved on, clear moonlight lancing into the room once again, casting Feral’s shadowed face into highlight.
“I will find her,” Feral said suddenly.
“I know you will.”
“I'm going to get her back. Even if the magi can't help, or if it's only me who do anything. I'm getting Shara back, even if I have to take on a dragon, that Prince Irontooth, or the Lordenor army!”
Somewhere outside, an owl hooted. The wind stirred the branches of the apple trees, rustling the leaves.
“I’m kinda scared.”
Cassanya hugged him gently. “You know, when I first met you, I thought you were young, dumb, and wimpy,” she said quietly, smiling at his reflection in the window. “I've learned a bit since then. You are young and wimpy, but you're not dumb, and you're stronger than you know. I bet if we took the meanest, toughest bounty hunters in the kingdom and put them in your place, none of them would take the job. But here you are, never once even considering turning it down.” She sighed. “You'd put a lot of so-called fearless mercenaries to shame. I know all you want is a quiet life, but there's a steel in you... If I didn't know better, I'd think you might be part leonin.”
Feral laughed. “No such luck. I bet leonin warriors always sleep well.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I...” Feral's gaze fell from her reflected eyes. “Had that dream again.”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“I didn’t want to disturb you...”
Sighing, the leonin turned him round to face her, kneeling down to put herself at eye level. “Feral... please don’t think like that. I’m your friend, I’d like to help if I can. That stands whether you need someone to talk to at midnight, someone to shout abuse at because of everything that's happened, a shoulder to cry on, or just someone to sit with. If you’d rather not me, then I’m sure Thor, Tallow, or Archer feel the same. Heck, we can go buzz Master Forester and haul him out of bed again if you like. We'll all help you find your sister, and do whatever needs to be done along the way. You don’t have to face any of this alone.”
She watched a tear slide down the young half-race’s cheek. “Come here you stupid boy,” she held her arms out, and he stepped into them, relaxing into her warm embrace. Cassanya purred gently, just holding him, resting her cheek against his. “Your sister is my sister,” she said quietly. “We'll find her together.”
Feral hid his face in her neck, hugging her as tightly as he could, feeling the powerful leonin strength under her soft pelt. If Cassanya said Shara was her sister, then...
“Now remember I’m in the room next door,” Cassanya reminded him softly. “If you want me for any reason, any reason, the door’s not locked, you just come on in. I promise I will never be angry, even if it’s four in the morning and I’m dreaming of catnip.”
Feral giggled, snuggling against her furry cheek.
“Now, you promise you’ll come find me if ever you need to?”
“Ok,” he whispered into her ear.
“Good boy. Do you want me to stay with you tonight? Plenty of room for me on the floor here.”
“No, that’s ok,” Feral shook his head.
“All right.” In one smooth motion, Cassanya stroked her hand down from the back of his head, all along the trail of fur that shadowed his spine down to his underwear.
“That’s better.” Smiling, Cassanya turned him and sat him on the edge of the bed. “I’ll leave you to your rest. Even if there are only a few hours left till dawn. Remember, any reason, any time, come right in,” she pointed at the wall in the direction of her own bedroom.
“Thanks,” Feral nodded. He watched her close the door quietly behind her as she left.
It was funny, really, Feral thought. Of all the things Fellirion had declared him heir to – which seemed to include the house and all its contents – the only thing that mattered to him was the one thing he seemed to have gained on his own. Cassanya's friendship.