Fel (James Galloway)
The Tower of Sorcery
It took a long time for Tarrin to awaken.
It had almost been like he was drifting in a deep blackness, floating in a void where he could not see, but garbled sounds and impressions somehow drifted into his awareness. He registered several voices, but could not make them out. He would drift into and out of these impressions, hearing the voices murmur up from nothing, and the fade away after a time, never understanding the meaning of the words. There was more than sound in the void, there was also smell. Unusual smells and odors touched his awareness, from simple things like the smell of candles and wine and wood and stone, to complex scents that he could not even begin to describe nor understand. Unlike the sounds, the smells were there always, flooding his shrouded mind with its bizarre information.
Tarrin also realized that he wasn't alone in the void. There was something in there with him. It was a presence, a compilation of instincts and motivations that defied rational thought. It was always there, just behind him, as firmly attached to him as was his right arm. But at the same time it was not part of him. It was something that he couldn't describe, and he pondered on it for a long time before the brilliance of light penetrated the blackness, and he realized that he was waking up.
He opened his eyes, the sensations and impressions of his sleeping mind forgotten. The light was...bright. Very bright. He was in a rather small chamber that held nothing but the bed, a small table of some sort with two chairs, the chair Dolanna was sitting in, and a single stand beside the bed holding a lamp. Tarrin didn't feel quite up to moving yet, so he spent the few moments trying to remember what happened. There was...a fight. That cat-creature woman had attacked him. Had almost killed him. She would have, if Dolanna hadn't stopped her literally at the last instant. She'd torn him up too, broke his arm, nearly ripped it off. But the whole thing was a hazy blur in his mind. Only the part where she bit him was clear in his mind.
It was about that time that he realized what he was smelling. He could smell everything around him. The bed, the wool of the blanket, the leather of the chair. The spicy-musky-warm smell that was strong in the room was coming from Dolanna. And there was a myriad of other smells assaulting him, smells that he couldn't identify easily, faint ones and strong ones, sour ones and sweet ones, light ones and heavy ones. He could hear quite clearly his own breathing, Dolanna's breathing, and he could just barely make out the sound of the beating of her heart. Never in his life has his senses been so lucid, so sharp, so incredibly sensitive. The light of the single lamp, the fire turned down very low, was as bright as the daylight to his eyes.
The numbness. When that creature had bitten him, there was a numbness that had spread through him, almost like a poison. Then there was pain, pain so severe that his mind didn't want to remember it. Then nothing. Had the creature's bite caused this change in his senses? Was it a side effect of the venom she injected into him?
There was more, he realized. He was feeling odd new sensations along his body. His sense of touch was more acute, but there was a sensation of things being touched that he didn't have. There was no way for him to describe the sensation, even to himself, but he was feelings things where he didn't have things to feel. He decided to try to move. He shifted his legs, putting his feet down on the mattress, getting ready to push himself into a sitting position.
Then his claws snagged on the sheet.
His heart seizing in his chest, he realized that that was exactly what he was feeling. He pulled an arm out from under the covers, and stared at it in numb shock. His arm was fully healed, and it was covered in black fur to just above the elbow. His hand was almost twice the size it had been, with thick, long fingers that had pads on the insides and on the palm. He could see the tip of claws recessed up inside his fingers, retracted out of the way.
"I'm sorry, Tarrin," Dolanna said in a weary voice, looking at him. "There was nothing more I could do for you."
"How?" he managed to ask.
"It was her bite," she told him quietly. "Her condition can be passed to others through contact with her body fluids. When her spittle got into your blood, it began the change."
Tarrin stared at her, his mind whirling. Then a little voice in his head carrying his mother's imperious demeanor snapped at him to get over it. "What's done is done," his mother would always say. "Worry too much over what's behind you and you don't see the root in front of you," his father would remark. It was done. He had been, been changed. Crying and panicking over it would do no good, and breaking down wasn't going to help him now. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself up to a sitting position. While doing so, he sat on something that had a feeling of pressure. Reaching under him with his other hand, he grabbed something that felt the sensation of being grabbed. Almost absently, he realized that it was a tail. Whirling images of the nude creature came back to him then, and he realized that he looked just like her now. The fur, the hands and feet, the claws, and the tail. Probably the ears and teeth too. A run of his tongue through his mouth confirmed that aspect of his suspicion. A tentative hand to his head proved the other, as the pad of his palm crushed down on his cat-ear. It was an eerie sensation.
"What now?" he asked calmly.
She gave him a curious look. "A strange question to ask," she said. "I thought you would have started demanding to know what was going on. Or perhaps start rearranging the furniture."
"My mother always says that's what's done is done," he said grimly. "Going into conniptions at the moment isn't going to help me."
"A wise woman, your mother," Dolanna said, sitting up. "And it seems that the training you have received from your parents is going to help you. That is very good. You have a strong mind and an even stronger will, young one, and those will be you allies.
"The worst of the news, Tarrin, is that I cannot change you back," she told him bluntly. "Your body is not what it was, and I cannot separate what was once you from what you are now without killing you."
"I sorta expected that," he sighed.
"The change is not just physical. You have taken in the instincts, the essence, of the animal of which you now are part. In her case and yours, it is the common housecat." She pushed her rather dishevelled hair back from her eyes. "Now this, this is where I have helped you. Do you feel the presence of that side of you? It should be there, inside with you, but it will not be easy to recognize."
He remembered the sensation of not being alone before he woke up. It was still there, but not very strongly. But now that he knew what he was looking for, he could find that other side of himself, the Cat, sitting in a corner of his mind. "I can feel it, but it seems far away," he told her.
"That was my doing," she told him. "The sudden introduction of that animalistic set of impulses into you would have all but driven you mad," she told him. "I have contained that part of you so that you can adjust to its presence. As the days pass, the spell I have woven will weaken, and you will feel it more and more in your mind, until the spell is gone and you must deal with it on your own. But this will give you time, time to adjust to it, time to learn how to control it. Soon, in days, you will begin to hear the song of its instincts trying to guide your actions," she warned. "That song will get stronger and stronger as my spell wanes, but it will give you the chance to learn how to deal with it without any negative consequences."
"Tarrin, it is not human," she said. "When you are in danger, or angry, or afraid, that part of you will lash out, just as an animal would. It does not see right or wrong, or laws, or what is proper or improper. It is an animal, and it will react like one. It is up to you to control that, because if the animal takes control of you for too long, what makes you human could be lost to it, and you will spend the rest of your days as the animal you will have become."
Tarrin paled at that, but he nodded. Just as his conscious mind was in control, it seemed logical to him that if he had another mind, then it too could take control. Although the instincts he could feel in his mind wasn't precisely another mind, it was a different aspect of his own. The Cat was part of him, but it was not. More to the point, it was a new part of him, and that unfamiliarity was part of the danger.
"There are, advantages to what has happened," Dolanna said quietly. "You are now a Were-kin, a Were-cat. The Were-kin share several distinct advantages over humans. Most have great strength," she told him, and he nodded. That woman had thrown him across the room with one arm. If that wasn't "great strength" he had no idea what was. "Were-kin can be hurt by weapons, but they cannot cause permanent injury unless they are weapons of magic or weapons of silver. I saw that you stabbed her with your knife. That probably did nothing but make her angrier."
"It did," he said. "That's when she bit me."
"You may have sharper senses now, but that I cannot tell you. I have never read nor talked to anyone that had a knowledge of the Were-cats. They are a very rare and seclusive breed." She leaned back a bit. "You are now linked to the cat, physically and mentally, so I would surmise that you share its traits. Strength, speed, and agility. The senses of a hunter."
"I can smell you right now," Tarrin told her quietly. "And there are, other smells, smells I can't identify."
"You will, with practice," she said. "And that is what matters right now. If you can gain a familiarity with your physical form, it will help you understand and deal with the instincts that are part of you."
"How do you mean?" he asked.
"Look at your hand," she said. He did so. "There are claws recessed into your fingers. Make them come out."
Tarrin gave her a look, then looked at his hand. He tried to flex his hands to get them to come out, but all they did was shift inside their sheaths. Clawing his hands did make them come out a little, but they didn't actually extend. There was a muscle in there, he realized, muscles that he had to learn how to move. Kind of like people who could wiggle their ears, they always said it was a matter of knowing which muscles to flex. It was the same with this, but the problem was, these were muscles he didn't even have when he'd went to sleep. He furrowed his brow in concentration, relying on his enhanced sense of touch, and a strange, new feeling of just knowing his body. He could feel the claws in there. He seemed to sense that they were worked by certain muscles attached to the bases. He clenched his oversized hand into a fist, and then opened it and tried again, flexing inside rather than outside.
Silently, five claws, each one as long as Dolanna's little finger, slid out from the tips of his fingers. They were vicious, formidable looking weapons. He looked at them and wondered how that creature had managed not to kill him. They were hooked, like a cat's claws, sharp along the inside edges and at the tip. "Very good," she complemented, as he relaxed his hands, and the claws slid back up inside his fingers.
Tarrin's belly growled. "Think I could get something to eat?" he asked.
"Yes, I will have something sent up to you," she said, scrubbing her eyes with her hands. "Now that you are awake and seem to be well, I can get some sleep," she said.
"How long was I asleep?"
"Three days," she replied wearily. "The wounds you took in the fight were dreadful, and on top of that, this happened to you. Your body exhausted almost all of its energy in the transformation, which healed you as a side effect. You may not have survived had I not been here. And I wanted to be here when you awoke, to help calm the shock and fear of finding this waiting for you when you awoke."
"Three days," he said in wonder. It didn't feel like he'd been asleep for three days. "Do, do the others know?"
"Faalken does," she said. "I told Duke Arren what happened as well. Walten and Tiella only know that you were severely injured, but they do not know you have been changed. I will tell them now, so that they can adjust to it."
He couldn't help but ask. "What happened to her?" he asked.
"She escaped," she said grimly. "She killed twelve men while doing it. My spell wore off much faster than it should have, and she ripped the cell door off the hinges. She killed the cell guards, two other guards, a servant, and a stablehand. Arren tried to trap her inside the castle by raising the drawbridge, but she simply climbed up the wall and jumped off the top. If she would have simply waited, none of that would have been necessary."
"What do you mean?"
"She was wearing a collar," Dolanna said.
"I remember it," he interrupted, an image of her coming to his mind.
"It was controlling her," she continued. "She was being compelled by magic into doing what she was doing. It was not really her fault. She was being used. I think she was fighting the collar the entire time."
"She should have been able to kill me easily," Tarrin mused to himself, remembering more images of the fight between them. There was any number of places where she could have just put her hand across his neck and slit his throat. She had the speed to do it. If she'd been fighting the collar, it explained much. Why he was able to outmove her, and do the things he was doing. She was distracted. His mother had said many times, "in a fight, the man with his mind on two things usually ends up with his mind in two places." Mother's sayings were usually graphic, but they were very true.
Mother. How were his parents going to react to, to this? He was fairly certain that, after the initial shock, that they would adjust to it, even as he would. But it would be painful. His parents were intelligent, open-minded people. But if they rejected him, he didn't know if he could live through that.
He pushed it out of his mind for the moment. He wasn't even ready to start dwelling on things like that yet. His mind was tickled by something Dolanna has said, about the collar. About the Were-cat woman being controlled. Then someone had to be controlling her, and they ordered her to come up here and kill him.
"Who would go through all that trouble?" he mused.
"Excuse me?" Dolanna asked.
"Why would they send that woman to kill me?" he asked. "I'm not worth that much attention."
"It may not have been you," she said. "Her target may have been someone else, and she simply came into your room by mistake."
Tarrin looked at her, her smell filling his nose. "I don't know," he said simply, leaning back against the headboard. "If she can smell the same way I can, then if she knew my scent, she'd know who to come after. But maybe not. I guess we'll never know."
She stood and stretched, then leaned over the bed and put her hand on his cheek gently. "I must get used to those eyes," she said gently, "but in a way, looking like this, you are very handsome, Tarrin," she told him. "Almost as if this was what you were always meant to be."
"They are green," she said. "The same color as the woman's. They are a cat's eyes, with the vertically slitted pupils. They are very striking."
"Huh," he said in wonder.
"Well, you are hungry, and I need to sleep," she said. "I will bring you a meal and some books to read. For your own safety, I do not advise you to leave this room. After the deaths of their comrades, the castle's guards may not take kindly to you. You should take this time to get familiar with yourself. Learn how to move your tail, for example. I will have Faalken check in with you about once an hour, so that if you need something, there will be someone about to see that you get it."
"Alright," he said.
After she left, Tarrin tentatively threw back the covers, and looked down at himself. He was nude, and his tail was coming out from under him. His tail wasn't very thick, more for ornament than use, and covered with black fur. His legs looked mostly like they did, except they looked more muscled, and of course they had the fur on them that started at a ragged line just above his knees. He reached down and put his hand on the fur, feeling that it was both soft and rather thick, but not very long. He reckoned that from a distance it would almost look like black breeches. His feet were similarly oversized, wider through the ball of his foot, almost like a paw, with long, thick toes that were tipped with those nasty claws. There wasn't a pair of shoes out there that would fit those feet. He sat up and pulled a leg up, then grabbed the oversized foot in his hands and turned it so he could look at the bottom. He was surprised at how easily his foot rotated like that, and he saw that the bottom of his feet were covered with two thick pads, much like his hands were. One was at the ball of his foot, and the other at the heel, with smaller pads on the bottom of each toe. The claws on his feet were even larger than the ones on his fingers.
Swinging his legs over the bed, he shakily stood up on his new legs. He was very weak still from what had happened, but he could actually feel the muscles shift and play under his skin as they worked to put him on his feet. Despite the weakness, he realized at that moment that he had every bit of the inhuman strength and power that the woman had. Despite his weakness, he felt light as a feather, and it required almost no effort to move his own weight. On standing, his tail seemed to come to life of its own volition, and that was when he realized that it wasn't just for show. He nearly overbalanced forwards, but his tail swished deeply behind him and recentered himself on a stable balance. It began to move on its own, swishing back and forth in a rhythmic motion, and it had to be the oddest sensation he'd ever felt in his life. He almost instinctively stood only on the balls of his feet, heels off the floor, understanding why they were so wide. Stability. There was one other thing that got his attention, and that was the hair. His hair was extremely long, falling well down his back, and very, very thick. It was the same blond color it had been before. He wasn't used to the weight of it, nor the way it swayed and swished whenever he moved. It was an extremely disconcerting sensation.
He saw his clothes neatly folded at the foot of the bed, and he sat down again and picked up his trousers. He saw that they'd been modified, with a small hole in the back and a slit leading to it, with a pair of buttons. Dolanna had already made clothing for him to take his tail into account. He sat down and carefully put his leg inside, then curled his toes to keep the claws from snagging. He repeated it with the other leg, then stood up and buttoned them in the front. It wasn't easy, because his fingers were so large now, but he somehow managed. The back buttons, however, were another story. Tarrin managed to twist himself in such a way that he could actually see behind himself; Tarrin had never been able to twist like that before, and he realized that his entire back and spine were built differently than his human one had been. He worked for a very long time to get the small buttons through the holes, but the small things eluded even his best attempts. Growling a bit in frustration, he popped out the claws on his hand and pinched the little button between then, then managed to jam it through the slit. He repeated the process with the other button, managing it on the fifth try.
She'd left him a white wool shirt, with laces at the front, and long, wide sleeves. It was much easier to get into that, but the laces were quite beyond him. These large hands had obvious drawbacks. They were very dextrous, but their size made manipulating very small things extremely difficult. He figured that he'd be able to do it with practice, but he didn't much feel like fooling with it.
Dolanna opened the door, holding a tray so filled with food that she had trouble holding it up. She gave him a cursory glance as she entered the room, closing the door with a foot, and set the tray down. Tarrin looked at her. Something was....wrong. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, either. She looked the same as she always had, but somehow, she didn't. As she got closer, he had to look down at her more and more, and then he understood. She was shorter.
That meant that he had to be taller.
He looked up at the ceiling. If this ceiling was the same height as the one in the other room, then he was taller. It was noticably lower than it had been.
"Is it just me, or are you shorter?" he asked her.
"You grew by half a span," she told him simply. "As if you were not tall enough. You are taller than most Ungardt now." She opened the door again and picked something up off the floor, and then came back in. They were books. "How does it feel?"
"Strange," he said, looking down at himself. "But in a way, it doesn't. It's like it's always been like this."
"Those are your instincts," she told him. "Do not ignore them, Tarrin. They may try to guide your actions, but they also will give you important information. You must learn to listen to them without letting them control you. It is a balance you must strike within yourself, a balance between man and animal, with the man guiding."
He nodded. There was no way he could ignore something that just came to him unbidden. But, as she said, he couldn't let it control what he did.
"Faalken will be along in a while," she told him. "He told me that he thought you would not mind company, so he is bringing a stones board."
"I think he's right," he said. "I won't mind someone to talk to at all."
"Go ahead and eat, and Faalken should be along," she said. "He is going to the city market to buy something, and will come visit you when he returns. That should give you time to eat in peace."
"Alright." He reached out and took Dolanna's hand gently, feeling how warm her skin was, and how fragile that she seemed to be. "Dolanna, I want to thank you," he said. "I know you couldn't have stopped it, but at least you've given me a chance. Thank you."
"Oh, dear one," she sighed, giving him a smile, "it is I who should thank you. I cannot help feeling responsible for this. And I want you to know, that if you never need anything, anything at all, I will always be about to help you. It is the least I can do for you after bringing you here, where this could happen."
"Would, would you send a letter to my parents?" he asked. "They need to know about this."
"I already have," she told him. "They should have it by now. I made sure to tell them not to come, Tarrin. I felt that you would need time to grow accustomed to it before you could face them."
"Thank you," he said, because she was right. If he saw his mother right now, looking like he did, and she rejected him, it would destroy him. Better to face it himself than run the risk of that.
"I will return after I have rested, bathed, and eaten," she told him. "Then we will talk of what is to come."
"Eating is a good idea," Tarrin said, the wonderfully sharp smells of the tray drawing his attention to it.
"Enjoy," she told him, leaving.
Tarrin never knew food could taste that way. Everything seemed fifty times what it had been before, and he found that the tastes of some foods had changed somewhat. Mutton had always been bland to him, but now it had a texture and a subtle flavor that he enjoyed immensely. The tray was filled with dishes of meat, and nothing else, with a mug of plain water. There was mutton, pork, beef, venison, rabbit, and even goose and chicken. He found that they all had tastes related to their scents, so much so that the taste of it was the base of the scent it gave off. He figured that if he didn't like the smell of something, odds were that he wouldn't like the taste of it either. He sampled each of them, testing the new taste of it and comparing it to what he remembered, then he attacked the entire tray and devoured it. When he was done, he marvelled that he was capable of eating so much. But he was wonderfully full, and the contentment of that simple condition amazed him. No doubt that it stemmed from the instincts that were inside his mind now.
It was all so strange. By all rights, he should be having a complete panic attack. But he was not. It was as if the instincts in his mind had forced him to accept the change that had been wrought on him. Yes, he was upset, and very frightened about what had happened to him, but even now it felt...right. Just as Dolanna said, he felt as if this was the way that he was supposed to be, that he had been incomplete before this. It was probably the instincts doing it to him...and in a way, he was glad of that. At least this feeling of normalcy was somewhat comforting.
He stood at the window, looking down into the courtyard, wondering if he'd have the courage to walk across it. It was painfully obvious that he didn't belong in the human world anymore. In a place like Aldreth, things were different. The proximity to the Frontier made the villagers receptive to non-humans. But this wasn't Aldreth. This was Torrian, where non-humans walking down the street were quite an event. They would either ignore him, stare at him, or run from him. There were non-humans in port cities, the sea-faring animal people, the Wikuni, but Torrian was far from the sea. Maybe in Suld, where there were many Wikuni, he would be able to walk down the street. But here, he wasn't so sure.
The door opened. Tarrin looked over his shoulder, and saw Faalken coming into the room. Faalken's rough, outdoor-like scent touched Tarrin's nose, and he filed it away in his mind for future reference. Faalken had a stones board in his hands, as well as a couple of mugs and a leather pouch.
"You look, impressive," Faalken told him.
Tarrin looked down at his hand, flexing out the claws and watching in mused wonder. "Something like that," he replied quietly. "I'm getting used to it, though."
"How does it feel?"
"I can't describe it, Faalken. There are sounds and smells and sights I see and hear and smell, that I just can't describe. You have milk and ale in those mugs," he told him. "I think you were either in a rush or working out. You've been sweating, and your heart's still a bit fast. And you were eating a meat pie."
Faalken blinked, then chuckled ruefully. "Right on all counts," he admitted. "I think I understand what you mean then. Feel better?" he asked as he put the stones board on the small table.
"Much," he replied. "Just eating did wonders."
"Did Dolanna tell you what's happened? With the other one and all?"
"Well, as soon as she's sure you're alright, we'll be moving out," he said. "Dolanna wants to get you to the Tower immediately. If there are any side effects or complications over what happened to you, there isn't a better place to be."
"She didn't tell me that," he said.
"She probably didn't want to worry you," he said, sitting down and pushing the mug of milk towards him. Then he opened the pouch and poured the stones out onto the board. "She probably want you to only think of one thing at a time. I can't argue with it, but I prefer a more direct method of doing things. You want white or black?"
"I'll take black," he said as he moved away from the window. He looked at the chair a moment, then managed to figure out how to sit down in it without pinching his tail behind him. He did it by turning the chair around and straddling it, crossing his arms over the back, which was now in front of him.
"Kind of hard, isn't it?" he asked.
"Sorta," he said. "So far, all the tail's done is move by itself. I can't figure it out."
"Practice," Faalken shrugged. "It'll give you something to do while you're waiting for me to lose."
"I'll do that," he promised.
Faalken was a good stones player, so there was a considerable amount of time between moves. Tarrin took that time looking back at his tail when he wasn't studying the board, sensing what he felt when it moved, what he felt when he touched it, and how it felt as it moved through the air. He took all these sensations and started picking through them, until he thought he had a good idea of where the muscles were, which ones were which, and what he had to do to get some reaction out of it. Reaction that wasn't reflexive, anyway. He sucked in his breath and tried to make it stop moving.
And got nothing for his trouble.
Furrowing his brow, he tried again, but still there was nothing.
He decided that he was going at this the wrong way. Instead of making it stop, he decided to make it move the way he wanted it to. He watched it sway back and forth of its own volition, studying what he was feeling in combination with what he was seeing. "Your move, Tarrin," Faalken prompted. Tarrin turned around and studied the board for a few minutes, and placed a stone on the board, then went back to watching his tail. After a few more minutes, he thought he had it. Instead of making it stop, Tarrin tried to make it stick straight out.
And it did.
He was a bit amazed. Straight, his tail was longer than his leg, over half the length of his body, nearly three quarters of it. A good span of it would drag the ground if it went limp. When it was moving, and looped and curled, it didn't look that long. Tarrin tried something else, bringing his tail around his body. It didn't move smoothly, but it did manage to curl around his side. It was very flexible, he noticed. It kept wanting to go back to what it was doing, and that made it hard to keep control of it.
"Having fun?" Faalken asked.
"This isn't easy," Tarrin told him. "It has a mind of its own." Tarrin let it slide up his side, feeling the fur slide by even as the tail felt his shirt ghost by, then slipped it over his shoulder and wrapped the good span of extra tail around his neck. The tip just made it past the edge of his other shoulder. He wondered how strong it was. If it had the same inhuman strength he did, then it would actually be a rather formidable surprise. It may even support his weight.
"Not bad," the knight said. "Your move."
Tarrin put a stone down on the board. "I was wondering how that creature got up to your room," Faalken said.
"With these," Tarrin replied, showing Faalken his claws. "As strong as she was, she could have driven the tips into the stone and climbed up that way. I think I could do it."
"Probably," he said, "but are you sure she was that strong?"
"Faalken, she threw me across the room with one arm," Tarrin told him. "She was strong enough."
"Are you sure that happened?"
"Would you like a demonstration?" Tarrin asked him testily.
"As a matter of fact, I would," he said, standing up. "I'm curious about this, and it'll give you the chance to come to understand yourself a little better."
Tarrin stood up, got in front of the shorter, stocky man, grabbed him by the upper edge of his breastplate, and hauled him into the air. Tarrin held him at arm's length up and out, letting Faalken's feet dangle well off the floor. Tarrin looked up at him calmly as Faalken's eyes bulged a bit, and he grabbed Tarrin's wrist with both hands reflexively. "And this isn't even much of a strain," Tarrin told him. "I can throw you, if you'd like."
"I get the idea," Faalken said, a bit weakly.
Tarrin set him down on his feet gently, then Faalken grinned at him.
Tarrin gave him a look. "You did that on purpose," he accused.
"Yes," he said. "Dolanna told me about you, about what the change did to you. I wanted to see if you were aware of it yourself. Now then, it's my move."
They played five more games in relative silence, with occasional idle chatter, and Tarrin practicing with his tail, and then with voluntarily moving his ears. The ears were easier and harder at the same time; it didn't take him long to figure out how to move them, but they instantly moved towards any sound on their own. They'd often take off on him in the middle of an attempt to move them, when Faalken made a sound. Tarrin couldn't have had anything better. It was a sense of normalcy to him, and the burly knight did everything he could to make Tarrin feel at ease. He never stared, never blinked, never flinched, even when Tarrin accidentally touched him. What Faalken couldn't understand was that the instincts in Tarrin's mind had forced the acceptance of the change onto him, that, despite it only being hours since he'd awoke to discover himself altered, he had already come to accept it as a new part of his life. Not to be pined over and fretted about, but to be learned and overcome. He was still determined to go to the Tower, to go on with his life. This just changed things. He doubted that he could get into the army like this, but he was sure that he could find something to do, something where this would make very little difference. There was so much of his life that was now thrown up in the air. And this afternoon of playing stones made everything seem like it would work itself out.
There was a knock at the door. "Who is it?" Faalken called. Tarrin didn't know who it was either; the faint scent coming under the door wasn't Dolanna, and hers was the only other man-scent he knew.
"It's Arren," came the reply.
"My Duke, come in," Faalken said, a bit nervously.
The door opened, and the middle-aged Duke Arren entered the room. He was dressed in a black doublet and hose, the doublet with silver thread embroidered into the shape of a hawk on the front. His eyes were a bit tired, and he just waved them off when both of them moved to rise in his presence. "There's no need for any of that," he said. "Tarrin, I'd like to apologize--"
"My Lord, there's nothing you could have done," he cut him off. "Nothing you could have done would have stopped her, even if you knew she was coming. There's no blame to be taken. I'm not dead, you know. I'll learn to deal with this."
"I'd have to agree with you," he said, pulling the third chair over to the table and sitting down. "She killed twelve men escaping from the cells. Twelve men, and two of them were the best fighters I had."
"They had no idea what they were dealing with, my Lord," Tarrin said. "The only reason I survived was pure, sheer luck. And Dolanna." He looked at his hands. "I rather prefer living like this to being dead, so if this is price I pay to keep living, then so be it."
"You're rather calm about this," Arren said.
"I don't have time to run around screaming in apoplexy," Tarrin said dryly. "I have better things to do."
"He's part Ungardt, Duke Arren," Faalken reminded him.
"Ah, yes, that famous Ungardt no-nonsense stoicism," he mused. "If it were me, I would be running around screaming," he admitted.
"No," Tarrin said quietly, "you wouldn't. It's hard to explain, but part of it makes you accept it. I've only been like this for a few days, and only one of those awake, but it's like I've been like this all my life," he said quietly. "I do have trouble making these new parts move, but they feel like they've always been there. This feels....right to me. If I were turned back to a human, I'd feel like, like I lost a part of myself."
Arren looked at him soberly. "An intriguing side effect," he mused.
Dolanna's scent touched him just as he heard her voice. "The Tower will want to study him," she said from the doorway. She'd bathed, and was wearing a clean dress. The dark circles under her eyes were gone, and she moved with that familiar crisp precision that he knew her to have. "But on the other hand, he will have a chance there to better learn how control his animal half. It is a controlled environment, where the stimulus that could make him lose control can be contained and separated from him."
"Dolanna," Arren and Tarrin said together. "How do you feel?" Tarrin added.
"I feel rested," she replied. "How do you feel, young one?"
"Refreshed," he replied. "Strong. The meal did wonders for me."
"I rather thought that it would," she told him, taking his hand as he stood. Her small hand was swallowed up in his huge hand-paw. She turned his hand over and touched the back of it with her other hand, feeling the short, silky black fur that covered it. "How does it feel?" she asked.
"It feels...like this is the way I'm supposed to be," he told her soberly.
"That is very good," she told him confidently. "The harder you fight against it, the harder it is to control it. Part of the key to controlling it is to allow it to try to guide you, but not to control you. There is a delicate balance in that, and that is what you will have to learn."
"If I ignore it, it starts to scream at me?" he asked.
"Precisely," she said with a smile. "You do not want it to do that." She looked at them all. "We will be leaving tomorrow at dawn," she said. "Tarrin, I have had all of your clothes altered so that you can wear them."
"Uh, Dolanna, what am I going to do?"
"How do you mean?"
"Well, am I riding a horse?"
"I would imagine so," she replied. "You must face the public at some point, Tarrin. You cannot live your life in this room. It is best to get it over and done with at the outset, so that it is not a fear that nags at you."
"I guess," he sighed, staring at his hand.
"Let's take it a step further," Arren said. "Tarrin, you will dine with us tonight," he ordered. "I've told my people what happened to you. Let's put you out where you can see that people aren't going to scream in panic. They may stare, but that's about all."
"A good idea," Dolanna agreed.
"What time is it now?" Tarrin asked.
"Nearly sunset," Faalken replied.
"We'll be dining in about an hour," Arren told him.
"I guess, my Lord," Tarrin said dubiously.
"Well, we have time for one more game of stones," Faalken urged.
"Then we'll leave you to that," Arren said. "Come, Dolanna, you and I have some catching up to do."
"Indeed. I will send a handservant to fetch you at dinnertime," Dolanna told them, and the pair exited as Tarrin and Faalken bowed.
They sat back down and started a new game, but Tarrin's mind wasn't much in it. The idea of going into a public place was admittedly frightening, but on the other hand, it was necessary. Like Dolanna had said, he wouldn't be living in this room his entire life. He'd thought to himself that he was going to have to learn how to live with this startling new change...well, going to eat in the main hall would certainly qualify as learning. He wondered if he and Dolanna were rushing things a bit, but on the other hand, considering what had happened, maybe they weren't going fast enough. The only way for Tarrin to learn, learn how people would react, learn about himself, was to do. And sitting in the room didn't teach him much. Still, the concept of it was frightening. He couldn't shake the vision of a gang of men suddenly turning on him with swords, calling him a monster. He knew that it wouldn't happen, couldn't happen, but the thought was there nonetheless, and nagging fears were rarely rational or logical.
It was both with anxiety and anticipation that he stood when there was a knock at the door. A slim, pretty young girl with dark hair opened the door. She gave a slight start when she saw him, but her expression remained open and cordial. "My Lords, Duke Arren is calling all to dine," she announced.
"I was losing anyway," Faalken said sourly, standing up. "We'll be along in a moment," he told her.
"I will inform his Grace," she said with a little bob of a curtsy, then she departed.
"Dolanna doesn't take no for an answer, does she?" Tarrin asked sagely, noting her comment to report their status to the Duke.
"I've yet to see her do it," Faalken grunted, putting his sword belt back on. "Let's go eat."
Tarrin stepped out into the hall with trepidation. The smells outside were all man, criss-crossing each other maddeningly along the corridors to such an extent that the individual scents blurred into a musky, slightly unpleasant miasma. The smells of food were in the air as well, faint but present. The candles in sconces on the walls seemed bright to his eyes, and he could hear the faint steps of people all around. Faalken stepped out into the hall behind him and closed the door. "That way," he pointed, and they started out.
About halfway down the hall, a scent unlike anything Tarrin ever smelled touched his nose. It was so striking in its utter perverse nature. Where most people gave off the smell of life, this smell was the smell of death. Of evil. Tarrin had no idea how he knew that, but he did. He felt his ears lay back on his head, and he instantly assumed a wide-footed stance. In that instant, he got his first taste of the animal within him. At the smell of that evil, it reared up in his mind and flooded his consciousness with impressions and urges to seek out the source of it and destroy it. It was unnatural, the scent, otherworldly, the antithesis of everything that was gentle and good, against life itself. As a creature of nature, tied to it with mystical bonds that transcended human comprehension, the existence of the evil was an abomination, and it had to be destroyed.
Tarrin put a hand to his head, trying to clear away the homicidal impulses, but it was far from easy. He did what Dolanna said, listening to them but not letting them control him, and not ignoring them.
"What's wrong?" Faalken asked. "Are you alright?"
"There's something here," he said in a low, growling voice, still fighting to keep from charging off and killing whatever it was. "Something evil."
"I can smell it," he said in a low voice. He looked down the hallway, into the shadows near the stairs, and he noticed that the shadows were a bit too dark. Had he not had eyes so sensitive to light, he would never have noticed the discrepancy. At that instant, the instincts howled in his mind, and he barely supressed the notion to charge. "It's up ahead, in the shadows past the stairwell."
"I don't see anything," Faalken said back.
Tarrin grabbed a candle off the wall in an innocuous move, then suddenly hurled it ahead with terrific force. The candle passed directly through those shadows, and they seemed to swirl around the speeding candle as it passed through, like smoke, rippling and reverberating in a blatantly visible pattern.
"Shadows don't do that," Faalken said flatly, drawing his sword.
But the swirling shadow simply vanished without a sound, and the death-stench evaporated like mist. Tarrin looked around in confusion, hardly believing what his nose was telling him. "It's gone," he said in surprise.
"Can you still smell it?"
"No, when it disappeared, the smell just disappeared too," he told him.
"Let's go tell Dolanna about this," he said, ramming his sword home in its scabbard.
Tarrin's nervousness about going into public was banished by this new feeling of anxious fear. If it could appear as quickly as it disappeared, it could be on them before either could blink if it appeared close enough. Tarrin kept every sense open and scanning, looking for any trace, smelling for the faintest whiff, anything, that would give them a split-second's warning. He was so wrapped up in it that he stopped in surprise when they entered the main hall.
The hall was a grand affair, over one hundred paces long and about seventy-five paces wide. The floor was filled with table, and those tables were occupied. The smell of it almost bowled him over as a tidal wave of scents stacked one on another assaulted his nose. The murmuring roar of the more than hundred people in the hall confused his ears, and the torches and candles burning in the room gave off myriad shadows that tried to draw away his eyes. Numerous dogs prowled around the tables and among the rushes, sometimes fighting among themselves for the largest scraps thrown from the tables. The general din quieted significantly as the people became aware of him, staring at him and whispering among themselves.
Much to his surprise, he stood up tall and straight and stared back at them until they all looked away.
He had no idea where that came from. Perhaps that too was the instincts, the Cat, at work.
He pondered at it while Faalken led him across the room, the eyes of the hall following him as discreetly as they could manage. He was vaguely aware of the song in his mind, the murmuring sounds that represented the Cat, aware that it was growing stronger inside him. He hadn't realized that it could be so strong so fast; Dolanna had said that she had contained it, dulled its power so that Tarrin would have a chance to get used to it gradually. If it was this strong now, he shuddered to think of how strong it would be when it was contained no longer. But there was no failure in this struggle. Dolanna had already warned him that if he failed to control the Cat, it would drive him mad. And some part of himself knew it too.
They reached the Duke's table, on the raised dais at the end of the hall where his ruling seat usually stood. There were seven people seated at the table. Arren, Dolanna, Walten, Tiella, and three other people that Tarrin didn't know. Two of them were middle aged men much the same age as Arren, one wiry and thin and the other with the same wide-shouldered stockiness that said he was used to wearing armor. The other person was a woman. She was rather young, with sharp, strong features, more handsome than she was pretty. Her hair was a chestnut brown, and she was wearing a rather elegant gown. Arren stood and welcomed them in a loud, calm voice, then offered them seats at his table. Tarrin watched Tiella and Walten carefully for a moment, watching them gape at the change in him. But, to their credit, neither of them flinched or looked away. Tiella even smiled slightly.
Tarrin leaned in close to Dolanna as he passed her seat. "We have to talk. Now," he told her in a hushed voice.
She gave him a calm, curious look, then looked at Faalken, who nodded quickly and slightly. Dolanna stood and gave Arren a warm smile. "I have need to speak with the young one a moment, my Duke," she told him. "If you will excuse us?"
"Certainly," he said with curiosity tinging his voice.
Tarrin led Dolanna over to the corner of the grand hall, then turned to face her with his back to the wall. Faalken joined them quickly. "Dolanna, I saw something up in the hallway. It was something like a living shadow. If it didn't smell the way it did, I may not have seen it."
"Smelled? How did it smell?"
"Evil," he told her. "Death, decay, hatred, but it was evil," he said with a shudder.
"A shadow, you say?"
"Aye," Faalken told her. "Tarrin threw a candle at it, and its body looked like it was made of liquid shadow."
"A Wraith!" she gasped. "What would a Wraith be doing here?"
"What is a Wraith?" Tarrin asked.
"It is a creature summoned from the Lower World," she told him. "It is the spirit of a man who had done great evil in his life. They are not free, they must obey the orders and commands of the Wizard who summoned them. It was not here by chance."
"Then why was it here?" Faalken wondered.
"That I cannot tell you, but the fact that it was here does not bode well. It may have been sent to kill someone, or merely to spy. Their shadow-like bodies make them excellent spies. Arren must know of this immediately. That creature may be eyes for a hostile force."
"Dolanna, if it was eyes for a hostile force, it wouldn't have been sitting at the end of a closed hallway," Faalken told her. "If it was there to spy, it was looking for a specific person that walked along that hallway."
They both looked at Tarrin.
"Possibly," she answered the unspoken question. "If the Were-cat was sent to kill him, it may have been checking to see if she was successful."
"And now it knows that she failed."
"Why would that matter?" Tarrin asked. "I'm a nobody. Why would they be watching me?"
"I do not know," she said. "And that is not a good thing. Somebody outside is acting on information I do not have. If that is it at all. It may have had an entirely different mission in mind." She pursed her lips. "But it is best to assume the worst, so that is what we will do. We cannot leave now. Night is the time of the Wraith. They cannot exist in open sunlight, so we will leave in the morning, when their eyes cannot follow and the summoner must rely on another means of scrying us. In the meantime, everyone will move into an apartment with only one entrance and as few windows as possible."
"But what about the dinner?" Faalken asked.
"As of right now, it is of no moment." She stepped slightly away from Tarrin. All three of them looked towards the raised table, and it was only seconds before Arren looked in their direction. Dolanna made a discreet gesture for him to join them, and he immediately stood up.
"Something's wrong," he said soberly as he joined them.
"Tarrin and Faalken found a Wraith in the passageway outside his door," she told him bluntly.
"A Wraith, eh?" Arren said grimly. "That's not a good sign."
"We do not know why it was here, but we are going to assume that it is part of what happened to Tarrin. We will leave at dawn tomorrow."
"Good," he interrupted. "If there's a Wraith after you, you sure as light don't go outside in the dark."
"Yes," she agreed. "Until then, I am putting our group out of eyesight. I need from you an apartment, with two or three goodly sized rooms, with only one door opening out to the keep. And with as few windows as you can manage."
"I have something like that," he said. "It's a guest apartment, with a bedroom, a room for a maid, and a sitting room. It only has two windows, one in each bedroom, and a single door to the hallway."
"That will do," she told him. "Tarrin, go to Walten and Tiella and have them come here."
"Yes ma'am," he said immediately, then he left the trio and walked over to the table.
"Tarrin, you look....different," Tiella said. "Not bad, just different."
Tarrin's change was the last thing on his mind. "Dolanna wants to talk to us, now," he told them. "Come on."
Walten looked at the food on his plate and sighed, then he stood up.
"Tiella, Walten," Dolanna said immediately when they joined her, "I want you to go to your rooms with Tarrin and gather up your belongings. Do not leave each other. Visit each room in turn. When you have everything, go to the landing of the stairwell on the fourth level and await us. Do you understand?"
"Yes ma'am," Walten said, and Tiella nodded.
"Arren, please have servants take up enough food for seven people," Dolanna went on as Tarrin left with his companions. "Include plenty of meat."
"Tarrin, what's going on?" Tiella asked after they left the hall. Tarrin noted that both of them stayed rather close to him, but not too close. They were trying to be as casual about his change as they could, but Tarrin could smell the tension in both of them. They were afraid of him. Probably with good reason, he concluded with a slight sigh. He was afraid of himself.
"We saw something upstairs, called a Wraith," he told them. "Dolanna thinks it may be watching us, so we're going to all stay in the same place tonight, so she can keep watch over us, I think."
"Wraith?" Walten said. "Jak told me a story about those. They're supposed to be living shadows, and their touch is like the cold of the grave."
"We didn't get close enough to touch it," Tarrin said as they started up the stairs. "Dolanna thinks it may have something to do with--with the one that attacked me," he said after a second of inability to say it. He still couldn't.
They went to Tiella's room first, and with the help of the two young men, they were on their way to Walten's room in minutes. Walten's room was even faster. They went up to the same corridor where Tarrin had seen the Wraith, and he couldn't help but make sure it was gone as they rushed into his room and he collected up everything of his that he could find. But most of his belongings were missing, especially his staff and his bow. He didn't recall seeing them earlier, either. They left his room quickly and went to the stair landing that Dolanna had said to go to, and there they waited for many tense moments.
Tiella looked at Tarrin covertly after they stopped, then she blushed when he looked at her. "I'm sorry, Tarrin, I can't help it," she said shyly.
"I guess I can't blame you," he said gruffly. "I'd stare too."
"What does it feel like?" Walten asked.
"It's hard to explain," he replied. "More like I'd had on blinders and my ears covered and my nose pinched shut all my life. The tail is still pretty weird to me, but I'm getting used to it." He looked back at the member, which was swishing to and fro with a slow rhythm. Did you go into the city?" he asked.
"No," Tiella replied. "After you were hurt, Dolanna wanted us to stay close. Torrian isn't that big, anyway. She said that we're going through Marta's Ford, Ultern, and Jerinhold. Then we get to Suld itself," she said eagerly.
"I thought you were still nervous about leaving Aldreth," Walten said accusingly.
"I want to see the cities," she told him.
"I just want to get out of Aldreth," Walten grunted.
Dolanna and Faalken came up the stairs seconds later, with several servants behind them. To his relief, Tarrin saw his packs and his weapons in the hands of three of them, and he could smell roasted meat under the domes of the platters that the serving women carried. "Do you have everything?" Dolanna asked. "If not, then it will be left behind."
"We got everything, Dolanna," Tiella replied.
"Good. Follow us."
They were led to a small apartment, with three rooms. There was a smallish sitting room into which the door opened, and there were two bedrooms attached to it. They put down their packs as the serving staff carried the other things into the room, and Arren appeared at the door. "Dolanna," he called.
"Arren," she said, "if you would, post guards at the door, but warn them that they will not, under any circumstances, open the door. It could mean their lives."
"I'll warn them," he said grimly.
"Young ones, listen carefully," Dolanna said as she closed the door after the last servant. "I want you to stand in the middle of this room with Faalken. Do not say a word, and to not move until I tell you that it is alright."
Faalken ushered them into the middle of the sitting room, standing beside a plush upholstered chair that was flanking a sofa. When they were there, Dolanna turned around and bowed her head. Tarrin could feel what was happening. There was again that sensation of drawing in, into Dolanna, and for a second he could almost see something around him move. She stayed still for several moments, until the outside walls, ceiling, and floor suddenly seemed to shimmer. But just for a moment. Dolanna sighed audibly and slumped a bit, then turned around and faced them. "Do not open the door, for any reason, unless I tell you that it is alright," she warned. "Do not get too close to the windows. Do not even get close enough to touch the window sill." She put a hand to her brow. "Now then, I am going to rest a while. There is food over there, and I have some books in the smaller pack if you would like to read."
Tarrin and Faalken sat down at the small table in the corner and began eating dinner as Walten and Tiella used the stones board that was on it to play a game. "What did she do?" Tarrin asked Faalken.
"She laid a ward on these rooms," he replied. "It's very exhausting."
"What is a ward?"
"It's like a barrier," he told him. "I don't know how she made this one, but I've seen ones that stop magic, ones that keep people from crossing them, even ones that stopped stone from passing over a boundary. They can be made lots of different ways. You'll have to ask her for specifics, though."
He nodded, resolving to do just that.
After eating, Faalken stood up and looked at the three. "We'll be getting an early start, so I suggest we go to bed now. Tiella, go sleep in Dolanna's chamber. Walten, you and Tarrin sleep in the other room. I'll sleep in here."
They separated quickly, wordlessly. The next room was a small bedchamber, with the bed, a small armoire, and three small tables. There was only one bed.
"You sleep on the bed," Tarrin told him. He knew that Walten would not want to sleep in the same bed with him. To be honest, he didn't want to either. Not until he trusted himself. "I'll sleep over there. Let me go get my bedroll."
Tarrin recovered his bedroll, and Walten was already in bed by the time he got back. "Go ahead and put out the light," Tarrin told him. "I think I can manage."
"Alright. Night, Tarrin."
As soon as the lamp was out, Tarrin got the most blatant sign of his change, for after a moment of grayed vision, the entire room bloomed into light as his eyes adapted to the darkness. Just the light of the Skybands through the window, patchy from clouds, was enough to paint the room to his eyes in bright shades of black, white, and gray. He realized that he couldn't see color with such little light, but the fact that he could make out every detail of the room made up for that. He put out the bedroll in the corner, near the window, and sat down upon it, feeling his tail come to rest against the floor, and stared out at the room, wondering at how sharp and clear his vision was, musing at seeing only in black and white. Just like a cat, he could see in just about any light except total darkness.
In the room, alone, in the dark, Tarrin felt the Cat inside his mind, and for the first time all day, for the first time since waking up, he felt fear. They had kept him busy most of the day, keeping his mind off of it. But there was nothing but time now, time waiting for the dawn, time for nothing but cold reality to come down on him. It was in there, staring back at him, and he could feel its power. The power of a caged animal. The song in his mind grew more powerful now that he was listening to it, and it took active concentration not to succumb to it, to do as it urged him to do. He had no one to talk to, nothing to do in order to distract himself from it, and that made it prominent in his mind. And that proximity to something that seemed so strange to him began to make him afraid.
It was as if the whole room changed. The bright black-and-white room seemed to become ominous, and he found the colorless, shaded vista before him to be suddenly frightening. It was alien to him, and the wonder he'd felt when first beholding it drained away, replaced by trepidation and anxiety. For some unknown reason, he backed up on the mat, backing up until his back was to the wall. But there was no getting away from that which made him afraid. It was inside him, part of him, staring back at him, trying to take control of him. There was nowhere he could go to hide from it, no way to make it leave him alone. It was there and would always be there, and that simple fact terrified Tarrin. Because it was already so strong in his mind, and he was told, and knew in his heart, that it would only grow stronger.
He pushed back into the corner, feeling his tail kink a bit from the pressure. He brought it around him and wrapped it across his ankles, drew his knees up to his chest, hugged his waist with his arms, and put his head back against the corner. With the song of the Cat disrupting his thoughts, he stayed curled up in the corner, huddled from something that could not be hidden from, trying in vain to push it out of his mind, to find enough peace to sleep.