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The Exiles leave the Moot and venture out amongst their hosts, making a number of new acquaintances...

Relieved to be among what could be called the true business of a moot, the discordance of the music-making disappoints Gyffun. A mix of musical traditions are plainly at work, and there are several folk apparently competing to get their particular idea of what music should best be played across. But it is early days, and the large fire is only just being lit. The chatter and the boasting of young men before maidens is already raucous and the alynxes are already lounging in patches of sunlight, one pair, the male lacking a tail, taking their carousing all the way, to the delight of the children.

As Gyffun surveys this scene and wonders how he might best involve himself, Oshana and her companion come giggling arm-in-arm before him, their faces now largely cleared of mud, "You are the skald?" queries Oshana, "Why the bold looks?", she almost collapses in a fit with her friend but then they both compose themselves and await an answer with mock-serious expressions, "Would you compose a song for me?" she says, nudging her friend and trying to control a laugh.

"A... a song?" asks the skald, feeling more uncomfortable than ever. "For you? I might compose one about you, I suppose." He is suddenly conscious of the women's muffled giggles and blushes. "But I think that you are teasing me," he says, desperately trying to cover his embarrassment. "No song of mine could possibly do you justice. Every one of your features is a song. Every hair upon your head, every freckle upon your face..."

"And every pimple on her arse!" Oshana's companion shrieks with glee, before they are both overwhelmed with an uncontrollable gale of laughter.

Gyffun's face turns scarlet, but he is more angry than embarrassed now. "Aye, my lady. Every blemish. And should I compose a song for each of your imperfections also? That would truly be a task fit for a hero. A mighty saga indeed! Perhaps even a life's work..."

~oOo~

Vurth and Silverquill join one another as they leave the long house where the moot is progressing at a slow pace. The duck is satisfied that he seems to have persuaded the dwarf debt collector to go home and look once more at his records, while Vurth feels relieved to have got away from the tedium and the strange woman who slapped him earlier. Spotting the skald in among the confusion of bashing of pots, screaming children and mating alynxes, they wander over in his direction. Vurth is confused to see that the woman he had thought he left behind is there, arm-in-arm with Oshana and seemingly having a great time at Gyffun's expense. Her face cleared of most of the mud, she is actually quite comely, and he now is a little confused.

Silverquill spots Gyffun talking to Oshana and a female companion but decides to mingle with the crowd instead of disturbing the bard. The small duck waddles about, alert for any gossip that could relate to the Exile's stead - and also anything else of interest. He looks around for the human godi that spoke the law previously, hoping to strike up a conversation with him and then try to extract as much lore from him as possible.

Just then, with a screech, the tail-less alynx comes bounding straight through still-small fire and pounces on Gyffun, sending him reeling, instinctively clutching the bundle of singed fur. As he staggers backwards with the beast in his arms, he can sense the anger of some of the clansfolk directed at this beast. Vurth, having spotted the alynx mating with a female earlier, notes that it now appears to be rubbing itself on Gyffun as if to continue with him. Inevitably, thoughts of the Predark come to his mind, but he has been standing still for too long and scratching at his cuts, so he is unsure about the true source of his aches and pains. Meanwhile, Silverquill, stunned out of his reverie, has seen nothing overly untoward in this scene but, accustomed to Uroxi as he is, is alarmed to note and comprehend Vurth's first reaction.

Silverquill is slightly allergic to cats, so he takes a few steps back when the bundle of fur leaps towards Gyffun. He sees Vurth frowning and looking intensely at the alynx and guesses that the berserker is trying to sense Chaos on the beast. Silverquill mutters a short prayer to Lhankhor the Insightful and tries to sense if there is any danger in the situation. As all eyes turn to Gyffun and the alynx in his arms, though, chaos erupts. Gyffun tries to calm the beast, singing a wordless and soothing ditty while attempting to extricate himself from its claws. His cautious actions are all for naught, for the beast writhes yeowling out of his arms, seeming to mutter indistinguishable words of magic. Vurth grabs at the beast, muttering "Stupid feline," but is sent off-balance when he goes for where the tail should be. His other hand flails into the skald's face, giving the alynx the opportunity to launch itself back the way it came... landing perfectly at the edge of the fire.

As its coat begins to take light, Silverquill can see the flames behind it taking the shape of a daimon. Sparks flicker on the alynx's claws and it pronounces in an almost human voice: "Who challenges my right to mate with the female? Who among you are her kin?", then begins to preen itself, apparently unaffected by the fire.

~oOo~

Vurth approaches the alynx as if to grasp it where earlier he failed but is buffeted by the heat from the fire. Silverquill behind is frowning with thought. He has seen someone else recently being unaffected by fire. Is this fiery feline somehow connected to Odi? He looks around to see if anybody else has noticed the cat talking. He addresses the cat daimon. "I am no kin to cats - but neither do I challenge your wight to mate with your female. I am Silverquill the Wise, a sage fwom Alda-Chur. Pway tell us, who are you?" Seemingly oblivious of Silverquill's enquiry, Gyffun takes a step towards the creature. "Of which female do you speak, friend?" he asks it. "And why do you think that we are challenging you?"

The queries are useless though, for faced by the warrior and the fellow who was originally chasing it, the alynx, penned in at the foot of the fire, screeches as it runs around in fiery, smoky circles, either unsure of which way to go or performing some ritual.

Gyffun walks slowly but confidently towards the agitated feline, still murmuring the soothing, wordless charm under his breath and trying to hold the creatures gaze when it intersects with his own unblinking stare. As he nears it, the creature grows still, its continuing agitation now only evident in the restless motion of its gently-smouldering tail. Apparently heedless of the heat from the fire, which is threatening to ignite his garments, Gyffun calmly extends a hand towards the alynx: not grasping for it, merely holding it out for the creature to sniff.

Vurth is mightily confused by this fireproof alynx and tests the air with his own nose. Does something wicked walk this way? One hand steal towards his klanth while the other begins a ritual of 'here kitty kitty.'

The alynx suddenly stops running around in a panic (you can almost see the metaphorical light bulb lighting up), drops and rolls around until the sparks are out. Sitting farther away from the fire he then casually begins licking the singed bits he can reach. He keeps an eye on the warrior and the other fellow and is obviously above the sniffing of human appendages, which he ignores. Once he regains his composure he addresses the waiting humans.

"I speak, of course of the female this fellow seems to regard as his own property. I fail to see how a mating that neither party objected to can be seen as wrong. Must be some odd human conceit. Nor do I see how a cat can belong to a human. Should be the other way around if it's going to happen at all."

He then sits up and glares at the fellow who had been chasing him.

Even more confused, Vurth pauses to consider: first the message that the breeze brings to his nose and then the Alynx's words. Giving up he seeks clarification.

"What is the Bull's testicles are you talking about you flea-bitten cinder-singed mangy excuse of fur! Which fellow, what woman, whose property?!"

The kitty kitty hand edges a little closer.

Silverquill nervously takes a few steps backwards at the sight of all this hissing and rolling about. He is not too sure about what to make of this demon-cat, so he clicks his fingers twice, the signal for Skullcleaver to protect him. Bullthrash bends down, lifts the small duck up easily and places him safely on his shoulder. Relieved, Silverquill settles down on his high perch to observe and study this latest bit of strangeness.

~oOo~

As Gyffun and Vurth stoop to entice the alynx away from the fire, the woman who slapped Vurth earlier crouches down next to him, her thigh brushing against his. The onlookers are crowding in, apparently looking to watch the fight should it erupt. Silverquill is grateful for his follower's assistance as the press becomes heavy and is the first to notice the well-dressed alynx breeder, puce with rage, taking a run at the alynx.

As the man's shoulder thuds into the alynx, Vurth is tipped off-balance towards the fire where he teeters on one foot trying to keep himself and the woman (who has fallen bodily onto him) away from the flames. Gyffun watches from a prone position, and Silverquill from his elevated one, each with horror as they see a bundle of fur and finery crashing into the middle of the fire. Cinders, sparks and fists fly as the breeder lands blow after blow on the alynx, apparently oblivious to the fire himself, except to push the now limp cat further and further into its core.

The crowd step back as one, bringing a draught of air with them which lights up branches and tinder all about around Gyffun. They stare stunned, Oshana amongst them, at the skald before them, as if waiting for a command.

Silverquill quickly looks around him from his high perch. Is there any water around somewhere? Spotting a large barrel of beer, he asks Skullcleaver to grab the barrel, punch a hole in it and empty the contents over the brawlers.

"Don't just stand there gawking," Gyffun cries at the crowd, "Somebody fetch water to douse this fire! That alynx is no ordinary beast!" Then, without further hesitation, he plunges into the fire to try and rescue the stricken alynx from its fiery peril, managing just to hold the brawling man off long enough to allow it to recover briefly. It tries to scratch its assailant's eyes out, but fails to do more than right itself.

Vurth pushes the woman backwards away from the fire. This has the well-known Newtonian effect (though Vurth doesnít actually phrase it that way) of propelling him into the fire. He chooses to continue going on and crashes through the fire bowling into the alynx and breeder who are slugging it out on the other side. Knocking into the pair of them (while bellowing in pain, rage and frothing at the edge of Berserkness), he tries but fails to grab them by their respective napes, shouting "STOP! By the Bull or Iíll turn the pair of you into mince!"

Skullcleaver leaps into action. He grabs the huge barrel with one hand, the size of a small pig, and uses his clenched fist to punch a plate-sized hole in the side. Beer starts to pour out and he hesitates for a second... "Beer... good for drinking... mmmmhhhh... but Featherbum said to spill it on the people fighting... crap!"

He lifts the barrel over his head, ignoring the "Aaargh - splat!" as Silverquill falls off his shoulder, and smashes it down in the middle of the fire. The barrel promptly explodes, soaking everyone with beer and wooden splinters. Skullcleaver takes a step forward to grab Vurth, but slips on the beery floor. Toppling backwards, he lands on something small and feathery.

Silverquill tries to get up and even manages to stagger around in the puddle of beer for a few moments. He then lets out a sad 'kwak' and collapses again, this time landing on Skullcleaver's head. Several of the Ochre Fallow titter, gathering around the duck and his follower, dreaming up recipes for duck and bullmeat soaked in beer.

The breeder in his finery has finally got the better of his feline foe and emerges relatively unflummoxed from the fire, clutching the smoking, furry and bloody alynx in one hand. Kicking away at some branches, he pulls his cloak mostly off and discards it, throwing Yizar the alynx into a heap on the ground. He pats off some flames around his legs and inspects the alynx's coat as if to size it up for a fur for market. Seemingly as an afterthought, he reaches in and pulls Vurth out, his skin puffy with the heat where colour is visible behind the scars. Several pails of water are thrown over the fire and Vurth,one over the alynx for good measure.

Looking over at Silverquill, he seems amused to note that the durulz has been trampled in the melee. Spitting on the alynx, he addresses his clansfolk triumphantly, "See what happens when you let ragamuffins into the moot?" The pause as he awaits the desired response is pregnant and his brow furrows slightly at looks of anger and outrage on the faces before him. Never before has the difference between the nobility and the common folk of the Ochre Fallow seemed so stark. The crowd seem to be surging towards him as a mob, with Gyffun, willing or no, at their fore.

~oOo~

As the crowd move towards on the breeder, who is standing over the wounded alynx, Gyffun holds up one hand to stay their advance, and then turns to face him. With a small bow, he begins to speak, pitching his voice at a level that all can hear.

"A thousand pardons, noble sir," he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "As is evident from your own, now regrettably besmirched apparel, you are clearly no ragamuffin. Sadly my own attire, travel-worn and soot-covered, most probably indicates that I am deserving of that particular appellation. Hence you will have to forgive me if I demonstrate my ignorance with respect to the activity in which you have so recently been engaged. Amongst our folk, you see, alynx-chasing is usually considered to be a pastime for children, and not for fine gentlemen such as yourself."

The mood of the crowd lightens, as Gyffun's way with words signals potential amusement ahead. The alynx breeder turns his back on the skald but is dismayed to hear a light-hearted "Oooh" from his clansfolk. Landing a kick on the alynx's side, he grabs it by the scruff of its neck and lifts its weight clear off the ground, turning to face the skald and the crowd.

"This beast has ruined fifty years of careful breeding," he says. "My grandfather began this programme and my family has brought wealth to this clan. Year upon year, the silver has piled up, and now this piece of mangy filth..." Interrupted by a comment from one of the crowd and some tittering, he inquires calmly, "What was that?"

"The silver has been piling up beneath your blankets, Torkal." It is Oshana, who speaks with some authority on matters pecuniary, "And a comfortable bed it must make, judging by your increasingly good humour these past years." She grins at the breeder and gestures with her hand and a sweet smile at Gyffun for the skald to continue.

"Perhaps I am not sufficiently familiar with your local customs," he observes. "But I must admit that I am particularly puzzled, by your aggressive behaviour towards the gods-blessed feline that you now hold in your grasp." Now Gyffun has the crowd in the palm of his hand, and he pauses after his last words to get the desired gasp of astonishment.

"I say 'gods-blessed', of course," he continues. "Because the creature is quite clearly in possession of the powers of speech. I think that this makes it worthy, at least, of a fair hearing - even assuming that you can show that it has been guilty of a transgression, which I doubt. But perhaps I am once again demonstrating my ignorance and inveterate ragamuffinhood. Is it the norm for your alynx to speak? Or perhaps you consider the creature your thrall, and hence subject to your will?"

Torkal, slightly calmer now and aware that he has lost this particular argument, collects himself so as to save his last scrap of dignity. He turns his attention to Vurth, pointing at the warrior lying prone on the ground.

"This animal," he begins, but immediately halts himself, realising he has made the wrong choice of words.

Vurth, hearing himself addressed in an unfriendly fashion, staggers to his feet and faces the breeder, reeling slightly. He wipes the water from his face and sweeps the hair from his eyes. Not being terribly interested in what happens to an Alynx, talking or otherwise, Vurth tries to recall: when he sniffed the Alynx was there the reek of pre-dark?

No matter. Still staggering, Vurth tries to focus as he reaches for his Klanth (Now, was it scream then charge or charge then scream?), but for a wonder he recollects that he accepted guest privileges from the Ochre Fallow and that killing this fellow could be considered unguestly. He pauses, reels and then collects himself, spitting at Torkal's feet and saying, in his most intimidating manner:

"This be how the Ochre Fallow treats its guests or this be how you treat your guests?"

This is enough for the fellow in his finery. Staring blankly at Vurth who is now nose to nose with him, tears well up in his eyes and run down his ashen face. He lets loose his hold on the alynx, which slides down his leg to form a limp heap on the ground. As the skald concludes his oration, the breeder turns his face down to stare at the alynx.

"If the creature is not your thrall," Gyffun is saying. "Then I think that it would be best for everyone if you gave the poor bedraggled beast over to a healer as soon as possible. For if it should perish of its hurts - what with it being gods-blessed and all - then I believe that customs dictate a body-fine of either 'a cottar's or a carl's price, as the casting stones say'."

The heap of fur and blood at the breeder's feet twitches as a nose is pressed gently against its flanks. Yizar unsteadily rights himself and remains where he is, looking serenely up at the breeder as, to her owner's eternal shame, Torkal's pride and joy sets herself the task of licking out the mats in her lover's fur.

~oOo~

Silverquill has been for a nice long dip in the local stream to rinse his feathers and even persuaded one of the Ochre Fallow healers to give him a nice massage to ease the pain in his back. Skullcleaver seems to enjoy his new 'Eau de Beer' though, and refuses to wash. "Washing is for Yelmalians and Lunars only!" he insists.

Later that evening, round the blazing fire, with laughter and music in the background, Silverquill tells a few ghost stories and then leans back, listening to the general chatter and trying to find out as much as possible about trolls, ants, hags and other menacing and gruesome things as possible.

Despite the ridicule he receives, Silverquill's charm soon gets his chosen companions talking. In return for his tales of horror, they regale him with a bestiary of monstrosities which they try to convince him stalk the land in search of alcohol-marinaded birdflesh. In a moment of calm provided by an amusing ditty which Gyffun sings, but which the duck has heard one too many times, Silverquill casts his eyes about vainly for the dwarf with whom he had a run-in earlier that day. It is either still observing the eternal moot within or has departed on its presumably lengthy list of errands.

Sifting through the stories he has heard, those of fearsome darkmen strike him as nothing out of the ordinary, children taken off in the night, ants felling warriors with a thousand bites. But it is the Hag's Haunt which clearly does strike at the heart of these folk. Their voices went down to whispers as they told him of these evil witches, succubi or demons, depending upon who was speaking. Several of Silverquill's new companions left, their stomach's turned and their faces pale, as the others told him of these witches sending death spirits and batbroo (which Silverquill knows himself to be more than a fancy) abroad to do their deeds for them.

They told him how these creatures were beautiful maidens once, tasked with the protection of a sacred site, of how the Ochre Fallow's finest warriors sought a boon off them but were betrayed by the maidens, who imprisoned the men, all save Hahlgrim and his brother Gordangorl. They turned the warriors to mundane tasks such as fetching and carrying, sweeping the forest floor and, it is said, lying with the witches. So great was the betrayal, Silverquill was informed, that the maidens' true nature was revealed, the land about them blasted for evermore with Chaos.

~oOo~

Yizar, obviously rather frazzled by the recent occurences is uncharacteristically subdued. He gratefully nuzzles Gyffun's hand before seemingly remembering that he is capable of speech. In a small voice he says:

"Many thanks for my life. I believe that I now owe you service until such time as I have returned the favour."

Gyffun smiles. "And I would greatly value your service, little one, but I think I would value your friendship more. I see a little of myself in you, I think: in your wild nature, and your ill-tamed tongue. Let this debt of service be a bond of trust between us."

Yizar thinks briefly then nods in agreement. He seems secretly relieved to be taken as a friend rather than a servant.

Having said this he is quiet for a while. After the healer has seen to his wounds and Torkal's Pride has assisted him in cleaning up his fur he is obviously feeling better. In full view of the assembled he mounts the female again and services her before addressing those party members who have may be present.

"My name is Yizar. Not too long ago I was much like this one here". He nods gratefully towards Torkal's Pride. "Dumb and...err, without speech as well."

He pauses and somehow despite his feline features he looks both pensive and confused.

"I, once was the partner of a human Yinkini. He was, um a kind man and a great hunter."

He pauses. "I think."

He shakes his head. "It's hard for me to remember much of my life as a cat. We see things differently than you two legs and we value different things than you do. Time seems different to us too. It's hard to put into human words."

He gives a very human shrug. "What I do remember is that we went on a quest to the otherworld. I can't remember what he was looking for but I did something somehow and was rewarded with these."

He extends his claws and flickers of lightning run along the edges. He is obviously proud of them but then he turns somewhat mournfully and looks at his short tail. He shakes his head sadly before continuing.

"I also went into the Otherworld like that."

He nods towards Torkal's Pride who has been snuggled up against him the whole time.

"But came out like this."

He shakes his head again. "It may have something to do with the enemy we met there. A Puma person."

Saying this his hackles rise and Torkal's Pride who had been dozing leaps to her feet in alarm. Yizar nuzzles her until she settles down again.

"We ran afoul of one of those damn spirit cats and my master was somehow slain and..."

Here Yizar stops and looks embarrassed. "And err, I mated with his mate."

Here his ears drop even more. "And he now wants to kill me."

He shakes his head to clear it. "And now I'm here."

He perks up. "So what's with you?"

"I would hear more of your tale," Gyffun tells him. "And, with your indulgence, have you tell it again for two of our other companions. I am a merely a collector of stories, but these friends of ours both share your connection with lightning. One of them, Vizz Vollesbrother is here with us. He is nearly as fond of a tale as I am, and I hope that you will meet him anon."

"As to the other... Well, Yizar: as you may already have gathered, we are only guests here amongst the Ochre Fallow, and are not yet certain of our welcome. When our business here is done, we shall return to our home. I hope that you will consider accompanying us when we do so. Then, if nothing else, we can introduce you to Aren Stormlight. He is a god-talker, sworn to Yavor Lightning, and will doubtless be most interested to make your acquaintance and hear your tale."

Without even thinking about it Yizar nods in quick agreement.

"As well there as anywhere else."

~oOo~

Silverquill, a bit red in the bill, has been listening to the ghost stories and taking copious notes. He seems fascinated with the tales of the Hag's Haunt and scribbles away, happily puffing on a particularly nasty-looking cigar.

As Yizar starts to speak, the small duck looks somewhat apprehensive. The alynx is larger than him and those claws sure look deadly. But the cat seems peaceful enough and Silverquill listens to the marvellous tale that is unravelled.

"Gweetings, Yizar," he says, when the opportunity presents itself. "As I've alweady mentioned the fiwst time we met, I am Silverquill the Wise, Sage of Alda-Chur. I am here with my fwiends fwom the Danlarni Twibe. They live not far fwom here but have only just wecently awwived. We are here at the moot to meet our neighbouws, make new fwiends, twade and gather information."

"I would be intewested to hear news fwom you, actually. As an alynx you should have a unique viewpoint on most things. Were you born here or somewhere else? Do you see in colour or black and white? Can you talk to ordinary cats? How old are you? Have you heard of the Wawwiors of the Sun?"

With each question, Silverquill leans forward eagerly, until he is in serious danger of toppling off the bench. Yizar backs away ever so slightly as the duck invades his space. The alynx seems a bit non-plussed by this verbal assault, not to mention being questioned by something he normally considers to be dinner material. But he attempts to answer the best he can. He seems rather confused on a lot of points.

"Err, I was born... err, somewhere else... I think."

"Yes I see colours."

"Can I talk to ordinary cats... Um, I've never tried to. n interesting experiment."

"I'm three winters old. I think."

"Wawwiors of the Sun? What's a wawwior?"

"A wawwior... you know... a wawwior..." Silverquill seems slightly frustrated and looks around for assistance.

"Torkal's a wawwior now", Oshana pipes up, "He's so wawwied, he'll likely have kittens". After a pause, she and her companion burst into a fit of hysterical laughter, leading to much weeping and rolling about.

Now Yizar is really confused. "Kittens? So a wawwior's a female?"

"Ah no", says Oshana's companion, careful to use Vurth's knee to boost herself up to stand. The Exiles now know her to be called Rika, rather than the Slapper as they had dubbed her among themselves.

"I'm afraid it is a deal more complicated, Yizar, so listen well. A male or a female human can be a wawwior, but males and females wawwy in different ways and about different things. Take two of the finest wawwiors of the Ochre fallow, twins at that. Now Hahlgrim, he's a fine wawwior. He wawwies about many things, but principally, he wawwies if he will ever achieve the respect of the common folk and if he, one day, will be chief. His sister, Gordangara, well she is a fine wawwior too. She lies awake at night wawwying if she will ever be matched in combat, for only then can she be matched in the blankets, and that's something I too would wawwy about, if I were half the wawwior she is."

"Now Vurth," she says, her voice dripping with a sarcasm designed to make all mark her words, "is a marvellous fine wawwior. Of all the scars he wears, I wonder how many come from wawwying of the one sort and how many from wawwying of the other. Do you know, Yizar, you who are new to the world, or you Silverquill, who are wise in its ways, how many are the ways to bring Chaos into being? Well I am a warrior in my own way, although I am a female."

Her tone has by now grown much more sombre, and she has dropped the foolishness. "But I worry about Chaos and I war against it. And I worry about those who have sworn to war against Chaos but, by warring against themselves, aid it." Her eyes now awash with real tears, she stalks off to sit alone, prodding at the ground with a stick.

After a moment, Oshana, looking worriedly after her friend, turns to the others with a smile. "A true wawwior, that one, especially every few weeks".

~oOo~

Vurth remains close to the talking alynx, not entirely believing what his nose tells him. The predark can be awfully subtle at times but Vurth knew that he could match the predark in this area. You only had to wait long enough and watch hard enough. Doubtless the bulky berserk's baleful staring has contributed to Yizarís discomfort, along with the occasional Vurthic asides, such as "You just got to wait long enough and then - chop chop chop."

With his attention focused on the feline, Vurth fails to note the arrival of Rika and Oshana only becoming aware once Rika uses his knee to boost herself. Clan mates snigger as they observe Vurthís flummoxed expression and a legion or pre-dark probably could have marched past before he appears to recollect himself and return his attention to the feline. This lasts until Rika turns her comments to him and once more he appears amazingly discomfited, until at least he heaves his bulk up, mutters something about attending to a dog and wanders off into the shadows (with an apprehensive backward glance in Rikaís direction).

This one smells terribly wrong, thinks the alynx. If he was a cat, Yizar would either kill him or flee. Since killing him doesn't seem to be an option, he starts looking for a high place to perch...

~oOo~