Parlay - Part V

For the better part of two hours Misha worked with the men of Glen Avery, helping as many as he could find a taur form for themselves. Even so, not even half of them were able to shift. Some were disappointed at that, while others looked quite relieved when they slipped their trousers back on. Misha offered encouragement to them, but did not push them any further. Instead, he spent the next hour helping those who had been able to become taurs to learn how to move properly in their new form, even practising a few possible dance steps. It was a comical sight for those watching, as just about everyone managed to fall over and into somebody else at least once.

But as the evening drew on, they each felt the hunger in their bellies, and so changed back to their normal forms and dressed themselves once more. It was easier for them to shift back to a two footed stance. The longest it took any of them was roughly five minutes before they began to shift once more. Misha always thought it strange to watch the body meld and shape itself before them, although there was something uniquely pleasing about it when done willingly.

The musicians resumed their playing, while some sung along with their tunes. Tables were prepared with the evening meal, while the scent of the elk meat being cooked filled their minds with sweet delight. Lord Avery took Finbar aside while the embroidered cloths were draped along the tables, and wooden plates set out. Danielle accompanied them, not to be separated from the ferret just then. None of the other Longs heard what they said though, too boisterous was the activity within the Glen.

Even as they waited, simple games and dancing erupted in their midst. Some one had fille a small leather pouch with dirt, and a group of Glenners were kicking it into the air with their foot paws, trying to keep it from touching the ground. A short distance form them one couple were wrapt in a little jig as the musicians strummed their lutes. A few others were wrestling in pairs, the smaller of the two straddling the larger’s shoulders. There were great laughs when one pair would topple to the ground, only to get back up and try again a few seconds later!

But eventually, the feast was brought forth from the caves, cooked and ready to serve as if forged. Lars lead the procession, overseeing the massive elk that was brought in on several platters, carried by a good number of his cooks, including James. They laid them down at the tables, one for each. At the highest table, the centre seat was made ready for Finbar, a place of honour for the distinction of bringing down the largest of the elks. The Longs were scattered nearby, as were the leading citizens of the Glen.

Charles and Kimberly found a seat just one table back. Baerle accompanied them of course, while the rat managed to coerce James the donkey to sit at his side. For once, his friend did so without objecting, but merely folded his ears back and sat. Misha was not too far off, though he and Caroline were engrossed in each other more than anyone else. Garigan was sitting close by though, and the rat smiled as all about him were friends he had made in the last couple of months.

In the wooden goblets, a fine malt beer was served, the foam tantalizing and rich to their noses. Charles narrowed his eyes as he considered it, being poured as it was by others in Lars’s employ. The bear himself was overseeing the serving, making sure all was ready before he or his men took their seats. For a moment, Charles had wondered if this was not to be the special brew that he’d heard discussed so much, but even from the scent he knew that not to be the case. He’d tried the bruin’s malt beer before, and while it was very good, was not so rare as to require the secrecy that surrounded the oft remarked concoction that was to be revealed that evening.

Charles made a point of asking Garigan if this was indeed what Lars had been preparing for them, but the ferret shook his head. “That will come after the meal,” he said, smiling then, leaning back as a stout lizard dressed very warmly poured the beer into his goblet.

A bit disappointed, but eager nevertheless, Charles waited until all was served. The thick scent of the roasted elk made his mouth water in ravenous delight. It had been seasoned as well, a golden sheen that covered the hunk of meat’s surface like a painter’s gloss. A few slices had already been prepared, and the meat reddened in the centre, a juicy pink that set all the carnivores around the tables to wide-eyed staring. Bowls of fruits and grains had also been set out for those who could not eat the meat, though Charles knew that on this occasion, they might try anyway.

Lord Avery waited until all had been served and the servitors themselves had taken their seats before he himself rose from his. He was seated next to Finbar, with his wife on the other side. The children all had their own separate tables, with a few of the adults watching over them to keep them well-behaved. When the squirrel did stand, all eyes moved to him. He held his goblet in one paw, and a smile was fixed upon his face.

“Tonight, on this, the twenty-first of March, we celebrate the beginning of Spring. Fellow Glenners, honoured guests, I welcome you all to this celebration.” At this there was a round of applause and cheers of delight. Lord Avery smiled throughout. “We are most especially glad to have with us the Long Scouts from Metamor.” He held out his paws, and the Longs all stood briefly to be recognized. They were applauded as well, and then sat back down.

Brian’s grin was contagious. “We have been through a winter the likes of which we shall not soon forget, nor should we ever. But that winter is now over. Spring is finally here, my Glenners. Spring is here. The snows have gone, the lake will melt soon, and then what crops we have will be planted. The leaves are returning, and so with it the warmth of the sun. There will yet be much work to do to make this a Spring that we will long remember, but tonight and tomorrow, we shall celebrate the Winter’s end.”

He held out his paw to the ferret at his side. “Every year we have a hunt to take down enough elk to feed us through the summer. This year thanks to the Long Scouts we will have more than enough for us all. And every year, we have a contest to see who can claim the largest. This is the first year that it has, in my memory, been won by somebody not from the Glen. I present to you all, Finbar of Metamor, one of the Keep’s Long Scouts, who took down an elk larger than I have ever seen with but his two knives!”

Finbar slowly stood, obviously uncomfortable to be receiving so much attention. But he smiled and bowed a bit, even as everyone gave out cheers in his name, applauding delightfully. Lord Avery held out a long carving knife then, and handed it delicately to the ferret. “As is the custom amongst the Glen, you shall be the first to carve the elk.” Finbar took the knife as one who is accustomed to wielding a blade. Gingerly, he leaned forward over the massive hunk of meat and began to seesaw through the cooked flesh. When the long thin slice collapsed upon the platter, there was another round of applause. Embarrassed, Finbar fell back into his seat, while Danielle patted his arm and whispered into his ear.

At that, Lord Avery held aloft his goblet and declared, “Let the feast begin!” As if held in place by some cosmic power, the Glenners snapped back into action so as to make up for their lost time, eagerly beginning to divide up the portions amongst themselves. Charles made sure to cut off a larger piece for Kimberly before he took his own. She smiled as he laid it upon her plate, and he deftly planted a kiss upon her nose too. She laughed then, whiskers twitching.

Charles could not remember much of the meal, other than the tastes were enchanting and full. The meat was succulent and rich in a way he’d not had in ages. The sauces laid out were thick and fruity, adding just the right touch to every aspect of the meal. And when he was done, he doubted that he could eat another bite of any of it. The rest about him all appeared the same, though some could eat more than others. Even James the donkey managed to hae a bit of the elk, as did most of the herbivores. Few had completely lost the ability to digest meat, for which all were grateful.

During the course of their feast, the brands were lit, casting bright orange light upon the tables, even as the sounds of the nighttime forest began to appear, slowly but surely. The cacophony of voices drowned most out, but occasionally there would be a lull, and all would turn their ears to the chirping and shuddering of the woods, promise of warmer days ahead. Darkness filled the sky overhead, the boughs of branches lit only by the warm glow of the brands. Wild light and shadow limned the decorations as they swayed in the soughing wind, only adding to the festive appearance of the Glen.

As the laughter and music wore on, plates by plates began to disappear from the tables. Soon, all the food had been consumed, and they were all just sitting about enjoying the great company they found themselves in. Charles could see that most of the Longs had found something or somebody to be engrossed in. Finbar and Danielle were practically falling off their seats as they leaned against each other. Misha and Caroline were not much better. A few songs were sung, though not many, and all were joyful. There had not been enough malt beer for anyone to become inebriated, a glaring oversight the rat thought for a celebration.

But his worries were allayed when Lars and some of his servitors brought back from the caves several large vats, wheeling them in on a number of carts. The tinkling of glass could also be heard. Upon one of the carts was a vast panoply of brilliant oranges, yellows and reds in scintillating radiance, sometimes piercing, other times blending into one another like a vast morass. It took him several moments before he realized that it was a tray filled with over a hundred freshly polished small glasses, each no taller than his thumb and claw.

The conversation began to die down as everyone watched as the glasses were set out, one before each of them. It took several minutes, time in which many picked up the glass and held it delicately in their paws, examining the way the light from the brands was refracted through it, releasing a parade of colours. Kimberly laughed in delight as she sprayed a splash across his chest, and he brushed at it ineffectually. He laughed too then, smiling at his wife, her own dark eyes catching the light of the brands, her face glowing bronze in that light.

When all of the glasses had been laid out, ewers were taken and filled from the spigots on each vat. Charles could to see in the light what the liquid looked like, but from the smile on the bruin’s muzzle, he knew that this was to be the special brew he’d heard so much about. A quick glance at Garigan confirmed this as well, as the ferret nodded and smiled, rubbing his paws together.

Along each table, the concoction was poured into the small glasses. They did not hold much, but enough to give them each a good taste. The scent was very rich, the alcohol burning along the inside of his nostrils as he breathed. Charles and many others were nearly knocked from their seats simply by that fragrance. A few wrinkled their noses in distaste, but many smiled widely, already feeling the headiness that intoxication brought.

Charles smiled as his own draught was poured. The liquid was a dark red, nearly a maroon in fact. It looked thick in the glass, yet it nevertheless reflected the light from the brands. Somehow, everything about it seemed unearthly dark though, as if it were simply absorbing the light. Charles blinked and shook his head then. The fumes from this concoction were mighty indeed to make him imagine so!

It took several minutes for everyone to be served. All there understood they were to wait until then before they drank. That did not stop some from drinking in the scent, their faces mixed with the pleasure of the beginning of drunkenness. Charles held back for a bit, wanting to enjoy the flavour. He could not quite place the scent though to determine what the bear had placed within it. There was some hint of wine, but that was all, he could not even tell what type.

But at long last, Lars raised up his own glass, and held it between two thick paw pads, his claws threatening to crush it completely. “This is one of the finest batches I have ever made. Most of you know what is before you, though you may not know what goes into it. And I know that the Longs Scouts do not know it, or any of you Glenners who have moved here in the last year. I will tell you in part.”

He shifted his weight as he stood before the tables, while his servitors took their seats. “To all I guarantee one drink. Many of you won’t be able to have another. Some of you will want more. But this will not last the week, so do not delay if you wish to have more. For this is Caribou. A blend of red, white, and blueberry wines, the exact proportions of which shall forever remain a mystery. But that which gives this its power and its name is the blood of the mightiest of elks that I mix within this. This is a libation fashioned from the blood of fruit and beast. Drink well.”

Charles blinked several times at that. The bear was not often given to such speeches, his usual gruff manner preferred short simple sentences. He trembled as he held the glass before his lips, the taste nearly arching upon his tongue. This was not merely a drink he held in his paw, but a work of creation no less valuable than his own stories that he’d written for the Writer’s Guild. It was no less beautiful than the Tanze wie Zherd of the Sondeckis. This was the greatest art the bruin could muster, an act of devotion on his part. It truly was powerful.

No sooner did he think that then the rat saw that Lars was lifting the glass to his muzzle so that he might drink. He and all the rest did the same, the heady scent brushing away all other thoughts. And then he felt that hot liquid pour down his throat, scorching away every taste of the meal, leaving him only with the burning tastes of wines so exquisitely prepared that he drank faster, wishing to taste it all the more. He felt a thrilling rush come over him, and his fur stood on end as his eyes snapped open to a world brighter and fuller of colour than he remembered. With trembling paw, he set the glass down, hoping that he would be served more.

Kimberly’s eyes were also wide, as were Baerle’s, but not quite from the same pleasure. “Oh my!” Kimberly said, one paw lowering to her belly, as if she were afraid that some ill would fall upon their children to be from that small drink. Beside them Garigan was smacking his muzzle in satisfaction. James was wiping his own on his sleeve, long ears standing upright.

“That is good,” the donkey said delightedly, hiccuping as he did so, a half-formed bray escaping his lips.

Charles nodded his satisfaction and smiled warmly to them all. “I would like some more.”

Kimberly shook her head. “You can have some, but I think one is enough for me.”

“Same here,” Baerle held one paw to her sloping chest.

“I’ll have another,” James said bravely, though it looked like he would not be having too many more than that. Garigan also wanted another, and so he raised his paw, and soon their glasses were refilled. The second cup was even better than the first, the rat thought. His whole body felt the fire and warmth as if a brand had been lit within him. When he put his glass back down upon the table he and the others laughed their pleasure. There was no doubt a joyfulness that the Caribou brought upon each of them. Their inhibitions were let loose, and they simply enjoyed the pleasurable state of being.

At some point, many of the celebrants moved away from the tables. Some went out to dance, others just to frolic. Some, like Finbar and Danielle, slipped off to a secluded rendezvous by themselves. Kimberly was feeling tired, and so Baerle helped her off to a comfortable spot where she could watch the festivities for a while longer. After about the sixth drink, Garigan decided not to have anymore, and went off to celebrate with the rest of the townsfolk. James made it to eight before he too drunkenly stumbled away.

Charles was not left alone though, as there were several other people still drinking. By some unknown consent, they all migrated to one of the tables. They were only a dozen or so, most of them Glenners, though Arla, George and Meredith were still drinking, as was Rickkter. The rat and raccoon eyed each other across the table, Rickkter raising his glass in a silent, mocking toast to the rat before draining it quickly. There was now an unspoken challenge between them. Neither of them was about to let the other drink more of the Caribou than they.

Lars was happy to serve them, though the great bear appeared to have only had one glass himself. Charles did not really notice the drink as it was poured, but he did enjoy the taste it brought him as it went down his throat. Nor did he notice that as the music and singing and dancing behind him blurred into one huge sensation as more and more of their group departed, some stumbling away, others falling from their seats and being dragged away.

The night continued onwards, the remaining few at the tables exchanging a few words and laughs as they drank, though none passed between Charles and Rickkter. George was also quiet, though he did laugh when poor inebriated Meredith simply rolled out of his seat to plop down upon the ground, nearly upending the table behind him in the process. Arla also laughed at this, slapping the table firmly, and sending herself sprawling upon the ground next to him. The rest of them laughed even harder at this, but Charles leaned forward, bracing himself against the seat with his legs so as not to topple.

His belly felt quite full, though he still drank. He was not quite sure how long it lasted, for the brands continued to burn brightly, the music and dancing went on, and the Caribou continued to flow. It took him a few moments to finally realize it, but when he did, the rat scanned about him, and saw that there was only one other still sitting at the table with him. Naturally this was Rickkter, who also seemed to finally realize just who was left drinking. Lars continued to pour the drink, and both hunkered down, ready to drink the other under the table.

Charles’s head felt terribly fuzzy, and his eyes often had to blink back a drowsiness that sought to claim him. He focussed his thoughts, what ones he had left, upon his Sondeckis training, even as his paw brought another glass-full of Caribou to his muzzle and he drank. It was not an easy task, but he managed to centre himself at last, even if he felt more off-centre than anything else. Even the happiness that came to him, the fun and frolic of inebriation seemed denied to him by the Kankoran. He would not stop until he had won.

It appeared that Rickkter felt much the same way, for he stared at the rat constantly, or at least for as long as he could keep his eyes focussed. Beyond the raccoon, the trees swayed back and forth, as if they were great huge masts upon a sea vessel rocking upon the waves. Even the seat he rested upon felt as if it were slipping and sliding under him, threatening to dislodge him like an unruly horse. He gripped the edge of the table with one paw, feeling the power of his clan’s strength flow through his fingertips. By that he kept himself steady even as he brought another glass of the rich Caribou to his muzzle. It burned down his throat as had every other glass, but it again lifted him higher, just as each glass before had done.

Rickkter was in a very similar state, appearing to have dug the claws of one paw into the table for support. Lars watched each of them in amusement as he refilled their small glasses. He said nothing though, just watched as the two competed for no distinction other than having been able to take the most ale. Charles had long lost count how many glasses he had already had, but by then it did not matter. They would both wait until the other had a full glass, and then they would drink at roughly the same time. A great deal of the thick maroon liquid wound up staining their muzzle fur, but most of it still went down their gullets.

As the glasses continued to come, they both went from clutching the table to digging their claws within it to hold themselves up. The night had continued to progress, the stars turning in the sky overhead, yet still they sat drinking. Their minds were awash in the brew, no thoughts coming to them except the desire to keep drinking. When it reached the point that the two of them were clasping paws so that they could hold each other up, Lars shook his head and crossed his arms. “I’m not pouring any more.”

“Get ush drink!” Rickkter said, trying to pound the table with his free paw, and missing. Charles said much the same thing, though his fist did manage to hit the table, knocking both their glasses over. They rolled about and into their arms, though they barely noticed.

Lars shook his head once more and pointed at the vat at the far end of the table. “If you want more, you will have to pour it yourselves.”

“We will. Gets outta our way, Larsh,” Charles slurred as he and Rickkter pulled each other to their feet. They stumbled paw in paw along the table until they reached the vat. At several points, one of them nearly overbalanced, but with the table between them, they were able to stay standing.

Once Charles and Rickkter reached the end, the vat before them a blur of light and shade, they stumbled a few paces, nearly colliding into the vat. They rested their paws there, leaning over some, tails swaying haphazardly behind them, throwing their balance off. Rickkter fiddled with the spigot, but could not seem to figure out how to make it turn. “Lemme get that,” Charles managed to say as he tried to lean even further over.

But the raccoon shook his head and stood up once more, forcing the rat to do so as well. They both managed to turn back to the bear and smile once before they tumbled into each other and collapsed out on the ground.

Charles felt the world swim over his head, but he did pull himself to a seated position. His legs were tangled with Rickkter’s, who had also sat up, blinking, fighting away the sleep that was doing its best to claim them both. The Kankoran was smiling and pointed one wavy finger at the rat. “You pashed out fisht! Issaw it.”

He did not shake his head for fear he’d vomit. “I dishtinctly remember seeing you pash out just fore I did!”

“Hah!” Rickkter exclaimed. That was the last word either of them managed to get in that night. Even before it left his lips, both rat and raccoon fell back to the ground, sprawled out still tangled up in each other. And both of them were very much unconscious, their breath reeking the powerful aroma of Caribou.

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