Mirel landed lightly outside the gates of Elmcourt in her Changed form. She felt her companion slide off her scaly back; soon Garth stood at her head, one hand resting on her small horn. Mirel shook her head, and he let go. She nudged him through the gate both with her nose and the whisper of power that announced her Change. Garth felt his jaw fall agape when he beheld the graceful splendor of Elmcourt. He had not even imagined the sheer size of the trees, and the beauty of the supple buildings perched among the branches.
At his side, Mirel, now in her human form, grinned and stepped up behind the Arbolisk. "Is it what you expected?"
"It's amazing!" Garth laughed. "Just... splendid!" The black-haired Kascha chuckled at his amazement. "I never knew there could be such impressive trees. I suppose this land isn't as tamed and barren as I'd led myself to believe."
"Tamed and..." Mirel snorted. "Oh, that's funny... Who told you the north was barren?"
"Well... someone told me once that it was civilized. I suppose I figured that meant it was the opposite of the Southern Wilds.
"Well..." Mirel leaned against the railing and stared down at her home. "Some parts of Erion, maybe," she admitted. "But not these parts. Not the Farew!"
Mirel smiled happily and dragged Garth into her favorite tavern. "Come on, Garth, come in!"
"What is this place... oh, I see." The Arbolisk sighed. "It's our first night here," he told her. "Are you sure this is wise?"
The Kasha giggled and waved at the barkeep behind the bar; the male kept his dark green-blue hair pulled back in a ponytail. "Hey, Aymar!"
Aymar waved back at her with a wide, his bright green eyes wide. "Mirel! Oh, it's good to see you again! Been a while!" He laughed and leaned against the counter. "We have... tallet."
Mirel's smirk turned predatory. "Hey... Garth!" Garth's face turned a little frightened. "You had a challenge with Dylena once, didn't you?"
"Aye," Garth answered, not quite getting it. "We had a drinking contest."
"Erm... it was difficult to decide," Garth admitted. "Neither of us was in much of a condition to judge."
"Oh, really?" Her grin turned evil.
"Weren't you there?"
Mirel giggled. "I saw the aftermath," she said with a grin. "Not the actual competition. And, besides, you didn't have..." She waved a hand at the kegs behind the counter. "Tallet!"
Garth studied the massive barrels with a little trepidation that quickly vanished. "I'm always game to try something new."
"Then... Aymar!" The bartender was ahead of her, and quickly served up two frothing mugs of tallet. Mirel took one with gusto and shoved the other one at her Arbolisk friend. "Go on!" Garth grinned at her and took a deep swig of the drink. Immediately, he coughed and spluttered. Mirel laughed out loud. "What's wrong?" she teased, drinking half of hers in one go.
"A bit stronger than I expected." Garth quickly took another swig, faring better this time.
"Come on, Arbolisk, you've got to do better than that!" Mirel set her second mug down with a smirk. "Keep up!"
Garth scrunched his eyes at her, and quickly downed the rest of his drink. "Another, Barkeep!" he demanded.
Aymar grinned and plunked it down in front of Garth. "You're losing her!" He pointed at Mirel, who proudly set her fourth mug down.
Garth stared at her, startled and concerned at the same time. "Mother Gaia, Mirel! You'll hurt yourself!"
The Kascha grinned at him. "I'll be fine!" Her words were barely slurred. Garth shook his head in amusement. He managed to get down his third mug, and the fourth went down fairly easily. Mirel downed her fifth and reached for a sixth.
"Not so fast," Garth taunted, snatching the mug she reached for away, and thus matching her five for five.
"Hey!" Mirel growled and grabbed another sixth from the table. "That was cheating!"
"Tactical decision," Garth corrected.
"I merely took another mug," Garth defended, although he wore a grin just as large as hers. "No one said which mugs I could or couldn't take."
"Oh, really?" Mirel slid another mug out from under Garth's hand. "Then I can just do that!" Garth tried to glare at her, but he couldn't help but smirk. Mirel beamed back and downed her seventh mug. "Come on, Arbolisk, keep up!"
"Eight!" Garth barked triumphantly slamming a mug down on the counter.
"What?" Mirel stared around. "When did you get that?" She snorted and snagged another, chugged it, and then picked up yet another one.
"I think you're behind now," Garth said, gulping down his ninth.
"What!" the Kascha growled and downed her ninth, and then her tenth, as quickly as she could.
"Another!" Garth demanded. Mirel noticed that his face was beginning to turn a bit red.
She still felt mostly fine, so she called to Aymar, "Give me another one, too!"
Aymar grinned and handed each of them another full tankard. "Have at it, you!" He shook his head. "Be glad I know you, or else you'd be paying for all these, Mirel!"
"Don't worry," Garth said, taking a big swig. "It's on me!" Mirel grinned, and waved a hand. She set another mug down- she'd lost count about three mugs ago- and lifted a full one off the counter.
"Mirel... how many have you had?" Garth asked.
"I have no idea!" the black-haired Kascha chirped. "I lost count!"
Her friend counted. "She's had... fifteen." Mirel practically threw down her sixteenth mug. "Never mind, make that sixteen!"
"Sixteen? Ha! I've had... some...?"
Aymar grinned and counted Garth's. "You've had thirteen."
"Give me another then!"
Mirel's friend laughed outright and set them out with another round. "If you make a mess in my tavern, I'll make you clean it up!" Mirel waved a hand, so he added, "While you're still hung over!"
"Heavens, no!" Garth laughed, too far beyond caring by this point.
"You wouldn't do that to an old buddy, would you?" she begged. Aymar stared at her, as though that were the most ridiculous thing he'd ever heard.
"I most certainly would, and you're falling behind again, girl!"
"Another!" Garth roared like a broken record. Aymar laughed and handed out more.
Garth sat up slowly, groaning from a headache. He wasn't at all sure what had happened the night previously. His memory of the event sort of turned fuzzy after a few jugs of tallet, and he remembered nothing shortly after that. He realized that he was in a bed; apparently that had happened at some point. 'Although how we got here in our conditions, I have no idea…' The very next thing he realized was the feeling of bare flesh against his body.
It took him a minute or two to understand exactly what that meant. When he did, his eyes flew open again and he stared down; Mirel lay sprawled on top of him, snuggled comfortably upon his chest. "Mnn..." she groaned, hiding her eyes from what little light there was in the room. "Oww..."
"Erm," Garth started uncomfortably. "Good morning."
"Oww... There's no need to... shout," Mirel grumbled. "I'm right here!"
"I didn't shout," Garth insisted as quietly as he could. "Erm... not to alarm you... but I think last night... we may have... erm..."
She raised her head and stared at him with bloodshot eyes. "Did... what?"
"Well... Not that I remember specifically, but the clues would suggest..."
"Clues?" Garth gestured to the bed. Slowly, painfully, Mirel turned and looked down the bed; unlike, Garth, though, she didn't immediately realize what had happened. "We... made a nest? Of blankets?"
"I think we did more than that..." Mirel blinked owlishly up at him. Garth sighed and shoved the blankets back, revealing their state of dress. Or, more accurately, lack thereof.
Mirel's face turned red at their distinct lack of covering, clothing, or anything decent. "Oh..." She turned back and buried her face in the crook between Garth's neck and shoulder.
Garth thought for several minutes, trying to think of the right words. "Mirel...?" he whispered at last.
"What?" Her groan came out muffled, and he hoped it had more to do with her hangover than his voice.
"This doesn't change my feelings for you, you know."
She raised her head and stared at him. "I... hadn't thought... it would," she enunciated each word carefully. "Ethren."
"You are mine, and I yours. Forever... Ethra," Garth whispered.
Mirel blinked at him, startled and confused. "Had I... taught you... that half?"
Garth smiled warmly. "I learned it, just so I could surprise you." A blush colored the Kascha's face, and Garth grinned at that. He wrapped his arms around her, holding her tightly against him. 'It feels… good to finally get to do this.' His grin broadened a little. 'Even with what we did last night.'
"Garth..." Mirel hid her face back in the spot between his neck and shoulder. He stroked her hair.
She started to say something, stopped and said instead, "It's nice to be home..."
"Aye... I suppose this is home for me now as well."
She turned her head to peer up at him. "You... like it, right?" A little fear passed over her face. "You'll be… happy... here?"
"Happy?" Garth grinned and stroked her hair again; then he moved his hand to her face. He gently turned her face up to his and placed a kiss on her forehead. "This place is home to the most beautiful view in Amayra... And the trees aren't bad either."
Mirel blinked up at him, but she couldn't figure out how to respond to that. So, instead, she asked him, "The trees here don't nag... like the elms in the South?"
"These? Maybe. They don't seem terribly eager to speak to me, but I'm sure they'll warm up to me in time."
"I'll bet they will," Mirel agreed. "After all, I did."
The two stayed like that for some time, comfortable the way they were; Garth left the blankets off in an effort to cool down a little. Mirel buried her face back in Garth's shoulder with a heavy sigh. "I'm not sure I want to move," she muttered. "My head'll roll off if I do..." Garth grumbled his agreement, rubbing his temples in an attempt to alleviate the pain.
"Well," a voice said from the doorway, "this is cozy." The speaker sounded torn between amusement and confusion.
Mirel whined at the sound. "Uncle... Not so loud!"
Garth started fiercely and jumped almost a foot off the bed; Mirel rolled to one side, and only a quick grab at Garth's arm saved her from rolling right off the bed. "Ah... ah? Ummm...?" The man in the doorway just laughed uproariously; he leaned on the doorjamb and clutched his belly as guffaws loud enough to wake the dead rang through the house. Garth gritted his teeth and rubbed his face with his free hand.
"I'd say you two had a mite too much fun last night," the newcomer said once he'd gotten his laughter under control. He knelt and picked up the blanket Garth had shoved aside. "Although, Mirel, dear, I'm surprised at you." The black-haired girl winced.
"It's my fault, sir," Garth said defensively, attempting to stand, however his arm was still underneath Mirel.
"You, young man, have an excuse," Mirel's uncle told him with a snort. "You've never had tallet before. My silly niece, though..."
"...has been drinking tallet ever since her parents left her alone with me for more than five minutes!" Mirel whined, and her uncle grinned evilly. "I hope you were still able to give your man the time of his life, Mirel!"
"I… er... I assume so..." Garth said. "I don't really remember..."
"Oh, now that's unfortunate," the man grumbled. "It certainly sounded like she did!" Garth's face turned a bright red to match Mirel's at that. "Come now, boy, don't be shy!"
"If it's all the same to you, sir," the Arbolisk pointedly told him, "that's... private..."
Mirel's uncle sighed. "There's no need to call me "sir", and if you wanted it to be private, you shoulda stayed at the tavern!"
"Why didn't we stay at the tavern, Mirel?" Garth asked. Mirel groaned but answered.
"Cause... I think Aymar kicked us out..."
"I honestly can't recall."
Mirel giggled and then groaned and clutched at her head. "Uncle..."
"If all you're going to do is make my head hurt worse, can you go do something useful?"
"For example..." Garth amended, looking around the room, "Where are our clothes?"
"I think you left yours downstairs."
"Well, at least they're in the house."
"I said you left them downstairs, Green Man." Mirel's uncle's grin grew even more. "Mirel's, I can't really speak for."
"Oh, indeed! It was quite a sight!" Mirel's face slowly turned redder and redder as her uncle spoke. "I don't think she was in control of when they came off, either." Garth raise one eyebrow. "You had a good bit to do with it, if what I heard from my friends at the tavern is true."
"Come now, think about it! My darling niece was barely able to unbuckle a belt, let alone undress herself!" Mirel glared at her uncle, but he ignored her. "Mirel, you know that glare stopped working on me when you were three hundred!"
"B-but... I would never!"
"Oh, stop that, son. It wasn't like she wasn't trying to help you!" Garth only grumbled quietly. Mirel's uncle chuckled again. "But, really, Mirel, what were you thinking? For one thing, you can normally hold your liquor better than that!" The girl just shrugged helplessly; she winced again when she accidentally moved her head. Her uncle's eyes softened. "Ah, who am I kidding? I'd have done it, too."
"Thank you for your understanding," Garth said, "But, er... could you give us some privacy?"
The man sighed. "Fine, fine. I'll even be nice and make you my sister's famous hangover remedy."
"Thank you very much, sir."
Mirel shook her head as her uncle left. "Sorry about him," she muttered. "I'd... forgotten... how crazy he is."
"He seems reasonable enough to me," Garth said. "Now... Lyr. There was a man who was truly crazy." Mirel's face went white, and she hid her face in the blankets piled by Garth's head. "Mirel... there's nothing to worry about now. He's dead, remember?"
"Doesn't mean I forgot."
"You needn't dwell on it, Ethra." Garth hugged her close.
She clung to him as tightly as she could. "I know that... but... it's hard not to." Garth hugged her back firmly. "I wish I could just... forget," Mirel whispered at long last. "To act like it never happened. Like he never hurt me."
"We all do."
The Kascha bit back a small sob and rested her forehead against the Arbolisk's bare chest. "At least... at least we're... home. Safe." Garth stroked her hair and kissed the top of her head. He said nothing. After all, there was nothing more to say.