Niamh held her hands folded neatly in front of her. Artiar stood next to her, his hands folded behind him. Bevin stood a short ways behind the two, with several kitchen hands.
The cart slowly approached the mansion, then stopped. The hunter and his apprentice hopped down from the wagon and opened the back end of the cart. The kitchen hands hurried to help the hunters move the meat to the kitchen. The hunter, ducks in hand, walked up to Niamh and bowed respectfully.
"My Lady, food for your table." he said, presenting the ducks.
Niamh inclined her head. "Thank you," she said, then gestured to Bevin, who took the ducks.
"My Lady, there is one more thing." The hunter said, suddenly nervous.
"You have done all that is customary, no more needs be done." Niamh responded.
"Not, about that…" The hunter wiped his brow, then looked back at the cart. "It fell asleep on the way over, but there's a… a magic animal with us…"
Niamh stared at the man. Her chest felt tight suddenly, and she had to force herself to breathe. "What kind?"
"Looks to be a lynx." The hunter said. He gestured towards the cart. "it's in the back."
Niamh started towards the cart, then Artiar grabbed her elbow. "Is this wise?" he whispered to her, leaning close to her ear. "It could be dangerous!"
"If it is anything like Cailli, then I needn't worry." She hesitated, thinking back. "Much," she added.
"I know you have past experience with these animals. But foxes are, by nature, more shy. A lynx… a lynx is a stronger hunter. It may decide to tear you to pieces rather than speak to you." Artiar urged.
"Then why are the hunter and his apprentice still alive?" Niamh argued. She pulled herself from Artiar and walked over to the cart. The apprentice bowed to Niamh, bumping his head on the cart, as she approached.
Niamh stopped at the back of the open cart and peered inside.
A large, short-tailed, long-eared cat slept inside. Niamh examined the creature carefully, taking in every detail. The cat's size and shoulder mark were proof enough of its magical heritage, the braid only furthered the evidence.
Niamh climbed up into the cart, despite Artiar's protests and knelt beside the lynx. She slowly reached out and placed a hand on the back of the cat's head.
Green eyes suddenly opened and stared at her. Niamh flinched, but held her hand in place. The cat shifted and sat up, forcing Niamh to stretch to keep her hand in place. The cat continued to stare at her, its gaze unwavering. Then, it smiled.
"Nice to meet you, magic-friend." The voice was obviously feminine, and had a rich, deep sound. Her tail twitched, and she purred deep in her throat. "I've heard a lot about you and your previous heart-friend. I must say, I am impressed with what the two of you accomplished. It is such a terrible thing that the fox had to pass on her magic so soon, though."
"How did you hear of me?" Niamh asked.
"Oh, hunters, villagers… humans talk, you know? Especially of exciting things." The lynx's eyes twinkled. "I travel a lot, so I heard a lot. Some of it was weird. I haven't met a magic-friend before, let alone one who has already had a heart-friend. But I hear about you, and I hear about others." A shiver ran down the cat's body, causing her fur to shimmer in the sunlight. "I've always wanted to see what it was like to have a heart-friend."
"Why do you say 'heart-friend'? 'Magic-friend' I can understand, but 'heart-friend'?" Niamh asked.
"It is simply what I call it when a magic-friend is friends with magic. After all, the bond goes deep. Truly, it is much deeper than the heart, but I have no other good word for it." The lynx shrugged.
"Well, do you have a name?" Niamh asked, discarding the previous subject before it got too confusing.
"No." the lynx said. Suddenly, her already erect ears stood even stiffer. "Will you give me one? I've always wanted one!"
"Niamh!" Artiar called. "We should go inside and let the hunter put his cart and horse away."
"Perhaps we should continue our conversation inside." Niamh suggested. She patted the lynx's head, then exited the court. The lynx followed after her. She landed next to Niamh, and the woman got a better view of her immense size. The lynx's head came up to her waist, and her ears reached past the woman's elbows.
"This way," Niamh said, leading the way to the mansion door. Artiar walked close next to Niamh, and the lynx walked closely on the other side of Niamh. Artiar kept shooting suspicious glances at the animal, as though expecting her to attack at any moment. The trio entered the mansion, and Niamh took them to the sitting room she and Artiar had been in before. The lynx ran up to the window facing the forest and placed her enormous paws on the sill.
"Such a view! Is this what it's like to be a bird? Is this what they call a 'painting'?" The lynx pushed her nose against the glass, leaving a foggy print. "It's so cold! Is it made of ice? Why isn't it melting? Did your heart-friend enchant it?"
"It's a window. It's made of glass." Niamh said, sitting down on the small sofa near the lynx. The lynx glanced back at Niamh. "Is that a 'bed'? Is it comfortable? Can I sit on it?"
Niamh couldn't help but laugh at the barrage of questions. "No, it's not my bed. And yes, you may sit on it and see for yourself whether or not it is comfortable."
The lynx happily hopped up onto the sofa next to Niamh. She tested the cushioned with her paws, kneading them with her toes, careful to keep her claws retracted. She turned around several times, then lay down with a plump, her long, thick legs sticking off the side. "It is comfortable!" she exclaimed.
"Niamh, is this really a good idea?" Artiar asked apprehensively.
"Yes. Trust me with this. I told you about the magic I have, did I not?" Niamh responded firmly. Artiar sighed and said no more. "I know you're not comfortable with this, but don't worry. You'll be fine."
Artiar nodded slightly. "All right…" he said.
Suddenly, barking filled the room. A maid entered, dragged by a wolf hound on a leash. The hounds front legs were turned in, and his back legs turned out. Despite this, the dog was able to run right up to Niamh, using a stride that only he could have. "Míorúilt!" Niamh exclaimed, cupping the dogs face in her hands. The hound panted happily, then turned his attentions to the lynx. He sniffed at her, poking her with his nose. The lynx remained still, watching the dog.
Míorúilt then touched his nose the lynx's, and licked her face. The lynx licked the dog back, and said, "I have heard about you, too. Such a strong heart the fox has given you, eh? Even now, I can feel the magic she gave you. It isn't much, but it will make your life better. It already has, as I can see."
Míorúilt barked happily, then lay down by Niamh's feet. "You may unleash him here," Niamh told the maid, "go and have some refreshments, please."
"Thank you, My Lady." The maid said with a slight curtsy. She unclipped the leash from Míorúilt intricate collar and left the room.
"You've heard of Míorúilt?" Niamh asked.
"Of course! He is, after, the little 'miracle'." The lynx responded, stretching her legs. Her claws unsheathed themselves momentarily, and Niamh could feel Artiar tense behind her.
"How do you come to hear so much? I thought the magic animals tried to stay away from humans."
"Most, yes." The lynx flicked her ears and thought for a moment. "I have devised a few spells that let me be a little more… open or accepting of company. I like listening to humans talk."
"Artiar, please sit down." Niamh suddenly said. Artiar sat in the chair next to the sofa, near Niamh.
The lynx stared at the two humans, first at Niamh, then at Artiar. "What are the two of you to each other? You humans have so many different relationships, I can't keep track."
"He is my fiancée." Niamh said.
The lynx stared at her, confused.
"It means we are going to get married." Niamh added.
"OH!" The lynx exclaimed, sitting up excitedly. "You two are going to make cubs?"
"Er, well…" Niamh laughed nervously. "That… will be… part of the union, yes…"
"Oh, how happy! I love hearing of new dens being filled with new cubs!" The lynx's excitement bubbled forth and made her wiggle.
"Thank you." Niamh said, and even Artiar expressed his thanks.
"But," the lynx stopped wiggling, becoming almost as still as stone, "what of Oisin?" she asked, "I thought you were going to mate with him? That's what a lot of humans were saying."
"Well," Niamh shifted uncomfortably, and she could feel Artiar's eyes in her. "I will not deny my past feelings for him. However, he and I have not seen each other within the last two years. I have since moved on."
The lynx tilted her head to the side. "That's… um… odd…" She shrugged. "Well, ok then." She said, looking slightly abashed.
Míorúilt suddenly whined loudly. Niamh reached down and scratched behind his ears. "So, do you have a familiar?" she asked, eager to change the topic.
"Oh, yes!" The lynx said, sitting up straight again. Her green eyes flashed, and a small fluttering entered the room. Above the lynx's head appeared a small hummingbird, made up of various leaves and blossom petals. The hummingbird flitted over to Niamh and examined her face, it's wings flapping at a blurringly rapid speed. It then darted to Artiar and stared at him. "This is Quill. She's my familiar." The lynx puffed out her chest proudly. Quill hovered over Míorúilt, and grabbed at one of his ears with its beak. Míorúilt growled, and the familiar flitted away, hiding behind the lynx's head.
"Isn't she adorable?" the lynx asked.
"She's pretty." Niamh responded.
"And adorable!" the lynx added pointedly.
"Well, yes." Niamh said.
Suddenly, the lynx became serious. "What's my name?" She asked.
"What?" Niamh said, taken aback.
"You said you were going to name me!" The lynx said with and indignant huff.
"Well, actually, you just demanded…" the lynx started growling deep in her throat, "I mean, yes! Right!" Niamh said, holding up her hands defensively.
The lynx stopped growling and stared expectantly at Niamh. She settled down on the sofa, her forepaws crossed.
"Well… how about…" Niamh trailed off, thinking. "Well, what's something you like? Maybe we can get a name from it?"
"I like crystals!" The lynx said happily. "Maybe, my name can be Tal!"
"Why not Crys?" Niamh asked.
The lynx thought for a moment, then nodded. "But it has to be spelled with the sharp 'k', not the curved 'c'."
"All right, so is Krys ok with you?" Niamh asked.
The lynx was silent again, thinking. She muttered the name under her breath several times, as though trying it out. Then, she looked back up at Niamh, smiling. "Yeah. 'Krys'. I like it!"