Wednesday, June 6, 708 CR
“Earl Tarkas Kardair reports the Kestrel's Wing is more than adequate for their needs in Salinon and Lady Deya Thores is confidant they have found all the listening enchantments and spy-holes; she's left a few active so Otakar thinks he can spy on them. Jaime Verdane should now have over a dozen pieces of the message, though they suspect Otakar knows the jackdaw is from Metamor. Tarkas is requesting advice on how to proceed.”
Kayla lowered the parchment on which she had condensed the last week's worth of reports from the ambassador to Salinon and lifted her gaze to Metamor's chief spy. Andwyn the bat dangled from an iron grill affixed to the ceiling, a half-eaten peach gripped in the claws on his right wing. He narrowed his eyes and in his high-pitched but quiet voice replied, “We knew Otakar would have mages observing the Verdane heir in his donjon; our spy's secret could not be kept forever. If Otakar is taking no action against him then they should continue providing the message pieces. Make sure the jackdaw knows to find as many different approaches as he can; a swift arrow can be excused as a soldier trying to feed his family. We have no other way to protect him.”
The skunk scribbled the bat's words on the same parchment. Her hand reached toward the ink pot and paused, “How long will it be before they have given Jaime all of the message? And what then?” Andwyn did not share all his secrets with her, but he rarely demurred when she asked. She had served Prince Phil as assistant for a few years before the rabbit returned to Whales, and had never once betrayed a confidence. Andwyn knew she could be trusted.
“A few months more,” the bat replied. He took a bite from the peach and stared past the skunk as he chewed. “The message will be complete by early next year at the latest. After will depend on Jaime and to a certain extent on Otakar. Earl Tarkas's negotiations are not merely a front and who knows what might come of them. And there's always Duke Verdane; I doubt he will act, but a desperate father is capable of desperate things.”
Kayla nodded. She knew of both Midlands dukes only by what she had read from first Phil and now Andwyn's spies. Both were good men in certain ways, and she suspected each would put the good of their people before their personal ambitions. But they were ambitious; Verdane had nearly swayed Giftum to his side, while Otakar had snatched Bozojo and Jaime in a single stroke, all the while playing friend to Metamor. Neither would hesitate to strike at Metamor if they thought it would benefit them.
She finished writing down Andwyn's instructions and set the parchment aside. Another waited in her hands. “Next we have news from Arabarb. The southern coasts are still controlled by the last of Calephas's men. One of the commanders has organized the forces and is proving difficult to rout; they've taken refuge in fortresses along the coast and have pressed the fishermen into their makeshift navy. Our friends in Fjellvidden control the Arabas river and have freed the lands to the north and east, but with Summer, many of the men want to protect those lands, herds and crops. They may not move until Winter or next Spring.”
“What of the mountain pass?”
“Our forces should be arriving in a week to help clear out any of Calephas or Nasoj's men still holding the pass.” Kayla felt her heart flutter; Rickkter was one of the Keepers leading soldiers and scouts to the northern mountain pass. It would be many months before he returned home, but after all he'd suffered she would never have tried to stop him. “No word on whether Fjellvidden has marshaled their forces.”
Andwyn took another bite and frowned. “We will need to send more men. It takes too long for word to reach us from Arabarb. I must...” he turned his head and then gestured with his free wing for Kayla to set the parchment aside. When the Curses turned her into a skunk she had marveled at how much better her hearing and sense of smell had become. She felt deaf compared to the bat.
He walked two steps along the grill and with his free wing pulled a lever set in the ceiling. The shutters to the single window folded open allowing the warm midday air to flow. Kayla set a hand on the parchment to keep it from fluttering in the sudden breeze. A few seconds later a white barn owl landed upon the casement and grew in size until small hands and a human quality touched its face.
“Alban,” Andwyn greeted his spy. His voice was neutral, but his small eyes regarded the owl with what Kayla had come to recognize as fondness. “What have you seen?”
The owl tilted his head on its side – Kayla tried not to cringe – and hooted, “All is well in Metamor. Two creatures are coming down from the Barrier Range toward us. A white gryphon and a little man upon his back.”
Kayla's heart leaped in her chest and she sat up straight. She yearned to ask for more details.
Andwyn bobbed his head. “How far away are they?”
“They are following the road from Lyme Regis so perhaps an hour or two.”
“Thank you, Alban. Continue your watch and your payment will be in the usual place. Worry not about these two; they are friends to Metamor.”
“Oh, I remember them,” Alban assured him before shrinking back to his smaller form and leaping from the casement. Andwyn stared after the owl for a moment before pulling the lever. The shutter closed with a heavy metal clank.
“This is unexpected,” Andwyn noted as he turned back to Kayla. “Go. I'll review the summaries myself. I'm sure your friend Jessica will want to know too.”
“Thank you, Master Andwyn!” Kayla took only a few seconds to finish organizing the parchments before leaving the bat's office. She started running once the door closed behind her.
After months of flying, Abafouq felt he was an extra lump of feathers and fur on Guernef's back. His fingers cramped as they clutched the leather strap wound about the Nauh-kaee's neck and chest. His short legs were bruised from bracing against the inside of flapping wings. But it was not those wounds which hurt most. What had he nearly done? What had Guernef!
They followed the ridge of mountains northwest from the cliffs, descending out of the cold glacial air he'd braced for the last three months and many years before. He savored the touches of warmth it brought and dared to lift his head to peer through his master's ear tufts. Where the valley narrowed he could see the resplendent spires of Metamor Keep. Spread before those towers like an elegant gown was the city on the ridge and on the hill below down to the river and small lake. For a month they dwelt there with their friends. Abafouq had longed to return one day, but he never thought it would be so soon. He felt excitement and a sullen dread, but mostly excitement.
With the last ridge of mountains at their right, the castle and its town seemed a small jewel nestled within the folds of a magnificent formation. But once they passed the mountains and there was nothing but forest between them and the Keep he felt its immensity. His eyes alighted upon the central tower and its belfry. He shuddered at the barest memory of the Shriekers, the Marquis and his allies, and the dread Censor bound within. Even their final victory could not efface the fear.
A dark speck moved toward them from the Keep. Abafouq only saw it when Guernef tucked his wings and dove to the same height. Once Guernef returned to a glide he loosened his fingers and stared at the speck. It took almost a minute before he saw it was a black-feathered bird. Another minute and he recognized her.
“It's Jessica!” he shouted. Guernef flicked an ear but did not turn his head.
The hawk flew toward them for another minute before circling in wide arcs. When they reached her she swooped in beside them, screeched into the wind, and then dove a little ahead and toward the Keep. Guernef followed, banking his wings every few seconds so as not to overtake her.
Jessica guided them to one of the grassy fields on the northern side of the Keep near the fortifications overlooking the edge of the ridge and the forest beyond. Waiting below them was another familiar face, a lady skunk reclining against a hand cart. Jessica landed next to her and swelled in size. Guernef swept past, beat his wings several times, and then settled down. Abafouq waited for the Nauh-kaee to fold his wings before letting go of the leather strap; he stretched his legs to work out a cramp and then climbed down. He bent forward and ran his fingers through the soft grass and felt a laugh burble from his throat.
Looking up he saw Jessica and Kayla crouching over him. His laugh erupted and he thrust himself into their arms and wings, savoring the touch of the skunk's soft fur and the hawk's gentle feathers.
“Welcome back to Metamor, dear friends,” Jessica cawed.
Kayla had brought fresh food and drink in the hand cart. In addition to bread, cheese, and fruit, there were strips of jerky and even a hunk of salted but uncooked mutton Guernef devoured. For drink she brought a pitcher of milk and a small bottle of wine. Abafouq accepted the milk at first but knew the wine would be gone before he dared stand up again.
“It is so good to see you both again,” Jessica said, sharp eyes capturing both Binoq and Nauh-kaee without moving. “We did not expect to see you again so soon.
“Nor did we,” Abafouq admitted as he reclined in the grass. Free from the mountains, he'd stripped the heaviest furs from his chest and legs and piled them behind him for a pillow. He tore a chunk of bread but did not eat it. “Where be the rest?”
Kayla sipped her wine and gestured toward the northwest with her snout. “James is at the Glen; he will be very happy to hear you've returned. Charles, Lindsey, and Jerome left for Sondeshara almost two weeks ago.”
“One of Nasoj's mages, a creature called Gmork, cast a terrible spell on Jerome. I tried my best but could not remove it. Charles believes his only hope is to return to Sondeshara. What Gmork did touched the very core of his being, his Sondeck. I could see it but nothing more.” Jessica fluttered her wings as she spoke. Kayla felt the frustration in her voice; it was all too common in the last month.
“Then may the bears guide them,” Abafouq murmured. “Let me then say one thing we all know to be true. We have each thrown off the corruption of Marzac.”
“You felt it too?” Kayla asked.
Both Binoq and Nauh-kaee nodded, but it was Guernef who answered them in his screeching voice. “We had already begun our journey back here when we were roused in the early hours before dawn by a gasping. The wind lifted us without wing. A harshness to its touch we had not even noticed was gone. We both knew Marzac's final hold on us was defeated.”
“How did it affect you?” Kayla asked. “You saw what it did to me.”
“And I,” Jessica added, “tried to use what remained of Yonson's hyacinth to change the curses. It wanted me to use them to control all of Metamor.”
“Yajakali did wish to make the human race into beasts like yourselves,” Abafouq mused. “I am thinking all of our temptations were about subjugating others.”
“They each had a focus. Mine was the hyacinth.”
“And mine the dragon swords.”
Jessica nodded to the skunk and continued. “James had his bell, Charles his son, and Lindsey had the memory of Zhypar. We never learned what tempted Jerome. And now...”
“We may never learn.”
Abafouq frowned and finished off the loaf of bread. He eyed the array of fruits on the platter in the grass between them. “I faced my corruption not long after we left Metamor three months ago. He was being in my dreams and in my wakefulness too. No matter where I turned I kept seeing him stand next to the Sentinel of Forgiveness in Qorfuu. My effaced name he showed me, taunting me with it. He assured me my people would never accept me. I... I was tempted to prove him wrong. I would make my people take me back.”
He leaned against his furs and gazed at the towers. “Two months ago I could no longer tell dream from waking. I fell from Guernef's back and didn't even notice. All I could see was Qorfuu. I had a hammer in my hand, and with it I pounded Kifqunan's head into the Sentinel of Forgiveness until his bone filled all the cracks of my name.”
Kayla blinked, a bit of peach half-way to her muzzle. “Kifqunan?”
“One of the elders of my people. It was he who arranged for my banishment seven years ago and who ensured I would be marked as unforgivable by my people last year.” Abafouq closed his eyes, hands balled into fists. His short but stout frame trembled. Jessica stretched out her wing and brushed her feathers across his shoulder.
“We are your friends, Abafouq. You are safe now.”
The tension eased from the Binoq's shoulders and a moment later from his arms. “Thank you, Jessica. I will not say all else of what I saw. After my tumble, Guernef helped me wake from the corruption. To free myself I had to give up. I hope a way can open to see my family again, but I have no more hope to see Qorfuu. It is not my place to change my people... I am not so wise.”
Kayla reached across the platter and gripped his other arm. “You are wise. And you are a better man – Binoq – than those who cast you out.”
“I thank you both again.” Abafouq took a deep breath and sat up; both skunk and hawk returned to where they had been. “I thought I would return to Guernef's cave high in the Tabinoq, but even there I could not go. Guernef?”
The Nauh-kaee stepped forward and sat on his haunches. His wings draped across his back and his black beak and golden eyes regarded them with both majesty and shame. “I too was tempted. Not with taunts but thanks. The old crow came to me and thanked me for freeing him from Marzac.”
“The old crow?” Kayla asked.
“The one coated in fire; the one we defeated outside the Chateau. The old crow.”
Jessica bobbed her head and Kayla sucked in her breath. “Vissarion came to me and said the same.”
Guernef nodded to the skunk. “The old crow knew me as the wind, and he knew the wind as himself. I listened. Abafouq had no home and the time had come for a choice. The old crow urged me to keep Abafouq and make him walk the Paths of the Sky. But he advised me not to tell him. If not for the scrap of the prophet's words drifting from ash I would have obeyed. And so we returned here.”
Kayla blinked as she picked up a piece of cheese. “I... I do not understand any better what the corruption did to you than I did before you spoke! Guernef, what are the paths of the sky?”
But the Nauh-kaee turned his face away and said nothing.
Abafouq finished a strawberry and shook his head. “I only understand it in part. I am thinking I would not be as you see me if I had walked them. What I know is when we reached the plateau, the same plateau where Guernef rescued us with Nak-Tegehki, he told me what I must do to remain with him. My place is with stone, not with sky, and so we returned here instead.” The little man cast a quick glance at the Nauh-kaee. Both Kayla and Jessica felt sure there was far more to the tale.
Jessica cawed. “Are you both here to stay?”
“I am,” Abafouq replied. “Guernef must return to his people. He is the Kakikagiget and has already been gone too long from them.”
The Nauh-kaee did not turn back, but he did speak. “I will stay long enough. I will not leave until I know you will be well.”
Abafouq smiled to the Nauh-kaee so widely it seemed his entire body was smiling. “Then I know I will be well!”
“What will you do?” Jessica asked.
“I be a mage. A different sort than those living at Metamor, I am thinking. I will do as your people do and trade my skills for food and a place to sleep.”
“You can stay with me for now,” Kayla offered. “Rickkter is away and I would enjoy the company.”
His smile for the skunk was not as large, but no less happy. “Thank you! Being we have settled such matters, you must tell us more of how you, our friends, fare. Where has Rickkter gone? And have you wed your lovely hawk? Please, tell us all!”
For the rest of the afternoon the four friends reclined in peace, eating the pleasant morsels, drinking the milk and wine, speaking of the happier times ahead.
With the days of the solstice near, by the time afternoon led to evening all of the friends were exhausted and ready for sleep. Moreso Abafouq after so many months of journey; the last hour of conversation was already a mystery to him. Kayla offered him a place to stay in her quarters until he could find one of his own, and Jessica offered Guernef a place warm and comfortable while he was visiting. But the Nauh-kaee demurred and so they left him in the field to tend to himself. After returning the hand cart and the empty platter she'd borrowed from the Deaf Mule, Kayla escorted Abafouq to her modest quarters inside the Keep. She only had the one bed, but she arranged a sleeping pallet in one corner with an array of cushions and quilts she only used in the Winter. “It is not much, but...”
“It is more comfortable than anything I have enjoyed since I left Metamor three months ago.” Abafouq thanked her and after another bit of wine to relax themselves they retired for sleep.
But sleep was something the Binoq found he could not have.
Up to the moment he laid down he was certain he would fall asleep right away. But when he snuggled into the quilts his eyes opened and stayed open. Light slipped around the edges of the tapestry covering the window, and it was enough for his eyes to count the stones and wooden beams in the ceiling and trace the path of the mortar holding it all together. He attempted to lose himself in the network of lines, turns, and crevices, but no matter how far he wandered his eyes always returned to the spot above his head where two cross-beams neared but never quite met.
It was not the smell. Every animal-morphed Keeper had some sort of unusual smell about them, but Kayla's musk was particularly unpleasant; or it would have been if a little spell didn't mask the worst of it. He had enjoyed her company for many months and had grown used to the way her particular tang made his nose itch. And though it was stronger within her quarter than he'd ever experienced before, it was all the more comforting for its unpleasantness because it meant his friend was near.
But there was something missing.
After an hour staring at the ceiling, and after he could hear Kayla's churring slumber, Abafouq slipped from the quilts and quietly eased out of her quarters. The hallway beyond was narrow and straight; it had been a broad intersection when they arrived. He shook off his disorientation at the Keep's peculiar magic and began walking.
After a few minutes of halls marked by the occasional tapestry, banner, or decorative statue of some ancient king, Abafouq reached a long spiral staircase twisting up into darkness. The darkness alone caught his attention; the subtle, quiet magic of Kyia always had lanterns or torches every twenty to thirty paces in the rest of the Keep. Why not here?
He produced a witchlight behind his head and started up. The stairs turned to the right and were broad enough three grown men could stand abreast. Having spent his entire life in the mountains, Abafouq found them an easy climb. After he settled into a rhythm they became relaxing. Every step led him up. Lift one knee. Set down one foot. Lift other knee. Again and again. On all sides was cold, gray stone. A Binoq could savor it.
The stairs, after many minutes of climbing, ended in a wooden hatch which he pushed upward. He gasped when he saw the four brass bells around the central pillar of stone and the open air of night through the four large gaps in the tower walls. He blinked and shook his head. Where else but the belfry did he think he had been going?
He walked toward the opening nearest the hatch and stood, flexing his fingers. A year ago he had braced himself in the same spot, weaving a magical construct to pierce the vortex of magic Yonson had erected to trap them within. He could hear the echoes of his friends grunting and crying out as they battled the Shriekers and Marzac's dread wizards. He shuddered at the memory of the Marquis's laugh. He could still feel the pain from the card he'd been forced to touch.
Abafouq walked around the bells, a part of him afraid of what he would find on the other side of the belfry. He trembled with each step, a part certain he would see a golden censer dripping with malice. Instead he gasped in relief when he saw his friend.
“Guernef! Why are you in this place?”
The Nauh-kaee glanced at him, blinked hard avian eyes, and then turned his resolute stare upon the bells larger even than he. “The same as you. Remembering.”
Abafouq came to his friend's side and rested a hand on his shoulder where the feathers met the fur. “I am being glad to see you here. I... I do not wish you to leave.”
Guernef said nothing. This would not be the first time in their journey they had spoken of parting ways. It had been the rock upon which all of their words had rested in the days since throwing off Marzac. Almost seven years ago he was banished from Qorfuu; it was then he had sought the Nauh-Kaee out at Qan-af-årael's command and after nearly freezing atop the mountains was rescued by them. Guernef became his protector and brought him food and taught him to survive on the forbidding peaks. At times he felt a colleague to the white gryphon, but at others he felt more a servant and even at others a kept animal. And yet Guernef was his friend, no matter his beastly guise or manner. When Guernef left Metamor he would be taking a part of Abafouq with him.
The Binoq's gaze followed his friend's. The brass bells were broader than the Nauh-kaee and even when a sudden wind coursed through the belfry the bells were unmoved. He could not help but recall the carillon James had dropped on Zagrosek in the Chateau. But where they had oozed a conscious malevolence, these merely carried the taint of memory.
“What do you see?” Abafouq asked. With so little light even the brass appeared dull. Other than their shape the Binoq could see nothing in them.
Guernef stretched out his wing and brushed it across the top of Abafouq's head. “I see the place where ancient winds sought to drive the clouds yet to come back to the sea. Those winds are gone, their touch only in the whispers of memory. New winds will come, a breeze, a blizzard, they will come. I listen to the winds, and am carried by them. You are strong; they buffet you but as the mountain you do not move.”
The avian beak and eyes turned, capturing Abafouq with his characteristic intensity. “I see a Binoq who must remain so. The Path of the Sky is mine and I have walked it. The wind may shelter the stone for a time, and even may wish to abide and be as stone for a time, but it must go and return as it will. You are my friend, Abafouq. This parting will not be our last. But you have friends here too. Stone is never alone.”
Abafouq rested his hand on Guernef's beak and then leaned his face in. He laughed, chest tensing, eyes closed tight to keep from crying. The surface of the beak was hard and though smooth in appearance, was crisscrossed with subtle cracks. Never before had he clutched the Nauh-kaee's head so. Guernef spread his wing across the Binoq like an awning. Despite the cool mountain breeze the two friends felt nothing but warmth.
And together they stayed until the first light of an early Summer's dawn made the bells glisten with radiance, pure and bright with Metamor's pride.