Divine Travails of Rats

by Charles Matthias and Ryx

Metamor Keep


Divine Travails of Rats

by Charles Matthias and Ryx



Pars II




Monday, June 21, 724 CR


The days turned to weeks and the responsibilities of their position kept the Sutt house from straying too far from Metamor Keep. As they had promised, Charlie and Bryn took Sigismund for a brief jaunt near Ellingham on a particularly warm day in early June, but apart from that respite the occasion never arose for them to make any other short trips. And, as Charlie noted with a festering irritation, his father never took the time to visit the Narrows and speak with Baron Matthias as he'd promised.

Not that Charlie had any time himself to pursue his investigations or to return to the Narrows even had he wanted. Two days after witnessing the brokered deal that cost him his family name Malger and he began to cast through the dreams to find the one who had stolen the ingot of mithril and who knew how much else. With so little to go on, and the content of dreams so difficult to tease out, their efforts were not a matter of hours or days, but weeks and probably months.

It had begun with a review of the merchants and miners who were involved in the extraction of mithril in the mine, then smelters and the alchemists who were responsible for purifying and refining the minerals and shaping them into ingots for trade and storage, and finally the Duke's staff who were responsible for safeguarding their stockpile in the secret vaults. This purely mundane knowledge provided them a sense of the network and numbers involved in Metamor's nearly two decade effort to amass wealth through the magical ore. That wealth had already won them a number of victories at the negotiating table that would have otherwise required a battlefield.

But someone in that network was a thief. Once they had a broad sense of the scope and methods by which the network operated, Malger and Charlie could begin to feed their dreams. It began with creating a sense of loss, as of something coveted being misplaced. They bound these emotions into the fabric of the shadows beyond wakefulness, an undertaking that took three full nights to accomplish. They focused their efforts at Joy's Legacy but the effects were felt throughout the valley in subtle and often unnoticed ways. Most Keepers would wake from their dreams without any sense that they had been touched, and only a few would feel any sense of disquiet they could not explain.

That disquiet affected anyone who felt such loss or who coveted what they could not have. There were many for which this would be true, and as the nights continued, Charlie and Malger searched for all of those along the network of mithril who amplified those dreams, fixed upon them and elaborated them into vast dramas where what was lost was regained, and what was coveted was claimed and defended against all who would seize it. Finding such dreamers was not difficult.

The challenges were twofold. First, they had to determine what each dreamer coveted. This was not as simple as observing their dreams as Charlie had observed his sire's for the object that they coveted could appear as anything within the dreams. A man enamored of another man's wife might dream of sampling a wine of fine vintage beyond his means. Another man whose coin purse had been pilfered might be searching for a lost hammer. A young woman her heart aflame with desire over some suitor might dream she was strolling through ornate stables and fawning over a majestic stallion; and in Metamor sometimes the suitor truly was a stallion.

Each dreamer had to be watched for a few nights, subtle suggestions being whispered in the dream to isolate what was coveted or lost. For some dreamers the truth opened itself immediately and they were able to move on. For others, and apparently for their quarry, the truth remained obscure and cloaked in levels of metaphor that were not easy to discern. These father and son focused their attention as best they could in the ever shifting shadowy world of dreams.

The second challenge was identifying the dreamer. Some dreamers could not help but reveal themselves, their identity within the dream exactly as they were when they were awake. For those like Charlie's sire this made it easy to identify them because Malger and Charles knew who they were on sight. But most of the workers along the mithril network were unknown to the pair and so it was not as easy to tell who was real and who was false. And then there were a handful of Keepers who, even after all the years of the curses, still saw themselves in their dreams as their original selves.

To Charlie's dismay, Malger decided that they had to return to the mines as part of a nobleman's jaunt and privilege. The real reason was that they might have a chance to see each of the miners face to face. Along the way they conversed with the riders and soldiers who watched over the shipments from Joy's Legacy to the Keep. Charlie did his best while viewing the mine to hide his discomfort at the eerie spectral glow that filled the walls and the very air like they were walking through a faerie graveyard, but he could not hide it from his father. The instruction he received on the way home on proper poise in front of common folk was gentle but firm.

But it was not enough and after five weeks of searching they still had identified neither the dreams nor the dreamer who had stolen the mithril though both knew they were getting very close. All of their efforts and struggles left both Charlie and Malger drained much of the time and so the day before the beginning of the Summer festival both father and son relaxed to the sound of gentle music played by Misanthe and Suria, the taste of fresh juice in the morning and wine in the evening, and long soaks in hot baths that night. Their dreams were brief and amounted to no more than checking on the dozen people who they had settled on as their most likely culprits. But that night none of their targets offered them anything new.

So when Charlie awoke he felt for the first time in weeks well-rested and refreshed. He stirred at the sound of his door opening and one of Jackson's slender hooves clopping on the stone jamb. His fingers curled over the quilt and pulled the cover off the top of his snout, one ear unbending and perking up. “Master Charlie?” His timorous voice was only slightly muffled by the bed curtains. “Dawn is almost here. You wanted us to wake you.”

His jowls twisted into a smile. Both Jackson and Hogue were two years his junior and ever courteous and attentive; his mother drilled that into them within a week of coming into service to the Sutt house. But, like most commoners, they had a fear of associating too closely with the nobility they served. He'd been afraid poor Jackson would shake his hide off the one time he tried to join the two of them in a dice game. In time they would lose the last of that anxiety and the slightest tremble in their manner would be gone. So it was with his father's body servants who had been with him for over a decade now. And in a few years so it would be with his own.

“Thank you, Jackson,” he said as he pushed himself up, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, one hand grabbing his tail to help disentangle it. “Is my attire prepared?”

“Everything is ready, master.”

Charlie stood and brushed aside the curtains as the gazelle slipped into his bedchambers, followed closely by his human servant Hogue. Through the windows he could see a deep blue sky brightening along the edge of the mountains. Jackson and Hogue slipped a tunic with soft sleeves sewn with a ruby cross pattern over his arms and shoulders as he admired the morning sky. Jackson bumped one of his arms with his horns as the gazelle attempted to duck beneath them to tie up the front of the tunic. Charlie smiled to him to reassure him, but at least in this Jackson had long stopped trying to apologize. The little bumps and prods from antlers and horns or the pricks from claws that he would receive while being attended were no longer even a nuisance. The only offense they could ever commit would be to step on his tail; and that he knew would never happen again.

Atop the tunic they draped him in a leather vest inlaid with his heraldry, the trident and oar crossing over both sides of his chest, while the green and blue sections provided a sharp contrast with the ruby tunic. It was a festive day and so he would indulge in as garish a splash of colors as he was ever wont to do. His father would find a way to display three times as many in his own attire!

Charlie pulled his own breeches on, but Hogue's careful fingers tied the drawstrings over the two foot sleeve covering the beginning of his tail. And once he was dressed both of them stepped back while the rat reached over to his nightstand to claim the crescent medallion that rested there. His fingers twitched in irritated reluctance, but he had long schooled himself to duty. That first morning after he had last pierced the veil of his sire's dreams he had fumed and debated for five minutes before finally donning the medallion. Now he only hesitated for a moment before slipping the familiar weight over his neck.

With a little smile he asked, “And what do you two plan to do today?”

“The magic shows!” Hogue pipped, eyes glimmering with delight. “I hear Grandmaster Rickkter will be attending and actually performing! And the others, too, from the rumors I've heard among Thomas' retainers. The grandmaster's wife and the other two skunks will be working on some grand display for the Duke!”

“Kayla,” Charlie murmured quietly as he gazed into the mirror on his bureau to adjust the lace at his throat. “That's Rickkter's wife. Murikeer and Kozaithy, the other two skunks. Likely Mistress Jessica as well.” He tugged at his sleeves and offered a sardonic sidelong glance at his servitor, “So wear a cap, then, and try not to get so close this time. We would not want what little hair you have to be burned off – again.” The previous year Hogue had gotten too close to a sconce that one of Jessica's apprentices was trying to light by spell and ended up spending a few frightening seconds as a human torch. Luckily the only injury he suffered was the loss of every bit of hair he had, and a badly singed wardrobe.

Both of them laughed at the jest, although Hogue did run his hand through his hair and Jackson surveyed his slender pelt with some concern. That spell gone loose last year had left several Keepers, not just Hogue, with a bit less fur than they had begun the day. The Mage Guild did their best to shield the audience from such rogue enchantments but when they were hurled by the greatest mages of the land it was often difficult to keep everyone safe. But, as his father would be quick to remind him, if the only wound a Keeper walked away with was burnt fur then it was a good festival. But there was always news of a few poor souls killed during festival time through accident or, more often than not, through their own foolishness.

Charlie was no fool, and neither were his servants. He had no fear that he would hear bad news of them at the festival's close.

“I want to see the joust,” Jackson added after he stopped laughing. “Both Sir Saulius and Sir Dupré are going to parade the lists. It's been five years since either of them performed!”

“Four years,” Charlie corrected. “I would love to sit at table with them and listen to them trade old stories!” And like any old warrior who had survived his battles, both the rat and ram had wonderful tales to tell and were never shy about sharing them. Of course, he did have to wince every time he saw the wound that convinced Saulius his fighting days were at an end; after losing the last half of his tail the old rat just didn't have the fight in his heart anymore. Before he knew it, his hands had reached down and clasped the end of his scaly tail. He chuckled under his breath, stroked the tip with his fingers, and let it go.

“What are you going to do, Master Charlie?” Jackson asked while presenting his buckler with twin blades already sheathed. Charlie lifted his arms and allowed the gazelle to secure it to his waist. The weight of the swords at his side felt very comfortable.

“Well, ride to the tourney fields with my family come the dawn, and after that, oh, Bryn and I will think of something!” He stretched once, glanced at the brightening sky in his window and then nodded. “It is time to go. Take care of my bedding and then enjoy your day. Be back this evening to ready my things for tomorrow.”

He left the delighted young men to tend to their chores and made his way to the main sitting room. Suria and his mother were already there waiting as well as the house guard, though judging by the fact that his sister was actually sitting down and not bounding back and forth from window to door, she must have arrived only shortly before he and had not become restive in waiting for him. That didn't stop her from needling him. “Are you finally up, sleepy head?”

He favored his sister with a reproving moue though a slight smile hid at the edges of his snout. Suria had donned a blue gown with a wide enough skirt that she could move quickly and elegantly. The underskirt appeared to be a bright lace visible only at the hem though the wandering eye was quickly averted by the silver anklet she wore that dangled almost to her paw yet never fell off. A wimple of gossamer silk was draped about her head through which her tall ears poked. Its tails draped down her back in an imitation of the long locks of hair she had lost upon becoming a wolf. Gold trim lined her hem, waist, and bodice.

Sitting beside her was mother who was similarly attired. Only where the blue on Suria clashed with her russet fur, the darker blue shade of his mother's gown worked to make her red fur all the brighter. This she complemented with a necklace of gold and pearl, and a vermillion veil beneath her dark and soft cap that rested almost like a curled cat between her short-trimmed ears. Her paws worked a bit of embroidery, though absently as if the thread and picture emerging in the tapestry were of no interest to her.

“Dawn is still a candlemark or two away,” Charlie pointed out with a theatrical gesture at the open windows and the cool twilight air beyond. Between the towers they could see shafts of sky and already the black of night had given way to the soft indigo of a new day. “This is the longest day of the year when the sun rises at its earliest hour! Would that I were still in bed!”

Suria laughed and spread her jaws in a canine grin. “Are you going to duel swords today?”

He rested his hands on either hilt and nodded. “I think so. Bryn and I made a bet to see who could win the tourney of blades this year.”

“Neither of you has won yet,” Misanthe reminded him. “Do not forget what happened last year.”

He grimaced at the memory of the bright-feathered Tened who'd given him a merciless drubbing in the second row of the tourney and who even Vidika had been impressed by. Metamor was full of people whose appearance and smell made a certain part of him want to run and hide, but never before had he faced a foe whose gleaming jaws and predatory stare had been quite so intense. If the fellow hadn't laughed and offered to buy him a drink for his valiant effort after reducing all four of the rat's limbs to bruised jelly, then Charlie would have been firmly convinced that the Tened planned to eat him!

“That fellow returned to the Marzac swamps,” Charlie replied with a wave of one hand and a laugh, before adding in a low voice, “where he belongs.” He shook his head and then abruptly started to nod. “We probably won't win, but whoever loses first has to buy drinks later.”

Suria's eyes filled with impish delight. “Will you buy me a drink as well as Bryn?”

He furrowed his brow, drooped his whiskers, and lowered his ears. “I was thinking more ale than wine,” he opined with a twitch of his whiskers. “Ere I fail at the lists before you are vanquished among the archers.”

She stuck her long tongue out and while the expression had been quite impudent when she was still human, now it just made her look like she was trying to lick a dollop of jelly stuck to her nose. But her eyes and ears lifted from her brother even as Charlie and Misanthe both turned their heads toward the doorway to the rest of their home. The sound of a confidant stride of firm footfalls and clicking claws rushed to meet them, followed only moments later by the sight of their father stepping through the doorway, a large smile writ upon his snout.

Malger was adorned with bright summer colors so that his vest spoke of the sky, his long-legged trousers the earth and the fauna growing from it, while his open-sleeved tunic speckled with every hue of the rainbow – without the pastiche of using an actual rainbow design. His dark jowls spread to reveal freshly whitened fangs beneath which glistened like pearls amidst his finery. At his right side stood the mighty oryx Intoran dressed in full knightly regalia and on his left stood the house Steward Aspittier in his usual officious garb.

The marten stepped to Misanthe, bent down, and placed the end of his snout on her forehead. “You look ravishing, my love. You will be the envy of the court!”

“I already am,” she reminded him with a laugh, before lifting her snout and placing a soft kiss on his cheek. The vixen stood and slid her arm behind his back with effortless ease.

“Charlie, Suria! You will both be sure to win hearts today! Sir Intoran assures me all is ready and waiting for us below. Shall we be off?”

Together with the house guard the Sutt family shared a few more japes and pleasant jests as they walked through the halls of Metamor. This time the Keep required them to descend two flights of stairs before depositing them in a long causeway draped in ivy with soft purple blossoms. There, arranged in rows, were their steeds, the other knights, their squires, and the house servants who would accompany them to the tourney fields.

Six horses waited for them. Intoran's destrier was at the front bearing a champron with spiraling horns between the ears much like the oryx's own. Behind him waited a stocky percheron Keeper named Versyd and an elegant white quarter horse who was nothing but a horse. Versyd had long ago chosen to serve Malger and seemed to relish being dressed with braids in his mane and tail while a vibrant linen caparison white with the house heraldry sewn throughout covered him from neck to hindquarters. The saddle was designed specifically for Malger's proportions and to his taste; a fan of bright feathers arrayed along the back of the saddle to frame his tail when he sat, adding to his usual appearance as the court peacock.

Behind them waited Maysin and Lurminny, Charlie and Suria's mounts. Both were adorned with ribbons through their manes and tails proclaiming their allegiance to house Sutt, but neither would take a caparison. And why should they? A caparison would hide the zebra Maysin's beautiful stripes and obscure the deep mahogany red of the roan Lurminny's coat. Both of their heads turned toward the Sutt family with eager expectation.

Timothy and Peter Matthias were already mounted on their ponies; as sons of a noble house they were accorded a place of respect after the Sutt house, while behind them rode the other two knights sworn to the Sutt family, Sir Farester who was still human and Sir Trymal a hooded rat with a gouge that had cleaved most of his left ear. The rest of their staff would accompany them on foot, paw and hoof.

Malger helped Misanthe mount her horse, before stepping to Versyd and hugging him round the neck once with a whispered word in his ear. Charlie and Suria approached their mounts with broad grins. The rat ran one hand down Maysin's neck and then lifted himself into his saddle. He bent forward and whispered into her ears, “After the festival, what do you think of the idea of the two of us going for a long ride from Ellingham to Iron Mine and back again?”

Maysin's ears perked at that and she stomped a forehoof in approval, whickering and stretching her supple lips as if she were trying to form words. Charlie felt his heart broaden at the idea. If she wanted to serve him like this, it would be good to let her and trust her. One day his life could depend on it. As awkward as it felt, perhaps it was best to let each Keeper best learn how to use the body that they'd been given.

Intoran lifted a slender trumpet to his snout and blared a quick triple note. Charlie and everyone else sat up straight, while their steeds lifted their heads and began a slow, regal walk out of the causeway and into the main courtyard between the castle and Keeptowne. The gates stood open to welcome them, and in the distance over the gamboled roofs he could see the tourney fields and the makeshift stands always erected in the preceding weeks. Bright pinions snapped in the dawn breeze and the thrum of hundreds of voices already assembled filled the air.

Lanterns burned in most windows as the townsfolk roused themselves for the festival. Already the streets were lined with keepers setting up booths to sell their wares to travelers from the rest of the valley. Most of the shop fronts had brightly colored signs of their wares to capture the eye, and from many enticing smells drifted that captured their noses. All of the Sutts had to keep their heads from turning to follow one savory scent after another. The Matthias boys were not quite so well trained and turned from side to side their whiskers a riotous quivering mass.

The thickening crowds on the street parted before them, though a few needed to be pushed aside by their soldiers, but only those few who had not been paying attention. As they neared the tournament fields they could see more and more merchants and travelers filling the inns with lights flickering in nearly every window and fresh splatters of chamberpots still waiting to be swept into the gutters beneath most. But even the malodorous refuse did not remain for long as street sweepers were hard at work to keep Metamor clean and hospitable for her abundant guests. As they rode past the Shoeshine Inn, he amused himself with watching a pair of young lads just shy of the curse wrestling with a broom while betting which window was the next. The shorter of the two cheered when a second story window on the northern side opened to discharge the occupant's leavings; the taller was quick to tend his losing duty.

As they came around the last turn in the main road before the gatehouse leading to the tourney fields, Charlie was delighted to see the rear of Duke Thomas's train. There were so many soldiers and servitors in the train however that it was impossible to see Bryn or the Duke apart from where the banners flew highest. Of the long-eared horse who was his closest friend he saw nothing. So he contented himself to Maysin's comfortable and noble gait as the zebra kept aligned with the rest of his family.

But he could hear the cheering of the people gathering about the Duke's train. Many were also cheering his own family, a fact that he never quite knew how to feel about. In Sutthaivasse when he and his father were cheered there was always the fear that some assassin might be amongst them ready to throw a poisoned dagger. But here in Metamor there was never a reason to fear.

They passed through the Keeptowne gates to the tourney fields, following close on the Hassan train of servitors and soldiers. The dirt-beaten road led directly toward the lists and the stands prepared for them. Now Charlie could see through the throng to the Duke, who rode tall in the saddle, the duchess beside him in an elegant gown but one that could be quickly made serviceable for riding. Riding behind them were Bryn who was waving to the gathered throng, as well as his younger brother and sisters. Charlie smiled as his friend's eyes brimmed with delight; Metamor would be in good hands when he ascended his father's throne.

The Hassan family made a full circuit of the lists before riding past the Sutt family. Thomas smiled when he caught sight of the marten. “I see you caught up at least, Malger!”

“Oh, you're going to make me chase your royal... and you are looking lovely today, Duchess.” Malger turned effortlessly towards the gray-coated Assingh who was Thomas's wife. Alberta's ears lifted in amusement at the suggested but unsaid jest.

Still chuckling and trading jocular conversation the Sutt household slipped from their steeds and mounted the Duke's stands. The High Box, as it had been named by the workers building it, rose a head higher than any other viewing platform at the tourney. Below the canopied pavilion risers were set deep with seating spaced wide so that the lesser nobles and aristocrats graced before the Duke's retinue could bring their own chairs or divans or whatever manner of repose that they wished. Commoners who were lucky enough to secure seating in the stands had only benches to sit upon or the occasional perch above them where everyone else would be relegated to standing.

Despite Malger's official title being higher on the ranks of nobility than Thomas' their seats were on an equal level. The displaced southern archduke refused to rest upon a mere title, having abdicated his own throne in all but name, and acknowledge Thomas as the ruler here where the marten was merely a diplomat; if a highly ranked one. The Hassan seat was to one side of the box and the Sutt seat opposite it allowing room for both families and their immediate retainers without being crowded.

Although once the younger Hassan children grew restless the High Box would not seem quite so spacious. Bryn had three sisters and a younger brother all less than ten and each filled with the boundless energy and enthusiasm of a colt; it was impossible for them to keep still for very long. Charlie was always impressed that Duchess Alberta could hold them in her lap for more than a few minutes; they had hooves for feet and they liked to kick, especially the young boy of six Phillip. Bryn's younger brother thought the world of him and wasted no time in grabbing his wrists and dragging him to the edge of the railing so Bryn could identify all the knights coming onto the field for the opening parade.

A light meal was served consisting mostly of finger foods while the first parade of the day circled its way through the lists and passed before the Nobles' platform. The promise of sugared pastries was enough to convince Phillip to release his older brother, and for a moment a sense of decorum settled on the High Box. For one and most the solstice was a time of merrymaking. For many, many others it was a time of their greatest labors; bakers, carpenters, smiths, craftsmen, and above them all the Duke himself would find little time for frivolity in the four days of the Solstice festivities and tournaments. Decorum amongst his children would be brief, for Thomas would not be denied their innocent joy.

Still, there was much joy to be had in his role during the festival. The normal duties of statecraft were set aside for the more mundane trivialities of judging the best sow, or best tasting fruit pies, jams, best tailoring or upholstering or any of a few hundred other crafts brought before the High Box or toured during the day. As well the final arbiter of the tests of valor which would occupy the lists in the hours and days ahead.

After the opening parade, in which Bryn held his younger brother out over the railing so the sable-haired boy could better wave at the passing knights, Charlie and Bryn secured Sigismund from his post attending the ducal family and slipped away down the back ramp of the platform into the tables where the un-cursed, mundane horses were kept ready for almost immediate use and those horses that had once been people were relaxing the hours of their duty rotation away over various games and distractions that came with the festival crowd. The zebra mare Maysin, clad in a simple kirtle of gray, looked up from a game of cards she was enjoying with Argamont and Versyd, her tall ears pricking when she spied Charlie.

“Milords,” she whickered warmly as she and Argamont set their cards down and started to rise. Both Bryn and Charlie quickly waved their hands in downward motions.

“Sit, sit, we are just fine afoot,” Charlie demurred with a smile. Bryn vaulted over the stair railing and came to earth with a heavy whump a second or two before Charlie and Sigismund reached the bottom of the stair in quite a normal manner. “We're going to the registrar's pavilion to add our names to the lists.”

“And then to find the master brewers' alley to... judge their labors.” Bryn winked with a huge grin. Argamont chuckled with an agreeable nod and Versyd merely snorted. Where Malger was Versyd would remain. “Worry not, Ver, I'll try to remember to bring you a pint.”

“Hah, colt,” Versyd nickered as he boldly picked up Maysin's discarded hand of cards to see how solid her bluff was. With a snort he slapped the cards down and tossed his hand down as well. “If you bring less than a cask, my lordling, I'll toss you back to refill that pint until I'm completely skuppered.”

Maysin picked up a baldric containing her longsword and slung it across her back loosely. Argamont hefted a flanged mace and propped it back against his shoulder. Normally, when he was acting as Bryn's mount, the young noble carried the mace but the mount was as capable with it as his rider was. The two of them together, either as mount and rider or paired foot, were a devastating duo. Charlie had not practiced nearly as much with Maysin to develop as clean a partnership and, at that moment, he somewhat regretted that fact.

But then, there were no questions raised when Argamont and Bryn were training together as there might be should Charlie and Maysin do the same.

“We'll swagger along with, then, and put our own names in,” Argamont said with a flick of his neatly groomed tail. “Let the common folk see how nicely you nobles look planted on your tails.”

Bryn brayed a laugh echoed at a slightly higher note by Maysin's similar laugh and Charlie found himself laughing as well. With the two young nobles and their reptilian friend in the lead the quintet, and a further quartet of men-at-arms, made their way through the thickening festival crowd to the registrars' pavilion.

The first heats would be brief and held en-masse upon the tourney field every two hours. Sigismund found that he would be among the first call while both Bryn and Charlie, being placed among the knights and other aristocrats, would not be called until the final bout of the day. Bryn and Charlie put their names on both the foot and mounted lists while Sigismund chose only to participate in the dismounted list. He, however, branched out into the open magic side of the tournament which neither Charlie nor Bryn felt confident they could do anything other than get singed.

While they waited for the first bout the three friends wandered about the fairegrounds like a small gang; two nobles and an aristocrat accompanied by six armed retainers. Merchants were kept at bay from hawking their wares as aggressively toward them as they did toward others who appeared monied yet lacking armed escort and the group was able to browse where they wished.

In addition to the vast array of pastry combinations, seasoned and exotic flavored meats, hunks of lamb roast, chicken, and deer on sticks, crispy skinned potatoes, dishes sauteed in onions, with noodles of every shape and texture, soups almost ladled into Keeper throats, and fruits from all across the Midlands and some from as far away as Whales, there were also booths selling trinkets of every variety from wood carvings in the shapes of animals on two legs and four, to glass work of such exquisite delicacy that the merchants hired guards to keep their table from being crushed by eager revelers and their wares shattered, and even metal and leather workers offering more mundane equipment for both the many farmers who had come and the townsfolk who lived here, as well as haberdashers hawking tunics, breeches, vests, pantaloons, doublets, tabards, of simple taste to gawdy array suitable for his father's taste. But there was even more than just delicacies and meals to satisfy their gullets and wares to empty their purses. Jugglers and acrobats plied their trade at nearly every corner while musicians either accompanied them or tried to distract them with boisterous song. A few less talented mages even tantalized the simple folk with parlor tricks. Some of the musicians Charlie recognized from the Blue Note and he applauded for them. Sigismund muttered a few bewildered comments at the ease of some of the mages chicanery, but in a low voice that only his friends heard. There was far too much joy to be had for all to go spoiling it for anyone else; even drinking they knew that!

By the time Sigismund's bout arrived Bryn was three tankards into a cask that he had purchased for their group. Charlie had doffed one and was barely into his second while Sigismund had yet to finish his first. Argamont, however, was keeping up with the young Duke drink for drink and even Maysin had enjoyed nearly as much. Being smaller than the stallions she was beginning to show the effects of the stout brew before any of them, though Charlie hid the fact that a single tankard had probably made him almost as tipsy as his monochromatic striped mount.

Their four guards each enjoyed a pint but refused anything further.

Sigismund was allowed to choose his manner of weapon from the tournament arms master and chose a truncheon and shield. Every weapon allowed onto the tournament field had to be enchanted so that they would only bruise each opponent, though the blows inflicted would feel just as painful as they would have been without the protective spells. Everyone simply called the weapons 'bruisers' for that very reason though, if incautiously used, they could still kill accidentally.

Which was why large opponents were barred from being matched up against much lighter foes, which did cause issues now and then as the fields were whittled down and there were fewer choices on how opponents would be matched.

Early in the bouts, however, things were much easier. Sigismund found himself matched against a jowly old hound dog and the two danced for a solid five minutes until the bell sounded an end to the match. Since Sigismund blocked more blows while landing more against his opponent he would advance to the next heat in a couple of hours. Meanwhile his first magical duel was a mere thirty minutes later.

That was no five minute affair of trading blows, however. When the bell was struck Sigismund gave a hissing roar and charged his opponent, a stocky young human, while simultaneously bursting into spitting flame. The startled youth gave a shout of terror and fled the field. Sigismund's mother Miriam, who had come to watch her son's bouts, hugged him tight in congratulations even though the young alligator still bore the illusion of bright flame all over his body. From the High Box, the Steward Thalberg bellowed his hearty approval, a sound that caused many other combatants still deep in their bouts to turn in sudden alarm before resuming their matches.

Thus it was for the day until it was time for the two nobles to prepare for their bouts. Both made sure that they had something to eat a few hours prior to take the edge off the stout drink, but not so much as to make them sluggish in battle. Unlike the earlier heats they would be going up against trained knights and skilled aristocrats so they would have to caparison themselves accordingly. The first bout was a tilt of three passes, or until one of the opponents was unseated by lance. Bryn overwhelmed his larger opponent, unseating him on the second pass, while Charlie managed to unseat his on the first pass. Both of them had a glaringly distinct advantage – their mounts were as smart as they and trained as both mount and rider in such pas d'armes. Charlie's opponent, in particular, demanded his disqualification when Maysin appeared after their tilt walking on two legs and once more garbed in her kirtle.

As such was not against any rule the judges dismissed the challenge. Charlie was certain that it was only a matter of time before such complaints pricked the Duke's sense of justice and such a rule was made, but until then he, Bryn, and their mounts would enjoy their edge.

Behind the stands in an area cordoned off for a couple score of pavilions the combatants were gathered to prepare themselves before each bout, or disencumber themselves afterward. While Charlie was seated in the Duke's pavilion just below and behind the High Box he happened to spy a large gathering of rats at another pavilion in the distance. The Sutt house colors stood out glaringly against the more somber colors worn by those of the Matthias household and Charlie could not help but find himself staring. There he was, attended by the human and gazelle who had been placed in his service, with his adoptive sister prattling along in the background with his adoptive mother and no one else, while his brother by blood, Erick, and sire were surrounded by no less than a score of fellow rats in a boisterous mob.

He felt the muscles of his jaw twitch and only then realized just how tight-clamped his teeth were. A swift rush of heat flushed upward from his breast and left his ears searing as he stood and stalked out of the pavilion. When Hogue caught up and extended his helmet Charlie pushed it aside. He strode out from behind the High Box and onto the tourney field, where the other challengers in the dismounted list were gathered, with his tail thrashing behind him. Bryn noted the agitated sweep of his tail, and lack of helm, with an upraised brow and long ears but said nothing while the rules were read off by a tournament crier.

Each pair of opponents were given space ten paces on a side within which to face each other, some two score groups occupying the entire field. Charlie was positioned near one end of the list's center rail with Bryn a short distance away. Near the outer rail Charlie saw Erick paired up against a human and, further away, his sire Charles facing off with a raccoon. Charlie, himself, stood facing a tall, gangly rabbit wearing the boar's head livery of a southwestern barony known for swine and corn. Not wanting to expose his hand too early in the tournament Charlie had chosen a single blade and buckler.

The hare, other than being able to jump twice his own height from a standing position, could do little when Charlie stepped in and unceremoniously skewered him on the way back down. The young rat's sword did not actually run the poor rabbit through but made a bruising point about the lad's opening gambit – without wings there was no maneuvering in mid-air when a sword was poised below.

While the rabbit rubbed his bruised belly and sighed at his own folly Charlie glanced around the field and stands. Bryn was in a furious duel with a Lorland knight that looked to be evenly pitched while Erick and Charles seemed more than a match for their respective foes. Each of them had a knot of onlookers at the rails watching them, mostly rats, cheering them on. Charlie felt a tightening pressure clutch at his breast at the gleeful throngs of Matthias colors cheering them on while his fingers sought to throttle the hilt of his sword.

Family; by the score. Each combatant had their followers and family, but it seemed that his kith and kin had an entire legion of cheering onlookers.

The rabbit, too, looked around, his gaze settling on a trio of other rabbits not far away. All were dressed nicely if not with a great deal of overly expensive materials. The mother looked toward the rabbit with a timorous smile and twitching nose while the broad-shouldered buck beside her had a smoldering look in his eye and long ears lowered in disapproval. Beside them a young girl with a snow-white pelt seemed unaware that her brother had been the very first 'death' on the entire field.

From the High Box Malger offered a congratulatory salute and Misanthe beamed. Suria was nowhere to be seen, until Charlie cast his eyes lower and spied her at the far end of the list. She was standing, arms crossed, with a fencing sword dangling from her fingers talking to an age-regressed human leaning on the haft of the mace grounded before him. Who had won their match did not seem readily apparent.

The last heat of the day found Charlie once again matched up against an opponent who was more flashy than skilled. In a strange homage to his adoptive father the youth before Charlie was clad in a garish burgundy ensemble that accented the polished burgundy-enameled tooled leather armor he was wearing. Being human his opponent could not leap, so he simply waded into Charlie with an early shield bash, taking ground which Charlie surrendered with a rapid retreating turn. As the boy, who had at one time clearly been a girl, staggered past blindly behind the cover of his shield Charlie planted a boot in his posterior and sent him sprawling in the dirt.

Not far away Charlie heard Bryn's bellowing bray of laughter while the boy pulled himself together and stood. Beyond his shoulder Charlie saw Erick paired up against his father – their father – Charles. The two were clearly sporting out their bout in play rather than any earnest effort to see which of them was the better rat. Beyond the tourney list railing Charlie was almost aghast at the sheer number of rats observing that particular duel. Many of them were Matthias, but there were others there simply because they were rats or other similar rodents. Sir Saulius stood beside the baroness Kimberly and coached both fighters with his mighty – for a rat – voice.

None of them raised their eyes from the immediate spectacle to look toward the knight's sibling, as if he did not even exist beyond the Matthias horde.

Turning his back upon his sire and brother by birth Charlie focused his attention upon his opponent. The two traded a flurry of blows for a few moments before Charlie hammered one of the boy's knees with the flat of his blade. His opponent buckled to one knee with a cry of pain only to have the elbow of his sword arm similarly stung. Charlie followed through with a disarming strike, catching the masterless weapon from the air and tapping the boy under the chin, gently enough not to discharge the magic placed upon it. With a sigh his opponent yielded and sat down in the dirt to nurse his bruises. Charlie looked on with his back to the crowd watching his sire and brother though the roar punctuating their battle was impossible to ignore.

In the end he did not observe who the victor was; he did not wish to know and when Bryn tried to mention it he leveled such a withering glare upon the young Duke that he was rendered silent. The festival merriment lasted far into the night and, after withdrawing from the field, Charlie threw himself into it with a vengeance. He tried his paws at two dancing contests, though failed to place in either, but he did take the prize for his impromptu ballad about the trials of a fennec fox attempting to woo a Clydesdale mare. By then he was well into his cups, trying to match Bryn jest for jest, and contest for contest, from dancing to poetry to music. He was saved having to fend off the amorous approaches of the many females hawking for a rather drunk rich boy by a black and white striped chaperone on his arm whose name he could not remember by the time the waning half-moon appeared above the mountains.



Tuesday, June 22, 724 CR


“Milord?” Charlie hissed and muttered as he felt a diffident hand upon his shoulder shake gently. “Milord? The Lady wishes you to rise and join her at the morning meal.”

Charlie opened his eyes, let out a groan, and immediately clamped them shut again when the wan illumination of a candle sent a lance of throbbing agony piercing through his eye sockets. “G'way,” he rasped past the cotton battling in his throat. The hand, however, did not withdraw.

“I have brought milord a drink recommended by your father.” The hand, judging by the thick hoof-like tips as that of Jackson the antelope, shifted down a bit to pull at Charlie. “Sit up, Charlie,” the antelope grunted in exasperation. “Your father gave me leave to have the house guard rouse you if I cannot.”

Begrudgingly Charlie sat up, one hand quickly slapping across the bridge of his muzzle to cover his eyes against the blinding glare of the candle Jackson had brought into the room. A slow drumming beat through Charlie's skull and his muzzle felt as if he had been gnawing on a rotten birch limb all night. “What's the hour?” He groaned without opening his eyes, chin lowered, and cast his feet off the side of the bed.

“The Chapel bells tolled their sixth not five marks ago.” Jackson offered. The gazelle withdrew a short distance to let Charlie sort himself out, but not so far that he could not step in if needed. When Charlie slipped off of the bed and lurched, out of balance, the young gazelle stepped in to grasp his elbow and steady him. In thanks he got an impatient push to one side as the young rat made a desperate, half-blind dash for the privy. “Shall I leave?”

From behind the curtain Charlie let out a shuddering, relieved sigh. “No. No, Jackson, I'll have need of you forthwith. I reek and my fur is a wreck. If you could, slip down to the dining hall let my mother know I'm awake, and ill of sorts, but will attend her within the hour.”

“As you wish, Charlie. I also had a bath drawn, if that suits.”

“Perfectly!” Charlie gasped happily toward the quiet click of his door closing behind the antelope.


Many minutes shy of a full hour later Charlie, freshly bathed, groomed, and casually garbed made his way to the family's dining hall. While the dull throb of his fading hangover still pulsed behind his eyes the agony of it, and imperative demands of nature that came with it, had lessened considerably. The unspeakably vile concoction his father, Malger, had the cooks concoct for him may have helped but in Charlie's regard all it did was leave a foul aftertaste he was desperate to alleviate with any sort of food his mother had laid out.

Knowing the excess of libation that her son and husband had partaken in the previous day, evening, and night Misanthe had chosen a very light though filling menu of fresh harvested fruit, melons and berries mostly, and some light, flaky pastries with just enough seasoned meat to offer a savory counterpoint to the fruit without being too heavy. Suria and Misanthe were nibbling on that repast when Charlie arrived with Jackson in train. He offered his vulpine adoptive mother a bow and light kiss upon the back of her black-furred hand before taking his seat. Jackson withdrew to a chair near the back wall.

“Sleep well, brother?” Suria teased with a gleam in her golden eyes.

Charlie favored her with a sour look, his long whiskers twitching. “Well enough. Where is father?”

Misanthe chuckled softly. “Like you, Charlie, still reeling from far to much indulgence.” Judging from the relaxed warmth in his mother's voice indulgences of wine and spirits were not the only things enjoyed in excess. “But, like you, he rises when he's shaken solidly enough by his retainers. Unlike you, however, his raiment takes far longer to don.”

Charlie plucked at his simple attire. “I'm not sure he knows what 'simple' is in a wardrobe.”

Suria snorted a short nasal chuff of laughter while Misanthe merely nodded. “That he does not, no.”

A hand landed lightly on Charlie's shoulder and a warm voice churred into one ear. “Nor am I crossing swords on the tournament field, so I can enjoy dressing to impress.” Malger's smooth tenor was humorous and light, evincing none of the achiness Charlie was still feeling. “Good morning to you, my darlings.” The slender, foppish pine marten slipped past Charlie after a cordial squeeze of his shoulder to sweep Suria into a firm embrace. With a spin and a dip he let her slip free in a graceful pirouette that brought him before Misanthe. In the same motion he drew her into a hug that ended with a deep dip and noisy kiss upon the tip of her slender vulpine muzzle.

Suria trilled a bark of laughter but Charlie found himself watching humorlessly. Either the lingering fog of alcohol was still numbing his brain or his thoughts had taken a dark turn. Suria a hug, Misanthe the same, and he – a mere squeeze upon his shoulder as Bryn might offer. Friendship alone, nothing more familial? He pushed the remnants of a meat pie into his muzzle and wandered from the dining hall. Jackson quickly fell into step slightly behind and to one side.

“Once you and Hogue are done with my quarters you two are free to enjoy the festival.” He did not look back toward his servitor and merely waved a hand dismissively. He trusted them to collect whatever of his own that managed to make it back to the household with him late in the night and the remainder where it was, with all likelihood, being stored and secured by the Duke's guards beneath the High Box.

He left on foot through the Duke's gate without bothering to ask Maysin to caparison herself as his mount for the morning. It was not a long walk and he felt disinclined to ride anyway.

The streets were beginning to come alive with the awakening festival crowd, mostly vendors and others for whom the festival was a full time job who never had an opportunity to get out and enjoy it to quite the extent so many others did. Food vendors and craftsfolk spent the entirety of their festival days working where farmers and trappers and miners and others whose jobs could not be brought to the event could distract themselves from those labors and enjoy the days.
And there were those like Charlie; the jobless, whose lives were centered around pursuits of either sybaritic excess or cerebral pursuits such as diplomacy and trade. Such things few of the busy crafts folk eying Charlie in his relaxed doublet and hose, expensive by their standards, as he walked along the streets unencumbered by the weight of trade goods would ever know.

Little did they know the truth of the weight that he did bear; the knowledge that their Kingdom was ever under siege from those who wished its riches but were too terrified of its curse to make a bold face-on assault to claim it. Instead they turned to more subtle machinations; hiring poisoners, assassins, spies, and thieves to sow the seeds of discontent and distrust. And it was down to so very, very few to find those agents and put a stop to them; the spy master Andwyn and his shadowy web of informants, Malger and Charlie as sentinels ever alert for the dreams of those who meant harm to Metamor or its leaders.

He paused only once on his way to the pavilions behind the High Box; one of the merchants had an array of flavored sticks for rodents like him and many others in the Keep, and the sweet blend of cherry wood with a honey glaze turned his steps. He paid what the merchant asked and the coin left his hands and his mind a moment later as he resumed his way, the rich flavor pleasing his tongue as the gnawing soothed his teeth and settled some of his nerves.

On arriving at the pavilions Charlie was surprised to see a group of unfamiliar banners snapping in the morning breeze. Rising on stout wooden poles fashioned from some mountain species, either fir or spruce, were black pinions worn along the edges with a symbol of tall cliffs framing a silver wolf's head; the wolf's jaws were opened in a snarl that almost glistened with the bright thread in each fang. Amongst them were smaller banners with a coarse tan field on which a running horse surmounted a field of knives. Charlie frowned as he studied them, but could not recall if he had ever seen either heraldry before.

Still gnawing on the honey-glazed cherry stick, he let his gaze study the men gathered beneath those banners. Their manner was foreign with rough skin, dark hair, broad faces with large noses and ears, and somewhat narrow eyes that squinted. But each man had a girth that dwarfed Charlie and a bow to their legs that spoke of a lifetime spent on horseback. Nearby he spied several horses with feathered hocks, broad shoulders, and powerful muscles with rippling golden coats. He felt a bit of an awe in their presence and could not say why.

Having arrived before his entire family, servants and all, their pavilion was empty without even a single lantern lit to welcome him. Charlie stretched in the shadowed interior, found his armor and weapons where he'd left them after his last bout, gently ran his fingers and little claws across the smooth haft of one of his narrow blades, and then abruptly turned and left the pavilion. There wouldn't be any matches for another hour; he could wait to don his gear.

Argamont was waiting behind the High Box with the Duke's soldiers and mounts. The stallion looked no worse the wear for all the tankards he'd downed yesterday. A whicker of pleasure escaped his throat as he lifted his long head from the game of dice he shared with the other soldiers waiting on each of their masters. “Good morning, Lord Charlie,” he said and then gestured up the stairs. “Lord Bryn needs a little rescuing. Where's Maysin?”

“She'll be along shortly. I decided to walk this morning.” He cast a curious glance up the stairs and the heavy curtains shielding the doorway into the High Box. His large ears easily picked up the sound of many voices, especially the boisterous shouting and neighing of Phillip, amidst the constant excited murmuring that suffused Metamor at festival-time. But from Bryn he heard nothing. “Why does he need rescuing?”

Argamont and the other soldiers grinned with wicked aplomb. “The Duchess may have found our young stallion a filly.”

Charlie wondered anew at the pinions and whose house they belonged to as he nodded his thanks for the warning to Argamont. He slid his chewstick within his belt as he walked up the stairs and slipped through the double curtain. The High Box had been complemented with another set of chairs for their visitors. The black pinion with cliffs and snarling, silver wolf was draped across the front railing and adorning the odd but modest attire of the human guests. Most of them bore garments of gray and brown with feathered collars and sleeves, but three were different – two men who appeared almost thirty years of age and a young woman more to their age.

One of the men was swarthy with black hair and rugged complexion like the horsemen waiting by the pinions; he was armored but bore no weapon; a long cape of tan wrapped him about the shoulders as he stood behind the other man and the young woman seated not far from Duke Thomas and Duchess Alberta. The young woman, no older than Suria, bore a gown decorated with feathers and streamers in a pleasing blend of colors, but always the suggestion of the silver wolf lurked in the arrangements. Her face was pale with thin cheeks and slender jaw. Raven black hair tied as if it were a silken mane graced her neck. And though her eyes were dark they seemed rich as well like chestnuts left to warm by the fire.

The other man sat with one hand on her wrist as she observed their hosts with an apprehensive stare. He bore a breastplate of shimmering silver, a cloak of black on which the shining cliffs and wolf were clearly embroidered, and an expression of awe and wonder in his countenance. At his side rested a long silver blade with a black shaft running the entire tang, the only weapon of all their guests permitted in the High Box. And in his lap his other hand rested upon a helmet whose workmanship made Charlie gasp and marvel. Fashioned from silver over steel was the head of a giant snarling wolf. Its appearance was startling and yet somehow he knew he had heard of it before.

“Ah, Lord Charlie,” Thomas said when his awe did give voice to a rat-like squeak. “Come, and do homage. We are hosts to a royal lineage stretching back a thousand years! This is King Pelaeth of Vysehrad and his sister Princess Brygitta. With them is their escort across the Steppe, First Hunter Horvig of the Tagendend. Your majesty, this is Lord Charlie Sutt, son and heir of Archduke Malger Sutt of Sutthaivasse.”

Charlie bowed deeply toward the king and princess, cataloging their names, their homelands, and their heraldry so that he would never forget them again. “It is a great honor to meet you, your majesties.”

“The honor 'tis ours, Lord Sutt,” Pelaeth said in a Steppelander accent so thick and guttural that Charlie's whiskers drooped as he parsed the syllables for sense. “Mine uncle didst oft recount the bravery of thy kin and the tale of vict'ry o'er the man of cards. One wast a rat like thyself; true nobility knows no shape.”

“Thou art well spoken, thy majesty,” Alberta said with a nod of her brow, long ears upright and neatly trimmed.

“Lord Sutt,” the gruff man Horvig said with a frown. “I didst meet the brave Keepers yon majesty speaketh of.” The man's eyes were eagle sharp above wind-roughened cheeks as he regarded Charlie with a slow downward and upward rake. “Dost tell me, as thou art a rat, dost thee know of another, a rat likened to thyself, who wast stone whenst he through our lands traveled? Older he wouldst be, of the lineage – ah, Matthias?”

Charlie winced, one hand gripping his breeches to keep his claws from digging too far into his palms. He took a deep breath and, with a polite nod toward the horseman, he offered his best attempt at a smile. “Aye, I know whom you speak of. Baron Matthias is my sire. He gave me to my father when I was but two to raise, ere he received a title of his own. My sire has told me the story of his journey across the lands of the south, and the Steppes.” The sight of the golden horses waiting behind the High Box made him wonder, recalling a part of the tale. “Are the golden horses yours. Are they...?”

“Art they of the lineage of Rheh?” Horvig nodded slowly as a smile exaggerated the crow's feet at the corners of his shrewd eyes. “Aye, they art.” The big man's expression filled with an immense pride and joy as if someone had placed a newly born son in his arms. And then his eyes settled on the rat again and he bowed at the waist, posture stiff but displaying genuine gratefulness. “'T'is an honor to meet any son of the brave Matthias of Metamor.”

His stomach turned in knots as his eyes cast about for any excuse to leave the High Box. They settled on Bryn who had just risen from a seat close by but not too close to the princess. “Thank you, First Hunter. I can assure you that you will see Baron Matthias on the tourney field today and I am sure he would be more than happy to renew old acquaintances and to give you due honor.” Stepping back he sketched a brief bow. “Your majesties, I fear though that I must be off; Lord Bryn and I have our own bouts to prepare for and neither of us appear to be suitably armored for battle!”

Both King Pelaeth and the First Hunter offered words of encouragement to them in their battles and Alberta gave her son an arch stare that assured him he would not escape from his duties forever. The princess also watched Bryn, her gaze cast into the distance but, to Charlie's perception, keenly focused on the young equine duke-to-be. Charlie was too distracted and wanted too much to gnaw on his stick again to ponder what the young woman meant by that gaze. As quickly as was polite both heirs to ducal houses fled the High Box.

Argamont rose from the game of dice as they came down the stairs. His supple lips bore an amused grin, but no japing words escaped them to needle the noble stallion's pride. At least until they were nearly on the pavilions and well out of earshot. “So how is that little filly of yours?”

“She is not my filly nor my wife!” Bryn rebuked with a snort. “At least not yet.” He made the sign of the yew and Argamont laughed. Charlie managed a slight smile as well around the stick in his mouth.

He lowered the stick long enough to ask, “When did they arrive? I heard no word of them and I certainly heard no fanfares to announce them.”

“With as much as you had to drink last night all of the armies of the Midlands could have marched through Metamor and you wouldn't have noticed! But, aye, they arrived late last night. Mother waited until this morning to inform me of the reason for their visit.”

“Is she going to be your wife?” Charlie asked, lifting one eye to study his friend. Bryn's hide shimmered anxiously but not in anger.

“Perhaps,” Bryn admitted with a shrug. “My mother certainly is going to try to arrange a marriage. I knew something was amiss when she began to regale me with history lessons of her homeland last month.”

“Did your father know?”

Bryn narrowed his gaze. “Aye, but on this matter he defers to her judgment. He didn't have his marriage decided for him!”

“Is she willing to endure Curse?”

“Maybe. Master Jessica has had some limited success keeping people from suffering one of the Curses they don't want so I suppose they might keep the princess from turning into a child or becoming a prince, though it would not be a sure thing by any stretch. Murikeer claims the Curse responds to belief and desire and, unlike Jessica, warns that attempting to guide it only causes problems.” Bryn shrugged helplessly and shook his head with a sigh. “I suppose, between the two of them, they could make the odds better that the Curse manifests in a positive way for her, if she remains. And the people of the Steppe do have a special love and admiration for horses. I suppose that makes me more attractive, but it also makes me feel like I'm being offered up to stud!”

Charlie frowned, his claws digging into the chewstick, a sudden flash of memory filling him. Bitterly, though he tried to hide the acid in his voice, he suggested, “A prize sow on market day, eh?”

Bryn's ears lifted in sudden amusement and he gripped Charlie on the shoulder and squeezed much like his father had done an hour ago. “Not quite that bad at least!”

He sucked in his breath and quickly changed the subject. “Vysehrad... those are the mountains at the eastern reaches of the Steppe. I didn't know there was a kingdom there.”

“There wasn't until a few years ago. Pelaeth united all of the peoples living on the edge of the mountains and even some of the horse tribes of the Steppe. Mother says they call him the Vyusher Grai. In the old tongue of the Steppe that means Wolf Horse. Apparently, he is... indomitable in battle.”

“His armor and blade... they are ancient aren't they?”

Bryn nodded. “As old as his homeland and lineage. I feared mother would swoon when she saw them!” Bryn tilted back his head and laughed. Argamont held out an arm to steady him. But Bryn waved him off with a smile. The smile turned to a frown as they reached the pavilion and saw only darkness within. “Where's your family? And Maysin?”

“They'll be here soon. I left them while they were still gathering to break their fast. Why don't we check the lists to see who we are paired against for our next bout.”

“Shouldn't we wait for Sig?”

“He'll catch up once he gets free.”

They made their way to the lists through the many Keepers already gathering for another day of festival. Charlie consoled himself with the lack of other rats congregating on the tourney grounds that morning, but his relief soured when they found the list of combatants remaining. “So my sire defeated my brother,” he noted with an irritated hiss.

“Points only,” Bryn noted as he scanned for his name. “Neither of them knew until the judges finished counting. I see your sister is still on the archery lists.”

“That will please her. Here you are for jousting.” Charlie gestured for Bryn to come closer. The stallion glanced at the name, grunted, and stomped a hoof into the dust.

“Sir Dupré? That old ram? I'll ask him about his Wall and skewer him while he's distracted.”

Argamont could not hold back his guffaw and even Charlie laughed. “Don't underestimate him. He's old but he's vicious in a brawl. He made Master Vidika sweat when they squared off for the Summer Crown ten years ago.”

“When I was four!” Bryn snorted.

Charlie shook his head and returned his eyes to the lists. He found his name a moment later and chuckled anew. “Oh, poor Sig. Well, at least he'll still be in the magic tourney.”

“Don't embarrass him too much now,” Bryn noted sardonically when he saw that the lists had put the rat and the alligator against each other for the next melee bout.

Charlie was somewhat surprised that Sigismund, with his short arms and general lack of physical dexterity, had made it through the first two melee rounds. His chuckle at the draw curdled in his throat when he spied across the field a group of rodents and a familiar banner and colors assembling on the other side of the tourney field. Charlie turned from the lists and stepped aside to let other curious Keepers inspect the names of the remaining combatants. Bryn and Argamont followed after him through the growing crowds. The morning was still young but already the festival was brimming with merrymakers, food, and song. Charlie debated finding something more to eat, but out of the corner of his eye he could see almost two dozen rodents gathered together. Beside him were only two horses.

“Let's find Sig and Maysin, and then get ready for our first bouts,” Charlie finally suggested in as happy a voice as he could manage. “Maybe even something to eat; together.”

Bryn waved with one arm and flicked his tail. “Lead on!”


By the time they returned to the pavilions Charlie's family and retainers had arrived. Both Malger and Misanthe were reclining in the High Box with Thomas and guests, while Suria stood behind her mother's chair and scowled petulantly as she waxed the string of her bow. After greeting the new arrivals Bryn quickly excused himself to prepare for his match against Sir Dupré. The visiting princess did not look his way, but from the corner of her alert eyes Bryn could not escape. Suria glanced from Bryn to the newcomer and frowned, plucking the string of her fine longbow with an expression of such sourness that even Misanthe seated in front of the russet wolf could not fail to notice. Argamont laughed at his rider's discomfiture and followed him through the tent flaps at the back of the High Box and down the back stair.

Charlie was in no mood to try to assuage his sister's jealousy at the sight of yet another possible bride for the ducal heir and followed after a brief greeting of his adoptive parents and fuming sister. On arriving at their pavilion, Hogue and Jackson assisted him with his armor and buckler while Maysin arrayed her tack nearby. The human and antelope could not control their tongues as each in turn boasted of their favored mages still competing in the tourney. But the rat who their skillful hands attired and armored said not a word. He found it somewhat irritating that neither of them mentioned Sigismund, who had advanced through the early contests with little problem and, despite his low guild rank, easily had the same odds to emerge from the day's magical tests successfully. And neither Timothy nor Peter were anywhere to be found, further rankling his temper.

Maysin sensed his unease first. The zebra lowered the saddle whose straps she had been inspecting and crossed the short space to tap the gazelle on the shoulder. “I will take care of Lord Sutt. The first mage combat starts soon and you should be there to cheer them.”

Both glanced at Charlie for permission which he gave with a quick nod of the head. They professed their gratitude, bowed their heads respectfully, and then practically ran out of the pavilion. Maysin briefly studied the empty space his servants had a moment before occupied for before shaking her head and lowering her ears. “Do you think the Duke has found a bride for Lord Bryn?”

“Maybe,” Charlie shrugged as Maysin resumed securing the straps to his breastplate. “This wouldn't be the first potential bride either he or I have faced.” He winced as she drew the straps tight. “You know my first fight is on foot, right? Why are you readying your tack?”

Maysin flicked her ears back as if offended. “You, young Lord Sutt, will ride to the tourney field as befits your station. Let the common folk walk on paws!”

For some reason, the fiery reprimand from the young woman who had sworn service to him as mount brought the faintest of smiles to his cheeks.


Although it was a short walk from the pavilions behind the High Box to the tourney field, Charlie allowed Maysin to take her time about it. She pranced on her hooves across the hard-packed dirt and cast up clouds of dust behind them. The zebra tossed her head from side to side, all the while making a sort of off-beat staccato by stomping her left forehoof twice for every step of the other three. The Tagendend horseman gathered behind the High Box hooted in approval as they watched, while the golden horses they brought tapped their hooves against the wooden railing in a strange sort of counterpoint. If he didn't know better he would have sworn those horses were applauding Maysin.

Even after they left the pavilions behind, Keepers of all shapes and sizes who were thronging the booths set up surrounding the tourney fields to sell food, drink, and even little banners of their favored knights were apt to give him applause as they watched him, without reins, apparently lead his monochromatic striped steed in a stately dance. Charlie could not help but lift his snout high, straightening his back and lifting his tail in the slot set for it in his saddle in as regal a pose as he could command.

Their arrival at the tourney field was less noticed only because several matches had already begun. Most eyes were on a pair of journeyman mages who were chasing fiery lights in the shapes of long-bodied dragons in whirligigs through the sky, but a few waved their banners in favor of a tilt before the High Box between two armored knights. Charlie saw Sigismund waiting just inside the fields practicing his sword swings and shield work. The young alligator stopped and opened wide his jaws in a saurian smile. “Good morning, Charlie!”

Maysin came to a stop but gave each of her hooves one more fierce stomp as if she had just come inside from a snowy day and was dislodging all the flakes that had settled in her hide. She then lowered her front legs with a bow of her head, allowing the rat an easy glide to the ground. He slid free as smoothly as any Steppes-born horsemen trained to the saddle from wet-nurse to grave and rested one hand against the side of Maysin's neck. “Thank you, Maysin.” He bowed his head slightly as she straightened and adopted a regal pose; head and ears up proudly. Charlie smiled anew as he realized she intended to wait as his steed until he finished his bout with his alligator friend.

He turned and put his hands on the tourney railing, smiling to the Steward's son. “Good morning, Sig. Did you rest well last night?”

They conversed for a few minutes more before the other contests were complete and judges enough were freed to observe their bout and a few others which were beginning. Charlie saw an armored Bryn riding onto the field, Argamont in full barding, while across the list from him rode that old ram Sir Dupré on a normal though very stout horse. The Ram's helmet was open on the sides for his spiraling horns and ears; otherwise he was a figure of cold, iron gray. Charlie wished his friend good fortune against such a battle-tested knight.

The rat and alligator traded a few friendly blows at first, but as soon as Sig began to press his greater body strength, Charlie took full advantage of the training he suffered beneath Vidika's merciless tutelage. Sigismund had mass and power to spare, far more of both than Charlie could boast, but what he lacked was speed of foot and Charlie capitalized upon that completely. To his credit the young alligator withstood twice as many, if not more, blows from the sharp swords that had been rendered harmless, but not painless, than the rat could have. A few minutes later and the alligator was wincing and cradling his left arm which the rat had stung with the flat of his blade to bring the match to an end. Despite his loss Sig laughed in good spirits and asked as they reached the railing to rest their swords, “Are you going to watch me in my next magic bout? It will be just after the noon hour.”

“So long as I am neither tilting nor dueling blades I will be there. I should check to see when next I ride.” Charlie glanced down the field at a sudden crack of lances and crash of armor. Onlookers gasped as the ducal heir struggled to get his hooves beneath him while Argamont wheeled around to find where his rider had gone. Sir Dupré clutched the remnants of a shattered lance as he slowed his steed to a trot and then turned to check on his opponent. Those seated in the stands rose and a hush fell across the crowd as Dupré tossed his shattered lance aside and trotted back to the ducal heir. Slipping from his saddle he grasped Bryn's arm to help him stand. With a wave and a bow to the crowd Bryn walked, slowly and while rubbing his bruised posterior, alongside Argamont and a dismounted Dupré toward the far end of the field.

“Well, it appears that Bryn won't be riding again this tourney. I rather hope I won't be tilting against Sir William.”

Sigismund slapped his tail on the ground. “You might if you win another tilt or two. So does this mean Bryn will be buying the drinks?”

“One round!” Charlie snorted a short laugh at the young alligator's exuberance – as if Sig would even drink more than one round; of wine at that. “And that's only if I don't get unseated in this round, too, and the draw has me facing my own Sir Egland at the tilt!” Charlie sighed with a shake of his head. Against the Ecclesia trained elk knight he held out little hope that he would remain in the saddle, much less emerge victorious. “But, for me, the real contest is with swords. I'm not the best with a lance.”

He would not have long to wait to prove or disprove those words as his was the last of the tilts for the morning. Charlie had barely an hour to enjoy riding on the outskirts of the field watching his sister compete with bow and several mages clash in brilliant contests of elemental control. His eye caught a human stranger dressed in brightly-colored clothes that seemed more a collection of patches than a whole garment who had burn scars across the left half of his head that left the flesh black and pink in a twisted mess. Yet, where Sig relied on the illusion of fire to startle his opponents, this mage commanded both the smoking wick and the raging inferno with equal facility. An entire montage of mountain, dragon, mounted army, and battle ensuing was writ in that wreath of flame that he caressed with his unscathed fingers as if they were nothing more than petals of yellow and orange. Charlie was not surprised to see him victorious over his awe-struck opponent.

But no sooner had that contest come to a close than the time for his own drew nigh. Both he and Maysin hurried into their armor all the while the rat cursed himself for failing to learn that foreign mage's name. Despite their haste they returned to the tourney field with minutes to spare. He could feel Maysin's tension beneath him as they took up their position at the far end of the list. Bryn, humorous at his earlier ignominious defeat, volunteered to stand in as Charlie's squire. “Looks like you're going to need Eli's own luck, Charlie my good rat,” the young stallion chuckled as he helped Charlie secure his shield before handing him a lance. At the far end of the tourney field Egland's own squires prepared him though, where Bryn stood nearly eye level with Charlie even mounted Egland was seated astride a far larger, much more powerful mount that was not even a horse.

Egland's mount was, in fact, the Marshal of House Sutt; Intoran the oryx in his full animal form.

“I feel a sparrow facing down an angry bull,” Charlie groused from beneath the visor of his helm. It had been fashioned into the shape of a rat's head and even had scalloped ear plates to protect the vulnerable flesh of his ears. “But maybe I'm too small a target for him.”

Bryn brayed a warm laugh and clapped Charlie upon his back. “I saw him lance all ten rings this morning at a full gallop, Charlie. Even Saulius only managed eight at the same pace.”

“That must have been rather humbling for him; Sir Saulius, I mean.”

Bryn shook his head. “After his many victories here and on the battlefield in years past, that knight needs no more accolades to know his worth.”

Charlie laughed nervously and tightened his grip on the lance. “That does sound like Sir Saulius.” Maysin cast a brief glance back at the two of them, and then gave a very equine shudder as the pennant was raised by the tournament marshal below the High Box. She trotted out at a proud pace matched at the far end of the list by the starkly patterned oryx serving as Egland's mount. Both raised their lances in salute to each other and then the Duke's box before lowering their long spars and lurching forward.

Maysin found her stride within two paces, head low and neck stretched. Charlie couched his lance and braced his shield for the crushing impact he could feel long before it landed. Fortunately, with a slight shift of Maysin's headlong charge, Egland's blow only glanced off of Charlie's shield. He swayed in his saddle nonetheless for, even glancing, it was a solid blow. Intoran twisted his head at the last possible moment and deftly knocked Charlie's lance wide so he struck nothing whatsoever. A few in the crowd railed at the uncommonly intelligent actions of both mounts but, being Metamor where intelligent mounts were not unheard of, the tilt stood and Egland got the point.

Charlie achieved the second point when, upon their second tilt, he lowered his lance and swung it a little more wide than the goal of Egland's shield. When Intoran saw the blunt steel tip of the lance held steady toward the gorget of his neck barding he raised his head slightly and shifted outward from the rail intending to put the lance against the layered steel of his breast and shoulders. Egland adjusted smoothly but Maysin understood her rider's goal and shifted inward so closely to the rail that Charlie's armored leg brushed against it. Egland's lance struck a glancing blow from the crest of Charlie's shield and swung wide, forcing him to duck even as he hauled the tip of his lance in and upward to strike the papal knight's shield true. With an explosive snap the shaft of his lance shattered in a shower of splinters and he heard Egland whoop in surprise over the thundering hooves of their mounts.

“Nicely run!” Bryn congratulated him as Maysin bounced to a sliding stop at the end of the list. Charlie hugged a laugh and handed off his shattered lance for a fresh one held up by the Duke's son. “That surprised him!”

“Surprised me too!” Charlie briefly adjusted his helm which had been knocked slightly askew when he ducked behind his shield. “He's got four feet on me in height and reach!”

“Now, one more like that and you'll have the match.” He gave Charlie's shoulder a shove and retreated back toward the rack of lances. “Give that old buck the shaft!”

Squaring his shoulders Charlie leaned forward, the pennant dropped and Maysin surged into a quick gallop. Her black mane hissed against the front of Charlie's helm, audible despite the cheering of the crowd and the thundering of hooves. His lance lowered and held steady toward the elk's shield; all he needed to do was make a final strike, even glancing, without taking a hit from the iron ball at the tip of Egland's lance.

That ball looked like a catapult stone as it sped toward him and he hunkered further behind his shield. His aim was true, the ball of his own lance squarely set upon the center of Egland's shield, and even with Maysin's inward shift twenty feet before connecting, he kept his aim true.

Unfortunately, Egland weighed a good deal more than Charlie did and, when lances and shields met it was Charlie that took the brunt of the elk's shattering lance. His own struck true, but only a glancing blow, as Charlie felt Maysin slip out from beneath him. His forward momentum had come to an abrupt halt while she had not slowed. As a result there was a moment of weightless falling before the jarring crash of armor and flesh coming to an ignominious sprawl upon the churned earth of the tournament field. The onlookers burst into a roar of applause while Charlie tumbled to a stop face down in the dirt, quite stunned, his tail ingloriously pointing toward the sky like a bent pennant pole. Getting his arms under him the young rat pushed himself up a bit and shook his head as he spat dirt from his muzzle. His helm had taken at least two solid face-down hits upon the ground in his tumble from the saddle and it had half-filled with earth and sod.

Heavy hoof-falls sounded nearby and strong hands grasped his shoulder. “You all right, Charlie?” Egland, down from his mount, was the first to reach his stunned opponent. After helping Charlie sit up Egland eased his helmet off allowing him to clear the last of the dirt from his whiskers.

“Tumbled is all, Sir.” Charlie spat mud and raked his tongue against his teeth with a scowl. “That was... quite a hit.” Beyond the knight Charlie spied Bryn trot up and Intoran standing, still in his saddled, armored animal form, looking on with some concern. Maysin trotted up and almost pushed Charlie back down in her urgency to see that he was not injured. Charlie grunted, caught between an irritated grumble and laugh, and pushed her nose away gently. “I'm okay, I'm okay! Just help me up. I feel like a landed fish in this armor.” Grasping Maysin's neck and Egland's shoulder he hauled himself upright to the relieved cheer of the crowd. Holding his helm up in one arm he took a bow, as did Egland, before they withdrew to their respective ends of the list.

“Looks like I won't be buying that round, after all,” Bryn chortled.

“We still have the quarter finals of foot.” With Bryn's help Charlie shed himself of his armor and retired to the Duke's pavilion to bathe and change into a fresh doublet and bloused leggings. With the eight knights for the quarter finals determined the tournament field was cleared and a host of laborers swarmed out to clear away the debris, rake the churned earth flat once more, and brought out long, wheeled tables to array them throughout the field. As was customary the Royal family hosted a banquet for the midday meal on the second day of the festival for all attending, regardless of social position or rank. Commoners rubbed elbows with aristocrats and lower nobles while, in the High Box, the royals looked on and offered toasts and speeches. Thomas held the field silent for almost a quarter hour with a long monologue about the triumphs of the past year, the challenges overcome, the gains and losses through the harsh winter, and the year to come.

Charlie sat with his family and engaged in idle conversation while the slow aches of his defeat stole through his arms and back assuaged slightly by a tankard of ale. He had time to rest before the quarter finals of foot would take place; first the quarter finals of magery would be held and in that he had an opportunity to cheer on Sig who, being the eldest son of the Duke's Steward and closest friend, had the sympathies of all but the foreigners in the High Box. Once the mages had charred the lists with their enchantments the archers would loose a trio of volleys through wooden poles standing in for trees to determine which four would shoot again on the morrow. Then at last the knights would return for another four bouts to leave another four warriors collapsed in ignominious heaps of steel and dirt and out of the tourney. Once they had completed, the last of the competitions, the quarter finals of foot would take place nearer the evening hours before sunset.
There would be no lists put up for the quarter finals; contestants would be drawn shortly before each match. And whereas in the previous battles an attempt was made to pair combatants based on their size and skills, now it would only be a matter of tokens from a tankard to decide whose mettle would be matched.

And although both Charlie and Bryn had advanced in the melee tournaments, the list of opponents they would face that evening was quite daunting; Sirs Dupré and Intoran were both knights of differing orders and both considerably skilled. Charlie's sire, Baron Matthias, had also progressed upon defeating patrol master Wolfram that morning. One of the visiting Steppelanders, whose name Charlie had neglected to commit to memory, had also advanced to the quarter finals after his shocking defeat of Sir Egland when he'd grabbed the elk's antlers and tumbled him to the ground. Misha's foster son, Kelflicks the Lutin had also advanced and, incongruously, the rat Goldmark had also advanced despite having middling martial skill or experience but apparently considerable luck.

Charlie found that he preferred not thinking of the draw at all and did his best to enjoy this respite with his family.

Shortly before the matches of magecraft were set to begin, he noticed the burned stranger in the brightly-colored, patchwork attire accompany the Steppelander Horvig through the array of wheeled tables and festal abundance. He pondered leaving the High Box to introduce himself and compliment him on his astonishing display of pyrotechnics when another more familiar figure joined them in animated conversation, as if they were all old friends. Baron Matthias greeted the mage with some awe, and the mage returned the marveling gesture. They both touched the scars on each others faces, so alike and yet, in Charlie's eye, it seemed they were very different, as different as night from day, and the sun from shadow. His curiosity piqued, he could not tear his eyes away until the mischief of rats that were his kin began to swarm around the Baron eager to learn who their father's friends were.

Charlie rose from his seat and stepped swiftly around his chair as if he were rushing to casks to refill his tankard. In his haste he bumped snout first into the snarling wolf jaws transfixed between two mighty cliffs. The man whose heraldry he had assaulted with his nose turned and laughed. “Art thee well, your lord?”

Aghast at his faux pas, Charlie lowered his gaze and stammered, “Forgive me, your majesty. I did not know you were standing so close.”

“Fear not; I hath already committed graver offenses in thy noble land by treading upon the ducal tail when I didst rise to gather sweet libation for my sister.” Charlie chortled at the image that sprung to mind of Duke Thomas neighing in alarm when a metal boot descended roughly upon the wiry strands of his long and well-groomed tail. “What didst catch thy eye to cause thee such haste?”

“Oh, well...” He glanced over his shoulder and gestured to the disfigured man in the colorful garb. “That mage. If I'm not mistaken he's a Magyar. Who is he?”

King Pelaeth smiled warmly and with an almost vicious glee. “Thy eye hast not deceived thee, for he art a Magyar, proud of his people, and awkward and discomforted away from his wagons. They dost name him Grastalko; he art a legend e'en in Vysehrad.”

“Grastalko...” The name seemed familiar but Charlie couldn't remember it. “Did he come with you, your majesty?”

“He didst honor me by accompanying us through the Midlands. 'Twas Metamor he wished to see that he meet thy sire and the others who had braced the Man of Cards.”

Charlie felt a little stab in his belly. Did everyone want to meet his damnable sire?

“Well,” he said politely, eyes lowering to note the pommel of the silver and black blade at the king's side, “if I do not have the chance, tell him that I am awed by his skill.”

“As I am awed of thy bravery, Lord Sutt. The elk knight wast thrice thy size and yet thou didst nearly defeat him abreast. Thou hast a portion of grai o bavolengro in thee.”

He had no idea what that meant but the admiration in the king's voice assured him that it was of deep significance and a true compliment. Charlie could only lift his ears and bow his head in gratitude.

“You honor me, your majesty. Thank you.”

The King leaned in closer, the scent of horse and steel strongly clinging to him. “And thou wouldst honor me if thou didst assure thy friend that my sister dost not mean him harm.”

Charlie glanced at Bryn who sat between his mother and princess Brygitta with an expression of a mouse pinned between two ravenous cats. His laugh was the firmest and most authentic he'd had all day.


The banquet's end came not long after and soon the mages were gathered and bouts were drawn. Sigismund was selected in the second match but despite his best efforts he soon had to yield to the adroit talent of master Murikeer's eldest child. The third match featured the disfigured Magyar against the grizzled Nestorius. The coal black lion was one of Metamor's most formidable and arcane mages, and while by the bout's end he had edged the foreigner in points, he declared it was a shame for he felt like a lame child in the presence of an artist so precise was the Magyar's control over flame. Grastalko accepted his defeat with grace and decorated the lion's brow with a fiery wreath that singed no fur and, to Nestorius's embarrassment, he could not dismiss.

Sigismund returned to the High Box after all the mage bouts had completed and was greeted with warm cheers and a hearty hug from his mother who was otherwise busy making sure no one was short on wine. Thalberg put one scaly hand on his son's shoulder and gazed at him with pride in his yellow eyes. Neither Bryn nor Charlie missed their chance to congratulate him on going father in the tourney than he had ever thought he would.

The archery quarter finals also proved disappointing for the High Box as two of Suria's arrows feathered the make-shift trees rather than the targets. She was welcomed warmly by her family while Horvig took it upon himself to advise her on Steppelander techniques for firing from atop horseback. “If thou dost strike thy target at speed, thou wilt strike it through trees!” It proved good distraction for her and kept her from scowling at the princess.

The highlight of the afternoon, as it always was during the Summer tourney was the jousts. The eight knights remaining all rode onto the lists, pennants waving, for a quick parade before the draws would begin. And with the knights came the press of Keepers and travelers eager to see their finest warriors demonstrate their skills. Before the first draw had even begun Charlie's eyes were pulled to one side of the tourney field where a familiar gathering of rats made ready to watch. The knights crashed in the center of the tilt and as they recovered, splinters flying everywhere, Charlie slipped from the High Box as quietly as he could. His claws pressed painfully against his palms.

From one side of the High Box he was able to find a little space in between the press of onlookers to watch the jousts without seeing anything he didn't want to see. Maysin followed after him but did not draw too close, watching both him and the tourney from a short distance. Charlie gnawed on his chewstick as the pounding of hooves raced back and forth along the field as the matches ground on; at least two unhorsed knights had to be carted off by their friends. Both Sir Egland and Sir Dupré advanced to the semi finals on the next day, as did two younger knights from the southern fiefs who were beginning to make names for themselves.

The jousts finished at an hour when it was clear that the sun's descent could not be stopped and night was inevitable. There were four or five hours left of sunlight for the day, but after the last round of melee bouts the tourney contests would be over until the morning. And so, while the fields were prepared, the Keepers who had gathered en masse now dispersed to the booths selling food, crafts, ale, and other entertainments both innocent and otherwise.

Charlie, followed by Maysin, returned to the pavilions to ready himself in case the crier called his name. Bryn and Argamont arrived moments later, with the mount teasing his rider with questions about the princess which was quite obviously the very last thing the ducal heir wanted to talk about. Maysin helped Charlie don his armor afresh – Hogue and Jackson still nowhere to be found, and neither Peter nor Timothy deigned to put in appearance – and they idly spoke of who they thought would win the golden lance this year.

But before they knew it the cry went up and the first pair of combatants were called. They watched from the pavilions as Sir Dupré and Sir Intoran paired off to begin the melee bouts. Dupré's age and experience were powerful advantages, but Intoran had youth, size, and much greater reach. The bout lasted for almost a half hour before Dupré broke his sword and yielded rather than prolong the affair by finding another weapon. Intoran appeared relieved; his shield was almost destroyed and his armor had so many rents and dents it would take an armor-smith weeks to repair.

“That was quite a match.” Charlie blinked at the churring observation, glancing up to find Erick standing a few feet away with a pair of wooden chalices. The chosen son, the thought chased through Charlie's head like the flit of a sparrow's wing, the one not given up, bartered away. Bryn and Argamont were so deep into some dispute of attack and defense that they did not notice the shorter rat walking past them. Maysin bobbed her head in greetings and Charlie smiled to his littermate. “I would never have expected Dupré to hold out quite so strongly, or for so long. That oryx has reach, size, and youth on him.”

“Both are highly trained, though I would hazard that Sir Intoran – the oryx – has had more, and been on more campaigns,” Charlie observed flatly. “At least in the last fifteen years.” His pavilion was on the side of a slight incline, as were all of the tents set aside for tournament contestants to prepare for and recover from their matches, and offered a decent view of the field over the tops of the few merchant stalls and stands surrounding the field proper. Erick ambled over and extended a cup and Charlie accepted it with a bob of his head. The contents proved to be nothing more than apple juice. “What brings you, Erick? And where's Sir Bertram? I haven't seen him at the Festival.”

His brother settled on a nearby stool and stretched his back. “I wanted to congratulate you on your showing this year. And poor Bertram drew the wrong lot and had to stay and watch over the Narrows this year. He would have enjoyed seeing Father thrash me like that!” Erick laughed and then shook his head. “You've done very well, brother. I didn't even make it to the second day!”

“I've had more training,” Charlie muttered neutrally, sipping the apple juice.

Erick smiled and nodded, oblivious of his brother's surliness. “Oh, aye, I'll admit you've got the better of me there. Who do you hope to face next?” Erick waved a hand toward the field. Goldmark, in the form of a massive four-legged rat with a humanoid torso and arms, gamboled out like an oversize puppy. In one hand was a commendably large mace and in the other an unadorned kite shield. From the opposite side a burly human male in decidedly foreign garb staggered into sight. The steppelander warrior carried a slender, curved blade in one hand and a huge flagon in the other.

“I was hoping I might be pitted against Goldmark... against any of the others I fear I have not the skill to offer much of a fight, save Bryn of course. Intoran might have let me win, but I wouldn't want to force him into that.” While they watched the steppelander tipped back the flagon to finish off its contents and then tossed it aside. The pennant dropped and Goldmark swept to one side, batting a lurching stab of the foreigner's blade aside, and then stopped when the lurch became a stagger and the man went to his knees. While the stunned rat'taur looked on the man keeled over and fountained the contents of the flagon he had just quaffed onto the dirt of the tourney field. The flagons that had gone before followed, as well the banquet the man had partaken in. Goldmark danced back out of range and cast a helpless glance toward the judges.

Erick churred a laugh when the judges disqualified the drunken man advancing Goldmark to the final matches which would take place the following day.

“Who's left?” Charlie winced at the man's sickness and the roaring laughter of the spectators. From what he knew of the horse peoples of the Steppes his drunkenness would not go over well with his chief.

“Bryn, Kelficks, you, and Dad.”

Charlie frowned and sighed. “Bryn and I have a contest of our own going, I'd rather not face him directly. Kelflicks is just... too fast unless I shed all of this armor.” He plucked at the edges of his plate cuirass and light chain. It did not encumber him much at all, as he had worn it, or its equivalent weight, in training for years.

“Well, Dad was holding out that you and he might face off.” Erick smiled and tossed back the last of his apple juice. Charlie cast him a sidelong scowl.


“To see how you hold up?” Erick paid no heed to the cold irritation in Charlie's voice as he watched the drunken fighter get helped from the field by two of his fellows. “He was also hoping that one of the family might have a shot at the Summer Crown this year, too. If you and he square off, one of you will advance.”

I'm not one of the family, Charlie thought, but ground his teeth to bite back his angry words. “Then perchance he shouldn't have run you through the thresher yesterday.”

Oblivious, Erick clapped Charlie on the shoulder and stretched, his tail lashing lazily back and forth. “You're the better rat, Charlie. Well, since that bout took ever so long we'll have to wait half a candlemark until they call the next match. What would you say your odds are against Bryn or that Lutin, by the way? I might cast a small wager in your honor.”

Frowning, whiskers adroop, Charlie sighed. “Against Bryn, I'm as likely to win as to lose. Against the Lutin... not good.” His head tilted slightly and he carefully set aside the empty chalice, having heard in that simple inquiry where he stood in relation to his own sire in Erick's eyes. No doubt where his wager would be cast if Charlie were not facing the horse or the Lutin.

“Doff the armor, then, if you face Kelficks. After half a decade under that draconian child Vidika I wager you can hold up to a good bit of punishment!”

Charlie snorted. “He's been trained by the same evil child, Erick, and he's a Lutin beside. They might drop at a single swing of a honed blade, but we're using tournament bruisers... he can suffer just as much pain as I can. Nocturna knows, he can probably take a good bit more.”

“Ahh, don't be so hard on yourself,” Erick chortled in good humor, his dark rodent eyes gleaming in the shadows of the pavilion as he looked beyond. “Will your lady bid you a favor to bear into battle?” He held up a yellow ribbon that had been wound about one of his forearms.

Charlie blinked, chuffed, and scowled. “My whom, a what?” He leaned back in his chair, momentarily distracted from his maudlin thoughts. “Whose is that?”

“Your lady! Or, leastwise, a fair maiden to grace you with the luck of her banner!” Erick fingered the yellow sash with an impish grin, “Gossamer, the rabbit who tends mother's herb garden, gave me this.”

“Gossamer?” Charlie guffawed. “She's a dowager! Married, and with a good score of skirt pullers beside!

“And as much a grandmother as I could ever want.” Erick grinned hugely and nudged Charlie with an elbow.

Charlie nudged in return. “And don't you have a bride to be?”

“Aye, well, this is merely a favor, not a proposal! And here you ride favorless.”

With a puff of breath past his incisors Charlie poked his little-brother again. “I've no one who would dandy me with frills of silk, Erick.”

His sibling seemed only to grin all the more widely as his gaze was cast pointedly beyond the tent, where Bryn, Argamont, and Maysin were talking about one of the steppelander's golden horses visible in the corral behind the High Box. “No one, indeed?”

“Maysin?” Charlie snorted with a shake of his head. “She's been retained as a steed, Erick, of her own volition. And she's already got a suitor, besides. I'm not like my father in his youth to drift from bed to bed without anchor.”

“Ah, so hanging on your arm last night meant nothing? You two seemed rather closer than lord and servant.”

With a shake of his head Charlie chuffed a sigh, “No. No, we are nothing more than friends, in the proper way between vassal and liege. She's as much bodyguard as mount... I daresay more of the former than the latter. I'm really not comfortable with the idea of someone lowering themselves to be used as a mount, though for them I guess it is an honorable enough profession.” He shrugged and leaned back in his chair. Maysin glanced aside into the shadows of the pavilion for a moment as Argamont said something, likely quite ribald and off color, that made Bryn bray a very equine guffaw of laughter. “She also knows that, eventually, some luckless lass will be foisted off on my arm for political ends and, for that, I need to maintain some degree of respectability. Bastards muddy the line dangerously.”

“Fecundity just as much,” Erick observed laconically. “Ahh, and there is the crier. Up, up, brother. Let us go see who will be crossing blades.” The two of them stood from their seats and ambled out of the pavilion's shade into the late afternoon sunlight. The three equines fell into step with them, Maysin carrying Charlie's sword belt and shield. Charlie's armor jangled and chuffed metallically against the heavily quilted gambeson that kept the ringlets from stripping his fur and the whole affair was unpleasantly hot. It was a familiar heat, though, and a familiar weight so it distressed him not in the least.

Erick broke away before they had gone far to re-join the gaggle of rats ambling down from the Matthias pavilion, leaving Charlie accompanied only by the three equines. Their mounts stopped at the edge of the tournament field while Charlie and Bryn walked out to stand with the others before the Duke's stands. Charles tried to catch his gaze but Charlie purposely stood so that Bryn's formidable presence was between them. The Lutin, Kelficks, Misha's foster 'son', stood to Charlie's opposite side. He stood taller than a typical Lutin, almost as tall as Charlie himself. His complexion was an ash-pale gray tinged slightly blue quite different than the normally expected greenish hues.

He and Charlie were not particularly friends, in the sense of the camaraderie such as he shared with Bryn, but neither were they on disagreeable terms. Kelficks was a commoner, and also lived more beyond the Keep than within. As Misha's fosterling he was training to be a Long Scout which necessitated much of life being lived far from the confines of civilization so the two had relatively little comport. The Lutin favored Charlie with a half glance and toothy smile upon his sallow features. At his hip hung a finely crafted saber and a shield hung from his off arm. To Charlie's other side Bryn stood without baldric or shield revealing nothing of what he might bring into whatever match he was cast and, likewise, Baron Matthias carried nothing.

“For the third of the quarter final battles in the melee category the following two warriors will stand forth,” The crier, behind a podium slightly below the level of the Duke's platform atop the High Box, called out in a voice subtly augmented by magic to be loud enough for even the most distant spectator to hear. Beside him a page boy, either age regressed or not yet touched by the Curses, help up a shallow bronze bowl. The crier reached into it and drew forth a bronze coin. “The Baron Charles Matthias of the Narrows!” He called out, holding the coin aloft though none could read the icon or name stamped into the soft metal. Charles stepped forward and dropped to one knee, bowing toward the High Box.

The crier handed the coin to the page and reached into the bowl for another. “The Lord Charlie Sutt, son of Archduke Sutt of Western Pyralia!” With an indrawn groan Charlie stepped forward and mirrored his sire's one-kneed bow before the stands. “The rules of this engagement are known to all, and as such will be understood in lieu of repetition. Both parties may retire to prepare themselves and shall return hence at the passage of five minutes. If either should fail to present themselves their standing shall be forfeit.” That said, the crier stepped down from the podium. Charles and Charlie rose as one and glanced at each other; Charles with a warm smile of pleasure but Charlie with the flat neutrality of trained politesse. Without a word or even nod of acknowledgment he turned away and walked with Bryn to rejoin their mounts at the entrance.

“This will be interesting,” Bryn chuckled when they walked through the pair of horses and the ubiquitous guards who were never far away. “Matthias versus Matthias again! Let's see if you can best your brother's...”

“I am not a Matthias,” Charlie snapped, though his voice was not raised beyond a conversational volume. Bryn's ears sprang up and pinned forward when he finally caught Charlie's mood like a mule's kick to the chest. “He is not my brother. Not any more family than you, Bryn.” Charlie stepped into the shadows of the pavilion and snatched up the empty wooden chalice Erick had left behind. He filled it from a ewer of wine standing nearby and downed it with a single long swallow.

“That's not true, Charlie,” Bryn admonished but Charlie ignored him, plucking at the straps of his cuirass.

“Maysin, could you help me? It seems my servants have forgotten that they have duties.” Maysin came into the shade of the pavilion but Bryn stayed her from coming any closer.

“You sent them away, Charlie, to enjoy the festival. Let me help.” With thick but deft fingers Bryn began loosening the buckles of Charlie's armor. “Why no armor?”

“I need be able to move, quicker, and for longer than Charles can. If he's armored I can simply outmaneuver him until he tires and move in for the kill.” Freed of the ornate steel breastplate Charlie shrugged out of his chain shirt, wincing when the links caught at the short fur of his cheeks and neck. Maysin stepped forward quickly to take the heavy heap of metal from his hands. “I won't let him best me as easily as he did Erick.”

“They danced the sword for three turns of the glass, Charlie! It was hardly an easy task for either of them.” Each bout consisted of five four minute segments with a two minute respite between. Thus far no match had lasted more than four turns though Dupré and Intoran had come sorely close before the ram was disarmed and yielded. “What's got your hackles up, anyway? You've been sour all day.”

“Hangover,” Charlie lied, his voice muffled briefly as he shucked his coif and gambeson leaving him in nothing more than the loose cotton shirt and bloused leggings he had changed into after his turn at the joust. “Just... left me with a headache that's not going away.” When Maysin extended his baldric and swords he handed her the chalice and took the belt. He slung it over one shoulder without bothering to belt it around his waist and stalked out of the tent to stand in the warm afternoon sunshine. To one side he glimpsed the Matthias banner fluttering from a boisterous crowd of rats and others gathered around his sire's pavilion. Charles emerged from the deep shadows within walking alongside Erick, smiles lifting their whiskers and their tails swaying amiably behind them. Charles' younger children gamboled about them while Kimberly followed slightly behind with her eldest daughters conversing with light, merry voices. Charlie looked away with a sour weight in his gut, noticing only that Charles had armored down as well, to a jerkin and kilt of studded leather.

Maysin emerged from the back side of the pavilion with a stately thump of hooves and jangle of ornate saddlery. After many years of practice she could alter her form from quadrupedal to bipedal and switch into appropriate accoutrements as easily as most other people their daily wardrobe. With a toss of her monochromatically striped head the zebra mare pranced to a stop before her rider with such fanfare that he could not help but let a smile pull his whiskers up briefly. Curling his long, unshod rodent toes into the stirrup of the fancy saddle she bore Charlie hauled himself up.

Bryn walked over while he settled himself and checked the girth strap, the one thing Maysin could not tighten on her own. “Knock 'em dead,” the young royal chuckled and gave Charlie's thigh a swat as Maysin trotted forward with a high-legged prance that made her saddle jingle rhythmically like a dozen tambour players on the march.

Charlie glanced toward the far end of the pavilion row at the crowd of rats, and other rodents, making their way toward the field beneath the Matthias banner. What a good idea, Bryn. But, even as he thought it, he knew that could not happen because of the magic that made full battle, with real weapons, possible for the spectacle of Metamor's tournaments.

But Charles would be feeling the sting of the magic upon his twin blades, to be sure. For a moment Charlie regretted the magical blunting of his swords and he savored the thought; but only for a moment as brief as his conscience and training would allow.

Maysin clomped to a halt at the gate onto the tournament field, unaccompanied unlike the Matthias horde as Bryn was following along a distance behind in converse with Argamont and the quartet of ubiquitous guards in their trail. Charlie traced his fingers along Maysin's neck and then gave a parting pat before striding confidently onto the tournament field. Stepping up to a small table near the squire's post Charlie unsheathed his blades and laid them down. A pair of mages, one from Metamor and another officiating from Marigund, carefully looked them over and pronounced the spells upon them intact. Picking them up Charlie sheathed them in the baldric slung over his shoulder and walked toward the mid field.

Charles was approaching from the opposite direction, a smile upon his muzzle and tail aswish. He walked with jaunty good humor. If anything, Charlie felt as if he were stalking his sire, despite the smooth, cultured gait trained into him by both tutors of etiquette and child-like master of arms. No matter his inner turmoil, politesse left him with an unconscious outer demeanor that was preternaturally cool, calm, and collected. They walked toward each other and stopped in the center of the field before turning toward the High Box. The tournament caller was once more at his podium and repeated the general rules of the match, if in brief. Charlie found his gaze lifting upward toward the platform behind and above the caller. Malger was standing between the Duke and visiting Steppelander king, his gaze down toward his adopted son while he spoke to the foreign king. Misanthe stood at the rail with Suria and both gave him a wave. As one Charlie and his sire bowed to the High Box and turned to face each other.

Charlie drew his blades and Charles, bearing only one, drew his as well. Each raised one blade before their rodentine muzzles, eyes meeting past the gleam of polished steel, and bowed slowly. Charles came out of his bow in a loose defensive stance, turning to put the round shield of slatted wood bound with steel before him. The younger rat merely took a couple of steps back, flipping his blades easily in both hands when the Matthias crest upon that shield was thrust toward him. His tail lashed back and forth behind him in sweeping, jerky strokes where Charles' moved more slowly.

“Well, Charlie my son, let's show them what we Matthias' can do,” Charles quipped jocularly with a quick forward step to make a brief, probing thrust of his short blade.

My son? Charlie barely held back the angry growl, his brows angling down and jowls hardening with a sudden tension in his jaw. His tail twitched and stilled as he stepped back, easily moving out of range of his sire's experimental stab without making any motion to parry or riposte. My son? We Matthias'?

“I am not a Matthias at all,” Charlie hissed, though quietly, as he took two swift steps to close and struck at the mocking Rat of the Matthias crest upon that shield. Charles raised and turned to put more of himself behind the wood as Charlie's sword hammered against it once, twice, and a third time. Each powerful blow sent Charles stepping back as he sought a moment to riposte. “I am not your son.”

Charles could not hear him under the crack of wood and skirl of steel off the banded edge of his shield. Finding a moment in the pattern of Charlie's blows he twisted, ducked and thrust outward only to find not one but two swift flying angry blades hammering his stab wide. Charlie did not engage, parry, riposte, and break off as was customary in a test of arms, however. He waded forward, hammering swift blow after swift blow aimed not at Charles behind his shield but at the weapon in his hand. Each time the elder rat sought to force an advance against the younger he was halted and rebuffed, his sword sent swinging wide under a fusillade of blows.

Until, suddenly, he had no sword at all. With a brief, light skirl of Charlie's off hand sword Charles' attempted parry was halted and batted down and, with a mighty bell-like ring Charlie's strong arm swept down in a powerful chopping motion that hammered the hilt bodily from Charles' paw. With a complex twist of both blades Charlie sent the masterless blade whickering through the air with a metallic whistle to land heavily several body lengths away. Pulling back his stinging hand Charles looked up from behind his shield, expecting a momentary respite to recover his weapon, the point going to his son. His congratulatory smile was replaced by a startled moue when sunlight flashed from a swinging blade and forced him to jerk up his shield quickly. Steel shrieked as it hammered the rim of the Matthias' crested roundel sending a brief shower of sparks into the afternoon sunlight. Another blow followed, hammering the wood with a thunderous crack and sending splinters of painted wood flying to join those sparks.

“Charlie?” Charles asked from behind the shield, holding it aloft with one arm and bracing it with his now empty hand. He backstepped quickly and low to the ground, tail lashing behind him with calculation, trying to escape the unrelenting fury of blows and made a wide circle toward his lost sword. “Son?” One of the slats of his shield cracked and, with the next blow, sundered entirely. Part of it fell from the steel band.

“I -”, Charlie snarled, slamming his weak blade against the affronting, insulting Matthias emblem before him; “am -”, his strong arm cracked another of the slats, the confused, fearful visage of his sire peering through the gap left by the broken slat. “not -” Charlie could only see that emblem, of the house that cast him out, left him upon the doorstep of another, in the vain wish to recover another of that House's sons from beyond death. Again his sword crashed down upon the shield, bending the unsupported iron band and ripping loose another broken slat of wood. “your -” With a short forward stride Charlie raised his leading leg and caught the bottom rim of the shield with the stout claws of his unshod foot. Charles gasped as he was yanked forward, momentarily out of balance, by the weight of his son lurching up using his shield as a ladder rung. “Son!” One sword stabbed into the broken wood of the shield, which was not protected by the spells placed upon them, and the other crashed down with the full weight and strength of the angry young rat behind it.

Charlie's sword crumpled the band rimming the remnants of Charles' shield, shattering the Matthias crest entirely. The tortured band snapped and Charles staggered back as the sundered band snapped across his chest shearing through leather and fabric with the facile ease of a well-honed sword. One shattered slat, all that remained of his shield, dangled by its strap from one arm but he paid it no heed as he gaze dropped to his chest. One half of his vest had fallen away to expose the sliced shirt beneath and the spreading red stain of blood welling from a painful gash slanting from shoulder to flank. When he raised his gaze up toward his son it was only to see those swords raised high once more.

Charlie's devastating blow was stopped jarringly when Charles reached up faster than even Vidika could move and caught his wrists in an unyielding grasp of stone. His weight strove forward, unbalanced, when his attack was utterly halted in place with such surety that he almost dropped his swords as he fell back, his knees buckling and dropping him down before the statue of stone that regarded him where his father had stood only a moment before. That statue was adorned with silk and torn leather and a stain of blood glistened upon its breast. The stone rat's head dipped as Charlie fell to his knees, his wrists imprisoned by stone hands, a hurt expression chiseled upon his granite face.

“Son?” Charles asked in a rough hiss as, somewhere, a voice called out that the bout was ended. “What's wrong?”

Glowering up at his sire's stony visage Charlie spat a hiss. “I am not!” He snarled, twisting his arms trying to escape the unbreakable grasp or bring his swords down to strike that stone. “You have no right to call me that! None!” Pulling his arms in and leaning back he twisted his wrists, despite the pain, against his stony sire's thumbs. For a moment in his fury he feared that would not work either, but then Charles relaxed his grip and leverage at last prevailed where brute strength had failed. He twisted his wrists free though the effort sent zings of numbing pain shooting up his arms and he dropped his swords. “You gave me away! You sold me, I am not your son! I'm nothing more to you than... a goat to trade! And... and for what? A ghost? A dead son?” He pushed himself back to his feet. “You gave up that right when you bartered me away for a ghost!”

Ignoring the dropped blades or the pained expression working its way across the visage of the statue on the tourney field Charlie stalked away. Such was his fury that all who witnessed his approach, peasant and noble and guard alike, stepped out of his way when he left the field. Maysin took only one tentative step toward him before even she, still saddled and eager to carry him wheresoever he willed, lowered her head and kept clear of his path. Feeling the accusatory eyes of dozens – nay hundreds – upon him Charlie turned rather than continue on toward his pavilion and made his way into the service areas beneath the High Box where none dared brace him.

Save one.

Malger found him within minutes.

Beneath the High Box Steward Thalberg had arranged a room dug into the cool earth to house supplies of wine and food for the Ducal families and visiting dignitaries such as the Vysehrad king as well as preparation rooms with their own ovens, vents, and even a few narrow windows where the cooks could watch the tourneys between courses. It was there that Sigismund spent part of his day at his father's side dutifully learning all he must if he was to one day serve as chief steward to Bryn. There were always a few Keepers there to make sure the latest course of delicacies was being prepared.

Not so with the storage room for the wine and foodstuffs. Within the earth chilled and windowless confines of wine and dry food rack, hanging slabs of fresh or dried meat and wheels of wax-sealed cheeses a single wan witchlight hung in a simple glass lantern offering dim light. Charlie found a dark corner in which he could crouch and fume where the light did not shine. He furiously gnawed at his chewstick hoping for some measure of control over his rage, a rage that spilled from frothing fury to bitter weeping moment to moment, but he had no solace in those few minutes of silence and solitude.

A shaft of light swept across the earthen floor as the door from the makeshift kitchen opened. The light reached nearly to the tip of his tail, but even as a shadow filled the frame of light, he stayed where he was, claws gripping his chewstick, incisors paused but ready to gnaw again should he be left alone.

But the eyes and nose of Keepers, even in the midst of the craze of a festival, were always too good. Through the doorway stepped an irate and indignant marten, one paw clasping his feathered hat to keep it from tangling in cobwebs as he maneuvered around a shelf of cheese and bread. His shadowed eyes found Charlie within seconds. “There you are. What in the hells was all that about, Charlie?” His voice was an indignant, furious growl but it kept low considering the service staff beyond the cellar no doubt keenly aware of an angry father and son now sequestered within. His serious tone held a forbidding weight in its tenor animal growl; a father's weight. One arm waved back behind him toward the field, toward the injured rat-turned-to-stone that he had left behind and the scrutiny of the crowds left to ponder what had occurred. Rumor and speculation was probably already fast spreading through all of the spectators, from commoner to noble; none of it flattering of course.

Charlie bristled at the tone and nearly snapped his chewstick in half with his hands. “You promised, Father. You promised you would talk with him but you didn't.” The slender rod creaked and cracked as he wrung it between his strong rodent paws.

“What are you...” Malger blinked with a scowl upon his muzzle, his voice trailing off for a moment. “Baron Matthias? Is that what this...” His expression for a moment grew distant and then became suddenly colder than the meat hanging from hooks in the deepest shadow. His voice, already cold, now growled in its deepest register, a fury bridled for eavesdropping ears but no less threatening. “Tell me you didn't go back into the Baron's dreams. Tell me you didn't force him to relive them.”

“I did!” Charlie lurched up from the floor to brace his father eye-to-eye though he did not step from the shadows that embraced him. “And I saw what he did! I saw why I'm a Sutt now. He deserved what happened on that field! He deserves worse!” Charlie found his voice rising in octaves, and his arms trembling so much that he dropped the chewstick. The clatter of its falling was lost behind angry words and hastened breaths.

Malger took a deep breath and shook his head. “Charlie, my son, you should not have done that. You should have listened to me.” His voice lost the harsh growl of fury only to be replaced by a sour sigh, his whiskers flattened back against his angular muzzle and the short round curves of his ears lost in the immaculately groomed fur of his head as they laid back.

“You promised to speak with him! You never did!” Charlie stretched one arm out and waved his hand around as if he were swatting flies. Behind him his tail lashed, thumping against the stout wooden pillars framing the cellar and rising up to support the High Box above. “You both lied about the real reason I'm a Sutt all these years! He sold me to Nocturna, to you, for a ghost!” He stabbed a finger in the direction of the tournament field where he had left his startled, injured sire standing as a statue. “I am no longer his flesh and blood, no longer his son!” Dropping his arm he looked to his feet where the fallen chewstick lay upon the hard-packed earthen floor. “I never was.”

“Charlie...” Malger's grip on the rim of his hat tightened, claws digging into the soft felt. “Calm yourself. What have I taught you? What you did out there... you humiliated your sire, a friend and ally to your own – our – House!” Malger touched the fine, dexterous fingers of one hand to his own breast as he spoke earnestly, but still with the weight of a father irate. “You shamed yourself, your mother, and me in front of the Duke and a visiting King! Be grateful no one could hear whatever it was you screamed at your sire; although now I think I can guess.” He took a step closer in the cellar storage and his whiskers bristled along either side of his muzzle. Sharp, predatory teeth gleamed from the dark fur of his muzzle behind his lips. “One of the most important lessons I taught you from an early age was how careful we must be when we influence the dreams of others; rashness and overtness can draw the attention of shadows and daedric monsters. You put yourself and your sire in great danger. And for what, to see something you don't understand!”

“So explain it to me, Father!” Charlie snapped, sneering the last word more than he meant to. He could feel an inward rebuke from the tightening of his father's eyes. “Explain to me why Baron Matthias would be selling his eldest son to Nocturna in exchange for a ghost!” And then, in a cooler voice, though no less pregnant with anger, he added, “And why you were witness to this.” His accusatory finger came up short of poking his father in the breast as the two stood a mere arm's length apart.

“He did no such thing. You only came to be a Sutt after the journey to Sondeshara and only after much contemplation and after your talent had manifested itself. They gave you to my care because they loved you and knew you would be better off as a Sutt. But every moment your sire has had with you since that day has been filled to overflowing with happiness for him – until today. And I know you love him still or you would not be so angry with him.”

I do not!” Charlie seethed at his father's words, each of which pricked him more deeply than any thrust of the sword Vidika had ever taught him a lesson with. “If he didn't sell me, then why did Nocturna herself appear in the dream to relive that moment? Why did she demand my soul in exchange for my brother's? I know it happened; I saw it twice! And I know you know what I'm talking about. I saw it in your eyes when I first mentioned it after you returned home and I can see it now. Tell me, father!”

Malger took a deep breath and very slowly began to nod. “All right, Charlie. Aye, you saw something that did happen. But you do not understand the whole of it.” He held up a hand when Charlie's muzzle opened to demand he explain. “Aye, I will explain it to you. But not here where the servants will hear. These are secrets buried deep and they must remain that way. Do you understand?”

Charlie scowled but nodded, doing his best to hold back his anger and pain so long as it meant he would receive the answers he demanded; answers owed him. “Where do you want to go?”

“The Blue Note. It will be quiet now, and the servants there know better than to listen in on my dealings.”

“I suppose you want me to apologize to everyone else first?” Charlie groused; he felt no apology in him, but again, if that is what his father demanded in exchange for answers...

“You should, and mark my words you will, but for now we'll let that wait. Charles was being taken back to the Keep the last I saw, likely to see Coe or one of the other healers to tend to the injury you left him. I'll tell Versyd where I'm going and he'll let your mother know we're all right; in a little while.”

Charlie dug his claws into his chewstick and stepped out of the shadow to follow his father, giving the wooden planks at his side another whack with his tail for good measure.


Malger did as he promised, whispering quickly in the percheron's ears before secreting Charlie out from underneath the High Box. They quickly wound through the pavilions being careful not to be noticed by any of the other noble houses, and steering very clear of both their pavilion and the Matthias pavilion. Malger even doffed his feathered hat with his steed to by one article reduce his foppish appearance and keep him from being recognized. Charlie found the subterfuge irritating, and dug his incisors into the wood, casting his eyes about in hopes to see someone to stymie with a withering glare.

But Malger led them successfully back into Keeptowne proper without running into anyone they knew. The streets were full of revelers, merchants, musicians, magicians, dancers, acrobats and brawlers. Around these they slipped quietly and unobtrusively. No one stopped them or stared after them as there were far more interesting things to watch, admire, and cheer.

They reached the Blue Note within a candlemark and after a few quick words with the shopkeeper, were ushered into a back room with no windows and only two doors. The second led to an alley and an eight foot drop which made it a convenient quick exit to avoid pursuit, an artifact of days when a less a savory class of Keepers had operated the establishment. Charlie had used it a few times mostly to see if he could; his most recent experience had been last Summer when he'd tried landing in Maysin's saddle. A bruised ear and tail, muddy clothes, and a zebra's nasal laugh had been the end of that fiasco.

Malger demurred the offer of food in favor of inviting Charlie to sit in one of the softly cushioned chairs. They both accepted the offer of a light drink that swiftly followed, and a few minutes later they both sat opposite each other around a small table in the squat chamber lit only with the lanterns brought by the shopkeeper and hanging on either side of the main door. The marten rolled his mazer back and forth in his paws and lifted the spout to his muzzle. After a short swallow he wiped the froth off on his sleeve and sighed. “That dream... that nightmare you saw of an exchange took place sixteen years ago. You and your brothers had just celebrated your first birthday.”

A smile traced the edges of his father's snout. “I had met you for the first time during the plague. Your mother – the Lady Kimberly, you, and your siblings were staying in Long House during the quarantine that closed the Keep, allowing none to enter nor leave, while your sire was still at Glen Avery. I'm told he threatened to climb the walls of Euper to get to you all before he was convinced to stay away. I kept hidden most of the time myself, but after hearing the worst of the danger was passed I tended to various errands of my own. One of them brought me to Long House; Misha did not want to let me in but I had a letter from the Duke and so I was permitted entrance.” He chuffed a laugh and shook his head. “I don't even remember what the letter was for anymore. I was still trying to establish my role at Metamor at the time. But while there I saw your mother and you four. I stopped and watched you climbing all over the balustrades, scampering, crawling, and aye, squeaking with an energy and enthusiasm to tire even the stoutest and most formidable Long Scout. And you had a few of them giving you chase! I knew seeing you and your siblings at play that I could never again wish to live anywhere but Metamor.”

Charlie sipped his ale but the warmth and textured brew did nothing to assuage his anger. He could still see the stony countenance of his sire bearing down on him, basalt scar and glimmering ebony eye bearing feigned innocence, daring to ask without hint of responsibility, why the child he had rejected would in turn reject him. His father's cheerful reminisce only made his whiskers twitch; yet again his father was obfuscating the truth behind a storytellers' veneer.

“What of the dream?” He prompted.

“I am coming to that,” Malger said, holding out one finger to bid his son wait. “I did not see you or your family again for almost two months. A week later your sire took you all back to Glen Avery and my pursuits kept me in the Keep.” Charlie snorted, having a rather unpleasant idea about what those pursuits might be. “But in early May I decided to take a journey to the Glen to visit my friend and one-time traveling companion Murikeer. That is when your sire approached me with a harrowing request. That is when the bargain you saw in his nightmares took place.”

Charlie took a deep breath and listened to his father's voice lilt with the weaving of the tale. The fire of the young rat's mysteries roiled in his veins.



Thursday, May 10, 708 CR


The storms had passed days ago but they had left all of the roads a muddy ruin that only a few days of sunshine could harden them enough that Malger felt he could travel once again. Even so the sodden earth was puddled in the wagon ruts and roads were left a sucking mire of taffy-thick mud that pulled at the horses' hooves and slowed the carriage to an inching crawl. Affairs at Metamor were proceeding slowly but surely; soon he would need to begin hiring staff to support his house and intended responsibilities and frivolities. There would at first likely be far more of the latter than the former, but in time Duke Thomas would recognize his sincerity and trust him as a committed ally in the fight to protect Metamor and the Northern Midlands. Their enemies to the north had been broken for a time, but their enemies to the south now multiplied. The finesse of diplomacy, the armament of foreign allies, and the battalion of wealth were now required to confront these menaces in addition to the might of Metamor's armies.

And those were all assets that Malger offered with aplomb.

But as the pine marten garbed gaily with bright colors in an overabundance of silks reclined in a cushioned carriage he'd bought the week before, he felt only gratitude that Thomas had not yet asked anything grand of him. This visit to Glen Avery was purely a source of pleasure. The last time he had journeyed to the northwestern forests of the valley he had been introduced to a wild, young skunk with a gift for magical illusion. He never would have guessed what bonds of friendship would be forged in the two years since, through sorrow, strife, triumph, and joy. His friendship with Murikeer – and also Elvmere – meant more to him than all the income he received from Sutthaivasse. And that was a considerable sum indeed!

He chuckled, a low churr deep in his throat that made his slender whiskers tremble. He had returned to the land of his disgraced family, restored both its dignity and position in Western Pyralis, forged alliances and trade agreements with Whales, Metamor, Breckaris, and Tournemire, and revitalized its national spirit with a stirring naval victory against implacable odds, all without succumbing to his tyrannical fathers' legacy. And in return for this he was bequeathed a seasonal inheritance due his name and rank whose sole intent was to keep him off the ducal throne and away from his city! Affairs in Sutthaivasse would always be his concern and more spies would be needed to keep the ruling families in line – he already planned a personal visit later in the year – but he felt reasonably confident that in time a worthy successor would finally emerge and he could wash his hands of all such affairs entirely.

In the meantime he had his income to invest and profits to reap from those investments. He was not going to trust his continued livelihood or lifestyle to the political whims of squabbling noble houses hundreds of leagues away. Even this visit to Glen Avery to spend time with his friend would be an opportunity to secure his house. His eye would be ever watchful.

Nor were his the only eyes. Across from him reclined the fox lady Misanthe. Her garb was suggestive because of her shape but in good quality and taste befitting a servant of a noble house. She watched out the window of the carriage with an animal intensity, ears erect, golden eyes flitting from one thing to another, noting and cataloging each as they passed. Malger saw only the massive redwood trees out his window, as well as the knight Sir Egland who with his squire Intoran had offered to accompany them as escort; if there was anything more that caught the fox's interest, he could not see it. He found his eyes settling upon her in calm regard unnoticed, for the moment. She had saved his life, not once but twice and perhaps more, and brought him back to his Goddess in so doing, only to become his body servant. Such a lowly role, Malger mused, for one who had done so much to affect his life; yet it was a role she had been born, raised, and trained into and seemed to prefer so he deferred to her wont.

At the very least, Malger mused, she had decided to be humanesque in shape for this little journey. At Metamor she was more often than not in the guise of a feral fox, darting about his legs and slinking off to who knew where to spy and tend to errands of her own invention. As useful as that could be, Malger preferred her this way. She was far more pleasant to look at in this guise and Malger was quite happy to admire.

A change in the the stately pace of Egland's charger made both their heads turn toward the elk knight. Egland bobbed his head and growing antlers still coated in velvet. “We've reached Glen Avery, your grace. The main clearing is just ahead. The Inn waits at the other end.”

“Thank you, Sir Egland,” Malger replied smoothly and with a smile, his animalistic teeth gleaming as his whiskers lifted in good cheer. Privately Egland always called him by name, but where others could hear he gave deference to his nobility. Egland professed it a matter of respect and love, one meant to inspire and foster respect for Malger in those who did not know him as well. Malger would cure him of that case of honorifics in time, but for now he allowed his friend and fellow musician to indulge himself in whatever titles he delighted to offer.

Misanthe leaned forward toward the window and angled her snout upward for a moment before leaning back and shaking that head. “I have never seen trees so tall or so large.”

“I am told the massive forests of Sonngefilde have such trees, and of course the mysterious Åelfwood is rife with them, but I have seen neither. This little sampling is more than impressive enough. Besides, it is much harder to find the comforts of life when lost in the woods!”

To that she said nothing. Her eyes continued to wander and study as they passed into a wide clearing. The sound of curious voices and the susurrus of village life surrounded them on all sides. Malger stretched his legs and sinuous back as the carriage rattled over bumps in the clearing.

The Mountain Hearth Inn was at the western edge of the clearing up a rise of rock so that it overlooked the Glen. The accommodations were comfortable if plain and the staff friendly and competent. Murikeer had repaired a heated stone cistern for them two years ago and now had a permanent room to call his own. While Sir Egland and the staff tended his things, he could easily check to see if that skunk were about.

The carriage came to a stop at the base of the short incline up to the front of the Inn. Its stone and wood edifice burnished with flickering lamps in the windows even in the midday light giving it a welcoming and warm facade. Malger climbed out of the carriage and stretched again, Misanthe quick on his heels. A quartet of horse Keepers rushed down the incline to help unload the carriage.

Malger turned to the burly bison with a long-stemmed pipe clenched between his dark thick lips sitting atop the buckboard at the front of his carriage. He was securing the reins about a post and steadying his cloven hooves on the wooden step down when he caught the marten's eye. “Thank you for the smooth ride, Master Hesgebaern. Your reputation as a caravan master did not deceive.”

“I am at your service, your grace,” the bison replied in a slow, almost bellowing, basso rumble. His shaggy appearance and almost hunched posture made him appear more advanced in years though in truth he was only older than Malger by a single turning of the seasons. Should he provide as smooth and as competent care for the horses and Malger's goods on the return to Metamor, Malger would see to it that the bison had a permanent place in his household.

“See to the horses and make sure all of my things are brought to my chambers in the Inn. I will cover your meal and drink, but do not be too adventurous with the cups as I may ask you to ready the carriage to leave at any time.”

The bison grinned a flat-toothed smile around the stem of his pipe and scratched with one hand at the little horns curled atop his scraggly mane. “That's mighty generous, your grace. Thank you. I will see it done.”

Sir Egland and Intoran busied themselves with keeping curious Glenners from approaching too closely. Malger was surprised that he had not yet been welcomed by the Baron or even by his two adolescent sons, but doubtless they were tending to their own duties and would come when they learned of the marten's arrival.

Malger turned toward the Mountain Hearth and started up the hard-packed earth when a powerful equine voice arrested him with a snort. “Your grace, a moment?” He turned and saw that one of the Glen horses, a percheron, was gesturing at the pair of regular horses drawing their carriage.

“What is it, young man?” Malger asked as he could see in this horse the touches of adolescence still. He was perhaps Intoran's age, maybe a year older at most. Judging by his loose-fitting attire he was probably one of the polygamites, a group of equine Keepers who worked and lived together at the Glen as much in the guise of regular horses as they did in more human shape.

“Your horses are old and of lesser quality. A noble of station such as yourself should have horses to suit.”

Hesgebaern appeared rather affronted by the comment, fumbling to keep his pipe in his mouth as he tended to his duties. But Malger found the fellow's bold, forward manner rather endearing. “And do you happen to know of any horses of such quality?”

The percheron nodded his regal head slowly, thick lips drawing back in a smile. “Aye, milord.” His smile only widened further, his gaze briefly shifting aside to one of his fellows who carried a heavy trunk from the carriage upon his shoulder as easily as one might a single faggot of kindling. “We are, milord.” The youth tapped his broad chest with one hand.

Malger suspected he wanted to say 'I' rather than 'we' but let it pass. “What do they call you?”

“Versyd, milord.”

“Well, Versyd, I am rather busy at present but perhaps tomorrow we shall see if your boasts have merit! Take my things to the quarters Master Jurmas shall prepare for me as soon as he knows I am here! Misanthe?”

Malger chuckled wryly to himself all the way up the path to the Inn. Misanthe followed a step behind as they climbed. Wildflowers dotted grassy embankments amidst the rock leading up to a cache of herb gardens flanking the front of the Mountain Hearth, providing a dash of yellow and pink to the otherwise masculine edifice of dark timber and weather-hewn granite. Intoran vaulted up the hillside with a heavy clomp of hooves and reached the doors first. Malger smiled in thanks to his friend and stepped into the warm interior of the aptly named Inn.

The main room featured half-a-dozen tables for patrons to recline and share a meal at the end of the day. Rarely was the Inn so populated but many Glenners enjoyed a bite here or at Lars' down beneath the rock. Polishing one table with a cloth while cradling a spotted fawn in his other arm was the Inn's owner, Jurmas the deer. Like Egland he too sported velvet covered antlers, though his were not nearly as impressive as the elk's. He smiled and with a flick of a large ear batted his daughter's arm away from the side of his face for a brief respite from her curious explorations.

“Good afternoon and welcome to the Mountain Hearth Inn. Milord Malger, Sir Egland, you are both welcome here. Shall I prepare you rooms?”

“Three rooms,” Malger replied. “Adjoining and of your highest quality if they be available. Sir Egland, his squire Intoran, my driver Hesgebaern, my aide Misanthe, and I shall be staying here a few days. All of their expenses are my responsibility. Please treat them as you would treat me.”

Jurmas's cervine muzzle brightened with delight. His daughter stretched out a three-fingered hand and grabbed at the black velvet of his nose thwarting his pleased expression for a moment. He twisted his head again and laughed, “Of course, of course! I will have rooms prepared immediately with fresh linens for the beds and faggots for the hearths. Two have views of the commons if that suits your desire.”

“Those will do,” Malger replied with a grin as Versyd and the other three horses entered carrying his gear beneath their arms or upon their shoulders. Intoran slipped back out the door to help Sir Egland with their steeds and Hesgebaern with the carriage. “Tell me, is there anything prepared to eat? I am famished after my journey from Metamor. And also, where might I find Master Murikeer?”

“Master Murikeer is here in one of my storerooms giving Lady Kimberly and Kozaithy a lesson in magecraft. He should be done in an hour; he usually is.” The fawn managed to snag his lower lip and yank downward with a gurgling laugh. A surprised bleat escaped his throat, before he reached up and gently dislodged his daughter's painful grip. He worked his jaws for a moment, unable to do aught but smile. Misanthe watched the little fawn with a warmth and softness Malger did not often see in her eyes. “As for food I do have something prepared, it will only take a few minutes to be sure it is warm enough and I will have some brought out to you and your retinue.”

Malger swept over to one of the lacquered tables with a view of all the exits and gave a dramatic flourish as he sat down. “And a glass of your finest wine to wash the dust of the road from my parched throat, good man!” He waved an arm toward his retinue which at the moment was just Misanthe and the horses but all were meant. “As well my staff and those aiding our arrival.”

Jurmas nodded and then bleated anew as his lip was once more imprisoned between a fawn's fingers.



Egland, Intoran, and Hesgebaern were still tending to their duties outside while Misanthe was arranging his things when from out of one of the hallways at the rear of the common room came a lady rat. She was pleasantly garbed in a light blue skirt with an amethyst medallion riddled with an intricate tracery of crimson resting against her bodice. She smiled politely and with surprise on seeing him. “Milord Malger, forgive me, I did not expect to see you here.” She curtsied when Malger stood to offer a bow of greetings.

“I enjoy surprising friends and everyone else from time to time. An advantage of my rather unique position I intend to indulge. How did your magic lesson go?”

Kimberly blinked once, a paw rising to her chest to cover the stone as she cast a backward glance down the hallway at something Malger could not see. “I am learning how to do many simple things for my family. I will never be a mage like Master Murikeer.”

“Few of us ever will. Any flame you light, any breeze you stir, is more than I could ever hope to do. So, how is your family? The last time I saw you there was a quartet of scampering joy dancing a whirlwind about you and any who dared come near you!”

Kimberly's smile was stronger now as she moved away from the hallway and cast a quick glance at the hearth's main door. “Baerle watches them while I am here. They are not growing as fast as they first did, for which I am grateful. I confess I hope that they are napping when I return home, but either way I cannot bear to be apart from them for long.”

Malger chuckled and bobbed his head in a regal nod, sweeping one arm and the hat he held in his hand toward the door. “Then I will not keep you from them any longer. Good day, milady.”

Kimberly slipped quietly from the common room while Malger walked down the hallway she had just come from. Knowing where he was heading was a simple affair; a pool of bright light spilled from some place further down the stone passageway quite in contrast to the wan guttering of a single torch near the entry. After only a short walk down one flight of steps, he came upon a storeroom lit with several witchlights. Reclining on boxes of foodstuffs were too familiar skunks. “I don't see any scorch marks or destruction. How can you say you were practicing magic here!”

Murikeer snapped his head up and smiled. “Malger! What a pleasant surprise. Come in. We were just finished.”

Kozaithy stood and smiled broadly, lush white tail dancing behind her head; in the glow of the witchlights she seemed to glimmer like pristine midwinter snow in the unblemished sunshine of the midday. “Master Malger. It is good to see you again.”

“And you, Kozaithy,” Malger stepped into the room and nudged the door shut with a paw. “If I didn't know better I would say that you have been a Keeper all your life.”

“Thanks to Metamor, and the both of you, I and my people still have our lives.”

“Perhaps later,” Malger suggested with a wry grin, “we can share drinks and make a toast to our fortuitous meeting. To Aghen! May it rot!”

“Hear hear!” Murikeer agreed with a bob of his head. “It is good to see you Malger. What brings you out to Glen Avery? The life of a dilettante boring you already?”

“To visit you, my friend. I understand that you have come into a home here and I am very interested in seeing your plans for it. And the life of a dilettante is not what I ever wanted although I am grateful I have that choice. No, I am learning my ways here now with the encumbrance of a title as weighty as Archduke. There are many ways to both enjoy the title, and the wealth and prestige it brings, and to put it to good use. I intend to return the name of Sutt to respect and admiration, not the fear and loathing as my father left of it.

“But aye, I am here to visit a friend whose company I find I miss. And perhaps to even discuss plans for stealing Elvmere from the temple for a day or two. That raccoon needs air and the company of his friends.”

Murikeer flicked his tail to one side and the witchlights above bounced a few feet in the same direction. “You are a royal of higher rank than even Duke Thomas. You could make a request of his presence and it would be done.”

“Aye, I might be able to do that,” Malger admitted with a frown. “But I respect Elvmere too much to order him to do anything, as I do you! Besides, I fear the Lothanasa will school me on exactly how much authority I have when it comes to her acolytes.” He added with a low chuckle upon consideration of the lupine head of the Lightbringer order in Metamor.

Murikeer chuckled as well with a nod. “Aye, wisdom my friend. There are few in all the Midlands who would brook her ire. Elvmere would not disobey her. And the Lothanasa is loathe to let him leave for fear of what others will think when they learn who he is – or, rather, was. But perhaps we might devise a way.”

“Indeed. But first, let us go and have that toast together, and then you may show me this marvelous edifice you intend to make your home here.” Stepping back to the door he drew it open and stepped aside with a bow, as a servant might any higher caste for whom they were holding the door in a manner quite unsuitable for one of his rank. Kozaithy smiled and offered a passing genuflection and, with a parting flick of her tail, banished the witchlights as one. Malger heard Murikeer snort humorously in the sudden gloom lent by the single torch at the top of the passageway. “She learns quickly, my friend.” He commented to the skunk mage's passing shadow.

“You cannot imagine just how,” Murikeer commented drily.



Despite a lifetime of wandering the ever changing and incorporeal world of dreams, Malger was still surprised at how the landscape appeared to him when his eyes finally closed on the waking world. Always familiar was his point of entry for it was his own body, his own anchor into Nocturna's realm. But what lay beyond it depended not only on where he had chosen to sleep, but also on who slept near him, but more on whose dreams pressed close by. He found no trace of that wily fox Misanthe waiting for him on the other side; doubtless she was still awake lurking beneath his bed as a true fox ready to raise an alarm should any come to harm him. Similarly, he did not see any sign of Sir Egland, nor hear the beautiful melody of his viola amidst the spiraling roots and branches that cocooned his vision.

But for those he could see, each dreamer had a place within their mind that was never far from whatever setting the dream offered for them. To Malger's perceptions the dreams were subdued, the colors washed out and gray as if locked in a perpetual twilight under a full moon though to the dreamer they may have seemed as fully colorful and bright as a morning in the sunshine. Poor Hesgebaern appeared to be righting the observation of ignobility impugned upon his horses as he dreamt of a fallow field strewn with winter-stirred rock and muddy earth through which Versyd struggled to pull a dull plowshare. Intoran dreamt of the warmth of a hearthfire and armory as he lovingly worked to bring the armor of the Knight for whom he served as squire into blinding brightness.

Lord Avery was wrought in treaties and politicking, listening to croaking, gurgling complaints of the amphibian Barnhardt concerning a parcel of land that the squirrel was deeding to the scar-faced rat, Charles, who had recently been titled as Knight and, now, would become one of the minor landed nobility of the Northern Midlands. The put upon squirrel could not seem to escape from the salamander no matter how he scampered through the increasingly complex boughs of dream trees. The dream offered Malger no insight as to where the squirrel lord was in the waking world but, as his dreams were easily found, he was not geographically distant.

Malger visited their dreams, laughed brightly at the frivolity of each, and then ventured to explore through other dreams. Transitioning from one to the next, for him, was always made in the intricate corridors of the Cathedral of Night, Nocturna's dreamscape home that he had, himself, built for her within his mind based loosely upon the Aelven architecture of the Lightbringer cathedral in Silvassa. No doubt all of her worshipers, those who could Dream as he could, created their own environs for her. She was, most likely, attending to the needs of her faithful as she had not drawn him to her as he wandered the corridors from Hall to Hall, from dream into dream.

As Malger wandered amidst that somnolent Cathedral, he felt something he did not normally feel brush across his shoulders and ears. Stepping from the corridor into another great, cavernously arching hall, Malger beheld a towering thick-trunked tree. He craned his head back but could not espy the crest of the forest sentinel in the gables far, far above. A wind, it felt; cold and alien like the eyes of a shadow beholding him. It was so subtle at first he did not notice it, but as he neared a rather large tree that towered above with lush branches and circumscribed by a vast entwining vine with purple flowers, he felt the wind pushing at his back, drawing him into the maw of roots. Curious, and not a little bit unsettled, Malger proceeded directly toward that hole in the base of the roots.

As an awakened Dreamer, one who could walk Nocturna's dream realm fully aware of themselves and where they were, Malger had been mantled with the task of its defense. She could not guard the entirety of the shadowy realm between wakefulness and death to ward every dreamer, so it was to the Dreamers she turned to protect those who slept from creatures that had no life within the waking world but fearsome potency within the dreams. Some, many, were spat up from the lower hells through the cracks and pits invariably created with the ever-shifting potentials of magic, life, and death. Such were often directionless shades that were drawn to the potency of the life of dreamers, to hunt and consume their sleeping spirits, eventually darkening their minds and dragging them into a shadowy hell whenever they slept until they invariably sought their own ending. Others, however, were spun from the very thoughts of the dreamers during times of the highest emotional release. Terror and grief were the most powerful ground from which such shadows arose, though unspeakable joy often fostered similar entities that scattered away into the dreams of others in proximity. Each touched those nearby dreams, and dreamers, with their light or shadow but often did not exist beyond the dream that spawned them.

But under that dream tree there was something else; something dark and brooding that drew at Malger's senses like a lodestone. Something within the shadows was aware of his presence, his regard, and it regarded him in turn. It was a vast nameless thing beckoning him inward, a pit which could never be filled ravenous for more. A sword gleamed in Malger's hand, its keen silver length shining vibrantly while all else remained washed out and gray. Coming to the hollow, cavernous black pit boring between the roots of the tree Malger reached out to brace his hand against the ancient wood and leaned close, peering into the dark.

Dread filled him as he peered into the depths which no light, not even the sheen of his blade, could pierce. A menacing growl, as of a great cat defending its lair, but deeper and more immediate shivered through the bark against which his hand and feet braced themselves. Malger angled his sword forward, steeling himself against the living nightmare before him. The darkness of the pit extended beyond the limits of vision or sense, a breach to infinity that could not be encompassed, and the likes of which he had never before borne witness.

A shifting, a sense, turned his head slightly and he caught the merest flicker of motion behind him. It was small, ephemeral, but irresistibly present and Malger spun away from both darkness and the unfocused presence to bear his sword. But it was gone, the flitting thing that somehow warned him away, and when he turned back the tree was featureless and unblemished.

The tree was naught but a tree, fading slowly into the unsettled memory of whomever had dreamt it into existence, and all too soon was gone. Malger cast about, sword in hand, but could not find the dreamer, nor recall that unsettling and fearsome darkness.



Friday, May 11, 708 CR


“Archduke Malger dae ross Sutt,” a chittering voice announced with verve and aplomb. “Welcome once again to Glen Avery! I humbly apologize that I was not here yesterday to extend my welcome.”

Malger, who had been enjoying a relatively quiet meal of eggs, sausages, and bread with a strawberry jam between his two much larger friends enjoying plates of bread and roughage more suitable to their mostly herbivorous palate, looked up from his table to see a well-dressed gray squirrel surrounded by a trio of warriors crossing the Mountain Hearth common room. He recognized the badger Angus but he did not know either the deer or the skunk at the squirrel's side.

“Baron Brian Avery, no need to apologize! I am here to enjoy myself, not to cause any political uproar. Besides, the last time I visited you thought me a mere minstrel!”

Baron Avery stopped when he reached the other side of the table, his cheeks puffed with a playful grin only a squirrel could manage. “A minstrel we may have thought you, but there was nothing mere about you! Your reputation has always been very colorful, your grace!” The squirrel's eyes flicked to the crescent medallion on Malger's chest with a bit of unease, but he gave no other sign of it.

“Colorful? After all the work I have put into spreading my fame that is the only word that comes to mind? Please, sit, all of you and join us. Master Jurmas, a meal for my friends!”

Even as Avery and the others sat down on the bench opposite Malger, Egland, and Intoran, the squirrel could not help but offer an objection. “This is my home, your grace. It is I who should be offering you a feast.”

“Then perhaps I am here to cause a political uproar!” Malger challenged around a bit of sausage. He grinned wide after swallowing.

Avery laughed and shook his head. “You are incorrigible and gracious. Very well I accept. Thank you, your grace.”

“Malger, please, or else we will be twisting our tongues in knots navigating endless titles.”

“Then just Brian as well,” the squirrel replied with a firm smile. “Angus you know. This is Alldis my chief hunter,” he gestured to the deer and then to the skunk, “and Berchem, my chief archer.”

“I am honored to make your acquaintance. Now, Angus, how fare your trainees these days? Are any more in need of different lessons?”

The badger guffawed and slapped the table with a meaty paw making their plates and cups jump. Wide-eyed, Intoran grabbed his mug before it tipped over and spilled juice across his lap. “Oh, nay, nay, nothing as bad as those Lorland folk. The men of Bradanes are made of sterner stuff and don't need me to tell them what sort of blades best fits their new bodies. Although if you are interested in a bout I assure you we will have an audience! I would welcome it.”

“Perhaps this afternoon,” Malger replied with a grin. With only a practice blade the badger had kept Malger's twin swords at bay for longer than he'd ever expected; and in the end they had ended up killing each other to the wonder of the trainees who had come from Lorland hoping for a better life in the Glen. That day they had learned that they each had to find the weapon best suited to their Curse-shaped bodies, and to do that, they first had to stand up to the always intimidating Angus. “It would be my pleasure to cross blades with you again.”

“I understand you are here to visit your old friend, Murikeer Khunnas. Tell me, what did you think of the land and home I gave to our reclusive mage?”

Dabbing his whiskers with a napkin Malger chuffed a soft laugh, raising a furry brow. “I have but seen it only in brief, so what I might think of it – beyond vine covered destitution of a once proud villa – I could not forthrightly say. Murikeer has asked that I meet him there today, however.” He grinned with a flash of bright teeth and a glint of dark eyes. “I would wager he imagines my patronage in its restoration, or at the very least a hand in décor.”

Brian's ears twitched and he tilted his head curiously, unsure if the once-minstrel was piqued or amused by his friend's request. “I understand him to be a capable hand at illusions, so décor would be a simple task.”

“Ahh, that he is.” Malger sipped his wine while Jurmas deftly cleared the table before him. “One day I will have to regale you with how his illusions served me for the better part of a year. But,” he held up a cautioning finger theatrically, “the illusion of a chair fit for a king is nothing if it masks one so aged and rotten it shatters the moment your posterior comes to rest.”

Brian nodded and smiled brightly as he pushed back his chair and stood. “With mages one can never be sure if what they see is truly what they are looking upon.” With a bow and a swing of one arm, and a flourish that only his newfound – by a decade – tail could offer the baron stepped back. “As with minstrels, yes? I have duties that are most impatient, even to one entertaining such august guests, so I should depart. I am pleased at your return and look forward to you joining us for an evening meal at some point during your stay?”

Malger merely nodded in return to the bow as he rose and offered his hand. “As with magic and minstrels indeed, my friend. I hope to accept your offer, aye, soon. Fare you well, Brian.” Brian Avery grasped the marten's hand with a laugh and gave it a firm shake before turning to wander out with his worthies in train. Malger settled back into his seat and saw the squirrel stop to talk with another patron. It only took him a moment to recognize the broad-shouldered rat with the palm-shaped scar over one eye as the same one Malger had plucked from the soupy ruin of a decimated jungle following the final destruction of Marzac.

“Egland –” he glanced toward the elk only to pause when he saw the conversation between rat and squirrel come to conclusion and the rat's attention turn toward his table. From the rat's brief glance he read diffidence and momentary indecision set aside. Before he had even took the first step toward Malger's table the marten knew he intended to ask something of him. Perhaps Malger had the financial means to patron a manor house for his new fief?

Ahhh, politics, Malger thought as he stood with a smile. “Sir Charles! It is a great pleasure to see you again.” He pawed at the air with one hand to summon the diffident rat closer. “My congratulations on your investiture.” Albeit a relatively lowly title, but after almost a decade as nothing more than a commoner Malger was not about to gainsay even a minor title so recently granted.

Charles came closer to the table with more confidence at being greeted, smiling as he conversed with the Elk and Oryx. Malger looked on and listened to the friends touch base while he sipped his wine. Misanthe watched as well, drifting back just enough to be out of direct attention with the perfection of a trained servant; not close enough to be considered eavesdropping but not so far that she could not jump to provide for any whim of her patron.

“– it is something I can only mention when we are alone,” Charles explained to the knight and his squire with a diffident smile, unsure how his request would be received. Malger was achingly familiar with those words; such were also words of politesse often coming around to intrigues of person or state. Egland cast a brief glance toward him, catching Malger's eye, but the marten merely gave the most minor shakes of his head.

“I do not think we need fear Sir Charles bringing me to harm,” He reassured the knights, smiling brightly when Charles' attention shifted from them. “If you would care to follow me, Sir Charles, I will escort you somewhere that we can speak without bringing temptation to idle ears.” Reaching out to grasp Charles' shoulder he turned and, slipping his arm across the rat's shoulders, conspiratorially drew him close and turned toward the narrow stairs nearby. “My chambers are above at the rear, and offer a splendid view of the lake not far from here. Though I hazard that master Avery's home has a much better view.”

“Being in the treetops, I doubt he can see the ground save in winter, your grace,” Charles replied as Malger brought him around the table and ushered him toward the stairs. Misanthe had already disappeared up them, drifting off during Charles' request for privacy like a russet hued shadow. The rat's tail brushed Malger's front as they mounted the narrow stair which always gave Egland some problems, especially late in the season when his antlers had gained their full growth.

“I had not considered that,” Malger admitted. “I've never visited the Avery home, though I've been in a few treelimb bowers over the years.”

Charles lapsed into a contemplative silence as they made their way into the sumptuously appointed suite that was reserved for just such occasions; the visit of nobility. He invited Charles to take a seat and settled into one himself, reclining back to listen. Misanthe was somewhere in the room, he knew, once more secreting herself in her now natural vulpine form most likely beneath the very chair in which he sat. Ignoring her intrusion into the privacy Charles had asked for he listened to the rat's small talk.

Something's gnawing at him, Malger thought as the conversation began to circle, as such conversations always did, to the true point at their heart. Without much prompting he brought Charles to tighten that timorous circling while, in his breast, a sense of unease began to gnaw at Malger's heart. “I still do not know what you want of me,” He prompted carefully, sensing what pit lay at the center of the rat's inward spiraling discourse. The mention of his wife's grief, pain, and memory of her lost son's last moments left a tightness in Malger's gut that had nothing to do with the gruesome description of that death. That she would turn to the Temple and the pantheon in the last hours spoke volumes of her horror and anguish. How close, Malger thought to himself, had she trod toward the shadows or even the darkness in desperation for her son's life?

Far, far too close, but not nearly so close as the scar-faced rat was now stepping.

“I have lost my son without ever once being able to say goodbye to him,” Charles said toward the clasped hands in his lap, whiskers adroop and ears backed. “And there is no way that I can without aid.” Slowly his gaze came up, dark and earnest with rodentine hope. “That is where you can help me, Malger.” No 'your grace', despite the burdensome weight of his petition; man to man, not station to station.

And the thought of it left Malger hollow to the core with dread. What he had done, once, came at such a steep price he did not know if he could ever do it again and live.

“No, Charles,” Malger shook his head slowly, the expression on his musteline muzzle horror-stricken, “I cannot help you. You do not even know what it is you are asking of me.”

Charles leaned forward, hands clenching in his lap. “You are a servant of Nocturna,” The rat's fingers flickered toward the polished silver crescent hanging upon the breast of Malger's finely tailored shirt. “You have ways that are mysterious and hidden from men! Even learned men, those who walk in the light of their gods and wield the powers of the world as a smith a hammer!”

Malger nodded slowly, his whiskers drooping as he looked down. Abruptly he leaned forward and stood, too frought with concern to keep still. “I can walk in dream, aye, and I have striven far too little to maintain that secrecy. I can send omens, lighten the horror of nightmares, such things as that,” he explained as he paced from hearth to balcony and back in agitation. “Perhaps, I can help your Lady ameliorate the pain of that grief, for it is truly the sharpest of blades and cuts the deepest. But that is all.” He cut the air with one hand, outstretched fingers pointing toward Charles when his hand snapped to stillness. “I cannot bring the dead back to life!”

The rat shook his head vehemently, leaning forward in his chair and gazing up at the distraught nobleman. “That is not what I am asking you to do. And what I am asking you to do... I know that you can do.” His ears pinned forward as he tried to convey the import of his desire. “You've done it before, for Murikeer.” Malger felt the revelation cut through him like the blade of a knife fashioned of glacial ice. He sagged back against the foot of the bed. “He told me about what you did for him, bringing Llyn's soul back for one moment in a dream so that the wounds struck in the moments before her death could be healed.” Charles stood slowly to face the marten, once minstrel, now lord, but all the while a walker of dreams and toucher of souls. Malger, despite the confident out mein drilled into him for decades, shrank back from the dark-eyed gaze of the rat. “I am asking of you the same thing! Bring my son back for just one dream. Bring him back so that I might say good-bye!” Charles dropped his hands, which had come up as if to grasp Malger's shoulders but were held in abeyance, his gaze faltering and then shifting to one side. His ears twitched as if at some sound Malger could not hear. “And offer my wife a token showing that he is truly well and protected by Eli. That he no longer knows the pain that she saw him suffer.” His gaze came back up, though softened from its earlier frenetic entreaty. “This one thing will heal the wounds in our family, so that we can move on from this grief, and be the better parents our children need, and deserve.”

Malger opened his muzzle, paused, closed it and chewed his lower lip. He took a long breath and let it out slowly to steady himself. Much better to face an assassin's blade than a friend's need. “You are asking for more than you know, Charles,” he explained slowly, pacing once again, tail lashing behind him in agitation. “What was done for Murikeer... there was a price for that. It was a gift from me because...” He paused and looked back at the rat. “I loved Llyn as well, and wished to tender my farewell to her as much as Murikeer. I did not expect what would come of my request.” He shook his head and laced his fingers behind his back, looking toward the hearth. “I cannot do the same for you. There will be a price that you and Kimberly must pay to enter the dreams, and another to pay if you wish to see this ghost of your Ladero.” He looked back over his shoulder to hold Charles' gaze levelly. “Something I cannot promise will happen. I cannot even promise that a price can be paid for this! It is... not up to me. Bringing Llyn back nearly brought the southern lands to war, again, at the return of nothing more than my Name! Assassins would have had my head on a pike, and nearly did but for the efforts of that fox.” He cut a hand toward the chair under which Misanthe still hid, despite having been observed in her secrecy.

Charles wrung his hands and stood, unmoving, while Malger paced the room like a cornered animal. “You've done it once. Why not a second time?”

“It is complicated. I do not even know what Nocturna did to bring Llyn's soul back! But,” Malger held up a staying hand when Charles' muzzle opened to speak. “I will ask,” he said after a moment with a sigh. “I can see the pain this has caused you, and I can only imagine the pain that has been left to your wife who bore witness to it. Or your pupil who tried, and failed, to hold that life together.” He turned from the hearth to face Charles squarely. “Can you wait until tomorrow to learn whether or not this is even possible?”

Charles took a long breath and held it a moment to steady the jangling of his nerves before letting it out in a gust. “I can wait another day.” He breathed a sigh of relief. “I have already waited so many,” he continued after a moment, his ear twitching again at an unheard sound. He shook his head and heaved another steadying sigh. “It is an agony to me, but I will wait to hear your answer tomorrow. If it is a yes, if Nocturna agrees, what will we need to do?”

Malger nodded slowly, lips pursing briefly and angling his long whiskers forward. “I will need to bring you and Kimberly into the dream, to bring you before Nocturna to hear what price she will ask of you.” His eyes held Charles' gaze levelly and leaned forward slightly. “Charles, you do realize that it is Nocturna of whom you ask this favor? Not me, not Eli; Nocturna. I know that the Ecclesia forbids Followers such as you from having any rapport with Her, or any of the Pantheon light or dark.” Malger's gaze shifted from one rodentine eye to the other, fervently hoping that Charles would back down from his insane desire if his faith was thrown back at him.

But Charles merely steeled himself and nodded. “That is my choice,” he said without a moment's hesitation. “And for that reason, I ask you to keep this to yourselves.” His gaze dropped down toward the chair hiding the small vixen listening in. “Do not even tell my wife. Lady Kimberly, if she knew what I intended, would be heartbroken all the more if it failed.” Charles finally broke his stance and gazed at the window looking out on the lower boughs of the Glen's trees. “Whatever price must be paid, I shall pay it alone, and only I will stand before Nocturna to pay it. Only then will we bring my Lady to join us; only once the bargain has been set and successful.” Slowly he brought his gaze back, pausing as if some realization had only then occurred to him. “And, to bring us – me, into the –”

“Oh!” Malger huffed when the old rumors came to the fore once again. How little they knew. Raising one hand he held his fingers before the concerned rat's gaze. “Nay, I know your thoughts, and such measures are not the only path.” At the rat's relieved sigh Malger chuffed and shook his head. “But I promised that I will ask and so I shall.” Stepping forward he raised a hand and rested it upon Charles' shoulder, leaning close until they stood whisker to whisker. “I will convey your request in all of its particulars and will tell you the answer, and what must be done, tomorrow morning.” He dropped his hand back to his side and straightened his back, the weight of what the rat wished of him all but crushing his heart in worry and no little fear. He had not known what he was asking when he sought out Mosha on Murikeer's behalf. Now he knew that it was a goddess he would be approaching, and would not be her mortal Love when he did so, but merely a petitioner for a Heavenly boon. “Are there any other details I should know?”

Charles shook his head. “I only ask this because I see no other recourse to ease the wounds that we have suffered.”

Malger frowned with a sigh. “Charles, almost all families lose a child, often more than one, to sickness. They suffer their grief, they carry it, and they move on.” He turned and paced back to the foot of the bed to look at the mirror about the bureau, at the inhuman visage that looked back at him. “Few – none! – have this chance, Sir Charles. The cost asked of you may be more crippling than any wound you feel now. It may be a price you cannot pay.”

“There are many ways a payment can be made,” Charles assured him, the rat's visage looking at his back in the mirror. “I hope that we can find one suitable that will not be as fearsome as – what you may fear.” The rat took a deep breath, his gaze shifting from Malger's back to the mirror and the minstrel-cum-nobleman's gaze therein. “That is my request, your grace. If I have your leave, I must see to my duties in the Narrows so that I might return home before the evening meal is served.”

Malger did not turn from his contemplation of the gaily clad stranger in the mirror who bartered men's souls for ghosts. “Of course. Go in peace, Sir Charles. May you and your family walk in paths of Light.” Charles stared at him in the mirror for a moment, his whiskers twitching, but he said nothing before bobbing his head and turning away. Malger listened to the click of his claws on the floor and the steps beyond until silence fell.

“He may lose his soul,” Misanthe observed from the chair into which she had jumped when the rat left. “What he asks is too much of you, Master.”

Still Malger did not turn at the bird-like piping of the small fox's voice. “That he might, Misanthe, that he might. My soul was already Her's... it fills me with dread what she might ask of him.”

“A costly price, Master.”

“Malger.” And still he did not turn.



Murikeer paused at the open doorway of his new – though very old – house and waved a billowing cloud of debris to go deposit itself somewhere other than the floor of the main hall. He had already long ago convinced the local vermin population that the forest was a more pleasant place to live and he was down to giving the place a thorough cleaning. Even with his considerable abilities with magic, which made the task of dozens feasible for only one skunk, it was slow going. Kozaithy helped out, though her acolyte level skills reduced her to making the multitudinous brass fittings shine.

The villa had been vacant since Nasoj's first attack almost a decade before when the entire family that had resided there fell during the early days of the siege. Lord Avery had given it to him not for payments of any services rendered, for Jurmas had seen to his comfortable residence in the Glen, but as a favor. Better to have a powerful mage, who could work with more than just trees, a pleasant ride away rather than half a day to Metamor seeking aid and another half day to return.

The thunder of hooves approaching at a gallop made him pause in his efforts. When his ears revealed that the course of those pounding hooves would bear the galloping animal into the courtyard before his house Murikeer faded a pace back into the shadows. He felt Kozaithy slightly behind him a few moments later when she, too, heard the approaching hooves. His tail brushed her hip and they stood silently, waiting.

Along the southern shore of the small lake just south of the Glen, through gaps in the trees, they caught the occasional flash of a white beast making its way at a gallop down the overgrown wagon track that led from Glen Avery to the house. Within moments that white beast revealed itself to be a muscular Percheron charging through a gap in the undergrowth, a brightly clad rider hunkered low over its back. Drawing up smoothly without the slightest mishap on the smooth, tight seamed flagstones of the courtyard the horse came to a swift, easy halt. The rider, seated astride the beast using only a stirrup strap and no saddle whatsoever, gave the animal's muscular neck a slap before dropping down with the ease borne of a trained rider.

“Splendid run, Versyd, splendid indeed! I've not sat a horse in many years who could carry me at such a pace without tenderizing the inside of my thighs like a butcher!”

Tossing his head the horse snorted and pranced sideways, hardly blowing hard for the distance they had heard him running.

“Malger, welcome.” Murikeer stepped from the shadows of his doorway. “Versyd, don't take the praise too high – you sounded like an avalanche approaching.”

The marten, clad in a spare but nonetheless fancily tailored shirt and trews of vibrant scarlet, laughed warmly and swatted the stallion's neck once more. “An avalanche as smooth at a gallop as a pleasure boat on a becalmed lake,” he assured with a wave of his free hand toward the unblemished flat plane of Spring Lake – so called because of the Glen tradition of cracking the ice on the first day of Spring – stretching northward from the edge of Murikeer's lawn. One wing of the house stretched down to the shore and even out over the water a short distance in the form of a boat house. In winter the walls of the extension were below the surface of the water and would prevent it from freezing within so they would always have access to fresh water and, ostensibly, fish. “Take a walk, Versyd. Get a drink and relax, I shan't go far.” With a bob of his head Versyd turned and trotted toward the water. Malger brushed imaginary road dust from his shirt and gazed at the front of the skunks' sprawling abode. “Rather looks like you've got quite a task before you, Muri my boy.”

“Quite,” Murikeer chuckled. “I've cleared away a good bit of brush since your last brief visit so now you can see just how surprisingly... expansive the building is. There are a few second floor residences; it sprawls out rather than stands tall, like a tired hound long past his prime but, in the same mien, is as comfortable.” With a wave of his hand he invited Malger to step into the cooler shadows within. “I'll have it freshly thatched by the end of the season and, with luck, next year I will be able to begin furnishing and living within.” Kozaithy left the two men to chat and wandered deeper into the house, her white pelt and pale dress glowing in the shadowy gloom before she disappeared through a thick-beamed doorway. There were no actual doors in the house, even the front, all of them having been removed or rotted away along with the shutters. That was how, it seemed, half of the forest had decided to take up residence there over the past decade. Steeply pitched gables climbed above them now bereft of cooing birds and scampering rodents though with more than a few holes through which sunlight lanced.

Murikeer showed him through the dusty, dimly lit, multitudinous rooms of the mansion-sized house. At some point in its past it had actually been the manor house of a small community though the community had long since relocated to Barnhardt or the Glen proper with the rest killed in the vile days before Three Gates, but the smaller residences had all, if not torn down by Lutins, succumbed to the encroaching forest. They engaged in idle conversation about Murikeer's plans for the place; initially as a home but in the future perhaps a place for him to teach others to wield their innate abilities as he did. Just as he was teaching the Lady Matthias and Kozaithy.

“Your ideas are bold, Muri,” Malger observed as they stepped from the further wing of the house from the shore. Looking back he was surprised to find that they stood on the side of a hill somewhat higher even than the tall, steep pitched roof extending out over the lake. “Perhaps you seek my... approval?” He twitched a brow sidelong at his young friend as they approached the mouth of a cave. Marks in the stone showed that it had been worked by the hands of men at some point in the past to enlarge and smooth the entry. “Charles – Sir Matthias, now – was similarly ebullient about his new demesne.”

Murikeer paused to look back as Malger did, staring out over the lake and surrounding forest. Down below they spied Kozaithy talking Versyd, now humanoid and clad in a voluminous, drab robe like some wandering monk, into moving a massive limb that she and Murikeer could not lift. “Sir Matthias has an entire fief to oversee, Malger. All I've got is this villa and a hundred acres or so of forest. I don't foresee myself having more than my household.”

“What, you're not looking for a patron to help you erect a towering spire for mages to gawp at for a few centuries?”

Murikeer cast a glance at him from his good eye. “After being locked up in one, would you even approve of such construction?”

Malger shook his head, “Not likely! Besides, you've got your tower at the Keep.”

“Kyia's tower, mind you. She merely let me maintain a residence there.”

“Ahhh, the spirit of Metamor. I've only seen her the once, during the dedication of the Name Stone after Nasoj's last attack.” Malger turned to watch Versyd shoulder the huge limb at Kozaithy's direction and, carefully, shamble toward a heap of discards on a small muddy spit of land jutting into the lake. “Speaking of that,” he looked sidelong at the young skunk at his side, “Charles mentioned Llyn. Or, rather, what I did for you, during your convalescence.”

“What You – I –” Murikeer scowled briefly, not comprehending, and then reached up to touch the eyepatch over the empty socket of his left eye. “Bringing her soul back?”

“Just that.”

“Oh,” Murikeer frowned with a droop of his white whiskers.

“Why'd you tell him?”

“I – ahh, I was not thinking that it was a taboo.”

Malger turned to face his young friend more directly, dropping a hand upon his shoulder. “Muri, what I did for you was – is – not something that I can just do, willy nilly. It has a cost, and a steep one at that,” he admonished, though gently. “I would much rather it be kept a secret, between you and me and Nocturna.”

“Your vixen knows, too.”

“She walks the dreams as I do, at Nocturna's grace. But, please, let us not mention it to others?”

Murikeer scowled and nodded, resting his fingers upon his brow in consternation. “I'm sorry, Malger. I blurted it out in a moment of pique. Charles' pupil, Garigan, was speaking ill of you and I sought to correct him.”

“So Garigan, too, knows?”

Murikeer winced and nodded. “And anyone else who may have overheard our argument about you. Well, more about that guild of yours, in truth.”

It was Malger's turn to wince and he nodded. “Aye, a rather sharp edged regret of my early... explorations, upon becoming something other than human. I have retaken the reigns, there, and will be bringing them to heel in due course.”

“Be that as it may, my slip was done by mistake. I shan't let it happen again.”

“Thank you.” He gave Murikeer's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “Let us go save my mount before your – pupil – finds him a boulder to carry.” Malger's whiskers twitched and Murikeer caught the knowing gleam in the marten's gaze before he could say anything. With a chuff he could only laugh, but in the back of his mind a thought nagged.

Why would Charles bring up the brief resurrection of Llyn's soul to Malger, anyway?



Malger walked the halls of the Temple quietly, his hands clasped at the small of his back and his thoughts purposely emptied. He could hear the plaintive cries of the dreams around him, as well the soft sighs of pleasure and laughter of glee, but it was the need and fear that cut through his hearing the most keenly. At his side walked a tall, willowy female gazelle dressed in a flowing gown of the thinnest gossamer silk. Nothing was truly hidden by the gauzy, voluminous material but nothing was forthrightly visible, either. Her hooves clicked softly in time with the muted clicks of his claws upon the smooth stone floor.

“You are pensive, Malger,” the gazelle observed quietly at his side, her gaze forward but, somehow, her attention focused solely upon him.

“I am troubled.” Malger nodded slowly. At his side, brushing his leg, silver glistened brightly as the sole color in an otherwise colorless realm. Yet it shone with no true hue but the suggestion thereof, as if a single trill from its gleaming length could illuminate the twilight shadows like a new risen sun.

“Someone asked something of you,” she continued in the same voice, but the scrutiny of her regard sharpened. The click and clop of claw and hoof did not change their pace.

“Aye, and that is what troubles me.”

“I told you one would.”

At last Malger came to a stop and turned his head to gaze up at the taller woman's limpid regard. “You... you did, aye. Long ago.” He frowned with a drop of his whiskers and ears. “As you always do.” He sighed and shook his head. “I cannot do as they asked.”

“You must.”

“Mosha, love, you asked too much of me when I asked before!” He protested.

“I ask nothing of you, my love, but to bring the petitioner before me, as he asked.” Raising her hand she rested delicate fingers against his musteline lips. Malger noted, with some inward surprise somewhere else in his tumultuous thoughts, that she had not shown herself as a fox since Misanthe came into his house, and dreams. “As I foretold.” Her smile was warm, completely bereft of the doomful presence others felt when they happened to come before her presence in any aspect. Only Malger, and Misanthe, saw her thus – as a living, vulnerable soul alone in the vastness of a haunted realm. “Before, you came for yourself. Now, another comes for themselves. You are their messenger, and guide. It is they who will bargain, and a needful bargain it must be.”


“For many, my love. Another will ask, in time, a question you know well. Why.”

“Whom?” Malger asked heavily. Sometimes her portents were as frightening as her ominous aspect. “How will I know when that question is the 'Why' I am listening for?”

“You will, love, worry not. But such is for, as ever, the future and not the contemplations of the Now.”


“Yes. He must come to me. You must bring him. The fate of more than his soul is in the balance.”

“Then I shall.”

“Good, good.” The gazelle, whom Malger called by one name but others knew by another, smiled and bobbed her head. Nocturna, mistress of dreams, smiled down upon the mortal salve for her aeons long anguish and made a request of him that he knew well. “Have you music for me, love? Have you a dance?”

“I have both, as ever.” Malger stepped back to proffer a deep genuflection with a flourish of both arms and tail as he grasped his flute.



Saturday, May 12, 708 CR


Malger woke to a gentle but insistent rapping at his chamber door. His senses expanded outward from his slumber swiftly, taking in the distant clatter of restive birds and mute squeal of swine to learn that it was approaching dawn. Those who awakened early to begin their days were just rousing. Unfortunately Malger was not in keeping with the labor routines of the peasantry over the last couple of years and it only made him twitch his whiskers in irritation. Who could possibly be disturbing his slumber at so early an hour?

Misanthe jumped onto his bed and in a soft whisper hissed into his ear, “There is a rat at your door.”

Rat, dawn inquiry... Matthias.

Of course. “Bid him wait a moment while I properly attire myself.” Grudgingly Malger yawned and cracked his eyes open, met only by the muted glow of a single taper lit in a sconce near the door. Misanthe was a small vulpine shadow perched near his head, bright eyes gleaming even in the wan light. Turning, she dropped from the bed and pattered across the room, swiftly growing to her full height. The marten's eye could not help but admire her lithe form covered in a bright red coat of fur not even the wan light could diminish. He had never, in his many years since being cursed from man to marten, been a tenth so comfortable with his feral, truly animalistic form as she was. And she could speak in that form as well, a surprisingly rare talent Malger had only seen among some of the avian cursed. As he admired, she laid her snout against door and spoke softly; a moment later the rapping ceased.

He blinked the last of the sleep from his eye and stretched, one hand drawing away the quilts that had warmed him through the night. Misanthe brought him the ornate breeks he had worn the night previous while shrugging into a robe provided her a reasonable degree of modesty. Once he had cinched the belt about his waist he sat back against the edge of the bed and rolled his hand with a yawning smile. Misanthe's shadow filled the room as she crossed to the door, occluding the sconce, and drew back the bolt. In the shadows of the corridor beyond stood the broad shouldered, stocky form of the rat whose request determined the fate of 'more souls than his own' … a portent that left Malger disquieted.

Sir Charles Matthias was dressed in riding gear with a serious expression on his snout. His eyes narrowed in the candle gloom though they found the marten immediately. “Good morning. I am sorry to disturb your slumber, but I am meeting Garigan to ride out to the Narrows with the dawn.” He paused, clutching the front of his traveling cloak in his hands and wringing it. Malger was not surprised to hear the stout material protest noisily. “Do you have an answer for me?”

Malger nodded and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with their pads. “Ah, Sir Charles.” Raiding his free hand he beckoned the rat to enter. Holding the door Misanthe stepped aside once more allowing the candle's light to fill the room. “Good morning to you as well. Come, come.” Charles stepped into the room and Misanthe pushed the door closed, though she did not shoot the bolt. For a moment she stood there at the door, head turned slightly. Meeting Malger's gaze she shook her head, ever so slightly; they were not being listened in upon.

Charles entered no further than the pair of salon chairs in the center of the room, his tail agitatedly twitching behind him. “Do you have an answer for me?” He asked in a low rumbling hiss of desperate entreaty. His patience hung upon the gossamer strand of a spider's web, too easily broken, Malger knew; and it would take all too little for it to snap.

Slowly Malger nodded, leveling his brown gaze across the room to meet the rat's own dark-eyed stare. “Aye, Charles, I have your answer. Nocturna has heard my entreaty, and accepted.” Charles rocked back on his heels, a great breath whistling into his lungs. “I will bring you into the Dream tonight to make your bargain with Nocturna.”

A relieved smile crossed the rat's features, his eyes glancing heavenward while his round ears backed in relief. His entire body seemed to lose half of the tension grasping it tight; but not all of it. There was more there, but Malger was unsure what other concerns may weigh upon the petitioner. Perhaps simple things, life as a knight, a husband, a father. He hoped such concerns would not hamper the Dream. A long sigh escaped Charles' throat, and one of his ears turned as if hearing something. “Thank you, Malger. I know you wish to keep what you can do a secret. On my honor, for the remainder of my days, I will – I have even not, to this dawn – utter a whisper of it to any, even those who do know.”

Malger waved a dismissive hand and rolled his shoulders. “The past is unalterable, but I trust your words. I know that there are places of seclusion in the Glen where we may work; it is best that none see you come to my chambers and remain for a protracted length of time behind closed doors.” A wan smile crossed Malger's lips.

“Lars has caverns he uses for storage beneath his brewery,” the rat offered and Malger nodded. He was familiar with them from times spent in the Glen under a former name, not so long ago.

“And Lady Kimberly?” He asked.

“She should not be disturbed unless necessary. Perhaps a portent in her dreams is all she needs. Let us find out what sort of bargain can be struck, what price will be asked, and then I will decide what is best.”

“The price will be steep,” Malger cautioned as he worked his jaw to tighten the sleep-slackened muscles. “Perhaps too steep.”

The rat shrugged. “I am grateful for your concern, Malger, but I will be the judge of the price. Tonight then, in the caves?”

“I will see to the arrangements,” Malger assured him. “Now if there is nothing more you may go. I have duties of my own to tend. The Light be with you and your family, Charles.”

“And with you.” The rat nodded both to the marten and then to the fox before disappearing silently down the hall. Malger stared at the empty doorway for a moment before shaking his head and waving for it to be shut.

Misanthe eased the door closed and secured the bolt quietly. “He... risks his very soul.” The vixen observed in barely a whisper, turning from the door. “He wears the Yew, the Pantheon is...”

“Heretical,” Malger nodded as he stood and adjusted the belt about his breeks more comfortably before shaking out his fur. “But what he has asked, and what I have agreed to in Her name, is between Charles, Nocturna, and Eli.” Rolling his shoulders he shrugged and yawned hugely. “As Nocturna told me last night; I am merely the messenger and his guide. The fate of his soul is his own.” Fetching his surcoat from the bureau he shrugged it on without bothering to properly tuck it into his breeks.

“What do you wish to do today, master?” Misanthe asked quietly, waiting while he dressed. He seldom asked for or needed help with his garments, save on those occasions he was going to be fully ostentatious, which was often. In the relative roughness of the Glen he chose a much more utilitarian, but no less exorbitant, raiment. He paused a moment and looked up through the lashes of one upraised brow until Misanthe blinked and backed her ears. “Sorry. Malger?”

He smiled and gave the hem of his surcoat a tug. “First, see if the lady of the house has a meal to warm our bellies. Hopefully the mistress hedgehog has the first pastries of the day soon arriving.” Standing from the bed he stepped over to the patiently waiting servant and rested his hands upon her shoulders. He had to tip his head down to look at her, for she stood quite considerably shorter than he, and smiled. “Though firstly you should adorn yourself with more than a mere robe.” He plucked at the neckline of her simple garment to accentuate the point. “Unless you want to pad along at my heels all the day.”

Misanthe's ears backed and she dipped an ever-so-brief curtsy before slipping from beneath his paws to her own sachet of clothing. “I mind it not, ma... Malger.” He would break her of that annoying title, he knew, but a lifetime of training was not easily banished.

“Ahh, but you are a much more fetching trophy on my arm than pet at my heel, Misanthe.” He leaned against the bedpost while she dressed. Despite her current station as Malger's sole bond-servant he was adamant that she wear the proper clothes of a Lady and not the mean shift of an attendant; that slowed her dressing noticeably. “Once we have broken our fast, and the sun has cast the sky a proper blue, we'll seek out the bruin brewmeister and talk trade, and caverns.” Helping her tighten the laces of her corset Malger smiled; she was a fetching young woman for a fox. “Then I suppose I should find Versyd for one more ride to Master Muri's villa.”



Versyd was more than enthusiastic at the opportunity to prove his quality as a mount. He reared and galloped with a fiery gait, managing the long winding path from the Glen commons, down the narrow wagon trail to the lake, and through the overgrown path that meandered about the shore toward Murikeer's villa in the far southwest. The wagon track from the Glen was lost around a bend in the lake, but in the distance they could see a single boat plying the waters in search of a catch of fish.

Malger, despite his distraction, could not help but be impressed with Versyd's stature, gait, and comfort. He would not have suspected a Keeper would be so eager to serve in such a capacity, mount for a rider, but the idea of an intelligent horse who could become a man and fight at his side began to appeal to him. He would make the stout fellow an offer of employment when they returned to the Glen.

He dismounted as Versyd pawed the earth and snorted his pride. Malger patted him on the neck. “Wonderful! I think you brought me here even faster than yesterday.”

The white-furred skunk Kozaithy greeted him from the front entrance to the villa. “Malger! Welcome back! It is good to see you again. And you as well, Versyd.” She stepped over and petted the horse on his snout. Versyd snorted playfully and pawed the ground, warm eyes savoring the attention.

“It is always good to see such loveliness. It brightens all of our days.” Malger churred as he sketched a deep genuflection, doffing his feathered cap with a flourish of one arm and his bushy tail. Behind him Versyd snorted at his frippery. “Where might I find your... ahh, prey, milady?” The marten asked as he straightened.

She laughed at the flattery and her eyes gleamed at his pointed observation, her lush tail whisking amiably side to side behind her. “Muri is exploring an old library on the second floor. Just remember to walk on the left side of the stairs.”

Malger thanked her again and then entered the villa. The advice was well put because the stairs to the second floor were caved in on the right side and several of the boards looked particularly rotten there as well. He tread lightly and, apart from some worrisome groaning which accompanied setting his foot to each step, was able to ascend without incident.

The library was not hard to find as he only had to follow the trail of cleared dust. Murikeer had used his magic to sweep all of the cobwebs, dust, and mildew from a decade of neglect into a pile in one corner of the room. Shelves filled each wall outlining half a dozen tall, deep set casement windows that had long ago lost their glass to time and the elements. Whatever had once adorned the shelves of pale hardwood had likewise been lost; either removed or to expose, rot, and vermin. His young friend stared with one good eye at the empty shelves with a determined glint, one hand couched under his chin in thought. The first light coming over the mountains streamed in through the eastern side of the chamber to grace it with a surprising illumination.

“Good morning to you, Muri,” Malger smiled at the room. It was easily as impressive as any library he had seen in southern manors, though a far cry from Metamor's mind-boggling vastness. “I'm sure you'll have those shelves filled in no time.”

Muri turned his head slightly to glance over at his visitor. “Malger, greetings.” He smiled and offered a hand as Malger neared. The two shared a companionable handshake. “Aye, I knew it was you climbing the stairs. Come in, come in!”

The stairs up which Malger had climbed, ever so carefully, ascended through the center of the chamber near one end of the building's main length. Above their head dusty thatch was losing its battle against the elements and added even more light through numerous holes. Muri showed him around, though he need not have moved, guiding Malger around weak points in the floor where moisture had established a beach head. In one corner a slim dogwood tree even grew toward the light of a shattered window. “I think I'll try to save that tree, right there where it is.”

“That's ambitious.” Malger raised a brow at the skunk's ideas. “As it grows it will damage the floor further, or collapse through.”

Murikeer chuckled and waggled his fingers. “That is what a few simple runes are for, my noble friend! Stronger floors, and trees that don't grow quite so huge. And should it prove more challenging than my runes can contest there is a woodpecker in yon Glen very capable and conversant with magics to mold wood, guide trees, and preserve both!” He paused at the window to glance outside. The water glistened with a light riffle in the morning brightness. “But it is not my home, or library, that brings you a'visiting again so soon, is it?”

“As much as I enjoy hearing of your plans for your new home – and I certainly intend to help you realize those plans – there is another matter I must discuss with you.”

Murikeer nodded and his jaws fixed in a grimace. “It is Sir Matthias isn't it? He asked you to do for him what you did for me.”

“How did you know?”

“He lost his youngest child, the one gifted as he was with the mysterious powers of the Sondeck.” Murikeer's gaze roved out the window once more, following a heron as it glided across the lake. “His misery is well-known. And with our worries about Marzac's corruption, it made sense that this might be the way.” The heron gone from sight Murikeer turned to look at his visitor again, hands clasped behind his back. “I am ashamed that I have in some small way brought this thought to him. I assume you have refused his request?”

“I am going to fulfill it.”

Now was Murikeer's turn to blink in surprise, his tail bushing voluminously. “What? Why?” he rasped.

“My lady insists. But... I am afraid for him as well. There is something very wrong here that I cannot put into words. I am here to ask for your help.”

“What would you have me do?”

“Tonight, late tonight, I will meet with Charles in one of the caves beneath Lars' brewery. The bruin has already agreed to allow me the use of one of his cellars – no, he knows not what it will be used for but he is not one to turn a noble's coin away. I want you there to watch, unobserved, in case something untoward happens.”

Murikeer nodded. “Of course, I will help. Tonight? That does not leave me much time to prepare but I will do what I can. When will Charles arrive?”

“I suspect after his family is safely asleep. He wants to do this in secret.”

“Another sign that Marzac may be guiding his thoughts and actions.” Murikeer flicked his tail and narrowed his eye. “I will arrive early and keep myself masked from all sight and scent. Will there by anyone else there?”

“Misanthe will be there to tend our bodies while we dream. She should be able to let you know what happens in the dream.”

Murikeer reached out one hand and grasped his shoulder. “Malger, please. Is there not some way you can stop this? This is Marzac you contend against, not a mere grieving father.” His gaze was dark and worried. “This is not a safe request. I have faced this darkness twice already, each time it is craftier, more... aware and ready to counter what we bring to bear, than before. I would wish to bring in my Master, for he has faced it with me and is far stronger than I. If only James were not on patrol! He has faced this thing himself and defeated it!”

Malger sighed and shook his head. “I wish I could, my friend.” He rested one hand on Murikeer's outstretched arm. “But my Lady demands it and I will not break my word to her. I will not deny her what she asks of me. If you can summon your master or any others who you think can help, I would welcome any aid they can provide as well, if this taint of Marzac is, indeed, manipulating his actions. But it must be tonight.”

The skunk peered at him for several seconds, his whole body tense. And then with a long sigh he let go his friend's wrist and lowered his snout. “I can see you mean to do it and there is nothing I can do to stop it. Very well, I will be there ere the fall of dusk to prepare. I will need some time to myself now. There is much I must do as I am sure there is much you must do as well.”

“Not so much, but aye. I shall meet you at the brewery ere the dusk.”



Lars' brewery, though accessed by most through doors set in the stone hillside where it could easily be disguised, did have a few outbuildings along the southern slope of rock where much of the actual process of brewing took place. The stench of the place left the whiskers curled and the nose burning but, due to careful design of the louvered vents in the shale roof, much of the overwhelming scent was wafted away downwind of the Glen. Ales, meads, and even a selection of wines were lovingly mashed, strained, reduced, and mixed before being casked and borne away into the caverns beneath the brewery. Some few were brewed in the caverns but only in a handful of rooms whose ventilation was beyond reproach. The rest of the caverns were kept for aging.

Murikeer was familiar with the complex mélange of aromas; he was also downwind of the Glen and could often catch the tantalizing scents in the early morning when the air was heavy with dew. Up close and among the tuns the bouquet left his eyes watering and his nasal passages burning so he hastened down the wide aisle toward the double doors in the wall at the far end of the outbuildings. Slipping through the heavy doors he pulled them closed behind, breathing a deep sigh of relief at the less pungent aromas pervading the caverns. The overwhelming scent of the brewing was held at bay and only the smell of aging lingered. Light was offered by a single lantern hung a short distance away and he wandered deeper into the storage cavern, past towering racks of barrels. Another lantern at the end of a second, narrower chamber led him further, until he finally came to the open door of an illuminated storage room. Two racks of small casks stood along one wall but, otherwise, the chamber was clear save for the items that Malger and Misanthe brought with them.

“Dusk is nearly on us,” the skunk said as he stepped through the open doorway. The stout oaken door was banded with iron and fit tightly into the stone aperture. Lanterns set on sconces on either side of the door, their thin smoke trailing into a crack in the rock that led above ground where none would notice. In this soft orange glow the monochromatic skunk took on a burnished appearance as if he were smelted from brass. Malger was alone, finishing up the preparations of the bedrolls and glanced up at Murikeer's arrival.

“So it would seem,” Malger replied as he swept one arm to invite his friend inside. “I usually sleep in finer accommodations than this, but it will suffice.”

Murikeer stepped inside and his eye noted the wooden supports along the interior walls and crossbeams giving extra strength to their roof. “I had hoped that Kozaithy would have returned with Rickkter before sunset, but I guess she could not find him. Or convince him of our need.” Another lantern dangled from the center of the crossbeams and its light shone faintly along each wall. The racks of aging liquor looked as if they had not been touched in several years, a patina of dust having accumulated upon them. But his gaze was drawn to the pair of pallets and quilts arranged in the middle of the floor and the small censer set near one end. “I have seen peasant cottages smaller than this.” Placed on the floor between the pallets was a single taper in a simple brass candle holder, though it was not yet lit.

“As have I,” Malger replied with a faint chuckle. “And I've slept in bedchambers four times as large!” His jocularity only elicited the faintest glimmers of a smile in his friend.

Murikeer peered into the corners of the room and then started walking along its edges, trailing one hand across the stone walls. “Where is Misanthe?”

“Securing a good hearty meal for the three of us. You missed her by moments. What are you doing?”

“Feeling the magic in the room. I need to know the best place to hide.”

Malger sniffed the air once the skunk's head turned toward the wall. Though the wax and incense stones both tickled his nose, and his own and Misanthe's musks were plain, there was no hint of the skunk. He marveled again at his companion's mastery over the senses. Maybe, just maybe, he hoped, this night would pass without the portent he feared.



“He's coming,” Misanthe announced. Murikeer stepped back against one corner and vanished from sight behind an illusory wall. Malger stood and stretched his legs, swallowing the last of the bock beer Lars had provided them. He wiped his jowls with the back of one arm and straightened his tunic. The faintest of claw clicks sounded along the cavern outside the door. Misanthe eased the door back and stood just behind it.

They waited.

Around the corner came the knight rat, dressed in comfortable tunic and breeches of an unremarkable brown that blended well with the night-time Glen. A black cloak was draped over one arm. The ruin of his scarred flesh burned in the golden embers of lamplight. His eyes scanned the room, noted Malger and the pallets with quilts and then took a deep breath. “Good evening, Malger. I am here. What must I do?”

“Step inside and lay down on one of the pallets. You will need some place to sleep if you are to enter the Dream. I will be beside you but there is no need for us to touch. Misanthe is here to watch over us as we sleep.”

Charles stepped through and turned to note the fox. “Will we need watching?”

“Both to ensure we are not disturbed and to wake us should something go wrong.”

The rat's whiskers twitched as if he'd been slapped. His voice took on a note of alarm. “Can things go wrong?”

Malger nodded, but lifted one hand to assure him. “They can, but it is very rare. Instead of fearing what might go wrong, take comfort that Misanthe will be here so that you will not take harm should something, however unlikely, go amiss.” He offered the rat a fang-filled smile and then gestured at the pallets. “Please, lie down and make yourself comfortable and we can begin.”

Charles paused as he crossed the room, scowling for a moment at the far wall as if vexed, but shook off whatever plucked at him and moved over to recline on the pallet, laying on his back and folding his hands over his stomach. Malger struck a flint and lit the taper while nodding to the fox. Misanthe pushed the door shut; the iron latch clicked into place with a heavy thunk. Leaning to each lantern she puffed out their flames with a soft breath. The room was plunged into darkness save for the single steady glow of the lone candle. Taking up a slender stem of incense Malger used the candle's flame to quicken the coals of the censer as well, but hooded their glow with a vented cap.

As the censer began to send thin tendrils of sweet and heady smoke into the air, Malger picked up his flute and blew across the opening, sounding an experimental tone. Even as he lowered the flute the note seemed to hang in the air, tremulous, like a will-o-the-wisp for the ears, slowly fading.

“Now, Charles, look to the flame and let your mind drift,” Malger intoned, his churring voice a smooth lyric baritone. “Listen to the melody I play and let your mind drift, but think of me as you drift; it matters not the thought, but that it will be a beacon that draws me to you within the Dream.” Charles stretched slowly upon the pallet, comfortably padded against the unyielding solidity of the rough-hewn stone floor. His dark eyes glimmered in the unwavering light, seeing the room and those within but not truly seeing, as his thoughts turned inward. “Let the flame lead to calm, the calm to its center,” Malger intoned in that low, lyrical voice like a father's lullaby shushing a child toward sleep. Almost before Malger even raised his flute once more he saw that Charles' breathing had slowed, his eyes drifted almost closed. His chest rose and fell with slow measured breaths to show he was alive, but that was all. His whiskers didn't even flick as the incense drifted over his sensitive nose. And all that before Malger had even begun his melody. The marten wasn't sure whether to be impressed or alarmed.

Malger raised the flute to his lips and began to trace out a slow, sinuous melody that ever turned back on itself. Curling upward and then downward, slow and methodical, almost as if it too were breathing in and out, Malger crafted his melody with precision. It was not a lullaby or some other sweet melody to comfort a child, but a seductive tune full of mystery and allure.

The rat's eyes remained open for a few minutes, but the combination of the flickering light, the hazy incense, and the slow, hypnotic melody of the lute drooped his eyelids and relaxed his frame. Malger continued to play, slowing the melody, and letting the notes drop in pitch with each iteration, until he was plumbing the lowest depths his instrument was capable of producing. By then, the rat's eyes were closed and he had fallen asleep.

Malger played for a minute more to be sure, then lowered the flute. His ears twitched when, even after taking the flute from his lips, the music continued in a far softer tone. He cast his eyes toward the illusory wall beyond which Murikeer hid, appreciating the assistance though he felt it superfluous. After decades perfecting the art of bringing people to a state of somnolence that allowed him a conduit to their inmost selves through the Dream he was confidant in his unaided skills. Silently he unfolded his legs, turned, and stretched out upon his own pallet, crossing his hands upon his breast. With a smile he turned his gaze toward Misanthe and nodded slowly. She nodded back, settling down between their heads with folded legs before closing her eyes. The tip of her tail brushed Charles' shoulder while the fingertips of one hand came to rest on Malger's shoulder. The marten took a deep breath, stilling the fear he felt gripping him, and closed his eyes. The incense, sweet and sharp in his nostrils, lifted his mind away from all concerns. Within moments he was not in the caves beneath Glen Avery.


The landscape was harsh; forbidding and desolate. Stunted, twisted trees clutched at the sky in agonized benediction as if wracked by some aeons-long torture between barren soil and icy, dry winds. Their branches rattled like old bones in the wind that rippled across the hilltop and tendrils of cloud whipped frenetically across a moonlit sky bereft of stars. Malger found Charles standing on a wandering path through the bracken that stood taller than they but was in no means anything greater than stunted shrubbery. Everything was cast in shades of monochrome gray and the pale white-blue of the moon save the gleaming silver flute at Malger's hip.

“What is this place, minstrel?” Charles asked with a scowl, clutching the black cloak that adorned his shoulders as if stricken by a frigid wind though none stirred its hem or the lace at the marten's wrists and throat.

“The Dream,” Malger offered with a smile. It was not the most forbidding of settings, and it was most certainly not what he expected, but it was Charles' dream after all. He would have preferred Nocturna's midnight temple but one did not force the Dream to suit their desires. Together they strode along the path finding no other passage through the twiggy, rattling bracken.

“Bright damn place,” Charles groused. The path wound up a steepening hill as they walked, switching back and forth upon itself like a drunken centipede counting its own toes.

“Night is the Dream, Charles. Perhaps I should have had you focus on something a little less...” He waved a hand toward a hilltop as they stepped from the encircling bracken and onto the moonlit crest, “dramatic?”

Two hundred paces across, the hilltop was bereft of any plant, though rough stone plinths towered from the earth like oarwood trunks. The ancient, weather-blurred stones stood in a circle around a huge flat slab of rock upon the very center of the hilltop. They cast not a single shadow though the moon hung, fat and ominous like a summer spider on her web, overhead. Charles gaped at the circle of towering stones that looked as if they had been brutally shorn from the earth and planted, madly, by a monstrous fist into the ground. The slab in the center was a pale silver so deep it seemed to drink in the moon's light, flat and etched with an intricate miniscule of runes so dense that there was no sense to be made of any of it.

“This is not my dream,” the rat hissed, his whiskers drooping and his tail wrapping about one of his legs.

“The petitioner defines not the venue.” A rattling croak filled the air sending Malger's hackles up, though neither of them could still their paws upon the path before them. Charles' shadow shifted and wavered under the moonlight as they passed between the standing stones and approached the slab in the center. From the hilltop opposite them darkness shimmered, formless and towering like a wraith, flowing through the air and around the stones like mist. Even Malger, accustomed to the visions of the Dream, felt his heart hammer within his breast and his tail tuck low. The black mist writhed into the semblance of a shape separated from them only by the width of the flat stone between them.

“You have come?” The raven queen towered over them, twice their height and breadth even without the mantle of black wings at her back. Gleaming blue eyes bored down upon them, merciless and severe, and black talons raked at the air as if the slab were a barrier between them. Charles fell back a pace, tail dropping and eyes wide, as he gazed upon the full majesty of an entity he had forsaken all belief, and trust, in long ago. There was simply not enough room in creation for one of Her, much less an entire Pantheon of them.

And, yet, before him she towered, black as night. Grinding his teeth Charles steeled himself and strode forward, stopping before the slab that stood between them, his shadow brushing against it with the moon at his back. “I have!” He called out as if to someone at a great distance, not removed by the span of a mere – if frighteningly long – arm's reach. “I seek one who has passed beyond!”

The raven queen rocked back, standing to her full height, her head dipped until her beak nearly touched the vague cleavage of feathers at her breast. “One who has passed beyond the veil of Night, beyond dreams.” One hand reached out, grasping the air between them with a shrill hiss of claw against claw. “Beyond my grasp.”

“But you know where he may be found!” The rat strove on, leaning forward as if buffeted by a headwind though his hooded cloak did not stir against any breeze. At his feet the rat's shadow slowly stretched with the passage of the moon across the heavens. Malger looked on, his role fulfilled, and awaited the outcome of their unsettling parlay.

“I do,” Nocturna croaked with a regal bow of her avian head, black eyes glinting like a crow spying a shiny thing in the sunlight. “You come before me, to seek, to ask of me a bequest?” Leaning forward, bending over the slab of the henge's altar stone until her beak hovered a whisker's length from Charles' nose, she asked, “You ask that I seek to find him?”

Though Charles' throat rose and fell quickly and his tail sought to strangle one of his legs, Charles did not back down, gazing up into those unwavering black orbs. “To bring him back, mistress!” He forced out, digging his fingers into his shirt while the shadow at his feet shifted and wavered, growing and shrinking with each cloud that scudded across the face of the moon. “I beg, please! Bring him back to me, that I may know him one last time.” Charles clutched himself with both arms as if he felt he might fly apart under her cold regard. “To say farewell, to know a father's love one last moment!”

“To bring him back from the Beyond place, from His grasp unto yours!” The raven queen's wings rose up and swept outward, occluding half of the henge in darkness wherein only her form was given definition, corvid gaze unwavering and cold. “A task of greatness you ask of me. The price of a soul is steep.”

“A soul lost can be found, mistress! I seek it, I understand the cost.”

“Do you?” The raven's croak boomed, rippling the darkness, flattening back the bracken with a snapping rattle of broken branches and banishing all clouds from the starless night sky. The moon gazed down upon all with solemn light and only Charles' shadow stretched away from his feet, beyond the towering stones and down the hill beyond. “He does not relinquish His claim lightly, seeker, even to one such as I.”

Charles' teeth ground against the sheer weight of her presence but he stood rooted, unwavering in his conviction. Malger could not help but be impressed by his fortitude. “Ask of me what you will!”

Abruptly the raven's wings dropped, snapping tight at her back, banishing the shadow of their breadth until, for a fleeting moment, she appeared almost matronly. One bird-slender arm reached out, the long curve of a talon coming to rest with the lightest prick beneath his chin. “Kneel, then, seeker.”


Leaning closer she cocked her head, bearing one eye upon him, her croaking voice deceptively soft. “Kneel. Swear faith unto Me.”

Leaning back so sharply he staggered a pace, Charles slapped at her arm as if burned by the merest touch. “No! My soul is given to Him, and only He can claim it!”

Rather than show affront at the sudden unwillingness of her petitioner the raven queen merely chuckled; a sound that filled Malger's heart with clutching dread. “The price of a soul is a soul in return, seeker.” Lacing the deadly talons of her fingers together over her stomach she tipped her head to stare down at him. “Have you one to offer, to ask such a boon, and yet be so unwilling to lay forth your own?”

Charles looked down at a weight in one arm and found something that captured his gaze and filled his eyes with surprise. Curious, Malger peered but could not discern the shape of the weight against his enfolding cloak. The rat stared into the crook of his arm for several seconds before finally lifting his gaze back to the raven queen.

“I do,” Charles intoned flatly after several long moments. Straightening his back and squaring his shoulders he shifted the burden in his arm and cradled it in his grasp gently. The raven's wings fanned outward again, more slowly, as if intrigued by his offering. Stepping up to the flat slab, an ancient altar of sacrifice, Charles knelt and carefully laid a sleeping child in swaddling upon the stone. “A soul for a soul in return, mistress. That is what I offer.”

“This cannot be!” Malger, upon seeing what Charles proffered upon the stone, gasped in horror. The raven did not even look up, merely extending a staying hand toward him, black talons gleaming. “Nocturna, no! He is not himself!” Malger strove against the force of that staying gesture but he was rooted, a mute witness, to the horror unfolding before him. Slowly Nocturna, the mistress of omens and nightmares, Goddess of the Dream, reached down her other hand. Black talons gleamed razor edges as her fingers opened and, with deceptive gentleness, came to rest upon the sleeping rat's breast.

“The bargain is struck.” The rattling croak of her raven's voice cracked like a thunderclap as her head turned to drop her gaze not toward Charles, who surrendered up his eldest for his lost, but to the tendril of shadow stretching away from the rat's paws. Only then did Malger notice, too, that the moon cast no shadows in the realm of Dreams; not stone, bracken, or cloud yet at the rat's feet darkness pooled like ink. “The exchange is agreed.” Her head snapped forward, the sharp edged tip of her beak slicing into the rim of Charles' ear.

But when her head drew back Charles was not there. In a flicker almost too fast for Malger's eyes to follow the shadow snapped back, engulfing the rat in darkness, and vanished like mist in a gale. Nocturna reeled back in surprise, wings and hands flaring wide. Upon the stone the child began to wail.



Tuesday, June 22, 724 Late Afternoon


“That's what I saw!” Charlie snapped, jumping to his feet. “That is exactly what I saw, Father!”

All during his father's tale of the visit to Glen Avery he'd felt a fiery agitation that made it difficult for him to keep still. All he could see was his sire's bewildered expression on the battlefield. And all he could hear were his sire's words, 'I offer you my eldest son for my youngest.'

“I know it is,” Malger replied, motioning for him to sit down. “Charlie, please, there is more you need to hear.”

“More? You said you were going to explain it. Now I know that Nocturna wanted me all this time! You knew something was wrong with my sire, and yet, you went along with it anyway. You've always taught me to be thoughtful in my actions. But what did each of you do there. It's insane; and it cost me.... it cost me...”

Charlie wanted to weep almost as much as he wanted to rip the table from the floor and smash it against the wall. Lacking the strength to do that he beat one fist on the table and closed his eyes tight to keep any tears from breaking free.

“Son, you heard what I said. Nocturna told me of this long ago. And she also told me that someday someone would come asking why. That was you. She knew how much it would hurt you, but that this was the only way. I love you. You are my son.”

Charlie felt the fierce prick of the knife at that first word: 'Son'. His sire had called him that on the field of battle as he hid behind the rat standard of his house. His sire who had no right to call him that after selling him for a ghost. Nocturna had purchased him and his father had gone along with it. That was the truth that had been revealed to him. The painful, awful, and pitiless truth.

He dug his claws into the table and trembled, trying to keep them from dragging through the wood and breaking. “Only because my sire gave me up. Only because...”

He turned and jumped from his seat with a barely contained scream. Malger shifted to try and grab him but the rat spun, his long tail slashing through the air to smack heavily into the wall. “Nay! Leave me alone!”

“But there's more to tell,” Malger insisted, his voice beckoning and pain in his eyes. He stood when Charlie stood, chairs grinding upon the floor. He backed toward the stairwell door when Charlie began to pace. “Charlie, listen! Nocturna didn't hold him to that terrible bargain.”

“Nay,” Charlie snarled, shaping a furious glare at him when his exit was balked by the marten's frame. Despite his training he knew there was no getting around his sire. “You! You were a part of this! You!”

Malger winced and reached out for his adoptive son but Charlie recoiled, retreating toward the far wall. “She did not take you from your sire! Your sire did not give you up that way.”

To his side was the alleyway door, and to that he turned, flinging it open to reveal the drop to the street below. His face burned with anger, and though tears wanted to burst forth he would not let them. “Leave. Me. Alone!” And with that he leaped out into the alley through the escape door, hit the ground eight feet below and rolled across the stones. Ignoring the fresh pains and bruises joining those from his earlier battles he put his claws beneath him and began to run. Charlie refused to look back. Before him he could see the towers of Metamor Keep. Toward them he ran, eager to fling himself into its depths and disappear.

Malger stood in the open door and stared after him, confused at where he had gone wrong in his retelling. Charlie had not let him finish, and now he feared that his son's ears were closed to him.



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