June 28, 708 CR
The burrows buzzed with frightened squeaks and cries bouncing from the limestone walls as townmice scampered in panic, marshaling soldiers toward the surface tunnels while the women and pups scrounged for a safe place to hide together. Father Felsah had been enjoying a steaming cup of coffee with Mahmoud at the cafe when the alarm bells clanged. Seconds later he hopped like a fool pup over heads and ears toward the church in the middle of the Follower district.
A compliment of soldiers rushed through one of the larger avenues, curved swords bouncing against their backs, round shields brushing the stone street as they scampered on all fours. Felsah paused in his headlong rush only long enough for them to pass. There would be more on the way. He hurried through the street and into the Follower district.
Close-packed homes squeezed between the narrow crack in the limestone. Felsah had to slow down to avoid hitting his head. The flow of frightened mice led deeper into the cleft. In moments every home would be empty as all who lived in this corner of the burrows sought shelter within the church. Felsah rounded a corner and nearly toppled over a widow mouse propped under one arm by her young son. Their eyes bulged from their heads and the young mouse squeaked. “Father! Is it the Ghans?”
Felsah slipped to the other side of the old widow and clasped her paw to steady her. Where her son's eyes were wild and danced with each brazen peal of the tocsin, hers were a deep well, the bottom of which he could not glimpse. There was more surprise in them at nearly being jumped upon by their priest than there was at the thought of raiders from the northern mountains come to ravage their burrow town.
“Perhaps,” Felsah replied as together they continued down the limestone road. “Let us make sure every one is safe in the church. The Saries will guard the tunnels. If it is a raid then it will be safe by morning.”
The young mouse bounced his tail tuft and spread wife his ears. “If it is not a raid, Father? What then?”
“Then we wait and pray for the Shah's soldiers to join the battle.”
“Arash,” the widow said in a soft voice, “trouble not your heart. Ghans or Kyrgs, what does it matter. We jerboa have lived in these tunnels since the time before the Shahs. If Eli wills it, so shall your children's children.”
“Aye, Madar,” Arash said, his whiskers and tail still dancing.
Together they walked down the sloping passage into the wide depression at the center of the Follower district. Homes were painted with murals of Yahshua, the Blessed Mother, and several saints. Taller buildings framed with wide pillars stretched from floor to ceiling, and in the midst of them was the church, carved from a solid column of limestone. The interior was paneled with cedar upon which scenes from the Canticles were painted. Thronging the church were the Follower townmice, packed so close Felsah, Arash, and the widow almost couldn't squeeze in. But on seeing their priest all of the mice made room. He first made sure Arash and his mother had a place to rest, and then he began to move through the huddled crowd.
The tocsin continued to ring, and with each clang the stone vibrated beneath their toes and tails. He put paws on shoulders, heads, and paws as he passed the frightened mice. He squeaked words of encouragement to each, made sure those who were ill and infirm had a place to recline, and sent any grown male among them out to fetch all the supplies they would need in case of a siege. Step by step he made his way toward the altar, tabernacle, and yew, bringing comfort and strength to his flock one mouse at a time.
One voice began to sing a hymn, and hundreds of ears lifted as one. Felsah's voice joined a moment later in the familiar song, and soon the little church thronged with their voices. The very air warmed with the sudden burst of courage. Stooped backs straightened as all turned toward the glimmering altar. Felsah still the jittery hop and walked through the ranks of mice, young and old, healthy and infirm, fear banished by the song. They were small but they were many. And they were here for each other always.
His courage did not flag, even as Felsah felt a strange dislocation. Faces which had at once been so clear now seemed harder to place. Words he'd understood a moment before, even those coming from his own tongue, were unfamiliar. Names of other mice he'd known all his life were ephemeral and he felt an alarm and unnatural chill brush through his fur. His eyes lifted once more to the altar, tail tucking so close he clasped it in his paws. All fell away giving him a clear path. He hopped forward.
A brilliant light seemed to emanate from behind the yew, and the closer Felsah approached, the fainter the sound of the bell became. Even the voices of his fellow jerboa seemed to dwindle as his hopping steps carried him closer and closer. So many to steel and yet now he found they were impossible to reach, with either tongue or paw. Faces so familiar and yet suddenly so strange slipped into the recesses of the cedar walls, becoming nothing more than additional paintings to admire and tend.
For a moment he recalled the widow's advice to her son, and then Felsah stepped into the bath of light and fell upward. Something yanked on his tail.
Father Felsah opened his eyes to the tuft of his tail between his teeth. He blinked, amused, and scratched behind an ear with his foot before stretching and pushing himself off the pallet. Mornings in Metamor always seemed to be cold, and so he could not help but shiver and tuck his large ears close to his back where his dust-colored fur was still warm. He shimmied into his black robes as soon as he could find where he'd left them and then made the sign of the yew.
After offering a quiet prayer for the day, he hopped to the small table where he kept his Canticles and breviary, parchment, quill, and ink, one of Akabaieth's journals, and the letter from Troud. He carefully lit a single candle – his eyes needed nothing more – and jotted down what details he remembered of the dream. It was the fourth time now he had dreamed of the jerboa village living beneath the rocks near a desert oasis. The first time he had met Troud the protector of the Tened. None of the others since had featured interlopers from the real world but the details and the other mice felt so real the Questioner could not help but wonder if these dreams held some greater significance.
Of the many mysteries he sought to uncover this was by far the most enjoyable. Usually.
This time there was little joy in it. There had been times in his youth when raiders attacked their village and many families hid together in safe places beneath the rocks. He had not thought on it in years and wondered why the jerboa village should suffer so.
His notes complete he took the breviary in his paws and hopped from his quarters next to Fr Hough's and down the short hall into the sanctuary proper. The robe bounced up and down against his back, but after shortening it so it only came down to his knees he no longer feared stumbling over it with each hop. While he could force his hips and legs to walk one by one as he had done before his change it required the jerboa priest to concentrate on each step. So when not serving the Liturgy and when it would not otherwise be disruptive he hopped everywhere he went. The springing of his legs, the bouncing of his tail, and the constant up and down of his head felt natural.
As he genuflected toward the altar Felsah was grateful for the hopping, the enormous ears, the tufted tail, and all the other little signs of his change. If not for them he could never have come to appreciate all the difficulties the Followers of Metamor and all the others who lived here had come through in the last eight years. In time he might even prefer the shape of a desert mouse as many Keepers did with their own transformations.
The Cathedral was similar to many he'd seen in his journeys, with a cruciform design, clerestory windows to catch the light and illustrate key events in the Canticles and from the life of Yahshua, and vaulted walls to capture a huge vertical space. Statuary of saints and angels lined both sides while stone columns and wood panels provided alcoves for side altars and the confessional. A balcony overhung the rear of the Cathedral, and lofts were positioned in the arm of the cross for opposing schola. And at the front was the altar, resplendent with white, gold, and green, framing the tabernacle between ranks of candles and a gold-leaf inlay copy of the Canticles – a precious gift to Father Hough from Bishop Verdane – all beneath a baldacchino of Mother Yanlin cradling the Holy Infant and framed by singing angels.
What was different was many of the images in the windows and in the artwork – according to Hough provided by the Keep itself – featured creatures who were, like they, partly animal. They mingled with humans in the scenes of crowds witnessing a miracle, they marveled as Yahshua restored their sight, they bowed low in adoration at His birth, and they comforted the Holy Mother at His death. Felsah had been uncomfortable the first time he'd stepped foot into Metamor's sanctuary, but now treading upon it with hopping paws and lashing tail, he was grateful for it.
There were also images showing children engaged in roles meant for adults, and women where a man would have been expected, but these were more subtle and easily missed. Felsah knew the many beauties of this sacred place were still waiting to be discovered.
His whiskers and nose twitched with the dry scent of a reptile and the familiar scent of another mouse. His eyes found them a second later, kneeling before the altar in the lee of the statue of Mother Yanlin. The chameleon Patric, one month now a Deacon, was chanting under his breath the Matins with Richard holding the breviary open before him. Felsah, in those few minutes he'd taken to write down his dream, had missed the beginning. He knelt where he was and opened the breviary to where the chameleon prayed and joined him.
With a tongue much longer and thinner, and with a pair of incisors and jowls where short teeth and lips had once been, forming words of any sort had been a challenge in his first few days as a Keeper. His change had been quick; he'd woken one morning as a man while visiting Lorland and newly installed Father Purvis, laid down to rest after Terce with what felt like a stomach ailment, and after much tossing and turning awoke to discover the jerboa he'd become. Purvis, whose enlargement into a hippopatomus was taking much longer, allowed him to stay in the makeshift rectory in the main town outside the dilapidated castle while he worked out how to speak again.
Because of his short stature his voice was high pitched and there was nothing he could do about it. But the Keep was full of many others whose voices belied their maturity and after three months it, like the hopping, huge ears, and tufted tail, suited him.
“Sed in lege Dómini volúntas eius, et in lege eius meditábitur die ac nocte. Et erit tamquam lignum, quod plantátum est secus decúrsus aquárum, quod fructum suum dabit in témpore suo...”
Had he not been so intent on the prayers, he would have heard or smelled the dog creeping up on him. Its cold nose nudged his side mid-prayer and he flicked up his large ears to catch the whine. He turned, one hand resting on the stone floor, and chuffed at the sight of the sandy-furred Rakka staring plaintively with his brown eyes.
“Very well, Rakka, I guess it's my turn.” He stuck the breviary under his other arm and gripping the dog by his scruff, did his best to walk with him out the Cathedral.
By the time he had seen to Rakka's needs and left the dog happily gnawing on a bone in the common room for the seminarians, Matins had come to an end and both Patric and Richard were preparing the altar for the morning liturgy. Felsah noted a handful of the faithful had come to pray and did his best not to disturb them as he hopped past. Patric noticed him first and put down the bells to walk with large head bowed and both eyes focused.
His voice, dry and raspy with a subtle clicking intonation, was reverential and whispered. “Good morning, Father Felsah. We did not see you at Matins... are you well?”
“I am well, merely delayed. And then Rakka decided I had more important affairs to tend to.”
Richard scampered down from the other side of the altar, genuflected, and chittered an apology. “I know it was my turn to tend him. But he was sleeping so peacefully when we woke... I just...”
Felsah patted the mouse on the shoulder and offered a quiet chitter of amusement. “No need to apologize, he knows me well and I don't mind. I brought him here. Now, finish preparing the altar. When Liturgy is over I want you to join me in the sacristy.”
The boy priest Father Hough had departed yesterday afternoon for a two week sojourn at Iron Mine; he'd taken three of his seminarians, including the two newest, with him. From what they knew, all of the refugees from Bradanes had completed their dangerous journey. Due to the plague besetting Metamor at the end of Winter, the last of them had clustered in Lorland and Iron Mine. At Lorland there was ample space for them to live, though they were city folk learning to adjust to tending farmlands; Father Purvis worked beside them in tilling fields when he wasn't negotiating which lands they could work and live upon with Lord Mayor Macaban. To help tend the flock Hough had sent Purvis two of his seminarians.
Iron Mine presented different challenges. Nestled in rocky terrain and burrowing into the mountains, there was little space for the many who came seeking work. Those of Bradanes had created their homes with whatever they could in the cracks between walls through every alley they could find. Baron Christopher was at his wits end attempting to keep them fed let alone make room for them. Father Hough was not sure what he could accomplish but knew they needed the encouragement of a priest, especially since they were the only Followers living in Iron Mine.
And while Father Malvin in Lake Barnhardt had no pressing needs and only a small number of refugees from Bradanes had ventured so far north, Ramad, who was a season away from being ordained a deacon, had been sent there to finish the last of his liturgical instruction. This meant Father Felsah was left in charge of the Keeptowne parish with only a newly ordained deacon and one other seminarian to assist him. For two weeks. Right after one of the most boisterous and riotous celebrations of the year.
Felsah took a loaf of bread and broke off morsels for each of them. “Thank you for leading Matins, Patric. You did well with what I could see. And you did an excellent job chanting the psalm during Liturgy.”
The chameleon turned both of his eyes toward the bread and stood a bit taller, his tail curling into itself. “Thank you, Father. It is exciting to be able to offer the prayers now. Do you wish me to do any more this day?”
Felsah tore a small chunk free with his incisors and chewed as he listened. After swallowing, he favored the reptile with a whiskery smile. “I believe I will, but first ... tell me... what else does Father Hough normally do each day?”
“You have been with us for three months now,” Patric reminded him, one eye turning to Richard who had gnawed a hole into his bread and who lifted his ears at the question. “Are you testing us?”
“I am a Questioner; I have never been in charge of a parish before. Though, aye, as you imply, I have observed how Father Hough tends to the needs of the parish and to your own instruction.” He leaned back on his long legs and tapped the end of his snout with the bread. “I still would like to know what you have come to expect as this is your home for much longer than it is mine. I suppose it is a test in a small way, but I doubt either of you could fail it!”
Patric bobbed his head and curled his long fingers around the portion of bread and opened his triangular jaws. Like many of the reptilian Keepers he did not speak as humans did by moving lips, but from the back of his throat with only the occasional turn of the tongue to add inflection or timbre. “Father Hough offers Liturgy in the morning and then we would spend four candlemarks under his instruction, usually in reading the Canticles or the writings of the Saints. We then pray Terce before heading through the Keep or into Keeptowne to visit with some of the Ecclesia families. Father always makes a list on Sunday of families he wants to visit each week, either those he has not seen come to Liturgy, those he knows are in need or sick, and those who he hopes will help charitably. Sometimes we go with him, and sometimes he sends us to visit the families he cannot reach. We do this until Sext when we return, if we can, for prayers and our midday meal, before we tend to chores here or visit additional families or run errands in Keeptowne. Father tries to spend time in the Confessional before and after None most days, and then he will either visit any more families he wishes to see or spend a little time with his ciders before the evening meal and Vespers. And then we talk of each of our days and he leads us in an examination of conscience before Compline and sleep.”
Richard spent most of the recitation nodding his head and nibbling. Felsah found he did much the same as his fellow mouse; it was the simplest way of eating anything when the only teeth they had in the front of their snouts were a pair of incisors. Each morsel, like each phrase offered by the chameleon for the hours of the boy priest's day, was worn down by the incisors and then ground to a pulp by the rubbing of tongue and gnashing of molars before being swallowed. By the time Patric was finished neither rodent had any bread left.
Felsah licked a crumb from his paws and leaned back on his haunches. “Very good. As a Questioner I would spend more of my days in prayer or study. I am not used to visiting families to maintain a parish! But Father Hough did not leave me any list and so I ask, did he tell either of you who he would have gone to see this week had he not journeyed to Iron Mine?”
Patric had taken a moment to stuff half of his bread into his mouth and so Richard squeaked in reply, “Nay, he did not tell me, Father. Are there any you wish to visit?”
“There are a few. I have been taking note of which families have young children. I have been talking with Mother Wilfrida about opening a little school for them to better train them in our ways. But first we will need supplies and... students. If Father Hough has not asked us to visit any, and there are no sick to tend, then after your instruction is complete, we can begin paying each family a visit to make our offer.”
Patric swallowed and turned one eye about. “And seek the supplies you will need, Father?”
“Aye. I have a list prepared but I am not yet sure how to fill it. I hope you can help or know who can.”
All three turned their heads at the distant tolling of a bell. Felsah's ears cast a breeze about as they moved first up and then back down toward his back. “Enough of this for now. The day presses. Let us turn to your lessons.”
Instead of focusing on the readings of the day as Father Hough was accustomed, Felsah chose instead to teach Patric and Richard some of the history of the Ecclesia. They were well versed in the Canticles, and so the jerboa priest told the traditions of Mother Yanlin and St. Kephas not recorded in their blessed scriptures. Neither were familiar with Mother Yanlin's little house near Marilyth, nor with the families who kept St. Kephas hidden in Yesulam during the latter years of his life.
The hour moved quickly, with Felsah inviting both to ask questions. He did not know all of the answers, but it pleased him to see how eager both young Keepers were to learn more. The tales of the heroes and saints of their faith invigorated them as they should. The more they knew of the saints and Mother Yanlin, the more they would strive to be saints too.
When they finished they returned to the Sanctuary and Felsah offered the prayers for Terce. Rakka attempted to interrupt them again, but this time Richard took care of the enthusiastic dog. As there were only a few who had come to pray, he did not linger to see if there were any who had come in need of a priest. Once the young mouse returned and they settled the sandy-furred dog, Felsah finished preparing his lists for the day's visits.
The Summer Solstice festival had come to an end a few days ago so the streets of Metamor were no longer full of stomping hooves, mashing feet and paws, crunching wagon wheels, and the pulverizing panoply of scents from thousands of different kinds of beasts all pressed together. Now they were full of the last merchant stragglers, their money and wares counted, seeking to flee before the Curses forced them to relocate. Residents of Keeptowne preferred to keep off the streets while they waited for the Inns to empty; already many of the craftsmen had resumed their business even if the merchants who would trade their wares had not.
Thus it was Father Felsah knew he would find the Follower merchant families in their homes or visiting one another for celebration after another successful festival. While he was now familiar to most of the Followers in Keeptowne after helping Father Hough with nearly all of the Liturgies, the Lothanasi and the Rebuilders would view him with suspicion if not outright hatred. He would not forget his welcome by the quartet of Rebuilders and his rescue by the three-horned reptile Zachary. Since he had no Yesbearn of his own to protect him, Felsah decided to take both seminarians with him on his venture into Keeptowne.
To their delight the streets nearest the Keep were no busier than on any other day. They only passed a few foreign merchants on their way. Their first destination was the home of the Urseil family. Cloth merchants, they had once known Father Hough when he had still served in Ellcaran to the south. They arrived after Three Gates and had welcomed Hough after he had begun to serve as priest in Metamor even providing many of his liturgical vestments.
And as he neared their home in the merchant district, a respectable two-story home with oak frame and white plaster walls, he could hear their familiar voices through the open windows. Patric and Richard flanked him before the doorway. Falkirk Urseil, the master of the house, had fastened two brass knockers, each in the shape of a bolt of cloth, to the door, one at a man's height, and the other at a child's height – or a jerboa's. Felsah used the second, giving it three good raps before leaning back on his haunches, doing his best to ignore the scent from the gutter and street in need of their midday cleaning.
The door opened a few breaths later by a large brown bear who still possessed a suggestion of youth. He was dressed in a doublet of bright red and black diamonds with frilly sleeves and baggy pantaloons. Felsah was surprised to see him – Barrick he recalled – wearing festival finery still, but perhaps the Urseil family was having a private frolic while the city tried to return to normal. The bear lowered his snout after a moment and his small, dark eyes widened in surprise. “Father Felsah! Patric, Richard... uh... won't you come in?”
Felsah chittered as he hopped into their foyer. “Thank you, Barrick. How are you, young man? Did you enjoy the festivities?”
Barrick nodded, stepping as far back as he could to let them pass. The claws on the bear's toes were larger than the jerboa's hands. He could not help himself from hopping straight past and into the main hall of the Urseil home. A long staircase ran up the rear wall to the second floor bedrooms above which hung a string of quilts for each of the children. Before it rested a cushioned chaise on which reclined a teenage girl working a spinning wheel. Beside her was a teenage boy studying a counting table and a small parchment filled with numbers. On the right wall was a hearth with a low-fire and a pot of something sweet and fruity cooking. On the left were upholstered oak chairs in which sat a young man of very handsome comportment and a short creature with narrow triangular head, long claws, short legs and tail almost as long, and covered in plate-like scales from head to tail tip locked in a contest of checkers. Along the floor zipped two young girls, the older pulling the younger in a little wagon. All bore festive garb similar to the bear.
All heads and eyes turned toward them as Barrick shut the door behind them. “Father Felsah! Patric! Richard!” The teenage girl at the spinning wheel exclaimed, stopping the wheel and carefully setting the unwoven cloth aside as she stood. “Come, sit and I will fetch something to refresh you. Barrick, provide them a basin to wash the street from their paws. Kendrick, Bridgett, come help me fetch our guests something.”
Having been born and bred in a desert, Felsah could not imagine refusing an offer of hospitality from anyone and so immediately offered the lady of the house a respectful nod of the head. “Thank you, Mistress Urseil. We gratefully accept your offer of food and drink and something to wash our paws. The many wagons have churned the roads and even those which are stone are still full of dust and dirt. I must commend you Keepers for you do know how to celebrate the changing of the seasons!”
While the two at checkers rose to follow their mother, the bear offered each of them a wide round basin filled with water. He set it before them and each dipped their feet in one by one and then dried them with a small cloth. By the time Richard finished his paws the water was dirty enough they could no longer see the bottom of the basin.
The teenager at the counting board set his work aside and shifted the spinning wheel a few paces to make room for the three religious to sit comfortably Patric took several steps closer to the fire to warm himself for a minute before sitting down next to the two mice. The young girls watched them for a moment, with the older offering a curtsy of respect, before they resumed their play. Falkirk Urseil favored them with a merchant's easy smile and studied them, especially the Questioner, with an appraising eye. “What brings you to our humble home, Father Felsah?”
“Not until they have something to eat, Fal!” Came Mavis' voice from the room beyond the stairs.
Falkirk looked chagrined as he settled back into his seat. “Then let me say I am pleased to see you settling into life here at Metmaor so well, Father. Everyone who has come to know you speaks well of you. Can I bring some sticks for you and Richard to chew? Patric, would you care for a damp cloth to moisten your eyes?”
“Those would be quite agreeable,” Felsah replied even as he shifted his legs and tail to get more comfortable. He pulled his legs up onto the chaise and underneath himself while his tail dangled behind. Patric was large enough he could sit almost like a man apart from his long tail which was wedged against the frame of the stairs. Richard sat much like Felsah, though his eyes were drawn to the interrupted game a few paces away.
Falkirk retrieved a pair of kindling sticks from near the hearth, then retreated to the far room for the damp cloth. Before he returned, Mavis and two of her three sons emerged bearing trays. Mavis stopped by the pot brewing over the fire and ladled a spoonful into each of three cups. Bridgett and Kendrick offered their trays to the religious, each bearing different types of pastries, some with fruit and some with meat. Patric skipped over those for one with grasshoppers inside.
“My favorite too,” Kendrick offered with a quick dart of his long tongue. “We have a few more if you want another.”
Patric turned it over in his long-fingered hands for a moment before turning both eyes forward. “Thank you, Kendrick. I will let you know.”
Felsah selected one of the fruit pastries but found his nose flickering in interest for the grasshoppers. He had eaten insects in the desert and never quite understood the reluctance forest-folk had for them. Still, he didn't seem to catch the pangolin's eye so said nothing.
“And here is something warm to drink,” Mavis offered them each a simmering mug. The scent was of a blend of northern fruits; Felsah could smell peaches among them but did not yet recognize the others. “This is what we served at our booth for the festival; for you it is free.”
“I thought you were cloth merchants,” Richard observed after lapping up a taste. “This is very good!”
“We are cloth merchants,” Falkirk said as he returned with a small white cloth. He laid it across the bar near the fire and chucked. “We know a few other tricks, don't we Kendrick?”
The pangolin bobbed his head, eyes wide for a moment, as he set the trays aside. “Oh, aye, aye, we do. Is there anything else we can provide for you?”
“No thank you, this is quite enough,” Felsah said, offering a smile to the young man and heir. “The food and drink is gracious enough. Thank you. You are excellent hosts. In the land I come from, it is customary to provide refreshment to guests, and to clean them from the road. You have done both. Is it because you know of the customs of my land, or is this your custom as well?”
Falkirk shrugged and handed the now warm and moist towel to the chameleon who took it gratefully and rubbed it across his face. Patric blinked his cone-shaped eyes and let out a sibilant sigh of relief. “In a way both, Father. It is a custom we Followers of Ellcaran have adopted from your land. There are so few of us so far north it is how we try and show love to our Lothanasi neighbors.
“And,” the boy who was truly a man added with a less pious tone, “it makes good business sense. If we have no one to trade with then we cannot feed ourselves much less our guests. Making friends with all is very important. You will find most of the merchant families of Metamor are also good hosts. Especially with cleaning the dust from the road. So many like you and my sons find shoes and boots uncomfortable; a basin of water to clean paws and hooves of the grime and muck is almost a staple in our homes.”
Mavis collected the trays from where the pangolin set them and busied herself with cleaning up the leftovers. Kendrick and Bridgett resumed their game of checkers which Richard watched with anxious paws ever lifting to suggest a move when they weren't holding the kindling to gnawing teeth. Barrick finished cleaning their tracks from the foyer, before setting himself down on the floor nearby to watch the game and their guests. The two girls climbed out of the wagon and carried little wooden animals, two of which looked like their older brothers, off into a corner to play quietly. Falkirk watched all with an air of pleasure as he sat back down in his chair.
“Patric, how does your Deacon's cassock suit you? We could have another with thicker wool fashioned for you for the Winter months.”
Patric ran a free hand down the front of the black vest atop the white robe he bore. The robe parted around his wide tail so he could sit comfortably without it bunching around his waist. “This is very comfortable, thank you. And thank you for your generosity. A cassock suited for Winter would be wonderful! Even staying indoors next to a roaring fire I still feel cold some days!”
“Oh, I know!” Kendrick nodded, his voice almost agonized in longing. “I wish it would stay Summer another three months here! Maybe Six!”
“Nine?” Bridgett suggested as he pondered the checkerboard.
“Well, I want Barrick to enjoy the weather some of the time.”
The bear grumbled behind him and playfully raked his long claws down the pangolin's natural armor. “And would my big brother like to go rolling down the hill to Euper again?”
“If there's lots of big anthills down at the bottom, sure!”
Patric and Richard chuckled at the banter as they ate. Felsah lapped the fruit cider and wondered how long it would be before he understood the peculiar humor of Metamorians. He gave no sign of his thoughts other than flicking his tail from side to side.
“Boys...” Mavis reprimanded even if her voice betrayed her amusement. “Father, we can do something similar for your ears. Those are desert ears, and they'll grow very cold even before Winter arrives. We could have a fleece-lined hat made for you to protect them. We've done the same for other family friends who've become desert creatures.”
Felsah twitched his whiskers into a rodent's smile. “Thank you, Mistress Urseil. I have grown quite fond of my ears and do not want them freezing. I have never seen your Winters but I suppose I will know them quite soon.” There was no offer to make a winter version of his Questioner robe, but he would not press. He doubted any in this land would be comfortable fashioning the dreaded red cross, and he could always wear other clothes beneath to preserve the warmth his body would otherwise shed.
Falkirk offered a knowing smile. “Aye, you will, and you'll adapt to them. We all have had to adapt here in Metamor.”
“So, what brings you here to our home, Father Felsah? I have heard Father Hough is away and has left you in charge.”
He nodded and lifted his large ears; they sat so close together he almost swatted Patric in the eye with one. “Father Hough is visiting Iron Mine for two weeks. He is interested in helping Baron Christopher find some way to help the many folk of Bradanes who have settled there.”
“I've heard they are living between the walls. There is so little space there. The plague is over; they should continue north to Euper, Keeptowne, or even Mycransburg, or Lake Barnhardt. Even Glen Avery or Hareford would be better.”
“And they may very well suggest such a journey. The weather is right for it, but...” Felsah spread his hands wide and drooped his whiskers. “We are not there. It is why Father Hough is there now. So he can see for himself. But I did not come to your house, Master Urseil, to discuss matters in Iron Mine. I have come to present to you an idea I have to help Follower children here in Keeptowne. I have discussed it with Mother Wilfrida and she and her sisters are more than willing to help take on this task but we need funds and children who will participate.”
Falkirk cast a quick glance at his young daughters. “And what did you have in mind?”
“I want to start a school for young children. We would teach them of the Follower faith more deeply than what we provide on Holy days. They would learn our history, our rites, our many saints, and learn how to live faithfully in the midst of all the contradictions thrust upon Metamor. If we have enough interest, we might even be able to teach more practical subjects such as arithmetic, geometry, grammar, logic, and perhaps even rhetoric, music, and astronomy. We would leave the teaching of trades to the guilds and families of course. Consider it preparation for your more rigorous training. With children we can only begin such subjects, we cannot complete them. But of the virtues we would strive for the best. But in order to begin we do need both funds and families willing to entrust their children into our care for some hours each day; when they aren't needed for your work at least.”
Falkirk's expression remained one of polite interest. Mavis came to stand behind him, her hands clasped over her waist, uncertain eyes turning to her daughters. Barrick, Bridgett, and Kendrick all paused their game to look to their father, their expressions curious, but betraying none of their own thoughts. The merchant's reply was measured in even tones. “A school for Follower children taught by you and the Sisters? An intriguing idea. I know they have such schools in some cites of Galendor. We have never had one in Ellcaran, and we Followers have only lived here in Metamor for a generation now. Perhaps it is a good idea to begin one here. How much do you believe you will need to begin such a school?”
He lowered his ears as he stood a little taller on his haunches; this time he did bump Patric who had leaned in closer to listen. The chameleon brushed the damp cloth over his face one more time as he chortled.
“I do not yet know. I am hoping we will be able to make room near the Convent for them. The Sisters still have many repairs to do before they will be ready. There are still many houses torn down near there. We would need money to buy the land and build new homes there. And once it is done we will need supplies for the children to use in their lessons. And of course, we will also need students.” Felsah turned and looked at the two girls for a moment, twitched his whiskers in a smile, and even flicked his tail upwards until the tuft dangled between his ears. He returned his eyes to both parents. “Their religious instruction is your duty as their father and mother, but we wish to help and this is how we are trying to do it.”
Mavis gripped her dress, clearly unsure. Falkirk kept his expression level. “We have done our very best and will pray about your request. As for money for your school, I will consult my ledgers and see what we can offer you. I will find a way to provide some, and my sons can certainly spend some of their time helping with the repairs.”
“Could we go tomorrow?” Barrick interrupted. The bear's rumble was eager, and he flexed one of his arms. Bridgett rolled his eyes as he moved a black piece. Kendrick grimaced at the move and then waved his long claws, eyes never leaving the board. Felsah spared the pangolin a curious glance; everyone else had met his eyes, but not this one. A guilty conscience perhaps?
“So long as your duties to home are done, of course you may.” Falkirk turned back to the jerboa priest. “As I was saying, we will find a way to help some, but I can make no promises today. I will promise this. Next Sunday after Liturgy I will be prepared to tell you what I can promise for your little school. I...”
A loud rapping at the door turned all their eyes. Barrick pushed himself to his feet and within four strides was at the door. He barely had it open when a hen dressed in garish pink frills burst in, her beak already moving with the urgency of terrible news. “Oh, Mavis, my dear! Did the Festival treat you well? I had such a ghastly time! My husband, Lord Halvemore, bought me pastries from some foreigner and it left me with vapors for days! I practically molted my tail feathers off.” So saying she bent forward and fanned her tail, which was filled with bright red and orange feathers curling up and over like a spouting fountain with a single gap near the middle.
The hen held out one of her feet and Barrick lifted the basin of water to meet it. She swirled her toes, even as she continued to talk. “And don't get me started on the contests this year. The jousting was horrible. I've never seen such poor displays. My husband could have cleared the lot of them in his prime. And my son, oh Dokorath help him, what in the world is his wife feeding him. Goodness!”
Barrick rolled his eyes, even while Kendrick stuck his long tongue out and wrapped it over his face where the hen couldn't see. Both girls vanished into an adjoining room. Bridgett appeared so focused on the game nothing else existed, while Falkirk smiled as warmly as he could as his grip ever tightened on his chair. Mavis stepped toward the hen with a calm patience none of her family seemed to share. Richard shrank in his seat, chittering beneath his breath. Patric sighed and moistened his face once more before finishing off his juice, tail curling and uncurling around one of the chaise legs.
Her first golden foot cleansed of the dirt, she lifted her second for the bear to wash. “I mean really, and the feast Duke Thomas served! Hah! You think we didn't have any produce or grains in from the fields yet. My husband's lands would have done better but for the blasted plague keeping us cooped up here. Truly, I nearly wasted away hiding in my home. I don't know how you all managed to keep your business afloat.”
Mavis gestured to the pot of cider simmering over the low flames. “Welcome, Lady Halvemore. Is there anything I can interest you in. Will you be staying long?”
Barrick, from behind the hen, shook his head and mouthed with his supple lips, “Please no!”
The hen put a golden-scaled hand spreading into a flightless wing across her chest. “Oh, dear Mavis, you are so good to me. I would waste away if not for your generosity. Have you anything to eat? I'm practically famished! I cannot stay long, there's just so many people to see today. It's finally safe to leave your home without having horses and wagon wheels crush your toes. I just wanted to pass you the news and...” her eyes seemed to see, for the first time, who else was in the house with her. The hen's red feathers along the back of her neck rose, her pair of wattles hanging halfway down her neck shook, and her small eyes fixed with astonishment upon the jerboa who sat with hands cradling the empty cup of cider. He bore no expression, neither smile nor scowl, toward the gossip. But his eyes never left her.
“Oh my, Mavis...” Lady Halvemore appeared ready to harangue her host for letting vermin lose in her house, but something dissuaded her. Either fear of the dread Questioner or greater pleasure in her news, Felsah could not say. Perhaps she was merely irritated there were no seats available for her to swoon upon. He was merely grateful her attention returned to the lady of the house.
“Mavis, I came here to tell you, oh my thank you.” She accepted one of the leftover pastries, plucked large chunks with her beak, and swallowed without chewing. “Delicious! Mavis, you are a dear, aren't you. My, oh.” Within a few more pecks the pastry was gone and the hen shook the crumbs from her wattles and feathers. “Your cook is as ever excellent.”
Falkirk's chin tightened and the wood of his chair groaned. Felsah knew immediately the pastries were made by Mavis herself.
Lady Halvemore almost swooned in her direction, clucking a pleased note as she swung her wings wide and with them the pink frill of her gown. “Ah, yes, I came to tell you – and everyone else who knows them mind you, it is a burden I suppose I will have to fill – of Elsie. You know Elsie, Lidaman's daughter?” Kendrick lifted his head at the news, though he did not turn to look at the hen.
Mavis was ever polite. “Oh yes, we do know Master Lidaman and his beautiful daughter. We were honored to attend her wedding to Lidaman's clerk Gadfrey earlier his year. What of her? Is she well?” Whenever did gossips come with such joie de vivre about good news?
“Well as you know,” Lady Halvemore replied as she leaned her tail feathers back against the wall near the hearth, folding her hands before her with a self-satisfied turn of her head, “Elsie is pregnant with their first child; the young clerk has not wasted any time! But and this is the news I came to bring Oh, it is so terrible, but I must say it. She's come down with a most malodorous illness; coughing, sneezing, and the most foul smelling vapors. She's been in bed now for the last three days, Mavis. Three days! Master Coe would have seen her already, but you know he is always so busy tending wounds from the festival. Especially with those atrocious fighters; I'm surprised some of them didn't hit themselves with their own swords! But, oh, poor Elsie, she's still waiting. And what with her father the richest merchant in Metamor! Can you imagine it? And what about her child? Poor cow, oh my! We just don't know yet! But I will be sure to let you know once I hear more.”
“Oh, Elsie!” Mavis replied, her face bunched in genuine concern. “Does Master Lidaman not have healers of his own?”
“Oh he does, but the poor man serving them was away down south visiting family during the festival and has not been able to return yet.” Lady Halvemore began fanning herself with her wing, eyes fluttering and looking to the sky. “And the Lothanasa has not had a chance to see her, so preoccupied they've been with Samekkh knows what. It's just so terrible a situation, I tell you!”
Felsah hopped to his feet and clasped his hands in front of him, ears fully erect. “Thank you for bringing us this news, Lady Halvemore. I will see to it personally the Sisters are able to tend to Elsie, daughter of Master Lidaman, in her time of need. They will make sure she recovers and no harm comes to her child.”
The hen's feathers lifted along her neck and back in surprise and, Felsah judged, in irritation. “The Sisters?”
Patric and Richard climbed off the chaise behind him. Bridgett looked ready to follow them.
“Aye, the Holy Sisters of Mother Yanlin. They have already tended the sick and dying during the plague. This task is one they know well. I will make straight for them now. You have no more need of worry, for Elsie will recover under their care.” Felsah turned to Mavis and Falkirk. “Thank you Master and Mistress Urseil, for your kind hospitality. Kendrick, Barrick, Bridgett, we look forward to seeing you tomorrow at the Convent to help with repairs. Good day, and Eli's blessings be with you.”
The hen clucked several times but could find no words as Falkirk, Mavis, and the children rose to see them to the door. They reentered the busy streets without another word; Felsah hopped with steady gait but determined jumps toward the Convent. Only when the Urseil home disappeared behind them did Patric let out a gasp of breath. “Oh, Father, thank you. I know Lady Halvemore from... well... she's... her husband is a landed knight well past his years who lives here in Keeptowne instead of their land. When she does come she is almost impossible to get rid of. I confess I felt an ill satisfaction at seeing her expression when you told her about the Sisters.”
Felsah stopped to let a carriage grind past and turned to the chameleon and mouse at his sides. “Deacon, we all felt an ill satisfaction and should offer prayers for her and for the Urseils. But I meant what I said. We will visit the other merchant families another day. Let us go to the Convent and tell Mother Wilfrida.”
“Shouldn't we visit the Lidaman family first?” Richard asked. “You know, to let them know and make sure we have their permission?”
“Master Lidaman and his family are Lothanasi,” Felsah noted as he resumed hopping. “The request will be more readily accepted coming from Mother Wilfrida and the Sisters than it will a Questioner.”
The mouse could only squeak as he rushed to keep up.
The Convent had once been several homes ransacked and burned during the Winter Assault; they were now mostly rebuilt so the nuns had walls and warmth and a place to worship together. The garden in the midst of their home had its first growth a week past. The additional rooms they wished to build for study, work of any trade, and even a common place to eat were still rubble, though a few foundations had been laid. The entire company of sisters spent a few hours every day cleaning out the refuse in and around the lands they'd been given, and with the help of many Follower Keepers, adding in new sections of floor, wall, and roof. Each week saw a new room ready for use, and the gifts they received of food and clothing had blossomed into full storehouses they were ready to open and offer to any Keeper in need no matter whether they worshiped Eli or the gods of the Lothanasi. Even the Rebuilders of Metamor spoke well of them while wagging their heads in private.
The main entrance to the Convent was near the center of a long stone wall and featured a pair of solid oak doors on which a stylized 'Y' surmounted by the yew had been painted. Father Felsah knew it was Mother Wilfrida's dream to have it fashioned from bronze and inlaid within the oak. She also dreamed of replacing the stone wall, which had been assembled from whatever stone was available and easy to cut, with larger custom blocks to provide better warmth in the Winter and minor ornamentation to help show their place within the city. It would be years yet before either were realized, but Felsah suspected it would only be a few.
He rapped as loudly as he could upon the oak door and hopped down the large flat steps next to Patric and Richard to wait. He did not have to wait long, as one of the sisters, apparently a girl of twelve with freckled face where her habit did not cover it, opened the door wide for them. “Good morning, Father Felsah, Deacon Patric, Richard. What can we do for you today?”
“We are looking for Mother Wilfrida,” Felsah said as he hopped through the doorway, tail lashing back and forth as he stepped around to more fully face the girl. Her name came to him a moment later. “Is she in, Sister Perpetua?”
“Aye, Father. But you will have to wait here. Mother Wilfrida already has a visitor. I will go and announce you.” Perpetua bowed her head and offered a faint smile to each of them before disappearing down the hall along the main hall and into another doorway. At the far end of the hall they could see part of a wall still being built and could hear the sounds of a few Keepers talking as they moved stone and wood about. Two other nuns were carrying baskets of rumpled cloths at the other end of the corridor, but they saw no one else.
Patric eased the door shut behind him after making sure both his and Richard's tails were clear. Felsah could see smiles on both of their beastly faces. “If it were not just the three of us here at Metamor, I'd suggest we spend some time helping put a few more stones in their walls.” Felsah took a deep breath, his whiskers fanning outward, before he lifted a foot to scratch behind his ear. “It brings me great joy to see Keepers here every day helping.”
“Just having the Sisters here brings me joy, Father,” Patric admitted. He laced his long fingers together and the end of his tail curled into a whorl. “I've lived my whole life here and being a Follower has always made me feel as if I were a foreigner in my own home. Seeing them here now... and also you, means Metamor is finally becoming a city of Followers too.”
“There's still lots more Lothanasi,” Richard pointed out as he gnawed at the stick Falkirk had given him. Felsah also felt the urge and lifted his stick to gnaw. “Duke Thomas and most of the nobility are Lothanasi too. Metamor is one of the ancient jewels of the Lothanasi. It will take a miracle to make it a Follower city.”
“Miracles happen all the time,” A quacking, motherly voice called out to them from a doorway. “Be they large and known by many, or small and touching a single life or two, they are all miracles. It is the small miracles, beautiful and intimate, Eli chooses to use in most of our lives. His fields are filled with a bounteous array of wildflowers, bright and colorful. Amongst them he places a few delicate rose bushes. But roses grow only among thorns, Richard. Every great miracle is crowned with thorns.”
Waddling toward them in her black habit was a dull-feathered mallard, wing-hands much like Lady Halvemore's folded serenely before her in a posture ready for prayer. Her long orange bill and the creases in her face and feathers seemed locked in a peaceful smile. At her side was a small beast child dressed in badly cut and stained linen and ill-fitting trousers. His sandy-colored fur was marked by black rings around the eyes, black paws, and a black tip at the end of his long, thick tail jutting out behind him and dragging across the stone. He had short round ears, wide eyes, and many little sharp teeth. There was a manic energy about him even when he stood still.
“Mother Wilfrida,” Felsah greeted, inclining his head, allowing the warmth in his heart to spill over into his words. “Eli's blessings be with you.”
“And with your spirit, Father Felsah.” Her bright, beady eyes captured them as if they were being hugged beneath her wing. “Deacon Patric, it is so very good to see you again as well. And Richard, have faith and hope in Yahshua; He will make this city His jewel in time as well. You play no small part in it, my dear mouse.”
Richard murmured an embarrassed thanks before shoving his stick between his incisors again.
“Now, if you'll pardon me, but I must see this good young man to the door,” Mother Wilfrida stretched one wing atop the beast child, who smiled brighter beneath it. The two mice stepped and hopped out of the way while Patric opened the door for her. “Kuna, this is Father Felsah, Deacon, Patric, and Richard. Richard is a seminarian and will be a Deacon in another year or two. They would certainly love to hear of your friends and give what help they can.”
The meerkat stood taller on short haunches, hands dangling in front of him as his triangular snout pointed at each of them in turn. “Oh, um.... Hi!” Before any could greet him, the boy dropped to all fours and darted out the door, tail bouncing after him. He disappeared around a bend and was gone.
Wilfrida sighed and folded her wins before her. “Oh, Kuna!” She lifted her bill and with one sweep took in the three men. “What brings you here, Father Felsah? Father Hough informed me you three would be the only ones from the Cathedral here in Keeptowne for the next two weeks. I had thought managing the parish would have kept you too busy to visit.”
“And it is for parish reasons we are here, as it were. But first, who was the young lad? A meerkat I believe; it has been years since I have seen any. His name is Kuna?”
“Aye, Father. He has been visiting since early May. He is a child only because the Curses of Metamor made him so; he is very much a child, but many times I have seen the man hidden within him. He lives with other children orphaned during the last attack on the city. Some are cursed so who find life on the streets easier, but most are actual children whose families were slain. He will not tell me where they are, but he wants us to help find them homes. Kuna comes by every few days for a short visit. Last week I finally convinced him to start coming during the day and to come inside so we could talk more comfortably. He is a bright boy; I think he wants to help the children because he's never helped anyone before. I have mentioned the children to Father Hough.”
“He has not told me of them,” Felsah noted.
“I told him not to tell anyone else just yet. Kuna is afraid of what might happen if the Watch finds the orphans. They are stealing their food, Father.”
“How does he expect you to help them if you cannot tell anyone about them?” Richard asked, brows furrowed and ears lifted.
“Eli will show us in time,” Wilfrida replied with serene confidence complimented with an exclamatory quack. “For now I am merely suggesting things to Kuna to help him and the orphans and to keep them out of trouble. I am also teaching Kuna what little he lets me. He said his first prayers today; one of those little miracles Eli loves to grow in His fields.”
Chagrined, Richard resumed gnawing.
“I will let you know if we ever see him in the Cathedral.” Felsah took a half step closer to the nun. “We are here to ask for your help, Mother Wilfrida. Elsie, the daughter of Master Lidaman the moneylender, is ill and has been for three days. They are friends of the Urseil family. Master Coe has not been able to spare the time to see her, and their own physician is delayed on the roads. Could you send some of your sisters to tend to her?”
The smile on Wilfrida's face stretched. “Of course, Father. Do they know we might be coming?”
“Perhaps, if any of the Urseils have told them. They are of the Lothanasi so they may refuse your aid.”
“We will still offer it. Sister Perpetua?”
The young nun appeared around the corner from which she had moments before disappeared. “Yes, Mother Superior?”
“Find Sisters Mina and Clare and go to Master Lidaman's house and see what can be done for his daughter.”
“Of course, Mother Superior.”
“One thing more,” Felsah added, “Elsie is pregnant. I do not know how far along the child is.”
“Sister Perpetua, make haste!”
Richard lifted a hand. “I can guide you to their house.”
“Excellent. Then it is settled.” Wilfrida shook her tail feathers in pleasure, and glanced between jerboa and chameleon. “Father, if you have time, would you care to see the state of the Convent and the other Sisters here?”
“It would be our pleasure. Thank you.” He turned to Richard and favored his fellow rodent with a whisker-filled grin. “We shall see you at the Cathedral for Sext.” He took a hopping step toward the duck. “Lead on, Mother.”
“I thought I might find you here, Father.”
Felsah flicked his whiskers but stirred neither head nor ears toward the chameleon. Rather he drew his narrow, sharp-clawed fingers across the ancient runes inscribed upon the slab of stone resting in the middle of the floor in the main storeroom for the Follower Cathedral. His dark eyes were filled with the blue-metal lettering both fresh and ancient to his fingers and the message they conveyed in more languages than any could speak.
The visit to the Convent had taken longer than he'd suspected. They'd hurried back to the Cathedral in time for the midday prayers and taken a small meal together. While Patric and Richard were still eating, Felsah had slipped away for a precious few minutes to himself. After having one of his special dreams there was no other place he could go.
“Am I so predictable in my habits?”
Deacon Patric sauntered to the opposite side of the slab, one eye fixed on the jerboa, the other on the covenant stone. “If you are not in prayer before the Tabernacle and not in your cell then you are here. Usually.”
“How long have you been looking for me?”
“Not long, Father.” Patric folded his long-fingered hands one atop the other over the slab as he reclined against one side, long tail bracing him. “You did want to hear Confessions after Sext.”
Felsah's ears rose. “Are there penitents waiting?”
“None I saw. I asked Richard to find us should any arrive.”
“Good.” He leaned forward over the stone, awash in awe and uncertainty. He almost trembled as he touched the slab. “Do you believe this to be a message from Eli?”
The chameleon cracked his jaw and shifted his head forward in what Felsah had come to know was a reptilian smile. “I do.” He anticipated the next question and without pausing added, “There are so many reasons to believe it, Father. It was written by the same hand in many different languages, and all of them stating the same promise. It speaks of a people of Feather and Scale which can only mean those of us who were made reptiles or birds here at Metamor. It speaks of a people who were faithful unto death. You said as much of the Tened! And when I read this message I feel as if Yahshua Himself were speaking from the Yew straight to me. I can hear it in His voice, Father. I can hear His love. I even hear love in it for those who sought our betrayal and who posed as gods in defiance of Him. Father, of course I believe it and I wish you would let me share this with the rest of the Fellowship. I know they would embrace it and all come to the Yew.”
“Do you think I am too hesitant because I wish to wait for the judgment of Yesulam?”
Patric lowered both of his eyes and traced fingers across the letters as delicately and with as much reverence as Felsah had seen other priests treat the Canticles. “I know you don't want to make a mistake with something this momentous. But I also believe you believe this to be from Eli. You recognized Jacob and his family as Tened; nobody else did, Father, only you. I know you believe this to be true.”
“Did I not pass on what I received to Father Akaleth and through him to the Grand Questioner and the Patriarch? Will not this testimony weigh heavily in favor of this divine message?” Even with a rodent's face and mannerisms, the mask was natural to him and he offered none of the amusement he felt at the earnest reptile's consternation. Instead he bent down and scratched behind his left ear with his foot.
“Aye, Father, you did. And I hope it does make a difference. But I want to share this with the Fellowship! It will give the Followers among them renewed fortitude and it may even bring some of the Lothanasi to the truth. Already all who have seen Jacob and his family know deep in their hearts there is something different about them in a way even Metamor's Curses cannot explain. All of this is ordained by Eli and we must be shouting it from the rooftops not hiding it under a basket.” As he spoke, Patric's voice grew louder and his eyes more animated as they swiveled back and forth. Even his tail thumped from side to side in his agitation. Felsah felt a mouse's anxiety flutter in his heart but his training held it back.
“How are Jacob and his family? Have Rebecca's eggs hatched? Is Davin still covered in downy feathers or has he begun to fledge?”
Patric visibly slumped at the diversion, and he lifted one arm, fingers curling in the air as if to suggest distance. “Their eggs are still eggs and Rebecca is even more protective of them than she was when they arrived. She almost took poor Tabitha's head off when she tried to turn one – Tabitha is one of the caretakers of the eggs we keep in our hall, you remember her, the Steward's cousin.” An image of a lizard with a frilled neck sprung to mind, but the flash was brief. “Davin is still covered in downy feathers and probably will be for a few years more. Jacob is doing his best to find work as a tinker, and one of the Fellowship has offered him space in Keeptowne to work out of his shop for now. But...”
Felsah blinked as he listened and offered a faint smile, a slight widening of his eyes, turning of his jowls and lifting of his whiskers. Patric caught the glance and continued. “They have all changed... they visited the Standing Stone north of Metamor; it is an ancient Tened relic and it has survived all the elements and conquests in the valley these many centuries. I did not see what happened, but after their return they are different. Davin is unable to understand our tongue and only speaks in fluting cries, almost birdsong, along with some screeches and hisses only Jacob and Rebecca understand. Emily says he is speaking as a Tened would. Rebecca speaks of ancient wisdom and custom as if the distant past were but yesterday and there is something unsettling in her eyes when she sees humans... contempt I think, but it's despite herself. And Jacob cannot seem to count aright anymore... he uses strange words for many numbers, and when he says 'ten' he does not mean it as we know it, but as sixteen! Emily tells me it is how the Tened reckoned numbers. They have become, as far as I can tell, more as the ancient Tened were, more Tened, than they are human. It is as if their very natures and minds and wills have been remade.”
Felsah could feel Patric's uneasiness and he shared it. Was this Troud's doing? How he wished he could see the ancient Tened guardian again and speak with him another dream night to better know the twists and turns of Eli's acts. But even he likely would not understand the grand design their creator had weaved. He twitched his whiskers and rested a paw on the vibrant blue letters at the top of the slab; the curious scratches were the language of the Tened, the one race of the many Eli filled the world with who had remained faithful to Him.
“How much time have you spent with them?”
“I visit as often as I can. I would see them more often but Father Hough does not want me only ministering to the Fellowship, and I understand why... and I agree with him. We are all Yahshua's children, children of the Yew, no matter if we are human still, or covered in scale, feather, or fur.”
Felsah nodded and let his smile widen. “Very true and yet, if this message were more widely known, how might those who grew fur see it? Would they not wonder why they are not offered this protection? Would not envy strike their hearts? Do we not teach of Yahshua who makes no distinction between man and women or of any race in His call to follow Him?”
Patric thumped his tail and leaned forward along the slab, longing eyes unable to leave the letters. “Aye, I suppose. He makes no distinction in His call, but He does not offer us all the same gifts in the same measure. This is no different. And perhaps there will be another such covenant offered for those – like you, Father – who have grown fur instead of feathers or scales. Perhaps even a better one. I don't know. I just know this is real and this is a beautiful message it pains me not to be able to deliver to my kind. I...” The chameleon stopped, lifted both his eyes and struck his chest with fingers curled as close to a fist as their length would allow. “I did it again, Father, forgive me.”
Be gentle. “What did you do?”
“I said 'my kind'. I fell into what too many of the Fellowship believe. I know we were both men before Metamor's Curses reshaped us. Yet, after so many years as a chameleon I find how mammals act sometimes confuses me, and I know how I act must confuse you! It is so easy to think of ourselves as different in kind and not just in appearance. I know it is wrong and I'm sorry.”
“Do you then see why prudence demands we be patient and learn all we can before we teach this message? Were we not told to test any spirit who speaks to ensure they speak true?”
Patric let out a long breath before lowering his gaze. “Aye, Father. I suppose you are right. I just... it is hard to explain how much hope this gives me. I wish you knew what we of the Fellowship know.”
“Do you wish I had become a lizard or bird?”
“Well, I had not thought of it, I guess, Father, when you first arrived. Knowing you better now I suppose I would be gladdened had you been, but... it is hard to think of you as anything but a jerboa.”
“Not even a fennec fox?”
Patric swiveled one eye to the Questioner and his voice sounded bemused. “Maybe. You and your questions are clever like one. And... wait, Father, have you done nothing but ask me questions since I arrived?”
“Does it upset you if I have?”
“Was not Yahshua asking questions when Mother Yanlin found Him in the Temple?”
“Well, aye, but He also taught in parables and in direct commands. What is wrong with giving answers every now and again?”
Felsah nodded and he let the mask drop so his smile filled his entire snout. “Ah, Patric, forgive me. I am a Questioner and asking questions comes naturally to me. But for now I will give you answers as you seek.”
The jerboa leaned forward and delicately traced the ancient Tened runes with his claws. His tail tuft danced behind him as he pulled his hopping legs beneath him and gave a light kick to the Questioner robe to keep from stepping on its hem. He lifted his ears as a sign offering this young chameleon all of his attention. “I do believe this slab is real and a covenant offered from Eli. Yet it was offered in such a mysterious way it leaves me unsettled. I want to understand a little better and I want to submit my judgment to wise counsel first before I proclaim it. Although you may not understand, as I do not, but the reason I spend so much time here is because I am connected to it as well. It calls me and I feel as if I am a guard standing watch over a gate, a gate I hold open for those called to go in, even if I am not. This may not be a covenant made for Keepers like yourself and the Fellowship. It may be a covenant made with the reborn Tened and for their spiritual steward Troud. There are so many reasons to believe it to be true, but so many more reasons to be patient and learn more. And perhaps, as is the way with Eli, He will reveal His intentions for us as His witnesses through mysterious interventions and interlopers!”
Patric seemed to relax at the answer. “I do wish you could have been like me, Father. I know there are some who have found ways to take other shapes for a time. Perhaps there is a way which is not sin to do so.”
“Perhaps, but there is danger on the path you suggest, Deacon.”
“I know, and forgive me for thinking it. My heart ran away with my head.”
“Forgiven. Yahshua became a man for many reasons, one being we would not be afraid of Him as He became one of our kind. Not all of us can be reptiles or birds, and even those who have, are still the same kind as we who remain mammals. Perhaps part of the reason I am as I am, even though I feel a call toward your Fellowship, is because of the mistake even you have fallen prey to. Even if not, it is worth contemplating in prayer.”
“Aye, I suppose it could be,” Patric took a deep breath and then both his eyes fixed upon the slab. “Still, this also calls me. This is from Eli, Father, and we cannot keep it hidden here forever.”
“And we won't. I'm sure eventually one of those involved in bringing it here will let slip a careless word and rumor will begin to spread. Hopefully we will hear from Yesulam first. We...” He stopped and lifted his ears and then his head toward the doorway from the storeroom.
Patric followed his gaze and a moment later Richard scampered into the room with a look of mild exasperation. Felsah drew the canvas covering the slab back across the blue letters and Patric pulled the edge taught. The mouse knew of the slab, but Felsah heard the sound of a pair of cloven hooves not far behind him.
“Forgive me, Father, but Patrol Sergeant Wolfram is here to see you.”
“The black ram?” Felsah flicked his whiskers in surprise. He had not seen Wolfram or his company since his friend Father Akaleth had left two months ago. “Of course I will see him. Richard, let him know while I finish here.”
The mouse bowed his head and scampered back out, almost falling to all fours in his haste.
“I suppose I should tend to my duties then,” Patric offered. He cast one last glance at the slab, and trailed his fingers and claws across the canvas as he stood. “With your permission, I would like to see how this Elsie daughter of Lidaman is doing and whether the Sisters have been able to help; I will try to return by None, but...”
“Tend to the sick, Deacon.” Felsah smiled as he hopped toward the door. “And pray with us as you work.”
The hoof-falls he'd heard from the storeroom had not been as close as he'd imagined. Sounds near the altar echoed better in the Cathedral and it was this he had heard. Felsah found the black-wool ram kneeling before the altar, still dressed in his patrol-gear of blue tabard with issuant horse atop chain mail. Two months ago his right horn had been smoothed down almost to the skull; it had regrown into a respectable nub but it might never again match its brother on the left.
Behind him the kharrakhaz also knelt, the three horns of his massive head pointing toward the tabernacle atop the altar. His mottled green and brown hide were drab compared to Patric's bright green, so the first color his eyes saw on him was also the blue tabard of the patrol. Neither man was armed with weapon or shield but the jerboa still felt a momentary urge to hide against a wall and hop in the other direction. Every Keeper was so large next to him!
Felsah did not don the Questioner mask, but he did marshal his instincts, reminding himself of the way Zachary had protected him on his first day in Metamor, and how Wolfram's entire patrol had stood guard outside the Cathedral during Father Akaleth's visit. Both had stood between Akaleth and Misha Brightleaf – an offense the fox later atoned for with several charitable repairs around the Cathedral – despite knowing if it came to a fight they would lose. These were good men and no little mouse like he was in danger from them.
He hopped across the distance and twitched his whiskers and jowls into a mouse's smile. He said nothing, casting his gaze after a moment toward the altar, tabernacle, baldacchino and surmounting Yew, heart and thoughts drawn upwards with each step. Yahshua, guide us. Help me bear these burdens.
“Father,” Wolfram whispered after making the sign of the Yew.
“Sergeant,” Felsah replied. He gestured with the wave of a paw toward the front of the Cathedral. Ram nodded, stood, and rested a two-fingered hand on Zachary's shoulder. The reptile opened his eyes, creased his beak in what smile his face could offer, and lumbered to his heavy feet. Together they walked as quiet as they could with claws and hooves and girth.
When they reached the front, Felsah guided them through a wide arched door on the northern wall and up a set of steps. The Schola practiced there in the evenings and sometimes during the day when they could. The members were all tradesmen, merchants, and soldiers at the Keep and so the evening was often the only time they could assemble. This made the room a perfect place within the Cathedral to carry on a quiet conversation without disturbing the faithful come to pray.
The main part of the room was filled with a trio of wooden platforms each higher than the one in front of it. Atop this Wolfram lounged, sitting upon the middle plank and propping his hooves on the first. Zachary eyed the wood for a moment before settling on the stone before the platforms. His thick tail ground against the stone wall behind him and Felsah could see some of the paint chip. Felsah waited until both were seated before straddling the middle platform, neither leg reaching the supports beneath it.
“I am very grateful to see you both again. I think the last time we had a chance to talk this is where we were, Sergeant.”
Wolfram glanced around for a moment and blinked. “I think you're right, Father. I'm sorry it has been two months, but we of the patrol do not have many choices when we're needed. Zachary and I come to Liturgy as often as we can.”
“We've been attending in Lorland, Father,” Zachary put in before the jerboa could ask.
“Excellent. I have been meaning to travel there and see how Father Purvis is managing.” The last time he had seen the priest assigned to Lorland had been even longer ago, not long after both of them had succumbed to the Curses of Metamor. Whereas Felsah had shrunk, Purvis had grown into the bulky shape of a hippopotamus. He bore it well and with good humor, even if none of his clothes could even fit half of him anymore.
“He seems to be a good man,” Wolfram said. “Often confused about how things have been done in Metamor since the Curses, but he's trying. Always has a smile, though if you've seen his teeth, it's a weird one!”
Felsah realized he'd taken his chewstick and started gnawing. He gave his sore incisors a few more seconds before putting the stick down. “Have the people of Lorland made him a complete set of vestments yet?”
“Not complete, no, but enough until Advent season starts. I'm sure before Autumn is done they'll have the rest made for him.”
Zachary cracked his gray beak in a reptilian grin. “He does take advantage of his new strength, Father. Last week he and I lifted the frame for a new home all by ourselves!”
Wolfram nodded, “On a dare, even! I knew you could do it, but I didn't know Purvis would try it too! Hah!”
Felsah lifted the stick again, but before putting it to his incisors asked, “So he's helping build homes in Lorland?”
“Aye,” Wolfram replied. The ram scratched at the wool around the growing nub of horn. “The farmlands there are rich and doing much better than they ever did under Loriod, or so they all said. While Metamor was under quarantine, most of the refugees from Bradanes settled in Lorland. They have the land but not the homes.” Felsah nodded as he listened, remembering the many rag-covered folk seeking a place to stay while they waited for the Curses to cure them. It tore his heart to see so many reduced to such desperation, but the hope in their voices, and the confidence and bravery they had to accept whatever change would come had healed the tear.
“So now Father Purvis has organized the newcomers from Bradanes, almost all of whom are Followers, into teams to help build new homes. The native folks who remember Loriod were still not sure whose lands were whose so they are making room for them as best they can. There have been fights, but not many, or so we were told.”
Felsah lowered his chewstick and offered the pair a pleased squeak. “I am delighted to hear of this. Thank you. I hope I can see these new homes for myself sometime soon. And so your patrol has returned to Metamor now?”
“For a short rest, aye,” Wolfram said, briefly casting his gaze toward the walls as if expecting to see something there. Or rather beyond them. “Then we're off to Mycransburg for a month to help patrol there. It's what being in the Patrol is about; you never stay home for long, Father. But it is good work and I love it. I get to make new homes and friends everywhere in the valley. This will be our first time in Mycransburg and I'm looking forward to it...”
There was a sudden hesitancy in his voice and Felsah noted a glance toward the kharrakhaz sitting on the floor in front of them. “But something is amiss?”
“Not for me, but...” Wolfram gestured toward his friend, but the reptile remained silent, his beak grinding shut. “Zachary, it is you who insisted we come see a priest this morning.”
Felsah shifted on his haunches, lifting both his ears to their full height. “Zachary?”
Zachary heaved a long sigh ruffling their fur. Eyes narrowed, he reached a hand to his head and rubbed at the base of his left horn as if it pained him. His beak cracked, and his voice, rumbled across his tongue. “Something has unsettled me, Father. I could not pray my beads this morning. Foreign thoughts, strange fears, kept intruding and distracting me. And not the normal distractions, Father. Those I can pray through. These... I have not been thwarted like this since before our waters were poisoned. I fear something evil comes.”
Felsah had never met Zachary before the curses of Metamor transformed him into a massive mottled-brown and green reptile with three horns and a wide frill crowning his head. It was easy to forget at one time he had been as a leper covered in rags to hide the disfigurement done to all the people of Bradanes. But he had seen many of them in the Spring on their arrival, the last of a desolate band hanging on the twisted healing wrought by tangled magic, and felt an involuntary shudder race down his spine and tail.
He stilled the mouse inside him and turned to his potent tool. “What sort of thoughts and fears? Are these the same you faced back in Bradanes?”
Zachary shook his head, closed his eyes, and murmured as best his transformed body allowed him. “They are not the same, Father. In Bradanes I remember fearing for my family. I didn't see anything happen to them, but I just had a dread every time I picked up my beads, a terrible dread they were in trouble. And myself, Father. A few days later the sores started appearing. What happened this morning was different. I kept hearing voices.”
“Voices? Did you recognize them? What did they say?”
“It was a language I did not know. I would not have thought it a language if I were not of Metamor now. It seemed the growling of wild beasts to me, yet I could hear in them the suggestions of terrible things. I cannot remember them now, but I felt their threat. Against my friends most of all. And I even thought I heard laughter in their voices. It kept me from praying, Father. I could not even find the words to the Pater Noster. Something evil is coming, Father.”
Felsah took a deep breath and flicked his tail from side to side. He'd gnawed a good chunk from his stick while the three-horn spoke. He had seen many strange and terrifying things in just the last two years. Three years ago he would have been skeptical of Zachary's claims. Now...
“Have you any idea what these voices breaking your prayers might mean? Do you know what might be coming?”
“No, Father,” Zachary admitted, with what seemed like frustration. Wolfram grimaced, clearly also disturbed by what he heard and by his inability to help the soldier under his command. “I hoped you might know something, and perhaps help stop it.”
Felsah shook his head. “I am sorry, my son. But I know no better than you what these voices might mean. I will offer Liturgy for you and your men, Sergeant, and I will bless your weapons and your shields before you leave for Mycransburg. If these fears are of the spirit then it will be mighty protection indeed. At the very least, I can help armor your souls against whatever evil is coming.”
Zachary's eyes regained their former confidence with his offer. “Thank you, Father. Aye, I will laugh back at them if they come again!”
Felsah turned to the ram and offered a slight nod of his head. “I will bless the weapons and armor of your entire command, Sergeant Wolfram, if they will permit me. I know they are not Followers; please extend my offer to them out of love for yourself and for Zachary.”
“I will let them know, Father. Thank you.” Wolfram took a deep breath, shifted in his seat, then put his hooves down and pushed himself up. “We'll be back before Vespers, Father, even if it just us.”
Zachary grunted as he also stood. “We will wait for you at the front of the Sanctuary, Father. We would not bring our weapons inside.”
Felsah flicked his tail as hopped to his feet. “I know you won't, Zachary. Now, I want you to tell me if you continue to have these distractions during your prayers. And if you wish to pray with me in the morning, you are both welcome to do so. At least as long as you are here in Metamor.”
This offer considerably brightened the reptile's demeanor as his gray beak cracked in a wide grin. Felsah could even see the rows of teeth along either cheek inside. “Thank you, Father. I will come. If I am permitted.”
Wolfram patted Zachary on the upper arm, as high as he could reach. “Of course you can. We are resting this week. If it helps you, then you should come. I might too, but I doubt I'll get the chance, Father.”
Felsah nodded, even as he gestured toward the door back into the Sanctuary. “I understand. Is there anything else I can do for you good men?”
“Nay, Father, you have done what we hoped and more,” Wolfram replied. “Are you hearing Confessions today?”
“Aye, it is what I was going to start when you arrived.”
“Then you'll have your first two penitents in a moment, Father!” Felsah flicked his whiskers into a pleased smile as the ram erupted into a boisterous laugh.
Dark curtains hung along three walls of the Confessional filling it with a gloom even Felsah's jerboa eyes found dim. Only the wall for the confessor was visible in the tenebrous chamber with its grill of tightly woven knots of oak and ash, and even then only when the curtain was cast aside for a sinner to enter or a saint to leave. A single, sputtering candle besmirched the darkness; it brought more shadow than light, but the scent was pungent though not offensively so and served to mask all but the most aromatic of Keepers.
Felsah found the bench and cushions Hough preferred were ill-suited to his shape. After some scrounging in the store rooms – the same in which the Covenant Stone reposed – he fashioned a seat he could take in and out of the booth wide enough for him to sit on his haunches and tall enough for his head to reach the grill. The purple stole dangled across his neck as he unconsciously leaned forward. His ears were ever turned to the grill, be there a penitent or not. With each opening and closing of the door the curtain behind him would tremble, brushing across his tail and back.
“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
The familiar words were accompanied by the scuffling of heavy hooves and the awkward scratching of horns or antlers across the doorway. A brief flash of light filled the grill, but Felsah averted his gaze. The timbre of the voice was familiar, though he could not say from where. He did his best to put the inevitable question of who the penitent was from his mind.
“How long has it been since your last confession?”
The figure opposite him stirred and he heard the clatter of something hard against the wall above the grill. Felsah's heart fluttered but he stilled the mouse's anxiety. The large herbivore on the other side of the wall, voice now quiet and almost fluted, whispered, “I do not remember, Father. At least, I don't remember the last time I confessed all of my sins. The last time I was here I... did not say all. And the time before. And stretching back for a very long time, Father. I don't... I don't even know if I'm confessing my sins now.”
The last hour had brought to the booth a dozen Keepers, most of whom had only a few things they wanted to confess. Felsah even recognized some of them. Their sins were what he would expect of Followers living in a large, complicated city filled with magic. There were the greedy thoughts and envies, the gossips and the liars, the covetous desire nurtured and sometimes accomplished, and the lustful wandering eye and paw. Some admitted to using magic here and there. Felsah gnawed as they spoke, asking questions from time to time, but otherwise only listened until the time came to offer the penance and absolution.
The souls he'd forgiven so far had stumbled on the way to Yahshua. This one was lost.
Felsah tenderly set his chewstick on the bench between his toes; he curled them atop the wood to keep it from slipping and making a clatter. “Why not, my son?”
He heard a hoof scuffing across the floor and heavy breathing; his chest tightened. Ears lifted, timorous at first, determined the next.
“Because I have lived most of my life convinced the Ecclesia was wrong about this one thing. I … I have tried to serve and I have tried to be a good Follower and to uphold all she teaches in everything else. I have confessed all my lies, my wrath, my impatience, the evil thoughts I've held in my heart toward others. Father, I have confessed every time I have struck another, man or beast, in rage and when I was not acting to defend the weak. I have confessed the ill words I've spoken behind closed doors. I have confessed my rage at the Curses of Metamor for hurting those I love. I have even confessed anger I have felt toward Eli for taking away my friends and charge one fell night. But this one thing... this one thing I have never confessed because I refused to believe it was sin. I have refused...”
Felsah held his breath, waiting to see if there would be any more words. He could not completely still the curious turning of his mind to determine who the lost soul might be. A large hoofed mammal with horns or antlers from the sound of his body in the booth and from the timbre of his voice. A soldier of some sort he knew from the words shared. Names and faces flashed before him but each time one started to form he leaned toward the candle and breathed deep of its acrid flavor. The image would skitter away in pieces as his mind, eager to understand the world through scent and sound, fixed upon the peculiar blend of oils and pulpy pine mash.
Nothing more came. Felsah wrapped his hands together, knobby fingers pulling tight against each other. “What is this one thing you have refused to believe is sin?” He could not help a lost soul find its way until he knew where it was.
The figure on the other side of the grill, a mere shadow whose shape was too indistinct to decipher in the gloom, took a long deep breath, opened his mouth so as to speak, and then closed it again to draw another deep, grunting breath. Felsah could almost feel the herbivore's teeth grinding on his ears. Another five breaths, each longer and quieter than the last, and Felsah chose to wait no more. “My son, does this weight still your tongue as well as your faith?”
His ears strained to hear the whisper no louder than a last breath. “Aye.” For a moment after Felsah could not even hear the soldier's breath. His own was clutched tighter than his heart, tongue fixed to the back of his incisors, whiskers on edge.
And then there was a crash of hooves and scraping against the ceiling, a bleating trumpet roaring through the grill; Felsah jumped backward, tangling into the heavy curtain and driving one foot hard upon his tail and ripping free several tufts of fur. The chewstick scattered away and was lost in the darkness beneath him while the bench nearly toppled over. Felsah cowered in the furthest corner, quivering against the curtains for several seconds before the herbivore's bellow was spent.
“It weighs on me because I hate the Ecclesia for making this a sin! I hate hiding it and living my life behind closed doors. And I hate the lies and the fear now living in my heart; the fear it is I who is wrong, not the Ecclesia, and I have been drowning myself and those I love in sin! And I cannot tell anyone! Anyone!”
A heavy whump followed as the Keeper settled onto the kneeler on the other side of the grill, a moan escaping his throat. Felsah eased himself forward, making sure his bench was steady with a hand and a foot before scooting back on. He thumped his tail against the curtain, ears listening to the man's heavy breaths for several seconds before he dared another question. “What is this sin, my son, torturing you so?”
He heard heavy gusts of breath and felt them through the grill, filled with the earthy musk of a deer. Felsah put the name and face leaping before him from his mind and steadied himself. In the dark the mask of the Questioner fell across the jerboa's snout.
“It is... not something I think you can understand, Father. I had hoped... eh... I suppose it is you I must... I must...” Another snort followed by a grunt and the soldier said, “All right, Father. It is Sodomy. I have lain with men as with a woman. And I have loved them dearly. And I still desire the one. Yet you and the Ecclesia tell me it is wrong. I... I have heard others show me from the Canticles different ways of seeing the same words. And I believed them all these years. And it was another priest who taught me this, Father. A priest of the Ecclesia.”
Felsah felt immense sorrow for the soldier, but knew admitting it yet would only drive the man away. “But something has happened to make you question whether this is in fact sin, hasn't it?”
“Heh... aye... since before you arrived. It's taken me this long just to come here. If it is any consolation to you, Father, I have refrained all this time, as painful as it is to my squire. He doesn't understand.”
In a Confession it was generally thought best not to dig too deep into the details of the sins and merely let the penitent describe them as they wanted. But this was not an ordinary Confession. “What does he not understand? Is he with whom you have committed sodomy?”
“Aye. And before you ask, Father, I am not his first. He had been with other men before me. None has loved him for his own sake as I do. I hate hurting him in any way. He does not understand why I have become so distant and focused on his training. He does not understand why I hold myself back. But I... I am torn, Father.”
Felsah allowed him a moment more to catch his breath. The eruption of only moments before seemed to be spent, and now only a bitter regret filled the knight's voice. Physical fear was past – he hoped – but Felsah knew his words mattered even more than before. This was a soul dangling off a precipice hanging by a thread. He had climbed some, but could yet to decide to let go and disappear into the abyss hungry beneath him.
And what of the squire? Was he also perched upon a ledge, unknowing?
“I believe you, my son. I believe you do love your squire. You want his true and fullest good, for such is love.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“Our true and ultimate good is not in this life, my son. It is one reason many of the things the Ecclesia teaches us our own hearts sometimes rebel against. The allure of this world is unfathomable. Yet we are not made for this world. The teachings are often not what some of us priests might even like. But pride, the chief of all sins, leads us to believe we have greater spiritual insight than those to whom Yahshua entrusted His Ecclesia. I must submit even my own judgment to her, difficult as I can find it at times. And I make mistakes. In this we are no different.”
The knight snorted, and a sudden distance seemed to enter his voice. “So it is my pride keeping me from accepting what the Ecclesia teaches? Is it not pride keeping the Ecclesia from questioning itself? The Canticles tell us to question every spirit and prophet to know if they are from Eli. Have you questioned this?”
Felsah's heart tightened and his claws pressed into his palms. On what foundation had this knight's sin been laid? “When it has been the unanimous testimony of the saints and all who have studied the Canticles for centuries, why should I question it? The moral teachings of the Ecclesia come not from the whims of men but the Spirit Most Holy. We can only come to understand them better; they do not change, for what is holy and what is sin do not change; they are immutable because they govern our relations to Eli who is immutable.”
He paused for a few seconds, and he could hear the knight's breathing grow louder. “But I do not know what you have been told, my son. You learned this other way of seeing the Canticles from a priest?”
“Aye, Father, I did. And he is not the only one who sees it. I know there are many more who do not believe the Ecclesia has understood this right. But if they speak, they will be cast out and sent to die, so they keep silent.”
Felsah wondered just how many there were. But of them he could do little. Only this soul mattered. “Yet, my son, here you are. You are conflicted. You do not wish it to be sin yet you fear it is. You fear the sin you have committed and you fear the harm you have brought to those you love. Do you fear also the loves and places in this world you will lose if you turn away from this sin?”
The tension ebbed with a long sigh. The deer's voice seemed to fade with each word. “Aye, I fear.”
“Did the fear bring you here today?”
“Maybe. I don't know what I hoped for. I want to stop being conflicted. I want to be able to love Yahshua without secrets. I want to love my squire and I want him to love Yahshua too. He's... trying. I fear if I tell him our love is a sham and what brought us together is sin and evil I will push him away forever. And I fear the doubts sowed in me now is the temptation, the evil, and what the priest and others have told me is the truth after all, and I would ruin everything by listening to them.”
Delicate now. “I cannot give you what you seek, my son. Without true contrition for your sins I cannot give you absolution. If I cannot give you absolution your soul will remain in conflict. You cannot live a life of sodomy with your squire and not persist in secrets and lies. Even in Metamor. Many probably already know and keep the secret to spare your reputations. But aye, to return fully to the arms of the Ecclesia you must risk pain and anguish as far as your squire is concerned. You cannot save his soul, just as I cannot save yours. This task is his own; we can only help him with prayers and fasting and our genuine love. It must be a love seeking nothing for itself, but only giving and seeking the good of the beloved. This love cannot bring harm, cannot will harm, cannot desire harm. Sin is harm, my son, the gravest and most perilous of all harm. Suffering is what our savior did in His long walk to the Yew, bore down by the instruments of His execution, the spits and jeers of the crowd, and the sneering abuses of the Suielman soldiers. If you wish to reach the Yew you are going to have to endure the same, as will your squire. Not a one of us can escape it, my son. We will all be scarred. You have already been scarred, as have I. You have lost many friends. I pray you do not lose these. But I pray more fervently you will listen, contemplate this in your heart, and seek Yahshua before all else, accepting the wounds and scars bravely, as you would in any other battle. For this is the most harrowing and important battle of your life. Not for country. Not for honor. Not for riches. But for eternity.”
There was silence on either side of the confessional. Seconds trickled past with only the muffled scrape of hoof and antler, the digging of little claws into wood, and the mysterious exhalations of breath and thought. Beyond Felsah could hear the murmurings of other penitents come for Confession, each retreated to the other side of the Sanctuary to avoid hearing words meant only for the sinner, the priest, and Eli. In his heart many other questions fluttered – how many others had the knight committed sodomy with, the priest perhaps, how long had he been tempted to this sin, who else among the Ecclesia taught these lies – but he set them aside for now. For a full accounting they would be needed but the knight would be driven away if he asked them now. Instead he leaned toward the candle and prayed. Eli, help this man. Have mercy.
He heard the knight shift and the sound of a hoof pressing into wood. “Father, I will contemplate. I will fast and pray. But I make no other promise. I ask of you one thing. If I show you in the Canticles what I have learned, will you contemplate, will you fast, and will you pray to understand it and learn the truth?”
Felsah did not let the sigh of relief escape his lungs. “I will, my son. I will. May Eli bless you, my son.”
“And you, Father.” Without another word the deer knight rose, antlers scraping the walls one more time, and departed. The flash of light as the penitent's door was opened hurt his eyes. It swung shut to emptiness.
Felsah exhaled and crumpled where he crouched.
Another dozen penitents sought absolution, and while a few confessed terrible sins, Felsah could sense their genuine sorrow and provided each the forgiveness they needed. When the last literally slithered out of the confessional Felsah waited another few minutes in silence. Only his heart spoke and each word was a prayer for the penitents, especially the deer knight. After no other came he opened the door and searched the floor for his fallen chewstick. This he stuck sideways in his jaw behind his incisors while he lifted his stool over his shoulders.
He blinked several times in the now bright light of the sanctuary, flicking his ears in an attempt to shadow them, but they would not bend forward unless he yanked them. With the stool in his right arm, he wrapped the fingers of his left hand about the end of his left ear and tried to pull it around. He took one hopping step and the stool slipped and landed on his foot. He squeaked and found himself hopping up and down while licking his toes.
When he realized what he was doing he forced himself to stand still and set his stinging foot down. He then picked up the chewstick he'd spat, and righted the stool before taking his ears and yanking them over his eyes again. He could just wait until it didn't hurt to have them open.
Soft paws crept behind him. “Do you need help, Father?”
“Ah, Richard, I could use another hand here.”
“I've some paws I can lend, this doesn't look too heavy for me.”
“My eyes are almost ready, I can help carry it.”
“Nonsense, where do you want it, Father?”
Felsah chittered an amused sigh, wiggled his now sore toes, and eased his ears back from his eyes a finger's width. He squinted, but he could see the stone and walls now. “My cell will be fine, thank you, my son.”
While Richard followed, Felsah hopped with the chewstick stuck between his teeth and his hands holding his ears close to his face. He fumbled only a moment at the door to the side passage leading back to their quarters. The light was much easier on his eyes there and once safely through he let go of his ears and they flopped back behind his head. “I must remember to ease myself out next time. Or let more light in when I hear Confessions. Jerboa eyes yearn for twilight.”
“As do mouse eyes,” Richard noted. Felsah could see the seminarian's whiskers twitching, ears flat against the back of his head, and he hoisted the stool over his arched back. It looked as heavy and awkward for him as it had been for himself.
“Here, hand me one side.”
The two mice shifted the stool about so they each carried half. Felsah did his best not to hop. Richard bore an irritated moue weighing heavier than the wood.
When they finally set it down in the jerboa's cell, Felsah patted the wood as he thumped his tail tuft across the stone floor. “I will need to find a better way to do this; it takes a little while becoming used to our new size, does it not?”
“Aye,” Richard admitted while stretching. “I've been this small for three years now, Father. I don't know if I'll ever be used to it.”
“You suffered the curses at thirteen?”
The mouse nodded, fumbling at his side for something but found nothing. “I was the tallest in my family. Now I'm shorter than my sister who's stuck as a child. I'd wanted to be a soldier, but even scouting is too hard; the anxiety this mouse body gives me at every noise; I just couldn't handle it, Father. And my family are masons; I've no strength for it anymore. So right after the Patriarch's visit they suggested I become a priest too. And here I am.”
Felsah nodded as he listened. Many priests had come unwillingly; some became great saints. “Would you care to sit, my son? I am willing to listen if this is something your heart needs to share.” And if Richard demured but still complained, then in time he would demand it.
Richard scuffed his toes against Felsah's sleeping mat and shrugged his shoulders. “I'm not sure what to say. I was strong and now I'm weak. I never wanted to be a priest but here I am studying to become one. I'm not sorry I'm here, Father, and I don't mind being a priest, and most days I am looking forward to it, but... I just hate how the Curses took everything else from me. And I hate being a scared little mouse all the time.”
Felsah recalled Zachary's tale of going from a small man with nimble fingers into the hulking three-horned reptilian giant and the difficulties he encountered every day because of his size. There were many things he could say to Richard, and many ways he could sympathize. He was a mouse too, but also a jerboa with all of their peculiarities. But Felsah was not going to offer complaints in front of a seminarian, especially one with such a good heart, even if it needed tempering.
“You do attend the monthly Gnawer's group; have they helped?”
Richard glanced at the stool and the shrugged. “I suppose. I don't feel quite as small and helpless around them, or you, Father. But I'm a mouse. The rats and the other rodents, especially the beavers, are all larger than me. I know there are supposed to be some Keepers who are smaller, but I don't know of any. Maybe if I'd been a man like you had been for a while before this it wouldn't seem as bad. I just never had the chance and I know I never will.”
“There are many things we never have the chance to know.” His dream of the jerboa village came to him and he allowed a smile to touch his snout. “But even mice have courage. Whether in large numbers or by themselves, they can have courage and so do you, Richard. At our new size we merely have to find different ways to show it. Every time we walk the streets we need it! How many times were you afraid you would be crushed by horse hooves or wagon wheels today?”
Richard flicked his tail around and cradled the end. “One of them did nearly run over my tail.”
“And there are other ways, we can find them together. I have not tried it myself, but I understand we can take on the shape of the natural animal with which the Curse has blended us. Have you done so?”
“Once or twice, curiosity and all,” Richard admitted.
“Perhaps we can do so together and explore. The world may not seem so big and threatening after we see if from an even smaller stature.”
His fellow mouse offered a small squeak, whiskers spreading in a smile. “Well, there are a few places I know here. But when could we?”
“We are nocturnal, my son. After Compline if there is not time before. Not every night, we do need our sleep, but Eli did not give us these shapes without reason. Perhaps this was how He chose to bring you here, and more, how He chose for you to become a Saint. Part of this must be understanding what these now bodies allow us to do. We never know when we might just need it.”
Richard laughed and nodded. “Thank you, Father. I'm actually looking forward to it. But I should really go check on Rakka. He's probably finished his food by now.”
Felsah laughed too. “He'll be running in circles if you don't. Take care of our friend and then return for None prayers. I'll begin preparations.” He rested his hand on the stool and scratched the top with his claws. “And thank you again for helping me with this. I must find a better way.”
“I know some parishioners in the carpenter's guild. Perhaps they can help?”
“Then we will be sure to ask for it tomorrow!”
Patric returned two candlemarks after the None prayers and found the two mice in the common area they shared their meals. Felsah and Richard were deep in discussion over a repast of bread, cheese, and potato; the sweet smell of Father Hough's cider wafted from their cups. Between them on the table was a set of parchments, quill, and ink, on which Richard both practiced his letters and noted their ideas for other parishioners to visit during the week and for those who might help them fashion the adjustments to make life as a priestly mouse a little easier. Beneath the table Rakka growled happily as he gnawed on a bone.
Felsah stood taller on the bench, careful his Questioner robe did not slip forward and upset his cup. “Ah, Deacon, welcome back. There is enough for you, and even some seasoned jerky. How fare things at Master Lidaman's home?”
One of Patric's eye strayed to the third plate of food set at the table, while the other remained on the jerboa. His long fingers cradled a sealed letter. “Sister Perpetua and Sister Mina are still there, but Elsie is breathing much better already. Master Lidaman bade me ask you, Father, to pay them a visit this evening.”
Felsah's ears lifted up. “In sooth? Then I shall pay him a visit. I will need either you or Richard to guide me; I do not know where he lives.”
“We could both go,” Richard suggested.
Patric flicked one eye toward the other mouse but kept the first on the Questioner. “Do you need one of us to stay?”
“I do not know yet.” He gestured at what the sealed letter. “What do you have there, Patric?”
The chameleon lifted it and held it out as he walked to the table. “I found one of the Keep messengers waiting outside the Cathedral; they had a letter for you.” He stuck his tongue out. “I don't think he wanted to deliver it to you, Father.”
Felsah tapped his thumb claws against the red cross on his black cassock. “I see. Well, take your meal while I tend to this. Richard, why don't you tell Patric what we have been working on and see if he has any ideas or things he might like to see done.”
Richard swallowed a morsel of cheese and flashed an incisor-filled grin. “I will, Father!”
Father Felsah shut the door to his cell, set the letter down on the small writing table the Keep had given him, and then lit a tall candle. Once the flame was steady he used it to light a small oil lamp; he turned the brass knob to extend the wick until a warm glow filled the cell. He blew out the candle, then took lamp and letter and settled down on his sleeping mat. He sat on his haunches, tail curling around his long feet.
Hunching forward, he turned the letter over and traced his claws across the seal. The wax was red and the cross burned into it had been blackened by flame.
The Questioner's seal.
He lifted the letter to his snout and, turning it over in his hands, sniffed for every morsel of scent he could. The odor of horses were strong, as well as dog – likely the Keep messenger who almost delivered it – and more faintly he could see the touch of trees, grass, mud, and even man upon the vellum. But there was nothing of sand, cedar, figs, or desert flower about it. Likely not from Grand Master Kehthaek then. He felt a pang of disappointment; he'd had no word from his mentor and friend since he'd left Yesulam at Advent for his journey to a new, and most likely permanent, life of service at Metamor.
Which meant it was most likely from Akaleth who should reach Yesulam in another few weeks at worst; it was always harder to traverse the marshes from Marilyth, climb the series of ridges keeping the desert back, and then across the hard-packed sand and jagged stone roads from Korazin to Yesulam in the scorching heat of Summer. He offered a quick prayer for their safe passage, made the sign of the Yew, and broke the seal.
He felt both surprise and delight to see a very tight script packing many words upon the three pages folded together. He wondered how Akaleth had kept the ink from smearing.
Llarth, 28th of May, 708 Cristos Reckoning
Father Felsah, brother and friend, I write to you now in hopes my message will renew your confidence and give you hope for the future of the mission lands to which you have been sent. In some ways I wish I had been sent as well and have confessed to an unreasonable amount of time pondering just what the Curses might have done to me. Sir Czestadt suggested `snake' and I am still trying to understand what he means by it; I think he may be jesting with me, but perhaps it is a compliment as well – the snakes of Stuthgansk are not venomous and often welcomed on homesteads. Still, I have not decided one way or the other and Czestadt won't say more. He is a fierce soldier and it is a rare moment when I can draw a full answer from him; how humiliating for a Questioner! Sir Kashin is even more reticent and only chortled when I posed the question.
Hugo suggested `rat' and from him it is surely a compliment. In the nearly three months now we have been traveling together the Marigund mage who I have taken on has healed from his physical wounds and I believe is also starting to heal from his spiritual ones. When he smiles during our talks on our long journey, and when he masters new words in Suielish, I can see it is genuine. He still has his moments when he retreats into a corner of himself, barely speaking around our nightly meal and more often than not campfire, or only speaking to his rat Boots. But it is not as often as it once was. He listens when I offer the Liturgy, but he does not participate. All things in time.
Each of us remain in good health despite the deprivations of a journey now spanning five months. I was sent from Yesulam only a month after you and we have perhaps another two months before we reach home. I confess I enjoy the delay as it has given all of us more time to come to know each other and depend on each other. The trials of Marzac were harrowing and changed all of our lives, but in this journey Kashin, Czestadt, and myself have a chance to know each other when we are not in the midst of some terrible eldritch horror seeking to devour the world and cast it into perpetual darkness. The introduction of Hugo Maclear into our company has helped all of us turn past those events for we rarely discuss them except to tell Hugo of them. Even his rat Boots listens.
I have taken to sharing my food with Boots; it is strange to know Hugo and this animal can think to each other, even stranger to know the rat thinks at all, but he is friendly and very devoted, and perhaps the magic Hugo used to bind them together is the cause. Despite how we are accused of having a blanket condemnation of all magic as sin – and how even a few of our order have embraced such a misunderstanding – I remain unconvinced the act of binding a familiar as Hugo has done with Boots is not sinful, but it is done and cannot be undone save by death and so I say nothing of it for now to him. His life and loss are hard enough without my pestering him with theological quandaries. Boots gives him comfort and is a loyal pet and friend. It is enough.
I mentioned we have suffered a delay. Our road was to journey south to Ellcaran from Metamor, and then take the ridge road through the western Midlands through Llarth and once we reached the river charter a ship to carry us to Marilyth and perhaps up the Yurdon. We may yet take the river as it would save us a few weeks, but I begin to wonder if perhaps we should continue across land. This time together has been good for us, and especially for Hugo. To be in the home so soon of the Ecclesia, something he was taught to hate all his life... I wish to give him more time to come to grips with this, to see it come gradually and to walk in the same places our Savior walked. When we reach the river I will have to make a decision, so I should have another two weeks to contemplate.
The delay we have already experienced was waiting for us in Ellcaran. Emissaries from Bishop Tyrion Verdane were waiting for us there and summoned us to Kelewair. Word of our passage through all the duchies of the Midlands reached his grace's ears and naturally he wished an audience. As we had no mandate to return direct to Yesulam we accompanied the emissaries. The districts through which we traveled were still recovering from the civil war they endured in the last year, a war in which our own order played a shameful role. We rode direct through Mallow Horn and the demeanor there is grim; Lady Anya Dupré hosted us two nights and asked about all sorts of things, seeking rumors and news from afar. Most interesting though was in how she asked after her exiled husband – we had heard rumors he was sent to Metamor but heard nothing of him while we were there, you will want to look into him and learn if he is well. He has a young daughter of eight named Lydia and son of five named Timas who enjoyed petting Boots and seeing the little magics Hugo could do. The boy did not understand right away when the subject of Metamor was broached, but his sister did. She put it bluntly what her mother would not – they spoke of their exiled father. At this the boy cried. The servants and all of the courtiers at Mallow Horn were torn. Lady Anya was most displeased at the outburst.
I mention this incident because Lydia came unbidden to our rooms late into the night and begged us to have word sent about their father. If you can learn anything of him and how he fares, and what the Curses of Metamor have done to him, it will bring comfort to these children. I am not sure how you can do so, but there ought to be a way. I know this is one more challenge upon a mountain already upon your shoulders, but such is the blessed weight of the Yew. As you know, I've never been very good with children, but it is never too late to start.
Our time in Kelewair was not much longer. Duke Verdane was more hospitable than Metamor's Duke, but only because he feted us one night of the four we stayed at Bishop Tyrion's request. We briefly met the third Dupré child, Jory, though he was introduced to us as Jory Verdane, not Dupré. I wonder if Anya keeping her husband's name is to assuage the people of Mallow Horn or to spite her father. Duke Titian Verdane is cold and distant and I had the impression he is a ruler who believes the good of his lands is driven by the good of his family; and his family has suffered much in the last year and still suffers. He keeps an empty seat at his table for his captive son Jaime. And during our brief visit he was quite explicit in describing the contemptible actions of the Questioners during their civil war. I think if he were in a stronger political position he would have had all of them executed and risked Yesulam's ire. Bishop Tyrion keeps those who survived the war separated for now, only a few have been allowed out of the monasteries since.
I do not condemn the choice especially given the likelihood I would have gladly joined them before the events of last year. As you know.
Bishop Tyrion is an interesting man and there is much of his father in him, but being born with a clubfoot and his time in the clergy has softened the hardness. He was much interested in our visit to Metamor and to hear of what we saw and our thoughts of the land and its people. He also was very interested in our visit to Marigund. We described the reasons we were invited and the struggle against Marzac, but we did not discuss the vagaries of our treatment in the faith-riven city. He was glad to hear of our report both you and Father Hough passed on to us of conditions in Metamor and what the two new priests have already accomplished.
I think he wanted some time to know us and judge us before he told us the news I am now passing on to you. I believe his grace's desire to tend to the Follower souls of Metamor is genuine but tempered by political concerns due to the animosity between his house and the Hassan house. Souls he wishes to save, aye, but his family's honor and prestige still matter to him, and he fights within himself against it. You already told me of what happened during his visit to Metamor, though he did not say it we heard whispers his return to Kelewair caused an uproar from his father.
But not long after he returned he sent a missive to Yesulam ahead of us, and gave us another copy to ensure its safe arrival, advocating a new diocese for the Northern Midlands and recommending Father Hough as its first Bishop. I leave it up to you if you wish to inform Father Hough of this. Given Metamor's unique situation it seems appropriate and he has been there longer than anyone else. Having the authority to consecrate priests on his own will do much to expand your little community. You will have much to contend with regarding some of the rather lax morals and ignorance of Ecclesia teaching; this is no different from any other Diocese, but those areas of most concern to you and to Father Hough are different. You've no need of me to remind you how.
I still bear in my possession the letters you wished me to deliver to Yesulam. I insist you allow Father Kehthaek to send you a Yesbearn knight of your own if this Zachary fellow will not consent to it. I will also work to have additional reliable couriers established, even one willing to brave Metamor's curses, so we may correspond at need. We have nothing nearer than Ellcaran so I can only hope and pray this letter reaches you unmolested. Keep an eye on Father Hough and help him understand all of the greater challenges within the Midlands, especially if he is named Bishop. If it does come to pass and he begins to consecrate priests I am confidant Father Kehthaek will want to assign a second or third Questioner to assist you and he. Do not expect any such help for years; none of the others will have a magical metal fox to vouch for them.
I find it took such a voice to be one more of Eli's great mysteries. I almost envy you the field in which you have been given to sow. Still, I'm not quite sure I wish to be a snake, even if Czestadt truly thinks well of them!
Sir Kashin, Sir Czestadt, and Hugo Maclear send their greetings as well. May Yahshua guide you and bless you abundantly. I hope to return and see you again in a few years.
Your servant, Akaleth
His whiskers and tail twitched as he read. Sometimes into a smile, other times into a moue. The news was on the whole welcome and he wondered whether he should tell Father Hough anything of it. At the very least, with Hough away for two weeks he had plenty of time to consider it.
Felsah lifted the letter to his snout to savor the scents held tight, before he carefully folded it and pressed down on the seal. The broken wax would not hold it closed, but it would protect the words until he had time to write a letter in return. Akaleth was right – they would need dedicated couriers. He would need to learn from Hough if there were any Followers he could trust with the task.
He closed his eyes, and with the letter pressed between his hands, folded them in prayer.
Yahshua, watch over my friends. Bless them and lead them safely home. Help us help all your people. Help us be unafraid.
Felsah made the sign of the Yew and pressed the letter to his snout one last time to kiss it.
After inspecting the Sanctuary to see if there were any other Followers in need but finding none, Felsah decided to bring both Patric and Richard with him on the summons to the Lidaman house. The jerboa Questioner forced himself to walk so they could speak together as they made their way through the ever-changing halls of the Keep. In low voices they discussed his plans for the remainder of the week and the other merchant families Felsah wished to visit in his hopes of starting his little school. Patric and Richard listened, then took turns explaining why some of the families could never support his ideas and suggesting others who might.
Their way through the Keep made a sharp turn down a small ramp into a long transverse hall. Felsah had never seen it before but he'd found the Keep was often sending him down twisty little passages all alike but never the same. Each passage in the Keep carried with it scents from all who had trod before them, and knowing each hall and balcony and stair were before them only because the spirit animating the very stones around them willed it deliberately, or at least permitted it, there was a purpose within each who'd shared those steps with them, and a purpose in their sharing those steps too.
Richard's voice dwindled away as a particular scent struck his nose, a musky, earthy scent, colored by water and by fish. Shadows swelled beside him, the walls of stone falling away into the murk. Footfalls echoed around him as he stood, shapes mingling into nebulous clouds, cold and dry. Clay surrounded him, straw beneath him, and a figure hovering over him, eyes limned by a spectral light. Felsah rose upward as a face riven by a bright red scar leaned forward. An arm thrust, hand curled tight, and the priest crumpled beneath the blow. Another blow sent his face hurtling against the straw, bones cracking.
The scent, miserable and thick, filled the hay and floor, wet with tears and now wet with the iron of blood. A beast had laid here, a beast but not an animal. Now he laid there, trying to rise, only to be struck back down. A face blackened by a mask surrounding dark green eyes, tapered in a narrow snout with wide cheeks and short ears, had laid there before his arrival. Where his legs sprawled had been a tail, soft and ringed with light and dark bands. Voices whispered; questions he could not recall, but lingered there. Where had the beast gone? Where? Where?
“Here,” Felsah murmured, and then hopped on ahead of his startled companions. He reached the bottom of the landing and peered down both sides of the hall, sniffing for one moment, before launching himself down the right path. Patric and Richard rushed after him.
The passage made another turn a dozen paces ahead and there Felsah stopped, waving the others to stop as well. He could see around an ancient statue of a knight a pair of figures dressed in gray livery. The nearer was three-toed with a short tail, stocky of build, with a short protruding nose dangling over his mouth. The other was a raccoon. Both appeared to be young men ready to prove themselves in battle. They bore spears, though each also had a sword sheathed at their side. And though their backs were to the jerboa, he could hear their voices as if they spoke to his face.
“Are you sure it is necessary to have us march around like this? I've traveled the length of Sathmore by paw already.”
The tapir lifted his snout and patted the raccoon on the shoulder. “With traveling packs and musical instruments, aye. But with a sword or spear? The weight is different and you need to be used to having it with you. You wouldn't want to go into battle with a sore hip and a weak leg now would you?”
The raccoon grimaced and straightened the sword at his side. Though the were walking, Felsah thought them no further away than before. “Nay. I would also prefer not going into battle at all.”
“Only a fool does,” the tapir agreed. “But it is only patrol, Elvmere. Might we see battle, aye, but we're more likely to spend our time walking up and down the road looking impressive and stopping strange wagons to inspect their wares.”
“I thought there were brigands to the south.”
“Oh aye, some of those. But they prefer the woods and usually avoid the roads. This is your first patrol. We won't go too far from the roads the first week.”
Felsah could see Patric and Richard approaching. Both slowed to a stop a few paces before the corner. Richard's ears were lifted to hear, but bore only a moue of consternation.
The raccoon ceased fiddling with the sword at his side and wrapped both of his black hands about the spear haft. “I'm surprised the Lothanasa agreed for us to go on a two week patrol. It's a long way to be away from the Temple.”
“In the Winter they try to keep patrols short to keep us from freezing to death. This is Summer, Elvmere. And in the south there's going to be a lot more travelers to keep an eye on. Longer patrols means more ground can be covered and protected. Besides, a good long patrol will be good for you. And you are ready for it. Honestly, Elvmere, you're getting to be dangerous with your sword.”
“Thank you, Tamsin. I am trying to master it. I... I just wonder. Will I be able to use it if I have to? I... I've never drawn a sword against any man.”
“Not everyone can. But in battle, if we face one, you must do it, Elvmere. It is never easy and no good man likes it. But it is duty and a good man bears it bravely. Duty to your own life and to the life of your brother soldiers. We're all going to depend on you to fight with us.”
The raccoon straightened and his grip on the spear tightened. “I will do my best not to disappoint you, Tamsin. So... two more days then?”
“Unless George changes his mind again, aye. Tomorrow we'll get to meet the others in the patrol group...”
Raccoon and tapir disappeared around a corner and Felsah realized he could no longer hear them. He seethed a moment as he stared down the passage before turning aside and shaking his head. Patric crept to his side and gazed after him, turning his eyes all about before settling one on the priest. “What did you see? You look... pale, Father.”
Felsah glanced at the chameleon and the mouse and then back down the hall. The scent lingered in his snout, unforgettable. His tony was icy and crisp, the mask of the Questioner stilling his whiskers and jowls. “I saw two Lothanasi acolytes. One of them... was familiar to me. Do not concern yourselves with this and do not speak of it. Let us make haste to Master Lidaman's house.”
Nothing more was said.
Most of the merchants of Keeptowne either lived above their business or nearby. Master Lidaman, due to the nature of money-lending, kept his house of business adjacent to his family home in a large but still modest manor house nestled plumb between other aristocratic homes. The fires of the Winter Assault had not reached this neighborhood, but many of the windows and adornments were new suggesting they had not escape unscathed.
The Lidaman home was shaped like an 'L' with the counting house offices facing the street and a small courtyard with flowers and trees and even a little pond sitting between the dusty stone street and the rest of the house. Soldiers did not stand outside guarding the entrance, but Felsah could see slits in the second floor walls through which they could watch and fire arrows if necessary. However, outside of the garden and the expected decorations, there was little to draw the eye to the Lidaman home. It was fancy enough to belong among its neighbors but no more.
Felsah gazed at his shadow stretching before him along the stone path through the trees. With the late afternoon sun behind them the tips of his ears could brush the edge of the small pond. The path ended at the main house and a wide brass-banded oaken door beneath an ornate transom filled with stained glass. The rest of the main house was obscured by heavy boughs of ash and birch.
“Father?” Patric leaned forward and turned one eye to him. “Why do you stand there? You were invited.”
Felsah lowered his ears a moment and chuffed. “I have not been welcomed by many in this land. But you're right. Let us see what he wishes of me.”
He hopped down the path, the scent of asters, daisies, and dahlias tingling his whiskers. A strand of a gentle violin melody drifted from one of the second floor windows. Patric and Richard followed him, with Richard noting, “This part of Keeptowne is lovely in Autumn, Father.”
Felsah remembered. His first visit to Metamor had been in the Autumn, but he decided not to remind the mouse of it. “I look forward to it then. I have seen the leaves of these kind of trees change color before. Still...”
As they approached one of the doors opened. A splotchy-furred terrier in well-cut gray and brown stood stiff and attentive. “Good evening, my master bids you welcome and to accompany me to his side. I understand you are Father Felsah of the Ecclesia?”
“I am. And what is your name, good sir?”
“You may call me Conley, sir.” The terrier turned to his side and gestured with a sweep of his arm for the three of them to enter.
“Thank you, Conley,” Felsah murmured as he hopped across the threshold and blinked at the dimmer light within. Once all three were inside he shut the door, leaving only the light through the stained glass and the lit lamps at either end of the entrance hall. The colors stretched across the far wall like a coat of arms amid fields, forests, mountains, and cities. The wall itself was unadorned, leaving only the play of light to illumine an ever moving painting. Open doorways on the left and right led into the rest of the house. Conley walked to the right.
He led them through a well-apportioned drawing room and up a flight of stairs; the stairs were narrow enough Felsah had to walk up sideways on account of his long feet. The sound of the violin was clear, playing a soothing melody ever turning on itself and ever varied. At the top of the stairs there was a closed door on their left and an open sitting room framed by additional closed doors. Two figures sat discussing some affair, a youth who was dressed as a clerk and clearly a man, and a familiar pangolin – Kendrick Urseil. The bronze-plated creature blinked in surprise as he saw the three religious turn toward the one of the far doors, and then resumed his conversation with the dark-haired boy.
Conley rapped his knuckles on the door and called, “Master Lidaman, your guests have arrived.”
Felsah heard footfalls beyond the door and a momentary pause in the violin music. The melody began again, fainter now, as the door opened. Warmth spilled from the room, and inside Felsah saw another young man blond-haired and on the cusp of manly growth but never reaching it and behind him a tabby standing in one corner making the music, and a large bed in which sat a gentle cow sipping from a bowl of soup. On the other side of the bed stood one of the sisters, rubbing a damp cloth across the cow's broad forehead. Her eyes turned to the doorway and suggested a smile.
Lidaman's tenor voice was crisp and direct. “Ah, thank you, Conley. Gadfrey, would you be so kind as to attend to your wife for a moment while I entertain these men.”
The dark-haired youth smiled to the pangolin, rose, and nodded to his father-in-law and employer. “Of course, Master.” He smiled politely to the religious, slipped inside the room and pulled the door shut behind him.
“Come sit, Father. Kendrick, you are more than welcome to stay if you wish.”
The pangolin rose and waved his long claws. “Thank you, Master Lidaman, but it is late and I should be off. I will tell my family the good news about Elsie.”
“I will thank them for their kindness properly when my daughter is well enough to be out of bed. Good night.”
Felsah let Patric take the seat already warmed by the pangolin before selecting an upholstered chaise close by. Richard sat where Gadfrey had been a moment before. With all of his guests seat, Lidaman finally reclined, hands crossed over his lap in a relaxed but guarded posture. “Welcome to my home, Father Felsah. Patric, Richard, it is good to see both of you again. May I interest you in anything to eat or drink?”
“Thank you; whatever you wish to provide is agreeable,” Felsah twitched his whiskers into a smile as he pulled his legs beneath him on the wide chaise. His tail dangled off the other end and he could feel the tip brushing across the wood floor.
Conley did not wait for instructions but disappeared through the closed door near the top of the stairs. Felsah surmised the front half of the house facing the street was for the servants and guards. “I was informed you heard of my daughter's illness from Lady Halvemore. I have you to thank for bringing it to the attention of the Sisters. I have not had much opportunity to grow acquainted with them since their arrival six months ago. But even we Lothanasi have heard of the good they have done for the poor and sick of Keeptowne. I gladly welcomed them into my home and Elsie is already showing improvement under their care.”
Lidaman stood from his seat and bowed toward the jerboa. “From the depths of my heart, thank you, Father Felsah. I do not know when my physician will be able to return, perhaps tomorrow or the day after. Either way, his job will be far easier now.” He rose and sat back down, and Felsah could see, despite his youth, lines creasing his forehead. “Elsie is my only daughter, my youngest child. I have three boys, all married with families of their own. I delight in being a grandfather to their children. But a daughter... she is the priceless gem, the greatest treasure and beauty, the most sterling hope any father can have. A son needs discipline and direction. A daughter requires far more from her father. I give her everything I can, and it has pained me these last few days not to be able to give her her health back. You have helped me, a Lothanasi, and I have invited you here, not only to thank you, but to know you better, Father Felsah, and to understand why.”
Conley returned with a platter of small sausages, bread, and cheese. This he set on the table between them before disappearing again. Patric took one of the sausages while Richard and Felsah started with the bread.
Lidaman pursed his lips and heaved a sigh. “I have had some dealings with Father Hough these last two years and have found him an honorable man. I have never had either the pleasure or the misfortune to deal with a Questioner. I know of your friendship with the metal fox and it speaks well of your character. However, you are still a Questioner and the acts of your Order are not easily forgotten. Nor the uproar your first visit to Metamor occasioned. So I ask you, Father Felsah, why did you resolve to help my daughter? What do you hope to gain from it? There are many suffering in Metamor who lack my resources. Why not help them?”
Felsah gnawed for a moment and then cradled the bread in his hand. Conley returned with a trio of goblets suitable for beastly snouts and a ewer of wine. When he finished pouring, he set the ewer down on the table and stood by the door to Elsie's room from which the sound of the violin was all they heard.
“Before I answer, please let me thank you for your hospitality and for your honesty, Master Lidaman. Also, you said your daughter is improving, but what of her child?”
Lidaman cast a glance toward the door and the terrier standing watch. “Sister Perpetua said she is too early to tell for sure, but she was confidant the child would also be well. Elsie was quite over the moon when we learned she was with child last month. When my physician returns he will be able to tell us more.”
Felsah nodded and sipped the wine. It tasted dry with a hint of peach. “As you know, we learned of your daughter's ailment from Lady Halvemore. She had come to visit the Urseils and to spread the ill news. While it is true there are many in Metamor who suffer and have no money to see healers of any faith or training, I have never cared for the thought of sharing bad news with no hope of finding someone who can help. I do not believe Lady Halvemore had any interest in finding help for your daughter, and so I chose to inform the Sisters. Neither they nor I have offered our help in the hopes of any remuneration. Your daughter had need, and so we came.”
“And would you reject remuneration were it offered?”
Felsah shook his head. “No.”
Lidaman crossed his legs. “And yet you tell me you have no hopes for an offering. Why should I believe you? Saying you expect nothing you don the mantle of piety and humble service. Is it true or is it calculated? I have heard it said a Questioner is trained never to show what they really feel. How can I ever know your concern for my daughter and her child is honest?”
Richard's eyes bulged and Patric almost choked on his wine.
“I can only offer you my assurances and my deeds. If it is not enough for today, perhaps in time, as you see my deeds in Metamor, it will be.”
Lidaman's expression remained unmoved. “And why are you here in Metamor?”
Felsah took another sip of wine and twitched his whiskers. One eye strayed to the terrier whose ears lifted high for a moment before he turned and slipped inside Elsie's bedroom. “I was sent to survey the state of the Follower community in Metamor Valley and make recommendations to the Bishop on how to strengthen it; and if I saw a need I could answer, to answer it. The arrival of the refugees from Bradanes, Followers all, has strained what Father Hough could do alone. His efforts have been heroic, but he needs help here. And so here I am.”
“And what do you see of the Follower community?”
“They love Metamor as their home and bravely face the challenges faced only here.” Felsah bit off another chunk of bread and then reached for one of the sausages before Patric ate them all. “Of their particular needs I will not speak before those who are not Followers.”
“And why not? Are you afraid we Lothanasi might use it against you to drive you from our land or bring your children to the Light?”
Felsah kept his expression still. There was no apparent hostility in Lidaman's tone or posture. But still, the boy was almost as adept as a senior Questioner at masking his motive with his questions. No wonder he was so successful and well-respected. “I do not believe you have any such intentions, nor the Lothanasa. I will not speak of their needs due to my priestly vows. You, Master Lidaman, know very well the importance of keeping your word to your fellow merchants and to your liege. My word has been given to Eli. How much more faithful I must be!”
Lidaman said nothing for a moment, his thumbs rubbing together where his hands were clasped in his lap. Behind him the terrier opened the door, laughing at some unheard joke as he carried Elsie's soup bowl and spoon. His ears perked again as he turned and saw neither his master nor his guests speaking, grew immediately silent, and hurried toward the kitchens.
Richard and Patric ate and drank in silence, eyes passing between their host and the priest.
Lidaman lifted his thumbs to his lips for a moment before setting both hands down on the cushion at his sides. “Father Felsah, my family has lived at Metamor for many generations dating back to Ovid. The Patildor have been here for only two, and those of my father's generation were often in secret. Everywhere you Followers have come has seen nothing but conflict and war. The stewardship of the elves, the stability of Suielman, all of it has fallen. I do not pretend this is entirely the fault of your Ecclesia, but I have long been concerned with your growing influence and anxious to know what it might mean for my beloved home.
“I am not a religious zealot who believes you must all bend knee to the Light to be worthy of my respect or admiration, or even my trust. I hope one day you truly do win mine. What the Sisters have done for not only my daughter but those stricken by the plague has given me hope our two faiths can one day live together in peace and brotherhood. What you have done this day has given me hope you are also the sort of man who will help foster such a dream.
“But know this, if my hope is false and I learn you seek to foment strife in my home and pit Patildor against Lothanasi, I will do everything in my power to frustrate you and drive you back to Yesulam. And my power is considerable and unexpected. I tell you this in gratitude for what you have done and in the hope I will never have to do so. But you are right, I am going to wait to learn whether your generosity is genuine, or a mere show of piety for the sake of acclaim or money. I am hopeful, and you deserve my honesty as well as my hospitality, Father Felsah. Will you do the same for me?”
Felsah finished the sausage and nodded. “You do not mince words, Master Lidaman. Thank you for your honesty. I will not forget it. I have seen too much war and pain to ever want to bring it here. Metamor has seen too much already. In time you will know I am genuine. I hope I do win your trust. You have won mine.”
A small smile touched the edges of Lidaman's lips. “Never trust a money-lender until you read their every word, especially the small ones.” The youth laughed and leaned back in his seat. “Enough of this. Tell me, Father Felsah, can you stay a little longer? I would very much like to hear about Yesulam, and I hope you will let me tell you more of my home and its history. At least until the wine and food is gone.”
“We must return for Vespers at dusk so we cannot stay quite so long. But we shall stay as long as we can.”
“Excellent, I will have Conley warn us when the shadows grow long. Conley!”
And as Lidaman informed the terrier of his wishes, Felsah took a long sip of wine. His eyes strayed to the door and his heart offered a prayer for Elsie and her father.
Conley did warn them when the shadows grew long, and after a few more polite words, Father Felsah, Patric, and Richard took their leave of the Lidaman house. Their conversation had remained affable and the food they were offered was pleasant and filling. Lidaman, despite his spoken reservations, proved a gracious host and spoke with fervor and pride about his home, answering the jerboa's questions without hesitation. In turn, Felsah offered a more reserved but with no less ardor, accounting of Yesulam and his home in the deserts of the Holy Land.
The warmth of the Summer afternoon still filled the air and it was accompanied by a dry breeze swept down from the eastern mountains. Long shadows stretched across the street and to the south, where the aristocratic homes parted, they could see the sun half-hidden behind the southwestern shield of the Dragon mountains. Dusk was an hour away, and true night another beyond, providing them plenty of time to return to the Keep and offer Vespers.
The streets were still filled with people but already many were in their homes taking their evening meal and so all three walked without fear of hooves, paws, or boots treading upon their tails. Merchants were in the midst of closing up their shops and they saw more of them returning to their homes than anything else.
As they passed through the gardens, Patric turned one eye and cracked his jaws open to speak. “I am sorry, Father. I did not know Master Lidaman would say those things. I know he is a fervent Lothanasi, but he treated the Sisters, Richard and I with kindness on our earlier visits.”
“It is of no matter,” Felsah waved his paw and flicked his tail upward before letting it brush against the terrazzo. The scent of asters, lilacs and chrysanthemums filled the evening air. He turned and leaned his snout into a lilac blossom to savor its fragrance. A ripple rushed down his fur and he flared his ears outward before turning and continuing his hopping steps. “It is of no matter, Deacon. I am a Questioner. I have received a worse welcome more times than I can count. And I prefer it this way at times; Master Lidaman was honest. Perhaps what he said to me was his own manner of kindness, a kindness toward one he did not know and for whom he had suspicions of ill intent.”
“But he threatened you!”
“Aye, he did. If I bring strife to this city.”
Patric laced his fingers together as his eyes turned about in consternation. Richard glanced between chameleon and jerboa as he scampered to keep up. “I do not understand how this does not upset you, Father. I... I... will try not to be upset on your behalf.”
Felsah nodded between hops. “Good. We will only drive them further into the arms of the Lothanasi if we react with anger. There are times for anger, Deacon, do not mistake me, but this is not one of those times.”
Patric nodded, long tail curling tight against itself. He balled his fingers into a fist a struck his breast. “I will remember, Father. Thank you.”
Felsah cast a fond glance upward at the chameleon and paused only a moment to rest his hand on his side. “Peace be with you, my son.”
“And with you spirit, Father.”
They hurried the rest of the way back to the Cathedral inside the Keep's walls. Two servants stopped them briefly requesting prayers for family in need and Felsah made a mental note of their names to put them on the list for visits tomorrow, but they were otherwise uninterrupted in their journey. Felsah felt a smile stretch his snout and set his whiskers atwitter when he saw standing before the doors to the Cathedral the ram Sergeant Wolfram, the three-horned reptile Zachary, and the other five soldiers in the ram's patrol.
The septet were talking and sharing cabbage wrapped potatoes while they waited. Zachary tossed a half-dozen into his beak and start crunching his jaws side to side when he noticed the three of them coming down the hall. He lifted an arm to wave, fingers brushing the arched stone ceiling, and his companions turned.
“Father Felsah,” Wolfram said as he pushed himself off from the wall where he'd leaned. The ram's gaze quickly took in chameleon and mouse. “Deacon Patric, Richard, we didn't expect all of you to be out. I trust all is well?”
Felsah nodded once he reached them and stopped, straightening out his robes with both hands. “Indeed it is. I am glad to see all of you. Your protection during my brother priest's visit was welcome; I have asked Yahshua's blessing on each of you during my prayers since. Have you all come to have your weapons and shields blessed?”
The older human man – Gweir, Felsah recalled – stepped forward and turned his stout bow over in his weathered hands. “Some of us are Lothanasi, Father. But Wolfram and Zachary are our brothers. And you are a good man, Father; we gave you our help before. We will accept your blessing now.”
The younger human man hefted his double-blade ax, the stag his bow, the peccary his sword, and even the little mouse wizard lifted a small dagger. Zachary did not lift his massive sword, nor did Wolfram draw his own or his shield, but their beak and snout parted in gratitude and brotherhood at what their fellow soldiers did.
“Deacon, bring out the aspersorium. Richard, please fetch holy oil.”
Zachary pushed open one of the doors for the both, and chameleon and mouse slipped inside the Cathedral. While they were gone, Wolfram held out a cloth covered basket. “Would you care for one, Father, before Zachary eats the rest?”
Felsah shook his head and then caught himself scratching behind an ear with one foot. After stopping himself he straightened his robes again and said, “Not before Vespers, but thank you. If you save one for each of us, we will gladly partake after the evening prayers.”
The wizard mouse Kindle stepped forward and offered an amused whisker twitch. “I sometimes scratch with my foot too, Father. You'll get used to it.”
Felsah and Kindle stood almost the same height and it set a part of him at ease. “How long have you been a mouse?”
“Since the Curses were cast. Where's your chewstick?”
Felsah patted his side where he tried to keep it tucked between the cord about his waist but found nothing. “It must have fallen out again as I hop. I'll have to find a better way to keep one on hand.”
Kindle fumbled at his side and drew a small patch of leather out of a pouch. His blond furred tail bounced as he moved about. “Here, I like to use leather myself; it's less bulky and works almost as well. Out in the field, well, any twig will do!”
Felsah lifted the leather to his incisors and gave it a good bite. The leather did not break and the pressure felt good on his teeth. “Thank you, Kindle. Oh, do you put clothing on your tail in Winter? I know the cold of desert nights, but not the cold of snowy forests and mountains.”
Kindle nodded. “I've a fur-lined leather coat with a wide tail I can wrap about my tail and button up. It feels bulky and uncomfortable having your tail wrapped up at first, but after an hour in the cold you will be grateful for it. I can show you where I had it made when we return from patrol if you wish.”
“Thank you, Kindle.” His ears lifted at the soft sound of his friends returning with the requested items. Felsah took another gnaw on the leather as chameleon and mouse stepped out of the Cathedral doors. They came to his side, Richard carrying a small glass bottle filled with an amber-hued oil, and Patric cupping a golden bowl in his long fingers, a golden rod rested in the bowl and the holy water within.
“All of you, please stand in a line against the wall and we can begin. Hold out whatever weapons and shields you wish for me to bless. No, don't hold them up, you'll wear out your arms, just hold them comfortably out. Aye, aye, good.” Felsah stepped toward them, standing half-way between them, with Richard and Patric flanking him. He lifted one hand high and trace the sign of the yew, intoning the ancient prayers in a chittering sing-song voice.
Of the seven soldiers gathered, only Wolfram and Zachary made the sign of the yew in return. The others watched and listened as Felsah chanted in a language they did not know. Felsah, at first as his tongue and throat shaped the well-known prayers for blessing before battle – one Questioners used every day they were on a Questioning – did his best to ignore the chitters and squeaks interjecting despite his best efforts. But half way through he realized they were part of his voice, much as the hopping, the gnawing and the scratching were all part of the unique nature given to him when he'd become a jerboa man.
And so in his chittering, squeaking way, Father Felsah finished the prayers and made the sign of the Yew before each of the soldiers. He turned to Richard and bid the mouse remove the stopper from the oil. Light on his paws, he stepped to Sergeant Wolfram who held out his treasured blade. Felsah pressed his thumb against the top of the bottle and Richard tipped it up slowly until the oil ran to the other side. The mouse lowered the bottle. Felsah drew the sign of the Yew across the haft of Wolfram's blade, intoning another prayer, naming Eli, Yahshua, and the Spirit Most Holy with each invocation. He then did the same for the ram's shield. The amber gold of the oil perfumed the air with a powerful odor both sweet and astringent.
He then turned to his right and took the aspergillum from the golden aspersorium cradled tight in Patric's long-fingered hands. He shook the rod as he chanted the blessing, holy water spraying across the blade, the shield, and the ram. Wolfram made the sign of the yew, his eyes wide and his chest stout. His nostrils flexed drawing in new, fresh air. Felsah met his gaze and lifted his whiskers in a pleased smile.
Zachary was next, and the tension in the three-horn's face was clear, despite having a hard beak and mostly immobile scales. The sword he offered was taller than Felsah by at least six hands and outweighed him thrice. Felsah could see colored smears in the blade where his reflection should be. He let Richard dose his thumb with another drop of oil, and he offered the same prayers of blessing upon the massive blade before sprinkling it with the aspergillum. The kharrakhaz let out a long sigh as he traced the yew over his snout and chest, shrinking down for a moment, before standing confidant, beak cracked into a saurian smile.
One by one Felsah blessed what was offered by each of the others. Gweir, the older human, offered a bow for blessing, while the younger man standing next to him – Ross, he recalled only while tracing the oil – offered an axe. Kindle smiled as he offered a dagger for blessing; Felsah was grateful he hadn't offered a spell book or wand or whatever it was wizards used as he was not sure he could have blessed any of those. The boar-like peccary named Owain held out a sword similar to Wolfram's if not of as fine a craftsmanship, and the stag, Burkhart, held a large, powerful bow Felsah could only reach half-way up.
After offering each the blessing, Felsah returned to the center of the hall and intoned a final prayer. He could not strengthen the words of the prayer with his intermittent squeaking and chittering, but in time he knew it would be natural. Richard and Patric joined him in the prayer, their voices adding their own unique beastly noises. Felsah stood as tall as he could and lifted his hands high, ears folded against his back, as he traced the yew one more time before each of the soldiers. Wolfram and Zachary traced it over their chests again, while the others fumbled a moment but did nothing.
And then it was done. Felsah lowered back down on his paws and smiled, turning first to Patric and Richard to say, “Thank you both, please return the aspersorium and oil and then prepare for Vespers. I will be there in a moment.”
Zachary was kneeling before him a heart beat later, holding out his large hands, the sword sheathed across his back. “Thank you, Father. I feel a weight lifted already. I will laugh at them if my prayers are disturbed again. Is there anything I can do for you?”
Felsah put his small mouse hand on one finger of the reptile's hand and nodded. “There is something I want you to consider, Zachary, and to pray about. When you return from your patrol I wish for you to come by yourself and find me. I will tell you then. Until then, pray your heart would be open to doing Eli's will in whatever way He calls you.”
His beak cracked in a wide saurian smile and for a moment Felsah could see the thick tongue, rows of grinding molars on either side, fading to darkness at the back of his throat. And then the tongue shifted slightly and subtle shimmering of shadow from his throat presaged his voice. “I will, Father. And I will do all I can to protect my friends and bring them home safe too.”
“I know you will.” His eyes turned aside to Sergeant Wolfram who approached on the kharrakhaz's right, and then to stag Burkhart who came up on his left. “Your friends are here for you as well.”
“Aye, we are,” Burkhart said in a voice soft and with a sweetness as gentle as the velvet covering his antlers. “Do not fear, Father, we will return him safe and sound.”
Wolfram laughed and patted Zachary on the shoulder. “Aye! We're going to keep each other safe. It's what brothers in battle do. Now come, Father has to lead Vespers, and we'll have to help our friends understand them!”
Burkhart nodded. “You did promise, Zachary.”
Zachary chortled, a blast of air pressing all of Felsah's whiskers against his jowls. “I did. Thank you, Burkhart, for coming. I know...”
“Say nothing of it.”
Zachary stood and offered thanks again to his Lothanasi friends for being there, while Felsah leaned back on his haunches and flicked his tail from side to side. Brothers in battle truly, each striding without hesitation to the aid of their own. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
But what parts!
Vespers had always drawn a few dozen Followers, and this night was no different. As late as the night fell, there was little time for much else other than enjoying the potato and cabbage Wolfram had brought and saved for them before Compline. The final prayers before sleep were even more sparsely attended and their three voices united in chant felt meager compared to what they'd managed when Father Hough and the other seminarians were there, much less to what Felsah was accustomed in Yesulam.
But the great cycle of the day was completed and while Patric tended to the candles, Felsah followed Richard into the sacristry. “I do intend to keep my promise to you, Richard. If you are interested.”
Richard's round ears perked outward. “What promise?”
“To explore this place together... as mice.”
Richard returned the lectionary to its place and chittered under his breath. “Oh aye! But are you up to it? You look exhausted, Father.”
Felsah nodded and steadied himself with a hand on the stone wall of the small sacristry. “Aye. I am not used to days quite so long or with so much activity. Father Hough must have heroic virtue to do this every day of every week.”
“Well, he does keep Wednesdays for himself; unless some one is dying or in desperate need.”
“And spends them working on his ciders. I have seen.”
“I thought being a parish priest is what you said you wanted as a boy.”
Felsah laughed and sat back on his haunches. “Aye, it was. And I am grateful to be so these two weeks. Eli has a great sense of humor. Sometimes He gives us exactly what we wanted so we can understand just what we need.”
“And sometimes the opposite,” Richard mused, scratching behind one ear before coming around to help Felsah disrobe. He removed the green alb and dalmatic and hung them from a hook in the wall, as Felsah brushed the black Questioner robes underneath down to straighten them. “But still, Father, are you sure you are up for it?”
“I will be, aye. I've never tried it before, and I might need your help. Changing.”
Richard patted the dalmatic down with his paws and then chittered a laugh. “Oh. It's easier than you'd think. I have to check on Rakka first. Your cell?”
“I will meet you there, aye.”
He left Richard tending the vestments and found Patric in the sanctuary replacing a burned out altar candle. The fresh candle was wider than Felsah's hand and looked to be too heavy for him to even lift. Patric handled it with ease in his long-fingered hands. The little claws at the end did not even nick the beeswax.
He genuflected toward the altar and yew and then waited for the chameleon to finish. Patric lit the new candle once it was in place near the tabernacle, stepped backward, long tail curling up on itself, and genuflected. He then turned and focused his eyes on the jerboa standing a few feet back. In a quiet voice he said, “All is done, Father. Is there anything else you need?”
“No, Patric. Thank you for all of your help today. I look forward to the day when I may call you Father too. You are going to be an excellent priest.”
“It is what my heart longs for, Father. It is what so many here need more of. It surprises me you were not a parish priest yourself; people are starting to trust and like you, even if you are a Questioner.”
Felsah smiled and lashed his tail up and down. “A relief, truly! Before you retire, there is one thing more I wished to ask. I am going to spend a little time exploring with Richard in our beastly forms this night. Would you care to join us? Eli has allowed this for us, and perhaps using these in part is also part of His will.”
Patric turned one eye around as if looking up and down the walls of the sanctuary. “I have tried it before, Father, and I need it to be very warm and humid when I do. Even then I would be very slow compared to two mice. Thank you, Father, but I must decline. Besides, you'll need a man to keep Rakka restrained in case the Keep lets him out again.”
“In sooth.” Felsah chortled and not for the first time wondered if it had been such a good idea to bring the dog from Yesulam. Then he remembered the wag of the sandy-colored dog's tail and the happy bark and bounce of his play and chased such worries away.
“Have you ever tried the animal shape, Father?”
Felsah shook his head. “No. Is there something I should know?”
“Perhaps,” Patric tilted his head to one side as if pondering. “It touches everyone differently, Father. Some Keepers will live part of the year in their animal shape, others have taken to labor with it. Some of us use it but rarely if at all. I... do not have much use for mine, Father.”
“And perhaps I will have no use for mine either. Eli bless you, Patric, and good night. Tomorrow will be another full day.”
“They always are.”
Felsah had hoped for a little time to peruse Patriarch Akabaieth's journals, but all he managed before Richard arrived was a brief prayer for Elvmere's soul. Felsah let the open journal cover drop when he heard the soft scuffling of Richard's paws outside his door. “Come in, Richard.”
The mouse opened the door and gingerly shut it. He then got down on all fours and stared at the bottom of the door. “What are you doing?”
“I'm checking to see if there's enough space for us to squeeze under your door, Father. Looks like there is. We can leave it shut.” He stood back up and rubbed his hands over his jowls, straightening his whiskers. “You'll probably want to disrobe first, Father. I'm going to do so too.” So saying, Richard turned away from Felsah and began to shimmy out of his brown robe. Felsah chittered to himself, hopped once and turned in mid-air, then began to pull his black Questioner robe over his head. Underneath he had white linens; the shirt he also removed, but the trousers, hooked over his tail with a button, he left on. He folded the white shirt and set it on his pallet, and then tenderly folded his robe until the red cross filled the top. He lifted it to the end of his snout and pressed his jowls and incisors against it in what remained to him of a kiss.
“Are you ready?” Richard asked.
“Aye. What do I need to do?”
“It's really quite easy, Father. Just imagine yourself as a normal jerboa. Will yourself to be a jerboa and the Curses will respond to make you so. And when you are ready to become a man again, just imagine the shape and will yourself to become it again.”
Felsah took a deep breath and set his robe on his pallet. Eyes filled with the beautiful red cross of his order, Felsah remembered the nights of his boyhood, resting upon the roof tiles still warm from the day, and watching the desert mice hopping around the scrub outside their village. He thought on their shape and size, large feet, tail and ears, with small head and body to carry them. He had shared part of their size for the last three months and would the remainder of his life. With a still plea, a quiet aspiration, he asked to share it even more. The request was directed only within, to his depths and to the boundaries of his flesh.
He squeaked in surprise when his flesh responded.
The red cross and the cell about him swelled in size. His hands tingled and he saw his thumbs shrink within the changing form until they were indistinguishable from the nubs on his palms. His breeches were impossibly too large for his hips and tail and stayed on a moment longer only because they were buttoned. Within seconds the world loomed over him and his tail and hips were small enough the linens fell to the floor a moment sooner than he shrank into them.
Felsah blinked a few times, forepaws on the floor before him to steady himself. His neck and head stuck straight out and he could see a panorama of his crumpled linens around him, the writing desk and his chest of clothes and the small bookshelf with the journals and prayerbooks towering above him. Richard was a giant mouse whose dizzying height briefly terrified his heart. He scuttled against one corner of his trousers and almost started burrowing underneath when he caught himself. Felsah took a deep breath and marshaled his thoughts.
I may be in the body of a jerboa; but it is my will whether I act as the jerboa instincts guide or my own thoughts command. This is just one more thing I must understand. A Questioner keeps his fear behind his mask and leaves it for Eli to tend.
Composed, Felsah hopped out from under his trousers and then onto the top of them. The fabric barely dented from his weight, and he found the sensation of balancing on flimsy fabric otherworldly. He leaned back on his haunches and tried to wave his paws before him, but they only wanted to go up and down, not side to side.
Richard chittered a laugh as he set his bundled robe down against the wall, “Pretty easy, isn't it? Now my turn.” Felsah watched as the three-foot tall mouse dwindled in size, his tunic and trousers crumpling around him, until a three-inch long mouse emerged from the remains. The mouse ran along the lines of mortar in the stone floor, turning with each, until he reached the edge of Felsah's trousers. Richard leaned back on his haunches and brushed his paws over his face, tail stiff and straight behind him.
Felsah hopped down from his trousers and together they made their way to the door. What would have been a single hop or step now took a few seconds of scurrying. The door loomed overhead like everything else, Felsah's own cell seemed to be the largest most cavernous cathedral ever constructed. Between the door and the stones was a small gap shorter even than they. Into this Richard turned his head and plunged within. His skull bulged for a moment and then it was his chest which bent. A few seconds of scratching and pushing and the little mouse was through.
Felsah flicked out his ears and peered into the gap. Warm candle light illumined the hall beyond; Richard was still on the other side of the door straightening his fur. The gap seemed too small, but their bones were flexible. Felsah chittered, closed his eyes, and shoved himself into the gap. The wood and stone squeezed him tight and he felt his eye balls nearly explode from his head. The rough wood scraped at his fur and his ears, the air was pressed tight in his lungs. He clawed at wood and stone, kicking with his legs at the stone and air behind him. Little by little his body wedged through the gap. His eyes popped open when he felt the pressure squishing his head from ear to ear together and he saw he'd started to emerge into an even more spacious hallway. A moment later he pried his haunches from the gap and his tail tuft flicked upward in victory.
Richard ran his paws across his jowls and then lifted his head, sniffing at the air. Felsah leaned back on his haunches and sniffed. The sweet scent of apples from Hough's last batch lingered in the air, as well as the heady scent of Rakka, the dry aroma of Patric's scales, and the familiar bouquet of the other seminarians each of who had all walked this hall but a day or week ago. The strongest odor was melted candle wax and it would have been about the only thing the human Felsah would have noted. As a half-jerboa he could pick out the others no matter how strong the wax. But now as a true jerboa each scent seemed to arrive as a distinct and separate sensation as well as part of a whole. He did not picture each of the people or objects as he smelled them but recalled the scent in his mind on its own. In fact, to his shock, he found trying to picture any of the seminarians difficult; their scent came first and to go beyond required concentrating.
Even as Richard crept away from the door, Felsah stood, staring down either passage. To his surprise he realized he could not see where the hall ended. Even the ceiling, which was just tall enough for Zachary to walk without bending over, disappeared into a bronze haze. The other side of the hall was fuzzy, the individual stones blending into their neighbors to form a solid edifice. Where Hough – or the Keep – had arranged religious banners he could see them, but the colors were muted or missing, and it took a minute to recall what each depicted, even though he had admired each many times in his three months service.
Yet he could hear the scratching of Richard's claws against the stone, the sputtering of the candles, and the rasp of scale against scale as Patric readied himself for sleep in the cell to his right. While everything close to him was clear and crisp to his eyes – and brighter than he expected – beyond the next door down everything faded to an indistinguishable blur and only the scents and sounds made any impression.
Little wonder then the jerboa brain he now used recalled all things by their scent first and only with great effort an image.
Felsah hopped after Richard alongside the wall lined with oaken doors. The candles were arrayed on the opposite wall and their shadows were hidden beneath them. When they reached the end of the hall, they crept along the wall toward the more decorative door on the other side leading into the sanctuary. They squeezed under this as well.
The sanctuary rose upward beyond imagining. He could not even see the arched ceiling; beyond the clerestory windows everything faded into a darkness his eyes could not penetrate. But he knew where the thurifer had swayed casting clouds of bitter incense, and the panoply of animal scents of all who had visited in the last few days were there. He smelled men, dogs, cats, deer, cows, swine, rats, mice, weasels, foxes, and owls – these last three put a tenebrous chill in his heart. There were more and more he could identify and to his delight there were many he could name not just by species but by their human names.
Richard sat on his haunches and gestured with his head toward the exit neither of them could see. Felsah waved his paws to signal his assent. Together then ran along the wall and then behind a tapestry. To the jerboa's surprise, Richard jumped onto the back of the tapestry and began scurrying up the fabric. Felsah grabbed at the fabric and found his little claws gave him a good hold. He tensed his hind legs beneath him and hopped upward. He spread all of his legs and his claws caught the fabric. The tapestry was so heavy it did not even stir from his weight.
Felsah chittered to himself and glanced up after Richard. The mouse was gone from his sight but not his scent. He climbed upward and marveled as his claws held his weight and his nose showed him the path to follow. The tapestry brought him up to a narrow ledge of stone where his friend waited.
Richard sniffed at him and then immediately scampered along the ridge. Felsah followed, finding it easier than he expected to hop along so narrow a path. The ridge ran toward the front of the sanctuary and along alcoves where murals of saints and apostles were arranged in scenes form their lives and from the Canticles. They passed toes and sandals larger than them; Felsah could not even make out their faces as he passed, though a subtle radiance still filled his gaze as he looked at each.
The ridge turned to the right when they reached the side altars. The walls opened up and the narrow ridge became a broad path no longer stone but decorated with cedar paneling and art carved into the stone above and wood below. They threaded their bodies through curling granite vines and grapes, and brass stalks of wheat, before scampering across fish with scales smelling of sweet forests and tender boughs. Dust clung to each despite the best efforts of the Followers who came to help clean.
When they reached the back of the side altar they found themselves behind a statue of St. Kephas overlooking the tabernacle. Richard stopped next to the painted feet and sat on his haunches. Felsah hopped to his side and made the sign of the yew with his paw. He gazed downward at the golden copula atop the tabernacle; the altar itself was adorned with candles and a bright green cloth. Where the cloth did not cover the stone it seemed a smear of pink and gray. The individual steps leading up to the altar were indistinguishable. The scent of wax and incense was very strong and he could hear memories of chant and a hundred other scents of the prayers offered in the two years the altar had seen use.
Felsah leaned his paws on the side of the nearest of St. Kephas's feet and tilted his head back. He sniffed the air, blinking once as he peered upward along his robes to the vastness of his height. From his position the face was lost amid the beard, and the key held out in his right hand was partly obscured by the Canticles carried in his left. A giant of the Ecclesia across whose feet scampered two mice.
The brown-furred mouse scooted to the other side of the feet before turning to gaze as Felsah did. He rubbed his paws across his whiskers before folding them one over another as if trying to clasp them in prayer. Felsah did the same and offered the sweet smell of praise and the bitter scent of contrition toward the saint to carry to Eli.
Little claws scratched on the wooden inlay as the other mouse scampered along the side altar toward the far wall. Felsah laid his paws on St. Kephas's toes for a moment more before following. Together they slipped between the twisting wooden figures and then squeezed into a crack in the design into a shadowed and dusty alcove where only the scent of his friend touched. The other mouse disappeared down into a hole in the mortar between the stones and Felsah paused only a moment before pushing himself inside. The hole was small enough his ears were squished against the sides of his head, but not so small as to deform his whole body.
The hole widened somewhat a few steps within, but other than the light coming in behind them limning their shapes, he had to rely on the brush of stone against his whiskers – and the occasional bump of his snout against a mouse tail – and the familiar scent of his fellow mouse ahead of him to find his way. The passage turned around a few blocks of stone and descended in a long slope, before suddenly emerging onto a shadowed shelf between a wall of stone and of wood. Beneath them was darkness, while faint light stretched around the edge of the wood on the left and right. The scent of bread, nuts, vegetables, meat, and cheese filled the air and made his belly tighten.
The two mice climbed down a slat of wood jutting out of the wall and into a small hole gnawed into the oaken wall. Both mice gnawed at the hole as they climbed through, widening it just a little bit more on their way. The hole was dark but for a sliver of light at the far end, and smelled strongly of bread and potatoes. Their whiskers guided them to the bread wrapped in a rough, bristly sack. Felsah sat back on his haunches while the other mouse rummaged around the sack. Were they trying to scavenge their own larder?
Something tumbled across the floor toward him and Felsah returned to all fours sniffing and turning his snout back and forth to feel with his whiskers. Both nose and whiskers found a hard crust of bread, some missed crumb, nudged to his side. He flicked out his ears and could hear the other mouse gnawing on something. He crept closer and back on his haunches, reaching down with his paws to pick up the morsel. It slipped from his hands the first few times before he tried cupping it and pushing it together. He bit into the crust with his incisors and pulled in each piece with his tongue as he turned it over and over in his paws.
The bread was hard and old but satisfied the twitch in his belly. And gnawing felt good, comforting the dull ache always in his mouth. He listened in the darkness, the little light coming through the front of the cupboard drawer faintly illuminating the edges of the sack of bread and potatoes as well as his friend who also sat on his haunches gnawing. He could smell his friend's pawprints across the chamber almost as strong as the food; how often had he come here for a midnight rodent repast?
He tried to think while eating and found scents and sounds distracting him from words at every turn. There were so many delectable odors of different sorts of good tasting foods throughout the larder and his belly drew him in the direction of those most pleasing. To his dismay, he found he could not even recite a Pater Noster before the scent of food or the memory of incense intruded. Was scent and particular sounds how mice thought? He seemed to retain his reason and will, but the former was balked by all things particular to the needs and senses of the jerboa.
Before he quite realized it, the morsel of bread was gone and he was brushing the tiny crumbs from his jowls and paws. He scampered around the cupboard, sniffing for any other morsels, and for the delectable scents in the air. The other mouse was still gnawing, and so he turned to the hole and climbed back out and down the slat of wood. His claws gave him good purchase and he crawled downward until he reached the stone floor. He then hopped between the two walls and out into the light.
A single candle had been left lit in the middle of the massive table, but it was enough for his eyes. His nose was better and he followed it up the table leg, his claws digging into the wood where it was too high to jump. Before he quite realized it he was crawling across the top of the table darting from one crumb to the next wedged into the wood, digging at them with his paws, and then gnawing each in turn to find the tasty ones.
He was surprised by how many crumbs he could find; he thought they had cleaned the table after they'd eaten their evening meal. But a mouse, even a jerboa, needed very little. Eli watches over all His creatures, even the smallest.
He finished what he could and then hopped from the table to the bench and then the bench to the floor. He felt a terrible anxiety being out in the middle of such a huge space with nowhere to hide. He scurried back to the cupboard and followed the scent of his pawprints back up to the hole where the other mouse waited.
His friend was still there and just finishing a small hunk of potato. They nosed each other and he felt his friend's paws brush across his whiskers. He flicked out his ears but held back the squeak of surprise. The other mouse lowered his paws and then squirmed past him and out the hole toward the gap in the stone. The jerboa, his belly full, followed.
The two mice scampered into a few other rooms through little tunnels through the stone walls before finally returned to the sanctuary and making their way back into the hall with their cells. One by one they squeezed under the door which had their paw-print scent and made their way back to the piles of clothes which smelled like them but not quite. The jerboa nosed the rumpled pile of linens for a moment before he heard an odd scraping of claw to his side. Turning, he saw the other mouse growing impossibly large.
The large mouse picked up some of the clothing and held it across his haunches. Words erupted from his snout. “Father Felsah, you can change back now. Just imagine yourself large again.”
He blinked and rubbed his paws over his snout, ears standing wide, before the words managed to take shape inside him. It was only a moment's delay, before he imagined the world around him shrinking and scents fading with them. A sudden vertigo struck him as he swelled and he grew to see the other mouse eye to eye again.
He blinked, half-turned so his side faced the other mouse – Richard he recalled – and picked up his crumpled linens. He opened his jaws and worked his tongue around until the words came out. “I am here. Is it always so? I was... more beastly in mind than I anticipated.”
He could see Richard shimmy into his robes and he did the same with his linens. His eyes spied a black robe folded on his pallet with a red cross emblazoned on the front. The Questioner robes. His robes. He picked them up and hugged them to his chest.
“Everyone is different, Father, when it comes to our beast forms. You seemed yourself to me. Adventurous and unafraid. I would never climb onto the table to search for crumbs like you did! How much... like a beast did you feel?”
“I don't quite know.” He rubbed his forehead with one paw and folded his ears back. “I don't think I did at first. At some point I started having trouble keeping words straight. And I wasn't thinking much at all when I left the cupboard to find more food. I was hungry and something smelled delicious out there. I followed my nose. At least I had enough presence of mind to find my way back to you.” He grimaced and added, “Richard.”
He gave his head a quick shake. He – Felsah – rubbed his ears with the same paw – hand – and the flexed his thumb back and forth. “I think it is taking me a moment to regain myself. How long were we mice?”
“Four or five candlemarks, I think.” Richard straightened his robe and then looked at the jerboa with worry in his dark eyes. “Are you all right, Father?”
“I will be,” Felsah replied and turned back, one hand pressing his robe tight to his chest, the other rubbing the edge of one ear between thumb and fingers. He lowered his arm and grabbed his tail, flicking it back around behind him. “Perhaps it struck me so hard as it was my first time. We should do this again, Richard. But let us not spend quite so much time in animal form until I am used to it and can control it better. I'm already thinking in words and not scents again. Thank you for this; it is one more thing Eli has for us to understand.”
“It is,” Richard admitted with a touch of resignation. “Well, I suppose if we are to have any sleep tonight I should return to my cell. Good Night, Father Felsah. Eli be with you.”
“And with your spirit, Richard. Good Night.”
After Richard left Felsah spent a short time on his haunches in prayer. Exhaustion was beginning to set in as the midnight hour neared. Felsah blinked several times to keep himself awake long enough for the one last task he intended for himself. Already the neighboring cells were quiet and in the distance he could hear Rakka whimpering in his sleep. He could hear Patric's measured breath and the scuffling of Richard as he settled in to sleep. Only the flickering of candles remained and the occasional distant footfall in the sanctuary as a penitent came to pray and keep watch in the dark, still hours.
Felsah had spent a good amount of time studying Akabaieth's journals for himself. He'd checked for dog-eared or smudged pages to see what parts Elvmere had read many times, but the raccoon had been fastidious even in his anguish and left the books in nearly pristine shape. He'd even smelled them before to try and find where the scent of the excommunicated bishop was strongest. But they had so long been in his company the books stank of both sea and raccoon, and now his own sandy, desert scent lingered on the pages. His nose as it was could not distinguish enough to be sure he was reading the right pages.
He arrayed the journals in a semi-circle on the floor and opened the covers of each. The first few pages lifted with them. Once satisfied, Felsah removed his linens and willed himself to shrink back down into his beastly form. He felt his flesh and bones shift as the room swelled around him. Scents filled his nose and mind again. Felsah took a moment to offer a Pater Noster and felt comforted when he reached the end without distraction.
The little jerboa hopped to the first book and sniffed the two corners where Elvmere would have gripped the pages between the thick pads on his fingers to turn. There were little places where the scent of raccoon was stronger. He climbed onto the book and pushed the pages over and over with the top of his head, running from one end to the middle and then back again to snare the next page. He did this for a dozen pages before stopping and sniffing again. The journals were thick enough his scurrying barely brought him any closer to passages Elvmere must have read time and time again.
Felsah lowered himself to all fours and crawled along the side of the book; the pages were taller than his back but not his ears. Perhaps there was some way he could measure the height where the raccoon scent was strongest? Then he could retake his half-way human shape and open the book closer to the right place first before he attempted to find the right pages in the beast shape.
He could not think of anything in his cell to use just then, so settled for sniffing each book in turn to find the ones with the strongest scents. Seven of the books stood out more than the rest and on the covers of each he rubbed his paws several times so it would be easier to find them later. Once he was finished he imagined the room shrinking again and words returning to his mind.
Felsah donned his linens again and then collected the journals, stacking them on his small bookshelf for the night. The battle for Elvmere's soul was not going to be won in a single night. If nothing else, Eli had given him a shape well-suited to one part of the battle.
He extinguished the flame in his lamp and with the last dying embers, slipped beneath the quilts on his pallet. In a soft whisper, one last prayer came to his tongue. “O Yahshua, thank you for changing me into a jerboa. Help me not be afraid of what you can help me do. Help Richard not be afraid and help him see what he can do too. And help Elvmere; keep him safe as he goes on patrol. Help me understand him. Help Patric and all those covered in feathers and scales know your love and help us understand the Covenant Stone. Help Troud be a good example for those you have placed in his care. And help the knight know your will and follow it so he may truly repent. Help Father Hough come to the aid of the people of Bradanes and Iron Mine. And help Father Akaleth on his journeys, and all my friends in Yesulam. On You we depend and trust. I love You, Yahshua. Amen.”
His hand traced the sign of the yew and closed his eyes to welcome sleep.
As his thoughts and all sensation of the world drifted away in the warmth of his bed, he wondered what might happen in the jerboa village next.