Never Again a Man

by Charles Matthias

This story is the 2004 Ursa Major Award winner for Best Anthropomorphic Novel.

Carrots were Toumoth’s special treat that night. In the warmth of the stables, he munched greedily away on several, his large teeth biting through the orange skin and deep into its sinew. He would then chew for a moment, savouring the pleasant flavour, and swallow, supple lips searching for the next vegetable within the trough. His ears were turned back to the soft humming of Dame Bryonoth as she rasped away at his rear hoof, flattening the base so that it might be shod.

He’d been nervous when she’d first told him that night what she would be doing. But she assured him that before he needed to return to his rooms in the morning that she would remove the shoes. They would have to go through the shoeing each night they met now, but Toumoth did not mind. It was rather pleasant to feel his hooves being trimmed, the excess rasped away and smoothed. Bryonoth was an expert, her hands knowing just where to rasp, and how much pressure to apply to do it properly. And there was no pain, merely the gentle caress of her fingers wrapped about his pastern.

As he chewed on one carrot, he cast his gaze back to Dame Bryonoth. The knight was dressed in a simple ostler’s smock with a smithing apron draped over her front. She stood with her back to him, his hind hoof clutched firmly between her legs. Laying next to her in the hay covering the stall floor was the four iron shoes and the heavy nails she would momentarily drive into all of his hooves. The hammer rested beside them, nearly buried in the crisp hay. An hour ago, looking at that hammer and those nails had made his heart beat faster in anxiety. Now, it was merely a momentary thrill, a wondering of how it would feel to have the shoes upon his limbs like a real horse.

His forehooves had already been trimmed, and he found that standing on them now was little different than before. As he could not feel anything through them, the only thing he noticed was the subtle difference in the sounds he made when he set them upon the hay covered wooden planks of the stables. Toumoth dipped his head back down into the trough and pulled out another carrot as he felt Bryonoth put the finishing touches on his left hind hoof. She lifted it up from between her legs, and he pulled it forward, bringing it back down with a clop upon the wood. She shifted about, moving behind him, completely trusting of him. He waited for her to grip his right hind leg, and once she had done so, he lifted it for her.

He looked behind himself over his right shoulder then, glancing past his tail as it flicked from side to side, and to Dame Bryonoth. Her long dark hair was held together with bits of brown string, and allowed to flow down her back. He thought it looked much like a horse’s mane then, and that image pleased him. He turned back to his food trough then, chewing his carrots, ears turned back to listen to the soft humming of the knight. The melody she brought out was one of the plains, simple but stirring to the heart. As he listened, he found he wanted even more and more just to be her horse.

They were not alone in the stables this night, a fact that had at first worried Toumoth. One of the other stablehands had come in shortly after Dame Bryonoth had begun rasping his hooves down. He didn’t recognize the Keeper, and after a few soothing words from Bryonoth, he ignored the fellow. He was merely down at one end mucking out some of the stalls not in use. The rest of the inhabitants were horses. Toumoth recognized many by their scents, though he only knew the name of one other. The fiery roan stallion that kept watch upon Bryonoth while she shoed Toumoth was the one, the war horse that Bryonoth had brought with her to Metamor – Povunoth.

He felt strangely pained now when he thought of Povunoth. When one of the innkeepers had asked her if she used the war horse to pull her carts she had been offended. The remark had sat oddly with Toumoth at the time. Now it grated at him. Was he good enough only to pull carts? Would she never saddle him and ride him as she did the fiery roan? Though the first time she had ever done so he’d been afraid, he now longed to feel it anew. With the snows melted, they would have an easy time of it after all.

He closed his eyes and felt the scents and sensations beginning to fill him. The sharp wind through his fur, the weight of her upon his back, legs pressing against either side of his chest. Beneath his shod hooves was the damp earth, loam bursting with grass, wild flowers, and moss. Upon the air the fragrance of Spring flowers came, rose and lilac, chrysanthemum and lily, even sunflowers and hyacinth. The comforting smell of oak surrounded them, and he could hear the snapping of branches even as he felt them against his forelegs, as they burst through the brush together. His heart pounded, body alight with sheer exuberance.

And then he opened his eyes once more and peered down into his trough, finding it empty of carrots. Toumoth lifted his gaze and turned back to peer at Dame Bryonoth. She lifted his last hoof and he pulled it back, setting it down into the hay. “‘Tis done,” she said, her voice titillating. “Now I shalt shoe thee, my Toumoth.” She smiled and ran her fingers along his flanks, trailing them up his back until they curled through his mane. “Art thee ready?”

He gave a whicker in reply, and she laughed, pressing her face into his thick neck. “Thou art indeed!” She kissed the side of his muzzle, and patted that neck. Toumoth neighed and stomped his forehooves, feeling delight anew fill him. She set her box next to his left side, and picked up the first of the horseshoes. Setting that upon the box, she then retrieved the hammer and several nails.

She deposited the hammer on the box once more, and then picked up the shoe in her free hand. She put one of the nails between her teeth and deposited the rest next to the hammer. The hammer she placed through her belt, along with the shoe. Reaching down, she gripped his pastern, and he lifted his left foreleg. Soon, the hoof rested between her legs, and she placed the shoe against it. Toumoth wished he had another carrot to chew, for he found himself grinding his teeth together in anticipation for the moment to come.

Dame Bryonoth set the nail against the shoe and to the hoof, and then swung swiftly with the hammer. Toumoth felt nothing. A few more whacks with the hammer and the nail was in solidly. Lastly, with the hook on the rear of the hammer she nipped off the end of the nail. She retrieved a second and did the same thing, pounding it into the hoof with a few solid strokes and then popping the head off. It took only a minute before she released the hoof, and Thomas felt it slightly heavier than before. It made a different noise when he set it back upon the planks as well.

Thrice more she set a shoe to his hoof, into each she pounded eight nails. Toumoth watched the knight the entire time, never letting his eyes stray from her. Often, she would turn her head, see him watching her, and smile comfortingly to him. Did she know his trough was empty, he wondered. He thought to nicker to get her attention, but she seemed to enjoy the shoeing too much. He could not deny her that. Not after all she had done for him.

It was not long though before she set his last hoof down, and stroked her fingers through the short fur on his flank. “Thou hast been shod,” she said, smiling to him. “Now thou wilt not hurt thy hooves upon the cobblestones.” She approached his head then, her fingers drawing along his back the entire way. Though he was fairly large for a horse, she had no trouble reaching the middle of his back with her fingers.

Toumoth turned and stuck his snout down into his trough, and then looked back at her. She smiled, leaned over, and laughed, stroking through his mane. “Thou wants more?” she asked, her voice light upon his ears. Toumoth nickered gleefully, he could eat another bucket full of carrots if only she would let him.

But her eyes slipped beyond him, watching something at the far end of the stables. The other stableman was returning the curry and cleaning pick to a cupboard against the wall. Toumoth wondered why she was so interested in him for a moment, but he waited on her lead as always. At last, once the youth had left, her fingers began to stroke around one ear. “Thou mayest have another share once we hath delivered Master Derygan’s onions. I know he wilt be pleased to see us, and thee shod.”

She laughed a moment, a bright trilling sound, and then kissed him again on the side of the face. He nuzzled at her, resting his muzzle upon her shoulder, attempting to draw her closer. The knight responded a moment, holding his neck to her tightly, before she patted his thick muscles and stepped back. The halter, the one that would prevent him from shifting at all, was resting upon a single peghook beside the stall. She reached for it, and slipped it over his face. The familiar leather was like a warm blanket wrapping around him. He savoured its touch.

“‘Tis time to work, Toumoth,” Dame Bryonoth said, swinging wide the door to his stall. Slowly, moving his heavier hooves cautiously, he followed her out.

Night had fallen upon the sprawling city of Kelewair. But the lamps had been lit, each a twisting line that followed the ebb and flow of the hills as they blended from the northern forests. The lamps even went beyond the city walls, bleeding off into the fields to the South and East, where the herders were gathering their flocks. The roads remained cobblestone in every direction from the city for as far as the light shone. Though night would fall, darkness never would on the capital of the Southern Midlands.

It had not been an easy road for Kelewair to rise to such a place of prominence within its own realm. Amongst the capitals of the world, it could hardly be said to have been the most garish or impressive. It lacked the delicacy of Elvquelin, the pure grandeur of Metamor, or even the opulence of Yesulam. It could not boast the secrets of the close clay packed corridors of Sondeshara. Nor could it lay claim to antiquity as did both Silvassa and Pyralis. And even amidst the splendour of the early Spring hills, it lacked the wild feel of Salinon, teetering as it did on the edge of something untameable. It was simply Kelewair, a city of wooden homes draped in cloth, stone walls that kept them close, and a great edifice of kiln-blasted red brick.

It was before this oddity, draped from the rafters in fine tapestries woven entirely in threads spun in the city, that the Marquis du Tournemire brought his steed to a halt. No gates kept the townsfolk from approaching the broad entranceway, but there were certainly guards aplenty whose eyes surveyed all that approached with intense distrust. The cobblestone road entered a circle before a great fountain fashioned from imported marble in the shape of four wolves sitting upon their haunches back to back, tails pressing vertically to one another. From their open muzzles the frothy spray came forth, gurgling into the wide basin beneath wherein some previous lord with a sense of humour had placed marble-wrought pups playing together.

Beyond the fountain the road circled beneath a large portico supported by a row of pillars on one side. A gap was left in the middle so that any standing on the doorsteps could watch the fountain clearly, as well as the city beyond. To either side small trees sprang up, meticulously groomed. They were taller the further they stood from the roadway, yet they were kept a good distance from the manor walls themselves. Lampposts stretched out between the forest and the manor, all of them lit, casting a warm glow upon the red brick like flames leaping up the sides.

The entrance doors themselves were at least twice a man’s height, and fashioned from stoat oak. Giant brass knockers stood on each door, each in the shape of a wolf’s head with the brass ring clutched between its jaws. A pair of guards flanked the door, each bearing a long spear. Their livery was the same bright red as the brick, and upon their chests they bore the wolf’s head heraldry, a black silhouette with snarling jaws.

Marquis du Tournemire sat atop his horse underneath the portico gazing disinterestedly at the night air about. Presently, a young man also dressed in red, though clearly a servant, came out through a smaller door inset into the larger main doors. “Might I be of help to you, my lord?”

“My lord,” the man who had ridden behind the Marquis said, “seeks the hospitality of your master this evening. Tell him that the Marquis du Tournemire of Pyralis is travelling through his lands and now waits at his door.”

The servant looked from the Marquis’s steward to the Marquis himself for a moment, eyes wide in surprise. There was a tired look to them that was not from lack of sleep but from weariness, and it only seemed to grow wearier as he stared. Then, turning about he returned through the doorway leaving only the two red clad guards and the Marquis’s own blue liveried company.

Aside from his steward, the Marquis was accompanied by his castellan and ten other soldiers, all wearing the blue livery of his family and the seal of the unicorn that was his heraldry. Only one amongst the company did not wear the blue, and this was a black-haired man dressed in black tunic and breeches and nothing more. In all they were thirteen, twelve in blue and one in black.

It was several minutes before the doors opened again. And this time when they did open, it was the main doors themselves being swung inwards, revealing a broad foyer panelled in cedar, the floor completely covered in colourful carpets depicting flowers, knights, sheep, but in the centre was again the black wolf that was the family’s sigil. Standing at the front steps was a tall man with bright red hair, dressed in fine damask brocade, with two men flanking him at either side. The man to his left bore a mail shirt with long saber buckled at his side. His nose was crooked, bent sharply to the left. On the man’s right stood a slender bookish man of short stature, though his clothes were well-apportioned.

“I am Duke Titian Verdane,” the red-haired man announced in clear tones. His eyes narrowed suspiciously over the large company still mounted beneath his portico. “I am told that you are the Marquis du Tournemire,” he said, eyes settling upon the finely dressed man in blue silks. “What brings you to Kelewair seeking my hospitality?”

The Marquis smiled, but did not climb down from his white Percheron. “I have business that takes me through your lands, your grace. I bring with me kind greetings from Pyralis and Yesulam. Is there a more suitable place for us to discuss such matters than your portico?”

Duke Verdane’s eyes narrowed further. “I am always glad to receive visitors from our noble brethren to the South. My Steward Apollinar shall see to the quartering of your men. My Castellan Sir Malcolm Royce will bring you to my table when you are ready.” And with that, he turned about on his feet and strode up through the hall, the thick carpet muffling the tread of his boots.

Even after the Duke’s departure, the castellan did not move, standing with arms crossed over his mailed chest as impassively as a statue. The steward however took a step forward, calling out to them, “If you will dismount, I will have the ostlers attend to your steeds. If your men will care to follow me, I will show them rooms in which they can stay. Your things will be brought up presently, my lord.”

The Marquis nodded stiffly, turning back to his own men. “Dismount. Vigoureux, Sir Autrefois, you will accompany me.” He did not need to tell the black clad man what to do. Until he did so, he knew precisely where he’d be at all times.

After they had dismounted, Apollinar issued several orders to a nearby page. The boy ran off down the length of the manor towards one of the side houses, one that though finely decorated did appear to be a stables. The steward then motioned for the soldiers to follow after him as he led them within the manor, flanked by several of the red-liveried guards. And still Sir Royce stood motionless upon the portico steps.

“My lord Marquis,” Sir Royce said at last, his voice gravely, “if you would follow me, I shall bring you to his grace, Duke Verdane.”

The Marquis nodded though said nothing. He gripped his blue cloak in one hand as he swept up those steps, not bothering to peer behind him, knowing that his own men would follow only a step behind.

The inside of the manor was also fashioned from brick, but most of it was unexposed, hidden behind cedar and cherry panelling, casting the rooms in a warmth that many castles lacked. The panelling was finely carved, wolf-heads being the most prominent relief. The castellan lead them through one of the main passages towards the east wing. At the main intersections, at least one guard stood watch. Most of the doors remained unguarded though. The Marquis noted that there were a few doors guarded by men who did not bear the red surcoats of the Verdane house. It seemed he was not the only one visiting.

They were brought at last before a small door set at the hallway ended in a long spiral staircase. The door was guarded by two red-coated men with drawn swords, but they stepped aside when Sir Royce approached. The castellan pushed open the door, revealing a small but finely apportioned room beyond. The floor was covered by the familiar rug with black wolf, atop which sat a long table fashioned from cherry. A red brick hearth stood along one side, above which rested the head of a large bear. Beside it were those of a stag and doe. A few smaller game animals lined the rest of the walls, though none quite so imposing as those three.

Standing beside the table, knuckles resting upon the wood was Duke Verdane. “Welcome to my home, Marquis. Come, sit and sup with me.”

The Marquis smiled, nodding his head once to the duke, taking the seat opposite him at the table. “Thank you for your graciousness to a weary traveller.” He sat down, finding the wooden chairs a bit hard, but otherwise acceptable.

“You are a long way from home, Marquis,” Duke Verdane said, finding his own seat, resting his folded hands upon the table before him. “Is there anything I can fetch for you? A bit of lamb perhaps?”

“A cup of tea would be best,” the Marquis replied. “I find that my stomach does not greet lamb with any alacrity.”

The Duke nodded. “Very well. We shall both have tea.” One of the servants disappeared through another door so quietly that were it not for the click of the latch, none would have even known he’d left to fulfill the Duke’s command.

“For such a long journey, you still seem to have brought a fairly light retinue,” Titian observed. “I would be grateful if you would honour me with their given names.”

The Marquis nodded, folding his own hands before him. “I am the Maquis Camille du Tournemire. This is my steward Vigoureux,” he gestured to his right where the slightly overweight man nodded. “And this is my castellan, Sir Autrefois.” To his left stood the large man, his chest and arms thick and heavy like an ox.

“And the man in black?” Titian asked, after nodding lightly to the other two. “Is he also a part of your retinue? Or is he merely a shade that persists even after the sun has set?”

At that, the Marquis chuckled lightly. “He is a shade, but a useful one. No, he is not part of my household, but he is in my service.” The servant came back through the doorway then, bearing a porcelain carafe upon a silver platter. He set two cups down, one before each of them, and poured out a steaming brew into each. The Marquis picked his cup and sipped at it, the tea shimmering as it touched his lips. “His name is Zagrosek.”

The fire snapped in the hearth, its orange rays warming the room. Even though it was the middle of April, the air was still cool. While the western coasts were brimming with warmth, here far into the interior, the winds still swept down from the icy barrier range. As if the crackling of the fire reminded them of that, several of the servants pulled their arms closer, hoarding what warmth they had.

Not so with Duke Verdane, his entire body composed as he spoke. “What sort of services does he perform for you, Marquis?” He had not yet touched his tea.

But the Marquis continued to sip his slowly, watching as it rippled and tilted in the cup. “Whatever I ask of him. He is quite versatile and knows a great many people in positions that are useful to me and my goals. He has even met with the Patriarch once. I very nearly received everything I asked for from that meeting as well.”

Titian raised one eyebrow, it as bright a red as his hair. “What did you seek from the Patriarch?”

The Marquis smiled warmly. “Ah, but that is part of the reason I am travelling through your lands, your grace. It is not a journey I make lightly, but out of necessity, for what must be done is so vital that I must oversee it. I am honoured to have been given this task. And from what I have been told, I believe that you would welcome the chance to see it brought to fruition.”

“Truly? And what task do you bear that you believe I would embrace?”

The Marquis took a long draught of the tea, feeling its warmth spread through his chest. He smiled past his long nose, setting the cup down delicately upon the cherry table. “Though the secrecy of my task encumbers me, its clandestine nature prevents me from speaking any further of it now, lest some spy overhear.”

A dark pall fell over the Duke. “Forgive me for leaping to conclusions, as I am sure your intentions are completely amicable as you say, but your words lend themselves to a certain suspicion of the culpability of my servants. If indeed your delicate words suggest that any man of mine could be capable of such traitorous legerdemain, I will be forced to withdraw my offer of hospitality to defend the honour of the House of Verdane.”

“Stay your anger, your grace,” The Marquis said, still smiling, though he did raise one hand as if warding off a blow. “I mean no impugnation against any man of yours. But I could not help but notice as I was brought before your table by your hospitality that there are men within these walls that do not bear the red surcoat with your wolf, Duke Verdane.”

The glowering turned to annoyance then, his anger not completely mollified, merely redirected. “You are not the only one at present who has sought my hospitality, Marquis, it is true. Both Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford, my own vassals, have come to settle a dispute between them at this time. If it is secrecy you wished in your endeavour, then you have come at a very bad time.”

“I see,” the Marquis said, managing to hold the slender smile upon his lips, though privately he was disgusted. He did not have time to deal with petty squabbles. Perhaps approaching the Duke had been a mistake, though not one he could blame himself for. “Perhaps it would be best were I to bring this matter directly to the Bishop then. He could then approach you once the dispute is settled when idle eyes are no longer about.”

Titian shook his head. “Both Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford inhabit lands that are three days ride to the west. Bishop Ammodus has journeyed at my express request to those lands to personally investigate the claims of each of them, to see which is telling the truth. He will not return for some days. If you wish, you may speak with the Prelate. He will be at the Cathedral. I can only assume you’ve no wish to bring this matter before the Lothanasi hierarchy.”

“It would not be my first course of action, no,” the Marquis replied, bristling inside. “My mission requires that I speak with Bishop Ammodus before I continue on my way. Might I partake of your hospitality for several days more?

“Granted. As a courtesy to Pyralis and Yesulam,” his eyes glanced to where Zagrosek silently stood against the far wall, “I will be glad to offer you and your household hospitality for a few days more. If your men wish to draw their swords, I will ask that your castellan bring them to the fields behind the manor for such use. They are not to be drawn within these walls.”

“Of course, I will instruct Sir Autrefois in that.”

“Now,” Duke Verdane said, smiling for once himself. “It would please me to know where your travels will take you. You have said that you wished to journey through my lands.”

“Yes. Ultimately, I will journeying to Metamor Keep itself. I wish to proceed unmolested and unannounced. Any letters you could provide would ensure amicable relations between Kelewair and both Pyralis and Yesulam.”

Duke Titian Verdane considered those words for several moments. He took a slow draught form his tea, studying the long-nosed Marquis with hooded eyes. Finally, he set the tea down, his voice firm. “Metamor Keep?” It was spoken as if a curse. “I will inquire after your business in that thrice-cursed city another time. But as for letters of intent, I shall wait until I have heard your full purpose when Bishop Ammodus returns and the situation with Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford has been brought to a close.” He tipped the cup of tea back as if it were alcohol, and then rose from his seat. “It has been a pleasure entertaining you, Marquis Camille du Tournemire. I look forward to many more such evenings. Good night. Apollinar will show you to a room I’m sure you will find to your tastes.”

Titian rose from his seat then, nodded his head once, and then left through the same door that the servant had brought in the tea. The Marquis rose as he did, bowing at the waist as his host left. He then returned to his seat, swirling the few leaves that had settled in the bottom of his cup about. No words escaped his lips just then, and none near him seemed in any rush to find out what words might rush if they but asked.

“Wilt thee be ready?” Sir Saulius asked, looking up to his friend and fellow knight as they strolled along the lamplit road back from the tavern. The warmth of the mead and ale filled their bodies, even as the cool breeze rustled their fur. Sir Egland rubbed at the velvety nubs pushing out of his forehead with the thick hoof-like nails atop his fingers as he pondered what his friend’s words could mean.

“Ready for what?” he asked at last, bringing his arm back down to his side. The new antlers had begun growing out almost a month ago, and were already irritating him. It was certainly the strangest experience he had ever encountered apart from the change itself. He was not sore there, apart from the constant rubbing, nor did it really itch. It was something between, and the elk knight could not quite conjure up a word to properly catalogue its properties.

What bothered him most was that he would experience this every year for the rest of his life.

“The joust!” Sir Saulius declared, his voice bright, long whiskers twitching as he spoke, though also from his exuberance. “The tourney! ‘Tis to be held at the Summer Festival. I hath a title to defend, and wouldst enjoy defending it against thee and thy squire Intoran.”

Sir Egland smiled to his friend. When he’d first met the rat, he’d had a hard time imagining him as an able knight. But in that time, he’d seen the rodent perform deeds of valour and honour worthy of the greatest knights. Nor was it hard to imagine him winning the tourney itself, even against the likes of Sir Andre Maugnard.

The wolverine had of course been invited to join them at the Inn, but he’d declined saying he needed to attend to his wife Jenn. So too had Dame Bryonoth been invited, but she declined as well, protesting that she had already agreed to cart onions once more for Master Derygan. Both of the knights were glad that their friend who’d become a woman was trying to make her way in this new world, a respectable one, if surprising. But it had meant that they were but two for drinks and food at the Inn, and so they had left earlier than they had supposed they would.

“I would love to joust with you, Erick,” Sir Egland admitted. As a knight of Yesulam, he had participated in a few himself, though he had never won. In the heat of the deserts of Yesulam, a full joust as they practised in both the Midlands and in Pyralis was not practical. But they still managed to capture the flavour of a tourney with all its pomp and grandeur from time to time. It had been said that in his later years Patriarch Akabaieth had frowned upon them, so they’d held them less and less. In fact, as Egland thought about it, nearly all of the tourneys he had participated in had been back in Pyralis.

“Now if only we shouldst be granted the tourney,” Sir Saulius muttered, his eyes glaring darkly towards the Keep itself. The rat still lived within its cellars despite the attempts by all of his friends to bring him up amongst the daylight. But he would not abandon his fellow rats, no matter how much he was cajoled. He did not speak of them often, but when he did he always called them brothers.

At the elk’s questioning glance, the rat explained. “‘Twas six years after the first attack that brought us to these ignoble forms,” he gestured with one pink paw towards his own body, “that a tourney wast held. I fear that we shalt wait another six years ere we hath another.”

“Surely not,” Sir Egland said, quite surprised. “A tourney to celebrate our victory over Nasoj. That is what we should have.”

“Aye,” the rat nodded, whiskers twitching. His smile was sardonic. “Perhaps we couldst ask Dame Bryonoth to speak to her dance partner about it.”

Sir Egland laughed then. He’d known Bryonoth for so many years. To think of the Steppe-born man he knew dancing with the Duke of Metamor was quite ridiculous. There was not a single person he could think of that would be more out of place than Bryonoth upon the ends of the Duke’s arms. Yet that very thing had happened only a few weeks ago. Duke Thomas had in fact asked Dame Bryonoth to dance with him. Though they both laughed now, it was still a surprise.

Sir Saulius’s face grew contemplative. “Dost thee think the rumours hath truth to them, Yacoub?” There could be no doubt which rumours his fellow knight referred to.

“Alberta has been acting strange the last few months. Much different than I would expect. I think it may just be the strain of becoming a woman. It was hard enough becoming an elk.”

“‘Twas horrid becoming a rat.”

“How then must it be becoming a woman? Especially for a Flatlander?”

“‘Tis the worst of the curses,” Sir Saulius said, heat in his voice. Possibly from the ale, but Egland did not think so. “It strips all that a man is, all that he hath been brought up to believe, and cast him in the role of a mare.” The rat’s eyes went from determined pride. “I wast cast into the role of vermin. It took me many years to see that I wast not.” His lips crept into a small smile. “‘Twas the joust that convinced me true. Perhaps if Dame Bryonoth were to compete as well, she wouldst know that she canst still serve with honour and valour.”

Sir Egland nodded thoughtfully. “Another good reason to have a tourney. But we may have to convince the Duke and his councilors of that. Regardless, I think it time I began training Intoran for it. Who will your squire be?”

The rat laughed. “Matthias wast my squire last year, but he hast gone and gotten himself exiled!”

Though certain aspects of the trial were now lost to him, Sir Egland still could remember the sentence itself. “He will return to Metamor in time for the tourney if you wish to have him as your squire again.”

“I wouldst cherish the thought of Matthias being knighted. He hath done himself a disservice by not seeking an investiture. He wouldst make a fine knight methinks.” Sir Saulius said, though his words were not seemingly meant for the elk.

“Why not travel to the Glen?” Sir Egland suggested mildly. They had managed to make their way into the merchant’s district now. As it was just the two, they were going to make their way first back to the town gates. There Saulius would continue on his way to the Keep and Egland would return to his house. Intoran would be waiting for him – the oryx had been left tending to the care of their weapons and armour for the night.

Sir Saulius appeared to give that thought for a moment. “I wouldst be gone several days.”

“Yes,” the elk nodded, hand reaching up to rub at the nubs again. He caught it half way and forced it back down to his side. “But you’d get another chance to coax him into a capitular order.”

The rat waggled a claw in his muzzle. “Nae, thee wilt get one more chance to coax me into thy order.” He laughed at the surprise on his friend’s face. “Thou dost put into my mind an idea that I wouldst like to consider. ‘Twould create a stir shouldst I drop by unannounced. Perchance I couldst bring a gift for his children to be. Hast thee heard that he shalt sire five?”

Sir Egland nodded absently. He did not know the rat much, most of what he knew of him came from the trial. What he’d heard from Sir Saulius had convinced him that Charles was likely a fine man and would have made a good knight. It was remarkable to hear that the rat had begun to breed like one, but thoughts of the joust themselves were still on his mind. There would be so much to do to prepare Intoran for it. He had to have suitable clothes after all, not to mention he’d need to train for the various events. Perhaps on the morrow he could bring them out to the Killing Fields for riding. There were a few poles he could set the rings upon. And he’d have to visit the castellan to procure a lance.

There were just so many things he had to think of that he very nearly walked right past her without ever noting her. It was Saulius who spoke up, his bright voice finally bringing the elk back from his own thoughts. “Dame Bryonoth!” Saulius called, waving one paw in the air at a horse-drawn cart. Sir Egland turned his head and saw a fine thoroughbred stallion pulling a wagon full of sacks of onions. Holding the reins was Bryonoth in her tan working clothes.

Bryonoth smiled to them both, though the surprise was clear on her face. With one hand she brushed her dark hair back over her shoulder, and then brought the horse to a stop. The animal appeared to eye them apprehensively. Egland glanced briefly at the horse, and thought he looked familiar. Likely he’d seen him in the stables. After all, he knew that Bryonoth would never make Povunoth haul onions about.

“I thought thee wert drinking with Sir Andre?” Dame Bryonoth said, leaning forward in her seat. There was something behind her eyes though that made Egland pause. Some diffidence that was not normal for her.

“Sir Andre could not attend, and so it was just the two of us, Yisaada. We’ve been talking about a tourney. Erick is worried that Duke Thomas may not hold one this Summer because of the attacks.”

Dame Bryonoth seemed to smile oddly, nervously, as if something had been said that she did not like. Her horse whinnied quite loudly. “Perhaps thee couldst speak with his grace,” Sir Saulius added, his whiskers twitching lightly. His voice treaded carefully, but there warmth in it. “He may listen to thee more than we.”

Her face flushed oddly then, and she nodded quickly. “Mayhaps. I must leave now. I art quite late. Fare thee well.” She snapped the reins then, and rather abruptly drove the horse onwards, the cart clattering along on the cobblestone road. Both knights stood there along that road staring mutely after her, surprise filling their faces.

“Why wast she in such a hurry?” Saulius asked quietly after the cart had passed the nearest lamppost.

But Sir Egland could only shake his head. He reached up to rub at his new antlers, and then yanked it back down to his side. “I’m worried for her. She’s become secretive and anxious about me at times, and I’ve never known Bryonoth to be that way. I will pay a visit to Father Hough. He might know what to do.”

“Aye,” Sir Saulius said, voice low. “Thou knowest him better than I. I hope ‘twill not take years ere Bryonoth finds her place anew.”

“I hope so too.” Quietly, the pair continued on their way towards the towering pinnacles of the Keep.

The room was cramped and dark. Only a single candle illuminated the small closet, shelves of jars and dusty linens lining three walls. The ceiling was so low that Thalberg could not even stand up straight, but had to bend over, long crocodilian snout nearly singing itself upon the candle flame. As it was, he was very uncomfortable, his tail tucked heavily between his legs, making it hard not to topple against the shelves themselves.

Andwyn did not have the same sort of troubles, being half the alligator’s size. There was a single small foot stool in the closet, and upon that, the bat stood, red eyes glimmering in the candlelight. His large ears looked like devilish horns in that dim red light.

“So,” Thalberg said at last in a low whisper. “What is it you wish to tell me that requires us to secret ourselves in a closet no bigger than I am?”

The bat’s reserve did not falter in the face of Thalberg’s foul temper. “I need something from you, Steward. You have designed the Duke’s bedchambers well for I can do nothing but peer in his windows. Should I risk secreting myself inside, he would surely notice. Or one of his guards. But I have watched him for some time, hoping for some clue. But this only I know. When he retires early, he does not go to sleep as you might imagine. Instead, he leaves the room via a secret passage behind the Hassan tapestry.”

Thalberg grunted at that. His liege, Duke Thomas, had been lying to him. But why? Knowing that his suspicions had borne out was like the stabbing of a dagger in his chest. He could feel the heat from the candle all the more, and wished to smack it aside dashing the hot wax to the floor. But he held his anger in check, though his words were full of their own heat. “So what do you need from me?”

“How do I get into the secret passage?” Andwyn asked. “I cannot see the mechanism that opens the door from any perch I hang outside his windows.”

With grit in his voice, his tongue heavy with a feeling he could not quite identify, Thalberg, Steward of Metamor and to the house of Hassan, revealed yet one more secret.

Apollinar left them as soon as he had shown them the small suite that Duke Verdane had granted them for a few days. It was in the western wing of the manor, with windows overlooking the northern wall of the city. A dark line signalled the forest only a short distance up the road. Heavy curtains hung before the windows though, blocking most of it from view.

The rooms themselves were well-decorated and clean, though also fairly utilitarian. A small foyer led to a main room with hearth set between two curtained windows. Before the hearth were a pair of chairs and a chaise lounge. Doors led off from either side, two on the right wall, one on the left. The left was the master bedroom, thick four poster bed with canopy and curtains, another hearth, a large writing desk, a small nook and windowseat for eating meals, and a small tub for bathing. The other two rooms were ever sparser than that.

Marquis Camille du Tournemire sat within one of the chairs and stared into the fire for several moments, running a single finger along his long nose. His steward was busy inspecting their belongings, making sure that all of them had been brought to the rooms as the Duke had promised. The castellan spent his time surveying the windows and doors, testing their sturdiness. And Zagrosek remained as silent as any shadow, waiting – patiently or resignedly, the Marquis didn’t care – waiting for instructions.

Reaching within his surcoat, the Marquis drew out a single deck of cards. These were not his hand made cards, they were kept in a special case. But any card within his hands held power. The deck was bound by a single strand of lace, and he undid the knot with practised ease. He let the bit of sky blue ribbon lay across one knee while his fingers began to shuffle the cards in the palm of his hand, arraying them against each other, growing familiar with the imperfections in each bit of processed pulp.

“All seems in order, your grace,” Sir Autrefois announced, drawing the curtains closed before the windows. “Shall I send for our men to guard the doors?”

“Yes.” He flipped a card over and examined it. The Priest of Coins. Interesting.

“It is unfortunate that we came here when we did,” Vigoureux opined. The sentiment was obvious, but his steward was useful for such things.

“Truly. But it will not balk me,” the Marquis slipped the card back within the deck and continued to move the cards in his hands. They were warm against his delicate skin. “Krenek.”

“Yes, your grace?” the black Sondecki asked, stepping forward as if a spectre unleashed by its master.

“I want to know what manner of dispute these two lordlings are attempting to settle. Find them and listen to them tonight. They will talk amongst their own.” He turned another card over, and saw the Eight of Swords. “I want to know by morning what goes on here.”

Zagrosek bowed his head once. “You will, your grace.” There was only a slight hint of a smile upon his narrow face, and then he walked towards one corner of the room. The corner was cast into shadow from the drawn curtains and the mantle of the hearth. His pace was brisk, undaunted by the solid wall before him. Only he never reached the wall. As his legs passed into the shadow, they simply passed from sight altogether. And then his chest vanished within the darkness, his arms, and then his face and head. The angled shadow remained unperturbed, cloaking nothing within.

The Marquis’s steward shuddered and averted his eyes at that, but said nothing. Sir Autrefois stood waiting for their men to arrive in the foyer, and so had not watched. But the Marquis continued to dance his fingers along the cards, unconcerned with his bound man’s means of travel.

“Draw a bath,” he called out then. Quietly, his Steward Vigoureux nodded and entered the left door to do as instructed.

Though it was now several hours past sunset, the Ecclesia chapel was still lit by the burning of candles both along the pews but up in the clerestory as well. Even so, the stained glass windows were dark and still, arched pits of night that made the House of Eli seem a den of vacant ghostly eyes that could do aught but stare. Father Hough dreamed of having the Vespers sung each night, but the demand put too much of a strain on both his physique and his curse-caused childish temperament. Such nightly singing would have to wait until there was another priest at Metamor who could assist Father Hough in all that a proper parish required.

Sir Egland had often come to the chapel at knight to pray, though he still found its strange quiescence slightly unnerving. He saw that the young man Ramad was busy polishing the pews as usual. Upon hearing the clopping of his cloven hooves upon the smooth stone, the youth looked up, and gestured to the door along the side of the chapel near the alter. “Father Hough’s in his quarters if you need him.”

The knight smiled as best he could and walked towards the door. “Thank you, Ramad. How goes the waxing?”

“Oh, about normal, Sir. It’s beginning to shine again,” the young man answered, his face scanning along the large number of pews he still had yet to do. It was a lengthy task, but he was happy to serve, being an acolyte of the Chapel.

And looking older than its priest, Sir Egland mused to himself. Then again, just about everyone was older than Father Francis Hough, not that the boy priest seemed to mind. Sometimes, it was hard to think of him as an ordained minister of the Ecclesia as he seemed so very much like a boy. Yet no matter how young he appeared, he was Eli’s representative at Metamor, and certainly he would know what should be done regarding his Yisaada.

After he passed the young man, Ramad went back to his endless task of cleaning the pews, rubbing his washcloth firmly along the wooden benches. Lifting his hoof-like hand, Sir Egland rapped gently upon the door three times. A boyish soprano called out, “Enter.” There was a note of distraction in it, but for a priest, that was hardly out of the ordinary. For a child, it was positively queer.

Father Hough’s quarters were small and simple. Several chairs sat near the hearth, upon which rested a few trinkets that were in terrible need of dusting. A small fire crackled in the hearth, though it looked like it needed another log or two. His desk was strewn with papers, over which the boy priest was pouring tirelessly. He turned and smiled to the elk as the knight came in. “Ah, Sir Egland. It’s a pleasure to see you. How can I help you?”

“It’s not me, Father,” Egland said, nodding his head low, closing the door behind him. “I wanted to speak with you about another who I fear is not well.”

Hough gestured to the cushioned chairs beside the fire. They were all gifts from parishioners naturally, and some of them had once belonged to Bishop Vinsah before the raccoon had left Metamor only a couple weeks back. “Shall we sit and you can tell me?” the boy priest asked, rising from his seat at the desk.

“Yes, thank you, Father.” Egland took the larger of the seats and let his arms rest upon the chair’s arms. He waited for the priest to sit opposite him in the smaller child’s sized seat. Even though it was smaller, Hough’s legs still dangled from the end. He bore only a black cassock, and his small hands smoothed it over his knees.

Hough smiled then, his cherubic face reassuring. “Now who are you worried about, good knight?”

“It’s Dame Bryonoth.” The boy priest nodded as if he’d known that all along. “She’s not acting like herself. And it is not just that she’s become female. There’s something else there, I can feel it in me, though I don’t quite know what it is.”

“Tell me, what has she been doing that is strange?” Hough’s smile was not completely vanished from his face. It had simply fallen behind the look of concern. There was still the encouraging smile buried within.

Sir Egland unconsciously began rubbing at his antlers again. It too him several seconds before he realised it and forced his hand back down to the chair. “I’m not sure if there is anything that she’s been doing, or any one thing. It is just the way she reacts to things. Earlier this evening, Sir Saulius and I stopped her as she was delivering her onions and she was very anxious, as if she didn’t want us near. And she became extremely nervous and left hastily when Erick mentioned our desire to have a joust this summer.”

“She is delivering onions?” Hough asked, his brow furrowing curiously.

“Yes. She started delivering onions for one of the merchants almost two months ago now. Sometimes she delivers carrots or other goods.”

“Has she ever been interested in that before?”

“No,” Sir Egland shook his head firmly. “Before the curse took her, Bryonoth wished only to be a knight. It was her, his dream, his only wish. And when he became a she, it all seemed to change. For days she wouldn’t speak at all, and then came the trial...” the elk stopped, unable to find the words to continue. Hough just nodded. “It was awful,” he couldn’t quite say what was awful, but he knew it was. “Afterwards, about a fortnight afterwards, she started delivering the onions.”

“With her warhorse?”

“No,” Egland shook his head. “Had she used Povunoth to pull her carts, I would have known something was amiss to begin with. She still has a fierce pride in him, I can assure you of that. She’s using one of the other stable horses. But it does not seem to be helping her any. She needs to feel like a knight again, not a common labourer.”

Hough nodded slowly, cupping his hands before him. “You may be right, Sir Egland. We should ask Duke Thomas to officially restore her to a position of knighthood. Assign her knightly duties. Perhaps forbade her from hauling onions if needs be.” He smiled then to the elk. “I will request an audience with his grace tomorrow. He will hear your words, Sir Egland. If he can dance with her, surely he must have forgiven her.”

“You’ve heard too?” Sir Egland asked in surprise.

“My son,” Father Hough laughed, “I heard before the day was over. Everyone in Metamor knows that story by now.”

Strangely embarrassed, England nodded. “Thank you, Father,” he bowed his bead low then respectfully.

“Think nothing of it, Yacoub. You have done good by bringing your concerns to me. I shall do what I can. Was there anything else? Would you care to share a cup of cider with me?”

But Egland demurred, shaking his head. Intoran was surely done by now with the cleaning, and he wished to spend some time that night with his squire before Bryonoth would return from carting onions. “No, but thank you, Father for the kind offer. I must return to my home now. I know that all will be well once Duke Thomas grants our request.”

“Then may Eli bless you, Sir Egland. You have served His Ecclesia well in bringing this to me. Fear not for Dame Bryonoth’s sake.” He rose from his seat, practically leaping from it.

Sir Egland rose as well, rubbing once again at his antlers, though only briefly. “Thank you once again, Father. May Eli bless you.” And with the child’s smile still in his eye, the knight slipped as quietly as he could once more back into the chapel. His Yisaada would be well again, and a knight true. He smiled widely as he thought of riding side by side through the meadow rushes once more.

Toumoth was vastly relieved when they finally returned to the stables late that evening. The run-in with the two knights Egland and Saulius had upset both of them greatly. Dame Bryonoth had been visibly jarred, and had not spoken to him for nearly ten minutes afterwards. Toumoth himself felt immensely self-conscious, something that had ruined the entire experience of wearing horse shoes. He did not want to worry about anybody recognizing him, he just wanted to be a horse. If anybody could recognize him amongst the populace of Metamor, it would be those two knights, who had rescued him the first time that Bryonoth had put the halter on him.

His heart ached as he thought back to that lonely night during the dead of a blizzard. If not for the attack by Nasoj, he sometimes found himself wishing that Bryonoth had been successful in secreting him away to the Flatlands, a place where all would see him as but a horse, where Bryonoth would ride him and not Povunoth. But that was not going to ever be, and he would simply have to enjoy these nights.

Bryonoth for her part took up the curry and worked it along his hides as his flesh shivered in his own anxiety. After a few minutes, he felt the usual calm and pleasant fog returning to him. The shoes on his hooves were a pleasant weight now, familiar, comforting, one more part of being a horse. It would be a pity when she would have to take them off before making him be the Duke again.

“Dost not worry, my Toumoth,” her voice was like velvet gloves upon his ears. He turned them to better hear her voice. “If thou wishes, they shalt ne’er take thee from me.”

He stared at her with his large chestnut eyes, hoping that what she said was true. How could he have felt otherwise, he wondered idly. Having to survive a single day without her fingers brushing through his mane, or any part of his fur, was very nearly impossible.

But she did not speak further, merely running the curry along his flanks. Her fingers brushed across his tail, and she withdrew a small purple petal that the wind had dropped into it. He watched her over his shoulder, letting his tail flick against her, brushing across her shoulder. Bryonoth laughed then, and set the curry aside. She took up the thick comb, and ran the hard bristles through his long, dark tail. Her strokes were smooth, slow, and took up the entire length of his tail. His nostrils flared slightly as he watched.

“Thou art a handsome stallion, Toumoth,” Bryonoth cooed lightly as she brushed. Toumoth snorted and nodded his head, feeling a bit of pride at the compliment. She flashed him another gentle smile and set the brush aside, continuing to curry him along his other flank He swished his tail once more, brushing her along her shoulder once more. She laughed and pushed the tail away with one hand and shook her head.

“Thou art mischievous,” she observed as the curry moved up along his side smoothly. As she’d already brushed him before, his fur was free of tangles and it was merely for his comfort that she did it. He turned his head around so that he could watch her, an she held her free hand out to him. He stretched his lips out, touching the tips of her fingers with the supple flesh. The scent of the onions still coated them, but so too did his own particular musk, as well as her gentle odour.

And then, she trailed her fingers underneath his muzzle, and gently pressed, lifting his head up even as her own came down. With the barest of whispering touches, Bryonoth kissed him upon the snout. His flesh trembled then, and he stomped one shoed hoof upon the wooden planking of his stall. She took a step closer, and drew the curry down along the side of his neck, leaning against his massive head. “Thou ne’er hast to go back, if thee wouldst will it.”

Toumoth looked at her, surprise filling his eyes. She smiled and kissed him once more. “I wilt tell thee more next time, my good Toumoth.” One hand cupped an ear, and then it smoothed over his mane. “For now, I wilt remove thy shoes so thee canst go back.”

The words that gurgled within his chest remained there, unable to be voiced just then. Toumoth simply stared at her, wondering is she meant what he thought she did. How could he wait until the next time to know? It would be an agony. But she would call for him again soon, he knew. She always did.

As Bryonoth set the wooden box back down next to his forelegs he leaned over and nuzzled her. She patted the side of his snout smiling to him before reaching once more for his hoof.

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