The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XVI - Divided Loyalties

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

There were times when Thomas Hassan, Duke of Metamor and the Northern Midlands, enjoyed meeting with envoys from foreign lands. They possessed knowledge of distant kingdoms and told him of new sciences, ideas, stories, and magics. And usually they came bearing offers of trade or treaty.

And then there were days when he truly wished they all stayed at home. This was one of the latter times.

Thomas would much rather stay in his sitting room and enjoy the company of the lovely Dame Alberta Artelanoth. They had finished a scrumptious breakfast of freshly baked bread, peach marmalade, and crisp golden apples only an hour before. Yet now he had to depart from her presence and discover what the emissary from Duke Otakar of Salinon and the Outer Midlands wanted today.

Emissary Stepan hin’Les was an obsequious fellow with a golden tongue. There was no end to his praises of Metamor and her liege. That Thomas was a morphic horse resembling a common working breed was irrelevant in the garrulous gentleman’s estimation. He had come all the way from the Outer Midlands with a purpose and one way or another he would have it.

Whether Thomas was willing to give it to him depended on what that something was.

The horse lord of Metamor let out an expansive sigh. He reclined in a stiff-backed chair suitable for reading, though he held no tome in his hoof-like hands. Instead all his attention was upon the long-eared equine woman who shared his company. Dame Alberta sat upon a similar chair, her strong hooves protruding from underneath the hem of her lilac blue skirt. Thick fingers carefully attended to a needlework arrangement before her.

It amazed Thomas at times. When the year had begun, Alberta had been a human man. Now, the donkey-like woman before him was spending much of her time learning the arts of the refined lady. When she wasn’t in the saddle that is. She spent a great deal of her time riding freely along the grassy hills of the valley with her fellow knight and friend from years before, Sir Egland.

“What are you making?” Thomas asked her, the first word either of them had spoken in several minutes.

Alberta let a smile creep along the edge of her snout. “Thou mayest see when I hath finished.”

He chuckled lightly and sighed again. His eyes darted to the clock above the mantle and it was clear that he could not delay any longer. His adopted daughter Malisa was likely in the meeting chambers already with Stepan hin’Les with the both of them wondering where he was.

“I fear that I have a meeting I cannot delay, my dear Alberta. You may continue your needlework and retire at your leisure.”

Alberta looked up, her long ears standing erect. “Wilt thee not return this day?”

“I do not know,” Thomas replied with a shrug. “But I hope that we might share dinner together later.”

She smiled again, and her ears folded back in an equine blush. “I would like that, Thomas.”

He rose from his seat, feeling a renewed sense of energy. Merely the thought of sharing the evening with this woman was thrilling. “I will see you for dinner then. Now I fear I must take my leave of you. Good day to you, my lady.”

“And to you, my lord.” When she said it, it did not sound like a title at all. He loved it.

Thomas startled a page as he left the sitting room. The young boy, too young to have felt the touch of the curses, had been nodding off while leaning against the door jamb. Now he was at his feet and staring in apprehensive fear at the Duke.

“Never mind me, see to Dame Artelanoth’s needs this day.”

“Yes milord!” the boy piped as he stood attentively at the door.

Thomas was flanked by a pair of guards in blue livery as he made his way through the halls of the Keep. Kyia must have sensed his haste, because he came to his meeting chambers after only a few turns. One of the guards announced him, and seconds later he found his daughter and the emissary standing next to the negotiation table as he had expected.

“Ah, your grace,” Stepan hin’Les said, lowering his eyes respectfully, and a trifle too subserviently for Thomas’s taste. “It is good to see you again this morning. I trust everything is in order.”

“Father,” Malisa said, bowing before him as she did when they were not alone. “Everything is prepared, we merely await your word before we continue.”

Thomas waved to them both and took his seat at the head of the table. Both Malisa and Stepan took their seats. The emissary was dressed in a green doublet bearing the falcon crest of Duke Otakar. His wide face was topped by greasy brown hair that smelled of cooking oil.

“I believe we have attended to most of the concerns that you brought before us, emissary,” Thomas began. He wanted to bring these talks to a conclusion that day if he could. “But let me state again why we are here. I sent word to your liege Duke Otakar because I am concerned with the news of war in the Southern Midlands. It is my desire to see this war kept in the Southern Midlands. Thus, I wish to form a pact with his grace stating that we will neither aid nor hinder any side in the dispute. That was and is all that I seek.”

Malisa nodded sagely while Stepan worked his lips into a moue. “And his grace shares your concern. Our borders with the Southern Midlands are more extensive than your own. My liege fears that the conflict may spread into his lands unless he is prepared to defend them. And no such pact can be complete unless we honour each other’s territory. And then there is trade...”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed and eyed his daughter. “Malisa tells me that you have some suggestions on that score.”

“Oh, I believe there are many goods that both our kingdoms are in need of. You control the mouth of the Marchbourne, and we have ports along its head. Your Prime Minister and I feel that this river is the key to strengthening our alliance.”

Malisa nodded and spread her fingers on the table. “I have drawn up a list of possible goods we would be able to trade. All that remains is deciding what and in what quantities.”

Thomas took a deep breath and leaned forward. “The trade is important, but what I am most interested in is insuring that neither my kingdom nor his grace’s participate in this war. If Duke Otakar requires that I sign a declaration honouring his territory, then I shall do so.”

“And I shall sign in his grace Duke Otakar’s name,” Stepan replied, his smile already beginning to wear on Thomas’s patience.

“Then,” Malisa suggested mildly, “since it sounds to me as if the only details that we are not agreed upon is the matter of trade, let us discuss that.”

“Yes,” Thomas agreed, “unless there is something else that you wish to discuss first.”

Stepan shook his head mildly. “No, your grace, I would very much like to discuss matters of trade.”

And Thomas knew that his day would involve a great deal of discussion and few decisions. He stood up a little straighter and gestured for his daughter to begin. He would think on how lovely it would be to see Alberta again that evening. Her enchanting equine face dancing in the back of his mind, he listened as Malisa began to negotiate.

Inkiqut led Charles and the rest into the depths of the mountain. For several minutes none of them spoke. The appearance of the Binoq spearmen had been startling, as were the revelations that Abafouq their companion had broken some ancient Binoq tradition in bringing them into the city. Though it was some time before they realized that they were in fact in a city.

The walls of the caves were frequently carved with Binoq runes, and occasionally the chiselled lines would blend to form a picture. Usually it would be of the mountains, but other times it would be of monsters defeated by brave Binoq warriors. In one of them, the monster looked very similar to the Nauh-kaee, with large wings, hooked beaks, and a lion’s tail. Charles wondered if things would have been worse had Guernef accompanied them into the caves.

He studied Inkiqut and the other Binoq carefully. They were keeping their distance, but he could not help but note curious glances directed at him. They probably had never seen a living statue before. But what was more remarkable to the rat was that they carried no lights with them. If not for Jessica’s witchlights, the entire cave would have been subsumed in complete darkness.

“Why do you not carry any light?” Charles finally asked. Behind him Abafouq muttered something unintelligible.

Inkiqut laughed. “There is light everywhere. That which grows on the walls gives light.”

Charles glanced at the walls and now that he knew about it, he could see a thin layer of some fungus. And where there were no witchlights he noted a faint green glow. He tried to feel them through the wall, but the stone of the cave would not allow him to enter. It was odd, now when he felt safest from the temptations of stone, he could not even test himself.

The cave continued to descend at a steady pace. Several times small cracks would lead off to one side or the other, but the main passage was unbroken for at least a full mile inside the mountains. What little Charles could feel through the stone told him that they were not yet beneath the base of the gorge that lay behind Mahku’s Door, but it would not be long before they delved that deep.

After what seemed the hundredth turn, they saw before them a wide room with carved pillars in a regular array. The ceiling was ten feet high, which made this the tallest chamber they had entered yet. Sconces lined each pillar, and inside them were small flames that brought an orange glow to the chamber. Charles could see that several vaulted doors lay at the end of the room, and before them were more Binoq spearmen standing guard.

“The gates of Qorfuu,” Inkiqut declared with pride. “You first humans to see this.”

“We’re honoured,” Lindsey groused in irritation.

“Where are the gates?” Kayla asked. “I don’t see any.”

Inkiqut laughed heartily and waved his men forward. He turned and glanced at his cousin. “Abafouq explain it. I talk to others.” And with that he trotted forward to speak with the guards. The new Binoq were staring at them warily with their spears held tight. Charles was beginning to feel irritated by these people. If they weren’t wanted, then why had they been brought here? Weren’t they supposed to learn here what they needed to do to destroy the power of Marzac?

Abafouq let out a heavy sigh. His voice was hollow, a terrible sound that made their hearts clench tight. “The gates are inside the doorways. You cannot see them, but if the Binoq guards move from where they stand, blocks will slide down to prevent any from getting through.”

“That sounds effective,” Jessica murmured.

“What sort of city is Qorfuu anyway?” James asked, his voice very quiet.

“A city beneath the mountains,” Abafouq replied. “You’ll see soon.”

And even as he spoke, Inkiqut was waving at them, motioning them to follow him. Some of the spearmen stayed in the gate house chamber, while half a dozen went ahead in the centre passage. Charles and the others followed slowly after. One of the guards held out a hand to brush across the rat’s side. Frowning, Charles gave his long tail a quick flick near the little Binoq. The sudden crack startled him, and he kept his hand to himself.

The archway was pointed, and as Charles glanced up, he could see in the recesses behind it the massive stone block that Abafouq had mentioned. It looked old, and he knew that if it should fall, it would shatter his body into thousands of fragments. The rat could not hold his breath, but he certainly kept his muzzle shut until he was past the gate.

The passage beyond was unique for being narrow and having a high ceiling. More chiselled messages lined the walls. Many of them were haggard, and some even were carved over other messages. Some were ornate and clearly preserved. Charles had a hard time fathoming what he was looking at, and so asked Abafouq.

“In days long ago, my people wrote messages on these walls to each other. The guards especially. Some messages were considered more important than others, and over time, they were given protection. It is a crime to carve anything atop such messages. This hall is under such a ward. It has been for three hundred years now.”

“Three hundred years? It’s that old?” James nickered in surprise.

Abafouq shrugged. “There are some places which are thousands.”

“Thousands?” the donkey’s voice was nothing but a whisper now.

“Qorfuu is very old.” At that, their Binoq companion fell silent, his eyes cast to the ground and his hands hanging limply at his sides.

The passage came to another staircase. At every seventh step along the walls, pillars had been sculpted from the stone. Charles traced his fingers across the circular surface and could feel very small grain work, as if the weave of a cloth had been chiselled into its face. He could peer over the heads of Inkiqut and the Binoq spearmen to see a faint radiance at the base of the stairs. Each step brought them one step closer to the city.

They were disappointed in that the bottom of the staircase did not lead into the city, but another gatehouse. The room was large, with a ceiling of twenty feet in height. What was more remarkable was it was the most cave like of any of the chambers yet. Stalactites and stalagmites decorated ceiling and floor, while several wide columns obscured their view of the massive stone wall that dominated the rear of the hall.

Jessica let her witchlights float higher in the chamber, and several of them sucked in their breath as they saw such ancient rock. The sound of dripping water echoed around them. “Do not touch.” Inkiqut said sharply, gesturing towards the stalagmites. “You’ll hurt them.”

“We’ll hurt them?” Kayla asked, confused by how one might hurt stone.

“They no more grow if you touch them,” Inkiqut explained, though neither the skunk nor any of her companions quite understood why. Charles didn’t feel the same fear and reached out a granite paw to feel the damp rock. Yes, he could feel its age. The stalagmite was only three feet tall, but it was older than any recorded human civilisation.

One of the Binoq smacked his arm with the wooden haft of his spear. Charles yanked his paw back in alarm and glared at the diminutive figure. Inkiqut waved a finger at his snout. “I said no touch!”

He grunted but did not apologize.

At the rear of the chamber was a large wall that had been fashioned a long time ago. Standing at its top and behind narrow crenellations were Binoq armed with crossbows. There was but one gate. Massive iron doors stood open at the front and rear of the gate. More Binoq spearmen stood on either side. They saw Inkiqut and waved him through. They eyed the rest of the group warily. They would not look at Abafouq.

“How much further will it be?” James asked as he passed beneath the gate.

“Not long now,” Inkiqut replied as he walked down a twisting passage. It was well lit, with sconces every ten paces on either side. The centre of the path was worn with passage and it dipped several inches below the walls. Charles tried to feel at the rock again, and found it wary still, but growing accustomed to them. He did not let his claws linger long, stepping a little higher to keep his stony flesh in the air.

Inkiqut was as good as his word. Only a minute walking down the twisting passage brought them to another staircase. It was short, and opened into a vast chamber longer and wider than the city of Metamor. Huge columns as wide as the tree Charles lived in towered above them, and a patchwork of homes climbed along either side of the cavern. Ramps led up and down along the walls, with ladders fashioned from wood serving where there was no path. Clustered around each pillar were more homes that climbed like an anthill against the stone. In the distance, they could see an opening in the rock wall from which water poured. The waterfall collected in a wide lake at the rear of the chamber before draining into a small stream that wound beneath bridges and trellises until it too left the chamber through a small opening. A road followed the river out, and several more vaulted openings led elsewhere.

Inkiqut smiled and stood with hands on hips as he looked at the massive subterranean city. “Qorfuu. No finer city in the world!”

Abafouq stared with longing at the perplexing vista. Charles and the rest stood slack-jawed as they took in the multitude of sights and sounds. Hundreds of Binoq were about conducting their business. Everywhere lights were lit, though primarily in several towers at the centre of the chamber. The bright staccato of stonecutters at work resonated from the walls. The rushing of the falls was a soft susurration in their ears.

And they could even smell warm food. Somewhere nearby bread was being baked, and ahead of them they detected the rich aroma of fresh meat. It had a peculiar tang that they were not familiar with, and they wondered what sort of animal it was that was being prepared. The answer came when they glanced near the lake where fields of moss and fungus grew. Corralled there were herds of what vaguely resembled sheep or goats. Charles could not make them out very clearly, but he would have sworn these creatures did not have eyes.

“By Artela, it’s amazing!” Jessica squawked. “I have never seen the like! I never dreamed of anything so grand as this!”

Inkiqut beamed with pride and gestured for them to continue walking. “Take you to meet someone, now. Then you get rest.”

James slid up beside Charles and looked the rat in the eye. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Charles shook his head. “No. And I thought I had seen a great many things. But this... I had no idea this even existed!” He laughed and patted his friend on the back. “Who would have thought we would be the first of our kind to see this city!”

James just shook his head. “I cannot believe it.”

“Believe it,” Abafouq said miserably. “No humans have ever trod these roads before. There is no secret we Binoq guard more jealousy than our home.”

“Then why did we come here?” Kayla asked. Inkiqut had led them up a long ramp that wound around one of the columns towards a rather ornate building. It was open to the air, but the roof was supported by small columns on one side. An array of pallets and pillows were clustered inside. Sitting amidst the pillows supping upon a bit of bread was a tall, solitary figure. Charles stared in surprise when he saw the pearly-grey flesh and dark black hair. This was neither a Binoq nor a man.

“Because,” the figure said in silken tones that sent a strange shudder through the rat’s stony flesh, “there is knowledge that can only be found in this city. Thank you, Inkiqut for bringing them safely.” He smiled, and slant golden eyes sparkled in the amber radiance of the Binoq tower lights.

The Binoq lowered his head respectfully as they drew near to the building and its occupant. “Thank you, fair one!” Inkiqut’s flesh trembled as he lifted his gaze to meet the much taller man. “I will wait here.”

He nodded and then gestured to the others. “Come in and sit. Shortly we will go to where rooms have been prepared for us, but for now we should introduce ourselves, and I will answer what questions I can. First, my name is Andares-es-sebashou. I am of the Åelf, and it was my master who has summoned you here.”

Charles slowly lowered his massive taur form onto one of the pallets. He felt the supplies shift across his back, but not uncomfortably. James and Kayla sat nearby, while Lindsey huddled in one corner. Habakkuk approached and bowed to Andares and sat near him, face sombre but intent. Abafouq sat with his knees under his chin by himself and did not look at anyone. Jessica used one of the pillows for a perch as her golden eyes stared in awe at the Åelf.

Andares was dressed in a blue cloak that covered a glimmering breastplate. He could see the outlines of a stag inscribed in the front, with a multitude of leaves framing the antlers and face. At his side an ivory handled sword was sheathed. A matching dagger hung from his other hip.

“I am Zhypar Habakkuk,” the kangaroo said. “I am glad to see you here, Andares. Allow me to introduce my friends. Abafouq you already know. There is also Jessica our journeyman mage, Kayla who bears the silver swords, Lindsey the timbersman, James the donkey, and the stone rat is Charles Matthias the Sondecki.” Andares’s golden eyes studied the rat for a moment in amused whimsy, but he did not inquire how the rat became stone.

“It is a great honour to meet each of you. I know you have journeyed a long way and have already faced many dangers. I fear there is a great deal more we will all face. From this moment forward, I will be joining your company and will journey with you. But first, allow me to answer the question that is foremost on your minds.”

“Why we are here?” Lindsey suggested.

Andares nodded. “That is the question. The threat of Marzac is ancient and powerful. Our strength alone cannot defeat it. Only armed with the proper knowledge will we be able to face Yajakali and survive. And that is why we are here. The Binoq have stored knowledge here in Qorfuu that is millennias old. There are questions about Marzac’s power whose answers will be found carved into the stone.”

“Then why haven’t you come here before and found them yourself?” Lindsey asked, crossing his arms.

Andares let his smile fade. “Until now, we have not known where to look.” His eyes slid to the kangaroo. “You know where the knowledge we seek remains hidden, do you not?”

Habakkuk nodded slowly. “The Walls of Nafqananok. I will need help reading them.”

Abafouq grunted. “I can read anything you need me to read.”

Jessica squawked. “Another thing, if our coming here has hurt Abafouq in the eyes of his people, isn’t there anything you can do?”

Abafouq glowered at the hawk and snapped. “That’s not for you to worry about!”

“But I do worry! You are our friend.”

Andares let out a long breath. “I fear that I have done all that I can. The Binoq have let you come to their city. They eagerly await our departure. Even the elders of their race could not deny your entrance. But they must have it on their terms.” The Åelf let his eyes soften as he regarded Abafouq. “Do not let the misery fill your heart. All things happen for a reason, even if we do not understand the reason.”

Abafouq nodded glumly but said nothing more.

“And what will we be doing once you find whatever it is you are looking for at these Walls?” Charles asked. Andares seemed familiar to him, and he tried to remember back to his days before he came to Metamor. There was some image, but it was fleeting and he couldn’t identify it.

“That is a question for another day. But for a time we will journey in safety. That much I can assure you.”

“That’ll be a nice change of pace,” Lindsey muttered beneath his breath. Kayla gave him a kick to the thigh, but he only rolled his eyes.

“For now, Inkiqut will take us to a place where we can eat and find rest. Tomorrow we will visit Nafqananok. I look forward to learning more about each of you. We will be in each other’s company for many months yet.”

“Months?” James asked, and then shook his head. “Never mind. It’s all too much.”

Charles nodded slowly. “And though I know you won’t say, I do wonder how you know that, Andares-es-sebashou.”

The Åelf favoured him with a slightly amused grin, like a cat who has just seen a mouse perform some amazing trick. “In time, friend rat. In time.”

The road from Haethor to Ralathe drove westward through rolling hills with the ominous Herstel Forest perpetually looming to the south. Duke Titian Verdane was concerned about the haunted woods only insofar as it threatened the morale of his soldiers. They numbered well over a thousand men, boys and veterans each thankful they had yet to see bloodshed, but each knowing that it was inevitable. And with the ancient woods so close, they woke each morning wondering if the time was finally here to risk death in war.

When their riders told them of the smaller army riding north along the Ralathe-Mallow Horn road, they knew the time had come.

Duke Verdane meant to prove them wrong.

The armies did not meet until the early afternoon, but once word reached him, he’d sent a seneschal out to meet the army and to brace Lord Rukas Stoffels of Ralathe. Stoffels was a proud man, arrogant even, but he was no fool. With an army thrice the size of his own, he would not hesitate to parlay. And unless his mind had been consumed by rage and hate as Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford had, he would do precisely as Verdane told him.

“What a fortuitous coincidence,” Lord Marion Thrane declared as he sat in the saddle. Titian had brought them to the front of the army to wait for word from Stoffels. The road dipped in a small valley between two lines of hills. Verdane could clearly see Stoffels’s army as it paused its march northward. He had marshalled well over five hundred men. At a glance, Verdane counted two hundred pikemen, two hundred archers, and over a hundred knights. If they were allowed to join Dupré, the Guilford family would be destroyed, and Kelewair itself would come under threat next.

“They should never have left Ralathe,” Lord Barruw Grenholt snapped. The burly Lord of Mitok had made his distaste for the effete rulers of Haethor known. Thrane was a snivelling dog, but he was useful. Or at the very least, his men were useful and Thrane himself was tolerable.

“In this,” Jaime Verdane pointed out, “it is fortuitous. Now, Lord Stoffels faces an army three times the size of his own and he meets them on land. If we attack, all he can do is run.”

“And,” Thrane added, enjoying his little victory over the one-time shepherd, “it also means that when they join us, we will be able to make our next move immediately.”

“Unlike you who made us wait two full days,” Grenholt countered.

Thrane opened his mouth to make some pathetic excuse when Titian laughed. “Fortuitous? I suppose so. But all of you are right. They should never have left Ralathe. Stoffels has betrayed me. Let us see how deep his betrayal runs.”

A small smile perked upon Thrane’s lips. “Will you punish him for his misconduct, your grace?”

From a man who had at first refused Verdane’s summons, Thrane was far more eager than courtesy allowed. “I will punish him no more than I am going to punish you, Marion. If he decides to join his forces to mine that is. That is how this game is played.”

“Our rider returns,” Jaime noted with a nod of his head.

Verdane gazed across the hilly terrain and watched as a solitary horseman left the Ralathe camp and headed eastward down the road. He carried aloft the red banner with the black wolf head that marked the Verdane household. This pleased Verdane. It meant that Stoffels had accepted the parlay. Already he could see commotion in the Ralathe army as a small contingent of men were organized. Stoffels’s wooded banners migrated their way to the east flowing road.

“Our men have orders not to attack unless we give them the signal,” Grenholt said softly. At even mention of the word, their steeds grunted and pawed nervously at the ground with forehooves.

“Good. Let us wait.” Verdane gently patted his stallion’s neck to calm him before returning his eyes to the road. A small force had gathered at the edge of the Ralathe army, including a man dressed in silvered armour. Rukas Stoffels, Verdane judged.

“Milord!” the rider called as he reached them. He gasped for breath before continuing. “Lord Stoffels has agreed to meet you in parlay. Even now he awaits your pleasure.”

“Thank you. You are dismissed,” Verdane watched the rider guide his horse back into the columns of the Kelewair army.

Turning to the two nobles and his son at his side he flashed them a grim smile. “Let us meet the Lord of Ralathe.” He did not wait before he snapped the reins and set out along the road at a stately trot. Jaime, Barruw and Marion were at his side without any hesitation.

Across from them, Stoffels’s small contingent of himself and four soldiers began down the road too. The sun was quickly lost behind the canopy of the forest to the south. The summer shadows were cool when a breeze brushed their faces, but hot otherwise. As they rode down into the gully, each of them felt the oppressive weight of two armies perched on either side. Except for Verdane. He had eyes only for Lord Stoffels.

Stoffels was a broad-shouldered man who was only a few years younger than Titian. His hair was greyed, and his cheeks had been wrinkled by age. But there was a steely determination in his blue eyes that Verdane could see even from a distance. Stoffels would never apologize for riding his army towards Mallow Horn. But Verdane also knew he was almost certain to join his liege’s forces instead.

“Lord Rakus Stoffels,” Verdane said when they were in earshot. “Why are you riding your troops towards Mallow Horn?”

Stoffels inclined his head respectfully when he brought his steed to a halt. The four soldiers with him were young men each, all of them watching Verdane and the other nobles nervously. “It is good to see you as well, your grace. I had not expected to see you today, but I welcome your company.”

“In case you had failed to notice, this is not a social call, Rakus,” Verdane said, allowing his voice to bristle. “I sent you an order to come aid me. Instead you ride towards Mallow Horn to aid Dupré. Why?”

Stoffels spread his hands wide. “I am your servant, your grace, and I do as I am asked. But I assure you, by Eli, I never received any word from you. I took your silence to mean permission to aid my Follower brethren in their struggle against Lothanasi oppression.”

“Lothanasi oppression?” Grenholt snapped. “It was the Duprés who murdered Lord Guilford’s son!”

Stoffels’s blue eyes widened in surprise. “Truly? The letter I received from Lord Dupré made it clear that Lord Guilford had attacked him and his holdings without provocation. Is it not the case that one of the villages near Mallow Horn was sacked by Masyor knights?”

Verdane nodded slowly. “That is true. But what is also true is that Dupré and Guilford have been feuding for years. I thought I laid that feud to rest this Spring. Only a few days later, Anson Guilford’s eldest son is thrown off his highest tower with a Dupré banner wrapped around his neck. Guilford wasted no time in marshalling his knights and had them massacre one of Mallow Horn’s remoter villages.”

“So you understand why I felt compelled to aid my Follower brethren,” Stoffels replied, smiling gamely. “The boy’s death is regrettable, but we cannot allow aggressors to spill innocent blood.”

“The Duprés have already had their reprisal. A week later one of the villages near Masyor was put to the torch. The local priest had been crucified, and the town leaders impaled on spikes. Woman and children were tied together and dragged by horses across rocks. There are no hands free of blood, Rakus. I am setting out to bring this feud to a final end. Any who side with them will share in their fate.”

Stoffels drew back and asked in a soft voice, “Even your daughter?”

Titian narrowed his gaze and simmered, as did Jaime. His daughter Anya was married to William Dupré, and had far too often taken the side of her husband over her father. Was she doing so even in this?

“That is my concern alone, Rakus. Now I give you a simple choice. Either you can align your forces with my own, and together, we can put an end to this feud, or you can be cut down with them. What will it be?”

Stoffels was indignant. “Of course I will join you, your grace! I have always been your loyal subject, and always shall be.” Thrane rolled his eyes.

Verdane allowed his anger to melt into a welcoming smile. “I am relieved to hear it, Rakus. By nightfall our armies will be joined together.”

“And then?” Stoffels asked. “What comes next? Surely you did not depopulate our eastern border to accost me like this. If Salinon thinks our defences are lowered, they will not hesitate to strike.”

Grenholt shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. Of all present, his lands were most at risk to an invading army.

But Verdane shook his head. “I have left Mitok and Kelewair garrisoned against attack. But you are right, we cannot leave them undefended. Even bringing out this many troops was a risk. But it was a risk I had no choice but to take. Llarth has already sent troops to aid Dupré. He will be keeping any of the northern provinces from crossing the Southbourne to assist Guilford. We cannot hope to catch them now, but after we have regrouped at Kelewair, we can make new plans. I fear we shall find all passage along the Southbourne river blocked for a time.”

Stoffels nodded slowly. “I see. Perhaps if we took control of both Masyor and Mallow Horn, Llarth’s armies would give up their fight.”

“Or they could sweep in and cut off our flank. No, I will not have our army pinned between two warring houses. Llarth must be dealt with first.” Verdane glanced at Thrane and Grenholt meaningfully. “But only after we have returned to Kelewair to organize our resources For now, bring your army to join ours, and tomorrow we will set out for Kelewair.”

“Of course, your grace,” Stoffels bowed his head low. “I am grateful that you were able to reach me before I did something foolish. Had I known...”

“It is of no matter now,” Verdane said, and waved his hand dismissively. “Return to your army and give the new orders. I invite you to enjoy my hospitality tonight. We will dine in my tent and talk of matters more pleasant.”

Stoffels smiled and met his gaze. “I look forward to it, your grace.”

“As do I.” Verdane waited until Lord Rakus Stoffels began to make his way up the road before letting the fierce anger in his blood begin to melt. With a sigh, he turned his horse about. “That’s enough parlay for one day.”

Both Jaime and Grenholt nodded in agreement. But Marian Thrane chuckled to himself.

The negotiations had gone more smoothly than Thomas had expected. Stepan hin’Les had become quite agreeable after they’d had some food brought to their table at noon. A few hours later Malisa was writing up official treaty. There was some disagreement over what words to use, but within another two hours Thomas and Stepan were affixing their signatures to the scroll.

“Well,” Stepan declared as he regarded the copy he would take on his return to Salinon, “I believe we have reached an equitable agreement. When I return his grace will order the merchants guilds to supply you with everything in the agreement.”

“And I will ready our merchants to meet our end of the agreement,” Malisa replied as she examined Metamor’s copy.

Thomas waited until Stepan had slid the scroll into a case before rising. “Send my regards to his grace when you return. I assume you wish to leave on the morrow?”

The emissary nodded slowly. “I would enjoy the hospitality of your beautiful city longer, but I fear that I might not be able to leave if I did.”

“You are wise to feel that way,” the horse lord said. “I will see that you and your men can break your fast before you leave. It has been a pleasure hosting you, emissary hin’Les.”

He nodded and lowered his head respectfully. “Good night, your grace. Prime Minister.”

When the oily man had left, Thomas let out a heavy sigh and collapsed in his chair. “Praise Kammaloth, it’s over! I thought we would never come to an agreement.”

Malisa still had the scroll in her hands. “Wool, leather, grains, and spices. And all that we send are furs and some of our northern woods. I think the deal is more than fair, Father.”

“True. And we have Otakar’s word now that he will not attack the Southern Midlands. It could be worse.”

“Would you care for something to eat? I can have dinner brought to us.”

He shook his head. “Nay, I promised Dame Artelanoth that I would join her for dinner this evening.”

“That is the third time this week,” Malisa pointed out. “She spends more time here in the castle than she does in her home.”

“So you noticed that. It is just as well.” Thomas smiled to himself as he thought on the equine knight he courted. “See to the goods we agreed upon. I’d like the first shipment sent up river within a week.”

Malisa nodded. “I’ll tell Thalberg to have a meal for two prepared.”

“Thank you, Malisa.” Thomas stretched his back and legs as he stood up again. “Good work this week. I couldn’t have managed this agreement without you.”

She lowered her eyes. “He was easier to please than I expected. I wonder if we haven’t given him something more than we thought.”

“Do you expect treachery?”

“No, but I feel I have missed something. Perhaps it is nothing. Perhaps I am just weary.” She smiled and met his gaze. “I will see you again after you have eaten. Good evening, Father.”

“Good evening, Malisa.” Thomas watched her leave before attending to the declaration. He selected an empty scroll case from his bookshelves, one inlaid with gold trim. He carefully rolled the parchment up and slid it inside the case. After sealing the lid, he let out the breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

If Otakar should choose to send to Metamor a more permanent ambassador, he hoped it would be somebody less irritating than Stepan hin’Les. Thomas was glad he was meeting Alberta for dinner again. Right then he needed to see her face, smell her warm equine musk, and hear her braying laugh.

He carried the case under his arm back to his office. First he would put the agreement somewhere safe and then he would change into dinner attire. All the while, he thought of what compliment he would pay the Steppe-born knight first.

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

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