The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXI - With Hooves of Fire

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

The day after King Luvatelperu and his wondrous host mysteriously disappeared, the Metamorians and their friends continued the journey south through the Åelfwood. They were joined by the Rheh Talaran, though if the mighty steeds were capable of great deeds, they made no move to show it amidst the towering trees. In fact, much to their consternation, despite the fact that the redwoods had given way to shorter and stockier oaks, the forest itself gave no indication that it would soon end.

As the warmth of the morning’s early light blossomed into a cool but bright day, the land gradually levelled, though the trees were no less impressive. Their new stallions bore their weight without complaint, even the mare that held up the rat of stone seemed no worse off for her heavy encumbrance. Charles had shifted into his two-legged stance, but he was still dense granite. There was no way to be certain, but he figured he had to weigh at least ten times his flesh-and-blood form.

One thing he was certain of was that no normal horse could have carried him so effortlessly as this green-eyed, gold-furred mare. Just sitting astride her put into mind the joys of holding tight while they thundered across the Steppe. He could see – no feel was the better word – the two of them galloping up a small hill only to leap into the air and glide across a river too deep to ford. Her hooves would dance along the surface of the water as though there were rocks beneath them. And then they would emerge on the other side, wet only from the river’s spray.

Uncontrollably, his tail began to shift back and forth in delight at the thought. There was something back there resting atop his tail root. In surprise, Charles reached one paw behind him, but only felt the twisting contours of the ivy that the wind children had planted there. It had not left him when he’d changed out of his four-legged centaur-like form. Instead, it seemed to have grown further, and was crawling like ivy up his back. He had no idea how it was nourishing itself, but apparently it could and was. Already, he could feel a bud emerging near its base. In a few days there would be a flower there.

He frowned at that realization. The last thing he wanted anybody to remember him by was that he had a flower growing out of his tail.

But more had changed than just his number of legs and the size of the vine. Ever since the mysterious horses had come into their midst, there was a strange sort of energy in each of them. Amongst his friends, he saw it as a new light in their eyes, like the first ray of sunshine after a storm. They smiled and laughed in a way that they had not done since they left Metamor three months ago.

And Charles could swear that he heard the rocks singing as they passed. But that was probably just his imagination.

He let one paw stroke across the muscled neck of the mare. She chuffed in response, a sound that carried a dignity that he had not thought possible in an animal’s voice. But this was no mere animal. He could feel an ancient power in her frame, and it was that power that gave him and the rest of them their unusual ebullience.

“It’s really beautiful, isn’t it?” James asked from behind.

Surprised, Charles turned to look at his friend. The donkey looked awkward riding, with his hooves sticking out along the sides of his large stallion. A bell shaped white mark adorned the stallion’s bronze hide.

“Aye,” Charles agreed as he considered the question. He cast his eyes upwards at the steadfast oaks. Though their boughs were nearer the earth than those in Glen Avery, they stretched wider than any tree he’d e’er seen. A part of him scornfully noted that the mountains were wider still, but he pushed such thoughts away. “Though, I had thought the King said we would have left the woods by dawn.”

James blinked, long ears turning from side to side. “You’re right. I had forgotten that. Why are we still here?”

“Because it is not yet dawn of the next day,” Andares said softly. He rode up alongside of them, his silvery face set in an amused smile, as of a parent to a child who had just asked the same question for a tenth time. “A day is measured differently for our folk than yours.”

Charles scowled. “Are you saying we may be here for many more of our days yet?”

Andares laughed, a bright thing like the tinkling of crystal goblets. “Nay, I do not mean that. Tomorrow we shall have left the wood behind. Just as we have our rituals on leave-taking, so too do the Rheh Talaran. We could not leave their home without their permission. This day is for them.”

“But they haven’t done anything,” James pointed out. His stallion stomped one hoof and snorted meaningfully. A spark lit the air, and then vanished. Both James and Charles rubbed at their pained eyes. The rat blinked, waiting for the after image to fade.

Andares’s subtle smile returned to his lips. His pearl-gray hand gently cupped his steed’s ear. “Not anything we would understand, but still they have their rituals. And their pride. We cannot take that from them.”

James continued to blink, but the donkey at last nodded. “Forgive me,” he said softly, addressing the stallion on which he rode. “I didn’t mean it.” The Talaran steed flicked his tail from side to side and nodded his head once. Beside him, the rat’s mare chuffed as if in laughter.

Charles marvelled at the mare beneath him, wondering just how well they understood what their riders said and did. Perhaps perfectly, he imagined. There was intelligence in those luminous green eyes, but it was more akin to the Nauh-kaee Guernef than to any man. It was a beast’s eye more certainly than any Metamorian’s.

The rat let his thoughts wander back to the forest as they continued to ride South. Slowly, as the minutes passed into hours, he began to notice that the trees were diminishing in stature. Not only were they shorter, but they were also mixed with poplar, beech and ash. Nestled in the undergrowth were large stretches of bushes, and the moss that clung to the tree roots frequently gave way to short grasses. Those grasses grew longer and longer, just as the patches of cloudy sky overhead grew larger and larger.

When at last the clouds themselves parted to allow the sun through, the Metamorians all savoured its warm embrace. Summer was finally over, but it was the first time that they had truly felt any of its warmth. After so long in the frigid embrace of the Barrier Mountains, and even in the cool stone halls of Qorfuu, the sun’s touch was as comforting as a roaring blaze and a bowl full of fresh stew to enjoy with it. Abafouq was smiling openly for the first time since his people had cast him from his home in Qorfuu. And even Guernef, enigmatic though he was, appeared boisterous, his wing tips fluttering and his eyes casting back and forth, and if the rat was not mistaken, a bit of a whistling tune warbled up from his throat as he kept pace beside the Rheh.

It was only their new steeds, for whom this day was meant, that continued to confound Charles. If they were currently engaged in mysterious rituals in order to leave the forest, the rat could not tell. From what he could see, they did nothing but carry their charges through the ever-thinning forest towards the open plains in the south. Intelligent undoubtedly, and there was no question that they were their own masters. But the rat certainly would like to better understand what it was they were doing that was so special.

As if sensing his curiosity, the golden mare set one hoof down before a fallen leaf, and kicked it up into the air with a flick of her foreleg. The oak leaf spiralled upwards before it began to lazily circle back towards the soft loam. The rat watched it as they rode past, noting the way it danced on the eddies in the air. As if sprites were whispering in his ear, he could see in that single leaf a poem.

We live upon the wind,

Blown our lives, tossed, and turned,

Yet with each thread of air bringing

Us one more time to goodbye.

Goodbye to fire, dancing bright;

Goodbye to leaves, singing sweet and light;

Goodbye to clouds, playing in the sky;

Goodbye to man, waiting to die.

Lay hoof to wind and sing.

Sing of goodbye and good morrow come.

Charles trembled as the voice died away. Warily, his eyes cast first to his friends, but if they heard it, they gave no outward sign. And then he looked down at the Rheh, who shone bright in the afternoon sun. For a moment, only a moment, he could have sworn that all their heads were bowed in prayer. Against his back, the vine twitched and crawled a little higher.

Night fell sooner than they expected. Though they still could not see an end to the trees, Andares-es-sebashou declared that they had left the Åelfwood and were now in what his people termed the Boundary. Less than a mile separated them from the never-ending grasses of the Steppe. The Boundary was a ring of wood that abutted the Åelfwood, growing outwards in every direction. It was permissible to collect fallen wood here and burn them so long as one did so carefully.

And for that, the Keepers were grateful. They huddled close to the fire that the younger Åelf had built, and cooked a bit of sausages that they had brought with them from Qorfuu. Charles could not enjoy the food, but he did like the fire. The flames reflected off his granite skin and seemed to dance inside of him, like a bit of hot earth-blood welling up in his heart.

“So, tomorrow we enter the lands of men,” Lindsey observed in a dour voice. “How do you think they will treat us?” His question was directed to the kangaroo who crouched quietly before the fire, his huge feet making it nearly impossible for him to sit comfortably on the ground.

“With fear and suspicion at best,” Habakkuk replied between morsels of meat. “Many would want to kill us outright. There is very little chance that any of the people we will meet will have ever seen a Metamorian, a Binoq, or an Åelf. They most certainly will not have seen a Nauh-kaee before. I had never seen any until Guernef came to Metamor.” He nodded his head to the white gryphon who reclined against the base of one tree preening his wing feathers. The sharp golden eyes of the Kakikagiget acknowledged the kangaroo’s words, but he did not cease his grooming.

“We are an eclectic group,” Andares said with a slight smile. “But there are people waiting for us on the Steppe who will see us safely across their land.”

“And after?” Kayla asked. She had one of her lover’s blades in her lap, and she was gently rubbing a cloth across the edge. “The Rheh Talaran are to take us to the border of Marzac. The only way to reach that swamp is to go through the Pyralian Kingdoms. Do you realize we have to travel across half the Steppe and the whole of Pyralis? In three months? Even if we make good time across the Steppe, and have protection the whole way, going through Pyralis will be far more dangerous.”

The skunk set down her cloth and shook her head. The light from the fire cast an orange glow upon the white stripe in the middle of her brow. It almost looked as if she too were aflame. “The Steppe may be empty but for nomadic herds and the occasional town. Pyralis is filled with farmlands, villages, and cities. We will not be able to journey through that land without detection. At some point, somebody will see that we are not peasants or even scholars on some pilgrimage. We are warriors and mages on a quest, and most of us don’t look remotely human.”

“We should be able to hide from casual inspection,” James suggested before biting into a bit of fruit.

“At night if the moon isn’t out,” Kayla replied, a beastial churr settling in her throat. “Even then, I cannot easily hide my tail. And Jessica won’t be able to hide her wings without a very heavy cloak, and you can forget about her wearing shoes with those talons. And look at Geurnef! How in the world will we conceal him?”

“He can fly,” Abafouq pointed out softly. He was stirring a broken stick in the fire. The tip had blackened, and he would occasionally draw it out to whittle it down to a sharp point with his knife. “As can Jessica. And I can pass myself off as a midget.”

Kayla shook her head. “Yes, we can hide some of us, if we truly have to. James could change into a normal donkey, and Charles could probably change into a normal rat – well mostly normal – and hide in somebody’s tunic. But I am too large for that, even as a normal skunk. And Habakkuk, are you much different if you go all animal?”

The kangaroo shook his head. “I’m a trifle shorter, but not much. And my feet and tail are even longer that way. There really isn’t an easy way to hide me short of magic.”

Jessica the hawk turned her sharp eyes upon the Åelves. “Master Qan-af-årael, is there any art you know that could cloak our appearances?”

The ancient Åelf sat back from the fire with his legs curled beneath him. His eyes had been closed the entire time, and he had eaten only a few nibbles of some hard bread they had brought with them. But it was clear he had been listening to every word they had uttered, for his smile was soft, but sad. “Regretfully I must tell you that my skills lie in other areas. However, we shall be safe enough, and there is no horse alive that can outrun the Rheh Talaran.” Behind their camp, they could hear a few hooves stamp as if in approval.

All eyes cast over to the small meadow in which the golden horses had decided they were going to spend the night. Lindsey had made the mistake of attempting to hitch his steed to one of the trees near their camp. The stallion had bucked and broken free, snorting in indignation and stamping his hooves meaningfully at the Northerner. At Andares’s suggestion, Lindsey had apologized and prostrated himself before the green-eyed horse. The stallion had apparently accepted the apology, as he nuzzled Lindsey’s back and allowed him to remove his saddlebags. Nobody else made that same mistake.

“So you’re saying we won’t have any reason to worry?” Kayla asked, her tone suspicious.

“Indeed.” Qan-af-årael suddenly opened his eyes, strange and sublime, they seemed more captivating than those of the Rheh. “And if we face a force from which we cannot run, it will likely be better that we can draw our weapons quickly. If we have to change, or fight our way out of our own clothing, then we will be at a terrible disadvantage.”

“Will we have to do that?” Lindsey asked. “Habakkuk?”

The kangaroo shrugged. “I don’t know. I have had some images of a warded door in a castle, and of some nobleman speaking to a young man, but I cannot understand what he has said. Nor did I recognize either him, the youth, or the castle.” He spread his paws wide. “I don’t know what it means yet, but if I see more, I will tell you.”

“So I suppose we just hope that whatever we face we can run away from. I don’t like running away,” Lindsey grumbled.

Abafouq pushed the stick he’d been whittling into the fire and let the end catch flame. He then lifted it like a small torch. The tiny bit of flame struggled to burn bright, vacillating in hue between bright yellow and sombre orange. “If we run away from anything, it is to run towards something much worse. Much, much worse, I am thinking.”

“That’s an even cheerier thought,” Lindsey grunted and turned his back to the fire. “I am going to get some rest. Charles, you have the first watch?”

The rat nodded. He’d been fingering the vine that was growing up his back. “And the second probably.”

When the time came for the third watch, Charles could have gone to wake Lindsey up. The Northerner probably expected it, but as the stone rat sat upon a rock slab with his back to the smoldering embers of the fire, he found he did not need to get any sleep. As a creature of living granite, he did not sleep in the same way that his flesh and blood companions did. Instead, if he could find a patch of rock, he could sink his paws inside and let his mind expand out beyond his body to feel everything that the rock could. And in so doing, he attained any rest that his mind needed.

Of course, he had to be careful not to let too much of his body slip inside. Some rock was more possessive than others. The stones he’d found that night were quite welcoming and did not mind his intrusion at all. In fact, when he’d first set his paws upon their cool surface, he’d felt invited. It was strange to realize even amongst stone there were good neighbours and bad. He half imagined that if this particular slab could have offered him a freshly baked pie like the Glen Avery hedgehog Annette Levins often did, then it would have given enough for every one of his friends to have a slice.

The stone extended down into the earth and out into the meadow and the woods surrounding them. He was surprised to feel so much stone so far south of the mountains, but there had been a gentle reminder of a range to the west – the Sylvan Mountains he realized. As if they had been friends of old, he spent the night learning about all the different creatures who had trod upon this amiable bit of stone. There were various animals, from rodents to raccoons, all the way to wolves, deers and even bears. He was surprised when he learned that very few of the fair folk had ever trod this way. Were they truly that insular now, never even leaving the inner portions of their woods?

As dawn neared, Charles felt ashamed when he had to inform his host that he could not stay any longer. But the stone did not seem to mind at all, and the rat rose up from his perch feeling rejuvenated. To his surprise, he felt a nudge at his back and saw his mare’s face; her green eyes were darker than before, as of broad summer leaves at twilight. She set one hoof on the stone softly, and the rat smiled. “Yes, I was talking to a new friend.” He did not know if she understood what he meant, but his words seemed to satisfy her.

“I thought you said you weren’t going to do that anymore,” Habakkuk whispered from the other side of the camp.

Charles spun and stared in surprise at the kangaroo. He lay in his bed roll, and if not for his open eyes, the rat would have sworn he was still asleep. None of the others had risen yet, and though the day was brightening, the sun still lay beyond the horizon.

He thought he should feel indignant, but his stone heart could not quite grasp that emotion. “I was careful,” he replied. “The stone was friendly.”

“You should never do that without another of us awake to keep an eye on you,” the kangaroo repeated, not even acknowledging the rat’s excuse. “And as you know, not all stone is safe. Some is downright dangerous.”

Another nudge at his back made the rat turn again. Standing behind him and next to his mare was the massive Nauh-kaee. Guernef’s deep eyes scowled at the rat. He opened his beak, and hissed, though in that avian tongue, the rat could make out words. “I watched you. You were lucky this time. You may not be next time.”

Charles sighed and nodded. “Of course. You are right. I will be careful.”

“There will come a time when you will need to trust me when I tell you not to enter the stone,” Habakkuk added. Slowly, Kayla and Lindsey were beginning to stir. “Please do not be difficult when that time comes.”

“Very well, Zhypar. I will do as you say.”

“Good,” Guernef said with a squawk. “The day comes.” He turned and padded into the meadow where he spread his wings and leapt into the air.

Charles watched the Nauh-kaee lift into the deep blue sky before he looked back at the others. When he looked back down, Qan-af-årael was standing, his robe pulled elegantly taut. How he could maintain his aura of grace after having spent the night sleeping on the ground, the rat could not guess.

Qan-af met his eye and said, “Today we meet our guides across the Steppe. Let us waste no more time.”

Lindsey rubbed his eyes and grunted under his breath, “About damn time.”

A half hour later the sun was rising over the eastern horizon. Riding upon the Rheh Talaran, they made their way southwards towards the Steppe. The trees continued to grow sparser, with more meadows filled with tall grasses dominating the landscape. After crossing a small brook a few feet wide, they found they could finally see the edge of the wood. Beyond a line of low trees a minute’s ride ahead of them they saw a vast plain that stretched to the horizon, dotted only with the occasional scrub.

All of them grew silent as they approached the line of trees. Even the Rheh slowed, until they had come to a complete stop, all of them standing beneath the boughs of the oaks overlooking the plain like a line of horsemen waiting for the order to charge. The Flatlands stretched before them, wide, the grasses a mix of greens and browns as they swayed back and forth in a gentle wind.

The land lived up to its name, as there was not a hill in sight. Several of the Keeper’s gasped as they saw it.

“It’s... flat!” James exclaimed in dumbfounded shock.

“That is why they call it the Flatlands,” Lindsey pointed out.

“I’ve never seen any place so... so... flat!” the donkey continued, as if he’d not even heard the woodcutter.

“Neither have I,” Jessica confessed. “I could probably see for ten, no twenty miles if I were flying.”

“Likely more,” Andares said with an amused smile. “Do you see that small copse of trees in the distance?”

Charles stared, but all he could see were bushes. But Jessica narrowed her gaze and nodded. “Yes, it looks to be fifteen miles southwest. I think there’s a river there.”

Andares nodded. “Yes. That is the Atra River. That copse is known as Dulama’s Shrine. We will meet our guides there shortly.”

“Well, in an hour,” Kayla said as she stretched her toes in the stirrups. The Elvish saddles were surprisingly delicate, yet also firm. Charles was certain they could be tumbling down a steep slope and not fall off.

Qan-af-årael smiled and let his hand smooth over the hide of his smaller Rheh. “You will see something else today that you have never seen before.”

He inclined his head and as one the Talaran horses set out into the grasses. The morning sun was warm, and as they turned towards the southwest, struck them along their left side. The Rheh glowed in the radiance. Their walk picked up into a canter, and moments later was at a full gallop. The forest receded behind them quickly, before becoming a yellowish-green smear on the horizon. Charles and the rest leaned into wind as the grasses whipped past them faster than any of them thought possible. Bright sparks danced at the edge of their vision, and not a one of them found they could speak.

Before their astonished eyes, only minutes passed before they could begin to see the copse of trees Andares had spoken of. At first it was an orange dot on the horizon. It grew slowly, but as the minutes trickled past, it was soon clear that they saw a stand of perhaps a dozen trees all in a circle. Beyond them was the crystalline blue water of a small river.

When they were finally able to make out the individual trees, they could see tents and horses arrayed along the river bank beyond the arboreal shrine. Several men on horseback were keeping watch, though Charles could not tell who they might be. He truly hoped he had been right that one of them would be who he suspected it was.

As they neared the copse, in what had been about ten minutes time, the Rheh slowed to a brisk canter, and they all breathed in relief. Charles could remember moving that fast only once before in his life, and that was when he’d been riding upon the back of a dragon. These steeds were more marvellous than he could have ever imagined!

“What in the world?” Lindsey exclaimed as he stared back the way they had come, and then down at the golden stallion between his legs. “That was... was...”

“There are few living creatures who can move as fast as the Rheh Talaran,” Andares said with obvious pride. “If our enemy has any of them under their command, then there would be no hope at all for this world.” After a moment’s pause he added, “And I still have hope.”

“Who are they?” Jessica asked as they neared the copse. A dozen riders broke away from the camp and headed towards them. Their horses looked strong, most of them a deep sable in hue. Their clothes were fashioned from animal hides, though some of them looked to have been woven. One of them, one who was significantly taller than the rest, bore a black robe. Charles let out a delighted squeak as he saw that. He’d been right.

“Jerome!” he called out as the two groups neared. The large man smiled wide and kicked his horse ahead, waving one arm wildly.

“Charles!” he called back in his deep voice. “I knew we would see each other again!”

Charles and Jerome slowed their steeds as they neared each other. The two Sondeckis examined each other for a minute. Jerome appeared much the same as when the rat had seen him nine months ago during the Winter assault on Metamor. His blond hair and goatee were a bit unkempt, but otherwise he looked no different. Jerome however stared in surprise at the rat’s appearance.

“I was told... but I... I cannot believe it. Are you really stone?” Jerome asked. “And those symbols,” he pointed to the two brands upon his chest that glowed with a faint light. “Are those Lothanasi runes?”

“Yes,” Charles replied. “To both. I was turned into a creature of stone by our enemy, and it was only by the intervention of the Lothanasi that I will ever be flesh again. I owe them no greater favour than to help destroy the evil of Marzac.”

“That is a big enough favour for anyone!” Jerome replied, turning at last to examine the rat’s friends. “Welcome to Dulama’s Shrine. I am Jerome Krabbe, a Sondecki of the Black. I have known Charles Matthias since we were children, and I was asked to meet you here by a little bird. Now, allow me to introduce First Hunter Fultag of the Horse Clan Tagendend.”

Jerome gestured to a man whose face was weathered and cold. He was lean and sat proudly in the saddle. His gray eyes surveyed them warily, but looked upon the Rheh Talaran with considerable awe. Slowly, he nodded his head to them until his eyes settled upon Qan-af-årael. “As we hath agreed, thy price thou shalt pay, and we for thee wilt promise warding, safe passage, and shalt lead thee across the Steppe. I hight Fultag. This be my son, Horvig.”

The lad at his side could be no more than fourteen at best. He looked strong and in good health. He nodded respectfully to each of them, though there was as also a great deal of confusion in his eyes. “I hath ne’er seen any so strange as thee, noble guests,” Horvig said in a clear if shaky voice. He kept his lips in a polite but firm line. “I wilt serve thee honourably in any way that I can whilst thee remain in our lands.”

“I Thank thee, First Hunter, master Horvig,” Qan-af-årael said. “Thou art the finest riders in all the Steppe. We shalt be honoured to have thy ward and guidance in the days and weeks to come.”

Fultag nodded briskly. “I hath ordered my people to break camp. We wilt be ready to ride in minutes. Until then, pay thy respects to Dulama’s Shrine as is right and proper for all visitors to this sacred land.”

The First Hunter turned his horse and he and the other Tagendend riders returned to their camp. Already they could see tents being taken down and folded up by the many women and children amongst them.

Jerome remained behind, his face still split by a wide grin. “A little bird?” Charles asked him at last. It was good to have a fellow Sondecki in his presence again. Though Garigan the ferret of Glen Avery had only been a student in the ways of the Sondeck, the rat had grown used to feeling his presence nearby.

“A messenger bird from his lordship,” Jerome said, gesturing to the ancient Åelf. “He mentioned things that convinced me I needed to do this. We’ve been waiting for three days now, so it’s good that you’re finally here.” He pulled on the reins and his horse turned towards the ring of trees. “Come, there will be plenty of time to talk later.”

They followed Jerome towards the small grove, most of them feeling more than a little confused. But after their wild ride, all of them were glad for a few moments before they would continue. “Why is this a shrine?” Kayla asked as they neared the first of the autumnal boughs. The trees were sturdy oaks, their branches rattling in the wind above them. Between them was a small patch of bare ground, littered only with bright orange leaves.

Jerome shook his head. “The Tagendend wouldn’t really explain that to me either. I only know that it is a holy place for them and for most Flatlanders. We are to each dismount and kiss the ground softly. Then we must back away. We are not allowed to turn our backs upon the grove until we have left.”

He almost need not have mentioned this to either Åelf, as both Qan-af-årael and Andares were already climbing off their Rheh and proceeding into the centre of the shrine. Quietly, the Metamorians did so as well; even Guernef approached and lowered his beak to the ground.

Charles was a little disappointed that he felt no stone in the ground, but the vine on his back seemed to stretch in secret pleasure. One by one they kissed the hard-packed earth and backed away. The Rheh pushed past them once they were finished and also lowered their snouts to the earth to brush it with their supple lips. Their eyes closed in that moment of soft embrace, before they backed away, their hooves barely echoing beneath those sheltering trees.

By the time they had left and stood out under the open sky, they all felt a strange sense of loss. “I don’t know,” Jessica admitted as she gazed at those trees. They were no different now than before. “But I think this is a true shrine. I wish I understood it. But something happened here long ago.”

“It felt like a parting,” James said suddenly, ears laying back against his head. “I cannot describe it any better than that.”

“It was a parting,” Qan-af-årael admitted. “And a promise. It is very old and there are few who remember its history. But all who are born and raised upon the Steppe know of it, and know that to harm it would bring damnation upon themselves and all their family.”

Charles briefly thought of the knight, Sir Erick Saulius. He had been born in the Steppe. Perhaps if they survived this journey he would ask his fellow rat about the Dulama Shrine. Somehow he knew that the Åelf would not tell them anything that they knew.

“The Tagendend are ready,” Jerome called. “We have many miles to go. Honestly, I have no idea how we are going to cross the Steppe in time. Do you realize how many leagues we have to journey?”

Qan-af-årael mounted his Rheh, and so did the others. The golden horses trotted across the grasses until they had drawn alongside the Tagendend riders. Fultag regarded them with a strange look of envy, and then set his sable charger into a brisk canter southwest along the river.

“No horse can ride with the Rheh Talaran and not find its true self,” Andares chanted as if it were a paean to Eli. Charles thought that a strange thing to say, but as they began to pick up speed, he could see the look of surprise on the faces of the Tagendend. Their horses seemed to be energized, their bodies moving so quickly that their legs were almost a blur. Their hooves thundered across the Steppe, and all the world began to speed past them at a remarkable rate.

The Rheh carrying Qan-af-årael gave out a mighty cry, rearing with pride, before leaping into the air. But to everyone’s surprise, he did not land. His hooves caught flame, and charted a course a good four to five feet above the grasses. One by one, the other Rheh followed him into the sky, and then so too did the riders of the Tagendend.

“By Brienne!” Horvig shouted, his face filled at first with fear, and then with utter joy. “Dulama praise be to thy name! Rheh!

The other Tagendend took up the chant, their horses exulting in their freedom from the earth. “Rheh! Rheh! Rheh!

The Keepers laughed and chanted with them, their whole bodies suffused with the thrill of the ride. Within moments, Dulama’s Shrine was lost to sight.

Although Kurt Schanalein knew that joining the Breckarin army was meant to keep him out of his father’s affairs – and more importantly, the affairs of the traitor du Tournemire and that witch he was using to control Father – it had in fact been a blessing in disguise. When he’d lived in the castle as the Duke’s heir, he was constantly surrounded by retainers and eyes watched him everywhere he went. Now as a lowly officer in the Duke’s army, he was free to move about the city in a way he’d never before known.

While it was commonly known that Kurt had joined the army, and it was known that he had fallen out of favour with his father, it was not commonly known that Duke Friedrich Schanalein was trying to impregnate his wife so that he might have another heir. Kurt had heard through the peepholes in the castle walls that as soon as his mother was with child, his father would force him to renounce his claim as heir to the Breckarin Duchy.

It was not that Kurt truly wanted to be Duke. But when the time came, he had always hoped and prayed he would be able to lead his people honestly and with Eli’s blessing. In many ways, he was glad that he had become a soldier. Now he could speak to people in the city without them seeing his rank and title. All they saw now was another soldier in the army, and they spoke of things that he had never suspected.

And it was also how he had learned where she had been taken.

After seeing that witch enter his father’s chambers with that slave woman in tow, he had wondered who she was and if there was anything he could do to help her. After fleeing the castle and returning to his barracks, he had resolved to go looking for her the very next day. But then his regiment was selected to conduct a patrol of the river. It was a month before they had returned to Breckaris.

Kurt did not smile as he walked down the dark streets with a few of his new friends. They were older soldiers, ones who had served in the Duke’s army for years, and were more than happy to help their young grace seek out the companionship of a lady for a night. That he was enchanted with this one wild woman only made his desire more exotic, more alluring. They grinned as they guided him down the back streets near the wharves in a section of the city that until the Summer, Kurt had never even seen.

The cobblestone roads were lined with filth on either side, with tall narrow houses that leaned out over the street like wolves readying to feast on a crippled rabbit. Flickering lights danced in many windows, the glass smeared and coated with so much grime that he could see nothing of the rooms beyond. From a few windows and clothes lines hung the only lamps lighting the road. The air stank of beer, piss and faeces.

“Are you sure you want to come here,” Otto , the youngest of the four soldiers accompanying him asked. “There are better places to pop your cherry.” And Kurt had no doubt that Otto had personal experience with several. For this and other reasons, Otto did not know Kurt’s true intentions.

“The woman is here,” Kurt replied as they stopped at an establishment whose whitewashed walls were marred by some drunken artist’s depiction of an act that Kurt did not think any man could actually perform. He frowned and could hear some raucous laughter coming out through an open window, followed by a sullen cry. “Yes, the woman is here.”

“Do you need us to come inside?” Otto asked, an amused grin playing across his ruddy cheeks. Kurt regarded him with bemusement. Otto was only a common soldier who had never learned better. Kurt would not hate him for his interest in inexpensive women.

“No. Otto, you and Wilhelm remain here out front. Hans, Rolf, you wait around back in case there is any trouble. If I am to be a man, I should do it on my own, yes?”

The other soldiers each laughed in amusement, all of them knowing the truth of those words. The two older soldiers, the ones whom Kurt trusted, made their way around the rear of the establishment while Kurt made for the door. When he opened it, the stink of bad ale and vomit nearly made him retch. He swallowed it down, and stepped into the poorly lit taproom. Slumped against the bar was a labourer asleep in a pool of his own drool, while behind him a woman dressed in gaudy rags was gingerly counting out some coins from a small pouch – likely taken from the sleeping man, Kurt wagered. The rest of the room comprised four circular tables, at the farthest of which sat a man with oily hair and a foul smelling pipe clenched between his teeth

Kurt let the door close behind him, and did his best to look like a young soldier on his way to his first encounter with a woman. The man at the back of the room smiled to him. Kurt was reminded of one of the eels he’d seen in his father’s ponds.

“Ah, and what brings a soldier such as yourself to this place, hmm?” the man leaned forward, gesturing with one hand towards the seat opposite him. “Is there anything we can do to make your stay more pleasant. A bit of ale perhaps? Or some food? Or did you have something else in mind?”

Kurt did not take the chair. He shuffled his feet as if he were nervous. “I... I hear that you have... a wild woman. I was wondering...”

“A wild woman?” The man looked almost offended. “Now, it is true that some of my charges can, shall we say, be a bit indiscreet. But wild? Just because she wears the skins of animals does not make her any less civilized than you or I. Certainly she is fine quality for such a soldier as yourself. Would you be interested in spending a bit of time with her?”

Kurt pursed his lips. He needed this man to think he wanted to lose his virginity. “How much is she?”

The man clasped his hands before him. “I’m sure we can discuss a reasonable price. For a young soldier such as yourself.” He grinned, revealing a few missing teeth. Kurt had to restrain his desire to knock out a few more of the odious creature’s teeth. Instead he smiled, and proceeded to haggle.

Ten minutes later, Kurt found himself in a small room that he could not have fit even half his bed from the castle in. There was a small pallet against one wall with a few ratty blankets, and only three feet of bare floor between the edge and the wall. A cramped window looked out over the gambled rooftops of Breckaris. The window was too narrow for anyone to squeeze through, but it would be enough so that everyone would know just what was done in this stinking place. The place reeked with filth, and his nose itched from some unnameable odours that clung to his skin the moment he stepped inside.

There was but a single candle burning in a pewter bowl next to the bed. Kurt sat on the bed with his knees to his chest, one hand resting on his sword hilt. He didn’t think he would need it, but he honestly wasn’t sure how this woman would react to his proposal. And besides, after the many months of training he’d received at the barracks, nervous as he was, he could not have taken his hand off the sword even if he wanted to.

When Kurt heard the sound of footsteps approaching the door, he swallowed heavily. The door creaked open and a woman dressed in barely concealing animal furs stepped through. Her face attempted to be alluring, but the lifelessness in her eyes shone clearly even in the candlelight. She rubbed her hands over her body like a marionette, acting as enticing as she could.

Kurt sucked in his breath and gestured towards the door. In a quiet voice he said, “Please shut the door.”

“You like it private? Me too,” her voice was sultry, but there was a vast emptiness in her words that made Kurt all the angrier. Who was this woman, and what had they done to her? He wished he could have come here sooner.

“What’s your name?” Kurt asked, shifting back a little on the pallet.

She pushed the door closed and then smiled, her lips puffy. There was no doubt that she was erotic. Kurt realized he was aroused and felt ashamed. “You can call me Hunda, my little soldier.”

He recalled Rolf telling him that prostitutes had two names, the one they were born with, and the one they told the patrons. Hunda, a female dog. How fitting. How revolting.

Kurt shook his head. “Not quite what I was looking for. Come sit. On that side of the pallet, if you will.” He pointed at the opposite end, hoping his intention was clear.

She looked at him odd, her posture hesitant. After several seconds of confusion, she sat down, leaning provocatively towards him. “Do you want me on top?”

“I do not want you at all, not in that way,” Kurt replied. He pulled his legs beneath him cross-legged, one hand ever on his hilt. He whispered softly, “I want to know your name. Your real name, not the one that monster downstairs gave you.”

She blinked in surprise, leaning backwards against the wall. Her eyes were lost, and she said nothing.

“I hired you for the night, but it is not your body I want,” Kurt reiterated. “Something happened to you. I saw it when that woman brought you before the Duke, and said you should be put in a whorehouse. I saw it. I want to help.”

She frowned, and for the first time he saw something approaching actual emotion in her eyes. There was the briefest flash of anger, but it was replaced by an overwhelming helplessness. “What can you do, a soldier?”

“More than you know. My name is Kurt. What’s your name?”

He held out his hand as a gentleman would to a friend. She looked at it as if it were a snake. And then, slowly, the tension in her body began to fade. At last she reached out and took his hand. Her grip was stronger than he expected. “My name is Tugal. And that... that... wizard did this to me. And my friends... my friends... they raped me...” Her hands balled into fists, her whole body tightening into a wild fury, and then just as suddenly it evaporated and tears began to stream down her cheeks.

Kurt leaned in closer, resting one hand on her shoulder. “There are two friends of mine that I trust out back. Is there someplace we can go where we can slip out unnoticed?”

Tugal shook her head. “Alosius watches us like a hawk. When we are not here serving a customer, we are chained in the basement.” A vicious snarl crossed her lips. “I’ve been keeping an eye on where he stores the laudanum. You could poison him.”

Kurt snorts. “I could just run him through.”

She shook her head. “He may be a monster, but he is no fool. I have seen him kill two men who did not wish to pay.”

“Very well. Do you think you could get to the laudanum?”

Tugal sneered. “And where would I go?”

“I have made the arrangements. There is a small nunnery in the city where you can stay. I know some of the nuns there, and they will be happy to shelter you. Two of my friends are waiting out back to take you there now. We just need to leave this place.”

It was clear the woman was thinking it over. “And why should I do any of this?”

“Because you may be the only person who knows what that witch controlling my father can do.”

“Your father?” Tugal asked, perplexed.

“Yes, I’m Kurt Schanalein, his grace’s son.”

Tugal’s eyes widened, “You.. You... but...”

The door opened abruptly, and standing in the candlelight was the man from the taproom. He was grinning like a cat who’d caught a mouse. “Well, well, well, Hunda, you’ve made an interesting new friend I see. Now what would his grace’s son be doing in a place like this I wonder. Was that a bit of treason I heard you plotting just a moment ago? As a patriotic citizen of Breckaris, I cannot let that stand. I’ll just have to keep you here until your father pays for your release.” He drew out a pair of stilettos so quickly that all Kurt could do was scramble to his feet and hope that he’d had enough training. “Now Hunda be a good girl and wait right there. This will only take a moment. And if I catch you looking at the laudanum again, I will take you myself, and you know how hard it is to please me that way.”

“Yes, master,” Tugal intoned, her voice drained and defeated.

Kurt finally managed to draw his blade and lunged at the man while his attention was on the girl. Tugal did not even move to rise, her head lowered meekly under Alosius’s hideous gaze. The dominance in that man’s grey eyes was so certain that Kurt both hated it and knew he could not defeat it either.

Alosius turned and swatted at the sword with one move, sending the blade clattering against the pallet. Kurt winced and rubbed at his hand. He wasn’t cut, but it stung badly. Alosius stepped forward, and pressed one blade against the young soldier’s throat. The other was at his belly. “Now you aren’t going to be giving me any trouble will you, your grace?”

The blade pressed so close to his skin that Kurt couldn’t even swallow. Alosius’s smile widened, and then his eyes gaped, and blood frothed at the corner of his lips. He turned back to see Tugal driving Kurt’s fallen sword deeper into his back. Alosius tried to cry out, but all the strength left his legs and he tumbled to the floor. The knives fell from his hands and he clawed at the air, trying to grab the woman’s legs. His eyes screamed murder and hate. Tugal bent over and picked up one knife. She cut open the man’s pants.

Kurt turned away, his body trembling at the sound of the man’s choked cries. A moment later he chanced a peek and watched as the woman drove both stilettos through Alosius’s eye sockets. His body ceased twitching a moment later.

“Well, we won’t need the laudanum after all,” Tugal added. She spat on the bloody corpse, and then turned back to Kurt. “Your sword.” She held it out to him, hilt first. Kurt cleaned it on the pallet before sheathing it. He was a soldier now, he reminded himself. He was going to see a lot more death than this before his time on the earth was done.

“Who are you?” Kurt asked, feeling quite off-balance. He could still feel where the man had held the blade to his neck. He rubbed the skin there, but felt no cut.

“Tugal. I used to be a mercenary from the Giantdowns. And I used to be a man. The curses of thrice damned Metamor made me this way. Does this bother you?”

Kurt shook his head. He’d heard about Metamor of course, but he’d never seen its effect up close. Until a moment ago, he never would have believed this woman had ever been anything else. “No, Tugal, it does not. We should go. I need to be back here soon so it can seem like I lost my virginity with you. Not all of my friends know the real reason I’m here.”

Tugal frowned but nodded at last. “You’re the first person to treat me like a man since this happened. Thank you, Kurt.”

“You.. Your welcome.” He stepped to the door and peered out into the empty hallway. “Now lets go. I will want to hear about this Agathe, and everything that happened to you when we have time. But right now, let’s get out of here.”

Tugal said nothing more. But she did give Alosius’s body a kick one more time before they left.

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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