The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXIV - A Story of Brothers

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

They had been in the company of the magical creatures for a week’s time already. And in that time, the magnificent horses of the wood people had delivered them deep into the heart of the Steppe. It should have taken them over a month to cover such a distance, perhaps even two or three. Yet here they were standing in the warm green grasses of the central Steppe where all the world appeared to be a plain of ever swaying grasses and scrub, with the horizon a thin line where the azure of the sky met that endless land.

Many of the Tagendend whispered where none would hear how this art had been brought by the demons in animal guise, and that these golden horses were but a ruse. But some of the elders knew better, remembering the old stories of when many generations before, the wood people also lived upon the Steppe and rode their stallions across the sky like birds. They had been friends in those bygone days.

For the youngest, the strangers were a mystery, one that filled them with fear and curiosity. For Horvig, son of the First Hunter, they were all he could think about.

He sat astride his sable mare quietly enjoying the crisp twilight air. The sun would rise in another hour, and soon thereafter they would ride hard, their horses’ hooves never touching the ground. The wind would roar loudly and tear at their face and ears. The only time they could speak of these marvels was in these few hours before the ride.

“Thou dost stare at our wards,” Galvog observed with an amused lilt to his voice.

Horvig nodded and smiled to his brother. “They art very curious. Dost thee wish to know more of them?”

Galvog shrugged and scratched at the stump of his right leg. One of the horses had rolled over his leg a few years back, and to save his life they’d had to saw it off. Had Galvog not been the son of Fultag the First Hunter, he would have been given to death. The maiming could have made him bitter and lonely, but as long as Galvog could ride, he would always be a man of the Tagendend. Nothing else mattered to him.

“What be there to know?” Galvog asked at last. Their wards had erected their own tents and slept near the camp, but separate. The strange beast that resembled both an eagle and a large white cat did not sleep in a tent, but retired a distance from the camp so as not to spook the horses. “They didst come from a land cursed to make men into beasts. They hath need to cross the Steppe, and hath done what be proper to honour those whose lands they cross. And the price they hath agreed to wilt reward us for many generations to come.”

“Aye, aye, but who be they?” Horvig asked. “I wish that I knew more of them. One day it will be I who must entreat with such as they.”

Galvog laughed warmly. “I doubt that any such as they wilt e’er traverse our ways again.”

“In sooth,” Horvig agreed, a bit disappointed. “‘Tis why we must learn of them now.”

Galvog shook his head. “Father warned us not to near them.”

“I need not obey him in all things.”

“The last time thou didst say such a thing, thou wast stabbed in the belly!” Galvog snapped. But the anger was one borne of concern. Horvig had barely survived his wounding at the hand of the Magyars. He would make his father proud of him now, but he also had to be a good host.

“They be wards. There be no fear of them,” Horvig replied without any doubt in his voice. “Look, the ancient one hast risen. I wilt go speak with him.”

“Horvig, Father wilt be cross with thee.”

He nodded and smiled to his brother. “I know. Please trust me, T’samut.”

Galvog took a deep breath and then nodded. “I hath always trusted thee, T’samut. Go and speak with him if that is what thee must do.”

Horvig patted his brother on the shoulder, and then nudged his mare into a walk. She guided him around the tents until he was on the opposite side of the fire their wards had erected. Sitting behind it was the strange creature of stone along whose back a vine grew. He turned to see who it was, and Horvig could clearly see the image of the black hand imprinted on the right side of his large head.

The rodent opened his mouth, and the cheeks pulled taut. “Horvig. Is there something wrong?”

Horvig was quite pleased that this fellow had remembered his name. He wished he could say the same. He smiled and shook his head. “Nay, ‘tis an hour until dawn breaks, and all be well. I didst wish to greet thee and learn more of thee. Thou art strange.”

The stone creature shifted and appeared to be chuckling. It felt unnerving to watch what one moment looked to be nothing more than a stone sculpture come to life and move. Truly the world beyond the Steppe was a magical place full of monsters and wonders.

“An evil curse made me stone,” he said after he stopped laughing. “It was not my choice, but I have grown to live with it. If we are successful, I will become flesh again.”

“But not a man?”

“Nay, I will always be a rat. How old are you, Horvig?”

“I hath thirteen years to my name!” he declared proudly.

“Then you will be a father in your own right soon,” the rat replied with an aplomb Horvig found surprising. If not for his stony rodent body, and foreign way of speech he could have been any of the other Tagendend.

“Art thou a father?” Horvig asked, curious how any woman would be with such a thing as he. Any rat foolish enough to come in the Tagendend camp would soon roast over the fires.

“I have five children. All of them look as I do, but flesh. I am very proud of them, and miss them terribly.” He turned aside for a moment, and then glanced up from where he stood at Horvig. “Why don’t you dismount?”

Horvig smiled. “Thank thee.” He climbed down from his mare and let her sample the grass. He did not feel comfortable sitting next to the living statue, but the creature did not seem as unsettling as before.

“And thy wife? Dost she appear as thee too?”

The rat’s face broke into what looked like a grin, but Horvig wasn’t sure. “Aye, she is a rat like me. The most beautiful woman I’ve ever beheld. I know it must be strange to your ears, but I have been a rat for a long time now. What looks beautiful to me has changed in that time. If you were transformed by the power of Metamor, you would feel much the same as I do after a few years.”

“Dost thee wish to return to thy wife and children?”

“Of course. But I cannot go back until the evil we are fighting is destroyed.” He shrugged and sat back down on the ground. “And I do not want them to see me as stone. I want to be flesh again when I hold them in my arms.” He stopped and stared at the ground, watching as his toe claws dug into the dirt. After a moment he glanced back up at Horvig. “And what of you? Have you ever wished to leave the Steppe?”

Horvig flushed at the question, but slowly he shrugged. “I hath wondered of the lands beyond the Steppe, but ‘tis my home. Why would I want to leave it?”

“Why indeed.” He stared past the boy, and Horvig felt something approaching from behind. He spun on his heels and was staring at the chest of the ancient one. The alabaster face had an appearance of being carved even more than the stone rat did. He was dressed in a robe of cloth that his eyes glided off, the patterns only a smear of colour he could not discern. Horvig suddenly felt very much a child again.

“You are Horvig, son of Fultag, First Hunter of the Tagendend,” the figure spoke, his words cascading from his lips like the soft burbling of a rocky stream. “I thank you for the hospitality that you have shown us, and for the warding you provide. We are in your debt, and hope that what meagre repayment we can provide, will suffice.”

Horvig smiled, unsure what else he could do. “We art glad to help thee, honoured ancient one.” He bowed his head low, formally. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of one of the golden steeds following his mare a short distance from the camp.

The thing that he knew instinctively was not a man but a creature of the woods, gestured to a bit of cloth lain over the grass. “Please, join me for a few minutes, Horvig. I am glad you came to see us.”

Horvig numbly sat down on the cloth. He pulled his boots onto his knees so he would not track mud onto the brilliant scarlet blanket. The ancient one sat opposite him, mirroring his posture precisely, but with considerably more grace. His smile was subtle, a gentle tightening at the corner’s of his lips. But it also felt genuine.

“Soon you will be a man in your clan, is that not so?”

“In another year I shalt bed my wife,” Horvig replied. “Then I wilt be a proper man of the Tagendend.” He eyed the two horses. The green-eyed stallion was dancing about his sable mare in a fashion he’d never before seen. His mare was whickering uncertainly, but did not appear afraid.

“And this fills you with pride?”

“Aye,” Horvig replied, wondering how there could be any doubt.

The ancient one’s smile grew slightly. “What does it mean to you to be a man?”

Horvig sat a little taller. “To be a man be to master the horse. I wilt be strong in body and mind, and follow the ways of the Tagendend and the Steppe. I wilt show honour to my enemies, and demand that honour be shown back to me, and I wilt ne’er offer insult. I shalt honour the laws of hospitality. I wilt offer succour to my friends and to those in need. I wilt ne’er be afraid of death, and I wilt teach my sons these ways too.”

“All these things will make you a man, Horvig. You have a keen eye for them. You have not learned all of these merely because of your Father though.” He did not move, but Horvig felt as if the pointed eared creature was leaning forward to study him closer. “You have pain inside of you that you cannot express.”

Horvig sucked in his breath, one hand lowering to the scar on his belly where the Magyar had stabbed him. Stabbed with his own knife in fact. He shuddered at the memory of the pain and shock that had filled him in that moment. Anger and hate had given way to fear and agony. Sullenly, ashamed, Horvig lowered his head. “I didst violate those laws, honoured one. I attacked a fellow guest, and suffered a terrible wound because of it.”

“But you have recovered, and understand better why you must hold to the traditions of the Steppe. Yet I sense there is more to your wound than you confess.”

Horvig glanced around, but saw that they were alone. The living statuary had returned to his tent, and the others of these strange fellows were closer to the fire preparing a breakfast of bread, cheese and a little meat. With a sigh, he lifted his gaze to this pearly-skinned being. The expression he saw was alien but comforting.

“The man I didst attack was lame. He had but one arm. ‘Tis not the worst of it. ‘Twas wrong of me to attack one such as he, but to my shame, he turned my own blade against me. I couldst not e’en kill one lame. ‘Tis my shame, ‘tis my sin.” He lowered his chin to his chest and sighed. He wanted to be a man for his people, but how could he with this foul transgression staining his soul?

The figure across from him remained silent a moment more, and then a surprising thing happened – he began to laugh. Softly at first, a gentle murmuring like wind soughing amongst the brush. It grew until Horvig looked up, face reddening with shame. A deep anger began to boil in his chest, one that he had worked so hard to quell. How dare their guest laugh at him!

The ancient one seemed to understand this and lifted one hand to his lips. “Forgive my levity, but I fear you have achieved something that has not been done in perhaps a thousand years.”

Horvig’s anger was not diminished, but it was momentarily distracted. “What be that?”

“You have surprised me, young man.” The note of seriousness returned to his voice, and a measure of empathy filled his golden eyes. “The man you attacked, did he have black hair, with a single lock of white in the middle?”

Now it was Horvig’s turn to be surprised. How clearly that face leapt up from his memories to haunt him. Numbly, he began to nod. “How didst thee know?”

The ancient figure smiled and said. “Let me first tell you a story of two brothers. It is an old tale, and it has many variations that have been sung, amongst both our peoples. I will try to tell it so that you might understand it better.

“The two brothers, Gar and Yoth, were twins, and so both would inherit their father’s legacy. Their father owned many fine horses, and each horse was either roan or sable. When the brothers were young, they loved each other and did everything together. They each spoke often of what they would do with their portion of the horses when they came of age. They knew that their father would give each of them a certain number of horses, one would receive the roan, and the other would receive the sable.

“Now, the first brother, Gar had wanted to inherit the sable horses. But so too did Yoth. Fearing that he would not, Yoth went to Gar and spoke highly of the roan, and how Gar, as the first, should inherit their many fine qualities. Gar listened, and because he loved his brother, was convinced that the roan were the better horses. When the day came for them to inherit, Gar selected the roan, and Yoth received the sable.

“But not long after, Gar became angry with his brother’s trickery. All of Yoth’s clansmen mocked the roan horses, and made their name a byword amongst all the Steppe. Gar vowed to thwart his brother at every turn, and bade his clansmen do the same. Gar did not seek to cause one pain, but a thousand small pains repeated over and over. Soon, Yoth and Gar hated each other and their clans did likewise.

“Then the day came when both Gar and Yoth learned that their mother lay dying. Both rushed to her side, but neither brother would speak to each other. But upon her deathbed, their mother told them of how much she loved them both, but how much it hurt her to know that her sons had turned on each other over so small a thing.

“Overcome with grief, Yoth apologized to Gar for his earlier trickery, and begged forgiveness. In that moment, Gar realized how much he still loved his brother. Ashamed of his own actions, he apologized and they brought an end to the enmity between their clans. Gar’s horses were still roan, and Yoth’s sable, but both brothers had nothing but praises for them afterwards. Though they would remain separate clans, each with their own ways, there was love between brothers again.”

The ancient one stopped speaking so abruptly that it took Horvig a moment to realize the story had come to an end. “‘Tis all? But what dost it mean?”

The ancient one lifted his eyes to the ever-brightening sky. “The man who struck you is called Kashin. He is a member of the Yeshuel. Few warriors in all of Galendor are more finely trained than they. That he came to be amongst the Magyars explains a great many things that have been happening. I am more grateful than you can know to hear of this.”

He did lean forward this time, his hand extended in invitation. “You have no reason to feel shame at your loss. We all make mistakes, Horvig. It is what we lean from them that truly matters. And in you I sense something that will make you greater than your father.”

Horvig felt his heart lighten. The story had calmed what anger he had, but he still felt confused to hear of this man who’d attacked him. “What be that?”

“You are willing to ask forgiveness. In the story, you are Yoth. There will come a day when you will be reunited with Gar. If you ask for his forgiveness, he will grant it.”

“The man who stabbed me?” he asked, eyes flicking past the ancient one to his mare and the golden horse. He stood up straight when he realized why the golden horse had for a moment looked taller than the mare. They were mating.

“What be?” he asked, stammering as he stepped around the ancient figure. “She be not in season!!"

“For the Rheh Talaran, it matters little.” The stranger rose and glided next to him. “It is the price they have agreed to pay for the warding of your people. Your mare shall sire a colt that will be the envy of all the Steppe, and it will carry in his bloodline for all the generations of the Tagendend.”

Horvig began to smile as he watched the animals. “I thank thee. For this and for the story. I wilt be a good man, I dost give thee my word.”

The stranger turned back towards the fire. “I know you will, Horvig. Tell the tale to your sons that they might be good men too.” Horvig looked behind him to reply, but the ancient one was already in quiet conversation with the other one like him. With a sigh, Horvig watched the horses, and waited for them to finish. All the while he smiled, knowing soon his turn would come.

It was not unusual to find Metamor’s chief healer, Brian Coe, running back and forth to tend numerous patients suffering broken bones, cuts and bruises, common illnesses, and sometimes much worse. Most often this comes about when a few revellers at the Deaf Mule went from singing to slugging each other. Nothing so fitting this time, since for the last week the raccoon healer had his paws full treating Keepers who’d been hurt in the cheering throng at the announcement of Thomas’s engagement.

Embarrassed that any were hurt on such a happy day, Thomas had made sure all those who’d been trampled, crushed or otherwise injured were brought straight to Coe. Now, a week later, Thomas’s Steward, the alligator-like Thalberg, had come to check on the good doctor’s patients.

For the first time all week, Coe was relaxing in the main room. There were several cots arranged along one wall, and next to them were tables where the raccoon could inspect patients who needed only minor care. Doors led off from every side, and in one corner several tall bookshelves were lined with medical instruments and treatises. Coe reclined in a chair, dressed in a simple white smock, with a glass of cider clutched in his paws. His eyes drooped, but he still rose swiftly to greet the Steward.

“Steward Thalberg,” Coe said, smiling as best he could. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Thalberg’s scaly green flesh was wrapped tightly in a red robe that did not completely hide the thick tail dragging behind him. About the only time his tail ever saw use was when he enjoyed a bath in Metamor’s heated pools – the river was too cold for him even in summer. The rest of the time, it just got in the way.

“I’m here to check on you, good Healer, and your patients.” His eye scanned the room for a seat without a back but saw none. “A few of your cots are empty.”

“They’ll all be empty by tomorrow. Everyone is recovering fine, thank the gods.”

Thalberg nodded his massive head. Yellow eyes narrowed. “You have not been getting any sleep. Have you been up all night?”

“I need to check on my patients regularly. Besides, raccoons are nocturnal. We’re normally active at night.”

“And now it is day, so go sleep until evening. Your aides will wake you if you’re needed.”

Coe looked ready to argue, and then chuckled. “Very well, I’ll...” his grey eyes fixed on the darkened corner between the bookshelves. “Madog?”

Thalberg turned in surprise and saw the smoky gray automaton stepping out of the shadow. The alligator’s heart quickened. He’d seen one other move through shadows like that, the one called Zagrosek. And for a moment, when he saw the man clad in a black robe drawn out of the shadows by Madog, he feared that villain was returned. Then he saw the man’s tonsure and knew him to be some Ecclesia priest. His heart relaxed, for a moment.

“Coe,” Madog said in his earnest way, “please heal Father Felsah! He’s hurt!”

Coe set his glass of cider aside, all traces of his weariness gone. He rushed to the man’s side and unlocked his arms from around Madog’s back. When he rolled the priest free, Thalberg caught sight of the familiar red cross on the robe’s chest. A chill clutched his heart, like a spectral hand plunging through his flesh.

“It... It’s a Questioner!” Thalberg declared, barely comprehending what he saw. The man’s face was riddled with bruises, but the dark hair and blank expression were familiar. “One of them who came here six months ago!”

“Somebody has nearly beaten him to death,” Coe said after a moment’s inspection. “It looks like it happened days ago! I’ll need to start immediately. Thalberg, help me get him on a table.”

But when the raccoon turned, he saw that the crocodilian Steward had already fled.

Word travels quickly at Metamor. It was only an hour after Thalberg had rushed to warn Prime Minister Malisa and Duke Thomas that the head of the Long Scouts, Misha Brightleaf, heard that the Questioners were back. Well, one of them at least. And he was injured too, but that wouldn’t stop him from bringing Ecclesia armies to crush them all!

The fox was not known for subtlety. Arriving at Coe’s with his great black axe Whisper in his paws, he burst into the room and growled, “Where is the murderer?”

Coe, his fur bristling at the sight of the snarling fox, held up his paws. “Prime Minister Malisa has already been here and bade no one touch him. Not even you, Misha.”

Misha’s eyes swept past the raccoon, but saw no sign of the Questioner. He stepped to the first door on his left, but Coe stepped between them with arms spread wide. “Do not go in there! You have no right to disturb my patients!”

“And they have no right to be at Metamor!” Misha grabbed Coe by the collar and jerked him aside.

“Madog brought him!” Coe shrieked as he toppled over a chair.

This made the fox pause. He hadn’t seen the automaton for two weeks now, and had begun to worry. He turned, lowering the axe head to waist-height. “What did you say?”

Coe climbed back to his feet, glaring indignantly at the Long Scout. “I said Madog brought him. They just came out of the shadows over there. Madog asked me to heal him.” He straightened his smock and pointed at the door Misha had been about to chop down. “And they aren’t in there anyway. There’s a pregnant young woman in there who was kicked by a horse. She doesn’t need to see an axe-wielding maniac like you!”

“I... I’m sorry,” Misha stepped back and felt the heat leave his chest. He was more confused now than before. Why would Madog help a Questioner? He leaned Whisper against the wall, tail hung low against his legs. “I’d like to see him still.”

“Well you can’t,” Coe snapped. “Until he’s recovered he’s my patient.”

“Poppa!” Madog’s voice chirped excitedly. Misha glanced up and saw the automaton come out of a darkened corner. The mechanical fox bounded across the room until he was at Misha’s feet. He then sat back on his haunches and yipped in excitement. “Coe is saving Father Felsah! He was hurt real bad, but he was so brave and waited for it like in the garden. You come to wish him well?”

Misha had no idea what Madog was saying. But that was often the case. Still, it was a great relief to see him returned. Misha knelt and hugged the automaton around the neck. “Where have you been, Madog? I haven’t seen you in a fortnight!”

“I had to rescue Father Felsah, Poppa.”

“You had to rescue? But didn’t they go back to Yesulam?”

Madog wagged his tail. “And I went there to rescue him. He’s a good man and he needed help.”

Misha was dumbfounded. Madog had done strange things before, and the fox had come to expect bizarre happenings around him, but this was clearly the strangest. “Yesulam. I’ve never been that far, it takes months to make the journey, and you did it in a week?”

“I watch bad man move through shadow. So I move like him to save Father Felsah, Poppa.”

It took Misha a moment to realize just what the automaton was saying. “You mean Zagrosek? You learned it just by watching him?”

“If you are going to continue to shout,” Coe said in mild irritation, “then please go elsewhere.”

Misha grunted but rose and patted Madog on the head. “Let me know when Father Felsah is up. I’d like to talk with him.”

“Not with that axe and your temper.”

“Nay, I want to ask him how he knows Madog. And what happened to him.” He paused and stroked the mechanical fox behind one ear. “If Madog likes him, then he cannot be all bad.” Still sitting on his haunches, Madog’s face beamed with perfect contentment.

After the breathless chase across the fields west of Metamor, both knights enjoyed the stately pace of their chargers. Egland and Alberta laughed, heady with excitement, their legs warmed by the powerful muscles of their steeds. At the other end of the field Egland’s squire Intoran waited with Alberta’s attendants and guards.

Alberta had said she would not need any, but as she was now the Duke’s betrothed, Thalberg had insisted. Though she consented, it had merely been to placate the surly Steward. If it came to it, she knew that she and Egland were more than capable of defending themselves. How many royal brides were trained as knights in service to the Patriarch?

And so they’d left the castle early in the morning with their retinue, and though it was already past noon, neither wished to return. It was far too beautiful an autumn day, with many trees changing colours, and a crisp quality to the air that hinted at the coming winter. In another two months there would be snow on the ground, and the sun would not show itself for long. There would be no better day for a ride than this.

Egland brushed his green tabard down where it had been bunching near his collar. One crease proved especially troublesome, so he briefly roped the reins around one antler so he could use both hands. Already his antlers were larger than they’d been last year. It would sound strange to others, but he found their weight comforting. He would be disappointed when they came off in late winter.

“Thou shouldst be careful, T’samut,” Alberta chided him. “If Galadan were spooked, thy neck could break.”

Egland slipped the reins off his antler and smiled as best his cervine snout could manage. Turning in his saddle, he regarded the female Assingh who had started life as a minor son of a Steppe horse clan. She was dressed in a river blue riding vest and breeches, with a horsehead insignia upon her breast, complete with buckler and blade. Her hooves were bare and fitted into her new rounded stirrups, though she did wear black gloves for her thick fingers. Her spiky mane was combed, though it would never be silken as she hoped, and her long ears trimmed of their excess hair.

It was hard to admit, but there could be no doubt that Alberta Artelanoth was beautiful.

“You’ve broken my neck already, Yisaada. Why, not even a year ago you were a man, and now you will soon be a Duchess!”

Alberta nodded, crossing her wrists in a lady-like fashion. “Metamor hath wrought great changes in me. And thee, T’samut. Thou art magnificent to behold. ‘Tis strange, but thou art very handsome to mine eye. Thy squire be blest to know thy love.”

Egland glanced across the field. Intoran sat atop his horse patiently. Few knew of his forbidden love. In Metamor, it was not unheard of for two men to love each other, but generally one of those men had once been a woman and more often than not a wife. It did not hurt to hide his love, it was just how it had to be.

“Aye, this place has changed us both. You look very happy, Yisaada. Happier than I can remember seeing you in a long time.”

For a few moments Alberta said nothing. She rode her Steppe-born stallion Povunoth with dignity, though her eyes were lost in the past. When she spoke, her voice was soft, but clear over the crunching of dried leaves beneath their horses’ hooves. “There be little in the last year to bring me happiness. ‘Tis painful to know the evil ‘twas done through me.” Her equine lips broke into a smile and she brayed lightly. “But I think of the future, and it makes me happy again.”

“There is no finer man than his grace,” Egland agreed. To his surprise, it did not pain him to admit it. Ever since the last of Alberta’s masculinity had been taken away, Egland felt as if his closest friend had been killed and a mockery put in his place. Now, he could see in Alberta all those things that had drawn them together when they’d been knights in Yesulam. Intoran had told him it would all return in time, and bless him he’d been right.

For a few minutes they remained silent, allowing their steeds to walk along the top of a gentle sward overlooking the edge of the forest that stretched to the North. A steady breeze brought the cool air of the Giantdowns through the valley, and it carried a variety of colourful leaves as well as scents. Egland could taste a hint of deer and even a bear in that gust of northern air. But the most powerful scent was still equine, and for a knight, that was precisely how it should be.

Quite suddenly, Alberta began to laugh. Her laughter was interspersed with a high-pitched bray that made the elk turn his ears aside. When he pivoted in his saddle he saw her leaning forward, hands clutching the pommel tightly. Her ropey tail lashed back and forth from mirth.

“I hope my Yisaada will be so kind as to tell me what it is she finds so funny?” Egland tried to feign indignance, but his own smile betrayed him.

Alberta looked up, dark eyes met his, and then erupted in another paroxysm of laughter. Now Egland did feel indignant. Was he the butt of some secret joke? No, his Yisaada would not do such a thing. He chided himself because when they had been at Yesulam, they had shared such frivolity together. Whatever it was would not hurt. If only she’d stop laughing and tell him!

Finally, she sat up again, brushing tears from her eyes. “Forgive me, my T’samut, but I didst ponder a most amusing thing.” She giggled for a moment but said no more.

“Well,” Egland prompted, “what was it?”

“Thou must know that ‘tis still strange for me to ponder what gown I shalt wear on my wedding day. I adore being a bride, but in all my memories of what I didst imagine that day to be, I ne’er bore a dress.” Alberta smiled. “But for many a year, thou wert always at my side when I met my bride. Now that I wilt go to meet my husband, I didst imagine thee as one of... of... of my maids!” And as soon as she said it, Alberta brayed again.

Egland blinked a few times as what she said grew clear. He began to smile, and then he laughed too. An elk and his Yisaada. It felt so good to have the sibling he’d grown to love back again.

Duke Titian Verdane stared out the window overlooking the rear courtyard of his palace. The grounds were littered with crimson-gold leaves that sparkled in the sun. It was as if the treasury of Kelewair had been spread across the grass. He watched his grandson Jory playing with the dogs while the kennel master kept an eye on them all. It was one of the few delights he could take anymore, all his other thoughts consumed by news of civil war in his Duchy.

“And we’ve received word from Lord Halath,” his Steward Apollinar said with officious delight. “His pikemen and archers have reached The Angle, cutting off Weislyn. Once Lord Calladar’s knights can reinforce him, we should have no threat of an army marching down from the north.”

Verdane nodded in relief. “That is good to hear. Any news of my son, Jaime?”

“No, I fear we have not heard from his grace. He should reach Bozojo soon, your grace. It is a long road north.”

“Aye, it is. What news of Mallow Horn? Or Llarth?”

Apollinar shuffled through the dispatches he’d brought with him. He adjusted his spectacles and lifted one parchment to the lamp. “Your spies report that Llarth’s troops are lining the Southbourne. They occupy the main bridge, and the entire bank east to the lake. Rumour has it a few detachments patrol the western banks all the way to the mountains. And we know that one regiment from Mallow Horn has been sent to coordinate with them.”

“Which means they aren’t ready to move on Masyor just yet. They are probably waiting to see if Braasem will attempt to cross the river.”

Apollinar nodded. “That is what your spy thought, your grace.”

“Good, then we still have time to move our armies into place.” Verdane turned from the window and stepped next to the table with the map of his Duchy spread across it. He traced his finger from Kelewair to Mallow Horn. “Have the generals move two regiments of men to the fork here. Make sure it is a mixed compliment as well. I don’t want any of Thrane of Stoffels’s men to have a numerical advantage.”

“Of course, your grace.”

“And where is Tyrion? I thought I asked him to come here.” Though Tyrion had taken the cloth of an Ecclesia priest, he was still Verdane’s son, and there were few men he could trust outside of his own family now. Things had been quiet in the last two weeks, and that was making him nervous.

“He had a bit of correspondence he wished to investigate,” Apollinar replied, sucking in his breath. “His grace seemed to think it was urgent, and asked I come by myself with these.”

“Well when he is...” a few voices came from outside his meeting room, one of them quite familiar. “Ah, that must be him now.” A moment later the door opened and his clubfooted son hobbled his way into the room, his face purple with outrage.

“Father, I need to speak to you alone now!” Tyrion normally never raised his voice. Yet now he shouted.

“Apollinar, we will finish this later.” The Steward bowed to them both and quickly left the room. Verdane turned and rested his knuckles on the map. “All right, Tyrion, what is it that has you so incensed?”

Tyrion stuck a single folded piece of parchment before him. “I intercepted this message bound for Bishop Ammodus. You need to read it.”

Ammodus was the Bishop of Kelewair, and recently he’d become distant. He’d been very dismissive of Verdane’s attempts to maintain order in his lands. Verdane had not spoken to him in almost a month now. Tyrion was the Prelate, and so he had access to all the Bishop’s correspondence. Verdane hoped this was as important as his son suggested.

His grace, Bishop Ammodus,

Our forces have made another example of the pagan Lothanasi! The village of Twin Forks has been put to the torch. The pagans resisted our soldiers, and hid inside their monstrous temple. Eli’s cleansing fire has washed that stain from the earth, and all those who sought refuge in the evil promises of the Lothanasi pretenders.

By your instruction we have relocated to the garrison in Stonybrak. We will continue to do Eli’s glorious work after we have replenished our supplies here. By the time you receive this letter we will ready to strike again.

Eli go with you in your glorious quest. May all those who do not hew to His teachings burn in unquenchable fire!

The letter was not signed, but it had been stamped with the cross of the Questioners. Titian resisted the temptation to tear the parchment to shreds. Instead, he let it fall to the table and lay like a discarded rose petal. His teeth ground together.

“Have Sir Royce come in,” he said, his voice hardly better than a snarl.

Tyrion hobbled to the door and banged on the wood. When the door opened, he said a few words, and then the lumbering Castellan entered, his face passive. “Yes, your grace?”

“Sir Royce, I need you to take some troops to the Cathedral and arrest Bishop Ammodus after dusk.”

Royce’s eyes lifted in surprise and uncertainty. “Bishop Ammodus. But your grace, he is a priest!”

“And he is also a traitor. Arrest him, Sir Royce. Do it quietly. I want no one to know he has been arrested. Prelate Tyrion will stand in for him. We will say that he is suffering a mild ague, and will be indisposed until he can recover.”

Sir Royce swallowed heavily and nodded. “Very well, your grace. I will have him in the prison ere the stroke of midnight.”

“Good. You are excused.” Once the Castellan had left, Titian turned back to his clubfooted son. “We will need to crush these Questioners and their soldiers. It is clear that they are the ones who have been butchering Lothanasi villages. I’m going to lead this campaign myself. Stonybrak is only four days to the west.”

Tyrion blanched. “And it is also close to Mallow Horn. Do you want to take the risk of engaging Dupré’s forces with Lord Guilford at your back?”

“I will be quick about it. I am going to take my fastest riders, and we will destroy these murderers.”

“You could be caught,” Tyrion pointed out.

“Not with these two regiments occupying the fork. They will be large and visible. If Dupré or Guilford are looking for a fight, they will go for what they can see first.” Verdane nodded to himself. “I am leaving once Ammodus is in prison. Apollinar has gone to summon my generals. It is time we draw some blood, my son. It is time for blood.”

Titian Verdane spat in his palms and rubbed them together firmly, a promise made to himself and sealed. Tyrion could only look on and nod, his face a blank mask.

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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