The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter XXXVIII - Portents

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

“I believe,” Father Kehthaek intoned in a rather satisfied manner, “that these will prove important.”

Sir Petriz glanced up from the parcel of documents he’d been perusing. It had been over a week since he’d stood on the pier watching his fellow Driheli knights sailing southwards on the Yurdon river. It was a long journey back to Stuthgansk, and he prayed for good winds and calm waters to speed them on their way. The real pain was having to send his squire back too. It felt like a lifetime since he’d last seen Karol, and the boy had begged to stay and help, but the fewer their number the safer they were. Petriz promised himself he’d tell Karol all about what they’d done to save the Ecclesia someday.

Now that the Driheli were gone, it felt like another lifetime since he’d seen them leave. Since that time, they had made a study of sorts out of one of the old storerooms beneath the knight’s barracks. It was little used, and even should one of the servants or soldiers come down here, Sir Czestadt could turn them back with but a glare.

The two Questioner priests and Kashin had collected all of the papers, tomes, books, as well as garments, pillows, and writing implements they could find in Bishop Jothay’s residence. Over the course of a single day they had brought all of them to the storeroom, for fear that once others heard of Jothay’s ‘pilgrimage’, anything incriminating they did not take might disappear.

Akaleth had made a wry joke that he’d spent too much time in the company of the Magyars; stealing all those things did not make him feel guilty in the slightest. Kehthaek had firmly reminded him that everything a Bishop writes or uses properly belongs to the Ecclesia, and thus, being agents of the Ecclesia, they could hardly be accused of stealing anything. Sir Petriz found this bit of legalistic justification mildly amusing, but did not say so.

Now, each day they came to their storeroom and pored over the correspondence, hoping that in the midst of so much mendacity that they might find some hint of a deeper plot. They spent so much time there, that Father Kehthaek had also brought sacramental dishes that he might offer Kashin the Host on Sundays. When the days were over, Kehthaek would return to their temple, and the Driheli would return above to sleep in the barracks. Kashin and Akaleth would remain behind to make sure nothing came of their precious documents.

Sir Petriz was grateful that one of the first things Sir Czestadt had made him learn as a squire was how to read and write. That skill had proven useful time and again, but never before had he thought the fate of the world might hang in the balance. A week ago he had dived into the documents handed to him, poring over the sentences to find that nugget of treachery they knew had to be somewhere. But until that moment, all he had found were old letters ten years past, or letters from Jothay’s diocese updating him on affairs in Eavey. They were altogether dull and unenlightening.

“What have you found?” Father Akaleth asked, sitting up suddenly. Petriz leaned forward, eager to hear. Czestadt waited by the doors, still as a statue, his crutches propped on his knees. Kashin set a sheet down, and then rubbed his hand over his left stump.

“This is a letter,” Father Kehthaek began, “from Bishop Rott of Marilyth to Jothay. In it he reports that Bishop Hockmann’s campaign into Sathmore has been a disastrous failure. He complains loudly and with... words unbecoming a holy man, that the war between the faiths Jothay assured him would follow has failed to develop. And, what is more interesting, is that he clearly states that Bishop Vinsah was there and brought the conflict to an end. He then goes on to seek Jothay’s counsel regarding Vinsah, and what they should do when ‘that beastly interloper the apostate Akabaieth has foisted upon us’ returns.”

Kashin spat and his eyes burned. He gripped the jewelled blade at his side tightly. “Bishop Rott will regret his choice of words.”

“Bishop Rott is a fool,” Kehthaek said dismissively. “He is a tool, driven by his own zealotry to ally with a monster like Jothay. He is hardly worth your ire.”

“Why it then read?” Sir Petriz asked, confused. It sounded fairly damning to him.

“Because it is our first piece of evidence to show that Jothay was not acting alone on the Council. He had allies. We now know that Rott was involved. It remains to be seen who else has played a role.” Kehthaek set the letter atop an empty crate in the middle of room. “Let us continue searching.”

Wordlessly they did so. A clock ticked the minutes past, and oil lamps set atop empty boxes brought light to their eyes. Over a dozen lamps were spaced around the room, making it bright and easy to read. Only the far wall with the secret passage that led to the Questioner temple was left in shadow.

Sir Petriz discovered in his stack of documents several more letters from the Eaven diocese on matters ranging from squabbles between nobles to details of the harvest. Jothay may have been a madman, but he did seem far too diligent in attending to his correspondence.

“I am glad he saved his letters, but did he have to save every one of them?” Petriz muttered in his own tongue. None of the others paid attention, each focussed on their own stacks of correspondence.

He was ready to start another letter when a sort of popping sound from the dark side of the room caught his ear. He turned, as did they all, and stared in shock at the sight before them. Standing there in the deep shade was the third Questioner priest, and at his side was a dog-like creature. Only it was not a dog; its skin was metallic, a smoky gray in hue like a cloudy sky after a summer’s rain. The man was smiling, eyes drawn towards Kehthaek and Akaleth.

“Father Felsah!” Akaleth shouted, dropping the letters he held in his hand and leaping to his feet. “You’re well!”

Felsah nodded, stepping into the light and clasping Akaleth in a warm embrace. “I am. Madog took me to Metamor, and there they were able to mend my wounds. He has brought me back now, as I had to come and try to help. I am relieved to know you both survived. Tell me, what happened that night?”

Kehthaek came to stand with him, his face brimming with warm pride. “Jothay was defeated, and the Magyars have returned to the Steppe.”

A brief flicker of disappointment crossed his face, then his eyes fell upon Kashin. “Nemgas? What has happened to your arm? Why didn’t you return to the Steppe?”

Kashin chuckled lightly. “It is good to see you well, Father. But I am not Nemgas. My name is Kashin, and during the course of confronting Jothay, I was released from Nemgas. You see, we had been combined by a strange magic that...” he shook his head, his smile self-effacing. “It is a long explanation. Suffice it to say, I am Kashin, and I was not killed as you have heard.”

Felsah stared at him wide eyed, and then spread his hands wide. “I have just returned from a land populated by men who appear as beasts, a land that is hundreds of leagues distant. And I did it in a week’s time. I suppose whatever story you have to tell cannot possibly be any stranger. I will take you at your word, Kashin.”

The automaton nudged Felsah’s side and its muzzle opened in what could only be described as a grin. “Your safe now, Father. I have to go back before Poppa misses me.”

Felsah bent down and hugged the metal fox around his neck. “Thank you, Madog. You are a true friend.”

Sir Petriz pointed at the fox. “What... what is that?”

Madog perked his ears and looked at the knight. “I’m Madog! Who are you?”

The knight stammered a moment, and then gestured to himself. “I’m Sir Petriz of Vasks, and this is Sir Czestadt of Stuthgansk.”

“Pleased to meet you, Sir Petriz.” Madog blinked at Czestadt who remained where he sat near the door. His face was dark, brooding, though his eyes did shift to regard the automaton with some curiosity. Madog trotted over to him, and appeared to sniff his leg. “You smell like Rick!”

“Rick?” Czestadt asked, his voice gravely. “Who he be?” One arm shifted as if he pondered touching the creature.

Madog sat on his haunches and panted. “He’s one of Poppa’s friends. Rickkter.”

Czestadt blinked and then turned on the metal fox. “Rickkter?” He laughed, his throat turning it into a growl. “He went to Metamor? Ironic.” He lifted his face and looked into that of Felsah’s. Petriz turned and saw the priests’s cheeks go white, eyes wide with terror.

“It... it’s you!” Felsah exclaimed, backing up into the shadow. “What? Why?”

“It is all right,” Akaleth assured him quickly, grabbing Felsah by the elbow to steady him. “He has learned the error of his ways.”

“Errors?” Czestadt snapped, his body tensing. He stood and pulled his crutches beneath him. “Faithful to the Ecclesia being is never an error.” He pushed open the door and stepped out, grumbling something inaudible.

Felsah was still shaken. Madog came over to him and nudged his middle. “He will not hurt you again, Father Felsah.” The automaton seemed very certain of that. He licked Felsah’s hand and whined until the priest looked down at him. “I’m sorry I have to go. But I will see you again, Father!”

Felsah nodded, petting Madog behind the ears. “I understand, Madog. I will see you again too.”

Madog looked at Kashin, wagged his tail, and then turned to the other two Questioner priests. “Maybe next time you play too! Bye bye!” He jumped back over to the shadows and vanished with a loud pop.

It took Sir Petriz several long seconds before he was able to close his mouth. “Check on Sir Czestadt I will.” Confused, he turned and headed for the door after his mentor. Let the priests explain what had happened. It was a brief respite from the endless piles of documents at the very least. But more importantly, he knew something was amiss with the Knight Templar.

It had been Father Felsah that Czestadt had nearly beaten to death. Why shouldn’t he feel poorly about this reunion?

Czestadt had not gone far. The doorway was at the end of a long dark corridor. Only two torches were lit, one at the storeroom entrance and the other at the bottom of a set of narrow stairs. Czestadt, whose legs were mending well, had hobbled on his crutches nearly halfway to the stairs when Petriz called out to him. The knight turned, his face a twisted rictus of both pain and duty. Petriz could never recall seeing him so conflicted.

“What is it, master Templar?” Petriz asked in their native tongue, using the title because it seemed wise to make him think of the Driheli.

Czestadt sneered, his eyes narrowing in disgust. “You are an intelligent man, Sir Petriz! I would never have made you a Knight Commander if you were not. What do you think haunts me?”

There could be no doubt of that. “Father Felsah,” Sir Petriz said, his voice hollow. “You nearly beat him to death.”

“Yes, I did,” Czestadt replied, his tone somewhat softer, but still bearing an edge hard as a knife. “He stood in the way of the Ecclesia as I understood it and I struck him hard. I, who have pledged to serve, protect, and to enforce.”

It was hard for Petriz to even conceive of this man whom he had long admired sinking to do such a terrible thing. But the evil they faced had been great, and in the end, his mentor had done the right thing. That was what mattered, wasn’t it? “Are you ashamed of it?”

“Yes and no,” Cazestadt replied after a moment’s pause. His eyes looked away towards the stairs without really seeing them. “I am not ashamed that I did what I thought was right. I will never be ashamed of it. If that means a heretical priest must die, then I will kill them if there is no one else.”

He lowered his face and gripped his crutches so tightly that he almost splintered the wood. “What shames me is that I refused to believe what I could plainly see: Jothay was the heretical priest. Almost killing Father Felsah, is not the worst of it.”

Petriz waited for his friend to speak. Czestadt’s flesh trembled with rage, or perhaps sorrow, Petriz could not tell which. Czestadt lifted one hand to his forehead and pressed deeply against his temples. He breathed heavily through his mouth, before finally stilling whatever had threatened to burst inside of him. “Bishop Jothay sent us to kill Kashin, the one man in all the world who could gain vengeance for Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. The one man! And we were sent to deny him that. We were told he had abandoned his post, had betrayed his master, and so happily we went to kill him. How many of our own men did we bring to death? Sir Poznan, Sir Ignacz, Sir Andrej, Father Athfisk... so many others. They died for a lie, Petriz. They died because I could not see it for a lie. They died loyally doing as I told them.”

“Then they died well,” Sir Petriz replied, his voice aching, but full of assurance. How else could it be for a knight? “They died doing exactly what they were supposed to do. They could not have known.”

“I should have done better.”

“How? Until I met Father Akaleth and heard his story, I thought we were still in the right. I confess after meeting the Magyars, I had my doubts, but I never truly doubted that our mission was meant to succeed.” Petriz gritted his teeth and took another few steps closer to his mentor. Czestadt turned his profile to Petriz, but still did not look at him. Feeling angry now, Petriz hissed through his teeth, “We were all deceived! We must not let ourselves be used like that again. That is how we honour their memory!”

“Aye, we will not be deceived so easily again,” Czestadt agreed. He lowered both hands to his crutches and shifted his legs beneath him. “And how do you recommend we discern the good from the evil? Scholars have debated this for generations! And will continue to debate it for many more!”

Petriz frowned and nodded. “That is true, but we cannot blindly trust men; only Eli and His son Yahshua are worthy of that trust. We must reserve our own judgement whether what we do is right.”

“We cannot be servants if we question our master’s commands,” Czestadt intoned as if quoting a maxim. “And therein lies the difficulty. And my agony.”

What could he say to that? Petriz knew a knight’s role was one of service, and for a Driheli, it was service to the Ecclesia. But the Ecclesia was meant to serve Eli, and if it failed in that, the Driheli would again be used for ill. With nothing left to say, Petriz asked, “Who was this Rickkter that mechanical creature spoke of?”

Czestadt snorted in amusement. “Someone I knew a long time ago. Not very well, we studied different disciplines, but the few times we sparred, we knew we had met our equal. That he is now at Metamor, well...”

A sudden scream pierced the air. Both their heads snapped back to the storeroom, and their feet responded only a moment later.

Once Petriz was gone, Father Felsah took several deep breaths, momentarily unable to draw the mask of the Questioner over his face or to slow the pace of his heart. “What happened?”

Kehthaek let his hands disappear into his sleeves. “Sir Czestadt will never again bring you to harm. He realized after doing what he did to you that it was Jothay who was the traitor. He was instrumental in aiding us, and in so doing he nearly gave his life. Is that not so, Father Akaleth?”

“Aye,” Akaleth replied and nodded emphatically. “All of us had a little... hem... light shed on Eli’s truth that day.”

There was something ironic in the way the younger Questioner spoke, and it did more to focus Felsah’s mind than their earlier reassurances had. Slowly, his smile returned, and he gripped their shoulders firmly. “It is good to see you both again. I am relieved you both survived. Did we truly stop Jothay?”

“His grace is no more,” Kashin said softly. He fingered the jewelled blade resting on his hip. “But the man who slew Patriarch Akabaieth escaped.”

“He was wounded,” Akaleth pointed out, his lips pinched in irritation. “He did not escape unharmed.”

Felsah shook his head. “Did we stop Jothay?”

“We do not know,” Kehthaek replied, his voice betraying a weariness Felsah had never glimpsed. “All we know is that Jothay is dead, his accomplice has fled, and the unholy chamber in which he performed pagan ritual is inaccessible, as is Yajakali’s sword. The one other thing that is certain is that the hellish creature spawned by the sword is no more.”

“And now we are searching Jothay’s correspondence to discover what other allies he had,” Akaleth gestured to the stacks of papers and piles of scrolls littering the storage room. Felsah scanned them with some dismay.

“He had so much?”

“Jothay was a collector,” Kashin groused, patting a pile before him. “He saved everything. It will be a while before we have gone through all of it.”

Felsah took another deep breath. “Is there a stack I can start?”

“By those shelves,” Akaleth pointed towards one wall. The shelves were stacked with bottles of various unguents and even a jar of leeches. “Tell me though, what happened at Metamor?”

“Very little. I spent all my time resting and mending. I did speak with their Prime Minister. I told her what I knew. It seems they have been contending with the power of Marzac for some time as well.”

Akaleth recoiled in horror, one hand briefly reaching into his sleeve before falling empty to his side. “Why did you tell them? If the Lothanasi know of our weakness they might...” his voice and anger trailed off. He looked away and sighed. “I hope nothing ill comes of it. I am grateful they healed you, Father Felsah.”

Without another word he sat down before a small stack of letters. Felsah knew better than to pry and so walked over to the set of shelves to help. His eyes alighted on the jar and he was frozen in place. The leeches had turned a febrile gray in colour, and their skin was covered in dark splotchy blemishes. One of them leapt against the glass and he flinched.

“What’s wrong with the leeches?” Felsah took a step back, unable to remove his eyes from the jar. More of them were leaping against the glass.

“One of the Magyars, Berkon, was wounded by Jothay’s walking corpses. We used the leeches to drain the infection.” Kehthaek paused and then added, “They all died a few days ago. I have not had time to dispose of them yet.”

“They died?” Felsah asked incredulously. The jar was beginning to rock back and forth on the shelf. The leeches were all flinging themselves at the same side of the jar! “But they’re moving!”

As he spoke the words the jar tipped over and fell with a crash to the floor. “Great Eli!” Kashin swore as the sickly leeches began to crawl out from underneath the shards of glass. “Petriz!” he screamed. Felsah stumbled backwards; Akaleth and Kehthaek shot up from their seats, eyes filled with horror. One of the leeches worked its way free of the glass and leapt a good three feet into the air. Just as the knight rushed back inside, Kashin was there, swinging the golden blade before him.

The leech twisted in midair, narrowly avoiding the blade, and landed on the nearest crate. Petriz had his sword in hand but dropped it when he saw what lay on the floor. He grabbed the lantern at his side and hurled it at the writhing mass trapped beneath the glass. Fire blossomed, and in the blaze they heard those vile things sizzle.

The one that was free leapt into the air again, but this time Kashin swung the flat of the blade. He caught the leech square and jammed the sword into the blaze. Feverish eyes watched the putrid slug shrivel and finally fall off.

But their relief was short. The lamp oil had splashed across two nearby crates, and now the fire raced up their sides where it eagerly lapped at the stacks of papers perched atop those crates. “Save them!” Kehthaek cried in uncharacteristic fright.

Felsah was closest, and grabbed as much of one stack as he could. The fire was hot and he felt a stinging sensation in his hands. Akaleth was there only a moment later to grab a second stack.

“Here!” Czestadt shouted from the doorway. He flung a heavy blanket towards Petriz. The knight missed, but a second later he grabbed it and tossed it over the crate. Another stack of letters fell over from the sudden rush of air, a good portion falling directly into the fire.

“Rott’s letter!” Kehthaek shrieked. The elder Questioner jumped past the now empty crate and snatched a parchment whose corner had just caught flame. He buried the corner in the folds of his robe as he scampered backwards. One had been saved, but so many others curled into dark ash.

Petriz more carefully tamped down the rest of the fire, leaving the jar and its sizzling remains for last. That they let burn until there was no oil left. While Felsah and Akaleth gathered the fallen but unharmed letters, Kashin stirred what was left of the leeches with one foot. “Whatever poison the Blood Bound had in them caused this.”

Kehthaek carefully brushed the corner of Rott’s letter with one cuff. Once satisfied that the message was intact, he said, “Of that you must be right. Praise Eli I did not dump them in the gutters as I had intended.” He turned, grabbed a small sacramental plate with Holy water and poured it over the shrivelled husks. The flesh washed away like dust. When Kehthaek was finished there was nothing left but broken glass.

“I pray that we removed all the poison from Berkon,” Kashin muttered softly.

“As do I. As do I,” Kehthaek replied. With a deep breath he returned the plate and gestured to the papers. “Let us continue.”

Garigan loved Glen Avery in the Fall. There was a pleasant briskness to the air as the last of Summer’s warmth began to fade. Scents seemed richer, noises more certain, and colours brighter all throughout the village and the forest. It was as if the woods engaged in one more celebration before the lean months of Winter came.

Returning from a month’s absence, Garigan let his senses feast upon the towering trees that lined the road north. Being a Glen scout, he rarely left home for so long, but he’d been asked to help train the younger scouts at Metamor how to use their new bodies to blend with the woods. Normally one of the Longs would tend to such a duty, but with news of unrest in the south, not to mentions Charles’s fantastic mission begun nearly four months ago, the Longs had been spread too thin.

Besides, Garigan recalled pleasantly, it had been good to see so many friends again. Then there was Metamor Keep, always a marvel to behold. He could not help but gaze up at its resplendent towers, whose only companions were the Autumn sky and snow-capped mountains. At its base were numerous gardens, all full of yellow and orange leaves. And there were so many people, it taxed his imagination every time he walked the streets.

But there was also another reason he went. It had been nine months since he’d last communed with the Sondeckis Shrine, and he could feel that absence like a thorn stuck beneath his claws. The Shrine, his mentor had said, looked precisely like those in the home of their order, the desert city of Sondeshara. And within those shrines, a Sondecki could sate the raging storm of their gift without violence. So, nearly every day for the last month he’d spent an hour in the shrine, feeling his Calm grow like a living thing. He could rarely remember knowing such deep peace.

But seeing the arboreal spires of home came close.

“Beautiful sight, eh?” his friend Gibson asked. The frog merchant had been on his way back to the Glen after a prosperous Summer’s business and had been delighted to offer Garigan a ride. Heavily cloaked in furs, only his webbed hands and wide flat head could be seen. Gibson was one of the few amphibians or reptiles that Garigan knew personally, and his special needs still continued to surprise the ferret.

“Aye, quite beautiful,” Garigan replied, leaning back on the wagon seat to better enjoy the view. “Although,” a mischievous glint came to his eyes, “Marcus must be stationed elsewhere. He would have pounced us if he were watching.”

Gibson laughed, a loud croaking sound that carried through the woods. Garigan flinched reflexively. “Sorry, my lad; I fear my voice was meant to sing in the twilight. A scout’s life and worries are beyond me.”

Garigan glanced into the trees overhead and caught sight of a Glen archer hidden in his nook, laughing and beating a fist against the branch on which he perched, all with complete silence. When the scout saw Garigan’s gaze, he waved and continued to laugh.

“We’re safe now anyway, so laugh as much as you like.”

Gibson smiled as best he was able with his broad lips. “There we are.” He nodded towards the turn in the road. Beyond was the main clearing and the Glen. “Beautiful!” Gibson pulled on the reins and the pair of horses turned to the left. “Is there somewhere I can drop you off?”

Garigan could have just jumped to the ground. But Gibson was offering, and it would have been rude to refuse the gift. “Lars’s I think. A quick bite before I check in will be just the thing.”

“Then to Lars’s it is!”

One thing about returning home is that everyone wants news of the outside world. Though Metamor was less than half a day’s ride from the Glen, one would think Garigan had been to Sathmore from the way the men at the brewery pestered him. But Garigan did not mind, as there had been many exciting things to tell. And it meant that Gibson would be spared the local inquisition for once. It came as no surprise that almost all of the questions centred around Duke Thomas and his new bride.

“I heard they were to be married at the Winter Solstice,” Angus said as he leaned across the circular table. Garigan sat with a steaming bowl of stew and a tankard of mead before him. He’d barely had a chance to touch either yet, far too busy answering question after question from the throng framing the table.

He nodded to the badger. “On the anniversary of Nasoj’s attack last year. His grace wants to give everyone a reason to celebrate. Sure, the Patildor already have their holiday then, but we Lothanasi have only our dead to mourn.”

“Like Shelley,” Alldis the deer huntsman intoned sadly.

“Aye,” Garigan admitted, feeling a momentary flush of sorrow. Shelley had been his best friend for many years, but he’d been killed during the Winter Assault before Garigan could reach the Glen. It was a painful memory, and before it could ruin his feeling of peace, he turned his thoughts to the coming wedding. “But with his grace’s marriage, we will all have cause for good cheer. I have never seen such an affair! Metamor is like a town possessed! You cannot walk down the streets without seeing somebody preparing for it! Banners, arts, arms, everything!”

Angus laughed warmly and shook his head. “And I wager the jockeying has already begun to get an invitation.”

“The moment his grace announced!” Garigan grinned and shoved a bit of stew in his snout. While the others laughed, he chewed and swallowed the tasty morsel. “I did hear that his vassals will have a certain number of seats they may fill as they wish. The real question becomes, who is deciding it for the Glen; Lord Brian or Lady Avery?”

They laughed broadly and the ferret snuck another bite in. Before he could say more, the door to the brewery flung open and a frightfully familiar face leapt inside. The bright-furred marten was delirious with excitement, eyes ready to pop out of his head. Slung over one shoulder were his bow and quiver; he hadn’t bothered to put either away before rushing to find the ferret.

“Oh no,” Garigan muttered only a moment before the youth spotted him.

“Garigan!” Marcus cried in delight, leaping over the nearest table and squeezing past Angus to give the ferret a slap on the back. “You made it back!”

“My blissful month of peace has come to an ignoble end!” Garigan wailed mockingly. “You are looking far too chipper for a scout about to receive a reprimand from a surly badger.”

“Badger’s are always surly, isn’t that right Master Angus?” Marcus said with an irrepressible grin.

Angus swung one paw to grab the marten by the scruf of his neck, but Marcus artfully dodged the blow. “Come on, Marcus. Let poor Garigan eat his dinner.”

Garigan gave the badger an amused smirk. “You certainly have.”

The badger grinned innocently. “Just trading the news. That’s different.”

“I have news!” Marcus said excitedly.

No matter how annoying Marcus could be, Garigan was still fond of him. In some ways he’d been the younger brother the ferret had never had. Overly enthusiastic, incorrigible, and incapable of stopping himself if there was a prank to play, Marcus was also young and doing his best to be a good Glen scout just like his hero Garigan.

“News, eh?” Garigan lifted his tankard meaningfully and nodded. “Well do tell!”

The others rolled their eyes as Marcus launched into a full-throated monologue on everything that had happened in the Glen in the last month. Some of the details were trivial, suchas Ralph’s fishing boat capsizing but not hurting anyone, while others were merely amusing, as when a merchant from Metamor used the wrong salts while bathing at the Inn and turned his fur green for a day. A few items were mixed into the odd narrative that caught Garigan’s ear, such as Abigail Blaylock giving birth to a baby girl, but the one that elicited an actual response was also what Marcus saved for last.

“And now Lord Avery has Darien and Christopher training with Angus and Berchem. He said it was time they started learning to be men.”

“Really?” Garigan said, eyes widening in surprise. Marcus’s monologue had given him time to finish the stew, for which he was grateful. The other Glenners appeared to be wagering how much longer Marcus could talk before taking a breath. “I guess they have grown a lot in the last year.”

“Aye! They stand up to my chin now!” Marcus exclaimed, holding one paw under his chin to demonstrate. “Another year or two and they may be as big as their Father. He’s about the same size as me, you know, except for his tail which is much longer. But he has Angus training them with swords and Berchem with bows. I watched them practice yesterday, and they can almost put the arrow in the centre ring already!”

“Remarkable,” Garigan replied, genuinely impressed. He turned to Angus and asked, “How is their sword play?”

“The usual for boys. I’d let them bruise each other more often if Lady Angela didn’t berate me for indulging them. But,” he grunted low in his throat, casting a withering glance at Marcus, “they are not giving me as much trouble as some did.”

“I’m surprised Lord Brian didn’t ask you to train them as huntsmen,” Garigan said to Alldis the deer.

Alldis chuckled under his breath. His antlers were quite large and nobody pressed too close to him. “His lordship is waiting for Berchem and Angus to finish with the essentials. Nasoj may be defeated, but the woods are still dangerous.”

Marcus, who hadn’t had a chance to say anything for almost a full minute, looked ready to pop. He bounced back and forth, obviously eager to say more. Garigan laughed and spread his paws wide. “What is it, Marcus?”

“There’s one other thing you should know, Garigan. While you were gone, Ladero got sick.”

“Sick?” Garigan repeated, worry filling him. Ladero was Charles’s youngest, and the one that possessed the Sondeck. He’d nearly died in childbirth and now he was sick?

Angus cuffed Marcus in the back of the head, and this time did not miss. “He just got home. He doesn’t need to hear bad news!”

“But, but!” Marcus objected. “He’s Master Matthias’s friend!”

“It’s all right, Angus. How is Ladero now?” Garigan pointedly looked at the marten, knowing he alone was incapable of softening a blow.

“He’s sick in bed. Jo visited last week, but he hasn’t gotten better yet.”

Garigan nodded and stood up. “I think I will check on the Matthias family, then I’ll make my official report.” He smiled to Marcus. “Thank you for letting me know. I’ll tell you all about Metamor later this evening. Now go back to your post.”

Marcus snapped to attention and beamed before bounding back out of the brewery.

Alldis sighed, “If only we all had his energy!”

If there was any rejoinder, Garigan did not hear it for he was out the door a moment later.

When Garigan opened the door nestled between tree roots, he expected to get knocked over. He was not disappointed. Four small forms swarmed him, grabbing him by the arms and legs. With a mock shout he fell to the hard earth, seeing four pointed snouts with bright black eyes hovering over him.

“Gargen! Gargen!” they shouted in delight, bouncing up and down on their hind paws. The ferret laughed warmly. It was worrisome that he only saw four children. Where was Ladero the fifth?

“Children!” Kimberly cried in exasperation from inside. “Get off poor Garigan. That’s no way to treat guests. Go sit in the corner.”

“Mama!” little Charles wailed while standing on the ferret’s stomach. Kimberly grabbed him under the arms and set him inside. The others didn’t wait, scampering past her legs and jumping over her tail. Garigan grinned and laughed before rising and dusting himself off.

“They are quite a pawful,” Garigan said. He straightened his green tunic and met the weary mother’s eyes. “It is good to see you again, Kimberly. How are you faring?”

Kimberly smiled. “As well as can be. Do come in, Garigan. Is there anything I can get you?”

Garigan stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He saw all four children standing against one wall, paws pressed over their eyes. Bernadette stole a peek, but a glare from her mother set her straight. “I just ate at Lars’s, but thank you. Where’s Baerle?”

“At the Blaylock’s to pick up a few things. How was your trip to Metamor?”

“Good, good. Caroline said she told you all about his grace when she came back.”

Kimberly smiled. “It was nice to see her. Has there been any news?”

From the hopeful tone in her voice the ferret knew she was asking about her husband. Garigan shook his head. “You’ve been doing very well for yourself here. If I didn’t know better I would say you’ve always been a Glenner.”

“It is a quieter life,” she gave her children a reproachful stare. “Most of the time. Everyone has done their best to make things easier on us.”

“Good. I just heard that Ladero is sick. How is he?”

Kimberly rubbed her paws together nervously. “He’s still coughing. The broth Jo gave us helps for a while...”

Garigan frowned. “I’m sure it will break soon. I’ll say a few prayers for him this evening.”

“Thank you,” she smiled, whiskers standing out further to either side. “Both Baerle and I have been saying our prayers together lately.”

The ferret nodded and glanced about, wondering where Ladero might be. “Do you mind if I see him for a bit?”

“Not at all; he’s upstairs in his crib.”

Garigan thanked her again before heading up the wooden steps. The room beyond was cluttered with gnawed toys and quite a few cloth animals. Sweet smelling candles burned near the far crib, and he could see a tiny figure laying there. Quietly, Garigan crept closer. Ladero’s eyes were closed, one arm wrapped tightly around a patchwork dog. His bedsheets were yellow, and he could see that either Kimberly or Baerle had sewn a decent facsimile of the Sondeckis insignia into their centre.

Though the ferret had never been to Sondeshara or met any Sondeckis other than Charles and his two friends, seeing that symbol brought a swell of pride to his heart. If Charles could have seen it he would have stood several inches taller from sheer delight.

There was a three-legged stool next to the crib, so Garigan sat down. With one paw, he gently rubbed the top of the boy’s head. His large ears twitched, and a moment later he opened his eyes. He sat up a little and smiled. “Gargen!”

“Good afternoon, young Ladero. How are you feeling?”

“Tired,” Ladero replied. His eyelids drooped a bit even as he spoke. Garigan pressed his paw gently against the boy’s back. There, just beneath the surface, he could feel the boy’s Sondeck. Strong and yet so new, it thrived with a life all its own. Ladero lifted one arm and put his palm on the ferret’s arm and chittered. Garigan knew the boy was doing the same thing.

“Dada home?” Ladero asked, his other arm still wrapped tight about the stuffed dog.

“Not yet, but soon.” Garigan pointed at the toy animal. “And who is that?”

“Dis is Towseh. He wikes you, Gargen.” Ladero held the dog up and Garigan gave it a few pats on the head.

“Nice to meet you, Towseh.”

Ladero giggled for a moment and then began to cough. Garigan felt a sudden stabbing pain in his paw and yanked it from the boy’s back. The coughing fit lasted only a few seconds, and then the boy was hugging Towseh to his chest. Curious, Garigan put his paw on the boy’s back and searched for his Sondeck again. It was there, familiar, but at the same time, it wasn’t. For many long seconds he explored, but there were only hints, nothing certain. All he could discern was what seemed, as best he could put it, a jagged edge where it should have been smooth as glass.

“I have to go talk with your Mama, Ladero. You get your rest.” Garigan gently guided the boy back into his blankets.

Ladero smiled and closed his eyes. “Nini, Gargen.”

When he came back down, he found the other rats had disappeared from their corner, but he didn’t see where they went. Kimberly was in the kitchen preparing a potent broth. “How did he look?” She asked as soon as he slipped inside.

Garigan scuffed one foot paw across the wood floor. “Sick, but with what I don’t know. It seems to have affected his Sondeck.”

“Is that normal for a Sondecki?”

“I don’t know. Charles is the only one who would. It may be normal, or it could be worse. We won’t know until he improves or worsens.”

Kimberly tensed and stirred the broth. “Jo will come by to check on him again soon. Can you be here too?”

Garigan nodded. “You know I shall.” His ear turned when he heard a small squeak. “Where did the others go?”

“They’re hiding, thinking I don’t know about it.” Kimberly shook her head. “Baerle will be back soon and then she can watch them. At least they always play together. Eli forbid if...” she chuckled lightly and gave him a meaningful look. “Best not to give them any ideas.”

“Of course.” Garigan rested one paw on the counter. “What will you do if Ladero worsens?”

The momentary levity left her eyes. “I... I will send for Jo, for Burris, for anyone who can help him.”

“Consider this then. If they cannot help, send for Lothanasa Raven. She can intercede with Akkala on Ladero’s behalf. Akkala is the goddess of healing. If no one else can help, she can.”

Kimberly stuttered, “But, but we’re Followers!”

Garigan nodded. “Patildor or Lothanansi, Akkala can help. She helped Charles, or so I heard. You don’t have to do it now, but please, for Ladero’s sake, consider it.”

Slowly, Kimberly began to nod. And then, she flung herself into the ferret’s surprised arms, tear streaming down her face. “I miss him so!” she sobbed, hugging tight to his chest.

“I know,” he replied, holding her gently as she cried.

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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