The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter L - Shadows Passing Forward

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

Elvmere climbed over the lintel and huddled behind a small statue as two white-robed acolytes walked past below him. He tucked his tail in close, dexterous paws gripping the back of the robed figure’s leg. The smooth stone held mild imperfections brought on by age, but was otherwise exquisite in design. All this he could tell with his sensitive raccoon paws. Despite the strange impulses he felt from time to time, he found his animal form very convenient for exploring without being seen.

A year ago, he’d done this very same thing, exploring the Keep in Metamor Valley while an animal. At the time, he’d been trying to decide when and how to reveal himself to the Keepers. He’d worried what Yesulam would say when it learned he’d been subjected to the animal component of Metamor’s curses. Had he become a child, as Father Hough had, there would have been no cause for worry. Had he become a woman, the situation would have been doubly worse. As it was, becoming an animal had proved to be the least of his concerns.

Elvmere chittered angrily at himself, and then covered his muzzle with both paws. Neither acolyte turned to see what had made the noise; they continued on down the hall and disappeared within a large doorway.

He didn’t have time to dwell on old worries. The present had enough to occupy him!

Chief of which, the reason he explored now. Priestess Nylene had set to writing brief notes to several people shortly after they’d finished their meal, and then left to speak with the Lothanas. If she succeeded, Elvmere would soon leave this temple and return to Metamor. Once there, he would come before those who knew him, and he would say things that he knew would surprise them. He couldn’t even imagine the look on Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric’s face when he asked to serve in her temple!

When he’d still been a man, the priestess Meria hin’Dana had shown him the Lothanasi temple in Metamor. At the time, he’d noted everything, thought how heretical it all was, and tried to forget it as soon as they’d left. Now, he savoured the little touches in each of the walls, and the intricate decorations painted on each menhir leading to the main doorway to the temple entrance. He noted the symbols and pictures that were familiar, and catalogued the ones that were not.

The basic temple layout was very different from Metamor’s. But he noted several similarities that made it easy to find his way around. The priests and priestesses all had their quarters on one side of the temple, while the altar sat in the centre, and the acolytes chambers lay on the other side. His nose led him to the kitchen and its attendant storerooms on the lower floor, tucked away where the regular petitioners would not see them. Up above lay access to the roof, where to his surprise he found several open-air prayer stations, each featuring a different crest, one for each member of the pantheon.

But this, the inner temple and altar, this he had set aside for last. It had been so long since he had set foot inside such a temple, and now he consigned himself to its embrace.

Elvmere poked his snout out from behind the statue and stared down the passage. Wide with pillars and a railing across the top – along which he scampered – there would on many days be a steady stream of people through the hall. But not that day, or at least, not that hour. Apart from the two acolytes he’d seen earlier, he saw no one.

Slowly, Elvmere crept along the railing towards the double doors at the far end. They stood open, and he could see that they were wooden with metal inlaid over top. Intricate carvings that undoubtedly told stories of the pantheon’s past covered both faces, though he could make nothing of them from his angle.

Clutching the stonework tight in his claws, Elvmere lowered his head and peered through the top of the doorway. The worship area was large and strangely empty. There were no pews inside, as he’d become used to seeing. The floor stretched out empty, though the few who had come had brought small cushions on which to sit or kneel. At the far end, the altar nestled beneath a tall window through which light streamed. A twin cross surmounted the altar, and its shadow swept out in a circular arc across the floor. Lines had been inscribed into the floor, and he saw that the tip of the shadow fell between two concentric rings. Inscribed between the two rings were various marks, perhaps to tell the acolytes when to pray, and what to pray.

Elvmere marvelled in delight at the ingenuity of the design; not only did the altar bring them together to worship, but it would tell them the time and season too. He vaguely recalled that each of the gods had their feast days in separate months. He had no doubt there were other intricacies to this astrological wonder that he could not divine hanging upside down from the main door’s transom.

He scanned both the entrance hall and the sanctuary, but no one watched the doors. He lowered himself onto the door, and then scrambled down the relief work on the interior face. He hoped that his act of necessity would not be interpreted disrespectfully by the gods. Elvmere felt a flush of irritation that he didn’t even know how to ask their pardon for his unintentional offence; if it were truly an offence. This he would ask Nylene when he returned.

Elvmere was grateful to see the clerestory railing inside the sanctuary. He climbed the wall, and then ducked and wove back and forth through the legs of the statues overlooking the worshippers. When he’d come halfway into the sanctuary, he stopped and sat on his haunches, tail curling around his front.

He stared at the altar and pondered. Apart from the sacrificial basin in its centre, it was little different from those of the Ecclesia. Yet he felt every difference like a subtle bruise in his heart. How could Akabaieth have wanted this for him? And could he with a clear conscience embrace it and make it his faith too?

Elvmere closed his eyes and clutched his paws before him in prayer. No words came to him, nothing at all. A faint hope lingered in his thoughts, one he could not give expression to. No words seemed to fit that hope. He offered it forth anyway, to whatever powers would hear him now. The gods? Indeed, all those who might respond to something so simple as hope.

He lowered his snout and rubbed his paws over his face, feeling suddenly very tired. Elvmere the raccoon cast one last look at the altar before scampering back along the rail towards the main doors.

Despite saving the Duke of Breckaris, they were kept in the castle where they wouldn’t be seen by any but the Duke’s most trusted men. The accommodations were comfortable, and with the return of their weapons, they busied themselves with practice, but the waiting still nagged at them.

Lindsey, James, and Kayla continued their sword-work; Jerome joined them from time to time, at other times he knelt down to meditate and focus his Sondeck. Habakkuk sat in one corner, sheafs of paper arrayed before him and around his long tail trailing behind him. Occasionally he would write something, and he would quickly shuffle those papers anytime anyone came near.

Qan-af-årael and Andares-es-sebashou played some sort of game with ivory pieces. None of the others had seen where the elder Åelf produced them, though apparently he’d brought them from Ava-shavåis. Jessica had asked him the rules, but after ten minutes of explanation, she realized that she’d only heard the very beginning of the rules and politely declined to hear any more. Instead, she turned to pacing and stretching her wings, and occasional intervals when she examined her blackened feathers.

Abafouq busied himself with his things, going over and cleaning his many tools. The Binoq remained eerily quiet as he worked, eyes intent, each motion precise but almost mechanical. He arrayed his climbing equipment first, equipment they had not needed in the last few months. Once satisfied that each was in good working order, he placed them carefully back in his pack and then drew out his spare set of clothes, folded them and refolded them twice. Finally he struck his tinder several times to make sure it worked. He then repeated the entire process, proceeding more lugubriously each time.

The Nauh-kaee watched him with great interest at first, then let his intense eyes wander about the room. Finally, as the day wore on into the afternoon, he lowered his beak into his talons and closed his eyes.

Charles twirled the Sondeshike in his paws, his now fleshy paws, and vacillated between delight and dismay. He knew he should be ecstatic that his flesh had returned. And he had admired the feel of his fur under his fingers, the nip of his claws, the warmth of the air, and the stubbly smoothness of his tail; even the familiar dull ache in his incisors in need of something to chew had excited him – he’d apologize later for the little mess he made on the rug chewing on a twig left by the hearth.

But as the minutes of waiting had drawn into hours, Charles realized that there were many things about being stone he would miss. The grumbling in his stomach reminded him how he hadn’t always needed to eat. The cold stone floor only mostly covered by carpets reminded him of the many new friends he’d met along the way from Metamor. Would he ever be able to speak to stone again, to know it as intimately as he knew his friends?

Guernef had warned him not to think too much like stone. He had to confess, the Nauh-kaee had good reason to do so; Charles had met at least one mountain that had wanted nothing more than to capture him and force Charles to become a mineral deposit! But the smaller stones he’d communed with had all been eager to share his company for a short time. A part of him yearned to continue to speak with them.

Besides, being able to move through stone was a very powerful ability, one he’d rather not have to give up. Charles knew that he could never abandon his flesh, and would never want to, but still his heart bemoaned his loss.

Charles was about to try pushing his toes into the floor, despite the fact that he’d most likely only hurt himself, when the door to the chamber opened and Kurt entered with a scroll case in hand. “I’m sorry you all had to wait here. I hope you haven’t been too bored.”

Andares did not lift his eyes from the game he played. “Some Åelf seers are trained in the art of astronomy, and trace out the journey of the wandering stars by laying in one spot, staying awake, and watching the night sky from the set of sun to its rise. They are only allowed to move one hand, to trace out the path of a single star upon a special slate. This they do every night for ten years, until they have completed their catalogue of the night sky, each night choosing a different star. When they are finished, they then spend another ten years of nights following the stars whose courses turn back on themselves.”

A whimsical smile crossed his lips, and his dark eyes met the human youth. “When they have completed this task, they are allowed to be apprenticed to a master.” Kurt stared at him with jaw dropped in astonishment. The Åelf waved his hand and turned back to the game. It was the first time either he or Qan-af-årael had moved in nearly ten minutes. “So when you ask if we have been bored, for our part no, but I cannot speak for our companions whose sense of scale regarding time is somewhat different from our own.”

Kurt blinked again, and asked, “What happens if they fall asleep?”

“Then they are not fit to watch the stars,” Qan-af-årael replied in level tones. He moved one of the pieces forward a space.

“We haven’t been too bored,” Kayla said, rescuing the boy from his astonishment. “But we’d like to get out of this place. When can we leave?”

“My father is issuing his final orders, and will be here shortly. He does have a ship for you, and it should be ready to depart today. I thought you might like to see the list of provisions my father is giving you.” Kurt held out the scroll case and Kayla took it in one paw. “He may not want you running around Breckaris, but he is not going to let you leave without showing his gratitude.”

Kayla opened the scroll case and unrolled the parchment within. Her eyes widened and her muzzle broke into a wide grin as she read. “Kurt, this is excellent news! Thank you!” She hugged him, and the boy’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Hey, that tickles a little!” he said, laughing as her whiskers brushed his ears. She let go of him, and chagrined, Kurt straightened his uniform like a good soldier.

“So what is it?” Lindsey asked as he sheathed his sword and straightened his axe.

“Two months worth of provisions,” Kayla replied. “Judging by the food and water he’s giving, we won’t need to worry about either for the rest of the year. And he’s supplying cloaks to keep us dry in the rain.” She narrowed her eyes and looked at Kurt. “Does it rain much this time of the year? We’re used to seeing snow soon.”

“Snow?” Kurt shook his head. “We see snow sometimes here in Breckaris, but we do see a lot of rain. Down along the coast it can be very hard in November.”

“Well,” Charles muttered, “I’m definitely glad I’m not stone anymore.” There was nothing worse for stone than a hard driving rain to wear it away.

“Thank you, Kurt. This will aid us in the hour we need it most,” Habakkuk repeated, as did the rest.

The youth smiled to each of them and then turned faintly to one side. “I wanted to check on Tugal again. She asked about you this morning...”

Jessica strode forward and squawked, “We’d be happy to see her. We owe her for her aid. How does she fare?”

Kurt smiled and stepped out the door, the quartet of soldiers behind him backing up in unison. “Come and see for yourself. She is not far away.”

Andares gestured to each of them. “We shall remain behind to wait for his grace. Give unto Tugal our gratitude and undying esteem. Her name will live forever in our tales.”

Kurt stared at the Åelf in awe. “Do your tales last twenty years too?”

Both of them smiled enigmatically, but neither replied.

The rest of them followed Kurt down the hall. As they were in Duke Schanalein’s residential wing, the decorations were less grandiose, and the corridors smaller. The main hall led along the outer castle wall, with narrow windows looking down over the city. Tapestries hung from the ceiling, these obviously family heirlooms, as each seemed to depict a different member of the Schanalein heritage. Between them suits of armour stood, though these were lighter and more easily removed than those the Keepers were familiar with, as fitting a nation with such an extensive sea coast as Pyralis.

The room Kurt brought them to, he explained, belonged to his mother. She had left the city a few weeks prior to reside in the country away from the Marquis’s intrigue and the Duke’s aloofness. Behind the door they found a tastefully apportioned sitting room, featuring several chairs and lounges, small tables with kettles for tea, as well as looms for lady’s needlework. The air of femininity was strong, but none of that held their attention.

Upon one of the lounges lay Tugal, her head resting upon a soft pillow, long hair drawn behind her and braided. Three nuns knelt by her side, two of them praying over her while the third, and elderly woman with a soothing grandmotherly voice read from the Canticles. A warm blanket draped over her, covering the wound.

Tugal’s eyes flicked to them when they entered, and a smile hinted at the edges of her lips. There was recognition in her eyes, and even a bit of warmth. The elder nun stopped her recitation and turned to them. “Ah, your grace, you return with the others.” Her eyes widened as she saw them, but the folds in her wrinkled skin hid most of her surprise. “You have done us all a great favour. His grace, Bishop Hockmann also extends his gracious thanks, though he apologizes that he cannot do so himself. He says there are many offenses he must rectify before the stain of evil has been removed from our land.”

“Mother Superior,” Kurt said respectfully. Both nuns continued to pray over Tugal, but their eyes stole briefly to the Keepers. “I wanted to see Tugal again.”

“Come and see her, your grace,” the elder nun rose stiffly and sat in the nearby chair. She sighed, rubbing crooked hands over her knees.

Kurt and the others slipped inside the room, smiling to the woman who lay unmoving on the bed. Tugal opened her mouth to speak, but no words came. “Don’t try to speak. You need to heal.”

“Let me take a look,” Jessica admonished. “I may be able to do something.”

Kurt stepped aside, and both nuns scooted on their knees to the end of the lounge. Tugal watched her with an intent gaze, one almost as intent as the hawk’s own. “Kayla, Abafouq, can you help me?” The skunk and the Binoq came to her side, all eyes on the injured woman. Jessica pointed at the blanket. “Could you remove that? I need to be able to touch her wound.”

“I am thinking there is not much more you can do,” Abafouq said regretfully. “She suffers from a magical wound. Those are not easy to mend.”

“Still, we must try,” Jessica pointed out. The Binoq nodded, and drew back the blanket. Beneath Tugal had been dressed in soft linen robes. Bandages wound round her middle, and though they were not stained with blood, they held the foul odour of an open sore. Her skin had the smooth sultry quality common to male Keepers who became women, but a great deal had been callused from exposure to the bitter cold of the Barrier mountains.

Jessica poked at the bandage with her wing claws and shook her head. “Can we remove the bandage?”

“We changed it an hour ago,” the Mother Superior said. “Please be gentle.”

Kayla knelt next to her, and with Abafouq’s help, began to unwrap the bindings. Charles and Jerome gingerly lifted Tugal so they could drag the bandages underneath her. As each wrapping came undone, they began to see blackened tendrils cris-crossing her skin. Charles ran one paw over his right eye, feeling where the Shrieker had touched him, and knew that the burns were the same.

“There,” Kayla said, wrapping the bandages around the bracer on her wrist. “Oh my...” she whispered, her long tail fluttering behind her in agitation. Along Tugal’s left side she bore a spider-like burn. The skin had turned black, with paper-thin cracks coursing its breadth. Jessica brushed one of the cracks with her wing claw, and blood began to well at its surface. Tugal stiffened, closing her eyes in agony.

“Forgive me,” Jessica said as softly as she was able. “I must touch the wound if I am to heal it.”

“Let me,” Abafouq offered. Jessica stared down at the little man. “My hands can be gentler than your claws,” he added, favouring her a humourless grin. She nodded, and the Binoq set his palms over the black scar, but his fingers could not even stretch across its length. Jessica set her wings on his shoulders, and let her mind slip free of her earthly senses.

Tugal’s body pulsed with the darkness of Metamor’s curse, as did her own, and that of her friends. In her years of study under Wessex, she had grown accustomed to ignoring it. But the subtle fire that lingered in Tugal’s belly she couldn’t ignore. Her body trembled as she recalled the gouges in Agathe’s face, gouges she had given energy to, driving them back into her mind to kill her. Wessex had cast those spells, and they had stayed with her until she died.

Agathe had cast the spell before her, and though her death had spared Tugal, it would never fully heal, if it healed at all.

Jessica took a step back, spreading her wings wide to steady herself. “Oh... oh forgive me. There is nothing I can do.”

“Nothing?” Kurt asked, shocked.

“The wound bears her touch. I cannot undo that. It will heal or it won’t.”

“Will it heal?” the boy asked, hope fading from his eyes.

“Agathe is dead, so perhaps. Her death freed Charles from stone. But I don’t know; magical wounds are fickle, and not so easily understood.”

In a weak voice, Tugal groaned, “Let me...” Her body shuddered, lips trembling with effort. Everyone turned to watch, and all three nuns neared, hands reaching out to comfort. “Let me... be.”

“You should rest,” Abafouq said, his faint smile kind. “You’ll be regaining your strength better that way.”

“Aye,” Tugal agreed, eyes closed in pain. “But... I... I never said... I was sorry.”

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Kayla assured the woman, paws clasped tight before her. “You saved everyone here in Breckaris, and you saved us too. We owe you, Tugal!”

She shook her head. “I wanted... nothing more in... life than to kill... Keepers.” Tears formed at the edges of her eyes, and her breath came in ragged gasps. “I hated you for so long. I hated...” she tensed as a spasm of pain clutched her. The nuns began to pray softly, and the chant quality of their voices soothed Tugal. A small smile played at the edge of her eyes. “I don’t hate you... anymore. I want... I want...”

“Don’t try to talk,” Kayla suggested. “Let the sisters see to your healing.”

“Nae,” Tugal insisted, pushing herself on the lounge so that she very nearly sat upright. “They will, but ‘tis... ‘tis not what I... I mean. I must... say... say this.” She took a long breath, her chest expanding and contracting with such measured control that even Charles and Jerome marvelled at her composure. “I want to be like you,” Tugal said, the conviction in her voice matched only by the pain it masked. “I want to be a Keeper.”

None of them knew quite what to say. Charles blinked and twitched his whiskers, James folded back his ears and scratched his mane, Jessica and Kayla exchanged confused glances, Lindsey twirled one finger through his braided beard, and even Habakkuk tapped his tail in surprise. It was the Mother Superior who first found her voice, and in her gentle words she brought a smile to Tugal’s face, “I will do what I can, dear daughter, to see that you will be well enough to make so arduous a journey. Nor will you go alone; I have a mind to send several sisters with you.”

“They may not be sisters for long if they do,” Lindsey muttered under his breath.

“Thank you, Reverend Mother,” Tugal said, and then let her eyes close in a ragged but peaceful sleep.

“It will be days yet before she can travel,” the elder nun added, even as the other two began wrapping Tugal in bandages again. “And I must speak with his grace the Bishop before we may accompany her.”

“You would do that for her?” Kurt asked, an inexplicable frown on his lips.

“That and more, my child,” she replied.

“I’m sorry we could do nothing,” Jessica said as she backed away from the lounge. Abafouq and Kayla did as well, their faces betraying their disappointment.

“You came to see her, yes?” the elder nun asked, a grandmotherly laugh hidden behind her words. “That is more than many would do.”

A messenger stepped through the door, and nervously stepped between the donkey and the rat as he made his way into the room. “Your grace?” he asked, and Kurt half-turned to address him. But his eyes still lay upon Tugal, filled with worry. “His grace, your father, requests your presence and that of his guests in his chambers.”

“Thank you, we’ll be there shortly,” Kurt replied. As the messenger departed, again stepping carefully between the Keepers so as not to even risk touching them, Kurt took one last look at the injured woman, before sighing. “That should be your ship. Let’s go.”

Beneath his breath, Charles whispered a quick prayer for Tugal before following Kurt and his friends back into the main hall through the Duke’s wing. The room they were brought to was the same room they had confronted him and the Bishop the night before. The map of the Pyralian Kingdoms covered the table, and standing beside it were the Duke, both Åelf, and another man whom they did not recognize. He was dressed in a white tunic with open cut sleeves, a leather vest with an anchor and a fish sewn into the left breast, and billowing pants with a rapier at his side. A old scar cut through his right ear. He sported a short pointed beard and mustache, peppered much like his coiffured hair.

“Ah, Kurt, thank you,” Duke Schanalein said when he saw them enter. The man next to him blanched when he saw the Keepers, but he quickly regained his composure. “I trust you are all well and ready for your journey?”

Jerome nodded. “Our supplies are packed, or can be in a matter of minutes. Your offer of supplies was most gracious; we are now in your debt!”

“I doubt I shall ever repay the debt of my life,” Friedrich Schanalein replied with a sardonic grin. “This is Johann Tilly, Captain of the Tserclaes, one of the fastest ships in the Pyralian Navy.”

Tilly smiled with the corners of his lips and bowed. “It is an honour to meet any who so valiantly have defended his grace, the most noble Protector of Breckaris.” When he rose, his eyes narrowed as he appraised them in turn. “I will be happy to sail you wherever you need to go, but I fear your appearance shall sow discord within my crew. Sailors can be a superstitious lot, for there are strange marvels to behold upon the seas. The sea is an unforgiving master, one who smites even the bravest of men upon a whim. They will not like to sail with such fantastic passengers as yourselves, forgive me for saying so.”

“They should be alarmed and filled with anxiety,” Andares said, an edge creeping into his voice. “Matters are dire, Captain. They will all suffer far worse than the punishments of an angry squall if we do not succeed. Will you not control your crew?”

Johann Tilly nodded to the Åelf and curled his fingers around the middle of his vest. “I command my crew, not control them. But I will do what I can to keep them from whispering foolishness.”

“We will aid your crew when we can,” Jessica added. “How often have you a man who literally has the eyes of a hawk watching in the nest?”

Tilly turned to her, stared her up and down, and then let out a boisterous laugh. “Aye, my lady, you do speak truly. You will win the crew over ere we reach our destination, of that I am sure.” His face grew sombre and he gestured at the coastline on the map. “His grace informs me that you wish to go to Marzac. You ask me to elude the Whalish blockade?”

“I’m afraid so,” Jerome replied.

Tilly smiled like a boy with a new toy. “Very good. That will more than make up for any worries you may bring the crew! What sailor wouldn’t enjoy an opportunity to embarrass the Whalish Navy!”

Friedrich Schanalein grunted meaningfully. “This is no time for bravado, Captain. This is a very serious matter.”

“And I shall treat it, and my passengers, as such.” Tilly turned his gaze on the Keepers and said, “The supplies his grace has gifted you have already been put on board. We’re having some trouble with your horses though. Once they, and you and whatever other supplies you may have are on board, we may depart.”

Charles shook his head, “You would sail this night?”

Tilly smiled, “My dear... rat, of course I will sail this night. I would sail without the moon or the stars in rocky shoals, and I promise you not a scratch would come to Tserclaes! You may rest assured of that and more, for you sail with Captain Johann Tilly at the helm.”

And as they noticed the confidence that came not only with his words, but every move he made, they felt like they just might believe Tilly’s boasts. Even so, Charles glanced down at his paws to make sure they weren’t stone again. No sense taking chances when it came to that much water.

“Though I see it with my own eyes,” Sir Yacoub Egland admitted as he leaned against one wall with arms crossed and head ducked forward to keep his antlers from scraping against the panelling, “I can scarcely believe what they show me. My sterling companion of many a battle, tilt, and parade is being fitted for a wedding dress!”

The donkey morph who stood with arms outstretched while a teenage boy busied himself with measuring her waist, brayed a faint laugh. “Could you please hold still,” the Duke’s tailor, Tobias Langar chided. The boy tapped his pad of vellum against the palm of his hand while his apprentice grinned. The teenager finally shook his head and moved the measuring tape while Dame Alberta settled herself.

“An interesting turn of events,” the other child in the room, Falkirk Urseil, admitted. Falkirk had been a merchant from Ellcaran trapped at Metamor during the Battle of Three Gates. After becoming a child, he’d brought his entire family to live and continue their trade from Metamor. No merchant could procure finer fabrics than Falkirk Urseil. “Even you have to admit that, Master Tobias.”

The tailor frowned and asked, “Tell me again the measurements about her waist?” The teenage boy repeated what he saw, and Tobias grunted, “At least that hasn’t changed.”

Egland exchanged an amused glance with his friend. Alberta smiled, her long ears leaning back across her spiky mane. “Thou mayest scarcely believe what thee sees, but ‘tis I who must wear the dress and marry the Duke! Methinks I hath the finer part to play.”

“No doubt,” Egland replied. He felt a bit of his midday meal slide up his throat, so added quickly, “Still, it is hard to believe.”

“A year past he hath ne’er seen my face. A year past I wast a man and still human.”

Egland chewed his cud and in between bites said, “I had already changed. It was not an easy time. Alone here without friends, both my legs broken, and in a strange body to boot!”

“Did the curse not heal you?” asked the strange creature who hunched near Falkirk. Egland regarded the merchant’s son, truly noting him for the first time. His face was narrow, bereft of ears, with small eyes, and a russet colour. His hands curled forward, his long digging claws almost larger than the hands themselves. A long tail winded behind him, the end curling back, along which rose a tough scaly hide. He’d never seen anything else like him at Metamor, but he’d already forgotten what he’d said he was. Though small of stature, Egland realized that he could only be a few short years younger than he.

“It did heal me, but it took its time about it,” Egland replied. “I had already been in the valley several days when my legs were crushed.”

His small eyes widened, his voice brimming with sudden delight. “You were the knights who came with the Patriarch! Oh tell me what was he like?”

Egland cast a quick glance at the Duke’s bride, and she nodded. While the tailor’s apprentice continued to recite measurements, Alberta told of Patriarch Akabaieth as if speaking of a dream. “He wast a great man of the Ecclesia. He didst not speak much with either of us, but we wert knights, and not privy to his inner most thoughts. He didst break bread with us many times on our journey from Yesulam; I recall his reverence for Yahshua and His mother, and wish I couldst bear it in my own life. His wast the most inspiring of presences. The world shalt grieve his loss for many years, good Kendrick.”

That was the boy’s name! Egland nodded and added, “Dame Alberta is right, Kendrick. Patriarch Akabaieth was the greatest leader of our faith we could have had. Many times I wish I could have given my life in his defence, but that is not what Eli had planned for me.”

Kendrick made the sign of the yew with a precision surprising given his huge claws. “I heard that you were trying to start a capitular order here at Metamor.”

The boy’s father gave him an arched stare, but Kendrick didn’t seem to notice. Not that Egland would have been likely to consider him for even a squire. Despite his prodigious claws, his body was not shaped for combat. “Aye, I would like to. But our faith is not so prosperous here yet that we can find enough knights to join.”

“Well,” Kendrick added, giving his father a quick glance, “if you do, consider the Urseil family when it comes time to fashion your tabards. We have many cloths that will allow your flesh to breathe but will not tear at the first prick of a branch.” Falkirk nodded approvingly, before busying himself with the many sample cloths that they’d brought with them to Egland’s house.

Alberta smiled to him, and all Egland could do, so surprised had he been by the suggestion, was nod his head and scratch his antlers against the wall. He took a step from the wall and glared at the gouge he’d made in the wooden panelling. Alberta laughed politely.

Turning back to the odd thing that was Kendrick, he did his best to smile. “We’d be happy to use your fine cloths for our tabards. Now find us some more knights and we’d be even happier.”

“I don’t think I can help you there, Sir Egland,” Kendrick admitted, his paws rubbing over one another so deftly that his claws never touched.

“Well,” Tobias announced in a loud voice that threatened to jump an octave or two, “we have all of our measurements. Perhaps you can decide on what fabric to use so I can begin?”

Alberta nodded, stepping daintily on the threadbare carpet to the table at which Falkirk had arrayed his wares. She did not bother donning any of her clothes either, a fact that made Egland twitch in embarrassment. What would their liege Duke Thomas say when he learned that his bride had been thoroughly inspected by no less than half a dozen men prior to his wedding night?

A brief flash of memory reminded him how exactly these two had courted, and he knew that Duke Thomas would not be concerned at all. Alberta had already seen everything he had to offer as a man, and probably had already touched it and cleaned it as a master to a beast. There love was more intimate than the mere confines of flesh.

Egland watched as Falkirk and Kendrick held out bits of various different fabrics for Alberta’s inspection. She dismissed a few as too chaffing on her body, but others she found pleasing and those they saved. But the elk could not focus on the fabrics, the merchants, the tailor, or even on Alberta’s equine body.

Just thinking about the love Alberta shared with the Duke reminded him of his squire, Intoran. Intimate yes, they had intimacy, but there in it lay the sure knowledge that their love could only ever be for a time. One day Intoran would be a knight as well, a knight with his own squire. They would have their separate lives again, and while they would always be close, their love could never be the same.

Nor could it ever be the same as that which Alberta and Duke Thomas shared. He idly wondered if his backwardness was the curse he’d once thought it.

“Yes, that’s a very fine selection,” Falkirk said at long last. Alberta smiled warmly, and wrapped the short bit of cloth over her chest. “Ah, it is soft and so warm too! This will be perfect.”

“Master Tobias,” Falkirk said, “tell me how much you need, and my son will see it delivered to your shop.”

The two age regressed men talked of their trade, while Alberta rushed to Egland’s side, a look of girlish delight in her features. “Is this not wonderful! Master Tobias shalt make my wedding gown from this!” She held up the white section of cloth. Egland brushed his fingers across it, and found the surface smooth with an easy give. It reflected the light in a continuous sheen, so tightly wound were the threads.

“That does seem very elegant.”

Alberta hooked one arm under his and leaned in close, her thick lips nearly teasing his shoulder. “And I have a favour to ask thee, dear Ts’amut. ‘Tis tradition for the bride’s father to see her down the aisle. I hath no father to see me off, and so I ask thee. Wilt thee see me down the aisle to my husband?”

Egland blinked in sudden surprise. He would give her away? His heart beat faster and he nodded. “Of course, my Yisaada, I will give you to your husband. In a way, I have been giving you away since we arrived at Metamor.”

Her smile faded, but it still lurked in her eyes. “Aye, but we shalt ever be knightly companions. Do not think that married life will take me from the saddle! Perish the evil thought!”

He couldn’t help himself; he laughed warmly and hugged her tight. “Ah, thank you for that, my Yisaada. You will make him very happy, I know.” He would give up more than a bride. In his mind he saw the man whom Alberta had once been. He could almost imagine him waving goodbye.

“Then you too will need to be dressed as fine as can be. Come, take off thy clothes, and allow Master Tobias to take thy measurements!” Alberta tugged on his arm.

“But I have clothes!” Egland protested. “I cannot afford his prices.”

“My husband hath promised to spare no expense, and neither shalt we. Come, I dost insist that my Ts’amut shouldst look his finest at my wedding!” The merchant and tailor gave each other appraising looks and then chuckled to themselves. Although Tobias ceased when he realized he’d have yet another garment to fashion in six week’s time.

“Very well! I shall indulge you, my Yisaada!” Egland conceded. While Albeta watched with delight, the elk proceeded to remove his clothes. He suddenly hoped that Intoran did not return too quickly from his daily chores.

To the east, the jagged spires of the Vysehrad pierced into the sombre gold of an Autumn twilight. But in every other direction, the gentle roll of the Steppe stretched beyond the reach of their eyes. Snow topped several mountaintops and had ever since they’d journeyed far enough east to see them. But now for the first time the Magyars felt the cool air of coming Winter in each touch of the steady breeze.

Nemgas hunched forward in the carriage seat as the tired horses hauled them northwards a league or so from the hilly base of the mountains. He pulled his brightly-coloured tunic tight around his chest, but the insistent wind teased his cheeks and neck, promising worse in the months to come. The fingers of his left hand flexed around the reins, calluses rubbing against worn leather. Amile had already cleverly removed the golden thread that had once decorated it and marked it as belonging to the Ecclesia.

In fact, the entire carriage had been stripped of the many symbols of the Ecclesia after they’d left Yesulam. It had once belonged to the now dead Bishop Jothay, the very Bishop who had sent the Driheli to kill them.

Nemgas well remembered the day they learned the Driheli were chasing them. They’d reached Barchumba on their way south, the great defile that afforded them entry to the upper reaches of the Vysehrad. They ambushed a scouting party of two knights and their squires, one of whom would later become a Magyar and take the name Grastalko. Into the Vysehrad they’d fled, all the way to the lost city Hanlo o Bavol-engro, known as Carethedor to its builders. There, in the centre of the city, they found the grave of Pelain of the Suielman Empire; and he learned that Pelain had once climbed the terrible Cenziga, for he had also been cleft in twain, like Nemgas and Kashin.

He looked down at the stump of his right arm, and beyond to the jewelled blade sheathed at his side. Somehow the power of Cenziga had protected him against Jothay and that terrible Sword of Yajakali, though he still didn’t understand how. But it had not protected, nor had it saved his boy, Pelurji. Pelurji had been struck by the bones of the undead dragon when it had died, and he had never woken since. Was he awake now, somewhere far away with the other Magyars in their wagons, wondering where his new father had gone?

Nemgas sighed and stared at the horizon stretching far away into the distance. Scrub and long grasses bent under the wind’s hand, lone trees rising up in protest, short and squat, their empty branches shaking angrily at the darkening sky. They had passed Barchumba only a week past. Soon they would near the city of Pelurji’s birth, Cheskych. Of all the settlements nestled at the Vysehrad’s feet, Cheskych was the only one that could truly be called a city. Tall cliffs rose up on either side, and from those cliffs Pelain had mounted tall mirrors to bring sunlight no matter the hour of the day. A small waterfall just south of the city formed the river that supplied the city’s water, and around it sprang a modest forest and arable fields to provide them lumber and food.

But it was more than the birth place of Pelurji his son. Pelaeth, Pelurji’s elder brother lived there still. Both of them had yearned to be named after Pelain, and only after meeting their true father, had Nemgas come to realize that naming them so had not been merely the work of convenience; they were Pelain’s descendants and heirs. Nemgas possessed both sets of Pelain’s armour, and both copies of his great sword Caur-Merripen. One set of these rightfully belonged to Pelaeth.

Behind him, the door to the carriage opened and Gamran slid out and deposited himself on the bench next to Nemgas. The little thief did not smile, though as always he worked his juggling balls in one hand. Eager eyes met Nemgas, and then stared at the land around them. He pulled his arms closer to his chest. “‘Tis chillier than I didst expect! Where did the warmth go?”

“‘Tis no colder than any autumn day upon the Steppe,” Nemgas replied. “We lingered too long ‘neath Yesulam’s sun. ‘Tis a far warmer land than any Magyar hath need of.”

Gamran shrugged and turned the balls around his fingers. “Nae, but ‘twould feel delightful upon my skin!”

“‘Twould indeed!” Nemgas smiled faintly. It hurt to do so.

The little thief leaned back and nodded to the darkening sky. “Thou hast brought us far this day, Nemgas. Didst thee intend to let the horses take their rest, or wast thy plan to see us all the way to the enchanted wood ere we stop?”

“Nae,” Nemgas admitted. He straightened and examined the land before them. Thirty yards ahead he saw a promising hillock and nodded towards it. “That shouldst protect us from the wind. What thinks thee?”

Gamran tossed one of his balls in the air and it landed squarely on his flop hat. “I shalt start on the fire!”

Only half an hour later, a meagre stew bubbled over the fire as the Magyars huddled beneath the hill’s lee. Amile and Pelgan hunched over the stew pot taking turns stirring. Chamag leaned against the hill sharpening his axe. Kaspel sat on top of the wagon watching the horizon, his bow laying in his legs. Gamran continued to juggle his balls, but now he tended the horses with Gelel, both following them as they grazed. Nemgas stared at the mountains, rubbing absently at his stump.

“What sayeth ye?” Chamag asked as he ran the whetstone across the axe blade. The metal gave a shrill cry at each stroke. “We hath another month ere we see the others?”

Everyone’s eyes turned to Nemgas. Though each of them were just as familiar with the Steppe, it was to Nemgas that they all looked for answers. He drummed his knuckles in the stubby grass and shook his head. “Cheskych lies yet to the North. ‘Twill be six wees to reach Vysehrad’s tip, and for that we must traverse the enchanted wood.”

“Couldst they hath come that way already?” Gelel asked, hands making signs to ward off evil. “Couldst they be coming south towards us now?”

“Aye,” Nemgas replied. “We couldst see them soon. But I dost not believe we shalt see them for a few weeks more.”

Gelel’s face fell, which these days did not take much. Not a one of them didn’t feel the emptiness brought on by Berkon’s death. Nemgas cast a quick glance at Kaspel, but the archer and Berkon’s closest friend wasn’t paying attention. He kept his eyes to the south, staring with a focus that befit the watchman.

“We wilt need to steal more supplies to last that long,” Amile pointed out. She gestured at the brimming stew, while Pelgan retrieved their small bowls. The stew would not be much, but it would take the edge off their hunger. Their stomachs had not ceased complaining since they left the Holy Land. “Cheskych hath vast stores, and we shouldst be able to take many things there.”

Nemgas shook his head. “Nae, we shalt steal nothing from Cheskych.”

Gamran dropped his balls. “What? Why not? We hath greater need than they! Besides, we stole nothing when we sojourned there last.”

Chamag grunted and set his axe and whetstone aside, “They didst pay us fair recompense for our performances last time. We didst not need to steal.”

“‘Tis a poor excuse!” Gamran declared.

“We shalt not steal this time,” Nemgas announced, standing and stretching out his stump, “because I wish to enter the city myself.”

“Why?” Pelgan asked as he gave Amile the bowls. She began to spoon out a small portion of the stew in each. All the Magyars apart from Kaspel came to get theirs.

Nemgas waited for the others to have their food first. “I wish to speak to Pelaeth, and to give him one of the swords.”

“Give him? But he art not a Magyar!” Pelgan objected.

“Nae, but he be a descendent of Pelain, and I wouldst err if I should keep it.” Nemgas saw the hurt looks in their faces, and shook his head. “I wilt see while I am there if I can procure some food, but I wilt not steal from them. Nor am I asking thy permission to see Pelaeth. I must do this.”

Amile tapped the ladle on the side of the pot and stared at him. Her eyes appraised him, sympathetic and soft. “Because of Pelurji?”

“Aye,” Nemgas sighed and did his best to smile. “We hath a few days yet, but I wanted thee to know. I must return to Cheskych.”

“Why not,” Chamag grunted. “Thou hast not led us astray thus far. Kaspel?” He handed a bowl of stew to the archer, but Kaspel did not turn, so intent was his gaze. Chamag frowned and knocked his knee with the bowl. “Kaspel! Thy stew!”

Kaspel snapped around, his face pale. “Ah! Thank thee!” Kaspel took it and began to eat rapaciously. Nemgas stared at the southern horizon, curious what the archer had seen, other than the gentle hills, he glimpsed nothing at all. Nevertheless, he and the others hunkered closer to the fire to ward off a sudden chill wind.

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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