Book 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
“Yes, she is in, master. Would you like me to summon her?” the acolyte said when Murikeer approached her asking about the Lightbringer Raven, the gray wolf morph cursed leader of the Lothanasi faith in Metamor Keep and much of the Duke’s overall demesne.
“Please, mistress.” Murikeer found a seat at one of the pews and relaxed for a short time while the acolyte went into the back of the temple. In her all-encompassing white robes she seemed to float like a ghost until out of sight. The skunk allowed his eyes to wander briefly, noting a vaguely familiar hawk perched in prayer in a pew closer to the altar. Before he could remember the avian’s name, the acolyte returned a short time later and advised Murikeer that Raven would receive him in her offices through the audience door behind the altar. With a nod of thanks Murikeer crossed to the indicated door and stepped through.
The impressive lupine figure of the Lothanasi Raven hin’Elric was seated behind a broad desk in much better repair than the one in the infirmary. Its dark oaken surface gleamed with many years of attentive polishing under the careful stacks of parchments, ink-pots, maps, and liturgical treatises. She set aside her work of the moment and stood as Murikeer entered.
“Hello again, master Murikeer. It is nice to see you in much better health.” She smiled but only wanly lest the full measure of her lupine smile be overbearing. Something that many animal morphed keepers had to learn, especially predatory ones, was how much the expressions on their muzzles might be taken by those they addressed. Murikeer smiled warmly in return. He had never attended the Lightbringer services despite being a follower of the Pantheon himself, specifically of Artela. Other than observing the naval interment of the Patriarch Akabaieth the previous year, to commit it to illusion for those unable to make the journey, he had not had the need or opportunity to find himself in her company.
In fact, the last time he had been seen by Raven he’d been little more than a charred wreck barely clinging to life after his final battle with the mage Thorne. Once his own student, Thorne was the caster of the bolt that had been intended for him but had blasted the first statue of Ovid I to shards and killed Llyn. There had been only a thin thread of hope to bring the skunk back from the brink of oblivion and it had taken the combined efforts of many; Raven herself and the other Lothanasi healers, the Bishop Vinsah, Coe, and any number of others who cared for him during the period of his coma and the lengthy recovery that followed.
Murikeer bowed as he reached the desk, “I’ve you, and so many others, to thank for my life, Lightbringer. It’s a debt that has no equal.” He set his satchel into one of the chairs.
Raven waved a dismissive hand, “It’s not a debt, it’s a charge to do likewise, young Murikeer. And call me Raven. I am just pleased to see you returned to yourself.”
Murikeer raised a hand to touch his left cheek with a fingertip, “Save for the last parting gift of the vanquished, anyway. Are you familiar with the refugees that have been arriving during the last few months?”
“The wretched survivors of Bradanes? Yes. They were done a truly vile turn. One of them asked about you a few months ago, a young lady that had not yet undergone Metamor’s touch, swathed in veils and rags to hide what the dark magics had done to her. For a time I feared you had been the cause, but through her inquiries I came to understand you were more a saviour.” She tilted her head and motioned for him to sit in one of the chairs.
“I encountered her during my travels and told her that Metamor might offer some manner of healing, if they were willing to accept its touch.” He shrugged a little and shook his head at the offered seat. “I came here looking for someone, Raven. Two someone’s truly, but I cannot tarry overlong as there are others I would like to speak with before too long.” After a pause he smiled and chuckled while his ears and whiskers backed in some slight degree of self consciousness, “And I’ve also to meet that veil-concealed young lady this evening.”
Raven raised one eyebrow archly and pinned both tall alert lupine ears forward, “Oh? She has been here some months now, how was she touched owing that she is still female?” She smiled at Murikeer’s evident discomforture and leaned one hip against the end of the desk, arms crossed over the velvet robes covering her chest.
“She became a skunk, like me, but entirely white.”
Raven added her other eyebrow to the first in upraised surprise, “With green eyes. Many have spoken of her.” The wolf’s lush tail waved slowly behind her as her smile broadened. “Favourably, on many different levels. So, I won’t keep you. Who is it you seek here?”
Raven’s ears backed for a moment but did not flatten, eyebrows drawing down as she regarded him carefully for a moment. “Your master, I take it? He did not elucidate upon your relationship after Nasoj’s attack was thrown back, but attended your recovery more often than someone of mere passing acquaintance. As did the Nocturna follower, Malger Sutt.”
“I was his pupil, after a fashion. He helped me raise to Master rank as a mage. As for Malger, he was there for other reasons, but he had been Llyn Wanderer’s lover before I came along. He was one of my companions on my travels, and is now Archduke of western Pyralia or some such title.”
Raven’s lips pursed for a few seconds before she shifted away from the desk and crossed toward the door. Murikeer picked up his satchel and followed. “I knew of his family name, but he asked that I keep the exactitude of his noble birth unspoken. Rickkter is in one of the recovery cells off the main temple where he can be kept closest to the altars, and the touch of the Gods.”
“What is his ailment?”
“His spirit has been stripped away.” Raven replied flatly. Murikeer staggered in stride and nearly collided with one of the candle plinths before recovering his balance.
“He joined battle with someone heavily tainted by the evil of Marzac supplemented by the Censer of Yajikali. They ripped his soul out of him and imprisoned it in a magical focus; in this instance a card from a cursed deck.” Drawing aside the curtain between two altars revealed an unmarked but well tended door behind which she pushed open. Behind her Murikeer followed timidly, still stunned by the harsh news.
“One of the magical items used against the Åelves by The Nine? I thought they were but legend.”
Raven growled a low chuff, “Hardly legend, one of them is still here within our own walls, the Censer.” She waved a hand toward the single long bed, more a bier, that dominated the centre of the room with enough space on all sides for his caretakers to move. Rickkter was laid out, currently turned onto his side to prevent bed sores from developing, as if freshly deceased. There was no muscularity to his lying, like a lazy cat sprawled in the summer sun, arms tucked neatly to his chest.
Murikeer had never seen him look so healthy due to the continual care his comatose body received. Washed, groomed, and tended around the clock by Raven’s army of apprentices and acolytes he looked to be at the height of bodily health. Murikeer passed Raven to approach the bed and circle around to Rickkter’s head. “The Censer did this?” He crouched and looked Rickkter over slowly as he set his satchel aside.
Raven shook her head slowly as she watched Murikeer. “No, the person who did it came through the Censer, summoned from some other location. I was not present for that battle, but the result was very similar to the affects done by the sword that had Llyn in its thrall until you destroyed it.”
“Destroying the Censer will not release him, then.” Murikeer observed, reaching forward to take Rickkter’s head in his hand. Closing his eyes briefly to marshal his concentration and push back the lingering ache of Coe’s ministrations and prepare for the pain to come he took a slow steadying breath. When he opened his eye the brilliant background glow of Metamor, and the resident divine energies of the Temple, slammed into his left temple with the force of a blacksmith’s sledge. He quickly delved past the surface magics and wove his way into the focussed energies of Rickkter’s manifestation of the curse, his life energies, and the startling number of personal persistent spells he had put upon himself over his many years. None of the latter proved to be dangerous and he continued to slip beyond their intricate webs. With each passing second the throbbing, crushing pain hammering at his left temple continued to grow but he pushed that, too, aside.
Frustration built within him as he worked his way further and further into the webwork of personal spells, the hopelessly tangled wreckage that was the curse, following the subtle structures of life magic, those intrinsic paths of unused energies that bled into the world continually unless purposely withheld. But no matter how deeply he settled into the tenebrous veil between individual life energies and the energies of the world itself he could find nothing deeper; no threads to follow toward whatever prison held Rickkter’s soul, nor even any indication that the slightest shred of his soul continued to exist within the shell of his body.
But there was something left behind that was no mere spell, something vast and dark residing past the spells, the curse, the intrinsic bodily magic of life itself. Murikeer paused upon sensing that vast dark entity that defied identity or understanding; a presence so vast and filled with such cold, incalculable dread Murikeer was sent fleeing before its regard came upon him.
For it would snuff him as surely as a hurricane wind might a candle that caught its attention.
With a growl he cast himself out, clutching his eyes tightly shut while he bowed his head and rested his elbows against the head of the bed. The pain refused to fade with his severance from the magic that caused it but that was, as always, the expected result of delving into any practice of power. He panted heavily as he recovered and pushed the pain back. Raven laid a hand upon his shoulder and he could hear her muttered prayers, as well as the slow warmth of a magic completely alien to anything he could ever grasp, flowing into him. The pain was forced into abeyance, pushed out of his skull by the brute force of the Lightbringer’s healing touch, but it refused to leave the ruin of his eye socket.
“There was nothing there to find?” she asked gently, already knowing the answer.
Murikeer peered at the gray wolf for several long seconds, his good eye shifting focus from one of her golden lupine irises to the other, wondering why she did not warn him of that… dark immensity residing deep within the hidden corners of Rickkter’s mortal essence, an entity that was decidedly not his soul. After several long seconds during which he marshaled his swift breathing he shook his head. “Not a shred,” he lied, “nor even the slightest hint of what magic was used.” He sighed and levered himself to his paws with the strong she-wolf’s aid. “Thank you… where can I look at this Censer?”
“You can’t. Kyia sealed the belfry and no one, not even the Duke himself, has convinced her to let anyone near it.”
Murikeer retrieved his satchel and gave the somnolent form of the Rickkter-less raccoon upon the living bier of his coma, frowning at his inability to do more for his often irascible friend than frustrate himself. “Wise, it keeps unskilled hacks like me away from it.” Raven chuffed at his self deprecatory comment and shook her head.
“He is in as good hands as could possibly be found considering his condition, in all the world. It is for us to do what we can, and wait.”
“And wait.” Murikeer picked up his satchel and followed Raven toward the door. “And hope.”
The wolf nodded and closed the door softly behind them despite the fact that had she slammed it the sleeper within would not have wakened. “Aye, indeed, and hope.” She lowered the tapestry, concealing the wooden portal from idle eyes. “What of this second you seek?”
Murikeer sighed, fearing the news he would hear. “Matthias, or his statue at least. His wife is a pupil of mine, and I feel that I should be the one to tell her the truth of her husband.”
Raven’s countenance twisted in confusion, ears back, tail lowered. “His statue? But the rat Charles has journeyed far to the south with many others this last Dedication’s Eve.”
Murikeer stopped in surprise. Raven continued an extra pace before noting that she was no longer being followed. The skunk took a short breath and said, “I was told that Charles had been turned to stone.”
“Yes, he was. But it did not kill him. A Binoq stone mage gave him the ability to move and to speak, but he could not restore him to flesh.”
“A Binoq? How many legends have come to life here at Metamor in my absence?”
“More than anyone should ever wish,” Raven replied sombrely. “Charles submitted to the aid of the Pantheon and is now bound to destroy Marzac by both Akkala and Velena. Should he succeed he will be flesh again.”
Murikeer took another breath, wrapping his mind about this new information, and then resumed following the priestess from the main temple. “Thank you, Lothanasa. It seems I will have quite a story for my aunts. But why wasn’t Lady Kimberly told the truth about her husband?”
“For the same reason you came asking, to prevent confusing her and to prevent hurting her. She has enough of a burden.” Raven lowered her eyes as she returned to her office. “You know what has happened to her boy?”
Murikeer nodded. “She told me also that you arrived too late.”
“Even had I not, I do not believe I could have saved the child,” Raven said, her voice subdued. “Be sure to tell whoever has told you that Charles was turned to stone what really happened ere Kimberly hears of it and suffers fresh grief.”
“I return to the Glen tomorrow. They will know.”
Raven smiled without much warmth. “Thank you, Murikeer. Do not fret for your friends. In time they will return to us.”
“Aye,” Murikeer said softly. That was the only hope any of them could cling to. With a nod of his head, he bade Raven well and left the temple on his next errand.
The sun had been only a few narrow degrees above the dawning horizon when first sight had been made and it was now a similar span of degrees above the west and they had never lost sight of their pursuit. Throughout the long day Phil’s fleet straggled ahead of the enemy in a careful mass of uncoordinated seeming ships sticking together only by a similarity of possible speed. It was all a careful sham, but Phil felt that even had they held to the rigid structure of an established formation the enemy would have been equally as dogged.
The rag-tag conglomeration of Marzac-influenced ships spread out behind them in a long ragged line with the fastest oar driven vessels barely competent to manage any rough waters at the fore, heavier dromus and dromonai behind them escorting the ponderous Pyralian flagship that nonetheless managed to keep pace, and at the rear the far slower sailing vessels. Nearest were a dozen small, fast moving drom that had managed to close within less than a quarter league.
“It feels like we’re hauling the whole damned armada along behind us on tow lines.” Aramaes groaned upon emerging from the cabin below the aft castle he shared with the four journeyman mages that made up his pentette. He joined Phil and Ptomamus at the slate table on the aft deck for a mug of watery ale and kebabs of salted fish warmed by the ship’s cook over an open brazier on the gangway of the main deck.
“Have they used magic to do just that?” The captain asked while Phil nibbled a stalk of watercress.
Aramaes shook his head, “Not that I can delve, but they’re getting a damn good bit of magic from somewhere. The sea would be a turmoil if we tried to push that many boats using ambient magic.”
“Marzac.” Phil intoned with a frown.
“My guess, but they are not using it to slow us. Probably too much work just keeping up.” Aramaes swept an arm toward their aft, “They’ve knotted up a tight weather push to keep their sturak and galleass within their group, but they cannot sustain that indefinitely.”
“They’ve fewer mages, for a start.” Phil pointed out, “Pyralian ships disdain mages, pirates and merchants can’t afford them, leaving our own Whalish brethren and any the Sathmoran ships put on crew to manage that fleet.” He carefully picked up his shallow mazer between his handpaws and took a slow sip of watered ale. After a fortnight on the sea ale was almost the last of their beverage, plus whatever fresh water the mages could produce.
“That is to our advantage, then.” Ptomamus smiled grimly as he cast a glance over his shoulder, past the steersman, to the drom skirmishers still close behind them. The light, narrow boats had put considerable distance between themselves and their armada to creep ever closer toward the retreating Whalish group. “Those rakers have left themselves dangerously exposed. If we invert our flying wedge we’ll surround and crush them before even the fastest of their support can close.”
Phil shook his head, “Each ship damaged in that skirmish would be one less ship to lend its strength to the final engagement. If they close within projector range we’ll light a few, but we should let our archers wither their decks clean and not waste ourselves needlessly.”
Ptomamus nodded, “They act heedlessly in closing without support, that worries me.”
“After the carefully staged attack on Whales, I am inclined to agree, captain.” Phil set aside his food feeling very weak of appetite. “We should slow, else it will be after dark when they are close enough to trade blows.”
“Aramaes, inform the other crews to slow that we might rake these fleas off our back.” The captain stood and set aside the white lace handkerchief after dabbing the corners of his mouth. “Archers make ready!”
“Archers make ready!” Echoed the officer of the deck somewhere out of sight below. Aramaes bent forward over his knees, head bowed for a few moments while he muttered arcane babble once again. Ahead of them the loosely grouped Whalish dromon began a slow tightening inward course while the Burning Spear continued to drop back behind the overall group. Behind them the pursuing light skirmish ships continued to close. Phil wanted himself to be seen, a gleamingly white rabbit standing four feet tall in Whalish regalia aboard a Whalish fire ship would be near impossible to miss, a target that the enemy would be willing to risk careless assaults to vanquish or capture.
Aramaes walked to the aft rail. “We can sink those fleas, captain.” He announced confidently.
Ptomamus shook his head emphatically, “You mages just keep us moving, Ara. Let the fighting men deal with the fighting, we will scratch these parasites from our coats. Have you far-talked with the other fleets since the morning?”
Aramaes looked crestfallen at being banished from the eminent skirmish. “Aye, sir. Stohshal is withdrawing the Wind Runners from the turn and are making for Whales. Pythoreaus is bringing his group around from the north, dividing his slower galleass contingent to join the Runners while his drom will attempt to rendezvous with us late tomorrow.” He ran a hand over his sweaty scalp, “If we can maintain this pace.”
“We must.” Phil announced, “What will that give us in strength?”
“On oar, twenty-three but only seven with fire to their possible seventeen. If we bring them into our trap and reinforce with the Runners we’ll have thirty five.”
“Plus the dragons.” Phil pointed out.
Ptomamus raised an eyebrow slightly, “If we can count on their support your highness.” He did not sound convinced. “My worry is about those missing boats.”
“Which ones?” Phil glanced at the sprawling fleet arrayed out behind them without any apparent order beyond the Pyralian flagship and its immediate escorts.
“Ours. There are only nine in that damn mob, and only three of those are equipped with projectors. Twelve fire boats struck us in port.” Ptomamus ticked off each point on his fingertips. “At last count seventeen fire ships were unaccounted for, and twenty others as well.
“Added to what they’ve taken from Pyralia and the other kingdoms makes for a truly frightening naval force to consider, fire or no.”
“And what’s more,” Aramaes interrupted with a frown, “The maeril seem to have gotten involved.” He muttered.
Phil groaned inwardly at the new angle upon too many already. “How so?”
“Pythoreaus’ group encountered a damaged merchant sturak attempting to make for Whales with her keel broken and severe hull damage because they were, apparently, rammed by a whale. After the ramming a dozen maeril attempted to board but were slain.” The mage looked from Phil to the captain and back with a helpless shrug. “The maeril are generally benign, they have little comport with man and are hardly dangerous out of water. What might drive them to attempt such a boarding I hazard to imagine, but I can guess.”
Phil nodded. “Marzac, again and always it is Marzac. If the dark taint of that place has turned the maeril within its reach then it is far, far more pervasive than we ever imagined.” His ears backed and dropped flat. “And that leaves us fearing a whole new direction from which to expect an attack.”
“We can withstand maeril, highness, they are awkward at best out of water.” Ptomamus paced to the aft rail and stood beside Aramaes to watch the ships swiftly overtaking them. Their own ships had drawn into a loose running line moving just a slight degree slower to let the enemy ships close. The Burning Spear’s shadow joined those of their companion ships stretching across the water as the sun neared the western horizon. As he watched the dozen ships that had been harrying their wake for the duration of the day raised their oars from the water and slowed swiftly. “What is this?”
Phil hopped to the aft rail and leaned his hand-paws upon it to stare at the skirmish drom falling further aft with each passing stroke of the Spear’s oars. “They’re withdrawing? Why now?”
“They may be falling back to await nightfall to fully close.” Ptomamus pondered aloud while his hands clutched at the rail. “Ara, can you give our night watch any better sight?”
The bald mage shook his head. The enemy skirmishers began to dip oars once again but it was only to turn and make their way back toward their own formation. “That worries me.”
“Aye,” Phil grunted, “Why withdraw your knife unless you’ve a mace ready to drop.” He looked around warily. “Aramaes, I’ve a request. Ask the captains of the other vessels to put someone wearing white upon their aft decks once the sun goes down.”
Phil nodded. “Aye, white. Preferably someone small.”
Aramaes smiled at the thought and nodded. “I will inform them, your highness. A good decoy.”
Anya Dupré brushed her red hair back over her ears as she walked unmolested through the ranks of Mallow Horn soldiers. The evening was far spent and most retired to whatever patch of dirt on which they could find some sleep. A few were lucky enough to have a tent to crawl into, but these were so low and cramped as to seem not much better. The siege towers stood like hulking giants whose shoulders pressed into the night sky. Had she any whimsy left, she would have imagined the ramparts dislodging stars as they passed overhead, but she wasn’t into the mood for such trivial fancies.
She’d never seen her father so helplessly angry as he’d been that night. There were days when he’d raged for hours about recalcitrant nobles or scheming magistrates that balked his plans. When mother died after bearing her younger brother Tyrion, her father had put all of his hopes on her and Jaime. Tyrion was always loved just as they were, but there had always been an understanding that he would not ascend the throne of Kelewair.
So when he’d entered the Ecclesia his father uttered not a word of protest. Jaime was to marry Duke Otakar of Salinon’s niece, while Anya had been wed to an influential noble in the centre of the Southern Midlands. She’d known William Dupré from the court for several years before her father announced their engagement. All arranged of course, but Anya had always known that was how it would be.
William Dupré had always been a warrior. He’d celebrated the morning after their wedding night with a good, long brawl in the mud with his soldiers. They’d looked like nothing so much as a bunch of pigs wallowing in their sty. She hadn’t been impressed by it, but she quietly tolerated it and his other shows of bravado.
They weren’t married a year when she became heavy with child. Their first, Jory, had changed William. He’d become softer around her and the child, doing his best to be fatherly and dignified. Gone were the brawls and the mud, though he still fought fiercely with the sword. By the time their second child was born, little Nadia, she knew she loved her husband.
Never before had she doubted that love. Not until she’d seen him in her father’s tent vacillating from cold maliciousness to violent rage. And the words he’d spoken, the total lack of remorse, all of it shocked her to her very core. Surely she must be able to say something to her husband to bring him back from this madness.
William Dupré’s tent was larger than the rest near it. His captains would all be set near him to keep him abreast of the troops. His tent sat back behind the lines with the cavalry further back to keep from being outflanked. She could see in the torchlight the ram’s head silhouette on all the banners.
The guards recognized her and held back the tent flap to let her in. The battlefield had been cold with the final grasp of autumn deadening the air. But this tent was warmed by a small fire set in a copper bowl in the centre. William stood behind a table festooned with maps. Captain Becket was with him. The young captain was every bit as martial as his lord but had always looked up to him as more than just a noble. Anya was never sure if it was good to have such a man in so important a position. Just when she was certain it had been a mistake to promote him, Becket proved himself worthy.
Now she hoped he understood enough to know that William was wrong.
“So did your father send you to correct me?” William asked as she entered. He did not look up from his table. Becket did, noted her with guilty eyes as he assisted his lord in moving little figures across the map.
“He may be my father, but you’re my husband, William.” Anya stepped closer, skirting the copper firepit, and reaching the table to stare at her husband’s dark hair. He bent over the table, his broad shoulders hunched as he moved little figures of knights, pikemen, longbowmen, and siege engines through rolling hills towards castle walls perched near the sea. “And I am your wife. And I cannot believe the things you’ve done.”
William straightened and turned to Becket. “You’d best retire for the night, Captain. I don’t think you should be here for this.”
Becket nodded and swiftly made his way toward the entrance. He gave Anya an apologetic look as he passed.
“So, my beloved wife,” William said, an air of irritation clear in his voice, “you’ve come to convince me to apologize on bended knee before your father. I don’t know what he’s convinced you I’m guilty of, but he should never have taken you from Mallow Horn.”
“He didn’t need to convince me,” Anya replied, silently furious at her husband’s arrogant manner. “You didn’t tell me what you were doing. I have been a bird in a cage for you these last months, pretty and a delight in your bed, but you have not taken me into your confidence.”
William waved one hand. “You didn’t need to know all of the details of my plan. Not even Becket knew all the details. Only those who needed to know knew. And don’t flatter yourself, Anya. I don’t come to your bed because you’re there. You’re there because it is my bed and you are my wife. Where else would you be?”
“At your side perhaps?” Anya suggested. Her heart flinched with the sting of his words. She’d never thought him capable of such venom. A hard man yes, but this?
“At my side! Come then, Anya, see what your husband has won for you. We are but a single city’s fall away from seeing the Lothanasi influence south of the Marchbourne swept away. These lands will be safe for all Followers. But more importantly we’ll have removed that disgusting Guilford and his family. We can have both Mallow Horn and Masyor, Anya. Our fields united to the sea. Think of it! No ruling family in the Southern Midlands will have the power to thwart us. Your father will be forced to give us our son back.”
Anya felt sick to her stomach at the words. Her husband hadn’t struck back in defence. It had always been about defying Kelewair. It hadn’t been about the Guilford family, but the Verdane family. Her family. She lowered her eyes and said, “We’ve all lost sons, William. All of us.”
William scoffed. “Who cares what happened to that Guilford brat!”
“Not him. Jaime.” Anya’s chest trembled at the mere thought of her brother captive in Salinon. Was he in chains, shackled like a common prisoner in a lonely tower with only sparrows for company? She’d always looked up to Jaime as the one who’d pick her up and brush the dirt off her blouse when she’d fallen chasing butterflies.
“What of him?”
“Have you not heard? He was taken prisoner by Otakar of Salinon.”
The haughtiness in William’s face gave way to genuine surprise at the news. “Truly? When did this happen?”
Anya’s heart brightened. Perhaps if he knew her father’s sorrows too he would listen to reason. “Jaime journeyed to Bozojo to win Lord Calladar’s support. My father wished Calladar to lead his knights down the Angle to prevent any of the northwestern fiefs from joining this war. Calladar made a secret alliance with Otakar, swore fealty to him, and handed Jaime over to him as a hostage. Now Otakar is using Jaime to win concessions from my father that will cripple the Southern Midlands for a generation.”
William sucked on his lower lip as he listened, and then a grin spread across his face. “Ah, so the Ducal heir is held hostage by our enemies. Calladar is just another traitorous Lothanasi. Your father was a fool to trust him. But this does present us with an interesting opportunity. Nay, a compelling one! Anya, forgive me for shutting you out these last few months. I should have brought you into my confidence sooner.”
There was a gleam in his eyes that unsettled her but she felt some solace in his words. She smiled to her husband and took a step closer to rest her hand on his wrist. “Jaime is my brother. I fear for him.”
“He’ll never ascend the throne now. Which means that it will fall to you dear wife. And this is the perfect time. The armies are already assembled. After we destroy Masyor we can march up the river and sack Bozojo and put that weasel Calladar’s head on a pig-pole.”
“But they’ll kill Jaime if we attack Bozojo!” Anya recoiled, her hand leaving her husband’s wrist and flying to her mouth. A strand of red hair fell free from the pins and into her face. “My father will never attack it or Masyor!”
“Your father won’t, but we will.” William’s grin broadened and he nodded. “Tonight, you will return to his tent. I will give you something to add to his drink. By morning he will be dead, and the Duchy yours, my sweet wife. Our son Jory will ascend the throne in Kelewair when he is of age, and we will make all our enemies pay for what they’ve done to our families. Think of it, Anya. He trusts you and will let you get close. The armies are here. All you have to do is claim Guilford did it on orders from Salinon. The others will line behind you and we can rid this word of two evils at once!” He patted his doublet, and then turned to one of the side rooms in his tent. “I know I have a perfect poison here. He won’t even feel anything as he dies, as is fitting one of his station. Anya?”
But she still backed away from him, tears standing in her eyes. The man who she loved was not the one speaking. Whatever had become of her husband, this was not he, but a monster inhabiting his skin. What hope she’d had in her heart of saving his life was gone. “No. You can’t. I won’t let you. I have to go. I have to stop you.”
The delight in William’s face fled even faster. He stormed around the table furious, and grabbed at her arms. “You would betray me too! You’re no wife of mine!”
Anya screamed and turned to run, but he grabbed her blouse and yanked her to the ground. She kicked and screamed, clawing at the grass to get away as she felt the heavy body crawl atop her. Hands grasped her tender flesh and bruised as they pulled her back. Her eyes locked on the tent flap and she screamed for help. William’s hands wrapped about her neck and squeezed.
A quartet of guards rushed into the tent with Becket at their head. His face was ashen white at what he saw, but he was quick to act. While William grunted and snarled like a boar, The soldiers grabbed him by the arms and drug him backwards. Becket helped Anya to her feet and threw his cloak over her shoulders to cover her torn dress. “Are you alright, milady?”
“No,” she said simply and with all emotion gone from her voice. “Take us to my father. Put my husband in chains.”
Becket flinched. “In chains?”
“You heard me, Captain. In chains.”
“You are no wife of mine! Traitor!” William raged and frothed at the lips. He added a few other words for his wife that made his soldiers pale in horror.
Anya drew the cloak about her like a regal mantle and stared down at her husband as the soldiers bound his hands behind his back. He kicked and struggled in the dirt like a madman, but the soldiers kept him under control. Her heart was rent in two but for now she built a wall of stone to seal it shut. She would cry for her lost husband later.
After a month’s journey, the sound of Master Elsevier knocking on the door to their cabin was blessedly familiar to Elvmere’s ears. His whiskers twitched at the sound, and his tail curled about the leg of his stool as he lifted his eyes from the meagre meal of bread and porridge. Across from him the Lothanasi priestess Nylene hin’Lofwine turned her head and called out, “Come in, my friend.”
Elsevier’s ruddy face was a pleasant sight. His eyes never flinched when they saw the raccoon man. In fact, they grew warm like a brother’s might after a long journey brought them together again. But when they settled on the priestess they glowed with keen admiration and dutiful submission. Many days he invited her forth to lead the sailors in prayers. Elvmere would listen to the chant of their voices through the deck and offer his own in contemplative unison.
“Good evening, Priestess Nylene, Acolyte Elvmere.” Elvmere felt his fur twitch at the title. Elsevier had begun calling him that shortly after they’d left Silvassa. Though he was dressed in the white of a Lothanasi acolyte and had Nylene for his tutor, he was not yet an acolyte. He was not yet anything except a defrocked Bishop of the Ecclesia who now prayed to the gods he’d once believed mere superstition — while still accepting that the fullness of revelation lay on the side of the Ecclesia though it were for a time closed to him. He would faithfully follow the guiding hand he felt in his life, no matter where it led.
“Good evening, Master Elsevier. How are the men and the seas?”
“The men are in good spirits and the seas are calm,” Elsevier replied with his usual aplomb. “But neither will be your concern soon, for the coast is in view and we can see the port of Menth. By evenfall we will have docked. Shall I see to arrangements for you in town, or would you like to attend to them yourselves?”
Elvmere lowered his spoon and gestured at his face with one paw. “Whatever arrangements must be made will need to keep me secret. If we arrive after evenfall, then I could sneak off in the dark.”
“Or we can do as we did before, allow you to take on your little beastly form,” Elsevier pointed out. “Either way, what say you, Priestess?”
Nylene glanced between the raccoon and the paper merchant. “You have led us ably thus far, Master Elsevier. I will let you see to our arrangements. We will spend tonight here on your ship, and tomorrow we would like to take a carriage to Metamor Keep. The driver must have been to Metamor before, because I do not believe we can or should hide Elvmere anymore.”
The thought of walking openly filled the raccoon with delight and a little fear. The last time he had done so in a human city he’d been excommunicated. Still, he let a little churr come to his throat and he said, “Thank you, Priestess.”
Her lips curled in a wan smile, but Elsevier didn’t notice. “I will see to the arrangements then. Would you like to watch from deck as we dock? I can bring you out when we near the city.”
Elvmere smiled. “I would like that. If I wear a cloak I don’t think anyone on the wharves will see what I am.”
Elsevier grinned broadly. “Then it is done! I shall procure for you a cloak and summon you in an hour.” He nodded to him and then to Nylene. “Until then.”
“Until then,” Nylene replied with a warmth in her voice that Elvmere loved to hear. He lifted the spoon to his tongue and licked the porridge free as Elsevier closed the door. “That was more words than I’ve heard you speak in days, Elvmere. Oh you pray — you pray very beautifully — but you do not speak.”
It was true. Ever since that night, his earlier liberality with tongue had faded into a more contemplative manner. But what did he contemplate aside from the nature of the gods and their relationship to man? He would not lie to himself even if the words had not yet passed his lips. The object of his desire sat before him, the eyes that met his soft but certain.
“May I ask you a question, Priestess?” She nodded. He set the spoon atop his porridge and folded his paws in his lap. “Why have you never married?”
Nylene’s cheeks dimpled amidst a faint blush. “But I have married. You should understand that. While marriage is not forbidden to priests and priestesses of the Lothanasi, I have always felt my vocation as one that required all of my heart. Any who I married would have to understand that. I have never met a man who I thought could.”
Elvmere lowered his tail and did his best to calm himself. “If that is so, then why did you make me fall in love with you? Why did you do what you did with me?”
If the words surprised her she did not show it. Her smile remained, a kind smile that nevertheless conveyed something deeper. “I did not make you fall in love with me, Elvmere. That you did on your own. Just as you did not make me love you. You are not the first man I have had feelings for. But you are the first to make me feel I could love a man as deeply as a woman ought.”
“Even though I am a beast?”
Nylene’s eyes wandered down his arms and over his chest. They paused to observe the way his chest fur poked over the neck of his acolyte’s cassock. And then they returned to his beastly green eyes. “In truth, I find you very handsome, Elvmere. When I see you I do not see the animal, but the man who you truly are.”
Elvmere touched the black around his eyes with either paw. “This mask was given to me to hide who I was. But it is who I am.”
“But it is still a mask. You’re hiding something from me, or you’re trying. Do you regret what has passed between us?”
He drummed his toes on the floor being careful not to tap the wood with his claws. “I confess, I’ve never done it before. Yes, until then I was a virgin. My heart wants you again, but my spirit knows that to do so beyond the sanctity of marriage is an offense against Velena. It would be the act of Suspira for us to desire each other’s flesh only. In marriage, we give ourselves completely and hold nothing back. Only then can the conjugal act be blessed.”
“Though you use words of the Patildor faith to describe it, you speak truth.”
“I know not the Lothanasi words, only the Patildor.” It still seemed odd to refer to the Ecclesia with the Lothanasi word, but he needed to train his tongue as well as his mind in the Lothanasi ways.
She pursed her lips and then smiled again. “You love me as you say, Elvmere. What do you wish to do about that love?”
Elvmere closed his eyes, muttered a quick prayer, though to whom he wasn’t sure, then opened them again and said, “Marry me, Nylene. Marry me and let us build our lives together.”
“Elvmere,” she said, still smiling, but a coolness filling her eyes. “I do love you, but I cannot marry you. I told you that before. I have given myself to the temple. And though I find you fetching, you cannot stay in Silvassa. You would be discovered and you would be killed.”
“Then stay with me in Metamor!”
“I could become a man, what then of your love for me?”
Elvmere blinked, his paws tightening into fists. The thought hadn’t occurred to him. “There’s only one chance in three you’d be a man.”
“And one chance in three I’d be a young girl. Would you marry a child? Could you be intimate with a child?”
“Never! No!” Elvmere shook the horrid thought from his mind. He lowered his eyes and sighed. “I hope you would be like me, a raccoon.”
She put one finger under his snout and lifted his face. “But there’s little chance of that, Elvmere. You know this.”
“Besides, I cannot leave my flock in Silvassa. Even if I could marry you at Metamor I would not.” Nylene shook her head and then ran one hand behind his ear, fingers gently curling through his fur. “But it is not because I do not love you, Elvmere. It is because I love something else more. So it is with you the reason you cannot marry me.”
Elvmere blinked in surprise, the wound to his heart pausing to reassess. “What do you mean?”
“Part of the love you have for me is love for another. I can feel it. I can see it in your eyes. I can hear it in your voice when you dream and call out to her.” Nylene’s smile faded some. “I admit I was disappointed when I realized I was not the Lady you seek in your sleep.” She let her hand fall from his head and sighed. “And in me you see something of her.”
For several minutes neither said anything. Elvmere lowered his eyes to his porridge and resumed spooning the now cold gruel into his muzzle. Nylene finished her bread then set her plate aside and turned towards the porthole to watch the sky and sea. Elvmere cast a glance out as well. The blue sky was darkening, and along the bottom of the clouds he saw the crimson touch of the setting sun.
Elvmere pondered her words. His Lady came oh so rarely to him anymore in his sleep. Ever since they’d started this voyage he’d not seen her at all. He’d felt her touch briefly in his dreams and he’d cried out for her to come and be with him. But had he been trying to make Nylene into his Lady? He doubted he’d ever know for sure.
With a sigh he said, “You may be right, Nylene. I don’t know. But I know that I do love you for who you are.”
“And I you, Elvmere,” she replied, though her eyes stayed upon the porthole. “But a marriage between us would be a lie.”
He sighed again and nodded. “What you say seems true to me. Permit me time to think on this myself before we speak of it again?”
“You will have it. I shall not press you again.”
Elvmere nodded. His heart hung heavily in his chest, but another part of him felt great relief. That part of him had been scared that she might say yes to his foolhardy proposition. “Then let us think of other things. We will be docking soon. A prayer of thanksgiving perhaps for our safe voyage?”
She nodded, her smile gone. “When we reach port, I will teach it to you.” She rose from her seat gracefully and crossed to the door. “I would like to watch from deck for now. Say your evening prayers as I taught you, Elvmere.” She closed the door behind her.
The raccoon man stared for a long time at the last of his bread. Cursing himself for a fool, he beat the top of his head with his fists until he saw stars.
Titian Verdane pushed aside the curtains to his private chambers within his tent at the sound of shouting. He recognized William Dupré’s voice, though he raved like a lunatic. Amidst the other shouts he heard something about a man of cards who would kill them all. He pondered what that could mean as he fastened a leather jacket over his nightclothes. Sir Royce waited in the main chamber, but at Verdane’s nod went to the entrance to see what was happening.
By the time Duke Verdane felt properly dressed to receive, and kill if necessary, his guests, Sir Royce returned with a confused look in his eyes. “Lady Anya is leading a procession of Mallow Horn soldiers. They have Lord Dupré in chains, your grace.”
“Truly? This is fortuitous news.” He grabbled his buckler and wound it around his waist. “Bring them in. Leave Dupré in chains. My daughter has begged me for her husband’s life. She must have good reason to hand him over to me as a prisoner.”
Sir Royce nodded and returned to the entrance. Verdane glanced about the tent. Apart from his soldiers they were alone. His Steward Apollinar must be asleep already. That was fine. He wouldn’t be needed for this.
Verdane stood in the centre of the chamber, the fabric overhead undulating with the night wind, as Sir Royce led his daughter and a quartet of Mallow Horn soldiers into the tent. Between the soldiers stumbled William Dupré, his hands and legs bound in chains like a slave being carried away to the mines. His face burned red with rage, but his tongue now lay silent behind his teeth.
“What is the meaning of this?” Verdane asked. He stared at his daughter. She was dressed in a cloak over her evening gown. Her arms and legs were smeared with dirt and he saw the gown’s fabric was torn around her neck.
Anya gestured to her husband. “He has gone mad, father. He has plotted to kill you this very night and invited me into his scheme.”
As one all the guards in the tent drew their blades. Verdane casually drew his own and walked across the grass to where Dupré stood bound. The man’s eyes were bloodshot and his lips quivered as if he suffered palsy. He gestured with the tip of his blade at the four Mallow Horn soldiers. “You four, leave this tent and wait outside. Sir Royce, hold the prisoner.”
The soldiers glanced at each other, and then departed without a word of objection. Sir Royce grabbed Dupré’s chains in one hand and pressed the tip of his broad blade against the nape of his neck. Dupré glanced back at Sir Royce for moment, then turned his eyes on Verdane again. Was this the same man who’d been so contemptuous in their meeting tent only hours before?
Verdane kept his sword aloft. He did not think his daughter would betray him, but he wouldn’t underestimate the foolishness of a heart in love either. “William,” he said as evenly as he could manage, “do you deny the charges brought against you?”
William took a deep breath and then spat in his face. With a wicked laugh he added, “You’re already dead!”
Verdane wiped the spittle from his face while Sir Royce yanked back on the chains, driving Dupré to his knees. The sword sliced against Dupré’s cheek and a thin line of blood welled. Verdane sensed an opening and asked, “Will this man of cards come kill me?”
“He has already done so,” William replied with another laugh. “Nothing can stop him now.”
“Who is this man of cards?” Verdane asked. And then he knew the answer. A flash of memory to the Spring brought his true enemy’s identity to him. “No, don’t say it. It is the Marquis Camille du Tournemire. That conniving Pyralian did everything. His mysterious servant killed Lucat and blamed it on you. That way you could have your war. What did he promise you, William? Power and riches? You will have none of that.”
Dupré shook his head and cast his eyes full of malice upon the Duke. “He promised me nothing. He only takes.”
“Then why fight for him?” William laughed and giggled like an idiot. Verdane slapped him across the cheek. “Tell me!”
William lifted his eyes again. “Because he took me.” He took another deep breath and spat, but Verdane stepped aside this time. And then he slapped the man again.
“Sir Royce, take this man and lock him up. Gag him that no one will hear his cries. I will pronounce sentence on him tomorrow.” And that sentence would be death. “Anya?”
She looked once to her husband, clutched the cloak tightly over her chest and nodded. “I trust any judgement you make.” The words were forced, and he could tell that she still loved her husband. But she gave her consent anyway. That would be enough.
“Return to your tent. Sir Royce, have messages delivered to all of my vassals. They will gather in the meeting tent tomorrow morning where I will render my judgement on everyone involved.”
“It will be done, your grace,” Sir Royce said. He dragged Dupré from the tent. The man continued to giggle and twitch but said nothing more. Anya left without another word, her face stone cold and her eyes avoiding her father. Verdane waited until they were gone before returning to his night chambers.
The were sufficient and well protected. His bed was in the middle of the room, with a few chairs set around it should he entertain guests. A wash basin stood at one side, and it was to this he went. He dipped his hands in the cold water and splashed it over his face, rubbing his stubbled cheeks firmly to slake his anger. He gazed into the mirror above the wash basin and watched the water drip from his cheeks. His eyes were cold and grey in the lamplight and his room wreathed in shadows. He stared into those shadows for a full minute before he realized that there was a figure dressed in a fine dark blue cloak sitting in his guest chair.
Verdane spun, the sword immediately in his hand. “Who are you? Why have you violated the sanctity of my chambers?”
The figure was so cloaked that he could see none of its features. It drew a scroll-case from one sleeve and rested it on the small table next to his bed. “Twice now this year I have been forced to use the tongues of man. I have not done so in five hundred years.” The voice was male and strangely inflected, but the words clear and better Galendish than many of his vassals used.
Verdane felt his gorge rising. “What nonsense is that? Who are you? How did you get in here? Guards!”
“Your words will draw no one. None outside this chamber will hear anything of what you say. You may put your sword away for I have not come to bring you to harm. I am here to advise you.”
“And I advise you to show yourself.” He lifted the sword higher. “And I will keep my own counsel about my sword and where it points.”
The cloaked figure seemed to look down at the table. His voice carried a sombre disinterest that irked Verdane. But at the same time, it seemed light and airy like a flock of nightingales singing in the trees. He was reminded of a troupe of musicians who’d performed in Kelewair years past. They’d played on bowls fashioned from glass with only the tips of their fingers. The notes they’d drawn forth had been light and sweet, much as this unwelcome guest’s words were.
“You intend,” the figure resumed, “to execute that man on the morrow. If you do so, you shall never see your son again.”
Verdane took a step closer and tightened his grip on his blade. “And what would you know of that?”
“What I have been told. Read the letter I have brought and you will know it yourself.”
“You have ensorceled my chambers and you expect me to do aught but run you through?”
“You may do so if you wish,” the figure seemed faintly amused by the words. “I would prefer nothing other than leaving this foul camp you’ve erected. Either under my own power or that of death’s, it matters not to me. But as you saw neither how I came to be here nor how I sealed this room, what makes you believe you have the power to summon my death?”
Verdane thrust the sword at the cloaked figure, but his hand was much faster. The figure’s hand bore a glove that shone like silver and that glove grasped the end of Verdane’s sword and twisted it free from Verdane’s grip. He lightly tossed the sword aside. Verdane grabbed the knife at his belt and flicked it with one wrist at the figure. Again the silver glove snatched the blade out of the air and let it fall to the grass.
Verdane stumbled backwards and ran to tent flap. The fabric, once so yielding, now stood unmoving as a wall of firmest brick. He beat at it with his fists, heart beating with something he’d not felt in years, a fear that reduced him to a child. For the first time since his youth he knew he was helpless.
“You may cease your clawing at that which will not give,” the figure said. Verdane spun on his heels, back against the unmoving fabric. “I told you. I am not here to bring you to harm. I am both messenger and counsellor this night. I will not leave you until you have read this letter. You will not leave until you have read this letter.”
“Who are you?” Verdane asked, his voice cowed. None of his subjects had ever heard him speak thus. “What are you?”
“My name is Tyliå-nou. In the language of my people, it means he who keeps the ways straight.” He drew back the hood of his cloak to reveal a stern face with high cheekbones beneath white hair streaked with silver. His eyes were slanted and dark and his ears pointed. His skin in the lamplight seemed a pearl grey that took in no colour. Verdane trembled. This was no man at all. “As to what I am, man-child, I am an Åelf.”
Verdane fell to his knees and sobbed with fear.
Book 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