The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXII - Unrequited Love

by Charles Matthias

Cover | Contents | Prologue | Book I | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | Interlude I
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue

“I’m sorry, but you cannot enter Long House without permission.”

Murikeer stared at the guards in dumbfounded surprise. He’d never been denied entry to Long House before despite not being an official member of the group. The four guards – two humans male and female, a lanky prepubescent boy, and a goat whose horns were no longer than his palm was wide – standing before the double doors into one of the most secretive places in Metamor were dressed in Metamorian blue with a black axe stitched into their tunics as befitting their special status as guards Misha and George trusted to defend the Long House. They’d likely never be Longs themselves, but each one of them would hope for it.

“What do you mean?” Murikeer chuffed as he glanced from one guard to another. His tail flicked behind him in agitation. “Your master Misha has always trusted my counsel in the past. I have just returned from a very long journey through the southern kingdoms and I have learned much concerning the events and happenings there that may have impact on Metamor, and need to bring that information to Misha so he may understand.” He shifted the satchel he carried, hooking his hand through the strap across his chest without backing down in the face of the soldiery. After what he had learned in the past few days he wasn’t sure he wanted to know of any more tragedies that had befallen his friends.

The woman shook her head and tightened the grip on her spear. “Master Misha has given instructions that only those on Long business are to be admitted.”

Murikeer swore under his breath and pointed to his eyepatch. “I received this wound while avenging the death of a Long, madam. Misha knows who I am. Announce me to him, let him choose whether to see me or send me away. He cannot be so busy he cannot grunt come or go.”

The age-regressed boy, not looking out of place in the full livery of a member of Metamor’s military, cleared his throat self-consciously. “I know you, Master Murikeer, I will let Misha know you wait without.” The boy turned to the door. “I’ll ask for you.”

Murikeer stared closer at the boy but didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t surprising. When he’d first come to Metamor he’d done all he could to avoid the humans living here. Only those Keepers struck by the animal curse made him feel comfortable. But with time his fear of humans had abated, and after his long journey into Sathmore the nightmares of being hunted like a beast had finally passed.

The boy must have seen him in passing then. He did his best to smile and pretend like he knew who the boy was. “Thank you. That is most considerate of you.” He cocked his eye toward the other two still posted obstinately before the door with their pikes, wholly ineffective weapons in the confines of the corridor but impressive looking, crossed between them. The skunk mage wrinkled one corner of his muzzle and chuckled darkly, eliciting a raised brow from one guard.

The remaining guards watched him glumly and kept their mouths shut while they waited. Murikeer purposely made them as uncomfortable as he could, rocking back and forth on his paws in front of the door and smiling a feral, sharp-toothed grin as if he knew something they did not. The goat tapped the end of his spear on his horns as if still getting used to having them. He looked young enough to have been changed only a year or two, but he could also be one of the refugees.

The boy returned a few moments later looking flustered, unable to meet Murikeer’s intense gaze when the skunk focussed upon him. The other guards drew up their pikes and watched the oddly behaving skunk while waiting for word from their compatriot. “Well?” Murikeer chuffed impatiently.

The boy nodded and gestured to him with a finger. “Misha says you can come.”

Murikeer sighed and followed the boy through the double doors into the Long House. The main hall was empty which struck him as odd. The practice areas looked to have been recently used but there was no one there now. The scent of fur, oil, and steel was fresh in the air, but whoever had made those scents was gone now.

The door to Misha’s office stood open and the boy gestured for Murikeer to enter. He stepped into the office quietly. Behind a desk stacked with maps and papers was a rather frazzled fox. He still jumped from his seat, knocked over a stack of papers while coming around one end of it to grab the skunk in a tight embrace. “Murikeer Khunnas! It is a fine thing to see you again! A fine thing! Come in, come in! Don’t mind the mess. All hell’s broken loose for us scouts what with Duke Thomas’s wedding and all.”

“Is that why I wasn’t allowed in?” Murikeer returned the hug with some bemusement. While he had known Misha passing well before he left for his southern journey he had never seen him quite so flustered, or gregarious in his greetings. Misha released him with a distracted fox-grin and gave him a clap on the shoulder.

“Sit, Murikeer, sit!” He barked, waving a hand at one of the uncluttered chairs crowded around the front of the desk. The fox returned to his own chairs after carefully navigating the splayed fan of spilled documents. “Aye, the Duke’s wedding is why nobody’s getting into Long House right now!” Misha barked. “You just missed Finbar and Meredith. Finbar left today with a squad, and Meredith returned from his patrol. That bear’s gone down to the baths to soak for the next two days I think. When Kershaw returns in two days, I’m going out to replace him for a week. News of the Duke’s wedding has been sent out to every damn country, and now Andwyn is convinced there’ll be spies behind every tree come to disrupt the thing!”

Murikeer’s tail twitched. “It would be a good time.”

“I know. That’s the problem. You’ve come back at a good time though. I heard that you were already in Glen Avery and that you went to the Lothanasi Temple. You saw Rickkter?”

Murikeer quirked his whiskers at that. While he was not in direct command of Metamor’s spies the scouts worked in close conjunction with them and even the smallest news, such as the return of a single mage, would not likely slip unnoticed from the fox’s attentions. He nodded. “I came from the Temple directly. Raven says you cannot get to the Belfry anymore, and that the Censer of Yajakali is there.”

Misha’s scowl was so deep and bitter that Murikeer flinched. “Aye! That damn thing is there, always at the back of my mind. A day can’t go by without that thing taunting me. I couldn’t do anything about it. My axe couldn’t do anything about it! Did she tell you that?”

“I don’t know what your axe can do, but if the thing is responsible for Rickkter’s situation I rather doubt you or I could have done any better. What I have heard is enough.” He rubbed his paws together. “There are things about it I should tell you.”

Misha frowned and sat behind his desk. He grabbed a quill and then rifled through the maps to find a blank parchment. “Where is Vinsah? Reports from scouts said that the three of you left the valley together. You and that minstrel, Dream.”

“Malger,” Murikeer corrected absently. “And yes, we left together. But I know not where either of them are now, we went our separate ways in Silvassa. But I saw something you should know. I saw the woman who was there when Patriarch Akabaieth was slain.”

Misha tore the page with the tip of his quill. “You did what? When?”

“A few days before the Summer Solstice, almost six months gone now. She was aiding an invading army from Breckaris that was trying to take control of the trade pass between the Southern Midlands and Sathmore three days north of Silvassa. She’s a Runecaster, and has a ruined eye much as I do, but very much worse, almost demonic in appearance as if she were touched, or possessed, by some otherworldly entity. I have never seen someone with such power as she.”

Misha tapped the torn parchment with the quill tip but did no more than blot it with ink. “She was here at the Summer Solstice, Muri. She was there in the Belfry with Zagrosek and Yonson and the Marquis du Tournemire.”

Murikeer stared at the fox. “What! It took us three months to make the trip from Metamor to Silvassa! How could she do it in three days?”

Misha snarled angrily, “You tell me! You’re the mage!”

The skunk took a deep breath and nodded. “She was able to summon some portal. It was the same sort of portal that I found at the Patriarch’s camp, but she had already escaped through that magic by the time I realized it. I fought her, but... she was too powerful for me.” He shook his head at the memory of their brief battle. Had he not been supported by purely mundane soldiers keeping her attention divided she would have bested him easily.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” Misha replied, the edge still in his voice. He turned to one side and threw the quill across the room and smacked another stack of papers to the floor. “Damnit, Muri! It doesn’t matter! None of it matters!”

Murikeer jumped to his feet and stepped back a pace. His tail lifted dangerously. “What doesn’t matter?”

“Zagrosek, the Censer, the whole lot of it!” Misha stormed across the room and began pacing back and forth, gesticulating wildly with his arms. “One of my friends is in a coma, several more are out somewhere to the south chasing after this evil, an evil that moves across the world at will, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it! We have one of these artifacts here at Metamor and we can’t do anything about it either! It’s been gnawing at me for months now, Muri. I wanted... I wanted to go. Damnit!”

“Why didn’t you?” Murikeer watched Misha’s caged-animal pacing warily and with some pity for the frustrated, overworked commander.

Misha took a deep breath, bent over and began collecting his papers. After a moment, Murikeer came to help him. The fox waited several seconds before replying. When he did, his voice was level and without a hint of his earlier rage. “I was told I couldn’t. Did you know of Zhypar Habakkuk?”

“Of the Writer’s Guild? We crossed paths once or twice in the library. Kimberly told me that he went.”

“Went? He led the whole thing!” Misha began organizing the papers on his desk, but his eyes stared past them to something that clearly haunted him. “Turns out he’s some sort of prophet whose been organizing the fight against Marzac. He picked the people to go and Duke Thomas agreed. I wasn’t picked.”

Murikeer shook his head. He’d never noticed anything odd about Habakkuk so had never studied him magically. A prophet? By itself it would have been a surprise. On top of everything else it seemed a natural afterthought. “So there really isn’t anything we can do?”

“Either of us? No.” Misha grabbed the maps he’d knocked over and waved one, still rolled tight and bound, around like a staff. “Which means we do our duty to Metamor. And for me that means I’m going to be making sure that nobody can so much as sneeze in this valley without the Longs knowing about it before it happens. Why don’t you help us, Muri? I know I could find a place for you.”

“Nae, my friend, I must decline. I have returned with my father and my master’s ashes. I must see that they are buried next to my mother.”

“Is that why you went to the Glen first?”

“Aye. I’m going to return there tomorrow morning. I can do good there with my aunt and with Kimberly. She told me most of the Longs came out for her boy’s funeral.” Murikeer carefully set a stack of papers and maps on the end of the desk. “I will be making my home there, the Lord Avery deeded me an abandoned farmstead a short distance south of the Glen.”

Misha grimaced and set the map down. His grey eyes did not meet the skunk’s. “All that could be spared. We’d have stayed with her if not for Duke Thomas’s wedding.” He sighed and drummed his claws along the tabletop. “It’ll devastate Charles when he gets back. The boy had the Sondeck too. On the last day I ever saw him, he was telling me how much he looked forward to training his son.”

“He still has four children who will need him when he returns.”

“Aye,” Misha said. Murikeer was not about to allow either of them to entertain the horrible notion that the rat might not return from so vile a place as Marzac.

Murikeer gestured to the assorted mess on the fox’s desk. “You seem to have a great many things to do, I won’t keep you from your responsibilities.” He paused and looked at the papers, maps, reports, and general chaos on the desk. “But if the Duke is intent on having this wedding we might expect those… people behind the placement of the Censer to come when they learn of the event, if it is truly the Duke they wish to overthrow and not some more broad agenda. I know the Runecaster, and her magic.” Murikeer glared with his good eye, “I want another go at her.”

Misha growled and nodded, “Stand in line, lad, stand in line. I’ve a bone to split with the Marquis, myself” Murikeer nodded slowly and met Misha’s hard stare. After a few seconds Misha’s shared hatred waned as the immediate responsibilities returned to the fore of his mind. “Will you come for the wedding?”

“Am I invited?”

“If you want to be, I’ll see to it.” Misha chuckled with a shrug, “I could really use your help there, as well. We’re terribly short of capable mages these days, and the Guilds are not about to send support here because of the damned curse.”

“Then I will come. I can show it to the Glenners with my illusions after. Many will want to see it themselves.”

The fox grinned at the corner’s of his muzzle. “Aye, so will most Keepers. I’ll wrangle an invitation for you from Thalberg. Deliver it myself if I have to.”

“You’d be welcome at the Glen.”

“Pfah! Angus and Avery and the rest would cajole me into staying several days if I did.” Misha shook his head and finally looked up at the skunk. “No matter. I’ll see you in a couple weeks.” He reached into his desk and tossed a gold coin. Surprised, Murikeer only just snatched it out of the air before it could tumble down his tunic to the ground. “And get yourself a nice room at the Deaf Mule for the night. You look like you need it as much as I do.”

“I have my own money,” Murikeer replied, holding the gold coin out, “And Kyia has kept my old chambers in order.”

“It’s a gift, Muri. I’ll see you in two weeks.”

Murikeer closed his paw around the coin and nodded. “I hope to see you in better spirits when next we meet.”

“Just one good word of Charles, Jessica, and the rest and I would be.” Misha stepped around the desk and gave the skunk a firm hug. “Now off with you. I have work to do.”

Murikeer returned the hug and smiled. “I will disturb you no longer, my friend.”

Night still came early in the infernal swamp. Hideous cries abounded in the darkness around them. Sometimes they would raise in pitch and then gurgle into nothingness. A horrible chewing would ensue that left them all clutching their weapons and watching the swaying cypress and mangroves. But whatever monsters that lurked in the night, none drew near their fire.

The vines they’d collected from the plant monster Charles had helped kill proved excellent fuel. It burned bright and slow. They had enough for at least another week’s worth of travelling, which according to Habakkuk would bring them to the Solstice when all would be consummated.

It both gladdened and sobered them to know that only a week remained in which they had to defeat the evil at Marzac. The swamp showed no sign of ending nor any of human habitation. On the few tracts of solid land animal tracts scattered in every direction. Through the numerous ponds and streams, algal blooms prevented them from seeing anything below, but already they’d had to mend wounds on their legs when the fish had decided to bite. Poor Jerome had salve along one shin where the skin had been ripped apart. Jessica had healed it as best she could, but he would always bear the scars.

“One week,” Lindsey murmured as he sat with his back to the fire. He pulled his knees to his chest and grunted. “One week and this will all be over, for good or ill. If nothing else, I’ll be glad if it means we can leave this swamp and its damn insects!” He slapped his neck and rubbed at the numerous bites. That only made them itch worse, so he pulled his hand away and held tightly to his knees.

“Aye,” Charles said. The rat was still in his six-limbed form. He’d stretched out his lower torso on the ground with his long tail curled up to his forepaws. With one paw he stroked the vine wrapped around his chest. Occasionally the leaves would turn like a dog reaching for their master’s hand. “It’s been almost six months since we left Metamor. I wonder what’s happened since we left.”

Kayla polished the katana in her lap and shrugged. “Well, Duke Schanalein said that Thomas is to be wed. That is good news at least.”

“Probably the biggest celebration in Metamor for the last twenty years and we’re going to miss it,” Lindsey said. “Not that most of us would have been invited.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Charles said. The rat smiled and turned his head to the side. The fire glinted across the black hand-print on his face. “If we survive this, I bet we’ll be invited to every celebration Duke Thomas can think of!”

“I don’t know,” James said as he stirred his hooves in the soft loam. “I don’t think I want to be there. All those important people making you know how important they are. They make you feel just how small you are.”

“You won’t be small after this,” Abafouq said. The Binoq fingered the charm at his neck and stared into the sky. They could see the stars clearly that night, though the constellations all seemed to be in the wrong places. Charles had said they changed as you moved north or south, but Lindsey hadn’t even noticed it before. “You’ll be heroes.”

“We’ll all be heroes,” Jessica added. “We just have to succeed and return home.”

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get home,” Lindsey admitted with a hearty grunt. “Even if we defeat the Marquis, how are we supposed to get back? Do we walk the entire length of this swamp again? Without the Rheh, it’ll take months to reach the Pyralian frontier!”

“And months more to return to Metamor,” Charles added with a heavy sigh. “My children will be talking and walking by then. Will they even remember me?” The rat shook his head even as the vine pulled closer as if hugging him.

“And I an even longer journey,” Abafouq pointed out. “You at least know you have a home to go to.”

“You can come to Metamor,” Kayla said. “You’d be very welcome there. You’re our friend.”

He smiled a bit and then turned to stare into the dark night. “Thank you, but I want to live among my people again. If they’ll forgive me.” The great Nauh-kaee crept up behind him on silent paws and nudged him in the back gently with his beak. Abafouq turned and wrapped an arm around Guernef’s neck. “I would miss you, my friend, yes.”

“You will go where you are needed,” Guernef said in words each of them understood. “As will I. If the wind carries us different ways then such is the wind.”

“It will be strange though,” Kayla added after a moment’s silence. “When we go back home that is. We’ve been together so long, not waking up in the woods with you around me will seem wrong. I may see many of you again, but we’ve been each other’s only companions for so long, I don’t want to part with any of you. Even the Åelf.”

Both Åelf had retired to their tents an hour before. Habakkuk had followed them shortly to his tent, but they could see his silhouette against the fabric. The kangaroo was still up and likely working on his letters as had become his custom. Lindsey eyed his outline with a heavy heart.

“I’m going to check on Zhypar,” Lindsey said as he climbed to his feet. The others continued their conversation while he ambled over to the kangaroo’s tent. The long ears turned at his approach, and when Lindsey reached for the tent flap, the rest of his head followed suit. Inside the tent Habakkuk sat cross-legged with his tail behind him. Half-finished letters were arrayed in a circle around him. He held one in his hands, and he used a bit of slate to keep the paper still while he wrote. His shirt lay in a folded pile on his blanket next to his sword.

“Lindsey,” he said with a faint smile. “Wait but a moment more and I’ll put these away.” He frantically scribbled letters on the parchment as if afraid that others might see what he wrote. The northerner glanced at them but from his perspective the text was upside down. He’d just realized that the letter nearest him was meant for Kayla when Habakkuk set the tablet aside and began carefully gathering the letters into a bundle.

Lindsey watched him, noting that apart from the Binoq’s amulet to keep the corruption at bay, his chest was completely bare. His soft russet fur glowed in the lamplight, muscles rippling beneath. A few angry red spots welled along his arms where he’d been bitten. For a scholar he was in very good shape, much as Lindsey remembered him being all those years ago in Arabarb. The northerner watched Habakkuk’s leg stretch out, the middle toe claw nearly brushing Lindsey’s knee, admired the pleasant fur and muscles, and then noticed something that made him gasp. Black like pitch, a sore spread across the middle of the kangaroo’s left side just beneath his ribcage.

“What happened to you?”

Habakkuk lowered one paw against the black scar. “This? Ah. It is nothing to worry over. Yonson did that to me in the tower when he struck me with his Ash staff.”

Lindsey took another kneeling step into the tent and put one hand on Habakkuk’s leg as he leaned closer. “Does it hurt?”

“From time to time,” Habakkuk admitted. “I’ve kept it hidden because I didn’t want you worrying over me.”

“And now?”

Habakkuk gestured to his shirt. “It’s unbearably hot here. I didn’t think anybody would come in.”

Lindsey managed to sit down across from the kangaroo. He set his axe to one side and pulled his shirt free. “Good idea.” The talisman bounced on his hairy chest before settling between his beard braids again. “Who are you writing the letters to?”

“Everyone,” Habakkuk gently returned the letters to his knapsack. He placed them between two slats of hard leather to keep them from wrinkling and then put his quill and ink away too. “I’m writing letters for everyone.” There was a weariness in his voice that Lindsey knew all too well. It was the weariness he had from seeing into the future.

Lindsey ran his fingers along Habakkuk’s leg, gently massaging when he found a knot in one of his muscles. The roo’s ears folded back at the touch. “Why write letters to us? Could you not just tell us what we need to know?”

“The letters are for if we survive this,” he said. He turned back and his dark eyes glanced where Lindsey massaged his leg. He wiggled his toes but didn’t object. “They concern events that take place only if we succeed.”

“And if we fail?”

“We’ll all be dead, so there’s no need for letters.”

“So why not tell us now?”

“Then you’d worry about something you can do nothing about. This way is better.”

Lindsey moved his hand up to the edge of Habakkuk’s baggy trousers and then back down again. “So why not tell us after we’ve defeated the Marquis?”

Habakkuk sighed and patted the northerner’s knee with a paw. “Because even if we win, I don’t think we will all survive.”

Lindsey nodded and grunted. He was amazed they’d survived so long as it was. “Do you know?”

“Who will die?” The kangaroo asked in a sad voice. Their eyes met, and Lindsey saw in the kangaroo’s the familiar glint of far off vistas that only he could glimpse. Before they’d gone to Metamor, Lindsey had many times tried to see the future reflected in Habakkuk’s eyes and several times he’d almost thought he had. This time, he saw nothing but a familiar face staring back. He could well imagine how that face had once been; thinner and without a beard but still strong. The reflection seemed to follow Lindsey’s imagination and there before him was the woman he’d once been.

The moment seemed to fade as Habakkuk spoke, but it didn’t go away altogether. “There are several possibilities. I have not seen a single one of us spared death in every one of the possible futures. So I cannot tell you who will die. Every possibility that lays before us is converging to one point, one terrible point in time and space. Everything will be decided there.”

“The Chateau Marzac?”

“Aye, the Chateau.” Habakkuk lifted one paw and gently touched Lindsey’s cheek. “You must stay with me when we go in that place, Lindsey. It is a terrible place, and it will try to destroy our minds. Together we can survive.”

He felt himself more the woman he’d once been at the kangaroo’s touch. He relaxed and drew himself closer. “Won’t we all stay together?”

“In that place? No. I don’t think so many of us can, but we two can do so.” Habakkuk stared at Lindsey with a longing he knew well even though he’d not seen it in years. “I don’t want to lose you again, Lindsey. I’m sorry I’ve been so distant lately. You’ve needed me and I haven’t been here.”

“Nae, you haven’t. I should not push so much.”

“When have you pushed?” the kangaroo asked. He ran the back of his paw down Lindsey’s cheek and across the top of his shoulder. The fur felt so soft against his rough cheek.

“I don’t rightly remember,” Lindsey admitted. “That night in that Binoq city. I pushed that night.”

Habakkuk’s face drew back, nose spreading to take in the air, jowls lowering as he considered his own memories. “We were tired from our flight through the mountains. Agathe almost killed us. You were upset that I didn’t listen to you. I only listen to those things I see in the future.”

Lindsey frowned and put his other hand on the kangaroo’s chest. He spread his palm over his dear friend’s heart and leaned closer. “You listened. You were listening in here. You’ve always listened in here. I... I could not bear to admit it. I was too angry.”

“I should have said something sooner,” Habakkuk admitted. He put his other palm over Lindsey’s hand, his short claws gently lacing between the man’s fingers. “There was no time while Agathe was there, and then with the bitter cold of the mountains, and flying in that dirigible... ah, I make excuses for myself again.” He shut his eyes angrily and turned away.

Lindsey caught him and pulled him back, shifting closer. “We’ve both been wrong. We’re men, what else could it be?”

“I have always been a man,” Habakkuk replied. “Not so with you.” He traced one claw down Lindsey’s beard and pressed against his chin. “I remember the sweet dimple you used to have here. I would rub my finger tip here while you leaned over me and tended my wounds.”

Lindsey smiled, one hand stroking along the kangaroo’s side, careful not to brush the black scar beneath his ribs. “You were foreign and exotic, but in a good way. I saw kindness in your eye, even as I do now.”

“I loved you,” Habakkuk admitted, his voice weak and but a whisper. “I’d never loved another that way.”

“Nor I.” Lindsey let his hand slide down to the kangaroo’s breeches. “And now?”

Habakkuk let out a sigh, long ears folding back behind his head. “Aye.”

The northerner leaned forward again and Habakkuk leaned back, long tail shifting to the side as he closed his eyes. Lindsey pressed his lips to the kangaroo’s snout, as their hands each groped and tugged at their leggings. The two pressed close, holding one another tight, illuminated only by the fickle lamplight.

And then, their bodies afire with passion long denied, they finally freed themselves of all their clothes. Habakkuk and Lindsey paused, both staring at the prominent features that they saw betwixt the other’s thighs in accordance with their Curse bestowed natures. Lindsey’s fingers flexed slowly and he reached toward the kangaroo but his hand stopped short of the inhuman masculinity that was Habakkuk the man; Habakkuk the animal. Habakkuk gazed for several seconds with his long jaw agape and large eyes blinking. Slowly his tall ears swivelled back and then lay flat. His eyes closed and he turned his head away with a caught breath hitching in his throat. Lindsey brought his gaze up at the same moment, the repudiation for what the Curse had done to him, to them, and understood in that moment the same. “No,” he crawled backwards shivering with sudden palsy. “No, this... is sin,” the bearded northerner moaned softly.

“Aye, it is wrong,” Habakkuk said with a choked sob. He rolled onto his side, and pulled his legs and tail close to his chest. “It is all so wrong!” Tears rolled down his cheek and he put his paws over his face as he gave free reign to his misery. Lindsey kept his tears at bay long enough to cover Habakkuk with his blanket and put his own clothes back on.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered at the still sobbing kangaroo. Clutching his axe tight, he crawled out of the tent and met the questioning stares of his friends. He drew himself up to his full height and held out one hand. “Leave him be. And I too.” One by one they nodded and returned to their watch.

Lindsey took a step forward and then stopped in front of the campfire. Slowly, he lifted the axe before him. He stared into the metal, nicked and scarred from use but still sharp enough to split stout oak. And for so many years it had done just that; his one true companion in the cold northern woods when all else failed. He glared at its surface, snarled in a fury he only just silenced, and tossed the axe to the ground. Lindsey turned and stalked into the darkened trees, fists pressed tight against his chest to slow the pounding in his heart.

Behind him, the rat jumped to grab the axe before the haft caught flame. Lindsey half-turned and saw the Nauh-kaee step between him and Charles. The white gryphon shook his head and the rat sat back down, clutching the hot axe in his paws. The northerner felt the watchful eyes of Guernef following him into the darkness.

Still he could hear Habakkuk’s cries through the tent. Not a one of his friends said anything or made any noise. Even the creatures dwelling in the darkness seemed to pause in their feeding to listen. And ever so faintly, as the northerner crushed leaves and fronds in his walk through the nearest trees, he thought he heard them laugh too.

And that’s when his tears came.

Tyliå-nou sat in Verdane’s chair and watched as the Duke of the Southern Midlands composed himself. Verdane glanced between the ornate scroll-case and the blue-cloaked stranger. The scroll-case was decorated with intricate filigree of trees and stars. He saw no clasp. The Åelf did nothing but sit in quiet repose. Outside he heard the laughter of his guards and the hollow cry of the wind.

Verdane rubbed his face several times. With each breath he regained some control over his emotions. It had been thirty years since he’d last felt so helpless. That time he’d been a youth facing down a bear in the woods all alone with his spear broken and his knife lost. With nowhere to go he’d climbed a tree just small enough that the bear couldn’t follow him. Instead it had beat against the trunk with its paws, shaking the limbs repeatedly. Several times Verdane had nearly lost his grip and fallen to a certain death.

But he’d hung on long enough that his father’s hunters found him and dispatched the bear. It was the last time he’d allowed himself to be helpless against another. He hated weakness, especially in himself. Yet now he knew he was the weak one. Tyliå-nou would have what he wanted no matter what. And the only thing Verdane could see that it cost him was his time.

Of the Åelf he knew only what the legends had said. Distant cousins to the more familiar Elves of Quenardya — of whom the Duke had also never seen — they were said to be recluses who never consorted with any but their own kind. So, that this Åelf was here now meant that whatever this letter contained was of vital importance to them.

Verdane reached out his hand and took the scroll-case. His fingers laced through the filigree but still found no way of unlocking the device. “Why would I be receiving a message from your kind? What have I to do with you?”

“But one thing. You are the recipient of the letter.”

“I have had ill fortune with letters of late,” Verdane replied. “Especially those that do not open.”

“You refer,” the ancient creature said with an air of indifference, “to the letter from Duke Krisztov Otakar. That letter took your son away. This will tell you how to bring him back.”

He wondered again why the Åelf would want to aid him. And how had he known of the letter from Otakar? Apart from his immediate vassals and his closest confidants, he’d told no one. Not even the people of Kelewair knew that their lord mayor and the heir to the Duchy was Otakar’s prisoner.

But he suspected that was a question he would never receive an answer to. He took another deep breath, climbed to his feet and sat in the chair across from Tyliå-nou. “You did not answer me fully,” he chided with as much force as he deemed prudent, which was not much. “How do I open this scroll-case?”

Tyliå-nou gestured with his gloved hand. “Clasp the star symbol on the left and the tree on the right. Twist forward with your right hand and back with your left.” Verdane did so, and the case separated along a diagonal crease he hadn’t seen. A roll of parchment fell into his lap. It bore a seal of a feather over a book in black wax.

“Whose seal is this?”

“It belongs to the man who gave me this letter.”

“So not an Åelf?”

Tyliå-nou’s frown deepened. “Not entirely a man either.”

Verdane smirked, feeling some of his old self return. “Metamor then. But this is not the Hassan sigil.”

“Your curiosity will best be sated by reading the letter.”

“Very true,” he replied. There was no way around reading this letter. He could not call for help, his servants knew not to intrude when he slept, and he couldn’t part the tent flap to escape. His unwanted guest would leave once he’d read the letter. If he held an enemy of his in a similar situation, he would make sure to have absolutely every last concession he could squeeze from them before letting them go, but he knew the Åelf had a different sort of honour.

He undid the wax seal as carefully as he could. He smudged the edges but managed to keep the sigil intact. Verdane then unrolled the letter and scanned to the bottom but did not recognize the name. Irritated, he returned to the top and began reading.

To his grace, Duke Titian Verdane IV of Kelewair,

I apologize for the distressful manner in which my letter was delivered to you. I know you are in a difficult moment and face treachery on every side. You even doubt those closest to you, something that weighs heavily on your heart and your dreams for your family line. Even now you know your hopes of crowning your son King over the Midlands will come to naught.

And before you ask Tyliå-nou how it is that I know these things, let me assure you that this letter has not been written by anyone in your household either past or present. We have never met and never will. Though I have been to Kelewair once six years ago, I stayed only a short time before moving on. I have not been in your lands for five years. By the time you read this letter I will be hundreds of leagues distant from you and from my home.

Do not concern yourself at this moment with how I know these things. I do. It is my vocation to know what I must know and to act where I must act. In your case, this was all I could do. I deplore what Duke Otakar has done in taking your son from you. Rest assured that Jaime will never be harmed and will be treated well during his stay in Salinon.

Again, I have never met Otakar nor have I ever set foot in his lands. I ask that you trust me.

Verdane lowered the letter and glared at Tyliå-nou. “This is ludicrous. You wrote this letter didn’t you? How long have you observed me? How long did it take you to learn these things? What makes you think I will believe any of these lies?”

Tyliå-nou gestured at the letter. He did not smile, but there seemed to be some satisfaction in his voice. “You will find the answers you seek in this letter.”

Verdane wanted to demand an answer, but knew better than to risk anything more from his intruder. He returned to the text.

Please stay where you sit, your grace. As hard as it will be for you to believe, I assure you, this is not ludicrous. Nor did Tyliå-nou write this letter. He has observed you only this day that he might find a time to enter your tent. He knows only what he has told you. And you will believe what I write because you know it will be true.

Verdane flung the letter onto the table and nearly climbed back out of his seat. “Sorcery! You’ve bewitched this letter! You...” he glared at the text. The two ends of the parchment had rolled together, leaving only the first line of that last paragraph visible. Hands trembling he pulled himself back in his seat and stared. “How did... how did he know? Who is this?”

This time, Tyliå-nou did not need to invite him to read further to learn. Verdane gripped the letter and unrolled it. Eyes feverish to learn what else there was to learn.

At this point you are wondering how I knew you would leap from your seat. Let us set that aside for now and concentrate on what matters to you. Your son Jaime. Duke Otakar will never let him go so long as it weakens you and strengthens him. Until he is certain he can hold Bozojo against your armies, Jaime is his.

The reason for this is simple. Otakar would like to put his progeny on the throne of the Midlands. The Midlands have not had a true King since his ancestor Herouc died in a failed attempt to destroy the Binoq and the Åelf. Many have called themselves King, but not a one has ruled all of the Midlands. With the Midlands divided into three, it is only natural that when one grows too powerful, the other two ally to stop them.

So it is now. Otakar has secured an agreement with Duke Hassan of Metamor recognizing each other’s territory. You, as Duke of the Southern Midlands, had grown too powerful, or so judged Duke Otakar. So he takes your son and one of the principle means for your power, the city of Bozojo.

If you wish to see your son again, you must do what for you will be unthinkable. You must allow the Northern Midlands to grow in power. Only if Otakar sees more threat from Metamor than from Kelewair will he release Jaime.

“Aid Metamor?” Verdane snapped. He simmered as he glared at the Åelf. “Is that what this is about? You come to me in my time of weakness and seek my aid for a place I have spent the last seven years trying to undermine? What sort of fool do you take me for? And don’t tell me to read the letter! I will do so. But asking me to aid my enemy! That is ill-advised at best!”

Tyliå-nou folded his hands in his lap, eyes cold and distant. “You do not even know how you have been asked to aid him.”

Verdane kept his lips tight, but after glaring at the Åelf for several seconds did turn back to the letter.

However, I would not ask you to aid Metamor in a manner that weakened you. I know well your animosity for Duke Hassan. I also know your need to protect your lands and your people. What I suggest will in no way endanger any of that. Instead, I suggest you provide the Horse Lord a gift he will put to use in the far north.

A more secure northern border for Metamor would allow them to better cultivate the assets they do possess. There is little to be won with increased trade to the north, so trade will necessarily increase to the south. Ellcaran will benefit handsomely from increased trade along the coast. And you can divert many of the merchants from the river to the western roads to avoid paying taxes and duties to Otakar.

All you need do is give Duke Hassan a man who is good for but one thing, war. I believe you know such a man. He is within your power to do with as you please. Execute him and your son will never be returned to you. Exile him to the north, give him nowhere to go but to your enemy, and you will have your son back. It will take years, but he will be unharmed. You will never crown Jaime King of the Midlands, but his son will have a chance for it. The Verdane family will never see it otherwise.

I counsel this course of action to you as both a Duke and a Father. If you execute William Dupré, Duke Otakar will continue to eat at your northern borderlands until your grandson is forced to acknowledge him as sovereign. If you exile him to Metamor instead, the war in your lands will end, all your vassals will end their bickering for fear of suffering Dupré’s fate, and within ten years your son will be returned to you.

The decision is yours, your grace. I shall pray for your soul and for your son Jaime for as long as I shall live.

Dauern sie Felikaush,

Zhypar Habakkuk

Verdane puzzled over the salutation at the end. The name was meaningless gibberish. It was no name like he’d ever heard in the Midlands. But the salutation was a Southlander dialect. It took him a moment to translate it, but even then he could make no sense of it. “Last Son of Felix? What does that mean!”

He heard no reply from his unwanted guest so looked up. The chair was empty and the scroll-case was gone. Verdane stood up, hands still clutching the letter. He glanced around his room but apart from a bitter cold bite to the air, there was no sign to suggest how Tyliå-nou had left him.

Ruefully, Verdane realized that he’d done what he agreed to do; he’d made Verdane read the letter in its entirety. With cautious hand, Verdane pressed at his tent flap. The fabric gave as it should. Verdane stepped into the main tent and glanced at his soldiers. “Did anyone come through here a moment ago?”

The nearest shook his head. “No, your grace. It’s been quiet since your daughter left.”

Verdane swallowed, nodded to the soldier, and slipped behind the tent flap again. He dropped the letter on the table, climbed onto his travelling bed and curled atop the winter quilts. He pressed his fingertips to his lips and stared at the letter, words of a prayer falling unheard from his tongue.

If not for that letter still laying on his table, he would have convinced himself that the Åelf had been part of his imagination. He fell asleep wondering if he shouldn’t put on an extra guard to keep other fairy-tales from disturbing his rest.

Phil was awakened with a start to the whistling thump of a projector being discharged and thrashed about so violently he knocked his cage over. That only confused him even further as he tried to find the door and make his escape before his rabbit instincts overwhelmed him. Somewhere he heard distant voices raised in agonized ululation as the target of the projected fire cried out their doom. He felt the cage lifted and hastily set down upright upon the floor and the strong hand of Rupert seizing the loose flesh between his shoulder blades to pull him from the cage. He could not help but kick and struggle against the strong restraining hand but kept his squeals of animalistic fear silenced. The captain’s cabin was as dark as a cavern but for the flickering of distant lights, flames, from some unknown source that lit the confined cabin with eerie dancing shadows one of which was the mountainous dark form of his bodyguard close at hand. Rupert lowered Phil to the floor and released his grip on the scruff of the prince’s fur but did not remove his hand, resting it there upon the back of Phil’s shoulders until he mastered his animal terror.

“I… I am myself, Rupert.” Phil said after several moments though his heartbeat had hardly slowed. The angry hissing of arrows echoed into the cabin from without mingled with the orders and curses of a crew in the midst of battle. One shaft hammered into a pillar just beyond the cabin door with a hard wooden thunk. “Where is the captain?” The dim flickering of distant fire suddenly became a bright orange-yellow flash and fire splashed across a bulkhead outside the cabin. Small sizzling drops of burning resin spattered across the cabin floor but only burned for scant seconds before Rupert doused them with a firebucket of sand kept near the captain’s berth. A moment later the fires lapping at the bulkhead were also quenched by the fine, absorbent sand.

Phil did not bother with his tabard or finery, he grabbed up a fire apron from the cloak pegs just beyond the door and shook off the sand before donning it hastily. Rupert ascended the stair from the lower deck to the main gangway without a step, he merely grabbed the edge of the upper gangway and swung up onto it despite the crowd of milling shadows already tightly confined along its length. Phil paused in aghast shock at the writhing shadows of fighting men backlit by roaring flames. Half were engaged in a pitched battle with the splash of Whalish fire that had stricken the Burning Spear’s only mast and spent itself largely ineffectively across the length of the deck where it was more easily fought. Others continued to man the oars though Phil saw that some at the ores merely slumped; injured or exhausted or worse. The last held shields or bows and tried to protect their crewmates from incoming attacks while returning arrows at the attacker Phil could not yet see.

While Phil clambered up the stair to the main deck and hastily scrambled around to surmount the stair to the aft castle Rupert worked his way down the main gangway battling the blazes with entire casks of sand. Freed of their need to fight with smaller buckets the crew he relived turned their attention to the attacks coming at them from the port beam. Phil popped his head over the lip of the stair to the aft castle and scanned quickly for any immediate danger such as boarders. Whatever fires there may have been had been doused by the crowd already present but a desultory rain of arrows continued to come from the burning vessel only a dozen yards off the Spear’s port beam, just far enough away that the oars of both ships missed clashing by only a few feet. One arrow skittered across the deck, its impetus spent, and came to a stop against the gunwale a few inches in front of Phil’s cautious nose. He quickly dropped back down a couple of steps and looked to the opposing ship on fire not far away at all.

It was a Whalish ship, but through the fire and smoke Phil had no way of determining which one it had been. It’s forecastle was a raging inferno and much of its main deck was likewise fully engulfed. Beyond it Phil could see another ship afire in the distance, its mast a towering taper of roaring flame that spiralled into the starlit night sky trailing sparks. On the nearer doomed dromonai he could see crewmembers rushing about aflame with little regard to their fates still attempting to loose arrows from bows with strings burned through. Burning arrows lofted into the air and fell short with muted hisses lost under the screams of injured and dying men.

With a shrill, whistling thump the Burning Spear’s forward projector loosed a brilliant ball of churning fire across the short span of distance between the two ships and spattered itself across the aft castle of the enemy boat. A moment later a second gout of flame surged outward in all directions from the stricken aft as the seals on the stricken dromonai’s aft pressure vessel failed and vented mixed Whalish fire across its own decks. A ragged cheer rose from the Burning Spear and the ship beyond the doomed dromonai that Phil was unable to see until it drew ahead of the burning ship. From his vantage half way up the ladder between gangway and aft castle Phil watched the dying Whalish dromonai with a sense of both victory and loss, for nothing more moved upon its decks. The mast was a pillar of flickering flame and its oars thrust akimbo and inert from unmanned oarlocks backlit by roaring flames.

A shadow brought his attention to the aft castle and he shrank down the ladder another step while looking up to see the flame-lit visage of Ptomamus looking down at him. Rabbit Prince and Whalish captain contemplated each other for a few seconds before Ptomamus knelt and thrust a soot blackened hand toward him. Phil reached up and grasped the offered hand and climbed swiftly up onto the higher deck, looking about hastily to gauge their situation. Further to port another burning ship was falling behind their line, already listing markedly to one side. Astern of their starboard a third ship was stern-up in the air with a spreading flotilla of debris spreading outward from the stricken wreck. In the distance a shadow flickering with flames swiftly withdrew toward the eastern horizon and the remainder of the Marzac force.

“What happened, captain?” Phil gasped at the aftermath of the battle which, from the first sound that awoke him to the last futile gasp of their opponent, had lasted less than five minutes. “How did they overtake us?”

“They did not, your highness, they were out before us and we never noticed them.” Ptomamus returned to the navigation table to confer with one of the Spear’s mages. “Any losses, Lindes?” Phil followed him to the table and surveyed the damage wrought by the single successful fire attack that struck the Spear. Broad fans of black soot marred the deck and railings but in the darkness it was difficult to see anything more than darkness against the relatively pale wood of the deck. “Those six rakers kept our attentions aft while a smaller group of Whalish ships were moving into positions ahead of us, your highness.”

After some brief discussion with mages aboard other vessels the mage gave a short nod, “We lost the Evening Star, captain.” He turned and pointed to the burning ship beyond their aggressor. The ship had listed fully over onto its side by that point but it was too far distant for Phil to see if there were any survivors in the water. “Shavistii was raked hard by bows and suffered considerable injury among her Third Crew, but captain Setaes believes he can maintain the pace.” Phil could not read Ptomamus’ expression in the deepening dark but did not imagine it was a pleased look. One more ship lost against a foe that already had just their small number of ships outnumbered almost three to one, even with four ships defeated to their one loss did nothing to make the odds any better in their favour.

“Other than the Ptolmaq what ships did we face?” Ptomamus accepted a dampened rag from a deckhand and wiped the soot from his face. A small cut across his brow and temple trickled blood down his pale face but did not seem to discomfit him.

“Ptolmaq and Lady Geshter’s Folly were both sunk, both of which were dromonai seen during the attack on Whales. Stonne Lear was also sunk and White Crow withdrew afire.” The mage said after some long moments. Another man in the uniform of a minor officer but no one Phil could identify came up from below and made only the most brief of bows to the captain and favoured Phil with not so much as a glance.

“We lost three crewmen, captain, and seventeen have been injured too greatly to maintain their duties. Of the rest twenty have some minor injuries, mostly burns from the fire attack.” Reported the uniformed newcomer briefly. “The ape-man put out many of the larger fires, but we’re down to four casks of fire sand for the effort.”

“Rupert.” Ptomamus said off hand as he listened to the officer of the deck’s report.

“Aye, captain, him. He did a fine job, but we’ve got four casks left of it. Of arrows we expended two score and can recover perhaps half of that from the enemy shafts.”

Ptomamus rubbed his jaw for a few moments, glancing at Phil with an expression unreadable in the darkness. “Rotate the crews, put anyone willing to man an oar on one, and break out fresh rations. Double water ration to anyone at the oars.” He looked aside to the mage. “Lindes, I want every mage to focus on keeping our men going, and what speed you can provide. Any that haven’t the mastery for such spells I want on the decks watching for any magic around us.” He strode to the navigation able and leaned down slightly to read the chalk lines on the dark slate. “How far behind us is the remainder of the Marzac group?”

“Three league near’s I can tell.” Offered the steersman stoically with a brief glance over his shoulder. “Been keepin’ me night eye on ‘em all my watch, cap’n.” Phil looked beyond the Spear’s aft rail and understood what the steersman meant. In the distance he saw a glimmering, ghostly white radiance that cut across a wide swath of the distant water. He could not tell where sky ended and the ocean began because the water was so becalmed but the luminescent glow of seawater at night gave away the enemy ships clearly.

Just as it gave away their position to those same ships.

“Wall formation, put our most damaged ships to the fore. We should make the Sonderush shortly and ride it northward.” Ptomamus glanced at the sky. “We’ve many hours before dawn, double the deck watch and increase each rotation frequency.” He raised a hand to his brow and peered at the blood staining his fingertips when he brought them away. “Someone inform Meidaggo I’ve a scratch in need of his attentions, once those more injured have been seen to.”

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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