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
The banquet hall was decorated primarily in red and black. Banners, carpets, and standards, all were black with the picture of a rearing stallion in bright red. Even most of the knights bore tabards with that heraldry as did their squires who served them and the few pages assisting them in the supplying of food and drink. There were a few lone knights displaying other colours, as well as many from Sir Delacot’s troop, but almost all in attendance that winter day belonged to the Order of the Red Stallion, the chivalric order that answered to Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor.
Of those not dressed in the black and red of the Order were two of the guests who sat in the seats of honour. The foremost bore a tabard of green with a band of white that led to a cross over her breast. Her long equine ears framed a jewelled tiara that wound through her spiky mane, the only accoutrement to her knightly attire that betrayed the status that would soon befall her. She sat with humble gratitude and an almost apologetic demeanour. The greatest place was not hers by desire, but because the feast was for her.
For she, Dame Alberta Artelanoth, was to be wed only three days hence to the same Duke to whom most of the knight’s answered. Though she had no squire of her own, pages from the Duke’s service attended her with utmost care and reverence. To her great relief, her fellow knights treated her not as a lady on a pedestal but as one of their own. As the courses wound from bread and fruit to fish and meat and back to bread again, they cajoled and joked with her, and her dearest friends and companions of old told stories of their adventuresome youths. She offered some of her own, though due to the nature of the events that had stripped all the masculinity from her, they still seemed like stories of some legendary hero instead of her own past.
Little was said of how she came to the attention of Duke Thomas. In truth, apart from those who were there to witness the evil that had controlled her, there were few who knew how she and Thomas had fallen in love. For most, all they remembered was the day last Spring when Thomas had sought her out at the Knight’s Ball and danced with her, an honour he’d scarcely offered to any other except when required or requested by Thomas’s closest aides.
This truth was hard for Sir Yacoub Egland to forget. The elk who also bore the green tabard common to the knights of Yesulam had been there that night when Steward Thalberg led select warriors to capture Alberta in the act of corrupting Thomas into being a simple horse and nothing more. The true villain in that affair had been none other than the very man who had killed their former master the Patriarch Akabaieth, a fact that Egland constantly reminded himself of. That dark Sondecki bore the sins of destroying the last vestiges of the man whom Egland had loved as a brother, Sir Albert Bryonoth. Now, as he stood ready to give a toast to the comely Assingh who had been born of the curses and Bryonoth’s memory, he was grateful to have her as a sister.
Sir Egland carefully leaned forward against the long table, heavy antlers he soon hoped to shed threatening to topple him over the table, and let his eyes gaze over the many different men and women who served as knight’s of Metamor. The Order of the Red Stallion was open to both sexes by necessity for many of its members had been made women at the Battle of Three Gates, and it was nearly evenly split. Only a few who had been locked into youth were among the Order, and these were nearly all boys of unusual strength and size. The rest were split between those who had like Alberta changed genders, and those like Egland who had gained beastly countenances.
The banquet hall was the same room in which the Knight’s Ball had been held last Spring. Three tables were arranged, with a short one at the head of the room at the base of Thomas’s seat, and the other two branching off the cover the length. Several seats were left empty to mark the knights who had died in the last year. Most had died during the Winter Assault begun under the terrible storm nearly one year ago that day. Already a dish of bitter herbs had been shared by all to commemorate their loss.
While Duke Thomas had deliberately absented himself so as to allow Alberta all the honour, Princess Malisa had joined them at first in her adoptive father’s stead. But after the second course a messenger had come for her. She’d apologized as she left, and handed duty of raising the toast to both knights and the Duke’s bride-to-be to her closest companion, Sir Egland. As their squires quietly removed the last course of bread and oil, Egland gathered his courage for the task.
“My fellow knights,” he said at last. His two fingered hand clutched the goblet so tight he feared he would shatter the glass. “Who are we? We are men and women who have dedicated our lives to the service of our liege and our country. We have sworn to train our bodies and minds for war. We tirelessly pursue virtue in our selves and in our land. We defend the weak, the innocent, and those who have none to speak for them. We share a kinship with each other, and train those who aspire to such a life. Some say we are glory seekers who care only for the adulation of the crowd. But it is we who take the most dangerous place in the battle, for we bear the standards and it is us whom our enemies most seek to kill. It is we who are the visible sign of Metamor in battle and it is our bravery that must hold firm. No knight of Metamor can be said to do less.”
There were hearty cheers from those at the tables, including from the squires moving to and fro around them. The elk lifted his goblet higher. “To the knights of Metamor, the best people on Earth!” They stood with him and lifted their goblets high and each drank it dry.
Sir Egland wiped the wine from his cervine snout and held his goblet out to Intoran. The oryx waited behind him with a ewer and dutifully refilled his goblet. His squire favoured him with an approving grin. “And,” Sir Egland said as his fellows returned to their seats, “I would like to offer another toast. This to she who will be honoured higher than any knight of this realm has yet to be honoured. To she who has done what for many years Metamor hoped and dreamed would be done. To she, to my Yisaada, who has won the heart of our most illustrious Duke.”
The knights who had been impatiently holding back their cheers let forth with another round of delightful whooping and baying. It sounded more like a barnyard than a banquet hall. Egland couldn’t blame them. Though he had lived in Metamor Valley for only a year now, it was a long standing frustration amongst the knights, gentry and peasants alike that their liege was without wife or true heir. Even more than their relief to know that their liege would wed was that he had chosen one of their own to share his duchy.
Sir Egland lifted one hand and waved his friends to silence. He stood a little taller, antlers weighing his head back, and lifted his goblet as high as he could. “To Dame Alberta Artelanoth, Duke Thomas Hassan’s bride-to-be!”
“To Dame Alberta Artelanoth!” the knights chorused with a roaring cheer. Alberta smiled where she sat as she watched the knights drink their toast to her.
“And to Duke Thomas Hassan,” Egland crooned, “who has made a very wise choice in brides!” There were several laughs but more cheers with everyone invoking the Duke’s name. Egland licked the wine from his snout and saw that he had a little bit left. “And but one more toast have I, then I shall leave you to your feast. To them both. Long live the Duke and long live his bride!”
Boots, hooves, and paws stomped the ground like the beat of a thousand drums. “Long live the Duke and long live his bride!”
Alberta beamed and rose, her equine body both powerful and fetching in her knightly tabard. Her ears stayed perfectly erect. With a fierce pride in her voice, she brayed, “And long live the knights of Metamor!”
Sir Egland had not thought it possible for his friends to smile or whoop louder, but they managed. For several minutes the chanting continued, for the Duke, for Alberta, for Metamor, and for whomever else struck their fancy. The elk was embarrassed when one such chant was offered for him. Intoran made sure to nudge him in the back with one elbow when he nearly stumbled from his hooves.
But soon the chanting came to an end and the squires returned to bringing the last few courses of food. Alberta put one hand on Egland’s wrist and smiled to him. He flicked an ear in her direction as he dare not lean toward anyone until he shed his antlers. “Thou didst speak very well of me. Art thou ready to lead me to my husband, T’samut?”
He took a quick sip of wine. “It wasn’t easy, Yisaada. But seeing you in your dress yesterday really helped.”
She brayed long and heartily, and Egland joined her with a laugh of his own a moment later. Alberta lowered her hand and leaned back in her seat. “It is hard to believe that the day is almost here.”
“Three days more.”
Alberta grimaced, then stared past him and smiled. “Ah, good, another bread course!”
The banquet continued full of good cheer and the occasional story regaled by one member to the whole. Most of them were about the things they had seen while patrolling with the scouts and soldiers over the last month. Not a one of them had been exempt from the duty. Even Alberta had insisted on going out once. She, Egland, and several others had accompanied a large contingent of soldiers along the road north to the Giant’s Dike, spent a day surveying the fortifications with a pair of Long Scouts, and then returned home.
Egland smiled as he remembered those few days. The few forays he’d led about the Valley in the last year had invariably been to the south. Seeing the huge trees of Glen Avery had been something he’d never forget. But he was most impressed by standing on what remained of the Giant’s Dike and staring across the vast expanse to the north that was the Giantdowns. Meredith the Long Scout who’d been there had pointed out hundreds of features he couldn’t remember, but one thing that stuck in his mind was that if one travelled far enough north even the trees would disappear. Egland knew what a land with only grass and rocks looked like, but to imagine that it could be cold all the time was hard for him to fathom.
His ears turned when the familiar voice of the rat sitting to Alberta’s left carried across the tables. Sir Saulius stood in his chair, his long tail curling around the chair’s arm as he waved for attention. After a few more raucous laughs from the other tables, all eyes and ears turned to hear the rat speak.
Sir Saulius’s whiskers twitched in pleasure and he held one paw in a fist over his middle. “My fellow knights, I hath a sad tale to tell thee. Most of thee dost know of the valiant struggle my squire, Charles Matthias, hast undertaken.” Egland and others nodded. Of course, judging by the way the Long Scouts talked, the elk wondered if his friend was deluding himself when he called Charles his squire. It was true that Charles had been his squire during the last two Summer jousts — and shared the victory with Saulius — but was there any sign that the former writer was going to become a knight himself? Egland was not alone in doubting it, but he would never hurt his friend’s feelings by saying so.
Saulius lifted his snout a little higher so his voice would carry better. “Six months ago he and his companions didst leave to conquer a great evil in lands far to the south. He alone amongst the Keepers hath a family that he didst leave behind. His wife, the Lady Kimberly, and five newborn children, Charles, Bernadette, Erick,” this last said with only the faintest hint of pride, “Baerle, and Ladero. All art rats like my squire and myself. Strong of spirit and body. But...” His whiskers drooped and his fire seemed to fade. “But almost two months ago the youngest, who didst barely survive his birth, Ladero, wast taken from the Lady Kimberly by a most foul sickness.”
There were several shocked cries, but many more lowered their heads in sorrow. It was clear that many had already heard this news, and Egland was one of them. He knew Charles mostly from reputation. The only times he’d seen the rat had been at his trial and during the joust. He knew Lady Kimberly and her children only because Saulius had mentioned them — boasted really.
Still, that even one of the children had died while their father was away was enough cause for sorrow. Egland had lost a brother and sister to sickness while still infants, and he knew almost no one who couldn’t say the same. That only made the pain more real.
Saulius took a deep breath and continued. “‘Tis my desire that we knights do something for my squire’s family. They dost live in Glen Avery, a beautiful village of trees and burrows. I hath greatly enjoyed my stays there whilst training Charles. Yet we must stable our ponies at the Inn. ‘Tis a fine stable, but they dost need a place of their own to care and tend their steeds. I propose that we dost build them a stable. Charles hath a pony already in Malincon who dearly misses him, but a noble steed we shalt need for the Lady Kimberly. My fellow rats hath provided the funds to pay for the building of the stable, but I ask thee, my fellow knights, to aid me in building it and finding a pony for my squire’s lady.”
There were several cheers at the notion and several volunteers to help with the construction. One of the women knights stood and asked, “When would we build them a stable, Sir Saulius? Winter has just descended.”
“We shalt manage come the new year,” Saulius replied with conviction.
Alberta rose and smiled, “I wilt come to thy aid, Sir Saulius.”
“Your husband might have something to say about that!” somebody shouted.
The Steppelands donkey let her ears rise to their full height. “And he shalt say, ‘Carry on, my dear.’” Several more laughed. Alberta rested one hand on the rat’s shoulder. “Thy squire and his family shalt receive thy gift, ne’er fear. And we shalt find a pony for his lady too.”
Saulius beamed and stood a little taller. “Thank you, Dame Artelanoth! Thou hast answered my prayers.”
“She’s an answer to all our prayers,” Egland said softly and knew it to be true. The wedding between her and Duke Thomas would heal more wounds than even he knew of. Truly, there could be no happier time for the Valley.
Together, the knights laughed, cheered, and feasted. It was a good time to be a Metamorian!
Father Hough always loved the Season of Advent. The Cathedral was decorated with bright purple cloths and flowers from the greenhouse were arranged about the base of the Holy Family. And a makeshift manger scene was arranged in the narthex where all of the roles including the animals would be assumed by Keepers during the Vigil only three nights hence.
But otherwise they kept the sanctuary bare to emphasize that it was a time of expectation. There were difficulties to face first before the true joy of the birth of Eli’s Son could be realized. It was a time of reflection for Followers, when they would scrutinize their hearts to determine how ready they were for the coming of their Saviour. Were they angry with a neighbour? Was there a debt they owed? Had they some sinful habit they wished to be rid of? All these and more were questions that Father Hough wanted his flock to keep in mind as the day of the Nativity drew near.
Though a momentous occasion, the Duke’s wedding was one that would not touch the Cathedral. There had been talk early on about having both Lothanasa Raven and he performing a joint ceremony. The reason was obvious, Thomas was a Lothanasi and Alberta a Follower. However, before Father Hough could consecrate their marriage he’d made it clear to the Duke that they would need to promise to raise their children in the Follower faith, something Thomas was not prepared to do. And so, without recrimination, the idea had been dropped and the service would be blessed solely by the Lightbringer.
Father Hough lifted his eyes to the monstrance and gazed at the Host within. The gold-plated reliquary was shaped like a cross with the sun behind. The rays of the sun stretched out like the branches of the yew stripped of their leaves. And in the centre kept safe between two small panes of glass was the Host. Once a thin wafer of bread, now consecrated it was the Body of Yahshua given to them for their food and adoration.
Hough turned and took the censer from the acolyte kneeling dutifully at his side. With carefully proscribed motions, he incensed the monstrance. The fragrant smoke formed a halo around the reliquary. Hough could hear the murmured prayers of the faithful who’d come to adore the Host and he smiled to himself. There was nothing more beautiful in the Follower faith than people come to spend time with their Saviour in prayer.
When he finished, he handed the censer back to the acolyte, knelt, made the sign of the yew, and then processed down the aisle. The acolyte followed him, while the two dozen faithful in the pews remained kneeling. They would come and go through the afternoon and evening. Each would spend at least an hour in prayer just as their Lord had asked St. Kephas to do in the Garden of Sorrows. St. Kephas and the other disciples had failed then, but Followers did not fail now.
Hough thanked the acolyte, a young boy who was about Hough’s apparent age. The Curses would touch him sometime next year and the boy was plainly excited about what he might become. How many yong ones had Hough counselled through their changes now? The Follower population at the Keep was small, but there had to have been a few dozen at least. Only last week he’d given advice to Cassius the polar bear soldier on how to help his daughter adjust to always being thirteen years old.
For Hough, the advice was always poignant. He’d at least had an opportunity to be a man before Metamor had made him forever a child. It seemed so long ago now, and he’d long since adjusted to being his new age and height. It still let him tend to his priestly duties without trouble, but he did like to play games with the other children from time to time. And his hours spent romping with Madog were always such a treat. Just the thought of the mechanical fox brought an impish grin to his cheeks.
Perhaps after tending to his homilies he’d try to find his metal friend. He gave his acolyte a blessing before dismissing him then took the corridor to his private chambers. He slipped out of the ornamental dalmatic and hung it from a hook on the wall. His small room was pleasant with a fire crackling in the hearth.
Hough tensed briefly. He hadn’t started a fire. A shape lurked nearby, man-size, though beastly. Hough saw the figure’s tail in the shadow thrown against the far wall. Regaining his composure, he asked “May I help you?”
“Father Hough,” a familiar voice replied. “I need to speak with you privately. What I have to say will not be easy to hear.”
Hough knew the voice, but until he stepped around the two chairs next to the fire and saw the white-clad raccoon he hadn’t been able to conjure the name. He glimpsed the green eyes set within a dark mask surrounded by grey fur and felt his heart leap in his chest. “Your grace! You’ve returned!”
The raccoon held up a paw and shook his head. “Father, please sit down. I have returned, but not as you once knew me.”
Hough frowned. Vinsah’s voice was strained and their was a hard look to his eye. What had happened to him on his journey? And why was he dressed in that white smock? It looked like those worn by Lothanasi acolytes.
Still, the young priest sat down, and the raccoon sat opposite him. He stirred the fire with an iron poker and sighed. “It was cold in your room. I started the fire for you. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not at all. What is wrong, your grace?”
Vinsah tensed, his jowls drawing back to reveal his many sharp fangs. “You may not call me that anymore, Father. I am no longer a Bishop.”
Hough felt as if he’d been slapped. “What? How did this happen?”
The raccoon set the poker aside and sighed. His eyes gazed into the fire and he watched the sparks dance and swirl. “It seems that Patriarch Akabaieth’s enemies were more numerous than we thought. Even the one I thought to be an ally proved traitorous. There are many there in Yesulam who have allied with the very men who killed Patriarch Akabaieth.”
Despite the fire, Hough went cold. He trembled and pulled his hands to his face. “How could this be? He was such a holy priest!”
The raccoon sighed and shook his head. “The Questioners who came here were part of a group trying to unearth those involved. They saved my life and smuggled me out of Yesulam after my disastrous appearance before the Council.” He closed his eyes and let his chin fall to his chest. “They are the only ones I know can be trusted anymore.”
“The Questioners?” Hough asked, his disbelief increasing by the minute. He had always been a simple priest far from the centres of power. And he’d always known the rosy picture he had of Yesulam and of the various Bishops was too kind to be true. Yet how could he believe what he was hearing now? It was too vile to be true! “But they terrorized many Keepers while they were here! How can you say that they are the only ones to be trusted?”
“Because it is the truth. They are not the same people they were when they came here. They saved my life. One of them even stayed in my place. I hope that he survived.”
Hough blinked as he suddenly recalled a rumour that had spread three months ago of a mysterious stranger brought to Coe’s by Madog himself. Hough hadn’t been privy to the secret, though he had heard that Misha himself set a guard on him to keep him safe. Though it seemed fantastic at the time, rumour said that it was one of the Questioners come back to the Keep. Hough hadn’t believed it then.
Now he did. He lowered his face to his hands and shook. “He was here. Madog brought him to Metamor. They kept it a secret but Misha knows. What little I heard of it was that he was saved and sent back where he came from.”
The raccoon let out a long breath. “There is that at least. Father, I haven’t told you what will truly pain you. Not only was I stripped of my position as Bishop, but I was also excommunicated by the Patriarch.”
Hough sat for several moments with his mouth agape. Excommunicated? Vinsah? This was too much! “No! I will send a petition for your immediate reinstatement. You cannot be excommunicated! I have never before heard of such a gross injustice! We all thought you would be the new Patriarch.”
“Many did, but that is gone now. I have been cast out of the Ecclesia. Believe me, it pains me to speak of it and it has been three months since that hideous day. For almost a month I could do nothing but weep. But, I found solace in Patriarch Akabaieth’s journals and also a new direction. You may have wondered at my clothes, Father, but I am now pledged to serve in the Lothanasi temple as one of her acolytes.”
Hough blinked absently and opened and shut his mouth several times. His heart was so weary that it did not even tremble at this latest revelation. “The Lothanasi? Why? Your excommunication will never be lifted if you do that!”
“It is where I believe I was meant to be,” the raccoon replied with a note of sadness. “Patriarch Akabaieth in his journals wrote of it, and of his desire to see greater unity between our peoples. I may be the only one ever to do so, but I will fulfill his wishes. I have already spoken with Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric and she has agreed to let me serve. I take my vows tonight.”
Hough felt the world spinning out of control. “But the Lothanasi! They deny Yahshua! Why not join one of the Rebuilder groups? They still worship Yahshua even if outside His Ecclesia.”
The raccoon sneered. “The Rebuilders? They are nothing but thieves and vandals! They stole the Canticles and tore out the parts they didn’t like! They burn our altars and kill our priests. They tore Yahshua down from His yew because they couldn’t stand the sight of Him! And they have the gall to accuse the Ecclesia of breaking Eli’s Word! They who claim to love Yahshua but call Him a liar! I want their heresy to end and unity to be restored to the Followers. I will never join fellowship with those who deface our Lord. You should be ashamed for even suggesting it, Father!”
Hough flinched as this man who’d once been a kind Bishop bared the fangs of a beast. Tears stood in his eyes and one ran down his cheek. “But, Vinsah! If you go to the Lothanasi you will make many Followers here think they have the truth. We love you and will protect you from your enemies.”
The raccoon settled back in his seat, his manner coming under control. He took several deep breaths and shook his head. “I had considered that. But I have been excommunicated. How can I point out the error of the Rebuilder or even the lapsed Follower if I do not adhere to the Ecclesia’s commands? To hide here with you would be to make a mockery of my faith.”
“And joining the Lothanasi won’t?”
“I know it isn’t easy to understand,” he continued, “but it does not. I am not compromising my faith in Eli and His Son. I am being obedient to them. I believe the Pantheon exists and that they ultimately serve Eli too. Service to them can be good too. Patriarch Akabaieth saw that, and I believe it. It is why I am doing what I am doing. But I know that not all will see it that way. It’s why I’m here, Father. I needed to tell you so that I might warn you. Lothanasa Raven has agreed to keep my service secret for as long as she can. You will have time to decide how best to explain this to the Followers. I do not want to see any of them leave the Ecclesia on my account. And to aid you in this I am going to give you Patriarch Akabaieth’s journals.”
Hough swallowed and rubbed his eyes clear of the tears. The words hurt too much for his childish emotions to grasp. He felt like a boy being told by his parents that they were giving him away. Still, he forced himself to say, “Journals?”
“Yes, Patriarch Akabaieth’s journals. They cover a very long period of his life. Tomorrow go visit the Deaf Mule and ask after a guest named Elsevier of Silvassa. He will know you are coming and he will give you a locked chest. I have placed the key on your mantle. Please keep them safe. It is all that is left of Patriarch Akabaieth’s legacy.”
“What...” Hough stammered for several seconds before gaining control over his voice. He blinked the tears from his eyes. “What should I do with them?”
“Keep them hidden. Once you read them you’ll know why. The Ecclesia isn’t ready for them yet. I know that these are merely his opinions and they will not lead to great reforms, nor should many of the things he said be done. But if they come to light now his good name will suffer further calumny. Let it fall on my head. I will bear it. Not him.”
Hough sniffled but managed to nod his head. “I will do it. And I will pray for you, Vinsah.”
The raccoon took another deep breath and lowered his eyes. He suddenly sounded very tired. “Thank you, Father. But please do not call me Vinsah. It is not my name anymore. My name is Elvmere.”
“Elvmere?” Hough blinked, the tears finally abated. “But why?”
The raccoon looked past him, almost wistful. “It came to me in a dream, Father. And it feels right to me in a way that Vinsah and everything else never has.” He lowered his eyes and stood. His tail tucked behind his legs and he folded his paws before him. “I must return to the temple, Father. Thank you for your prayers. It will be a very long time before I leave the temple again, so I want you to know that I believe your prayers will do more for me than anything else I can ask. We must be patient. Eli’s will shall be done, and Patriarch Akabaieth’s murderers will know His justice.”
Hough struggled out of his seat and lifted one hand to grab Elvmere’s sleeve. “I will not stop praying until your excommunication has been lifted.”
The edges of Elvmere’s jowls twitched as if trying to smile. “Thank you. You may be praying for a very long time.”
“It will be worth it.”
“Good night, Father,” Elvmere said. He turned and stepped to the far door. “Pray that I may not fall into error.”
“I will do that as well,” Hough replied. “Good night, Vi... Elvmere.” The raccoon smiled faintly and was gone. Hough crumpled back in the seat and bawled his misery into the chair’s arm.
“And we have almost two-hundred soldiers, scouts, and knights patrolling the northern woods,” the lizard man said. Copernicus was dressed in his court attire of blue doublet and hose with accommodations made for his tail which was as thick as his legs. A third sleeve covered the first half with open lacing along the top. This tail protruded from the back of his chair as he sat next to Duke Thomas with maps spread across the table. On the Duke’s other side was the bat Andwyn, master of the Keep’s spies.
“Have you found anything?” Thomas asked impatiently. With so many of his chief scouts and soldiers on patrol, the duty to bring him reports was left with his attaché Copernicus. Although the lizard was very capable in managing these affairs, he was not as seasoned as those like Misha, Jack, or George. Unlike them, Copernicus’s reptilian body prevented him from participating in patrols during the winter. So naturally the task of coordinating all the information fell to him and to Andwyn.
Of course Andwyn was more interested in scrutinizing the retinue of Thomas’s vassals for possible assassins. Thomas didn’t blame him. So long as he remained without a true heir one of his vassals could aspire to succeed him. It was true that he had adopted Malisa to guard against such treachery, but even she acknowledged that it were better for Thomas to have children of his own than for her to take the throne.
Thomas was inclined to trust his vassals. In the last year they had shown themselves more willing to beckon to his call, even those living south of the Curse. He knew he could rely on those cursed because they had nowhere else to turn, but the rest had long been a question mark in his reign. But now he felt things were changing.
But Andwyn wasn’t convinced.
Copernicus spread his long, supple fingers across the map and gestured to several places in the far north of the valley. “We encountered a Lutin encampment here. They fled as soon as we approached, but we did take a few prisoner. Turns out there are massive storms in the north and they’d fled south to escape the worst of it. Misha is convinced they didn’t know anything so he let them go.”
“He let them go?” Thomas asked in surprise. “Did he say why?”
“They didn’t try to attack,” Copernicus replied with a shrug. “And he said there were women and children there too. He believed them.”
Andwyn twitched his wings and nose unhappily, but Thomas nodded his head in satisfaction. “What else have you found?”
“Glen scouts found a few trappers from Starven lurking around Mount Nuln. Soldiers thought they saw ghosts north of Mycransburg, but that forest has always been haunted. You remember when Misha found that spectral fox there last year.”
Thomas shook his head. “Not truly. Misha finds many things in the wood he takes a fancy too.”
Copernicus chuckled and slapped the end of his tail on the thick carpeting. “Very true. There have been a few other minor incidents. Two squads stalked each other for several hours before they realized the truth. We’ve had a few soldiers manage to injure themselves, cuts, bruises. One slipped on the ice and broke their leg, but they’re recovering now. Misha and George both think the northern forests are clear and I agree with them.”
“Good,” Thomas said. He studied the map for several seconds and took a deep breath. “And the Long Scouts have found no activity of another invasion from the north?”
“Apart from the few stragglers, no.”
The bat stretched his wings and added, “Nasoj has not been able to reconstitute his strength. It seems our hopes that the Lutin tribes would abandon him has come to fruition. Neither he nor his forces have ventured beyond Nasojassa in the last three months. There is no threat from the north.”
“Then what of the south?”
Copernicus shifted the maps and ran his fingers along the north-south roads. “We have patrols marching along the roads to Midtown and Menth. The watchtowers at the Curse’s end have twice as many manning them. I’ve also stationed three squads at the fork, one to inspect travellers, and the other to lie in wait in case they prove hostile. No one has yet. We also have troops in all the southern villages, Jetta, Shipford, Brackwood, and the rest.”
“What of the forests?”
The lizard’s large mouth cracked in his closest facsimile to a smile. “Patrols turn up even less there than they do in the north.”
“Then I am satisfied the patrols are doing their jobs.” Thomas drew a line across the northern valley halfway between the Keep and the Dike. “Cut back half the patrols north of the Glen. If any one is going to strike they will want to stay close. Move those soldiers back to the Keep. I want them to help the Watch. Let’s keep the streets clear and quiet. Malisa tells me that they’ve almost filled the dungeon with brawlers and thieves. She’s resorted to arranging stocks off the main thoroughfares for the rest.”
Copernicus chuckled again. “I saw some of those this morning. I don’t think I’ve seen a more miserable group than they. They’re lucky it’s been a mild winter so far. And that they have thick coats of fur.”
“I’ve told Malisa to make sure that they burn fires at night near the stocks. Just seeing them and the soldiers should discourage folk.” Thomas glanced at the southern end of the valley. “Thalberg says that most of the visitors are coming from the south. Keep what troops we have stationed in the south. If there is any threat, that’s where it will come from. Speaking of which, what news have you to report Andwyn?”
The bat folded his wings around his chest and narrowed his red eyes. “Very little, your grace. Your vassals are nearly all here and ensconced in private suites that my spies keep constant watch over. Only Lord Calephas of Giftum has yet to arrive, and my spies report he will be here tomorrow. At present no one in their retinue has acted suspiciously, nor is their presence surprising. However, if my information is correct, Prime Minister Malisa will be bringing very shortly to your attention an unexpected visitor from Pyralis.”
Thomas blinked as his ears shot up. “From Pyralis? How soon?”
Somebody knocked at the door and the bat grinned. “That will be her now.”
While Copernicus chuckled and Thomas glared at the bat, one of the pages saw to the door and ushered Malisa inside. She was dressed in comfortable blue clothing the colour of the Hassan house with a pendant bearing the crest of Metamor draped around her neck. Her face was harried, but there was also a cast of unexpected pleasure, as if she’d received a gift from a friend she’d forgotten about.
“Your grace,” Malisa said with a quick bow. She could barely contain her enthusiasm. “I have just treated with Kurt Schanalein, the son of Duke Friedrich Schanalein of Breckaris. He has come with news of Habakkuk, Charles and the rest.”
Duke Thomas jumped to his hooves in surprise. Andwyn stared gape-mouthed at Malisa. The smug expression he’d bore at Malisa’s entrance was completely gone. “News of Habakkuk and Charles?” Thomas blurted. “Then he is a most welcome guest! Where is he?”
“I had Thalberg place him and his attendants in one of the guest suites. Thalberg had been complaining that there was one more than necessary for your vassals. It seems Kyia anticipated even this.” Malisa shook her head in astonishment. “I’ll have him brought here if you wish.”
“Please do,” Thomas replied. “And have Thalberg bring his men plenty of food and drink. See to it that there are places at my wedding for them if they wish to attend.”
Malisa nodded and left with a jump in her step. Andwyn tapped the ends of his wigs together and muttered, “Is it so wise to treat them so well? We do not even know what they are going to say. Could he not use the promise of news of Habakkuk, Charles, and the rest to entice you to lower your guard?”
“But how would they know?” Copernicus asked. “I didn’t even know where they went for a month, and I’m one of the few here at Metamor who ought to know. The only way they’d know of them in Breckaris is if they’d passed through the city. It is one way to reach Marzac.”
“I think Copernicus is right,” Thomas said, flesh trembling with excitement. “It’s been nearly six months since they left. I want to hear whatever news this Kurt Schanalein has for us. Copernicus, please stay and listen. You can take whatever news we hear to the Long Scouts. They’ll tell the right people.”
Both Andwyn and Copernicus nodded while Thomas reclaimed his seat. The pages brought another pair of seats for Malisa and their guest, while Copernicus cleared the table of maps. By the time he returned to his seat, Malisa knocked again at the door.
At Malisa’s side was a young man of perhaps sixteen years of age. He had curly dark hair and a somewhat olive skin tone. He dressed in a deep green uniform bearing the marks of an officer. For the son of an important Duke in Pyralis, he dressed very humbly. Thomas liked him already and he had done nothing more than walk in the room. He didn’t even stare at the three animal men like most who’d never been to Metamor before do.
Malisa stood to one side and gestured to the lad. “May I present, Kurt Schanalein, heir to Duke Friedrich Schanalein of Breckaris.”
Kurt lowered to one knee. “I bring you greetings from my father, your grace. He sends his congratulations and warmest wishes to you at the news of your engagement to be married. He also sends his fondest thanks to you and your people for the aid given to him and his land by your subjects this October. I came personally because the debt of our gratitude, and especially mine, cannot be measured. I am your humble servant, your grace.”
“Come sit with me, lad,” Thomas said with an almost fatherly affection for the boy. “You do your family proud. I have never had the honour of dealings with your family, but I am grateful for them now. Come, eat, and tell me of my subjects. My Prime Minister tells me that they passed through Breckaris and that you have news of them.”
Kurt rose and joined them at the table. A still human page brought a platter of fresh bread and cheese. Kurt thanked him with a smile and a nod and then lowered his eyes to quietly offer a word of blessing over the food. When he lifted them he stared at the Keepers one by one. “Thank you for your hospitality your grace. I am so grateful for the chance to see your beautiful land. I have not seen snow in several years, yet Prime Minister Malisa tells me that it is a mild winter you have now.”
“This time last year we suffered a terrible blizzard. Our enemies to the north attacked during it and many lives were lost. We are more grateful than you know for a mild winter.” Thomas paused while Kurt ate a bit of bread. “You are welcome to stay with us as long as you wish, but I caution you to leave after the wedding. If you stay too long you might look as we do.”
“That was my intent,” Kurt replied after swallowing. “My father wants me to discuss the possibility of opening diplomatic relations with your land as well.”
Malisa smiled fondly to him. “We can discuss that later. For now we want to hear your news.”
Kurt nodded. “Of course.” He glanced at the other two and smiled. He turned to the lizard first. “You are Copernicus, yes? And you are Andwyn?”
“That is right,” the lizard replied. “Do we intimidate you?”
Kurt shook his head. “After seeing what du Tournemire did, no.”
All of them stiffened. “What do you know of the Marquis du Tournemire?” Thomas asked.
“Nine months ago he used his deck of cards to take control of my father. I was forced to join the army to keep me out of their way.” Kurt took a quick bite of cheese and puckered his lips at the unfamiliar taste. He took a second bite and then sipped the wine set beside him. “That was quite good. My compliments.” He took a breath and then noted how anxiously the Keepers waited. “It is a long story, but only two months ago your subjects were captured by our armies. Only Jessica the hawk escaped. I watched as du Tournemire tortured them that night. He then left for Marzac with the black Sondecki. He left the Runecaster Agathe in charge. I, along with a friend, met up with Jessica, broke Charles, James, and the rest out of the dungeon and we rescued my father. We then assaulted the tower Agathe had hidden herself in and killed her.”
“The Runecaster is dead?” Malisa said in awe. “Then Charles is flesh again?”
Kurt nodded. “He changed back into flesh right in front of my eyes. And they’re all well. Not a one of them has died or taken serious injury during their journey. They set sail for Marzac the same day I left for Metamor. My father put them on our fastest ship. I do not know what has become of them since, but when I saw them last they were well and in good spirits.”
Thomas breathed a sigh of relief. “This is very good news, Kurt. Thank you for making this journey. For your part in aiding them, you have earned the gratitude of all Metamor. I will see to it that a place of honour is granted to you at the wedding banquet.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Kurt said with a broad smile. He rolled the bread around his fingers. “There is one more matter I wished to bring to your attention.” Thomas gestured for him to continue. Kurt sucked in his breath to gather his courage. “ In my company came a small group of Follower nuns as well as the woman who aided me and your subjects. They seek to form a nunnery here in your lands.”
“A nunnery?” Thomas asked in surprise.
Copernicus grinned. “I’m rather fond of the idea. They could be a good influence and serve everyone’s needs. I’ve heard about the hospitals they’ve set up in the south. It would help relieve Master Coe.”
“You’re a Follower,” Malisa pointed out.
The lizard shrugged. “Doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.”
Kurt licked his lips. “They do have permission from the Bishop, or from the Bishop’s second. The Bishop was indisposed when he went to see him on our way. And they are willing to face what the Curse will do to them.”
“They may not be nuns for very long,” Malisa pointed out. “Why do they want to do this?”
“Because of Tugal,” Kurt said with a shade of reluctance. “When Charles, Jessica and the rest left Metamor, they were hunted by Agathe and a group of barbarians from the Giantdowns. Tugal was one of them, but the Curse made her a woman. The other barbarians raped her repeatedly. After our friends escaped, Agathe took her to Breckaris and had her placed in a whorehouse. When I found out where she’d been placed, I freed her and brought her to the nuns in Breckaris. They tended her, told her of Yahshua, and showed her that there is a life outside of cruelty. When we assaulted Agathe a spell struck her in the side. She’s not been able to walk since.”
Malisa, who looked ready to jump from her seat, rush down the hall, and find Tugal to hug her tight, suggested, “We have many healers here that can help her.”
“The wound is a magical one. Jessica said that it couldn’t be healed like that.”
“So why did she risk coming all the way here?” Copernicus asked. The lizard shifted in his seat, long tail sweeping over the carpet. Kurt watched it for several seconds before turning back to the Duke.
“Because she’s hated Metamor all her life. All she was taught to do was to try and kill Keepers. She wants to spend the rest of her life serving them, and the sisters have shown her a way she can do that.”
Thomas glanced at Malisa. It was clear from her expression that she was leaning toward allowing this. He tapped his thumbs together and nodded to Kurt. “Tell Tugal and the other sisters that I will meet with them and with Father Hough that we might discuss possible dispositions for them. I am not promising them that they can build a nunnery here in Metamor, but we will see what can be arranged.”
Kurt bowed his head gratefully. “Thank you, your grace! They will be delighted to hear it.”
Thomas nodded and set his hands on the table, tapping the thick hoof-like nails against the wood. “Now, Kurt, if there is nothing else, I want you to tell me more of Charles, Jessica, Habakkuk and the rest. I want to know everything that’s happened. Afterward, Copernicus can give you and the sisters a tour of Metamor Keep. But you are not leaving here until we know more about our friends.” Thomas lowered his snout and gave the young man a deep equine stare. Kurt stared back into his large brown eyes and began to smile.
“Of course, your grace. I’ll tell you as best I can.”
“That’s all we can ask of anyone, Kurt. Now, tell us of our friends.”
“Well,” Kurt began, “the first I saw of them was in the forest. Our army was waiting for them, and they rode in on the most beautiful golden horses...”
“I swear my service to the Lothanasi of Metamor, and pledge my obedience to Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric and to the gods who guard and shelter their people.” The words reverberated in the raccoon’s ears long after he lay down to sleep amongst the other acolytes. Most were children, that is, men who like Father Hough, had been cursed to be as children, but there were a few older infirm men who’d once been women and a pair of animal men that all slept together in the men’s chambers.
They had no beds only sleeping pallets, but after so many months on the road and in the hold of tossing ships, this felt like an indulgent comfort. All around him he heard the soft whispers of sleep in the darkened chamber. His ears twitched uncertainly at the sound of the bear’s loud rumbling as he slept. What had he said his name was? Christopher? Elvmere would learn all their names in time.
He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, tail caught between his legs, blanket pulled up to his chin to keep him warm. With so many bodies, the chamber, even in the cold of winter, seemed to have a warmth of its own, but with the fire dwindling away, the first touches of cold crept over his snout and around every bit of him exposed. Yet the elements remained only an afterthought as his mind made its descent into sleep.
This day he had offered his vows to the Lothanasi. What had begun with Patriarch Geshter’s excommunication had now been completed by his own tongue. He was no longer a Follower — Patildor, rather — but a Lothanasi. He also dwelt on his conversation with Hough. The priest hadn’t taken it well, but Elvmere hadn’t expected him too. Hopefully in time he’d read through Akabaieth’s journals and understand.
After making his vows, he’d felt a thrill that had carried him through the last hours of the day. Raven had allowed Nylene to observe, and for that he was grateful. Her smile was the only true smile he’d seen all day. The unease Raven had with him, and Merai’s obvious hurt, had transferred to many of the other acolytes. Though Celine had done her part in introducing him to many, they were by and large uncertain even though not a one of them knew him from his previous life. But for all that, he’d been too excited to let that trouble him. In time this too would change.
But what would tomorrow bring? Celine had said something about tending the birds and of writing, but he did not know what either would entail. He would do them.
The sounds of snores faded with time. Even the sensation of cold slipped beyond his awareness and into the fog of that moment when a man passes from wakefulness to sleep. Elvmere, now again a sleeper, rested in a comfortable warmth that wrapped him in its arms. But with dawning awareness, those arms took on a more intimate form, and Elvmere noted colour and definition entering into his dream.
Where before had been darkness now lay a beautiful garden. It reminded him of the gardens outside the Keep’s walls in late Spring, full of rich blossoms that radiated every colour and cast about a bouquet of fragrances all tantalizing to his senses. The arms remained about him, and he turned to find their source. A heavenly face gazed down at him, a woman with dark hair dressed in white robes laced with silver who held him close. His Lady! Gone so long from his dreams but for whispers and hints, and here now she is again.
“My Lady!” he cried, throwing himself further into her arms like the simple beast he was.
She stroked the fur on the back of his head with one gentle hand and spoke so simply and full of love that he felt his heart exult. “My Elvmere. Welcome home.”
“You...” he said through the tears standing in his eyes, “you brought me here?”
“You have always been mine to protect. Let all your weariness go, my Elvmere. You are safe with me. You must be strong for all that is yet to come.”
He gazed into her face, trembling. “Will I always have you?”
She smiled and stroked back his fur. “You are with me now, my Elvmere.” And then she pulled him close and he could think of nothing more to say. The raccoon smiled and curled up tight to his Lady, over-joyed to be with her again after so many long months. Yes, he truly was home.
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