The Last Tale of Yajikali

Chapter LXXV - Going Home

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

Guernef returned a few hours before the sun set on the day after they’d entered the Chateau Marzac. Until then, Jerome, James, Andares, and Sir Autrefois busied themselves with arranging their supplies and erecting the tents so that they could sleep. Some of their belongings were destroyed in the magical maelstrom, and apart from the Marquis’s servants who’d been bound on the Dais, all of their clothes had been ripped from their bodies. As warm as it was on the peninsula, especially with the fire still burning to the north, those with fur or feathers endured their nudity, though James fashioned a loincloth for himself for modesty’s sake.

Abafouq and Jessica spent their time creating a very large witchlight to act as a signal to the Whalish fleet. They set it to hover fifty feet over their encampment, and made sure that the bottom did not shine as brightly as the rest to keep from blinding themselves. They then cast what spells they knew to keep the air from choking with smoke and dust. Abafouq lamented the necessity of sending Guernef off to look for help because such spells were the Nauh-kaee’s specialty.

Once all was prepared, most of them collapsed inside the tents to sleep. Andares and Kayla took the first watch. The landscape, once lush and green with more trees, ferns, and brush than the skunk could name, was now a desolate wasteland. Her paws sunk into the muddy ground only to bite into sticks and bits of mortar from the castle walls. If not for the choking dust, they would have been able to see unimpeded for miles in every direction. To the north the forest smoldered as the fires burned themselves out in the damp vegetation, while in every other direction darkness and the sea waited.

It took some time before Kayla understood what bothered her most about the scene. The scent was foul, but after travelling for weeks through the marshes, and after years spent in Metamor, she could endure the scent. Even the sight, depressing and lifeless as it was, could only remind them of their victory over Marzac. What upset her was that she could hear nothing but the snoring and whimpering of her friends as they slumbered in dream or suffered in nightmare. So close to the sea, she expected to hear gulls or terns, or even the lapping of waves. But there was nothing.

Shortly after noon, they woke James and Jessica and bade them take watch. It took Kayla only minutes to find sleep, and when she did, she dreamed of Rickkter. She couldn’t remember her dreams when she woke that evening feeling somewhat stronger in body, but she did ponder what her raccoon lover might be doing now that he’d been freed from the Marquis’s cards. Was he tearing down the Keep trying to come after her? A part of her hoped so, but she knew it would be best if he waited and recovered his strength.

While pondering her lover, Kayla searched through what they’d managed to save and thanked all the gods when she found her brush. While Andares scoured their rations for something they could eat without recourse to fire, she brushed the tangles out of her fur. There were far more than she’d thought, and winced as the knots pulled several clumps of fur out. When Andares offered her bread she ate it with one paw and continued brushing with the other.

She was just starting on her tail when Jessica spotted the returning Nauh-kaee. All of them breathed a sigh of relief when they saw him land. Even Lindsey smiled. The news of the Whalish fleet cheered them all. But the exhaustion was too much, and after eating and grooming herself, Kayla climbed back into her tent and slept for many more hours.

By the time she woke, it was only a few hours before dawn the next day. They had continued to cycle the watch, and it was Sir Autrefois of all people who gently called her name bidding her rise. The skunk smiled to him, a man who’d been a victim as much as she was, but this time found something to wear before leaving the tent.

Jerome bore only a single layer of linens that did little to hide his strongly muscled chest. He nodded once to her and then gestured to the south. “Charles and the fleet are somewhere down there. How much longer will it take before we see them?”

Kayla stretched and shook her head. “I don’t know. But the ships won’t land here. There’s no water.”

Jerome nodded. “Once the dawn comes we’re going to need to head west. It shouldn’t take more than a few hours to reach the shoreline.”

“Over this ground?” Kayla asked. “It will take longer than that.”

“We’ll find a way,” the Sondecki said confidently. “After all we’ve come through, we’ll find a way.”

“Aye,” Kayla agreed, settling in to wait out the last few hours of night. “That we will.” Above them the stars glistened in silent gratitude.

The last thing Grastalko remembered was watching the world spin in the hue of electric blue. Groggily, feeling sore in every part of his body except for his left arm which felt warm but not uncomfortably sore, he stirred in his bed. The familiar scent of the wagon he shared with some of the other teenage boys came to him. Though he could smell candles, none of them were lit. A lantern hung still from the middle of the wagon. Everything was still apart from the shuffling stance of two men whose voices were quiet and tickled the inside of his ears.

Grastalko opened his lips and tried to push the foul sticky taste of a long night’s slumber from his teeth. “Hanaman, he hath awoken,” a very familiar voice said. Nemgas. Hadn’t he been there at the mountain? Did he know what happened?

Two great shadows hovered over his bed. Grastalko blinked in the light, shifting back on his elbows. Hanaman’s voice was soft with the fatherly warmth he’d begun to hear in the month since he’d started taking many dinners with their leader’s family. “Grastalko. Canst thee hear me?”

He nodded, grimacing as he tried to work loose his tongue. A dull throb lurched from his feet to his head and back again.

“We wert worried for thee,” Hanaman said, his voice settling into its usual firmness. “Thou hast slept for more than a day.”

“Wha... what happened?”

“Thou didst burn thyself,” Hanaman replied. Fingers gently traced over his left arm. Grastalko felt it only as a bumpy journey over the folds of his ruined skin. “But thee didst kill the man whom Nemgas named Tournemire. I dost not understand it myself, but I be proud of thee.”

Grastalko blinked again and slowly the faces of Hanaman and Nemgas resolved themselves. Both of them were smiling to him. Their eyes were dark but eager as they stood between Grastalko and the lamp. The young man looked up at them and shifted his legs in the bed. “‘Twas night when I struck. Hath we left?”

“‘Tis morning,” Nemgas said softly. “We hath not left, but we shalt today. Today the Magyars return to the life they hath known and cherished for generations.”

“‘Tis a day to rejoice, for we hath reunited and healed our wounds,” Hanaman added, resting his hand on Grastalko’s left shoulder. The flesh there was wrinkled from fire too. “And thou art well. Dost thee feel any pain?”

He nodded. “I art sore all over.”

“And in thy left arm?” Nemgas prompted.

“No, it...” Grastalko blinked, and felt excitement flood him. “I hath no pain! I hath no pain! Eli be praised, I hath no pain!” He sat up in bed, all soreness forgotten, marvelling at his blackened and twisted skin, hard like leather, but completely free of pain. The fingers of his left hands were no longer ashen curls, though they were still disfigured by the flames. He flexed them several times, laughing in joy. He threaded the fingers of either hand together and then pulled them apart. “I canst move them again!”

“Thou hast been scarred over much of the left side of thy body,” Hanaman told him in more level tones. Thy face...” Hanaman lowered his eyes and took a deep breath. “Thy face too hast been marred.”

Grastalko frowned, and realized that the left side of his face felt stiff. He reached his right hand up and dragged his fingers across a pebbly, tough hide. “Hast thee a mirror?”

Hanaman turned to Nemgas, who walked to the set of drawers and rifled through them until he found a small looking glass. Grastalko recognized it as Rabji’s. Nemgas handed it to Hanaman, who held it up for Grastalko to see. In the glass was his atypical light hair for a Magyar over a light-skinned face. His blue eyes were vibrant, and his lips thin. His nose flared at the end.

But his left cheek was brown and tough like the hide of a bull. His ear had partially melted, the tip leaned down like a pig’s. He took a deep breath and then looked away. “I wilt do very well as a monster in the pageant.”

Hanaman tightened his grip and closed his eyes. “Thou art thyself, Grastalko, and thou art always a son at my table.”

Nemgas pursed his lips and thoughtfully regarded the deformed young man. “Dost not let thy wound trouble thee. Thou hast suffered long for this. I see that thou hast thy strength back in thy limb.”

Grastalko nodded, moving the fingers of his left hand for the first time in six months. “I know. But it ne’er touched my face before. I wilt always be a monster now.” His voice remained empty, the delight of not having any more pain dampened by the hideous sight of his face.

“Amongst the Magyar, thou art no different than the rest of us,” Hanaman asserted.

“I hath but one arm,” Nemgas pointed out. “Chamag still bears the fangs of a beast. We hath all been touched by these powers in different ways. ‘Twere powers man shouldst ne’er hath touched. But ‘tis done now. Tell me, dost thee still possess thy flame?”

Grastalko blinked, lifted his hand, and thought of the fire. His fingers blossomed in bright orange flames. But this time, there was no more pain, only the warmth. He turned his hand over and watched the flames lick across their surface. They brought him no more harm either. “It dost not hurt me!”

“What of other things?” Nemgas asked. “Couldst thee light this candle from where thee dost recline?”

The one-armed Magyar had picked up a candle and held it in his only hand. Grastalko stared at the wick and imagined a great heat filling it. With a brilliant spark it burst into flame. Nemgas nodded and put the candle back in its sconce. “I dost not know for certain, but thou dost seem more mage than monster to me.”

Hanaman nodded, the smile returned to his lips as he glanced from Nemgas to the fiery youth. “Aye. Grastalko, thou art a mage who hast mastered fire. Zhenava wilt teach thee what she knows, but I believe thou wilt surpass her soon.”

Grastalko blinked, eyes focussed on the lit candle. He’d done that all with his mind. He’d performed true magic. A mage. He looked at his ruined arm. He snuffed the flame in his hand, then brought it back again. He smiled and snuffed the flame one more time. “I art a mage.” He looked sharply at Hanaman. “Then dost that mean?”

The leader of the Magyars nodded. “Aye, it dost. Thou mayest pursue Bryone whom thou lovest.”

Grastalko slid his legs out of the bed, his heart beating so fast his chest hurt. “I must see her!”

“She hath spent the night tending Dazheen,” Hanaman said, tightening his grip on the youth’s shoulder. “Let her take her rest this day. Tonight thou wilt see her.”

Grastalko sighed but the smile would not leave his face. “How be Dazheen?”

“She wilt recover,” Hanaman assured him while Nemgas blew on the candle. The flame stubbornly refused to go out. “But ‘twill take many weeks. I must leave thee now, Grastalko. I must see to the others. We must quit this place and resume our journey through the Steppe. Wilt thee be well?”

Grastalko slid the rest of the way off the bed. He stared into Hanaman’s face with the love of a son to a father. “I wilt, Hanaman. If Bryone dost accept me.”

Nemgas spat on the candle flame which sizzled but endured. Hanaman watched this out of the corner of his eye. “Hath no fear of Bryone, my child. ‘Twas only by our order that she left thy side to see to Dazheen. Now, I leave thee with Nemgas. Listen well to him as thee wouldst to me.”

Grastalko nodded and the two of them hugged briefly. Hanaman smiled at him the entire way to the door and out into the cool winter air. After the door fell shut, Nemgas tapped his thumb to his chin and asked, “Wouldst thee care to meet my boy, Pelurji? He hath awoken too.”

“I wouldst very much like to meet thy boy!”

Nemgas smiled and gestured with that thumb at the candle. “First, canst thee extinguish this obstinate flame?”

Grastalko laughed, waved his fingers and the flame obediently winked out. Nemgas roared with joy and the two of them left the wagon to greet the most beautiful winter day the Steppe had ever known.

It was strange to wake up and see stone walls on every side. Though Kimberly had spent most of her first year at Metamor waking to such a sight, she’d spent the next waking to the warmth of wood. To be back in the Keep, even just to visit for two days to attend Duke Thomas’s wedding, made her feel dreadfully out of place. Her whiskers twitched in amusement as she shared a cup of tea with Baerle. Only a year in a secluded woodland village and she felt more like a rustic commoner than the daughter of a noble house no matter how minor. And it pleased her to feel that way.

Baerle and her children had stared in awe at the towers of Metamor when they’d arrived yesterday morning. Messengers from Metamor had come several hours before the sun’s rays broke the valley’s winter darkness to summon Misha for some crisis. As they were in need of mages, Murikeer had volunteered to return as well. A few minutes of preparation and Kimberly, Baerle, Kozaithy, and Sir Saulius had bundled themselves and the children into the wagons and all together they journeyed to Metamor

Misha left them to attend to the Duke’s summons, Murikeer and Kozaithy joined Malisa’s band of mages in their urgent tasks, and so it was Sir Saulius who brought them to the Long House where rooms were waiting for them. The rat knight had intended for them to get some sleep, but with the children too excited, they had deposited their things and went on a tour of the Keep. He showed them the castle and then the sewers where they spent a few hours with the other rats who were all delighted to see them. Goldmark showed them all the different forms he could assume, while Hector whittled little figurines for them with his incisors, and Elliot and Julian performed sleight of paw tricks to amuse them.

At Kimberly’s request, they then went to the kitchens where she spent some time catching up with Bernadette the mouse. Kimberly’s daughter whom she named after the mouse cuddled into her namesake’s arms and they squeaked at each other for some time. Thalberg rushed in at one point and was about to shout at all the rats in his kitchens when he saw her. He apologized for his temper, complained briefly about uncooperative nobles, and then departed to tend to his portion of whatever crisis was sweeping the Keep.

They would have toured the city, but with so many gathered in Metamor for the wedding festivities, they decided to stay inside the castle. Kimberly prayed in the Ecclesia Cathedral and tried to encourage her children to do so as well. They mimicked her for a few minutes before their restless natures got the better of them. Father Hough was pleased to see them and gave each child a special blessing. They stared with wide eyes, stiff whiskers, and scalloped ears at the priest, who took great delight in making the sign of the yew on their expansive foreheads.

But at last they retired for the evening in the chambers Kyia had prepared for them. Long House was bustling in preparation for Misha’s annual party, but by the time it began, Kimberly, Baerle, and all four children were so exhausted that they slept through it. And they never saw either Misha, Murikeer, or Kozaithy again that day.

“I do wonder,” Baerle said as she sipped her tea. The children were scampering around the room above them, squeaking as was their wont. “What has this crisis been about?”

“I’m sure we’ll either learn soon, or not at all,” Kimberly replied with a gentle shrug of her shoulders. Her round ears turned to catch the sound of little Erick shouting something about being ‘it’ followed by renewed scampering. “It is how things were with Charles. He couldn’t tell me why he had to leave most of the time, only that it concerned Metamor’s safety.”

“Lord Avery has never asked me to keep silent,” Baerle replied and cradled the freshly brewed tea in her paws. “But we rarely scouted beyond his lands.”

“It had to be very important if they would summon him back in the middle of the night,” Kimberly mused and blew across the surface of the tea. “I do wonder what has become of him.”

Baerle lowered her snout. “Misha or Charles?”

“Misha, but yes, Charles too.”

Baerle leaned forward and rested a paw on the rat’s knee. “He’ll be all right. He’ll need you when he gets back.”

Kimberly lifted her eyes to regard the taller opossum. “And you?”

Baerle squeezed the rat’s knee. “That can wait, but I’ll be there for him too if he wants me.”

Both of their heads turned when a faint squeaking came down the hall outside their door. A knock and the voice of the fox sounded through. “Lady Kimberly? It’s Misha.”

“Oh, do come in!” Kimberly cried.

The fox stepped through, looking a bit bedraggled, but otherwise in good spirits. “Sorry about yesterday, but it was a very long day. I would have come sooner, but I needed the party last night to unwind.” He stepped inside the doorway but did not come further.

“What happened?”

“I needed to contact my sister. Something happened through the Valley last night and they wanted her help. Well, something else happened at Marigund that has her busy. That didn’t please Malisa any, and it scares my fur off, but there’s nothing else to be done for it. The first bit of good news is that the crisis is past and there’s nothing more to worry about. Just don’t ask any of his grace’s vassals how their day was yesterday.”

The squeaking above them stopped. The children were listening to them. In another moment they would rush down the steps to greet their Uncle Misha again. Kimberly’s tail twitched in anticipation of the wonderful sight. “You said that was the first bit of good news?”

Misha nodded, his exhaustion giving way to the warm vulpine smile he reserved for those he counted as family. “Duke Thomas received word that the power of Marzac has been defeated. Charles and the rest have won their battle over that evil. And!” He held up one claw to forestall Kimberly’s question, “I brought with me the two visitors who saw Charles in Breckaris. Okay Kurt, one last shove.”

A different sort of squeaking followed, and a beautiful woman sitting in a wheeled seat rolled in followed by an olive-skinned young man who appeared just old enough to wed. He smiled as he saw her and Baerle. The woman’s face was less certain, but the smile was genuine. And while the young man wore the uniform of an officer of a Pyralian army, she was dressed in black with a white garment underneath that covered her hair but left her face exposed.

Misha gestured to the two of them. “I’m pleased to introduce Kurt Schanalein, heir to the Duchy of Breckaris, and Tugal the postulant, who will be staying in Metamor with the nuns.”

Kimberly leapt from her seat and wrapped her arms around the surprised Tugal. She smiled, and without shifting in her seat, returned the hug. “You’re the ones who saw Charles. Oh I’m so happy to meet you both.” She then disengaged and hugged Kurt, the top of her head coming up to his chin.

Kurt stammered uncertainly, in his embarrassment failing to hug the rat back. “You are most certainly welcome, milady.” The scratchy sound of claws descending the stairs made all of them look up. “They’re rats too!”

And that was all he managed before the four children scampered to their feet and politely stopped and bowed. “We are honoured to meet you,” they chorused in high-pitched squeaks.

Tugal’s face for a moment was unreadable, and then she smiled with a look of rapturous wonder. “I have never seen four little ones as adorable as you. My name is Tugal. Who are you precious children?”

Only Kimberly noticed Kurt shed a tear as he watched the postulant greet her children. Quietly, Misha closed the door and left these new friends alone to hear the tale of Charles’s adventure in Breckaris.

Elvmere smiled at the sparrows in their cages as he went about his chores. Celine had assigned him the duty of cleaning their cages as well as seeing to their feed. It was mean and humble work, which was precisely what he ought to be doing after so many years in authority. The air stank with their droppings and echoed with their endless chirping. His head hurt from so much noise and such foul odours that he had to endure, but he loved his feathered charges still.

Every day one of them would be sacrificed on the altar, their blood an oblation to the gods he now prayed to. While he was studious in following the prayers listed in Elsevier’s prayer book, the raccoon was afraid he often added unconventional verses to them. Not only did he pray for the aid of the gods, but he prayed that their paths would be made straight and that they would lead their people into righteousness. It was their task he felt sure, a conviction that his instruction to date had not corrected him of.

How could they properly serve the All-Father Illuvatar if they did not lead men in the ways of righteousness? He could not imagine it being any other way. Not anymore.

Most of the other acolytes did not know who he had been and so far the Lothanasa had kept it that way. A few recognized him, but Celine bade them keep it to themselves. Still, they all could discern that his situation was unusual and so gave him a wide berth. That and he smelled like feces much of the time now, tending not only to the disposal of bird droppings but to the chamberpots of all who served the temple.

And like any good stablehand, he knew in time he would get used to the scent too. Perhaps he’d stink so badly Celine would make him sleep with the birds. But at least he still had his Lady. Nearly every night she came to him and held him close, petting behind his head and telling him how proud she was of him, and assuring him that he was doing the right thing. Only one night she hadn’t visited, and that had been two nights ago, the night Rickkter had finally woken from his slumber. Perhaps he should ask Raven permission to see his fellow raccoon.

His thoughts were interrupted by a gentle knock on the door. A very familiar voice that tugged at his heart sounded. “Elvmere? May I see you?”

Elvmere turned, long striped tail lashing behind him. “Priestess Nylene! Please come in.”

The Silvassan priestess entered, dressed in her simpler travel gear. “I see you are adjusting well to your service,” Nylene said with a warm smile. Her nose wrinkled once but she made no more objection to the stink. “I have heard very good things about you these last few days.”

Elvmere lowered his eyes respectfully to the priestess as an acolyte of their order should. “I am serving. That alone gives me great joy.”

Nylene took a few steps toward him and then turned to stare at the birds in their cages. “You are not the same man I met six months ago.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yet you still are,” Nylene replied, gazing into his green eyes. She sighed but did not break their rapport. “I am very grateful for the time we had together. I may have taught Malger longer, but I never loved him as I do you, Elvmere.” The raccoon opened his muzzle but found no words to say. “I am leaving Metamor now. It is a long journey back to Silvassa. If I wait any longer, my caravan will be just one of many fleeing the Valley. Now, before the Duke’s wedding, I can more easily travel.”

“That is wise,” Elvmere admitted with a long sigh. He took the remaining steps toward her and put his paw on her shoulder. “Journey safely. May all the gods guide your steps and put wind beneath your feet.”

“And may they one day bring us back together, even if only for an hour.” Nylene’s smile blossomed brightly on her weathered face. She reached out one hand and cupped his furry chin. “You may look like a beast, but I see the most handsome of men. Goodbye, Elvmere.”

“Goodbye, Nylene hin’Lofwine.” His whiskers twitched as her hand trailed through his chin fur. She turned and glided with solemn grace back out the door. It shut quietly, the latch falling into place with a faint click. The raccoon sighed, ears turning this way and that as they caught the song of the sparrows.

A strange glow emanated from the far corner of the room. Elvmere turned and saw a strange and familiar visage stepping out of a shimmering curtain of shadowed light. Long feet preceded a long snout and ears, all of which was summed up with a thick dusty-brown tail that bounced up and down with each step. He bore a travelling tunic and breeches with a yellow undershirt of a very tight weave. His hazel eyes found the raccoon and he shook his head. “I would never have guessed it would be you.”

Elvmere knew this figure, this kangaroo. The name leapt to his tongue. “Zhypar Habakkuk. What has happened to you?”

Habakkuk chortled briefly and then gestured with one paw at the raccoon. “I should ask that question of you... Vin... no, you do not go by that name now. Elvmere. An acolyte of the Lothanasi no less. And the answer to the last line of my progenitor’s final prophecy. You are a surprise in more ways than one.”

“I fear that surprise will not sit well with an ardent Patildor such as yourself.”

“You even speak as the Lothanasi do,” Habakkuk observed. “I do not know why this came to pass, but I am certain that it is just one more mysterious turn in Eli’s holy plan.”

Elvmere sucked in his breath as he noted the faint translucence to the kangaroo’s flesh. “You’re a spirit. What happened?”

“I died. Do not fret for my soul. I am going to see my family again.” He looked to one side and his ears lowered. “I fear for Lindsey and will pray for her.” His eyes returned to the white-smocked raccoon. “But as to why I am here visiting you, I wanted to know what has always been denied to me. I knew one day the Felikaush would come to an end. I hoped that it would not end with me. A new prophet had to see a new page. The new age has come to this world, and so the time has come for that new prophetic line. I wished to meet its progenitor. Here I am.”

“I do not understand,” Elvmere admitted, shaking his head. “What of the others who accompanied you?”

“All those from Metamor are well and will return. But as for me, I must now leave. Fare thee well, Elvmere. I believe your journey will have a few more twists to it before your labours are over.”

Habakkuk nodded his head, smiled, and then vanished into the curtain of light. Elvmere stared long after the curtain was only an image burned in his eyes. The shadows began to disperse when someone else came knocking on the door. The raccoon shook his head, faintly disturbed by the apparition, and cried, “Please come in.”

And his heart skipped a beat as a very familiar skunk stepped through, staring at him with jaw agape. “Your grace!” Murikeer stammered, paws spread wide. “What happened to bring you here?”

Elvmere lowered his eyes and quickly wrapped the skunk into a tight embrace. “Murikeer! Ah, lad, it is good to see you again! Did you find your father and your master?”

Murikeer hugged and nodded. “Aye, I found them. They’ll be properly buried come the Spring. But how came you to be here? What happened at Yesulam?”

The raccoon sighed and glanced at the chirping birds. “It is a long and sad tale. I have much to do before the wedding, but if you can spare a few minutes I will tell you.”

“Please,” Murikeer invited, shutting the door behind him. The skunk did not appear offended by his stench. “It’s been so long since we parted ways in Silvassa. I must know.”

Elvmere nodded and lowered his arms, leaning back on his heels. “Six months. Ah, I hope one day we can travel together again. But for now I must serve here. And how I came to be here, well...”

Kashin waited outside Patriarch Geshter’s chambers as the afternoon sky warmed the land. His sessions with the Questioners had taken him all day yesterday and most of the morning. Only a handful of Bishops had been guilty of cooperating in Jothay’s scheme, and of them, only Rott and Temasah seemed to know about Akabaieth’s assassination. He supposed he should be grateful that the vast majority of the Council were innocent, but far too many had willingly joined Jothay’s evil cause. How could such men serve the Ecclesia?

Once his duties to the Questioners were complete for the day — they’d retired early to prepare for Yule — he’d come here to wait. Nor did he have to wait long. Shortly after his midday preparations, Patriarch Geshter returned to take his midday meal.

The Patriarch was dressed in purple vestments that he would change for white when he offered the Mass of Yahshua’s Birth that evening. His thick face stretched into a pleased smile when he saw Kashin waiting for him. The quartet of Yeshuel flanked him and all of them smiled to their former member. Outside the long hall he could see several other priests who had accompanied Geshter in his prayers but who now left him to those few precious minutes he could have to himself.

Kashin well remembered how Akabaieth treasured his time alone. When he hadn’t spent it in prayer he was as likely to read Naval treatises as he was theological works. Geshter appeared to prefer spending his time writing scholarly tracts. That is, when Kashin didn’t keep him occupied.

Geshter smiled and extended his right hand. “Ah, Kashin. What brings you here on this beautiful Yule?”

Kashin knelt and kissed the Patriarch’s ring. “Your Holiness. I’ve come seeking you on a matter close to my heart.”

“Then let us sit and discuss it,” Geshter gestured for him to enter his sitting room. The four Yeshuel stayed close but did not follow him in. Kashin they could trust. Geshter smoothed his vestments over once he sat and favoured the black clad man with genuine warmth. “How go the deliberations?”

“We should be complete by the New Year. There is little more to report. I don’t think we’ll uncover any other guilty parties at this point.”

“Good. Eli’s Ecclesia has been cleansed. We have you to thank for this, Kashin.”

He nodded but did not smile. “But what of Vinsah? Will you lift his excommunication? He was innocent.”

Geshter’s smile fled. “Vinsah was innocent of Akabaieth’s murder. But his mind was infected with pagan ideas. Perhaps Marzac drove me to overreact and a better solution could have been found. But it is done now. I will send someone to investigate him in the coming year to see if we might lift his excommunication. Until then, I can only pray for his soul.”

“But you were under Marzac’s influence when you excommunicated him!” Kashin said in darker tones.

“We do not know how far Marzac’s touch influenced my decisions as Patriarch. It is why I am carefully examining these decisions now that I have full use of all my faculties again. Were I too undo all of my decisions from that time, I would be asserting that the power of Marzac is greater than the promises of Yahshua. I cannot do that.”

Kashin simmered. “But Vinsah! You gave him worse punishment than either Rott or Temasah face!”

Geshter sighed and his shoulders slumped. “I know. It is why I will send someone to Metamor to investigate all that he said. His words still disturb me, Kashin. This Lady of his, I do not trust her. And his claims about magic and sorcery will have to be more thoroughly examined before we can render judgement. If any are found, after investigation, to be heresy, and Vinsah still clings to them, then his excommunication must stand.”

“But you will offer him no relief until then?”

“I will undo nothing until I understand which of my decisions were corrupted by Marzac.” Geshter frowned and gestured at Kashin’s garments. “You still wear the black. You cannot change that until you are certain that justice has been achieved. To take the green before then would be to act rashly. So too would it be for me to lift Vinsah’s excommunication until I know if it was deserved. Believe me, I pray for his soul every night.”

Kashin licked his lips, the anger that had flared in him fading. He prayed for Vinsah every night too. “I will take the green again,” he said after several seconds silence. “Once our investigations are finished. Who will you send to Metamor?”

“A Questioner, but after what happened here, it will have to be one of the three they know. And even then they may not let them in the gates. I fear we have work to do there.” Geshter put his hands on his knees and stood. “But for now, I wish to pray. But first, there is one thing I wish to say that is dear to my heart.”

Kashin rose with the Patriarch and asked, “What is it, Your Holiness?”

Geshter locked his tired blue eyes onto Kashin’s dark ones. “When you retake the green of the Yeshuel, I would like to appoint you as the head of their order. None is more deserving than you.”

Kashin kneeled and lowered his head. “If it means I may once more protect that which matters most, then I will accept.”

Geshter laid his hands on Kashin’s head and his voice brimmed with warmth and fondness. “Kashin, once of the Yeshuel and soon to be again, you are Eli’s good servant, and I would have no other at my side aiding me in the monumental task of undoing all the evil Marzac committed against the Ecclesia.”

“I will serve,” Kashin said, a light penetrating into a corner of his heart that had long been dark. He smiled and accepted his Patriarch’s benediction. Yes, very soon, he would be as he was born to be, a Yeshuel of the Ecclesia. Though there were many he cared about whose troubles lingered, his terrible journey at least was coming to an end. He would pray night and day while wearing the green that such grace of Eli would fall on his friends too.

When Geshter removed his hands, Kashin rose, bowed, and left the Patriarch to his prayers. He bounced on the balls of his feet as he strode the halls of the mighty cathedral. It was time for his prayers too.

The Iron King heaved under a full compliment of oars. Over a hundred plied the waters driving the vessel north toward Marzac. Phil had released the Pyralian sailors to complement his own men in order to fill every slot. The Whalish blue sat next to the Pyralian green and together they strove against the sea.

Prince Phil spent much time conversing with his fellow Keeper, the archduke of Sutthaivasse, Malger Sutt. There was little more to learn of their common home in the north that he had not already heard from his agents in the Northern Midlands, but he did enjoy the tales of Malger’s adventures in Sathmore and how he came to reclaim his family’s house after so many years of disgrace. Malger, ever the jongleur, could not resist their telling, but he did extract news of Whales and was relieved to hear that Phil’s father had recovered from his near fatal illness.

Phil also spent time watching the progress of their ship as it chased Aramaes. He was eager to see the rat whom he’d once shared a deep bond of friendship. Their enemies in Marzac had nearly destroyed that friendship, turning Phil into the very monster he’d always loathed. Phil shuddered as he recalled that time, his last spent at Metamor, as he’d fallen deeper and deeper under the sway of a magical portrait of Zagrosek. He’d begun plotting assassinating his friends when news of his father’s illness had reached him and broken through to his heart.

Yet in all this time, he’d never had to face Charles, the friend whose life he’d come so close to destroying. What could they say after so many months and after parting in so painful a way? He conceived of a hundred different things to say to the rat and hated all of them. He paced back and forth with only the stolid presence of Rupert to comfort him. The Great Ape, wordless as he was, understood his fear and offered what comfort he could by never offering even a suggestion of doubt to the rabbit prince.

When night came, Phil managed only a few hours of restless sleep before he gave up and tried to spend his time attending to the reports he’d received from his commanders after the fall of the Marzac fleet. The dragons who’d come to their aid had returned to Whales once their victory was sure, and Malger’s Merai had been seen only in fitful glances through the storm dark waters. Far too many on both sides had lost their lives in the evil-begotten battle, and he pondered the final thoughts of men controlled by Marzac. Were they able to pray to their gods for absolution? Or did they gleefully plunge themselves into the abyss for a long dead Åelf’s nightmare?

Rupert attended him patiently and without complaint as the midnight hour passed into the early hours before dawn. The eastern sky brightened with a grayish blue line along the horizon. And just as Phil’s heavy eyelids began to droop, cheers rose from the men in the galleys. A moment later Captain Whiett knocked on his door. While Rupert let the captain in, Phil glanced at the portholes but saw only the sea.

“Your highness,” Whiett declared, a broad grin on his face, “we’ve caught sight of the Burning Hand. They’re heaving to. We’ll be abreast in ten minutes.”

Phil nodded, all thoughts of returning to his bed gone. “Good. Be ready to transfer Charles to our ship. And have someone wake Malger. He’ll want to be here for this.”

And, with naval precision, only ten minutes later the Iron King slowed and retracted oars as it came alongside the dromonai the Burning Hand. Aramaes stood on deck, his bald head and chiselled features visible even from afar. But the most conspicuous figure was at his side, nearly two feet shorter, sporting fur, a muzzle, and a long scaly tail. He was dressed in breeches hastily modified to allow for his tail and cut close to his hocks. He wore nothing on his chest. Two Lothanasi symbols glowed on his chest. The right side of his face was marred by a black hand print burned into his flesh.

Phil swallowed, ears upright, and their eyes met. The rabbit tugged self-consciously at the finery he’d borrowed from Malger who stood beside him with his beastly countenance concealed beneath his human guise. The rat’s whiskers twitched in the warm yellow light from the lamps around both decks. His muzzle drew back into what the rabbit had long known was his smile. Phil’s heart beat firmly in his chest, that same smile crossing his features.

A ladder was lowered from the much higher deck of the Iron Hand, and the rat scrambled up with the alacrity his rodent nature blessed him. He brushed the blue pantaloons with his paws as he leapt onto the deck only feet from where Phil, Malger, Whiett, and Rupert awaited him. He lowered his head respectfully to the rabbit, and then jumped forward so quickly the Great Ape snorted in alarm.

But Charles, long lost friend that he was, wrapped his arms about the rabbit and held him tight. “Oh Phil! I cannot tell you how grateful I am to see you! Oh to see any of you! It has been so long since I have seen another Metamorian!”

Phil laughed and wrapped his forelegs around the rat as best he could. A strange sort of ivy met his paws behind the rat’s back. But Phil was too delighted to care. “And it is so very good to see you, Charles. What in all creation are you doing here?”

Charles leaned back, looking up at the startled Rupert with both warmth and apology in his gaze, and then quickly over the others before returning his eyes to the white rabbit. “Duke Thomas sent us to destroy Marzac six months ago. We were fulfilling the prophecies that Habakkuk saw.”

“Habakkuk?” Phil said with surprise. He well remembered the kangaroo, and had been pleased to serve with him in the Writer’s Guild. Very withdrawn most of the time, but always faithful to his duty.

“He knew what had to be done,” Charles replied, a note of sadness filling him. “Sadly, his own life was lost in the battle two days ago. He and one other, an ancient Åelf I knew, gave their lives to defeat Marzac. The rest of us are well and safe, but we need help. We have no more supplies and are trapped on the Marzac peninsula. But now I know we shall be saved.”

Phil nodded, saddened by news of Habakkuk’s death, but hardened to it after their long fight. With one paw he reached up and drew his friend into another embrace. All the worry in his heart over seeing the rat again was banished. “And they will. Tell us where to go and we shall. I will deliver you all back to Metamor myself!”

Charles beamed brighter, his eyes catching the first rays of the dawning sun. “Thank you, Phil. How is your father?”

“Fully recovered,” Phil replied. His tone lowered. “Can you forgive me for what I did to you?”

Charles looked aghast and shook his head. Phil’s ears dropped some. “Phil, I have seen what Marzac did to men. And I felt what it tried to do to me. There is nothing to forgive. I love you as a brother.”

“And I you, Charles,” Phil stood straighter. “Now, let me introduce you to the others here. And you must tell me how you came by that remarkable scar on your face.”

The rat laughed. “A Shrieker touched me. The journey to Metamor must be very long. We will have much time for telling our tales. Like how you came to commandeer a ship of Pyralis. But first, introduce us, and then let us find our friends again.”

“Perhaps we should do so in your chambers, your highness,” Malger suggested.

Phil nodded. “We can strike for north along the coastline. When we see them we’ll get in our boats and row to shore.”

Charles stared at the many men of two nations watching them with keen interest. “Why do we need to hide there? All have seen us for who we are.”

Malger chuckled lightly. “Not quite, Charles. I too am a Metamorian.”

The rat glanced at him, eyes curious. “Born a woman then?”

“Nay,” Malger replied. “My name is Malger Sutt. You knew me as Dream Serpent the bard. My shape is hidden beneath an illusion that it is best I maintain for the time being.”

Charles’s dark eyes widened and his brown fur thrummed with his startled laugh. “Truly! I will never cease marvelling at all that I’ve seen these last six months. Then to your quarters, Phil. There is much we need to say and see.”

Phil wrapped one arm about his friend and together they walked the length of the Iron Hand toward the state rooms in the stern. Captain Whiett remained behind to order the captured vessel north. The rabbit hopped beside a friend he’d thought he’d lost, his heart lifting higher with each step.

And, as they passed into those makeshift chambers, Phil realized that every sacrifice made against Marzac had been worth it. There never was a price too high in the resistence of evil.

Duke Titian Verdane had been meeting with his advisors one last time before celebrating Yule when the letter arrived. The message had been passed unstopped from rider to rider and horse to horse for many days to reach him. It bore the falcon seal of Duke Krisztov Otakar XII of Salinon. That could mean only one thing, and so Verdane dismissed his advisors apart from his son Tyrion. The Prelate of Kelewair waited patiently while his father broke the seal and read the letter.

Titian took a goblet of wine and sipped, fingers tensing as he recognized the careful letters of his eldest son, Jaime.


I have just arrived in Salinon and have been placed in a well apportioned tower after meeting with my host, his grace Duke Otakar. The weather is very cool with a foot of snow on the ground, and there is a draft that finds its way through the windows no matter what I do. But for all that, I have been given sufficient clothing to keep warm. They have even been so kind as to allow me to wear our wolf-head emblem.

His grace has promised to treat me as an honoured guest, and so far has kept that promise. I am not shackled, and have been given free reign of my tower and the large courtyard and garden it adjoins. I have been told that I will be granted a priest to bring me the Host and to hear my confessions. I have also been told that his grace will be throwing a banquet soon to celebrate the swearing of Lord Calladar’s allegiance to Salinon. I will be in attendance and hope that Calladar chokes to death.

I do not fear for my life, Father. I am going to be treated well so long as Otakar controls Bozojo. I am limited in what I can do, but it will leave me plenty of time for prayer and meditation. Just being in this city brings back many memories of Valada. Perhaps my time here will in some way repay the tragedy of her death and the hostility that has followed.

Do not fear for me either, Father. I know that you will do what is best for our land. You always have. Give my love to Anya and Tyrion. And to Jory. He will grow in time to be a strong leader of men.

I am allowed to receive letters, and I eagerly await any news you have to offer me. There is so much I yearn to hear and see, but I will wait until that time comes. I do not believe I will die in this tower, but if I must, the view is lovely, and the countryside speaks to the soul. Eli knows I am here, Father, and I will do my best to trust in His inscrutable ways.

Your son,

Jaime Verdane

Titian Verdane lowered the letter to the desk and shook his head. “Anything I send Jaime will be read by Otakar first. If this letter is to be believed, Jaime is being well-treated and will not suffer during his imprisonment.”

Tyrion reached forward, shifting his club foot to one side, and snatched the letter. He scanned the contents and sighed. “It’s Jaime’s handwriting. What can we do for him?”

“I fear he is offering himself as a sacrifice for the greater good of our land,” Verdane replied, a note of sadness filling his voice. The cold air crept through the open casement and circled his flesh. He huddled in his robes and forced the tears to stay behind his eyes. “Jaime, would you never learn? What good is a kingdom without sons to inherit it?”

Tyrion’s eyes passed over the letter and his shoulder slumped when he reached the end. “It seems he’s asking you to make Jory your heir.”

“I know,” Verdane replied unhappily. “Where is the boy?”

“Unless he’s snuck off to the kennels again, he’s in the Cathedral with his tutors receiving morning Mass.” Tyrion tapped the top of the letter to his chin. “Is there some way you can turn his love for dogs to nobler purpose?”

Verdane rapped his knuckles on the table top. “Those dogs will be closer companions than men for him in the years ahead. He can make the beast heel. Now he needs to learn to make men heel.” With a long sigh he rose and gestured to the letter. “Leave that here with me. It is time I took Jory’s instruction upon myself. Unless a miracle occurs, I will listen to my lost son. Jory will be my heir.”

“Of course, Father,” Tyrion replied, rising with him. He left the letter on the table. The ends curled up and quivered in the light brush of wind. “I will bring him to you after Mass.”

“Thank you, Tyrion. Now bring me quill, ink and parchment. I must let your brother know of our love.”

Tyrion quietly retrieved all three and then left his father, the Duke of what remained of the Southern Midlands, alone with his thoughts. It was time for the priest to celebrate Yule even if there was no joy in his heart. Like all his prayers of late, he prayed for Jaime’s safe return and the healing of his country. Tyrion made the sign of the yew before his chest and hobbled the long walk to the Cathedral.

He’d known it would happen. Everyone had warned him that on this day he would feel anxiety beyond description. Even if Nasoj himself led a million Lutins into the valley and all hope seemed lost, he would not be as anxious as this. No calamity could compare, no threat to his duchy could match it. And, with his tail flicking, lips frothing, and ears twitching in nervous anticipation, Duke Thomas Hassan V knew that they had all been right.

There was nothing that made a man so anxious as being married.

He’d thought after the agony of cajoling his vassals into staying at Metamor with both magical assurance and promises of financial gain, the marriage itself would be a pleasant rest. It was the one consoling thought through the many hours of tense negotiations and repeated reports from various mages that the Curse did not touch any of them. It alone gave him hope as he promised away tax revenues and wealth to keep his duchy together. At the end of the day, after successfully keeping his vassals at Metamor, when he’d rested his head on the soft pillows of his bed, he had realized that his bed would not be his alone anymore. It was his last sleep as an unmarried man.

And now, standing near the altar in the Lothanasi Temple, arrayed in his finest purple robes with the crown of Metamor perched uncomfortably atop his equine brow — it was the first time he’d worn it since his coronation — blue and gold tassels woven into his mane and tail, golden braces fitted over his hooves, and silken gloves covering his hoof-like hands — which made him look like a show horse, which was somewhat better than the plow horse his bride had wanted to make him last April — with his devoted Steward Thalberg at his side dressed in a rich woolen blue doublet and hose — for once eschewing his customary red robes — with a horse-head medallion about his thick, green-scaled neck, and a golden plume set between yellow eyes that kept constant watch over Thomas and the vast array of guests assembled in the pews to celebrate with them ranging from the assorted vassals both cursed and human all clustering in a mishmash in the first few rows, their dress garish with bright colours that banished the night and of accoutrements that only a Metamorian of beastly facade could wear to many of the Keep dignitaries reclining behind them such as Lidaman, the Urseil family, Will and Caroline Hardy, Misha Brightleaf — who held Caroline’s paw very tightly — and others who all wore dignified clothing befitting their station to the mages who dressed in a panoply of styles from alchemical mystery to austere modesty and finally to the Keep staff and other fortunate commoners who were able, through fortune or felicity, to obtain an invitation clustered in the pews furthest from the altar and thus in the darkest part of the temple, Thomas realized just what his marriage to Dame Alberta Artelanoth, once a son of the Steppe and a knight of Yesulam guarding the Patriarch, would mean not only to him but also to the people of Metamor and the Northern Midlands, and that made him even more nervous.

For Thomas, it meant that the woman he’d fallen in love with would ever more share his bed, his table, and his life. His duties as Duke had always included seeing to the defence of his domain, but now the reason for that defence was tightened from the many to the one. He would protect Metamor to keep his bride safe. But for the people of Metamor, a married Thomas meant continuity and stability for their land. And it meant that he would have to become a father in his own right. Their love for each other could never be for its own sake, but always with a mind for their land.

The very depth of his responsibility humbled the horse lord. Thomas glanced at Thalberg, who regarded him with passive confidence, the alligator long since resigning himself to seeing his Duke wed the woman who’d made him pull a wagon load of onions about town. He leaned closer to his friend and said in a quiet voice, “It’s really happening isn’t it?”

Thalberg nodded, long jaw cracking in a reptilian grin. “That it is, your grace. Your people are ready to celebrate your good fortune this day.”

“And their good fortune.”

“Aye, their good fortune too.”

Thomas shifted about on his hooves, the tassels in his tail flashing on either side as his tail tried to absorb some of his nervous tension. At the rear of the temple he could see Raven standing just outside the doors while Merai and Malisa fussed over her robes one last time. Somewhere behind them Alberta waited.

“You’ll do fine,” Thalberg whispered. Thomas took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

By the time he exhaled and opened his eyes, Raven, Merai, and the acolytes in the procession began singing a joyful chant. Thomas let his eyes pass over the white-robbed wolf and cat, the many acolytes in less refined attire, ever keeping his eye on the rear of the temple. All in attendance stood, their gaze moving to the back to the awaited arrival of the bride. Thomas’s heart pounded against his ribs.

Malisa took up the rear of the procession, dressed also in the Hassan blue. She wore attire that did not try to hide her femininity while still remaining masculine in appearance. Her broad face beamed at Thomas, pride and hope filling her eyes. She carried a damask purple pillow trimmed with gold tassels on which rested a slender crown. The crown was fashioned from gold with a single sapphire of an exquisitely deep blue fixed into the apex. It had been many years since this crown had been worn.

Following her, a bouquet of flowers from the greenhouse in her hearty paws, was Jenn the wolverine and wife to Sir Andre Maugnard. Thomas had wondered who Alberta would choose as a bridesmaid. Jenn was an intimidating but good choice. He glanced at the crowd but couldn’t find the Maugnard family, though he knew they had to be somewhere.

His search was arrested as the joyful chant lowered to a prayerful beat, Raven and Merai taking their places before the altar. The acolytes fanned out to attend to their duties. Malisa stood just past Thalberg. And once Jenn’s paws stepped from the gilded red carpet, into the temple processed two figures who moved with stately grace. The first, with a full set of antlers only weeks from falling off, was dressed in the green tabard of Yesulam blended with the blue of the Metamorian crest. The elk’s snout turned upward in pride, his sword bouncing against his thigh with each step.

In the crook of Sir Yacoub Egland’s arm rested the hoof-like hand of the bride. She was covered from long ears to hooves in a white gown overflowing with veils cascading from her head and shoulders like waterfalls of lace. Her long snout was visible beneath the lace, but from a distance Thomas could only tell that it was his Alberta striding forward, her hooves muffled on the soft carpet. He smiled like an idiot as he stared at her, his hide trembling as if dislodging a legion of flies.

Before he knew it, the pair had reached the base of the altar. Egland paused, stopping just before the steps, letting her hand slide into his. His brown eyes met Alberta’s gaze, and a lifelong conversation passed between them in that moment. The elk swallowed, nodded to Alberta, and let go of her hand. She smiled back to him, inclined her head once, and then walked toward Thomas’s side. Egland retreated to the front row seat prepared for him careful not to strike the badger Baron Christopher with his antlers and watched with the rest.

Through the veil Thomas could see her eye gaze into his as they both turned to face the altar. Their hands met, thick fingers brushing hard nails against each other. Raven stood between them and the altar and offered supplication to the gods. Alberta lowered her head and her lips moved with a prayer to Eli. Thomas, like all the Lothanasi in attendance, lowered their heads to join their prayers to Raven’s.

When the Lothanasa finished, she turned around and bade everyone sit. She then, with Merai’s assistance, proceeded with the marriage ritual. Thomas heard the words, the admonitions and advice, but found it impossible to remember anything. He followed the rituals and so too did Alberta. Raven had taken some time to tell her what would be done, but Thomas had been too busy to help her. He hoped that would never be the case again.

The minutes passed so quickly that before he knew what was happening, Raven was guiding him through his vows. The words flowed from his tongue, shaped by his supple lips, resounding through the temple with the aid of a simple dweomer. He stared deeply through the veil into Alberta’s eyes, every word a bolt of love from his heart into hers.

And then, Alberta repeated the vows to him, and he felt himself growing in stature. The weight of the crown no longer hurt his ears. The watchful eyes of the crowd no longer bore into his dignity. There was nothing other than Alberta and he in the chamber.

Raven’s voice, full of warm delight, intruded upon their quiet interlude. “As a sign of your newfound union, you may now kiss.”

Thomas stepped closer to his bride, his wife. He lifted the veil from her face, draping it behind her ears and over her black mane. Warm brown eyes met him, her grey hide fresh and clean. Her nostrils flared with excitement and the two leaned closer, pressing their lips together, pushing away from their broad teeth to connect. He gripped her shoulder, and they slipped into a tight embrace. Cheers ascended around them on all sides.

When Thomas and Alberta broke the kiss, eyes still locked, Malisa stepped forward with the crown. Thomas took it between his fingers and while Alberta lowered her head, he pronounced. “Alberta Artelanoth. I wed thee and bring thee into my house, the house Hassan. And with it, all the rights and privileges of my house are extended to thee. As my wife, my throne thou shalt share. And so I crown thee, Duchess Alberta Hassan of the Northern Midlands!” He lowered the crown until it nestled between her long ears. She stood straighter, regal in bearing as all of their subjects applauded and cheered.

Together, hand in hand, they passed in resplendent train through the temple, as Raven and the Lothanasi sang the final benediction for the newly married couple. And then all the bells in Metamor rang to announce their great fortune. Thomas tucked Alberta’s arm close in to his as they walked side by side, husband and wife, and knew that he had never seen a more glorious day than this.

All the gods be praised, he exulted in his heart, and bless Metamor with their abundance as they had him. He smiled to Alberta who smiled back. As one they left the temple, forever more united in marriage and in love.

The place the Magyars chose to spend the night was covered in several inches of snow. They were long used to clearing snow and before the sun kissed the western horizon with its red lips, they had swept the semicircular area between their wagons enough for the Assingh to feed on the stalks and for the men to arrange logs for the fires. And being the first night reunited beyond the desolate land where Cenziga had once stood, all who were able came out to celebrate.

Gamran danced with Thelia, Pelgan showed Pelurji how to throw a knife, Chamag demonstrated to the young boys the fierceness of his curse-begotten fangs by tearing through hard, salted mutton, Gelel impressed the girls coming of age with his mighty deeds in Yesulam, Nemgas and Kisaiya reclined together fashioning wedding links from dried reeds, Hanaman sang songs of past glory with the elder men, Zhenava led the women in a dance of their own, and across the encampment Grastalko and Bryone gazed at each other.

It had taken all of Grastalko’s self-composure to keep from telling Bryone his good fortune the first moment he’d seen her come out to join the others in celebration. But Nemgas had suggested to him a way to tell her and all why they should be together. And so he waited, allowing her ample time to see his disfigured face. He’d spent some time examining himself in Rabji’s small mirror that afternoon. He truly did appear a monster caught transforming betwixt a human guise and its real form. Though he knew they would never mean to hurt him, many of the Magyar’s had recoiled at first when they saw him. But each was ashamed of it, and none did so twice. That solace was enough for him to know that amongst his people, his fellow Magyars, he was no different.

While he watched Varna and the cooks bring the cookpots and ingredients out, he realized that it was the Yule. The Driheli would be celebrating in Stuthgansk with feasting, ale, songs and prayer. He lowered his eyes and offered prayers for their health and Eli’s blessings. They were good people, despite how they were used, and he would love them all his life. But, he knew it in his heart, he truly was a Magyar and would be so until he took his last breath.

“Grastalko!” Hanaman shouted, waving his arms and beckoning him toward the log piles. Varna and the cooks erected a black cauldron over the largest. “‘Tis time.”

He nodded, eyes finding Bryone in the crowd. He walked past her and offered her a smile full of confidence. She gazed back, longing, but eyes rich in melancholy. He angled toward Hanaman, while Nemgas and his friends gathered, making sure to keep low so that all could see. “I hath come, Hanaman.” He stood tall, wrapping his hands before his waist, the ruined covering the hearty. “What wouldst thee have of me?”

Hanaman gestured to the wood. “Wilt thee give us thy gift? Show us.”

Grastalko nodded. “‘Tis my greatest pleasure to give what I hath to my fellow Magyars.” He lowered his eyes to the wood and extended his charred arm. He spread the fingers wide. The wrinkled hide of his left cheek drew taut. All the blaze within him focussed on the logs. They sizzled from dampness and then orange flames licked across their surfaces and tasted the cauldron’s base.

Nemgas and his friends cheered. Many gasped and then cheered their good fortune. Another Magyar who didst possess magic! Grastalko smiled and bowed his head to Hanaman who gazed at him with fatherly pride, and then turned back to Bryone. The frail girl’s mouth hung open in hope, and then she rushed forward, throwing her arms around his shoulder and kissing his ruined cheek.

Grastalko cried in joy and held her tight. “I dost love thee, my Bryone!”

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wet his face with her lips. “I love thee too, my Grastalko!”

“Then consent to be my wife!”

“I am already thine. Command me and I wilt obey.”

Grastalko stopped her from kissing him for a moment, holding her chin with his good hand. Their eyes locked and he felt all the world vanish but for her. “Be thou as thou art now and forever. I want thee and nothing more.”

Bryone smiled, exhaling with joy. “Thou hast it! And I hast thee and want thee ne’er to change.”

His fellow Magyars roared their approval as he kissed her with equal ferocity. At last, the hole in his heart was filled.

Nemgas held Kisaiya close as he watched the two lovers embrace. His eyes lifted to the sky as the sun set bright and crimson. He looked to the west from whence they’d come that day, and yet no blue star came to mar the dusk. The Steppe was theirs again. He turned to Kisaiya and sighed peacefully. “‘Tis good to be home.” She could only nod and rest her head against his breast.

Dusk was fast approaching. Kayla stretched her toes and reclined on a rock jutting into the sea. It had taken nearly the whole of the day to walk from the ruins to the western edge of the Marzac peninsula. Even with a full day of rest, all of them were exhausted from the trek. They’d erected their tents, and she could hear James the donkey snoring loudly. Less so, Vigoreaux and Lindsey who had said little during the day’s hike. The rest remained more or less awake tending both to a makeshift fire and to the signal light shining above them.

Everything had been destroyed in the cataclysm, and so the entire hike had been through mud caked ruins of stone and wood. Roots and brambled clawed at their feet tripping them and catching in their fur. Several times the mud sucked at them, swallowing them into captured air pockets beneath the surface. If not for the strength of Jerome, Andares, and Sir Autrefois, or the magic of Guernef, Abafouq, and Jessica, both James and Kayla would have been suffocated in a prison of miserable earth.

“Kayla?” Jerome said behind her. “Come on back. Andares is going to cook something to eat.”

Kayla twisted at the waist, her long tail swinging clear. “Andares’s is cooking?” She chuckled for a moment and shook her head. “There is a first time for everything.” The skunk lowered her eyes and stared across the sea. Her voice became distant, introspective. “Jerome... do you think... do you think it was worth it? So many had to die. I never knew Habakkuk before, but he became a friend. And Lindsey. How long before she heals? I’ll see Rickkter again when we return to Metamor. But she’ll never see him again.”

Jerome crossed his hands behind his back and sucked on his lower lip. “Zagrosek was a friend since childhood. And yet he had to die. Charles and I helped the Marquis defeat the power hungry Handil Sutt ten years ago. And though he’d never been a friend, I hated seeing him die too. We’re in a fight against evil. If all we seek to do is save ourselves we can never save others. Zhypar understood that. Lindsey does too. She will heal and we will be here for her as long as she needs us.”

Kayla scuffed her claws against the rock. “Will you stay in Metamor when we return.”

The Sondecki shrugged. “I don’t know. If I am needed, yes. Charles and I will need to discuss returning to Sondeshara at some point in the near future. We need to heal the rift within our clan and there can be no better time than now, but I know he has to see and spend time with his family first.”

“True. He’s told us so much about his children, I’m anxious to meet them.”

“Me too. Especially...” Jerome gasped and dashed the last few steps to reach Kayla’s side. He stared hard to the southwest, and then jumped, laughing for joy. Kayla stare with him, and there on the horizon, growing with each second, was a fleet of ships. “Praise Eli! They’re here!”

Kayla shouted for joy and beat her fists against her knees. On her hips, the dragon swords thrummed with delight.

Charles bounced from paw to paw as the row boats crossed the distance from the Iron Hand to the shore. Phil and Malger were with him, while the lurking presence of Rupert blotted out the sun. Whalish sailors pulled oars for three boats, furiously seeking the shore.

The rat saw his friends clustering on the bank, and he waved to them, jumping up and down. The Great Ape grunted at the rat; but he needn’t have worried about Charles tipping the boat. He knew precisely where to step to keep it steady.

And then, as the oars began to scrape the sandy bottom, Charles jumped from the boat and ran, his paws barely sinking beneath the water’s surface. His friends who’d shared the last six months of their lives together all leapt from the edge of the land and ran toward him. They met as the boats pulled close, and hugged tight, laughing with a delight they couldn’t describe.

Andares found his voice first. “That is a mighty vessel you have brought for us, friend Charles.”

“And mighty friends have come with it!” the rat declared. As the row boat caught up to them, he gestured to its inhabitants. “May I present, Prince Phil of Whales, his aide Rupert, and Malger Sutt, once called Dream Serpent.”

Phil stood in the boat, and his eyes brimmed with good cheer. “Kayla!” He did not leap into the water, but the skunk sloshed through the knee-high water and grabbed the rabbit out of the boat and hugged him tight.

“Your highness! I never thought to see you again!”

Phil laughed and hugged her back. “And how did my favourite assistant come to be in so desolate a land as this?”

“It’s a long story, Phil. And once gain, you’ve come to save me when I’ve gotten in over my head!”

He laughed as the rest clustered close. His eyes alighted upon the black hawk and he blinked. “Jessica? Is that you?”

The hawk nodded, bending at her waist to keep her tail feathers out of the water. “It is I, Phil. I have a message for you from Wessex.”

The rabbit’s ears folded back. “From Wessex?” His heart pounded from both excitement and anxiety. But he mastered the lapine instincts and nodded. “Tell me over dinner. Tonight we feast.”

“And feast well,” Malger added, smiling as he gazed across the weary travellers. “I daresay that no tale I have ever spun can match what you have seen.”

Abafouq, who stood with his armpits only inches above the lapping water, laughed and then sighed as he hugged to Guernef’s side. The Nauh-kaee’s wings kept close to his back, his impassive eyes soft with relief. “There is much hardship and sadness in its telling.” But the smile could not stay banished from his face for long. “But much joy too.”

Charles hugged James and helped the donkey climb into the first raft. Lindsey followed, nearly capsizing the rowboat as she swung one hearty leg over the side. The rat steadied her and said, “The fight is won, the evil has been vanquished, and now we return home. What greater joy can we have in this life, so long as we share it together?”

“There is none,” Andares replied with a long sigh. He and Sir Autrefois helped Vigoreaux into one of the rowboats. “We shall feast to our departed friends, and to those who have come to our rescue.”

Kayla hoisted Abafouq over the side of Phil’s vessel. Rupert grabbed the Binoq and set him down dripping wet onto one of the seats. He then hoisted Jessica on board and set the hawk next to him. Malger aided Kayla as she climbed aboard. Guernef walked back to the shore, spread his wings and leapt into the air. A few moments more and all of them were in boats, and the sailors began turning them about.

The two Lothanasi symbols that glowed on the rat’s uncovered chest brightened for a moment, casting everyone around him in a warm rose hue, and then faded until nothing of them remained. Charles rubbed the fur with one paw, whiskers standing out straight in surprise. “They’re gone. We defeated Marzac two days ago. Why now?”

“Perhaps,” Lindsey suggested in a quiet voice, “because for the first time in six months, we are heading not to Marzac, but to home.”

All of them began to nod. Andares rested a hand on the red-furred kangaroo’s shoulders. The rat looked over their faces as the Iron King’s starboard hull neared. “We’ve been travelling this way so long,” Charles said, one paw reaching behind his back to stroke at the ivy that nestled above his tail, “it is strange to think that we will never come back this way again.”

“Perhaps not,” Phil mused. “But now we are going someplace better.”

“Home,” Malger intoned softly. In that one word all their hearts rested.

“Home,” Charles repeated. “I’m ready.”

James glanced over his shoulder at the desolate land. His ears lifted high and he waved one hand. “Goodbye, Marzac. May you always rest.”

Rupert, the Great Ape, surprised and joyed them all when his tongue loosed in a single bold word. “Amen!”

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

« Previous Part
Next Part »