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 leech had no difficulty in finding the small incision the Bishop had made in his arm with his razor. He watched with piggish eyes as the crawling thing latched and pressed its sucker inside the cut. It tingled, and quickly its body began to swell with his blood. Jothay gasped and leaned his head back on the ornate pillows crowning his canopied bed. Palsied fingers gripped his stole before it could slide to the floor.
Leaning against his wardrobe was a golden blade. Its pommel bore nine sides, and its luster showed no reflection. Even as the leech supped, the sword slid along the wardrobe, drawing nearer to the Bishop who lay prone on his bed in a strange gangrenous ecstasy. His teeth dug into his already cracked lips, bitting until they too began to spill blood.
The sword clattered to the tiled floor. Jothay turned his head and watched as it inched onto the carpeting, cutting through the weave like a shark’s fin through water. The Bishop gasped and let go of the stole. It crumpled in a pile on the other side of the bed. Looking down at his arm, he saw the leech growing, its mucus-ridden flesh stretched out to four inches. Gingerly, he gripped the invertebrate and drew it off of his wound. Blood continued to flow and drain down his arm.
Jothay climbed off the bed, and held his arm over the sword. The blood slid across his fingers before dropping upon the golden metal where it began to pool for a second, before disappearing — absorbed by the sword. He leaned over and skewered the bloated leech upon the tip of the sword, and watched as it quickly shrivelled. A few seconds more and there was no sign of the leech at all.
The Bishop felt the sword purring in his mind, and for a moment he had some semblance of self-control again. Jothay wrapped several linens around his arm where he’d punctured himself, and tied it tight to staunch the flow. He sucked his broken lip, the iron taste nearly sending him to his knees. “Soon,” Jothay uttered, hands shaking feverishly. “I’ll feed you more soon.”
“You’ll do what?” another voice asked.
Jothay spun on his feet, and stared in surprise. The shadows around his wardrobe parted and out stepped a man clad in black. A very familiar man with black hair and gaunt expression. His robe was that of a Sondeckis, and it looked as if it had been some time since he had last shaven. He was missing the last knuckle of his left pinky.
“Zagrosek!” Jothay spluttered, pulling his arms close to his chest. “What are you doing here?” He straightened himself and glowered. “I thought you were supposed to be back at the Chateau by now.”
Zagrosek bowed his head. “And I would rather be there, believe me. Du Tournemire sent me here. He wants to make sure that all goes well on the Equinox with,” he pointed at the golden sword that lay where it had crawled to the side of the bed, “that.”
Jothay sucked the last of the blood from his lip and narrowed his eyes. “And what help can you bring me here? If the wrong person should see you in the city they will recognize you as Akabaieth’s murderer. Go back to Camille and tell him that I don’t need you.”
The Sondecki glanced across the room and gazed curiously the rumpled bedsheets. “Few are the things I will not do for you, your grace. That is one of them.” He pointed at the linens around Jothay’s arm. “Did you cut yourself?”
“Yes, but it will be fine.” Jothay spat. “What is not fine is that you are here. You do realize that the Questioners came back from Metamor telling us that it was you who killed Akabaieth?”
Zagrosek frowned and began to idly straighten out the heavy silks. “They were more effective than I’d hoped. We are very fortunate that they did not know it was you who informed the Marquis of Akabaieth’s itinerary. It would have been distressing to arrive and find you already gutted.” He glanced at the sword and shuddered visibly. “Before you do it to yourself.”
Jothay waved his uninjured arm in the air. “Well, very well. You are here and it seems I must make use of you somehow. I assume that you already verified that there are no idle ears about otherwise you would not speak so.”
The Sondecki picked up the stole, folded it, and placed it on the ornate table beside the bed. “Naturally. So what else did the Questioners learn?”
“Nothing of consequence. They decided that Metamor was innocent. Geshter arranged for the three Questioners to submit their own written assessments. There was not as much conflict in their interpretations as I had hoped, but one of them, Akaleth, managed to cite several insults that the Metamorians gave them during their stay. It will serve to rile our unwitting allies on the Council.”
Zagrosek nodded. He glanced at the fallen blade for a moment, but then quickly moved to the other side of the Bishop’s bedchambers. “That is something at least.”
“And what news have you?”
“All went well at Metamor and the censer is now in place. A group of Keepers set out with the Felikaush into the Barrier Range. Agathe hired a group of mercenaries to harass them. The Marquis hopes to kill some of them before they are able to be a threat. Du Tournemire I can only assume has gone back to Marzac. Or Breckaris. He still has plans for the Pyralian army, but I don’t know what he intends.”
Jothay nodded repeatedly and began to smile his childish grin. “Very good. And I have sent out a group of Driheli knights to hunt down the last survivor of Akabaieth’s camp. Do you know just how many of them you failed to kill?”
“Three of them I thought. Sir Egland, Sir Bryonoth, and Bishop Vinsah. Was there a fourth?”
“Oh yes!” Jothay began to giggle feverishly. “Kashin of the Yeshuel. Apparently he had joined a Magyar band and has been travelling in the eastern Steppe. The Driheli knights will hunt him down and kill him, and then we’ll be rid of that problem too.”
Zagrosek grunted and leaned against the shadows. “We have too many loose ends. I hope your knights are successful”
“They will be. Kashin is but one man against dozens of the best trained knights that this world has ever seen. He will not survive.” Jothay’s eyes narrowed, but still he smiled. “And as for you, my Sondecki, you should not be seen by anyone. I will show you the nexus of magic buried beneath this city. Did you realize that deep under the earth of the Holy Land lays a nexus of ten magical streams? All the magic on the surface is dead, but deep below... deep below it is alive with power!”
“Yes, I know that,” Zagrosek replied tersely. His face was haggard and his eyes distant. “You may show me that place, and a place I can sleep. But first bring me something to eat. Even if everything goes our way, we still have a great deal of work to do.”
Jothay nodded slowly. He crossed the room and gripped the sword in one hand. He pulled it close and felt the thrum reverberate through his chest and mind. “I have a small larder in the back. Come and eat.”
Zagrosek followed at a discreet distance.
The King’s bedchambers were kept very warm. During the middle of the Summer, most of Whales was very hot. Warm airs blew in from both north and south, and with it came waters heated by the equatorial sun. Phil had thought himself used to the sweltering humidity that laced the salt scented air. He learned otherwise with his first breath as he set paw in his father’s chambers.
The room was kept shrouded in darkness. Thick drapes kept the sun and sky from bringing light inside. A blaze was kept roaring in the two hearths, and the curtains were drawn around Tenomides bed. One of those drapes had been opened for a servant who was removing a sweat stained cloth from the King’s forehead.
It was the latest remedy from the doctors. They were attempting to sweat the fever from the King’s body.
Phil resisted the temptation to take a deep breath of the heavy air. He was here to see his adoptive father and wish him well on the road to recovery, not despair at his potential death.
He took several hops into the room. Tenomides was sitting up, though his body was frail and his night shirt choked with sweat. The linens clung so close to his chest that Phil could see some of the King’s ribs. “Good day to you, Father.”
Tenomides’s lips broke into a pleased but tired smile. “Good day, Phillip. Tell me, do I look as wrinkled as a rag? This air is hotter and fouler than the fo’c’sle of a garbage scow.”
Phil rocked his ears in merriment. It was cheering to see his father’s sense of humour returned. “I cannot argue with you there. Do you feel any better?”
“At times. I will not lie to you, I am still very weak.” Tenomides waved away the other servant who held a steaming bowl of soup in his hands. A cough resounded from his chest, one that was wet and made Phil’s ears twitch. “But I have been able to stand for short stretches in the last few weeks.”
Phil nodded. The doctors had told him of his father’s insistence on trying to dress himself. “I want to help you, Father. If you want to try to stand, I can be at your side to help you.”
“Thank you, Phillip,” Tenomides smiled before leaning his head back against the pillow. “And how does Whales stand these days? The doctors tell me nothing. But I can see in your eye that you are worried.”
Phil hopped a bit closer in surprise. His father could see that so clearly when so many around him could not note even his most passionate moments? “There are things happening in the world that have me concerned, Father. We did receive some good news this week. The war we thought was breaking out between Pyralis and Sathmore appears to have been averted. According to the report we received this week, the Pyralian army marching on Sathmore reached the border, but after a single skirmish withdrew and marched back towards Breckaris.”
“That is good news, but I can see something about it bothers you.”
Phil nodded slowly, rubbing his paws along the woolen sheets. One of the servants squeezed past him to lay another cloth across Tenomides’s head. Phil waited for him to leave before continuing. “Yes, it does, Father. I wanted to tell you of this earlier, but you were not lucid at the time. There was a Pyralian noble here at the time we received word that Pyralian’s forces were marching. The Marquis Camille du Tournemire. He begged me to let him return to his homeland to try and stop the war. I wanted to keep him here so that we might learn more from him about the threat of Marzac, but I could not refuse this request.
“And then his ship was burned in flames a week north of Whales. Struck by lightning they say. The Marquis’s body was found amongst the dead. It seems he didn’t have to leave after all, and now our very fleet may be in danger.”
“Marzac,” Tenomides said between heavy breaths. The cloth atop his head was already becoming stained with his sweat.
Phil nodded again and shifted about on his haunches. The sweltering heat was beginning to wear on him. But he had to tell his father this. “The Marquis knew the man who murdered the Patriarch, Father. And he told me of how that man fell under the corruptive power of Marzac. He came to warn us to stay away from the peninsula. He did not know if the corruption could spread over the sea, but he was going to help us keep that place isolated and to find some way to destroy the evil there.”
“And you trusted him?”
“Niacles and I agreed that he could be trusted to act in the best interests of Pyralis. And in this, keeping the Whalish fleet loyal to Whales is in Pyralis’s interest. And after everything he told me, I have no doubts that Marzac is the source of evil that is spreading in our world.”
Tenomides frowned slowly, his own mind working over the facts. “And now du Tournemire is dead. Where does that leave us?”
“I have issued a recall order for our ships along the western seas of Galendor and Kitchlande. I am leaving a contingent in the Sea of Stars in the event that Metamor needs our help. And I’ve sent a small expeditionary force to explore the waters around Marzac. None of those aboard know the secret to Whalish fire, nor is any ship scouring those waters equipped with the fire. If Marzac corrupts them, we will have lost men, but Whales will not be in danger.”
Tenomides nodded slightly. “That seems the wisest course of action for now. You are doing a good job, my son. Our people are in good hands with you at the helm.”
Phil lowered his ears slightly and shuddered. “Thank you, Father. But I failed once before in the face of these enemies. I fear that I may fail again.”
“We all make mistakes, Phillip. All of us. From Kings to the lowliest serf, we make mistakes.”
“But the mistakes of kings start wars.”
“We are not in a perfect world. You cannot hope to set everything right. Nor should you berate yourself for what happened with your friend the rat. Instead, remember that you did the right thing in the end and that you destroyed one plan of the enemy. If that is all that you do for the remainder of your days, it will have been something valuable.”
Tenomides leaned forward a bit on his seat and rested a frail hand between Phil’s ears. “I know that it will not be the last blow you strike, my son. Do not fear. You have good judgement and I trust you to tend to our people while I lay here in bed. I trust you above all others.” He coughed and fell back against the pillow and Phil felt his heart ache at the sight.
“Thank you, Father. I will do what I can. And you do what you can to recover. You should eat your soup now and get some rest.”
Tenomides smiled to him, and there was a warmth to those bleary eyes that Phil had not seen in a very long time. Phil stood a bit taller, as much as his rabbit body would allow. When he left the King’s bedroom, he was almost walking like a human.
They granted themselves little time to rest now. After Charles explained who it was that pursued them, the whole party agreed that they could ill afford another confrontation. The Runecaster was too powerful to risk facing. Even Jessica was more than happy to hurry through the mountain passes. No one knew what the Nauh-kaee had in mind, but the consensus of opinion was that once they were reunited, they would no longer need to worry.
Fortunately, the moon was bright enough that it was reasonably safe to travel. Abafouq kept Kayla close in front so that she might help him spot loose sections of stone. The Binoq’s night vision was better than a man’s, but the skunk’s was better still. Together they found all the safe places on which to walk, even during those tense moments when the moon disappeared behind the clouds or the mountain peaks.
Jessica spent most of her time in full hawk form perched atop Lindsey’s shoulder, ever watching the passes behind them. Ordinarily, eyes were of little use at night, but a quick cantrip allowed her to see just as much as the skunk. When the path wound so that the mountains behind them were visible, she always tensed and told them that the mercenaries were quickly following their trail. Clearly, Charles’s avalanche had done no more than delay their enemies, if even that much. For a time, the rat wished he’d never done it, but then he felt better after Lindsey reminded him that he’d weakened their enemy’s forces.
As Abafouq had promised, the trail led down to a ravine between high cliffs. The sides of the ravine were worn smooth from snow melt, so they had to don their iron shoes again to keep their footing. The ravine was only twenty feet across at its entrance, and it widened very slowly, never spanning more than fifty feet across at any time. Only an hour inside and the Keepers began to hear the trickling of water. An hour later and they could see thin rivulets of water draining down the centre of the gully. By the end of the day they were cut off from the southern bank by a steady stream.
The water was ice cold, but it was a relief to have something fresh to drink. Lindsey even went so far as to wash his hair in one of the small waterfalls while they took a short rest. The others thought him crazy for wanting to be in such frigid water, but to the Northerner it was refreshing.
On the party’s second day in the ravine, Abafouq explained that they had reached the western most tributaries of the Marchbourne river. The sun shone, making the walls glistened with melted snow; the water trailed down the sides of the ravine to join the stream. Though they wore their iron shoes, the Metamorians still had difficulty maintaining their balance at times. If they followed the stream and the ravine downwards it would eventually open out into the Lanton Falls. When Abafouq and Guernef had come this way during the Spring there had been rather less water flowing in the stream. As they noted the smoothness of the valley walls, they each began to wonder whether they would have to swim.
“We cannot swim in this water,” Abafouq pointed out as they walked.
“Jessica could use a spell of warmth now that we’re out of the snow and ice,” Kayla suggested as she stepped around a small pool of water eddying against the current. “That would help.”
“That’s not the point,” Abafouq countered. “The stream looks calm here, but it will become more violent the further downstream we go.”
Kayla grunted. “But it’s not violent now. Maybe there’s some way we can ride down the river? It would be faster than walking.”
“Right up until we went over a waterfall and crashed,” Charles said without much delight. The stone had changed when they’d entered the ravine from a granite to a slate. He could see stack upon stack of thin slate sheets in the walls. Passing between each layer tickled him, but he knew better than to risk merging with the mountain again. That knowledge depressed him in a way he could not describe.
And there was something else bothering him. The thought of getting wet was distinctly unpleasant. There was a palpable unhappiness amongst the rocks of this ravine. They were being washed away, slowly but as certain as tomorrow’s sunrise.
Nobody could argue with the rat, and for several more minutes, he was alone with his unpleasant musings. But the weariness of travelling for nearly twenty hours of every day for the last four was showing on them all. They needed something to distract them.
“It looks like the ravine walls break just ahead,” James said, his eyes staring hopefully. Though what he might be hopeful for, not even the donkey could say.
“Yes,” the Binoq agreed distractedly, “there is a defile there that feeds the stream.”
“A defile?” Lindsey asked. Jessica’s talons clutched tightly into his shoulder, though there was no sign of their pursuers. “Could we find trees there?”
“There is a small grove,” Abafouq replied as he slipped around a large stone that had not yet succumbed to the water’s aging touch. “They will be the last we see for a few days. We won’t even be able to see much of the sky after that I fear. We shall need to use the torches to keep moving at night.”
“Maybe we could make some more when we get to the grove,” James suggested.
“I have a better idea,” the Northerner said. “We can cut the bark from the trees and fashion skis to ride upon the river. They won’t keep us dry, but they will keep us afloat as long as the current is not too fierce.”
Abafouq shook his head angrily. “We don’t have time to stop and make canoes! That mage is only a few hours behind us!”
“I didn’t say canoes. I said skis. We might even be able to make one wide enough to support you, Charles.” Lindsey drew a little closer to the rest of the group, one hand gripping the handle of his axe. “I am a timbersman. I’ve ridden down more violent rivers than this on less. We can do this, and be on our way in half an hour. If the river cooperates, we can more than make up for the time lost.”
It was obvious that the Binoq did not like the idea, nor was Charles any too keen on it either. He couldn’t imagine how a flimsy bit of wood would keep him afloat. “I think if the trees are solid enough, we should take the chance,” Habakkuk suggested mildly.
“Are you saying that because you have had some vision?” Charles snapped.
“No,” the kangaroo replied, “I am saying it because I believe Lindsey is right: If we can use this river to our advantage, then we should do so.”
Abafouq nodded his head slowly. “I see the wisdom in it now. If Jessica can keep us warm, and Lindsey can help us to fashion these skis, then let us delay no longer.” Charles had no desire to object any further. He could shrink down into a smaller form; if he did that while they rode the river, with luck that might be all it took.
The grove proved to be a stand of several large pine tucked at the base of the defile. Grasses grew along the slope, and they could barely see past it to a larger snow-capped peak in the distance. Charles could feel its presence looming over them, as if staring down scornfully from the clouds.
Lindsey quickly showed the rest how to score large enough sections of bark from the tree trunks. The wood was already curved which made it ideal for floating in the water. The only thing left was to strengthen the bark to keep it from breaking when they struck rock. Jessica was glad to provide some spells for this purpose, while Lindsey framed each wooden ski with crossbeams he fitted into the inside of the bark. Fortune was indeed with them; the only untoward event occurred when Kayla accidentally cracked her ski while trying to carve notches for the crossbeams with the tip of her wakizashi, and mending this error took but a minute or so.
“I’ll have to take the lead,” Lindsey pointed out. “I assume this ravine will not be branching?”
“We will want to head upstream eventually, but not for some time yet,” Abafouq replied as he hefted his ski uncertainly. Each ski was taller than the person is was meant for, with bracings at front, middle and back.
“And we’ll want to keep the rope tied around our waists,” Lindsey added, gesturing to the coils that were pilled on the rat’s back. “As for you, Charles, I think you’ll be better off shrink to rat size and riding in my knapsack. It’ll be easier that way. We can redistribute the packs quickly.”
“That is fine with me. I don’t like the idea of getting wet anyway.” Charles wasted no time in removing the travelling packs he’d been carting along like a mule. James and Habakkuk were at his side in moments to help.
Soon they were ready to ride the river. Charles poked his short snout out of Lindsey’s pack so that he could see; the woodsman clutched a tree branch he’d chopped down. It branched at the end, and over the shorn branches he’d wrapped a bit of cloth to create a paddle. He set his ski into the edge of a small pool off the stream and smiled as it remained afloat. He deposited several of the packs in the centre where his legs would frame them before climbing in.
Charles clutched his small paws tightly against the sack and looked backwards. He was still stone in this form, but he now weighed only a few pounds. Habakkuk was in the rear with a second makeshift oar in his paws, while Jessica clutched his shoulder tightly in her talons. If the kangaroo were to tip over, she could easily jump into the air and land safely. The ‘roo did not like that thought, but he faced it with the same certainty he’d applied to everything else since they set out from Metamor: If it had to be, he would do it.
James and Kayla were less certain on their skis. The donkey kept his hooves tucked up under the forward brace, but he stared at the walls of the ravine in both awe and trepidation the entire time. The skunk drew her tail tight around her middle to keep it from being soaked in the icy water. Although Jessica’s spells shielded them all from cold, no one wanted to see just how effective that magic truly was.
“I think we are ready now,” Abafouq announced as he settled down on his raft. He was framed on every side by their packs, and he pressed them down so tight that his knuckles were white.
Lindsey nodded and dipped his oar into the water. Charles felt the world shift; slowly the group began to slide into the current. It was gentle enough at first that Lindsey had to row several times to keep them moving. After a few minutes, he was able to leave the oar draped across his lap as they began to glide through the ravine.
“I cannot believe it,” Abafouq whispered, his voice full of awe. “It is actually working!”
Lindsey laughed warmly. “I’ve done this many times with the timber crews back at Metamor. The river isn’t as rocky as this, but we shouldn’t have to worry about that too much. If I see a drop, I’ll warn everyone.”
“We’ll probably want to pick up the skis and go around there,” Kayla suggested. She let out a chirp of dismay as a bit of the cold water splashed against her paw. Her fur clung to her toes instantly.
“Good idea. No point risking the skis.”
Charles found himself nodding in fervent agreement.
The stream remained gentle for several hours. The Keepers began to relax, letting the weariness of the past few days ebb. James even snored at one point. Habakkuk, Kayla and Abafouq talked quietly as they slipped past the cliff faces on either side. The sky grew more and more distant for a time, and then the ridges would drop until they could see the mountain peaks on either side. Bushes and grasses dotted the ridges, and a few even managed to grow in hollows lodged in either escarpment.
A cleft in the southern face opened up to reveal another tributary to the Marchbourne. This new stream joined theirs in a steep incline. The rush of falling water woke James, who in his surprise nearly upended his ski. Habakkuk put a steadying paw on the donkey’s back to keep him upright and then patted him on the shoulder.
“It looks like we’ll have to go around here,” Lindsey said. Dipping his oar into the water, he rowed quickly. “Everybody pull the rope taut! Zhypar, you especially. If not, you could be swept over the waterfall.”
After so many weeks working together to scale ice and rock, all of them obeyed the Northerner’s instructions without hesitation. Soon, the skis were all drawn together close behind Lindsey. Charles pulled himself tighter within the folds of the sack as water spray filled the air. He listened to the cascading water with interest. At Metamor the gardens had little falls that trickled with exquisite gentleness. And he had seen in the Southlands a waterfall whose roar was load enough to deafen a man. This stream was far closer to Metamor’s gardens than the Darkundlicht falls.
The ski shuddered when Lindsey brought it against the bank. Charles clutched at the fabric firmly with his rock paws as Lindsey lifted it out and set it ashore. “Let us move quickly. We do not know how far behind they are,” Abafouq recommended. The Binoq practically leaped from his raft.
Charles climbed out of the pack and grew into his centaur-like form. As soon as his paws touched the slate stone of the ravine, he felt the interminable misery that permeated the rock. He shuddered and turned his attention to helping his friends move their packs. The path wound around the falls to a lower landing. The falls were only ten feet high, but that was more than enough to break the bark skis.
“How are you doing, Jessica?” Kayla asked the hawk. She was still perched on the kangaroo’s shoulder, her golden eyes watching the ravine. Jessica lifted her wings in a shrug and cawed once. Kayla smiled and nodded. “Me too.”
“It looks like the river is gentle enough still,” Lindsey called up from the lower bank. “We can continue on the skis for a while longer.”
“There is not much time left to the day,” Abafouq pointed out. “We will not be able to ride the river after it grows dark.”
“Agreed,” Lindsey nodded and deposited his ski into the pool. The current began to draw it towards the falls, but he stopped it with his boot. “I figure we’ve gained at least an hour, maybe two. We can put them half a day behind us if we’re lucky.”
“Unless they’re riding the river too,” James added under his breath.
It was only a few minutes more before Charles was snuggled into Lindsey’s sack and they were on the river again. Beyond the falls it had widened considerably; the stream was nearly twenty paces across in the wider stretches of the ravine. When it narrowed again, they were swept along faster, gliding downwards. Several times Lindsey and Habakkuk were forced to use their oars to steer the rafts around rapids that churned against stubborn rocks that protruded from the middle of the river. Charles could only feel sympathy for those doomed bits of stone.
“I fear the river is growing too treacherous,” Lindsey said after they navigated a particularly devious set of rapids. He wiped the spray from his forehead and breathed heavily. “Tomorrow we’ll have to walk along the banks again.”
“That is fine,” Abafouq replied, his voice a bit shaken. “The river, it will only grow more dangerous the farther east we travel.”
And it did. They left the river shortly before dusk and took the skis with them down the northern bank. By the time night fell, the water glowed with the warm illumination of their torches, and churned against fallen rocks and down the steep slope of the ravine. For several hours they walked with only the sound of the river to accompany them. The ravine grew deep and the walls above so close together that for several hours they merged together to form a tunnel for the river.
The Keepers settled in for a few hours’ sleep in a crevice of one such tunnel before continuing along the frigid river the next day. The slope levelled out some, but the water was still too treacherous for them to attempt. The brief respite from river-riding left them all sore by midday from walking over the uneven terrain. But with Jessica always watching to see if the Runecaster or her mercenaries might appear, none was inclined to stop except to take their meals, and then only for a few minutes.
In the afternoon, the ravine descended rapidly. The water’s course shifted as it wound amongst the rocks. The southern bank disappeared under the rushing waters, and Charles could feel the agony of the slate as it was slowly scraped away. The northern bank sometimes grew so narrow that they were forced to walk single file with their left shoulders brushing against the cliff wall. Abafouq had to shout to tell them that the river had been much smaller when he’d come this way before.
By eventide, the ravine floor was levelling out again. Another tributary from the south merged with the mountain river, but for a time the current was calm and did not threaten to smash them against the rocks. There was a broad, and mostly dry, plateau; the Binoq suggested they sleep there for a short time while they waited for the moon to rise. Charles kept watch, but saw nothing in those few short hours. When he perceived the first traces of silver light brightening the valley walls, he woke his friends so that they could continue.
By midnight, the ravine was shallow enough that they could see the waning gibbous moon over the mountain peaks. There was nothing behind them, not even a suggestion of pursuit. Lindsey quietly suggested that they had outrun them on the river, but still they were wary.
When the sun rose Abafouq smiled and told them news that gladdened their hearts.
“Today?” Kayla asked again, to make sure she’d heard the Binoq correctly.
“Yes, today! Tonight most likely,” Abafouq repeated. “I know this place. In another three hours the river will meet a westward flowing tributary and will then turn south. We shall follow that tributary upstream. And hour beyond that junction, there will be a bridge that we will cross to reach the southern bank. By the time the sun is setting, we should be leaving the ravine. It will not be long after that we shall find Guernef.”
“Good,” Lindsey muttered over the river. “I’d like to know why he left anyway.”
“Probably because he couldn’t fit through here,” James noted. One hand rested on the pommel of his sword, though Charles thought it more from practice than from uneasiness.
Abafouq shrugged. “He said he had some way to help us escape pursuit. He did not say what.”
“Well, I am glad to hear that we’ll be out of this place soon,” Charles said, striding with renewed vigour. The thought of leaving this tortured ravine pleased him.
Nor was the stone rat the only one whose spirits were raised by this pleasant news. As they continued on their way, they found themselves talking more than they had in weeks. Charles even regaled them with one of the tales he had scribed for the Writer’s Guild a few years ago. By the end of the story, he and his friends were laughing, navigating the fissure with only the hope of leaving the frigid water behind.
They grew quiet as the river picked up its pace. The ravine floor was dropping steadily, and the rapids grew pervasive. There was not even an eddy of calm water in the river now. The froth was brushing across their legs as they huddled against the ravine wall. Just a few more hours, they consoled themselves. That was all that they needed.
Charles heard Jessica’s cry only a moment before something bounced off the top of his head. It struck hard, and he felt sure that it nicked his stone skin. Before his eyes danced a shaft of wood, spinning wildly in the air as it clattered against the ravine wall and fell to his fore paws. He turned his head; and stared in horror – there at the top of the ridge knelt the mercenaries, bows in hand and behind them was an all-too-familiar woman dressed in purple robes!
The rat could only shout, “Great Eli, run!”
In Yesulam there were many sanctuaries built in the city for quiet prayer. While the great Cathedral of St. Kephas was the centre of religious life in the city and in whose vaulted halls that most preferred to conduct their prayers, many enjoyed the smaller chapels. They provided an intimate atmosphere and a closeness with Yahshua that was harder to find in the always crowded Cathedral.
Mostly these chapels were attended by labourers and merchants whose business kept them in the outer districts of the city. It was not strange to see priests seek the seclusion of those smaller chapels, and even the appearance of a Questioner or two at prayer times would raise hardly a whisper.
But the coming of three, that would be noticed.
Akaleth knew something was amiss when he arrived at the chapel in the late afternoon when there would be no prayers said. Kehthaek’s note had asked him to come at that precise hour, and to speak of it to no one. Naturally, he could hardly refuse such an invitation. Though he did not approve of the elder Questioner’s willingness to allow pagans to dictate terms to him – he downright hated it – there was no doubt in Akaleth’s mind that he knew something.
And that interested him a great deal.
The small chapel he found himself before was built in one of the poorer districts of Yesulam. The clay homes that clustered together were well-built, but without any refinement. They were honeycombed together, with ladders and stairs leading from one floor to the next. The windows were small and allowed little light in. Some of them did not even have drapes to keep the warmth inside at night. Dogs lay in the street with mangy fur, while dirty children chased each along the streets in some foolish game.
The chapel was simple, fashioned from clay brick fitted tightly together. The narrow archway was circular with a yew tree chiselled into the keystone. Akaleth walked through and into the dimly lit chapel. Stained glass windows lined both walls, though he could only see the three on the western wall. In the first he saw the story of Yahshua teaching from the mount and feeding the four thousand. In the second he saw Yahshua’s betrayal and execution on the yew. And in the last he saw Yahshua’s disciples founding the Ecclesia and spreading Eli’s word.
The altar was adorned in plain green vestments, and illuminated by four candelabras at each corner. Akaleth saw two black robed figures kneeling in prayer in the first pew. One of them was Kehthaek, and he felt certain that the other would be Felsah.
He would hear Kehthaek out. And if Kehthaek said anything heretical, he could report it to Bishop Jothay. It would be so invigorating to see that smug face of Kehthaek surprised.
Akaleth made the sign of the tree over his chest and knelt before the altar. He had been right. The other two Questioners were the two who had come with him to Metamor. Neither looked at him for several moments as each said quiet prayers. Akaleth did the same, reminding himself that he had to do his best to help cleanse the Ecclesia of pagan sympathizers. It was not an easy task, but one that he relished.
After a full minute of quiet prayer, Kehthaek spoke. “Thank you both for coming, Father Felsah, Father Akaleth. There is much that we should discuss. Let us sit and do so. No one will come here for some time, and there are no ears listening except those we brought with us.”
Akaleth narrowed his eyes, but rose to his feet and followed after the elder Questioner. Kehthaek led them to the western edge of the chapel. The light coming through the windows passed over their heads, making it more difficult to see them. Kehthaek’s face was impassive as always. Felsah appeared distracted, but wary.
“Before you begin,” Akaleth said quietly, “let me say that I believe you asked us here because we three were together at Metamor. Is what you have to say because of what happened at Metamor? Or is it something else?”
Kehthaek nodded to him slowly. “As you say, we were at Metamor together. It is not what happened at Metamor that concerns me. Instead, what has happened here at Yesulam in our absence.”
Felsah narrowed his gaze and leaned in a bit closer. “I had not noticed that anything has happened that I would not expect with the election of a new Patriarch. Of course much has changed since we left, but we knew it would.”
“You speak truly, Father Felsah, up to a point. The election of a new Patriarch always brings changes. But we are in the unusual situation of a new Patriarch and a new Grand Questioner within months of each other. Let us not forget that Akabaieth was assassinated. A Patriarch has not been murdered for over five hundred years.”
Akaleth could not help but wonder if Kehthaek was upset that he was denied the office of Grand Questioner. He had heard for years that Kehthaek was favoured to succeed Nethelek. Akaleth had never met Nethelek, but had heard he was a hard man who never asked any for advice. Rumour had it that he had been even more frustrating to accompany than Kehthaek on Questionings.
“And that is why we were sent to Metamor,” Akaleth put in. “To find out who assassinated Akabaieth. So what are you saying has happened since then? We’ve returned and given our reports to the Council. They will now try to find the enemies of the Ecclesia and bring us justice.”
“Will they?” Kehthaek asked, his cold eyes alighting upon the younger priest. Akaleth blinked in surprise as he began to realize just what the elder Questioner was suggesting. He began to tense, and his hand slipped inside his sleeve to find the end of the whip. His fingers curled tightly around the leather.
“But that is what they must do now,” Felsah pointed out. “There was no room for doubt in our report about who was responsible for killing Patriarch Akabaieth.”
Kehthaek sighed heavily. “I wish that were so. I wish it deeply. Three weeks ago I spoke to Mizrahek regarding Krenek Zagrosek. The Grand Questioner told me that no Questioners would be sent to find this man. No attempt was being made to discern his whereabouts, nor would any attempt ever be made. Mizrahek demonstrated quite clearly to me that he did not care that this man killed Patriarch Akabaieth and almost all his retinue.”
Akaleth blinked in surprise. Either Kehthaek was lying, which he didn’t really believe, or Mizrahek was a complete fool, which he also didn’t believe. There had to be something more going on.
Felsah’s jaw hung open for a moment before the mask of the Questioner concealed his emotions. “That is very strange. Why would he do such a thing?”
Kehthaek’s face was grave. “I have been quietly asking questions of several in positions to know what the Bishop’s think. I have learned much, but not nearly as much as I would like. But what I have learned is disturbing. It seems that we were not sent to Metamor to find the Patriarch’s murderer.”
“Then what were we sent there for?” Akaleth could not keep the anger out of his voice. He tightened his grip on the whip handle.
“For show? To give the Council a plausible excuse to declare war on Metamor? I am uncertain. That is what we need to find out.” He paused and leaned forward slightly. The lines of his face drew taut. “It may even be possible that the drawing of my name to lead the Questioning was deliberate. Mizrahek is opposing any effort to hunt down the Patriarch’s assassin. It is possible that he is acting in this manner to obscure the real reason Akabaieth was killed. Had I not been chosen to lead the Questioning, I may have become the Grand Questioner.”
Akaleth snorted derisively. “Just because you think you deserved to be Grand Questioner doesn’t mean you would have been chosen. It’s ridiculous. The choosing of Questioners cannot be determined before hand. It is completely random.”
Kehthaek nodded his head slowly. “If I seem as if I am holding myself in too high a regard, then I apologize. But you know as well as I do, Father Akaleth, that I would have been chosen to succeed Nethelek. I do not boast of it to impress you. I speak of it only to highlight the fortuity of my selection to journey to Metamor with you both. That selection allowed Mizrahek’s elevation.”
“It does seem a strange turn of events,” Felsah admitted slowly. “But I agree with Akaleth that you may be seeing coordination where there is only coincidence.”
“And I pray that you are right,” Kehthaek replied levelly. “But there is one certain thing in all of this – Mizrahek and the Council will do nothing about Zagrosek. We three know he is the killer, and though we did not agree on every detail of our reports, we all know that he must be brought to Eli’s justice. So why would members of the Bishop’s Council seek to prevent it?”
Akaleth thought back to what Bishop Jothay had told him. There were many in the Ecclesia who were traitors and were willing to allow the pagans to continue to spread their heretical ideas. To let this pagan murderer remain free was only one more offense. “Because they are trying to undermine the Ecclesia from within,” Akaleth said, allowing some of the fire to fill his voice.
“But how could they do such a thing unless they are in league with the evil one?” Felsah asked in a horrified tone. “We cannot just let this happen.”
“And we will not,” Kehthaek agreed. “I intend to continue to ask questions and learn more. I have come to realize that I cannot do this alone. We three are the only ones who were not here at Yesulam when Mizrahek and others came into power. Thus we three are best suited to understand the ways in which they have harmed the Ecclesia. I am asking for your support and assistance in the coming months as we unravel this mystery. Will you lend your aid? It may be the only way to bring the Patriarch’s murderer to justice.”
Akaleth was wary of doing anything to help Kehthaek. Even coming here had been another thorn in his side. And now here he was faced with the prospect of labouring under this man’s iron grip. If there were pagan traitors in the Ecclesia as Kehthaek and Jothay said, it seemed only natural that Akaleth make their backs bleed for their trespass. Perhaps Bishop Jothay would understand.
Felsah took a deep breath and slowly began to nod. “I do not like this, Father Kehthaek. But you are right. If Mizrahek and the Council will not do what should be done, then we should learn why. I don’t know what we can do about it even if we learn the truth. But we must do something.”
“I will aid you as well,” Akaleth said. This might be the perfect venue for learning more as Jothay told him he must. Kehthaek was very clever in finding out the truth even from people who did not wish to tell him. At the very least, it would be more interesting than spending his days cloistered in his quarters leaving only to attend services.
“Thank you, Father Felsah, Father Akaleth,” Kehthaek allowed a small smile to disturb his lips. “We should each leave here separately so that none will know we met. I believe we should speak with Bishop Morean of Sondeshara first. According to Mizrahek, he knew of Krenek Zagrosek.”
“That sounds wise,” Felsah agreed.
“If we meet openly with him, others will learn of our inquiries,” Akaleth pointed out.
“I will arrange a private audience with his grace that will not be noticed by others. I will inform you both when it is prepared. Until then, may Eli’s grace be upon you.” And with that, Kehthaek rose from the pew, made the sign of the tree as he genuflected before the altar, and then turned to leave the chapel.
Akaleth and Felsah regarded each other silently for several more minutes before the latter followed Kehthaek out. Akaleth pulled his whip taut in his hands as he pondered it all. In the end, he could only growl in anger. He would make those pagan traitors pay.
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