<<Six days after the assassination of the Patriarch, Akabaieth>>
A name reached his ears quietly, a call of lament that echoed through the Chapel of the Night like the last haunted cry of a ghost. It brought Dream's head up slowly, the marten's ears pricking up as his eyes opened, focusing on the wandering striations in the marble at his knees. Uncurling his tail from around his knees, he shifted back onto his paws and stood, his ears twitching slowly about, trying to catch the fading name.
In the Dream Realm cries of dreamers were seldom heard by others, as each small segment of the sleeping world occurred without the touch of others. The beasts of the dreamlands made sure that the emotions of one dreamer did not touch upon those around them. They fed upon the conflux of emotional turmoil released by those tormented by nightmares or elated by euphoric dreams. Only those who actively walked the shadowed realm could listen to the cries of the slumbering when they so chose. Dream seldom insinuated himself in the private dreams of others. He knew on this evening that no dreamers held him in their silent sleep, for no dreams call to his spirit.
Yet this name had penetrated his silent meditations, bringing him fully into the shadow realm rather than waking him. That in itself was strange enough, but the fact that he had heard the voice was another. It was a name closely associated with his past, the name of his first lover, the one who had shown him that there was no evil in the pleasures of the body so long as the soul held them not in torment. They had granted him a unique perspective early on in life, when he was coming of an age where confusion warred with the piety of the teachings of his faith.
The first had been the young noble's true name, given by his father. A fosterling, the third son of a noble line, he had been brought to Castile de Suttavais after Dream's own father had conquered them. To keep Lord Deross in line, a hostage to maintain his fealty. Five years he had spent at the house of Sutt, never given the due of his nobility, a servant to the heavy handed iron fist of Baron Sutt, Dream's sire.
Sahan had been a quiet, insular lad given to haunting the library of Suttavais, a place very seldom populated by the sons of Handil Sutt, the conqueror. It was a place Dream himself had favored, as the least of Handil's sons. Tormented by his elder siblings and taunted by his few sisters as a popinjay, Dream had sought the solace of musty old books wherein he could be a hero or a villain, conqueror or rebel. Thus it was fated that Sahan and the youngest of the Conqueror's sons would become fast friends.
And, in the due course of time, lovers.
Dream's first, and the one he held closest to his heart. Sahan had been a knowing soul where Dream had been naive, curious, and more than willing. To this day it could not be said assuredly whom seduced whom in the quietude of the forgotten library. It had happened, which was all that could be observed in truth. Neither entered into their relation unwilling, one the teacher, another the student. That, as well, was often difficult to discern between one or the other.
Namir, a hero in a thick tome of ancient valor, was a nickname Dream himself had given the greatest friend of his youth. A rare name, no longer used as it did not fit with the naming conventions of the tight-laced Ecclasiastic traditions. To have two in the same city with such a name was almost unthinkable.
To hear it called out in anguish where Dream could hear it within the realm of dreams was that much more improbable.
Yet heard it he had.
Cocking his ears forward, he strode on quiet feet from the chapel, listening for the distant, haunted cry to voice itself once more. Sound was a strange, fickle creature in the realm of dreams. One might hear a loon cry at a hundred miles, yet miss the whine of a mosquito close at their own ear. The tortured cries of a demonized dreamer would be naught but a whisper while the anguished cry of a newly widowed wife thunder within a forest. What one who could consciously walk the dreams heard was completely dependant upon what they sought.
Dream sought but one voice, that which had called out the name from his past, the name of a lover lost.
"Namir!" came the cry again, much closer at hand, bringing Dream to a sudden halt, his hackles ruffling up. The pained voice was filled with anguish; a masculine voice, but with a broken edge to it as if the speaker was on the edge of laryngitis., as if from crying a great length of time. Something about it was also vaguely familiar to the Marten, and he sought it out. "Where are you, Namir? Why have you abandoned me to these nightmares?" cried the dreamer, seeking solace in a dream visage only they could see. They, or those who looked in upon their dream knowingly.
Dream found himself walking down a night darkened corridor bereft of torchlight. No heraldry was immediately visable, though the stonework bespoke a southern architecture. Strangely, though, there were more northern elements thrown in as well. Deep set casements with heavy wooden shutters covered with thick leather baffles to ward out a cold winter wind. The corridor was broad and airy, with vaulted Therulean arches ending in points. Between each arch was a vault in the center of which hung a massive bronze and steel chandelier bedecked with flickering candles. The light seemed muted and fitful, something the dreamer could remember, but not bring to mind brightly enough to cast light upon their nightmare.
Between the balustrades supporting each arch, carved intricately of heavy stone, was the tree of Yahshua. Each intricately carven stone panel depicted a trial of the savior, etched cold and stark with the play of moonlight and shadows shining in through the celestory windows above each station. From the first days of his birth and the flight of his mother before the Hounds of Undar and the last betrayal of Yahshua by Facis Nach. Tried not to look too closely upon the stone images depicting the trials of the savior he had followed for many years in fear of discovery. Dream knew each manner of icon, the purpose of each branch, each character and image cast upon the dark stone. The shadows played across them as he walked quietly down the hallway, his paws providing the only sound in the long hallway, a soft hiss and click of claws with each stride. Each image seemed to move, the faces following his passage with cold malice, silent curses upon stone lips deriding a traitor to the faith. One form, one visage, did not recriminate his steps. The sorrowful face of a doomed Yahshua merely watched with quiet pain the loss of his disciple. The images in the hallway mollified and disturbed him both in the same moment. In the darkened shadows of the dream realm the worshipful carvings cast a pall of uneasy doom upon the marten walking slowly between them, candles flickering fitfully overhead. Long he had forsaken the tenants and beliefs of the faith he had been raised to, he found the heavy weight of the manacled Son's haunted eyes settling heavy upon him with each passing step.
There were seven panels along each side of the passage, the scene of His birth seeming faded and ageworn, the stone softened by the passing of years. Yanlin's flight from the Hounds was somewhat less worn, with each following station gaining in clarity as Dream passed them. Yahshua's betrayal at the hands of Facis seemed especially clear, the pitious expressions of the other disciples seeming to leap right from the very stone itself. The manacles on the doomed savior's wrists seemed especially polished, signifying Yahshua's helplessness before the hand of betrayal.
A twinge ran up his back as a tortured, metallic screech wailed from behind a door at the end of the sepulchral passageway, followed by the discordant crash of a delicate musical instrument being dropped or cast aside. He winced at the sound of fragile wood and strings humming and wailing with the abuse, over which was lain the same anguished voice. "Namir, my hands are broken, I can no longer play for you!"
Namir, does this one seek you, my old friend? Dream stopped before the wooden door set in a deep casement of its own. The image on the door gave the marten pause as his eyes settled upon the intricately carved wood. Shadows sat deep in the hollow eyes of Eli's son as he stared compassionately down the length of the passageway, watching Dream's slow, tentative approach. Pulled firmly against the twisted yew tree of his sentencing, the man's body was similarly twisted, arms drawn up tight against stout limbs, slender twine cutting into the vulnerable flesh. Vivid in the dim shadows was the ichorous red of blood flowing from the ancient Savior's wounds. The smooth gray trunk of the yew was painted a viscid red from the bound wrists and ankles of the man. Dream's lips curled at the sight and quiet spattering whisper of heavy drops falling from the slashes left by the blades of knaves across the stricken man's chest.
The Retribution for their own Salvation, they had struck out at the one man who had given them solace in the darkest hour of their need.
And they had been forgiven.
Shuddering, Dream tore his gaze away from that disquieting, nightmarish image and pulled open the wooden door. The room beyond was startlingly small, with but a single narrow bed set directly in the center of the back wall. A man, a very familiar looking man, in his early twenties perhaps, sat on the edge of that bed staring at his hands as tears flowed freely down his cheeks. A thin veil of pale hair covered his cheeks and jaw line, the result of many days spent abed. Dream spared a cursory glance at the room and was forced to gasp as his eyes settled upon the tattered remains of a Knight's tabard hung under the room's only shelf. Propped in a corner under that was a dented shield, over which was hung an empty sword belt. All bore the mark of the Yeshulam, the knighthood of the Church Itself, green gone gray in the dim moonlight and white glowing with a haunting luminescence. Above the bed hung a much smaller version of the image on the door itself, also trailing thin rivulets of dark red blood. The tears of Yashua, or the blood of guilt, Dream was unsure.
Did Eli weep over this injured soul, or curse his sleep with images of the stricken Savior to punish him for his failure. A window above the bed, above the Tree, faced out to a wall, upon which walked an animal in the armour and weaponry of a human. This man, one of Yeshulam's own knights, was at Metamor Keep, the wounds to his legs preventing him from leaving.
Trapping him there, cursing him to the same Change that Dream had faced so many years ago. In the company of the faithless, cursed with the knowledge that he had failed to protect the one man who he had sworn his very life to preserve. The man was holding his hands up before his face, looking at them as if they had betrayed him. Dream could see that his fingers had begun the change already. What he had at first assumed was a beard he could see was now the first stages of his metamorphosis into some creature not human. Tousled brown hair was pale at the roots, the man's ears already beginning to take on the signature form of a deer. Small nubs pushed some of that hair aside, brown velvet masking the bony growth of the changing knight's new antlers.
For one dedicated to the worship of the One, the pure and solely human god of the many gods, it was a fate worse than death. At his hooves lay the discarded instrument, its delicate neck broken, strings tangled akimbo about the frets. Picking it up, the man stared at the ruined wood in agony, then pulled it against his chest and threw his head back, wailing inconsolate deprecations into the night air.
"I tried, Father!" he cried, the viola whining as he crushed it against his chest. Dream knew him at that moment, a wince racing across his angular, furry muzzle as he remembered the joy with which the young knight had played his instrument during the brief, impromptu concert at the Mule the morning before they left Metamor. "I tried." He reiterated, his head falling forward, chin resting against the shattered butt of the viola's neck. "But I failed."
"Failure is in not accomplishing a doable task, my son." Another voice cut in at Dream's shoulder, causing him to turn abruptly and flatten his back against the cool wood of the door. His muzzle fell open, his heart seizing in his chest at the face that he found before him. The man wore a priest's smock, his head shaven in the typical priest's tonsure, hands folded into the sleeves of his heavy, drab robes. A heavy cross of bronze hung from the belt about his waist, brushing against one leg as he strode into the room, completely unheeding the marten standing less than a whisker's length from him.
"Namir." Dream mouthed in surprise at the image before him. As a youth Namir had been a devout follower of the Way, and had preached its more forgiving tenants to his younger friend, even while bending some of those tenants to engage their intimacy. Nothing in the book of Yahshua said aught about the relations between man and man, though general consensus held that it was a mortal sin to for a male to enjoy the intimacy of another man. Consent was not an issue in the minds of most, though the Book said that true consent was the only true factor in the relations of any one soul to another. Love won out over mortally conceived concepts of morality or convention.
Five years spent in the company of the Conqueror and his sons had lent a healthy distrust of the father toward the son when his investiture was finally at an end. Dream had known that Namir would be sent elsewhere, far from his family, to manage the interests of his family in distant lands where any ambitions instilled by the elder Sutt might bring him to attempt taking the ducal seat for himself. Dream had nearly accompanied Deross, who was by that time a man well into his majority. At the age of twenty two his decisions were informally his own, though the voice of his sire was required to lend the air of formality to them. He had forbade Dream to travel with him, fearing that to do such would reveal their secret to the rest of Dream's bloodthirsty family. Should the cardinal of the Sutt household ever learn of their secret intimacy he would have had them both eviscerated, then drawn and quartered, regardless of their noble blood.
Yet that very priest practiced the sins he cast as rote sin; a predator of page boys and young serving lasses, he had on many occasions attempted to force himself on the fosterling Namir, and other such fosterlings kept by the Sutt household to secure the fielty of conquered lords. Dream's brothers were much the same, though they cloaked it far better to Dream's prying attentions that the cardinal did. To them it was a privilege of their nobility, to seek or take pleasure where they might and let the lesser folk be damned. It was not their lot to fold themselves into the tight piety of the peasantry, though they did keep their debauchery silent as much as they might.
Murder was high on the list of preferred methods to keep the victims of their hedonistic appetites silent.
In the day that Namir had left his life Dream's heart had, for the first and last time, broken. He had hardened himself toward the emotions of love that led him to such a painful separation, and held that shield fiercely to this day save for one exception. He watched, feeling the tears in his eyes as he looked upon his old friend. At how the years had changed him. He had lost the softness of his face into the severe visage of a Follower priest, though there were laugh lines at the corner of his mouth and eyes. His shoulders were not so square as they had once been, and his once luxuriant hair was shaved in the typical pattern of most in the priesthood. The gleam in his deep brown eyes was not tarnished, however. Nor was the ready embrace of his strong arms as he moved to the bedside of the grieving knight and pulled him against the rough woolen robes covering his strong chest.
"You failed in nothing, my son." Namir crooned quietly, smiling down at the top of the knight's head. "The event was placed in the tapestry of His work long ago, to be witnessed at the proper time."
"The Patriarch was slain, Namir!" the young knight cried, clutching at the robed priest as a drowning man might the trunk of a tree, "Was it His will to see such a great man be stricken down so brutally?"
Namir patted the young knight's back gently with one hand, "Akabaieth had made his peace long before, D'ahshan." Another painful wince from Dream at that last simple word; beloved in the language of the steppes. They had both learned something of that language from a passing horse trader once, words that none of Dream's brothers or immediate family knew. Namir had taken to referring to Dream in that manner ever since, much to the confusion of all save Dream himself. The marten slumped back against the door with a heavy sigh, his heard suddenly aching, crushed within the confines of his chest. Warm tears stained the brown fur of his muzzle, seeping their way across his cheek as he watched his first love profess those words to another. "He was prepared to be received by Eli." Placing one edge of one finger under the knight's chin, the older priest raised his head up and met the soft brown of the man's eyes, "Eli has not forsaken you." He said quietly, smiling down at the younger man, his dark brown eyes consoling, "Nor has your time yet come to stand at His side."
The knight blinked back tears and nodded brokenly against the priest's finger, raising his own hands, "What of me, Namir? I have lost my purpose, and now I am losing my hands, I cannot play for you." He gasped painfully as he held up his stricken hands. His fingers had drawn together, forming a hand with two primary digits and a thumb, the tips of his fingers the hard gray of a deer's hoof. He hung his head and wept softly, "I am losing my humanity." He whispered brokenly, his voice seizing in his throat as he looked at his deformed hands. Namir merely smiled, clasping one of those hands.
"Your purpose is not lost, my son, my D'ahshan. It has merely changed, just as you will change." Namir's other hand came up and rested against the knight's chest, "But not here, not your heart. That will remain true to Him, and to Yourself." Releasing the distraught knight's hand, Namir caught the man's face between his own hands and smiled, kneeling slightly, "And as for playing your music; there will be others who can show you how to play again." Dark eyes bright, Namir pulled the knight close, their lips meeting in a warm kiss. Neither closed his eyes, soft brown looking into the deeper, dark brown as they exchanged a tender kiss. Breaking it for a moment, Namir placed a finger upon the knight's lips, "I will teach you to sing."
Dream could only watch with a heavy heart as they joined in another kiss, this one somewhat more passionate, as his first love become priest chased away the dreaming knight's fears. His jaw tensed and his teeth ground against one another as he forced himself to watch, memories flooding through him unfettered.
"Even priests know love, and knights know pleasure, love." A female voice said quietly into the marten's ear, pulling his attention away from the pair entwined upon the narrow bed in the center of the small room. He blinked as he found himself looking into the vibrant green of a feline's eyes, Mosha's bright smile doing little to lift his heavy heart.
"Did he not love me, then?" he asked quietly, looking back to the priest. There were scars of a scourge on his back still, memories of his time under the harsh rule of Dream's father. Mosha glanced over at the pair as well, smiling as she nodded, reaching up to grasp Dream's angular jaw much the same way as Namir had captured the knight's, and dragged him around to place a kiss upon his lips.
"He did, love, and does even now." She explained some moments later after their kiss broke, slipping her slender, tabby-striped arms around his waist and hugging him tightly. Both turned to watch the slow seduction of knight to priest, priest to knight. A consummation of some deep intimacy neither had shared in a great span of time.
"I wish I knew more of him." Dream murmured wistfully as his tail found Mosha's and twined about it, his arm slipping around her waist as he watched. It was easy to imagine himself in the knight's place, and he had to force down a twinge of jealous envy at his blessing. He knew more now about Namir than Dream ever would. "What he had done and where he has gone."
"He is with his Eli, love." Mosha murred quietly, leaning her head on his shoulder, "Those with power in the Church learned of his love, but not whom his lover was. They sent him far to the east as a missionary to the Bandi Desert, knowing what those who lived there would do to an outsider."
Dream gasped and quailed, his fur flattening as he looked down at his dreamtime lover, "How do you know this, Mosha?" he cried, his chest suddenly feeling three sizes too small for his crushed heart. The feline glanced over at the pair, waving her hand at the younger, still living dreamer.
"I do not, he does. He knew what they did, and why, for he was close enough to those in power to hear many things." She explained quietly, "He tried to get warning to the priest, but his message was intercepted. By a lucky twist it was burned in a bandit's ambush while the courier was returning to Yesulam."
"When was this?" the marten asked quietly, tearing his gaze finally away and not looking back, letting the door draw itself shut behind him.
"Some three years ago. The Patriarch knew nothing of this from what I understand. It was several members of the Bishop's Council who determined your love's fate."
Dream scowled and sighed heavily, happy for the knight to have known, at least for a time, Namir's love. "Dark deeds."
Mosha nodded solemnly, "There is darkness there, Love, even now."
Egland looked up quizzically as a quiet knock echoed through the wooden door of his infirmary room. The sunshine was pleasantly bright upon his bed, which had been turned to one side so that he might look out through the window above the tree hung on the wall and watch the clouds drift by above. His legs still ached badly, though the companionable raccoon healer said he would be able to actually walk more than a few steps on them in a few days. He had already been six days cooped up in the small room, with only the occasional foray out into the infirmary to get some strength back into his repaired legs or to visit the garderobe. The fact that his healing had gone as swiftly as it had spoke wonders for the healers of this strange place, though some manner of healing was common to the knight and his brethren. Priests of the Way were said to have the ability to heal, but it was a closely held secret that there were painfully few who could actually do such and still call themselves Followers. Only the Lothanasi had ever shown some ability to actually Heal with a touch.
He had been healed enough to take part in the small ceremony the child priest Hough had given in reverence to Akabaieth, though the young priest had barely been able to speak the formal words. His voice had been strained, his words choked. Not one eye Egland had seen through the haze of pain and medicines Coe and his aides had forced down his gullet had not been weeping. No few voices were raised in piteous lamentation. Even the memory of it brought a harsh tightness to the changing knight's throat and chest. It was with the greatest of sorrow that he was forced to remain behind in Metamor while the remains of Akabieth and the rest of the slain were transported south. He understood that the Patriarch himself had been granted the singular honor of being buried at sea by the navy of his homeland. One small consolation that he did stay, for the water put a mortal fear into him if it was deeper than his knees.
Even his new knees, as strange as they were. He was counting prayers on his rosary when the knock interrupted him. Coe seldom knocked, merely pushing the door open a crack and introducing himself before entering.
"Yes?" he called out in response, frowning at the growing softness of his voice. He had never been one who could bellow orders across a field of battle, but he had once possessed a pleasantly smooth contralto that worked well in the Knight's Choir. The door opened a crack and an unfamiliar brown muzzle appeared, two streaks of white accenting the dark eyes set in the musteline visage.
"Might I come in, sir knight?" asked the petitioner, his voice a smooth tenor, accented with a slight burr. Egland shrugged one shoulder and nodded.
"Might just as well, being as I cannot come out to greet you.... ?"
"Dream, sir." The visitor said as he pushed the door open and entered. A pine marten, tall and athletically slender, dressed in a hideously affected blue satin that made him look completely the fop. "We met a few days ago in the Deaf Mule?" Egland only nodded, glancing down briefly as the marten set down a viola case. "I had meant to say then that you played a fine viola." He bowed his head gracefully, long whiskers drawing back along his angular muzzle, "But alas I had gotten just a bit too deep in my cups and did not wake to see you and your Patriarch off the next morning." The marten lied smoothly, not willing to say that he had been rather loath to partake in the Patriarch's departure.
Egland winced at the mention of his mentor and friend, "I had not intended to return that you might compliment me, Dream, but now I am cursed to remain."
The marten smiled thinly, nodding, "It's not so much a curse if you do not let it turn your heart, Ts'amut." He said with a smooth smile, startling Egland to the core. Only two had ever referred to him as 'brother/friend' in the language of the steppes. An old love years dead, and the late Sir Bryonoth who was a steppes born knight. He blinked at the marten for a moment, unable to find his voice for startlement. "And the good healer Coe out there tells me that you are neither changing genders nor losing years, which means you are probably going to end up like my handsome self, something not quite animal, but no longer merely human." He marten continued after a momentary pause to watch the knight's reaction. Quirking one corner of his muzzle into a wry grin, he nudged his instrument case with his tail, "And that would also mean that your hands are going to change, so playing your instrument is going to take more work than it used to."
Caught completely off guard by the bold creature's approach, Egland
could only nod his head stupidly.