He was going to need to have his fur trimmed soon, Charles reflected as he made his way over the cobblestone thoroughfares, from Will Hardy's shop towards a destination in the Keep itself that he seldom frequented. It had only been a few days since Misha and his discovery of the training rooms, or the Long Home as they had taken to calling it. That very next day, he had introduced Garigan to the Sondeckis shrine, and had him place his paws in the upturned palms of the angel. In that moment that flesh touched stone, a bright, yet dim glow spread about the chamber, coalescing around every crevice and every feature. The porcelain sculpture even appeared to smile.
Misha had already told Charles that once as many of the Longs had returned from assignment, they would have a semi-official ceremony to break in their new headquarters. His training was still underway, his remarkable showing in the hunt had ameliorated the fox's concerns about his subterfuge capabilities, now they had moved onto weapons. While Garigan was practicing techniques, mostly in order to control and dictate his emotions, Brightleaf was busying Matthias by testing his skills with swords, spears, knives, bows, javelins, and an assortment of other weapons that the rat was for the most part unfamiliar with.
It was by no means easy work, and just after the first few days, the former writer new that it would be many more weeks still before he could feel confidant with all but a few of the munitions. His life as a Sondeckis had made him versatile with staves, but he tended to break them as he was not use to their inability to channel the Sondeck. Though one thing he noticed already about himself that he quite liked. Since joining the Longs, or at least taking up the training, he had felt more energetic and alive than he had in the past six years. He earnestly hoped that Misha and he would make more excursions into the western mountains, he was certain that he would not be nearly as exhausted next time.
Yet as he passed from the cobblestones to flagstone, bypassing the terrazzo of the gardens, and finally into the Keep proper, the import of his errand returned to his thoughts. Misha had given him the day off, and he had used it to catch up on a few of his friends, as well as attend to a couple of matters that were best not to postpone. Later, Charles intended to challenge Copernicus to a game of pool; he hoped that his training would give him some edge, though in his heart he knew it was a false dream. As soon as Lady Kimberly was finished with her duties though, he would enjoy her sweet company for the remainder of the evening. In his spare time, he'd composed another poem for her, and was looking forward to sharing it with her by candlelight.
As the hallways and chambers parted before him, the Lightbringer temple stood out in stark contrast against the fortress walls and simple masonry. In all six years of his sojourn at the Keep, he had never set foot beneath the marble entablature at its entrance, nor past the ash and cedar panels gilded with gold inlays, delicately carved, and engraved by hands long since passed into the grave. Compared to the Lothanasi, Eli was a relative newcomer to this region of the world. Every time that Matthias had occasion to pass near this un-sodden doorway, he always felt like a graverobber skulking amidst the ruins of a civilization ancient beyond his comprehension. From the shudder passing down his spine to the tapered end of his tail, he felt that way now.
Sucking in his breath, he was surprised to find that he had stopped and was just gawking at the finely wrought aperture like a child. Charles grimaced and recommenced his march towards the main doors. They were open of course, but as he passed onto the cold stone, smoothly cut into interlocking squares, the rat fancied them slamming shut behind him, trapping within the walls of infidels. But they remained still, and he proceeded down the long corridor, hoping that Raven was not currently occupied.
Following the directions of a helpful acolyte, Charles found the priestess alone at work in a small study, after a brisk walk down the vaulted corridor in which he marveled at the scroll-work along each wall and the ornate tympan window in the apse at the far end. She was bent over a large tome, her claws tracing over the yellowed pages, her robes simple and loose. Her two grey ears twisted at the sound of his claws striking the stone just inside her doorway, but she did not look away from her book.
"If you are here to bring your Yajii'kema sacrifice, please take it to the field behind the Keep," she intoned drily, not once taking her eyes from the text.
Charles blinked for a moment in confusion, before mustering his voice from deep with his lungs. "Raven, I need to ask you a favor."
The lupine head leaned back, the blue eyes gazing at him in bewilderment. But the moment of surprise was short lived, and her face tilted to one side in a mysterious grin. "Hello, Matthias. Planning on converting?"
The rat lightly chuckled at that, her manner setting him at ease, though he was not quite sure if her question was serious or not. "Not today, but I do have a request that only you can fulfill. Do you have a moment?"
She gestured politely to a moderately sized chair next to the table. It was cushioned with feathers beneath a thick linen, embroidered by Raven's family crest. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
He gingerly sat upon the fabric, resting his paws in his lap. "I need to send a message to a friend of mine, but I do not know where exactly he is. I also need the message to be kept in the strictest of confidence. I've already penned the note, I just need it delivered, and was oping that you could help me with that." After a moment's pause, he added, "I'll even reimburse you the expense if you want."
Raven sat thoughtfully for a moment, rubbing one side of her jowls with a paw. "Have you asked your Father Hough if he could do this? Patildo priests are very good about keeping secrets."
"I know, but there are several reasons why I think you would be better suited to this. My friend is in the Midlands, and while the Ecclesia does have a presence there, the Lightbringers have a firmer establishment. Secondly, my friend will be staying away from the Ecclesia, probably even frequenting your temples."
"He is not Lothanasi?"
"No, he is not. But they that search for him would never think to search in the temples of the Lightbringers."
"Are you sure your friend would be in one of them?"
"I've known him for many years, it is his style. Even if he is not, this is my best chance to send him a message, and I need to do just that."
She gazed across the rat's features, from his twitching nose to his nervous paws. Then she peered deep into his black eyes, eyes that could do naught but stare back. Taking a deep breath she closed the tome with a sullen whump, and exhaled slowly, almost as if it were some mystical exercise. "I can have your message delivered in at best a week, at worst a month or two. What does your friend look like, and what shall I call him?"
Charles grinned then, glad to know that she would cooperate, though she never once mentioned how much recompense she wanted for this favor. He silently hoped that she would exact nothing from him. "His name is Jerome. He is still human, tall, wide shoulders, brown hair, sharp nose and small eyes. He has a goatee as well. He'll probably be dressed in a black smock of some sort. Other than that, I cannot say. He will speak in a Southern accent as well."
"Like you did when you first arrived?"
"Mostly like that, yes. Is that enough?"
She nodded and leaned forward in her chair. "Where is your letter?" Charles withdrew the sealed slip of parchment from his tunic and placed it in her waiting paws. "This will take some time, and I will need to ask a few favors myself. You offered me recompense; I would require no less than a gold."
The rat grimaced inside, but produced enough in silvers to satisfy the priestess. "Thank you very much for your time."
"You are welcome here, Charles, I hope you realize that." And then Raven smiled again, a small gesture, but one that was rarely seen. This time though, the rat knew that it was one of offered friendship, a special gift indeed.
"I do now. Good day to you, Lothanasa," Charles rose from his seat and inclined his head as he excused himself. The use of the proper title was deliberate, for indeed, he was most appreciative of her efforts on his behalf. He would not forget them.
"Good day to you, Patildo!" she called out after him in her alto voice. For some reason, he felt very good walking down the length of the Lightbringer Temple just then.
Michael gingerly knocked on the large doorframe, admiring the many axe gouges in the rough hewn façade. As always, the door was yanked inwards, and inside the red bearded Lindsey bellowed out, "What do you want?" in his loudest voice, scaring a small wren perched on the rafters overhead. His eyes trailed downwards till they rested on the amused beaver's countenance. "Oh, Michael, it's you," he remarked as if this visit were something unusual. "Come on in, take a seat, what can I do for you?"
Stepping inside to the chilly and sparsely decorated room, the timbersman stretched. "Well, you missed the logging today, I hope you know. Tathom didn't seem to be mad with you though, so I figured that I would come to check up on you to see if everything was all right."
Lindsey motioned for Michael to sit upon one of the two bear rugs lying in the middle of his floor. There were no chairs in the man's home, but they tended to be inconvenient for Michael anyway. Slipping his wide thick tail through was always a hassle, he wondered idly how Habakkuk was able to manage to so effortlessly. Looking up, he found a small goblet thrust into his cream-colored paw, which he took with a word of thanks. Lindsey filled it from a small wineskin, and then joined him on the opposite rug.
"If you are going to question me about that, you might as well have a good drink," the big man remarked, throwing his braids back over his shoulders as he gulped the entire drink in one swig. Michael sipped at his wine, trying not to chew on the goblet rim as was his instinct. His friend was dressed in a simple mail shirt, the plaid flannel draped over a hook next to the bedroom doorway. Of course, Lindsey was always wearing a mail shirt. He doubted the Northener would be comfortable without the scent of rust and sweat in his nostrils.
"I received a letter from my mother last night, so I sent word to Tathom that I would be busy this morning." Lindsey retrieved the leather wineskin, poured himself some more, and then swallowed that down.
Michael mouthed words, but none came out. Silently, he fingered the side of his goblet, running his short claws over its smoothly carved surface. Finally, after the moment's uneasy quiet, he was able to ask, "What happened?"
"My younger brother Andrig has disappeared. They think he was killed by a Lutin raiding party that decided kill some locals," Lindsey said simply, his voice dour, and lacking the normal enthusiasm and bravado that Michael was used to.
"I'm sorry," Michael muttered unhappily, not sure what else he could say. He then found himself downing his wine.
"It's not your fault." Finally, Lindsey set the wineskin away again and threw his goblet into the far wall, where his swords and axes were arrayed in neat order. The wood splintered in several pieces and scattered about the floor. "Do you know how long it has been since I've even seen my parents let alone my brother? Andrig, who was just a child when I left to come here, now I may never get to see him again."
Michael set his cup down, and put a paw on the man's shoulder. "I lost my entire family to sickness. I couldn't do anything but watch them all die one by one. I stayed up so many nights wishing that they were being afflicted by men, that way I might slay them. I do not know why I was spared. So many times I wished that I had been taken too. If I wasn't here, nobody would remain who could tell their story or remember their smiling faces." He stopped abruptly, realizing that he had no more words in him. It was not often that he dwelled on his family, and just mentioning them had brought back all the pain at their loss.
The big man nodded but pushed the beaver's paw from his shoulder. "You know, I was looking forward to the time when I can show my family that I've become a man, despite how awkward it would be. Can you imagine what your family would say at seeing you as a plaid beaver?"
That actually made Michael laugh slightly. "I think my mother would faint!"
Lindsey patted him comradely on the back and then gestured to the small curtain veiling his bedroom. "I'm going to write my parents a reply; you can take a look at some of the woodcuts my Dad made for me when I was younger."
Michael climbed back to his paws, his tail slapping his thigh, though he had grown use to that. Inside the curtained room was a side of the timbersman that the beaver had never before seen. Where the anterior room had been rough, harsh, and decidedly masculine, these chambers were rather soft. There were two clouded windows, both offset by dark green drapes, the tassels tied in a fasces. The bed and mattress had a slight rustic feel, but the covers appeared as smooth as silk, of that same verdant hue as the drapes. There was a large writing table on the opposite end, just below one of the windows. The legs were each delicately carved, and ended in what appeared to be bear's claws. On closer inspection, Michael realized that they too had been carved from the wood. The juxtaposition of soft and harsh fit so perfectly for Lindsey that it was a surprise to his friend to realize that he had never before suspected it!
Behind the small writing desk was a cupboard inset into the stone wall. Lindsey pulled open the drawers, revealing shelves, with several stained carvings inside. Most of them appeared to be slices cut from the inside of a tree. The light from the windows was streaming past them, so he couldn't make out the pictures inside at all. "Take them over to the other window to look at them, just don't drop them," Lindsey advised as he sat down upon the single stool before the slant desk. There was a single sheaf of parchment already laying atop the oaken surface, and without another word, the timbersman began to pen his letter.
Michael kneeled down before the cabinet, and drew out the closest carving. It was made from very firm wood, he doubted that it would break if he dropped it from several stories up. As soon as he brought it into the light though, the relief sprang out in vivid contrast to the untouched surface framing it. It was an engraving of a man's bust. Judging from the high forehead and nose, thick luxuriant beard, and the scraggly mane of hair, he could tell that this must be Lindsey's father. "This is amazing," he breathed lightly.
"My father is a carpenter; carving was his art that he shared with my family," Lindsey called out over his shoulder.
Michael nodded absently as he traced his paws over the lines and creases of the face, from the thick lips, to the inset eyes. He could almost see the red of the man's beard and hair in the bright July sun. Returning that piece to the shelf, he began to pull out the others in the collection, taking a moment to admire each, and to ask who they were. Pictures of his father and brother were not nearly as abundant as were those of Lindsey's mother. A stern woman indeed, but that gaze in her eyes, a look of simplicity and peace reminded the beaver of his own mother. How many months was it since she had passed away now? Barely half a year?
After exhausting all the carvings placed out in the open, Michael found one set back against the wall inside the cupboard. It was turned backwards, and took him a moment to pry out. As he did so, a tiny cache was revealed, in which was a stack of papers. Reaching inside, he silently removed the topmost sheet, and carried it and the unseen carving with him to the window.
On the slip of parchment, he found a poem, penned in ink that was many years old. He could tell that just from its scent, spending so much time with those writers tended to rub a few things off on him. He glanced once at the carving, and saw that it was of a woman, younger than the pictures of Lindsey's mother, but with a rebellious streak in the eyes, a playfulness matched only by Andrig's. Wordlessly, he returned his attention to the poem, and quickly read through the brief lines.
A fire has lit within my bosom
For red-smoked cheeks and hair;
My heart and passion hast been risen
By your face, oh so fair!
"What are you doing with that?" Lindsey asked, breaking him from the sudden spell the words had left him in.
Michael nearly dropped the carving and paper in surprise, but held his grip tight. "I found this in your cupboard." He handed over both to the man, who had a strange wistful look upon his face. He had never seen Lindsey with such a pained expression before, even while he was drinking so rapidly in grief over the news he'd received. "I'm sorry if I wasn't supposed to see that."
Lindsey shook his head as he cupped the letter carefully in his large hands. "It is all right, you did nothing wrong."
Michael pressed his tongue against the back of his incisors. "Might I ask who Felikaush is, or was?"
Lindsey smiled slightly. "I was a woman once you know. This is what I use to look like." He held out the placard with the picture of the young lady upon it. Michael nodded absently, not sure what to say. "He was a merchant passing through on his way to Arabarb, but dallied many days that he might spend time with me. I think we loved each other the moment we met. I saved all of his poems in that drawer, but I rarely look at them." He glanced at the sheet in his hand, and then smiled again. "I remember this one, I received it in the frost of February eight years ago."
"So what happened?" Michael asked.
Lindsey set both the paper and carving down on the table. "This happened," he gestured to his body. "I came to Metamor because it was closer to the trading routes, that way we might see each other more often. I did not have any problem being accepted in the guard, even before the curse there were women soldiers at the Keep. Then Nasoj came, and I am as you see me now."
"Why couldn't this Felikaush come to the Keep too? He could have become a woman," Michael suggested weakly.
Lindsey turned back around shaking his head. "He did come, but he did not become a woman."
Michael blinked, totally stunned by this revelation. "Oh, I'm so sorry."
"I have to ask you to leave, and please do not talk about this. Word will spread about my brother soon. He was going to celebrate his twentieth year in a few months, you know."
Michael nodded absently, gently closing the cupboard and walking to the curtained door frame. "I hope that he is all right," He murmured quietly, and then closed his mouth, as Lindsey furiously scribbled away at the parchment. Raising his head up again he asked, "Will I see you at the Mule this evening?"
Lindsey turned about on his stool, a thoughtful expression gracing his features. "Yes, you will. Thank you for your company, Michael, you are a dear friend."
"As are you," the beaver replied as he let the cloth drop behind him, waddling out the front entrance on his short legs, his thick, flat tail slapping the back of them at every step.
Father Hough was taking his midday meal when the knock sounded against his door. Setting the bread and chicken aside, the priest slipped on his shoes, made sure to tie the laces tight with his small stubby fingers, and then opened wide the large door. Everything was large for him now, but to some degree he was used to being in a child's body again. Thankfully, he was not the sort of boy who would be too excited or jittery to conduct a Service properly, though he often found himself playing out in the field with the other children, some older than they appeared , and others awaiting their fourteenth year when the Keep would claim them as well.
Lady Kimberly still called on him frequently, though he was no longer in the state of shock that he had been in those first weeks after his encounter with Loriod. His lip curled in distaste at the memory of that monster, but no longer did he shrink in fear of it. Yet the rat enjoyed spending her afternoons with him when she could not be with Charles, and Francis had to admit, he welcomed her company. They would often talk of the goings about the Keep, or more often than not, Hough would instruct her in the specifics of Ecclesia doctrine.
However, the figure behind the oaken door was not Kimberly, as he had at first suspected, but another more welcome sight. The last time he had seen this man, they had been on eye level, now he barely came up to the young priest's chest. He was dressed in a simple traveling smock, and his short, cropped black hair was wet with a gentle rain. "Lothar!" Hough shouted in excitement upon seeing his old charge from the Ellcaran diocese.
Lothar was ten years his junior, but now one would never know that. He stared into the empty air a moment before his eyes wandered down to greet Hough's pleasant gaze. "Father Hough?" he asked, his voice uncertain. "Is that really you?"
Francis nodded reluctantly. "Yes, it is me. I am and for the rest of my life will be a child of ten and no more. Please, won't you come in, I'm sorry I have nothing to give to you, you must be tired form such a long journey. Tell me, did you have any trouble?"
The man stepped inside, gently setting his cloak upon the rack by the door and stretching tired muscles. "The journey was swift and uneventful, but I have not been able to keep from staring at all the amazing creatures you have here at Metamor. I knew about them, but to see them with my eyes is remarkable. I am sorry that it has taken you as well. We miss you in Ellcaran, Father; I think the parishioners preferred your homilies to mine."
Hough chuckled slightly at that as he returned to sitting on his bed. Lothar took the chair at the desk, and cautiously rested his legs. It was not made for a full sized man, and groaned slightly under his weight. "I know, and I wish that I could go, but I am awaiting word form the Patriarch on this matter. Until he declares me fit to return to my duties, I dare not leave." He then waved a hand towards the window, through which they could both glimpse the battlements and town in the distance. "Besides, I have a ministry here that is flourishing at last. You should see the chapel that the Keep built for us, it is quite remarkable. It is just through that door over there."
Lothar stood from the seat, a look of relief washing across his features. He crossed over to the second door, and peered inside. Then he stepped through, a sudden gasp echoing back to the child. "This is incredible! Where did it come from?"
"The Keep made it. I do not understand how, but the magic of this Keep seems to know just what we will need." Hough rose from the covers and came to stand next to his one-time assistant. Gazing up at the radiant face, he asked, "Would you like me to show you around?"
Lothar nodded. "In a moment. I am here for a reason. I have three messages for you, they all arrived to be delivered to you just last week, but I have to admit, I peeked at them, and decided that I should come tell you in person."
Hough waggled a finger at the other priest. "You should not be reading those! You know that"
"I know, but I was worried about you, I am afraid I sinned in that."
"Well, we can take care of that later. What are the messages?"
"First off, some good news for you. The Patriarch has reviewed your case, and has declared that you are still a priest of Eli, with all the authority contained therein. Also, as a priest that you should have a faith community to shepherd. He has decided to appoint you the first official priest to Metamor Keep and its vassal states."
Hough took a deep breath, and gently patted his friend on the arm. "That is wonderful news, I m glad that he sees it my way. What else?"
"I am not sure the significance of this, but in reply to your question of Marzac, according to their records, an exorcism was performed upon that Chateau. I suppose you know what that means."
"Was it successfully performed?" Hough asked, though at the moment, he was too overjoyed at the first bit of news to be too concerned.
"Just a moment," Lothar reached into his tunic and pulled out three parchments, the seals broken on each. They were the soft, expensive papers that were used by the Ecclesia on official notices. Unrolling one of them, he glanced down the lines of ink and then nodded. "Yes, it says that the exorcism was successfully performed."
"Does it say by whom?"
"Cardinal Geshter of Pyralis," Lothar read. "I've never met him."
"Neither have I, but that is all right. What else do you have for me?"
Lothar scrubbed his boot heel against the tiled marble floor. "Something I never would have thought could happen. The Patriarch has announced his intention to visit Metamor Keep."
At this, Hough was visibly stunned. "What?"
"Just as I said. The Patriarch wishes to travel here, and meet with you and others of the Ecclesia. He also expressed an interest in having a discussion with the Lightbringer, but the letter did not say to what purpose. His Holiness was hoping that you could coordinate affairs on this end for his reception. Read the note, and see for yourself."
Father Hough took the rolled up parchment in trembling hands. Holding the ends out into the light from a brazier, he quickly read the mother tongue of the Ecclesia, noting the finely wrought calligraphy, but even more that this was written with the Patriarch's own hand. There could be no question of this document's importance. Rolling the sheet back up, he gazed up into Lothar's face. "This is simply unbelievable! I must alert the others of this momentous occasion! I do hope that you will be able to visit for a time."
"I would very much like to be here when His Holiness arrives, but only as a visitor," Lothar remarked, rubbing his arms, as if that could keep the curse from clutching him round were he to stay too long.
"I understand," Francis slipped the document into his shirt pocket, and then gestured about the cathedral, its chiseled domes and spires, columns and colonnades, altars and pews all radiant in the noonday glow. "Would you like to see the chapel now?"
"Shouldn't you handle the correspondence first?"
"I will this evening, I will give you my replies in the morning, and you can be off with them. It has been nearly three months since I last saw you, let us enjoy our afternoon."
Lothar grinned, nearly as boyish as Hough. "All right, let us see the present the Keep has given us." Hough positively beamed, filled with the aura that permeated the cathedral at these hours. Only today, it was more so, an incandescence that Hough felt could only have been the loving paraklyte of Eli Himself.
Gazing out across the towers and treetops interspersed like a child's puzzle in a delicate array, Qan-av-årael traced a long slender finger over the sill of the high open window. The soft marble, carved into miniature scenes of animals and trees, and high mountain peaks, all in a fin-de-siècle arrangement, was comforting beneath his shallow skin. Far beneath the boughs of the arboreal jewel made up of at least a hundred shades of green and blue, were the sculpted terraces and gossamer walkways of the lower city, each appearing to grow from the very forest itself. Ancient and immeasurable in their depth, they were as much a part of this land as the soil itself.
As he gazed wet, the brilliant sun began its trek towards the yonder plains. The very walls themselves of bright lace and delicate filigree would glow in the somber twilight, each reflecting the pinpricks of the stars overhead. The moon, gentle minion that she was, would smile upon their festival of life, rituals as old as Qan-af-årael. His lips turned upwards into a unguarded smile, his angular features softening in the warm breeze, fresh with new leaves, fruit, and carrying the songs of newborn birds.
He was the oldest of his kind living in Ava-shavåis, having watched the very first stones be planted into the soil with the same loving care as were shown to the trees that the built around, only supporting and giving life to. Ever since they had been driven into these woods, as other races were driven into the mountains or below the hills, they had seen fit to make them their home, but not to displace those already here. Great pains had been taken in that, and to this day they tended the sick and the wounded from all the animals that lived with them in this ancient forest.
Qan-af-årael glanced upwards as a single shape began a downwards spiral through the leafy sky. It was a bird, small in size, and it stayed that way even as it came to land on the ornate window sill before him, gently preening itself with its short beak. It was a pigeon, grey in feather and head, with a small piece of parchment wrapped about one of its legs. With long fingered hands, he gently unwrapped the folded slip, and uncurled it in the dapper light of the twilight sun.
The smile slowly faded from his features, and Qan-af-årael stroked the bird's back with one finger. Then, holding out his arm, the messenger hopped over, perching there as trained. Holding the animal before an open and empty cage. It flew in, eating at the feed prepared for it. Shutting the wire frame, he draped a red and yellow cloth overtop the cage so that the animal might receive its well-earned rest.
"Andares," he called out softly, his voice betraying none of his trepidation.
The youth came forward from the antechamber just outside the arched doorway in the tower. He was shorter than Qan-af, his long black hair drawn back in a tail, covering the tips of his ears. Golden eyes gazed across the features of his ancient master, an impetuousness that the venerable found quite appealing. "What do you desire?"
"Send this message to our little friend up north," Qan-af-årael spoke even quieter than before, barely a whisper, like the wind in the trees. ‘The three are one, and the south's enemy awakes."
"Is that all?" Andares-es-sebashou asked, his faced creased with disbelief. The boy always had such trouble hiding his feelings.
"Yes, that is all." And then the younger figure nodded and turned on his heels, leaving the room, gently closing the door as he did so. Qan-af-årael walked once more to the window, gazing out towards the distant, scarlet sun, even as it poured only through the branches, barely visible at all. He breathed deeply of the air, the first smell of night fragrant upon each passing breeze. Slowly shifting clouds could be seen gathering in the far distance.