Rickkter did not often have occasion to frequent hallways in Metamor that ran near the apex of a much larger arched hall. To his and Weyden's right they could peer out over Duke Thomas's throne room and audience chamber, while to their left was hard, cold stone. Long tapestries were secured to the railings and then to the ceiling above them with sturdy ropes, casting them in a strange gloom that cloaked both floor and ceiling but left their chests and faces exposed to the light rising from below.
Even with the incongruity of where the strange inconsistent architecture of the Keep brought them to go from one place to another, it was not enough to prevent his destination from washing from his thoughts every dozen steps or so. With Weyden – who was curiously unaffected by the forgetfulness of the hyacinth – at his side he did not need to fear being led astray. Still, the bird had to nudge him with a gentle wing from time to time to keep him from peering out over the throne room to admire the view.
Once they turned away from the upper arch down a corridor that ended in a single wooden door the issue of his memory became moot. There was nowhere else to go. The door was moderately proportioned with only a small brass plate affixed to the center identifying the occupant's name and his position within Metamor's court. Rickkter glanced at Weyden who kept a satchel over his shoulder; the satchel contained something important but by this time the raccoon had completely forgotten what it was. The hawk only nodded his head. This must be where they had intended to go.
Rickkter hated asking this man for a favor, but he must have decided to come here because he could help them. He rapped the door with his knuckles and sighed.
"Come in; the door is unlocked."
Rickkter lifted the latch and pushed the door in. The single room beyond was rather small, almost a storage closet in size, with shelves stacked with ledgers and organized parchments, decanters of liquid of every color imaginable, stoppered ceramic jars, and even a small pillow stuffed with thin metal pins. A single latched window was set against the ceiling and out of reach at the other end of the room beneath of which was a spotless brass platter whose purpose Rickkter did not wish to speculate on. The ceiling was not fashioned from stone but was a trellis of iron rafters of various sizes. Hanging from these was Andwyn the bat and an elaborate crossbow system with multiple bolts pointing at their heads.
"Oh, it's you," Andwyn said as he reached over and pulled a small lever with his wing; the crossbow lifted back into the trellis where it was hidden from casual inspection. "I'm sorry about that, but I wasn't warned of your coming."
"I had heard you were paranoid," Rickkter noted as he stepped cautiously into the cramped room. "But threatening guests?"
"I spent six years living as a bat in Nasoj's castle. One does not treat guests well there."
He snorted and nodded. "In sooth. Do you have some time? I am apparently here to ask you a favor."
Andwyn shifted about, his feet carrying him from one iron hook to the next, backing toward the window to give the two of them room to enter. "A favor? Apparently? Do you know why you're here?"
"No, but Weyden does. Close the door."
Weyden nudged the door shut with his wing and then presented the satchel to the raccoon. "The letter you wrote to remind you what you want to know is on top."
"Thank you." Rickkter flipped open the satchel, shielding it with his body so Andwyn wouldn't see, and then pulled out a folded letter he'd scrawled the words 'Read me' on the front top of. He opened the letter and scanned the words. His claws dug at the edge of the parchment in fury as he remembered.
He licked his jowls and then lifted his eyes once more to the bat. "Aye, a favor. And you cannot know the reasons for what I am about to ask you. Do not even ask why. The less you know of the why, the better chance we will be successful."
The bat folded his wings over his chest and widened his small eyes. "You wish me to do something for you but not to know why. Such favors cannot come freely. And if I learn they have been in any way disloyal to the Duke, and I will learn you can be assured of that, the cost may be more than you can pay."
"It is not disloyal I assure you," Rickkter replied. His few exposures to the chief spymaster for Metamor had convinced him that he was a man who would die by his own hand rather than betray his liege, and woe to any one who dared try. Andwyn did not make threats. He only stated the terms of the arrangement as they had to be in his mind. He had no time for anything else. Misha and his friends might not understand that, seeing in the bat's words threats and condescension which were never intended as such, but Rickkter did.
"Then what is the favor you seek?"
"You have a system of couriers that you use to deliver information around and into and out of the Valley," Rickkter said with a flick of his tail and a lowering of his ears. He wondered if the bat would deny it or become angry at his secrets being exposed but the bat remained still with attentive ears. "I want to use those couriers to pass along messages to select individuals tonight. Doubly-sealed messages; the couriers should not know to whom the messages are meant until they arrive. Can you do this?"
Andwyn plucked his snout with the end of one wing. "If the individuals to whom they are sent are living near a courier post then aye it can be done. I will need to know where the messages are to be sent."
"Fair enough. Also, the messages must seem to be from Duke Thomas." Andwyn pulled his wings even tighter about his chest. "No one is to know the reason why they are receiving their orders until they are assembled where I want them to be assembled."
"The cost for this favor is rising."
"I know," Rickkter replied with a hiss. "And if there were any other way I would not have come. But can this be done?"
"You say I cannot know the reason why. But I must know; how long will this venture of yours take?"
"It should be over tomorrow. One way or another."
"Then in two day's time I expect you to return here and report on the success of your venture, its reasons, and its consequences. After which time, we will discuss ways in which you can return the favor to Metamor."
Rickkter ground his teeth together but forced himself to nod. "Agreed."
"Good. Now, you need official instructions directing how many people where?" The bat plucked a small fruit from the shelf-top and began to chew its ripe sinews. Juice dribbled down his snout.
"Six letters. Three should go to Glen Avery, one to Tarrelton, and two more here in Metamor Keep. It would be best if they all arrived early in the morning. Can you manage that?"
"Six copies of a simple order? Of course. To where will I be sending them? I assume you want them to refrain from discussing anything with anyone?'
"Instruct them so, not that I think it will work with everyone." He was fairly confidant that Charles and James would talk with each other on their way down from the Glen, but the rest would keep their tongues behind their teeth.
"It will only take me a few minutes to pen such a letter. But where am I sending them?"
Rickkter glanced at the sheet in his paws. He could feel Weyden stirring behind him. The hawk was nervous and anxious to return to his duties. "Have everyone report to the gates of Lake Barnhardt and to wait there for further instructions. No one is to enter the city until instructions have been given. Use a secret word..." he turned to the hawk and cocked him an inquisitive glance.
"Beehive," Weyden blurted and then shrugged his wings.
"Beehive it is," Rickkter said with a nod. It was as good as anything else. And with no connection to what was written on his paper, they were not likely to forget it.
Andwyn gestured to one of the shelves on the other side of the room. "You will find fresh parchment there between the blue and green books. Mark the names of the individuals you wish to send to Lake Barnhardt. Once each letter has been written you may seal them with the wax there."
Rickkter found the parchment just as the bat said he would. The small desk the bat kept was as tall as his shoulders but he found ample quills and ink. He quickly scribbled the names on each and then blew across the ink until it was dry. Once all six were complete he turned them over so the names would not be visible, stepped back by the door, and patted the hawk on the shoulder. Weyden sighed through his beak and dug his talons into the stone floor, scratching it and his talons.
Andwyn's feet carried him across the trellis over to the desk where he proceeded to unfold his wings and grasp the quill with his wing claws. More nimble than Rickkter would have expected, he had to admire the bat at work. His penmanship was crisp and clear and within only a few minutes he had constructed six identical letters conveying exactly what Rickkter had requested. Rickkter took and folded each in turn as the bat finished with them, using wax and a signet ring sitting on the bat's desk to leave the impression of the Hassan horsehead heraldry upon them.
"Now," Andwyn said, pointing with one wing toward a second bookshelf. "You will find larger sheets of parchment there on the second shelf from the top. You can fold the letters within and seal them a second time. Do not mark them, but simply tell me where each will go and I will see to it that they arrive tonight."
Rickkter found the much larger sheets of parchment as the bat described. He placed the three letters for Glen Avery in the center of the first sheet and folded it around them before sealing it shut with the wax. He did the same for the letter to Tarrelton, and the two for Metamor Keep. It was strange to send an order from Duke Thomas to himself, but that was the only way he knew he could guarantee that he would arrive. He had to give himself a reason the hyacinth wouldn't make him forget.
He could only hope it worked.
The bat took each of the doubly-sealed letters and nibbled on the edge before dropping them on the shelf next to his half-eaten fruit. "Is there anything else I can do for you?"
Rickkter turned and gave Weyden a querying look. The hawk shook his head. "Nay," Rickkter replied with a relieved sigh. "That is all."
"Good." Andwyn's jaws turned downward in an upside-down smile. It was unsettling even to the raccoon. "And a word of warning; you will find my quarters quite different in two days."
"Of course." Rickkter bobbed his head. "In two days then."
Rickkter and Weyden happily closed the bat's door behind them as they left. They walked in silence for a minute, the paper still clutched tightly in the raccoon's paws. His eyes strayed from the script to the railing overlooking the Duke's throne room only to be drawn back after a few seconds. "You should get back to your patrol now, Weyden."
"I know. Here's your satchel." Weyden slipped the bag from over his wing and offered it. Rickkter took the strap in one paw and hefted it over his shoulders. He was grateful he hadn't had to offer the bat any of the various interesting trinkets or written promises he'd brought. It did make him wonder how much the bat suspected.
"Do you think it will work?" Weyden asked.
"I don't know," Rickkter growled under his breath. He glanced at the sheet of paper and growled even more as he recalled exactly why he had come to see the bat. "But it better."
May 5, 708 CR
James woke early that morning with a smile stretched across his snout. His ears wouldn't stop bouncing from side to side as he gathered his scouting gear. In an hour he would meet up with Baerle the opossum for a quick two-day patrol of the relatively peaceful southern expanse of the Glen. She wasn't in love with him the way he was in love with her yet, but she was always so happy to see him. One day he hoped he would be as happy with her as Charles was with Kimberly.
A knock at his door roused him from the reverie he'd begun to enjoy of their last venture into the woods together. The donkey opened the door and saw the haggard cervine face of Jurmas. The deer already had velveted antlers gracing his brow, and a weariness in his face that spoke of the lack of sleep his two-month old twin daughters were providing him. He had a small letter in his hoof-like hand.
"This just came for you." Jurmas offered the letter.
James took it in his two-fingered hands and turned it over. He saw the horsehead seal, but didn't recognize the handwriting with his name. "How are your girls?"
"They are all legs and bleats!" Jurmas said, his ears flicking from side to side as he shook his head to shake the weariness. "But they are my girls and I love them. Everyone says I'll get sleep again soon. I'm told they have a most interesting brew in Metamor to help me wake in the morning."
"Next time I go I will ask for you," James offered. "I suppose I should read this."
Jurmas nodded and stepped back from the door. "I'll have something ready for you to eat when you come down. I hope your patrol is..." he didn't finish his words, only smiled and walked back down the corridor of the Inn.
James brayed a laugh to himself and swung the door shut. His hooves clopped on the wood as he walked toward his pallet and gear. He broke the seal and scanned the words. A moment later and the donkey sighed; he hoped Baerle wouldn't be too disappointed.
Kayla had been surprised by the letter she received that morning. She recognized Andwyn's handwriting but also Rickkter's on the outer envelope. Despite the oddness this combination presented to her she followed the instructions without question. She gathered traveling gear and a sword that her raccoon had helped her choose that fit well in her paw and was light like the dragon swords she had once wielded, and then borrowed a horse from the stables and started the ride toward Lake Barnhardt.
And yet the biggest surprise was not a half-hour into her ride being overtaken by the very man who had written her name on the letter. The sun just rose over the edge of the mountains, and for a moment as she stared back down the winding road behind her she could only see a shadow chasing her. But then the road dipped between two hills and behind a stand of trees and the gray-and black furred figure emerged from the glare. "Rick!" she cried when his horse galloped alongside hers. She slowed down to a comfortable trot so they could talk. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm wondering the same thing myself," Rickkter admitted with a shake of his head as he slowed his black steed. "First off, what are you doing here?"
"Well," Kayla knew she wasn't supposed to tell anyone. But this was Rickkter and it was his handwriting that had specified her name on the outside of the letter. "I was ordered to go this way."
"As was I. By myself apparently."
Kayla had long since learned how to read the subtle changes in the raccoon's face. The way his triangular ears were lowered and his narrow snout curled ever so slightly showed his irritation and uncertainty. "You don't know why?"
"Which is never a good sign. There was only this note I left myself on my desk last night that said this was important."
Kayla shook her head. "Well, if you did that, it must be very important."
"We'll find out when we get there," Rick said with a long sigh. "I hate not knowing what's happening."
"Could it be a trick?"
"It would have to be a very, very good one. I apparently had something to do with this but for the life of me I cannot remember it."
"But you wanted me here," Kayla pointed out with a smile. She reached across the gap and put her paw on his arm. He looked down at it and smiled.
"It must not be so bad then, whatever it is. As long as I have you here."
Kayla tightened her grip. "You always have me here, Rick."
He reached over and patted her paw, a slight smile creasing the corners of his muzzle.
Captain Dallar led Weyden and his friends on patrol to Tarrelton that morning and they would be gone from Metamor for four days. Jessica had for a brief time joined them on patrol, but the importance of her studies had quickly brought her participation in something as pedestrian as a simple jaunt across the Valley looking for Lutins and brigands to an end. It was a great relief to the black-feathered hawk to know that her husband would be away that long. The ideas percolating in her mind and about which she dreamed would doubtless prove shocking to Weyden.
Four days would give Jessica the time to determine the best way to broach the subject on his return.
More importantly, it would give her ample opportunity to continue her experiments. So with a warm Spring day shining through her windows, casting rays of light across the slate floor of her workroom, the black-feathered hawk set to work. Outside she could hear the normal birds singing happy songs, their twittering and fluting voices cascading above the morning bustle of Metamor like the tinkling of bells on a washline hanging over a busy street. And from the window the hearty aroma of baked bread, the succulent flavor of tough-cooked jerky, the heady bouquet of the many perfumes humans used, and the slight miasma of refuse that hadn't washed down the gutters all rushed past her nostrils one after another. The taste of last night's meal still tickled the back of her throat and coated the inside of her beak.
Jessica allowed each of these sensations to occupy her mind for several long seconds before setting them aside, bringing more and more of her mind into focus upon the slate before her, and the trio of runes drawn upon it. First she put aside the delicious and disgusting blend of odors that pervaded Metamor's streets and which filtered into every crack of thought like a bit of rain water boring through an ancient stone. And then she silenced the cacophony of voices human and beast, dwelling not just in her chamber but deep within her own flesh. She recessed there, everything else, even the bookshelves choked with scrolls and loose parchment and her scrawling designs that were only a few feet from her, stretched away as if they were as far from her as the swamps of Marzac were from Metamor.
There, in the inner vaults of the self, she allowed the magic wellspring to blossom. A brilliant ribbon of purple endlessly twisting and shimmering like the dust on a butterfly's wing erupted from the hawk's essence like water burbling up from a deep well after a night of heavy rain. This was the deep, the unseen vibrancy that could not be named or labeled yet it animated Jessica's thought and being. Even as her physical form bent over, wings splayed in front of her so that each wing touched one rune and her beak the center rune, she sank into the maelstrom like a thousand millstones bound together with iron chains.
The ribbon of light wound around her, while the tendrils of magic flowed into the whirligig until they were stretched taut and balled tight inside with Jessica. Gone completely now was all that existed outside. She was within the magic in a way she had never conceived before. The ribbon of purple light shimmered as it stretched into a nearly perfect sphere, while the veins of magic flowed into a centrifuge pressing them tighter and tighter together until she could no longer distinguish individual strands.
Everything became a seamless whole through which no part of the Valley untouched by the hyacinth could remain closed to her. With a mere flicker of will she could see Rhena brushing the fur of her tail at the back of the Inn while casting coquettish smiles at a young tabby across the room. Another blink and she saw Kuna and the other urchin boys pilfering breakfast in the sleepy market still waking to a new day. But on these things the hawk did not linger long. There was much work to be done.
As if they were a set of tools, she arrayed her feathers before herself, dipping each one by one into the turbulent flow of magic. Whispered words trilled on her tongue, bouncing back and forth within her beak until they were shaped into power. The purple ribbon wound around each feather in turn, its texture as soft as silk but as warm as the heaviest quilt. A touch of that hue glinted from each feather so that they too shimmered with a vibrancy they'd never had even when they'd been red like Weyden's.
Four days, Jessica mused to herself as the transforming spells were bound to her feathers, ready to be released at her will on those who might bring her to harm. In four days there would not be a feather on her that could not reshape anyone in the world into a child, a beast, or even – the sweet and endearing smile of her husband filling her thoughts – into a woman or a man.
The ribbon blossomed with a new brightness and song. You will set all things right.
And with the hyacinth, Jessica knew she would.
It was still early morning by the time that Captain Dallar and his patrol arrived in Tarrelton to begin their patrol of the roads and forests near the small town an hour's walk north of the Keep. It was in Tarrelton that the northward road from Metamor forked with a road leading east to Mallen and a road leading west toward Lake Barnhardt. The northern road that branched shortly after the village was lost to sight around hills and trees, with the eastern fork heading to Mycransburg and the western angling northwest toward Glen Avery. There was a northbound road that lead directly to Hareford, but few merchants braved it even in the best of weather because of the strange rumors and frightful noises many had heard coming from the Haunted Woods that lay on its eastern flank like a growling dog resting one paw protectively over a bone.
Despite being the northern crossroads for the Metamor valley, Tarrelton remained a small village with a ten foot high wall surrounding an old Suielman tower and a dozen or so waddle and daub houses. Most who lived in the area pastured sheep on the rocky swards or grew potatoes and beets in the softer fields. A small hostel served travelers forced to remain overnight, but that was all. Why would a merchant stop in this place when for an hour or two more of travel they could reach the more prosperous markets of Lake Barnhardt, Mallen, or Mycransburg? And merchants from south of the valley had even less reason since their fortune would always be made or lost within the walls of Keeptowne.
But for the patrols, Tarrelton was an important vantage from which they could keep an eye on nearly all of the foot and hoof traffic in the northern reaches of the Valley. They were five: Dallar the ram, their captain and one time gaoler who led the squad and kept one hand on the pommel of his sword and pipe stem clutched between his flat teeth; Larssen the giraffe who walked at the rear at a leisured pace, his head and neck stretched high enough to see past the nearest shrubs and almost over the wall of Tarrelton itself; before him was Maud, his wife and now also a giraffe who led the packhorse with their gear; and between them on their other horse rode Van who was stuck in the body of a thirteen year old; flying high above as a normal hawk was Weyden watching over everything and noting every twitch of the Spring blossoms and coniferous branches for signs of brigands or Lutins.
At the base of the old tower a new house had been built from stone with a small second story with narrow windows that could peer over the edge of the guarding wall. After greeting the town guards at the small gate and being ushered inside onto a road that was no more than a muddy track that would have sucked at their hooves if the last few days hadn't been dry, Dallar led them straight past the wooden homes, a goose waddling along as if he owned the town, and a pair of barking dogs chasing each others' tails toward the tower in the center. The doorway to the house was too small for either Larssen or Maud, and so they remained just outside while Dallar and Van stepped through to let the soldiers stationed in Tarrelton know that they had arrived for their patrol. Weyden settled onto the lintel over the door and perched there.
"How was the sky?" Larssen asked as he turned his long head toward the hawk.
Weyden couldn't respond while still a full hawk so allowed himself to grow enough in size to make human speech possible. He stretched out his larger wings and then folded them along his back. "It tastes of rain."
"But there's no clouds in the sky," Maud noted as she craned her neck back. She lifted one hand to the two knobs on her forehead and peered upward, a blue tongue extending from her jaws to lick crumbs from the side of her snout. "Are you sure?"
Weyden nodded and then preened his shoulder a moment. When he looked up both giraffes were staring at him. "The wind is coming from the south. We should see the clouds start by noon. The rains might be here this afternoon, this evening, or perhaps tonight. It just... tastes like rain."
"You would know," Larssen conceded with a bleating laugh.
Van slipped back out the door with a blank expression followed by Dallar who had a sealed letter in his hands. The ram lifted his head, ears flicking against his curling horns, and said, "Wait here a moment. It looks like we might have new orders."
The four of them did as instructed while Dallar stalked away a short distance, just enough to keep his body between them and the letter. The ram's short tail shifted from side to side as opened the letter. Larssen shrugged, turned to Maud, and stroked one hand down her long neck. She smiled back at him but pushed his hand away with a not-while-on-duty look.
Dallar took a deep breath and rolled his pipe around in his snout. "New orders. We're to go to Lake Barnhardt and meet somebody outside the gates there. They'll explain what we need to do."
"Those seem like strange orders," Larssen noted with narrowed eyes. He crossed his arms and tapped one hoof. "Who are we supposed to meet?"
"It doesn't say," Dallar replied as he folded the letter closed and slipped it between his tunic and linens. "But it must be important. Duke Thomas's signet was used. Only his closest advisors have that."
"I guess we go to Lake Barnhardt then," Van mused with a boyish laugh.
"I like it there," Maud said with a smile. "It will be good to be there again. I hope we'll have a chance to see our friends."
"Well, our orders don't say one way or another, so I guess we'll just have to find out. Let's get moving. Break out a little of the bread and juice on the way. Weyden, back to the skies."
The hawk nodded his head, his eyes ever fixed upon the bulge in Dallar's tunic where the letter was pressed.
James was delighted when he was joined on the road south by a very familiar rat riding on a roan pony. The donkey was not surprised that Charles had also received a letter instructing him to journey to the gates of Lake Barnhardt to await instructions. Nor was he surprised that it took Charles much longer that morning to take his absence from his duties. James's duties had been a simple patrol and a message left with Jurmas was sure to get to the right people; he had stopped to let Baerle know personally but the opossum had only hurried him along once she understood.
For Charles there was the matter of his four children and his wife whose side he never liked leaving. Only a few days before when they had traveled to Metamor Keep together to gather with their friends it had taken the knight rat nearly two candlemarks to hug and kiss his children with repeated promises that he would be home in time for the evening meal and to give his children a ride either on Malicon or on his own back in taur form. That morning had been little different except this time Charles wasn't sure when they would be getting back.
"This is Andwyn's handwriting," Charles groused from atop his pony. James walked along beside him and his long ears were nearly as high as the rat's. "At least inside the letter. I don't recognize who wrote my name. But I suspect... hmm..."
"The calligraphy has a bit of a southeastern flair. It might be Rickkter's pen."
James blinked a few times as his hooves carried him down the road through the hills as they sloped toward the lower-lying dells around the large lake. His frown deepened as he tried to understand what it meant for the names to have been written by Rickkter and the orders by Andwyn. But he couldn't think of any good reason why that would be so. "Are you sure it's from Rickkter?"
"Nae," Charles admitted with a shrug. "I've never seen that... raccoon's handwriting. But he's the only person I know from that land here at Metamor. And it looks like the script of the people of southeast Sonngefilde."
"They write differently there?"
"Every land has their own style of letters. Not every land has as many who can read let alone write as does Metamor. Still, I don't like the idea of Rickkter and Andwyn joining their resources together. It sounds very dangerous to me."
James brayed a laugh but the rat wasn't amused. James hated seeing Charles upset and so turned their conversation to his new land, the anniversary of his children's birth which was in two days, and whether he planned to compete in the joust at the Summer festival. The last question caught his friend off-guard.
"I.. I don't really know. I hadn't even thought about it. I need a squire to joust and it is a little late to train someone so I suppose I will not. I'm not sure what Sir Saulius has planned. I'll have to ask him next time I see him."
James was about to ask him how the other rat knight was when they both turned their ears as the sound of another set of hoofbeats came from the north, these much heavier than either Malicon's or James's. They stopped and waited at the side of the road where short birch trees provided shade and shielded them from a quick glance. They had to wait almost two minutes before they saw the rider.
The road from the Glen wound its way along mostly gentle downward slopes to avoid the rocky ledges nearer the western edge of the valley. The rolling hills leveled out for a good twenty minute walk before resuming their descent the rest of the way to the wrinkled plain and depression that formed Lake Barnhardt. That brief level stretch was commonly called the Narrows and it was this land that Lord Avery had given Charles as his fief. James realized as they stared back up the road this would be the first time that his friend had welcomed a traveler on his own land.
In the end the figure riding over the last hill proved to be a familiar face. He'd selected a common bay quarter horse which meant he towered over both of them as did his prodigious black and white tail. He didn't see them at first, but by the time he had, both James and Charles had eased out from under the protective awning of the stand of birch. This was a friend.
"Ho, Murikeer!" Charles called and waved his paw. "What brings you away from your homestead this day?"
Murikeer drew his steed beside them and inclined his head, keeping his tail pointed the other direction. "Sir Charles. James. We are well met on the road. But I'm afraid I cannot mention my purpose."
"You received a letter too?" James asked in surprise. Charles gave him a sullen, reproving glare, and he chided himself. He needed to better learn how to obey the Duke's orders.
The skunk's surprise lasted only a moment before it was replaced with a calmer expression. James did not know Murikeer that well. He had seen the skunk only a handful of times and then usually in the company of his friends for their gatherings at the Deaf Mule. Despite both of them living in the Glen and the very good reputation the skunk had – not to mention the complimentary room and board that Jurmas the Innkeeper provided them both – they had never really gotten to know one another.
What mattered most to James when it came to people whose power was not apparent in their appearance like this master illusionist was the opinion of his friend Charles. Charles trusted Murikeer enough to allow him to tutor his wife in magical arts. That said more about the skunk's character than anything he had ever seen the fellow do or say. James admired him and was very glad to see him.
"Aye," Murikeer admitted with a smirk. His only eye narrowed as he glanced past them at the stand of birch trees. "Were you expecting someone else?"
"We weren't sure who to expect," Charles replied. He stroked one paw down Malicon's neck and shifted his long tail to keep it from dangling across the pony's flank. "There is still a ways to journey before we reach Lake Barnhardt. We would be honored by your company."
"Since it seems we are going to the same place, then I am honored to join you."
James felt good to be walking again as they continued southeast along the road. When the trees ahead of them thinned out he could see the mountains and the broad lake at their base as well as the towers of Lord Barnhardt's castle. He flecked his lips and turning back to the skunk asked, "Was your name written by Rickkter? That's who we think wrote our names."
Murikeer frowned a bit while scratching just under his chin. "It was my mentor's handwriting. But I didn't recognize the script inside the letter. I was curious that the letter didn't have any scent."
"It's Andwyn," Charles noted as his eyes moved from side to side, taking in the rough country that was now his. "I'm not sure how he removes the stink of bat from his messages, but I've never received anything from him that had so much as a hint of fragrance on it."
"A very curious message indeed," Murikeer admitted as he leaned back in the saddle. Their pace was measured but a comfortable walk. James was grateful that the Curse had gifted him with hooves and long legs, even if his stomach wasn't always happy with him when he dined on roast. "I suppose this means that the person we are to meet outside the walls of Lake Barnhardt is none other than Rickkter himself."
The rat's expression visibly soured. "Probably."
Murikeer did not have a left eye anymore and so to better see them both had directed the bay to walk on the left side of the road. The skunk still turned his head to stare down the length of his short snout at the rat. "Do you still hate him?"
James noticed Charles tighten his grip on the reins. The knot-work buckler over his right wrist bulged with his veins. "I do not hate him anymore. He is... not the man I expected him to be. But he is, or was, Kankoran and that is hard to forget."
"You left your order. What ties you to the feuds of your order?"
"History and habit I suppose. A group of us were hunted in the Darkündlicht mountains by Kankoran. I lost a few friends to their hands."
Murikeer's snout wrinkled for a moment, the jowls lifting to reveal his short, sharp fangs. "I did not know that. I am sorry. But Kayla is right; you should let it go. You are not in those lands or those clans anymore."
"Nay, we are not." The rat sighed and nudged Malicon into a trot. James quickened his pace to keep up but Murikeer shook his head. The donkey waited a moment and saw that his friend slowed again after he'd put a dozen paces between them.
James kicked at a loose stone and it clattered across the hard earth before disappearing into the brush. In an unhappy silence they continued their way south following orders they did not understand.
Kayla and Rickkter arrived at the gates of Lake Barnhardt around mid-morning and were disappointed to discover that there was no one there waiting for them. The road had been easy with a few patrols and numerous merchants heading from Metamor to Barnhardt and back but no one they thought could be involved in whatever scheme had roused them that morning. Rickkter even asked one of the guards standing watch at the gatehouse but they didn't even know what he was talking about.
And so they settled in to wait on the other side of the road from the gatehouse and the massive curtain wall that protected the city from attack. To their north homestead and farmland had been cultivated for several acres, which meant that they could see along the road in either direction a good distance. Along the shore of the lake numerous wharves and fishermen operated. To the south the mountains rose up dramatically on the other side of the lake, providing good nesting grounds for hawks, eagles, and if Cerulean was to be believed a dragon or two. The city stood between them and the castle, and from within they could hear the sounds of shopkeepers, smithies, farriers, and all sorts conducting their daily business. Archers and pikemen stood post on the high city walls, but after a cursory inspection of the raccoon and skunk, now returned to staring off into the distance or sleeping.
Rickkter dismounted after only a few minutes to stretch his legs and back. He even drew out his Sondeshike and gave it a few twirls to loosen his muscles. Kayla watched him while reviewing the letter she'd received that morning, but otherwise remained comfortably perched in the saddle while her horse munched on the grass sprouting beside the road. If there was anything more to be learned from the letter, the skunk could not see it.
But being on horseback she did see the trio of friends coming down the road from the north before Rickkter did. As soon as she saw who they were there was no doubt in her mind that they had come to Lake Barnhardt for the same reason they had. With a broad smile, she stood a little in the stirrups and waved her arm. "Ho, Muri! Charles! James! Over here!"
Rickkter stopped his practice as soon as she moved, and his face darkened briefly before he turned aside and put the Sondeshike away. He climbed back into the saddle and nudged the horse out onto the road. "So I wanted them too? Muri I understand, he's a very helpful fellow. But James and that rat?"
"Charles, you mean?"
"Aye, the rat."
"Charles?" Kayla's eye ridges began to arch.
The raccoon sighed and nodded. "Aye, Charles."
"Well, what if it is about Marzac?" Kayla suggested. "We'd want them here for anything to do with that place."
Rickkter grunted as he and Kayla walked their horses down the road to meet the trio passing through the northern lakeland fields. The trio noticed them a moment later and picked up their pace. A minute later they slowed until the five of them were all side by side. James, the only one of them not riding, lifted his head as high as he could, eyes expectantly fixed on Rickkter.
The raccoon wasted no time dancing around the obvious and the irritating. "I take it you all received letters this morning?"
"With your script signing our names," Murikeer added with a nod. "Or so I thought."
"It is my script," Rickkter replied with a nod and a scowl. "But I don't remember writing it."
"That's odd," James couldn't help but say. "If you didn't write our names then maybe it isn't Andwyn's handwriting in the letter either."
"It is his," Kayla assured them. "I have read his handwriting for a long time now and I could never mistake it for another. I was hoping one of you might know why we are here."
"We were hoping the same of you," Murikeer replied, a faint churr whispering beneath his words. "Do you not know?"
Rickkter sighed and dug his claws into the palm of one hand. "Nay. I know neither why we are here nor why my hand signed our names. Only that it must be very important. And, what is more, if it is we who are here, it may have something to do with Marzac. What it could be I can't imagine." He narrowed his green eyes as he peered at the rat. "Unless you are falling under its corruption."
"I am not," the rat replied without looking at the raccoon. "If I were, do you think I would have come here into your power?"
"If it really is Marzac," Murikeer noted with a thoughtful moue stretching his muzzle, "then Jessica should be here too. Where is she?"
"Perhaps she is on her way?" James suggested. "Maybe she's the one who knows why we're here. We should wait for her."
Rickkter frowned. "Of all of us, she is the only one who can fly; if she received a note like we did than she should have been here first. And if this is about Marzac and she is missing... well I think you can draw your own conclusions."
The moment of disquiet that idea brought persisted only a short while. When they spoke again they all agreed to wait and so the five of them walked at a steady pace down the road until they were opposite the gatehouse again. This time they all dismounted to let their steeds relax while they stretched and spoke quietly of their hopes for the Summer and the year beyond. Their eyes ever watched for familiar faces, but for two candlemarks all they saw were merchants and townsfolk coming and going from the gates to the wharves and the roads beyond. None accosted them and most gave them a wide berth as they passed. Rickkter was considering sending somebody into town to buy them all food when James caught sight of a hawk in the sky.
"Is that Jessica up there?" They all followed the donkey's arm into the cloudless sky. They could see the bird but something seemed strange. Kayla was the first to note it.
"Jessica's feathers are black. That hawk looks like any other hawk I've ever seen."
"It could be Weyden," James suggested.
"It might even be a normal hawk nesting in the those mountains," Charles noted with a shrug of his shoulders.
Rickkter shook his head. "He's circling and descending. I think that's a Keeper."
"It's definitely Weyden," Murikeer pointed down the southeastern road at a group of soldiers, two of which were giraffes. "His patrol squad is coming up the road."
All five of their heads turned to the four soldiers making their way up the road at a steady foot-speed. Only the youth was riding on a horse, the two giraffes and the ram were on hoof. The male giraffe noticed them first and gestured for his friends to see. Both Kayla and Murikeer waved in their direction. By the time that the hawk had landed, all of them had gathered on the side of the road outside Barnhardt's iron gates.
"Waiting for someone?" The ram Dallar asked as his yellow eyes surveyed them.
"As a matter of fact, we are," Rickkter replied with narrowed eyes.
"Good," Dallar sighed with relief. "So what are our orders?"
"What do you mean?"
"I thought you would have our orders. You're the ones we were sent to meet are you not?"
Rickkter ground his teeth together as Kayla and the others shifted uncomfortably back and forth. "None of us know what this is about. I was hoping one of you might."
The ram backed up a pace, his face cringing in a scowl. "We were hoping you would know!"
"Does anyone know?" Rickkter snapped. What fool's errand had they been sent on? His ire was tempered only by the sudden worry that this had been a trap.
"I know. Beehive."
All of them turned as one toward the red-feathered hawk standing next the pack-laden horses. Stunned by this admission and the password revealed in their orders, Rickkter could only open and shut his snout as words escaped him. Dallar finally broke the sudden silence with a bluster of his own. "You know? Then why didn't you say something in Tarrelton, or better yet this morning when we left Metamor?"
"I couldn't," Weyden replied with an apologetic nod of his head toward his superior officer. He stretched his wings over one of the knapsacks and undid the laces. "I could only admit that I knew why we had been sent here when Rickkter arrived. He's the only one who can vouch for me."
All eyes turned to the raccoon who held up his paws and shook his head. "I have no idea what he's talking about! I am as much in the dark as the rest of you! Weyden, explain yourself!"
The hawk flipped open the knapsack and after glancing through the contents withdrew a folded piece of parchment much larger than their letters. He walked stiffly, head bobbing back and forth, to the raccoon and offered the parchment to him. "No, Rickkter. You will explain it."
With an almost petulant flick of his wrist, the raccoon snatched the parchment from the hawk's wing-claws and began to read. Within a few seconds Rickkter's irritation vanished in a sudden spasm of terror. He nearly stumbled backward, the parchment clutched in his paws and yet held as far from him as possible as if it were some vile monster trying to consume him. Kayla and Murikeer rushed to his side to steady him, while Charles, James, and Dallar all reached for their weapons.
Steadied, Rickkter folded the letter and shook his head, gasping for breath. He cast a worried glance toward the city, and then nodded to his friends. "It is all right. I am all right. But Weyden's right. I can vouch for him. I can explain this."
"How?" James asked.
Rickkter lifted the parchment. "Because I wrote every one of these words yesterday and I don't remember a single one."
"How is that possible?"
Rickkter glanced at the rat, curious if he would remember. Charles blinked at the sudden scrutiny and wrinkled his whiskers. "Somebody made you forget?"
"And it has happened before. Last year. Dallar's squad would know of it."
Charles nodded lost in thought, and then his eyes widened and he gasped a single word. "Hyacinth!"
"Aye," Rickkter said as he waved the parchment in the air. "There's a new one. Let me finish reading and I will tell you what I knew yesterday. I hope there's some explanation for why we were brought here this way."
"I can tell you that," Weyden replied. "If you knew why you were coming here, you would forget and never make it. It's why you had Andwyn's couriers deliver the orders. Not even Andwyn knows why the messages were sent, only that it was important."
"And apparently I had something to do with it," Rickkter noted with a grim smile. He read the remainder of the parchment while everyone else waited patiently, eyes warily noting the country-side. But those eyes grew bored in the few minutes it took for the raccoon to finish reading. When he finally folded the parchment again, he glanced at his friends and Dallar's men and frowned. "Does anyone know why we're here?"
"We were hoping you could tell us," Dallar noted with a caprine bleat.
"I already did," Rickkter replied with a snort. "Or at least part of it. That hyacinth works fast."
"Hyacinth!" Charles exclaimed, his placid face filling with alarm. "Where?"
"Here in Lake Barnhardt. Probably atop the barracks where it couldn't be seen except for the castle towers and the sky." Rickkter's eyes narrowed. "It is making us forget everything connected to it. We only know it exists as long as we fixate on it. Become distracted and it all vanishes like a puff of smoke on the wind."
"Why would there be a hyacinth here?" Charles asked, edging closer, eying the parchment as if he wished to snatch it from the raccoon and read it himself. He probably did.
"Because Jessica planted it here. The corruption of Marzac is taking her."
"No!" Kayla gasped and put her paws to her snout. James and the rat grimaced with sudden determination. Murikeer glanced at the sky, his gaze growing distant in that peculiar way common to mage sight.
"Hyacinths are just flowers," Maud said with a bemused expression on her long snout. "Why are you all so worried about this one?"
"Hyacinths, if properly prepared, can be used to store magical power like a reservoir stores water. That alone is dangerous enough in the wrong hands. But what makes hyacinths so special is that they can also be used to make everyone in some area forget things that the planter wants them to forget. In this case, the hyacinth is making us forget everything about itself and anything connected to it. And that means anyone Jessica has transformed against their will. Weyden knows of one person but there are probably several more. The only thing that isn't explained here is why Weyden can remember these things but the rest of us cannot."
"Probably because he's Jessica's husband," James suggested. "I did everything the bell wanted until it asked me to hurt somebody I loved more than myself."
"Vissarion tried to make me think I was helping you, Rick. Maybe Jessica has shielded Weyden from the hyacinth's power."
Rick nodded and then glanced at the parchment again. "Whatever the reason, we need to move fast to destroy this thing. Once we destroy the hyacinth we can worry about freeing Jessica. But with that hyacinth still in the ground we'll never reach her. Weyden, please lead us there. I will read the letter and remind us on the way what we're doing here. Murikeer? Do you see anything?"
The skunk's one eye gazed heavenward so resolutely that he had to be shaken to wake him from his stupor. After spluttering incoherently for a moment the skunk came to his senses and Rickkter asked him again. "I saw... I saw magic flowing into Lake Barnhardt as if it were a river about to pour over the top of a waterfall. I don't know what it was, but it was... beautiful in a terrible way."
"It was a hyacinth, I'll tell you more on the way. Now come."
Dallar's company had more questions, but Weyden assured them of everything that Rickkter related about the hyacinth and his former adventure. Larssen remembered the hyacinth that Yonson had brought with them to Metamor two years ago, but neither Van nor Maud could recall anything about it. Maud did openly wonder what would happen to her once they destroyed the hyacinth but Larssen assured her that he loved her no matter whether she was giraffe or human. Van muttered an indiscreet remark suggesting something about their compatibility which earned him a smack across the back of the head from Kayla and uncomfortable chuckles from Dallar and Rickkter.
But even ribald humor could not keep the raccoon from reviewing the letter every few seconds as they walked through the gates of Lake Barnhardt and down the stone-paved main street of the city. Several townsfolk greeted Dallar and his friends in delight, but the ram politely informed each that they had to report for now but would be delighted to share an ale or two with them later. This satisfied all but one persistent shrew who complained about the injustices they had suffered at the hands of Glenners and that only Dallar and his men had shown the fortitude or possessed the stature necessary to redress the wrongs they suffered. This continued for nearly half a minute before Rickkter growled at them, bared his fangs and let bolts of energy crackle between his ear tips. The sight of that blue fire and every strand of the raccoon's fur standing on end was enough to convince the shrew to seek justice elsewhere.
"You all were rather popular here," Murikeer noted drily to the ram as Rickkter continued his recitation on the evils of hyacinths and Jessica's complicity in planting one in Lake Barnhardt, a fact that made Kayla's heart skip a beat every time she heard it.
Weyden led them to the barracks which were situated near the castle and on the southern edge of the city overlooking one of the principal civic squares. Upon arrival, Rickkter turned to his former student. "You know, we could just have you open a sink-hole beneath the building, collapse it in on itself, and be done with this whole business right here and now."
Murikeer chuffed, used to his former teacher making suggestions he hoped were only half-serious. "I think the local soldiery may take issue with that, especially those inside at the time."
"True," Rickkter concurred, looking up at the crenelated roofline. "Still, we can keep that as a reserve option in case this does not work out."
The guards at the barracks recognized Dallar and let him and his entourage in without question, assuring Charles and the others that their mounts would be given oats and a stall with fresh hay to rest. Warily, the ten stepped into the barracks and headed for the stairs to the second floor. There were two floors, each of which had high ceilings which made it easy for the larger Keepers such as Larssen and Maud to move around with ease. For smaller Keepers like Charles and Van the place felt immense but they were both accustomed to such things.
On the second floor landing they met one of the Captains of Barnhardt, Naomi of the archers. The red-haired woman was surprised to see them, but smiled to each of Dallar's company. "Oh, Captain Dallar! We didn't expect to see you or your men so soon in Lake Barnhardt again! What brings you back here?"
"We have to fix something Jessica left behind here," Dallar replied with a quick glance at Rickkter who nodded back. "Our friends are here to help us. We need access to the roof."
Naomi's weathered and dimpled face furrowed anxiously. "Will you need help?"
"We might. Best you don't interfere for now. We'll call down if we need you."
Naomi nodded and gestured to a corridor on her left. "This way. The ladder is right over here. But Bertrand was on the roof two days ago to clean it and he didn't see anything unusual."
"He wouldn't have," Rickkter noted in dark tones. "Let's keep moving. I'm having trouble remembering why I'm here."
"Me too," Larssen said, reaching one hand behind his back to rub at his long neck.
If Naomi thought this remark odd, she didn't say so. She led them down the passage to another open area with storage chambers on all sides. In the front wall a ladder with broad steps rose to a latched wooden door. Charles was the first to climb the ladder, scurrying up with long tail dangling beneath him. He swung open the door and hopped over the edge. Light poured into the barracks before being blocked by his scarred face peering back down. "There's something up here. Come on."
Kayla followed him up, and then Rickkter. Murikeer and James went next. Dallar hoisted a shrunken Weyden with Van quick on his hooves. Maud and Larssen waited until last, each wary that their weight might be too much for the ladder. But it held and soon all ten stood on the roof of the barracks.
They didn't cast about their eyes at the vista of mountains, the splendor of the ancient castle, nor the lively sprawl of the second largest city in Metamor Valley. Their eyes all turned as one toward the eastern edge of the barracks and the plot of fresh ground cultivated there. Rising up from that ground was a single flower with bright purple blossoms stacked in little towers of lace. The blossoms, their petals straining toward the noon-day sun, quivered in a sudden breeze.
"So we meet again, my little friend," Rickkter sneered before folding the parchment and tucking it into his tunic. Fire blossomed on his paws a moment later.