April 18, 708 CR
Though it had been over a year since he had last seen the high peaks, dense forests, and sprawling farmland of the Metamor Valley, and though he knew that his presence had instilled fear, indignation, and a definite measure of anguish in the hearts of many, he felt nothing but delight at seeing the place again. He peered at the majestic peaks and thick woods through the window of his carriage and marveled at the trees sporting wild blossoms in yellows, pinks, and blues of such delicacy and profusion that it seemed to him they must have been painted for no land could truly boast such vibrancy. It was not that he had never seen such vistas before in his many travels – indeed he had seen even greater explosions of hue than this for the trees here were broken up by numerous pines and elms which did not change their colors with the season – it was that in his homeland such vibrant colors came but rarely.
But life in the desert brought with it other beauties that a place like Metamor could never possess. Such were the gifts of Eli to His children, different and sometimes hard, but gifts nevertheless. Father Akaleth of the Questioners kept this kernel of truth in mind as their carriage made its way north along the main road through the valley toward Metamor Keep. A part of him had always hoped he'd be able to see this place again, and how grateful he was that he was not here for a Questioning! It would be years before he could do another in this place, if ever.
Of course, if Eli choose him for such a task, he would do as he was asked.
"You look distracted, Father," the now familiar voice of Hugo Maclear offered from the other side of the wagon. Akaleth turned toward the pale-faced brown-haired man with a rat sitting in his lap. The rat had black fur along his body except for his paws which were white and he was busying himself with eating a small collection of seeds that rested in the palm of Hugo's right hand. It had been a month since they had left Marigund together; a month since Hugo had been scourged with fifteen cruel lashes. The wounds had healed but Hugo still winced from time to time. And though Hugo was grateful beyond words for the healing that Akaleth had given to the rat named Boots, there was still a strange dance in their words and interaction, as if the mage were still trying to determine if the Questioner priest were his friend or his keeper.
"I was not on my best behavior when last I came this way," Akaleth admitted with only a slight twitch to his lips. "Though my purpose here has little to do with Metamor Keep itself, I fear that I will be met with some difficulty. I apologize to you in advance for any troubles my past actions will bring you during our brief stay."
"I've never been to Metamor," Hugo mused as he stroked his rat's back with one finger. He cast a quick glance out the window and a faint smile crossed his lips and ever so gently touched his eyes. "It is beautiful here." Those eyes had far more often shed tears than joy in the last month. His fits of sorrow were not as common anymore, but when they did occur Akaleth always took out his copy of the Canticles and began reading them aloud. The words, even if Hugo was only beginning to learn Suielish, brought him comfort.
"It is. The wonders and beauty of Eli's creation should be appreciated."
"And you have a friend who lives here now? What has the Curse made of him?"
"Father Felsah, a very dear companion. And I have no idea what has become of him!" Akaleth tried to imagine his fellow Questioner as a child or as an animal, but couldn't manage anything in particular. He considered a canine of some sort, perhaps a fennec, given his friendship with that dog, but even that didn't seem quite right.
Boots finished the last of the seeds in Hugo's hand and curled into a ball, tail to nose, in his lap. Hugo continued stroking a finger down the rat's back. "I have heard it said that many who have ventured into this pass have been waylaid by brigands or by monsters from the Giantdowns; they have been trapped at Metamor and changed to be like they. Are you afraid that may happen to us?"
"If we are waylaid, we are waylaid. I am not afraid." Akaleth chuckled lightly to himself. "I would be a bit irritated though."
Hugo blinked and then chortled under his breath. He snapped his head around when a rapping sounded from the front of the carriage. A little window opened and they could see the sun-browned face of Kashin staring back at them. "Father, there is a contingent of Metamorian soldiers blocking the road ahead. What do you wish us to do?"
"Stop and see what they wish," Akaleth replied as he stretched his arms out and cracked a few of his knuckles. "If they are soldiers stationed here to accost travelers, let them do as they have been ordered."
Kashin nodded and then shut the little window. Outside they could hear their team of horses neigh as they were brought to a halt. Little Boots jumped from Hugo's lap to sniff at the edge of the window before rushing back to hide in the folds of his tunic. Hugo's face brightened as he gently pulled his cloak over top of his tunic to help hide the rat. "You are a mystery, Akaleth. You are the only person I have ever met who can both deny and submit to authority at the same time."
Akaleth felt an urge to smile and to offer a witty retort. He smothered that impulse as the stirrings of pride and said instead. "All legitimate authority comes from Eli. It is our duty to understand whether the authority presented to us is legitimate or not. If it is we must obey. To disobey would be to disobey Eli Himself. That never ends well."
"But what is legitimate authority?"
"Now that is an interesting question!"
Kashin felt a deep pang in his heart the moment their carriage rode into the cursed valley. A year and a half ago he had come this way for the first time as the chief Yeshuel to Patriarch Akabaieth. That visit had ended in calamity as the Marzac corrupted Sondecki named Krenek Zagrosek had slaughtered their camp on the first day out from Metamor. Only a handful of them had survived, and the battle had cost Kashin most of his left arm. The bright sky and faint warmth in the air was some solace; a day of rain and bitter cold would have reminded him of that tragic night with a clarity that would have set him to tears.
Still, even though he had been expecting to see the strange animal-men of Metamor, their appearance nevertheless was startling and made him wary. But his reactions were blasé compared to Sir Czestadt who had only ever seen Vinsah before; the former Driheli gaped at the merchants and soldiers that they passed on the road north. The expression of astonishment was unnerving on a man as shadowed and fearsome as Czestadt, but it struck the Keepers as no more than a brief amusement.
By the time they reached the checkpoint with the distant castle in sight over the treetops the newly sworn Yesbearn had recovered his wits and knew each creature to be a man just as they were, though his eyes still twitched, flickering with suspicion and glaring darkly at those who paid them any heed. Few did. At least until they reached the checkpoint.
A large man in the shape of a bear who was taller than either of them and carrying a large spear banded with iron held aloft a paw with long claws and bellowed for them to stop. "In the name of his grace, Duke Thomas Hassan, I order you to halt for inspection."
They had already stopped, and after a quick conference with the Questioner, Kashin decided to at least satisfy his curiosity. "Good soldier," he replied, not bothering to disguise his rough Yesulam accent, "On my last visit we did not have to face any such inspection. What is the purpose of this? Why must we submit to your inspection?"
The bear frowned at them, even as six other soldiers, some human, others beastly in shape, began to fan out around them, three to a side. "Vicious men smuggled an evil artifact into Metamor that brought a terrible sickness. We are here to make sure you have nothing of the sort."
"A terrible sickness?" Kashin gasped in genuine surprise. "Has this malady been cured?"
"Not before a lot of Keepers died, stranger," the bear replied with a rumbling growl. "But it is gone. Now you will submit to inspection. Who are you and what is your purpose here?"
"My name is Kashin," he said, gesturing to himself with his only hand. "My companion is Sir Czestadt, and with the wagon you will find two men. Hugo Maclear and Father Akaleth. We are here to visit with a friend and then return to our home."
"You look familiar, Kashin," the bear said as dark eyes studied him. It was hard to see those eyes moving so well did they blend in with his brown fur. "You say that you have been to Metamor before?"
"Once before," Kashin admitted. "It is our hope not to cause a stir." Czestadt stiffled a laugh.
The soldiers pulled back the canvas covering the doors to the carriage and saw the black wood with red cross emblazoned on the side. They fell back and drew their swords with a startled yelp, "Questioners!"
The door opened and with his hands outstretched stepped Father Akaleth. "Only one Questioner," he said with a laconic sigh. "My cowl is down, so as you can see, I am not here in my capacity as a Questioner. My business is solely with Father Felsah."
"Put your swords away," the bear snapped to his men. The three Keepers in front of Akaleth stared at him as if they were afraid he would reduce them to ash if they took another step closer. Still, they obeyed their orders, even if they kept their distance.
"Do you speak true?" the bear asked with gruff command. "The last time we had more than one Questioner in Metamor your kind caused more than a little stir from what I've heard!"
"I am well aware of that," Akaleth replied with a nod of his head. "Do forgive me for my part in that. But yes, I do speak the truth."
It took the bear a moment to grasp just what Akaleth had said. He blinked twice before exclaiming, "You were one of those three! Men, keep a good eye on him and don't let him move."
"Is it really necessary to hold a man who has no weapons at the point of a sword?" Kashin asked as he climbed down from the buckboard. Czestadt followed him, his mailed boots clinking as he landed. Only Hugo remained in the carriage while the other three soldiers performed their search.
"That's not my decision," the bear snapped with another growl. His lips drew back as he spoke, revealing a vicious array of sharp teeth beneath his broad, black nose. "Although, it does seem odd. You two appear far more dangerous."
"It does appear that way," Kashin agreed. "What do you intend to do with us?"
"I'm going to send word to Metamor Keep. They'll decide what to do with you. In the meantime, we want your carriage off the road and the four of you where we can keep a good eye on you."
"There is no need for weapons," Kashin said with a faint smile as he took a step toward the bear, his one hand out before him, palm open. "We will do exactly as you ask." He lifted his arm and took the reins, stepping ahead of the horses to guide them off the road. The bear grunted but let him do so.
Czestadt waited for the carriage to slip past before he turned and put on hand on Akaleth's shoulder. "Come, Father," he beckoned with a grumble. The three soldiers had their swords out again, and with a blink of his eye, the tips all fell to the ground, driving into the grass a few inches. The soldiers gasped in surprise, even as Akaleth shook his head.
"They were not going to hurt me," the priest chided as he allowed the heavy knight to guide him after the carriage.
"You are my charge," Czestadt replied. "None will threaten you." His Galendish had vastly improved in the months since they had left Yesulam; he rarely ever transposed his verbs and nouns anymore.
Akaleth did not object further, and soon stood at the side of the road next to the carriage. The horses grazed on the fresh grass, while two of the soldiers searched through the carriage and their traveling gear. Hugo climbed out of the wagon with a nervous expression, his pale complexion making him seem even stranger amidst the sun-baked foreigners. Boots was nowhere to be seen.
The grizzly bear who stood like a man surveyed them with small but steely eyes. He wrapped both of his meaty paws around the shaft of his spear and then turned to one of the soldiers in his company. "Send a message back to the Keep. We have a Questioner here wanting to come to Metamor." The young man nodded and ran toward the watchtower rising a short distance within the woods.
Kashin stroked his fingers through the mane of the nearest horse and relaxed. Beside him Hugo turned to Akaleth and said with a dry chuckle beneath his words, "You were right, Akaleth. Another warm welcome for Yesulam's emissaries!"
They waited two hours before another force of soldiers rode down from Metamor to greet them. The sun continued its westward trek across the sky, drawing near the snow-capped mountains while a series of high wispy clouds drifted in from the south. The day turned cool, but huddled near each other and next to the carriage they were out of the worst of it. The soldiers guarding them had to inspect a few more travelers in that time, but George the bear, the largest and strongest of the Keepers by far, never took his eyes from the quartet.
Kashin engaged George in a professional conversation, though it took some time before the bear began to warm to the Yeshuel. Once George learned of Kashin's earlier visit to Metamor he actually smiled; Hugo flinched at the sight of his fangs. Neither Akaleth nor Hugo said anything, but Czestadt did ask the bear what it was like being part animal. The reply involved strange appetites, long hours of grooming, gorging in the fall and being very sleepy in winter, and extra care in picking up anything lest his claws or his grip do what nature intended.
A squad of six soldiers riding horseback and one very large lizard-like man walking alongside them drew to a halt a short distance from the checkpoint. A ram led the group, his appearance oddly lopsided due to one horn being missing. His left horn curled properly about a tufted ear, but the right looked like it had been first shattered and then trimmed down to an even edge that was only just beginning to regrow. He bore a blue tabard with an issuant horse over his armor and his black wool, with a shield buckled to his back and his sword resting against his right hip. Cloven hooves that were almost as bright as burnished brass poked out of the front of his stirrups. Behind him rode two human men, one young and the other a veteran of many battles, who were both strong and wide in shoulder as well as handsome in countenance. A small man who looked more like a mouse rode in the midst of them, his only weapon a narrow dagger sheathed at his side. Flanking him were two more animal-men, one of them boar-like in appearance with fine brown bristles except for a brighter collar about his neck, the other was a stag with velvety antlers growing from his head. Behind them all ran the three-horned lizard man, the top of the armored frill on the back of his head reaching as high as the mounted deer's antlers.
"So," the ram said with a bit of a laugh, "you are the dangerous horde of Questioners we heard about."
George glared at his messenger, but the man shook his head firmly, "I said there was just one Questioner and three men with him like I was supposed to!"
The ram laughed again. "A joke! A joke! I knew it was just you four. My name's Wolfram. I and my men are to guide you to Metamor Keep where my superiors are anxious to meet you."
"We are well met, Wolfram," Kashin said with a nod of his head. "I am Kashin of the Yeshuel. This is Sir Czestadt of the Yesbearn, Hugo Maclear of Marigund, and Father Akaleth of the Questioners. Our business in Metamor is nothing his grace Duke Thomas Hassan need worry about. We are not here to ask questions or interfere in any of his affairs."
Wolfram and a few of the others in his company all widened their eyes in surprise. The ram bleated and then his snout split in what could only be a smile. "Kashin of the Yeshuel? I heard about you. I only ever saw you or Patriarch Akabaieth from a distance, but... it is a great honor to meet you." He bowed his head low, bumping his one horn against the back of his horse's head. Most of the rest of his company also showed them honor, the huge lizard-man in the rear actually going down to one knee and striking his breast with a fist bigger than Kashin's head.
"But let me introduce my men and then we can be on our way." The ram gestured behind him to the man on his left. "This is Gweir who splits eyes with his arrows, and this is Ross who splits limbs with his axe. Behind them is Kindle our mage, and Owain our tracker," he gestured to the boar-like man, "and Burkhart, who knows more ways than I thought possible to mend split eyes and limbs. And of course, Zachary, our diplomat; we call him that because he can open any door."
Kashin smiled at the brief but witty introductions. "It is a pleasure to meet all of you. I am sure we are in capable hands."
"Good," Wolfram said, slapping his left hand on his thigh. "Then get back in your carriage and let's head to Metamor."
Wolfram's soldiers were friendly with them, though there was a cautious regard for the two warriors that could not be hid. The ram could not hide his enthusiasm and awe at meeting Kashin and kept asking for stories of his time in service to the Patriarch, and especially how he brought justice to the Patriarch's murderer. Kashin was all too willing to share tales of his earlier years but of the time since Akabaieth's murder he could not speak as freely; Wolfram noted the way his throat and hand clenched when asked of his deeds during the darkness and soon stopped asking about them.
Ross, Owain, and Gweir kept as close as they could to Sir Czestadt that they might interrogate him on as many southern sword-fighting techniques as they could. Riding on the carriage did make it difficult for the knight to demonstrate his skills so he assured them that if there was time and they could find him again, he would be glad to give them a private lesson during his stay. He did ask them of their weapons and Ross, who gazed at the foreign knight with a bit of awe, handed his blade over.
Czestadt turned the blade over in his right hand, studying the haft and tang with a critical eye, while he gently slid one of his fingers against the cutting edge. All three of the soldiers gaped at the way Czestadt effortlessly handled a blade that Ross, despite his Curse-given strength, had to wield two-handed. "A good blade," Czestadt noted even as he lifted it over his head and gave it a few careful swings that came near none of them. "Serviceable, but good if you take care of it. It wants to be to be sharpened again, but the metal is balanced and I would wager was folded a few times at least. Were I to visit again in a few years, I would not be surprised to see you using the same blade."
"You can tell how many times the metal was folded?" Ross asked, breathless as his large hands clasped the pommel before sheathing the blade behind his back.
"Swords, real swords, speak to me in ways they do not to most men."
"How can a sword speak?" Owain grunted, his snout wrinkling and his bristles shivering.
Czestadt almost smiled as he spoke of that which he loved as a man loves a woman. "The forest speaks to one who knows it well. The sand speaks to one who makes it their home. And the sea and the ship speak to the sailor. To any who would master the sword, the sword also will speak to you. Give it time and you will learn the voice of your sword."
"Well, as long as it doesn't actually start speaking to me," Ross murmured with a grunt. "My brother told me about this mink lass who had a sword that spoke to her. It made her do... terrible things. So my brother says."
"Your brother says anything he hears," Gweir noted with a heavy laugh. He was missing one earlobe, but was otherwise entering into his prime; this one had several years of soldiering under his belt. That both Gweir and Ross had once been women only occurred to Czestadt when they reached Metamor itself.
Riding alongside the carriage was the mouse who peered down through the open window to speak with his fellow mage. Hugo felt a powerful urge to reach out and pet down the fur sticking up between Kindle's large ears, as well as to give his tummy a gentle scratch. While his fur coloring was very different from Boots, as well as the fact that he was obviously a mouse and not a rat, the other similarities were strong enough that he felt an affinity for this Keeper that made him glad for the first time that he was here at Metamor.
"How has becoming a mouse affected your magical ability, Kindle?" Hugo asked, finding it difficult to keep his voice from betraying a strange affection.
"I'm not entirely sure," Kindle admitted with a wave of one paw. His thin, blonde-furred tail darted from one flank of the horse to the other as he shifted about in the saddle to talk more comfortably with his fellow mage. "I was only an apprentice for a few years when the curses were cast and I became a mouse. If my teacher were still alive he might be able to tell you what changed. All that I know is that I must be extra careful around ritual magic, especially symphonies and other constructions with drawn symbols. My tail has broken spell lines before."
A light chuckle escaped Hugo's throat and he nodded, eye moving to note the thin tail the Curse had given Kindle. "I hadn't thought of that. Does your tail drag behind you?"
"At first it did," Kindle admitted as he turned his head to cast a withering glance at his beastly appendage. "But I learned with practice to keep the end up and not just to protect the integrity of spell lines. Dragging your tail on the ground hurts, and it doesn't take long before it starts to rub flesh tender and raw. The fur protects it some but not enough." His nose and whiskers twitched and his cheeks scrunched closer to his nose. "I smell a rat on you, Hugo."
"That is Boots," Hugo replied, reaching into his tunic and drawing out the black-hooded white booted rat. Boots squeaked in protest at which Hugo said, "I know he is a very big mouse, but he won't hurt you or me." He smiled to the rat and the rat turned its head to look directly at him. The rat's whiskers trembled but the rest of his body went still and seemed to relax.
"How adorable," Kindle noted with a clicking of his tongue against his incisors and a grinding of his molars. "Boots is your familiar? I can see a connection between you."
"Aye, he is. For about twenty years now. In all that time we've never been more than a few minutes apart."
Kindle reached out a hand and very gently ran the rough callous of one finger down the soft fur between the rat's tender ears. Boots sniffed at Kindle's hand, little paws gripping his fingers and inspecting his claws. "If you aren't careful," Kindle warned, "you might look an awful lot like Boots here."
Hugo blinked but continued to hold his friend high enough that the mouse mage could pet him. "If I were to fall under the Curses of Metamor I can think of nothing else I would rather be. But we have no intention of staying so long as that."
"There was a plague in Metamor last month," Kindle added. "No one was allowed to leave. Many travelers trapped there were changed by the Curses against their will."
"I had heard of the plague," Hugo admitted with a sigh, even as he finally lowered his arm, Boots scampering up his sleeve to nose into his hair. "By the time we heard of it we were hearing of its passing not its arrival."
"Be grateful then," Kindle added with a long, slow shake of his head. Hugo sucked on his lip, even as Boots rubbed his snout through his hair as if washing off the scent of that big terrifying mouse.
On the other side of the carriage stalked the massive reptile Zachary whose gaze was fixed upon the Questioner priest with a warmth that seemed natural to his guise. Akaleth regarded him with an expression that would have betrayed awe if his Questioner training had not made the concealment of his inner emotions second-nature to him; but the awe was obvious to any who knew him as his eyes sparkled and he ravenously studied the three-horned man from top to bottom several times to take in his bulk. Zachary stood taller than their carriage but did not lean over so much as inclined his head and beak down.
"Welcome to Metamor Keep, Father Akaleth. My name is Zachary and if you need additional protection while you are here I will be honored to offer it. Forgive me for saying so, but I am surprised to see another Questioner come to Metamor so soon, Father," Zachary said in a voice that surprised Akaleth. Not because it boomed or because of the deep rumbling vibration that seemed to accompany his words; the Curses of Metamor had certainly made him something Akaleth had rarely seen, but he had expected to see many similar marvels here at Metamor. What he hadn't expected to find was a layman who spoke with and acted with the utmost respect toward a Questioner. Guilt filled him briefly, but he chased that away with the stronger memory of forgiveness.
"Thank you, Zachary," Akaleth replied with a nod of his head before leaning back on his cushioned seat to stare into the creature's face. Just one of Zachary's eyes was bigger than both of the priests's fists put together! "I am impressed by your offer of protection, but I believe that your duties to Metamor, and especially to your company must take precedence. I'm sure that Wolfram would appreciate your undivided loyalties."
"I will do as you say, Father. May I ask what brings you to Metamor?"
"The saving of souls leads us where we are needed, Zachary. And there is one soul here at Metamor that I am interested in. Do you know where Father Felsah can be found? We received word that he arrived safely, but not what has become of him since."
"Father Felsah is staying at the cathedral in Metamor. He is helping Father Hough with the many Followers who live there. Do you know him too?"
Akaleth had to admit that he already liked this dragon-like creature and knew he would enjoy their conversation. He may be in the body of a giant, but he had a gentle, simple soul. What a beautiful sight to behold.
Of Wolfram's company, only Burkhart the deer did not try to engage one of their guests in conversation. The archer and healer followed after the carriage while keeping a wary eye on the woods on either side of the road the rest of their way back to Metamor. The roads were generally safe this close to Metamor, but there was always some risk of trouble. But that day they encountered nothing more serious than an irate merchant whose carriage had run afoul of a muddy ditch and needed some help getting unstuck. One lift by Zachary and a push from Wolfram, Owain, and Burkhart, and they were on their way again.
When they reached the gates of Euper Wolfram apologized to Kashin. "We are supposed to be escorting you, both to protect you from any one who might not want another Questioner here, and to keep you from coming near any Keepers who are afraid of what you'd do to them."
"We will do nothing to them," Kashin assured him though there was no fire in his voice. "But I understand your duty. Be diligent and bring us to where you have been ordered. We will obey."
The people of Euper and Keeptowne all gave the carriage and the soldiers a wide berth. Some stared and whispered to their neighbors in worry. Others ignored them or pretended to. A young man only a year or two past his change hefted a vegetable, but at the glare of the soldiers only flung a sneer and a bit of spit toward the carriage. They met no other trouble. Akaleth watched all of this from his window, though he focused his attention on the strange way that the animal Keepers had to walk, talk, and otherwise express themselves. He hadn't taken the time to appreciate the beauty of their blended shapes the last time he was here and he would not allow himself to disdain it a second time.
By the time that they reached the gates nearest the castle itself, the afternoon had worn on to near its end. The prayers at None were past, but it was still far too early for Vespers. Not that Akaleth would have had the opportunity for the formal prayers as they were greeted by another array of soldiers, this one headed by two beast-men with crossed arms and dour, threatening expressions. Wolfram blinked in surprise when he saw them. "Misha! I've brought them here as you ordered. What's wrong?"
"Thank you, Wolfram," Misha replied. He had the giant midnight black axe Whisper in front of him and the claws of one hand drummed the blade. "I will commend your name to George for your diligence. But there is something wrong. This Questioner is to be kept confined during his stay, and we will make sure it is a brief one."
"A very brief one," the raccoon standing at Misha's side said through clenched teeth. Wolfram recognized him as Rickkter only a moment later and was quick to take a step back. He had heard stories of what that one was capable of when goaded to a rage. What had this Questioner done to have so upset both Misha and Rickkter?
Miasha and Rickkter formed the apex of a ring of Long Scouts that flanked the carriage on all sides. The gate closed behind them, trapping them in place. Beyond the ring of Longs stretched the gardens and towers of Metamor Keep. Behind them and atop the gatehouse archers stood with drawn bows. Kashin and Czestadt turned their heads from side to side and then lifted their hands, faces placid and unconcerned.
"I promised them safe passage," Wolfram objected, clearly bewildered.
"And you kept your promise; they're here safe," Misha added as he started to walk toward the side of the carriage. "Come on out, Questioner! We will escort you the rest of the way."
Akaleth sighed, deciding that he probably deserved the suspicion, all the while trying to remember just who this Misha was. As he climbed down the steps, keeping his robe from tangling around his legs, he recognized the fox as the Rebuilder they'd Questioned who had answered them through clenched teeth, except when Father Felsah had asked about that metal fox Madog. He seemed to recall some hideous bit of jocularity that Kehthaek had enjoyed about what happened to Questioners who went to Marigund and was grateful that he had been spared that fate.
His feet no sooner touched the ground than a massive green and brown figure stepped between him and the two Keepers, thick legs and tail so wide that Akaleth couldn't even see the castle anymore.
Misha growled. "Zachary, step out of the way. This does not concern you."
"I will not let you harm him," Zachary replied, shifting not a muscle, not even to sway his tail, the tip of which was barely a hand-span from Akaleth's knees.
Wolfram stood by Zachary's side, his shield over his right arm and his gaze steely beneath a brow of black wool. His sword remained in its scabbard, but the fingers of his left hand stretched wide ready to grasp the hilt. "This is wrong. He has done no harm."
"Yet," Misha growled, eying them both with that quick way he had for assessing threats.
"If he does break Metamor's hospitality, I will be among the first in line to throw him out," Wolfram countered with a steady voice free of beastly bleats. "But until then, I won't let you sully Metamor's reputation. Or, for that matter, your own!"
"Wolfram, Zachary," Misha continued, his gaze darkening. "You will step aside now."
But neither ram nor the kharrakhaz would move. Akaleth felt a smile touch the edge of his lips. He stepped around to Zachary's side and put a hand on the middle of his side, which was the highest he could reach. "Step aside and let them do their duty, Zachary. And you as well, Wolfram."
"But Father!" Zachary objected, his voice pained.
"You have your duty. They have their duty. And I have mine. It pleases Eli to see us answer our duty with humility. Do yours and let them do theirs."
Zachary grunted and carefully stepped out of the way, his thick fingers drumming along the long pommel to his sword. His tail bumped one of the wheels and the carriage rocked back and forth a moment. Wolfram lingered a moment more, his lips trembling behind the shield a moment longer before he nodded to the priest and joined the rest of his company.
Misha did not spare either the ram or the kharrakhaz more than a moment's glare before turning his ire back to Akaleth. He turned Whisper back and forth in his paws. "What brings you back to Metamor, Questioner?"
"That is not your concern. I am not here on a Questioning nor do I intend to stay more than a day or two. Please allow us to continue on our way and I assure you that you will find us inoffensive guests."
"You were not inoffensive on your last visit. And from what I have heard you put the last place you visited into an uproar!"
"The guest can hardly be blamed for that when the host who invited him treats him so poorly," Akaleth replied. "You were referring to Marigund were you not?"
"It is within our authority to have you carted off in chains to the very Marchbourne river!" Misha declared with a narrowing of his eyes and a lowering of his one good ear. "Don't tempt me."
"If you intended us to be in chains, you would not have asked Wolfram to bring us here. What are your intentions?"
"As I said, you will be kept confined during your stay somewhere that you won't cause trouble. The rest of you may do as you wish." Misha glanced at the Yeshuel with the white lock of hair. "You are well-remembered in this city, Kashin of the Yeshuel, and as well regarded as this Questioner is rightly feared."
"Wrongly feared!" Another voice shouted from the carriage. Hugo jumped out the door and walked right up to Misha, standing with a breath from the sharp edge of Whisper's blade. "That Questioner did nothing at Marigund, Misha! I, loyal citizen of Marigund and member of its vaunted Mage guild, conspired to have him killed! Praise Eli I failed! He demanded to take the lashes meant for me. Demanded! No man should ever be afraid of this priest! Least of all you, Misha!"
Misha blinked in surprise, his ear lifting again and his tail wagging once. "Hugo? You don't understand! He did terrible things when he came here a year ago."
"He's told me," Hugo replied. "But that's not the Questioner I know. That's not the man I know."
Rickkter glared and put the end of a short eastern sword at Hugo's throat. "Back away little man."
Hugo appeared ready to do so when from out of his tunic leaped a small black rat with white paws. The rat bounced off the sword once and then landed on Rickkter's paw, sinking teeth into the soft flesh between thumb and fingers. The raccoon yowled in surprise, shaking his hand up and down, while Misha grabbed Hugo with his free paw and throwing him to the ground. All of the soldiers surrounding them moved in to help or to keep the rest of the Questioner's party at bay.
But two sharp tangs of metal sliced through the air and nestled themselves against flesh, one before Misha's throat, and the other before Rickkter's. The fox tried to twist out of the way but the blade was fixed firmly in place. Rickkter managed to dislodge the rat who scampered back to where Hugo was crawling out of the way, before sweeping his gaze up at the Yesbearn who sat placidly with a scowl across his face.
And in the southern tongue, the raccoon shouted, "Czestadt! Of all the people and in all the places of the world, how by all the gods above and below did we two end up in the same place on the same day on the other side of the world and on the other side of the swords! It's Rickkter! Of the Kankoran!"
The Yesbearn blinked at that and narrowed his eyes. The blade pressed more firmly against Rickkter's throat, but the only blood was that on the raccoon's hand where he'd been bitten. "Rickkter," Czestadt replied in his native speech, "so that is where you ended up. I heard that you had left the Dragons; rumor has it you were ill. Did you come here to Metamor for healing?"
"That I did. Is that whelp of a mage right about the Questioner?"
"He is. Father Akaleth will not hurt anyone and will not Question anyone. Our purpose here is entirely benign."
Rickkter's muzzle twisted down and then up, eyes narrowing for a moment before he relaxed and spread his arms wide. "I will lower my swords then. If you will lower yours." Czestadt nodded and gestured for him to continue. Behind them the archers moved around the gatehouse trying to find some vantage point from which they could actually shoot the Yesbearn, but the carriage was tall enough that neither he nor Kashin could be seen.
The raccoon bent down, the sword at his neck moving with him. He let the two eastern blades clatter to the terrazzo, a sound that seemed to echo into the Spring afternoon as if the sound of life continuing apace and unawares on the other side of the gate were on the other side of the world. Slowly, Rickkter stood back up, keeping his paws held out to either side. Everyone held their breath, Misha growling in the back of his mouth, one eye watching the raccoon curiously.
And then Rickkter snatched the pommel of the sword at Misha's throat with one paw, diving backward, even as the one at his throat leaped forward to follow him. But Rickkter was able to grab that as he tumbled head over heels backward, rolling across the ground before landing on his hind paws and shouting in Galendish, "Grab your swords! He can't touch your swords if you hold them."
Czestadt applauded and laughed. "You have learned very well, Rickkter. And you even leave behind swords that aren't swords at all so I cannot touch them." He gestured with a wave of one hand at the two eastern swords laying crossed on the ground where the raccoon had stood a moment before. "Now don't you think threatening us when we have done nothing is a foolish idea? Let us do what we have come to do and we shall be gone even sooner."
"Not until we have that priest," Misha said even as he ran one paw along his throat; several tufts of fur came free where the sword had sheared them. "And I think I want you under watch as well. And Hugo, you too for that matter. My sister has told me all about what you did when these three came to Marigund."
"So you already knew that Father Akaleth begged to take the blows meant for Hugo?" Kashin noted in angry voice. "You disappoint me, Misha. When I met you the first time, I judged you to be a man of good judgment."
Misha appeared ready to snarl when they could hear the sound of excited barking and two voices shouting at them from the direction of the castle. Zachary, who could see over everyone, trumpeted in relief, "Father Hough! Father Felsah! Praise Eli you've come!"
Misha's good ear flicked in surprise as he heard the barking. "Madog?"
The Long Scouts and Wolfram's soldiers had long since fallen out of any semblance of order and so easily parted for the trio. Hough was at his oldest the Curses would let him be, and he ran alongside Madog who loped with more grace than a metal creature should ever possess. The silver automaton carried on his back a small creature in a black robe with ears almost larger than his head, a long tail with a tuft at the end, and scrawny arms and legs. They came to a stop in front of Misha. Madog leaned back on his haunches and the jerboa scrambled off his back. Madog looked at the fox and blinked his bright blue eyes. "Poppa, I don't want you to go blind."
"Blind?" Misha stammered, the anger in his face evaporated into a mass of confusion and uncertainty. "What are you talking about, Madog?"
"That priest is brighter than the sun, Poppa!"
Misha glanced at Akaleth who could only sigh and shake his head. Rickkter glanced at the priest his eyes narrowing to focus more clearly on him, and then he doubled over both paws over his eyes. "Oh, damn! Madog's not talking in riddles again, Misha! Damn!" He rubbed at his eyes several more times while everyone gave the priest a wider berth.
That is except for the jerboa who hopped toward him and exclaimed, "Father Akaleth! You came!"
Akaleth glanced at the rodent and then laughed, bending down and wrapping his arms about the jerboa's shoulders. "Father Felsah! I am so grateful to see such a friendly face here. I never would have guessed Metamor would make you a desert mouse!"
"I take it you imagined me as a fennec instead?"
"It had crossed my mind," Akaleth replied with another laugh. "You must tell me of your new home. From everything I have heard so far I will be spending my brief stay in seclusion and that won't allow us the chance for a proper tour."
"Misha!" Father Hough said, waving his arms around in exasperation. "What lunacy have you been up to this time? These men should have been welcomed with honor and not with axes and swords! That man protects the Patriarch's life, and that one is the former Knight Templar of the Driheli, a noble order of knights from Stuthgansk, and that one is the first Questioner in over a hundred years to visit Marigund and not break any of your homeland's laws! If you do not stop this and let them go about their business, I will protest this to Duke Thomas himself."
"That priest threatened every single person he met when he came here a year ago," Misha snapped. "He has no right walking free in this city ever again!"
"Then," Akaleth said as he stood up again, "we will leave. Now. Kashin. Sir Czestadt. Hugo. Let us go. Wolfram, thank you for kindly bringing us here. Zachary, I am sorry that we did not have more time. Father Felsah, I am terribly sorry that we couldn't speak more." And after briefly sketching the sign of the Yew, he climbed back into the carriage and sat down.
Felsah hopped around and glared at Misha, his long tail flipping from side to side in agitation. "Father Akaleth has come to speak with me and me alone. I would appreciate if you would be so kind as to allow him to stay with us in the Cathedral for a few days, no more than that. We will see to his needs and you need not fear him doing anything to anyone."
"I promise you he will bother no one," Hough assured him, though the boy priest still glared in irritation at the soldiers assembled there.
Misha looked down at Madog who sat on his haunches staring back at him. The leader of the Long Scouts lowered his free paw and gently stroked the automaton behind the ears three times. "They can stay in the Cathedral. I'll reserve judgment about whether that priest is a threat to anyone. If I hear that he has so much as even looked at screw, a whip, or a manacle, I will..." Misha seemed as if he would finish that sentence for several seconds, but he finally gave up and turned away from the Ecclesia priests to check on his friend.
"Are you all right?"
Rickkter nodded and blinked his eyes several times until they could focus. He kept one paw against his forehead to shield his eyes from the sun. "I will be fine." And then in a quieter voice he added, "Misha, that priest, if he lowers his defenses... he's nothing but pure light. I don't understand it. He has magical talent, and he bottles it up very, very deep. I don't think we want to see it unleashed." Rickkter shook his head and stepped away from the fox. "Later then."
Misha nodded and turned to Hough. The boy priest stood tall, a sympathetic look in his eyes, but a sternness to his lips. "Father, forgive me for treating your guests so poorly. Wolfram will help you escort them to the Cathedral. I will go tend to something... actually important."
"Thank you, Misha," Hough said with a bow of his head.
Misha continued shaking his head as he started walking off. Madog fell into step beside him. One fox looked at another and once they were almost out of earshot of the carriage, Misha asked, "Since when do you give rides?"