"I'm so sorry I didn't warn Misha off in time," Felsah said to Akaleth as the human priest settled onto the cold stone floor of Felsah's monastic cell in the small set of living quarters behind the Cathedral. He had a little window overlooking the gardens and city to the south of the castle, as well as the mountain ranges on either side of the valley if he stuck his snout through the narrow opening. The room was only barely apportioned, with a sleeping pallet suited to his diminutive stature, a chest with two drawers for his robes and linens, a writing table with several letters, some sealed, some opened but folded, and a little shelf atop of which he'd placed several books. A yew was positioned above the pallet and the air smelled of animal musk and altar incense. Little bits of wood littered the ground around the desk which Felsah hastily began cleaning.
"When we went to Marigund the guards tried to kill me before we even entered the city gates. This was kinder and to be fair to myself, not undeserved. I was horrible to Misha and his friends when we first came here."
"And this time?" Felsah asked, as he bent over and swept the last of the wood chips into one paw before dumping them in a copper pail with several other sticks poking out the top. His long tail danced in the air behind him.
Akaleth sighed and gently struck his breast with his fist. "I was rude and disdainful. It is a hard habit to break. Eli's grace has at least shown me my lack of charity."
"Misha is a good man," Felsah added as he brushed his paws clean. He hopped a single step and then relaxed on his haunches. "When Madog brought me here last Autumn for healing, Misha came with that axe of his to welcome me. Madog stopped him. We have talked a few times since I came to live here and have become as I am now. He has been enormously helpful to Father Hough and has kept the handful of Rebuilders who make Metamor their home from causing any trouble for us. Still, I suggest you keep your distance."
"I have antagonized him enough and for that I am sorry."
"He will forgive you if you show your good nature."
"Speaking of good nature, Zachary is a most interesting fellow. He showed no fear at seeing a Questioner; he was more protective."
"He protected me from a quartet of Rebuilders when I first came into the city as you see me now."
"Very curious. Have you suggested to him that he should discern whether he is called to be a Yesbearn knight? You do not have one dedicated to you and you should."
Felsah tapped his claws together and shook his head. "He is only recently changed and is still trying to learn his place. I will mention it to him as something to consider, but for now I think he is best where he is." He leaned forward a little and in a quieter voice added, "Now I know the accommodations are more than suitable for Kashin and Czestadt, but what of this Hugo? Your letter informing me of your visit was a welcome one, but there was so much there that was hard to understand. Did Hugo really try to kill you?"
"A terrible misunderstanding on his part," Akaleth replied as he looked at the mouse and tried to imagine the dark-haired human with the simple but clear-seeing eyes that he had once counted as his firmest friend. He hoped the distance and the change in body would never impair that friendship. "He repented and for that I was able to negotiate a lighter sentence. He is in my charge for the next three years. He is also a good man, very gentle and kind. I am teaching him the Suielish tongue so he can understand the liturgy."
"Hugo is also a Rebuilder? That would explain his discomfort at Vespers."
"How many rodents are there at Metamor?" Akaleth asked, gesturing with one hand toward Felsah's new body. "We met Kindle the mouse on the way here, and now you."
"Quite a few here in the Keep and throughout the valley. I've met a few others myself, but only a few. Do you remember the name Charles Matthias?"
"The writer? The one who had been friends with Krenek Zagrosek?"
"That's him. He is a rat and a knight living in a little forest village to the north called Glen Avery. He, his wife and four children, all of whom are rats, live inside a large tree. Before he moved to the Glen, he hosted a monthly gathering for rodents at the Deaf Mule, an Inn and tavern popular with those living in or working in the castle. They still have it from time to time, and with so many new rodents amongst the refugees from Bradanes, they are trying to find a larger venue. I've even been invited, and I have thought about attending but I'm not sure."
"Do you like being a jerboa?"
"It has wonders and challenges. I discover new things all the time. But enough of me. You told me in your letter that you would be coming here, but you did not explain why. I am grateful, more than you can guess, for your visit. But why did you come? You knew that the other Metamorians would not be happy to see you."
Akaleth sighed and leaned back as far as he was able without falling over and let his gaze rise to the yew on the wall. He pondered the tortured and agonized flesh of Yahshua and hoped that there was at least an iota of worth in the suffering his own torn and reddened flesh had endured. "I am here because Patriarch Geshter is very interested in Metamor Keep. The news that has come from this place has been mixed. His Holiness wants a first hand account of this place and its spiritual needs."
"That is why I was sent and stationed here," Felsah pointed out with a single up-raised claw. "I have been writing letters for a few weeks now reporting what I see to the Bishop, to the Grand Questioner, and to his Holiness."
"I believe," Akaleth replied in a low voice, "that he wishes me to carry back those messages which cannot be written in letters."
Felsah's whiskers twitched and his large eyes narrowed, almost squeezing out either side of his head, an expression that Akaleth wasn't sure was supposed to be intimidating or thoughtful. "You mean, you're here about Vinsah."
"If you have learned anything I can safely carry that back with me. Everyone wants the excommunication lifted but we must be sure that it can be. We must be sure that it was the corruption directing the excommunication and not that it was deserved."
But Felsah shook his head. "I have to ask you not to speak on Vinsah. There are things I am still learning. If anyone knew what I know right now they would never lift the excommunication."
"What do you mean by that? So Vinsah did return safely to Metamor?"
"He did," Felsah admitted with a long sigh. "But something in him has changed; he's not the same man we once knew. He's not the same man I bled for."
"What has he done?"
"He believes that he is doing what Patriarch Akabaieth and the Spirit Most Holy were directing him to do. He brought all of Patriarch Akabaieth's journals with him and gave them to Father Hough for safekeeping. He and I have been reviewing them to try to discern what he thought he saw in them that led him to make that unbelievable choice. I wanted you to know that before I tell you so that you will not think it something he did out of spite; I do not believe that at all." Felsah paused and took a deep breath. Akaleth used to grow impatient when others did everything they could not to answer his questions, but he knew that Felsah would only delay with good cause.
The jerboa lifted his snout, a measure of dignity appearing on his jowls and large ears. "When Bishop Verdane brought me to Metamor Keep we surveyed the valley and I kept an attentive eye and ear open hoping that I would hear news of Vinsah, but I heard nothing, not even a hint or whisper of his whereabouts. Some asked me if I had heard of Vinsah arriving at Yesulam, but only a few. I told them what I could, but did not speak of his excommunication; it was clear that they had not heard of it. During the plague I was trapped outside of the Keep and so contented myself with assisting Father Purvis in Lorland as he adjusted to his new parish and his new shape. I also had to adjust to my new shape.
"Once the quarantine was lifted I returned here to Metamor and spoke with Father Hough. He told me that Vinsah had returned a few days before the Yule, and what had become of him. I immediately rushed to confirm this, and sadly I did. Vinsah..." Felsah sighed and shook his head, eyes narrowing with regret, "Vinsah has elected to become an acolyte in the Lothanasi temple."
Akaleth opened his mouth, failed to utter even a sound, and closed his mouth again. For several seconds he sat on the cold stone floor, his legs and thighs numb from its cool touch even through his thick Questioner robe and linens, capable only of staring at the robed desert mouse as he tried to conjure an image of the raccoon Bishop bowing in obeisance before the Lightbringer demons. He could not make himself do so.
A distant bell tolled the changing of the hours and a cool breeze poured through the window to flicker the lamp. Shadows danced along the walls while his host turned to lower a small curtain over the window. The afternoon sky had begun to fall into the starry depths of night, but the fading red glaze across the mountains was replaced by a simple mosaic of flowers and leaves with the Questioner cross in the middle. Akaleth turned his gaze toward the stack of books near the desk. "Are those Patriarch Akabaieth's journals?"
"Some of them," Felsah replied with a nod. He hopped toward the stack and rested a paw with long fingers and short claws on the topmost book. "Father Hough has the rest. I spend a few hours every day reading them and taking notes, trying to learn all that Vinsah would have seen. He doesn't even call himself Vinsah anymore. He says his name is now Elvmere."
"That sounds Sathmoran."
"It is, though a very ancient and archaic name very rarely used now. I have tried learning more about it in the Keep's library, but there is so much there, and the organization!" This last he said as if the word were wholly inappropriate to describe reality. "To be charitable, it is not as rigorous as the library at St. Kephas. I have not found anything I can use yet, but I will continue to try."
Akaleth nodded and pursed his lips. "I will have to reveal this on my return to Yesulam. Patriarch Geshter will believe his excommunication a valid one; apostasy is... there is nothing I can do to protect him. And why should I?"
"There has to be some explanation for it!" Felsah insisted.
"To exonerate him or to understand him? Do you pursue this because you wish to save Vinsah's soul or to make your suffering to cover his escape have meaning?"
Felsah's tail curled around his legs and he gingerly picked up the tuft and began rifling through it with his claws as if he were combing it. "Aye, I am tempted to try to justify my suffering. But I want to save Vinsah too. I just... the only path before me is to read these journals and hope to learn why he has done what he's done. If I know that, then perhaps there is some way I can reach him."
"I will pray that you do, and pray that Vinsah's eyes are opened once more to the truth. You have perhaps six months at best to peruse these journals yourself. Once Patriarch Geshter learns of them he will want them delivered to Yesulam."
"You won't take them with you now?" Felsah asked, dropping his tail tuft in surprise.
"If you do learn anything that can help save Vinsah, I want you to learn it first. You can do more for Vinsah here than any of us can do for him in Yesulam, at least for now." Akaleth uncrossed his legs and stretched each in turn. He grunted and patted his stomach. "Now, it would be good to share a meal together, and perhaps you can show me what you have learned from these journals so far. There will be plenty of time for other matters tomorrow."
The jerboa bobbed his head up and down and shifted the top volume from the stack and carried it in his thin arms. "I have marked a few entries in this journal I think you will find very interesting. Read them while I see about something to eat." After setting the book down, he hopped toward the single door to his cell and then chittered, glanced back over his shoulder, "It is very good to see you again, my friend."
Akaleth smiled. "And you, my friend."
"Bring us a pair of meads and some stew," Misha said to the young cat woman dressed in a tunic cut rather lower on the cleavage than Caroline ever would. "You don't happen to have any muffins still, do you?"
But the feline only shook her head. "Nay, they sold out an hour ago. You'll have to wait until tomorrow when we have another fresh batch. We do have fresh loafs of bread and biscuits from this morning that we can warm for you."
"That will do fine," Misha replied with a curt nod of his snout. The young woman almost sashayed between the tables back toward where the auruch Donny was filling mazers with the latest brew for the patrons clustered around the long bar near the pool table. Misha turned his gaze away after the second flick of long tail, and shook his head, chiding himself for even getting to the second flick.
"All right," Rickkter groused as he leaned back against the wall, their little table at the Deaf Mule well sheltered from casual listeners. The raccoon was running his claws over his neck fur as if he were still checking for tufts cut free by the ensorceled blades. "I think it's time you told me how you knew who that Questioner and his entourage were."
"And time you tell me what you saw when you looked at that Questioner," Misha pointed out with a grunt. "And how you knew that Yesbearn and how he knew you."
"Fair enough," Rickkter replied as he crossed his arms, dark eyes peering up at the ceiling. Lanterns swung from the rafters bringing a warm illumination to the tavern. The crowd was large that evening, with more than a dozen clustered around the pool table as the lizard Copernicus mercilessly dispatched challenger after challenger, and twice that many gathered near the bar to drown the weariness of a day's labor in the warmth of a good tankard of ale. The tables were mostly filled with an assortment of soldiers, merchants, and day laborers all of whom were engrossed in their own conversations. The nearest two tables to their own were filled with other members of the Long Scouts, affording the two of them a chance to speak freely.
Misha had suggested they talk in his office back at Long House, but Rickkter would have none of that. The fox owed him a meal and this was where he wanted it. Not that Misha minded; Donny's cooks were excellent, even if they didn't have any muffins that evening.
Rickkter narrowed his eyes, but did not lower his gaze from the lantern over their table. "The Yesbearn knight is a man named Czestadt. He is from eastern Sonngefilde and when I joined the Kankoran he was already advanced in rank."
"So he is a battle mage?"
"Of sorts. He cannot summon fire, ice, or anything of that sort. He has one real magical skill, but he is a consummate master of it. Swords. If it is a bladed weapon he can wield it even if he isn't touching it. That's how he put those swords to our necks. If he'd meant to kill us we wouldn't be here talking; at best we'd be at Coe's having stitches sewn into our flesh, but more likely we'd be dead."
"He is that powerful?"
Rickkter shrugged and finally lowered his snout, casting a quick glance at the other Longs nearby. "Yes and no. It has been more than a decade since last I saw him; I didn't recognize him at first, not until he used the swords. Had I known it was him, he never would have been able to do it. I'd have stopped him. I did stop him once I had a chance, but I think he was more interested in making a point than in fighting."
Now it was Misha's turn to cross his arms. "What point would that be?"
"That fighting them was going to cost lives. Aye, I could have killed Czestadt... eventually. But... let me tell more of his past first. He..." Rickkter stopped when he saw the cat woman returning with a pair of mazers filled to the brim with a sweet and hearty smelling mead. She smiled to them both and the raccoon could have swore that she purred at him; this feline was only barely old enough to deserve the title of woman and it seemed that her youthful nature was getting the better of her. If she wasn't careful a drunk fool might bed her and despoil her forever.
He sipped at the mead, savoring the aftertaste of honey, while wondering why he had even cared enough to ponder the foolish choices of some young woman. The answer floated into his mind with the rapidity of a spring flower's perfume: Kayla. The comely young skunk had won his heart and it seemed, civilized him in ways he hadn't expected. A part of him knew he should be irritated by this, but all he could do was imagine a sweet melody hanging in the air as he shared some succulent morsel with her while laying on the soft grass with a moonlit lake radiating a silver glow in their fur.
A moment later the orange tabby-colored feline girl returned with bowls of fresh stew, the meat scent driving them both to salivate, as well as a small basket with fresh biscuits reeking of butter and the bite of walnut. Misha wasted no time in shoveling an inviting chunk of potato dripping with broth into his snout, while Rickkter sampled one of the soft carrots, chewing twice before swallowing, eyes ever on that woman. Once she had returned to the bar to tend to other customers, he picked up one of the biscuits and began tearing off small chunks of bread and dipping them in the broth until they were sodden and scrumptious.
"Czestadt was one of my instructors with the Kankoran when I first arrived. He taught me how to use a sword, but I could never touch blades the way he and a select few of my old clan could. Blademasters they were called, and while none could best them in a combat with just swords, very, very few were ever good enough to defeat a warmage who had mastered all of the elements. There have only ever been three black Blademasters of the Kankoran in the over two-thousand years. Czestadt would have been the fourth if he hadn't become a Follower and abandoned the Kankoran to join the Driheli knights."
Misha furiously licked a bit of broth that had smeared across his jowls before narrowing his gray eyes and asking, "Who are the Driheli? I've never heard of them."
"An order of knights based out of the city of Stuthgansk." At Misha's blank expression, Rickkter continued. "Stuthgansk is the principal city on the northeastern coast of Sonngefilde. The Kankoran, the Dragons, and the Hevagn have long wanted to control that city; it controls all of the trade with Manzona and eastern Galendor. But the knights of Driheli have long been a bulwark to protect the city. That and the infighting between the mage clans of eastern Sonngefilde. Czestadt isn't the first Kankoran to join the Driheli, but he was one of the most powerful. And it didn't take him long to rise through the ranks, or so I heard. He was a Knight Commander when I left Sonngefilde. I never thought I would see him again. I wonder what happened that made him join the Yesbearn. Both orders are fanatical so I suppose it isn't that much of a change..."
Misha chewed a bit of meat, more of the broth clinging to his whiskers, while he pondered the tale. "Were you friends?"
"He had been an instructor, and several years my senior. We were on good terms, but once I turned toward mastering the elements, we rarely spoke. I bear him no ill will, and I would be surprised if he bore me any ill will. He never kept grudges, but he wasn't so naïve to trust anyone who'd crossed him again." Rickkter paused to lap up another mouthful of mead. He brushed his snout on his sleeve and then spooned up more stew and left it cooling in the air. "If he is now a Yesbearn, then I think we can safely say that all he is interested in doing is protecting that Questioner. He'll die to do so, but he'll kill a lot of people first."
They ate in silence for a moment before Misha took another drink of his mead and began drumming his claws on the lacquered table. "So he can move swords. Why couldn't he move yours?"
"They weren't really swords as such. Clymaethera and Trystathalis were once dragons; I've told you this before. He can only touch true swords. Anything which has been tainted as he would say by living essences is different. He cannot make a sword I hold in my hand move against my will. It is the same for my dragon swords. Something else already holds them. He cannot touch them. But that is only a small weakness. The reason he almost became a black is because he has mastered one skill that is beyond even me."
"And that is?"
"He cannot be killed with a blade. Cut his head off with a sword and it will grow back." Misha blanched and a spoon dripping with meat and a bit of potato hung quivering halfway to his snout. "It is as grisly as it sounds. I've never seen it myself but he has the skill."
"How do you even test for such a skill? Does somebody cut his head off on the chance to see if he's figured out how to grow a new one?"
Rickkter was grateful that he had managed to swallow his drink before Misha had finished speaking, or he would have sprayed the fox with mead. As it was he laughed loud and heartily, the very image of Blademaster after Blademaster lowering their heads before an executioner to see which of them had it right. After he'd finished, he took another drink and shook his head. "Nay, nay, nothing quite like that. The ordeal that they must endure to master the skill has killed before, but not often. Usually they just fail and have to try again. Czestadt defeated the ordeal on his fifth try."
"What's the ordeal?"
Rickkter shook his head. "I don't know; I never tried it. Only a Blademaster can attempt it; it would kill a warmage in seconds if we dared. I know a few who did; afterward, there wasn't much left to bury. But... that is the limit and extent of his powers. He knows one thing and knows it better than anyone else alive. And he believes one thing, and will die for that belief without hesitation. That is what makes him dangerous. And also what makes him harmless so long as we do not threaten his charge."
"So my coming out in force to make sure that Questioner didn't do anything?"
"Bad idea, but you didn't know what Czestadt could do. Wolfram looked rather pissed too at being used like that, but I'm sure if you let him work with the Long Scouts on a mission he'll forgive you."
"I will think of something," Misha replied with a grunt before shoving another mouthful of hot stew down his gullet. He swallowed and gestured at Rickkter's left paw. "How's the terrible wound on your hand?"
Rickkter glowered at the fox but said nothing. He sipped his mead, ate another spoonful of stew, and took another sip of mead, shadowed eyes never leaving the fox.
Misha chuckled to himself, well remembering the raccoon's surprise when that little rat had latched onto his hand. Despite his own anger, that was an image he would cherish for many years. "What did you see when you looked at the Questioner?"
"It was like staring into the sun after spending a week trapped in a tomb." Rickkter rubbed his forehead with his thumb, the little black claw at its tip dragging the fur of his brow back and forth.
Even though he'd seen the raccoon recoil from the Questioner, he still had a hard time believing what he heard. "My sister said that they couldn't see anything when they looked at that priest. And that wasn't just one mage, but seven from the mage guild in Marigund who studied him!"
"The mages of Marigund don't know as much as they think they do. I knew a few things they've never heard of and no, I'm not going to share. Tell me more of what your sister said. How did you know who they were?"
"They visited Marigund about a month ago. After what happened with Marzac they sent a letter to Yesulam with questions about what had happened there; they knew that Yesulam was involved somehow, which is more than any of us knew."
"And Yesulam sent a Questioner to Marigund? When was the last time any Questioner had set foot in that city and lived to tell the tale?"
"At least a hundred years ago if not more," Misha frowned in distaste at the mere thought of those inquisitorial priests fouling his home city with their presence. "They certainly did not expect it, but Elizabeth did say that the priest, the Yeshuel, and the Yesbearn were the right people. Goaded Demarest and the rest apparently. She didn't tell me all that much; I think she wanted to vent more than to warn me."
"But she told you enough that you recognized them."
"It wasn't that hard," Misha pointed out as he dipped a chunk of biscuit into his bowl and drenched it with the last of his broth. "How many trios of Questioner, Yesheul, and Yesbearn do you know wandering the Midlands?"
"True. But what of that mage? Hugo, was it?"
Misha nodded and grimaced. "That was the part I couldn't believe. I knew Hugo when we both were boys."
"Were you friends?"
"No, but we were friendly. Hugo was always closer friends with his rat than with anyone else. Same rat that gave you that terrible wound."
"It wasn't funny the first time, Misha."
Misha smiled, a smile so wide that he had to lower his jaw and stick out his tongue so his cheek ruff could twist with his mirth. "I think it's hilarious!" Rickkter scowled across the table, his eyes narrowing and his teeth grinding together.
"So this Hugo... how did he end up with those three?"
The fox continued to chuckle for a few moments more before he finally regained his composure. He shook his head, and then brushed his snout with one sleeve as if his mirth were a soup stain in his fur. "He tried to have the Questioner killed. His plan failed, and he ended up in exile. To everyone's astonishment, the Questioner asked that Hugo be given into his care during his period of exile. I haven't seen him in years, but I wish I could say that it surprised me. Hugo was always overzealous."
"Apart from having a familiar, what sort of magic does he practice?"
"I don't really know. Elizabeth would know but I don't. By the time he entered the mage guild I was already crawling through the fields and the woods trying to read all the signs I could. Our paths rarely crossed after that."
Rickkter nodded and finished off his mazer. He licked his jowls clean and then drummed his claws along the table. "I can probably find out on my own. It looks like you're going to have to talk to your sister tomorrow."
"Aye," Misha agreed, downing the last of his mead. He wiped his snout again, this time drenching his sleeve in the last of the froth. "And this time I will try to learn all I can about them. Had I known they'd be coming to Metamor, I would have been better prepared."
"I'm not convinced that they are a threat anymore," Rickkter said with a yawn and a stretch of his arms. His paws came to rest in his lap, thumb claws tapping as he pondered. "I know that's the Questioner that was making threats against everyone he questioned last year but when I saw him then, he didn't seem to have a glimmer of light about him. I think they are here for exactly the reason they claim to be here. If there is some other motive, it probably is something we'll never understand, some business of Yesulam we probably don't want to understand, I'd wager."
Misha frowned, his jaw finally shutting, all traces of his earlier jocularity gone. The professional warrior with his tight, but relaxed poise, had returned. "You may be right, but it never hurts to keep an eye on them. If his grace will let me."
A sudden cheer from the pool table made both their heads turn. The massive lizard Copernicus was waving his pole aloft in both hands, while a dozen other keepers applauded and cheered him on. Through the crowd they could see Michael the beaver chewing chips out of the wide end of his pole as his eyes fixed on the table with almost feverish dismay. Misha laughed and shook his head at the sight, while Rickkter just rolled his eyes, "Doesn't that lizard ever lose? Anyway, what were you saying about his grace?"
"Oh, that! I'm just worried Duke Thomas might want to assign me to clean the stables for a week after I put together that welcoming committee."
That made Rickkter laugh. The raccoon slapped one paw on the table, tipped his head back, and belted out a hearty, deep-chested laugh. He settled down after several seconds, and still gasping for breath with a few unused chuckles trying to occupy his mind, he managed to say, "Stable duty would be good for you. I'd visit you every day too... so I could laugh!"
Now it was Misha's turn to glower at his friend. But the fox could never truly stay angry with a friend for long, not as long as it was just a bit of embarrassment they faced. Once the weapons were drawn, it was a completely different affair, but it had been a very long time since Rickkter had ever had to contend against the fox's considerable skill and magical axe. He hoped he never had to again.
"Duke Thomas hasn't said anything about this to me yet today which makes it worse. I'm sure it is coming, it's just a matter of when it comes."
"You'll be fine," Rickkter reminded him with a grunt. "So what do you intend to do about them now that they're here?"
"Nothing," Misha said with a soft grunt. "I'm going to keep my distance from them. Unless Elizabeth tells me something dramatically different from what we know, I'm going to do nothing and let them be. I have enough things on my mind at the moment, Madog, Bolva, Lindsey, Dupré, Charles, Arla's wedding present, I think leaving my nose out of this one will do me some good."
Rickkter glanced at the pool table where the plaid beaver was begging for a rematch. He snorted and shook his head. "Some people never learn. Anyway, I think I will renew old acquaintances but otherwise keep my distance as well. But let me know what you learn from your sister. It's not every day we have such interesting visitors."
Misha chortled, lifted his empty mazer, then set it back down again. "How very, very true!"
April 19, 708 CR
When Father Hough woke the next morning he was greeted by a somber Thursday with a thick, cool mist filling the Valley so that the roofs of Keeptowne appeared like little flotsam and hoping stones in the froth of a river's eddy. He admired the vista out his chamber window while quietly intoning his morning prayers, with an extra petition that no Keeper blamed the sudden turn in weather on the Questioner's arrival. While many portentous events shook the skies and made thunder roll and the rain lash, he was beginning to tire of the way some of his fellow Keepers seemed to think this had to happen with every distinguished visitor to their enchanted land.
But there was no escaping the fact that Father Akaleth was a man who stirred deep passions on both sides. Even after Madog convinced Misha to abandon his attempts to incarcerate the Questioner, several of his parishioners had come to him in a fright that evening to ask him if the dreadful rumors were true. Given that he had greeted the news of the Questioners coming to Metamor last year with childish panic, he could not blame anyone for their fear, but he did his best to calm them and assure them that this new Questioner was just here to visit his friend.
Despite knowing all of this, he was still surprised to find Wolfram and his company all arrayed in their patrol gear standing guard outside the main doors to the Cathedral. Some of them, such as Kindle, were not even Followers, but they all were gathered with armor and weapons, as well as a few chairs for comfort, and a basket of fresh biscuits and pastries filled with cheese and meat. Hough was so shocked he could only stare in amazement.
"Good morning, Father," Wolfrom said after swallowing a chunk of biscuit. He held the basket out in his left hand. "Would you care for one? Fresh from Gregor's."
"I... I... What..." Hough stuttered before blinking and staring at the basket to see another half-dozen round biscuits with flaky folds of bread, warm and golden, with a buttery scent that made his stomach growl. "Oh... um... thank you." He took one and bounced it back and forth in his hands until he managed to catch it with his sleeve. "Hot!"
Owain and Ross both laughed at that, while Wolfram ducked his head a bit in apology. "I'm sorry." He held up his hooflet-tipped fingers. "My judgment of temperature isn't as good as yours, I think. Do you have it now?"
Hough nodded and blew on the biscuit a couple of times. "I think so... but... what are you all doing here?"
"Well," Wolfram said with a snort, "if some think our guests are not welcome, we're going to make sure that nobody shows it!"
"We agreed last night to do this," Kindle said as he picked a bit of cheese from his snout. "They seemed like good folk to me."
"Very good folks," Zachary rumbled from twice Hough's height. The kharrakhaz had his arms crossed, another basket of food clutched between two fingers. "Misha should know better."
"I can't believe he did that," Wolfram said as he looked into the basket and debated whether to have another biscuit or to wait a little bit.
"I can't believe that you stood up to both him, Rickkter, and half the Long Scouts!" Ross said with a bit of awe in his voice. Despite having become a man five years ago when the Curse had ended any possibility of his becoming a mother, there was still a faint feminine lightness that could be heard in his voice, especially when he was excited. "If it had come to it, I'd have backed you of course, but still!"
"Yeah," Wolfram nodded, deciding on another biscuit after all. "And for one awful moment I thought either Misha or Rickkter would take me up on that challenge! Either way, whew!" He laughed the relieved laugh of a man who had courted certain death and saw death turn aside.
"You should not be neglecting your duties. Our guests are not in danger from anyone here," Hough pointed out. He then, still holding it with his sleeve, sampled the biscuit and found it delicious and soft. "This is excellent!"
"We have permission from George," Wolfram announced with a broad smile. "I spoke with the patrol master last night and he loved the idea."
"Oh yes. He said it would serve Misha right for putting everyone in an uproar." Owain and Ross laughed again at that, joined by Gweir and Burkhart as well. Only Zachary and Kindle kept silent, though Hough had never known the massive reptile to find humor in anything so frivolous as pique.
"Well, I cannot ask you to abandon your post but I am going to ask you to move it further away from the cathedral doors. We are going to have morning liturgy in an hour and I do not want you to scare any of our parishioners off!"
Wolfram at least, even through his black wool, looked embarrassed.
Even as Father Hough was discovering Wolfram and his company's early morning vigil, one of their guests was waking to the coolness of the new dawn. Akaleth felt stiff and a soreness in his ribs, legs, and arms, as well as the usual ache that permeated his back. The wounds he'd suffered at the hands of his father and then those he suffered under the merciless care of Krenek Zagrosek always pained him when it was cold. And as he lived in the desert, it was a rare night that he didn't suffer.
His mind, as was its habit now, turned to the sufferings of Yahshua and especially His walk to the execution tree. He would offer no word of complaint, no groan of discomfort, and allow himself no desire for any relief; instead he would offer every mote of anguish to Eli as Father Kehthaek had taught him.
Of course he would accept any comfort offered by his host because that was the gracious and honorable thing to do. And so he had accepted the heavier quilts and softer pallet that night from both Felsah and Hough. There was just a twinge of regret at having to climb out of their warm embrace when he woke.
As quiet as he could, he slipped his legs out from beneath the covers, wriggled into his Questioner robe, and then walked the few steps toward the wall and the curtained window. He drew the curtain aside enough to let light in, and then propped it open with one of the journals. Turning he glanced at Felsah's pallet and saw his friend and fellow Questioner still asleep.
Felsah had curled up tail tuft to nose in his sleep, almost all four of his paws resting next to his snout. Akaleth noted the way his whiskers twitched and one of his large ears flicked as the light fell on him. He resembled more some aristocrat's exotic pet than he did a man and a priest.
But while this man had been a quiet and calming presence to all around him for years. He had volunteered to take the place of a condemned man and was nearly beaten to death because of it. On recovering his strength he plunged back into the work, unafraid and undeterred. Together they had faced the corruption poisoning the Ecclesia and, by the grace of Eli, seen its defeat. If Felsah could have accomplished all of that as a man, what could he do here in Metamor as a jerboa?
With one last look, Akaleth found his breviary and softly exited the cell.
Even though as head of the Long Scouts he had many duties that awaited him each morning, Misha did not want to give any of them time to distract him from the one thing he wanted to make sure he accomplished that day. It was only inevitable that Duke Thomas would summon him to discuss his welcome of the Questioner and his party yesterday, a summons that could come any time, but he wanted to be sure that he knew as much as he could before that unpleasant hour came.
And so after grooming himself as hastily as he could manage and still look presentable to family, he threw the latch in his workshop, walked past the many projects with which he labored in love when not chained to duty, and carefully withdrew a blue gem small enough to fit in his curled fist from the cloth lined reliquary in which he kept it. Most of his worktable was either cluttered with gears, nails, and tools, or permanently stained with oil and grease. But one corner he kept clean for when he needed to eat or when he needed to use this gem.
With far more care than he had given to his grooming – he had almost decided to use four legs that morning except it meant there would be a lot more fur to brush into some semblance of order – he placed the gem on that clean patch of his work table and stretched one paw across its cool surface. He closed his eyes and thought of his sister. He imagined her long brown hair flowing down her shoulders, clasped in place with a silver broach half way down her tresses. He imaged her oval face, creamy skin, and blue eyes. And after a few moments he wasn't imagining them anymore.
Seated at a large table beneath which lay a sandy-colored greyhound was his sister. She was dressed in a warm woolen robe with silver lace beneath. On the balcony outside her chambers Misha could hear the constant patter of rain. His sister was busy composing a letter with a particularly aromatic ink that made Misha's nose twitch and his tongue begin to pant. Were those raspberries?
At his sudden panting, Elizabeth turned her head and a smile creased her face. "Misha! What a wonderful surprise! You don't usually project so early in the morning. Is something wrong?"
Misha smiled to his sister and then laughed. "Well, perhaps so. Some of it by my own paw perhaps, but I was hoping to learn from you if that is so. Ah, how are you doing, Sis?"
"Well enough. There is plenty of work to occupy my attention for months. Presently I've been trying to charter merchants to purchase large quantities of stibnite from east of the Vysehrad. To rebuild the world bell we need that and many other things. But to reach that land requires sailing around Rukilia and no one wishes to do that in Summer. The mosquitoes are larger than birds, or so I have been told." Elizabeth smirked ever so slightly, her way of showing how little credence she gave to such tales. Misha recalled a few times she had used that same expression when he had made up some excuse for why he was covered from head to toe in dirt back when they had been children.
"The few we see here are big enough," Misha replied with a very welcome laugh. "We have no stibnite here, or at least, not that I've heard."
Elizabeth nodded and then reached out as to embrace him, though of course they could not feel anything more than the suggestion of presence. "Worry not about my mundane troubles. What brings you to see me so early on such a soggy morning as this?" Outside the sky rumbled with a distant peal of thunder as if groaning protest to so meek a characterization.
"Remember those three from Yesulam you told me about? The Questioner and the two warriors accompanying him?"
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and nodded. "Aye, I remember them. I wanted to throttle the lot of them before we were done, but they did help us piece together one of the puzzles surrounding Marzac. And may that place ever be a charred and desolate ruin. What of them?"
"They're here at Metamor."
"They're here at Metamor. They arrived yesterday. Hugo Maclear was with them. We welcomed them with every Long Scout currently at the Keep and several of our finest warriors. But they were apparently expected by the Questioner already here at Metamor and so we let them stay at the Cathedral under Hough's charge. I'm... worried about them. That Questioner... Akaleth I think his name is... he did terrible things to the keepers he questioned last time he was here."
"What did he do?" Elizabeth asked with a curious frown.
"He threatened to whip them and torture them if he could. The chief Questioner forbade him, but he didn't stop making threats."
"Father Akaleth? That is hard to believe. Insufferable yes, but threatening? I didn't see that in him at all!"
Misha's one ear lifted in surprise. "What was he like?"
"Insufferable. Even in demanding mercy for Hugo he was insufferable. But... he did demand to receive the lashes meant for Hugo. And I mean demand! He ran into the square and stood between Hugo and the adjudicator and would not be moved. This after Hugo tried to have him killed. I do not know what to think of him, but he is a wholly genuine man. What he believes he believes with all his being. And he tries his best to live it too." Elizabeth frowned and then snapped her head up, one lock of hair flying through Misha's illusory muzzle. "Just what are they doing in Metamor anyway?"
"I'm not really sure. They said that they were here to see Felsah, that other Questioner priest, the one Madog really likes." Misha's ear lowered at that, a slight irritation touching his heart about how frequently Madog seemed to like the wrong people. He was more irritated that Madog was always right too, but the irritation was fleeting as any irritation the automaton caused him always seemed to be.
"You said they. Were the two warriors with them?"
"Aye, and I'm told one of them was a Kankoran Blademaster."
Elizabeth lifted one hand to her face and brushed a lock of hair behind one ear. "That would be Sir Czestadt. His Galendish was poor but improving. He can manipulate blades without touching them, but as long as you do not threaten Father Akaleth he won't do anything. In fact none of them are likely to break your laws as long as they are left alone."
"That is good to know," Misha admitted with a sigh. "I'm probably going to need to apologize to them for how I welcomed them. But how does one man change so much in just a year? He was... evil when he came here before!"
Elizabeth pursed her lips and gazed at her brother with compassion and forgiveness. "Do you remember Krenek Zagrosek?"
The fox yipped. "How could I forget that man! I had nightmares for months after he injured Madog!"
"Those three Questioners continued their search for answers to Patriarch Akabaieth's murder even after they returned to Yesulam. Father Akaleth confided in the very man responsible, and was taken to a very dark place where he was beaten and tortured by Zagrosek for days, he doesn't know how many. And he had to watch children be murdered by the Sword of Yajakali. Akaleth is a man who has seen spiritual evil and it made him recognize just how evil he had become as well. Having to live and depend on Magyars for a couple of months helped soften his disposition as well. This doesn't mean he isn't insufferable still, just that you do not need to fear him doing anything unpleasant at Metamor."
"I had heard from Felsah that they were tracking down the man responsible still. He might have mentioned something about Akaleth being tortured. I don't remember now." Misha scuffed one paw across the floor and lowered his eyes. "I'm just... I'm torn, Sis. Did I overreact in welcoming them with armed soldiers and demanding to put him in the dungeon while he was here?"
"That priest didn't even get inside the gates of Marigund without having one of the Caial try to kill him." She shook her head with a laugh. "Be very, very grateful he is not the man he once was. His power..."
Misha's one ear perked. Even the greyhound lifted his head to glance at Elizabeth curiously for a moment before laying it back down on the soft rug. "Rickkter said that staring at him was like staring into the sun."
"I did not see that when I looked at him, but when he used his power... he nearly bore a hole through old Barty's head! He killed a Shrieker with his light. He killed a Shrieker, Misha. By himself. There is no other person alive or in legend who can make that claim."
Misha took a deep breath, trying to reconcile his memory of the sneering priest always reaching into his sleeve to clutch at the whip hidden within with the heroic self-sacrificing man his sister described. How could they possibly be the same person?
"I'll just keep my distance then. Although I think somebody here at Metamor would be interested in seeing him."
Another rolling bout of thunder crackled the sky. "Who?"
"Somebody else who has seen the Sword."