June 30, 708 CR
Elvmere lifted a paw from where he crouched at the feet of his lady, chittering to capture her attention. But he always had her attention, and the gentle smile returned to him, made him swell in proportion, rendering the beastly noises into words. “My Lady, will we be safe?”
Softness touched her eyes and one hand gently pet down his fur between his ears. Her lips moved to open, and then she shut them into an even wider smile.
The raccoon craned upward, paws pressed against one alabaster thigh, snout and whiskers straining for her oval face. He did not know if he retained any human semblance. All he knew was his Lady.
Her hand curled around his ears and then under his muzzle. She leaned over, locks of raven-black hair cascading across her shoulders and onto his back. Her lips drew near as if to gently kiss his nose, but demurred only inches away. Voluminous blue eyes captured him. Her voice, sweet as honey and gentle as silk, lathered his ears. “My Elvmere. Be not afraid. You are protected.” She brushed with the tip of one finger across the black mask around his eyes and face. “Fight bravely, my Elvmere.”
The raccoon blinked open his eyes into the gloom of the men's acolyte chamber. He stared into a long-nosed and broad headed face. Large horse-like ears were lifted and turned toward him. As the nepenthe of dream faded, Elvmere recognized the face of his friend, Tamsin hin'Feros. The long pig-like snout hanging in front of his mouth, the large equine ears, the thin gray hide, and the short mane running from the top of his head down between his shoulders marked him as a tapir.
“It's time, Elvmere. Get your gear and let's go.”
“Must we leave before dawn prayers?” Elvmere asked as he sat up. His legs dangled off the bunk above the tapir's own. If he stretched his arms up he could almost brush his claws against the ceiling and its ancient frescoes. Acolytes from some forgotten era had painted scenes from the lives of the gods but most were now faded and covered in candle soot. Whenever they had artisans of sufficient skill among the acolytes they were cleaned and restored, but the few among the order were all women and so the men's chambers were left untouched for the nonce.
Tamsin lifted his snout in a muffled laugh. “You heard Captain Dallar, we must assemble at the barracks by dawn.”
“I know,” Elvmere whispered. He yawned and stretched, tongue curling and lolling out between his teeth. “How long have you been awake?”
“Long enough to gather our scouting gear. Here.” Tamsin lifted a folded green uniform and handed it to him. Elvmere took it and set it on his feather pillow. “Get dressed and meet me at the temple front. I'll gather the rest of our things from the armory.”
Elvmere nodded and shimmied out of his nightclothes while his friend stepped tip-toe out of the acolyte's chamber. They'd selected the uniform from the barracks a few days before. It had taken two candlemarks to make sure they had one suitably sized for him. If they did run into brigands or worse, it was best not to make it easy for any to know they were anything other than Keep patrol.
He reached beneath his pillow and pulled out the small medallion with the circle and arrow symbol of Dokorath inscribed. Elvmere sighed and in the dark stared at it. Priestess Merai had gifted it to him last night after they'd returned from the barracks. It had been blessed and touched with the blood of sacrifice by both Merai and the Lothanasa. He cradled it in awe and a sense of shame.
I'm not worthy of Dokorath's blessing. I'm not brave. I didn't even believe Dokorath was a god a year ago. Will he truly protect me?
Elvmere lifted the medallion to his snout, fingers cradling it so he could see every curve of the bronze inscription. Gold lined the symbol but in the darkness even his eyes could see no glint. He took a deep breath and recalled the beam of pride in Merai's eyes when she bid him kneel. He had not hesitated, and around his neck she'd draped the medallion and intoned a prayer of blessing and protection.
If not my devotion, than Priestess Merai's will suffice. Dokorath, guide my hand and heart. Help me serve, and in battle help me protect my friends. Dokorath, I entrust myself to you.
Elvmere kissed the medallion and slipped it over his head. The metal bounced against his chest and even through his fur was cool. He sighed and dressed himself in the scout uniform. It fit comfortably with enough give for climbing and crawling but not too loose to interfere with fighting. He could probably easily squirm out of it into his feral form if he so chose.
Once dressed he climbed out of his bunk and left the acolyte's chamber, the only sound the grumble and grunt of snores. He carried the boots they'd given him as he preferred to walk on his paws. He'd not worn shoes on his journey with Malger and Murikeer except when he'd had to, thickening and toughening his soles. Shoes or boots of any sort felt uncomfortable; he wore sandals in the temple because it was expected of an acolyte. He would wear the boots if their patrol Captain insisted.
Tamsin was at the temple entrance as promised, a buckler around his waist and shoulder with a sword strapped to his left and a dagger to his right. He held another in one hand and offered it to the raccoon. “You look like you were made for patrol, Elvmere.”
“Because I'm a raccoon; they live in forests like those of Metamor.” He took the buckler and managed to strap it on without assistance. The weight of the sword and dagger were familiar after weeks of guard duty and marching around Metamor's halls. “I'm still not sure how well I'll do, but I'm ready.”
Tamsin patted him on the shoulder and lifted his snout in a smile. “Of course you are. One last prayer before we go?”
He smiled. “Aye, one last prayer!”
Dawn had arrived but the sun still lay hidden behind the Barrier Mountains. The sky was a clear blue from eastern to western peaks with halos of white where the snow-capped summits reflected rays only they could see. Along the valley all was bathed in a shadowless gray. Warmth already suffused the air.
Though colors were muted without the sun, the scents of Metamor's varied population and the oil and grease of armor and steel weapons were all the more powerful. Elvmere could smell the ram captain and his fellow soldiers and knew where they waited before he saw them. Before they rounded the side of the barracks as they made their way around the Keep grounds, the raccoon gave one last tug to his buckler to keep it straight.
“Ah, excellent, Tamsin, Elvmere, you're here.” The ram had a pipe between his flat teeth which he spoke around. “Join the others for last inspection. If everyone is ready, we will be able to leave in a few minutes.”
“Captain Dallar,” Tamsin inclined his head, long ears folded backward, “I trust we are not late?”
The ram shrugged. “The solstice was a week ago; we'll have more than enough time to begin. The Keep make you go roundabout?”
“We had more prayers and more gods to offer them too than we expected.” Tamsin gave Elvmere a slight nudge in the arm which the raccoon dodged. Dallar chuckled around his pipe as the two acolytes found their place next to a very young woodpecker. The woodpecker was wearing a green tunic with a baldric to which his supplies were hooked but no trousers. His black tail fanned out behind him while his dark talons clawed uncertainly at the ground. Bright yellow eyes met them for a moment before casting back toward the patrol captain.
Dallar dumped the ashes out of his pipe, ground them beneath a dark cloven hoof, and tapped his pipe bowl against one curling horn before slipping it into one of the pouches along his buckler. His white wool was short and must have been sheared a month back. He like the rest bore the green uniform of Metamor's patrols, his with the captain's bar emblazoned on his breast beneath the horse-head heraldry of the Hassan house. One two-fingered hand rested upon the pommel of a heavy sword hanging from his left hip. His dark eyes swept across the soldiers, only half of which bore themselves with any seasoning.
“I know for some of you this is your first patrol. Let me set your fears at ease; you are joining an experienced team. We have been in the field together since last Autumn and have been nearly everywhere in the valley already. We are going to be making a two-week sweep of the fiefs and villages south of the Keep. We'll stop in Lorland for a few days before making rounds through Goffs Oak, Ticehurst, Sawtry, and Iron Mine. We're going to spend some time on the roads and some in the fields and forests. The Summer Festival ended six days ago; the worst I expect to see is a few stragglers who haven't figured out the festivities are over and a few merchants who stayed too long. There may be brigands, but they usually stay near Jetta and Llancarfan at the valley mouth to avoid the Curse; we won't be going so far south. Honestly, the most combat I expect to see is helping village-folk keep peace by braining drunkards or capturing poachers and thieves.
“But I do expect each of you to fight if we must. I and my men will help each of you learn your strengths. Other than Van,” he nodded toward a human boy who looked thirteen in size, but thirty in the twist of his lips and confidence in his eyes. “And Maud,” he said with another nod toward a human woman who stood next to the towering giraffe. “Other than them, all of you are animal cursed. You will each have things you can do no human could hope to do. Going on patrol is the best way to learn what they are. Now, other than my unit, I know Tamsin there has patrol experience. Tamsin, I expect you to help the rest.”
The tapir lifted his snout and grinned. “It will be my honor, Captain.”
“Good! Now, stand ready for inspection.”
As soon as he said this the two hawks, giraffe, woman, boy, and tapir all stiffened their backs and stood half-a-hand higher – the giraffe probably stood a hand higher, he was almost twice Elvmere's height and the raccoon wondered how he could even fit indoors. The others – the woodpecker at his side, a brown-furred ram, and a blue-red speckled lizard – all did their best to stand the same way. Elvmere was grateful for the Temple guard duty he'd been on the last two weeks as he managed to comfortably hold the pose. His tail twitched from side to side, but the rest of him remained still, even his whiskers.
Dallar walked down the line of soldiers, stopping to check weapons and gear. He was rigorous with the soldiers in his unit but completely silent. When he came to the lizard, after looking over his weapons, Dallar gestured to the pack he carried and asked, “Wyaert, do you have enough to keep warm? We have cold days in the Summer, especially in the forests and mountain foothills.”
The lizard – a tokay Elvmere remembered – cracked his wide jaws and said in a croaking voice, “I have an extra set of garments in my pack, Captain. I'm ready.”
“Good, good!” Dallar offered the tokay a smile before striding to the other ram, one whose horns were only as long as the raccoon's fingers. Elvmere remembered from the night before when they'd first met with Dallar and the team the other ram had transformed only a few months before. His coat was hairy like a goat, but the face, other than the color, was much like Dallar's own.
“Sedric, have you bracers for your legs? With all the walking we're going to do, it will help keep your muscles strong. I know what it is to have hooves.”
“Oh, nay, I have none, Captain! Uh, where do I find some?”
“I'll give you a pair of mine in a moment.”
Dallar had nothing to say to the woodpecker only offering him a nod of the head before moving on to the raccoon. Elvmere took a deep breath and pressed his thumbs into his fingertips rubbing the claws one across the other as the ram looked him up and down. After a short perusal, he chuffed and said, “Tamsin has taught you well, Elvmere.”
Elvmere felt his chest swell at the praise even as he exhaled in relief. His breath caught again when Dallar pointed at his feet. “You have almost human feet; why aren't you wearing the boots I gave you?”
“I am more comfortable without them. I've walked the length of Sathmore barefoot. I do have the boots in my pack... in case it rains.”
Dallar snorted and nodded. “You'll want them if it does, lad. Very good.” The ram moved to the tapir, but his scrutiny of Tamsin was even quicker. He then clapped his hands together, the hoof-like nails making a clacking sound in addition to the normal clap. “All right, we've a long way to go, let's get to it. Van, Maud, gather the pack horses and secure the food. Weyden, Jessica, Myrwyn, stow your gear and follow us in the sky. Sedric, come with me. The rest of you wait here. We'll be leaving in a few minutes.”
The woodpecker lowered his beak and chirped something under his breath before walking with bobbing head toward the two hawks. Dallar led Sedric into the barracks, while Van and Maud went into the stables around the corner. Tamsin stretched his arms and legs and chortled. Elvmere turned to his friend and tapped one finger atop the Dokorath medallion beneath his green patrol tunic. “You've taught me well.”
Tamsin flashed him a snout-raised grin. “Like I said, you were made for patrol!”
“Heh, we'll know in two weeks I suppose.”
“Stop fretting. Or do you need another twenty prayers before we go?”
“Dokorath probably welcomes the devotion!”
Tamsin nodded and chortled, stomping a three-toed foot. “Oh aye he does.”
Elvmere was surprised at how quickly they traversed both Keeptowne and Euper to reach the well-traveled road south through the valley. One minute he and Tamsin were jesting outside the barracks and the next they were walking two by two with a pair of pack horses through the city streets as merchants and vendors gathered to begin their day. Dallar set a quick pace the raccoon found easy to match; it carried them through the streets before those merchants clogged them with booths and wagons. And as they were a Metamor patrol, they passed through each city gate with smiles and waves. In two candlemarks the tough soles of his feet and the claws of his toes were digging in the hard-packed dirt outside the walls.
Dallar led them down the road for another candlemark before stopping. The road kept straight with cleared fields on either side the entire time. Rolling hills dotted the countryside and where the road crossed over these stone walls had been built to keep the road clear and level. They passed a few shacks for guards and travelers caught in the rain fashioned from woods. When they reached the first watch tower the ram bade them halt. “We'll stop here for a few minutes. It is good to get word about the road ahead. Tamsin, Elvmere, see the guards in the tower and find the news. I'll wave our birds down; we can talk briefly when you return. Sedric, Wyaert, I want you both to practice with your swords as we wait.”
Elvmere watched the tokay and brown ram shrug off their packs and reach for their swords, before turning to follow his friend toward the tower. The others kept their packs on, but the giraffe did recline against the wall to watch.
The tower was fashioned from three pylons around a fourth that rose like a pyramid, crossed together with scaffolding, and then spreading apart to cradle a cupola with a roof of wooden slats. The cupola was open to the air on every side and he could smell a faint odor of woodsmoke within. Pounded into one of the slanted pylons were iron rungs; these ran all the way up before switching to the central pylon. Elvmere put a hand over his eyes as he followed them up to what must have been a trap door in the bottom of the cupola.
“You first,” Tamsin said as they walked toward the ladder. “Raccoons like being in trees, don't they?”
“I do actually,” Elvmere admitted. On a few days free of Temple duties, he'd ventured into the Keep gardens as a normal raccoon and reclined in the branches, hidden from the many Keepers going about their business. There was something comforting about the feel of his claws in the bark and it set his mind and heart at ease.
The watch tower was even easier to climb. He zipped up the rungs even with his pack still on his back, and after half-a-minute was knocking on the bottom of the trap door. Tamsin was several rungs below him, chortling at his speed. He heard the sound of boots above him and a metal latch drawing open. The door swung upward and Elvmere put his hands on either side of the opening and pulled himself through. The edge of his pack bumped the floor once before he leaned forward and slipped inside.
There were two guards in the cupola, one of them a human man, and the other a gray-furred wolf. The man stood next to the trap door and the central pylon. “Welcome; not here to relieve us I suppose?”
“No, we're on patrol to the south,” Elvmere replied, offering both guards what he hoped was a warm smile. He tried not to lift his jowls too much as he did so. Even Metamorians sometimes misunderstood when an animal Keeper showed their fangs. “How long have you been here?”
“Since midnight,” the human replied with a shrug. “Our relief should come in an hour or so. Want to know about the roads then?”
“Aye, have there been many travelers?” Elvmere moved to the edge so he could peer out over the field and road. Tamsin grunted as he scrambled his bulk through the trap door. The wolf watched them without making any sound other than the rustling of fur as his tail wagged.
“Nothing more than local farmers going about their day. See for yourself.” The human soldier stepped behind Elvmere and gestured with outstretched arm to the south. The forests that dominated the hilly lands just south of Metamor continued for a short distance before giving way to cleared fields that flanked the river south of a rocky defile. Thatch homes dotted the cultivated fields with their rows of wheat and vegetables. The forests clung to the mountain foothills and in the midst of one rise he saw another watchtower. When he squinted he thought he could see another past the farms, but the eyes of a raccoon were not meant for such distances.
Staring out across the fields and forest south of the Keep framed by mountains on either side, Elvmere could not help but recall his first foray from Metamor over a year past. The whole venture seemed ludicrous to him, but he'd trusted his Lady when she told him it was time to go. He even walked barefoot as she'd instructed him and refused to ride a horse or in wagons except for the brief times when he'd been given no choice – the time they'd be pressed into service in the mountains of southern Sathmore to repel an invasion from Breckaris sprung to mind. It had also been the first time he'd accepted the name his Lady had bestowed upon him – Elvmere.
It was strange to admit, but the name suited him better than the one he'd been born with. At least, it suited the young raccoon he now was better than the old man he'd been only two years before.
Elvmere leaned against the wooden railing, claws idly digging at the wood, ears turned toward the air. The scent of human and wolf was strongest, but the pleasant spice of pine drifted up along the breeze. He could even hear the sweet songs of birds nesting and freshly hatched chicks begging for their meal. The clanging of swords from below and the murmuring of Tamsin and the other two soldiers completed the symphony.
He took a deep breath and let it out slow, languorous, and satisfied. Elvmere felt a faint surprise but deeper delight. He was looking forward to the next two weeks of patrol.
“Hey, Elvmere,” Tamsin called. He turned; the tapir had his arms crossed with a wide grin on his snout. He stood in front the forest side wall, a contraption with a wheel and ropes fell away behind him. He nodded toward a bar hanging off the rope. “Have you ever tried one of these?”
Elvmere shook his head. “Nay, what is it?”
“Quick escape,” Tamsin reached up and grabbed the bar. Elvmere walked over and peered over the railing. The pair of ropes descended at an angle down to the edge of the woods. “Guards can ride this down in a few seconds.”
“There's a second bar at the bottom,” the wolf interjected, stepping over to rest a paw-like hand on the bar. “Ride this one down and the other comes up.”
Tamsin's grin widened. “Care to try?”
Elvmere laughed. “All I do is hold on?”
“Aye.” The wolf grinned and wagged his tail. “Let go and you'll break your legs, maybe more.”
Elvmere nudged Tamsin in the side as he straightened his sword then reached up for the bar. He wrapped his fingers around the grip and tensed his shoulders. “You just don't want to climb down the ladder again.”
“Ladders are for going up!”
The wolf patted the railing and then swept his paw forward. “Just step up to the ledge. Keep your elbows bent or you can wreck your shoulders when you jump off.”
Elvmere took a deep breath, stared out over the drop, and chortled. “Aye, never done this.” He put one foot on the railing, toes and claws curling over the wood, and then jumped forward. The rope whistled and the gears squeaked as he rushed forward. His weight yanked down and he felt a jolt through his elbows and shoulders but he kept his body coiled and elbows bent. The air zipped past and the trees and ground rushed forward; his heart beat fast and his teeth ground tight. He held out his feet as one large oak zoomed at him. He connected with a well-worn part of the bark, claws digging in. His knees and hips bent with the impact. He bounced back, hands letting go of the bar, collapsing on the ground. He gasped and crawled away, shaking his head from the rush.
“Akkala!” He managed in between gasps, begging the goddess of healing for his breath back.
He managed to stand and straighten his pack and sword as another zipping resounded and Tamsin struck the tree. The tapir jumped backward and landed on his three-toed feet, gasping for only a moment before laughing. “I guess I should have warned you about the landing. Hah! You did great!”
“Oh my!” Elvmere gasped, hand to his chest as the world settled back to normal around him. “Aye, you should. Ow!”
“Tamsin! Elvmere! Enough foolishness!” Dallar shouted from the field near the tower. Elvmere turned and was surprised to see they and the tower were at least two hundred paces away. He grunted and started off at a trot back toward the others. Tamsin chortled for a moment as he hurried to keep pace. By the time they reached the rest of their patrol he'd caught his breath.
All three birds had landed and assumed their most human shape, watching as the younger ram and the tokay lizard traded blows. The two hawks were near the giraffe and two humans trading comments, while the young woodpecker perched upon the stone wall by himself. The combatants reminded Elvmere of his practice fights with Tamsin; the brown-furred ram especially used simple moves and used them over and over again while the tokay seemed to swing his sword more like a hammer against stone.
Elvmere shrugged and smiled toward Dallar as they approached. The ram shook his head and turned his attention back to the combatants. Elvmere settled next to the woodpecker and asked, “How was the flight?”
Myrwyn lowered his long beak to preen at the feathers of his right wing arm. He lifted it a moment later, wide yellow eyes fixed on him. “The air is pretty still today. I'm not as good as they are at flying.”
Elvmere frowned. “How long have you been cursed?”
“About three months now. You?”
He grunted, though the excitement he still felt from riding the rope down kept him from feeling as much like an idiot as he knew he was. Lothanasa Raven had forbade him from speaking of his past from before he became Malger's apprentice on their journey through Sathmore. Asking another Keeper about when they became cursed naturally meant they would ask him the same. The true answer was not even two years past, but so much had changed in those two years he'd come up with a response both true and evasive enough to forestall further inquiry.
Elvmere favored the woodpecker with a smile, even as he put his hands behind his head and made a show of looking back at the contest. “Ah, it seems a life time ago now. I was a different person then.”
He almost needn't have worried because Myrwyn merely bobbed his head and resumed preening the black feathers on his wings.
Dallar allowed the combatants to trade a dozen more blows before bleating and waving his arms. “Enough for now! We've more road to cover today; I'd like to be in Lorland by lunch. Elvmere, what of the roads ahead?”
The raccoon blinked and turned to the south. “It looks clear, sir. Nothing but farmers we could see.”
“Good, good. Weyden said the same.” Dallar flecked his lips, revealing the flat teeth behind them for a moment. “Everyone gather your gear, it's time to keep moving. Elvmere, you're with me on point. Maud, Van, give Wyaert and Sedric some pointers on fighting. Larssen, you and Tamsin take the rear. Weyden, Jessica, Myrwyn, I want two of you in the sky and the third riding with our supplies for the rest of the trip. Switch every candlemark so you can stay rested. Myrwyn, you can take first rest.” The woodpecker blew out a sigh of relief at the news.
Tamsin patted Elvmere on the shoulder and flashed him a tooth-filled grin as he walked toward the giraffe. Elvmere chittered under his breath and turned toward the ram captain to begin the walk again.
Dallar said nothing at all as they walked for at least two candlemarks. They reached the cultivated fields not long after resuming their trek; short walls of rocks of all sizes fitted together and others fashioned from long cuts of wood marked off the fields for each of the farms. Thatch huts dotted the land between them. Some of the fields were left fallow, with sheep and cattle grazing under the watchful eyes of shepherds.
The ram had them moving at an easy but steady pace. Elvmere had no trouble keeping abreast and from time to time could even savor the feel of dirt between his claws and toes where freshly turned fields overflowed onto the road. The weight of the sword and pack were as comfortable as the instruments had been when he'd traveled as Malger's apprentice.
He chuffed at the memory and his snout cracked in a smile. For a moment he wished he could be journeying from town to town with his master and the skunk mage Murikeer again. It had been hard days walking many miles only to play and sing for hours to earn a meal and a place to sleep, and sometimes all they had was a bitter gruel and a smelly barn with rain-damp straw for a bed. He'd remembered being very uncertain at first when Malger offered to take him on as an apprentice for the sake of appearances during their pilgrimage through Sathmore. It was a land alien to him and he in a body also alien to him. Malger's confidence and Murikeer's selfless charity had been a comfort to the anxious raccoon. It had been easy to slip into the role of apprentice. He'd enjoyed learning the many instruments and to find the unexpected melody in his own voice, despite Malger's lecherous taste in song.
I wonder, what if I had stayed his apprentice and accompanied him on his journey to Sutthaivasse? Would he still be teaching me music? Would I be learning the sword from him instead of Tamsin and the patrols?
No, foolish thought, I couldn't have. It never even occurred to me to think it. If I had... I would... would not be Lothanasi now. I'd still be trying to be... Vinsah.
Elvmere chuffed again and shook his head; it was best not to dwell on such things. Nostalgia was often a poor judge of the times. Besides, if he was going to let his mind wander from his patrol duties then he should at least ponder something useful like philosophy. Dallar noticed with a slight turn to his one eye facing the raccoon. His lips moved and in a grunt he asked, “Are you well, Elvmere?”
“Aye, just remembering the last time I walked these roads.”
“As a minstrel's apprentice?”
“Aye.” Elvmere let his eyes focus on the fields ahead.
Dallar rolled something around in his mouth a moment before asking, “How are your feet?”
“Good. I like the feel of dirt beneath them.”
“You should wear the boots for more than just mud. In battle, an injured foot can kill you.”
Elvmere shrugged the pack on his back, tail flicking for a moment before nodding to the ram. “I am more comfortable without them, Sir, but if you order me I will put them on.”
Dallar's eye did not leave him, but his ears lifted up against his horns in a caprine grin. “I will but not today. Tell me, how long have you been training for this patrol?”
“About a month. I've been on guard duty at the Temple these last two weeks.”
“Have you ever swung a sword before a month ago?”
Elvmere shook his head. “Not since I was a boy.”
Dallar grunted. “A young man your age, temple acolyte or not, should know how to swing a sword. And by the time this patrol is done, you will.”
“Aye, Sir,” Elvmere nodded his head. “If I may be so bold, I hope we do not have to use our swords for aught but training.”
“You'd be a fool if you wanted anything else. You don't carry yourself like a fool, even if you go down the quick line without learning how to stop first.”
Elvmere hissed between his teeth, a sudden heat filling him at the casual way the ram had spoken. Some of his muscles were still sore. “They didn't tell me!”
Dallar actually turned his head as they walked. The ram's hooves made soft crunching noises on the small rocks littering the road. He chuckled. “As I said, you don't seem a fool to me. Young, but no fool. Have you been to Lorland before?”
He gritted his fangs and chuffed, trying to laugh at himself. “I passed through here, but I've never stopped at the town. How much further is it?”
“These fields and farms are Lorland, or at least, its northern lands. We should be at the barracks in town in an hour. You'll come with me as we report in.”
“Aye, Metamor patrols must report to the barracks in each town when we arrive. You'll see. This will not be your last patrol, Elvmere. Perhaps you'll enjoy it more than life as a temple acolyte. Are you a disciple of Dokorath?”
Elvmere lifted one hand and traced his claws over the outline of the bronze medallion hiding beneath his patrol tunic before reaching inside and drawing it out. “This? It was a gift from the Lothanasa and Priestess Merai to protect me on my first patrol. I am not Dokorath's disciple, but I will give him my prayers and do him honor. I seek his protection and his guidance. And bravery. I'm not sure how much I have of my own.”
“You should talk with Weyden; he wants to be Dokorath's disciple. Perhaps he can help you find your bravery.”
Elvmere cast a quick glance at the sky but could see neither the hawk nor the woodpecker flying above. Behind them the black hawk perched upon the wagons amiably chatting with the woman. “I will, when there is time. There will be time, Sir?”
“We've two weeks for patrol, Elvmere, we will all know each other better.”
The raccoon nodded. “Aye, in sooth. Could I have a chance to walk with him later today? I'd really like to.”
The ram chuffed and flicked one ear, eyes lifting to the horizon. Beyond the hills ahead they could see clusters of thatch-roofed huts, communal barns, and the towers and walls marking the town at the center of Metamor's most fertile land. “I don't see why not. Are you going to learn magic at the Temple too?”
Elvmere nodded. “Priestess Merai wants me to begin training later this Summer or Fall.”
“Then speaking with Jessica could help too. Perhaps she can teach you something. Even witchlights would be useful.”
“Aye,” Elvmere felt a twinge in his heart. Murikeer had offered to teach him magic when they had traveled together a year ago. He had refused of course; Patildor did not practice magic, unless they were a member of a Southern mage clan, or one of the other exceptions shoehorned in so they could make converts. He chuffed at his reluctance and bitterness and felt a strange relief and youthful eagerness. What if he could actually use magic too? He had – wanted – to try. “Aye, I really should. Thank you, Sir.”
Dallar offered a faint smile, a slight curling of the ends of his jowls, brightening of his eyes, and lifting of his ears against his curling horns. “Good man.”
Elvmere walked a little taller.
An old granite wall surrounded most of the central town of Lorland and its castle. The castle was a mishmash of styles and turrets many of them decorative in nature which at one time might have been pleasing to view from certain angles but which looked lopsided and garish now. Some basic defensive capabilities like arrow slits and choke points had been neglected if not obscured by every new addition. Even Elvmere felt a wince in his gut as they approached.
Scaffolding climbed one of the outer towers and he could see workers removing one of the excess turrets. Some of the stone was being delivered to the outer wall to repair sections which the years had not treated kindly, while the rest was being used to build new homes or rebuild others. Apart from the workers the town was full of people going every direction, shouting of vegetables for sale, displaying tanned hides, advertising newly fashioned buckles for plowhorses and oxen, and bartering for grain and fruits of all kinds. Elvmere's nose turned him toward a merchant hawking deep discounts on the last of Autumn's salted meats, but Dallar's pace and the tight formation of the soldiers kept him walking.
When they reached the inner bailey wall of the castle, Dallar stopped and turned toward the red-feathered hawk following close behind. “Weyden, while Elvmere and I report in, I want you to lead the patrol toward the city's western gate. We'll rejoin you there.”
The hawk bobbed his head before lifting one wing and calling for the others to follow him. Tamsin flashed the raccoon a smile as he followed the rest of the patrol around the right side of the castle. Elvmere wanted to watch them, but Dallar grunted, the sound of cloven hooves on stone rattling his attention free.
As they stepped toward the large gatehouse with raised portcullis at either end, Elvmere adjusted his buckler and sword, tugging the straps until they were tight against his chest and back. He flexed his toes against the cool stone, ripping up a blade of grass growing between the cracks. He chuffed and said, “Sir, can I have a moment to get the boots on?”
Dallar stopped and turned. “Why now?”
Elvmere slipped his pack down to his knees and unwound the strap. His boots were nestled on top. “Well, you're right about it. I could hurt myself in battle or even just walking in the woods. Best to have the boots on. Besides, I wouldn't want the barracks commander to think your men are unprepared.”
Dallar said nothing in response, and Elvmere was too focused on slipping his foot-like paws into the boots to see if he smiled or not. The leather boots felt a little tight around his toes and the back of his heel, but they were the best to be found in the armory. Elvmere took a few steps to make sure he had them on right, then latched his pack and slung it over his shoulder again. He tightened those straps too before following Dallar through the gatehouse.
Inside the inner bailey was the castle proper flanked by stables and barracks. A central courtyard before the castle housed a beautiful garden of flowers and fruit trees framing a crystal blue pond and several smaller ponds all connected at different levels so the delicate sound of trickling water could always be heard. Elvmere twitched his nose and whiskers in admiration and at the sight of colorful fish swimming within. His stomach growled.
Dallar led them toward the barracks, a squat structure abutting the bailey walls near the gatehouse with wide doors facing the courtyard. Soldiers of Lorland stood guard at both sides of the gatehouse, along the bailey walls, and at the doors of the barracks. They nodded to the Metamor patrol as they passed but otherwise said nothing. All of them were large men or carnivores; a legacy of the late Lord Loriod perhaps?
Inside, the barracks reeked of oil, metal, sweat, and animal musk. Elvmere wrinkled his snout at the intensity and even sneezed. Both he and Dallar's ears stood on end at the abundance of different predators who walked this way before them. The most prevalent was the earthen mustiness of a bear, though the familiar burning of a skunk was a close second.
Their eyes found the bear seconds after their noses. Black of fur with a lighter brown snout, he hunched behind an old oak desk too small for him on the left wall of the entrance hall reviewing notes. His snout lifted so they could see his dark nose taking in their scents above the curl of parchment. One meaty paw with claws as long as his fingers pressed tight upon a feather quill dipped into an inkwell before lifting it out and scribbling notes without even looking upon a second sheet.
Heavy doors occupied three walls, all of them closed. An old map of Lorland still bearing Lord Alvarez Loriod's insignia was hung from the right wall between weapon stands with half-a-dozen swords and spears. A wolf and a burly man were crouched on the hay-strewn wooden floor near the door in the rear tossing dice. The wolf gnawed upon a bone like any dog might. Their faces lifted from the dice to note the ram and raccoon, before turning back to their game.
Dallar and Elvmere walked the few steps to the table. The bear's eyes followed them, but his posture did not change. His voice was gruff but also, Elvmere judged, bored. “Metamor soldier, identify yourself and your mission in Lorland.”
“Captain Dallar of the Metamor Scouts. This is Elvmere, reservist. We're going to be patrolling the western reaches of Lorland for the next three days. Is there any news to report or any dangers we should watch for?”
The bear looked down at his desk and rifled through the stack of parchment, before selecting one and scrutinizing it where Elvmere couldn't see. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the wolf and man cast glances at them between rolls. He could hear the grinding of the wolf's fangs against the bone and smell the already eaten cooked meat lingering in the air. The bear tapped one foot on the floor, claws ticking on the wood.
“Everything seems in order then, Captain,” the bear grunted after several seconds. He set the parchment down and scribbled something Elvmere couldn't read. “The fields to the west have been quiet these last few weeks. We think there might be some poachers in the woods between us and Ellingham, so keep your eyes open for them. If you catch them bring them here and we'll see they are punished.”
Dallar's eyes widened. “What makes you think there are poachers?”
The bear continued scribbling, stopping only to move the quill to a new line or to dip it in ink. “We usually have to chase the deer off the western farms most days this time of year. With the merchants for the Solstice leaving, I should be able to send soldiers in to flush them out in a week. Catch them first and your men will share in the bounty.”
“Bounty, eh?” Dallar's lips stretched in amusement. “How much?”
The bear glanced from ram to raccoon, then for the first time looked down at what he was writing. “Ten gold for your patrol. Split it how you like.”
Dallar offered a small nod. “Fair. We shall keep alert for any signs of poachers and will report or hand over anything or anyone we find before we leave Lorland.”
The bear lifted his eyes and noted the way Elvmere held the pommel of his sword. “Did you run into any trouble in the north?”
Dallar laughed, “The roads were as clear as the sky! I'm more worried my reservists will be too bored; going to have to start drilling them more.”
“You should find another patrol out there and stage some games. It's what we do during the Summer.”
“I'm considering it. Is there anything else we should know about the western wood?”
“Well, if you're crossing the river, you may want to keep to the bridges. The water is still high and fast from the thaw.”
“Thank you, Sergeant. If there is nothing else, we shall be on our way.”
The bear shook his head briefly and grunted, “Nothing. May Dokorath guide your swords.”
Elvmere flicked his tail in sudden delight. “May Dokorath guide your sword too, Sergeant.”
The bear offered them nothing more, making it clear he had work to attend to and the Metamor scouts had best be on their way. Dallar did not linger, and Elvmere was quick to follow. They left both barracks and inner bailey without further word and soon were walking down the road around the castle walls toward the west. Elvmere could faintly smell Tamsin. And more food for sale.
His stomach growled.
They rejoined Tamsin and the rest at the western gate which had much the same appearance as the northern gate. Beyond lay more clustered homes while the road took on a definite downward slant. It cut a weaving path through fields for wheat and pastures for cattle and sheep as it eased down to the river. At one such gentle curve they found a wide shelf of granite smoothed down from the passage of feet, paws, and hooves overlooking a fallow grassland and in the distance the sparkling blue shimmer of the river. Here they stopped for a modest meal of dried meat and fruit washed down with the lukewarm water they carried. Distant farmers and shepherds paused in their tasks to peer at them for a few moments before resuming their daily work.
When they had finished, Weyden gestured with a wing toward Jessica his wife and the woodpecker Myrwyn. “Captain, should we fly on ahead to the woods and begin looking for signs of these poachers?”
Dallar shook his head. “Nay. There will be time later. For now I want to continue training our reservists. This area looks large enough. Let's have several bouts at once and see what we see. Weyden, you take Myrwyn and see how well he can handle a weapon. For the rest, Tamsin against Wyaert, and Elvmere against Sedric. Use the flat of your blades. Larssen, Van, Maud make sure nobody kills each other. Jessica, I trust you'll be able to mend any wounds?”
The black hawk tilted back her head and swallowed down the last of her meat before spreading her wings and jumping closer. “Of course I'll do my best.”
Tamsin flashed Elvmere a grin before turning toward the tokay who fumbled to draw his sword. The raccoon put one hand on the Dokorath medallion and murmured a quick prayer before following Dallar's instructions. He moved to the side of the rocky promontory furthest from the road and nodded toward the young brown-furred ram who was testing his stance on the uneven ground.
“Okay, Elvmere, you ready?” Sedric asked with an excited bleat in his voice. The young man who had still been human when Elvmere became a Lothanasi acolyte was tensing his legs to find his balance. The lobes of his cloven hooves seemed to grip at the rocks before loosening with each step.
Elvmere drew his blade, the weight familiar if not comforting in his paw. “I am.” He noted the cursed youth Van stand akimbo watching them with a sardonic grin. “Can we?”
The boy nodded. “Just here to give pointers when you're done; and to see if Sedric listened this morning.”
“I did! I did! I'll show you!” The ram bleated and gripped his blade in both hands. Elvmere saw he had two-fingered hands like the captain, but then drew his eyes back up to the ram's shoulders like Tamsin and DeMule had taught him.
“Then have at it! Flat of blade only; don't want to kill each other. Yet.” Van almost laughed the last word.
Sedric stepped forward and swung at the raccoon from both sides. Elvmere took a step back, raising his blade to parry. He put force behind the second blow, rocking the ram backward and off-balance. His heart pounded and a heat filled him as he lunged forward, swinging the flat of his blade back in. Sedric stumbled back another pace, swinging his sword to knock Elvmere's away. The tip brushed across the ram's tunic but no more.
Elvmere felt the heat in him grow like a hunger pent up. His eyes fixed on the ram in a way he knew Tamsin had wanted him to learn. He saw the way Sedric shifted his shoulders and chest, saw the blade moving from one side to the other. He knew before he saw it the ram was getting his hooves beneath him again and the blade would come at him from the right before Elvmere, whose own sword had swung too far to the right, could ever hope to parry.
He pushed down with his feet and charged to his left around the ram's right side, sliding their blades with a metallic hiss. Sedric stepped backward in surprise and was able to bring his sword up before the raccoon could take advantage of it. He felt the flat smack him square in the back, sending him further sprawling across the ground. Rock and grass thrust against his snout and chest, and he gasped for breath as he tried to roll over and get back to his feet.
Van grinned and nodded toward the ram. “Good one, Sedric. Looks like you did remember some of it. Elvmere, nice try with the dodge. Work on your feints. Get up and try again!”
Elvmere brushed a bit of grass and dirt off his snout, rolled the sword around in his other hand, and chuffed. “Good move, Sedric. I'm ready.”
The ram, heady with delight at landing a blow, rushed in moving his sword back and forth even faster this time. Elvmere focused on parrying each blow. His arms rung with each clang and his chest tensed. He did his best to remember all of what Tamsin and DeMule showed him, even while he tried to ignore the bruise on his back. His tail lashed in frustration as the ram pressed him back step by step.
And then he swung left when he should have swung right and received a blow on the shoulder as a reward. Elvmere hissed between his teeth as he reeled away, paw gripping his throbbing right shoulder. His sword arm dangled and the blade almost slipped from his grip. Van clapped his hands once. “Good one, Sedric. Elvmere, can you still fight?”
To his surprise, he felt indignant at the question. He tightened his grip, straightened, and drew his left fingers over the Dokorath medallion. Dokorath, I give you my blade. Help me! I will not stop until I land a blow no matter how much I am hurt. I offer this sacrifice to you!
Elvmere wrapped both hands around the pommel of his blade and nodded. “I can and will!” He did not wait for Sedric this time, lunging forward, hissing between his fangs, hackles raised and fur spiked down his neck and back. He spat as he swung, back and shoulder stinging, chest ringing with fire. His muscles burned with memory from all of his training, and with the reverberations from each blow. Sedric parried and backed off, stunned by the raccoon's ferocity.
He beat up and down, side to side, eyes never leaving the ram's shoulders or sword, forcing him backward to where the ground shifted suddenly. But the ram's eyes saw more than Elvmere expected and he turned aside before tripping there, bringing his blade up from below, catching the raccoon in the stomach. Sedric, satisfied with his third strike, backed up and relaxed.
Elvmere did not. He grunted from the pain but allowed himself no more pause before feinting his blade to the left and swinging it back from the right. Sedric did trip this time, falling fast enough to avoid the blade. The ram clattered his hooves as he rolled, sword against himself, until he could get back up. The raccoon hissed, frustrated at how this young ram could keep away from him so well.
Sedric got back on his hooves and rushed a few steps away before turning to face him again. Elvmere, stung from the pain of his bruises, charged after him. And then his boots slipped on some loose stones; stone his bare paws and claws would never have slipped on. He fell toward his right, letting go of the sword with his right hand to steady himself. A lance of pain shot down his shoulder and into his fingers as he pushed himself up. Sedric battered at his sword three times before pushing it down enough to land another blow against the raccoon's left arm.
He hissed in pain from the blow, before kicking at the ram's legs. One boot landed and Sedric bounced back several steps, long enough for the raccoon to get back on his feet. Dokorath, please!
Both arms throbbed as he stood and readied his blade. Sedric had been lucky with his last blow, but the other three were well-earned. The ram may be Elvmere's junior by about six years in apparent age, but Sedric had likely never had inhibitions about pretend fights with his boyhood friends. Elvmere felt a sudden shame at his own reluctance and offered one more prayer from his heart. Dokorath, forgive me for hating battle. I will bear arms without hesitation however I am asked and I will practice and learn.
While Van shouted encouragement to both ram and raccoon, Sedric eased forward, smiling at the edge of his snout toward the raccoon. He weaved his sword back and forth, simple practice moves Elvmere had also trained with. Elvmere's eyes followed the tip of the blade as it wove a pattern in the air. He recalled the more intricate and beautiful way in which his master Malger had danced with his blades, each as much a performance as one of his songs. The tassels on his blades would draw the eye and distract allowing the marten to draw blood and death with ease and grace.
Several times the raccoon had watched his master practice his deadly dance. Years of training in both dance and the blades, and a life lived ever on the edge of ruin and death, had perfected Malger's art. Elvmere had neither.
And yet, as he raised his blade, he felt his muscles remember his master's dance, the curling arc of each tang a song as much as a battle. To his surprise his blade careened upward in those same arcs as he deftly spun on the tips of his boots.
Van whistled even as the ram took two steps back, bracing himself against the rock, sword before him, bright eyes uncertain. Elvmere let the dance step carry him forward, blade turning around his body, trusting in his muscles and the way some other force seemed to drive him. His chest burned and his heart thrilled. The pain lanced through his body but he let his muscles move as they willed. He offered each burst of agony to Dokorath.
Sedric gathered his courage and stuck his sword into the dance to try and break it apart. Elvmere glided inward, let go long enough to wrap his hand about the ram's wrist and bent it backward. Sedric bleated and tried to yank himself backward, but Elvmere's blade, now swung by his left hand, came around behind him and the flat swept through the back of Sedric's knees. The ram toppled over, his sword clattering against the stone. Elvmere let the arc carry his blade up and then down so the point was at the ram's chest.
He gasped between his fangs, the fire burning bright, every hackle lifted, every fur standing on end. His claws dug at the confines of his boots seeking ground to tear. He hissed in victory, and grinned from ear to ear. “Hah! I did it!” Thank you, Dokorath. Thank you!
“Well done, Elvmere!” Van applauded. “Pretty risky, but you did it this time. We need to work on your basics still. You can let Sedric up now.”
Elvmere blinked and lifted his sword away. He offered the ram a hand to help him up. The ram bleated and laughed, “Nice, Elvmere! I'm so glad you kept going. I hope I didn't hurt you too much there.”
Elvmere sheathed his sword and rubbed down his arms and shoulders. “No worse than DeMule has been giving me these last few weeks. And you?”
“Had the wind knocked out of me. We're going to do great on this patrol, aren't we?”
“I hope so.”
Van clapped his hands one more time. “All right, enough talk. Let's discuss what you did wrong and do some more practice on the basics.”
Elvmere cast a glance at the rest of the patrol and saw the other bouts were finished. Wyaert was clutching his arm while Tamsin eased him over to Jessica, and Myrwyn was practicing moves with a spear alongside Weyden. Larssen reclined on the ground while Maud stood on a stone behind him currying his long neck and the mane of thick brown hair running down its length. Dallar watched all with his pipe between his lips.
Elvmere smiled as he watched the others, hoping and knowing they would all be friends soon. He reached his hand to the Dokorath medallion, lifted it from his tunic and pressed it to his sore snout. He breathed deep of the metal, feeling the circle and arrow thrust up from it with his nose. For a moment the excitement of the battle returned to his muscles and he skipped forward, hungry for another bout. He tucked the medallion beneath his tunic one more time, letting his breath out between his fangs.
Before Van and beside Sedric he stepped. At the boy's instruction he drew out his sword again, ready for practice.
Elvmere was grateful for the hours of practice Mistress Celine had bidden him take in the last month by the time Captain Dallar called an end to the drills. Van had led Sedric and him through a dozen different practice moves at least thirty or forty times each. A month ago his muscles would have been stiff and his body in agony. Now he felt sore where he'd been struck, a little tired from all the exertion, but otherwise invigorated. His muscles were used to swinging a weapon now, and the practice moves came easily with only the occasional mistake Van was quick to note.
Sedric gushed with questions about how he did and what Van thought of his moves during the combat. The boy who was really a man greeted them at first with aplomb, but as the stream continued made a curt gesture, hopped off the wall, and walked away. The young ram bleated and started to follow before Elvmere put a hand to his shoulder to stop him. “I think it's time to assemble. No more time for questions now, Sedric.”
“But I'm just trying to do my best!”
“So am I. Van knows it too, but you're not going to become a great soldier in a day. We've two weeks. There will be another time for questions.”
The ram pulled away from Elvmere and shook his head, tone sour, “Always later. Everything's always later!” He did not wait for the raccoon to say anything else but kicked at the stones as he walked toward Dallar and the rest of the patrol. Elvmere chuffed under his breath, faintly smiled, and followed after.
As everyone assembled, Elvmere managed to find Tamsin and stand at his side. “Tamsin, is Wyaert going to be okay?”
The tapir blinked and lifted his snout. “Oh, aye, he'll be fine. He surprised me with a really bad move, ended up breaking his arm. Jessica's already mended the break; it'll be sore for a couple days more. How'd your fight go?”
Elvmere shrugged. “I've a few new bruises as well, but Sedric has some too.”
Tamsin grinned wider and patted him on the shoulder. “You're getting better every day, Elvmere. Maybe Captain Dallar will let us do a little of our own practice later.”
“I'd like to, aye. Ah, he's waving to us.”
Tamsin and Elvmere, along with the rest of the patrol, turned toward Dallar. The ram had his still smoking pipe cradled in one hand as he stood with the river and pastureland behind him. His hooves scraped against the granite block exposed from beneath the otherwise grassy knoll. Weyden stood at his side while Larssen and Maud finished putting their supplies back into the saddlebags. Van and Jessica stood with the rest of the Metamorians on their annual patrol.
Dallar lifted the pipe to his lips and sucked one last breath before turning it and dumping the burnt leaves out. “I want to commend each of you on doing your best. We will be practicing like this every day we are out on patrol. I will change who you are partnered with, but you will be practicing the basics and I expect each of you to be competent with your swords or spears. By the time our two weeks are done each of you will be strong enough and capable enough of joining Metamor's patrols full-time if you wish. But before we continue, I want to discuss what I was told at Lorland castle.”
He nodded to the hawk at his side but kept his gaze on the rest of them. “You've all heard there are poachers in the western woods between Lorland and Ellingham. We have been asked to keep an eye open during our three days here. If we capture any poachers we can turn them into the Lorland constabulary and receive a reward of ten gold. Not each, just ten gold. If we do, there's eleven of us, so I'll give one to each of you. Catching poachers is one of the tasks of a Metamor patrol. We enforce the Duke's law here in the lands between city and village. But if we hope to catch these poachers we must be smart and observant. We must be able to hunt like they do. Now, my patrol has caught poachers during our time together; we found several patrolling the forests of Lake Barnhardt this past Spring. What I need to know now is what hunting experience any of you have had. Have you ever been out in these woods before? Have you ever killed your own game? Tamsin?”
The tapir blinked in surprise at the question, but took only a moment to find his voice. “My family lives in Ellingham, Sir. I learned to hunt as a boy and have taken many pheasants and ducks. I have hunted a stag before. I have only hunted small game in the last five years.”
Dallar nodded. “Good. As with combat I expect you to assist in helping teach the others. Now, Elvmere, what of you?”
The raccoon shook his head. “I have fished many times, and I have had to move quietly through the woods, but I've never hunted before, Sir.”
Dallar appeared surprised by the answer. “Not even when you journeyed south with the minstrel?”
“Nay. Fished aplenty, but we hunted for our food in taverns and inns; our weapons were lute and song.”
“Neither deer nor poachers will be felled by the slings and arrows of your ballads. But we might all enjoy your craft around the evening meal. Myrwyn, what about you?”
The woodpecker flexed his wings and tilted his head to one side. The red crest of feathers atop his head seemed to lower as he cracked open his beak to speak. “I've lived my entire life in Keeptowne, Sir. This is the first time I've been beyond its walls. So I don't know anything about hunting or poachers.”
“You will learn, young man, you will learn. Sedric?”
Elvmere's enthusiastic combatant stood taller and bleated as he spoke, “My father is on the timber crews and so he'd take me out into the woods when I was young. I've done a little hunting.”
Dallar narrowed his eyes. “What were you hunting, and did you catch and kill anything?”
Sedric frowned and tore up the grass with one hoof. “Rabbits and pheasants and the like, Sir. And no, none of my arrows ever hit anything, but I did see some.”
“And you, Wyaert, what of you?”
The tokay had been stretching his mended arm but snapped up his head as soon as he heard his name. “Ah,” he croaked in a raspy voice, “I did a little hunting back before I joined the Stone Masons, Sir. Have not done any in several years. But I did catch some small game in my youth.”
Dallar nodded and started to clean the bowl of his pipe with one finger. “The only real way to learn is to do. We will spent the next two days hunting in the woods to the west. We will not kill anything since we are not poachers ourselves. But to the south where game is more plentiful this time of year it is permitted we will hunt and kill for our own food, and each of you will do so. For now, as we continue our patrol, I will pair you up wish someone with more experience. You will listen to them and do whatever they ask; we will teach you and remind you how to track game, how to flush out pheasants and other small game, and how to see the signs of others hunting and poaching.
“Now, we're almost to the river and we've a few more miles to walk this day to reach the woods. So let's keep moving. Myrwyn, you are with me. Weyden, arrange the rest as you think best.” Dallar did not wait another moment before slipping his pipe back into the pouch at his side and walking to the road. The woodpecker bobbed his head back and forth as he rushed to catch up.
Elvmere had little trouble listening to Tamsin and following his friend's instructions as they continued their walk westward through the seemingly endless expanse of cultivated fields, fallow fields, and grazing lands for another hour. The land descended gently toward the river. The main road crossed over a wooden bridge built near the site of an old stone bridge long-since collapsed. They stopped at the bridge long enough to refill their waterskins before turning north.
The only road was a footpath beaten through the long grasses a stone's throw from the river. Wagon wheels had forged divots in the track, with grasses peeking up in the middle. Tamsin and Elvmere walked side by side, the tapir's warm voice brushing the air from time to time, helping the raccoon see things in the grasses and along the river he would never have noticed. There was a place where the grasses had been pushed aside as a small animal had come down to get a drink. Over by those stones were bird tracks. And one of the fern fronds has been broken by a passing animal.
And of course, as only possible in Metamor, Tamsin instructed Elvmere on using his nose. In between looking for the signs Tamsin had shown him, he drew deep breaths of the air and attempted to catalog each of the scents. He turned his head from side to side like Tamsin showed him. The scents changed as he did so, helping him sense the direction each of the birds and beasts were coming from.
But more than learning about hunting, and both thanking and beseeching Artela in prayer, Elvmere felt at ease and happy as he walked with his friend. Tamsin was convivial and in many ways more natural here in the wilderness than he ever was at the Temple. While Dallar and the soldiers in the group gave him confidence they would not suffer ill during their two week patrol, Tamsin's familiar presence assured the raccoon he would earn Dallar's commendation by patrol's end.
The road north followed the river but unlike the rest of Lorland, the first hour's journey took them through uncultivated land. The river was wide enough to support docks here and there and they saw fishermen plying their trade in the estuaries formed by natural walls of granite cutting across the water's path. The grasses swayed in the midday breeze, the air very warm on Elvmere's fur. Flowers blossomed where the grasses were short, while only the ferns and occasional bush prospered in the tall grass. Small pine trees dotted the fields, their fallen needles suffocating the earth beneath their branches.
When Elvmere asked why this land was so different from the rest of Lorland, Tamsin could only shrug. “Looks like this part has been left fallow for a few years. Four or five is my guess. Perhaps nobody has come to farm it since Three Gates. With all the folks from Bradanes settling the valley,” Tamsin gave a nod toward the tokay walking in front of them next to Maud, “I'm sure in another year or two this place will be cleared out and crops will grow here again. Or sheep graze. Wonder if Dallar and Sedric get hungry just looking at all this grass.”
Elvmere blinked at the suggestion before chuckling under his breath. He shook his head, tightened his buckler, and kept walking, looking, and smelling.
After two hours of trekking through the wild grasses along the old wagon trail Dallar called for a short rest. They drank a little but ate no more than a bite from their bread. A group of otter keepers were down by the river bank sorting a haul of fish and the scent made Elvmere drool. He could not help but keep turning his head and wiping his snout.
When they resumed walking, Elvmere's tongue and stomach still craving his beloved fish, he found himself next to the pack horses upon one of which perched their mage Jessica. The black hawk had assumed a form halfway between an animal and the half-human form every beastly Keeper could take. He'd seen the black hawk in the Temple from time to time and had heard her name spoken as one of the most promising and capable young magicians at Metamor. He remembered singing with the musicians at her and Weyden's marriage feast in the Spring. But until this day he'd never before spoken with her.
“So, Mistress Jessica, what about hunting are you going to teach me?”
The black hawk turned her piercing golden eyes on him, more intense set in a field of midnight black. Her hooked beak cracked as she peered down at him from her perch, and a croaking voice emerged from her throat. “Hunting? I don't think there's anything I can teach you. I can see almost everything from up high, but you cannot fly.”
Elvmere spread his arms wide and shrugged. “No, I suppose not. Is there anything you can teach me?”
Jessica tilted her head to one side. “You are an acolyte in the Temple. What are you learning there?”
“The history of the Lothanasi and the gods, helping with the prayers and keeping the Temple clean and in order. I'm assigned to tend to the instruments and keep them in tune. For the last month I've been training for this patrol and have been serving as a Temple guard. I'm going to be working with Master Weiland to learn the Stories of Sakkan and Samekkh after we return from Patrol. Oh, and Priestess Merai promises me I'll begin training on magic with Christopher come the Autumn. I do anything and everything I am asked in service to the gods.”
Jessica blinked once and shuffled her wings against her back as she rocked with the slow pace of the horse beneath her. “I heard you accompanied Murikeer and the Dreamwalker to Silvassa last year. Did Murikeer not teach you anything? He is a most remarkable mage. I wish he and I had more time to teach each other.”
Elvmere shook his head. “I was... not ready to learn magic back then. Learning harp, lyre, and song was more than enough.” He remember all of the illusions and the incantations and the earnest goodness of the skunk mage and could not help but smile. Warmth filled his chest, even as the sun warmed his fur.
He had pondered the coming of the fall and training with the bear. Never before in his life had he seriously considered the possibility he too might be able to craft spells and bend the flows of magical force filling their world. Vinsah would have rejected the idea outright as sinful, but Elvmere knew the Patildor rejected it out of misunderstanding and then not even all magic. How many southern mage clans had been given exceptions to the magic prohibition? He would need to use more than two hands to count them.
Samekkh, if I am to use magic, give me the wisdom I need to use it properly. Help me not be afraid.
Jessica continued to stare at him as only a bird could. “If you wish, I could try to teach you a little. I fear there is not much time to learn here on the trail, but maybe I can help you do something simple, or even see the flow of magic. Would you care to learn?”
His heart tensed inside of him. For a moment Elvmere had no voice. He put one foot before the other, toes nestled inside his boots, claws digging at the soles beneath. He could see the feline Merai's assuring smile as she spoke of his training. How was it wisdom had been given to a girl so young, and he with all of his years still felt so paralyzed and so tied in knots?
He hoped his philosophical speculations would provide him an avenue through his confusion, but so far he'd barely begun to establish even the principles on which he could hope to judge each conundrum. Question after question besieged him. What were the Lothanasi gods? Were Yahshua and Eli merely other examples like them of this class of being he sought to understand? Who was he supposed to worship in truth? Which faith was truly right? How would he ever know what was right and what was wrong again in morals, faith, action, and belief?
Were the gods even something he could understand as a what? It seemed from the Lothanasi histories and legends he'd transcribed and read they must be so in some sense. But they were also beings with identity, purpose, and characters. They controlled and directed various aspects of reality according to who they were. Who was he, Elvmere a man and raccoon, to doubt them? Who were the Patildor to assert they were wrong? They were wrong about the gods. They were wrong about magic and the Canticles.
Elvmere had to learn to defend himself and bear arms for the Temple if he was to give proper service to Dokorath. Dokorath was a god. Elvmere was not. If the gods had given him an affinity for magic, then did he not have a responsibility to learn those arts too?
He sighed, heart still tense, but made himself nod toward the hawk. “Aye, I really should try, if you think we'll have time for it. Will Captain Dallar mind?”
“Not at all. I've tried teaching my husband and the rest of the patrol, but none of them has so much as made a smoldering ember glow. But it does take time to learn. Few manage anything on their first lesson, but if you are ready I can begin.”
Elvmere nodded. He had to try. He had to learn. “Aye. What do I need to do?”
For two hours as they continued north along the river Elvmere did his best to focus his mind and follow the hawk's instructions. Weyden landed next to her twice, but she begged him off both times and he obediently returned to the skies. Myrwyn also came down for a rest now and again, which neither Jessica nor the horses seemed to mind, but after a few minutes the woodpecker would also flap his wings and leave hawk and raccoon to their training.
Elvmere did his best to clear his mind of distractions but found himself offering prayers to various gods whenever his long-held inhibitions got the better of him. Other times he remembered the tightly held anguish of Murikeer as he sought to channel the flow of magic for their benefit. In the balance Elvmere's distractions and defunct compunctions were of little account.
Since they were walking, Jessica had Elvmere put his hand on the horse's neck. He closed his eyes and trusted the beast would not lead him astray. The ground was mostly level this near the river and so Elvmere found it easy to relax into the pace. His ears turned and his nose breathed deep of the grass, the river and his companions. Other than the rise and fall of his boots they were sufficient for him to know where he was. The coarse-hair of the horse's hide beneath his hand, and the strong muscles beneath were a steady guide.
The flow of magic was all around them, an invisible river that gently brushed from one thing to the next. Mage sight was the ability to see this ever-flowing river. It was not necessary for him to be able to master this skill in order to use magic, but if he could open himself enough to glimpse the pearly resplendence then it would not be long before he could craft the simple enchantments with but a thought.
Still, as those two hours progressed, Elvmere found the only thing he sensed were the brief flashes of light when his eyes flickered open in response to hearing fish splash in the river, an unexpected scent coming to him, or his boots striking a stone or upthrust root. The world of sound and scent became as powerful to him in those two hours as they were when he explored as a normal-sized raccoon. The patrol before and behind him existed as a combination of many beastly scents mixed with oil and leather, and the unique sounds of each breathing, walking, and talking. They filled his mind, laid out in a line stretching along the level path, the river tumbling along beside, while on either side whispers of scent and sound, bird calls, brushing leaves, rustling grass, the scamper of field mice, rabbits, and the soft paws of a fox at hunt, brought to his mind an ever shifting tapestry of light without sight.
And he also grew more and more comfortable listening and smelling and touching his way along. Jessica's occasional words of encouragement and suggestions for seeing the flow of magic faded from his awareness as meaning, but became merely another element of the tapestry shaping the world around him. Finally, the weight of the gear shifted on his body and he felt the horse's muscles sliding upward against his paw. Everything began to stretch up and away from him, his head tilted toward the invisible sky. Faint wisps, nimbus of shadow, and sweet of scent, seemed to percolate through his tapestry, dancing from breath to breath, even through his own.
And then a loud clattering startled him and he chittered in surprise, eyes opening to dash out to one side beneath the horse's hooves, only to be yanked backward by something wrapped around his chest. A large black hawk dropped down beside him in the brilliant afternoon radiance like the heavy shadow of night. Elvmere glanced at what held him and the tapestry ripped asunder.
He was caught by his own clothing and gear after shrinking into his animal form without realizing it. Elvmere willed himself to grow toward human, trying to wriggle his legs and tail back into his clothing and only tangling himself more.
“Elvmere? What happened to you?” Jessica asked as she dug her talons into the ground, wings outstretched to surround him. He could hear two pairs of boots rushing up from behind to reach them. A moment later Tamsin and Wyaert were there peering in over the lip of her wings.
Elvmere, as human as he could make himself, worked his arms back through the sleeves of his tunic and armor, then fought with his breaches and leather greaves. “I don't know... I just... I just changed into my animal shape. I was so attuned to the sound and scent around me I just... changed.”
Jessica lifted her wings higher to block the tapir and tokay. “Has this ever happened to you before?”
Elvmere chittered in irritation, the tapestry of sound and scent utterly wiped clean, as he managed to get both greaves back on. The boots were next. His sword hilt jabbed him in the side. “I have spent a lot of time exploring as a normal raccoon, but not out here in the wilderness. I've never wandered around with my eyes closed all afternoon either.”
The hawk lowered her wings, allowing Tamsin and Wyaert to approach and help Elvmere get set aright before the rest of the patrol came running. With their aid the raccoon was on his feet and straightening his pack and buckler in seconds.
“I am sorry, Elvmere, I didn't think this would happen.” Elvmere could hear the contrition in Jessica's voice, but other than the bite of embarrassment he directed at himself, he had no anger to assuage. Forgiveness came immediately.
“How could you have known, Mistress? I didn't expect it either! All is forgiven.”
Tamsin brushed down his tunic and gave Elvmere a bemused look while the tokay stepped back and lifted his head toward the sun to bask for a moment. “Just what were you doing anyway?”
“Mistress Jessica was trying to teach me how to use, what was it... mage sight. Instead I think I started seeing the world as beasts do and well... changed.”
Jessica stepped closer, brushing a bit of dirt from his shoulder with the tip of her wing. “Did you see anything? Did you see the rivers of magic flowing through you?”
Elvmere blinked and narrowed his eyes, tongue running across the back of his fangs as he pondered. After a moment he chittered and shrugged. “I don't know. I experienced something. I'm not sure what.”
“I've been studying magic incantations at Temple the last few months,” Tamsin noted, “and it took one month before I saw anything. Still can't get a witchlight to last for long. Keep at it, Elvmere. Imagine how thrilled the Lothanasa will be if you come back to Temple able to make them dance!”
Elvmere chuffed and offered his friend a guarded smile. “Well, I would like to try again, but this time, not while we're walking.”
Jessica bobbed her head and lowered her wings. “There will not be much time for it, but I will speak to Captain Dallar about it. We've two weeks together. I'm sure we will find a few more chances to try. The Temple could use more spellcasters and if you saw anything at all then you could have the gift.”
Elvmere felt a hesitation touch his heart. “If it was magic.”
“If it was magic,” Jessica agreed. “Now, get back to your places. Captain Dallar will reprimand you if he sees you elsewhere.”
Tamsin and Wyaert fell back a few paces while Jessica shrank and flew to her perch on the horse. Elvmere gave the reins a quick tug and the animal resumed its easy pace. The raccoon kept his hand on the horse's neck, and let his eyes narrow some, listening and smelling to the world around him, hoping for some strands of the tapestry. A wordless prayer drifted up from his heart toward Artela, grateful and hopeful.
By mid-afternoon the old wagon-trail turned into a more obvious road as the grasses were cleared and they entered cultivated fields again. These fields, more distant from Lorland, were haphazard and maintained by the poorest farmers, clearly bitten through by birds and field mice. Battle sores and the weariness of walking all day long also bit at their muscles. A touch of surliness at the pace Dallar set gripped Elvmere and the others on their annual duty as the afternoon wore on.
As they continued north the sun beat down on their backs and they frequently paused in their steps for a few moments to squeeze a quick slurp of water. Elvmere remembered days traveling with Malger and Murikeer where he'd walked more miles, burdened with a pack on his back and equipment for the road on his buckler. But those days were not yet a year gone and the months of Temple life, rigorous as they were, had let some of his old stamina falter. It would return after a few days of the martial life, but for now the return of the familiar pains was not welcome. Prayers and pondering all he'd done already comforted somewhat, but he still found himself pondering more when the ram would allow them another break or better yet a place to camp for the night.
He was also disappointed when after a rest long enough only to stiffen his muscles he was moved away from the hawks and paired next to the tokay behind Dallar and the other ram. He was grateful to Jessica for her brief lesson in magic, something he was sure would help when the time came for him to receive proper tutelage at the Temple, but he'd hoped to spend some of his time talking with Weyden and learning more about the hawk's devotion to Dokorath. Now he'd have to wait for another day. There would be other days, but the thought was not as comforting as he'd hoped.
Wyaert was in no better shape. The blue-red speckled tokay kept his bright yellow eyes fixed forward along the path, long fingers of one hand wrapped about the hilt of his sword as if he were dragging it behind him. After a few words when they were paired, both settled into silence. Wyaert's eyes flickered only to bare patches of rock as they walked, as if all he wanted to do was to stretch out and bask in the sun's warm rays. Elvmere found himself eyeing grassy patches with much the same thought.
The trail followed the river north, but the hills and slope forced them further and further away as the hours slipped past. It was still in sight except for when they cut around the western side of a low ridge or cluster of homes. Farmers did not even pause in their work to watch them troop past, and Elvmere was too absorbed in his own discomfort to notice them either.
Elvmere took to drumming his claws across the impression of the Dokorath medallion beneath his tunic, timing the clicks with each of his steps. He tried to recall the few stories he knew about the god of battle. Part of being a warrior was the physical endurance; Dokorath surely understood what Elvmere needed. Between each click of his claws and step of his boots he prayed one word of a simple prayer, and repeated it over and over to focus his mind and heart.
Dokorath. I. Trust. In. You.
As he continued to repeat the prayer, an image coalesced in his mind of a tall man in a black suit of armor, garbed with a black cape bearing a massive silver sword standing amid a smoky gray fog. His helmet was mounted by two ram horns and only had slits for his eyes and mouth, through which incandescent red and white radiance shimmered. He did not move, but Elvmere knew the deity's gaze lingered upon him.
The image remained with him for some minutes, sometimes very clear to his imagination, other times, obscured and only dimly seen. Elvmere, even as he thought on the visage of the god of battle, honor, and valor, was not sure if this was a true vision granted him or if this was merely his imagination bringing to mind what his studies in the Temple archives had told him. He felt both gratitude and a deep sense of his own unworthiness. How much of his life had he denied Dokorath and the rest of the pantheon? He felt a burning shame and lifted the medallion from his tunic to kiss it.
The sound of grunting voices up ahead caught his ears and cleared his mind. They could see a good distance in the farmlands of western Lorland, but there were still hills and clefts of rock framing the road. He saw Dallar put his hand on the pommel of his sword and both Elvmere and Wyaert did the same a moment later after putting his medallion back. They did not slacken their pace as the road wound around to the right of a low hill.
On the other side of the hill they saw a group of four men grasping at a large boulder in the middle of the field. Two of them were human and dressed as farmers; the third, a dog of some sort, was dressed as a soldier. The fourth was large with heavy dark gray skin and a wide-mouthed head with small ears dressed in black. As they neared, Elvmere felt his chest tighten and the fur on the back of his neck and tail bristle. The black-clad creature was a Patildor priest.
Dallar waved to the men and called out. “Good afternoon! Do you need any help?”
The gray-skinned priest lifted his large head and waved back with stubby fingers. “Good afternoon, and aye! A few extra strong backs should get this boulder rolling. Can you spare a few minutes to help?”
“Aye, we can.” He then turned and waved toward the rest of their patrol before starting into the field. Sedric followed at his side, and Elvmere and Wyaert did the same a moment later when they caught up. Elvmere lifted his hand from the pommel of his sword and pressed it atop the Dokorath medal. The other three men disappeared from his sight; his eyes fixed on the large priest.
When they were halfway across the field his eyes focused enough he was able to recognize what sort of animal this priest had become. It had been a very long time since he had seen a hippopotamus; they were native to the rivers near Eavey in Sonngefilde and though they looked peaceful they were often times more dangerous than the alligators. The shape of a hippopotamus melded with a man was comical, jovial, and unsettling all at once. Knowing this was a priest made it all the stranger.
Elvmere kept behind Dallar and Sedric as they tracked through the grassy field filled with rocks and divots. It did not seem they had used this part of the land in years. Nor, if they were only beginning to clear the field now, would they use it this year. The time for turning the earth and sowing was a month or two ago. Perhaps they intended it for sheep or cattle?
The boulder was the only one in the field and must have rolled down from the distant mountains a long time ago. It was wider than all four men standing abreast but only a few hands taller than the hippo. All four were trying to push it toward the road, though what they hoped to do with it there Elvmere couldn't imagine. Dallar and Sedric reached it first with the raccoon and tokay close behind. The hippo priest heaved with his shoulder, thick lips split open with huge teeth visible between them. “Where do you want this, Father?”
Those large jaws opened wide as did Elvmere's eyes on seeing four tusk-like teeth within. He could not recall having ever seen larger teeth or a larger mouth on any of the Keepers he'd ever met. Yet despite having a mouth large enough for Elvmere to fit his head and shoulders inside, the priest's manner was affable and the rumbling chuckle beneath his words almost set him at ease. “Oh, anywhere along the side of the road will do, Captain. We'll break it apart to start a new wall next week.”
“Larssen! Tamsin! Get over here and help us move this stone. Sedric, Wyaert, I want you on the sides. Elvmere, can you slide in beneath Father?”
“Purvis,” the hippo added, lifting one arm so the raccoon could squeeze beneath him. “Come, son, every paw will help.”
Elvmere chuffed at being called 'son' and had to brush down his neck fur with one hand. He offered another quick prayer to Dokorath for strength, brought the medallion to his snout for another kiss, then crouched lower and slid beneath the hippo's bulk. He put his hands against the large stone, digging his claws into the hard earth thrust through by grass patched with wildflowers and little stones. Dallar heaved his shoulder into the stone on the other side, and for a moment Elvmere was trapped between the stone and three animal men, with only a few shafts of light peering through.
He could hear Dallar shouting to Sedric, Wyaert, and the others, and the grunting of the men as they shoved, as well as his own breath as he pushed, the stone digging against the sensitive skin on his palms and fingers. He felt the dirt underneath his feet crumble as his toes and heels sank into the loam.
And then he felt a jolt through his arms as the boulder lurched away. Elvmere almost fell onto his snout, but the thought of the hippo priest also falling made him leap forward, a beastly chitter rattling across his tongue and teeth. The boulder rolled, and it carried his paws up with it, until he reached down lower and pushed more. Huge tracts of earth were ripped apart with each turn, and his feet dragged through the earth, including through a few patches muddier than the rest. He could feel the grime clinging to his fur and burrowing between his claws.
His heart beat faster, ever mindful of the huge stone before him and the weighty hippo ever one moment away from collapsing on top of him. Yet he felt excitement and a firm determination to keep as close to the stone as he could, and a kindled flame in his chest. His strength alone was not enough, but together with the farmers and his patrol the boulder rolled like a pebble tossed by a child. Elvmere chuffed a harsh laugh between breaths.
“Larssen! Tamsin! Slow it down!” Dallar's shout was loud even over the grunting animal noises and grinding stones.
Elvmere stopped pushing at the stone, only moving forward to keep up with it and keep his paws against it. The granite and muck clinging to it slowed with each passing step. Elvmere felt the hulking shape press closer against his back and so he pressed closer to the stone. Grime splattered against his legs and chest, and he even felt some flick against his whiskers and cheeks. The raccoon narrowed his eyes and hissed in a strange satisfaction.
And then just as abruptly as the boulder began to move it stopped with a heavy thunk. Elvmere smashed against the surface, snout turning to the side to keep from bruising his nose. The hippo backed off and Elvmere was grateful the brute didn't crush him into a raccoon-fur pulp. The priest let out a booming laugh. “Ah, thank you, Captain! Thank you all! Son, are you all right?”
Elvmere pushed off the boulder and blinked as the light flooded his eyes. He felt the mud dripping in clumps off his tunic and breeches. He waved his hands back and forth to get the filth free and then clawed at his cheeks to straightened out his fur. It didn't do much good.
“Just muddy is all.” The raccoon turned partway to offer the hippo a toothy scowl, before stepping out of the large ditch gouged out by the boulder's passage to find his friends. He flicked his tail from side to side and was grateful at least one part of him wasn't a gunk-smeared wreck.
The farmers and the dog soldier also had a bit of mud on them up to their chests, while Dallar, Sedric, Wyaert, and Tamsin only had it on their legs. Larssen was the only one who appeared to have avoided the mess. Tamsin lifted his snout in a boisterous laugh on seeing the raccoon. Wyaert, who'd been brushing the mud from his breeches, stared with wide yellow eyes at Elvmere for several seconds before resuming his own cleansing.
“Let me help you, son,” Purvis offered, stretching out a meaty hand to brush the mud off of the raccoon's chest.
Elvmere felt his tail fur bristle again and he shook his head, “No need. I can manage.” Dallar's ears lifted in surprise and Elvmere felt chagrin realizing how he'd bitten each word. In more measured tones, he added, “I didn't know there was another Patildor priest in Metamor.”
The hippo's short ears flicked around toward the raccoon, hand outstretched with his offer to clean the mud from the raccoon's tunic. If he had noticed the anger in Elvmere's voice he gave no sign of it. “What a marvelous home you have, son. 'Twas a shame only Father Hough could enjoy these wonders. I was happily assigned here a few months ago. Are you from the Keep?”
“Aye, Father,” Dallar replied, waving Elvmere back. “On patrol in Lorland for a few days. We may cross paths again. For now, is there any other help we can offer you and your friends?”
The hippo lowered his arm as the raccoon stepped away, snorted upward through his nostrils, and then smiled in his affable way. “Nay, good Captain, we can manage the rest here. You are far from Lorland here and going the wrong way I fear! I will be offering Liturgy at the ninth bell tomorrow morning; you and your men are welcome; I would be honored to bless you and your men.”
Elvmere pulled the Dokorath medallion from his tunic and pressed it to his snout as he backed away. Dallar bleated, “We will not be near your parish tomorrow morning so we will not be joining you. And most of my men are Lothanasi, including two acolytes of Temple, but thank you for the offer, Father. Larssen, if you, Maud, and Van would care for a blessing, you may do so now. We'll be waiting for you.”
“And I,” Wyaert the tokay announced. He stepped toward the hippo which gave Elvmere the excuse to step further away around the boulder. “I have heard many good things about you, Father, from my fellows of Bradanes.”
“Ah, you were of Bradanes as well? Terrible what you have suffered. I will gladly give you my blessing, young man.” The hippo lifted one hand over the lizard's head to trace the familiar yew.
Elvmere walked back onto the road and bent over to brush the mud off his trousers. He ended up smearing it across the few clean spots instead. “Ach! I'm a mess.”
Tamsin patted him on the shoulder. “You should keep wiping, I think you missed a spot there.”
The raccoon hissed and straightened before he made himself fit for nothing better than being chucked into the river. He probably should do it himself; it wasn't far away. “We're bound to get filthy on patrol anyway.”
“On your first day of patrol no less! I'm surprised the large one back there didn't crush you.”
Tamsin stepped closer and flicked a bit of mud from the raccoon's shoulder. “Do not much care for Patildor priests, eh?”
“I... It's been a while since I have seen any. I have not always been treated well at their hands.” Elvmere took a deep breath, claws tracing the contours of the circle and arrow Dokorath claimed for his own. He offered a prayer for strength and another to Samekkh for understanding.
Tamsin nodded and snorted, casting a glance at the hippo before turning back to Elvmere with a bright laugh in his eyes. “Perhaps you can tell me about it later. Time to go; Dallar's coming.”
Elvmere put his medallion back beneath his tunic where it rested comfortably against his chest. He rested his palm on the pommel of his sword and dug the claws of his other hand against his side and the mud clinging to him. Dallar nodded once to him as the ram rejoined the road and without a word Elvmere fell in behind him next to the now beaming Wyaert; Elvmere refused to look at the lizard.
For more minutes than Elvmere could count they continued on the road, most of the rest of the patrol laughing about the experience. Wyaert was silent for which Elvmere was grateful. Apart from the growing discomfort of the sticky and hardening mud caking most of his clothes and exposed fur, he found it difficult to focus on anything be it the fields and farms surrounding them, the sound of the other soldiers in their patrol following him, or even the thoughts darting about his mind. A sullen disquiet filled him.
He wished he could walk beside Tamsin. The tapir and fellow acolyte was his friend. Wyaert was a stranger to him and only here because of Metamor's annual levy. He wasn't sure what he could say to Tamsin, but it was a lot more than he wished to admit to the Patildor lizard.
Elvmere was not even sure what he dared admit to himself. The mere sight of a Patildor priest had set him on edge. The Patildor... the Ecclesia. For so long he'd been part of them, even rising to the rank of Bishop, a Bishop who'd been confidant of the Patriarch and thought by many to be the next Patriarch.
He well remembered the horrible night in the rain-soaked fields south of Lorland when the Sondecki slaughtered the Patriarch's camp including his mentor and friend for over a dozen years. Elvmere covered the surge of anger by scratching at the mud on his tunic, rubbing his fingers and claws against the impression where the medallion lay. It had not been Eli who'd cried out a warning to him but his Lady. She had come to him and told him precisely what to do to save himself. The blow had cracked his ribs, but the Curse of Metamor had healed him, and given him the mask his Lady had presented to him a few nights before.
I was always meant to be a raccoon. I was always meant to be Elvmere.
He trudged ahead, lowering his hand to wrap about his sword hilt. The road had widened from a pair of ruts in the ground to a hard-packed avenue two wagons could ride abreast. They passed farms clustered together and filled by thatch-roofed homes with wooden walls. His ears turned at the sounds of horses and donkeys at work in the fields as well as the crank of wheels. There were even a few wagons filled with bales of hay, casks of foodstuffs, or barrels of wine heading south toward the bridge to Lorland. Elvmere barely saw them.
Both times he'd ventured south from Metamor they'd skirted Lorland on their way. The first time he'd been Vinsah, and the second time he'd only begrudgingly accepted his real name. Vinsah had not been a bad man, nor was it a bad name. But he felt an idiot as he thought on both of those journeys. The first time his Lady had warned him not to leave Metamor; she'd even appeared in Akabaieth's dreams to ask him to leave Elvmere behind. Why had he been such a fool? He'd trusted his own judgment and sought to flee her. In the end he returned to Metamor anyway.
At least he'd learned to trust his Lady and when she bid him leave Metamor six months later he did so. But it took the wisdom of Malger and Murikeer to keep him alive and to convince him to take a new name. Only the name Elvmere could suffice.
Elvmere ground his fangs together for a moment and kept on walking. Wyaert did not seem to notice. His name and his past journeys through Lorland were not what had inflamed him nor what kept his heart seething. Even the Dokorath medallion throbbed in his chest fur.
It was the hippopotamus. The Patildor priest.
He'd known from the first moment he set foot in the Lothanasi temple to serve the gods as an acolyte six months ago he would one day see Patildor priests again. He still thought fondly on Father Hough from time to time and hoped the boy was managing well enough. Nor had he forgotten how the Questioners spirited him away from Yesulam when evil men from Bishop Jothay came to kill him.
But he would never forget the hammer blows. Excommunicated. Cast out. His yew shattered. The Bishops approving and in his miserable recollection, chanting the words in time to the blows with the Patriarch. Corrupt men worshiping only their own power. Many of them he had called friend for years. Once clad in fur he had become the pariah.
Is not this a grief even to death? But a companion and a friend shall be turned to an enemy.
Elvmere ground his fangs together. He had served the Patildor for decades, first as an altar server as a boy, then a priest for much of his life, and finally a Bishop, traveling in the inner circle of the Patriarch himself. Whispers and rumors abounded through his ears for the last few years when Akabaieth passed on to his eternal reward it would be Vinsah elevated as Yahshua's vicar.
The bitter anger softened in sorrow at the memory of his kind and patient mentor. Akabaieth, whose own thoughts had guided and comforted Elvmere in his hour of need, had ever been reserved and quiet in managing the Ecclesia's hierarchy. So much of what the raccoon had read in his journals had never been voiced before, thoughts the dead man had likely seen as too difficult for the Bishops. Elvmere, reading those journals, living for a short time at Metamor as a raccoon, and traveling with Malger and Murikeer, had his eyes opened to many things he'd never considered before. Akabaieth already had made his peace with them, and by the time Elvmere had arrived in Yesulam he had accepted them as well.
And for these things he was cast out. Akabaieth had seen it in sorrow. He had mused upon the Lothanasi, a people he had once zealously persecuted, attempting to convert them with sword and suffering, and had granted the gods a place. They were real and it was not wrong to belong to them. And Elvmere was meant to belong to them; Akabaieth had in some way seen it too. He pressed his hand on his tunic, rubbing his claws along the edges of the medallion beneath.
The Patildor were wrong about magic being evil. They knew it too with their multiple carved out exceptions for the Sondeckis and some of the other Southern mage clans. The Lothanasi had no such inhibitions about magic; his friend Tamsin was receiving instruction in its usage and soon he would as well. Jessica's lesson was but the first step of many he would take; the gods willing he would craft spells one day.
And if they were wrong about this, what else were they wrong about? What else had Elvmere been wrong about? Were they wrong about Eli and Yahshua too?
Elvmere recalled what he'd read in the archives, of the ancient goddess of the arts Sakkan swearing fealty to Kammoloth. For a moment he burned with a desire to see those proud Bishops falling on their knees before Raven in honor of Kammoloth and the Pantheon.
He ground his fangs together and tightened his grip on the medallion. These thoughts were not like him. This anger was not who he wanted to be. Elvmere had to think clearly and see truth for what it was. Emotions could help, but they were not the arbiter of truth. And in truth, the Bishops had not kindled this anger, but the smiling face of the hippopotamus priest and how he'd called Elvmere 'son'. This Purvis may be a kindly man, may in fact be genuine in his desire to help and to use what the curses gave him to help, but he was still the face of those Bishops here in Metamor. A smile before a hammer. Just as the hammer had crushed his yew, the hippo had almost crushed his body against the boulder.
Dark eyes cast toward the lizard, and his ears backed. The tokay hissed out through his fangs the melody of a Patildor hymn!
Think clearly! Anger only darkens everything!
Elvmere narrowed his eyes, focused on breathing in and out, stepping one foot before the other, and brought to mind the prayers he'd learned from his beautiful Nylene on his voyage home and of the many more he'd learned as an acolyte. He repeated them one by one, slowly and at length, beseeching Samekkh for wisdom, Dokorath for courage, Velena for love for his friends and enemies, Akkala for mending the bitterness in his heart, Artela for sure senses on the patrol, Yajiit for warmth in the night, Dvalin for good weather, Wvelkim for safe passage upon the waters, and Kammoloth for humility to listen and learn.
His heart burned, but he still prayed and still walked. And ignored the Patildor lizard.
They reached the crossroads to Ellingham in the west and Lyme Regis in the east by late afternoon. An old stone bridge spanned the river and there they stopped long enough for Tamsin, Larssen, and Dallar to throw a surprised and mud-smeared raccoon into the cold water and then drag him back out again a hundred paces downstream.
Elvmere dripped from clothes and fur for another hour as they continued their patrol northward, leaving the main road behind and trekking once more along wagon tracks and footpaths beaten through the grass and brush. The unexpected soaking actually improved his mood and he was soon laughing about his bedraggled state with the other soldiers. The afternoon sun warmed him and with so few trees in the western reaches of Lorland he was able to keep himself in its brilliant rays until evening when the sun fell behind a swath of low clouds creeping over the Dragon mountains.
All of them, levies and soldiers alike, were showing weariness in little ways. Everyone's steps were a little slower and they took short breaks more often. Elvmere winced at the soreness in his legs and shoulders and gasped in relief every time he could sling the pack off his back. Myrwyn spent most of his time perched on the supply horse stretching and preening his wings. Sedric groaned and made pathetic bleating noises from time to time. Wyaert looked lethargic the moment the sun hid behind the clouds and kept fiddling with an amulet he otherwise kept hidden beneath his tunic. Tamsin and the soldiers gave no outward sign of their exhaustion, but Elvmere recognized their slowness and the sullen drooping of their eyes having seen it many times in Malger and Murikeer before.
Dallar turned them westward away from the river as the day began to wane. The foot path meandered through mostly fallow fields and pastures up through rising hills. Small pines pock-marked the land, nestled in clefts and among rocks where the hills folded over. Up ahead the grasses surrendered to the edge of a dark wood filled with grown pines, beech, alder, and oak. Everyone grew quiet, trudging along, eyes wary and tired.
Elvmere's clothes were still damp in places and stank of the river, and with the sun behind the clouds and soon the mountains a slight chill crept into his fur and skin despite the general warmth of the Summer evening. He wished the sun had been able to warm his front as well as his back, but he thanked Yajiit all the same for what sun he received.
The day was nearly spent by the time they reached the wood. Already twilight gloom covered the eastern mountains and the clouds began spreading across the valley to the south, promising a cool night and perhaps even a midnight sprinkle. They paused only long enough on entering the woods for Dallar to reorder them one last time, remind them to keep watch for signs of poachers, and assurances they would be breaking for camp in another two candlemarks.
Elvmere found himself up front with the ram once again. The ram gestured to various bushes and trees and bits of dirt and rock all about. The foot path had all but disappeared to the raccoon's eyes and even though he saw better in the twilight gloom than he did in full daylight, he had only the vaguest of notions what the ram meant with each gesture. He found his mood souring from the exhaustion and the dampness in his chest which seemed colder with every step.
When ground descended into a small dell with a stream trickling through, Dallar flashed a signal Elvmere didn't recognize to the soldiers behind them, and then stepped off the path along the stream, waving the raccoon to follow. The brush was thick and Elvmere kept bumping into clinging branches. Dallar's hooves sunk into the ground along the stream, leaving a trail even Elvmere could see; his boots did the same, though the broken stems left in his wake were just as telling.
After a minute of following the stream, presumably for clues to the poachers, Dallar turned around and fixed Elvmere with a hard stare. The raccoon averted his gaze, looking around for some evidence of the poachers. All he could see were the tracks they were leaving and he chittered to himself in annoyance, tail flicking back and forth and fingers working over his tunic and and sword hilt.
“I, uh, am not sure what I'm looking for, Sir.”
Dallar crossed his arms and shook his head, his voice low. “There's nothing here, Acolyte. You've been out of sorts since we helped the priest. Have you calmed yourself down?”
Elvmere chuffed, his tail pulling up around his legs. “I... you could tell?”
“I've been a patrol captain and a gaoler. I have seen all manner of beasts in anger.”
The flare in his heart made him tighten his claws into his palms. Just thinking of the hippo made him burn inside. He thought of Nylene and her hands brushing through the fur of his chest and back and managed to relax. “Aye, I am calm.”
Dallar rolled his tongue along his teeth as he stared at the raccoon. “Is it the Patildor you do not like, or merely their priests?”
Elvmere hunched his shoulders. How could he answer the questions without revealing who he'd once been, something he was forbidden to do? Lies offended Samekkh and they were dishonorable to Dokorath. He sighed. “I don't think it is all Patildor priests. I... I know what it is to serve the gods. During my travels... I encountered many who did terrible things. I saw those things again when I saw the hippopotamus.” He tried to say the priest's name, but bile filled him. He closed his jaws before any spilled.
Dallar let him stew in silence for more seconds than he dared count. The ram's gaze penetrated and the raccoon, filled with shame, could not meet them. He looked down at the hoof and boot prints in the soft earth, the trickle of water in the stream as it burbled over rocks and roots, tearing away at the soil on its way toward the river. He fiddled with the Dokorath medallion at his neck. The scents of Tamsin and the others in their patrol grew stronger in the air.
The ram broke the silence when they could hear the muffled bleat of Sedric through the trees. Dallar's voice was firm, a commander's voice. “You don't have to see Patildor while in the Temple. Hate them all you want then. Like you I grew up in this valley. I am Lothanasi and faithful to the Light. But half my men are Patildor and they are fine soldiers and very good men; they are my friends. And now they are your brothers in arms... and sisters. You will keep your anger in check and you will come to their aid without hesitation. I am not going to repeat this. Do you understand?”
Elvmere nodded. His behavior was not his alone, it reflected on the Temple and Lothanasa Raven and Priestess Merai. His gritted his fangs and nodded again, saying, “I understand, Captain. I will not let my anger at the Patildor get the better of me again.” And if he did, he knew there'd be months of serving in the Dove room and stinking of poop in his future. He could already seen Raven's stern lupine glare, Merai's disappointed eyes, Celine's trust broken, and Weiland's constant reprimands. He knew the lectures of how rage was the domain of Revonos and the destruction it always caused.
Oh Dokorath help me control my anger. Help me be a good brother in arms. I offer you all my training and all my service. Grant me this, Dokorath!
Dallar waited several more seconds before nodding. “Good. Now, let's rejoin our friends. It is almost time to make camp.” The ram offered him a firm grin and patted him on the shoulder.
Elvmere forced a smile for his commanding officer as they walked back along the stream.
They selected a level stretch of forest for their camp and cleared some of the brush in the center to make a fire began as the long day finally dwindled to twilight. Even the experienced soldiers appeared worn out from the long hours trekking from Metamor and across Lorland. While Dallar and Maud kindled a fire Larssen cleared the nearby trees of dead branches for fuel and the rest pitched camp.
Tamsin and Elvmere had their lean-to steady a few minutes after retrieving the supplies from their packs. The tapir grinned and grunted in approval. “Great work! Now let's get this canvas secured and we can relax. Long day, eh?”
“Aye,” Elvmere agreed, offering his friend a toothy grin, “and it's not quite over yet.” The heavy pack he'd carried along with the boots he'd worn were already sitting atop his blanket. His grateful toes stretched through the moss and dried leaves. He desperately wanted to shift to a more feral form and meditate on Artela and the wonders of her forests, but the weight of the sword still buckled to his side reminded him he was not here for himself but for Metamor. He had to keep his promise to Dokorath.
“Not quite,” Tamsin stretched his arms and shoulders, before handing the raccoon one end of the broad canvas. It was thin and would serve only to keep rain and most of the wind off while they slept. It was not unusual for many Summer nights to feature gentle rains and after his journeys with Malger and Murikeer he knew how miserable it was to sleep in the rain.
Elvmere took his end and between them they stretched it out across the beams of wood they'd built. He used a pair of hooked nails and threaded them through the loops at the corners, pushing them into the ground with his hands until they could go no further. He gave each a whack with one of his boots for good measure.
When he stood, he saw Tamsin nodding his head in approval and wiping his hands. “Ah, good, good. Should be warm and dry tonight. Let's get a line stretched out near the fire and hang your clothes to dry.”
Elvmere nodded and undid the buckler over his shoulder, easing it and the sword down to the ground so he could remove his tunic. “I'm not taking the breeches off until later. But I do want this shirt off.” Tamsin laughed, a comforting sound, as he undid the lacing of his tunic and shimmied free. The medallion bounced against his chest and his gray fur shimmered in the dance of firelight.
A few minutes later and they secured a line of rope between two trees passing near enough to the fire to warm their wet clothes. Elvmere draped his tunic across the line and sighed. On the other side of the fire he could see Wyaert and Sedric working on their lean-to with Van standing cross-armed giving them directions. The hawks were showing Myrwyn how to spread a small canvas between branches so they could sleep dry in a perch above the camp. Larssen and Maud, with the fire crackling, were sorting their food to cook. Dallar started working on his lean-to, ears lifted, eyes ever scanning the trees around them. The pack horses grazed flowers and weeds, relieved to be free of their burdens.
“Two weeks of this... I miss the evening sacrifice.” Elvmere was almost surprised at his own words. He'd been a Lothanasi acolyte for six months now. Other than the nights he'd been assigned guard duty at the Temple entrance, he had always taken part in the sacred ritual spilling of dove blood upon the altar. The Patildor did not believe in animal sacrifices. Yet now they were a part of him too; he had cared for and cleaned up after the birds for three months, and even though he had a wider range of duties, he still had to tend them at least once a week. His own prayers and devotion was joined to the sacrifice; he belonged to the Pantheon. He had to live up to them.
“Aye, I know but we'll have time to pray at least. We can start by thanking Dvalin for the good weather and Yajiit for the warm sun and this warm fire.”
“And asking Dvalin to give us good weather tonight and tomorrow too,” Elvmere replied. “Is this what your life was like before you were injured?”
Tamsin nodded and stretched his legs out. “Aye, mostly. Builds good muscles at least.”
“Will you ever go back to it?”
The tapir seemed to stare beyond the forest for a second. “If anyone else in my unit had survived, probably. Bonds of blood are strong, Elvmere. You'll understand if we have to fight. I think you'll do fine. I doubt Captain Dallar will have us practice any more tonight, but tomorrow definitely.”
Elvmere rubbed at one of his bruises and then stretched. “Good. I need it. I'm sure this won't be my last patrol. So, what do we do now?”
“See what the Captain wants us to do.”
Dallar, after inspecting their lean-to, had them finish setting up his own and then had them set one up for Larssen and Maud. Elvmere enjoyed the simple work. It settled his mind and heart and cheered him. Even his sore muscles felt good at the activity. The Dokorath medallion leaded forward whenever he did, then bounced against his chest fur when he straightened.
When they finished Dallar allowed them to relax by the fire while Maud and the giraffe cooked up sausages. Elvmere stretched his toes and reclined, claws of one hand drawing through his tail fur, the other rubbing over the medallion. Tamsin elected to check on the birds and so for a short time the raccoon was left alone.
He stared into the flames and did as Tamsin suggested, offering a prayer of thanks to Yajiit for the fire and the warm sun they'd enjoyed. He followed it with a prayer to Dvalin thanking him for the good weather and beseeching him to keep it good on the morrow.
As his body relaxed he found his mind wandering across the many things he'd done since rising early in the Temple. He chittered a laugh as he remembered zooming down the line from the watchtower, and at being tossed into the river by his friends. He felt a bit of pride at the way he'd comported himself when checking in with the Lorland city guard and in how he'd sent Sedric sprawling in battle. He wondered in awe at the lesson Jessica had tried to teach him and pondered whether he would ever be able to cast any magic. And he felt a simmering disquiet at the memory of the smiling hippo priest and Dallar's stern warning.
I don't really hate the Patildor, do I?
No. No I don't. Just... they've hurt me. The Bishops lied, schemed, and destroyed my faith and would have killed me too.
Wyaert hasn't. Dokorath wants me to treat him as a brother in arms. Kammoloth must surely want me to show him the Light.
Elvmere lifted the medallion and stared down his snout at it. The fire burned behind it, giving it a bronze brilliance. This was real and its teachings a sure guide in his life. He'd been given a new life at Metamor in both body, age, and mind by the curses and his Lady. It was time to stop being ashamed of it. He would serve the true gods of the Lothanasi. For now it meant he would serve with arms in Artela's land. Perhaps he would unlock secret mystic arts within himself.
His nostrils swelled and his chest filled with warmth and excitement at the thought. Elvmere chittered, kissed the medallion and set it back upon his chest. He let his eyes narrow as one hand wrapped itself about the hilt of his sword. His ears heard all his companions did, from the sizzling of the delectable sausages, to the laughter of Tamsin and Van helping poor Wyaert and Sedric fix their lean-to.
And in his mind he sought beyond himself for the magic the black hawk promised was there. Two weeks was a long time. Only the gods knew what he would find.