Posti froze, halfway into his traveling cloak. "Kindle! What are you doing up?" He wasn't quite able to keep the tension out of his voice. "Go back to bed, boy."
The mouse-morph scurried over to help him with the bulky garment. "I'm sorry, Master! I didn't know we were traveling! I'll grab my things."
Sighing deeply, the old wizard flexed the divided hooves which served as his hands. "-We- aren't traveling, Kindle. I have mission which I must perform alone. Go back to bed, and speak of this to no one."
"Kindle!" The young apprentice recoiled from the sharp tone of Posti's voice. "Would you question the Duke himself? This is not a matter for discussion. Go back to bed. Now!" In a moment, he was alone again. Posti shook his head. This course of action was hard to follow through. He hated to end his relationship with Kindle with harsh words and a lie. Perhaps the boy would understand, afterwards.
He took a last look around the room. It was odd to think that he would never return here. Though only a small portion of his life had been spent at Metamor Keep, it was the place he thought of as home. There were many friends here, people he trusted and respected. As with Kindle, he could only hope they would understand why he was leaving with no good-bye.
The hallway outside was empty, no surprise considering the hour. Moving as quietly as hooves and his size would allow, the grizzled old stallion headed for the stables. He'd heard some of the rather crude jokes about the young Shire mare he'd bought for riding, and even laughed at some of them himself. Not in public, of course. As Prime Minister, he had to maintain a level of dignity. However, it amused him to think how close some the 'jokes' came to what would soon be the truth.
He made it to the stables without encountering anyone. Once there, however, he ran into the ever-present security. Leaving the Keep was the hardest part of his plan. Not that he was a prisoner in any way. It was just that his position normally dictated appropriate escort. Despite Posti's insinuations to Kindle, Duke Thomas knew nothing of this evening's activities.
"Prime Minister!" The guard was a young deer morph, her eyes wide in awe. "Do you need something? I can call the Captain at Arms."
"That will not be necessary." Posti pulled out a scroll and waved it around. "I have an urgent mission which requires that I travel alone. No one is to know, not even the Captain of the Guards." When the Guard hesitated, he unfurled the scroll and glared angrily. "Look at the bottom! Do you not recognize the Duke's seal?" It was Thomas' mark, but the parchment scroll was actually an old invitation to dinner he'd saved for this purpose. He'd guessed correctly. The doe did not know how to read.
"I beg pardon, Prime Minister. It's just that I was told to report..."
"And I commend your sense of duty." Posti raised an eyebrow. "However, direct orders from myself and Duke Thomas override anything you might have been told earlier. Please get my horse."
Though clearly unhappy with the situation, the guard bowed and vanished inside the stable. While he waited for her to come back out, Posti heard a noise from the courtyard. It didn't take much effort to find Kindle. His skills in sorcery were excellent, but he'd never make a spy. Well, Posti hadn't really expected him to follow orders. The young man was fiercely loyal, more a son than an apprentice. Posti closed his eyes, wishing he could give Kindle an uncharacteristic hug. Instead, he muttered a quick spell already prepared for this eventuality. The shadowy form of his apprentice shrank suddenly, and muffled squeak reached his ears. Kindle would be trapped in full mouse form for most of the day.
A few minutes later, the guard returned leading his horse. She was a magnificent Shire mare, young and of the best bloodlines. He had purchased her for a price that staggered even a man of his means, but then, what further use did he have of money? The guard was also carrying one of the stools used for beginners and children. It irked Posti that the guard assumed he needed the help, even though that assumption was correct. He gritted his teeth as he swung himself onto the huge horse, trying to hide his pain. His grimace was misinterpreted by the doe, who immediately bowed. "I'm sorry my lord. Have I offended you somehow?"
"No." Curse this arthritis. Couldn't he leave a nice impression on anybody? "Open the gate. When I am gone, you will resume your normal duties. Do not speak of my departure to anyone. Duke Thomas will explain to your superiors when and if he deems it necessary." Again, a general statement that wasn't quite a lie, but left Posti feeling dirty.
The doe nodded wordlessly. It was tempting to use the same spell that had rendered Kindle mute, but a loose deer would raise an alarm, not delay it. He would have to hope his ruse worked long enough to accomplish his mission. The mare responded to a gentle nudge, and he left Metamor Keep for the last time.
"Why wasn't I notified?" Duke Thomas Hassan gripped the arm of his chair hard enough to split the wood with an audible crack. While he and Posti were both draft horse morphs, Thomas' size was enhanced by youth and bearing. "My Prime Minister goes wandering off into the night, alone, and no one thought it was important enough to let me know?"
"He showed the guard a scroll and said you had given instructions..."
"I know, I know! From the description, it sounds like a dinner invitation." Thomas snorted in disgust. "Start basic reading instruction for all guards. I'd hate to have invaders gain access to the Keep using one of my old laundry lists."
The Captain of the Guard stiffened. "With all due respect, my lord, the Prime Minister has the authority to come and go as he pleases. The guard did her duty to the best of her ability and knowledge. If you wish to assign blame, direct your anger at me."
Thomas stood suddenly, his eyes showing white all around. The Captain flinched, but remained at attention. And then the Duke closed his eyes and deflated visibly. "I apologize. The Prime Minister is very close to me. He is old, and there are many dangers outside the Keep. But he knew those dangers, and as you said, he has always been free to come and go as he pleased."
Shaking himself, Thomas tried to regain composure and sat back down. "I trust that a search party has been dispatched?"
"Our best, my lord. He has several hours head start, but the tracks of his horse were clearly visible. They should catch up with him soon."
"And their orders?"
"To stay hidden and watch over him until he returns. Every effort will be made to avoid letting him know anyone is escorting him." The Captain raised an eyebrow. "Unless my lord wishes for him to be brought back?"
Thomas snorted again, this time in mild amusement. "I doubt even your best fighters could bring that mangy old warhorse back against his will. You have done well. Keep me informed." The big horse morph nodded dismissal to the Captain and waited until he had left the chamber before dropping his head to his hands. "Posti, my friend. What are you up to?"
Though the mare had a smooth gait and the path wasn't bad, Posti could barely move when he reached his destination. The ruins of an old roadhouse provided the only indication that this had ever been anything but wilderness. He had to lean against the horse for a few minutes after dismounting, and took the time to search for familiar shapes. The largest pile of rubble must be what was left of the Red Dragon Inn. Which meant that the grass-covered mound off to the left had been the stable. From appearances, he'd outlasted the place of his birth by a few decades.
It had been, what? Sixty years? More than a half-century since Dreval the Wizard had offered a filthy, ignorant stable boy the chance to be something more. Such a strange, wild-haired old man. Posti had been afraid of him, but all it took was a show of magical lights and he was hooked. When the magic user left the next day, Posti was staggering behind with his bags.
If he'd thought being an apprentice would be easier than mucking stalls, Dreval proved him wrong a hundred times over. The nine year-old boy served as butler, cook, errand boy, and even maid. Not to mention taking care of the wizard's tired old horse. Yet he managed it all, and still made time for lessons in the magician's dark, mysterious workshop. It was there that Dreval first touched his eyes with the ointment that made the fae visible. There that Posti had spent the next ten years learning the arcane arts. And there that Dreval had died, falling over in the middle of an incantation. The old wizard must have been paranoid, for his death triggered a series of destruction spells from which his apprentice barely escaped.
Alone and penniless, Posti struggled for months. However, he had studied hard and learned much. By the end of a year, he had established himself as a roving magician, working healing spells and performing minor magics for the peasants. As his skills grew, so did his reputation. Nobles began seeking him out, and he traveled from castle to castle. Those years were a blur now, notable only because of the spells and cantrips he'd picked up in his journeys. He'd never settled down, preferring constant travel to a fixed home.
And then he'd met Thomas. A wild young man with a generous heart and compassion unusual for a noble's son. Something had clicked between the two, and they were never long out of touch. When Thomas' father had died, the boy had sent a request for Posti to join his court. A request, not a command, as was the usual action a new Duke might take. Thus had ended Posti's travels, and he had stood behind Thomas ever since. Through battles, famine, and even forces that had stripped away his humanity.
Posti sighed. Sixty years, and now he was back. Taking the mare's reins, he led her stiffly over to the site of the stable. There was nothing in the ancient scripts which indicated that one location was better than another for this spell. Yet he couldn't help feeling that it was important to be here, on this spot. For balance, if nothing else. His life as a wizard had begun here. It was appropriate that it end here as well.
He stripped the mare and tied her loosely to a rotting timber. If all went according to plan, she wouldn't be here long enough to need water. If not? Well, there was no point in worrying about that. After neatly stacking the tack, he removed his robes and folded them as well. Brian Coe would have been shocked by the emaciated form underneath. Posti had kept away from the healer, using salves and potions of his own to keep going. None of them did much good any more. His hair had fallen out in patches, leaving mottled black hide which was stretched taught over bones and swollen joints. And his hooves were cracked and dull, crumbling around the edges. Posti was just old for man. As a creature more horse than human, he was unbelievably ancient.
Everything was ready. He turned, looking towards the red glow of sunrise. The guards would be here soon. Unless he'd done his job too well, and hadn't been missed yet. Little chance of that. If anything, he had less time than expected, not more. Yet he continued to watch the sky, listening to the birds and insects greet the new day. It was so peaceful here. And then he laughed at himself. After months of preparation, sneaking out of the Keep, and half killing himself to get here, he was stalling. Prime Minister Posti, the fearless defender of Metamor Keep and Master of the Arcane, was terrified.
Turning suddenly, he walked to the mare and lay a gnarled, three-fingered hand on her side. He'd never quite gotten used to having no thumbs. Taking a deep breath, he began the chant. At first, nothing happened. But then a faint sparkle appeared around his fingertips. The sparkle grew to a pulsing glow, which sent tendrils of light shooting out in a delicate web of color. He was caught up in that web now, as was the horse. If she felt anything, she gave no outward sign. For Posti, however, there was a growing pressure as the rainbow strands closed in around him. They pulled through his flesh now, leaving no mark as they drew inward, gathering the tattered remnants of his life force, his soul. He sagged against the mare, wheezing out the final portion of his chant. There was time for a momentary sense of wonder, and the realization that there was no more pain. And then the light vanished.
The Captain stood silently while Duke Thomas read the scroll. It had been sent ahead by the guard detail, still hours away with the Prime Minister's body. The trackers had found it on top of Posti's folded robes, weighted down with his chain of office. Addressed simply to 'Thomas.'
The Duke stared at the parchment for a long time. Then he sighed, and looked up at the ceiling as he rolled the scroll back up and slipped it into his robe. "Send another messenger back to intercept the search party. They are to return the Prime Minister to the spot where he was found, and bury him there."
"But, my lord! The ceremonies are already being planned!" The Captain was shocked. "Besides, the Prime Minister should be buried with honor and dignity, not forgotten in the wilderness!"
"You will respect my wishes, as I respect his." Thomas managed a smile, though his eyes were wet. "Decorate the Keep for a celebration. Music, fine food, and the best wine and ale we can come up with. And send out a call for those with stories to tell of Posti. No glowing tributes, mind you. I want tales of that crotchety old stallion at his worst. We shall eat, and drink, and laugh together, and celebrate every sour mood and glaring disapproval he graced us with!"
The Captain looked puzzled for a moment, and then shook his head. "As you wish, my lord. Is that all?"
"One other thing." The Duke turned to look out the window behind him. "The Prime Minister's horse. I trust she is being brought back?"
"Yes, my lord. Do you wish to claim her? She is a fine animal, the best I have ever seen."
"She is not for me. Kindle owns her now, along with all else that was Posti's. Send for him as you leave. And tell him to dress in robes appropriate for a Keep wizard."
As the Captain left, Thomas looked out over the rolling hills behind the keep. There would be a great party tonight, a celebration of his friend's life. One hand slipped into his robe and touched the scroll. Perhaps more than that. A celebration of rebirth, though he was the only one aware of that right now. He'd have to tell Kindle, of course. The mare belonged to him now, as did that which grew inside her. The expected foal would be normal, just another animal at the keep. Yet he couldn't help contemplate the probable temperament of the colt or filly that would be named Posti.