January 18, 708 CR
Ice clung to the granite rocks abutting the mouth of the Metamor river as well as the many shoals rising above the waves to greet the fresh mountain waters flowing from the cursed valley. A wintry mist sloughed the Sea of Stars and the small rocky islands whose backsides were covered in so many pine, larch, spruce, and fir that they resembled porcupines nudging their snouts into the ground for roots and acorns to eat. Flocks of gull, tern, cormorant, and puffins gathered on the rocky coastline, most to the west of the river mouth where the forbidding slopes of the Dragon mountains reached into the brackish waters with broad defiles in cascades of granite and basalt.
Around the mouth of the river was a small village cloaked in snow. Ancient stone wharves jutted into the sea but it was only the newer barnacle covered wooden docks that were in use. Fishermen in seal-skin coats tended flat-bottom boats and wooden cages. In brass basins fires burned to ward off the chill and to cook the crustaceans their traps had captured. Not a single ship moored in this little village could have carried more than six men, nor were any suited to the ravages of the ocean and her many storms. But only they could navigate the rocky shallows at the river mouth and the waters nearby.
To the east of the river was a rocky promontory that dropped to a shelf of granite rising above the crash of waves on which rose a lighthouse. The spire had flat sides whose corners marked the compass, while the northeastern edge had a small bridge to the promontory about twenty feet high. At the base a sea door led to a house of stone with lanterns burning brightly and smoke curling from a chimney. Another smaller pier housed a boat crusted with ice.
At the top of the lighthouse was a cupola freshly brushed clean of snow, and the bright brazier and ancient lens that magnified the light. It was strong enough to pierce the light fog and be seen for many miles. All sailors knew to turn southeast when they saw this light for the safe harbor of Menth. There was no safe passage here.
Descending from the sky was a single gull. His gray wings and white body were almost lost in the fog, but as it emerged, the yellow bill and webbed feet made it impossible to miss. A slight updraft from the cool waters turned its wings back as it slowed, banking from side to side for a few minutes before it finally came to rest on the lip of the lighthouse cupola. Focused yellow eyes regarded the bearded lighthouse keeper who was busy prying the meat from a lobster claw.
The man glanced up from his meal and chuckled, "Good afternoon, Quoddy. You're a little late this year. I expected you and your brothers a few hours ago."
The gull tensed his body, black tail tip wiggling in the air, and then he hopped down to the floor of the lighthouse and shook his feathers out. His body grew larger in seconds until he was nearly the size of the man. He crouched on his legs and sat much like a bird, claws at his wing tips scratching at his breast. "There was a squall near Brathas I had to sit out. I guess my brothers did too. How has the winter been so far, Davitt?"
The lighthouse keeper shrugged and chewed a bit of meat. "About the same as last year. One wreck and lots of snow and ice. Mild today, praise Eli. How was your flight?"
"Exhilarating!" Quoddy replied with a caw. His eyes brightened, the usual intensity of his species muted by his excitement. "Almost none of the flocks wanted to go as far south as Whales this year. They stopped just south of Sutthaivasse; Lubec and I went a little further, but there was a terrible scent in the air so we turned back. We heard talk of war from the fishermen and I believe it. Sutthaivasse was massing her fleets. We'd never seen so many ships in her ports at once! Ah, what a sight!"
Davitt laughed as he chewed more lobster meat. The crustacean's claws had been ripped off and now he bent the animal in half until the tail section came free. This he bent in half again until the meat was exposed. "There's always war somewhere," he mused, eyes turned to both sky and the beacon. "At least it isn't here."
"Praise Eli!" Quoddy agreed with a nod of his head. "I'm still ashamed that I missed what came to pass last year at Metamor. But," he turned his head and glanced over the cupola's rim at the fog shrouded sea, "I just can't stay away from the sea. Oh, I think I see Machias."
Davitt turned to the west and sure enough a flock of puffins skimmed the air. One broke off and turned to the lighthouse while the rest settled on a rocky shoal rising up from the waves. Black wings steadied him, while his orange, webbed feet extended to meet the lighthouse. Both bird and man watched as the wings flapped vigorously several times before the second bird had managed a landing on the lighthouse. He hopped down with the same acuity and then enlarged into a half-man shape. His orange and black beak opened and his dark eyes widened amidst his white cheeks at the sight and smell of the freshly boiled lobster.
The puffin practically drove his head into the crustacean. "Oh, Davitt! I haven't had a cooked meal in a week."
The lighthouse keeper drew his meal back and then laughed. "I've another two in the tank downstairs. I was going to cook them up once your brother arrives."
"And a hail and well met to you too, little brother," Quoddy said with a mock sternness that only older brothers can use.
Machias the puffin blinked and then his beak and bright cheeks framed a smile. "Quoddy! And here I thought for sure I was going to be the first to arrive after that squall."
"Almost, I've only been here a few minutes."
The brothers gave each other a quick hug and touched beaks together. "So, how were the nesting grounds in Sathmore?" Quoddy asked.
Machias shrugged. "Same as last year. A lot of territorial puffins, some seals, and great views of whales out at sea. The fishermen and some of the Sathmore merchants had lots of gossip to share. Nothing too interesting though. The Empire still thinks its an empire." He chirped a laugh and then shook his head. "I did hear that the leper colony on the north shore is almost evacuated. Somebody told them they could get cured by going to Metamor. Imagine that!"
Quoddy nodded. "I heard that too. I didn't have time to check and see if it was true."
"It's true," Davitt added with a wary glance to the north. Even on a clear day the valley mouth and the edge of the curse's transformative touch were lost behind thick forest and low mountains. "Quite a few came up the coast from Menth and walked north along the river bank. All cloaked in rags so that not a single bit of flesh was visible. Nobody wanted to go near them."
"Did Metamor heal them?" Machias asked eagerly. His youthful enthusiasm was impossible to hide as he hopped back and forth from one webbed foot to the other.
"Oh aye," Davitt nodded, scooping the tail meat free at last. "Or so the Fish say."
The Fish were a dozen or so aquatic Keepers who plied the waters of the Metamor river nearly all year long. Quoddy knew most of them and could honestly say they were some of the nicest fellows he'd ever met. They had to be to keep their spirits in so trying of circumstances. Metamor demanded great sacrifices from them all. The lepers would soon learn they had traded one trial for another -- one that hopefully wouldn't be as fatal or foul!
"So we're just waiting for Lubec," Machias surmised after a moment's pause. "I thought he was with you."
"We were, but you know Lubec. He had to go fishing." Both birds laughed, a raucous cawing that almost certainly made any visitors to the lighthouse very curious. Davitt who'd known them ever since they'd started flying across the sea laughed with them.
While they waited for their brother to arrive, Quoddy and Machias traded stories of their flight the last few months down the coastlines and back. Davitt filled them in on what news he'd heard from the Midlands in their absence. Almost all of the news was of dark deeds and wars.
Machias ruffled his feathers at each new horror. Quoddy understood his younger brother's fears only too well; the puffin had only just turned thirteen at Three Gates. Quoddy had been sixteen and had been given two year's of training with a sword and shield prior to that awful day, and Lubec had just started his training. But their youngest brother had none when Nasoj's armies crushed Euper and stormed Keeptowne, driving as far as the gates where the last defense was mounted.
All were called to fight to defend Metamor that day. Machias had a sword too heavy for him placed in his hands. Somewhere along the walls their father was lost amongst the defenders. Their mother tended the wounded and dead behind them. Machias, frightened and young, stayed close to his older brothers that day. When the Curses were cast, all three were clustered together behind the second gate swords in hand. They had never been able to lift a sword since.
Their father was killed in the fighting even before the curses were cast, and a Lutin arrow dipped in refuse festered in their mother's thigh for two weeks before she succumbed. So many dead and dying in the aftermath that not all could be healed in time. Orphaned, the three sea birds took to the sky and followed the sea seeking solace in its salty, turbulent embrace.
But Quoddy could see the tremble in his brother's many black and white feathers and knew that this scar still lingered. A few years ago he'd have wrapped a wing around his back. But now they had to be men as well as brothers.
Davitt gestured to the sky as he licked the fingers of his other hand clean. "Looks... shlurp... like Lubec... shupp... is here."
Both Quoddy and Machias stood up to peer over the rim of the lighthouse cupola. Descending from the clouds was a black bird with long wings, webbed feet, and black beak brightening to gold just beneath his eyes. He banked around the lighthouse in a long arc before settling on the other end. He kept his wings stretched out and waddled into the inner chamber with Davitt, waving his wings back and forth near the fiery brand.
Machias laughed brightly at seeing his brother the cormorant trying to dry himself. "Why do you always go fishing, brother? You know you just have to dry yourself off!"
Lubec grew enough in size as he stood with wings outstretched so that he looked like a gigantic bat. His voice was raspy and a bit curt. "I like fish! And don't you rub it in! Your feathers don't get wet like mine."
Davitt chuckled and turned to the staircase down inside the lighthouse column. "I'll get those lobsters boiling. You boys watch the seas for me would you?"
"Hail, Master Davitt," Lubec said with a bow of his black head. "How is your family?"
The lighthouse keeper paused and ran one hand through his scraggly beard. "Little Mary's in bed with the cold, but she's already doing better. My boys are begging me to let them watch the light by themselves. And Louie is begging me to go into town and buy her another bear skin blanket. They're good." He frowned at himself for saying so much and then disappeared below.
Quoddy shook his head and let his chest swell with the crisp sea air. "Was the fish good?"
Lubec stretched his wings forward, the feathers beginning to dry in the warmth of the lighthouse brand. He cawed and waggled his tail feathers. "Always. It would've been better cooked though. We need to stash some cooking gear along the coast one of these years."
"And let the seas corrode it away?" Machias asked as he shook a bit of ice from one of his orange webbed feet. "That doesn't sound like a good idea to me."
"We could stay in Metamor too," Lubec retorted. "I'd love to see you try."
Machias lowered his beak with eyes narrowed in consternation, which was the best frown any of them could manage. "We stay there for the Summer."
"And every fall head south along the sea again," Lubec shot in. "I'm surprised more of the birds don't do that."
"Maybe it isn't that we're birds," Quoddy suggested, offering a thought that had been pecking at his mind ever since they'd taken wing last September. "Maybe it's just us. What do we have to hold us to Metamor?"
"Now you're starting to sound like Emily," Machias chortled. Lubec nodded and then turned around to put his back to the light. "Next you'll be telling us we should find mates and make nests."
"I wouldn't mind flying south with a lady Keeper cormorant," Lubec mused through half-closed beak.
"Nor I a lady gull," Quoddy admitted. "We aren't boys anymore."
Machias folded his wings along his back, dark eyes growing shadowed in his white-feathered face. "We aren't men either," he grumbled while scuffing his webbed feet on the lighthouse floor.
"Yes we are," Quoddy replied with sudden force. "Maybe not like Davitt, but we are men. We're just birds too."
"Sea birds," Lubec added. "And I think that's why we keep doing this. I know... it's why I do. I just... I just cannot live without the sea air. Metamor is always home, and has such memories for me... but the sea..." The cormorant's beak turned to the gray, overcast sky and his eyes filled with leagues of rippling waves.
The gull and puffin also turned their beaks, each of them staring into the sky, nostrils drinking in the sea salt air, and their wings stretched of their own accord. Beyond the lighthouse cupola lay the bay shrouded in fog, little fishermen out plying their trade, rocks rising and standing against the endless onslaught of the waves. And beyond them a vast and limitless sea, wave and wave, squall after squall, and vista curving away with a horizon meeting the sky in a nuptial kiss. Their hearts beat with the waves.
"Oh," Quoddy said, turning his long beak away from the sea and giving his wings and feathers a shake. "We just got back. The sea will wait for another season. We have to go back to Metamor. You know that."
Machias lowered his orange and black beak and then nodded. "Aye, I'm sorry, brother." He lifted his face and met the gull's concerned stare with one of anxious hope. "I just don't want anything to change. I like the way things are!"
"I do too," Quoddy admitted with a little bob of his head. Lubec nodded too. "But things are going to change whether we like it or not. And almost certainly when we don't want them too."
Lubec turned his head at the ladder and then cawed, "I think I hear Davitt coming back. We can worry about this another time."
The three brothers agreed quickly, and when the lighthouse keeper returned with news that their lobsters were boiling away, they were their usual cheerful and playful selves again.
January 21, 708 CR
The Fellowship meeting was in full swing by the time the three brothers finally reached Metamor. They had enjoyed their day with Davitt trading news and savoring boiled lobster. They'd left the lighthouse behind the next morning and followed the river north, flying rather lazily and without much rush. They performed aerobatic tricks for a while, before stopping along one of the wider banks to chat with some of the Fish who'd surfaced to enjoy the faint winter sunlight.
They learned little more than Davitt knew, but the news was very exciting. All of them were astounded to learn of Duke Thomas's wedding, and it gave strength to their wings as they continued on their way north. They spent their first evening nesting in a rookery in one of the small villages lying just south of the curse along the river. The lady of the house had known their family and was always happy to put them up; apart from the usual she baked them little cakes that they tried to eat as daintily as possible; four months out on the sea living like real birds always ruined their once fastidious habits.
The next day they continued their unhurried voyage, passed the boundary of the curse that morning, and settled for the night in Goffs Oak. One of the local farmers welcomed them and gave them a warm place to stay for only the price of their tales of adventure down south. The farmer and his wife were both still human; the curses had swapped their genders, so that both of them could now honestly claim to be both fathers and mothers. Although three of their children had died young, there were those old enough to remember when their mother had been 'Dad', and those young enough to only know her as 'Mom'. And when they were there, they were treated like just three more of the boys, a fact that delighted them even if Machias was the only one of them still under twenty and young enough to reasonably call a boy.
On the third day they reached Metamor, the afternoon rushing upon them as the sun began its descent toward the mountains. It always felt strange to them to return, but within a few minutes, they waddled down the halls of the Keep waving to friends they hadn't seen since last Summer, and sharing gossip. They dithered only a little while as their webbed feet walked the ancient halls of Metamor and their eyes admired its splendor, before looking for the Fellowship hall.
They were met at the entrance by Jon the artificer in his vicious reptilian guise, and Norbert the man who had once been the fiancé of a prominent merchant now transformed into a rooster. They exchanged quick greetings, before being swept inside. The Fellowship hall was warmer than Sutthaivasse, and filled to the brim with reptile and fellow avian Keepers. They waddled to the sandy floor and enjoyed the warmth against their webbed toes, and began to regale their friends and several newcomers, including some who'd escaped the leper colony, with stories of their adventures.
They did love the Fellowship of the Egg. As much as they enjoyed the company of Davitt and their other mammal friends, there was nothing quite like being with fellow birds and even with the reptiles. Their excitement was as boisterous as the sheer exhilaration of flight. They hopped, cawed, spread wings, and hooted their delight as the words of their tales bounced back and forth from beak to beak. Many others listened with rapt fascination. There was even a lady alligator who'd not been cursed a month whose long body swayed to the rhythm of their words as if she'd always been serpentine.
Their warm welcome home to Metamor was interrupted when the massive lizard Copernicus bore down on them with an official look to his yellow eyes. "I see you three have returned. I need to speak with you for a moment. Can you excuse us?"
The brothers gave each other curious glances, then apologized to the crowd of reptiles and birds that had gathered around them. They followed the big lizard toward a corner of the Fellowship hall that had been left unoccupied. It was where Emily and her advisors debated matters of importance to the Fellowship, but there was nobody there now. Emily reclined on the Perch and waved to them, but turned to watch the rest of the Fellowship instead.
Once Copernicus had led them to the far corner out of earshot of even the komodo, he turned and nodded his head to each of them, "It is good that you finally returned. We were expecting you a few days ago."
"There were storms on the Sea of Stars," Quoddy explained. "We were going to report all that we saw and heard after the Fellowship meeting was over."
"And you still will," Copernicus replied. "But there's more this time. Duke Thomas himself wants to see you three." The lizard sighed as he looked them over. "I think he's going to be asking something very hard of you three."
Machias and Lubec both stiffened, small eyes widening and sharpening as they stared at the lizard, wondering what more news he had to tell. Quoddy cawed and tried to keep his wings still. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Copernicus admitted. "I was only told to bring you three with all possible haste once you returned to Metamor."
Machias gestured with one wing and his orange and black beak. "Can we stay for the rest of the meeting? I haven't even had a chance to sample the meats."
The lizard closed his eyes and sighed. "I'm afraid not. Take a few minutes to enjoy what you wish, but then meet me by the door. And don't tell anyone I let you have those few minutes."
The brothers all looked at each other, a genuine fear bubbling up in their chests. What could possibly be so important that they wouldn't even have a chance to enjoy their first day back.
Duke Thomas met with them in his personal study, with Copernicus, Misha, and Andwyn in attendance. The fox and bat were arguing over details on a map spread before them on the table, but their disagreement did not sound contentious. The horse lord sat with one hoof-like hand pressed against his brow, ears folded back in ponderous thought. When Copernicus ushered them in, Thomas nodded but did not smile. "Good, you've arrived. Now we can settle this. Do you prefer perches or chairs?"
"Chairs, your grace," Quoddy said, a bit intimidated as always to be in the Duke's presence. "Perches are for birds without webbing."
Misha and Copernicus retrieved three cushioned chairs, their backs decorated with a stylized version of the Hassan horse-head heraldry. The sea birds watched, their eyes taking in the warm interior of the study. Draped windows occupied the far wall, while rich carpets covering almost all of the stone floors. The walls on either side were occupied by bookshelves filled with rolled parchments, several books, maps, and various contrivances of lenses and mounts for use in studying intricate details for eyes not good at such things anymore. A stone hearth with escutcheon and crossed spear and sword displayed above roared with a pleasant fire. A mahogany cabinet flanked the doors, holding silver carafes and delicate wine glasses and goblets.
Once the chairs were in place, each of them, still as human shaped as they could be, climbed into the chairs, and then sat down, legs folded beneath them like a bird perching in a nest. The cushioned chairs were comfortable beneath them though their tail feathers did push against the back of the chairs; even though tail openings had been made they were too low for theirs. Still, they did not express this; it was rude to say so to their host, especially one as dignified as Duke Thomas.
"I'm sorry to have dragged you here on such short notice," Thomas began as the fox and bat ceased their argument to mull over the map. The horse lord gestured to that map and leaned forward. "But you three are the only ones here at Metamor who can do what we need. Misha?"
The fox nodded to Thomas and took a deep breath, "I'd really rather have one of my Long Scouts do this kind of work, but I don't have anybody who can go to Arabarb without being noticed." He put his paws on the map and they pondered over the many drawings. Quoddy recognized what he thought was the mountains, but the coastline was unfamiliar to him. He'd never gone north before. It just wasn't safe.
"This is Arabarb," Misha said as he traced out a crescent of land between the sea and the mountains. "It is heavily forested and very isolated. It also hosts one of only two known passes into the Giantdowns. And for the last nine years it's been under a disgusting man named Baron Garadan Calephas's control. He used to be one of Nasoj's lieutenants, but after the failed Winter assault he's sworn off that allegiance." Misha ground his knuckles into the table, hackles rising on the back of his neck. "He almost slaughtered us when we harassed the fleeing Lutin army last year. The man should not be underestimated. And as long as he controls Arabarb, there will never be stability in the western Giantdowns."
"What could we do against him?" Machias asked in obvious fear. The puffin shook his head and scooted back on his chair as far as he could go. "We can't fight anyone. We can barely pick up knives let alone swords."
"You aren't going to be fighting anyone," Misha said with a quick shake of his head. "If it was just a matter of defeating his armies, we'd have sent every dragon we have into Arabarb to burn his castle down. The bastard expects us to do something like that! We don't know all of his defenses, so we dare not risk a frontal assault like that. Not after what he's shown he's capable of."
"So what are we to do?" Machias asked, eyes flitting from the fox to the horse and back again. Lubec sat as still as a statue, moving only to blink and breath. Quoddy tried to keep his wings from fluttering. He did not like where this was going.
"We know that there are many in Arabarb trying to overthrow Calephas," Misha glanced at Andwyn and the bat nodded faintly. "But we don't have any contact with them anymore. But when we did, they made one thing very clear to us. Even if Metamor were to attack and kill Calephas, we'd be invaders and they would chase us out. We want to be allies with them. They want our help, but they don't want us to win the victory for them."
Quoddy cawed as his eyes studied the map. He'd learned some of his letters, but it had been seven years since he'd ever really tried to make use of that knowledge. He ignored the names on the map and focused on the depictions of mountains, rivers, and cities. The largest city in Arabarb was situated in very nearly the center of the forested expanse, along the widest river, and if he understood the map correctly, on a declivity. This must be the base of Calephas's power.
"They want to defeat Calephas and claim the victory for themselves," Quoddy mused. "To save face, to declare their independence, their bravery, what?"
"All three and more perhaps," Thomas replied with a slight tilt to his equine brow. "The exact reason is not that important. We want them to succeed. They were once allies to Metamor and they could be again. If Arabarb is a strong ally of Metamor again, Nasoj will be completely contained and even if we are never able to assault Nasojassa, we will never have to fear his power overwhelming us."
"Which brings us to you," Andwyn said softly. The bat's reddish eyes did not linger on any one of them for long, but passed back and forth to make sure they knew he considered them equals in this venture. "Before Calephas renounced Nasoj last year, we had several spies in Arabarb collaborating with the resistance. Nine months ago they were all exposed and killed. We have not been able to gain any good information out of Arabarb since."
"And you want to send us into that!" Machais squawked in horror. "I don't want to die too!"
The bat lifted his wings and shook his head. "We don't want any of you going into the capital, or even near it. You are all sea birds that are commonly seen in Arabarb for most of the year. We want you to stay along the coastline. Calephas's reach is weakest there. There you can contact the resistance movement. You will be conduits of information and protected as well as we can. There will be risk, I do not lie, but you should not be in the same danger the other spies were. They served in Calephas's household. Once that mage arrived, there was no way for them to hide. I only wish we'd been able to rescue them."
"Mage?" Lubec asked.
Misha grunted and seemed to grind his teeth together. The bat continued, his voice level but clearly sympathetic. "Gmork. That is his name. We know very little about him; we don't even know what he looks like. But we do know that he is one of the mages who helped Nasoj craft the curse. We believe he helped with the mind altering components of the spell."
Machias stared at him open-beaked. "The what?"
"The parts of the spell that made we seven act like animals, others act like babes, and others to be so filled with lust they could think of nothing else. We think Gmork aided with this. Regardless, he was able to see who in Calephas's household was a Metamorian by the telltale mark of the curse. They did not have a chance." Andwyn appeared to fume for a moment, then the bat collected himself and folded his wings across his chest like a monk meditating. "You shall keep well out of his reach. Do not take any risks on this venture. Your job is only to be contacts with the resistance. They are used to dealing with Metamorians; they will not be alarmed at your shape."
Thomas leaned forward and his warm breath passed over their beaks. "I know this is a lot to ask of you three. You have provided us many details of affairs to the south for years now. I ask you now to do the same for Arabarb. I would not ask it if it were not vitally important. Your lives will be in danger, but not in vain. Never in vain. And once Calephas has been overthrown and Arabarb freed, you will be heroes of Metamor and honored."
The three brothers looked at each other. Quoddy could see that Machias was scared of it, and that Lubec was resigned to it. His heart thudded against his breast. He too was scared, but he also knew there wasn't really any choice. Both were looking to him to be the big brother. To be the father.
He tucked his wings in close, and twisted his yellow beak back to the Duke. "Your grace, when do we need to leave?"
February 11, 708 CR
The brothers were used to eating what they could scrounge along the seashore without any human dignity or conveniences so the long journey along the coastline of the Dragon Mountains toward Arabarb provided no sacrifices there, nor in terms of sleeping arrangements which often consisted of nestling together in whatever rocky hollow they could find above the tides. What they weren't used to was having a dragon accompany them.
Pharcellus was a pleasant enough fellow... for a dragon. He usually flew much higher in the sky, and flying faster than they, would double back and circle around in a wide perimeter to make sure that all was clear for miles beyond what even the sea birds could see. And with his light gray underbelly, the winter sky proved a wonderful place for him to hide. But he wanted to eat meals with them and also sleep nearby. Both proved awkward even in the best of conditions. When they were flying near human settlements, the sudden appearance of a youthful and eager dragon tended to cause a bit of a stir.
"You know we're supposed to be discreet," Quoddy reminded him after a week of journeying together in which two times they'd witnessed villagers fleeing inside homes while what few soldiers they had would ready their bows.
But their companion was nonplussed, even when picking an arrow out of his hide. "They call these the Dragon Mountains for a reason. I'm neither the first nor the last dragon they shall see."
Pharcellus had been assigned to be their point of contact with Metamor. He could easily fly the many leagues back and forth from the extreme south of Arabarb to their home. Misha had wanted a more seasoned and sedate dragon, one less prone to sating a sense of curiosity that would shame a cat, but when the dragons who volunteered their services to Metamor decided who would take a particular mission there was no way to argue. As a rule, you simply did not argue with dragons.
Not that Quoddy, Lubec, and Machias didn't try to reason with him. Pharcellus did at least consent to not swooping in quite so dramatically when they passed by the numerous fishing villages that dotted the scraggly coastline. And he stayed completely out of sight when they passed Brathas, the one city of any size hugging the rocky promontories facing the Sea of Stars. But once they were past that he returned to his exuberant self. He loved to talk and wanted to know all about their adventures to the south.
"You know, you're a dragon," Machais pointed out one evening as they nestled into a makeshift rookery beneath an awning of granite while the surf raked the edge of the flat shelf. They selected it only because it was just big enough for Pharcellus to squeeze his serpentine body in. He had curled at the back with his wings tucked in tight, tail closing around them to keep the waves from splashing them. Bright blue eyes underneath crimson ridges regarded them with delight and curiosity. "Don't you have lots of stories to tell?"
Pharcellus's reptilian face creased into an unmistakeable smile and he replied, "But I've heard my own stories a hundred times or more. There's one about Duke Thomas's grandfather, my very first mission for Metamor in fact, and a brave and daring mission it was indeed, that I have recounted two hundred and fifty four times. And I've started it seventeen more before one of the other dragons groaned that they were tired of hearing it over and over again. I want to hear your stories. They're new to me."
And then, in a less impish voice, he lowered his head a little closer to the three birds and added, "Besides, I'm usually carrying Metamorians to and fro. It's so nice to have fellow fliers to travel with. I just... I just want to be friends that's all. Don't friends tell each other stories?"
"Just how old are you, Pharcellus?" Lubec asked in between shaking his wings to dry off.
"I will turn seventy-seven this August!" He tilted his gray-scaled head to one side, the long saw-toothed ridge on his back rippling with a sheen of moonlight. "I know that's old for you, but my kind ages more slowly. The elders promise to tell me why when I'm older." He shrugged his one shoulder and then lowered his long neck to the ground so that he actually had to look up at them. "So, could you please tell me a story? I love hearing about your adventures. It sounds so exciting to fly south and see the rest of Galendor!"
Once Quoddy realized that he could treat Pharcellus like a younger brother things went more smoothly. It seemed to satisfy some strange dragon desire the gray-scale possessed, and it amused his two brothers to no end. By the time they neared the southern shores of Arabarb they were all very glad for his company and began to regret the fact that their time together would soon come to an end. Once they left the mountain shores all safety would be behind them. Their sojourn in camaraderie would be over. The spycraft would begin.
The day came sooner than they would like. Quoddy estimated that it was half-way through the second week of February when they reached the final range of mountains before the ground eased into a long valley of hills, culverts, and fjords all draped in coniferous forests buried beneath a wintry gown of snow and ice. The land was quiet and still but for the arctic waves lashing the still rocky coastline. Pharcellus found a perch on a promontory of granite and invited the birds to nest at his feet.
"Arabarb," Pharcellus intoned somberly as he reclined on his haunches with tail curling around before his toes. It was the first time he had ever spoken with even a hint of dread. "This place used to be friendly. Now... now it is the home of one of our enemies. I cannot go any further, friends."
"Now it is up to us," Quoddy agreed, trying to muster enthusiasm, or at the very least, his courage. "There is a lot of coastline to cover. Does everyone remember the signals for the resistance?"
Machias bobbed his orange and black beak a few times, while Lubec shook the snow from his wings. The black cormorant then looked to his older brother and nodded once. "And our assignments. This is going to be a miserable summer; at least we won't have to stay here when winter comes again."
"Summer is five months away in this land," Machias added with a chirping squawk. "At least it shouldn't be too hard to find others of our kind. I miss the flocks."
Quoddy peered up at the dragon and cawed. "How will we let you know that we have a message to send back to Metamor?" And after a single breath he added, "And how long will it take you to go to Metamor and back again?"
The dragon turned his head to the east and stared at the range of peaks, craggy and forbidding. He rumbled deep in his chest and smoke curled from his nostrils. "A week and a half if I fly over the mountains. It will probably be less if I find another dragon willing to carry the message in my stead. We dragons of the mountains are very fond of Metamor and her people." This last he said with thick clawed paw over his chest where his heart would be. He returned his blue-eyed gaze to them and his snout creased in a familiar reptilian grin. "I cannot stay here or what few folk live here will begin to speak of the dragon at their doorstep. But I will watch this place. If you leave a fish here, I will see it."
"Won't a real bird just come and eat it?" Lubec asked.
Pharcellus laughed a booming but restrained laugh. A plume of smoke poured from his mouth and he grinned around the dark vapor. "Oh, no bird will dare come to this rock after I have finished what I intend this night! You'll know why when you come with your first fish, but don't let the fear stop you. I would never harm my friends."
The three brothers looked warily at each other but accepted their companion's assurance. Quoddy shifted about on the dragon's foot and cawed, "There is still plenty of daylight left today. We should probably be off."
"I will ask Angernil to say prayers for you, and may your Eli and Yahshua protect you on your quest." Pharcellus lowered his head and arms and gently touched each of them with a single claw. "You are my friends. Call me if you need me."
With that he gently scuffled his feet. They hopped off and moved to a protected alcove on the promontory. Pharcellus rose to all fours, walked to the edge of the shelf, spread his wings and jumped into the air with a powerful thrust. His tail nearly slapped the rock as he bolted up into the gray sky. They watched him for a minute before he disappeared amongst the clouds.
"Well," groused Machias, "I suppose it's time we started out."
"It would have been nice to summer together at Metamor," Lubec said with a long sigh. "But I guess we'll just have more stories to tell when this is over."
"Exactly," Quoddy assured his younger brothers with a gentle wing hug. "Now let's go find the resistance. The sooner Calephas is overthrown the better!"
February 14, 708 CR
On the third day out, Lubec the cormorant finally reached the headwaters of the Arabas river. They drove through the lowest lying hills and out past a small port village nestled at the bottom of a series of bluffs. The harbors were all encased in ice and he could see nobody about. There were several birds, but not as many as he was used to seeing. Smoke rose from the chimneys and there were a few lanterns lit inside homes. Somebody lived here at least.
Lubec circled down past the bluffs until he rested on a thatch roof that smelled faintly of pitch. The boats frozen into the harbor were fishing and crabbing boats. He could see a few cages left on the docks now coated in ice. The village would be patrolled, and he saw boots marring the snow on every wooden and dirt road.
A lighthouse stood overlooking both village and sea from the bluff behind him, but nobody had been in there either. That didn't surprise him as the day was relatively clear in all directions. The sun was even shining a wan light very low in the sky. He'd heard it said that in the summer the sun would stay in the sky almost all day long this far north. He was very grateful that it was almost two months past the winter solstice. He would have hated to have been here when the sun didn't shine at all!
It took him a few minutes to find the post at the southernmost dock with small bucket hanging off a metal hook. Lubec spread his wings and flew to the post; it was slick with ice and he nearly fell over the other end before his webbed feet managed to get a grip. The bucket was small, only big enough to hold a few lures and never any fish. Lubec pondered how he was to move it from the northern hook to the southern for several minutes before he settled on just picking it up in his beak. It wouldn't do to try to assume anything other than animal shape here.
Still, it took him a few dozen tries before he was able to pry the bucket loose from the ice and ease it over the top of the hook. Once he was certain of his grip, it was only a matter of turning around and dropping the bucket over the other end. He really hoped that nobody was watching who shouldn't be. His behavior had been rather unusual for a bird.
Once the bucket was in place on the southern hook, he jumped into the air and flew back to the village. He found a nice hearth to perch on. The smoke did an excellent job of warming him, although the aroma of cooked fish carried by the smoke reminded him that he hadn't eaten yet. But there was nothing to do about that. He settled down in the warmth and waited.
It wasn't until the sun had set an hour later that he saw a fishermen come out of one of the houses, he made sure to mark which one, and walk down the pier. The man, swarthy with braided beard and garbed in a seal-skin cloak, picked up the bucket and placed it back on the northern hook. He then made a show of checking the boats and testing the ice. He took at least ten minutes, Lubec reckoned, before heading back inside and easing open a window.
That was all the signal the cormorant needed. He glided from his perch and angled himself through the air until he settled on the window sill. The room beyond was small but warm, brightly light by fire over which a teapot was steeping. A small table was pushed against the wall on top of which was a cutting board, and various hooks and knives suitable to a fishermen. A cot covered in bear-skin furs occupied the corner nearest the hearth. The man sat at the table working on a bundle of ropes. He turned and nodded to the bird, eyes wide. "It has been many months since I've heard from Metamor," he said in a rough but quiet voice.
Lubec hopped into the room while the man shut the window. He latched both that and the front door. Pulling aside his cot, he lifted a small patch of wood and revealed a little cache in which Lubec could hide. "In case the patrols come," he added softly.
Lubec, seeing that it was safe, shifted into his most human form and stretched out his wings. It had been three days since he'd last changed and it felt good to be bigger again. "I'm just glad you're still here. I was beginning to worry that you'd been caught. I wouldn't have known what to do then."
The man nodded his head and turned to the pot. "I'm brewing some tea. I thought you might like something to warm your insides as well."
"Aye, thank you!" Lubec hopped onto the table and settled down in an avian haunch. "How go things in Arabarb? We've heard nothing for months."
His contact checked the steeping pot first, then poured two cups of steaming tea. He stirred both for several seconds while he pondered his response. "Things are... difficult. That usurper sends his patrols around every few days just to remind us he's still in charge."
"Where does he get men willing to serve him?"
The contact set the cup of tea on the table next to Lubec and then took a seat at the other end, cradling his cup in his hands and blowing on the edge. "The greedy bullies are always happy to join him. Many do so because they think it's the only way to keep their families safe. His soldiers are a mixed bag. A few of them help us in the resistance, but it's getting more and more dangerous for them to stay hidden."
"Because of Gmork?" Lubec asked as he moved to sip the tea. It was still too hot so he blew on it instead. The aroma was unfamiliar.
"Mostly. That blackguard has a way of finding out your loyalties. He and his puppies as folk call them. Not to their face, but..."
Lubec dipped his beak into the tea and drank. "Why puppies? That doesn't sound scary."
The man set his cup down and chuckled. "You'll learn soon enough. How many has Metamor sent? Are they prepared to topple Calephas at last?"
Lubec lifted his head and shook his beak. "Not yet. They want us to reestablish contact with you first. Then... then we'll... we'll see." A wave of dizziness hit him and he blinked several times. The man and the room swam before him. "I... I... was just... supposed... supposed." Lubec struggled to hold the thought but the world spun around him until all was black.
He awoke to find himself in complete darkness. He could hear the creak of oars and the splashing of water. He struggled briefly, but his body felt as heavy as lead. Somebody laughed with a rather guttural voice. And then a weary exhaustion claimed him again.
Lubec awoke next to find he was hanging upside down with rope tied around his legs like he was a chicken to be plucked. He tried to stretch his wings but they too were bound. His heart skipped in fear and he tried to open his beak, but it too was held shut by tight ropes. He glimpsed a figure watching him from nearby. It looked vaguely like a man, though the eyes were golden and there were flecks of dark gray fur around what might have been a slightly protruding jaw. And his ears looked pointed too and covered in tufts of the same fur.
"Awake?" it asked in growling tones. "Not yet!" Hands tipped with claws traced a sigil in the air and Lubec knew no more.
The next time he awoke he was standing upright with ropes drawn over his legs, wings and beak. He could hear the sound of water somewhere nearby, but it didn't feel like they were on a boat anymore. He was in a small chamber fashioned from dark stone with only a single wooden door leading out. Very clearly a cell.
Lubec felt very weak but at least he was awake. He struggled against his bindings for a moment but they were all too tight. He couldn't even bend his neck far enough to pry at the robes around his middle with his beak.
Somehow his contact must have been compromised. The tea had been poisoned somehow, and now he was in the hands of Calephas. His heart beat prayers filled with fearful pleas for deliverance. A single tear streamed from his eye, but he would allow himself only one. He'd known this might happen. Prayers offered, it was now up to him to find that opportunity for a miracle that Father Hough had once preached about.
He wasn't going to escape tied up like this, so the first order of business was in getting out of his bonds. Since he couldn't reach them with his beak or the little claws on his feet, perhaps he might be able to partially shift into a more human form. Yet what had once been effortless, now seemed an impossible task! No matter how hard he concentrated on growing fingers or getting taller, he simply could not make his body alter even a single feather or scale.
His attempts grew more panicked until a silken voice echoed through the doorway, "My spell prevents you from changing, Metamorian." Lubec instantly knew this to be true and he cowered back as far as his bindings would allow.
The door opened and in stepped a hunched figure who walked as if his legs were deformed. Nevertheless he dressed in fine clothes well suited to the north. The fur lining all of his cloaks looked like wolf fur. His face was squat with pronounced jaw and deep set eyes with dark tear marks in the corner along his nose. His long hair was waxen and a frosty blend of black and gray. He couldn't see the color of the man's eyes.
A second figure entered, this one the strange man-thing he'd seen on the ship when he last awoke. This one carried a lantern in one clawed hand, and in the other a dark bauble. The hunched man took the lantern and hung it on a black hook just inside the doorway. The bauble he rolled about in his palm. "You have done well," he said to the man-thing, and gently stroked his free hand down the other's head. The strange beast's face seemed to stretch with soft fur, nose darkening and flattening along the top until the visage resembled more an animal than a man. "Go tell Calephas that I will be done soon with this one. He'll want to be here when this one is ready to speak."
"Of course, Father," the strange creature bowed and closed the door behind him as he left. Could that have been one of the Gmork puppies? There at the end his face had assumed a wolf-like cast. And if so, was this hunched man Gmork?
"Ah, Metamorian, it is good to see more of your kind here in Arabarb. We thought you'd given up on us." The hunched man smiled and approaching, set the bauble two feet in front of Lubec. "But you do care for your neighbors to the north, do you not?"
Lubec hesitated, but slowly began to nod. There was something in Gmork's voice that passed not just through his ears, but through every fiber of his being. It was almost exhausting listening to him.
"But you come here under false pretenses. You think to liberate the people from Calephas's rule. A foolish and impossible quest." Gmork crossed his oddly shaped legs and sat down facing him. His smile showed sharp teeth. "You are a foolish bird. Foolish and fit for plucking."
Lubec shuddered and blinked, trying desperately to hold onto the training he'd been given in Metamor before each of his journeys to the south. Back then the thought of capture hadn't been taken too seriously. But now it had happened and he couldn't keep his mind clear. Every word from Gmork bombarded his thoughts like a hammer against glass.
"You really don't know what you've gotten yourself into. A little bird in a world too big for him. Too big. And you too small. The first person you meet is our ally. All of Arabarb is our ally. Because all of Arabarb trusts us to know what is best for them. You should too if you want to live. Do you want to live, little bird? Come on now. Nod your head."
Lubec had never felt smaller in all his life. Gmork gazed at him with a predatory hunger that only exacerbated the effect his words had. He wanted to crouch and fold in on himself until he was nothing more than a chick newly hatched. But the command was strong and he found his head bobbing up and down on his neck.
"Good. You know how to take orders. Were you ordered to come here to spy on us? Nod your head if you did so." Lubec nodded again. Gmork smiled anew, eyes briefly glancing down at the bauble. Lubec looked down as well. There was a faint glow in the small sphere, like a whisper of yellow light, the first spark that sets a fire to blaze.
"So Metamor is interested in us again. It was Metamor that sent you? The Duke himself. Nod for me foolish bird. You need to be told what to do, and you need to obey. You need to obey me. Your life depends on it. Did that horse send you here to spy on us? And his bat friend?"
Lubec nodded, no longer even attempting to resist. He couldn't hear or think of anything except what Gmork said. The light in the bauble continued to grow. He was captivated by it.
"Good. It is so easy to obey me, isn't it? You know that is what you wish to do. You want too listen to my voice and do as I say. Foolish birds like you know they must obey those smarter, bigger, wiser, and more powerful than they. I am all those things. Listen to my words, bird. Listed to me. Will you do as I say?"
Lubec struggled one last time, but then like a branch snapping, all will left him. He nodded, eagerly this time, a growing sensation, a conviction, that everything Gmork said was unvarnished and impeccable truth.
"Good. You are not so foolish then. Now, you who come to my home, you do so not to spy for Metamor anymore. No, you came because you wished to serve me. You delight in serving me. Your every wish, every desire, every thought is given in service to me. Is this not so?"
The bauble now glowed brightly enough to illuminate the floor and walls of the cell. Lubec's black feathers glistened in its ambiance. His eyes pulsed with adoration of the hunched man, his master, and he nodded eagerly, bewailing the bindings that kept him from prostrating himself on the ground and cawing his profusion of gratitude for being allowed to serve.
Gmork rose and picked the bauble up from the floor. Inside swirled an eddy of golden light. He turned it around in his twisted hands and smiled, fangs gleaming behind thin lips. "Oh, you are precious. Here, you no longer need those." He reached out his other and pulled the bindings about his beak loose.
"Oh thank you, master!" Lubec cried, his voice so birdlike and offensive in his ears.
"Silence for now." Gmork then undid the bindings around his middle and feet. Lubec stayed perfectly still the entire time. He did not even move to stretch his wings without his master's permission. Gmork straightened until he was in his hunched position and rubbed his chin with amusement. "Would you lay your neck between my fangs if I asked? Answer me."
"I will do so now if you ask!"
Gmork laughed and stepped back. "No, my foolish bird, I think you will serve us far better in other ways. One day you will satisfy my hunger though. I promise you this. I will tear out your throat and gorge on your entrails."
The raw and painful need to satisfy his master overwhelmed him. "Would that they would spill out at your command, my master!"
"We shall see. Ah, Calephas is coming. Good. Answer and obey him as you would me. Unless I say otherwise." With that he slipped the golden bauble into his furs and stepped back to the doorway. It opened and in stepped the puppy and a tall man dressed in aristocratic garb. His face was lined from the bitter winters of Arabarb and his eyes were intent and strong.
"Gmork, how is he?"
"Obedient and eager to serve," Gmork replied. "He is yours to ask, my Baron."
Baron Garadan Calephas looked at the bird and beckoned him to come closer. Lubec waddled a few steps closer and then shifted into his most human like form. He prostrated himself before the two he was beholden to obey.
"Good," Calephas replied. "Do you come to spy on me? Who sent you?"
"I was sent here by Duke Thomas, Andwyn, and Misha to spy on you, my Baron. Forgive me."
"You are forgiven, but now you must help me. Did you come alone?"
"No. My two brothers and Pharcellus came with me."
"Who are your brothers?"
"Quoddy, my older brother, and Machias my younger. They are birds like me, my Baron."
"What kind of birds?"
"Quoddy is a gull and Machias a puffin."
"And where are they now?"
"Quoddy is contacting the resistance along the southern coasts of your land, and Machias the northern coasts. I was to find the resistance near the river's mouth."
Calephas stroked his chin which was festooned with rough stubble. "And this Pharcellus?"
"He is our contact with Metamor. He's a dragon."
Gmork sucked in his breath and scowled. Calephas grinned as if he were privy to some hilarious joke only he knew. "A dragon? Interesting. Does anyone else know? What do they know of me?"
"I was told that Metamor has been unable to learn anything since my master came into your service nine months ago and all their spies were killed."
Calephas laughed this time, and he was joined by Gmork. The sound of his master's laugh filled his heart with delight. "Oh," Gmork said with a wide grin, "they weren't all killed. I helped them come into our service. Oh, well, the lynx was very tasty, as was that one woman and the little boy with the freckles. But the rest are faithful servants like you."
"We'll want you to bring your brothers into our service as well," Calephas said firmly. "This way we can tell Metamor whatever we want."
But Gmork shook his head. "No. They should be untouched. "
The puppy wilted some at those words, and Lubec also cringed. Calephas looked at the Gmork with a look of confusion. "Why not?"
"They have a dragon for a contact. The dragon may be able to see that they serve us and not Metamor. His brothers won't. Let his brothers pass the news we wish to pass back to Metamor. Let us keep them ignorant as long as possible until we can learn their plans or your own come to fruition."
Calephas pondered for a moment and then began to nod. "Very well. That seems sound. But if they should learn our defenses they will need to be taken. I'd rather Metamor know nothing at all than to know the truth."
Gmork nodded and turned his wonderful eyes upon Lubec. He lifted his head eager for the words of his master. Oh he hoped they'd be addressed to him. "Agreed. Now my little bird, it is time for you to go back to the shore and keep in touch with our contact, the one who brought you to us. He will tell you what you need to tell your brothers. They are your brothers, even if they are confused. You will give them no hint that you serve us but must make them believe you still serve Metamor. Now, go do this. My friend here will show you the way."
Lubec faithfully followed the puppy who no longer looked quite so wolfish out of the cell and through dark halls. He knew better than to cast a look back at his master. He would make himself worthy of his master's jaws one day. He sincerely hoped that his brothers would too.
April 1, 708 CR
"I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have the quarantine lifted," Duke Thomas said with a long sigh. He almost slouched in his chair as he regarded both Andwyn and Misha whose expressions were equally delighted. "The plague... took too many lives, but at least its over."
"And now we can get back to defending Metamor," Misha said with a short yip. "I've already sent the Longs on rotation and given Laura's team a week of rest. Give it another week and this place will be back to normal."
"As normal as it ever is," Thomas agreed. "So when are they coming?"
"They should be here in a moment," Andwyn replied with a faint shrug. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Again, Thomas let a heavy sigh escape his supple, equine lips. "It may be the only time. What information Pharcellus has brought has been troubling. I want Calephas gone and I can think of no better person to do it than him."
Misha crossed his arms over his chest and growled ever so slightly under his breath. "Well I for one do not like this plan. It's too risky. There's no reason to believe it will work."
Andwyn lifted one wing and shook his head slightly. "There is some reason. We know Calephas's habits and his perverse predilections. That does offer some advantage. It may be the only unguarded moment he has."
"The man eviscerated a Glenner and coated himself with his fat to survive the winter chill," Misha retorted. "All while still held in prison! He doesn't have unguarded moments."
The horse lord tapped one hoof-like hand on the table before splaying his two fingers and thumb across the map of Arabarb. "I however, do believe this plan will work. I do not know how it will be accomplished, but I do believe in the man I am going to send. Of all here at Metamor, there is none who knows that land or its people better than he."
Misha's one ear folded back against his head and he narrowed his eyes. "And do you think she can hold the spell you want on him long enough to make it work?"
"We will find out when we ask them."
Andwyn's large ears turned and he shifted on his perch. "They are coming down the hall now. We will have the answers to those questions soon enough."
The three waited in uneasy silence for less than a minute before one of the guards knocked on the door to Thomas's office and poked a bovine snout through. "Your grace, the mage Jessica and the timbersman Lindsey are here as you requested."
"Show them in, Andhun," Thomas beckoned with one hand as he rose to his hooves. His long tail flicked back and forth against his woolen breeches, the many hairs already beginning to tangle after Alberta's gentle brushing that morning. Through the doorway walked a large black hawk and behind her came a red-bearded northerner with dour expression. His beard was braided and looked recently trimmed. Both had a faintly worried look to their eyes.
Misha and Andwyn stood as well as Thomas did his best to smile to them both. "Please come in, both of you. I know you both just returned to Metamor and we are glad to have you back. It has been a very trying time for all of us, those stuck within and without the city. Please take your seats. Refreshments will be brought for you both."
"Will it take so long?" Jessica asked, her golden eyes widening anxiously. "Weyden and I were to meet with the Lothanasa this afternoon to discuss wedding times."
Thomas's ears perked, though the news was not a surprise. "Congratulations to you both. I hope this will not take long. We'll know quickly enough." Lindsey sat next to Misha while Jessica joined Andwyn on the perch. The bat tucked his wings in close and stepped a pace to one side to give her room. "My first question is for you, Jessica. We have all heard that you have learned how to manipulate the Curses. Specifically, we know you can temporarily give another one of the Curses they did not receive. How long do you think you can maintain such a spell?"
Jessica's eyes widened a bit, but her feathers puffed out on her chest in pride. "I am uncertain yet how long I can hold any particular spell. I do not think indefinitely, but perhaps a month. I did manage to keep Maud a giraffe for the last two weeks without any trouble, but I could tell that the spell was beginning to strain there at the end."
"How'd she let you convince her to do that?" Misha asked with a curious frown.
"For her wedding with Larssen who is a giraffe. They were married a little over two weeks ago and this was the wedding gift they asked from me. Captain Naomi offered them private quarters and well..."
Misha and Thomas both chuckled lightly. The horse lord knew well what newly married couples were wont to do. "That was a very kind gift."
"If I could master the art further, I might be able to make Maud a giraffe permanently. I know this would please Larssen and I think she's warming to the idea too." Jessica dipped her beak a little self-consciously and glanced back and forth across the table. "I've already had several requests from Keepers for other alterations. I'm going to have to start charging people for these services if this keeps up."
Thomas nodded thoughtfully and stroked the bottom of his chin with one finger. "Now I have another question. Could you design the spell so that it masks the Curse and itself from inspection? That is, another mage looking at them would not notice the spell?"
Jessica pondered that for a moment before nodding. "I think so, aye. It would be more difficult, especially if the spell is to last a month already."
"Good, good, and now one last question. Could you design it so that the person it is cast on can remove it at will?"
The hawk nodded and then cawed. "Aye, I could, but there'd be a price. Once it was removed, I don't think the person could bring it back. It would have to be a one time thing."
Thomas set his hand on the table and smiled broadly. "That is all I needed." He then looked at one of the pages standing beside the door, a young boy who had not yet been touched by the curses. "Cobb, tell Andhun to have the refreshments brought."
As the boy opened the door and passed the message onto the bull, Jessica glanced between Thomas and Misha. "I take it this means our meeting is not going to end quickly?"
"Not likely, no," Misha replied. "You can do what we need you to do, Jessica. I was dubious but his grace is right. This may be our best chance."
Lindsey, who had gazed down at the map of Arabarb on the table before them while they spoke, slowly stroked one of his braids and said without inflection, "The best chance for me to kill Baron Calephas. That is what you want, is it not?"
Misha and Thomas stared at the northerner in genuine surprise. Andwyn's eyes widened and he chuckled under his breath. "You are correct," the bat admitted. "I am curious how you came to deduce this."
Lindsey gestured at the map. "I recognize my homeland. And I know the evil man who grinds it beneath his boot and who has been an ally of Nasoj for many years. And I remember what he did to you last year," he glanced at the fox who nodded stiffly. Lindsey's lips broke into a slight smile. "Besides, I've known Pharcellus since before I came to Metamor. He ferried letters between me and my family before my journey to Marzac. I spoke with him yesterday when he returned from Arabarb and he was only too happy to tell me what his latest duty is."
Andwyn shook his head and sighed. "There's one less dragon I can trust on covert missions."
"He is reliable at accomplishing the mission," Misha pointed out. "Just not so much on keeping his tongue still."
Thomas tapped the table with his fingers. "Pharcellus's loose tongue is not an issue we can settle today. Lindsey, you are right. We want you to infiltrate Arabarb and assassinate Baron Calephas. You know Arabarb better than anyone here. And, it is your homeland; your people will feel much better about having you kill him than any Keeper."
"You speak truly," Lindsey replied. He took a deep breath and leaned forward, drawing his fingers across the eastern border where the mountains began. "My people will want to do this themselves, and though they will not mind your assistance, the final blow must be struck by my people. Pharcellus told me that you've sent three seabirds to contact the resistance there?"
"And they have," Andwyn added with a bit more delight in his voice. "What little we have been able to learn from them is that they have been severely hindered in the last year, but that they are gaining strength again. You will have no trouble finding them as we can bring you to their attention as soon as you reach Arabarb."
Lindsey traced a line across the mountains from Metamor to the southern extent of Arabarb. "I assume Pharcellus will be taking me?"
Misha nodded. "That was our thought. And since you both know each other already that will make things simpler."
"But it doesn't explain how I'm supposed to even get close to Calephas." Lindsey stared directly at Thomas. "Your grace, what do you wish me to do?"
The horse lord folded his hands before him and lowered his snout so that the lips nearly touched his thumbs. "Lindsey, what I am about to ask you to do will be a very terrible thing. I am ashamed that I am doing this, but I do not see any other way. I want Jessica to transform you into a boy." He waited only a second for that to sink it before he continued. "A very handsome boy whom Calephas will notice and take to his bed. There you will break the spell, and with your normal size, kill him."
Andwyn squeezed his wings a little closer. "It has a bit of poetic justice that he would die in bed."
Lindsey ignored the bat as he narrowed his eyes to mere slits. "You wish me to risk being raped by that monster so I might have an opportunity to kill him? What if he manacles me and I cannot change form? What am I to do then? Try not to scream too loudly to upset him? And what if I am discovered before I can strike? You asked Jessica if she could shield her spell from inspection and Pharcellus said something about Calephas having a mage at his beck and call. Do you know exactly what risk I am going into?"
"No, we don't," Thomas admitted. "We never do. There is always a chance this will end very, very badly for all of us."
"Me more than any of you," Lindsey pointed out.
"Aye, that is true," Thomas admitted. "But that is always true. Both Misha and Andwyn can tell you that. You yourself know it, both of you. I do not ask this lightly. But I assure you, I am asking. I am not ordering you to this, Lindsey. I am asking you. Can you do this?"
The door opened and Andhun entered with another older servant carrying a platter the smelled of pastries and little meats. Lindsey did not look up, but gazed down at the map with unblinking eyes. Those eyes poured over not just the map, but also memory of youth in that land. Even when a small plate of little sausages wrapped in freshly baked bread was set before him he did not stir.
It was only when Andhun the bull and the servitors left that Lindsey was able to lift his eyes and meet the Duke's questioning glance. His words echoed from within his chest and seemed make the walls tremble with their conviction. "I will do it. I will kill Garadan Calephas for you, your grace. And for Arabarb. Tell me what I need to know."
Jessica stretched out her wing and put it to Lindsey's back. "Oh, are you sure you wish to go? We need you here."
Lindsey looked to the hawk with profound sadness in his eyes. "I will ever miss the company of my dearest friends. But if all goes well, this will only be for a time. But this is my homeland. You would do the same for yours." His expression softened and he put his arm on her wing very tenderly. "I will dearly miss your wedding though, Jessica. I will find you both a gift this very afternoon; that is, if I have enough time to do so."
Thomas nodded. "We did not think you would be ready to leave until tomorrow morning as it is. The weather is good, so it should be no more than four to five days flight to Arabarb." The horse lord turned to Jessica. "Will that be enough time for you to ready your spell?"
She nodded and finally let her wing fall from Lindsey's back. "I believe so, aye. I can make you a child of the right age this evening so that you can find good sized clothes that fit."
"A very good idea," Misha added. "I have a large stock of winter gear in Long House you can borrow from. Spring may be here in Metamor, but I know it is still very cold in Arabarb."
Lindsey grunted. "The snows will have melted from the ground except where the wind made banks of them. The first flowers will be blooming about now. You should see it sometime, Misha, Arabarb is quite lovely in Spring."
The fox's perpetual moue lightened into a faint smile as he hoisted one of the blanketed sausages in his paw. "If you succeed, then I certainly will."
Thomas felt a great weight lift from his shoulders once Lindsey agreed to go. But there was still so much more to describe to prepare him for what he would face in his old home. He licked the last of his first pastry from his lips and gestured with one hand to the bat. "Now, I think it is time that Andwyn told you all that we know of Arabarb, the resistance, Calephas, and his pet mage Gmork. Even if you kill Calephas he may still be a threat. Andwyn, would you?"
And as the bat described in as much detail he could muster, the Keepers listened and ate. Lindsey absorbed every mite of information he could.