Hough's Secret

by Charles Matthias

March 25, 708 CR

The morning dawned with a heavy layer of fog coating the southern half of the valley up to the walls of Metamor Keep herself, but by midmorning, except for a few secluded woodland dells, the Spring-time sun had burned it away leaving a a pleasant aroma to the air of all the wildflowers and blossoms now coming into bloom everywhere. Heavy clouds settled over the Dragon Mountains suggesting that rain and strong winds were in their future, but they would come in the evening if at all. Nothing could dampen the spirits of Keepers freed from the grip of the plague.

Although the appearance of a Metamorian garbed in black robe with the red cross of the Questioners on his chest certainly annoyed most who saw him.

Father Felsah paid scant attention to the ugly looks he received as he walked down the streets of Metamor, prayer book in hand and new lips and tongue murmuring the ancient and ever renewing prayers for the midday hours, while at his side trotted the golden-furred dog Rakka. He was long used to receiving such cold welcomes; he only hoped in time that his service to these people would soften their hearts to the red cross. In the nearly four weeks he had been in the Valley now everywhere he had gone he'd been treated with a mixture of trepidation, indifference, curiosity, and outright scorn. A few, such as Sister Sho Rosewain of Jetta, had been grateful for his efforts and looked to him as a priest and not a tyrant's hand. But most could not see past the fears and ill-wind the red cross had sown in years past. Only time, charity, and grace could heal those wounds.

He had not ventured through Metamor since Bishop Tyrion had appointed him to the valley, partly because of the plague that had gripped the city, but mostly because he had spent the last three weeks walking on foot through the southern towns and villages, speaking with all the Followers he could find to learn of their needs and to judge the state of their spiritual lives. There were more Followers to the north of Metamor and he would soon walk amongst them and learn what he could. Only then would he be able to make an appropriate recommendation to the Bishop on how best to proceed in strengthening the faith and fidelity of this remote but stalwart people.

But for now, he looked forward to a few days of rest and perhaps a bit of relaxation if Madog were about. The mere thought of the metal fox brought a smile to his altered face as he continued his prayers. Still smiling, something that came so much easier to him now, he focused his thoughts anew on the prayers, singing Eli's praises for the world and its many wonders, recognizing in the beauty each thing possessed the glory and might of their creator. Even the variety of the shapes of those living in the Valley, which he now shared in, came about by what they spoke of as a Curse, but what he could see as both blessing and burden. How challenging it would be as he discovered all of the burdens his new form gave him, but also the multitude of blessings hidden within.

One of which alerted him to the mocking, foul laughter surrounding him. Rakka growled as Felsah looked up from his prayer book at a quartet of men, one of them human in mid-thirties, the others animals. He recognized a leopard, some form of cattle, and a round-eared canine with stocky snout. The bull had his arms crossed over his swollen chest, wide nose twitching as he stared down at Felsah.

"Well, well, well, looks like the Questioner got cut down to size. Who's going to keep you safe now, priest?" The bull dragged his hoof across the stone road as if he were going to charge. The dog wagged a short tail as he barked a laugh, while the leopard stretched his claws and the human cracked his knuckles.

Rakka continued to growl, lowering into a defensive crouch. Felsah noted each of his assailants without rancor or fear, merely sighing in dismay. "Yahshua has already promised to protect those who love Him and do His will." He folded the prayer book, leaving one finger at his page so he could return to it later. "Is there anything I can help you with, good sirs? I'm afraid I am new to Metamor but I will do what I can."

The human smirked. "You could hold still."

Rakka's growl deepened. Felsah put one hand on the golden-furred dog's back, but this did little to still the animal's anxiety. The four men surrounding him laughed all the more. Beyond them several others traversing the streets of Metamor had stopped to watch the commotion. "I do not wish to see any of you in trouble with Metamor's Watch. Nor should you imperil your souls on account of me."

"Oh we're not going to hurt you," the bull said, while his friends laughed and moved nearer. "We're just going to make sure that you can't hurt any Keepers, Questioner!"

The ever-present anxiety the Curse had given him warred with his Questioner-imbued command of self. After a sharp intake of breath he quelled his new instincts and brought the stolid mask across his new face. "I will not, and have never, brought any Keeper to harm. Tell me, you who believe otherwise, what of you? Are you Follower? Pagan? Or heretic?"

The leopard growled. "We follow the Canticles, not some old man in a far away land!"

"Heretics then," Felsah said with a heavy sigh. "My concern is with the Followers here at Metamor, not any of your kind. You have nothing to fear from me."

"Yeah, you blackies are all liars!" The man said as they all took a step closer.

"All of you!" the bull joined in, stomping one hoof after the other as he lumbered near.

Rakka snapped as they tried to get in closer, while Felsah did his best to steel himself against whatever these four wished to do to him. But even though these four gazed down at him with a fiery hunger, something approached from behind them and to Felsah's right that cast a shadow over all of them. Heavy footfalls made the stone throb beneath his sensitive feet. And then large mottled green and brown hands grabbed the canine and the leopard and yanked them off their feet.

All eyes turned toward the Keeper who stood another two heads higher than any of them, his head crowned with a wide fan and fixed with three long horns. His face ended in a gray beak which opened with a heavy rumbling like a mill grinding wheat to flour. "You heard Father, you have nothing to fear from him. But you do from me if you don't leave him alone! No matter how big you are, no matter how strong you think you are, there is always, always, someone out there who is stronger or bigger yet!"

The bull and man stared wide eyed as their friends struggled in the monstrous Keeper's grip. Rakka stopped growling and began to whine uncertainly, but Felsah kept his hand firmly pressed against the dog's back even as he struggled to keep still. "His kind have murdered our ancestors!" the bull snapped after falling back a few paces. He stood a little taller, sneering at the scaled man holding his friends. "He doesn't belong here!"

"And the Watch will throw you all in the dungeon for attacking a priest," he said in a deep basso that echoed from his large chest and seemed to make the air thicker as it passed. He gave both dog and cat a firm shake and then tossed them to the ground on either side. "Now run. Or I'll make sure you can't."

The dog looked ready to reach for his dagger, but his eyes noted the tree trunk thick legs and tail with which the Curse had gifted this Keeper and thought better of it. The bull snorted, gave Felsah one last evil look, and then the four of them scattered back into the crowd. The people watching parted to let them through, noted who it was they'd tried to assault, and then went back to their business selling, trading, and gossiping.

Felsah looked up at his rescuer, and continued looking up. He couldn't judge heights as well now that the Curse had changed him, but he figured this scaled creature had to stand at least twenty-four hands high. He couldn't fathom how many stone he weighed; probably more than two destriers together! Still, he did his best to smile as he spoke. "Thank you, good sir." He made the sign of the yew and said, "May Yahshua bless you for your kindness. I am in your debt."

The man's booming voice seemed hesitant, almost nervous. "You owe me nothing, Father. I am glad I was here to stop them. I had never thought to see a Questioner here, not after what I'd heard from the other Keepers."

"I had not thought to come stay here either, but that appears to be Eli's will. I am Father Felsah. Who might you be?"

The three-horned creature lowered to one knee, his long, thick tail stretching out behind him. "Zachary... formerly of Bradanes."

Felsah's lips twitched at that befouled city's name. He stroked Rakka behind the ears and the golden-furred dog began to wag his tail. "You have suffered much then, Zachary, you and all your brethren."

"Most of my family made it here safe," he said with a long sigh. "Would you believe I was once the smallest of all my brothers? Even my sister was stronger than me, even before that poison made us hide in rags." A horrible darkness filled his yellow speckled eyes and his thick fingers balled into fists as large as melons.

"That time has past, good Zachary," Felsah assured him with a faint smile touching his cheeks. It was hard to look up so high, and so the Questioner let his gaze descend across his rescuer's body until they returned to the old stone road through the center of Keeptowne. The strange reptilian man bore a large brown tunic and breeches with a simple black tabard draped over his shoulders and clasped at his chest. A large sword taller than Felsah had been before the Curse's had claimed him rested at his hip with a quillion at least a cubit across. His feet were not covered by any sort of boot – so much leather would have been difficult for a soldier to afford – and while he did not stand on his toes like many Keepers, his feet could hardly be described as human either. Though the heel was familiar enough, each of his four toes was roughly the same size, ending in a dark gray, swollen nail more akin to the elephants brought from the eastern jungles or the southern steppes.

"Aye," Zachary agreed with another long sigh. "Amen. You were headed somewhere, Father? I could accompany you."

Felsah lifted the heavy prayer book and then pointed it northward at the castle. "I am going there; I will speak with Father Hough at his convenience. I will likely tarry a few days more, then I must be off to see the rest of the Valley and the many Followers like we who now make it home."

Zachary stood up, turned toward the castle, and with a deep chortle said, "Then let us go to the castle. I would be honored to accompany you, Father Felsah."

He felt a strange delight at this towering behemoth's generosity and so nodded. "I would be grateful for the company." Together they walked down the street, though Felsah noted within a few paces that Zachary was deliberately slowing himself to avoid tiring the priest. "Although I had my youth in the Holy Land, I have traveled many places in Galendor, and a few in Sonngefilde as well. But I have never seen a creature quite like you. Forgive my impertinence, but what are you, Zachary?"

The rumbling chortle met his sensitive ears like a distant peal of thunder. "I'd be amazed if you had known. I'd never heard of it either, nor had any in the Fellowship. Oh!" Though Felsah couldn't see it, the surprise in his companion's voice sounded like self-admonishment. "A komodo, Emily, told me that it's a creature that died out in this land many centuries ago. She says the Tened called it a Kharrakhaz." He rolled the 'r' for half-a-second in the strange word, the consonants harsh and whistling.

"The Tened?"

"An ancient race that used to live in this valley those many centuries ago." His voice grew distant and uncomfortable. "I don't know much about them... you'd have to ask Emily."

His tongue did not like the name, but he did the best he could. "So what does Kharrakhaz mean in our language? Anything?"

Zachary's voice regained its good humor. "Three horned herd beast, Father. Nothing more than that."

Felsah chuckled lightly as they walked. Rakka kept between them, and Felsah kept one hand on the dog's back. The frightening men were gone, but Zachary was still just a little too large and strange smelling for his four-footed friend's comfort. After a brief silence, he offered, "It is an apt description judging by your appearance. Are there any others like you?"

"Nay, though there are other Keepers who have taken guises not seen in these lands before. E'en you, Father. I do not recognize the creature you have become. A mouse of some sort, I'd say, but not what kind."

Felsah nodded, his long tufted tail flicking back and forth behind him as he almost hopped each step beneath his shortened black robes. "It is a little creature akin to a mouse that lives in my homeland. They are desert dwellers, hiding in the rocks and in holes, coming out at night to forage and frolic. They are very fast on their legs, and they live such short lives, but they are hardy for all that, and I have enjoyed watching them in the past when I've been so fortunate to see them." He glanced at the slender tan-furred arms he now bore, and the small hands and fingers tipped by a short claw, and twitched his whiskers in amusement. "A jerboa as we call them. It means hopping mouse."

Zachary looked nearly straight down at him, bending his neck in what must have been an uncomfortable angle. And he had to because Felsah was now not quite nine hands high at the top of his long, round ears. "Pardon me for saying it, Father, but you don't seem to be hopping."

"I am trying very hard not to." So saying he moved his hips one at a time, his long legs, hidden beneath his robes, taking each step one at a time, the short claws tipping each toe brushing against the inside of his black robe as they reached the cold paving stones. "My first hops tangled me badly in my Questioner garb, and poor, sweet Rakka thought I was trying to play with him." He offered the dog a quick scratch behind his ears. "In his enthusiasm, he accidentally plucked out one of my whiskers; it hurt more than I thought it would."

Zachary glanced down at him and grunted before returning his attention to the busy market road. They were moving down the main thoroughfare and passing into a large square filled with merchants and Keepers out buying anything and everything they could after the drought from the plague. Stalls with boisterous men announcing breads, cheeses, potatoes, salted meats, onions, cabbages, spices, eggs, and even fresh milk made Felsah's nose twitch and the nostrils on either side of Zachary's beak swell. This scent was mixed with a rich panoply of animal musks both Keeper and otherwise, a variety of exotic perfumes, soaps, and candles. Felsah's ears were inundated by a cacophony of voices so richly varied that he almost felt as if he'd stumbled upon an exotic animal show in the middle of a farm at the edge of a lively forest with a small lake in which every fishing beast was currently plying their trade and bragging about their catch. Pinions, banners, and bright colors assaulted him on either side as each of the merchants newly returned to Metamor tried to attract Keepers with as bright and as bold a display as they could manage.

In this maelstrom the trio plunged, but they needn't have worried. The merchants only ever briefly glanced their way; whether it was from intimidation at Zachary's size and alien shape or the red cross and black robe draped over Felsah's body he wasn't sure, but he was grateful not to have to politely decline a dozen or more desperate princes of ware, coin, and road. It also made it possible for him to ask a question that had been gnawing at the back of his mind for some minutes.

"You do not seem to be afraid of Questioners. Why is that?"

Zachary flexed a mottled brown and green hand and grunted, the edges of his beak twisting as much as they could into a frown. "It's not because I'm bigger than you, Father. Even if our shapes were reversed I wouldn't be afraid of you... well, maybe a little intimidated, but not afraid." His moue lifted a moment and he gazed upward at the spires of the western half of Metamor castle. "We had a Questioner at Bradanes. He was a good old man who taught me my letters and how to pray. I used to go hide in his cell when I was little to escape the bigger boys." The Kharrakhaz laughed, a trilling rumble that made a few nearby merchants briefly look up in alarm. "I think he wanted me to become a priest like him, but after he died, my father had me apprentice with a weaver; my hands were small and nimble then."

He waved his thick fingers and then shook his head. "Father Ellis taught me the Canticles and the faith in a way that everything made sense. He said that was how all Questioners were instructed and I rather liked it."

"Did you wish to become a Questioner?"

Zachary shrugged. "I might have at one point. But now I'm big and strong, and so I'm trying to use that to protect everyone here. That seemed the most important thing to do."

Felsah nodded and smiled. It was good to hear that there were other Questioners out there who did not abuse their authority or revel in it like so many others he had seen and felt powerless to stop. "That is very noble of you, but do not think that those are the only things that matter. Your faculties may require more; they may expect more of you."

"I know," Zachary nodded. "But I can do these things for the first time in my life. I want to follow this path for a while and see where it leads me." In a softer voice, though one still deep that seemed to whisper first from his massive chest and then cascade down from his beak, he added, "I'll always follow the Ecclesia first."

"I am glad to hear it, Zachary. And thank you again for aiding me. Let us speak of other things for now. Tell me of your family. How many made the journey from Bradanes safely?"

Felsah and Zachary talked of family, their homes, and the new lives they had at Metamor as they continued toward the Keep. Once they reached the stone castle, Zachary looked uncomfortable as he ducked his head beneath each transom and kept wary eye that he did not strike his horns or frill on any crossbeams. When Felsah asked if he were all right, Zachary only commented that he felt cramped indoors.

"It's one of the few things I don't like about my new size, Father. Only a few buildings are big enough for me now."

"And the other reasons?"

"I have to eat... a lot!"

The hallways did lift higher, arching sufficiently above their heads as if the Keep itself had heard his companion's complaint, as they made their way to the Follower Cathedral. The journey was just long enough for them to finish their final thoughts when they wide doors came into view. "Well, here we are, Father," Zachary said and stopped where he was. "It's been a joy and an honor meeting you. I'd wait for you, but I must report to my commander. My troop is going out on patrol tomorrow and I don't want them to have to search for me."

Felsah offered him a quick blessing and thanked him against for his aid and his delightful companionship on the long walk from Metamor's markets to the Cathedral. As a man it would not have been so arduous a walk, but as a jerboa with his much shorter stature, it, like everything else, seemed to be twice as far. If he hadn't already walked along the roads through the valley in this new form, he would have been completely winded. As it was, he was looking forward to a few minute's rest.

On entering the Cathedral, the jerboa reached up, dipped his paw in the holy water fount, and then made the sign of the yew over his chest. The water dribbled across the bridge of his nose and flicked off one of his whiskers. He wiped it back with one paw, and then took a few tentative steps inside the vast hall, heart beating in awe as he saw the warm colored light pour through the clerestory windows and bathe the open stone floor and the sections filled with wooden pews for those too weak to stand or kneel during Liturgy. That light illumined ancient paintings and tapestries that adorned the walls, each showing some scene from the life of Yahshua or the saints of older times. Statues of Mother Yanlin, angels, and of Yahshua were interspersed between them, while the Stations marked each column lining the inner arch of the cathedral. At the far end against the wall, gilded in gold and silver, inlaid with ivory, and fashioned from marble and wood was the high altar, the tabernacle, and the yew with their crucified Lord hanging in atonement for their transgressions. Felsah knelt to one knee and struck his breast with his paw three times before rising again. Rakka nudged him with his cold, wet nose while he knelt, but stopped once the jerboa gave him another scratch behind the ears.

Off to his right he found Father Hough standing with his six seminarians kneeling on small pillows before him. Felsah kept back by the vestibule and watched as the boyish priest conducted his lesson, the seminarians listening with rapt attention. One of the other boys was stringing a set of prayer beads as he listened, eyes never even leaving Hough as his hands worked with confident precision.

But Felsah could not go unnoticed forever, and after a few minutes recitation on liturgical norms for the burial of the dead, Hough noticed him standing there. The priest's eyes widened in surprise as he recognized the Questioner, but he continued the lesson for a few minutes more. The seminarians asked him a few questions once they were complete, and Felsah nodded in approval at several whose minds had delved to the heart of the matter. The chameleon Patric seemed especially good at divining a clear-thought question regarding points of doctrine.

Once the last of the questions were offered, Hough gave them their final instructions. "Now, I want each of you to spend at least a half hour in meditation before the altar. Then, you are to continue meeting with our brethren in Metamor. You are to learn who is in need of prayer, who is need of charity, who in need of healing, and, who may need some gentle correction. Do this until Vespers. Eli bless you, my children."

They all claimed their pillows and headed silently with heads bowed in reverence toward the altar to offer their prayers and meditation. Felsah watched them go for a moment, grateful that there was so many already here at Metamor, and then followed after Hough who had moved toward a wide, oaken door nestled between two tapestries. The boy said nothing as he held it open for the Questioner and his dog, and a moment later they were inside a comfortable sitting chamber with a small fire already crackling in the hearth. A lantern stood by the door they passed through and another hung from the far wall, giving the room a comforting glow.

Hough shut the door behind him and said with a subtle resignation mixed with genuine hospitality, "Welcome back to Metamor, Father Felsah. How may I be of service?"

Felsah hopped into one of the two chairs, and Rakka curled up beneath his dangling feet. The fire warmed both his feet and hands, each of his long claw-tipped toes curling and stretching as the chill of pavings stones finally left them. "Just by offering your company for a short time, Father Hough. I'd hoped to arrive in time for Sunday Liturgy this morning, but... the Curses have made my stay here in Metamor a permanent one as you can see and they have also slowed my pace. I know that my first visit to your parish caused unrest and heartache. I hope that will never again be the case. Do me the favor of sitting with me and sharing news as one priest to another."

Hough nodded thoughtfully as he strode to the upholstered chair opposite Felsah's and sat down, his legs also unable to reach the floor. They looked like children play-acting as if they were grown men gathered to discuss affairs of the land. And in some sense that was exactly what they were.

"Forgive me, it is not that." The boy sighed and curled his hands around the arm rests. "The plague was very trying on all of us. It's been about two weeks now since it was defeated, but I still have trouble sleeping sometimes. I'm glad to see that you are well, Father Felsah. And, judging by your shape, it seems the Curse likes to humble us priests with small, weak forms. I heard that Father Malvin became a child like me too."

"Not always," Felsah replied with a small squeak. "Father Purvis has become a hippopotamus."

"A what?"

"Hippopotamus. They are sometimes called river horses. They come from the rivers of Eavey and are much wider and bulkier than any horse. He was very grateful when I told him what it was that he'd become. I cannot quite seem to do that with everyone it seems. I met Zachary of Bradanes on my way here."

Hough blinked and then laughed. "Ah yes, Zachary. He told me once what it was he'd become, but I can never remember it much less pronounce it! The poor fellow broke the wall of the Confessional when he tried to leave it last time. He offered to sell his sword on the spot to pay for the damages."

"He does seem a very pious man," Felsah agreed. "He rescued me from a quartet of Rebuilders who thought to attack me near the market."

The boy priest frowned. "Who were they? I can tell Misha Brightleaf and he can see to it they learn to behave themselves."

Felsah recalled well that Misha Brightleaf was a fox of authority at Metamor and also a Rebuilder who once lived in Marigund. He was also the man who'd rebuilt the automaton Madog who'd befriended him on his first visit to Metamor and who had later saved him after he'd been nearly beaten to death. He didn't know what relationship Hough and Misha had, but it seemed that both wanted to maintain peace between Keepers.

Still, he had to shake his comparatively large head. "I never learned their names, but I can describe them." Hough listened as he did his best to describe the bull, the leopard, the round-eared canine, and the human male who'd surrounded him. Two of them Hough knew but the other pair was unfamiliar to him.

"I will pass this along to Misha when I see him next. He'll make sure they know not to make such threats again."

"Thank you."

Hough smiled a little, and then his cheeks flushed with warmth. "Tell me, you have been traveling the lands to the south of Metamor. What news do you bring? We've had nothing more than rumor and I have been too busy to listen even to that. Father Purvis has changed, that is good. But what else?"

Felsah's whiskers twitched and his incisors ached to chew on something. The knight rat Sir Saulius and his squire Matthias had both carried wooden staves with them that they chewed on whether their incisors ailed them. He had not yet settled into the practice but he knew that he would have to. "Do you have something I could chew upon? My teeth hurt. I'm not used to this yet."

Hough bounced out of his seat and practically dashed to the cupboard at the far side. "I am a terrible host. I have some that Thimble keeps here when I teach them here. Would you care for some cider, Father Felsah? It is a family recipe; most have enjoyed it."

"Thank you again. That will suit me very well."

The boy returned first with a broken branch from a birch tree as long as his arms which Felsah gratefully set between his teeth. It felt good to work them over the wood, digging into the sinew and pulp, wearing down the edges of his constantly growing teeth. While Hough rummaged through his things for a pair of cups, Felsah told him between bites, "There is not much news to share. The Follower communities seem strongest in Jetta, Lorland, and the Iron Mines. There are small pockets now springing up wherever the refugees from Bradanes have settled. They have settled everywhere, wherever they can find a place to work and make their new home."

"Oh they have no choice in that!" Hough called over his shoulder as he poured a sweet and acrid broth. "There's not enough room in Keeptowne for them all, nor any of the other cities in the Valley. So many families have already been broken by the plague, and now far too many are being broken up further. It is very sad."

"It is," Felsah agreed. "But I have never seen a people more glad to be alive than they. They have brightened every village I have passed through. And they have taken on any job, no matter how humble that they can find."

"Metamor is certainly stronger thanks to them," Hough noted as he carried both cups back. He handed one to Felsah, and then climbed back into his chair. "It is better warm, but I need to clean my pots again before I use them."

Felsah sipped the cider and his tongue danced in delight at the fruity pungency. He nodded, wide eyes blinking. "This is very good. Thank you. The repairs to defenses in Jetta are moving along. Sister Rosewain is organizing matters very well there. They live near enough the boundary of the Curse that a priest from Midtown visits them every few weeks. They will eventually need a priest of their own, but I think they will be fine for a time as they are."

He chewed on the stick of wood again for a few seconds before continuing. "The Iron Mine definitely should have its own priest. Many of the people there are Lothanasi, but the relative safety of that land, and the certainty of finding employ in the mines have brought hundreds of refugees there. They've built their own little town within the town, scavenging whatever they can to build their homes near the foundry walls. It is a vile place to live, and to his credit Lord Christopher is trying to make room for them in the city proper, but there's only so much space. As many as four families are trying to live in a room no bigger than this. Until they can expand the city walls, there's nowhere for them to go."

Hough frowned and curled his hands around his cup. "I hadn't realized it was that bad there. The Bishop didn't say anything of this."

"He didn't see it. It was only just beginning when his grace passed through Iron Mine. Since Metamor has been under quarantine, all the refugees that might have come here have gone either to Lorland or Iron Mine. At least in Lorland there is plenty of space and there are vast fields which they can indenture themselves to, but not so in Iron Mine."

"Do you have any ideas?"

Felsah took a sip of the cider and shook his head, long tail flitting against the back of the chair and then up behind him, the tuft curling back down to nearly rest between his ears. "There is nothing to be done except to assign a priest to that city at once." Hough's eyes widened in surprise. "Somebody who can be with them, work at their sides, and share their lives is what they need. Then they will know what it is they can do to help. We are too far away to know what's best."

"We could send them aid. If there weren't so many still trying to rebuild after the attack a year past, I would start up a collection today."

"And I know you will be met with great generosity. The people of Metamor have a deep faith and even more so, a deep brotherhood with one another."

Hough smiled and nodded. "You've not been with us long and you can see that already."

"It is hard to miss."

"Yet so many do," Hough added with a long sigh. "How is Father Purvis adjusting to his change?"

"Well enough and with good humor. He doesn't have a single piece of clothes that still fits him so he was reduced to wearing a bedsheet when I first saw him."

"Oh my!"

"The people of his parish were quick to sew new garments for him, and by the time I left him he had a good pair of tunic, breeches, and a start on the vestments he'll need." Felsah set the half-filled cup of cider on the flat portion of the arm rest and pulled his legs underneath him so that he was crouching on the seat. The discomfort he'd been suffering left immediately. After reclaiming the cup he took a long drink, his tongue lapping up the sweet brew in quick gulps. "He's spent his time readying a chapel, and visiting with every Follower family, as well as many Lothanasi just to introduce himself."

"And what do they think of Father Purvis?"

"The Lothanasi aren't sure what to make of him, judging by what I'd heard while I was there. But the Followers already love him and are so grateful to have him there. I think he was an excellent choice and he's proving it even after only three-and-a-half weeks."

Hough smiled widely and visibly relaxed. "That is good news. I have tried not to worry, but... it is difficult at times not to."

"Given what you have had to endure here, Father, worry seems a small thing, but never let it gain a foothold in your heart. Liturgies were offered for all here in Metamor, both in supplication and in thanksgiving when we heard the good news."

"And they were appreciated by all here," Hough replied, his smile returning faint as a dawn's first light. "Many nights I didn't sleep at all. Not because I couldn't, but because I was visiting families with those sick, hearing confessions of those dying, and offering prayers with as many as had gathered, hundreds at any hour I was here, from the moment the sun rose until the moment it rose again the next day. Some were so afraid they would not let even me into their homes to offer blessing or sacred oils. I spent six hours with a mother as she and her child wept as that same child lay dying from the plague. Without the help of the Sisters I may have taken ill myself, but their presence and cheer in the face of this gave me the strength I needed.

"And I needed it more than I could guess, as I faced the very source of that plague, an evil that had been brought in by daedra and demon alike. Our own priests had been possessed and had come to deliver this evil here. Our own..."

Felsah would have reached over to put a hand on the boy's shoulder, but he couldn't reach from so far away, especially as small as he now was. "All those you ministered have gone to Eli now. Eli placed you here, Father Hough. The reasons are beyond our count, but they point to the salvation of your own soul and the souls of all here in your care, and perhaps even those who are not in your care. It's over for now, but none will ever forget the love you showed."

"I trust you are right," Hough admitted and then took a deep breath. "How long will you stay in Metamor? I could use an extra set of hands, paws e'en, for a little while."

"His grace wished me to see all of the Valley first, but I had planned to stay for a few days at the very least. The community here is strong but they do have special needs. Tomorrow we can discuss what they are in greater depth, and I'll decide then. But I am your disposal while I am here."

Hough smiled faintly. "Thank you. You know, you don't seem as intimidating that way."

Felsah's jowls quivered in an attempt at a laugh but he stifled it. "If Father Kehthaek were here, he would say something along the lines of 'If I intimidate, it is only to show you how gravely important it is that I receive prompt and honest answers to my questions.' He was always the master of any conversation in which he took part. That is not a skill I have, nor do I want it. If I do not intimidate, then perhaps it is for the better. Although, I confess I wouldn't have minded being a bit bigger than this."

"You seem about the same size as the other mice I know. The rats are all a little bigger."

"It will be good for me, I suppose. Eli knows His will. Now, you said that there were priests who'd been possessed. What became of them?"

"They returned south as soon as Duke Thomas allowed them. They were in Metamor for about two weeks, but neither Bishop Josiah or Father Alexander showed any signs of the Curse when they left. Father Justin was struck two days before the quarantine was lifted, but as he became a child a little older than myself, he elected to return to Yesulam with the Bishop; he may return in late Summer or perhaps not at all. I would have liked it if he could have stayed, but... this isn't his home and..."

The only warning they had was Rakka lifting his head. A moment later a loud metallic clank jolted at their side and Felsah leaped straight into the air so high that he nearly banged his head on the stones above. A familiar voice riddled with enthusiasm barked, "Father Felsah!" And then the blue-eyed gray metal fox screeched to a halt and stared in stark wonder as he saw the jerboa land in the seat, the last remnants of his cider sprayed all over the floor and his robe. "You aren't a fox! I thought you'd be a fox."

Felsah sucked in his breath and tried to still his rattled nerves. "Nay, nay, I am not... not a fox. I'm a Jerboa, Madog. I don't think my body likes your surprise appearances anymore."

Rakka and Madog sniffed each other, before their tails wagged in excitement. Madog yipped once, then turned his head back to Felsah while Hough rolled back and forth in his seat laughing. "Not a fox.... jerboa are really small, Father. Now you can ride on my back!"

"Ride on... oh, Madog, maybe I will. But I can't right now."

Madog sat on his haunches and blinked those piercing blue eyes. "Oh? When can you, Father?"

"I don't know, but I'll find some time in the next few days. I promise."

Madog yipped again and jumped back to his paws so quickly that Felsah almost took another leap at the ceiling. He wrapped his left arm about the arm rest and shook his head in laughter to still his rodent nerves. Neither Sir Saulius nor his squire Matthias had been exaggerating when they'd described the self-mastery they'd needed to build after being changed into such excitable creatures as rodents.

Father Hough was still laughing like a the little boy he'd become. Felsah rubbed his robe together with one paw to dry the cider stain. "Why did you think I would be a fox, Madog?"

Madog and Rakka had begun circling each other again, sniffing playfully, but the mechanical fox turned back to the Questioner and, if he weren't mistaken, shrugged his shoulders. "She said you'd play with me too. I wanted to romp with you fox to fox!"

He chortled, a faint blush creeping into his large ears and burning beneath his cheeks. The utter innocence reached right through the layers of emotional control and pierced his heart as surely as the spear had pierced Yahshua's. And for a moment, he wished he had become a fox so that he could have taken to all fours and chased and be chased by his friend. But that was not possible.

"Well, that is why I was given Rakka, so there would be a friend to romp with you; and perhaps I can ride your back as we romp together."

Madog's tail wagged. "I'd like that!" He then lowered his front paws and lifted high his hips, tail quivering as he mock snarled at Rakka. The golden-furred dog barked and then the chase began, running around in circles through Hough's sitting room. The boy got control of his laughter and pulled his leg up into the chair to keep out of their way. For a few minutes they watched in delight, neither speaking, the only sounds the crackling of the fire, the clank of metallic paws, the skittering of Rakka's claws, and the yipping and barking of two canids at play.

"So," Felsah asked after the two had settled into a game of tug of war with a bit of rope attached to a length of thick chain – apparently Rakka wasn't the first dog to play with Madog – "the three are on their way back to Yesulam. Did they say if they would send message once they arrived?"

"Aye, and Father Justin said he would send word if he were to be assigned to Metamor. Perhaps you can make reference to this when you tell his grace Bishop Tyrion what Metamor needs from him."

"I will. Which brings me to something I did wish to mention. Nobody seems to have heard of him, which has me worried, as I thought for sure he would have reached this place ere I did." Hough leaned forward in his seat, curious. "You know that Bishop Vinsah arrived in Yesulam, where he was excommunicated; I helped him escape, but afterward I have heard nothing of him."

Hough's eyes flashed for a moment and then they grew cold and inward, his cheeks withdrawn as the boy slowly leaned back in his chair. Madog turned his ears toward them for a moment before returning to his game with Rakka. Felsah noted the sudden change in Hough's mood and felt a stirring of suspicion grow in his heart. Instinctively he knew that something was even more amiss than he had guessed.

"Have you seen him, Father? I can see that you have; your eyes make it clear." Hough turned away and put his face in one hand, rubbing at his forehead, thick boyish cheeks flushing red one moment and then turning white the next. Felsah crossed his paws over his knees and curled his tail around his feet. The hood dangling behind his neck felt heavy. "What happened to Bishop Vinsah? Is he well? Is he even still alive?"

Hough swallowed and shook his head. "He bade me speak of it to no one. Aye, he is alive but he is beyond our reach for now. We can only pray for him."

"Where is he that we can only give him our prayers? You speak as if he were in grave danger."

But the boy priest closed his mouth and looked at the fire, the light dancing in his eyes. He rested his chin on his fist, and tucked his feet beneath him, shaking his head the whole while.

In a softer voice, punctuated by the staccato barks and yips from their friends, Felsah pressed more gently. "Francis, he is our friend as well as fellow priest. If there is anyway we can help him, then we must. But we can do nothing unless we both know where he is and whether he is in any danger. Please, Father, tell me where Bishop Vinsah is."

Madog bounded up to the chair between them and whined. "Father, tell Father Felsah. He can be trusted."

"If I tell you then Yesulam will learn of it," Hough said through clenched teeth. "His excommunication will never be lifted then!"

Felsah sucked in his breath, ears folding back, and tail tightening about his feet. "That does not sound encouraging." He tried to conceive of what the raccoon might have done that would only irk the hierarchy more. "Has he joined the Rebuilders?"

"Nay," Hough admitted with a bitter laugh. "He declared he would never join with heretics like that. But..."

"But what has he done?"

Madog whined again, "Tell him, Father!"

Hough took a deep breath, lowered his eyes, but did not turn to face the Questioner whose own big black-eyed expression was fixed upon the boy. "He came to me here three months ago. It was just before the Duke's Wedding. Nobody saw him arrive and nobody saw him leave; he's become very adept at using his animal form. He brought with him a stack of journals, Patriarch Akabaieth's journals, and he gave them to me."

At that he did glance at the jerboa, although his eyes, brimming with tears, flicked back to the fire a moment later. "I still have them and I have tried to read them and find whatever it is that he saw. I haven't yet. But... but..." his voice trailed away and he stared for several long seconds at the flames. They were dwindling and would soon need more fuel to keep lit. "But he saw something; he said that Patriarch Akabaieth wished it of him. Wished that... he would... join... that he would join the Lothanasi."

Felsah blinked as if he'd been slapped. He leaned back in the chair and took a long deep breath before asking, "Is that where he is? In the Lothanasi temple?"

"As an acolyte," Hough said with a nod. "He doesn't call himself Vinsah anymore; he says his name is Elvmere."

"Have you seen... Elvmere since?"

Hough shook his head and then let his gaze fall to his hands in his lap. One of them reached out and stroked Madog between the ears. "Nay. I don't think he has even left the temple since that day. I didn't see him at all when I went there to help Merai and Raven two weeks past. And neither of them will speak of Elvmere to me."

"Have you asked?"

Hough shook his head. "It is not my place to ask such questions."

"But it is mine," Felsah announced. He stood up in his seat and looked down at Madog. "Perhaps now is a good time for our first ride, Madog."

Hough blinked in alarm even as the automaton yipped in eager delight, standing up and offering his back to the rodent. "What are you doing?" Hough stammered. "You... you can't seriously think Lothanasa Raven will allow you entrance to the temple, or that she'll allow Elvmere to come forth?"

"Nay, I do not think that at all," Felsah said as he eased one leg over the metal fox, grateful that his gray skin was not as cold as it looked. "But I will try nevertheless."

"You won't even see them! They are in councils these days and nobody sees them!"

"Then I will make a nuisance of myself until they do." He settled onto Madog's back, tucking his legs up as much as he could to keep his paws from the floor. His hands grasped at the fox's neck, finding purchase in the metal fur almost as easily as if it were real fur. Rakka stared at him in confusion, but Felsah warmly told him to come. Turning back to the nearly apoplectic boy priest, he said, "If you would, please bring out His Holiness's journals. I will want to study them myself. Perhaps together we can learn what Elvmere, that is Vinsah, saw in them."

Hough tried to reach out for him, but Madog bounded away with a heavy clank. Felsah bounced on his back, long tufted tail thrust high into the air with each leap. Rakka was at their heels, barking in excitement as he chased them. They did not pass through the Cathedral, but instead took a side passage that Felsah hadn't noticed before, winding through a twisting, narrow pass which was lit only by small candles, each one just coming into view as the last passed beyond the curve. The shadows rushed over them one after another, so that Felsah could only trust his metal friend to lead them safely through the tight passage.

How well Felsah remembered the way that Madog had simply come up through a doorway that had not been there when he'd first visited the Questioner. And how could he ever forget that shadowy journey from Yesulam to Metamor in a matter of a week's time? He had held on tight then, not daring to let go for fear of being lost in between the shadows, flitting away from the sun's touch no better than an imp until the automaton rescued him again. He did not relish the idea of being lost in this twisty little passage, each stone looking just like any other, each turn as indistinguishable as all the rest, and each candle smelling of the exact same wax. His long fingers and short claws gripped at the metal ruff around Madog's neck all the tighter.

But where Madog was concerned, as Felsah should have known, there was no reason to fear. The tight passage opened out into a wide hall lined with bright brass lamps that cast away all shadows. Madog slowed to a walk, Rakka behind him, and the jerboa chanced a glance over his shoulder, but already their little secret conduit through Metamor was gone. He chuffed a laugh and together they walked at a brisk pace down the hall until it reached a broad double set of ornate doors. The doors were inlaid with panels depicting pagan history and rites.

Two humans flanked either side of the doors, their garments simple but dignified, bearing the double bladed cross of the Lothansi in faint relief. Both of them were somewhat older men, meaning that at one time they had been women and probably mothers. They gaped at the bizarre group walking toward them, a dog that, in their minds at least, could just as well have been another Keeper, the always perplexing automaton Madog, and a small rodent with very large ears in a black robe riding atop him. He sat up as they neared, the big red cross on his chest a little rumpled but clear.

"Questioner!" the darker haired of the two exclaimed when he saw that symbol. "You aren't allowed here. Go on; take yourself from this place, Phergold beast!" To emphasize his command he lifted a fauchard decorated with bright feathers where the sickle met the cedar beam and laid it across the door.

Madog came to a stop and remained standing, tail stretched out, ears and blue eyes alert. Rakka lowered his forequarters and growled at the two men. Felsah put a paw on the dog's shoulders and said, "Pax Rakka. Pax." The dog licked his nose and glared at the two men but he did stop growling. Felsah lifted his head, straightened out his robe, and said, "I am here to speak with Acolyte Elvmere. Could you fetch him please? This way I do not have to enter your Temple where I, as you have noted, do not belong."

The lighter-haired, and somewhat younger of the two, laughed and sneered, "We don't have to do anything for you. Now leave. You have no business here."

Felsah rested his paws before him on Madog's neck, slender, furless fingers curling around the metal mane. "No. I am not going to leave until you have brought Acolyte Elvmere out to speak with me."

The dark-haired one turned the fauchard toward Felsah. "I mean it, Questioner! Leave!"

Rakka began to growl again, his hackles lifting. Felsah sighed and shook his head. "If you have no authority to bring Elvmere to me, then I request you seek the counsel of someone who can. Because I am not going to leave, and no threat you make will convince me otherwise."

"Oh we're not threatening you," the light-haired one said, eyes narrowing. "We're... that's Madog! You're riding Madog?" It was the first note of uncertainty in his voice; the automaton began wagging his tail, but he did nothing other than carefully watch the two guards.

"This is Madog, and he is my friend." Felsah stroked the metal fox between his ears once, and then with an exasperated sigh, said, "Please go seek whoever you must. I will wait here until you bring me Acolyte Elvmere."

The dark-haired man scowled deeply, but the lighter-haired man backed away, and shook his head. "We're not allowed to do that. He's not supposed to leave the Temple."

So at least Vinsah was in the Lothanasi Temple; at least they had not secreted him away. "Then pass my request on to whomever you must who can make that decision. We will wait here until you return."

While the younger of the two opened the doors and slipped within, the man with the fauchard crossed it over the doorway, glaring at the trio. "I'm watching you three. Don't you move."

Felsah did not. Rakka, seeing the threat was gone, curled up beside Madog who remained standing with the jerboa on his back. The posture was not as uncomfortable as he thought it might; it was no more onerous than riding a horse had once been. He mentally prayed for wisdom and patience while the seconds turned into minutes, and then stretched onward beyond his count. He was completing his ninth decade when the door opened again and a white-robed wolf emerged, her ice blue eyes finding him and fixing him from a much higher vantage.

He didn't want to be intimidated, but with the soreness of sitting too long, and the rodent instincts that urged him to flee and find some hole to crawl into, it was difficult not feeling very small and very vulnerable beneath that gaze. Her voice was as quiet as new-fallen snow, and as cold as iron, quenching his heart with every word. "Father Felsah. I am Lothanasa Raven hin'Elric. I am told that you are demanding to see one of my acolytes."

"Not demanding," Felsah said mildly. "I have asked for Acolyte Elvmere to be brought to me, that I may speak with him."

"You may not," the priestess said curtly. "I know your kind, Questioner, and I know where your conversations lead. My order expelled our own Inquisitors long ago. If Yesulam had done likewise, much grief and sorrow might have been spared." She folded her arms into the sleeves of her robe. "This is my temple. My holy ground. I do not care that the Duke tolerates your presence. I do not care that you look like one of us. I do not care what papers you may carry from Yesulam. You will not Question my acolyte. Not now, and not ever. If you are wise, you will not mention his name again. Now, you will leave this place at once, and cease to bother my guards with your pointless posturing."

Felsah nodded his head. "Of course, Lothanasa. Give him my regards and my delight in knowing that he is safe."

The wolf-woman's jaw clenched. She looked from him to Madog, who scowled back at her. Her nose wrinkled briefly, and then she turned that piercing, wintry regard on the jerboa again. "No, Father Felsah. The man you knew is dead. The acolyte who serves with us now has found peace and satisfaction in his new life. I will not have you threaten that peace with the knowledge that he is still being hunted by you and your kind." She turned to go, looking back over her shoulder. "Leave now. If you persist in occupying our doorstep, I will have you escorted to the dungeons for violating the concordant your Bishop signed."

"What would the charge be?"

"Trespassing. And if you are still outside this door by the time I return through it, I will have to make that charge. You do not wish to test me in this."

"No, that would be rather foolish. Well, if you will not pass my message along, I will take my leave of you. Thank you for taking the time to see me, Lothanasa."

Her eyes narrowed. "I do not ever wish to see you again, Questioner."

Felsah nudged Madog with one knee and the metal fox turned around, giving the priestess a parting stare both enigmatic and unpleasant. The jerboa kept his face as expressionless as he could, though he knew his whiskers were twitching nervously. "We do not always get what we wish, Lothanasa. Eli's blessing be with you." He turned his head at that, not wishing to see her reaction for fear that it might be too satisfying to his ego. Rakka climbed to his paws and followed after them. They had gone no more than three paces when they heard the great doors shut behind them.

They returned to the Cathedral in silence. It was still early enough in the day that the light slanting through the clerestory windows shone brightly from very near the altar. Felsah climbed off of Madog's back when they arrived, heart weary with yet another rebuke. He knelt down on the cold stone while the two canids, metal and flesh, growled at each other and moved away to wrestle. He flicked his ears a bit, long tail dancing across his sensitive footpaws, and his whiskers quivered. His dark eyes filled with the carving of Yahshua hanging from the yew, His body stretched in agony yet dignified and pure.

There, on his knees, he prayed; confused and unsure, all he could think of was the visage of a man who'd been blended with the shape of a raccoon. He could not comprehend what had gone through his heart and soul that could have led him away. He could not understand why Raven's vehemence had unsettled him so. And he could not understand how being made into a small rodent with an over-developed flight instinct would help him in his new vocation.

"I do not understand, Eli," he murmured through is snout and folded paws. "I do not understand, but I will trust you."

He felt a cold nose, snout, and ears pushing under his arm. He made the sign of the yew and then looked down at Madog. The fox's blue eyes were fixed on his, simple but sure, and a strange comfort. "I'm glad you're back here, Father Felsah."

"I am uncertain, Madog. I know I must be where I am supposed to be, but.... I don't know what I should do."

"You'll know," Madog assured him with a quick nuzzle. "You'll know."

He allowed a bit of levity into his voice. "Even if I'm not a fox?"

Madog yipped and wagged his tail. "You're better. Come. Father Hough's waiting."

Felsah smiled, petted the metal fox, , turned back to the altar, the tabernacle, and the yew. "Amen." His paw traced the yew over his snout and chest, pausing only briefly when he reached his heart. He rose to his paws and walked stiffly toward Hough's quarters, the dog Rakka at his side. The patter of their claws on the stone echoed almost musically, as if someone in a distant corner were singing a hymn.

The boy priest had taken the time to clean some of his kettles and was even now steeping more of his cider while reciting his midday prayers. He looked up as Felsah entered, quickly tracing the yew over his chest. "How did it go? You were gone so long..."

"The Lothanasa kept me waiting before having me dismissed. But he is still in the Temple, that much I know."

Hough looked between him and the two canids. His brow furrowed. "Are you all right?"

"I will be. For now, did you gather the journals?"

"Aye, there on the table." Felsah glanced at the table and saw a stack of at least a dozen journals each now as thick as his paws. "I'm preparing more cider. Hot this time."

"Thank you, that will be very satisfying." Felsah, with both Rakka and Madog sitting on their haunches watching him, reached up and took the first of the journals off the table, swaying on his legs as he tried to keep the heavy book steady. He stumbled over to the chair, set the book on the seat, and then climbed up beside it. "Now let's see if we can find what Vinsah saw."

Hough took one of the other books and joined him. Together, with their four-footed friends watching, as they sipped on hot cider, they began to read the hand of the late Patriarch.