February 22, 708 CR
Hear the tolling of the bells –
James sat upright, yanking a few hairs from his tail tuft as it caught beneath a hoof. The lumpy feather mattress shifted beneath him. He blinked open his eyes, his hide slick with sweat, and saw nothing. The air had the suggestion of warmth, a warmth now fading, failing in its fight with the wintry chill blowing past his window and rattling his shutters. Long ears turned to listen, scanning for any other noises... any voices.
Only the wind answered him.
James took a deep breath. His sheets were wrapped around his legs. He reached down to straighten them and realized that his quilts were missing. Why was he sweating? The donkey bent over and felt along his right but met only wooden planks. Turning to his left his searching fingers stumbled into the rumpled mass of tossed quilt. He chuckled softly to himself, as if that would banish the unsettled fear dancing along his spine. He must have been having a bad dream and, tossing and turning, knocked his quilts on the floor. The sound of it landing on the floor must have woken him.
The shutters slammed and rattled the panes of glass. And just how would he have heard the quilt falling over that? James chided himself for such foolishness. Obviously the rattling of the windows had woken him and the quilt had been tossed sometime earlier in the night.
But why was he sweating?
He ground his flat teeth together in irritation at the pestering questions, snatched one corner of the quilt, and yanked it back onto the bed. It took him several minutes to straighten his sheets and get the quilt back in place. There was a lamp on the small wooden table next to the right of his head and he knew it had a measure of oil. But he didn’t want to light it.
This room was his and had been his at The Mountain Hearth Inn for a little over a year, ever since he’d first followed the rat Charles Matthias to Glen Avery. At the time he didn’t know why he’d followed him; not that he had anything left to lose, but he’d never before left the Keep except to go on his annual patrol. He’d quickly secured lodgings in the Inn in exchange for work, and this room on the upper floor with a view of the clearing was what Jurmas the Innkeeper had given him. Even in his long absence on their journey to Marzac the deer had kept his room clean and ready for him.
It was his room and he knew that he was alone. He would not turn on the light to chase away imaginary fiends.
As if in answer to his resolve
the wind howled and shook the shutters like a beast rattling a cage.
James folded back his ears, flecked his lips, and with a shake managed
to get the quilt across his bed. Slowly, he lowered back down
until his head rested on the pillow and closed his eyes, nostrils flaring
In the startled ear of night how they scream out their affright!
James popped his eyes open and gasped. He snapped his head back and forth, listening. The wind had died away leaving him with nothing to contend against. One room over he heard the snoring of a traveller. In and out, an intake that gargled, and an exhalation that carried a faint squeal. The boar merchant he’d served earlier that evening. Jurmas must have given him the room next door.
James felt his quilt and was grateful to find it still on the bed. But his hide was still slick with sweat. The donkey slid his legs out from beneath the quilt and gently set his hooves on the wood below. He stood and stretched, muscles used to sleeping on grass and mounds of dirt still seemingly unused to the comforts of civilization aching sullenly. The air in his room was cool but not cold. He blinked his eyes but could see nothing.
He let his arms fall to his sides, and his blunt fingertips felt the brand on his left thigh. He trembled and gingerly stroked across the edges of the seared flesh. The pattern felt like a twisted cord of thorns. The Marquis had given him that through the hand of Lindsey his friend. Though the Marquis was dead, the scar would remain for life. Branded like an animal. James flecked his lips and ground his teeth together, long tail whipping back and forth.
The sweat dripped from his hide and he wanted to roll around in the dirt.
He turned to the windows and carefully made his way around his bed. He kicked his store chest and swore to himself as he rubbed his shin. The pain subsided almost immediately and he continued on round, feeling at the wall until he reached the window. The latch fell under his hands and he flicked it open. A gust of cold air poured through the shutters. James stood before it and savoured the chill, caressing every strand of fibre growing from his chest and flanks.
The wind still blew, but gently, sighing in and out like the ponderous swinging of a massive bell in its belfry. The image seemed apt, and with each swing he heard the boar snore in and out. He closed his eyes and though the world grew no darker, he felt as if he could see beyond all the trees and all the miles to Metamor herself. There, in the massive belfry where first he’d glimpsed their enemy, the carillons throbbed with an energy he’d touched once.
He shuddered and shook his
head to clear it of the image. Feeling cold at last, he closed
the window, latched it, and stumbled back to his bed. He laid
down listening to the boar and tried not to think of bells.
Yet the ear, it fully knows, by the twanging, and the clanging...
James kicked the covers off his bed and gasped heavily, glancing to the right and the left in the impenetrable darkness of a Glen night. The darkness felt even more oppressive, like a tangible thing breathing with each susurration of the wind. The shutters clanged again, the hinges squeaking with the tintinnabulation of a thousand silver bells.
He grabbed his ears and shook his head violently. The boar snored still, and it seemed so loud that he felt sure the merchant was in the room with him.
James steadied himself and reached for the chest at the end of the bed. This time he found it without injury and lifted the lid slowly. He reached within, and for half a moment, he fancied himself grasping the handle of a bucket-sized bell. Instead he grasped his sword and once the familiar wight of metal was in his hand, eased himself back onto the bed. His ears pressed against the headboard, as the rattling caress of wind and the gasping snores of the boar echoed around him. His breath, chest sweaty, resounded.
The darkness around him shifted in his bleary eyes.
He shifted the sword to his left hand and search the small table at his right for the lantern. In his haste he nearly knocked it to the floor, but caught the handle just as it started to roll away. He righted it, opened the receptacle, and waited listening. Beneath the wine and the boar, was that his own breath he heard, vast and regular like the sonorous throb of a massive iron bell?
He found the tinder much easier, and drawing out the wick, he struck five times before a little spark caught on the end. Gingerly, he straightened the wick, as the oil caught flame and brought his room into soft light. With a last gasp he shut the receptacle and turned back, throwing light everywhere.
Nothing. His room was empty.
James crouched on his bed, tail pressed into the pillow, hooves digging into the sheet, with one hand gripping his sword and the other his lantern. He scanned the room from one dust-filled corner to the other. Though he saw nothing, he could not shake the feeling that something was there with him. Was it invisible? How would he know? He couldn’t smell anything unusual, and what noises he heard were confusing. If only that boar would stop snoring and the wind stop roaring!
In the silence of the night...
James jumped from the bed, swung his sword in broad arcs every which way, and then slipped it beneath one arm long enough to lift the latch to his door and stumble out, modest only because of the short linens gripping his waist and thighs. He pulled the door shut and raced down the hall, the wooden floor groaning and protesting in sharp retorts at each frightened fall of a hoof. He took the steps three at a time, rounded the bend, and vaulted down the last five before forcing himself to come to a stop in the Winter Hearth’s common room.
Even at this time of night it was still light enough for a visitor to see by. A small cord near the entranceway would ring for assistance to that weary traveller arriving after all had retired for the night. The donkey gave it a firm yank, and the silver jingling at the other end caught his breath.
He felt the fear melt from his flesh and he managed to sit down at one of the row tables, sword resting on his knees and lantern dangling from his hand. He blinked, trying to comprehend just what it was that had frightened him so badly. There’d been something in his room. Perhaps it had just been a nightmare. But what a nightmare to make him run down here in the middle of the night without any clothes on. He was freezing!
The deer Innkeeper, Jurmas Sapere, emerged from a door just behind the long counter and blinked weary eyes, carrying a small candle in his right hand. His ears flicked to the side when he caught sight of him. "James? Is that you?"
"Aye, Master Jurmas. Forgive me for drawing the cord," he stammered. "I was still dreaming I think."
Jurmas had a woolen robe drawn about his shoulders. The he pulled tighter with his left hand while he nudged the door closed with one hoof. "Well, you’ve got me up now; the scouts will be coming for breakfast in another two hours so I may as well stay up with you." He crossed the hall and sat down on the table next to his. "I take it that was you that made that terrific racket?"
James nodded, lowering his ears, chagrined. "I’m so sorry. I had this horrible nightmare that there was something in my room with me. I couldn’t see it but it was there, stalking me."
Jurmas set his candle on the table and scratched at one of the velvety antler stubs growing from his brow. "I’ve had a few nightmares in my day. We all have. I’m having a few more now that Kinslee is expecting fawns. Twins and deer both! Just like the Avery boys and Master Charles’s children. Due next month too. I’ve had quite a few sleepless nights this last year." He laughed lightly, chestnut eyes looking past the donkey for a moment before returning to the donkey. "I cannot imagine what you saw down south. From what I’ve heard, I’m surprised you haven’t had nightmares before now."
He almost brayed at the suggestion. "Of course I have! But..." he frowned and crossed his arms. "But I haven’t felt them so strongly since Marzac was destroyed. I used to wake up with horrible shivers, especially in the swamps. You could hear them in your dreams, eating and slurping. I didn’t know what they were and prayed I’d never find out. But those were real. This is just a dream and yet..." he shook his head. "It was just a dream."
"Of course. Aren’t you cold? I know your hide isn’t as thick as mine and I’m already thinking of building a fire."
James glanced down at his near nakedness and felt a blush. "I should put something more on, aye. I’ll be back."
The deer rose with him, patted him in a friendly fashion on the shoulder, and then saw to the hearth. James climbed back up the stairs and down the corridor to his chambers. He felt a trepidation grow in his heart, and he clutched both sword and lantern tightly. Then chided himself for it. His friends worried enough about him being able to handle danger; he did not need to give them more reason to do so.
James steeled himself and stepped into his room as calmly as he was able. The room was dark and as he flashed the lantern about he saw that it was empty as well. The boar had even stopped snoring. He set both sword and lantern aside as he searched through his clothes trunk for something presentable. He emerged a moment later with woolen tunic and breeches suited to the weather, and a buckler and scabbard for his blade. The lantern he extinguished and left on his bedside.
He shut the door quietly on
his way out. It was time to help Jurmas ready the Inn for the
His duties for the Inn occupied him past mid-morning but not quite to noon. James left the Winter’s Hearth Inn to attend to some of his own chores before checking in with Charles and Kimberly to see if there was anything they needed. If not, he would seek out Master Angus for more scout training. His time traveling with Charles, Lindsey, and the rest had greatly improved his skills and given him the confidence that one day he’d be a competent swordsman, but he still knew in his heart that they only spoke kindly of his abilities so he wouldn’t feel as bad as he ought. That he would amend.
A few days past he’d taken some of his equipment to the blacksmith’s for repairs and so while walking south past the Blaylock’s little store nestled against the tree and rocky hill that dominated the western edge of the Glen clearing, he decided to check on their progress. He started on the path down to the lake which had been freshly cleared of snow and turned down a narrower side path also cleaned of snow. This wound along a steady well-beaten track wide enough for two horses abreast, past several homes both in the branches above and in the roots below, until it reached the wide stream coming out of the mountains.
The smithy doubled as mill though the waterwheel remained frozen in ice still. The front windows to the smithy were opened to allow the cooler air in, but the doors were shut. The repeated blow of hammer on metal echoed in his ears but did not make him wince. The clanging had a sonorous tone that lifted his hooves off the frozen crust of earth as he approached.
James reached the door and drew it outward with a nervousness he knew he shouldn’t feel. The front room featured several large anvils around which Malloc the blacksmith and his four apprentices hammered away. A brick firepit in the centre held yellow-hot coals. Most of the apprentices were like Malloc, permanently stuck at that uncertain age before they attained their manly growth but now strongly muscled like he after a couple of years swinging a hammer.
The most imposing of all in the room was neither apprentice nor blacksmith, but Malloc’s wife Emily. She suffered the beastly curse, and what a beast she had become! Over twenty hands in height, the tip of the long, gray horn on her nose threatened twenty-one, while her girth and leathery-skin made her easily the size of any three of the boys. Long tufted ears lifted when James opened the door, and her hearty voice rang clear over the hammering. "Master James! What can we do for you?"
He stammered for a moment as his eyes glanced past Emily who approached with a stained apron and a poker in one gray hand. Charles had told him that her species was often seen in the Kitchland Steppes far to the south, and was known as a rhino. The apprentices all looked up but just as quickly returned to their tasks. Malloc kept a firm eye on them as he worked over something blocked by his wife’s bulk. Whatever it was rang almost hypnotically.
"Oh... hi... uh, I just came over, Emily, to uh... see... what is he... to see if my... working on..." He shook his head, long ears folding back against his neck and mane. "I brought some equipment here for repairs. Is it done?"
Emily honked a laugh and turned her long head back toward her husband while stirring the coals with the poker. "Malloc, did you finish James’s repairs?"
The blacksmith nodded, mop of sweaty hair bouncing back and forth across his ears. "Yeah, finished that up last night. Except for the ice shoes. Those are going to take me another day or two." He swung his hammer again and a heavy sonority trembled the donkey’s flesh. He then gestured toward a set of shelves in the back. "The rest of it’s ready to go. You can pay when I finish the rest. You’re good for it."
"I’ll fetch that for you," Emily offered. She set the poker aside while James waited. His eyes ever stayed on Malloc though, and when the rhino moved out of the way he finally saw what the youthful master was crafting. Perhaps two hands across in each direction and dark like iron with a crack running up one edge to the nape was a bell. With careful strokes Malloc was hammering the crack to keep it from growing further. Each swing made the bell resound with the most resonant of gongs.
James stumbled on his hooves until he was nearly upon the blacksmith. The words gurgled out of his throat. "What... what are you doing?"
Malloc set the hammer aside and put his hands on his hips, glaring at the bell and the crack through its middle. "Trying to repair this bell for one of the watches. I don’t think it’s going to be fixed though. This crack is just too stubborn. Going to have to make a new one I’m afraid."
James didn’t know why he said what he said, but he’d never felt such a simple need as this. "Could I try?"
Malloc looked up, brown eyes bewildered. "Try what?"
Emily returned with a satchel in one hand but stopped short and said nothing. James gestured at the bell and had to keep his hands from reaching out to stroke its still hot surface. "Could I try to fix it?"
Malloc snorted. "You ever work in a smithy before?" He shook his head. The blacksmith shrugged his shoulders. "Why not? It’s nothing but scrap anyway. Sure, take a few swings."
Malloc stepped back and let the donkey approach. All of his apprentices cast surreptitious glances while they worked. Emily set James’s things down by the door and returned to inspecting the fire. James rubbed his hands together, eyes filled by the broken bell. He grabbed the hammer and rolled it around in his fingers for a moment, lifted it high, and in a smooth swing brought it down solid on the edge of the crack.
The room thrummed with the monody. Malloc’s jaw dropped for a moment, and then he nodded, clearly impressed. "Well, I’ll say. That was exactly the right spot. You sure you don’t want to apprentice with me? I’ll build your muscles up a lot faster than that buck can!"
James swung the hammer again and let his ears twist through the waves of sound like oars through a lake. The noise faded so quickly, yet he felt transported into the bosom of the palpitating air. How a moment could be so endless and yet so brief staggered his mind.
He turned to the blacksmith and gestured at the bell. "I’ll be happy if you just let me have the bell. I’ll pay."
Malloc laughed and slapped one knee. "You’ll pay? You’re doing the work for me! If you want the bell, you can have it. Even if I did fix that crack I’d be making another one for the watchers in a year anyway." He gestured to his wife the rhino and the firepit. "You’ll want to heat it back up again or you’ll crack it even worse."
James slipped the heavy gloves on and grasping the tongs, carried the bell to the firepit and set the crack down into coals and listened to the moaning and the groaning of the bell. He didn’t know why, and he couldn’t even put it into words again, but as he caressed the sombre notes with his ears, he knew that so long as he held this bell he’d need never fear the nightmares again.
March 2, 708 CR
It was only a day after the Bishop had left and already the air warmed with expectant Spring. Rickkter was grateful for it as it gave him an opportunity to stretch his legs and weary muscles with a good long walk around Metamor and Keeptowne early in the morning before the bustle of the city crowded the streets with millions of cries, concerns, and consternations. Which made it all the more easy to enjoy the crisp but not unpleasant air and the woman at his side whose musk gave it a sharp and unmistakable tang.
Rickkter nuzzled the top of Kayla’s head and she leaned into him. "It is good to be able to do this again," he mused wistfully. "Seems like forever."
"Just nine months," she replied with a faint laugh. "At least you’ve healed completely."
"Took long enough," he muttered, but laughed a moment later. "No thanks to you!"
Kayla gave his chest a little shove and tried to laugh, but the memory of the evil dragon inside her mind was still very frightening. She couldn’t help but think of her friends who each might face a similar corruption. Things had been so quiet in the three weeks since that at times it was hard even to remember that there was danger still to be confronted. Life at Metamor was peaceful for once, and with Duke Thomas married, the excitement and good cheer was infectious. It took effort to fret.
"But you’re better now, and we’re together," Kayla added. "Sometimes it feels like nothing’s changed, but I know it has."
"Well, you are working for the bat again," the raccoon pointed out. "You’re falling back into your old routines and seeing familiar things. It can’t be helped."
The skunk nodded, long tail curling behind Rickkter as they passed by a handful of merchants arranging their wares in the market square. They followed the wide stone road toward the castle now, its tall towers still dark in the early morning hours. The topmost reaches shone brilliantly, a testament of the sun’s imminent rise over the mountains. Narrow wisps of clouds drifted north so high in the sky their undersides were bathed in gold.
Walking toward them through the marketplace from the direction of the Keep were three figures equally remarkable in their appearance. The most obvious was the white gryphon whose golden and black eyes arrested all who dared to meet them. His wings folded against his back and around his chest and sides a harness of tough leather and hide was attached. A saddle of some sort nestled between his wings and against the feathery mane between neck and shoulders.
Next to the gryphon was a small man with ruddy cheeks, long arms, and a dark mop of hair on his head over small almost curdled ears. He rested one hand on the gryphon’s right shoulder unafraid. He dressed in heavy woolen jerkin, trousers, and buskins, all lined with fur. He carried a small pack on his back with a pair of ice picks holstered on his belt.
On the opposite side of the gryphon was a tall creature dressed very lightly in silken blues and greens that did little to provide warmth. Long black hair was held back in a tight braid and pointed ears framed it ever so gently. Behind these emerged the exquisite ivory handle of his sword, and before them were high angular cheeks, tinged with grey, that were only the last touches to show this was no man. Nevertheless, in the way he walked, dressed, and appeared, his was the acme of grace and strength. The reed that bends but does not break.
Kayla almost jumped from Rickkter’s arms when she saw them. "Good morning! I’ve barely seen any of you this last week! Where have you been?" She hugged both Binoq and Åelf, but the Nauh-kaee she only smiled toward.
Guernef settled on his haunches and turned his black beak eastward. "We have been preparing provisions."
"Provisions?" Rickkter asked as he walked in behind the excited skunk.
"For our journey back to the mountains," Abafouq replied with a diffident moue. "And Andares’s return to the woods."
Kayla’s face fell and she looked from one to the other for some denial. They’d only just arrived in Metamor! She told them that too.
Andares sighed and shook his head. "This is not our home, but yours. This day had to come. We shall each return to our homelands. If matters are well, we may each visit again. I dearly hope that it will be so. Any journey through the lands of man is one I welcome. More so one that will return me to this land and to my friends."
"But why so soon?"
"There are affairs of our own that need tending to," Abafouq admitted with some displeasure. "It has been almost a year since we left our home, our cave in the mountains and I know that Guernef at least is needed amongst his people."
Kayla could hear the reluctance in the Binoq’s voice and looked at him firmly. "But what of you? Surely you do not need to go back to that place? You are well loved here by your friends."
Abafouq nodded, keenly aware of the Nauh-kaee’s intent gaze which captured him whole within a single pupil. "I am, and I have found a few pursuits to tend my time. Jessica’s friends did need quite a few pyrocks for instance! But I know I cannot stay just yet. As hard as it may be, and I am thinking it will be very hard indeed, I must at least see whether I can return to Qorfuu and redeem my name. If I cannot..." He swallowed heavily and then tried again, "If I cannot, then if Guernef permits, I would like to return here."
"Permits?" Rickkter asked in confusion. "I thought you were friends, not master and slave!"
"It is not as you say, master and slave. Rather, it is more complicated. Friends we are, and friends I hope we will always be. But when I was dying, he saved my life and took me in from the cold. For that I owe him my life, whatever is remaining. I will not, cannot leave him unless he bids me."
Rickkter frowned but nodded slowly. "I have heard of a life debt being forever, but it is rare. Still, I think I understand." He turned his gaze on Guernef, and though he glared in strong disapproval, the Nauh-kaee did not regard him any differently than before. "You ought to let him return if that is his choice."
"His path may take him not to the earth," Guernef replied with a sharp click. "Of that we shall see."
Kayla wasn’t sure what the Nauh-kaee was suggesting but it unsettled her faintly. She thought for a moment to mention it but a soft assurance that all would be well stilled her concern. Instead she asked, "Where have you gathered your provisions? I see nothing on you."
"In the foothills of the mountains," Abafouq replied. "There we have built a cache and after we have given all our companions our farewells we shall return to them and begin our journey into the mountains. Apart from Andares."
"I will journey to the south by the roads of men," he said with a bittersweet smile. "There are a few others I know along the way with whom I greatly desire to speak." His golden eyes were far away for a moment, then returned full and warm. "If I never come this way again, I am honoured to have met, fought, suffered, and bled with you. Your names will ever be sung in my city with the greatest of reverence."
Kayla’s long tail curled about her legs and she felt the heat of a blush fill her. "Oh, I don’t know if I’ve earned all that."
"I’d take it," Rickkter added with a slight smile. "Having the fair folk offer you anything other than a mystery is a rare delicacy. Savour it and every moment of it!"
Andares turned to the raccoon and the corners of his lips turned upward. "You have a very peculiar way with words, Master Rickkter. Ill chance that we should not have more occasions to test your rhetorical regimen."
"Alliteration is one of my least favoured gambits," he replied with a half yawn, long tongue curling at the end of his snout. "It often pairs words of rampant dissimilitude in the hopes that the audience understands neither but marvels at the orator’s feigned eloquence." He frowned suddenly and dashed one paw on his breeches. "And damn if I know how you do this to me. Every time I see you I want to speak like a fool. I’m direct, Andares. What is it about you Åelf that shroud even our tongues in mystery!"
Andares laughed brightly and set a pearly hand upon the ruffled Keeper’s shoulder. "No matter, that was a delicious rejoinder. But I fear we cannot tarry long. We have many to wish farewell to and an entire valley to scour for them before our day is over."
Rickkter offered him a paw. "Then best of luck on your travels. I hope you find the roads open and the Inns warm and well-lit. And a few good looking wenches." Kayla elbowed him in the side. "Ooof! Okay, a lot of good looking wenches." And for that he received a firm yank on his tail. "Yow! You know that actually hurts!"
Even Guernef’s beastly manner appeared to lighten in mirth as both Abafouq and Andares laughed. Kayla gave her lover a kiss on the nose, and then turned to Andares and offered him a firm hug. "Our love go to your people! Please be safe!"
"And my love and honour go to you and your intended." He eyed Rickkter meaningfully but the raccoon said nothing. He then stepped back out of the way as Kayla moved to Guernef.
She smiled to the Nauh-kaee and wrapped her arms bout his broad neck, nuzzling her snout close to one of his eyes. "Fly safely, Guernef! I don’t always understand you, but you’ve been a tireless and faithful companion and friend. Thank you!"
Guernef lifted his foreleg and placed the talons ever so gently on her back. He opened his beak the width of her hand and said in a quiet chirp, "As have you. May you both be very happy together." It was, Kayla considered much later, the most human thing she’d ever heard him say.
At last she came to the Binoq who waited almost like a child for his mother. He looked up into her face and had to dry a tear. "Oh I’ll miss you, Abafouq!" She said, bending down and wrapping her arms about his neck. He held her in turn and sighed, snuffling a bit in his nose.
"And I will you. You’ve been the truest friends I have ever known." He tried to say more but couldn’t. For several long seconds they held each other wordless.
When Kayla finally stood, she wiped one of her eyes and swept the trio one last time. "Where will you go next?"
"For now we seek the beginning of this convent and Tugal who resides within. She too was part of our company, if only for a day. To her we shall provide our farewells, and then to Glen Avery."
"I heard Charles went south to watch over the Bishop."
"But James did not," Abafouq managed. "We will meet Charles on our way south; he will be last I am thinking." He swallowed and straightened his jacket. "Farewell, Kayla. Continue your studies. I will, if nothing else, write."
They said goodbye one last time, and then Kayla and Rickkter stood aside to let them pass through the market. And they stood there for some time even after the conspicuous silhouettes disappeared about a bend in the road. A cool vapour curled about them and Rickkter shivered, finally finding the strength to turn back to the castle. "Well," he said as he noted the glimmer of sun along the length of each tower, "it isn’t going to be quite the same without them."
"No, it won’t," Kayla agreed in a faint whisper.
Rickkter stretched and then wrapped his arm about her shoulders, drawing him in close to resume their walk. "Now where were we? Ah, yes! Talking about falling into old routines. Here’s one I would like to start again: breaking fast together! The Twin Hearth isn’t far, and I’m told they have some of the best omelets in all of the valley. Would you care for some?"
Kayla nodded, smiling some, but head and eyes ever looking behind her where her friends had disappeared into golden-dappled streets and homes of Metamor.
"Now put everything into your heart. Everything. Anger, joy, all of it. Do you have it in there?"
"Good. Now imagine that your heart is inside a hand. You can make it your paw. Just place your heart inside that paw. Do you see all your little fingers there curling around your heart? Claws, fingers, and inside of them a bright red heart all filled with your feelings?"
"I put it there, Dada."
"Now place a mark on your paw, son. Put a mark on your paw. You choose whatever you want to put there."
"Can I put a sword?"
"Oh, oh, yes, put a sword on your hand, son. That’s wonderful. Do you have it there?"
"Good! Now open your paw and release everything in your heart."
Charles gazed at his son Ladero, the black fur of his face like a hood over his shoulders scrunched in concentration relaxing into a very familiar contentment. His large dark eyes opened and he peered with eager delight into his father’s face. "The anger’s gone, Dada! You made it go away!"
Charles reached forward and tapped his son’s pink nose and made his prodigious whiskers tremble. "No, you did, son. I just told you how. You can always do this when you’re feeling upset or grumpy." He felt his own heart swell with delight. Ladero was still so young but already learning many techniques.
"Now," he continued with a firm but gentle instruction, "you’re going to practice focussing your strength again. Remember, it all comes from within." He handed his son a shaft of bountifruit wood. "This wood is too strong for Whales to use in building her ships. It won’t give the way it needs to. It cannot be broken with your muscles. But you can break it still."
"How Dada?" Ladero asked, his eyes showing no confusion, only an abyss of learning.
"You must draw out the strength from within yourself." Charles crossed over and sat next to his son, their tails laying flat behind them together. "It is within you. Reach from your heart to the wood. Now grip it in both paws. There at the ends. Yes, just like that. Now, reach out and snap the wood like a twig."
Ladero pulled the ends of the wood toward each other, and for a moment nothing happened. Then it snapped with a wicked report.
Charles snapped his eyes open. He lay on a bale of hay with his blanket for warmth. The rich scent of horse, cow, goat and sheep filled the air. He wrinkled his nose and felt a vast emptiness. He closed his eyes tight and cursed the day. His dreams lately had been so full of joy, a joy that vanished with the crashing of dawn’s searing reality.
His boy was dead; his Sondecki child had been torn to pieces inside the Sondtodt. A brutal malady that led the force of the Sondeck to turn against the bearer’s flesh. That force, able to shatter brick and wood, to bend metal, and to crack stone, that force that let their bodies move so quickly that the eye could not hope to follow, turned into the most vicious beast when unleashed against unskilled flesh. It had literally ripped his son’s sinews apart from the inside.
Charles had seen victims of Sondtodt in his youth. All of them received the aid of the healers amongst the Sondeckis and very few ever died of it. But the pain, the excruciating pain often left them bedridden invalids for years even after they were cured and their Sondeck repaired. He would have sat with his son for however long it took for him to recover enough to walk again. He would have lifted Ladero from the bed and exercised his muscles for him until he could use them for himself again. He would have risked losing all he had in Metamor to have Ladero still with him.
But that traitorous Artela had sent him away. And Velena had betrayed him too. He’d trusted them to heal his stony flesh, but his own son they would not aid.
"Well damn them," he muttered angrily.
He sat up slowly and the blanket fell from his bare chest. Dawn had just arrived and he could see light trickling through the cracks in the hayloft wall. It took the rat a moment to remember where he was. After watching Bishop Tyrion’s carriage depart beyond the boundary of the Curse, they’d opted to journey east to Jetta which was only an hour away and there spend the night. It would be a long day’s ride to return to the Glen, but Charles had every intent on making it.
Charles rolled over and glanced down at the horses stabled. The roan pony Malicon snorted and looked up at him. He stomped one hoof and nudged the feeding trough. Charles felt his heart lighten some. "All right. I’ll be down in moments."
He knelt down on his blankets, stroked one paw over the vine growing across his chest and back, and savoured the way the growing leaves trembled in delight at his touch. Kimberly didn’t like to see it but she understood how much of a companion this vine was to him. It was not as large yet as it had once been, but with Spring almost here he was certain it would quickly become too big for him to shelter in his flesh anymore. He cupped one paw around a slender bud and brought it to his snout for the briefest of kisses. Then he pulled a tunic from his knapsack and slipped it over his large head. He left the lacings in the front undone. The vine curled ever more closely against his hide.
Neither Saulius nor Egland or his squire had opted to sleep in the barn. They all took the offer of the farmhouse they’d slept in a few nights before. Strangely restless, Charles said he wished to stay close to his pony, a suggestion that delighted Saulius’s heart no doubt. In truth he’d wanted privacy which he’d not been able to have in longer than he knew. A night alone to think, to pray, to contemplate, to consider.
Instead, he’d fallen asleep halfway through his meditations on the sleeping pile he’d prepared. That he’d even had the presence of mind to draw the blanket over his shoulders was an impressive feat.
Charles climbed down and poured some feed into the trough outside both Malicon and Armivest’s stalls. The ponies nudged him thankfully with their heads and then started eating. The rat smiled at them both, stroking their manes for a few minutes before returning to gather his things. He had his saddlebags packed and ready when the barn door opened and Sir Saulius entered followed by the young farmhands ready to take the cattle out to pasture. The rat knight smiled at him and then shook his head.
"I fear that we shalt not be returning north this day." He spoke with real regret in his voice, but a firmness too as a master should have with a pupil. Charles flinched beneath it.
"Why ever not? The Bishop’s gone and our duty is finished."
"A messenger didst come last night with orders from George. We hath been tasked to aid with the local patrols for the next two days. Today here in Jetta, tomorrow further north along the river to Lorland."
Charles had to let go of Malicon’s ear lest he pull it and hurt the innocent animal. "I was going to ride back to the Glen today! I promised Kimberly and the children I’d see them this evening!"
Saulius nodded and sighed, eyes lowered, almost ashamed for the news. "I know. I didst raise this objection with the messenger, but the orders didst come from George. We dare not disobey them."
Charles sneered and nearly beat his fist against the stall door. "Whatever happened to Misha’s vaunted promise to let me spend time with my family! Hah!"
Saulius lowered his eyes and added in a quieter voice. "I dost not believe that thy friend Misha ordered this."
"I don’t owe that jackal anything," Charles said, turning to Malicon. "He can throw me in the dungeon if he likes. I’m going to my family."
"Charles!" Saulius snapped. "Control thyself! Thou art speaking madness."
"Don’t you speak to me that way!"
Saulius stood taller, eyes firm and unyielding. "I shalt correct my friends when they dost speak madness! Thou art a better rat than this, Charles!"
Charles paused and then took a long deep breath. What had he been teaching Ladero in his dreams? Relief from the anger. So why was he now so angry? He should know better. Saulius had never before spoken to him so harshly. Two days more doing his duty to Metamor was not that much to ask of him.
He pictured his heart and tried to pour everything in, but there was just so much he gave up and let out a long sigh. "Very well, Erick. You’re right. I’m being stubborn and stupid. What are we to do today?"
Saulius let go his breath and smiled, stepping closer to Charles and gently putting one paw on his shoulder to guide him away from the stalls. "First, we shalt break our fast together. Then, after the horses hath been readied, patrol the countryside; we’ll sleep here again tonight and then journey along the river tomorrow to Lorland."
"And then I can return to the Glen?"
Saulius gripped his shoulder tighter, the two rats close together, their scents subtle but present. He leaned closer until their whiskers were nearly brushing. "I wilt go with thee in the early morn before anymore messages from George can detain thee."
Charles smiled and, a warmth tantalizing his heart. "Thank you, Erick. Sir Saulius." Together, the two left the barn and headed for the farmhouse where a warm meal waited.
How shall the burial rite be read? The solemn song be sung?
James blinked open his eyes and gazed at the light peering through the window panes, a swirl of golden diffused across the floor, turning as the glints of light passed through the variegated imperfections in each pane. For a moment he wondered at the duration of his sleep; then he recalled that it was Friday and on that particular day he had no duties to the Inn. His supple equine lips twitched at the favourable possibility of chores to perform for Baerle and Lady Matthias.
But first, the donkey would return to Malloc and finish the bell. Even the thought of it sent a pellucid shiver through his spine like a vast cataract rolling silently but thunderously from a steaming sea into the ramparts of the heavens. He could neither explain nor even craft images of why repairing this bell stirred him so intensely. All he knew was that ever since he had begun work on it, the startling dreams had ceased and the sense of foreboding danger had left him.
James climbed from bed, stretched, dressed, and sauntered from his room, down the steps, and waved to Jurmas who looked rather distracted as he cleaned tables. The deer, whose sleep two nights past had been interrupted by the birth of twin daughters, blearily returned the gesture.
The crisp morning air was bathed in a delicate warmth that teased each fibre of his hide. James almost danced along the softening earth as he turned to the winding road down to the lake. He was arrested by a gust of wind and a brilliant flash from the sky.
He leapt back, reaching for his sword and slashing above him. And then was exceedingly grateful that he’d missed. Settling to the earth a few feet before him was a brilliant white gryphon bearing a small man and a tall timeless being. Guernef, Abafouq, and Andares, his dear companions on the part of his life that he still scarcely believed he participated in.
He shouted their names in turn as the Binoq and Åelf clambered off the Nauh-kaee’s back. His delight bubbled over his smile and, after sheathing his sword, into a laugh and firm embraces. "What brings you three to the Glen?"
"Sadly, a goodbye," Abafouq admitted with a long sigh. He then smiled and patted the donkey on the elbow. "We’re leaving the valley today and journeying home. We all hope to return someday, aye. But we could not leave and not see our friends one last time."
"I fear Charles is not here. He rode to the south with Sir Saulius to protect the Bishop."
"We know," Andares said with a firm smile. "We came to see you before we left."
"Oh," James wagged his ears back behind his head, and looked between Abafouq and Andares. "Will you be coming back?"
"We hope to," Abafouq repeated as he stretched. Their landing had attracted the attention of several Glenners, but they were now known here and so left to James. Abafouq noted their stares with an almost hungered expression. "This is a beautiful land that would make a wonderful home."
"But it is not our own," Guernef finished for him. The Nauh-kaee’s voice was hard but not unkind and seemed to soften with each utterance. "We must return to our own homes. You will leave our eyes but not our thoughts."
James nodded, glancing past them briefly at the path down to the lake and to the smithy. "Isn’t it a long journey for you?"
"Two months I am thinking," Abafouq admitted. "Maybe more, but we can fly over the ice as long as the weather cooperates. I have a few spells to keep from freezing there. I’m not covered in feathers and fur like my friend Guernef here."
"No, you aren’t," Guernef agreed. "But the paths of the sky are open to you."
James chuckled as his eyes lifted to the many evergreen boughs above and the patches of blue that could be seen between them and especially toward the lake. He could hear the distant throb of hammers like the tattoo of a beating heart. "I’ve never heard anyone put it quite like that. But after riding the Rheh it makes sense."
"And how are you managing, James?" Abafouq asked. "I am thinking it has been at least two weeks since last we spoke."
He shrugged. "I’m all right. I had some trouble sleeping at first, but that’s passed. I’ve been keeping busy at the Inn and with some small patrol duties. Angus is willing to trust me with more since I returned. Oh, and helping Charles, Kimberly, and Baerle at their home with chores. Are you going to see them again?"
"No," Andares replied with a faint shake of his head. The long braid slid back and forth like an adder uncoiling. "We must traverse the entire length of the Valley this day. It is already midmorning and we must continue on our way."
James lowered his ears and nodded. "Of course. Thank you for coming to see me. I hope you have a safe journey, and I hope to see you all again! I miss seeing your faces when I wake up in the morning."
"And we you," Abafouq admitted. The little man hugged him and the donkey hugged the Binoq back, gently, pressing his callused hoof-like hands into his back. A moment later he and Andares exchanged a firm embrace.
Only Guernef remained aloof, but he did lower his head respectfully to him and confess his own gratitude. "My wings soar the wider having journeyed and fought at your side, James of the Glen."
The donkey could find no words to say to that and so merely put his hand to his chest in salute to the Nauh-kaee. Finally, he managed to blurt, "Thank you." It felt so inadequate.
Andares climbed onto the Nauh-kaee’s back and helped Abafouq to scramble up into the saddle and harness. James took several steps back while they waved to him and wished him a final farewell. James waved back as twigs clattered and the last of the snow skirled in the wake of the white gryphon’s leap into the air and beat of massive feathered wings. A few seconds more and he lost sight of them in the maze of spire and branch. He caught sight of them again for a few seconds over the lake and then they disappeared to the south.
A hot breath poured from his lips and he scuffed his hooves in the hard earth. So they were gone. The legends and fairy tales had taken their leave of Metamor at last. He stared in to the sky where the gray vapor of cool morning had risen and lost its drab tint. Day was upon him. He waited only a moment more before hearkening to the call of the hammers and the promise of the bell. The iron bell.
After a rather hearty meal and some discussion of plans for the patrol with the local militia, the knights sent their squires to prepare the horses. Charles and Intoran dutifully obeyed and so for a few minutes as they readied the tack they were alone together as often seemed to be the case since Father Hough asked them to be an honour guard for the Bishop. Yet, despite their growing companionship they rarely discussed anything more pressing than the cares of the day.
But with the rat’s obvious discomfiture, the oryx could not help but ask of it. While carrying Egland’s heavy leather saddle toward the roan charger Galadan, he caught Charles’s eye and said, "You were hoping to go back to your family today."
"Aye," Charles replied with a long sigh. He straightened the saddle on Armivest’s back. The pony whuffled and flicked his tail in the rat’s direction somewhat affectionately. "But duty comes first. I’ll yank the fur off that Jackal’s tail later."
Intoran chuckled and rested the saddle on Galadan’s back. The roan stomped a forehoof. "I doubt it was intentional. We’re here now."
"It does make some sort of sense," Charles begrudgingly admitted. "But I’m not going to like it."
Intoran straightened the saddle and began tightening the buckles. A thoughtful moue fixed on his muzzle. "Have you ever spent any time in Jetta? Until this week I’d never been here."
Charles shook his head. "I passed by Jetta on my way to Metamor eight years ago. But I’ve never stayed here, no. Are you going to suggest I try to enjoy seeing this place while I’m here?"
"Why not?" Intoran shrugged and did his best to smile. "At the very least we get to spend more time in the saddle. Yacoub’s always happiest that way." His golden eyes grew vaguely distant for a moment, then snapped back to the present. "Coming out to serve the Bishop has made him the happiest I’ve seen him since his brother visited."
That did pique the rat’s interest. He remembered the dour Darius Egland who accompanied them not for their own sake, but merely for the chance to see his brother that he’d long thought dead. Though they’d travelled for nearly a month together, they’d never warmed. "Did he bring bad news?"
Intoran shook his head, and then shrugged again. "Not that Yacoub has said. He does not wish to discuss it, and I have asked him many times. He’s just grown distant since then, as if he has some great weight bearing him down. I’d help him carry it if only he’d let me." He shook his head and then finished securing the straps. "He is happy now again. Perhaps this is what he needed. I know that serving the Ecclesia in some way is very important to him. I confess I like the idea as well."
Charles put the halter over Armivest’s head and scratched the pony behind one ear. "Didn’t you want to be a knight?"
"I think every boy dreamed of being a knight when they grew up. No, it sort of accidentally worked out that way. I am grateful for it though. My swordsmanship has greatly improved and Egland assures me that he will train me to the tilt once Spring is here."
Charles nodded and pondered what Saulius had in store for him in training. Was he resigned to being his squire, or was it merely a symptom of missing his family or even Misha’s assurance he wouldn’t be sent on any distant patrols for several months? Surely the fox had to know what Saulius was up to. Those two had been fighting for his allegiance for almost two years now and he doubted it was going to come to an end until one of the three of them died.
He had to take his paw away from Armivest’s ear lest he begin drawing blood; in his musing his scratching had begun to grow fiercer and firmer. The poor animal nickered in protest.
"I’m sure it won’t be long before it will be you who will be in need of a squire," he said with a forced smile. He then turned to grab Malicon’s gear so as to avoid having to keep such an expression. "And don’t worry about Sir Egland. From what I know of him, he’s faced far worse than a brother’s news and survived. Just give him time."
"And you do the same, Charles," Intoran suggested gently. "You’ll be back with your family soon enough."
Sotto voce, with narrowed eyes that made the Shrieker’s black hand print turn into a twisted claw, the rat added, "I better."