Invigorating Faith

by Charles Matthias

Feb 23, 708 CR

Alberta had promised Thomas an evening ride now that the snows from two weeks ago had mostly melted. A week of warm southerly winds and clear skies had reduced Metamor's supply to small piles clustering in the shade of high walls and dark alleys. The grounds were muddy and wet but another few days of sun would cure that in the city. The river would run high for a few more months and the lowlands would suffer from mud flats sucking wheels, boots, paws, and hooves. But everyone in the city was ready for the coming Spring, each and every one hoping that winter had played it's last trick on them.

Thomas just hoped he wouldn't be scraping mud off his legs for hours after the ride. Still, it would be the first time they had ridden together in anything resembling warm weather since their wedding two months ago. He had already changed into his riding gear which was modest but far more formal than the first sort of riding gear Alberta had ever bade him wear. He chuckled lightly as he thought on it. He sincerely hoped the meeting his daughter had asked him to attend would not take long.

With a quartet of guards flanking him, Thomas descended the still cool halls of Metamor until they reached his private audience chamber. The guards took up their posts on either side of the door after the bull Andhun opened the door and cast a quick glance inside. Two people waited within, his adopted daughter Malisa who served as his Prime Minister and chief advisor in all matters and the young Follower priest Father Hough.

Both stood at Thomas's entrance but he waved them back to their seats. His private audience chamber was where he typically held his meetings with his closest advisors. A table big enough for not quite a dozen men occupied the centre of the room lit by high windows facing south and lanterns hanging from the ceiling. A sealed bookshelf containing maps and important documents bearing laws and treaties was under lock and key against one wall. Matching cabinetry holding wines and other libations mirrored it. A door in the rear wall near the windows led to his private study now shut and also under lock and key. The grey stone walls were coloured by tapestries and a painting of Thomas made four years ago that he wasn't terribly embarrassed by. Carpets were arrayed beneath their feet in a modest display.

"Good evening, Father Hough," Thomas said as he threaded his long tail through his high-backed upholstered chair. "Please forgive my appearance but I am going riding with my wife after we speak. What may we do for you?"

Father Hough offered a kind greeting and then withdrew an opened letter from his collared tunic. "I received this letter today, your grace. It is from the newly appointed Bishop for my diocese. He is coming to Metamor in a few days to inspect the faithful. He asked me to inform you of his coming. He has no needs from you other than safe passage; he and his entourage will stay at the Cathedral while he is here"

Thomas glanced to Malisa who kept her face perfectly still. "I heard not long ago that there was to be a new Bishop. I'm surprised to hear that his first official visit will be to Metamor." He glanced at the letter. There was nothing beyond what Hough had described except for the Bishop's identity. Thomas saw the name and felt every muscle in his body tighten. He looked at Malisa again, his dark eyes hard. His daughter nodded ever so faintly.

The horse lord turned on the boy priest. "The new Bishop is Tyrion Verdane? The son of Duke Titian Verdane of Kelewair? The son of the man who has tried to buy off many of my southern vassals in the last ten years? Let us not forget that our last war to the south was with the new Bishop's grandfather! That Tyrion Verdane?"

Father Hough swallowed and nodded, looking like a child who'd been caught sneaking pastries from the kitchens. "I'm afraid so, your grace. In his defence, I have always heard that he is a very devout man who believes in the honour of the Ecclesia above the affairs of kings and princes." Hough paused, but the silence that followed was so weighty he added in a somewhat stronger voice, "He will only be here for a few days. As the Bishop, it is his right and duty to inspect those under his pastoral care."

This last was met with icy stares from both Thomas and Malisa. The boy priest did not wilt but instead sat a little taller in his chair. After a few moments, Thomas nodded and waved one hand toward the door. "Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Father. I assure you the Bishop will be protected all the while he is in Metamor and that none will interfere with his ecclesiastical mission. There are matters my daughter and I must discuss so please excuse us."

"Thank you, your grace," Hough rose, bowed, and then left by the way Thomas had entered only moments before. He took the letter with him.

"As soon as he showed me the letter I knew you'd want to know," Malisa said after the priest had gone.

"Thank you. I cannot believe that Titian's whelp would be coming here just to inspect the faithful. He may be pious as Father Hough says but he is still Titian Verdane's son. I doubt he would have come here so soon after his installation if not at the behest of his father. But why?"

Malisa tapped her thumbs together and stared into space as much as into her mind. Her words were slow and deliberate when they came. "Duke Verdane has been dealt a serious blow by the loss of Bozojo. With Lord Jaran Calephas financially and militarily tied to you, he has no feasible designs on Giftum anymore. He has to be clawing for some opportunity to regain what he's lost in the last year."

"I agree," Thomas said with a curt nod. "But what?"

"He'll never gain a foothold in Metamor. Not anymore, not with the Curses. His eldest son is a prisoner in Salinon, and the father of his new heir is your subject now. His hold on the Southern Midlands is weak. Perhaps Tyrion isn't meant to spy on you or Metamor. What could he gain by it?"

Thomas's tail flicked back and forth as he considered the mutli-faceted possibilities. Politics was dizzying at the best of times. Guessing the motivation of a rival was a game he'd played nearly all of his adult life. He needed to first know Verdane's motives and then he could guess what he might be trying to accomplish.

The former was simple enough. "The Verdane family has always wanted to unite the Midlands under Kelewair and claim the title of King of all the Midlands. What his father attempted briefly by war this one has attempted through alliance and trade. He married his eldest son to Otakar's niece a decade back but she died shortly thereafter. Had their marriage prospered, he probably would have had enough influence to win all of our southern fiefs leaving us only with those under the Curse."

Malisa nodded quietly as her adoptive father took a breath and continued marshalling his thoughts aloud. "But with her death, Otakar and Verdane have become rivals. Otakar's envoy tricked us into signing an agreement honouring each other's territory while Otakar seized Bozojo for himself. Verdane's people are tired from the civil war he put down last year and now he's lost his other great asset, revenue from the trade on the Marchbourne. His desire to advance his family is in shambles. He wants nothing more than to find some way to reverse his fortune."

"But," Malisa interjected, "what does he gain by sending Tyrion here?"

Thomas grunted under his breath and tapped one hoof on the carpet. "I don't know. And that worries me. There has to be reason other than seeing to the Follower population. I wish we could prevent him from coming under some pretext, but Father Hough is right. If we tried, we'd alienate our own countrymen."

Malisa folded her hands tightly and pressed them into the table. "Past visits from members of the Ecclesia have ended far differently than we expected. The Patriarch's visit ended in disaster, but the Questioners exonerated us. Perhaps his grace truly only wishes to see to his flock? We need to keep an eye on him. And we should probably prevent Sir Dupré from knowing he is here. There's no telling what the ram will do to him."

"Ugh, aye." Thomas shook his head, ears lowered and eyes closed as if fruitlessly willing away a headache. "I will send Nestorius a message to keep Dupré in the dark regarding Bishop Tyrion's visit. Let us hope the lion succeeds. Dupré has proven as good as his word so far but it is far too early to start trusting him." The horse lord opened his eyes and tapped one hoof-like nail on the table. "Where is Andwyn anyway? I'm surprised he didn't warn us of the Bishop's coming. He must already be in my southern lands by now if he's to arrive in three days's time."

"Andwyn is up north personally seeing to some manner of intelligence. He should return tomorrow. I will brief him on what he will need to do." Malisa offered the last with a faint smile. "I'll talk to George and Misha about shifting the patrols. The valley has been pretty quiet lately, but we'll want to be sure."

"Make sure Father Hough tells them the Bishop's plans too." Thomas sighed and shook his head. "I don't like this, Mal. I don't like it at all."

"Neither do I, Father. But if he is up to anything suspicious, we'll learn soon enough."

Thomas stood on his hooves, stretching his long legs a moment as he did so. "Very well. Thank you, Malisa. Keep me informed. I want to know as soon as somebody sees the Bishop in the valley."

Malisa rose, a professional smile crossing her lips. "I will." She bowed her head ever so slightly. "And you enjoy your ride, Father. I don't want to keep you from your wife any longer."

They shared a knowing smile, Thomas's contentment returning to him just as quickly as it had left. "Thank you, Mal. Until tomorrow then. Good night." Malisa's smile remained as she left. Thomas followed her a moment later, the smell of wet grass, mud, horseflesh, and his earthy wife already filling his mind with allure.

Feb 26, 708 CR

Tyrion fingered the gold-painted yew that hung from his neck. As a symbol of his new office of Bishop, it was effective and unmistakable. It also gave new meaning to the words 'non sum dignus'. He smiled faintly, shifted his leg around in the carriage into yet another uncomfortable position, and turned his attention to the open window.

They'd passed the boundary of the Curse early that morning and in that time he'd seen creatures walking, working, and riding that he'd never thought possible. And that was in addition to the many female soldiers patrolling the main road north through the valley and children working like men. He'd known to expect all of these things, but to see it was quite another.

The valley was beautiful in a way that his home could never match. While Kelewair was blessed with many nearby forests that would soon burst into brilliant white, pink, and yellow blossoms, many in Metamor Valley were green all year long. He'd known that some trees bore needles instead of leaves but again, seeing it was altogether a new experience.

And so it was with the mountains that rose up like insurmountable towers on either side. Tyrion marvelled at them as much as anything else his eyes caught on the long journey north. He absently massaged his deformed leg while his eyes took all of it in.

"It is impressive," one of his priests said. This one had an accent and an appearance that marked him even more a foreigner in this land than Tyrion. His skin was sun-baked dark but his eyes were bright if unreadable. He bore a black cassock with a red cross emblazoned on the front; a sole mote of darkness in an otherwise bright and vibrant world. At his feet curled a golden-furred dog who laconically wagged his tail and turned his ears to listen to his master's voice. "Admire Eli's handicraft but do not neglect the beauty He gives in your homeland."

The two junior priests riding with them were startled anew by the Questioner's willingness to instruct their Bishop. Tyrion didn't mind. He turned away from the window and met the Questioner's gaze with an interested smile. "So tell us of your homeland."

The Questioner leaned back his head and closed his eyes. "The late rains would be falling about now and for the next few weeks. It is a beautiful time in Yesulam and all the Holy Land. Bright flowers everywhere covering once parched earth. Blossoms of pink, violet, yellow, orange, and any other hue you can name. The river sparkles with the morning sun before rippling with the afternoon rain. Trees blossom along the riverbanks. In a few months they will bear figs and fruits, dates will ripen, and though the flowers, so delicate and so fragile, will have withered, the grasses that came with them will feed the flocks through the hot summer. The golden city will shine like a mirror to the sun, bright with the virtue of its people and the relief of a people who have seen an eclipse come to an end." His lips turned in a slight smile. "That alone is as breathtaking as it is heartbreaking. What grace, ah! That is the beauty of my homeland, your grace. A people freed from an evil they could not name but knew was there."

Tyrion pursed his lips to reply but found no words that could compare. He turned to the window and gazed for another minute in complete silence. A clattering of hooves spoke of the approach of riders coming from the north. Tyrion shifted his poor leg then leaned his head out and watched as a pair of ponies and a pair of horses approached. They slowed as they neared the carriage. Tyrion's lead knight, Captain Nikolai of the Wolf's Claw — an imposition from his father he did not appreciate — bade the four riders to stop well in advance of the carriage.

The riders were all beasts. One appeared to be a variety of northern deer, with nubs for antlers growing just above his tufted ears. Beside him dressed in drab colours was an ungulate like he'd never seen with long spiralling horns, a white and black face, and tan hide. The two riding ponies were both rats, the lead one dressed in chain mail, while the latter, also in drab colours, had a black splotch over his right eye as if he'd been burned. Two unusual knights and their squires.

The deer knight lowered his head after coming to a stop and spoke to Captain Nikolai. "I am Sir Yacoub Egland and this is Sir Erick Saulius." He gestured to the rat at his side. "We have been sent to escort his grace to the Keep where Father Hough awaits to receive him."

While Nikolai bantered briefly with the elk, the Questioner, completely unseen in the wagon from the knights, whispered, "Egland is one of the knights who accompanied Patriarch Akabaieth to Metamor."

"He probably asked to be our escort," surmised one of the two newly made priests. Both were young men of unremarkable complexion, the one thin and bookish and the other who'd spoken swarthy with a face as plain as buttered bread and hair the colour to match.

"I suspect you are right, Father Purvis." Tyrion drew his head back inside as the carriage started along the road again, now with the four Keepers leading them. "And did you chance to meet the rat knight, Sir Saulius?"

The Questioner shook his head while one hand gently scratched behind the dog's ears. "Nay. From the sound of his name he is probably a Flatlander. There have been other knights in Yesulam from the Saulius horse-clan. I never knew any of them."

Tyrion glanced out the carriage window and was rewarded with a glimpse of a tall alabaster tower rising over the forest of pines flanking the road. His lips twitched attempting a relieved smile. "It should not be long now. I can see one of the towers." He drew his prayer beads from around his gold-threaded sash and gestured for the other three priests to do the same. "Let us pray the None for a safe and successful time here in Metamor. For each of us."

And for the next half hour, four men's voices locked in almost harmonious chant echoed from the carriage, down the road, and through the trees still glistening with the last of winter's snow.

Only a short time after their prayers were concluded the road opened out into a wide clearing with the river flowing briskly by on the left. Tyrion and the other priests peered out the carriage windows to see a large ridge surrounded by high walls and strong ramparts. A solitary road led up one side of the hill, while the east and west slopes were too steep to mount any assault. A town clustered at the base of the hill, and it too was surrounded by walls, the outer of which was still under construction, though the gaps were few and far between. Already soldiers of various human and beastly varieties walked those new walls with spear and bow in hand or paw.

Sir Egland rode back until he was alongside the carriage. His dark cervine eyes and countenance fixed on the Bishop immediately. "Your grace, I am Sir Yacoub Egland."

"You once served Patriarch Akabaieth," Tyrion noted with what he hoped was a fatherly smile. "Thank you for watching over us the last mile."

Egland's ears flinched at the name of his late charge but he did not lose his bearing. "I now serve the Ecclesia here in whatever way I can. We are almost upon Euper. That is the small village you see before you. We must pass through Euper before we can ascend to Keeptowne and Metamor proper. Father Hough waits for you at the gates of the Keep."

"Lead on then, Sir Egland."

The deer knight nudged his steed who gave a snort before leaping forward to retake the head of the column.

"Euper didn't have an outer wall when I was here last," the Questioner mused before settling back in his seat hidden within the shadows; even the red cross on his cassock was barely visible.

"It looks like any other village I've seen," Father Purvis opined, though not unkindly. "I do not see any churches though."

"Nor will you," the Questioner added. "Metamor is the ancestral home to the Lothanasi. Our creed is new to this land."

"Which makes our purpose here all the more important," Tyrion added. His eyes followed the wall as they passed through the town gate. The buildings were poor, ramshackle, wooden things which hunched over the road or toward each other like a gaggle of drunks stumbling out of a tavern arm in arm. Not unlike many of the poorer sections of Kelewair, Tyrion noted.

"I have heard," the wiry priest with pinched face said in a quiet voice, "that the Library of Metamor is one of the greatest in the world."

"I did not have a chance to peruse it when I was here," the Questioner said in an equally soft voice. "But this city is known for producing literature for the amusement of the literate and the betterment of bards." His lips attempted a smile but soon settled back into a thin line. "I cannot vouch for the quality of the tomes nor do I expect many will be of Follower origin. But I am certain that many will be of interest."

"There will be no time to peruse the Library, Father Malvin," Tyrion said kindly. He well remembered how studious Malvin had been in his lessons these last five years. Ordained a priest only three months and yet he knew more from his studies than many of Tyrion's senior clergy. "At least not on this trip. Later perhaps."

The carriage tilted back with a jolt and they began ascending the hill. They proceeded in silence up the incline. The road levelled out just as they passed through the massive gate in the outer wall. A broad field bereft of homes but filled with building supplies and probably squatters greeted them. All of them watched now, silent and curious.

Guards armed with long bows lined the parapets of the inner wall and the short, stout towers flanking the main gates. Beyond they both saw, heard, and smelled the city. The main thoroughfare was wide and flanked by Inns and markets at first, before giving way to small shops and the occasional home. Baked goods, fried and salted meats, scented oils and perfumes, and the crisp tang of leather and steel all mixed together with the abundant odour of a cornucopia of beasts and man and their waste to provide an olfactory tableaux that struck them all at once. Only the Questioner did not recoil. Even his dog lifted his snout to the window and began to growl under his breath. The Questioner put forth his hand and pet the dog's back to calm him.

Many of the Keepers peered at them as they passed though few for very long. Most looked at them, noted them, and then returned to their business. The carriage they rode in was marked with the yew and colours of the Ecclesia but no more. If Father Hough had followed Tyrion's instructions, only a handful would even know of his coming. Word would spread quickly now that he was here, but that suited his purposes too.

The carriage passed through another series of gates and entered a plaza before the mighty castle. Elaborate gardens were spread out on either side of the terrazzo though only a few brave stems bore flowers so early in the year. Shortly after they left the gardens behind the horses and carriage drew to a halt. A series of steps led up to a high arched causeway festooned with ivy leading to an open doorway into the castle. Standing at the base of the steps was a boy dressed in a black clerical robe. Tyrion breathed a sigh of relief.

Captain Nikolai opened the carriage door and offered a hand to help Tyrion climb out. He accepted the hand only because it was offered and climbed out a little unsteadily on his clubfoot. Behind him Father Purvis held out his crozier and miter. The latter was quickly placed over his head almost covering his red hair while the former he took and turned with the crook facing outward. Silently the three priests and dog filed out of the carriage.

"Your grace," the boy priest intoned as he genuflected. Tyrion offered his right hand and the boy kissed the large ring. "I am Father Francis Hough. Welcome to Metamor Keep."

"Thank you," Tyrion replied. "Both for the welcome and for its modesty. I am Bishop Tyrion Verdane. With me are Father Purvis and Father Malvin, recently ordained priests who I selected to aid me on this journey. And recently assigned to our Diocese is yon Questioner, Father—"

He never was able to finish the statement. From out of the Keep bolted a silver thing on four legs that vaulted down the steps with a heavy whump and came to a stop right before the black-clad priest. Metallic frame quivered and its eyes beamed with what could only be canine delight. Its jaws opened and with unbridled exuberance barked, "Father Felsah! You've come back!"

The Questioner's stony expression melted into pure delight. "Hello Madog." He bent down and hugged the creature around the neck. Everyone gaped in astonishment. The golden-furred dog began growling in sudden alarm, but Felsah turned and gently cupped one hand behind his ear. "It's okay, Rakka. Madog is a friend."

The metallic fox and Rakka looked at each other a moment, sniffing and then circling each other and doing so again. Even after canine introductions Rakka appeared very uncertain and whined softly. But Felsah pet him gently and stilled his anxiety.

Hough's gaze was inquisitive. "So you are the one who Madog befriended."

Felsah nodded as his smile began to fade. "That I am, Father."

Tyrion took a deep breath, and tried to stifle the irritation he felt. "I am sure that is only the first of many surprises yet to come in the next few days." A cool wind bent the growing grass and curled around his neck. "I trust all arrangements have been made for our stay?"

"Aye, they have, your grace." Hough gestured toward the ivy festooned causeway with both arms. "If you would all follow me and I will show you the accommodations we've prepared."

Tyrion glanced at the afternoon sky and then shook his head. "There is time yet before Vespers. I would like a tour of the convent first before we go to the Cathedral."

Hough frowned but tried to hide it. "It has barely begun to be built, but the Sisters have a roof over their heads at least. There's not much more than that."

"Nevertheless, I fear this may be the only time I will have to meet with them while I'm here. Let us go there first, and then after Vespers, we can retire quietly to discuss matters of my visit."

"Of course, your grace. I'm sure the Sisters will be delighted to welcome you." Hough gestured to the two knights and their squires. "Sir Egland, Sir Saulius. Thank you for escorting his grace here. Could you continue to serve as his escort while he stays with us?"

The rat knight put one paw over his chest. "'Twould be an honour to escort his grace, Father."

Hough smiled to them and then gestured to the carriage. "It is not a long walk, but I think it best if you ride in your carriage. Our escort will guide us."

Tyrion looked between them and smiled. "Most efficient, Father." One by one all five priests climbed into the wagon. Madog nuzzled Felsah one last time before following along behind the carriage at a playful trot.

Though the convent was not much more than a single small building under repair in which the Sisters slept with a few suggestions of new walls and a sanctuary space yet to be constructed, the Sisters themselves proved to be a solid foundation on which more vocations would be built, or so surmised Bishop Tyrion after meeting them. Though Mother Wilfrida had become a mallard with dull plumage and a voice accented by the occasional quack, she displayed a deep piety and at the same time canny understanding of the needs and motivations of others. Tyrion felt more like a young child in her presence than he did with his own father.

Father Purvis and Malvin absorbed all with mixed degrees of shock and wonder, both the odd appearance of the many Keepers they encountered and the stares they received back. Captain Nikolai, normally as expressive as a brick, was even disturbed and especially so by the few women soldiers they saw in passing. Only Felsah appeared immune to the incongruity of the indigenous people. He noted the convent and the Sisters with one careful eye while the other strayed to Rakka and Madog who in short order became friends and chased each other as dogs left to themselves are wont to do.

After Mother Wilfrida finished explaining her intentions for the convent, all of them returned to the Keep with the two animal knights leading them. The Sisters followed behind at a walk to attend Vespers. Once at the Keep, Egland and Saulius led Nikolai and the other soldiers to one of the stables where space had been made available for their steeds. Tyrion and his priests followed Hough into the Keep.

Through lightly furnished passages they travelled for only a minute before reaching the Cathedral. Tyrion had seen more impressive in his life, but not many. What astounded him was that it had been discovered in Metamor, not built. The Cathedral in Kelewair had been painstakingly constructed over the course of three generations of his family's rule. Over night Metamor had gone from no place to worship to an edifice of exquisite beauty rich in symbolism, art, and statuary.

Hough took great pleasure in introducing his six seminarians who he'd begun training in the two years he'd been at Metamor. They for their part were overwhelmed with honour at meeting him and each showed a strong sense of piety and devotion. That two of them were like Hough and forever locked as lanky boy's on the cusp of adolescence did not surprise him. That two others were beasts, one a mouse and the other a goggle-eyed reptile called a chameleon, was odd but understandable at Metamor.

What did take Tyrion by surprise was that the two young men who were studying to be priests had been born as women. While back in Kelewair he'd studied what they knew of Metamor from the letters Father Hough had sent to the previous Bishop. He'd intellectually known of this possibility, but the reality was far different. How could they react to a curse that could change a man to a woman and vice versa? There were some vocations particular to a man and some to a woman. What was the proper response to such a substantial change as between man and woman?

Tyrion did not have the leisure to consider those questions as the time for Vespers came upon them. He led the prayers for the priests and Sisters and many others who had gathered. Already, word of his arrival had spread amongst the Follower population of Metamor. It was a strange congregation to have, but it was a hopeful sign in a pagan land.

After Vespers, Hough had his seminarians show them the rooms behind the Cathedral where they could sleep the night. But Tyrion and Hough went to the young priest's quarters at the Bishop's request. Hough offered him cider which Tyrion gratefully accepted. Even more gratefully, the clubfooted cleric accepted the upholstered chair and settled within its voluminous comfort with a pleased sigh.

"You have a very unique parish, Father," Tyrion said with a curious grin as the boyish priest settled himself in the opposite chair. Both faced an empty hearth.

"But a strong one. Our unusual circumstances help keep us together." Hough cradled his cup of steaming cider in his hands, legs dangling off the end of the chair and swinging freely. "We even regularly have some of the Rebuilders come to Mass."

Tyrion sniffed the cider and was rewarded with a rich apple flavour still a bit too hot to drink. "Have there been any conversions?"

"Only a handful," Hough replied. "I don't have time enough as I wish to reach out to those who do not Follow the Way." He lifted the cup to his lips and blew across the heady broth. "It is also a very large parish as I am the only priest in the entire Valley. There are Followers living as far north as Hareford and as far south as Jetta whose needs are my affair. I wrote to your predecessor asking for assistance several times, but he was reluctant to send us any more priests."

The question in those words could not have been more direct. Tyrion blew on his cider a moment and then said, "You were rather diffident about coming here as well before you were Cursed, Father. It is sad, but it is a very rare priest who will risk entering a field like yours. To enter it is to never be able to leave."

"Surely there must be some willing," Hough added in a slightly less demanding tone.

"That is an inquiry I have been making." He sipped the cider and was rewarded with a crisp flavour that warmed all the way down. "But I cannot offer you any answers as of this moment. My purpose here is to ascertain the needs of the Valley. Once I have done that, I will make what decisions seem prudent. Whether worthy or not, I am Bishop, and I will appoint priests if I deem it necessary. But in the case of Metamor, I must exercise caution to ensure that the priests I appoint have the proper disposition."

Hough's expression relaxed some and he nodded in thanks. Tyrion did not wait further before adding, "Your six seminarians are a good beginning, but it will be at least another year before any of them is ready for ordination, or so I gather."

"Ramad and Patric are the eldest and have been with me for a year a half." Tyrion recalled that Ramad was one of the two who had once been a woman and Patric was the chameleon fellow. "Another year of study for both at least. It would go faster if I was able to give more time to their formation."

Tyrion ignored the implied request. "Mother Wilfrida mentioned something about refugees when we spoke. To what was she referring?"

"That is the other blessing and challenge, your grace." Hough appeared to slump in his chair like a man who'd spent day and night hacking at frozen earth to dig a trench. "The Curse heals ailments when it changes a man; it might even cure your clubfoot. The refugees are the survivors from Bradanes who have decided it is better to be trapped here than to be treated as lepers."

The tragedy of Bradanes was known to Tyrion as those people had once belonged to his father. That part of him loyal to his father was irked that they would find a home here at Metamor but the rest of him was relieved to know that they would not suffer anymore. "How many have come?"

"A little over four thousand have come so far, counting children. When Spring arrives we expect an equal number if not more to arrive seeking a new home. Some will leave, those that are still human, but most will remain. All of them are Followers and so far not a single priest among them. I'd hoped one would come and share my burden but Eli has not provided that yet."

"It seems that my appointment as Bishop could not have come at a more opportune time. For Metamor at least." He took a longer sip and savoured the taste for several seconds. "And you made this yourself?"

Hough nodded. "An old family recipe. It is but one of the two indulgences I allow myself with what little time I have."

"And the other?"

The boy priest actually blushed. "Playing with Madog. He's the metal fox who greeted Father Felsah. He was one of the first to befriend me and he found the Cathedral within Metamor." He lowered his eyes. "I know it seems frivolous, but because of the Curses, sometimes I just need to be a little boy with his dog."

Tyrion felt on somewhat stronger ground now that his host, who in truth was older than he, was more a boy in manner than a man. "If Madog can make even a Questioner smile and laugh, then he truly must be a blessing. I'm glad of it. Now," his tone deepened, serious and commanding like his father often used. "Tomorrow is Sunday. I wish to begin the day with prayers with your seminarians, some time for discussion and teaching, and then I will celebrate the Mass and would like you and the other priests to concelebrate. Afterward, I intend to begin my travels through the Valley. You know this land. My intent is to see for myself the state of the Follower communities here. Once done, I will make my decision regarding whether to appoint any other priests here. I will do so before I leave the Valley so you will not need to be in any further anxiety.

"But, I need you to teach me now what to expect and where to go so I can make the best of my time here. I do not wish to be trapped here."

Hough nodded and turned the cup around in his hands. "You might be anyway. If brigands or Lutins attack you, you may be trapped here."

"I am in Eli's hands. If that is His will, then it will come to pass." Tyrion smiled. "But for now, tell me of the Valley, of its people, and of our people."

The stables were rich with the scent of horses, hay, manure, and the sweat and musk of the ostlers. Even up in the hayloft overlooking the stalls of stamping and snorting horses, Charles and Saulius could not escape the earthy odour which permeated through their clothes and fur so that they smelled more like their ponies than they did rats.

As Charles finished stacking hay bales on either side of a space big enough for the two of them to sleep he lowered his whiskers, curled his tail around one leg, and frowned. "Why are we sleeping up here again? There were rooms in the Long House for us, or the cellars, or even with Sir Egland who offered. It's not that I mind the smell — I rather like it to be honest — and it isn't even that cold, but it does seem the least comfortable accommodations you could have picked apart from sleeping in the street."

Sir Saulius spread a mat of loose hay on the wooden railing and grimaced when he found a tattered washcloth that reeked of things fouler than horse droppings. He tossed that aside and snuffled a moment before replying. "Aye, we could have slept there. But I hath two reasons for bringing us here. The first, thou shouldst spend some nights sleeping close to thy steed. 'Twill bond thee tighter as it should be."

Charles glanced over the railing to Malicon his roan pony who looked so small next to the chargers in the adjacent stalls. Much like he as a rat was smaller than most of his friends. "I love him already. He's a good friend." He unrolled his blanket and a suspicious moue crossed his snout. His vine tightened about his chest. "What is your other reason?"

The knight set his rolled-up blanket down and leaned his elbows on it. "'Twas nothing more sinister than a desire to provide you with privacy my good squire. Charles, thou thinkest many things, I dost see it in thy eyes and in thy manners. Had we spent the night anywhere else, other ears would hath gleaned thy words. But here, 'tis only the two of us. Wouldst thee share thy thoughts with me? Thou hast been of great help to me in my years here and I wouldst be of help to thee in thy troubles."

Charles straightened out a wrinkle in his blanket as his moue deepened. "I do not know what you wish me to say. I am home after a long journey. I have my wife and my children again. You and Misha have already started squabbling over my allegiances — don't think I haven't noticed. A darkness may loom before me that I must beware, one that has already struck Lindsey and Kayla. And let us not forget that my youngest child died while I was off defeating that darkness in Marzac. Truly, what is there for me to say?"

Saulius did not flinch even when his friend's acute words drew on him. He lifted his mail shirt over his head and draped it over the makeshift armour tree he'd had Charles erect after climbing into the hayloft. But his whiskers drooped. "Thou hast many pains in thy heart, Charles. And thou hast numbered them. 'Tis never been my intent to cause thee anguish, only to provide thee with a duty and a calling suited to thy talents that wouldst keep thee close to thy family."

"My skills are more suited to being a Long Scout." Charles removed his mail shirt and gazed at it as it dangled from his paws slick with oil. "This I know you know to be true."

The knight lay his sword and buckler at the base of the armour tree. "Aye." He sighed heavily and shook his head. "But it shalt always take thee from thy loved ones. Not for a day or two or three, but for a week, a month, perhaps longer. 'Tis a poor way to be a father."

"There are other Longs with children." Charles hung his armour and took a long deep breath with his eyes closed. "A soldier will always have times when they must go into the field and leave loved ones behind. You cannot change that, Erick. I have always known that. Falling in love, marrying, and having children has not changed that. And Misha has been extremely gracious in allowing me time to be with Kimberly and the children since my return. I have not had to leave them until you informed me of this duty to escort the Bishop!"

Saulius lowered his ears, chagrined. "Charles... I... I hath a great love for thee and thy kin. Of all I know in Metamor, there be none but thee that I dost wish one day to ride to battle side by side. Perhaps I hath asked of thee too much for my own sake. I... I dost truly wish to ride with thee to battle, Charles. Nothing wouldst e'er bring me greater joy than to have thee at my side, nay, rather, to be at thy side in defence of home and faith."

Charles's anger cracked under those words, uttered with such reserved emotion, emotion held tightly back like a catapult. How often had he underestimated the devotion the other rats treated him with. In part he hated that devotion because he knew himself unworthy of it. He had not spent his years starting his day in the cellars with them to be adored; all he'd ever hoped was that they would no longer hate being rats. This he'd accomplished and it brought joy to his heart. But in some ways, it ached to see that each of them in some small way still depended on him.

And now for perhaps the first time, he saw that Sir Saulius depended on him too. He turned away from the knight's hopeful gaze and looked down at his pony. Malicon was gratefully eating from the feed trough. Slowly, the rat crouched over his blanket, the hay cracking beneath in a soft whisper. "One day we will. Here at Metamor, it cannot but be a certainty. Perhaps tomorrow we may be forced to test our mettle against brigands or Lutins come to despoil the Bishop." He shook his head. "Don't ask me to be a knight because you fear I will be less of a brother to thee as a scout or anything else."

Saulius turned away and brooded. Charles took those moments to seek his Sondecki Calm, that blessed place in the desert beneath the stars that soothed all his agony and tamed all his anger. Only for some reason it didn't. Something seemed wrong that he couldn't place. Some disturbance that lingered at the periphery of his awareness, like a shadow on the horizon that could be either silhouette or stone. As a phantasm it did not menace, nor did it make him feel small or vulnerable. It was more a thorn beneath his tunic, something that kept him from achieving his Calm.

Before he could turn to investigate it further, his friend's voice, quiet and pained though it was, cut through his meditation. "If thou dost wish no longer to serve as my squire, then I wilt release thee from thy duty."

Charles opened his eyes and shook his head. "Nay, Erick. I do not wish to cease being thy squire. Not as such. I just... I don't know what I want. I... I want my son back." He said the last so suddenly that he felt his heart catch in his throat. It was now he that turned away and hid his face. He gripped the vine through his linens and clutched tightly. It responded by gently pulling closer against his flesh, soft leaves so velvety and tender that they could not help but sooth him.

"He wast a sweet lad," Saulius replied distantly, a heavy sadness in his voice where once he'd been restrained. "He always asked after thee."

"Kimberly has said as much... when she is willing to speak at all." Charles took a deep breath and pushed back the wave of misery that threatened to consume him. "Please I do not wish to speak of this. Please. Let us say prayers for the night and sleep. Tomorrow is gong to be a long enough day as it is. If I start to speak of this now I will get no sleep and neither would you. And what sort of squire would let his knight serve with so little sleep before such an important man as the Bishop?"

Saulius opened his snout to say something more but nothing came. He shook his head after a moment and let whatever reply he had remain in his heart. He knelt, tail draping over his long fleshy paws. Some of his toes lifted to cradle his tail. "Then let us pray, squire Charles. I shalt pray for thy heart if thou wilt pray for mine."

"Agreed, Sir Erick." He felt more at ease though the ragged pain still crouched just out of sight. He knelt next to Saulius and the two of them bowed their heads in prayer, paws clasped before them. Saulius led them and Charles intoned the responses. They were prayers both had said many times before, prayers for protection, guidance, and deliverance in battle, but the words seemed weighted with significance unknown before. When they finished, they both made the sign of the yew, each knowing a subtle lightening of air. Without another word they crawled beneath their blankets. Charles extinguished the lantern plunging them into true night. Below them whickered horses and ponies in equine indifference.

It was no surprise to Felsah that he found it impossible to sleep. He'd never been able to truly sleep while at Metamor, either when he'd come to investigate the Patriarch's murder, or when he'd been brought to heal. Now that he was here with the new Bishop for purposes that he suspected but could not confirm, his nighttime rest was haunted by both hope and dread.

Bishop Tyrion Verdane might ask him to stay at Metamor. Or he might be asked to return to Kelewair. But which of these possibilities was it that he hoped for and which did he dread?

So as the night continued, he prayed his breviary and waited. Rakka had no difficulty sleeping at least. But when he did stir just as Felsah concluded the Divine Office, the priest knew that his expected nocturnal had arrived in a way as mysterious as his appearances always were.

Felsah closed his breviary and smiled. "Hello, Madog."

From behind him gently yipped the metallic fox. "Hi, Father! Hi, Rakka!" The golden-furred dog crept out from the foot of the simple bed and sniffed at the automaton again. His tail started to wag.

"Thank you again for rescuing me and taking me back. I am in your debt."

Madog's ears tilted as if he'd started speaking a different tongue mid-sentence. "No debt, Father. You're my friend."

Felsah sat cross-legged between the two canines, one golden of fur and the other silver of metal, and gently stroked down their backs. Rakka leaned against him and wagged his tail, his body warm and his fur soft and pleasant. Madog leaned against him too, though not so forcefully, and wagged his tail as well. But his flesh was metal and felt no warmer than a sword.

Despite the oddity of touching a machine that moved, it still warmed his heart just as much as the simple relationship he'd forged with Rakka since adopting him from former Grand Questioner Mizrahek. The dog had such a sweet disposition yet nevertheless would fight to protect those he loved. He was grateful that Rakka had quickly accepted Madog as a friend too.

"Why did you come back to Metamor, Father?"

Felsah let his hand rest on Madog's back above his shoulder. Blue eyes gazed at him from within that incunabulum of iron and mithril with the simplicity of a child. "I was ordered to come here by my superiors."

"But why?"

"I do not know all the mysteries of their wisdom, but I know that they have been placed in authority over me by Eli. If I am to obey Eli, then I must obey those He has given the task of shepherding His people."

Madog's tail wagged twice. "I'm glad they sent you here, Father."

Felsah shook his head, his smile fading back into the familiar line of the Questioner face. "I have not yet been sent here. I am accompanying his grace the Bishop for now. If it is his will, I shall remain. If he bids me return to Kelewair, then to Kelewair I will go."

If this disturbed the automaton, he did not show it. Madog turned his head to one side as if considering the answer. What conclusions he reached were not any more clear when he asked his next question. "Do you want to stay at Metamor?"

"In part," Felsah admitted with a hint of mirth. "In part I would like to stay for this is a wondrous land that can be a beacon of faith to the rest of the world and not just a bulwark against chaos. Another part of me fears what the Curses would do; I have dearest companions who I might never see again should I stay here." He thought of Kehthaek, Akaleth, even Kashin and Sir Czestadt. The latter was ironic given that it was Sir Czestadt who'd nearly killed him and from whose blows Madog had brought him to Metamor to heal. But redemption was greater than fear.

He resumed petting Madog. "But both of these are held in check by my truest desire, to love and to serve Eli. If it is His will I serve here, then I will and do so with joy. But if it is otherwise, then I will go where I am needed and do so with joy. Regardless, I shall carry the memory of your friendship with me wherever I go."

Madog wagged his tail and panted in canine delight. "I know you'll be a bright light, Father. I hope you stay, but I won't forget you either if you have to go." He rose and padded toward the small entrance through which he'd come, an entrance that had not been present an hour before. "Good Night, Father. I'll ask her to keep a place for you just in case!"

"Thank you, Madog." He laughed warmly as the automaton disappeared into the obscurity of the Keep. When his friend was gone, he only needed to say one more short prayer before his soul could surrender to sleep.

Feb 27, 708 CR

The last time anyone other than Father Hough had been the celebrant at the Breaking of the Bread in Metamor it had been the late Patriarch himself. Bishop Tyrion Verdane provided an equally intriguing spectacle, dressed in purple clerical garb with a mitre on his head, a crozier in his right hand, a large yew against his chest, and an obvious limp as he dragged his clubfoot with exquisite precision up the main aisle toward the altar.

But the Bishop was the last in the procession that began the ancient liturgy. First entered the six seminarians, with the newest holding aloft a brilliant cross-like yew on the top of a golden standard. All six were dressed in the white robes of altar servers and they proceeded with slow reverent gait toward the altar coloured by the penitential purple and gray.

Following them were the two young men who'd accompanied the Bishop and who had both been ordained a few months prior. Fathers Malvin and Purvis kept their gaze forward as they passed amidst a throng of Keepers whose eyes, ears, and noses studied them. They each bore a purple stole over their white albs, both fine of cloth and weave but simple in adornment.

Behind them came the Questioner priest. He alone was dressed in the black of his order, but the cowl was kept down, and a purple mantle draped his shoulders and chest, framing the blood red cross in his cloak's centre. Felsah's baked skin also set him apart. He was a lone sentinel of darkness in a procession of light.

Holding aloft the Canticles was Father Hough who appeared so small in such a fine procession, yet in him was the trust and delight of the Followers of Metamor. He too wore a white alb, but over this he'd donned a purple dalmatic depicting in three brief scenes the condemnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Yahshua. His eyes, often the habitation of weariness, were now host to an expectant hope that lifted the hearts of all in attendance.

And last of all was Bishop Tyrion, who as the choirs chanted the morning hymn of greeting, turned his eyes from side to side to observe all that had come to celebrate. It was a far larger congregation than was typical for Metamor. Not a seat remained in the Cathedral, and quite a few stood along the clerestory walls or leaned against columns. Though it was now a common sight for Lady Alberta the Duchess to be in attendance, that Steppe-born donkey who had won the heart of their duke and with it the heart of all Metamor, never before had Duke Thomas himself come. And with him he brought his staff. They sat near to the front, ears turned to catch the strains of music and the whispering of exuberant and gossipy Keepers. Alberta glowed as she laid eyes on the procession, as did one of the two great scaly beasts with massive jaw. Thomas remained a cypher. The rest of his staff appeared respectful but suspicious. Tyrion expected nothing less.

The Liturgy proceeded in the same fashion that it always did. After incensing the altar, and leading the congregation in opening prayers, confession of sins, and a blessing, Tyrion gratefully sat down. Felsah assisted him with his mitre and crozier and remained close like a faithful shadow falling down at his feet to lay across the floor. Hough sat nearby, while the altar servers kept their place just off the main altar space. One by one, Father Malvin and Father Purvis gave the readings from the Canticles, both poised and confidant even in the face of a beastly congregation.

But the time soon came for the Bishop to deliver his homily. He rose, holding the crozier in one hand, and walked as straight as he could to the ambo. Faces of man, woman, child, and creature regarded him, eyes brilliant and varied with all the majesty of creation and in all the variety of Eli's pleasure. He was nervous, but a simple prayer put him mostly at ease.

"Good morning. I am your Bishop. And it is a great honour and joy for me to be here now with you on this beautiful Sunday. I have come to learn of you, your needs, your hopes, and to discern what is the proper action for me to take to see to your spiritual needs. Father Hough has laboured with great zeal to ensure that all of you are able to participate fully in the life of the Ecclesia. His hands may be small, but he has held you to his heart with such conviction that it should shame men like myself who have never before been made to endure the difficulties he has."

There were many smiles, some of them rather frightening in appearance, at his praise of their priest. Duke Thomas and his aides remained unmoved but he knew that he would never gain their trust by mere words alone.

Tyrion paused only a moment before continuing, his voice full of admiration. "And difficulties you have in abundance. Twice in the last ten years you have sacrificed much to defeat an enemy from the North who sought to crush you and make you slaves. Is there any among you who has never lost a loved one to such strife? I doubt it. And I am equally certain that there are many among you who are still waiting for those they love to return, never knowing if they are alive in some foul dungeon, chained as a slave, or tortured most cruelly, or whether or not they are already dead. And many will never know. These are the cruellest of torments and the heaviest of burdens.

"That your very bodies have been warped by evil magic is no burden compared to the agonies of the heart. For in these new bodies I can see already that you have found dignity and purpose, and most importantly, beauty." He smiled as he said the last. "Those I have spoken with since my arrival last night have not gainsaid what has happened to them, but they embraced it and lived their lives as best they are able. I understand that for many of you it is impossible to abstain from meat. Father Hough has told me that he has given you dispensation from the penitential fast, and I do as well. But I invite each of you to find in your hearts some little thing that you can give up, something you can deprive yourselves of in this time until we celebrate Yahshua's Resurrection, to better unite yourselves to the suffering and purgation that Yahshua experienced in the desert."

Tyrion built from there on the themes of sacrifice from the Canticles, and the hope that each of them held, and of the importance to remain faithful and obedient to Yahshua through His Ecclesia. Through it all the people listened more attentively that he was used to seeing. This was gratifying, but also humbling. These were people hungering for their faith, and also, people who still remembered the agony of Patriarch Akabaieth's assassination on their lands. Tyrion knew he could not heal them, but he hoped to help them.

"Now I know that you are all very familiar with fortitude and long-suffering. I too know something of this. I was born deformed and weak. Had my father not been a powerful man I would likely not have survived my childhood. Nor would I have likely ever been appointed Bishop of so large a diocese as ours. But those advantages could not take away my deformity and my weakness. You have seen how I must walk. What you do not see is the pain it gives me. I have never run anywhere in my entire life and I never will. But Eli supplies me the grace I need to endure. I am told that if I stay here a week or two then I will no longer have to worry about my foot. There was once a time when I might have accepted such an offer. But now is not that time.

"In a few shorts days I shall return to Kelewair and to tending my flock there, your brothers and sisters in faith. In the time I am here I intend to journey from one end of this valley to the other to meet with our brothers and sisters. When I am finished, when I have learned of you and of your needs, I will make sure that they are met. I am prepared to ask a great deal of those who have given me their obedience because by that obedience they give glory to Yahshua who gave us the most sterling example of obedience to Eli that any could ever give. You will not go hungry. You will not wander lost. You will not wonder when Father Hough will be able to come. You will not linger in the bitter winter months waiting for the hope of the sacraments returned with the Spring. This is my pledge to you. As your Bishop, I will serve you.

"Bear with me only a few days more that I may learn your needs for myself. I will not keep you waiting any longer than that. Now together let us profess our faith as our fathers and mothers did before us, and as our children will do after us."

The Liturgy continued as all the Followers were accustomed. There was more ceremony out of necessity because of Tyrion's office, but with five priests there was no lack of helping hands. The sacrifices were offered, all were reverent, and then each crossed the railing to present the Eucharistic bread. One by one the Followers came forward to receive while those who were not of the Ecclesia remained in the pews watching or praying. Tyrion wondered how many were Rebuilders and how many Lothanasi. Father Hough would know.

It ended as it began, with choirs chanting and the procession leaving the same way it entered. Only this time, where there had been a muted uncertainty in the Followers, Tyrion felt a sense of hopeful excitement. As they walked past, he could see strange eyes looking to him and then away. They didn't know what to expect from him, but it was clear they hoped. As Tyrion felt the weight of all thousand gazes he felt very small indeed.

His bad leg ached once they left the nave the chant still ringing in their ears. The crush of parishioners would be on them momentarily. Tyrion felt twenty years older and gasped for relief he hadn't realized he needed. In a more timorous voice than he intended, he said, "Ready my carriage to head north. I want to be on our way as quickly as possible."

"It will be as you say, your grace," Father Hough replied with complete simplicity.

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