It glimmered like a crystal amidst the dense lichen of forest and grass bent under the force of Southerly winds. Tall spires rose up from the valley floor like stalagmites, while city walls and buildings that surrounded them looked like the box formations he had seen on the cave rooves where his people had seldom travelled. A vein of sapphire pierced through the green in the early morning as the first light of the sun came over the Barrier range and cast its eyes upon that city.
Two pairs of eyes peered over that last rise of the mountains down into the valley. Those of the first were gold upon black, their regard acute, taking in every detail in a moment’s glance. The Nauh-kaee’s size dwarfed his own, white feathers stretching back from his prominent beak, across his neck and shoulders, spilling down across his chest and back and merging with his broad wings. In sharp contrast, a dense white fur framed his lower half just below those great wings. A bird’s talons gripped the rock in front, while an earth beast’s paws rested behind. Feathered ears turned into the wind, listening.
He was much smaller of stature, barely reaching his companion’s shoulder when he stood on tiptoes. Binoq were a diminutive race, but it gave them advantages in their home in the mountains that few other races could hope to match. Even so, as he stared in wonder at the sight that had filled his dreams for so many years, he could not help but be glad that he had made it at long last. The two months’ trek through the Barrier range had been harrowing, but he knew the return voyage would be even more difficult. But perhaps they could rest for one night in that ancient and magical city.
Abafouq breathed a long sigh as he stared out over the valley. He shifted about, repositioning his pack behind him. His heavy clothes would quickly become too warm in the valley itself, but in the heights of the Barrier range, they were essential. Where they stood at the edge of the last peak, they were already becoming uncomfortably warm. They had left the interminable snows behind, and now stared down an incline of rocky soil that became grassy in only a few minutes walk. It would probably be noon by the time they reached Metamor.
“Tequ’s Breath!” Abafouq whispered in awe. “I had never imagined it to be so beautiful.”
Guernef, his Nauh-kaee keeper and only companion for the last five years, did not appear as moved as he. “Though our ally lives here, we must still be cautious. Agents of our enemy live here too.”
“Doubtless,” Abafouq agreed, though he could not help but marvel at the wonder before him. The Barrier Range held many beautiful and breath-taking sights that few living creatures ever had the chance to witness. Even so, this castle, rumoured to have been built by the gods themselves in the days when the world was young, brought him energy. It was almost as intoxicating as Foqo’s Fire he thought with wry amusement.
But the excitement quickly turned to an unsettling dread in the pit of his stomach. For the first time in five years, he would be amongst other intelligent beings. And if his ally’s letters were correct, they were a blend of all sorts of animals and humans. Their ally himself was one of these animal morphs, as he termed it. Some long legged thing with tan fur and a big tail, though Abafouq had never heard of the creature himself. He hoped he did not make a spectacle of himself. He would hate to gawk at every new things he passed.
Gritting his teeth, he nodded to himself. They had to continue on after all. As if sensing his new found determination, Guernef cracked open his beak and squawked, “The day will only grow later. And the winds are strong.”
“Yes. Let us continue. Much will be accomplished this day.” Abafouq smiled slightly to his keeper and friend as he began down the rocky slope towards that fabled city.
The stillness at the wharfs was a pleasant respite from the brackish summer waters off the coasts of Sathmore and Pyralis. The sun was only a faint glimmer to the east, a subtle brightening that would soon break out into a yellow blossom. The trireme was a Pyralian merchant vessel whose captain had after a game of cards at one of the dockside Inns in Sorin had been more than willing to escort the Marquis on his journey southwards. In another day or two’s time they would depart from Whales and sail up the western coast of Pyralis, where he would disembark and take a carriage across the peninsula to Tournemire.
In the meantime, he was impatient to get off the gently rocking vessel. He had spent most of the voyage below decks in the cramped quarters that had belonged to the captain. They had been graciously lent to the Marquis for the voyage, though they were only barely accommodating. His Steward and Castellan were all that remained of his company, and they were all that he truly needed. The wagon he had ventured to Metamor had by freak chance been set to torch the day he’d left.
Marquis Camille du Tournemire did not like to travel by the sea. The roiling waves lent a tilt of their own to the room, and he could constantly feel its sway. Back and forth they went, and his stomach was often protesting the discommoding swagger. Though it never once fully rebelled, it had taken all his conscious will during one particularly foul storm to keep it in its place.
The ill-favoured nature of the sea was not the only reason he found its embrace disquieting. The cards, the one thing he could rely on when all else failed him, were not trustworthy on the water. While he could see in them strange meanings, and had even seen a gnarled face that watched as well, his control over them was not as sure as when he stood upon solid ground. The subtle distortions in their level could cause unforeseeable consequences in any action he might take.
But now that he had reached the docks of Whales, he felt an impatient need to be on land once more. “Vigoureux, my portmanteau.”
His aging steward complied, bringing the Marquis’s things with him. They had but three horses in the hold, and those had disembarked just as soon as the grateful captain had been able to rid himself of them. “Is all prepared?” he turned to his Castellan. The larger had just appeared in the doorway, his eyes full of news.
“It is, you grace,” Sir Autrefois replied with a low bow of his head.
“Good. And has the captain recommended an Inn as I requested?”
The large knight nodded once again. It was almost like the mechanical bobbing of a bird in a toy clock. “He has, your grace. And official of Whales wait to receive us at the quay.”
Marquis du Tournimre smiled lightly then. His arrival would be unexpected for the Whalish court, but it was necessary now. Metamor and Whales were allied after all. No matter what happened that day, he needed but one thing from Whales, and he would have it.
The halls of the ship’s sterncastle were narrow, but soon he was out on the deck. The oars had been drawn in and the sail was down. Marquis du Tournemire did not even look to see if the captain was about, but proceeded without delay towards the gangplank. It was of sturdy bountifruit wood, something native to Whales. It bounced slightly as he walked, but he cared not.
He was dressed as was his custom on days of formality in his blue doublet and hose. He’d forgone the undershirt because of Whales’s warm clime. His soft boots met the firm stone pier and he smiled. Sailors lashed ropes and hoisted crates about him, but he did not even see them. He felt the salt of the air and sea wash across his face, catching at his fine hair, and for a moment, the blue cape clasped about his neck billowed, snapping with a vibrancy surpassed only by the sails themselves.
The capital city of Whales strode up from a sloping hill that rose into the sky. A cobblestone road led up to the city walls which surmounted bluffs on the west, while riding along the rolling hills to the east. A high castle with wide open spaces could be seen beyond the walls, as well as the colourfully frescoed rooves of homes. The banner of Whales, a might frigate striding upon the choppy sea, snapped from pinions and towers throughout the city. In the distance the land could be seen to shallow towards the west, while to the east mountains rose up from the land, overlooking low fields and forests that greeted all who came through the Coral Basin. Great rookeries existed in those mountains, as well as dragons who cooperated with the people of Whales from time to time.
Outside the city walls in the hills that rose up from the extensive wharfs where many of the finest Whalish frigates were docked, was the usual assortment of taverns and places for foreign sailors to find company of ill-repute. Despite the earliness of the hour, many windows were already opened, and quite a few women with breasts ripe for the harvest were leaning out and making suggestions of a nature that the Marquis found extremely licentious. He paid them no heed.
At the end of the quay a row of stone building had been erected. The Whalish banner flew from atop each one, while several of the orange liveried soldiers kept watch. When the Marquis approached the gatehouse, one of the soldiers stepped forward with a rather officious manner. “State your name and business in Whales, friend.”
The Marquis arched an eyebrow at so familiar a term, but his Steward was already interposing himself between them. He fumbled with his spectacles for a moment, but managed to convey a sense of indignation. “I am Vigoureux, Steward to Marquis Camille du Tournemire of Pyralis. His grace request an audience with the Prince.”
“An audience?” This surprised the guard, who seemed to regard the visiting noble with some suspicion. His face was blunt, speaking only of his pride to be a soldier of Whales. Insouciant, the Marquis did not look at him. “That will not be easy to obtain. His highness is very busy with affairs of state.”
“Have this message delivered to His highness,” Vigoureux removed a scroll case form the bulge in his waistcoat. He was somewhat portly, but not overly so. “His grace will be staying in the Dancing Seahorse Inn awaiting the Prince’s gracious invitation.”
The soldier looked dubious, and in fact, he nearly growled as he took the scroll case from the Steward. “I can’t promise you that His Highness will read your scroll any time soon. Your grace.” The last was added as if an afterthought. At their back, the Marquis could feel Sir Autrefois stiffening in his light armour. Camille found the petty slightly of the plebiscites amusing at best. What foolish japes they were. So transparent an attempt to seek a higher station in life.
“Your best is what is required,” Virgoureux replied in a huff.
The soldier frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “You are in Whales now, friend. You do not give orders here.”
The Marquis put a hand on Vigoureux’s shoulder. If he must deal with chaff, he would. It was not as if he was not used to it. “Forgive me, good soldier, but we are visitors in your land. We wish to pay homage to the Whalish court. I am of the noble line in Pyralis, and while my blood may not be so fine as that of your King’s, it merits some respect. I come to you unannounced and humble, for that is how I stand before your King and Prince. That the Prince should see my scroll is of utmost importance to me. I cannot linger here long, and it would please me greatly for the chance to do His Highness honour. I trust that you will have a messenger bring it to the castle straightaway.”
The guard looked at the Marquis with feint surprise, but at last he nodded. Turning he passed it back to a younger man who had only a dirk at his side. “Very well, Marquis. You will find the Dancing Seahorse Inn in the outer bailey along the main road.”
It was only a moment later that the guards stepped away from the gate and opened it wide to allow them through. The arch’s keystone jutted from the end like the bow of a sailing vessel. The arch itself was tall, though the Marquis still walked through. He wanted to feel the ground beneath his feet. It was important to centre himself after all. Especially after his balance had been sent so topsy-turvy during the voyage.
Sir Autrefois was leading their three horses. When they had passed through the gate and were upon the cobblestone path that led up through the sailor’s quarter, the Marquis finally felt that it was time he rode. He would not meet the people in that filth upon his feet.
Together, the three of them rode at a stately pace up along the broad curving rode that wound through the low seaside hills to the walls of Whales. The Marquis had never been to Whales before. He felt sure that he was going to enjoy this visit.
The scent of horses filled the air of the stables so completely that Charles could not even smell the other squire who was there with him preparing for the final joust that morning. Once again, Sir Saulius had proven his mettle at the jousting line, and they were fighting to defend the title that they had won a year ago. Unlike the previous year, Sir Andre Maugnard was not to be their opponent. The wolverine had lost his leg in the assault and still was not recovered enough to ride. According to Erick, Andre was still quite upset with the loss, though he’d been heartened that at the very least he had been allowed to judge the tourney. Sir Saulius had seen to that.
Even though it was not to be the wolverine that they faced, but the elk Sir Egland, Erick had made it clear to Charles that he would still fight with as much vigour as he had fought Sir Andre. And Charles suspected that he and Egland had already come to a knightly agreement over the terms of the battle as well.
The rich earthy aroma of the horses filled his nostrils, and he could feel the call of the trumpets stirring in his chest. Charles smiled as he brushed down both ponies, that of his knight’s and his own. Armivest’s chestnut coat was warm and firm, and the rat could feel hard muscles beneath, muscles nevertheless anxious and eager to move. He patted the charger’s side affectionately before moving to finish currying down his flanks. Tending to Saulius’s horse had become a familiar and pleasant chore in the last few months. He paid it the same loving care and concern he reserved for those special ones given to his care.
The thought of his five children still safely held at Glen Avery made him both smile and sigh. It had been four days now since he had left them to come back to Metamor. Kimberly and Baerle remained behind to tend to them. Still, his heart leapt with joy to be back at Metamor and in the company of such great friends as his fellow rats, not to mention the rest of the Long Scouts – they’d had a party at Long House the day he’d returned. He could well remember their pleasant japes at how he’d arrived at the gates with Sir Saulius and riding upon his horse carrying the rat knight’s banner.
But it was the leaving that he’d pondered most of that ride back to Metamor. That Charles would have to go back was undeniable. He had been training to take part in the joust once again for a full two months. Even the Duke had relaxed his exile so that he might return a few days before the exile was supposed to end upon the Solstice so that he might take part in the joust. And he could not disappoint Sir Saulius. Not in this!
Still, Charles and Kimberly had discussed the matter for several days before the time had finally come. Though they had made a home at Glen Avery, Charles still wanted to return to the Keep and raise his family there. He would not have his children see a city for the first time and gawk like peasants. But the children, though they had already demonstrated a proficiency in crawling – and in fact had already begun to get into places they shouldn’t – were still too young to make the long journey from the Glen to Metamor. And so, Kimberly had flatly told him that they were going to stay in the Glen for a few months more.
They had finally compromised though. They would keep both homes and use both, though they would live in Metamor for part of the year, and at the Glen for the remainder. Once the children were old enough at least. And so once the Summer Festivities ended, Charles would spend some time readying a place for them to live. It would of course be in the Long House. The Keep had even been convenient enough to provide space for him to examine. He’d only had time for a cursory glance, but the tiered home would suit them well. He already could imagine the children sliding down the stone banister and squealing in delight.
The stomp of a hoof brought his mind back to the present. Armivest was looking back at him as if he were mad. It was a strange thing to be called mad by a horse, but that seemed to be the pony’s opinion. Charles chuckled to himself and nodded, accepting the equine judgement before resuming the currying. The tack and barding was all prepared. He’d seen to that first. He found things went quicker that way.
In the adjacent stall, Malicon was peacefully chewing on the oats provided. His own roan was still spirited, but less demanding. Charles’s whiskers twitched as he muzzle drew open into a grin. “I’ll be with you in a moment, Malicon,” he said, before quickly stepping around behind Armivest to continue the brushing.
It was strange that he found such a fondness for the horses, he thought. As a Sondeckis, he’d not had much reason to ride, and so had only learned enough to be comfortable in the saddle. He’d learned a lot from Sir Saulius in rather short order and now considered himself an accomplished horseman. As a scout, it was a useful skill, though he often felt almost traitorous for having learned it. He could not be a squire and a scout at the same time. And in order to be a squire, he’d had to give up a great deal of his scouting duties at the Glen.
His heart trembled a bit as he thought back to the party his first night back at Metamor. Misha had took him aside and with a deadly solemn expression on his face asked him how serious he was about being Sir Saulius’s squire.
“It’s just for the joust, Misha,” Charles had said in reply. “We won last year, so we have to protect the title.”
“From what I hear, Sir Saulius takes this a little more seriously,” Misha had pointed out, going so far as to poke him in the shoulder with one claw to emphasize it.
Charles remembered grunting unhappily then. “Yes, I’m sure Erick would love to make me a knight, but that’s not who I am. I’m a scout, Misha. A Long scout. You don’t have to worry about that ever changing. No matter how many times I joust.”
Misha had nodded slowly, and then his grey eyes had softened. “You are coming back for good aren’t you?”
“Well,” the rat had explained uncomfortably. “I will stay for a short while to get a place prepared, but then I have to go back to the Glen until the children are old enough to move safely. We will be coming back, but I don’t think it will ever be forever.” The fox’s face had fallen at that, and he felt a need to explain. “We have a home at the Glen now too, Misha. And friends there. We can’t just leave them like that. I wish that I could have both at the same time. We’re going to try to do the next best thing.”
Thankfully, Misha had let the conversation drift back to more pleasant topics, and the party had gone on blissfully. There had been a good deal of drink and a good deal of food. Misha and the rest had taken a good bit of time to show Charles all that had changed in the five months since he’d left for the Glen. It all seemed lost in a fog now that he tried to remember it, but even so, it was remarkable how much was so familiar to him, and how much was new.
Well into the night they had partied, and for a time, Charles had forgotten his missing wife and children. But he remembered them on the next day as he spent time with the other rats, who were also thrilled to see him again. He invited them out to the Glen to see his children, and while they were at first uncertain, Julian convinced the rest of them that they had to go. After all, they were family too. Just the thought of bringing the other rats away from Metamor where they had hid so long filled his heart with joy.
Charles had also spent some time in the Sondeckis shrine. He felt an inordinate sense of peace as he had meditated before the altar, its throbbing power setting all of his bones and muscles at ease. The first time he stepped into the shrine he felt immediately recharged and refreshed in a way that he could not describe. It was a strange sort of second homecoming, as the shrine was built from clay and not the stone that existed in the rest of the Keep. He felt as if Sondeshara was welcoming him back too.
There were so many familiar faces and sights that he saw now that he was back in Metamor. He took long deep breaths and found the usual filth of the city filling his nose, but it was a good thing. The mix and miasma of animal and human odours comforted him. They were familiar, like an old worn blanket that had too much sentimental value to ever let it be tossed away. He had loved the clean forested scent of the Glen, but there was an air of liveliness in the city that made the Glen feel like an extended somnambulist stroll.
It was good to be back at Metamor.
Charles grinned widely and after patting Armivest’s cheek, he stepped around to the other stall where Malicon stood. He grinned to his roan pony and nuzzled him on the cheek with the bridge of his nose. “Ready for today?” he asked, and the horse snorted assertively. The long tail flapped back and forth, disturbing some of the hay. He laughed brightly and began to curry out his hide.
“I remember seeing you joust last year,” the other squire called out from the other side of the stable. Charles turned his head to regard the oryx. What had his name been? Ontor... Intor... something. He couldn’t quite remember.
“Ah, you saw that?” Charles asked in surprise. “It feels like so long ago now. So much has changed.”
The oryx nodded as he draped blankets over the backs of the two larger horses. “Yes, a lot has. I wasn’t a squire back then. I remember being very surprised, because I thought you were the Headmaster of the Writer’s Guild.”
“I was!” Charles said with a laugh. “Although I left the Writer’s Guild a year ago. To the day in fact, I think. Yes, now I remember. It was the Summer Solstice last year that I resigned.”
“Didn’t you become a scout?”
Charles nodded as he drew the brush through Malicon’s mane. The grooming was essential. Their horses had to look their best too when they were upon the field.
“I still am.”
“And a squire? How do you have time for it all? I only have time enough to serve as Sir Egland’s squire. Oh, we do other things from time to time. We were part of a musical troupe that performed in many of the Inns for a time, but we haven’t done much lately. He wanted me ready for this.” A smile crept across the Oryx’s muzzle, a slow one that formed only with careful calculation. “And now here it is. I’ve never been so fulfilled in all my life.”
“You didn’t want to be a knight?” Charles ask in surprise.
The oryx shrugged. Intoran! Yes, that was his name. He remembered Sir Saulius mentioning him now. Intoran leaned over the back of the warhorse’s neck. “No. I thought about it some, but what boy doesn’t? Sir Egland didn’t even really want to be a knight when he was a boy. His father didn’t give him a choice, and well, sometimes what we don’t want turns out to be exactly what we should do!” He laughed lightly and then added. “Eli works in mysterious ways as Father Hough often says.”
“Truly!” Charles joined him in the laugh. “How long do you think it will be before you are invested?”
“A few years,” Intoran shrugged. “At least. It took Sir Egland eight he said. But he started younger.”
“He doesn’t look that old. At least not as old as I am,” Charles pointed out. He did not like to think about his own age much. It was a good thing that Sondeckis, when they were not killed in battle, tended to live a long vibrant life.
“Or I!” Intoran nodded as he pulled the barding over the horse’s back. The horse grunted at the weight, but looked fierce and eager for what was to come. “Do you intend to give up scouting now that you are set to be a knight?”
Charles flinched at the question, and he even caught a tangle tightly in the brush. Malicon whinnied in objection. Feeling a blush of embarrassment come over him, he gently patted his steed over the sore spot and carefully worked out the tangle with his claws.
“Well, I don’t think I’m actually going to become a knight,” Charles admitted. He thought back to that second night, when Sir Saulius had insisted he join him at another sort of party. All of the knights that had signed up to take part in the joust had gathered at one of the larger Inns in the city to revel. Their squires had come along naturally, and Charles had the indignity of being introduced as Sir Saulius’s squire. And the pride that was in his fellow rat’s eyes made it all the worse. It seemed to Charles that Saulius really did expect him to become a knight too.
“No?” Intoran asked in surprise. “Why not? Don’t you like it?”
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Charles admitted as he shifted about under the weight of the mail shirt that he wore from habit now more than anything else. “I do like what I have been doing, and I enjoy the tourney greatly. I would very much like to be the one jousting one day. But I am a scout. And I have a family now. I don’t have time for this too, as much as I would like it.”
Intoran grimaced for a long time. His thick fingers laced together the straps to keep the barding in place as he pondered. When he did speak, his words were measured, though Charles could not help but hear a bit of reproach in them. “Well, I guess that’s a good reason. But Sir Saulius really thinks the world of you, Charles. I don’t think anything would please him more than to see you invested into a knightly order.”
Suddenly, Charles felt irritated. It was bad enough that he hated having to tell Sir Saulius that he could not do this anymore. But he really resented how everyone else seemed to think that they knew better about what he should do than he did. He had judgement of his own after all. And it was his life! Even if Kimberly and Baerle may think it cute of him to be dressed in shining plate, he felt comfortable enough in dark green and brown jerkins with his fur dusted so as to blend into the woods. His life as a scout satisfied him. Did he really need to add knight to it as well?
“Aye, that would make him very happy,” Charles admitted finally. His smile, when it returned, was bittersweet. “And I am honoured that he thinks so highly of me. But the life I have is all I require.”
Intoran remained quite for several more minutes. Charles lost himself once more in the tending of his pony Malicon. Malicon nudged him a few times, sensing his distress. He could not help but smile and pat the horse on the nose, allowing the beast to lip at his fingers softly one by one. A subtle tune began to drift to his ears over the air at long last, and it took him a moment to realize that the oryx was humming.
For several minutes, Charles listened to the tune. It was slow and subtle, in one of the minor modes he judged. It sounded almost hymn-like in places, but there was a melancholy to it that was not borne of the Ecclesia. With a start, Charles finally recognized it. He’d heard Sir Saulius humming a similar song before. It was from the Steppes! He smiled then, letting the angular melody fill his ears as he continued tending to Malicon.
His first time returning to Metamor may not have been quite as he had hoped it would be, but it certainly had been enjoyable. It held the promise of more good times to come. He said a quiet prayer of thanks that he was allowed to return, and then added another prayer that he would soon be bringing his wife and children back with him to this city that had so long been his home.
Malicon whinnied to get his attention back where it belonged. With a short crisp laugh, Matthias resumed his duties as a squire in tending to the pony.
Lindsey’s home was a simple stone structure with two rooms separated by a bearskin curtain. The stone was all from quarry in the southern end of the valley, and looked much the same as that which made up the walls of Metamor, a flat gray with speckles of something darker. A chimney sat quietly and unused at one corner, though for most of the year a thin trickle of smoke could be seen rising from the stack. There were only three windows in the home, one in the main room opposite the hearth, the other two looking into the small bedroom in which Lindsey kept his pallet and a large writing desk. It had to be large given the northerner’s bulk, but he rarely used it. Even so, the windows were small, only enough to let a little sunlight in, and not much more.
The main room was decorated with both a bear and a moose’s pelt, each stretched out over the stone floor, their heads mounted from opposite walls. A visitor in Lindsey’s home would see those first, and then be struck by the array of weapons that he had collected and mounted over the years. Axes and swords took up space with spears and javelins, each vying for prominence. They were well oiled, and though rarely used, their blades were sharp to the touch. Two small cabinets occupied the other end, and in each Lindsey kept a bit of bread, cheese and wine for whatever guests he might entertain.
Usually, the only guests he had were fellow Timbersmen, and that was usually Michael the plaid beaver. However, there was one other who frequently came to this house for a few quiet moments and a reflective sip of wine. The two of them had known each other for a very long time, back in the days when the red bearded northerner had still been a woman. In fact, it had been before the loathsome Baron Calephas had with the assistance of the wizard Nasoj seized Arabarb and all the neighbouring lands. Lindsey had come down to Metamor just before then, merely to meet with the merchant that had written such beautiful poetry to her. She had never gone back, though she had kept up a secret correspondence with her family when she could.
And then Nasoj had struck Metamor, and Lindsey had become a man. The merchant he had left home for had settled at Metamor a few years later, and became the strange animal that now stood before him, leaning back on the thick tail he bore to support him like a third leg. He was rubbing one paw under his snout, his left ear tilted to one side in bemused contemplation. “Where exactly did you find armour like that?”
The objects in question were the six yellowish vests that were made from bundled threads wound so tightly together that only the vaguest of outlines could determine the weave. The threads had a slight golden sheen to them as well, though they still remained mostly dull in the lamplight. They were of differing sizes, each laying atop similar piles of supplies. Iron hooks and spiked boots were amongst the supplies, though one of the piles had four boots instead of two. And one of the pairs of boots could only loosely be called that, for it bore no heel, and seemed little more than a brace for three large fingers. Slender backpacks and saddle bags were interspersed amongst the equipment. Each pile also sported a good bit of sturdy rope.
“From that seamstress who was turned into a spider, Pyatnitsa.” Lindsey grinned proudly. His beard had been put into two braids, and he rolled the end of one of them between his thick fingers. “It cost quite a bit more, but it’s light and should protect us just as well if not better than normal mail might. With where we’re going, we don’t want anything too heavy on our chests.”
Habakkuk’s ears went upright then, and his eyes wide. “Are you telling me that those vests are made from spider webs?” The Northern nodded his head even as his grin broadened. “I see. No wonder it was taking longer than expected to get these together.”
“She’s been making them for a few years now,” Lindsey explained, allowing his face to return to its normal proportions. “If you didn’t spend so much time locked in the Writer’s Guild you would know that!”
Habakkuk wagged one finger at his companion with a grin. “Now, now. Is everything else ready?”
The Northerner nodded, and gestured to the remainder of the supplies. “Everything you asked me to find is there. The heavy cloaks are folded up inside the backpacks to save space. They should be the right sizes, but I did have to guess on some of them.”
“Well, they should be close enough,” Habakkuk mused and nodded. He took a hopping step closer and began to rifle through one of the piles. He pulled open the knapsack and drew out a long folded garment. There were three legs to it, two of them significantly broader than that third. With a humourous chuckle he added, “I take it this is my pile?”
“You should have known from the boots. Nobody has feet bigger than you!”
Habakkuk rolled the garment back up and stuffed it once more in the knapsack. “I had.” The good humour began to slowly slide from his countenance as if it were wax being melted in the heat of a fire. “Have you said your goodbyes?”
Lindsey grunted and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “I’ve told Chief Tathom that I will be gone for a while, but I was hoping to tell Michael and the rest later tonight.”
“We may not have the time, Lindsey,” Habakkuk warned, though he took no pleasure in it. “We may have to leave tonight. In fact, I fear that we will.”
Lindsey said nothing for several moments. He stood there leaning against the wall next to the bearskin curtain. His head was lowered in thought, eyes looking at the floor without really seeing it. When his companion told him something, especially when it concerned the future, he had long ago learned to believe it. Though not everything always came about as Habakkuk guessed, events had an uncanny way of working their way around to his understandings, even if only in hindsight.
The kangaroo straightened up the pile that was his own of the six and rose back up to his full height. He ran his fingers across the spider silk armour vest and frowned. He dug his claws into the surface which gave somewhat slightly, though none of the strands broke. After a moment he turned back to the timbersman and frowned. “There are still many hours yet to the day. You will have time to tell them that you must leave.”
“And of course I cannot say why,” he groused.
“No,” the kangaroo agreed, “you may not. Some will need to know.”
“Like the four coming with us?” Lindsey suggested with a wry half-smile.
The kangaroo returned the grin. “Yes, those four will know, but there are a few others. Once my friends arrive, we’ll tell them. We cannot make this journey without my friends after all.”
Lindsey nodded slowly, lifting one hand to resume twirling the end of his braid. “When are they going to arrive?”
“I expect them by noon.” Habakkuk shifted then and glanced at the window. Light was slanting in. The shadows were slowly drawing back on themselves. Though it was still quite early, not yet even eight o’clock on this the longest day of the year, the sun would not delay in reaching its apex. There was still so much that they had to do though. He took a long breath. The air was warm and smelled richly of his companion’s sweat, in addition to the iron and oil, and the faint aftertaste of wine. Slowly, he let his breath flow out through his muzzle and across his tongue, tasting each one more time.
“It will be best if you are there with me,” Habakkuk added then, glancing once more at the piles. “After we have impressed upon the rest the necessity of this journey, we will bring them here to collect their gear and be off. With the festival still underway, our passage will likely be unremarkable. In the meantime...”
“In the meantime,” Lindsey interjected, shifting away from the stone wall, “I suggest we head to the Deaf Mule and get some food in us. I’m starving! And I sure am not going anywhere without a bite to eat first.”
With a laugh, the kangaroo stepped to the doorway. “Very well. A good meal first, and then we say our goodbyes. But meet me at the gate before noon.”
“Oh I’ll be there,” Lindsey assured him. “I wouldn’t miss this. No real man would!”
The smile on Habakkuk’s muzzle was only slightly less humorous than before at that.