He arrived without fanfare. There was no trumpeter to announce his entrance, and no greeters to meet him as his caravan passed through the city gates. No flowers were strewn before his steed, and even he himself did not ride upon his horse as was his usual custom. Nor were the colours of his house displayed upon the sides of his wagon. And the fine but humble wagon was certainly not his own, nor would he on any other occasion had permitted himself in such a common contraption of wood and nails.
But that day was different. That day he could not be himself. He and his company were merchants come to hawk their wares in the Markets of Metamor. Like so many others that had come before him, he went unnoticed and unregarded. The passage of yet one more merchant into Metamor was not something would be remarked upon, just as he wished it.
The Markets were along one of the central lanes of the town that sat huddled underneath the shadow of the great Keep sitting like a sentinel o’er the whole valley. Underneath the watchful eye of its towers, he and his men turned that wagon into a booth where it would wait with what wares he brought for a few days.
Of his wares, he’d placed several in stacks across the top of the lacquered wooden counter. He himself stood behind that counter, along with two others, an older man whose girth seemed only to grow with the passage of time, and a stout, well-built man his own age, though his face was lined with the rigours of conflict. Though normally his face was fair, that day it looked plain; the end of his long aquiline nose hooked awkwardly, while his cheeks were covered with two week’s growth of a light-coloured beard.
And he stood at that booth, feeling the cards in his hands, his mind ever thinking of the mahogany case he kept with him at all times that lay out of sight beneath that lacquered counter. He smiled then, and waited. His fingers danced across the surface of the cards - an ordinary deck, so far as any deck of cards between his fingers could be called ordinary. He slipped them from one hand to the next, ever smiling to the half-animals that walked past, and even those that stopped to inspect his wares.
Yet none of them were those he waited for. And so he smiled, talked and haggled, and waited.
In the month it had been since Dame Alberta had been released from the dungeons, she had lived as before with Sir Egland and his Squire Intoran. Before she had attempted to make a simple horse out of his grace, the arrangement had never been easy or completely comfortable for them. Ever since Alberta had become a woman things had been difficult. It was simply impossible to describe the shame there had been in a man of the Steppe becoming a woman. Egland had watched day by day as the shame and ignominy of it rent her sense of self, allowing that evil to creep into her soul and further control her. He had not seen it for what it was at the time, but now that he knew, it was plain.
Well he could remember the way she would silently haunt the halls of his home, quietly moving about her quarters., if she moved at all. She refused many times even to attend services with him, though more often than not she was there. While they had been knights in Yesulam, Sir Albert Bryonoth had never missed the Sunday services. Even when they were upon the field, he had made sure he partook of the sacraments on the holy days from the priest that would accompany them. Now that he had become a woman, he a she, Bryonoth no longer possessed that piety that had once been a part of her life.
It was true that before Bryonoth had even come to be a knight at Yesulam, he had been a pagan of the Steppes. But rare was it for any man of the Steppe to not become completely dedicated to his new faith when he took the green of the Ecclesia for his colours. Becoming a woman struck at the very core of who Bryonoth was, and Egland had watched, feeling helpless as his closest friend, his Ts’amut, no, his Yisaada now, slipped slowly and slowly away.
But now, her very soul torn by the act of that man, that black clad Southerner whose very visage stirred a horror in him, Zagrosek, she was no longer withdrawn or full of despair. But to see her, the way she acted and moved, and to see the way she tended his home, it filled his stomach with agony far worse than her earlier depression had.
Where was the man that he had befriended, and loved in the only way he could? The Bryonoth he knew was in many ways not there anymore. Certainly as the days turned into weeks, Dame Bryonoth began to remember her old life. But to her, it did to seem like her life at all. When Egland asked her of her past, she spoke as if she were recounting the tales of another, even, when she saw that Egland wished only simple honesty from her, remarking on how foolish certain things the male Bryonoth had done were. Things that were foolish only to a woman.
In fact, as Egland watched her over the course of the month, Bryonoth seemed more and more just that – a woman. Both Rickkter and Raven had examined her many times since she’d freed Thomas from the curse of the halter. When Lothanasa Raven had returned from her journeys, she had spent many long hours in seclusion with Bryonoth, studying her to see for herself what had been done. And Egland had heard both her and the raccoon say that the hole torn in her spirit was healing. But it was not the old spirit that was coming back, it was a new spirit that was growing. New substance filling in that gap.
And so as Egland stared across the table at Alberta as she sat uncomfortably that morning, fidgeting in her seat and looking shame faced as Intoran prepared their morning meal, he began to realize that what had been torn from her had been the last of her masculinity. There was no denying it any more. Though she remembered being a man, in many ways, she had adopted the demeanor of a woman of the Steppe. While they were strong in spirit as much as the men, they were always second, always servants.
“What’s wrong, Yisaada?” Egland asked as Alberta just stared at the bowl of porridge that Intoran set before her. He then brought the second bowl to Egland’s side of the oaken table. The oryx had a third prepared in the kitchen, but the knights were always served first.
Bryonoth peered down at her bowl, and bit her lip. “I canst eat before thee, Ts’amut.”
Egland felt his chest tighten. “You are a knight as much as I am, Yisaada. Let us eat at the same time.” It had been difficult enough to convince her that it was Intoran’s duty as squire to prepare the meals. She had proven quite stubborn until Egland forced her to dredge up the code of knighthood that they’d recited every day while at Yesulam. The squire always prepared the meal for the knight. And since she was a knight, she had to eat first. But still, she would not eat until he had.
“Tis not proper for me to eat until thee hast finished, Ts’amut. Thou knowest this.” Her arms remained at her side, unmoving as she regarded the bowl of porridge. The thick scent of oats filled Egland’s nostrils. The odour was pleasing, most especially to his new palette, but he would not eat until she too would dine with him. Even when she had first become a woman, she’d not been this difficult.
Egland sucked in his breath, tasting the air as he did so. His short tail flicked up as he sat, he could feel the cushions pressing against the short bone beneath the fur. “It pains me to see you degrade yourself, Yisaada. What secrets have we ever not shared?” He glanced once meaningfully to Intoran who had stopped beneath the lintel of the kitchen doorway. “Are there any?”
This appeared to make Alberta even more uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat, her face a mask of pain. “Nay, thou hast told me all, and I hath shared all with thee, Ts’amut.” She tried to smile to him, lowering her spoon to the porridge. “If thou commands it, I wilt eat with thee.”
Egland shook his head. “I do not command it! I just ask that you do this because it is your right. You are not in the Steppe, Yisaada. You are not less than me just because of what the Curse has done to you. You will ever be my fellow knight. Nothing can change that. Eat with me not because I command it, but because it is your right.”
Alberta glanced down at the porridge and the lump waiting in her spoon. “We art not in the Steppe, tis true what ye saith. But the Steppe art in me, and I canst dishonour it or thee.” Her face filled with sudden pain and she dropped the spoon. Her eyes clenched tightly and she leaned against the table, her hands shaking.
“Yisaada?” Egland asked, feeling a different sort of agony fill him now. Alarm rushed through his blood, and he stood from his seat, tail raised fully now. “Yisaada!” he cried out, stepping around the table to her side, even as Intoran rushed to her other side.
“What’s wrong with her?” Intoran cried out, his brown eyes flush with fright.
Egland gripped her arm below the shoulder and lifted her back against the chair. Her mouth opened then in a wordless peal of agony, eyes clenched shut tight. As Egland helplessly stared, the teeth that protruded from her lips shifted. He stared for several seconds, as the gums began to bleed at their roots, the teeth seemingly larger than before. And the skin of her lips. It reached out as if to cup around the voiceless scream and draw it back in again.
“Eli!” Egland swore, his hide trembling, nostrils flaring in alarm. “I do not know. I do not know at all!”
And then, just as suddenly as it had begun, Dame Alberta Bryonoth collapsed, her body slack in their hoof-like hands. Egland pressed the thick nails he bore at the tips of his fingers to her throat, and could feel the slightest thrumming of flesh. “Whatever it is, it has not killed her.” Intoran wiped the blood from her lips with the cuff of his grey tunic. “But we must get her to Healer Coe and quickly. Ready the horses.”
Intoran nodded, and raced from the, the staccato beat of his hooves a thunderous rumble. Egland was still trembling as he stared at his Yisaada, her body empty of strength. Anxiously, he lifted one thick nail to her lips and pushed them back. There was something wrong with the way her teeth set, but just then, he could not think of what.
The porridge remained uneaten.
Duke Thomas Hassan sat in his council chambers considering the reports his three closest advisors had prepared for him. In the last month they had all spent many hours telling him of the events that had occurred in the months before, events he knew, but only half remembered, as if they were part of a dream he’d had on waking, but one that slipped away like an eel when one tried to hold it in place.
But now, those dreams were turning into a nightmare.
“Are you sure this information is correct?” Thomas asked the bat one more time. What he had heard was almost impossible to believe.
“I am afraid so, your grace,” Andwyn replied, and for once, there seemed to be actual sorrow in his screeching voice. “But several of our agents have heard that both Lord Guilford and Lord Dupré of the Southern Midlands have gone to war with each other. Already, one of the small towns loyal to the Duprés has been sacked by Guilford knights. And if my latest bird is correct, the Dupré’s have responded in kind already. Both houses are calling their allies to defend them, and both seek Duke Verdane’s hand to intercede.”
“And have any responded?” Thomas asked.
“Rumour has it that Lord Calladar is sending a score or two knights to aid Guilford, but the road from Bozojo to Masyor is long and passes through Salidon. I have not heard where Lord Halath stands, so one can only guess if Calladar’s knights will be allowed passage through the forest.”
“And do any seek to aid the Duprés?” Thomas asked, his eyes glancing at the map of the Midlands spread before them on the table. Masyor and Mallow Horn were in the centre of the Southern Midlands, and with them at war, the easiest route to Kelewair was cut off. Further, all routes to the Outer Midlands were cut off, unless one passed through Bozojo. Which might explain why Lord Calladar wanted the war to continue. Let those feuding nobles to the South continue to squabble. His land would reap the traders and merchants, and his coffers would swell.
“Most of the Southern Midlands houses that have allied themselves with the Ecclesia have come to his defence, though at present most have done nothing but sent word to Duke Verdane to defend Mallow Horn against the heathens of Masyor.” Andwyn held a sly moue, one that told the rest of them exactly what he thought of their action.
“And what of Duke Verdane himself?” Malisa asked. Her face was stony at the news. Her own information gatherers had heard rumours of a conflict, but nothing quite like this.
“I do not know what the Duke of Wolves means to do, but I have heard he is readying his own knights for the field. But on whose side he shall come, I do not know.”
“And this started how?” Thalberg inquired, his yellow eyes sullen.
“The Guilford’s eldest child was found pitched off one of the towers of their castle. A Dupré banner had been woven about his neck. On that all my information agrees.”
“And about what does your information disagree?” Thomas pressed, his voice heavy. Even something so small like this could case full scale war to erupt in the Midlands. If the Southern Midlands were inflamed by it, then so too might the Outer and Northern Midlands. They had just repelled Nasoj and his invaders once more. Metamor itself would not have the forces necessary to keep the peace in his own kingdom should his own vassals desert him to join the fighting on one side or the other.
“There are also rumours that bands of Questioners are roaming the Southern Midlands, butchering Lothanasi and any Patildor who gives them comfort. It is whispered that they had a hand in the death of the Guilford boy. Others say it was the interference of a dark clad stranger from the South who was reportedly passing that way with a Pyralian noble. The one who spoke of this claimed the man a demon who snatched the boy from his bed, flew out the boy’s window, and then dashed him at the rocks beneath the sea tower.”
“Considering what we have seen in the last year, I would not discount that story,” Thalberg added ruefully. “A black clad stranger you say? From the South? Was there any more to that tale?”
Andwyn turned beady red eyes upon the alligator. “No. Nor is there word on who the Pyralian noble was. But we do know that Deep Springs, a small town at the edge of Sathmore, was destroyed, and many were butchered. All the religious leaders in the city were slain. Many were crucified. And the people of Estravelle, their sister village, claim that it was the Questioners. Nor are they the only place, though the other villages destroyed were all more remote.”
The bat’s eyes took on a strange glint, one of curious amusement. “What is remarkable, is that rumours from Estravelle indicate that there were several Keepers present aiding the defenders, animal morphed ones in fact.”
“Well, at least they are making a good face for Metamor abroad,” Thomas mused. “But that’s not the most important thing right now. We know there is some marauding force roaming the Southern Midlands. Is there anywhere else that has been affected?”
“Only the Western territories so far,” Andwyn added. “But apart from the cities north of the Marchbourne, it appears that the Southern Midlands is nearly ready for total civil war.”
Thomas shook his head then, raising one hoof-like hand to his brow. “This is all maddening. How could this have happened so quickly? I will need to summon the lords of the Northern Midlands. I need to make sure that they are all loyal to me. I want no part in this conflict if we can help it. They must understand that.”
“They will not like coming here,” Malisa pointed out. “Some may simply refuse.”
“Regardless, I need them all here. Let us say in a month’s time. Use the Summer Solstice Festival as a pretext. Offer them all places of honour, and allow their knights to compete in the tourney if you must. But bring them here. If only for a few days. It is all we will need. I want the Northern Midlands united in this. If even one of them sends men across the Marchbourne, we may find ourselves drawn into Verdane’s war.”
“But the war may spread whether we like it or not,” Malisa pointed out. “We may have no choice. If Andwyn is right, then some of them are already using this boy’s murder as a pretext to start a war between the Ecclesia and the Lothanasi. If that should become the case, then more than just the Midlands could be involved. What if Pyralis and Sathmore begin sending troops? What if they declare war against each other? If the rumours Andwyn has told are true, then there was a Pyralian noble who may have stirred this trouble up. And Sathmore’s territory was nearly invaded. Another attack by the Questioners on their own land, and they could become involved. Metamor would have to take a side then.”
“And which would it be?” Thomas asked. “The Lothanasi or the Ecclesia? Either will divide this land.”
“I did not say it was an easy choice,” Malisa said, her knuckles white as she gripped the edge of the table. “But no matter how we choose, we’d have to do so not for religion, but for the sake of alliances and for Metamor’s safety. We need to plan and keep our bannermen faithful.”
“Which is why they must come here. If Verdane does take to the field and ends this feud, then we will have nothing to worry about. We must hope and pray that he succeeds.”
“Never prayed for the success of the Duke of Wolves before,” Andwyn pipped up, somewhat oddly. “Not sure I’ll like doing it, but if I must, I must.”
“We shall also want to consult with both Lothanasa Raven and Father Hough. They may give us some insight into the religious fighting. I do not know what we can do to stop it, but we must not stand idly by either.”
Thalberg raised a claw then, gathering their attention. “There is one thing that has struck me as peculiar. You said that a man, dressed in black, may have been involved. A Southerner.” His rumbling voice paused for a moment. In the lamplight, his yellow eyes seemed to smoulder with brimstone. “We have had our own troubles with a certain black clad stranger from the South in the past.”
Thomas’s eyed widened. A flash of memory came to him like a vision. He was a horse, waiting for Bryonoth to make him nothing but a horse, but she had been stopped by his fellow Keepers. She had been controlled by that black clad stranger. That man had nearly defeated them all that night. In the end, he’d injured Madog at the cost of his left arm. He’d sped away, moving only through the shadows, as if he could exist in nothing but.
And his name had been Zagrosek.
“But that would mean he would have had to travel from Metamor to Kelewair in less than a week, if I’m not mistaken,” Malisa said. “According to your reports, the boy died only a week after that night in the stables.”
“Yes,” Thalberg agreed. “Why not? He left the stables through shadow. Who is to say he could not cover such a distance in so short a time?”
“It is possible, and it does seem in character with him. He stirs up trouble wherever he goes,” Thomas mused. “But still, I want confirmation of this. Andwyn, see if you can find all you can about this black clad man who is said to have been seen passing Mallow Horn at the time of the Guilford boy’s death. I want to know if he is our man or not.”
“I will ask, though we may not find any answers. Apart from his clothes and foreign nature, none could describe him the same way twice,” Andwyn cautioned. But there was a lilt of annoyance there too. “But few enough have even reported hearing news of the man, so I will see what can be done. I fear it may take me weeks to learn though. I cannot simply know all that occurs in the fields of the Southern Midlands.”
“I understand,” Thomas replied. “But discover what you can. The more we know of our enemy the better.”
“Well,” Malisa said thoughtfully, tapping her chin with one finger. “If it is him, then we know he travels with a Pyralian nobleman. Perhaps if we could figure out who he is, we’d know more about where our enemy comes from.”
“I will inquire after him as well,” the bat assured them.
“Good. The sooner we discover more, the sooner we can strike back at him. I want to land a blow against them. They have had far too many swings so far.”
The Duke of Metamor had more to say, but just then a knocking sounded at the chamber doors. “Message for you, your grace,” a voice called out from the other side.
Thalberg retrieved it from the messenger who carried the slip of sealed parchment with utmost delicacy. The look on the canine’s face seemed to suggest he feared the parchment would shatter like porcelain were he to drop it. But the alligator was quick to close the door and bring te parchment to Thomas’s side of the table.
Opening the seal, Thomas scanned the words and felt a cold shiver run down his spine. “I have something that I need to attend to. We will continue this meeting in an hour’s time.”
“What is it?” Malisa asked, her face creased with concern.
“I do not know yet,” Thomas admitted. He did not wish to tell them the note’s contents just yet, but they would learn soon enough. Or rather Andwyn would learn and then tell the others. It did not matter which. But right then, he had no choice but to go to her side. Taking the note and depositing it upon the fire, he reiterated his desire to meet again in an hour, ad then dismissed them all. They went, confused, but obediently.
Once they had left, Thomas wasted no time in finding that secret passageway in the walls again.
Suspended inside the Belfry of Metamor were four massive brass bells. They hung silent over a bowl-shaped indentation in the masonry, each of them far enough apart so that when they were rung they should never strike each other. From the middle of the bowl was a five foot thick stone pole, along one side of which metal rungs were placed leading to the pulley chamber above. Beyond the bowl the tower held the twin staircase son the east and west which led to this chamber, and the four curved walls each nearly ten feet thick that kept the tower above secure. And of course, the openings between each section of wall, just as large as the walls themselves, and the air beyond.
A solitary figure stood at the edge of the Northern opening. The wind brushed through his fur, the long striped tail behind him caught at the whimsy of whichever way the wind blew. Inside the belfry, it moved in a circle, barely even touching the bells themselves. And magical shields of force kept anyone from stepping through those openings into the air, so long s they remained active.
The magic was powered by placards in the east and west walls, only a step from the stairs that came up to the room. Unless both were switched off, not even a rock thrown to the air would leave. Instead, it would bounce back and clatter on the stone floor harmlessly. If they were off, then the stone would hurtle down through the air, striking the ground fast and hard. Should it land on an unfortunate Keeper, they could even be killed.
Few ever came to the belfry. It was an awfully long climb, one that Kyia never seemed interested in shortening, and there was little need. Though it was the highest tower, there were sufficient watchtowers that they could observe the whole valley. Further, with a few dragons allied to the Keep, and with many Keepers now avian in nature and now able to fly, there was little need to have any observing from the Belfry. Still, once a year Thalberg would send an engineer up to the pulley room above to make sure that there was no rust or other damage. But otherwise the belfry remained quiet but for the wind and the soft thrumming of the silent bells.
But now there was one figure there, staring out the Northern view down upon the city. His golden eyes followed the flow of people milling through the streets. The wind followed them, or they the wind, it was never clear which. But he watched, and listened. Behind him, the bells swung almost imperceptibly above the bowl. They waited too.
“One month until the Solstice,” he murmured quietly to himself.
Sitting as he was upon a stool in his office, his long, thick tail laying behind him so that it’s tip reached the floor, while on either side of the stool his long feet and heavy thighs balanced him, he could not help but not that single fact. The Summer Solstice was but one month hence.
Already the Duke’s money had begun to spread amongst the tradesmen readying the fields for the knight’s tourney, as well as the other contests of skill. Rumours of who might show this year, and of who might win the great prizes were already being whispered in the bars and byways. But there, in the solitude of his office in the Writer’s Guild, Zhypar Habakkuk could only regard those walls with a gnawing dread.
It was one month until the Solstice.
His plans were all in order. He’d heard word that the Timer crews had just returned that morning, and he would expect to see Lindsey later that evening. If the northerner did not come by the Guild, then he would have to track him down. Perhaps at the Deaf Mule. While that popular Inn was still not wholly reconstituted – the last time he’d been there Copernicus had complained bitterly about the shabby quality of the pool table – there was a familiar air that he had grown to love in his years at Metamor.
Perhaps that night he would go anyway. At a time when the days grew so short, it was comforting to be surrounded by familiar faces, and in a place that had brought nothing but good cheer. And if he drank enough, a most curious reaction to sensation the next day.
Sighing, Habakkuk looked once more at the letter he had penned. It had been a whim, a dangerous one perhaps, but one he felt he had to do. All that remained for him to do was to date it and seal it. His paw found the quill resting in the stopper of ink. Lifting it, he brought it once more to the parchment. His claws dug into the haft of the quill, but did not break it as he scribed the last.
And then the letter was done. Habakkuk regarded it without joy. He set the quill aside once more, and it jostled and spun around the rim of the stopper once. Sliding his claws underneath the parchment, he lifted it to his muzzle. Long ears folding back, he blew across the surface slowly, the bright light of a candle dancing in the sheen of the ink, as if the letters were molten.
He blew a second time, watching that shimmering reflection until at long last, it subsided. Like all things, the ink had its place. He lowered the parchment, folded it into thirds, and then slipped within a heavy envelope that had been waiting. After closing the envelope, Habakkuk gripped the candle in his paw, feeling the warm wax against his paw pads and fur. He tilted the candle over the letter, and grimaced as a bit of hot wax ran down across his thumb, pooling against his claw. But most of the wax spilled where it was meant, across the edge of the envelope’s flap.
He returned the candle to its home, not bothering to work the wax from his thumb claw. To one side of his desk was the seal of the Writer’s Guild, passed on to him by Charles when he’d become the Headmaster. It was of a quill pen set between the open pages of a tome. And it was a proud symbol that was stamped into every book that they fashioned. Every bit of correspondence would see that seal.
But instead of reaching for that familiar seal, he instead drew out a signet ring from inside his tunic. Turning the head upside down, he pressed the face into the hot wax. The red wax smeared around the edges, sinking into the parchment. Habakkuk felt a warmth rush up his arm into his body as he held that ring firm. Lifting it, he saw the shape of an eye inscribed atop an open book. So similar to the Writer’s Guild own heraldry, but so very different as well.
The sight of it nearly brought a gasp to his throat. But he fought it down, fought it with every fibre of his being. Taking a deep breath, Habakkuk closed his eyes and willed his arm to put the ring back into his tunic where it had lain hidden. With eyes still closed, he took the sealed envelope, and slid into the top drawer of his desk. Closing the drawer, he locked it. There, it was done.
But he did not yet open his eyes. For several minutes the headmaster of the Writer’s Guild sat silently. The only sound in the room was the ticking of a William Hardy clock, and the whispering and snapping of the candle flame. Voices could be heard down the hall. And foot steps. Yes, he heard them too. They were approaching.
Habakkuk opened his eyes when the knocking came. “Zhypar!” Nahum’s voice called out. “Are you in there?”
“Yes,” Habakkuk called out. “Do come in.”
The fox smiled as he poked his head in the doorway. “Ah, trying to conjure up another idea? Or are you just hoping that pile of stories will edit themselves?” Nahum pointed a short, black claw at the stack of parchment tied up in string that sat on one side of his desk.
“Readying myself to face it is more like it,” Habakkuk said with a laugh. “What brings you looking for me?”
“Well,” Nahum began, sliding all the way inside, and shutting the door behind him. “I see you posted a list in the main hall for the Boxing tournament already. We had one only three months ago. Why so early?”
“I just wanted to have another before the Solstice. It’ll get lost amongst the festivities,” Habakkuk replied with a grin. “Do you want another walloping?”
Nahum snorted and stood a bit taller. “I’ve been practising you know.”
“Practising getting walloped as your bruises attest.”
Nahum growled, but it was a playful sound. “Well, I’m signed up. Will we see you at the Mule tonight? Tallis says he wants to see if he can get lucky against Copernicus on that shaggy pool table.”
Habakkuk laughed. “I wish him luck.” He sighed lightly then and glanced down at the empty table before him. He ran his thumb claws against each other, sliding one under the other, working the red wax out. “I will be there. I was thinking about it anyway. If I’m a little late with this, don’t worry.” He inclined his head towards the stack of parchment.
Nahum nodded and yipped in laughter. “Good! And good luck with that! I’ll see you again tonight!” The fox bowed his head, flicked his tail, and then slipped out the door, humming to himself a rather martial tune.
Habakkuk blinked his eyes as he watched his friend leave. Damn, he was crying.