by Charles Matthias

Brian Coe had many that were under his care on any given day. Most were wounds or ailments that could easily be cured with a poultice and time. Some even required more magical means to properly heal. But there was always that rare case that was beyond his control, and all he could do was try to give some comfort to the afflicted while whatever had struck them ran its course.

And so it was with the knight Bryonoth. Coe routinely checked on her, though for many hours, nothing at all had occurred. Even after Raven and Rickkter returned to study her, there had been no noticeable change from that morning. And even as the dinner hour fast approached, she had still not stirred.

So it came as a great shock when he heard her voice crying out in agony as he had sat down to take his evening meal. He jumped up from his seat, knocking the chair backwards in his rush to get to her side. His long, striped tail lashed behind him as he wrenched upon the door to her room. He blinked his eyes in fright as he saw her fingers digging tightly into the mattress, her head thrust upwards from the pillow, every muscle in her body straining. Her cry was a strident peal that made his ears sting, and there was a wildness to her eyes that spoke of more than just pain.

He rushed to her side, and gripped her arms in his paws, trying to pull her back down to the bed. Her lips were stretching outwards as she began to thrash her legs out in the bed, kicking at the sheets that covered her, pushing them down past her breasts. Despite his own size, Coe was fairly strong, and had held down many patients before wh had struggled, some that were twice his own size. But he found it nearly impossible to keep this knight of the Ecclesia still.

And then, as soon as it began, the moment passed, and Bryonoth fell back onto the bed, her eyes rolled back in her head. Coe stood there for a moment regarding her suddenly still form. The sheet slowly settled over her, so gently that it seemed newly fallen snow at first. The tension that had been in her arms was gone, and all that remained was the quiescence of slumber.

“Dame Bryonoth,” he said softly. “Can you hear me?”

But there was no response. Uncertainly, he let go of her arms and began to inspect her face. It did not look any different from before on first glance, but when he brushed her long hair back over her ears, he saw a sign that could not be ignored. Her ears had begun to stretch upwards, with the faintest wisps of fur growing on both the inside and outside. There was no doubt about it now. She was falling under the sway of the animal curse.

Coe drew back the sheet and glanced over the rest of her form. Her chest did not seem to have altered any, nor her arms. Her fingers felt thicker to him, and the nails tougher. But he couldn’t quite see anything changed about them. Her legs however were a different matter. It was quite clear that her feet had elongated, the toes almost completely unrecognizable as such. They had almost melted into one another, the mesh of bones incomprehensible to his fingers. She could be developing hooves he realized, but it was still too early to be sure.

Beyond her toes, her ankle had lost much of it’s definition, and her knees were several inches closer to her hips than they had been before. Whatever she was becoming, she would forever more walk upon whatever toes the curses left for her. Coe sighed and drew the sheet back over her still form. He felt the top of her brow, but there was no fever.

Silently, the raccoon closed the door behind him, and mentally composed the letters he would write while he ate his meal.

The air was filled with the scent of stewed beef and vegetables, the musk of many animal morphed Keepers, the sweat of the rest, and the sultry fragrance of the lanterns burning. The lamps themselves, hanging from iron hooks in the rafters cast a warm glow through the boisterous Inn. Their subtle light brought a sense of conviviality to all who sat and supped, and with each new laugh another face brightened after a hard day’s labour.

At their table, the kangaroo flexed his paw continuously, working out the tension and cramps that had developed after a long day spent editing and rewriting manuscripts. With a half-smile, he watched as the fox and rat leaned over a checkerboard staring at the red and black pieces with intense concentration. Half forgotten bowls of stew sat before them, lumps of potato and beef sticking up from the savoury broth.

His own bowl was empty but for one more piece of carrot and the last of the broth. He slipped his spoon beneath the carrot, but could not quite bring it to his muzzle just yet. There was something about an unfinished bowl of stew that caught his attention just then. Were he to finish the meal, it would be over, and the remainder of the night would be dedicated to drink and lamenting the lost hours of the day. As long as that last bite waited for him, he would still be eating his dinner, and his day would not have reached it’s final denouement. He dropped the carrot back into the bowl and licked at the broth on his spoon with his long tongue, eyes staring cross-eyed down his muzzle.

“Hah! Crown me!” Tallis called out as he jumped one of Nahum’s red pieces. The kangaroo smiled as he lowered the spoon into his bowl once more. With a murmuring grumble, the fox took one of the black pieces beside the board and placed it atop the rat’s that had reached his side.

His friends were not avid players, but they did enjoy a game every now and then. The checkerboard belonged to Donny, but he was always happy to let any of the Deaf Mule patrons to use it to pass the time. He had several others as well, but most knew him for the pool table that he kept. Staring across the room, the kangaroo could see Copernicus moving his hulking form back and forth around that pool table, pole in scaled hand. The lizard was trouncing some poor rabbit it seemed.

It had been a few months since Donny had managed to have his Inn rebuilt. As before it hugged the flank of the castle, making it one of the most popular places for Keepers to come in the evening. And merchants who had business in the Keep often came there as well, though with the overabundance of animal morphed Keepers this close to the castle, most merchants preferred Inns in the city.

Not only did the Deaf Mule hug the castle walls, it shared a wall with the stone masonry that marked the borders of Kyia’s domain. The Commons was quite long, with both circular and bench tables framing the inglenook on one side, and the pool table on the other. Along the back the stairwell rose up that lead to the rooms on the floor above. The kangaroo had never stayed in them even in the original Mule, although he had heard that while modest, they were comfortable.

Taking a glance at the bar, he could see the bull preparing a few drinks for a few scouts slumped in their seats. Donny caught his glance and nodded once before popping the cork from one bottle with the tip of his left horn. The kangaroo could not help but smile at the trick, and quietly applauded the bovine Innkeeper. But Donny had already turned his eyes back to his inebriated patrons.

With a sigh, the kangaroo looked back at the game of Checkers his friends were engaged in. Tallis had managed to crown three pieces now, and was slowly mopping up the last of Nahum’s red pieces. The fox had only managed to crown one of his own, and was quickly accepting his coming loss. But he fought hard to the very end, his only conversation a few muffled grunts and thoughtful exhalations.

But the end was swift and sure, as Tallis backed his crowned piece into a corner step by step. “Ah, you have me,” Nahum finally admitted, leaning back in his chair and tossing back his mazer. “But I’ll win next time!”

“Oh I’m sure you will one day,” Tallis replied with a smirk. He stacked the pieces onto the board in no particular order.

“Hey now!” Nahum exclaimed, pointing a finger at the rat as he held his mazer. “I’ve won many times before.”

“When I was too drunk to notice!” Tallis replied, scratching with one paw behind a saucer-shaped ear. He dug his claws through the curly fur atop his head for a moment. “You play better drunk.”

Nahum narrowed his eyes, but the laugh was behind them. The kangaroo had known these two for long enough to recognize their sporting moods. “Be fair! Don’t forget the Autumn Festival last year. I trounced you three times straight! And we hadn’t yet had a drop to drink!”

Tallis just shook his head and laughed. “You’ve got one night, Nahum! One night when I was off my game.”

“That’s just the best example,” Nahum replied, setting his mazer down on the table ad drumming his claws along the lacquered top. They clicked with a regularity of rhythm worthy of a minstrel. “I bet Zhypar here can remember all those nights when it was the black pieces falling before the red. Don’t you?”

Habakkuk laughed at the question and shrugged his shoulders. “What can I say? I’m no good with remembering the past.”

“Oh come now,” Nahum objected, turning his golden eyes fully to meet the kangaroo’s. “Surely you remember the Autumn Festival at least? You were there. You played too.”

“And I hope to play tonight,” he replied, smiling as he spooned the carrot once more. He left the spoon sitting in the bowl though. “But yes, I do remember that night. You were in rare form then.”

“Rare form?” Tallis asked, snorting mildly, a reaction that made all of his whiskers pull back, and his lips part, showing off the full length of his incisors. “He’s always the silly fox we know and love.”

“Silly?” Nahum cried out, eyes going wide. “Why you little rat!”

“Please,” Tallis cried out, holding his paws before him, whiskers twitching madly as he blinked his black eyes. “You don’t want to eat me! I’m all stringy!”

Nahum blinked and then laughed, shaking his head. “That you are.” He looked down at the checkerboard for a moment and then asked, the mock tension completely gone from his voice, “Care for a rematch?”

“Only if you want to lose badly again,” Tallis replied.

“It’s you who’s going to do the losing this time!”

Habakkuk only laughed as they began to reset the board for another game. It was pleasant to see his friends enjoying the night’s entertainment, even if he found it hard to keep focussed upon it. Stretching out his paw one more time, he tried to work out the soreness in his fingers. He knew it had been time to quit working on the manuscripts when his paw had camped up the point that he had to actually pry the quill loose with his free paw. He’d been waiting for another to come by, but unable to work on the manuscripts anymore, he’d agreed to join Nahum and Tallis for dinner at the Mule.

And they’d been there for over an hour already. Mostly it was the normal regulars that came, although the regulars changed over time. Many of those who he was used to seeing there had died during the assault last winter. And some were no longer at the Keep, or had been given new duties that kept them from the Inn at the hours Habakkuk was likely to be there. Most evenings three or four Long Scouts would come, and he would ask them for news about Charles out in the Glen. They told him little apart from what rumour had spread anyway.

When he’d heard about his old friend finally becoming a father, he’d made sure to send his own gift. It was not the sort of gift that Charles would have expected from him, and he hoped that alone made it appreciated. He’d pushed the rat too much in the last year, and he was afraid he’d damaged their friendship because of it.

Thinking about it though filled him with a sullen anger. That rat could be so stubborn some times. No matter how hard he tried to show him the truth, Matthias would just ignore him and cling even more firmly to those false delusions. What else could he have done, he wondered to himself. What could he do now? He honestly wasn’t sure, and that bothered him. Rarely was he unsure of anything.

“Hah!” Nahum cried out, his yipping bark so strident that it shocked Habakkuk from his reverie. “Crown me!”

“Oh very well,” Tallis muttered, whiskers twitching as his lips parted for a smile.

Habakkuk glanced at the board for a moment and saw that the fox was doing much better this time, though he could spot a few weaknesses in the defences that he had no doubt Tallis would soon exploit. Then again, maybe Nahum would pull through.

The sound of the main doors opening caught at his ear, and he turned one slightly to better listen. He did not look at first, but let the wave of raucous laughter spill through his ear. It was a familiar sound, and quite a welcome one indeed. He turned in his seat then, and smiled when he saw several members of the Timber crew stroll inside.

No Keeper could ever mistake the plaid beaver for any but Michael. Habakkuk knew him well enough, though they had never been real friends. He was responsible for helping him join the Timber crew. He blinked with a start to realize that it had been only a little more than a year ago that he’d introduced Michael to his friend Lindsey. He smiled at that memory, seeing the uncertain new beaver finding his new place in the world.

Of course at the time he’d not been plaid, but it was not the most unusual change anyone had experience because of Metamor. Still, though Michael was impossible to miss, and tended to draw eyes wherever he went, it was not he who Habakkuk was looking for. The red bearded man who had entered behind him was his goal. He waved one arm in the air and smiled. Lindsey saw the gesture and nodded. There was a strangely distant look on his face, as if something were troubling him, but he had no wish to discuss it.

“And now you crown me!” Tallis said in delight. Habakkuk did not bear either of his table-mates a glance to see how the game was going just then.

To the kangaroo’s delight, Lindsey was leading the two other members of the Timber Crew to his table. He saw that the other member was the moose Lance, who he knew only through Lindsey and Michael. He was a decent sort, an excellent timbersman, but apart from that, there was little else he knew.

“Ah, if it isn’t the Headmaster’s of the Writer’s Guild,” Lindsey announced as they circled the table. There were enough chairs for them all to sit, but the three Timbersmen still stood. “Can’t even finish your dinners, eh?”

Both Nahum and Tallis looked up now, their smiles genuine. They knew Lindsey and the others primarily through Habakkuk, but they were still friends. “Dinners come and go,” Tallis replied as he brushed something from one of his whiskers with the back of his paw. “But games of checkers can go on and on.”

“Especially with you two playing!” Lindsey said to laughter. “Do you mind if we join you?”

“Please, sit!” Habakkuk insisted, rising up form his own seat to pat the northern man on the back. “Where have you been?” It was not quite what he wished to ask, but it was close.

“We returned this morning from the woods to the North as I told you we would,” Lindsey said as he sat down between him and the two playing checkers. Michael and Lane sat opposite him. He curled one his braids around his finger. “We were passing trough the market, and I was keeping an eye out to see if any were selling that right sort of oil you asked for, when we happened upon a merchant selling decks of cards.”

“Decks of cards?” Nahum asked in surprise. “He was selling nothing more than that?”

“Nothing, nor did he need to, for he was a master craftsman,” Lindsey replied. “We bought a deck, and we’ve been playing cards at Michael’s place all day long.” The northerner laughed then as he smiled to his fellow timbersmen, both of whom returned the grin, “It is remarkable the power that cards have. Not only can they steal your money, they can steal your time too.”

Habakkuk nodded sagely, even as Nahum let out a triumphant yip. “Aha! I have won!”

Tallis groused, but there was a keen sense of humour in those dark eyes. “Yes, yes, don’t let it get to your head.”

“Ah, checkers,” Michael said as he rubbed his multicoloured paws together. “Now there’s another game that steals your time.”

“I’ll get us something to eat,” Lance suggested, “Looks like our friends already have their meal.”

“Don’t forget the mead,” Lindsey called out after the moose. “We must have mead if we are to share this evening.”

Michael moved one seat closer to the rat, and pointed at the board with one claw. “Mind if I play you?”

Nahum, who was still basking in his triumph, waved one paw negligently. “I have had my victory. You may certainly now claim yours.”

Tallis rolled his eyes and then leaned over to the beaver, “Don’t tell him, but I let him win.” It was said in a mock whisper, so that the fox would be sure to hear.

And it clearly had its intended effect, because Nahum scowled for a moment at the rat, but then his confidence returned. “I know it agonizes you to lose, Tallis. But I know you are too honourable to throw a game and then throw it in my muzzle.”

Tallis laughed then and nodded. “You have me there, fox.” He looked back to Michael, and brought the board about. “I usually take black. Either colour looks like it would suit you fine.”

“Indeed!” the plaid beaver agreed. Habakkuk caught a sudden glint in Nahum’s eyes, as if another witticism had come to him, but better sense had kept it back.

Lindsey turned to Habakkuk then and let out a heavy breath. “I know I said I’d be by your office earlier today. I’m sorry I didn’t come. We wanted to break in the new deck, and well, we became rather involved.”

The kangaroo nodded slowly, his paw curled about his spoon. The carrot still sat nestled within it uneaten. “I understand. I stay away from such things except when I am here because I have too many things to do most days. But I know that when you are here at the Keep you have little to do. When will you be going back out again?”

“In a few days. We’ll be gone for several weeks, but we’ll return and have the week of the Solstice free from our duties.”

“Good.” Habakkuk let the carrot fall from the spoon again. He did taste a bit more of the broth though. It had gone cold, but it still held that savoury flavour he’d come to enjoy. “So you have everything but the oil then?”

“Yes,” Lindsey replied. He looked up as the moose returned bearing three mazers in one arm, a bowl in his other, and two more balanced in his antlers.

Nahum let out a laugh. “You should get a job waiting tables. You could put a whole banquet on top of those antlers!”

Lance smiled a lop-sided grin. “Tried that once. But more than two bowls up there unbalances me.” He passed out the mazers and then the bowls, settling himself down next to Michael and the kangaroo. “Besides, you have to stay indoors if you wait tables.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Nahum asked, grinning widely, eyeing the checker game going on beside him every so often. “You don’t find this outdoors.”

“And you don’t find trees, the sun, and soft earth indoors either,” Lance countered. Both Michael and Lindsey nodded their heads at that. Habakkuk smiled, knowing that this argument was going to go on for a while.

He turned to Lindsey, even as the fox and moose continued to spar over which was better, the city or the forest. “Are you ready?”

Lindsey grimaced and stuffed a spoonful of meat into his mouth. He shook his head slightly and stared out past their friends across the Commons. “Never,” he said after swallowing. “You never are.”

“Aye,” Habakkuk agreed. “I’ll let you know where everything needs to be later. First find enough oil.”

“Crown me,” Tallis said with a satisfied chitter. Habakkuk looked up at the two players. Michael was not faring very well, a the stack of red pieces already taken attested. Nahum was listening quietly with arms crossed as Lance described the advantages of being in the woods. But the fox’s eyes strayed to the game board frequently too.

Habakkuk smiled then as he took all of it in. Beyond them the room was filled with boisterous laughter. A few members of the stonemason’s apprentices had locked arms and were now singing a bawdy song at the far corner. All those near by were cheering them on, hooting and laughing in delight, including a member of the city watch who was still in uniform. He noted a few Longs were several tables away, laughing amongst themselves over some private joke. And there was the onlookers watching as Copernicus gave that poor rabbit yet another thrashing at the pool table.

Yes, there were many reasons to smile. He hoisted the carrot in his spoon and ate the cold vegetable. “So, Lindsey, tell me about this card merchant.”

It had only been a few minutes after receiving Healer Coe’s note that Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor had returned to the Infirmary. The raccoon had been very circumspect in describing the changes that had overcome Alberta, only saying that more had occurred and that he should come and see for himself. And when Thomas had stepped into te room and the Healer had shown im the differences, he had asked for a chair to be brought and to be left alone with her.

That had been three hours ago. The sky had long since darkened into night and the stars above and below lit city. A single lantern burned in her room. It had hung from a hook in the wall next to the transom, but it had proved poor illumination there so Thomas set it on the small table that sat beside the bed. From there it made one side of her face shine in its warm yellow embers, but over the rest it cast weird flickering shadows.

He knew the ill of shadows, and had at first kept well away from them. But as the days since that night in the stable turned into weeks, he’d ceased to practice that same degree of caution. Now he sat silently in the chair, the darkness around him a blanket that warmed him. His eyes left her face only rarely. Sometimes he would let them slide across her blanketed form, pondering what lay beneath. Coe had shown him the way she’d been altered, though the whole time protecting Alberta’s modesty. He could not forget the way her legs had changed, nor the sight of them unshaven. But then again, she was from the Steppes, he reminded himself.

Still, he kept his focus upon her face. Though he’d been under the influence of the halter for the many months when he began to learn that face, it remained one of the few things he could remember clearly from that time. As he stared at the long nose, the high cheekbones, and the supple lips, he remembered the Knight’s Ball. A smile began to spread across his muzzle. That had been a lovely night. He wished they could dance again.

A slight tremble creased her lips for a moment, and Thomas leaned forward in his seat, ears perked. His tail flicked back and forth through the gap in the back of the chair, and his hooves dragged across the masonry though they were protected by socks. But the motion passed as quickly as it had come, and Alberta lay in quiet repose still. Thomas opened his mouth, her name upon his tongue, but it did not come. He stared for several moments more before leaning back in the chair again and closing his muzzle.

And so he continued to watch her, his ears listening only to the soft soughing of her breath.

“You didn’t sleep very well last night, did you?” Raven asked the Duke of Metamor as he sat before her, while she leaned over him, peering into his eyes.

“No,” Thomas admitted, feeling a bit shamed by the question. “No, I did not.”

Rickkter was there as well, and the three of them were otherwise alone in his private chambers. Thomas had sent for them that morning. After the long night watching Alberta, he felt a need to make sure that he himself would not succumb to the curses once again. Although Malisa’s assurances yesterday he given him hope that nothing would be amiss, he needed to hear it confirmed by others.

“Coe says you were watching Alberta all night long,” Raven added, giving him a rather cold stare. Few in the Keep would dare to reproach him so. Raven hin’Elric never hesitated to do so.

“For all the good it did me. She didn’t change any further last night. And I did come to bed.”

“At three in the morning,” Rickkter pointed out, his own expression mildly amused. “Even I did not stay up that late. And I dare say I was being more productive than you with my late night studying.”

Thomas frowned at that. It was one thing to be lectured by the Lothanasa of Metamor, another by the Battle Mage from the South. “My sleeping habits are not the reason I summoned you two. I want to know whether I will suffer the same fate as Alberta.”

Raven leaned back then, arms crossed. She was dressed in her usual Summer garb, light tunic and Lothanasi robe. It held a strange sort of magisterial charm. “I do not think so. The curse is as strong upon you as on either of us.”

“She’s right,” Rickkter replied. “The way the halter’s spell worked on you both was very different. I do not believe you could fall to the curses again.” The raccoon stretched his arms before him, fingers laced together. He let go then and narrowed his eyes. “Have you felt any odd compulsions regarding that halter? Any odd thoughts?”

Thomas shook his head then. “No. I can remember vaguely what it was like, but no more than that.”

Raven looked back to the raccoon and then returned her gaze to Thomas. “That is good, your grace. Should you ever have those desires again, you must tell one of us immediately. I think that the halter’s power has been completely lifted from you, but sometimes spells can take a long time to truly dissipate. Especially one that had lain upon you for so long.”

Thomas stood up from his seat then and straightened out his chartreuse doublet. “If I ever feel such a thing again, I will. What have you discovered about Alberta?”

It was the raccoon who answered. “Somehow, her connection to the curses was weakened to the point that the curses decided to have another try at her. We haven’t yet figured out why she didn’t become a man again because of this, but we are working on that.”

“Have you talked with Sir Egland? He’s been observing her these last four weeks. He may not know magic, but he may have seen something.”

“We can do that today,” Raven assured him.

“Good,” Thomas said. “And should anything drastic happen to Alberta, Coe will inform us straight away.”

Raven nodded slowly then and took a step back from the Duke. “Very well. If you have no further need of us now, we shall see to Sir Egland, your grace.”

“Please do, Lothanasa,” Thomas replied.

Raven and Rickkter both bowed once to the Duke, and then quietly left his private chambers. The two guards standing outside closed the door behind them, nodding their heads respectfully to them as they continued on their way down the red carpeted hallway.

“You will have to speak to Egland yourself,” Rickkter said once they were out of earshot. “There’s something else I have to do today.”

Raven arched one eye ridge. “Oh?

“Something I promised Kayla.” Rickkter grimaced a bit. “Don’t worry. I will meet with you again this evening to discuss anything you find. But I made this promise a few days ago, and she won’t be very understanding if I back out of this one. Besides, I don’t think that our foul friends are playing a direct hand in this. One afternoon shouldn’t matter.”

The wolf still frowned, but finally nodded her head. “Very well, Rickkter. But I expect to see you this evening.”

“You will. Now good luck with the elk.”

“And you with your skunk,” Raven replied, her moue noticeable.

The morning was warm, even as high up as the Belfry. The solitary figure paced back and forth for several minutes as his gaze cast down upon the town far below. The spires and minarets of the Keep pressed upwards like upthrust flowers before the moss of homes, chimneys, and inns. They were subtle flowers, their colours only hinted at in shades of grey, white, and basalt. Their petals were the banners that flapped in the snapping wind, each a mix of colours and heraldry, though their own hues seemed sucked dry by the pervasive solemnity of the castle.

Beyond the Keep itself, the town lay close to the ground, and milling through its morning streets were the ants. So small, he could but crush them with a whim, but instead, he could not help but watch. Watch as they moved back and forth, in and out. From one house to another. One shop to a second shop, to an Inn, and then back again. The larger of the ants – wagons he thought they were called – carried the heaviest of loads, and all the smaller creatures parted way before them.

And as he watched those flowing motes, though he could make out no details, he could begin to distinguish them. They were part of one living mass, but they were all parts nevertheless, significant in their own way. Yet for him, many of the ways that they thought of themselves as significant were as irrelevant as the real ants that so commonly laboured in the gardens. The very qualities that he found most intriguing were likely not even known by those who possessed them.

Wen he saw such a person, a person that interested him, he felt a pull, and could not help but watch them. He wound bend over the edge of the belfry, his upper half dangling out into the wind, his long tail stuck out straight behind him for balance. He was not afraid of the wind. The wind was but the breath of the world, and it was a breath they all shared. One paw would reach out, curving about that person’s tiny form. His claws would block a passage, and guide that individual in a more appealing route. And the individual would more often than not go as bidden.

He could feel the soft murmuring of the bells behind him. Leaning back, he drew once more inside the belfry. There was no one that intrigued him yet within the city streets. He merely had to wait.

“Very good!” Sir Egland called out, and then swung the wooden practice sword down in a low arc at his squire. Intoran blocked that thrust as well with a twist of his arm. The oryx then thrust his own blade around and upwards. Egland was forced back a step, and his arm shook with the force of the deflected blow. “If you strike any stronger these poor staves will shatter!”

”I thought you wanted me to give it my all,” Intoran asked, a mischievous smile crossing his muzzle. He made another thrust, dancing upon his hooves in a few more paces.

But Egland was far more experienced. He stepped inwards as well, and pushed the oryx’s blade upwards, sliding the shafts together until the hilts locked together. “If you give too much, you won’t have any energy left.” He shoved his squire with one shoulder, and the oryx, already overbalanced, fell backwards with a bleat of surprise. “And that’s when you die,” he added, laying the point of his wooden blade at the centre of the mail shirt. “Like so.”

Intoran grunted and nodded. “It appears that way. May I try again?” But Egland had already let his eyes wander down towards the street. He’d been doing that all morning in fact. The oryx narrowed his own gaze, and then knocked the sword away from his chest and rolled to one side, getting his hooves beneath him in barely a moment. “If you want to win, you have to pay attention, Sire.”

Egland looked back at his student, already waving the point of the stave before him in a defensive crouch. He laughed briskly, and the two of them began to trade blows once more. He could tell that his squire was trying not to push too hard, but it seemed to be one of his biggest faults. He had always been a bit too impetuous, and it was something that had to be trained out of a knight. There were many a times he had enjoyed that very quality, but those times could only be allowed out when he did not have to be a knight.

It was true that his mind was not on the fighting, and it was becoming increasingly clear to Intoran as well. It was a shame really. The oryx would never learn properly if he had to keep making mistakes to get the knight’s attention. But Egland could not help himself. He had in fact decided to go out into the small yard behind their home to practice so that he could keep his eye on the street. But it was not realistic to expect the guest to arrive that early in the morning anyway. He’d only thought to send the messenger late the last afternoon. Give it a few more hours, and focus on the training, he told himself, to little avail.

“Aha!" Intoran declared at last as his sword slid underneath Egland’s guard and the point caught the elk in the side. “I have you!”

Egland grimaced and looked down, and let his arms go slack. “Indeed! That would be a mortal wound.” A bit of bread from that morning came back up then and he continued to chew. “Now again!”

They continued trading blows, though now that he had in fact been slain, Egland found his concentration easier to keep. There were some lessons he had to make sure that Intoran unlearned, and he intended to make him right then. When Intoran seemed to think the elk wasn’t paying attention, Egland struck back even harder, driving the oryx back nearly to the walls of the house behind their own. It took only two times before Intoran stopped trying to strike at every opening he thought he was being given. Egland could tell his squire was learning to watch not for any opening, but for the right ones.

So renewed was the knight’s concentration upon the sparring in fact, that he failed to notice when somebody did trod across the street towards their home. “Sir Yacoub Egland?” a feminine voice called out. There was no diffidence in that voice though, it was not a curious caller that had stopped by just to inquire after his health, or to the activities of he and his squire. This was a summons, very nearly a command. And delivered by one used to having them obeyed.

Egland stepped back from his squire, gave the command to halt, and then turned to see who it was. Although their paths had rarely crossed, he still knew her face. Blinking in surprise, he lowered his head respectfully, “Lothanasa! To what do I owe the honour of your presence?”

Raven hin’Elric was dressed in clothes suitable to travelling about the city on foot. Even so, a woolen cloak had been drawn about her shoulders, the hood pulled up over her ears. It was probably the only way she could move through the city streets without drawing the petitioners to her. She stood beside their home, one fur-covered hand resting upon the lapel of the cloak, keeping it drawn closed. “Let us go inside so that we might talk.”

Sir Egland nodded, handing the wooden stave to his squire. Intoran took both and rushed back inside first, readying the way for their unexpected guest. “Very well. I don’t have much I can offer by way of hospitality, Lothanasa, but what I have is yours.” If there was one thing his time in Yesulam had drilled into him more than piety, it was a fealty to the laws of hospitality. In the deserts of the Holy Land, hospitality was a matter of life and death after all.

She did not smile, but he could tell by the way she inclined her head, that she had accepted his offer respectfully. “I have already supped.”

“Then enjoy the comfort of a place to sit at least.” He opened the door and she stepped through into the small entranceway. “The sitting room is in the back. I do not have much, as I said. But I have done well enough.”

Raven lowered the hood of her cloak, shaking out the heavy fur that framed her neck. “Yes, you have done well enough,” she noted, studying the two upholstered chairs and the viola case that sat within one. “I had heard you play at the inns sometimes.”

Egland nodded, picking up the case and setting it aside. “Sometimes, yes. A childhood fancy of mine, to be a minstrel. Before I joined the knights of Yesulam.”

“A man of your station could not be a minstrel?” Intoran took her cloak and folded it over one arm. She nodded her thanks to him and then sat in the opposing chair. Her blue eyes found Egland once more, and never left him.

“No. And I knew that too. But I still had the viola, and the cultivation of music was encouraged at Yesulam” He smiled then as he lowered himself slowly into his seat. “But, could I go back and change things, I would not. I love being a knight. It is my life, and I would have no other.”

Raven nodded, a slight smile creasing her muzzle. Though she was a wolf, and he an elk, he did not feel any instinctual fear at her scent. Normally the scents of predators bothered him. It had always existed as a persistent nagging that made him edgy in their presence. But not so with Raven. If she made him uncomfortable at all, it was in the fact that she was the most important Lothanasi in all of Metamor. Being a Follower, her presence would always make him uncomfortable in that way.

“That was not why I came, as I am sure you know,” Raven said after a moment’s pause. She waited another few seconds before continuing, as if she were making sure that each of her words would come out in the right order. “I have come to ask you about Dame Bryonoth.”

“How is she?” Egland asked, feeling the rush of the combat, even though it had only been a mock, began to slowly leave him.

“Sleeping, according to Coe. She has changed more into an animal form, although it is still too early to tell what. There can be no doubt that the curse has begun changing her a second time.”

“Do you know why yet?” Egland asked, finding himself leaning forward in his chair. Intoran stood silently at the back of the room, behind Raven’s chair. His ears were turned to listen, and his eyes to watch.

“No,” Raven replied. “No, we do not know that yet. And that is why I am here. I need you to tell me everything that you have seen in her in the month since she returned, and all you saw in the months before that.”

Egland nodded in sullen resignation. “Intoran, can you please make us some tea? I think we may be here a short while.”

The oryx nodded slowly and backed into the kitchen as quietly as any hoofed Keeper could.

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