New Home, New Beginnings

by Christian O'Kane and Charles Matthias

January 708

William Dupré could not help but ponder his future. Duke Thomas and the people here at Metamor had greeted him far more warmly than he had expected. They had been suspicious of him and his men at first, wondering whether their intention to swear fealty to the Horse Lord was genuine. He had no doubt that they still suspected him of potential duplicity, but gone were the wary looks and uncertain glances. There was a hopeful regard to their manner now, cordial and hospitable, if not friendly.

So when one of Thomas's many servants informed him that the Duke wished to speak with him, he went obediently, leaving Becket and his men to see to the Curse-demanded refit of their supplies.

When William entered the Duke's private chambers he found several people there besides Thomas. The reptilian Steward Thalberg was there; but as Thomas's advisor that was to be expected. Also, there was the amusingly appropriate tan-colored jackal that was what the Curse made of the mercenary George. Their eyes locked as soon as Dupré entered, each continuing to measure and reevaluate each other. Standing next to the canine was a black-haired woman dressed in a shirt and skirt of dark red edged with gray and white. On her shirt were the images of a horseshoe and a human foot both in gold. He recognized that as either the woman's heraldry or the emblem of a military unit.

"Sir Dupré," Thomas said cheerfully. Not Lord Dupré anymore. As a condition of his service to Thomas, he'd been made to forswear any claim to his family's ancestral land in Mallow Horn. Given the tense situation in the Midlands, he understood why, but it had not been easy. Now he was regarded as no more than a distinguished knight. The rustle of his woolen coat against his undershirt reminded him of his determination to accept this as well as everything else.

Thomas's smile did not change while Dupré bowed his horned head. “Thank you for coming. You already know George my Patrol Master and Scout commander.” The stallion pointed to the canine.

William's muzzle creased in an ironic grin. He gave a short bow to the canine. “Sir. It's a pleasure to see you again.”

The canine gave a short nod of the head, one paw idly rubbing his belly. “Welcome to Metamor, William.”

The ram nodded. “Thank you, George.”

Thomas pointed to the woman standing next to George. “This is Captain Isabelle Sobol. She's the commander of the first Equitarie company.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you Sir,” she said. Isabelle gave a deep bow instead of a curtsy like etiquette demanded.

William was confused by the woman's odd behavior for a moment but then he realized that this woman was once a man. What would be appropriate in that position? Here at Metamor Keep all the men were once women. All the women were once men and simply because that person LOOKED like a child did not mean they actually were. It was all very confusing. Still a person was a person regardless of what they looked like. He idly wondered what effects it was having on their society. The Duke is a stallion, his wife a wild horse, his steward is a crocodile and his chief scout is a jackal. It reminded him of the old Reynard the fox story he had read as a child. All they needed to complete the scene was a fox, which he already knew they had running around somewhere. He put those stray thoughts aside for another time. “It's a pleasure to meet you my lady,” Dupré said in a warm tone.

“I have given a lot of thought to how to best use your skills and knowledge.” the Duke said slowly. Thomas walked over to the far wall upon which hung a map of the valley and most of the surrounding area. “I have decided to give you command of the troops at Hareford.” the stallion pointed to a small marker on the northern part of the map. “It has an important role in defending the entire valley from the constant raiders from the Giantdowns.”

“Thank you, Lord Thomas,” he said. “I am flattered by your trust in me.” William looked closely at the map. He saw a lot of trees and hills surrounding the place but no towns and only a single road. But it was far from the Keep. He'd expected they would assign him some duty that would keep him under George's watchful eye. This was a genuine surprise.

“It's more often called Outpost,” Thomas explained.

“It sees a lot of action,” George commented. “For a place so small and isolated.”

William Dupré studied the map closely for a few moments and then nodded. “I can understand why. It's perfectly placed to intercept any raiders headed into the valley from the north.”

“You will be serving under Sir Nestorius who controls the town and surrounding area,” the Duke explained. “He is a good leader of people and a fine mage but he needs your military skills. There are already fifty soldiers assigned there now who will be under your command as well as Captain Sobol's company and the half-dozen men you brought with you to Metamor. Captain Sobol's company is being assigned there permanently, as are you.”

“Thank you, Lord Thomas,” William said. He was wanted for his military skills to repel invaders from the north. And also, he suspected, to keep him out of sight from any visiting dignitaries from the south. But truly, a chance to fight and be the man he'd grown up thinking he'd be, that was more than he rightly could expect. “What is the composition of the company?”

“Mixed,” the woman answered. “Two hundred infantry and one hundred cavalry.”

“After years of trying various types of units the best for Outpost is a mix of foot and cavalry,” George added. “The terrain is a mix of woods and open farmland. So the best is to have both cavalry and foot patrols.”

William nodded. “I understand but I'll have to decide exactly how to arrange divisions after I see the terrain.”

George said nothing, but his tail wagged slightly as if in approval.

"What of Hareford itself? What is it like?” the ram asked.

“A small walled town with a castle attached,” Thomas explained. “The walls are good, old, solid empire construction.”

“It has a population of around three hundred and fifty,” Thalberg said speaking for the first time. “With another four hundred in the surrounding three villages.”

“In addition there are always at least a score of scouts working out of the castle,” Thomas added.

“They are under my command,” George added forcefully.

“I trust we can cooperate on how your scouts are deployed so we can avoid any wasted effort,” William said with a beastly grunt. He would not be treated as a novice in need of lessons.
“Of course,” Thomas said in a measured but calming tone. “This is a small but important assignment William. The patrols from there are instrumental in stopping raids from reaching the more settled areas of the valley.”

The ram ran his thick fingers over the wooded portion of the northern part of the map. “What is in here? I don't see any towns or villages.”

“That is Haunted woods,” George answered slowly. “It's a cursed place with a lot of ghosts and other more deadly things.”

“More deadly things?” the ram asked, one eye ridge raised askance.

“You don't want to know.” George replied coldly as he shook his head.

“Your people are to stay out of those woods,” Thomas ordered. “Especially at night. Even if you are chasing raiders do not go into the woods.”

“At all?” William asked, surprised and a little unsettled, but he did his best not to show it. “What's in there?”

“What is in there is not fully known but it guards the ruins there fanatically against all intruders,” the stallion explained.

George nodded in agreement. “The shadow will kill a Keeper just as readily as it would a lutin. You'll need to talk to Edmund for more information,” George commented. “The paladin has been exploring the place for a while. He's even met the shadow there.”

“Who is this Edmund?”

“Sir Edmund Delacot,” Thomas said. “He is a paladin here at the Keep. We can arrange a meeting with him.”

“Thank you. I would appreciate that.” Dupré resumed his perusal of the map. “What leeway do I have to appoint commanders and organize the troops?”

“You may assign the troops stationed permanently at Outpost as you see best,” Thomas replied with a magnanimous sweep of one arm. “But not those on temporary assignment. And Captain Sobol will remain in command of the first Equitaire company.”

“I mean no offense to Captain Sobol,” William replied, noting the woman carefully. “But I know my own men and trust them.”

Thomas smiled, ears upraised, and without the faintest hint of malice said, “And so do we."

One of Thalberg's yellow eyes lifted in a reptilian laugh. George wagged his tail once. “Do you understand your assignment, Sir Dupré?”

The ram bowed his head and checked his temper. “Of course, my liege. It will be done as you command.”

"Then I will allow Captain Sobol to introduce you to your command. I am sure you will have much to do before you begin for Hareford.” William accepted the dismissal and left with Captain Sobol following his cloven hooves.

It was three hours later when William finally got to see his command. In one of the countless courtyards of the Keep three hundred people and one hundred horses were lined in neat rows for him to inspect.

"How long has the 1st Equitarie been in existence?" William asked.

"Two weeks," Capt Sobol answered. "But all the troops are veterans drawn from good units."

'A new unit, a new commander and a new assignment. Too many new things all at once,' William thought to himself as he walked slowly a deliberately to the front of the room. He moved with a slow deliberate gate with his body held erect every inch the calm and experienced leader of soldiers. William came to a stop at the front of the group.

The assembled soldiers looked his way and listened attentively as William described as best he knew what awaited them in the north. Tails wagged, ears turned, whiskers twitched, and a few hooves stomped anxiously as he spoke.

"Good morning!" he said in a voice loud enough to be heard by all. "Duke Thomas has appointed me, Sir William Dupré, as your new leader and the commander of all the troops at Hareford. The Duke has given us a difficult task but it is one we can accomplish. A task we can all be proud of as we defend the valley and all it's people from attack.

"I am a soldier who has led troops in battle," he said simply but with a firm tone. "I have sweated, strained and bled alongside my troops. I have led great armies to victory, and I have led small armies to victory over great ones. And to my delight, I have heard good things about you; namely, that all of you are the best and most experienced soldiers at Metamor. That's good because I need the best. I am going to take you places you've never been and do things you never thought possible. I intend to move hard and fast and make the valley a safe place to live for all of us.
“Our duty, is to prevent Lutins raiders from passing beyond the Giant's Dike. We will be patrolling that area, and manning what defenses there are already, and building new fortifications where prudent. We have but one purpose, to let no Lutin, nor any mercenary, and especially no claws of Nasoj to reach down into this valley. Any that come, we will defeat. They may cross the Giant's Dike, but you, soldiers of Metamor, will make sure they don't cross back!”
At that there was a cheer from the soldiers. William Dupré smiled a caprine grin, lifting his snout and savoring the scent of their enthusiasm. His soldiers. His men. He didn't know them yet, but he knew they were going to make him proud.
He turned to Captain Sobol and nodded to the woman. “See to the travel arrangements for your company. We'll be leaving for Hareford in two days.”
“Of course, Sir Dupré.” Sobol saluted him, as did the men. He returned the salute, one hand brushing against a curled horn, and then dashing back to his side. It may be a new command with a new unit, but after seeing them for himself, he had a good feeling about the future.

It was shortly after midday prayers that William was able to meet the paladin. He found the paladins quarters lightly furnished. A bed, a small writing desk and chair and a small traveling chest occupied the small room. The only real flash of luxury was a bowl filled with bright flowers resting on the desk. William noted those details with a glance of his changed eyes before settling them on the two figures which held the room together. He'd known that Edmund was a Hunting cat, one of the sleek felines many southern nobles kept for hunting game. But where he thought to find one he discovered two. The first of the cheetahs was dressed in a simple woolen tunic and pants both a dark blue. Embroidered onto the tunic was a gold Follower cross.

The second feline was wearing a simple, brown, wool shirt and shorts both dirty and a little tattered around the edges. He was also not wearing any shoes. the claws of his bare paws clicking on the flooring as he walked.

“My name is Sir Edmond Delacot. Protector of the innocent and defender of the faithful and a Knight of the Order of the Protectors,” the cheetah with the Follower cross on his tunic said calmly, bowing his head ever so slightly in recognition of Dupré's status.

The second feline did not speak but stared at the ram for a long moment with the intensity only a predator has.

“Stealth my friend please do not startle Sir Dupré." Edmund whispered in Stealth's ear.

“Huh?” the second feline replied with a quick blink.

“You're giving him the 'You look tasty' stare that all cats do. He's a prey species. It's starting to spook him.” Or so Edmund surmised. William Dupré remained still, horizontal eyes moving from one to the other with deliberate focus.

"Oh...” Surprised, Stealth lowered his eyes.

Edmund bowed to the ram a second time and gestured with a restrained sweep of one arm to the other cheetah morph. “My apologies Sir William. This is my good friend Stealth.”

The ram's nostrils flared once before he returned the bow, nodding to them both as his cloven hooves steadied himself on the cold masonry. “We are well met, Master Stealth. I am Sir William Dupré, formerly of Mallow Horn but now in the services to Duke Thomas and assigned to Hareford as commander of the armies.”

Stealth's eyes rose again, wide and he opened his mouth to speak, and then shut it again not wanting to show his fangs and spooking the ram. Finally, after several moment's of indecision, he merely nodded his head and did his best to appear uninterested in a meal of fresh mutton.

Suddenly, Stealth blurted out, "I have duties to tend to Master Dupré, good day to you both." He reached for a nearby door and entered.

"Why are you entering the closet, sir?" The ram asked.

Stealth stiffened and his fur bristled, "This door leads to several other wings of the castle, it leads to a closet at other times, when Kyia wishes it." He said and quickly closed the door behind him.

Edmund nodded his head. "You forget Sir William that this is Metamor Keep and it's innards move about at whim and Kyia's desire."

"There is so much here at Metamor that takes getting comfortable with," William commented.

"You'll get used to it with time," the paladin answered. "Now, how can I be of service Sir William?"

William Dupré rested his three fingered hands over his belt, only inches from the hilt of his broadsword, and stared down a long rounded black muzzle toward the cheetah. His eyes, yellow with horizontal pupils, were some of the most disconcerting that Edmund had ever glimpsed on any other Keeper. They were distinctly inhuman in a way that even a predator could not match. They carried the impression of a dumb beast, but there was nothing in either Dupré's stance, his etiquette, or his regard to support it.

Edmund could only conclude that either he'd been completely wrong about Stealth's gaze frightening him, or William was a master at hiding his feelings. The rumors he'd heard of George's praise for this former noble's prowess were undoubtedly true.

But what of his character? Was he a virtuous soul seeking to aid Metamor after his exile, or was he still a haughty lord too enamored of himself to recognize the way he'd been humbled?

Edmund pondered those questions as he listened to those William brought. “I was told,” the ram began in even tones that suggested he was still measuring the paladin, “that you are the loremaster of the Haunted woods. As it lies just to the east of Hareford, and Duke Thomas has forbade my men and I from entering, I wish to know what you have to tell of it.”

Edmund stiffened for a moment as his ears laid back. His tail stopped its usual movement. “Oh? Why are you interested in that place?” he asked in a cold tone. “The ruins are best left to the ghosts who haunt and guard the place.”

The ram snorted as if disappointed. “I have no interest in the ruins or what treasures supposedly lie there. As I explained, I have been appointed by the Duke as the military commander of Hareford. My soldiers will patrol near it one way or another, and I wish to understand the nature of the evil that lurks within those woods.”

Edmund stared intently at the ram for a long moment. Yes, there was arrogance there, but it seemed tempered. That he was concerned chiefly for the men under his command spoke well of him. The feline relaxed noticeably and his tail started moving back and forth slowly. Still, the subject at hand was not one he wished to discuss. “I had heard you were headed there and bringing troops with you.”

“You've heard already?" William asked, scalloped ears flicking betwixt curling horns toward the feline. The moment of surprise passed quickly into begrudging acceptance. “Word travels fast here in Metamor.”

“Yes and no,” Edmund admitted, sharing the ram's distaste for gossip. “But Nestorius is a good friend of mine. The Duke informed him of your assignment several hours ago. Nest informed me a little while later.”

“I see.” William's brow furrowed and his muzzle curled into what must be a frown. “What of Nestorius? I know he is a mage, a lion, to whom I will report, but little else.”

Edmund felt more comfortable and so smiled without showing any fangs. “Nestorius is a mage of some power. There are more powerful mages here in the valley but not many. He has been living in Hareford for some seven years, shortly after the Curses were first laid down. He has ruled the place well during that time and shown himself to be a capable magistrate. Nestorius is no military man but he is wise enough to recognize that."

“What of the Haunted woods?” the ram asked with narrowed eyes. He could tell that Edmund didn't wish to speak of it. After a moment's pause he added, “George suggested that something other than ghosts are there.”

Edmund nodded and swallowed. There was no point in not telling him. “The ruins in haunted woods were once the Suielman city of Camulodunum. When the valley fell to invaders in the year 75 they put everyone in the city to the sword. But right before the empire mages summoned a very powerful shadow. That shadow still guards the ruins along with the thousands of ghosts.”

“How dangerous are they? I will be running patrols right up the edge of the forest and must know the peril.”

“The shadow guards the woods fiercely and kills any enemies it finds there in,” Edmund answered. “He is more tolerant of Keepers so long as they do not try and loot the ruins.”

William took a deep breath, eyes finally leaving Edmund to peer past him. “I see. And no effort has been made to exorcise this shadow? As a paladin, I would expect you to destroy such evils.”

“An exorcism will only remove a demonic presence,” Edmund explained, feeling the burn of the ram's reproof in his chest. “The shadow is not that. He has come to my aid in the past. He seeks only to guard and protect that which he was charged to do. No more and no less. He is no threat to Metamor.”

“And yet,” William said with some amusement, “his presence keeps you from both cultivating those woods, and securing your northern defenses.” He lifted one hand and shook his head. “No, don't argue with me. This is not the time or place to settle such matters. I am accustomed to speaking my mind, Sir Edmund.”

“As am I, Sir William.”

“I am also accustomed to command, as I sense are you. But I also sense in you a desire to protect this wood against the rest of Metamor.”

Edmund knew he was being tested now, and he didn't like it. The hackles on the back of his neck rose. “What lies there is of no interest to Metamor. It is a threat only to our enemies.”

“And if things should change? Which will you sacrifice, Sir Edmund? The wood or Metamor?”

Now his fangs did show. “What do you intend to do, Sir William?”

“To do my duty of course. And that will be to command the forces at Hareford. It is the valley's first line of defense to the north. But to do that, I need to know everything there is to know. And that means, I need to know that your fealty to Metamor is more important than your desire to protect the creature in the woods. Because if you are unwilling to inform me of all that I should know, then I will need to learn it other ways.”

Edmund stiffened and he had to repress the urge to bare his fangs and snarl. This nobleman was not someone who played word games. He was as blunt and straight as a sword in the stomach. The cheetah nodded slowly and said, “Forgive me if I have misread your intentions, Sir William. But I am not prepared to tell you everything of the Haunted Wood just yet. There has been far too many who have talked sweet words but only had their minds on looting the ruins. I will need to consult with my notes as well as with my friend Stealth who witnessed many things there with me.” And, he didn't add, to learn more about Dupré himself.

“I and my men are to leave for Hareford in two day's time. I will return here tomorrow at your leisure and we can discuss the Haunted Wood in more detail. Until then, I bid you a good day, Sir Edmund.”

“And you, Sir William. Noon will suffice. We can talk over bread and meat. I fear we do not have many vegetables this time of the year.”

“Bread and meat are fine,” William agreed. He bowed and turned to depart.

“One thing, Sir William. Not all that lies in darkness is evil.”

William nodded. “True. But there is still evil, and I won't hesitate striking it down.”

“And neither will I,” Edmund replied, “Neither will I.” The ram snorted, almost a laugh as he left.

"The issue I have found in the past is how do you define evil?" Edmund said in a soft voice. "I know many who would call Metamor itself as evil."

William stiffened for a moment then simply nodded his head. "Indeed." Then he gave a short bow and turned and left the room.

Edmund watched the ram disappear down the hallway. Suddenly the closet door opened and Stealth stepped into view.

"Now tell me why you felt the need to hide in my closet?" Edmund asked.

Stealth ignored the question and spoke in a quiet voice, "Ed, I know that guy."

"You do?" Edmund asked. Surprised. He turned to face his friend.

"Not in person, I know of him," Stealth paused for a moment. "He's done things."

"Things?" Edmund asked and tilted his head to the side.

The feline looked around cautiously, as if Dupre' would jump out of the closet, "That's Dupre', Dupre' of Mallow Horn in the south. He was involved deeply in the civil war, his people did things to the Lightbringers all over the realm."

"Evil things? I'd rumors that he was involved in fighting and other more evil things."

"There are a lot of people coming in from the south spreading those rumors, Ed. He murdered those people, wiped out the Lothanasi. He committed genocide. Now WHAT is he doing HERE? Is he here to kill more Lightbringers?"

"Well," Edmund said slowly. Measuring each word carefully. "I don't believe rumors but I will look into them and see what happened."

"And if I'm right? what are you going to do?"

"I don't know." he said softly. "I just do not know."

The marketplace was busy in the late afternoon. The sun was already bending toward the western peaks, but for now the people of Metamor enjoyed the vague warmth it provided. Icicles on eaves glistened with melt, the ice on the roadway stones chipped beneath hoof, boot, and claw, and the boisterous shouting of merchants with wares to sell were full of promises to keep the multitudinous variety of Keepers warm and well fed.

A ram dressed in noble surcoat, tabard, and breeches, with a heavy broadsword buckled at his side, made his way through the crowd with a boar dressed in newly acquired tunic, mail, and breeches. Both kept malformed hands on the hilts of their blades, while their beastly ears twitched to follow the many sounds of the crowd.

When the roar reached a feverish pitch, and the press of bodies surrounded them on all sides, the ram leaned over and spoke in level tones into the boar's ears, “Can you hear me, Becket?”

“Aye, milord Dupré,” Becket replied with an odd turn to his lips and a wrinkle in his piggish snout. The bristly furs across his face trembled at the touch of a cool wind passing over the throng. “But only just.”

“Good. We are almost certainly being spied upon. Laugh as if I've told you a particularly naughty joke.”

Becket's eyes lifted in surprise, and then he guffawed and squealed with delight, the ram still hanging onto his shoulder the entire time. “Good, good! When we reach Hareford, I'm sure Metamor will have spies amongst our men. I want you to keep an eye out for them as best you see fit. It would be well if we could learn who they are.”

“To keep them out of your way?” Becket asked as he side stepped a burly man who'd slipped on a patch of ice and nearly bowled them both over.

“No. Just so we can make sure they report all the good things, all the loyalty to the house of Hassan, that we display.”

Becket frowned and kicked a bit of loose ice with one hoof. “Aren't we going to be loyal?” He could not hide the quaver of uncertainty from either voice or snout. His nose wrinkled in obvious distaste to the suggestion of duplicity.

“Of course we are! But the sooner Duke Thomas and his advisors believe it, the sooner we'll be left alone to do what we must to protect this valley. The sooner they trust us, the sooner we'll no longer be exiled foreigners but brothers.”

The fear fled from Becket's small eyes and his smile returned. He laughed again, loud and squealing. “Ah! Of course. I will do my best, milord Dupré.”

Dupré grunted and leaned back, saying in a much louder voice. “It is Sir Dupré for now, Captain. Tell me, how fare the rest of our men in attaining the necessary supplies?”

"They go well... Sir Dupré.” Becket hated his liege's demotion, but it seemed he would have no choice but to accept it for now. “Alexander has found a helmet that doesn't chafe his ears or snout, and the boys have all found clothes, armor, and swords more to their size.” The boys, Anthony, Martin, and Robert, had all become children on the verge of their manly growth and had been forced to barter their old gear for some better fitting. Alexander had become a rather stout dark furred dog which made him in some sense the most imposing of the six of them despite being the youngest of all. Still, Becket was very proud of his men and knew they would do well in this strange land.

“Excellent to hear,” Sir Dupré grinned and gestured to the vast marketplace. “Now in all of this I'm sure we can find something to fill our bellies. We won't see the likes of this for years to come I'm sure.”

“I'm afraid you're right,” Becket admitted. Their conspiracy done, the two new Keepers navigated the throng to a satisfying meal by following their noses.

Andwyn wasn't Sir Edmund Delacot's first choice of Keepers to ask about Sir William Dupré of Mallow Horn's past, but as he found himself before the spymaster's door, he realized the person who would be likely to know the most. The spirit of the Keep, Kyia as she was called, must have directed his steps as he debated to whom he should seek his answers. He'd never before had occasion to call on the bat, but it could only be his door. A plaque bearing his name and his duty as Chief Intelligence Advisor to the Duke was affixed to the center of the door where all who could read the Galendish letters could read it.

No ornamentation or other beastly sigil marred the door. The suggestion, after so much of the good humor amongst the other animal population of Metamor, was that visits were to be kept to business and not to delve into frivolity uninvited. Which made him also wonder if any mirth were ever invited by the bat. But not knowing him at all, only knowing that he was trusted by Duke Thomas, and regarded as eminently competent by both Misha and George, even if neither liked him much, Sir Edmund was loathe to pass judgment too swiftly.

He knocked, and the bat's voice answered promptly. “Come in; the door is unlocked.”

Edmund opened the door and found a room smaller than he expected. Shelves were stacked nearly to the ceiling, which was not fashioned from stone but from a trellis work of iron rafters of various sizes. The shelves were filled with bundles of parchment, decanters of liquids of every shade possible, and numerous ceramic jars whose contents he didn't dare guess. A large shuttered window occupied the far wall, with a latch set well out of his reach. A brass platter that looked freshly and frequently cleaned lay on the floor beneath the window sill. Hanging from one of the larger rafters was the bat Andwyn, upside down, and holding a set of spectacles to his small eyes as he perused a document resting on the top of one of the shelves.

“Sir Edmund Delacot,” Andwyn said with obvious delight as he set both spectacles and report aside. He folded his wings over his chest and shifted his feet until he hung facing the cheetah. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?”

Edmund stared at the bat in wonder, and then chided himself for it. He was a bat, of course he'd be most comfortable hanging upside down. He closed the door behind him. "I had a visit from Sir William Dupré. He sought help from me regarding his appointment as military commander in Hareford. I have heard rumors that he was involved in some vile things during the recent civil war in the Southern Midlands in the last few months. I wanted to know if these rumors are true."

"What rumors?" the bat asked calmly.

"That he lead massacres of Lightbringers," Edmund explained. "And if so, why we would even allow such a man to run free in Metamor let alone grant him command of our northern defenses!”

Andwyn grasped a solitary peach from the top of his shelves and took a bite. “Is that all? Well, you can assure yourself and your friend Stealth who, if he did not tell you these rumors, will certainly learn them from you anyway, that he was responsible for butchering many Lothanasi during the civil war. However, as to your other concern, William Dupré was under the influence of a grave evil that Metamor herself has faced in the last two years, and he did not act of his own accord. That evil over him is now broken and so what he did under its influence is not to be held against him. Still, our trust in him is provisional based on his actions. Should he even breath a disloyal sentiment, it will be his last. Are you satisfied?”

He didn't know whether to flinch or knock the bat from his perch. "No I am not!" he snarled in clipped terms. "I dislike you attitude and your comments about me and my friend."

“Then tell me one secret that you have not shared with him.”

"I trust him far more then I trust you," Edmund glared at the bat in stony silence. It was the predator's stare, and it had intimidated many other men of great strength.

Andwyn merely took another bite from his peach. “And my point is made. Do not trouble yourself with questions of Dupré's loyalty. He is our concern. Take whatever precautions you feel is necessary to keep him out of the Haunted Wood, but tell him whatever he wants to know. From what I know of him, the more sated his curiosity, the less trouble he will be.”

"He IS my worry Sir," Edmund countered. "I have taken an oath before the great one to stop such evils and be sure those responsible are brought to justice. My friendship with Stealth should not be of concern to you. He is a friend. What I share with him is my own concern.”

“So long as you wish to remain in the dark about why decisions are made here at Metamor, that is true. And as a knight, you are right, that is perfectly acceptable for you. But do not come to me expecting me to divulge anything you don't already know. I will only ever tell you what it is safe for you and for him to know.”

Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. "I was going to say the same of you and Dupré. Both of you will only know what I want you to know. And why don't you trust me? I've proved my loyalty to Metamor over the last year many times over. And I've never decimated anyone, under an evil influence or not!”

Andwyn's voice and red-eyed stare was unforgiving. “Until you can keep secrets from a friend when asked, you can be trusted with none. I do not say this to denigrate your loyalty, Sir Delacot. It is merely a truth. I have served as a spy for many, many years. You are a knight. You are the sword. I learn who the target is. Being able to swing a sword does you no good unless you know who the target is. But the why's are not always for the sword to know."

"Oh please!" the feline shot back contemptuously. "Spare that idiotic speech for the young fools who are gullible enough to believe it. You're a spy and an assassin. Rather then face a person in honest combat you stab them in their sleep and you poison their food.”

"Do you know who at Metamor apart from Duke Thomas is worth the most to Nasoj?” Andwyn asked ignoring Edmund's barbs.

“Misha Brightleaf I suppose or perhaps George both have done much to thwart Nasoj," the paladin answered.

“Nasoj desires Misha greatly it is true. Few are worth more to Nasoj than George and Misha. But it is not him. It is me. And Phil before me. If Nasoj knew the secrets I know, he wouldn't need an army to conquer Metamor. That is the power of a spy. And in these days when we have enemies on all sides, that power is one of our greatest assets. So do you understand now that I do not slight you or anyone else when I refuse to tell you what you wish to learn?”

"No," he shot back. "I hear the arrogance and self importance of an overinflated ego," Edmund paused for a moment and brought his anger into check. His heart slowed and he forced his hackles to lower. He was not acting in the calm manner befitting a knight and a paladin. The bat was no threat. He might not like his words, but he could not deny their truth. No wonder Misha and George always hated having to report to him. "But I do understand the importance and the dangers of a spy."

“If you wish to learn all that I know of William Dupré, I will tell you on the condition that you swear never to speak of it to your friend Stealth or anyone else. Is that something you can do?”

Edmund shook his head. “No, I cannot. Stealth wouldn't understand. He keeps nothing from me. I will follow your advice regarding William Dupré. But I want to know if there is anything more you can tell me, anything concrete, that can give me a better sense of the man. Things that will not compromise Metamor if they are revealed.”

Andwyn frowned, or so Edmund thought. He then realized that the bat was smiling. It merely looked like a frown with him hanging upside down. “Well said, Sir Edmund. You'll find a high chair behind the door. Sit and I will tell you what I can.”

And that, Edmund discovered, proved to be quite a bit more than he expected.

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