The roan gelding galloped along the rock path, carrying its young rider towards the keep. Both the mount and the boy on its back heaved from the exertion, having run since nightfall. The road was unsafe, prone to lutin raids and bandits both, but the child urged his steed onwards, heedless of the danger.
In the distance stood his destination, Metamor Keep, its faintly luminescent spires rising out of the darkness. The boy nudged the gelding's ribs and spurred the horse onwards, trying to ignore both the roan's laboured breathing and his own pain. In shaking hands, he grasped the reins and continued.
Copernicus stood on the outer wall in the warm spring night, staring at the stars. Channing and Christopher also studied the night sky, but to them it was but a hobby. To Copernicus, it was a passion. The lizard smiled, watching the tiny jewels sparkle against the blue-black velvet cloth of night. Could any sight, he wondered, ever compare with such brilliance?
His reverie was broken by the faint but rising rhythmic pounding of hoofbeats. His eyes went from the sky above to the courtyard below, but he saw none of the equines out for a night run. His gaze travelled out to the road leading to the keep from the Midlands. There, moving among the shadows, came a lone horse and rider. The lizard frowned. At this time of night, who would risk travelling alone? Only a brave man, a fool, or both. He scoured the path and the brush alongside with his eyes, but he saw no one in pursuit. The horse and rider, however, moved as a man chased.
Copernicus watched for a scant minute, then came to a decision. He quickly descended the ladder to the courtyard and made haste to the guardhouse, where Landon stood leaning back against the walls. As the lizard entered, he came to attention. "Something amiss this eve?"
"We've a rider approaching. Only one, and in some haste. No sign of pursuit but I'd rather be ready just in case. Come."
The grey foxman nodded followed after Copernicus, pausing to grab a lantern out of the barracks. Together they returned to the courtyard and winched open one of the gates far enough for the rider to enter. The hoofbeats preceded the entrance of the rider as he jerked to a halt just within the keep's outer wall. The rider slid to his feet from his mount's back, but then continued, slumping to the ground with but a soft groan of exhaustion.
Copernicus eyed the panting gelding cautiously, slowly approaching the rider now prone on the packed earth of the ground. Landon gently took the reins of the animal and spoke softly. "I'll take him around to the stables. I don't think he'll be giving you any trouble," he said, pointing with his free paw to the unconconsious form.
Copernicus nodded as the fox led the horse away and knelt next to the rider. He reached out a scaled hand to touch the figure's shoulder, but the form remained still. He must've ridden all night to be this exhausted, the lizard thought. He tried to lift the figure to a sitting position, placing one hand on his back. The figure's chest rose as a dead weight, and Copernicus felt something slick and sticky on his hand. He lowered the form again and inspected his hand in the light of the lantern. His palm was rust-brown with crusting blood.
His head snapped up to the sight of Landon walking quickly back from the stables. Before he could approach too near, Copernicus called out, "Fetch Coe. Wake him if you must. And tell him to bring a litter."
Landon stopped, cocked his head to one side, then nodded and turned in the direction of the keep and ran to fetch the keep's physic. Copernicus stood watch over the prone figure of the rider, studying him. The beam from the hooded lantern fell on the rider's face, revealing the features of a young boy, not more than sixteen. The lizardmorph wondered what would motivate one so young to come to the keep alone and wounded in the middle of the night. He feared another lutin raid on a caravan and swore quietly, pacing and waiting for Landon's and Coe's return.
After an interminable span, the raccoon ran up with Landon behind him bearing a litter. Coe hailed the lizard as he approached. "What is it that couldn't wait until morning?" The serious tone of his voice eased the sharpness of his tongue.
Copernicus pointed to the boy on the ground, holding the lantern to light him. "He crashed the gate not ten minutes before, and fell to the ground unconscious, as he dismounted."
"Ye gods." Brian's manner became all business. "Lie the liter alongside. Cope, help me ease him onto it." Landon lay the litter next to the boy and lizard and raccoon together gently lifted him into place. The boy groaned as he was moved, but didn't stir.
"Now," said Coe, "help me take him to the infirmary."
Copernicus grunted as he lifted his end of the litter. "Do you think it's serious?"
The physic shook his head. "I've no idea; I've yet to see his injuries." He paused in his speech, though he continued walking and carrying the other end. "But once I'm done with him, they won't be."
Coe leaned back against the wall and rubbed his eyes, his tail curled around one leg. Copernicus took this as a sign that the healer was, for the moment, free and spoke. "So how are his injuries?"
The raccoon shook his head. "Severe, but treatable. The scars on his back and legs are consistent with one who's been under the lash a number of times. Several of the fresh wounds look less than a week old. Constant riding since then has not only aggrevated the newer ones, but torn open some of the older scars. I've sewn up what I could, but it will still take a good fortnight for those to heal, and most of that will need to be bedrest. In addition, one of his legs looks as if it's been broken in the past and mis-set. I could fix it but before I do I need his awareness that it would be done. For now, he's under one of Pascal's sleeping draughts and should remain unconscious until high sun, if not longer."
Copernicus grimaced, looking over the boy's back at the drunken spiderweb of lacerations. "I wonder who he is?"
Brian sighed. "I wish you hadn't asked." He knelt down next to the bed in which the boy lay and picked up a small golden necklace. "This fell out of one of the pockets of his tunic when I was undressing him." Dangling from the chain was a small medallion, a cast of a silver greyhound on a field of blue enamel.
The lizardmorph's eyes went to the medallion and he shook his head. "Wonderful. I'll tell Posti in the morning."
Brian nodded, then sat in one of the chairs. "Go on and get some rest. No point in waking any of the others. I'll tend him until daybreak."
Copernicus clapped a scaly hand onto the raccoon's shoulder. With a soft chuckle, he said, "Doubtless I'll be able to sleep now anyway." He then left the infirmary, pulling the door shut behind him.
Posti, Prime Minister of Metamor Keep, was not amused by Copernicus' news. "You mean to tell me that right now, in the infirmary, is someone bearing Baron Grenier's crest? The man who may be personally responsible for at least a dozen Keepers' deaths since the Battle of Three Gates?"
Copernicus nodded. "Currently unconscious and recovering from multiple injuries. He passed out when he arrived."
The horsemorph cupped his chin in a hoof-like hand and shook his head. "I don't like it, Cope. With everything in the Giantdowns suggesting the start of another extended battle, we can't risk a war on two fronts. And Etienne Grenier has said before his willingness to see us all killed."
Copernicus sighed. "I know. But this is a child. And we can't simply turn him away wounded."
"Not any more, at any rate. He's already here." Posti thought for a moment, then nodded to himself. "Has Brian said how long his injuries would take to heal?"
"Two weeks, perhaps three. Plus his leg may need healing, which Akkala only knows how long would put him off of travel."
Posti swore. "Ashes! If he's old enough to be affected, we don't dare risk keeping him here. Can he be moved?"
"I don't know. You'd have to ask Coe himself."
Posti sighed. "I'd prefer not to disturb him while he's with a patient, even if he is someone of Grenier's court. Was the boy carrying anything?"
"Other than that medallion, nothing of note. The clothes on his back and his horse. Feed in his saddlebags for another few days. A dagger in a beltsheath. He certainly doesn't seem prepared for a fight of any sort. It appears that this was his destination. He's certainly not prepared for a trip into the Giantdowns, and there are no settlements past us on this road."
Posti grumbled. "Which makes his presence here that much more frustrating. We know only that he's part of Baron Grenier's entourage. And that alone would be enough for me to turn him away, save that he's already here and unconscious." He slapped one fist into the other hand. "Blast! This is just the kind of situation we didn't need."
A knock on the prime minister's door broke into the conversation. Posti called out, "Come in!"
The door opened and Raven Lightbringer walked into the room. Without hesitation, she nodded to Copernicus and then turned her attention to the Prime Minister. "I've heard that we had a rather young visitor from the south arrive before daybreak."
Posti looked at Lightbringer, his ears rising. "How did you hear this?"
Lightbringer lowered her cowl and smiled coolly at the equine. "I am not without my eyes and ears in this place. As are you. Mine simply have more subtle means of finding information."
Posti's ears lay back, then he sighed. "Yes, we've had a new arrival. He's in Coe's care at the moment. I wish I could say otherwise."
Lightbringer nodded. "Christopher must be present when the boy awakens." She looked at Copernicus. "Inform the physic, please." She turned and began to leave the audience chamber.
Copernicus and Posti turned in surprise as she made her way to the exit. Posti called after her, "Wait!"
Raven paused, not turning around. "Yes?"
Posti spoke in a half-indignant, half-puzzled tone. "Christopher? The tutor? But.. what stake does he have in this?"
She resumed walking, calling over her shoulder. "His soul." And then she was gone.
As the double doors quietly shut on well-oiled hinges, Copernicus looked back at Posti and shrugged helplessly. "She is the Lightbringer."
"Aye," Posti said grimly. "And as such, we should probably take her statements to heart. But I still mislike her acting as one in charge the keep."
"In matter spiritual, she is. I mislike it as well, but if she says that the tutor's soul is at risk lest he be present, then I say we should inform him."
Posti considered, then sighed. "Alright. Rouse him and inform him. Pending Coe's approval, I'd like him there ready for when the boy awakens." He shrugged. "He does have a way with children; perhaps he can find out more of why the boy came here than we can."
Copernicus nodded, bowed and made his way to the doors. As he opened them, he paused and turned back to Posti. "Sir... what of the boy himself?"
The Prime Minister met the lizardmorph's gaze without a hint of emotion. "We'll decide that when the time comes."
The pounding on my door thudded through my consciousness, shaking me awake but not fully aware. I dragged myself out of bed and staggered to the door. "One moment!" Not bothering to grab my robes from the hook on which they hung, I grabbed the handle inside the door and pulled it open. "What," I half-snarled.
The large reptilian form of Copernicus greeted me, looking discomfited. "Good, you're awake. Your presence has been requested."
"What? Requested?" I struggled to force myself further awake, then turned and took down my robes from their hook. "By whom?"
Copernicus looked at me as one might a half-wit. "Does that matter?"
I pulled the robe over my head and hung my monocle about my neck. "At this hour of the morning, aye. Were it a true emergency, ye'd've said as much by now. Had it been Lord Thomas or Posti requesting me, ye'd've announced that when ye woke me. Thus, this is someone who wants me at attention but hasn't the authority to command me directly. So, who?"
Copernicus looked even more distinctly uncomfortable. "Lightbringer."
This gave me pause. "Raven? What does she want with me?" I stepped out of my room and began walking down the hallway.
The lizard took up pace beside me and walked, eyes carefully on the corridor ahead. After a moment of deliberation, he spoke. "Tell me, Christopher, how much do you know of Etienne Grenier?"
I considered. "Baron over Lanton and the lands within two days' ride. Staunch supporter of the Pope, rumoured supporter of the Inquisition. He's well-known at the University in Elvquellin for his open hatred of magic and all who deal with it. Twice while I was in attendence he threatened to attempt to have the University closed. He and the University are at an armed impasse, or so I always believed." I shrugged. "More than that, I fear ye'd have to ask Posti or Thalberg. Why?"
Copernicus nodded but continued walking. After gathering his thoughts, he said only, "You'll see when we arrive." With that, the lizard grew silent.
We neared the infirmary and my eyebrows went up. "Is this our destination?"
Copernicus nodded and said in a grim tone, "Yes." He then pushed open the door and ushered me inside.
Once through the door, I heard the audible click of the door latching behind me, but my attention was too focused on the scene before my eyes to pay much attention elsewhere. Lying in bed, on his stomach, was a manchild, surely not more than sixteen. His hair was white, almost the hair of an old man, but thick and pulled into a loose tail away from his back. He was naked to the waist, and across his back ran a crimson quilt of scars, fresh and ancient. Atop this patchwork lay several fresh rough tears in the skin, the worst of which had been sutured closed, presumably by Coe, the Keep's physic. Blood seeped from between some of these and ran in rivulets to pool in the small of his back.
As I studied the boy, I felt an odd warmth spread through me, coming from the scar on my shoulder, the mark of Akkala that had been left from my healing. Is this the one, I wondered. My penance, my payment for restoration was a promise to take in a young boy and raise him. Was this the one? Raven would not have demanded my presence had she not felt this. He must be the one.
"Ah, Christopher, you're here." Coe's voice cut into me and I turned sharply to him. Seeing my facial expression, he stepped backwards and regarded me with a curious look. "Is there something wrong?"
"No.. no, naught," I said hastily. "Who be this?"
The raccoon grimaced. "We aren't sure. Someone in Baron Grenier's court, we know." He held up a pendant. "This was on his person when he arrived this morning before daybreak. I doubt that he could have stolen it."
I took the pendant and studied it through my monocle, then closed my paw around it. "I see." I took a deep breath and felt an odd tightness in my throat.
Coe moved to dab away at the blood on the boy's back. "We don't even know his name, I fear. Lightbringer wanted your presence when he woke."
I said in a soft voice, "I know why Raven wanted me here. I remember my geas."
Brian looked at me sharply. "Geas?"
I nodded. "'Tis a longer story than I care to relate for now. Ye can trust, though, that Raven knows of it." I fingered the scar on my shoulder absentmindedly. "When shall he wake?"
"Soon, I hope. I gave him one of Pascal's sleeping draughts to aid his rest, but I know not when its potency will fade."
I nodded and sat down on one of the benches near the door. "Then I shall wait."
Sometime around high sun, which I could tell by the shadows cast by the sunlight coming into the infirmary, I started on my bench to the sound of a groan. Blinking and forcing myself back to a seated position, I looked at the boy, who was attempting to push himself into a sitting position.
Quickly, I rose and walked to his bed. "Stay still," I attempted to say quietly, my voice catching and coming out rough. "Ye'll tear your stitches."
"Errr.." The boy was still not fully coherent. "Hurts."
"Aye, it'll hurt for some time. Ye've been badly injured."
He slumped back against the bed and stopped attempting to move. "Where am I?" His voice sounded clearer, at least.
"Ye're in the infirmary at Metamor Keep. Lie still." I did my best to brush at his hair without pulling it over the wounds.
He turned his head to one side and opened an eye, looking up at me. His expression quickly turned from confused to shocked. "It's real..." He said harshly. His scent became muddied, a sharp mixture of fear and ecstasy.
"Aye, we're real. And so be the stitches in your back. Close to fifty of them, if I counted correctly. Now lie still. Coe should be back from middays soon, and--"
"Aye, our physic."
My muzzle quirked up in surprise. "Aye... how d'ye know him?"
"Have him keep his distance!" His voice grew more agitated by the moment.
"Ashes, boy. Coe's got the most talented paws in the Keep when it comes to tending wounds, save perhaps Raven herself. Now hush and lie still."
The boy quieted down and lay in bed. His stoic acceptance of the pain from his back was, in my mind, incredible. I found a rag and wetted it from the bucket of warm water over the fire, then gently wiped the blood from his back. As I tended to his wounds, soft whimpers of discomfort escaped his lips and I saw him biting his lip, but not once did he cry out.
"Ye can cry if ye like. I'll not think less of ye for it."
"No!" His voice was soft but sharp. "Crying out is for the weak. I'll bear the pain."
Instead of responding, I finished my ministrations, then rinsed the blood-soaked rag under the tap. "My name is Christopher, keep sage and tutor. I didn't catch yer name, though. Ye weren't in any capacity to speak when first I arrived."
The boy lay in silence for a few moments, then said in a quiet tone, "Paul. Paul Grenier."
I froze, then turned. "Related to the baron?"
"Yes. His son." He smelled of weariness, of pride, of sadness... of fear?
I knew not what to say to that, but the Keep's physic's timely return spared me any necessity of speech. As he walked in, he saw Paul's eyes catch his own and he smiled. "Ah, good. you're awake." He turned to me. "How long has he been up?"
"Not long. Might I see ye in private for a moment? I've just tended his stitches; they're not septic."
He regarded Paul for a moment, then nodded. "Very well." He stepped back out of the infirmiry.
I followed him and pulled the door closed behind me. As soon as it was shut, I said, in the softest voice that I could, "He knows who ye are."
I expected the raccoonmorph's scent to register surprise. It showed in his eyes, but a moment late. "Knows me?"
"Aye. I told him yer last name and he gave me yer first. Could he mayhap have heard of ye?"
Coe shrugged. "Possibly. I had a life prior to my coming here, as we all did. How is he reacting to his surroundings?"
"I know not. Surprised, shocked. He seems more calm than Michael, but then, by the time he awoke, his injuries had healed. Paul is still in a great deal of pain, which is affecting him, though he fights not to show it."
"Aye, the boy's name. Paul Grenier. Baron Grenier's son."
Coe sighed but said nothing, though I saw a change in his bearing. Resignment and determination, but to what I knew not. "How soon should he be able to walk?" I asked him.
The raccoon pondered. "Three days. Mayhap two if he heals quickly. If I need to heal his leg, a tenday I'll want him down, but I shan't know that until I see how he walks."
I smiled and placed a paw on the physic's shoulder. "Coe, ye're a worker of miracles medicinal. I'll speak with Posti about the boy, arrange his room, and--"
I stopped. "Aye. Room. He'll be staying, under my aegis."
Coe shook his head. "I doubt Posti will approve. Keeping someone like Baron Grenier's son here is not something he'll support."
"Nonsense. When I explain the situation to him, no doubt he'll change his mind."
"Posti, be reasonable! The boy's in no shape to travel!"
Posti sighed and rubbed one ear. "Christopher, keeping the boy here is an unwarranted risk. We're already looking at another siege from the north; the short expedition on which you nearly didn't return should remind you of that. We dare not chance antagonising Etienne Grenier against us."
"Coe won't release him for travel for at least three days, possibly a tenday." It wasn't an outright lie, I told myself.
"Coe may not have the luxury. As soon as the boy is well enough to travel by wagon, we take him back to Lanton with all speed. Or at least as far as Elarial. He can send word to his father from there."
"Posti--" I stopped. I had no idea what to say, save the truth. "Bob, this could mean my soul. I am under geas from Akkala to tend to the boy, to take him in as my ward."
His ears went up in surprise, but his face remained unchanged. "This boy? Paul Grenier, son to Baron Grenier?"
"And you know this is the one? Akkala herself has confirmed this?"
"Well... no. But Raven requested my presence at the boy's side. And I felt something when near him. A sense of rightness."
Posti appeared to hesitate, but then grew firm. "No. In this I must override even the Lightbringer. When the boy is fit to travel, he goes back to Lanton. Mayhap we can avoid conflict with the Greniers."
"And if Paul wishes to stay?"
The equine did hesitate at that. "Then it is between he and his father. But I'll not let the boy bring war to the Keep."
I nodded and bowed. "Very well. I'll act accordingly."
Coe looked up from a book as I entered the infirmary. "What did Posti say?"
"He said it was up to the boy."
The raccoon studied me critically for a moment, then shrugged. "I doubt that, but if you wish to fight him, 'tis your affair."
Paul looked up from his place on the bed. "What did who say is up to me?"
I sat down next to bed and met the boy's eyes. "The Prime Minister, I fear, has a bit of trouble with yer presence. Yer father's been a--"
Paul cut me off, his eyes narrowed and his voice harsh. "My father is a saint."
Coe looked up at that. "In all that I've heard of him, that would not be a word I've heard."
Paul tried to look over his shoulder at the physic, and for a moment I thought he was about to say something, but he instead relaxed against the bed. After a few moment, he spoke. "He's working to purge Satan's touch from the land."
A pregnant pause filled the air after that statement. Coe walked over to the boy's bedside and looked at Paul curiously. "Tell me, Paul.. who did this to your back? And why?"
Paul raised his head and looked daggers into Coe's eyes, then lowered his gaze to the floor. "It's necessary."
"Necessary?" I think Coe's and my voices both grew louder than we expected.
Paul's voice caught as he spoke, cracking over the words. "To--to purge the-- the Devil's touch from my--soul..."
"Devil's touch? Nonsense, boy. What makes you think such a thing?"
"F--father says that anyone who can c--cast magic is--is--" Paul's voice broke there, into silent sobs which sent shivers down the boy's back.
I stood in a silent rage, paws clenched tight, by Paul's bed. I know not how long I stood when I reached out stiffly with one paw and, as tenderly as I could, stroked the boy's hair. If e'er I lay eyes on the man who did this to this child, I swear I'll break him in half, I thought.
Coe tapped me on the shoulder. "Chris, you're bleeding."
I looked down at the floor; a wet patch was slowly growing under me. I raised my clenched paw and looked at it; my claws had gone through the pad of my palm, leaving four neat puncture wounds. I winced at the sensations of pain only now reaching me.
"Aye, that I am. Would ye mind bandaging me paw, Brian?" The shock of the pain and of Paul's suffering still made the pain distant, unreal. I watched idly as Coe wrapped gauze and linens about my paw and fastened it with a knot.
"Let the boy sleep now, Chris. And get some rest yourself." Coe's voice was stern. "I'll watch him for now. Stop by after evens."
I nodded. "Thank ye, Coe. I'll be back in a few hours." With that, I gave the boy's hair a final smoothing and left the infirmary to think.
With so much on my mind, time passed quickly. I spent until evens in the library, finding all that I could on the Greniers, which still proved to be precious little. Then a quick repast at the Mule, after which I returned to the infirmary. Paul was asleep when I arrived, and Coe ushered me out, saying that if the boy woke before daybreak he would send someone for me.
I returned my room intending to sleep but only tossed and turned throughout the night. Half-formed dreams brought me to the brinks of wakefulness several times throughout the night. I believe I fell to sleep well after midnight, only to be roused again by someone pounding at my door.
"Christopher, wake up! Your presence has been requested by the Prime Minister!" Copernicus' voice was muffled by the oaken door.
Groggily I sat up and then pulled myself out of bed. I dragged my robe off of its hook and pulled it on, then yanked open the door. On its other side, Copernicus blinked at me, startled. "Christopher? Did you sleep poorly? You look exhausted."
"Ye could say that." I stifled a yawn and motioned for him to lead the way, then fell in step behind him. Several times as we walked, I asked him why he had come at such an undignified hour of the day, but each time I asked I was met with stony silence. After the third failed attempt at conversation, I let the silence between us sit heavily in the air as we walked to Prime Minister Posti's office.
The first person with whom my eyes made contact when I entered the audience chamber was a man I'd ne'er seen before. While not anywhere near my height, he stood at least as tall as Posti, and thin. He smelled of arrogance and something more sinister but indefinite. No doubt the horsemorph had caught that scent as well, but it still made me dislike the man. The man turned to me and looked me over from head to toe as Copernicus bowed to Posti and excused himself. I felt the distinct impression that this stranger was sizing me up for combat.
I tried to show neither my irritation at being woken so rudely nor the rising uneasiness this man made me feel, and Posti gave no indication at my discomfort; he merely nodded to me. "Good. Christopher, this is Rayce, master-at-arms of Baron Grenier's court. Rayce, this is Christopher, tutor and sage, currently overseeing the recovery of Baron Grenier's son."
Rayce nodded stiffly to me. I bowed in response but looked curiously at Posti. "Isn't--"
Posti cut me off before I had the chance to finish. "How is the boy this morning?" His pointed stare suggested very strongly that I stick only to answering questions.
I looked back at Rayce before responding. "In truth, when I left him for the night, his back was healing apace, but he's still two days shy of e'en walking without risking further injury. And his leg may yet need mending."
Rayce studied me with an impatient glare. "Have ye no priest at this forsaken pit?"
I shrugged. "Father Hough comes round when he can, but he fears to stay, lest the magic which floods the keep change him to a woman and strip him of his position within his church. The head of the Lightbringers still makes her--"
Rayce snarled, "I'll have none of your false prophets touching the son of the Baron. If you've no priests to heal him, he must heal himself. Did you say two days?"
"Assuming his leg needs no treatment, aye. I won't know that till he walks and I see how well he bears his weight on it."
"Two days, then." He turned his attention back to Posti. "I'll need quarters for then. I need no extravagance."
Posti eyed me carefully, then nodded to Rayce. "Copernicus will escort you to your quarters."
Grenier's Master-at-arms nodded to me again and then bowed to Posti. "I'll see thee both in two days. I expect my lord's son to greet me when I arrive." With that parting comment, he turned and left the audience hall.
As the doors closed behind him, I faced Posti with a look of shock on my face. "Who be that insolent blowhard, and spirits pray tell why ye let him act in such a fashion!"
Posti sighed. "He was he who said he was. Grenier's master-at-arms, quite capable of cutting you down where you stand. He relinquished his sword to the guards at the door only becuse he knows protocol demands it, but I'd've sworn that he had at least one other weapon on him that he didn't yield."
"An' ye let him walk in here without so much as an invitation?"
The horse glared at me. "Paul was his invitation. His first accusation was that we'd forced his arrival. His second was that we were holding him captive. Copernicus and Landon both swore on their swords as to the state of the boy when he arrived, and that calmed him. He then insisted on seeing him, but I managed to convince him that that Paul was too weak to see anyone, because of his wounds. So he asked to speak to the physic tending the boy."
"That would be Coe, not I. Why'd ye summon me?"
"I've my reasons. You've shown interest in the boy. I felt that would make more of an impression on Rayce."
Posti's logic rung false in my ears but I decided against pressing the matter. "Very well. So in two days, what happens?"
"In two days, Paul walks in here, Rayce sees him, and the two return to Lanton."
"And if the boy decides otherwise?"
I hadn't thought that Posti could glare harder at me. I was wrong. "Then it will be the boy's decision. Not yours. You can be in attendance, as his physic. You can advise that he isn't medically fit to travel, if he is not. But if he decides to go, then you will abide that decision. Do you understand?"
I swallowed and nodded. "Aye. I understand."
After departing the audience chamber, I passed through the Deaf Mule to break fast, then returned to the infirmary with a tray. When I entered, Paul was sitting up, still pale from bloodloss but looking more invigorated than the night before. Coe was not in the room.
Paul looked up as I entered, then quickly cast his eyes at the stone floor again. "Good morrow," he mumbled softly.
"Aye, morrow," I agreed. "Ye're looking in better spirit today. How's yer back?"
The boy grimaced but said only, "I will survive."
I sat down the tray next to Paul on the cot and then took a seat across from him. Whisking back the cloth cover revealed thick hamsteak and fresh apples, along with a mug of chilled cider. I smiled. "Ye should eat t' keep yer strength up." I selected an apple off the tray and bit into it, crunching into the firm flesh.
He watched me eat for a moment before lifting the tray into his lap and taking up the knife and fork. For a moment, he seemed almost unaccustomed to their grip, and then he tore ravenously into the hamsteak, gorging himself. I rose and put a paw on his shoulder, looking concerned. "Hold, slow down, boy! When'd ye last eat? Ye'll make yerself ill eating like that!"
He swallowed an overlarge hunk of ham and lifted the mug to his lips, gulping down the cider. When he set his glass down again, it was already half-empty. He breathed heavily, then said, "Whenever it was I passed through... Sorin... I believe."
"Sorin?" My eyebrows went up. "'Tis over two days' ride from here!"
Paul nodded, then lifted another, smaller, forkful of hamsteak. "I know. I didn't wish to risk stopping."
"Why'd ye come that way, though? Wouldn't passing through Midtown've gotten ye here faster?"
He nodded again, chewing thoughtfully. "Less likely to be seen," he said around his food.
Paul froze, then resumed chewing slowly. He swallowed but didn't answer my question; he merely sat staring at his plate sullenly.
I rose and sat on the floor next to the cot. "Paul, why did ye come here?"
The boy closed his eyes and shuddered. "Don't ask me that."
"I must. A man named Rayce is--"
"Rayce?" Paul's eyes rose to mine, as large as moons, glistening with a thin film of tears.
I nodded. "He's here at the Keep looking for ye. He says yer father's sent him to take ye home."
Though he didn't move, the boy seemed to shrink in upon himself. He dropped his knife and reached out a trembling hand, grabbing the rough cloth of my robes at the shoulder. Gently I reached up and covered his hand with a paw.A "Paul," I asked gently, "What happened to ye?"
Paul drew in a ragged breath, then sighed soflty. His eyes fell back to the stone, unable or unwilling to meet mine any longer. When finally he did speak, his voice was flat. "Father says that he'll not suffer any in his court who can work magic. Including his son. As proof of his devotion to the Church and to Eli, he's set me to be his example that trust in Eli can deliver one from any sin. But my faith is weak; the magic still comes. I've prayed and prayed for deliverance from my sin, but still the power comes."
Paul nodded and closed his eyes. A single tear escaped and ran down his nose but ere it fell, I wiped gently at it with the pad of a thumb. He looked at me and smiled half-heartedly, then continued. "I taught myself a few cantrips, before I knew what a wrongness they were. Ever since I've been praying to Eli for Him to take from me this talent, but every time I try to work one of my spells, to see if Eli has saved me, the power flows and I see a jet of flame, or a few fae lights." He stopped and sighed again. "Still Eli damns me."
"So wherein lies what happened wi' yer back?"
Paul shuddered again, and one side of his mouth quirked up into a wry smile. He laughed dryly. "Father's idea of purging whatever demon dwells within me. And it works, somewhat. It takes time after each lashing for whatever lets me work magic to reassert itself. One day, mayhap I'll be free of it."
I shuddered at his words. "Paul, I know not what yer father has told ye, but magic is not evil."
"Magic is against Eli's ways!"
I stopped, then said quietly, "Paul, I don't follow that faith. An' I suspect ye don't either, else ye'd've stayed far from this place."
Paul said nothing; he merely stared at the ground. After a moment, he said, "I want to believe."
I rose from my seat opposite him and gingerly sat down on his cot. Placing a paw on his knee, I asked softly, "D'ye want t' believe, or d'ye want yer father t'accept who y'are?"
Paul said nothing to that. He closed his eyes and leaned against me, grabbing at my robe and shaking. I placed a paw around his shoulders cautiously, avoiding his back and stitchwork, holding him and letting him cry until the tears stopped of their own accord and his shuddering sobs gave way to the occasional shiver.
When he had worn himself out, I helped him back onto his stomach on his cot, lifting the tray and setting it on a nearby counter. Gently, I ran my claws through his hair and hummed softly. After a time, he began to snore lightly, but I continued my ministrations. While I stood next to his makeshift bed, Coe walked into the infirmary and nodded to me. "How is he?" the physic asked in his normal bedside concern.
"Tired, but I suspect better than he was ere he arrived."
Coe raised an eyebrow and cocked his head at me, waiting.
I sighed. "Would ye mind checking his stitching, an' then I'll tell ye all the details?"
The raccoon nodded and stepped over to Paul's cot, looking carefully over the boy's back. A few minutes later, he looked up and smiled. "His back is healing well, thankfully. He'll have scars, certainly. Bad ones, I fear. But they'll heal without any damage beneath. Have him rise and walk tonight, and I'll inspect his leg then. He should be well enough in two days to travel."
I grimaced. "Coe, ye've got t' tell me otherwise. Or at least tell Posti otherwise."
Coe shook his head vehemently. "I'll not lie in matters medicinal, and you of all people should know not to ask me that! Chris, this boy has got you tied up in knots! Now, you said--" He cut himself off and looked at Paul, sleeping in his cot and motioned for me to follow him into the hall. I did so, and as soon as the door was shut he resumed. "You said that you were under some kind of geas. Now, if this is affecting your judgment, shouldn't someone know about it?"
I sighed. "Coe, Raven does know about it. She was the one who negotiated for it from Akkala. It was in exchange for healing me after I returned from that one trip into the Giantdowns... ye should remember that." I pointed to the scar on my shoulder.
Coe nodded. "I see. And what is this geas?"
"I'm to take a young boy in and heal his scars, inside and out. To take him in as my ward and raise him as my own."
"And you think this boy is the one that Akkala told you to take in, is that it?" The physic kept his voice studiously neutral.
Coe shook his head. "You've an uphill battle, then. I can only imagine what Posti must've said. You have told him, haven't you?"
"Oh, aye, I told him. He was less than complimentary about the whole affair. I think he tires of Raven acting as though she were immune to his rule. An' this matter comes under her province, not his. So 'tis a struggle 'tween two opposing doctrines."
"And on which side do you place yourself?"
I stopped, then looked at Coe carefully. "I'm on the boy's side, Brian. Even were I not under geas to guard him, I'd advocate taking him out of any house where his father feels free to beat him to drive the demons from him."
Coe's eyes widened. "You mean Baron Grenier did this?"
"Aye," I said grimly.
"Does Posti know this?"
"Not yet. But he will, on the morrow. He's entertaining a visitor today."
"Aye. A man called Rayce, from Grenier's court."
Something passed over Coe's muzzle, but it was gone before I could register it. "Someone's already found the boy, then?"
I nodded. "In two days, he wishes to start taking Paul back. Paul has, of course, the option of deciding to stay."
"Grenier won't stand for it."
"If we send Rayce with a message saying Paul's chosen to stay--"
"Grenier will come here with a small army saying we've brainwashed his son." Coe sounded weary, almost defeated. "Grenier is nothing if not persistent. He might accuse us of possession and puppetry even if Paul were to say to his face that he wished to remain at the Keep."
We were both silent for a moment, then I nodded, a half-smile on my muzzle. "Then we invite Grenier to bring a priest along. Perhaps even Father Hough will be willing to stand by."
Coe's eyes, if possible, grew wider. "You can't be serious! You actually are comptemplating bringing the man here!"
"Brian, I'm comptemplating whate'er it takes to keep that boy from suffering at the hands of a tyrant, be it his father or some sadistic bishop who's bent that man's ear. If he'll stop at nothing short of his own son telling him he wishes to stay, then that is what he'll have."
Coe stared at me for some time before finding his voice again. "You're mad, Christopher. Posti won't permit it."
"Then I go to Lord Thomas himself if I must."
"Not to mention that you're assuming the boy would tell his father such a thing. You've heard Paul's own speeches about his father. He worships the ground that man walks on."
"He wants his father's love; what child doesn't? But he thinks he's damned t' hell by his father's beliefs. If he doesn't get free of Baron Grenier, he'll either be dead by his own hands or ten times the tyrant his father is trying to prove his nonexistent devotion."
Coe sighed and shook his head. "Christopher, I think that you're on an ill-fated course. I doubt that either Posti or Lord Thomas will allow you to risk bringing this keep closer to war on its southern border over the fate of one boy. I've never seen Thomas raise a hoof in anger save to Nasoj and his minions, but I daresay he'd rather see you leave with the boy than risk the lives of everyone here. Two lives are not worth a hundred. I'm only telling you this for your own sake."
I burned within at Coe's implication, and inside shook slightly with trepidation at the thought of abandoning my geas. A vision of Paul, tied to a post while faceless men in priests' robes stood around him, striking at his back with metal-tipped lashes. His cries ran in my ears. The anger and fear alloyed within me into steel of determination. I faced the physic and in a calm, quiet voice, I said, "Then if it takes my leaving the Keep to tend to that boy, then leave we will. I'll not endanger yer life or any at the keep, but I'll not let Grenier get his hands back on this boy. Tend to his wounds, physic. I'll be back at evens to see his progress." And without another word, I turned and walked away from the stunned raccoon.
Unable to focus, unable to concentrate, I paced the halls of the Keep. Ashes! My emotions rolled unchecked within my mind, something to which I was highly unaccustomed. I had hoped that Coe, at least, would support me, but with his own refusal to support my decision, I faced the unpleasant-at-best prospect of fighting Posti and mayhap Lord Thomas without support.
No, I decided, that was not wholly true. I could probably count on Raven's support, and the Prime Minister listened to her cautions, but her voice at the court was lessened by her own attitudes. She acted as though she were above any temporal authority, and Posti had already stated his position irrespective of her beliefs. I was truly on my own in this fight. Alone with but the company of a child desparate for the acceptance of his father.
In the back of my mind, possibilities turned themselves over and over, but with even my future at the Keep now in doubt, I found myself unable to resolve even the most basic of questions. Paul would recover in time, but whence from there? Would he choose to stay? If he did, it answered some questions, but raised others. Until he faced Rayce, and then mayhap his father, anything was possible.
I looked out of a window and stared in surprise at the crescent moon. So engaged I was in comptemplation that I had completely missed evens and not noticed. I quickly returned to the infirmary, where Coe was preparing for his nightly departure.
As I entered, he looked up and nodded tersely. "I thought you had forgotten; I'm glad to see otherwise."
I shook my head. "Nay, I'd not forgotten. I've been wrapped in me own thoughts. Where be Paul?"
Coe smiled. "Wait roughly five minutes."
For those five minutes, I paced in anticipation waiting. Then, the door to the infirmary opened and Paul, using two canes, hobbled gingerly into the room. When his eyes met mine, he smiled as a student showing of perfect marks, a smile which I echoed.
Coe noticed the exchange and the corner of his own muzzle turned up slightly. "His back is healing well, and it would appear that his leg is well enough that it shouldn't need mending. I would advise another day of bedrest, but the worst of his injuries have mended, and he should be fit to travel in another day, two at the most."
I grimaced at the physic's choice of words, but said only, "I'm pleased to see ye up and about, Paul."
The boy nodded and walked slowly to his cot, sitting down gingerly. He drew in a deep breath and set the canes down next to him. "Too much movement still hurts, but Coe recommended I try to remain mobile, lest the scars heal tightly and tear when I move."
I nodded and smiled at Coe. "Ye've worked a miracle in yer own right, Brian."
The raccoon shook his head. "Thank Paul, not I. I've merely done my job."
I chuckled. "An' ye've done yer job with superlative skill." I turned to the boy. "D'ye feel up to leaving the infirmary?"
Coe eyed me critically. "I'd advise against it. He's still not fully healed."
I met Brian's gaze coolly. "If yer willing to send him on the road not fully healed, then wherein lies the harm in letting him stay elsewhere within the keep ere he finishes healing?"
Brian sighed. "Very well." He turned to Paul. "If you wish to stay elsewhere, we can find you quarters."
Paul considered for a short time, then nodded. "Yes, I think I'd prefer to leave. I thank you for your work, physic, but, no ill-will, I'd as soon not have to face you professionally in the near future."
Coe chuckled. "You are not the first to say that. Very well. If you do need me, I'll be available." He nodded to me. "I release him to your care, then."
I nodded solemnly to the physic, then turned to Paul. "D'ye feel ready to walk?"
Paul took up his canes and rose onto them, wobbling only slighlty. "Aye. I'm ready. Lead on."
I bowed once to Coe and turned to the boy. "Walk with me, then," I said as I motioned for him to take the lead.
Paul and I stepped from the infirmary and slowly made our way together down the corridor, Paul slightly ahead of me. I kept my pace carefully matched with his, neither gaining ground nor walking strictly behind him. We traversed the hallways in silence, Paul focused on the task of walking and myself lost in my own thoughts of the future. When finally we came to the door that I had learned as mine, the Keep again showed its adaptability. Where before my room had been shaped as an L, with the entrance at the outside corner, it now had a distinct T-shape, with a curtain hung to separate off the new area. Beyond the drapery were a bureau, a single bed, and a full-length mirror.
I chuckled to myself, looking about the room. "Well, Kyia, again ye show yer talents. I'd say the area beyond the curtain is yers, if ye want that one. My side of the room seems unchanged. Take the time ye need to make yerself comfortable." With that, I walked to my table and sat, retrieving a few scrolls to review while Paul looked about his new quarters. I heard the soft clacking of his canes against the stone floor and the wood-against-wood scrape of his inspection of the bureau. I let myself become engrossed in my reading, but still was aware of him pulling my other chair out of from beneath the table and sitting heavily upon it, dropping his canes against the floor.
I held up one paw to ask for silence while getting to the end of a paragraph. As soon as I was done, I let drop the monocle from my eye and rolled up the scroll again, placing it back within its case. "So," I said softly as I worked, "What brought ye to the keep, then?"
Paul's eyes stayed fixedly on the far wall. "I'm not sure I understand."
I smiled gently. "Aye, ye understand. There be no destinations north of ours in civilised lands, an' ye came here by an underused route. Yer choice of destinations was premeditated."
Paul frowned slightly, most likely at having been caught out, but he said nothing in response. I placed a paw lightly on his shoulder and said, "Paul, I'll not think less of ye for yer answer. I can guess as to some of yer reasons, but not all of them."
Without looking at me, he asked, "And what do you think brought me here?"
I thought a moment, then responded in a tone normally reserved for my lectures, "Well, ye came here specifically. This was yer destination. I'd guess that ye were fleeing yer father, save that ye've already said ye craved his approval. With the Keep's reputation, I'd guess ye came here t' hide from him. Ye certainly wouldn't be the first t' have done so. Am I right?"
Paul sighed and looked down, then nodded once. "Aye, you've the right of it."
"So why, then, the elaborate defense of the man? If ye despise him so much--"
Paul cut me off with a sharp shake of his head. "I don't hate the man. I just wish that he would see me for me, and not what he wishes me to be. When my elder brother died, I became his last hope for a legacy. My father dreams of me taking his place as the head of the barony. Anything which would interfere, in his mind, is to be driven out with all haste."
"An' how does yer magic interfere?" I asked, genuinely puzzled.
"My father got to where he is through staunch support of the Pope. The previous baron held a Lightbringer in his court as advisor. When the Church came to Lanton, my father, among many others embraced the new faith eagerly. When my father went to court and called the baron a heretic, it divided the court. At first, both the Church and the Lightbringers sought to avoid bloodshed, but the Church changed its mind first. By the time the Lightbringers could muster defense, their representative there was dead, as was a third of the old court. The Church proclaimed my father the rightful ruler and somehow bent the King's ear to accept the change of rulership rather than risk an extended war. There is enough influence to both religions that he could ill-afford to anger either, but he accepted the change without comment. Since then, Lanton has slowly become openly hostile to any who do not support the Church or its policies."
I nodded. "An' yer magic definitely runs counter to those. If ye were tolerated as a fledgling mage in the court, the Church might think yer father was soft on sin, an' his position would be at risk. Having already removed one person from that seat, he can see they'd be willing t' do it again."
Paul nodded. "Aye. Thus... those." He thumbed over his shoulder to his back.
I sighed. "What a painful life ye must've had."
He drew in a ragged breath and exhaled heavily. "Thus, I left. I couldn't confront him. What could I say? Any words I had would only make me sound disobedient, to Eli if not to him. I'd hoped..." His voice trailed off there.
After a moment of silence, I prompted him softly. "Ye hoped what?"
He shook his head and changed the subject. "How long did it take for... for that to happen?" He pointed at me, waving a hand in my direction.
"Ye mean the fur?" He nodded. "I was here for the Battle of Three Gates. 'Twas my first real exposure t' combat, in truth. I'd ne'er wielded a sword ere then. I'm still not truly comfortable with them. I learned some of combat in my youth, but I'd ne'er had call t' use what I knew."
"Oh. What about others?"
I shrugged. "It depends on who ye mean. We had one new addition, named Michael, who took well nigh on a month t' change in full, an' we've had some who came t' be their new selves inside of a tenday. Why?"
He sighed. "I'd hoped to change before my father came."
I shook my head. "Paul, far be it from me t' tell ye otherwise, but Posti shan't let ye stay unless ye confront him."
He shivered and said in a plaintive voice, "I--I can't. I can't face him. Turn me out if you must but don't put me through that."
"I wish 'twere up to me. But it isn't. Rayce is here, an' the morrow after next I've got to take ye t' face him. An' ye probably know as I do that if ye tell him ye'd rather stay, he'll do naught but fetch yer father."
For a moment, Paul sat in silence, then looked up at me with soulful eyes. "He'll most likely be on his way."
"My father. He'd've sent Rayce ahead, but he'd follow himself as soon as he cleared matters at his court. To lose his only heir would look bad to the Church, and so he'd spare nothing to find me, including himself. He'll take his time and search thoroughly, but he'd follow the trail Rayce marked as quickly as possible. If Rayce is already here, I'd wager that my father will arrive within a tenday."
I closed my eyes and sighed. "Will ye tell Posti this yerself?"
Paul shuddered again, but nodded.
"Good." I rose from my seat. "Ye'd best get some rest, Paul. We'll face Posti on the morrow, or e'en after ye talk with Rayce. No sense in causing him trouble ere we need."
Paul took his canes from the floor and stood, nodding. He slowly made his way to the curtain, then turned around. "Do you know, in all this time you've yet to give me your name?"
I turned from my own bed and laughed. "I told ye, but ye must've been only half conscious at the time. Christopher." I walked over and extended a paw.
Paul leaned one cane against the wall and reached out to take my paw, but his weakness showed through and he began to fall. Without thinking I caught him and then gently lifted him into my arms. I was surprised at how light he was.
Paul giggled slightly but said nothing as I carried him to bed and lay him gently on the down-filled mattress. He smiled as I tucked him into bed and said only, "Thank you, Christopher. And well met."
I smiled and ran a claw through his thick white hair. "Well met, Paul Grenier. If ye need anything, simply call out." And then I walked to my bed and snuffed the wick to the oil-lamp on my bedside table. Stretching out on my mattress, I was quickly asleep.
My dreams were plagued with the image and the scent of the man Rayce and of young Paul. Flashes of lashings, of bloody duels, the boy's blood running red and mixing with my own on dusty ground. I snapped awake with a muffled choking gasp during the night, to the familiar-but-different feel of my quarters now inhabited by another.
As silently as the bed would permit, I rose from where I lay and shuffled across to the curtain which separated Paul's room from the rest of the space. I stopped at the corner hook to take my monocle, then lifted the heavy velvet drapery. In his bed, Paul slept soundly on his side, one arm dangling loosely over the edge of his mattress. His blanket came up only to his waist, exposing his back and chest. His white-blond hair spilled over the pillow in a fan. He snored softly, but every so often his breathing was interrupted with a whimper or a half-spoken word.
Fearing further nightmares of my own, I fetched one of the sturdy stone benches from my table and set it down next to his bed. The stone cracked against stone heavily, but Paul only stirred and coughed once before his snoring resumed. I sat and gently extended a paw to him, combing through his thick hair as he slept. Within moments, his snoring deepened and the soft cries ceased as he fell into a restful sleep.
I must have dozed off myself, in the chair, for when next I blinked and focused my attention, Paul was sitting up in bed, holding my paw in his hand. His gaze met my own and he smiled. "How long have you been sitting here?"
I shook my head to clear it. "I know not. Not long."
He laughed. "You make a poor liar. I've been watching you for almost half of an hour."
"No matter. I couldn't sleep."
"Nor could I," Paul said softly. "I was in the throes of some nightmare. But then, you were there and the dreams faded." He stopped and added in almost a whisper, "Thank you."
"'Tis nothing, Paul. Are ye rested?"
"Aye." He released my paw and leaned down to pick up the canes from beside the bed. "Do you wish to break fast?"
I nodded and stood, helping him out of bed. His actions were slow and deliberate, but seemed free of pain, and the expression on his face showed no sign of hidden damage. We walked together to the Deaf Mule. He still required the canes, but moved easier, relying less upon them. I noticed as he walked that he had left his brithright pendant behind and asked him about it.
"I wish not to call attention to it here," was all he would say on the matter.
After breaking fast, I took the boy on a grand tour of the Keep, much as Copernicus would give to all of our newest family. Normally, though, the lizard would try to avoid disturbing anyone's daily activities. I, instead, insisted on introducing Paul to all we encountered.
After introducing the librarian, Fox, he looked at me with a cocked head. "You've been trying to sway me to staying."
I sat down heavily at one of the desks among the stacks of books, but said guardedly, "An' why d'ye say that?"
He smiled wearily and sat next to me. "You're trying to make me feel as part of the Keep. Letting me meet those who live here."
"Aye." I wished to say more, but decided that this was the wrong time. Should he decide to stay, I mused, I'll tell him of the geas. Instead of carrying on the conversation, I bade him keep his seat and rose in search of a few tomes, then returned carrying several volumes. Setting them on the desk, I turned my attention back to him. "So, tell me of your lessons. What ye've studied."
We spent the afternoon and well into the evening covering his education. He was well-versed in diplomacy, history, debate, oratory and politics. Beyond those, however, his schooling was generally lacking. Like much of the nobility but unlike the aristocracy, his tutors had focused on what he would need to rule effectively but pared all other subjects to their bare minima. I began writing a curriculum that I hoped would, within the year, would get Paul to the point I'd expect one of his age to be, and set aside some time that I hoped I could convince Magus to spend tutoring the boy in magic.
It occured to me as we talked that I had already thought of Paul as part of the Keep. Dimly, I knew that the possibility of Paul's departure still existed, and indeed remained quite likely. However, I also knew of my geas. If Paul left, then I would leave with him. That much I had decided. And if Rayce made move to stop me...
I shook my head and looked up at the dim flickering light of the candle at the front of the library. "Paul, have we really talked the candle down?"
Paul turned his attention to the direction in which I looked. "Aye." He stretched carefully and stood. "Had you said nothing, I'd've probably stayed here until I passed out." He walked to the desk, without a thought. While his pace was slow, he moved without aid of the canes, and without crying out.
I smiled. "Have ye noticed what ye just did?"
He turned back, curiously. "What?" Then his eyes fell upon the canes next to where he had sat and he smiled. "Oh."
"Coe'd have a fit if he saw ye walk wi'out those this soon. Ye shouldn't tax yerself so." I stood and picked up his canes, then walked to him.
Paul shook his head. "I don't hurt. Strangely, there isn't any pain. An odd numbness, but nothing more." However, he accepted the canes without further comment and used them as we walked back to my--no, our--room.
Once I saw him to his bed, he looked at me. "I have to face Rayce tomorrow, don't I?"
I hesitated, then nodded once. "Aye. But ye'll not face him alone." I rubbed at my shoulder as I spoke.
He noticed the gesture. "How did you come by that scar? It doesn't look like any blademark I know."
"It... is a longer tale than I'd care t' tell ye tonight. Mayhap if we have the time tomorrow."
He looked at me for some time, then shrugged and lay on his side. "Very well. Stay with me?"
"Aye." I took my seat next to the bed and sat with him until I heard the soft rumble of his snores, then quietly rose and pulled the drapery to separate Paul's quarters from my own. As softly as I could, I opened the door to my room and then pulled it closed behind me as I left. In my mind, I hadn't even fully formed my plan, but I knew that Paul would not face Rayce, nor his father, alone.
I knocked at the door to Pascal's workshop, then waited anxiously for some sign of response. After none came, I knocked again and heard a muffled sigh of exasperation from within. "One moment," called the alchemist. I heard the sounds of glassware being set upon a desk, then light footfalls, followed by the door opening to reveal the mildly perturbed motley expression on Pascal's face. "Oh, Christopher. What do you want at this hour?"
"Morrow, Pascal. I've come to see if ye have any of that sleep-banishing draught in stock."
She looked at me curiously. "Every other time you've used it, you come away saying you wish you hadn't. I thought you had sworn off of alchemy."
"Please, Pascal, I've no time to argue and no desire to detract ye from yer work any longer than necessary. Have ye any or not?"
That garnered a raised eyebrow from the alchemist. "You've got plans afoot. Something involving that boy you brought around before."
"Have ye any or not?"
She stared at me, considering, then shrugged. "Fine. Don't tell me. Yes, wait here." She left and returned with a large flask filled with the oddly-sweet noxious-yellow fluid. I reached for it, but she withdrew it and asked, "What exactly are you doing, anyway?"
"That's none of yer concern." I tried to fight the terseness in my voice but some slipped through against my wishes.
She smiled. "If I'm aiding and abetting, you had better believe it's my concern. Now, what's this for?"
"I'll be the only one using it. I've some work I wish to do wi'out disturbing the boy an' it must be done ere daybreak. Nothing which involves ye directly."
"Chris, this is unlike you."
"Aye. Now, shall ye give me that bottle or shall I go elsewhere?"
She hesitated, then sighed. "Fine, don't talk about it. Here." She extended the flask, which I took quickly before she could change her mind.
"Thank ye, Pascal," I said as I pocketed the glass bottle.
"Don't thank me. Just don't overdo it. See you later." With that, she shut the door, leaving me alone in the hallway.
Quickly, I made my way to the courtyard and thence to the library. A quick turn of the knob and a gentle push revealed that again, I had forgotten to lock up as I left, a mistake that this one time I felt grateful to make. Gathering three books, I left and locked the door, heading for the general magical workshop. While Posti and Magus had both built private laboratories in which to enhance their arts, they also helped maintain a large central area in which any practioner could study. Here, I set my books down on the long central table and took the flask from my pocket. I took a long draw of liquid within, overpoweringly sweet to mask its bitter nature, and set about to read. I knew I wouldn't sleep tonight, but this was more important.
When the first rays of light came into the laboratory, I lowered my monocle and, with shaking paw, closed the book I had been reading. My preparations were complete. I gathered up the tomes and made my way quickly back to my room, passing by the Deaf Mule to fill two trays. Even Donny looked at me with a quizzical glance, but the bullmorph said nothing to my retreating back as I returned to my room.
Paul was sitting at my desk when I entered, dressed in his pants and boots, with his tunic over his shoulders but his back exposed. looking over some of my scrolls. He glanced at me when I came in and frowned. "I called out and you didn't answer. I thought to come look for you but knew not where you'd gone. I wanted your help in dressing, but I managed after a fashion."
I sighed. "My apologies, Paul. I went to the pub to fetch ye a tray. I thought ye might like to break fast ere ye met up wi' Rayce. Ye look as if ye didn't have much trouble."
His eyes burned into me, but if he questioned the truth of my words he didn't push the matter. He merely shrugged and ate when I set the tray before him.
A few scant minutes after we had finished eating, a knock came at the door. I rose with a sigh and answered. Copernicus stood on the other side in full formal dress. He looked decidedly uncomfortable. "This makes three days I've had to wake you now, and frankly I don't enjoy this, but Prime Minister Stein has requested that you and the boy join him in the main audience hall." The tone of the lizardmorph's voice indicated that this was more than a polite request.
I nodded and turned to Paul. "Are ye ready, then?"
Paul answered by rising up, leaning lightly on his canes. He no longer needed them to walk, but they helped with his balance and let him concentrate on healing. He walked to the door and then fell in alongside Copernicus, in front of me, as we made our way down the length of the stone corridor to the audience chambers. The only sounds we made were our footfalls against the floor, the soft clacking of Paul's wooden canes, and Copernicus' tail scraping against the hard rock. My mind was both here and a thousand leagues away. I hoped that what was to come would not require my intervention and feared that it would.
At the doorway to the audience chamber, the ducal guard made a formal show of searching each of us for weapons. They relieved Copernicus of his sword, which I'm sure he wore only for the purpose of its removal, then put Paul and myself to a thorough examination. They inspected Paul's canes, but let him keep them. When they faced me, they frowned but said nothing. I suppose that any person carrying no weapons appears to be more of a threat than one who does.
Posti rose as we three entered, smiling benevolently to the boy. Rayce stood next to Prime Minister, a dour expression on his face. He nodded tersely to Paul, but gave neither Copernicus nor myself so much as an acknowledgement. As if we were beneath his notice.
I bowed out of respect to Posti, then to Rayce. "I've brought the boy, as you requested."
Paul flinched when I spoke, but stepped forwards, still leaning against his canes. Rayce immediately walked to him and began inspecting the boy's wounds. "Well?" He asked of the air around him.
I decided he must've been addressing me. "He's healing apace. It may be close to a week ere his back is fully healed, but he can now walk on his own."
"Good," was Rayce's only response. He looked at Paul and nodded. "Are you ready to leave this hellhole, then?"
Paul said nothing; he merely hung his head. My insides sank. Rayce looked at Posti and nodded. "I'll report to Baron Grenier that he was fairly treated." He then turned around and made his way to the door, brushing past me. Inside I seethed, my heart burning with every step he took.
Paul turned around and met my eyes only briefly before following slowly after Rayce. I spun slowly to keep my eyes upon him as he made his way to the exit. When he was halfway to the door, though, he stopped and looked back over his shoulder at me. I pleaded with my eyes, not daring to open my muzzle.
Deep within the boy, I felt one tiny sliver of determination rear up. A thin light shone from within. He turned back to the door and, eyes on the carpet, said in a whisper, "No."
"Eh? Hurry, boy. I wish to leave this pit before we all become cursed," Rayce barked.
"I said no. I'm not going." He spoke again, louder. This time he said it with head raised, facing Rayce squarely. His face was concealed to me, but he stood with squared shoulders, ready to accept the consequence of his statement.
Rayce's eyes went wide. "Are you daft, boy? Your father's waiting on the both of us. Now come here so that we can leave this place." He reached a hand up to his belt, converting the motion for his missing sword an instant too late to an exasperated gesture.
For a moment, Paul seemed to waver in his resolve, but he had given me all the opening I needed. "He said no."
Posti stepped forward. "Christopher--"
Rayce cut him off. "Silence, freak," he said to me. Then, to Paul, "Are you going to walk or do I have to carry you?" He took a step back to the boy.
Something snapped within. "He said no." My right paw rose and flung itself towards Baron Grenier's master-at-arms, fingers curled and locked like talons. Rayce froze in his steps and his face registered the sharp shock of one unable to breathe properly. His leather jerkin showed marked indentions as if some giant invisible fist held him in its grasp. I clenched slightly and he gasped as the air was forced from his lungs.
"Christopher!" Posti's voice cut through the air behind me but I held the spell intact. Then, a sharp rush of air and the tinkling of breaking glass, and the sorcery dissolved, leaving Rayce gasping for breath.
I spun upon the horsemorph, fully aware of his counterspell. "Ye said it was between Rayce and the boy, Posti!" The broken anger fueled my magic, or perhaps my control over the spell kept me from reigning in my emotion. "The boy said he wished t' stay, an' ye would've let this arrogant crumb carry him out against his will! I'm trying t' do what's right," I roared at the Prime Minister, heedless of the scene I knew dimly that I had to be creating. That froze Posti to the spot, ears laid back against his head, eyes narrowed. He snorted.
"Aye, right," I pressed on, enraged. "Ye'd let this insufferable bastard take Paul from this place because it'd be politically expedient for ye. Ye heard Paul say that he wished to stay. An' yet ye do nothing! Nothing! Ashes on yer politics!"
The Prime Minister fought for visible control. He spoke coldly, through clenched teeth. "I want to avoid a war. You may have just brought us one. Would you damn the lives of a hundred for the sake of one boy?"
The anger within me fled and left behind only a vast weariness. I sat heavily on the ground. "Do what ye will, Posti," I said in a tired voice. I felt defeated. I turned back to watch Paul leave my life, wondering how long afterwards I would forget him as I would everything else.
Rayce struggled to stand back upright and breathe normally as Paul slumped and slowly walked towards him. Behind me, I faintly heard Posti whisper a few words, surely out of earshot of the others. Before I could turn to face him, though, Paul cried out in pain and grabbed at the sides of his head.
I forced myself to stand still and pretend only to be a spectator as Rayce quickly knelt before the boy, roughly pulling down his hands away from his ears. Rayce then stood up and pointed at the boy, still holding the boy's hands in one of his own. He bellowing at Posti, "What in Eli's Kingdom is THIS?"
Against my better judgment, I raised my monocle and looked. Paul's ears were pointed and, even as I watched, slowly lengthening and acquiring a fine white sprinkling of fur.
I spun and stared at Posti, who somehow managed to maintain a neutral expression. "The magic of this place acts of its own volition, and sometimes it is rather unpredicatable. It appears that the young man has already begun a process which should not have started for weeks." Rayce's face drained of colour as the horsemorph spoke. "Once the process starts, it cannot be stopped. For the boy's sake, I suggest you leave him here to finish his transformation. And for yours, I would recommend that you leave at once to avoid the possibility of a similar fate."
From the expression on Rayce's all-too-open face, it became obvious that until now, he had never considered himself a possible target for the sorceries surrounding the keep. He spun on his heel, releasing the boy's hands, and stormed out of the audience chamber. Copernicus helpfully opened the door for him as he left, then shut it quickly behind him.
I rushed over to the Paul. "Are y' alri--?" His ears were normal. I looked at Posti, wholly confused. "What is this?"
Posti smiled. "My apologies, Paul. And to you as well, Christopher. The pain should fade quickly; it was but a minor jolt."
Paul rubbed at his normal ears. "I feel alright; I was more surprised than hurt. But what was that?"
"Aye, Posti. What have ye done wi'out tellin' me?"
Posti's grin spread to cover most of his equine muzzle. "A large part of the politics you so quickly damn is learning to tell only enough of the truth that's necessary. The ears were an illusion, the pain a minor shock. And for good measure, I gave Rayce a simple suggestion to leave and not return. Nothing complex. He should be too scared of being afflicted to come back, at least for some time."
I was shocked. "But... Posti, why--if ye were so opposed t' his staying--"
The Prime Minister held up a hoofish hand. "I was opposed to you leading the boy into staying. I was opposed to giving Grenier more reason to hate us. But the boy spoke of his own accord. Whatever you did in the last two days, you've used no magic I can detect. You've done nothing but speak with him. So, I conclude he does wish to stay. Aye, I admit I don't care much for what this will mean in the near future. But I'd rather face this than go through life having done nothing."
Paul looked at Posti with trepidation and hope. "Then I can stay?"
Posti nodded and said solemnly, "Aye. You can stay."
Paul's eyes glistened slightly, but he didn't cry. Instead, he merely walked over and knelt before me, wrapping his arms tightly around me. He pressed his face into the scruffled fur at the nape of my neck and whispered, "Thank you."
I put an arm around Paul's shoulders and held him, gently rocking him in my arms. "An' thank ye, Paul, fer giving us the opening t' do that."
He shuddered but kept his firm grasp around my chest. "Why would you risk so much? I'm nobody special."
"But ye are t' me." I smiled, not letting go. "An' besides... that's why I'm here."
With Rayce gone and his position at the keep secure, Paul's back and his demeanor improved quickly. Within days, he was walking without the canes and the stitchwork on his back seemed a mere formality. Having faced the master-at-arms, he now spoke with upturned head and clear voice. I smiled at his progress, and hoped that he would fare as well when his father arrived.
The two of us settled quickly into a life that to many would have seemed mundane. We broke fast and then proceeded to the library to retrieve the day's lessons. Thence to our room to discuss and learn. A light lunch at tolling of high sun, and then the afternoon free. From noon until evens, I worked on my own projects while Paul wandered the halls and grew to know his surroundings. We met again at the Mule to dine and review the day's material. Finally, we would retire to our room and plan for the next day.
To me, it was an idyllic time. I knew that after he had healed fully, Jack would again require my services on patrol, but at that point I could hope to ask Magus to take Paul in as apprentice, studying magic on those days when I would be unavailable. From just the little that I had seen, I knew the boy had the mark of a powerful sorceror, if time could be made to show him how to use his talents.
For seven all-too-brief days, we lived in relative harmony. Then, as all Edens must, it came to a sudden end. I woke before first light one morning to hear Paul groaning from beyond the drapery that separated his niche from the rest of our room. I fought my way free of the bedsheet and rapped against the wall beyond the curtain. "Paul? Are ye alright?"
Paul's only response was a low moan of stifled pain. I snatched my monocle from its hook, pushed back the curtain and hurried to his bedside. Paul lay in bed on his side, his knees tucked against his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around himself. In the dim light of the oilwick flame, his skin seemed to ripple like water. "Hurrrrts," he managed to say.
"Aye, 'tis Nasoj's magic taking hold."
Paul gasped for breath and held it, his eyes shut tight. He clutched tighter at himself, as if by force of his own two hands he could stop whatever new shape into which his body flowed from emerging.
"Nay, nay, don't fight against it; ye'll only hurt the worse for it." I knelt by his bed and put a paw on his forehead.
The boy shook his head and shuddered, his flesh rolling as he did. Or was that my imagination? I had never watched the change take place in another. During the Battle of Three Gates, I was too afflicted with my own transformation to observe it in any of the others, and I'd never had the opportunity since. In Michael, the changes were so slow that only from memory had he changed at all.
I stayed at Paul's bedside, murmuring soothing words and trying to alleviate his distress, when an insistent pounding at the door broke my concentration. Quickly, I rose and said, "I'll return as soon as I can." Then I snuffed the oilwick and left Paul's nook, opening the oaken door that connected our room to the hallway. Kee stood on the other side of the door, shifting quickly from one foot to the other.
"Aye?" I growled, fighting to keep my voice level.
"Good morning, Christopher," the coyotemorph said quickly. "Posti's asked for you to come to the main hall. He says it's urgent, and you're to bring the boy."
"Paul's in the grips of the change, an' it be a strong one. I dare not move him." I sighed. "Could you find Coe and ask him t' come watch o'er the boy?"
Kee nodded. "Of course. I can attend to that first, if you wish. The rest of my messages aren't of high import." At my nod, he waved, he turned and raced down the hall, just barely turning in time to disappear around a corner.
I turned and stormed back into the room, lifting my robes from their customary spot and pulling them on hastily. I walked into Paul's area again, where still he lay huddled up and breathing raggedly. I asked softly, "Posti's requested us t' both come t' the audience hall. D'ye feel up t' moving?"
Paul shook his head and fought to breathe normally, the wrinkles on his forehead speaking to the pain to which he would not admit vocally. I sighed and gently combed a claw through his whiteblond hair. "Aye, then. Ye rest and I'll see what he wants." I pulled the bedclothes back up over his thin frame and smoothed out his hair, then left the room and made my way to the audience hall.
Inside, unlike in my other visits, the ducal guards were nowhere in evidence. In their place, Misha Brightleaf squatted over his heels, tail behind him, still in his hunting garb. He looked up at my entry and then turned his attention back to the axe balanced on his knees. Posti paced at the foot of the dais, which I found most unlike him. Normally when I saw him, the horsemorph was the epitome of control. Now he looked and smelled agitated. His ears lay back against his head, and his tail flicked behind him. As I approached, he looked up, but said only, "Where is Paul?"
"Ill. Kee said he would find the physic to watch over him."
Posti shook his head. "Not good enough." He indicated the kneeling fox. "Misha, would you repeat for Christopher what you told me?"
Misha stood and regarded me coolly. "There're wagons on approach to the keep. Three of them, and at least a dozen mounted, carrying pikes. They're all emblazoned with Grenier's standard, and at least one of the wagons we saw was flying the church's colours. They looked geared for a fight. None of us saw within the wagons but I'd guess a score of men in total, plus at least one ranking officer of the church. I'm fast but they were driven. I'd estimate they'll arrive..." He paused to consider, then said, "Inside of an hour."
Posti nodded to Misha. "Thank you." Then he turned his attention to me. "Lord Thomas' guards have been assigned to his quarters in case they plan for a fight."
"Why then d'ye summon me?"
"You and the boy were to meet Grenier here. Copernicus is awaiting his arrival at the front gate. Paul is ill, you said? Something which his priests could counter?"
I shook my head. "Not unless they can cure the Keep."
Posti closed his eyes and leaned back to look at the ceiling. "You are jesting, correct?"
I shook my head again, unable to think of aught else to say.
"Ashes!" Posti slammed one hand into the other to puncuate his cry. "And how are we to explain this to Grenier?"
For a moment, I was silent, but then I said only, "The same way ye did to Rayce, mayhap."
Posti shook his head. "Without Paul here, it lacks the impact. And with him here it worsens the situation. Damn!"
"So, until then d'ye wish that I simply stand here or can I return t' my room and watch o'er the boy?"
"No, I want you here."
And so we waited. Posti took his seat and I stood where Magus would normally take position, fighting to retain composure. My mind strayed repeatedly to the small bed beyond the curtain in my room, the still-too-thin frame within struggling against a magic that to date no one within the keep had learned to control. I wondered what would be the outcome, and whether Paul would still wish to stay once it had run its course.
Fortunately, or mayhap not, my musings were not given long to stir. With a muffled crash and a swing of the double doors at the entryway to the audience chamber, in strode a man I'd guess in his forties, with greying hair and a stern cast to his eyes. He carried himself arrogantly, as if daring anyone to act counter to his whim. I glanced at his belt; he had at least relinquished his sword. Walking beside and a few paces behind him was a man dressed in the severe black robes of a Follower priest, the cowl of his hood pulled high to cover his face.
Copernicus followed the man in. Nodding to me, he bowed to Posti. "Baron Etienne Grenier," he announced quite unnecessarily.
Posti rose from his seat and strode forward, one hand extended. "Ah, Baron Grenier! So pleased--"
Grenier cut him off with a half-snarl. "I'm not here for diplomacy. I come to offer you an ultimatum. Rayce told me that my son has already fallen to this place's curse. If this is true..." He paused, regarding Posti coldly. The horsemorph made no move to contradict him, and he pressed on. "Then you have cost me my heir, and my son. He is dead to me. But honour demands that I not leave empty-handed. And so I give you this offer.
"You have a choice. Either I can declare war upon the Keep and leave with as much of your tainted blood on my hands as I can carry in retribution for my son, or one of you can face me in single combat. If I win, I leave with one of your heads. If I die, I shall not leave at all but at least Eli will know that my devotion was true. I give you one hour to decide." And then he turned with a swirl of his cape, striding quickly out of the audience hall.
Misha looked at Posti. "Is he insane, or merely dense?"
Posti frowned. "Neither, I fear. Etienne Grenier is so profoundly devoted to his faith that he's already decided his son is dead to him. He's lashing out at those who he faults for the loss of his heir. Honour dictates that he not let his son die for naught, and so this is his means of vengeance."
Misha snarled. "Charming man. I can settle this quickly enough," he said, lightly fingering the blade of his axe.
I shook my head. "Nay. If anyone is t' face him, it should be me."
Misha raised an eyebrow at my statement. "Christopher, I don't wish to sound rude, but he'll reduce you to fine carvery."
Posti walked over from the dais. "No, Christopher is right, as painful as it is for me to say it. Every action has a consequence." He then turned his attentions to me. "You took responsibility for the boy. Facing his father is part of that responsibility."
Misha turned to the Prime Minister in surprise. "He'll be killed, Posti! Even Copernicus can outmatch him in combat and I can take the lizard twice in three matches."
"If I die, then so be it; Paul's place here is secure." My own voice surprised me. I hadn't expected to sound so cavalier about my own imminent demise.
Posti and Misha both studied me for a time, taking my measure. Then the horsemorph shrugged. "Very well. You have just over fifty minutes. Do you want to go back to your room until then?"
I shook my head. "With any luck, Coe is attending t' Paul. I'd rather not have t' face the boy until after this matter is done."
Posti nodded. "Very well. Go find Jack at the armoury and find a weapon to your liking. Then come to the courtyard. I'm sure a crowd will have gathered. I'll speak with Lord Thomas. Do you have any instruction regarding your possessions?"
The question drove the blood from my skin, making me shiver inspite of the heat of the room. "Leave them for Paul. Send word t' Jester in Ellcaran." I tried to think, but my mind was in chaos. "I can't think of aught else."
Posti nodded again. "Then may the gods smile on you. I can do no more."
I sighed, nodded to Misha, bowed to Posti, and left to find the castellan.
In the time that I spent requesting a sword and some light armor to replace my robes, a crowd had gathered in the courtyard. Grenier's followers kept their distance, crowded around their wagons as though defending it from attack. The baron himself stood some ten yards apart from them, beside the priest who silently followed him earlier. Several keepers stood nearby or milled about, circumscribing a rough circle at the center of which stood the baron. I saw Misha among them, kneeling as always.
"Whence came the others?"
Misha shrugged. "Rumour travels fast."
"Too fast for my taste."
A new voice cut short our discussion. "Indeed." I turned to see Lord Thomas dressed in full formal attire, flanked by a pair of guards at full arms, Raven Lightbringer following close behind.
Quickly, I knelt while Misha lowered his head. "Lord Thomas!" we said together.
He waved a hoof and nodded. "Rise."
Hastily, I straightened. "What brings ye t' this gathering, Lord?" I tried to make levity of the situation.
Thomas' eyes burned into my own. "Posti informed me of the situation shortly after you left. While I don't like it, I can see no delicate way of changing it that doesn't put this keep at odds with an enemy we can't face. So, I have come to secure Grenier's word that, regardless of the outcome of this fight, he shall not attempt war over this. If he brought arms against us, we could approach his king, but that might be too late to save lives." He paused, then said in a lower voice, "I don't envy your decisions, but I do respect you the more for them."
I bowed my head and nodded. "Thank you, Lord Thomas."
"Don't thank me until after the fight." Lord Thomas then walked past me and, at the edge of the imagined ring, called out, "Baron Grenier!"
The baron looked towards Lord Thomas. "Aye. And who are you?"
"Duke Thomas V, Lord of Metamor Keep and the Northern Midlands."
"So you are in charge of this hellpit," Grenier fairly spat.
Thomas let the insult slide. "Aye. I come to secure your oath, as a Follower and as baron, that regardless of the outcome of this fight you will not bring war against us for what has happened."
Grenier turned red. "You doubt my word?"
Thomas said evenly, "Of course not, baron. But you spoke with my prime minister before, not with me. I wish to hear the oath from your own mouth. On your sword, if you please."
Baron Grenier took hold of the hilt of his sword and drew it from its scabbard with his right hand, then lay the blade across his left in one fluid motion. He then released his grip on the hilt and slipped his right hand beneath the sword, balancing it across his palms. "I swear not to wage war against Metamor Keep over the loss of my son, provided one rises to face me in personal combat."
Thomas looked at Raven, who nodded. Then he looked back to the baron. "I cannot truly ask for more than that. As to your ultimatum, we have one here prepared to face you, if this will mean peace between us."
"It will not. But it will mean my men return to Lanton without seeking blood of their own." Grenier shifted the blade back to an easy one-handed grip on the hilt.
Thomas paused for a moment, his ears laid back against his head. Then he said simply, "Fair enough." He turned and called to me, "Christopher!"
My heart leapt into my throat at the sound of my name. My palms began to sweat and I felt faint. As though preparing for a major ritual, I closed my eyes and steeled myself, trying to find a sense of calm. I slowed by breathing and forced a shudder through my body to relieve some of its tension, then opened my eyes again and walked to Lord Thomas' side.
Thomas turned back to Grenier and continued. "I expect this to be a clean fight."
"Aye," Grenier said coolly. "From both sides. That means no magic. I heard what that one," he said pointing at me, "did to my master-at-arms. Or tried to do." He motioned towards the priest. "Bishop Simon will watch the proceedings and ensure that none of your accursed enchantments affect the duel."
My heart sank; my one chance at surviving the fight vaporised with his declaration. I stepped into the circle and approached the baron, drawing my sword but lacking all of the grace with which Grenier performed the same action. I could hope only for luck or a mistake on Grenier's part at this point. I raised my blade in salute, then brought it to a ready position. The sounds of the onlookers faded as I focused upon Grenier and the slice of thin, cold steel in his hand.
The first exchange was mercifully quick. Steel clanged against steel as we struck, parried, riposted and parried again, our swords clashing against each other. I had strength and reach to my advantage, but Grenier was fast despite his age and had far more skill than I. In an extended fight, he would surely whittle me down. I had to do something and fast.
In the midst of my musing, a cry came out that pierced through my focus. "Father!" The voice was high-pitched, strong and commanding. I turned and found myself staring. At the edge of the circle stood a young woman with white-blond hair, draped in a silver cascade over one shoulder. She wore a loose-fitting dark-hued gown and a pair of sandals. Beside her, Coe stood, paws clasped behind his back.
So entranced was I at his transformation that the explosion of pain across my back came as a surprise. Instantly, my skin went cold, except for a single stripe across my back which felt white-hot. I could no longer feel the ground beneath my feet; in fact my legs all the way along their lengths were numb, and I slid to the ground with a gurgling roar of pain.
The cry came again as Paul ran across towards her father. "Father, stop!"
Dimly I was aware of hands on my shoulders, rolling me onto my stomach. My vision swam with stars and I felt violently ill. I tried to cry out, to speak, but no words would come. I felt as if my muzzle were filled with dust. All I could do was gasp hoarsely. Someone forced a bottle to my lips and poured its contents into me. I choked it down and closed my eyes as the blanket of unconsciousness was drawn over my head.
Etienne Grenier brought the sword down from over his head, back to his side, and stared at the young woman before him. "And who are you?"
The teenaged girl in red turned and slid one strap of her gown down, allowing the scars crisscrossing her back to be exposed. "This should tell you all that you need to know."
Grenier stared as the girl turned around and shrugged her gown back into place. "My son is dead!" snapped Grenier. "The curse of this damned place took him from me!"
Paul held out one hand and opened it, showing the pendant with the family crest emblazoned upon it. "You gave this to me when I was eleven. I remember you telling me that the title of baron would one day fall to me. Do you rescind that now?"
"My son is dead!" Paul's father seemed transfixed by the pendant.
The girl smiled. "In one sense, yes. But I am not. I am..." She paused and considered, then said, "Lurene Grenier." She raised the pendant and placed it about her neck. "And I am heir to the Barony of Lanton." Lurene lowered her arms and regarded her father with a cool gaze. "You never cared about me, did you?" she asked accusingly.
The baron exploded in rage. "How dare you!"
Lurene shook her head. "No. You were the man who brought me into this world. But you never acted as a father should. You cared for your lineage, your church and your legacy, but you never cared for my brother, and you never cared for me." Her voice began to shake. "You were so dedicated to preserving your name that all you saw in us was your own future." She pointed to the bear lying bleeding on the ground. "He has shown me more kindness in a week then I ever saw from you!" Tears began to roll down her face. "I never wish to see you again! Take your men from here! Take them and never return!"
Grenier seethed and for one moment, he seemed prepared to strike at Lurene. Then, it seemed as if he blinked and, for the first time, actually saw her. The anger slowly drained from him and his shoulders fell, exhausted and drained. He turned, slid his still-bloodstained sword into its scabbard and walked slowly back to his wagons, ignoring the questions from the priest who followed afterwards. In near silence, they mounted, hitched wagons to teams and rode from the courtyard out through the main gates.
Lurene watched as her father as his entourage left the keep, then wiped at her eyes and turned back to where Christopher lay, Coe and Raven both kneeling over the bear racing to stem the loss of blood from his back. "Will he live?"
Coe grimaced but said only, "Aye, if I have my way."
Lurene nodded and knelt next to them. "Do whatever it takes. He's all I have left now."
The first sensation I felt as I opened my eyes was pain. The second was a peculiar numbness; naught below my waist would respond. Memories of the fight, of the blow that felled me came back in fragments. "Where am I?" I managed to gasp.
Brian leaned into my field of vision. "You're in the infirmary. It took five people to cart you here."
Coe shook his furry head. "I wish I knew for sure. I've found damage to the spine and in the muscles along their length. You've lost all feeling below the waist and may not regain it. I've done all I can but that may not be enough in this case. You won't die, but you may never walk."
"Raven?" I fought hard to keep my voice even, but it still came as a pained growl.
Coe sighed. "The Lightbringer came two days ago, to inform me that Akkala's price for further healing would be a total pledge of servitude, and that she was unwilling to make such a bargain on your behalf. Since then, I have not seen her."
Two days? How long had I been out? "Paul?"
"Lurene now. And yes, she's here. She's been waiting for you to regain consciousness, ever since the duel." The physic withdrew, to be replaced by the young woman I saw earlier.
For a moment, neither of us spoke but I saw the tears that glistened in her eyes. "Cry not," I said roughly, my throat still sore.
She lowered her gaze. "It was my fault you got hurt. I distracted you."
"No," I said softly after coughing for breath. "Ye saved my life. Yer father would have killed me otherwise. Thank ye."
At that, Lurene did begin to cry, shaking lightly and leaning over me, holding my fur in her hands. For some time she remained there until Coe spoke. "Lurene, let him sleep. He needs all the rest he can get."
Lurene nodded and withdrew. I felt a pair of fingers on my eyelids gently drawing them down.
Within moments, I was asleep again.