Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue
When she discovered that it would not be until nearly noon that they would be leaving the strange city of Ava-shavåis, Kayla had decided that she would do what she had been yearning to do for the last two months – take a bath.
She did not care if the Åelf disapproved, but at first light that morning, she and Lindsey made for the bathhouse they had seen the previous day. There were a few Åelf there who rather abruptly disappeared further into steam rising from the water’s surface. Kayla was glad of it actually; she would enjoy the privacy.
The interior of the bathhouse was spacious, with a domed ceiling that was made to look like tree branches. If she hadn’t see that the roof was solid on the outside, she would have sworn they were bathing in the open, as the branches that made up the roof actually moved!
The water came from the river that coursed through the city. It must have been magically heated, as she knew the river was fed by snowmelt. She had been in the river that traversed Metamor Valley a few times, and each time she thought she was going to freeze solid. The first time she’d been half afraid she’d be brushing icicles out of her fur for the next hour. While it had never been that bad, she was always grateful that her work for the Chief of Intelligence at Metamor let her use the heated baths inside the castle.
And as she stood upon the wooden embankment – she was pretty sure they were carefully sculpted tree roots too – the warm scented mist brought back many wonderful memories of mornings spent languishing in Metamor’s heated pools. For a moment she just stood with her arms outstretched and let the steamy air caress her whiskers.
“I thought you wanted to bathe?” Lindsey asked from behind her. The voice was gruff, but faintly amused.
Kayla nearly smacked him with her tail as she turned in embarrassment. “Oh I do. It’s just been so long... don’t you want to lay here and let it take all your worries away?”
The woodcutter’s eyes stared at the inviting ripples and a smile pierced his red beard. “Yes, yes I do.”
Kayla stepped back from the water’s edge and unbuckled her belt. She lithely slipped out of her tunic and travelling breeches, leaving her clad in nothing but her fur. It did not bother her that Lindsey could see her with nothing on. Lindsey had once been a woman, and understood these things.
It was with some reluctance that she stepped away from the katana and wakizashi. It felt like only yesterday that the female dragon had revealed herself in the cave. Kayla no longer felt the compulsion to stare at the blades or to find someplace alone to commune with them, but she did like to have them close.
But when her paw slipped into the hot water, such worries fled and were no more. She wiggled her toes for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the water stripping the grime from her fur. It would still take some scrubbing to get it all off, but she didn’t care. She knelt beside the bank, and then slid both her legs into the pool. Levering herself forward, she pushed away from the bank and immediately disappeared beneath the water’s surface.
Surprised, Kayla kicked her legs until her head popped back up. She gasped, and swam back to the side. Lindsey had his shirt off and his trousers half undone as he reached out to help her back to the bank. Kayla gripped his hand and then found something beneath her paws. “Be careful,” she said after spitting some water from her muzzle. “The bottom disappears a few feet from the edge.”
Lindsey nodded and finished undressing himself. He did seem a bit more self-conscious than Kayla, as he turned his back towards her while removing his breeches. Kayla turned away from him and leaned her head back into the water. The warmth was loosening her weary muscles, and already she felt completely relaxed. Ah, by the gods she had missed this.
She felt gentle waves licking her cheek ruff. She opened one eye and saw Lindsey’s red-haired chest disappearing beneath the water. He nodded to her and smiled widely. “This is nice. We’ll just get dirty again soon you know.”
“I know. But we can be clean for a little bit. Besides, how much would you wager the others won’t even notice?”
Lindsey let out a small laugh. “Jessica will, but you may be right about the rest. They probably don’t even think they need a bath.”
Kayla churred in amusement and then stepped off the embankment. She lifted her legs and tail, and began to float in the steaming water. Her whole body yearned for nothing else than to spend several hours languishing in that heavenly pool. And while Lindsey scrubbed himself down, she did just that. But after a few minutes her whiskers began to twitch with an irritating sense of responsibility.
She turned on her side and swam back to the embankment. Lindsey had undone the braids in his beard and was combing through the strands with his callused fingers. He did not look up at her as she neared.
“Thank you for coming, Lindsey,” the skunk said, the pleased churr still in her voice. “I know you haven’t been a woman for many years, but... you would still understand these sorts of things.”
Lindsey nodded slowly. “I do. Men don’t see some of the things we do.” His face furrowed. “But since becoming a man I’ve found it easy to miss those things from time to time. And there are just certain expectations that men have of other men. Almost every other woodcutter at Metamor is part animal. They were all men before. They know I was once a woman, but if I don’t behave the way they expect a man to, they become uncomfortable.”
Kayla gripped the wooden embankment and pulled closer. “Truly? Even at Metamor?”
“Indeed. Men are beholden to duty. It is what they do that matters most to them, not who they are and where they have come from.” Lindsey smiled to Kayla and for a moment, despite his beard and masculine features, the face was that of a woman. “I am surprised that you didn’t ask Jessica to come with you. She is more of a woman than I am.”
Her laugh was bright. “Jessica doesn’t have hands to help me wash my back.”
Lindsey blinked for a moment and then shook his head. “And that is what happens when you have had to be male for so long. You sometimes miss even the simple things!”
Obliging the skunk, Lindsey began to run his fingers through Kayla’s back fur. She churred in satisfaction as she felt the heated water work into her hide. She gestured at her pile of clothes. “I brought some bath salts with me. One of the things I managed to save from the river.”
“That is fortunate! I lost my soaps.” Lindsey leaned over the bank and rifled through Kayla’s clothes until he found the small pouch with the skunk’s salts. They were small pebbles that the furred Keepers rubbed through their fur to clean it – when they cleaned. Lindsey had known a few of his fellow woodcutters to go almost a year without bathing. “How did you ever manage doing this at Metamor?”
“A brush with a very long handle,” Kayla replied. Lindsey chuckled at the remark as he continued to rub the salts into Kayla’s fur, a scented yellow froth rose from the water’s surface. Slowly, he worked the grime loose from her back. “I’ve been wondering,” Kayla said as she leaned forward a bit, her tail tucked between her legs to keep it out of the way. “I know everyone’s motives but yours, and well, James’s. Why did you come here, Lindsey?”
“It is my business, Kayla,” Lindsey replied, his voice fading into a rumbled growl.
“And you can tell me,” Kayla prodded. “Girl talk, you know?”
Lindsey grunted but said nothing for a good long time. “Because I was asked to,” was his eventual answer.
Kayla did not press him any further, but could not hide her pleasure as he worked over her back. There were several kinks in her muscles that his hands seemed to find and relax. How she wished it could have been Rickkter doing this. She doubted it would have been hard to convince her raccoon lover to join her in the Åelven pool. A chance to put his paws on her? He’d never pass that up.
She quickly squashed the thought and what it meant for her present situation. Better to pursue her question than dwell on where Rickkter was now. “That’s not much of an answer.” She shrugged against Lindsey’s hands. “For Jessica, the reason is simple; revenge against the ones who killed her master. The same for Charles; he’s here to confront and either stop or save his old friend. Abafouq seems to be fulfilling a role that he was destined to. And Zhypar appears to be the one leading us all on this merry chase. As for me,” Kayla gave a snort, “who else was going to save Rickkter? But it’s you and James that I just can’t figure out.”
“James never seemed much of a puzzle to me,” Lindsey rumbled behind her. “He came because Charles came. Whether they are master and manservant or simply loyal friends, I don’t know. But I do know that he came because of the strong devotion between him and Charles.”
“So many of us are here because of other people.” Kayla let out a long sigh as she let her eyes slide shut and head bow towards the water. She tried to let the last of the tension drain from her and find the calm relief she had known in the pool upon first entering it.
Lindsey was the first to speak again, his voice distant and melancholy. “Before I became a man, Zhypar and I had been very close. I loved him deeply, and he loved me. I could tell he wanted to marry me and start a family. I knew that when he returned from his last trip to the Midlands he would ask my father for my hand in marriage.”
“I thought there might have been something between you. I’ve noticed the looks he gives you, and the way you avoid looking at him.”
Lindsey started working his fingers through Kayla’s tail fur, scrubbing the last of the salts into the heavy black and white fur. Kayla turned as much as she could and still let him wash her. “Lindsey? What happened? Why didn’t he ask?”
Lindsey shook his head. “He couldn’t. Nasoj sent his forces into Arabarb only a few months later, and I fled to Metamor to help with the defence there. The next time I saw Zhypar again, I was as you see me now. He left heartbroken.” Lindsey sighed unpleasantly. “I was heartbroken too. It took him three years before he settled at Metamor himself. He told me he hoped he’d become a woman. He still wanted to start a family with me. Wanted it more than anything else.
“But then he became a kangaroo and it was all over. He couldn’t leave Metamor, and I would not leave the one city left standing between Nasoj and the rest of the world.”
“So now what do you have?”
Lindsey shrugged. “We didn’t talk for a time, but after a while we became friends again. We mostly drank together. I introduced him to the other woodcutters, and he introduced me to the other writers. We could not be husband and wife like we both wanted, but we could be the closest of friends.”
Kayla rested one paw on Lindsey’s shoulder. “So why don’t you speak to him now? You’ve come all this way for him already.”
Lindsey sighed heavily. “He doesn’t listen to me anymore. He’s been shutting me out. I know something is wrong with him, but he won’t tell me. It’s like he is afraid to tell me.” Lindsey’s fingers slowed as they curled around the tip of Kayla’s tail. “I wish I knew what was upsetting him.”
“Maybe I could talk to him,” Kayla suggested.
Lindsey laughed darkly. “He almost never speaks of himself or his feelings. If we can get him drunk one night, he might tell.”
Kayla nodded and slipped her arm about Lindsey’s shoulder, her tail sliding free from his grip. “Then that is what we will do. One night, when we have a chance, we shall get him good and drunk and find out the truth.”
“If we ever get a chance. You heard the Åelf. We have a long way to go and little time to do it.”
“Yes,” Kayla agreed. She smiled though and hugged Lindsey tight. “We’ll figure it out. Us women have to stick together.”
Lindsey smiled to her, his eyes nearly filling with tears. “Thank you, Kayla. It has been so long since somebody has called me a woman. By the gods I miss it.”
“It is easier to see the woman in you than you think, Lindsey. Now let’s finish getting cleaned up. We don’t want to be late.”
Lindsey could only nod and continue his scrubbing of skunk fur.
It was with great reluctance that Charles donned the travelling gear again. James and he had gone through their supplies that morning and reorganized what they could. After a quiet meal with the others, they had been instructed to get ready to leave. The city of Ava-shavåis was a place of ancient and bewildering magic; to be forced to leave so soon felt as unnatural as a babe being denied mother’s milk.
“I think that is everything,” James said as he secured the last pack to Charles’s lower back. They had to be careful where they placed the saddlebags as the rat had no desire to have anything damage the vine that was growing out of his back. Not that he liked the thought of anything growing out of his stony flesh, it was just that he had no desire to bring any harm to any plants in the Åelfwood.
“Good, because it looks like Qan-af-årael is ready to leave.”
Charles nodded his head towards the Lord of Colours who was making his way gracefully across the banner strewn path towards their encampment. He was dressed in a light cloak of emerald hue. In one hand he bore a long oak staff from which fresh leaves sprung. His face was regal in bearing, and all the Åelf followed him in respectful silence.
“Well, if we’re going to reach Marzac in three months we should get going,” Lindsey murmured softly. His hair was still damp from the bath he and Kayla had taken earlier.
“We will leave soon,” Habakkuk assured him. “These are a people of ritual. We cannot deny them this last gesture for their spiritual leader.”
They all stood close, apart from Andares who walked alongside Qan-af-årael. Abafouq and Guernef were with them as well, though the Binoq had not spoken a word all morning long. The Nauh-kaee had also been silent, not that they could expect to understand anything he said anyway. Jessica and Kayla had been quietly talking ever since the skunk had returned from her bath, but now both turned to watch whatever the Åelf had prepared for them.
Qan-af-årael reached their small encampment, smiled to each of them one by one, and then turned his back upon them to address his people who had followed him there. Charles stared at the multitude of pearly faces, and could not remember ever seeing so many in this city at once. The entire place always felt as if it were about ready to disappear back into the woods. For the first time, he truly felt like he was in a city.
And then the Lord of Colours began to speak. His language was that of the Åelves, and the Keepers could only listen to the aural impression of the speech. Even so, it moved them to hear the way the delicate phrases bordered on melancholy and deep regret, only to end in a resolute and dignified cadence. Charles saw James nodding along to a language he couldn’t possibly understand; Kayla even began to cry at one point.
Charles wished that he was able to feel emotions as deeply as he did when he was still flesh and blood. Stone just didn’t react the same way. Though they were no longer in the mountains, there was still a lingering yearning deep inside him to be like those towering mounts; strong, proud, and eternal. But even with his stony feelings, he knew that there was something even deeper than the roots of mountains in the words that the ancient Åelf spoke. He could almost feel the vine growing as Qan-af-årael brought his speech to a chanted close.
When the last echoes of his voice faded, one of the other Åelf stepped forward from the crowd, his face hard and grey. Charles recognized him as Tilyå-nou, and he grimaced. He knew this one was one of the most adamant against any Åelf partaking of human affairs. There would be nothing good to hear from this one.
And then he blinked as Tilyå-nou began to speak in the northern tongue of man. “You have been and always shall be the greatest of us, Lord of Colours. I have never known a day of life without you. Ava-shavåis shall be diminished without you here to guide us.”
He spread his hands outwards, eyes briefly looking at the Keepers. “May all the blessings that we Åelf can offer be upon you and the men who join you in this venture. There shall be no other venture more important than the one you set out on today. Ride the Winds of Taralas, and may they speed you to your destiny, and to the fate of all this world.”
Tilyå-nou fell silent, his arms still upraised. All of the Åelf behind him began to chant, their voices joining one by one into a strangely dense counterpoint. The harmony emerged slowly, like words sounded amidst the buzzing of bees. The Keeper’s listened with rapt attention as faint melodic snatches began to grow with each new voice. When there were a hundred singing they felt the very air begin to vibrate, the chords coalescing with each turn of the wind. When it was a thousand singing, the very trees and ground beneath them began to vibrate and dance to the aetherial tune.
And then as one, all closed their mouths. The last chord reverberated between the trees, and continued to change and grow, like a plucked string humming in resonance. None said a word. Slowly, as if struck a mortal blow and only now realizing it, Qan-af-årael began to bow towards his people. His face was agonized, but filled with great pride. When he stood back up, Charles could have sworn a tear danced at the edge of his eyelid.
None of them said another word. With quiet dignity, Qan-af-årael turned from his people and walked past the stunned Keepers. Andares gestured with one hand for them to follow, and then he returned to his master’s side. Afraid to speak, the Keepers each returned to their usual place in line. The Åelf all watched them as they moved, their faces clear and distinct, eyes intent but reserved. None of them dared to look back.
Single-file, they all followed Qan-af-årael across a long ivory bridge over the gentle river. The trees on the other bank looked the same as the trees on the city side; they towered above the ground with boughs large enough to cradle a small village. When they reached the other bank and walked among the gnarled roots, despite those trees, the world felt diminished and empty.
“Look!” Jessica cried, her voice painful to hear after that beautiful song. Wincing, they each turned and stared behind them. The river was there, though now far narrower. But the bridge and the city... both of them were gone.
“What the?” Lindsey said, his mouth agape. “But how?”
“Now that is something else,” Charles said, awe in his voice. “And why.. Why did Tilyå-nou speak?”
Qan-af-årael said nothing; he merely smiled and continued walking. It was Andares, who appeared caught off guard, that spoke. “No other in Ava-shavåis is older than he – now.” A smile crossed his lips. “I too am surprised, Matthias. I did not expect him to say what he did in your tongue.”
“Why not?” Jessica asked.
“For as long as I can remember, no other of my kind has so strongly advocated against giving any aid to your kind.” Andares closed his lips and turned away from them, joining his master who effortlessly glided through the woods.
It was Abafouq who broke the awkward silence. “We have a long road to go still. Come. Marzac will not wait for us.” He picked up his pace, and despite his stubby legs, quickly outdistanced them.
None of the others had to say anything. The memory of the song fading in their minds, they each hurried to catch up.
Despite Qan-af-årael’s advanced age, not a one of the Keepers was afraid of outpacing him. Instead, they feared that if they did not hurry they would be left behind to wander aimlessly through the confusing paths of the Åelfwood. Their mysterious new guide moved without hesitation through the underbrush, leading them deeper and deeper into a world that knew not the touch of man.
Though they had left Ava-shavåis shortly before noon, they had quickly lost sight of the sun and any semblance of time. Though Charles felt no weariness, he could see the exhaustion in the way his friends stumbled and slumped against the gargantuan tree roots. What time was it? Surely they had been walking for several hours.
The forest floor continued to slope downwards the further south they travelled. Qan-af-årael led them on a more or less straight path through the maze of mighty redwoods, though from time to time the land would dip suddenly and they had to head down the slope at an angle. Several times they passed the odd stone markers that seemed to appear from nowhere. Each of them was unique, and as Andares explained, they all had a specific meaning. Each marker would point in some way to a road that they could take. Apparently, there were several different paths they could take that led from each marker, but only the Åelves could see the paths for what they were. To the rest of them, even the enigmatic Nauh-kaee, all they could see was undifferentiated forest, with leaves of a thousand different hues of green and bark of every texture imaginable.
Most of the markers were even more cryptic. If there was any suggestion of a message contained in them, they could not discern it. There was no writing upon any of them, and most of them were carved in an amalgam of different creatures or things. One of them looked like a wolf’s snout emerging from every point of an upturned maple leaf. Another was a squat man with trees growing from his skin like he were some mountain. Charles had stared at that one until it was out of sight.
When they passed by one with a horse’s head and forelegs rearing up out of a tree’s roots as if it were fleeing from beneath the ground, Qan-af-årael stopped and waited before the stone carving for the rest of them to catch up. He clutched his wooden staff close to his face and held his eyes shut in concerted thought. Andares held up one hand to signal the rest of them to keep silent. They gathered about the marker watching this strange pair, Åelf and equine statue, and wondering what was going to come now. Lindsey and James both took a moment to lean against one of the roots to catch their breath. Abafouq just sat down where he stood, his chest heaving for air
Charles took a moment to find the sun in the sky. But the tree canopy was too thick for him to even see the blue of the sky above. It was almost as bad as being inside the Binoq city. But at least there was ambient light in the woods. He half began to wonder if perhaps the sun had already set and this wood was lit by some eldritch magic of the Åelves. After all that he had seen in the last few days, and all that he remembered from his first visit years ago, that would not have surprised him.
James leaned in close, the donkey’s dark eyes both curious and weary. “So what are we waiting for now?”
Charles shrugged and favoured his friend a sympathetic smile. “I wish I knew.”
“You said you spent time with him before.”
“That doesn’t mean I learned anything from him.”
James blinked, long ears standing upright a moment before he chuckled softly under his breath. His eyes lifted up as a faint humming began. Charles turned and watched as Qan-af-årael began to sing quietly before the statue. His voice grew in power only slowly. They almost didn’t notice as the forest around them seemed to come alive with an echoing chorus. Charles felt something stirring beneath his granite paws, and stared down to see the dirt parting to either side.
From the base of the marker a stone avenue began to emerge. It grew up from the earth like a grave exhumed and led off to what might have been the west before disappearing within the choking tree roots. Charles was lifted a couple inches off the ground as it arose underneath his paws.
Qan-af-årael stepped back from the marker and set his feet upon the stone path. To Charles, the Åelf’s presence on the stone was as light and airy as the clouds in the sky. “Let us continue. We do not have much farther to go this day.”
“What just happened?” Jessica asked, her voice full of awe. “I tried to watch the magic, but... I couldn’t follow it.”
“There are many mysteries that we possess here in this wood. Many mysteries that despite our alliance in this matter, shall not be shared.” The ancient Åelf lifted his eyes to the woody sentinels and smiled fondly. “It is not that we do not trust you, nor is it that we wish to be mysterious for its own sake. No, it is that these secrets are not ours to share. They belong to the wood, and if the wood wills it, you will learn despite me.”
Jessica looked at the stone pathway with some trepidation, and continued to walk beside them. The stone pathway was perhaps five feet in width, but its length was far greater than any could see. As far as Charles could tell it was all one solid piece of stone. It permitted him to move his toes within its substance, but he felt no variation in its structure or imperfections in its growth. The surface was completely smooth, as if it had been washed clean by a river.
“You must,” Qan-af-årael chided her with the faintest of smiles, “walk on the path.”
“What will happen if I don’t?” Jessica asked.
“Nothing,” Qan-af-årael replied, before he turned and led the way.
The path turned along a maze-like cluster of tree roots. Charles tried to feel beyond the first turn, but strangely, found that he could not. He drew his claws out from the stone and turned to the hawk. “I think you had better do as he says. There is something strange about this path.”
“Something?” Lindsey asked incredulously.
“Hurry,” Habakkuk reminded them as he hopped past.
Charles shrugged and watched as the kangaroo followed Abafouq and Guernef who trailed after the two Åelf. “He’s right. Let’s go.”
The Keepers wasted no more time, and each of them stayed on the stone pathway as they wound their way through the twisting passage of roots. The light seemed to distort oddly during those few minutes, as if the sun had shifted abruptly in the sky. When the path finally turned straight, the forest was radically changed. The large tree roots disappeared, and the leafy boughs were much lower in the sky. Instead of massive redwoods, more conventional oaks dominated this part of the woods. Dumbstruck, they stared as the path led out onto a small clearing in which waited something even more remarkable.
The clearing was no larger than the commons of Glen Avery, meaning it would take Charles less than a minute to walk across to the other side. The stone path led directly across the clearing before expanding into a raised platform and dais. A finely sculpted throne sat at its centre. The top of the throne was surmounted by a partial statue of a horse rearing. The stallion’s eyes were bright green like exquisite jade.
Sitting upon that throne was an Elf whose dark brown hair seemed almost a raven’s black, and whose face bore a timeless quality. Dark, penetrating eyes shone large beneath finely sculpted brows. His gown was similar to many of the royal robes that the Keepers had seen at Metamor’s court, only infinitely more graceful and elegant. Saffron lace covered his hands, and sleeves of finest white were cushioned beneath a silver vest and an azure surcoat whose tails were blended into a patchwork of silken peach-coloured leaves, so that when he moved it appeared a shimmering cascade of vernal colour. Atop his brow was a delicately woven circlet of gossamer mithril framing a sparkling diamond in the centre.
Surrounding him were a host of Elves dressed in simpler garments, all in the red and orange hues of Fall. They were all mounted upon steeds of a brilliant gold colour. The stallions were large, over eighteen hands high each. Their green eyes were perhaps their most startling feature. They seemed to glimmer with all the beauty of the forest, and all of its wildness too. These were not tame beasts, and the Elves were not their masters; they allowed their riders the privilege of sitting upon their back.
Qan-af-årael approached the dais without fear. He held out his staff and bowed his head a mere inch. “Your High Majesty.”
The monarch rose from his throne, his face set in a perfect smile; small enough to be polite, yet large enough to be friendly and inviting. He walked forward, down the stone steps and between the riders until he stood only a few feet before Qan-af-årael. Charles could feel the stone path welcoming the King as of a wife to a husband. “My Lord of Colours. This sacred hollow is blessed with your presence. Too long has it been bereft of the dignity and majesty that you bring it. And sad it is that our time together is so short. But I shall be grateful to the end of my days that we have this one last chance to see each other, my friend of old, my counsellor, my teacher, and my greatest master.”
Qan-af-årael knelt once, and then stood. “I too am honoured to be in the presence of my King one more time before I must leave the wood that has been my home. Too long has it been since I have seen the robes of Taralas, and the one who wears them. I am grateful that you came, Luvatelperu.”
“I could do no less for you, Qan-af-årael.” Then in a gesture that seemed completely foreign to these ritualistic people, the King embraced Qan-af-årael in a very human hug. And Qan-af-årael returned it in equal measure. The Keepers stared in disbelief. Abafouq fell to one knee and lowered his head. Only then did they do the same.
But King Luvatelperu shook his head. “It is not you who should bow to me. I am a King in this land, but what you seek to do transcends all of the lands of this world. I must kneel before you, because only you can put an end to the greatest mistake in our history.” He broke away from Qan-af-årael and did as he promised. The riders all bowed where they sat, and even the steeds lowered their heads respectfully, as if they understood each and every word that passed over their ears.
Abafouq clumsily rose to his feet, blinking in shock. The Keepers were not long behind him, all of them feeling distinctly uncomfortable at this confusing display. Luvatelperu extended one hand and clasped the Binoq’s tight. Abafouq blanched in surprise and uncertainty. Charles and the others watched anxiously.
“I know of your pain, my friend. I wish that I could turn my power against it, but all I can offer you is a place here.” The black of his hair seemed to deepen as his pointed ears turned back slightly. “But I fear you will need to find your own place another way.”
Abafouq opened his mouth to speak, but no words could come out. King Luvatelperu nodded and smiled sadly. He rose to his feet and let the Binoq’s hand fall free. His eyes took in the rest of the mortal men and women and nodded to them too. “It would give me great pleasure to invite you into my city. I believe you would find it far different from the wondrous city of Ava-shavåis, and nevertheless, very beautiful. For my city is built upon flets in the trees, with the great spirit-tree Amanalda at its heart. But there is no time. Not now. You must make haste for Marzac. Qan-af-årael has told me of your need, and I have come to aid you.”
Slowly, he stepped back until he was standing side by side with Qan-af-årael. The ancient Åelf’s smile was fond but reserved. There was both pride and devotion in his golden eyes. Luvatelperu returned the gaze while lifting one hand. Behind him, a dozen riders guided their steeds forward. When they had reached within ten feet of their liege they dismounted and took the mahogany-coloured braided reins in their hands and held them out in invitation.
“I present to you these twelve horses. They are very special, these the Rheh Talaran.” He stepped towards the nearest and ran his hand gently down the mighty beast’s snout. It snorted imperiously, deep green eyes gazing proudly ahead. Luvatelperu whispered something softly to the animal and it stomped one hoof. For a moment, just a moment, Charles could have sworn he saw a spark of flame erupt from the stallion’s basalt black hoof.
“Their history is a long one. But it is their history, and if they mean for you to learn of it, you will. I cannot tell it to you. No one can tell their history. Nor can any give them away. It was presumptuous of me to say so. They have agreed to bear you on your way to Marzac. They will go no further than the edge of the swamp. When they have finished carrying you, they will return to their home. Do not choose them for yourself, but they will choose you.”
Luvatelperu gestured for the riders to step aside. They released the finely woven reins and returned to the dais to wait upon their liege. The Keepers watched uncertainly as the twelve green-eyed golden horses all stepped forward, eyeing them intently. None of the Keepers moved as the horses began to circle around behind them. One of them settled upon Habakkuk almost immediately. A stallion, he nudged the kangaroo with his broad head. The Felikaush smiled and ran one paw through the short hide of his face. “I saw you in my dreams, Seer of Wind.” The stallion nickered and hugged him over the shoulder.
One by one, the horses came to stand before each of them. Lindsey, Kayla, James, even Abafouq all were greeted by horses of large stature. The one that settled before Jessica was a bit smaller than the rest, and nuzzled at her wings curiously. Jessica appeared amused by this, though confused about how she might ride the creature. None came before Guernef, but as he was larger than they were, it would have been ridiculous to imagine him trying to ride them.
One of the mares selected Charles, and as he stared at her and watched the muscles ripple beneath her golden hide, he realized that he was going to have to shift into his two legged stance for the first time in months. But those thoughts passed quickly out of his mind as he stared into her emerald eyes. They glimmered in the diffuse light of the wood, radiating indomitable pride, but also serenity. He felt as if he were sinking into that gaze, no longer eager to be one with the mountains, but only desiring to feel the brisk wind as he and this mare raced across the endless Steppe. The rat was smiling despite himself as he stared with eyes made of onyx.
But the greatest surprise of all was that the last of them to be chosen was Qan-af-årael. The horse that selected the ancient Åelf was of moderate stature, and in many ways, seemed the least impressive of the dozen. He timidly approached the Lord of Colours, leaning forward his snout as if to ask if it was all right that he chose so noble an Åelf. With a gentleness that Charles had rarely seen in any other, Qan-af-årael reached one hand forward and guided the stallion closer, embracing him with sweet whispered words.
Three of the dozen horses did not select any, but stood waiting in their midst for whatever purpose they may yet serve. Luvatelperu’s expression was one of satisfaction. He gazed at each of them for a moment before speaking again. “By tomorrow’s dawn you will have left this wood. At the edge of our land you will be met by a group of Steppe horsemen who have agreed to guide you safely through their land. And you will also be joined by another who will accompany you to the very end, one who could not be with you until now.”
“Who?” Kayla asked as she petted the stallion that was busy nuzzling her neck.
Luvatelperu spread his hands wide. “One who was once in our wood, but could never find his way. He has been to your city before, but always in secret. One amongst you knows his name.”
Charles began to smile as he knew just who was waiting for them. Before he could speak, the King returned to Qan-af-årael’s side. “May all the gods bless you on your way. I have done all that I can. You will be safe here for the night. I fear that I must leave now.”
“Yes, you must.” Qan-af-årael held out his hand and then drew it back. “Unless we succeed, I shall never see you again, in this life or any other.”
“Then you will succeed,” Luvatelperu replied. His face was filled with the same melancholy that had painted the people of Ava-shavåis. “Good bye, my old friend. And good bye faithful sons and daughters of man. Good bye, my little friend. Good bye, lord of the sky. Good bye.” He took several steps back, all the way up to the throne.
Qan-af-årael bowed low. “Good bye, My Most High.” And then all of them felt a wave of dizziness as the dais and all of the Elves upon it faded from view. The sky became dark, and the woods grew cold. Night was upon them. The Rheh Talaran were all the remained of their encounter.
Andares was leading his spirited stallion further into the clearing. “We must make camp for the night. Tomorrow we ride.”
Had the Keepers not been so exhausted from their journey that day, they might have objected and demanded some answers. As it was, they were all grateful to know that soon they would be sound asleep. Without a word, they each followed the youthful Åelf’s example and began preparing for the night.
The sun had fallen behind the edge of the Dragon Mountains, bathing Metamor Valley in a warm scarlet twilight. As the light began to fade, lamplighters walked the streets to keep the city illuminated throughout the night. The Autumnal Festival was in full swing, and revellers would spend many hours yet celebrating a bountiful harvest. For one horse-like man, the celebrations had not yet begun.
Duke Thomas stood upon a balcony in one of the towers overlooking the city. At his side was the Lady Alberta Artelanoth. She was dressed in a radiant gown of lavender. Against her grey donkey-like hide it made her seem to glow like a Spring flower – a bit of life in the midst of death. But what truly made her glow was the look of delight on her face, her eyes bright with heady excitement from a long day of festival, songs, dancing, and games.
The Duke’s eyes fell upon her sublime grace, noting the way her long ears turned from side to side to capture the raucous singing of Keepers below. His nose drank in the sweet scent of equine musk laced with delicate perfume. His hoof-like fingers reached out for the back of her gown, feeling the powerful yet feminine muscles beneath. His tail flicked anxiously from side to side, his nervous heart pounding in his chest Thomas could have stayed the rest of his life in that one moment.
In his younger days when his only responsibility was learning the ways of statecraft from his mother – his father had passed on before he was old enough to have known him – he had often wondered what it was like to love another so fully that life without them was empty. Many times he had caught his mother crying quietly when she thought none could see her. But all throughout his youth he had always known that he would marry who his mother and Thalberg chose for him.
He had met several girls that they hoped he would be interested in; boorish ladies from southern lands who had shown more interest in pleasing mother than in him. Thomas turned from them all back to his studies. It was not until after he became Duke and Metamor was cast under the yoke of the curses that this foolishness came to an end. Who would want to marry a man who looked like a horse? Even a prostitute would be loath to sleep with a beast like him.
But now, as everything that was Alberta filled his senses, he knew what love was, and was grateful that it had finally come to him too. She leaned forward, her hoof-like hands gripping the marble railing tightly as she tried to see some detail below. The railing pulled at her dress, drawing taut the lace across her bodice. Thomas felt his heart skip a beat as he saw soft grey-hide flesh slip free.
Swallowing quickly, the horse lord gestured to the city. “My Lady Alberta, I can see that you have been enjoying the festival.”
“Aye, Thomas. ‘Tis a marvellous wonder thy people hath made. The songs! The dancing! The shows of skill and the silly plays! Oh, ‘tis like a dream that ne’er ends!” Her voice was filed with the wonder of all that she tried to describe. She smiled to him, and Thomas stood taller. Though he resembled a horse and she a donkey, she was nearly as tall as he. She was more a Steppelands donkey called an Assingh, and they were just as large as horses. They were found in no other land. By the gods, she was beautiful.
“And dinner?” Thomas asked.
They had not eaten in private as they often did. Instead, Thomas hosted a banquet, with Alberta at his side. Jugglers and jongleurs had provided entertainment to the assembled Lords and Ladies of the Metamor Valley. A few of the Keep’s younger mages even performed a few tricks of their trade, making various lights and illusions appear. While it ‘rained’ on them in the hall, Thomas had given the caster, a familiar lad named Kindle, high compliments for his work. Alberta had joined him in the toast, and her words of praise were even more efficacious in securing the applause of all assembled. The poor boy had been thoroughly embarrassed.
But what had most impressed Thomas was the look in his Steward’s eye. The alligator Thalberg had always been suspicious of Alberta, a fact that pained Thomas. But over the last few months, some of that suspicion was being allayed. And for the first time, Thomas could see genuine affection and admiration in his yellow eyes when he looked upon Lady Alberta. No other of his counsellors had she left to win over now. And finally Thomas felt he could do what he had yearned to do for some time now.
“Dinner wast lovely,” Alberta replied as she stood upright. “I wish the festival would ne’er end. ‘Tis silly though. I wilt one day want to go riding again.”
“And I with you,” Thomas replied, unable to do anything but smile anxiously. He fumbled one hand into his breast pocket while she looked away. He held its contents tightly and put his hand behind his back. Nervously, he tapped his wrist against the root of his tail.
“My Lady,” Thomas began , edging closer to her, “I love you.”
Alberta’s ears folded back and she blushed demurely. “I love thee too, my Thomas.”
“Not as Duke. Not as a Hassan? Not even as a horse, but as a man? As just Thomas?”
She lifted her hands and laid them against his chest. Her snout lifted to his and he felt her warm breath tickling the hairs of his nose. Thick, supple lips opened and she smiled, her broad flat teeth still freshly white from her transformation only four months ago. “I love thee as Thomas, as my man. Thou art nothing else to me.”
Thomas breathed an anxious sigh and smiled as well. “I will always love thee, my Alberta. My lass. My Lady. You have stolen my heart, and there is only one way I could ever have it back.”
“Tell me,” her ears folded back even more, and her eyes brightened. “My ears art thine.”
Thomas nodded and stepped back slowly, letting her hands remain upon his chest. He shifted the ceremonial buckler and blade that he had worn that day with one hand while he knelt. His knees were no longer quite the same as when he’d been a man, but for this he would manage. His hooves scrapped against the stone, but he could barely hear it over the beating of his heart.
He lifted up his hand and held out a large golden ring with a brilliant yellow diamond and several topaz jewels in pavé. Alberta stared at it in shock, her chestnut eyes so wide that the whites nearly showed. With tender voice, he said, “This ring has been in my family for generations. My mother wore it, and my grandmother before her. It has always been worn by the Duchess of Metamor Keep. And now I present it to you, My Lady Alberta Artelanoth. I present it you as I seek your hand in marriage. Will you be my wife, Alberta? I would have no other stand at my side the remainder of my days. I could bear to have no other than you.”
Alberta reached down and cradled the ring gingerly between her thick fingers. He’d had the ring resized in secret so that she could wear it. One of the drawbacks to being equine was their thick clumsy fingers and hoof-like nails. Over the years Thomas had overcome that difficulty, and already Ablerta was showing some facility with them. But she could not manage to grasp the ring effectively, even though she dearly tried.
“Oh, my Thomas!” she cried, her eyes beginning to brim with tears. Her ears stood upright, and her long ropy tail flicked energetically from side to side. “I wilt be thy wife! There art no other man for my husband than thee!”
Thomas smiled broadly and gripped the ring carefully between his hard black nails. He then lifted his other hand and slid it beneath her wrist, feeling the short fetlocks that sprouted from her frilled cuff. She held her hand still and he slid the ring carefully past her nail and over her knuckle. It settled at the base of her finger, and glimmered in the evening twilight like a bright yellow star.
Alberta brayed a short joyous laugh as she admired the ring gracing her finger. It fit snugly, but not too tight. Thomas smiled and rose to his hooves, his hands framing her arm between them. “My love, my sweet Alberta. I cannot tell you how happy I am right now. I love you and will always be here with you.”
“And I with thee, my love, My Thomas.” Alberta leaned into his chest, her hands clasped tight between them. Thomas held her, wrapping his arms around her back. The frills of her dress rubbed between his shins, and it was all he could do to keep from crying out in joy so that all of Metamor could hear. They would hear soon enough. And then...
Thomas nuzzled her ears and lipped at them gently. “You know, that tomorrow there will be a celebration unlike any other in recent memory here at Metamor. Perhaps ever before. I will announce our engagement at the beginning of the festivities tomorrow morning. There will be trumpets blown, banners waved, voices raised in cheers and song like you have never heard before.” He stared up at the sky for a moment, his eyes wild with imagination. “It will be, something I have never seen before either.”
Alberta lifted her muzzle and gently lipped his cheek. “‘Tis for tomorrow. Tonight, I want thee. All I want be thee, my love.”
A loud neigh escaped his throat at last. He swept her into his arms and in a flight of fancy he carried her back inside. She brayed in merriment the whole way, her eyes never leaving his equine face.
Together, the engaged couple celebrated their newfound joy for many long hours. And tomorrow, all of Metamor would celebrate with them. It truly was a happy day.
Book I |
Book II | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | Interlude II
Book III | 31 | 32 | 33 | 34 | 35 | 36 | 37 | 38 | 39 | 40 | 41 | 42 | 43 | 44 | 45 | 46 | 47 | 48 | Interlude III
Book IV | 49 | 50 | 51 | 52 | 53 | 54 | 55 | 56 | 57 | 58 | 59 | 60 | 61 | 62 | 63 | 64 | 65
66 | 67 | 68 | 69 | 70 | 71 | 72 | 73 | 74 | 75 | Epilogue