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
Dawn had come, and still her son coughed up blood. Kimberly spoon fed Ladero a medicinal broth which the boy swallowed. Perhaps this batch he would manage to keep down. The last two soups he’d retched almost as soon as he’d finished them. The medicine would only work if he could keep it down. Kimberly prayed with each swallow that this time her son would be able to hold it.
Ladero’s eyes were weary, and they began to close as he lay in his crib, the stuffed dog Towseh clutched feverishly in his little arms. The vixen Jo hovered nearby, occasionally digging into her bag of herbs and murmuring to herself. Her motions were frantic, and she came up with more ideas on what could be done for the boy than were practical. She first thought to sweat the poison from him, but rats only sweat through their tongues and paws, hardly enough to rid the body of a malady. Then she thought he should try to get some rest, but he’d stopped breathing all together, and it had taken frantic efforts by all of them to resuscitate him.
“Stay with Mama now, my little angel,” Kimberly said in a firm voice. “I’m here, and you need to be here with me.”
Ladero’s eyes met hers, they recognized her, but he said nothing. He opened his snout, and she filled it with another spoonful of the foul-smelling broth. “Jo, this candle is going out.”
“One moment.” The vixen healer dug into her bag and produced another green candle. She lit the wick with one already burning, and set it in the old one’s place. The aromas were supposed to help them stay awake and clear of mind. Kimberly did not know if it was working, as she was so frightened she could not even close her eyes, let alone ponder sleep.
They heard feet bounding up the stairs, and a moment later Garigan stuck his snout in. The grey ferret bristled with anxiety and rage. “Forgive me, milday. I would have come earlier had I but known. My patrol took me far to the north last night. How is Ladero?”
“Garigan, help me!” Jo exclaimed. “He is not well, and I don’t know what I can do for him. He is Sondecki, like you. Is there some art you know?”
Garigan frowned, crossing the space between the stairway and Ladero’s crib in four steps. “Nae. I wish I knew something, but Charles hasn’t trained me in those arts.” He stared at the rat-child, eyes growing hard when they saw the blood stains on the front of Ladero’s bedsheets. “Baerle says it began around two o’clock. It doesn’t look like he has lost too much blood.”
“These are fresh sheets,” Kimberly admitted, chocking back the sob that lived in her throat. It had been there for hours now, sometimes escaping, sometimes held at bay. She could feel it threatening to explode again.
“I see.” Garigan stroked Ladero’s head with the back of his fingers. He closed his eyes, musteline face locked in concentration. His muscles tensed and spasmed oddly. After several seconds his eyes opened, and Kimberly saw a hopeless misery fill them. “His Sondeck has been torn. I don’t know if it’s his illness that has done this, or if the illness is from his Sondeck, but this is very bad.”
“Can you fix it?” Jo asked, paws rubbing nervously together.
“I can try,” the ferret replied. He drew his claws behind Ladero’s ears and began to press firmly into their base. The boy’s eyes tried to stare at him; the little rat was afraid and confused, but he seemed to understand that Garigan was trying to help.
Kimberly finished feeding her boy the last of the broth and set the bowl aside. With nothing to do, her paws gripped her apron so tightly her claws put holes in it. How she just wanted to hold Ladero in her arms, cradle him tight, and make his pain go away with her love. But it was going to take more than her love to save her boy.
Garigan’s countenance filled with agony, but he did not let go of the boy’s head. Instead, he rubbed deeper against his ears and cheeks, and nearly down to his slender shoulders. His tongue poked through the gap in his front teeth, and his fur rippled as if he were standing in a heavy wind. Jo and Kimberly exchanged worried glanced, but said nothing.
The voice that did break the silence surprised them. “Mama, Gargen’s bweeding.” Their eyes snapped to Ladero, who for the moment appeared alert. There was blood on his snout, but it was not his. Lifting their gaze, they saw blood dripping from Garigan’s muzzle.
Kimberly reached out a paw and laid it on his shoulder. “Garigan?”
The ferret let out a long sigh and his body relaxed. He smoothed down the fur on Ladero’s head and smiled faintly at the boy. “I can pull the tear together but...” Ladero coughed again, more blood coming up. Kimberly took the edge of the sheet and wiped his snout clean.
“But?” Jo prompted.
“But I don’t know how to mend the breach. It takes all my concentration to hold it together, and it hurts like nothing I’ve ever felt. What’s worse is that it was slipping away from me.” Garigan rubbed his jowl with the back of one arm and sighed. “The tear is getting bigger.”
Kimberly gripped his paw tight. “Please, Garigan. Do what you can to hold him in this life. I don’t want... I don’t...” She could hold it back no more; the tears came, and with them the racking sobs. Garigan put his arms around her, and for many long seconds said nothing.
When she was able to bottle her agony, Garigan let go and nodded to her. “I will do what... who’s that?” His head turned to the stairwell at the sound of voices below. A moment later Baerle appeared, her weary face flush with excitement.
“Kevin just returned! He says Lothanansa Raven is on her way and should be here in an hour or two.” Baerle smiled to them, but it was only a mask to cover her fear. “How is he?”
“In need of her help,” Garigan replied, flexing his fingers as he leaned over the crib.
“Mama?” Ladero wheezed. “Where’s Dada?”
Kimberly stroked one paw over his chest. “He’ll be here soon, my little angel.”
“I miss Dada.”
“I do too.” Kimberly rubbed her eyes, hoping the tears would stay away this time.
“I wuv Dada...” Ladero’s eyes fell shut, and his body grew still. Garigan grabbed him and splayed his fingers over his chest and neck. Muscles and tendons bulged on the ferret’s neck, and blood dripped from his gums. Though only a few seconds passed before Ladero’s eyes popped open again, each one felt like an eternity.
“Eli, please speed Raven to our side. Please, for my son!” Kimberly prayed as she watched Garigan do whatever he could. Both Jo and Baerle muttered their own prayers, knowing there was nothing else either of them could do anymore.
After several day’s ride, Duke Titian Verdane was weary, but glad of heart to have returned to Kelewair. The fields were filled with tents, horses, and the occasional siege weapon – all of which were controlled by his troops! The markets were filled to overflowing with bored soldiers, but Verdane would soon see an end to that.
He rode with Captain Nikolai of the Wolf’s Claw at his side, allowing this spectacle of victory. It would boost morale, and further unite all of the armies under his banner. If he was ever to end the strike into the Southern Midlands, he would need all people to see his pinions and know his will was to be obeyed.
As the townsfolk and soldiers clamoured to welcome them home, Verdane turned to his trusted captain and said, “Your men proved once again why they are the most feared soldiers in the Southern Midlands. I doubt we will hear of any more Lothanasi towns being razed.”
Nikolai frowned but accepted the praise. “Thank you, your grace. The Yesbearn are fighters to be feared and respected. It is shameful men like Father Timas that turned them to such dishonourable battle.”
Verdane glanced backwards along the line of troops and briefly glimpsed the first prison wagon. Father Timas had proved very cooperative in the end, but he was too dangerous to let loose. Verdane did not believe in executing priests, which meant he had to keep them prisoner. But if word spread that he was gaoling Ecclesia priests, he could only imagine the chaos that would sow.
“Bring him and the others to Sir Royce. Then I want you and your men to ready for another battle. If the raids on Lothanasi villages were done for Lord Dupré, then we’ll need to move against him sooner rather than later.”
Nikolai raised an eyebrow. “Are you taking sides in this war?”
“Aye, my own.” Nikolai grinned and nodded in understanding.
His eyes turned back to the throng of villagers heaping praises upon the Duke’s name. Verdane waved to the crowd, smiling regally. Yes, it was good to be home.
“So Lord Dupré has had these Questioners butchering Lothanasi villages.” Lord Rukas Stoffels rubbed his chin thoughtfully for several seconds before asking, “Does that not work to your advantage? We are Followers, and the more of us compared to them, the easier it will be to rule.”
Verdane gave the Lord of Ralathe a bone cold glare. “Followers do not stand for slaughter, even of pagans.” Stoffels grimaced but said nothing. The other lords at Verdane’s table shifted uncomfortably. “You forget also that many of the northern fiefs are still mostly Lothanansi. If I allowed Dupré’s allies to continue, I would at the very least alienate those lands. Worse, I might no longer have those lands! No, this madness had to stop, and I have stopped it.”
Stoffels allowed a small smile to grace his lips. “Of course, your grace. My mistake. But now what do you intend to do?”
Verdane gestured to the map between them. “The immediate strife is no more, but both Dupré and Guilford are summoning allies. Thrane, Grenholt, your forces at the road’s fork have kept the conflict from moving east. I expect to hear word from Jaime soon, and then we’ll have cut Masyor off from the Angle. We cannot stop him from bringing troops over the lake, and that he has done, but he cannot bring all he needs.”
“So we have Guilford boxed in at Masyor?” Lord Marion Thrane asked, timid face beginning to blossom with excitement.
“We will once we control the Angle,” Verdane declared. He tapped his finger on the map and scowled. “But this leaves Mallow Horn free to act. The Questioners have already eliminated most of the Lothanansi to his south and west. His allies control the western Southbourne. We are a buffer against his forces to the east, but he doesn’t want to go east.”
“Masyor?” Lord Barruw Grenholt guessed. “You think Dupré will assault Masyor?”
“What else can he do?” Verdane asked. “We’ve boxed in his enemy. Guilford has nowhere to go.”
Stoffels nodded, his smile widening. “Aye, you’re right. Whether he likes it or not, Dupré has to attack Masyor. And I think he will do it soon, before Weislyn troops can cross the lake to reinforce Guilford’s army.”
“But he’d need to have some presence on the lake to stop ships from bringing in supplies,” Thrane pointed out. “A siege is foolish if they can still bring food inside the walls.”
“Llarth controls the Southbourne,” Grenholt added. “I would be surprised if they weren’t readying ships for the lake.”
Verdane nodded. “I have reports suggesting they already have several making their way downstream.”
“But the Southbourne is full of cataracts,” Thrane objected. “They’ll never get ships to the lake.”
Grenholt snorted. “With patience and many hands, you can portage any number of ships.”
“He’s right,” Verdane said, running his fingers along the river to the lake. “But Dupré cannot assault Masyor from the sea. He needs those ships in the lake to tie up Guilford’s supply lines, that is all. Once he has that, he can march on Masyor, and Guilford would have no hope of defeating him.
“Further, we have no presence on that lake. But a portage is very dangerous. I can send the Wolf’s Claw to the Southbourne and have them destroy Llarth’s ships before they reach the lake.”
“I disagree, your grace,” Stoffels said with a shake of his head. “I say let Llarth put those ships into the lake. We want Guilford tied down at Masyor, and we want Dupré to lay siege there. Once Dupré has committed his forces, that is when we should attack..” All eyes turned to him and he smiled again. “Lord Guilford will be trapped inside the city walls. Lord Dupré will be trapped between the city walls and our armies. They will both gladly parlay with you then. And if necessary, Dupré’s army could be easily crushed, and then we could siege Masyor without difficulty. All we have to do is wait for Dupré to attack.”
Slowly, Verdane began to nod. “Aye, but he knows we’re here. He would suspect it.”
“Perhaps. Either way, when he does attack, I can see no better...”
A loud knocking interrupted them. In through the door came the spectacled Apollinar, Verdane’s Steward. “Forgive my intrusion, your grace, but a messenger just delivered this letter. It bears Duke Otakar’s seal. I was told it was urgent.”
Verdane stepped away from the table to take the letter from Apollinar’s hands. The trio of lords looked ready to disperse, but he waved them to their seats. “Thank you, Apollinar. Wait here a moment while I see what his grace wants.”
The seal was the familiar falcon crest of Salinon. He’d used an ebony wax, a fact that gave Verdane pause. Why not the traditional red? Verdane hesitated only a moment before breaking the seal and unfolding the long letter. He did not see the words for nearly a minute as he stared at the two wax marks upon the letter’s bottom. The first was Otakar’s, but the second, a stylized wolf’s head, was his son Jaime’s.
Verdane’s knees nearly buckled, but he regained his composure through force of will. He would not show weakness before the likes of Stoffels or Thrane. They were vultures who would just as happily eat from his corpse as from that of his enemies.
When he finally was able to take his eyes from his elder son’s seal, he read the letter slowly, studying every facet of Otakar of Salinon’s missive.
“To his grace, the Duke of Kelewair, ruler of the Southern Midlands, and Black Wolf of Cabadair Woods, Titian Verdane IV,”
The excessive formality, and the use of the name he’d earned in a border skirmish in his youth, could either be a sign of respect or malicious irony. It was as if Otakar were throwing his titles in his face to show him how little they would help him stand against what was to come. Verdane read on.
“It has not escaped my notice that your land is filled with strife. When two vassals disobey your commands and go to war, what choice have you but to take to the field to stop them? But do not blame yourself; the murder of one child begets the murder of another. It is the way of things.”
Verdane narrowed his eyes and read the last two sentences again. The murder of one child could mean Lucat Guilford, the boy flung from the Masyor castle towers six months ago, or it could refer to Valada, Otakar’s niece who’d died only two weeks after wedding Jaime. Her death had been sudden and shocking, with Otakar claiming her murdered, Jaime claiming it was poison, while every chirurgeon considered her death the consequence of a weak heart. What Otakar truly believed Verdane could only guess. But even if he believed the chirurgeons, he would never publically admit that a member of his family had been frail.
But if Otakar was speaking of Valada in this line, did that mean he intended to use the war in Verdane’s lands to seek revenge for her death? Did he mean to kill Jaime, or had he done so already?
“A curious facet of this civil war is its religious character. Lord Guilford is Lothanasi and has sought the aid of other Lothanasi nobles. Similarly, both Lord Dupré and you your grace have enlisted those who follow the Patildor like yourselves. I have learned that many Lothanasi villages have been massacred, and I know of at least one instance of Patildor priests being slaughtered.”
Verdane pondered that last phrase for a moment. Surely he did not refer to their attack on the Questioners in Stonybrak! The news of their success had barely reached Kelewair before Verdane did. But if not Stonybrak, then what did Otakar mean?
“But I understand how difficult it is to forge a nation from a people of competing religions. Your challenge is greater still, for so many of your lands are still Lothanansi like mine. Yet even there you insist they build temples to your god, the Patildor god. Perhaps this is why you suffer strife, and why your attempts at wooing Giftum have failed.”
No, Verdane thought, it was more likely Duke Hassan’s recent victory over the Giantdowns. But Giftum’s reticence was galling, as he needed full control of the Marchbourne to bring his plans to fruition. Without it, he’d never be able to assume control of all shipping lanes, and hence all trade in the Midlands. It further irritated him that Otakar knew about it.
“One thing that is for certain is that religion was a key motivator for Lord Calladar to swear fealty to me. And with him, all the lands of Bozojo, and all the lands Bozojo protects.”
So that was it! Verdane’s chest swelled with rage, his cheeks flushed with fire. With Bozojo, Otakar would control the headwaters of the Marchbourne, lake Bozojo, and he’d even have his hand in the management of the River’s Fork. With Giftum in Metamor’s grasp, and Bozojo in Otakar’s, Verdane was almost completely cut off from the Marchbourne. How long would it be before Metamor and Salinon began parcelling what was left of Verdane’s holdings north of the river?
This would not stand. Once he’d ended the feud to his west, he would crush Calladar’s forces and bring Bozojo to heel. But surely Otakar knew this? What more did he have planned?
“I’m told that one of his first acts as a Lord of the Outer Midlands was order the arrest of the Patildor clergy and the confiscation of all Patildor holdings. And his second will be to levy new taxes on all trade from the Southbourne. Without question you will divert some trade over land to Ellcaran – once the war in your land has ended of course – but you know as well as I that merchants will still ride the Southbourne to the River’s Fork; there is only one way to reach the Sea of Stars – the Marchbourne, and that means the River’s Fork, which Bozojo controls.”
As he suspected, it was all about controlling the rivers and Bozojo was the linchpin. If not for the feud, Verdane might have learned of Calladar’s traitorous intent. He would surely die for this treachery, and for the treachery he now knew was about to be revealed.
“Thus it will come as no surprise should you choose to reclaim it by force, or even wrest River’s Fork from Bozojo, that you will face me. Bozojo is now part of the Outer Midlands, and I will defend what is mine. But I am willing to offer you a way to regain some of these losses. All I require are letters signed by your hand and affixed with your seal recognizing Salinon’s claim to Bozojo and all its holdings. There will be several copies, one for myself, one for his grace Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, one for the Patriarch in Yesulam, ...”
Verdane scanned the list of names and countries and his scowl deepened. Though a treaty was only as good as long as it was advantageous for the signers, this would still hamper his ability to reclaim Bozojo, or to retain the trust of the other powers even if he did. This was a very high price to ask. It could be a decade or more before his banner flew in Bozojo again.
“In return for writing these letters, I will instruct the Lord of Bozojo to reduce the levies on all ships travelling through the River’s Fork back to what they are now. You will pay no more for what your traders ship; the only price is that your treasury will never see that money.”
That was a remarkably even-handed gesture. Likely it was meant to induce him to agree, as the immediate price would be very small. If the merchant guilds learned of this offer, they would insist he accept it. It mattered not to them where their taxes went, so long as they had to pay as little as possible. And for that reason, it made Otakar’s offer almost palatable. Almost.
“There is one other, far more precious reward for your accord. Your son, Jaime is currently my hostage. He will not be harmed, and will be treated with the dignity afforded to one of his station. He will eat from my table, sleep in my house, and enjoy every luxury that Salinon can offer. He will continue to do so as long as you honour your accord and do not either by force or by deceit attempt to regain control of Bozojo or the River’s Fork.
“And if, after a period of years of my choosing, I detect no duplicity in your motives, I will send him back to you whole and unharmed. As a gesture of my magnanimous nature, I will even allow you to share correspondence with your son at your pleasure. But he will stay in Salinon for as long as I wish it. He will stay alive only as long as you abide by this: Bozojo and the River’s Fork are mine. They are now part of the Outer Midlands. Do not attempt by any means to regain those lands, for they will never again be part of your Duchy.
– His grace Krisztov Otakar XII of Salinon
Though there was more to the letter, Verdane could no longer stand what he saw. All of his worst fears had come to pass. He turned to his lords and took a deep breath. “The news is unfortunate. I will tell you of it another time. For now, I need to think. See to your men.”
They did not inquire, and after the usual courtesies were upheld, departed. Apollinar remained only a moment longer, but recognized the glare in his master’s eye and quickly fled. Once he was alone, Verdane crossed to the table, dropped the letter on the map, and collapsed in his seat. He growled at the back of his throat, and beat the table with his fist repeatedly. Thrane had left a goblet there, and it bounced off, sending a spray of wine across the old carpet.
“Hyman Calladar, you will die for this treachery,” Verdane vowed through clenched teeth. “You’ve cost me my dreams and my son. This I cannot forgive.”
He picked up the letter again, and scanned the last few paragraphs. He felt his heart skip a beat when he recognized Jaime’s handwriting.
“Father, I am physically well, though I fear for the safety of my men. I am presently in Bozojo under the watchful eye of Ladislav Otakar. He has not forgiven me for Valada’s death, but he seems to tolerate my presence. By the time you receive this message, I will have been taken across the river into the Outer Midlands for my trip to Salinon. Ladislav corrects me and assures me I am in the Outer Midlands already, and given what has happened, I find I cannot argue.
“I want you to know that I am willing to endure this hardship if it will keep the war from spreading. I do not like it, but I am not afraid. I am appalled at what the callow Lord Calladar has done. He boasts of martyring our priests, Father. He is not just a traitor but a cruel man, unfit to lead such an important city.
“Please give my love to Anya and Tyrion. And to Jory. I did not know him very well, but I know he will grow into a fine man. Do not fear for me, Father, I will be well. I shall write to you again as soon as I am able. It will be a few weeks before I arrive in Salinon, and I hope there will be time along the way to assure you that I am well. But also that you may not worry, I will not receive any of your letters until I reach Salinon.
“I will always remain your son, Father, and I will always remain a Verdane.
– Jaime Verdane”
Duke Titian Verdane ran his fingers over his son’s seal, and then closed the letter. He couldn’t say it directly, but Verdane doubted Ladislav would have allowed Jaime to speak truly about Otakar’s new vassal if they didn’t mean for Verdane to act. It was small solace, but it made him rethink Otakar’s motives. This wasn’t about Valada at all, not even where Jaime was concerned. It was only about trade.
And to prove it, if Verdane wasn’t mistaken, Otakar had just given him permission to kill Lord Hyman Calladar. It was a hideous bargain. Revenge and safety for his son, just for giving up one of his greatest assets.
Verdane bellowed with rage, grabbed one of the smaller chairs and hurled it across the room. It splintered against the brick wall, and several vases toppled off their shelves to shatter on the floor. The door opened and Sir Royce slipped inside. “Your grace, is something wrong?”
The Black Wolf of Cabadair Woods turned on his Castellan and snarled his rage. Sir Royce closed the door and crossed his arms over his chest, eyes lowered. “I have seen you in a rage such as this only twice before in my life, your grace. Tell me who I need to kill, and they will die.”
“Hyman Calladar. But not yet. No, his death will come soon.”
“What has he done?”
Verdane straightened, stilling the beastly rage within him. He did not like letting it loose. “He has betrayed us, and handed Jaime over to Otakar. If I cannot have my son, I will have his betrayer.”
Sir Royce nodded slowly, his face darkening. “When would you like him dead?”
“I will tell you when it is time.” He glanced down at the map, eyes passing between the cities of Masyor and Mallow Horn. “First, we must put an end to the madness on our doorstep. Summon my vassals again. I fear our plans have been changed.”
“Yes, your grace. I will have a page bring a new chair, and another remove this one before their lordships return.”
Verdane’s smile was cold. “Thank you, Sir Royce. Now leave me.” His Castellan did so without another word. Verdane took the folded letter and slipped it inside his doublet. He would write his son tonight. Otakar could wait until he was finished with Guilford and Dupré.
It was still dark when they set out from the bank of the Silvassa. After reaching the river, the Sondeckis had lashed driftwood together to make a raft. Vinsah had been hesitant to climb aboard, but it proved surprisingly seaworthy. Marius stayed behind to keep watch over the horses while Vinsah, Delius, and Brujon paddled the raft into the river’s current.
Before night had fallen they’d turned east of the main road. This brought them a few miles upstream of the city. Now, with the southern bank receding in the darkness behind them, Vinsah understood the wisdom of their course. The bridge was heavily patrolled, and without the illusion to hide his beastly features, Vinsah would never be allowed across. But this far upstream, they could ride the current as they paddled north. Though there was still the risk of being spotted near the city, the risk was far less.
“Vinsah,” Delius whispered. The raccoon shifted and regarded the Sondecki captain. The night was overcast, so there was almost no light to see by, but he could still make out his protector. “We will need you to watch the river ahead and warn us of anything coming.”
“Aye. A raccoon is a creature of the night. You see better at night then we do.”
“Of course.” Vinsah rolled onto his stomach, tail resting between his paws. The raft was uncomfortable, but to his delight it was staying dry. His fur would stink of pitch for a few days, but after living in the hold of the Sondesharan vessel for a month, he was used to the smell.
The Silvassan river was quiet, but as the minutes passed, his ears learned its song. The lapping of waves murmured gently beneath them, while all around he heard the popping of fish snatching a morsel from the surface, or some woodland creature slipping in to snatch a fish. A few frogs croaked along the shore, and he could hear the soft beat of wings gliding over the river. It was tranquil, and after the long journey, allowed him one last moment to think.
A year ago, Patriarch Akabaieth had been killed, and by his own choice, Vinsah had been taken to Metamor, where the curses granted him the shape of a youthful raccoon-like man. Nearly everything he’d ever believed in that time had been turned on its head. After what he had seen and experienced, he knew that many would have lost their faith. In a way, he had too. He did not and would not cease believing in Yahshua and His Ecclesia. But there was far more to the universe than he’d imagined.
Vinsah would still serve, he was determined to serve, even if his beloved Ecclesia would not countenance that service. It was a price someone had to pay to bring peace between the Ecclesia and the Lothanasi. How could he ask anybody else to pay it?
Delius and Brujon paddled gently, their makeshift oars slipping so naturally into the water that Vinsah could not distinguish between it and the normal sounds of the river. So far they had guided the raft into the middle of the river, and as the minutes passed, they drew nearer and nearer the northern shore. In the stillness of the dark, he could almost imagine the Sondeckis were his two travelling companions, Murikeer and Malger. He could hear the marten now, warning, “Don’t lean over, Elvmere, this river is moving too fast to catch you if you fall in.”
A smile inched up his snout. They were good friends, and he did look forward to seeing them again. And he rather missed being called Elvmere by other men. It was a good name, and felt right to his ears.
He snapped out of his reverie when he caught sight of a faint light on the water ahead. No, two lights, very close together. He waved his paws and gestured as emphatically as he could. Delius must have seen it too, as they began to angle back to the south.
After a minute in which Vinsah could do nothing but watch with muscles tensed, they drew close enough that he could both see and hear who made those lights. A single fishing boat rocked back and forth in an eddy, lanterns hanging from bow and stern. Two men sat in the boat talking quietly. Although Vinsah could not distinguish their words, the way the men laughed, he knew they must be telling each other jokes.
The fishermen never looked their way, and soon the river carried them past. Delius turned them towards the northern bank again as the voices receded behind them. By the time the raccoon had lost sight of the fishermen’s lamps, the lights of Silvassa came into view ahead of them.
The raccoon stared at the city as it came around the corner in the river. An arch of light crossed the river – the bridge – and that led to the city which was built at its end. Lights shone from the corners of building, some inside the building as men rose early to their day. It looked so different from when he’d seen it four months ago, that apart from the bridge, he recognized none of it.
Delius and Brujon guided the raft towards the northern shore. There were two docks for the city, those on the east of the bridge, and those on the west. The Silvassan river became unnavigable only ten miles upstream, and so only a few fishermen were docked at the eastern docks. The merchant vessels were all west of the bridge, and that is where he recalled most of the guards standing watch. But there were still a few lanterns keeping the eastern docks brightly lit, and several pairs of eyes watching those docks for intruders.
Nevertheless, Delius and Brujon brought them in until they were nestled against several old boats, some of whom looked as if they were just in a storm. Delius put a hand on the raccoon’s shoulder and with a quick shake of the head bade him wait. Brujon climbed onto the pier, keeping low and staying to the shadows. He moved without making a sound, and after a moment disappeared between a gap in the stone wall facing the docks.
Brujon returned a moment later and motioned for them follow. Delius grabbed the raccoon around the middle and put one finger over his muzzle, silencing him. He sucked in his breath and said nothing. Delius climbed onto the pier, and gave the raft a firm shove. It drifted out into the current and began to glide towards the bridge. The raccoon clutched his backpack with Akabaieth’s journals more tightly, grateful that he’d had them slung over his back already. He then curled into as tight a ball as he could, allowing Delius to carry him quietly across the creaky rafters.
Once they were beyond the stone wall and in the darkness of the narrow passage and stair leading up into the city, Delius set him down. Straightening his tunic, he whispered, “What about the raft? How will you get back?”
“We can take the bridge after dawn has returned. Where is the Lothanasi temple? I’ve never been here before.”
“In the centre of town. Up these stairs and we should be able to see it.”
“Good. Quiet now.” Delius motioned for Brujon to lead the way, and for their charge to follow after him. The raccoon did so, tail tucked close to his legs, and paws clutching the backpack’s straps firmly.
The stairs wound up from the docks through masonry until they emerged in a narrow city street, surrounded by cramped houses that reeked of fish and human filth. Walls rose to their south, blocking the view of the river. But to their left they could see the rest of the city standing on the next bluff. There they each could see the intricate architecture of the Lothanasi temple, festooned with symbols, and carvings too detailed to discern at this distance. Lanterns were lit from its towers, and from the grounds around it, drawing all eyes in the city towards its radiance.
Delius gave him a questioning glance, and the raccoon nodded. “Priestess Nylene’s quarters are on the northeast. There is a balcony we might be able to reach if we had some rope.”
Brujon grinned, reached into his small travelling pack, and drew out a thin cord. “Is she guarded?”
“Probably. But I think the guards will be outside her door, not on her balcony. There will be guards in the courtyard.”
“Then we will move quickly,” Delius replied. He studied the street. There were no lights here in this part of the city, though each of them had the feeling that many of those dark windows hid a pair of eyes. “This way.”
The raccoon frowned. “I thought you didn’t know this city?”
“I know what places like this are like, and you do not want to attract attention at this hour.” He motioned them forward, and the trio went, almost running through the streets, winding their way between the close-knit houses in the labourers district. At one point they heard a dog barking, and the raccoon’s hair stood on end, but otherwise they went unnoticed.
They never reached a set of stairs – Delius wanted to avoid any road that might be guarded – but they did find a stand of trees whose branches reached over the western wall of the courtyard. Delius scrambled up effortlessly, scanned the area, before inviting the others to follow. The raccoon was pleased to discover that his claws made his own ascent nearly as quiet and as easy as that of his guards.
On the other side of the wall he saw the courtyard. A few guards patrolled near the gates to the north and the south. None of them were inspecting the eastern wall, and so one by one they dropped to the wet grass. The temple was a two story structure that rose up from the centre of the courtyard like a ship in a sea of flowers. Delius pointed towards a rounded balcony at the northeast corner and the raccoon nodded.
“We’ll have to wait for the guards to go back the other way. They’ll see us if we move now.” Delius pointed at a small troop of guards that was walking eastward along the northern wall. The others nodded and they hunkered down behind a line of bushes against the eastern wall to wait.
Somewhere in the distance they could hear birds singing. There was a perceptible brightening of the sky. Dawn was nearly upon them. The city would soon be waking up.
“I do not suppose,” the raccoon began, “that I will ever see any of you again. Thank you for helping me. You have shown me kindness with no hope of reward. For that I am truly grateful, and you will both be truly blessed.”
Delius grunted, but there was a small smile at his lips. “No, we probably will not see each other, so no matter where you may go from here, Eli’s peace be with you.”
“And with you.” They clasped hands briefly, and then Brujon frantically gestured over the line of bushes. The guards were heading back west.
Delius nodded and the three of them rushed out from the shadows towards the balcony. Brujon uncoiled the rope and revealed a three pronged hook at the end. He threw it over the balcony top and gave it a firm pull. The hooks latched onto the stone and the rope held. Without any further hesitation, Brujon leapt up the rope, scrambling over the balcony without a sound.
The raccoon gripped the rope in his paws, and pulled himself up. He was embarrassed to realize that he didn’t even come close to being as quick as Brujon. But Delius gave him a shove from below, and Brujon pulled the rope from the balcony, so he too was scrambling over the marble balustrade after a few seconds. Brujon pulled the rope up while Delius hid in the bushes around the base of the temple. Handing the rope to the raccoon, Brujon waved for him to stay low and quiet.
With nothing to do but wait, he curled his tail around his paws and watched Brujon gently open the doors to the priestess’s chamber. When he had the doors open a handsbreath he slipped inside and pulled the door shut behind him.
He returned a moment later and left the door standing open. “She’s alone,” he told the raccoon. “There are two guards standing outside her quarters, but you can probably greet her in her bedchambers without alerting them. Eli’s blessing be with you. I hope she can help you.”
“Thank you, Brujon. I wish you and the others a safe journey back to Sondeshara.”
Brujon nodded, then leapt off the balcony. He heard only a muffled whump, and then saw the two Sondecki return the way they’d come. He took a deep breath and crawled over to the open door, squeezing through on his belly. He set his backpack inside and slipped out of the straps as he turned on his backside. Once his legs were through, he crouched and gently pulled the door shut.
The room was obviously Nylene’s bedchambers. He could smell the faint scent of incense permeating the room, but more close at hand was the scent of a woman. It suffused everything around him. He did not stand immediately, but studied the darkened interior. It was not elegant, but it was tastefully apportioned with a large bed covered in soft satin quilts, framed by side tables upon which stood old books. A lyre rested on a small cabinet in which he presumed she kept her clothes. The entire floor was covered in thick carpets, in which he’d already managed to snag one of his toe claws.
He gave it a good tug, and it popped free. He fell back into a small table, and he turned quickly to steady the vase of flowers that perched there. Behind him he heard the sheets stirring. “Who is it?” a woman’s voice, a very familiar woman’s voice, called out. It was the same warm, matronly voice he remembered from so many months before. Malger had introduced them when they’d finally reached Silvassa. He’d known her from his youth, when he’d sought to learn the ways of the Lothanasi after running away from his father’s house.
Irony some might say. He preferred to regard it as the Hand of Eli.
“It is I, Nylene hin’Lofwine,” he said, turning to face her. She was fumbling with her sheets, trying to sit up and clean the sleep from her mind. “I have returned from my journey to Yesulam. Returned here to the one person who could help me do what I must now do.”
A warm glow grew in the room, and her eyes widened in surprise when she saw him. He stared at her silvered hair, eyes whose corners had developed crow’s feet, and cheeks upon which still grew an endearing smile. “Elvmere!” she cried, her voice hushed, but no less shocked. “What are you doing here, Elvmere?”
It hit the raccoon then. Elvmere was not just the name that his Lady had given him. It was not some secret identity he was to use when travelling incognito. Nor was it some bit of scholastic etymology to be studied in light of history and folklore. It was his name, the name of that which had long been within him, but had until now been kept hidden by all the prejudices and suppositions of his youth.
“Yes, it is I, Elvmere,” the raccoon replied, knowing it was true. It had been there all along, asleep inside of him, and kept asleep by the comfortable nature of his existence. Now everything had changed, and it was that he needed most now. Excommunicated, cast out of his faith, but still knowing the truth of Eli and of Yahshua, its time had come. And so, at long last, the sleeper had awakened.
He gestured at his haggard dress and smiled to her. “I have come back to you, Nylene, because I require instruction.”
“Instruction?” She still stared at him, confused and uncertain.
Elvmere nodded. “Instruction, as you once gave another, a close friend of mine.” Her eyes widened again, understanding dawning just as the day dawned outside. “Aye, instruction in the ways of the Lothanasi.”
Raven’s legs clutched the sides of the horse as he galloped down the road to Glen Avery. She’d been riding hard for the last three hours, and expected to reach the Glen very soon. When the sparrow Kevin had come to the temple and raised a ruckus, it had taken both her and Merai several minutes to get a coherent message from him. But once they’d understood, Raven had quickly made all the arrangements that would be needed if she could not return to Metamor in time for Daedra’kema. After Merai’s experience last year, she expected the younger priestess to be far more alert for the dangers.
It was terrible misfortune that both Cerulean and Saroth were away from Metamor. None of the other flying creatures who called Metamor Keep their home were large enough to carry the Lothanasa to the Glen. So she was forced to rely on the speed of a horse, a fact that dismayed her. If what the sparrow said was true, there was little time to waste.
Though Charles was Patildor, as was his family, he had helped her and the Lothanasi at Metamor many times. The least she could do was see to his family in their time of need.
It had been a long time since she’d had occasion to journey to the Glen. It was not her first visit by far, as most of the Glenners were Lothanasi, but affairs at the Keep kept her too busy to make the journey. Always she sent the senior acolytes to help them observe the seasonal rites. It might do her some good to see the village in the trees and in the ground again.
But her first thought was for the child. He was coughing up blood, and no amount of medicine seemed to help. A couple hours behind her rode Lady Angela Avery, who had been at the Keep assisting with the Duke’s wedding preparations. Raven had sent word to her before leaving, knowing that she would want to be there regardless. Lady Avery had helped the child be born, a rather difficult birth if the priestess recalled.
And now he might die. Raven willed the horse to run faster than the wind. She would not be late!
The trees rose high on either side of her, and the dawn’s early light did little to lift the night’s chill. Winter was coming to Metamor. In another few weeks the snows would come out of the North, and this journey would grow even more arduous. As it was, leaves lined the road so thickly that she sometimes lost sight of it all together. But then the oak and maple would give way to pine and redwood, and her path was clear again.
Finally, after what seemed far too long, the road forked to the west, and she recognized the clearing beyond. Raven turned her horse inside, drawing him to a slow canter. The horse breathed heavily, his body slick with sweat. The wolf priestess looked for familiar faces, but saw none. An arctic fox with a bow slung over his shoulder ran to greet her.
“Lothanasa?” he called, his voice broken.
Raven dismounted and hefted her backpack containing her many holy instruments dedicated to Akkala, goddess of healing. “Aye, will you show me to the Matthias house?”
The fox pointed. “It’s this way.”
“Thank you, Anson.”
The arctic fox dashed across the grounds, while another guard broke off to tend to the priestess’s very tired horse. Raven followed Anson to a large tree. The doorway was nestled between two large roots that stretched into the wide clearing, and there were several guards standing outside. She recognized the chief man at arms for the Glen pacing back and forth. The badger lifted his head at her approach. “Lothanasa! Finally! They’re expecting you.”
Anson waited outside, while the badger Angus showed her to the stairs. “Is there anything you need?”
“I will send word if there is anything. Thank you.” Raven mounted the steps two at a time. Beyond was a wide room with five cribs. Around the furthest, she saw Kimberly, Jo, and Garigan perched. Both women were crying. Garigan stood with slumped shoulders over the crib, his paws gripping the fragile form within.
“Lothanansa!” Jo shouted, gesturing for her to come near. “Please, we’re losing him!”
Raven motioned for them to step back, but Garigan did not move. “I need to see him,” she told him in a firm voice.
“He’s holding Ladero’s Sondeck together,” Jo replied. “If he lets go, the boy will die.” Kimberly was too far gone into tears to say anything, something Raven had seen far too many times before.
Inside the crib, a child in the shape of a rat lay, one arm clutching a stuffed dog. Garigan’s paws were wrapped around his head so tight that she doubted the boy could open his mouth. Raven put her hands on his chest and immediately wished she hadn’t. She yelped in surprise and yanked them back. She stared at her fingers, expecting to see gaping wounds, but her flesh was entire. When she’d touched him, she could have sworn jaws had closed around her fingers, tearing to the bone.
“Something is killing him,” she said, opening her travelling pack and pulling out a silver twin spiral emblem of Akkala. “Something supernatural. This is no mere illness.” She set that upon his chest and blanched in horror as the white finish darkened and cracked. “By Akkala!” She snatched it off, and again felt the bite of phantom jaws.
“It’s the Sondeck,” Garigan snarled through clenched teeth. She stared at him and saw that his lips were stained with blood. “It is turning in on itself. I can only touch him because of my own. You can see what it does to me.” One of his teeth pressed upwards, and she watched in horror as his gums gave way; the tooth spread out and hung by a thread before finally severing completely and falling into the crib. It landed on Ladero’s chest and immediately darkened. Garigan opened his eyes, both of them bloodshot. “Whatever you must do, must be done from a distance.”
Raven nodded, set Akkala’s symbol upon the ground at the base of the crib, and began drawing a circle around it with white chalk. She was careful to keep Garigan’s paws inside the circle; he was touching the child, and had to be included in the summoning. He’d just chewed out one of his own teeth, and the image of it made Raven’s stomach churn in protest.
Once finished, Raven quickly drew the symbols of protection, chanting the prayers to Akkala, and wishing that she’d been able to arrive sooner. But there was nothing else she could do but try to save his life. She focussed her mind on the symbols and the prayers, turning all of her attention to Akkala and the boy.
“Garigan!” Jo shouted, and Raven glanced up briefly. Her incantations were almost done, and she could feel the warm presence of Akkala near. But the sight of the ferret with blood dripping from his nose, ears, and eyes drove that warmth from her mind. She shut her eyes and prayed fervently, feeling the faint blossoming of the goddess of healing’s arrival.
“No!” Garigan screamed, and Raven opened her eyes again to see something even worse than she had faced a moment ago. His skin was tearing apart over his face. His tunic was staining with blood in crisscrossing lines. He spat up blood, and fell backwards, collapsing on the floor and twitching like a newly dead corpse.
The child spat up blood, his body arching once, before falling still. Kimberly screamed in horror, falling to her knees, face streaming with tears. Jo held her tightly, burying the rat’s snout against her chest.
And into this midst, a pinkish light filled the chamber. It brought warmth, and stilled the sobbing of the women, all eyes drawn to her. Raven stared up at the goddess, finding her voice raw. Akkala’s eyes were filled with worry. For the first time in a very long time, Raven did not feel the balm she brought.
The blonde-haired woman standing in the light drew her had over Ladero’s still form. “I know why you have called me, daughter. But this was not to be.”
“What?” Raven asked, shocked. She bit back her tongue before she said anything else disrespectful. She took one deep breath, and lifted her gaze to Akkala’s. The goddess was still staring down with loving eyes at the child. “Why was this not meant to be? Is he dead?”
“Yes, Ladero Matthias has gone to the next world.” Kimberly erupted into sobs again, and Jo looked as if she’d been smacked. She wobbled, but stayed upright only because she leaned against Kimberly.
“But why, Lady Akkala?”
The goddess lowered her eyes and drew the sheets over Ladero’s still form. “It was not of my choice, but it is the only way to save the father.” She stepped over to where Garigan lay curled into a ball, still twitching. “This one sacrificed much to save the boy. His love and devotion are greater than many. A minute more and he too would be dead.” She rested her hands on his side, and Garigan’s trembling slowed. After several seconds, he continued to lay there, but now he breathed slowly, and the cracks in his flesh were sealed.
Raven watched as Akkala stepped to the two women. She rested one hand on Jo’s shoulder and smiled. “You did everything you knew to save the boy. You have done so much to help the people of this village live and heal. Do not blame yourself for this one. Only one man in Galendor could have saved his life, and he has a far more difficult task ahead of him.”
Jo could find nothing to say, her eyes staring in awe at the goddess as if only now she had realized who it was who stood in the pink light. Akkala knelt to Kimberly and put both hands on her shoulders, drawing her up and away from the vixen. “You have four children who love you very much, my daughter. Know this, for whatever comfort it may give you: I have seen this child's spirit passing beyond the borders of the world led by his namesake. The Nine Hells of the Daedra Lords bear no hold on him. What fate awaits him beyond the Wall, I cannot say... but if your faith has freed him from the daedra's grasp, I do not doubt that it has carried him to peace in realms beyond our own.”
Kimberly stared, but still she cried. Akkala rose from her and returned to Raven. “Stay as long as you must, but be warned. The storm is coming. Be ready for it.” And then, just as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone.
Raven gasped and stumbled to her feet. Kimberly somehow reached the crib first, dipping her arms inside and pulling out the limp form of her child. Somehow, Akkala had cleaned the blood from his body, for the sheets were white and smelled pure. The scent of crushed roses came from the body, and a clear oil exuded from his snout. Kimberly held the body to her chest, tears streaming down her face. The stuffed dog fell from Ladero’s arms and landed in the crib, its paws spread wide.
Raven hin’Elric, Lothanasa of Metamor, stared at that dog and found herself suddenly overcome by tears. She, Jo, and Kimberly cried together for a long time.
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