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
Fresh-fallen snow crunched beneath the hooves of the horse as it plodded along at a leisurely pace. The narrow steel banded wheels of the cart made the snow squeak as it was crushed under the weight of cart, cargo, and the pair of anthropomorphised skunks seated upon the buckboard. Between the sweeping walls of Metamor valley and the low heavy gray clouds hanging low over the pass the roadway seemed to wend through a shadowy cavern of white and gray. Snow continued to drift down, thick and lazy in no great hurry to travel from cloud to earth. The breaths of horse and riders misted in the cold, still air. Upon their furry brows the cool touch of weighty flakes was like the caress of angelic feathers.
The two figures upon the wagon, while both skunks, were markedly different in both appearance and manner. The driver was male and the common black-and-white representative of his curse-induced species. While he had the physical appearance of youth his face was somber and closeted in expression, his left eye concealed behind a well worn leather patch. He wore a light travelling cloak, shirt, and leggings more for the intentions of keeping the wet at bay than the cold he seemed not to acknowledge at all. His good eye, brown and alert, gazed about the winter shrouded forest through which the rutted cart trail wended with the solemnity of a wanderer returning to a familiar place and finding it different. The second skunk was female, her fur as white as fresh fallen snow from brow to tailtip with a hint of the typical white stripe only visible when the light lay across that stark pelt in just the right way. Over that fur she wore heavy garments for the winter weather, the colours muted dun without trim or embroidery; simple peasants’ fare but suitable for the numbing cold lying heavily in the valley. Her alert eyes were strikingly green, like twin emeralds set upon her starkly white muzzle, and watched the passing trees with calm regard. Now and then her gaze would slide to the quiet skunk who she sat beside.
In the back of the short, two-wheeled cart were two modest chests typical of those used to transport the ashes of those who had been cremated in keeping with their faith to a place where they might be scattered. The male skunk’s travelling pack was nestled between them, the straps wrapped tightly about the small bundle of possessions protected by the use-stained oiled leather. Lain upon the pack was a pendant of raw silvery-white metal crisscrossed with inclusions of pale white and green jade as if it had been heedlessly deposited there. Until that morning the pendant had been worn about the male skunk’s neck, the powerful magics imbued in the silvery metal used to mask him in intricate illusions that hid his animalistic nature under a magically created guise of humanity. Those illusions had seen him safely across the length of Sathmore during the summer months where his animalistic appearance would have drawn undue, and likely violent, attention. Now that he had returned to the place he considered home, the valley bound up with the curse that had changed him from man to animal, he could once again travel uncloaked by those illusions.
On those travels in the south he had first met the woman now seated beside him upon the cart in contemplative silence, but she had looked considerably different. When he set out from Midtown that morning he had chosen to set aside his amulet for the first time in months and travel with the truth of his appearance open to anyone who might see him. Not that many paid overmuch heed; there were wolves and horses and other beasts about in similar condition of anthropomorphic appearance travelling the roadways before the weather turned foul. There were also humans, both afoot and mounted or driving other wagons with the last autumn wares destined for Metamor to the north or towns further south. The caravansary north of Midtown was for the most part vacant with the turning weather, but at the small shack maintained by the Midtown watch the white skunk had appeared like an apparition formed of the very snow itself.
She had been staying at the caravansary to receive the refugees of Bradanes, the ill or infirm or diseased heading toward the Keep and its curse for the promise of an escape from their ailments. But she had also been watching for the possible return of the one who had, months before, encouraged her to seek out that healing. Little did that one know that she would convey its message to half of the Sathmore Empire and spur a trickling exodus of the crippled and infirm in her wake. When he had first met her she was more afraid of her appearance than he had been of his, swathing herself in heavy rags that hid her from head to toe. Metamor had made him a skunk, but a poison had turned her into a leprous decaying thing who would have died but for the tale told to her by a traveler wearing an amulet of magical illusion.
The slow rot induced by the poison was wiped clean by the touch of Metamor’s curse, but the price for that healing was another alteration to her body, one that she was willing to embrace to live. Little did she know how it would manifest upon her, but by strange irony it struck her with the same guise as her benefactor. Though the form had some rather onerous issues to come to terms with she was satisfied with her lot and vainly pleased with her appearance. She did not expect, but had hoped, to see her benefactor again and the fates had conspired to bring her across his travels a second time.
As the spire of Metamor’s Chapel tower appeared between the trees topping a gentle rise, still some miles ahead, the driver turned his head slightly to look at his passenger with his good eye. “How long have you been here, Kozaithy?” he asked, breaking the companionable silence that had hung between them for the past hour. “It seems months ago you served water rather than wine to my companions and I in that miserable tavern.”
Kozaithy looked from the forest to him and smiled brightly. A smile, so simple and natural but also unique upon her tapered musteline muzzle. She relished in her ability to smile once again. And to laugh, to dance, and to run. Twisted by the poisoning she could do no such thing well, not even weep. “Aghen was the place, milord, may never I see that place again. I arrived here in the early days of September.” She replied, her voice a tenor churr, “I came here straightaway after finding my people and telling them your tale of Metamor.”
Murikeer chuffed and shook his head slowly, “Four months!” he exclaimed. “I did not imagine when I set out upon my journey, that its traverse would cover an entire Empire and back.” He smiled as well, a rueful pull of his muzzle that laid his whiskers back. “The things into which we stumbled would be legend were someone to lay them into a history.”
Kozaithy glanced back at the two chests in the back of the wagon with a look of concern. “And you return with two less friends and two crematory chests.” Her voice dropped slightly. “Did aught happen to your gentle companions, milord?”
Murikeer glanced back at the chests as well, “Neither of my friends resides within, Kozi. As to their fates now I do not know, but when our paths parted in Silvassa they were well, and had even attained another to their retinue.” He gave the reins a slight flick as the cart horse slowed to nibble at a few yellowed sprigs of autumn grass. “Those contain my sire, and my master. They’re the reason I traveled into Sathmore. I sought the remains of my sire, who fell to bandits when I was a lad. My master I learned had been injured and I sought him out as well, but the journey to Metamor was too long for his aged bones. He passed on some days after our reunion.”
He turned to gaze at the road ahead. It dipped and wove between the snowy woods and empty fields of southern Metamor. They had already passed Lorland with its wide farms and meagre shacks. Somewhere to the west lay Ellingham, yet one more place in the Valley Murikeer had never been. But like a lodestone, his eyes were drawn upwards to the towers of Metamor rising in the distance. There he beheld the spire of the bell tower, and a strange sense of disquiet filled him, as if something menacing stared back at him from its inaccessible confines. He let his breath out in a slow cloud of mist, an incongruous expulsion when taken against the lightness of his wardrobe. “Now I bring them home to rest.”
“How many have come from your people?”
“A few hundred according to the book that I’ve kept. I do not expect to see any more until the spring. A couple of others, not changed into animals, have also taken up the chore of receiving those who do not know what they will be taking on to attain the cure for their ails.”
“So, you can read?” Murikeer asked gently and turned his attention back to the road. Kozaithy sat on the skunk’s right side where he could see her easily with his good eye and she was not left staring at the patch-covered ruin that remained of his left eye. While Metamor sought to educate all of those within his reach he knew that to be the exception rather than the rule for the rest of the world.
Kozaithy nodded, “Only a little, milord, and without much speed. But I can count marks in a ledger, as my Lady had taught me. I met one here, master Urseil, in the libraries who helped me learn more of both so that I could find some employ here.” She beamed brightly and glanced toward the tower growing slowly taller above the hills ahead. “Such marvels this empire has, that make even Bradanes seem small and crude. Never before have I seen so many books or so much education in one single place. Not even in the infirmaries and hospitals of Elvquelin.”
Murikeer had heard the name Urseil before but could not immediately bring the details of it to mind. “How do your people fare?”
“Some passed away in Elvquelin, but not many, milord. Those who’ve come to Metamor have found work doing many things. There is much to do here, from all that I have learned, for there are so few who survived the wars fought here in the last few years. There is still want, but they are healthy again and most are happy to be what the curse has made of them, simply happy to be recovered from the wasting caused by the poison that destroyed Bradanes.” She smiled warmly, “Even Lord Bradanes has found acceptance by the Duke and was given a small parcel of land left lordless during the war you fought last year.” Laying the light touch of her fingers along his forearm she glanced back at the chests once again. “What of you? And what of your companions, the minstrel and the priest? You said they found another to travel with them before you parted paths?”
Murikeer rolled a shoulder, glancing down at her hand momentarily but not moving his arm out of reach. The touch was light and companionable and he found it pleasant to allow someone to be so familiar. After months on the road unable to even shake another’s hand the pretty white skunk’s touch was welcome. “Of my companions I know not. Our ways parted in Silvassa earlier this year, in July. We had a… we encountered a travelling menagerie and from it liberated a fox touched by Metamor’s curse. She attached herself to Malger, the minstrel, as a servant.” He laughed lightly, “Much to his chagrin, to be sure.” He glanced aside at her with his good eye again, “I take it you haven’t seen either return to Metamor, Kozi?”
“No, milord.” She replied with a shake of her head, holding his gaze for some heartbeats before turning her green gaze toward the spires of Metamor joining the Chapel tower along the curve of the hills ahead. “When I return to Midtown I will keep a watch for them for you.”
The young illusionist nodded slowly and smiled. “My thanks, for I cannot linger and await their return if by that road they do eventually return.” He nodded toward the growing spires but slightly off toward the west. “I go to Glen Avery before the Keep, Kozi, quite a distance yet along this road. I hope to find my way there before nightfall this day if the snow remains as it is now.” He looked up at the leaden sky hanging heavily overhead and back to her. “Why did you insist on coming with me?”
Kozaithy smiled and leaned her white-furred head against his shoulder much to his surprise. “Because without you, your kindness, and the bravery of your telling me of this place touched by fey magics, I would not be beautiful again.” She said softly. “Without your coming to that disgusting tavern I would be dead now.” She raised her head and caught his eye with her intense green gaze. “I owe you my life, Murikeer.” Her long tail danced behind her, the tip coming to rest against his own. He restrained the flinch he felt pulling at his abdomen, uncertain how he should react. He felt a smoldering pain in his empty eye socket as he recalled how the last woman who had touched him in that way had died.
Nor what he had done to call vengeance upon her slayer.
But in the end the chill of the day, kept in abeyance as it was by the simple magic provided by the amulet he still wore, the one that kept his potent natural musk damped and served to keep him warm in the biting chill, persuaded him to let her stay close. To be true, she was beautiful in her stark white fur and lithe musteline form, and he felt a stirring in the cinder he had thought remained of his feeling heart for her.
As predicted dusk fell long before they reached the Glen but not before they had long since bypassed Metamor and possible shelter at an Inn somewhere in Euper. Murikeer summoned several witchlights to illuminate their way much to Kozaithy’s awe. They were not the only ones braving the light winter weather as they passed several Keepers on their journey going about their daily lives. A quartet of armed and armored members of the Wardens passed them on the road just north of Metamor, led by a severe looking woman who nonetheless smiled and sketched a wave of greeting as they passed.
Even though it was well past dusk by the time they reached the Glen the forest town had not yet settled down to sleep. After Nasoj’s armies forced them to live in the trees or in burrows like the animals they resembled the town had gained a cycle of life all its own. Archers hid in the trees along the roadside watching them and trying to remain unseen but Murikeer was able to see a couple. He brought them to Kozaithy’s attention by sending his witchlights zipping off to harry the sentries until they concealed themselves better. Once past the sentry lines the road was lit warmly with lanterns hung seemingly at random along the roadway but Murikeer could make out the dwellings that they heralded under the light snow and artful concealment.
Kozaithy tittered merrily when he toyed with the simple magics of his hovering lights, comparing them to manic fireflies native to her southern home. He explained that they were common in the valley as well during the warmer months. She gawked in quiet awe at the homes built both above and below the ground when Murikeer pointed them out as they passed through the periphery of Glen Avery. “Do they all live like this? How do they not harm the trees?”
Murikeer steered away from the dim golden glow of the lamp-lit commons toward the western wall of the valley. “They’ve a very talented wood mage named Burris that lives here. He apparently knew my father, though we have never spoken. He shapes the trees to make the homes for some small barter. I’ve examined his work but could not emulate it if I tried; my focus is more toward the earth and stone than living wood.”
Murikeer drew the cart to a stop some distance outside the Glen. “My witchlights? They are simple acolyte level magic, Kozi, that most mages can master easily early in their learning.” The horse snorted and champed at its bit as Murikeer slipped down from the buckboard. “We will need to walk from here; the path is too icy for the horse to travel upon safely.” He circled around to the other side intending to help Kozaithy down but she adroitly slid from her seat and hopped down to the snow. Where Murikeer’s legs were sharply angled in the manner of canines her feet were still more human, with toe and heel resting on the ground, and she wore heavy leather boots to keep them warm and dry. Murikeer wore nothing on his feet because his feet were simply not conducive to footwear and he could effectively ignore the chill with a small bit of warming magic. Despite having warm feet, the ground was still hard, slick, and uncomfortable to trod upon.
He took up the chests, one under each arm, easily for they weighed very little. “We can leave the cart, none will bother it. The archers I showed you in the trees are only a single part of Glen Avery’s very diligent sentry line. I am sure that we are probably watched by at least one even now.” Kozaithy looked around the forest, now lost in shadows beyond the glow of the skunk mage’s witchlights, and moved closer to him. Together they moved further down the pathway toward the steep upthrust granite of the valley wall a short distance ahead.
The massive boughs above kept the ground nearly snow free but a thin layer of pearlescent white dusted everything in a layer at least one claw deep. It crunched beneath paw and boot with grinding, squeaking noises that echoed hauntingly back to them from the surrounding forest. The steady falling snow hissed softly all around them. They did not travel far before coming to the edge of the Follower cemetery that served the small community of Eli worshippers that lived in and around Glen Avery. The road lead to a pair of towering stone plinths enwrapped with the skeletal remains of the heavy vines that hung upon them during the summer months and continued beyond them.
Kozaithy eyed the heavy basalt plinths as they passed between them, “You will bury your father and master tonight?” she asked while he lead toward the first orderly line of stones. They were fresh granite, not showing the wear or softening or overgrowth of greenery of age. The names graven upon them were stark and clear even at some remove, the shallow cuts worked into the stone showing stark shadows under the hovering progress of Murikeer’s witchlight.
“No, the ground is too hard for that.” Murikeer glanced at the nearer granite markers as they walked wondering who had come to rest here in the time he was gone. “We’re going to the caretaker’s cabin. During the winter months the dead are interred in a cave behind his dwelling to await burial in the spring, and to be kept away from scavengers.” He paused as his light illuminated a stone only a few paces off the path. Kozaithy glanced at the stone as well once she realized the direction of his attention. Murikeer let his light dip low and properly illuminate the freshly engraved stone. The earth around it was still brown with only a few hearty weeds beginning to green the low tumulus of earth and stones.
“Matthias?” Murikeer muttered with a confused frown at the name, one he recognized. He knew the bearer of the name, Charles, well enough though their interactions had been relatively sparse. He was far more familiar with the rat’s wife, the Lady Kimberly, who had forsaken her noble heritage to live the life of a commoner at Metamor. Before Llyn was slain, before Murikeer had sacrificed his eye to seek out and kill his once-pupil who had murdered her, the skunk mage had begun teaching Kimberly a few simple spells to make use of what magic she could touch. Even after she had married the warrior rat and moved to the Glen he’d continued to instruct her when he could, ceasing only when she’d become pregnant.
And now their name was on a fresh grave marker carved into the shape of a cross, a simpler symbol of their faith than the more complicated yew tree to fashion from hard mountain stone. Kozaithy looked down at the stone and the small bier of carefully laid rock before it and read the short inscription. “Ladero Matthias, born and died, 707 CR. Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine.” She read aloud softly, “I do not understand the last bit. Who is, was, Ladero?”
Murikeer frowned, “Eternal rest grant unto them, Lord.” He intoned hollowly, “That last bit.” He shook his head slowly, “Come, let us see to the caretaker. I believe Ladero may have been the child of a friend.” The path split not far beyond the freshly cleared ground extending the limits of the cemetery, the fresh ground into which Ladero had been interred, and one branching lead into a cluster of aspen concealing the caretaker’s cabin from view. A larger building to one side held stacks of newly quarried and polished granite, the tools to work it, and tools for digging the earth. It was there that they found the caretaker working studiously to form a new granite marker into form.
“Master Melanos.” Murikeer called from the partially open door. The burly man’s head came up slowly from the concentration directed upon the stone Kunma looked toward them and waved one hand for them to enter. “I have returned with what remains of my loved ones. I wish to inter them in the mausoleum until a proper ceremony can be arranged for them.”
Kunma nodded slowly and set aside his tools before wiping his large, calloused hands on the hopelessly gray stained smock he wore. “Be comin’ this way, lad.” He said with his slow, slurred voice and swayed toward the back of the workshop. “Figger’d ye’d be a’comin’ back eventual like, after ye’ put th’ glimmerbob on yer mae’s stone.” From the leather pouch on his hip Kunma pulled out a leather flask and took a long swallow. Murikeer followed the burly man toward the double doors set into the stone at the back of the workshop. Kozaithy held back by the outer door and looked about the shop. The gravedigger hauled open one panel of the door and leaned on it heavily as if barely in grasp of sobriety. “Yer pae?” He nodded toward the crates under Murikeer’s arms.
“Aye, Master Melanos. And my master as well. I did not know he was from Metamor as well, not until only recently.” Murikeer stepped through the door and into the vault beyond, the chill air spilling through the hole that lead from the mountain heights above into the vault intense enough to bite through the warming magic of his amulet and chill him to the core. There were no bodies lying on any of the stone biers yet, but Murikeer imagined that would change before the winter passed. He carefully placed the crates on one of the biers and took up the folded cloth placed at its foot to drape across them before exiting.
“Oo’ were ye’ master?” Kunma rumbled curiously as he swung the heavy door closed and dropped the crossbar in place.
“Ahh, mmm, lef’ yars agone now, ‘im. If remembrin’ th’ name arights.” Kunma shrugged slowly, “We’ll affigger as bes’ aught fer ‘em both, lad, com’ thaw.” He waved one hand toward the outer door amiably and returned to his work. Murikeer rejoined Kozaithy at the door and closed it behind him to leave the caretaker to his task.
On their way out of the cemetery they passed at the small marker once again, “I had already left for the south before they were born.” He looked down at the startlingly small cairn. “I did not know this one, or any of them. Ladero, though, the name sounds familiar. I believe Charles may have spoken it in reference to someone from his past.”
“A friend, I would imagine.” Kozaithy rested a hand upon his shoulder. “To have given the name to one of his own.” Murikeer suffered the familiar contact amiably and nodded as he turned away from the gravestone.
“Let us go. The Matthias household is in Glen Avery, not a far distance.” He lead the way toward the boundary pillars, tail sweeping slowly back and forth behind him. The cart was where they had left it, the horse dozing in its traces and beginning to take on a patina of white. The animal awoke at their approach and raised its head eager to be on the move again with hope of a warm stable and feeder of oats.
The return journey to Glen Avery was brief and they reined in outside the Mountain Hearth to turn the cart and horse over to a bleary eyed ostler. Muted sounds muttered from the Inn as the evening crowd enjoyed dinner or ale or both with some gossip. Murikeer left them to it, turning instead to the path hidden beneath the snow that lead toward the home he remembered below, and a part of, one of the Glen’s great trees.
Murikeer rapped upon the heavy wooden door soundly a short time later. Kozaithy stood at his side as they both waited for a response from within. Through the cracks of the shutters he had seen the steady glow of light within so he expected that someone was awake and about. That assumption was proven a moment later when the door opened slightly and a triangular head with white ears, bright nose, and grey colored fur peered out to look him, and then Kozaithy, up and down dubiously. “Who are you to come calling at so late an hour, sir?” the opossum asked gently but pointedly with a twitch of long white whiskers.
Murikeer did not expect to be confronted by an opossum though he did remember one aiding Kimberly before he took his leave some many months before. Murikeer caught the scent of rats, wood smoke, and the other scents of a well tended house coming on the warm air wafting through the partially open door. “I came by to look in on Charles and Kimberly. Are they in?”
“I know that voice!” another speaker called from within the dwelling and Murikeer smiled at the familiar sound. “Is that you, master Murikeer?”
The opossum backed out of the way and drew the door open inviting them to enter. Murikeer turned toward Kozaithy and motioned for her to precede him and ducked below the lintel in her wake, the white skunk’s lush tail brushing his stomach. A fire burned ravenously in the hearth opposite the door and in a hooded globe of clear glass a single bright witchlight shed its illumination to give the parlor a warm glow beyond the fire’s welcoming light. Nearby sat the lady of the house in a large rocking chair of roughly worked but comfortable looking native wood. A half-finished quilt lay across her lap and in her nimble paws she held a pair of crocheting needles and yarn. The door closed with a quiet thump and rattle of latch behind him as he smiled to Kimberly. “It’s been so long, Murikeer, welcome back!” She set her stitching aside as Murikeer crossed to her and shared a welcoming embrace. “Who is your friend?”
“I’m Kozaithy.” The white skunk said with a soft smile, nodding her head to Kimberly and the opossum in greetings. “Murikeer met me in his journeys and told me of the wonders to be enjoyed in Metamor.”
“I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long, my Lady Kimberly, but I have returned with my father and master.” He paused and frowned slightly, shoulders rising and falling in a slight shrug, “What remains of them, at any length.” He sat upon the stout wooden arm of a nearby couch. “I was taking their remains to the care of master Kunmas at the cemetery and happened to notice the Matthias name on a recently placed marker there.” He tilted his head slightly in askance, “Where is Charles?”
Above them Murikeer heard the sounds of rambunctious activity and claws upon the wooden floor drawing Murikeer and Kozaithy’s gaze upward in reflex. “I’ll see to them.” Said the opossum and she quickly disappeared up the staircase worked into the wall near the hearth.
“The children,” Kimberly said with a warm smile to them both, then eased herself back into the rocking chair. “I bore them in May after you’d left on your journey. Charles, Bernadette, Erick, Bearle, and Ladero. But Ladero was struck ill by some foulness that none of the healers could get a grasp upon.” She closed her eyes tight in memory fighting back tears. Murikeer leaned closer to rest a hand gently upon her forearm consolingly. Kozaithy came closer to offer her own gentle touch of condolence. “Five weeks ago it finally claimed him.”
Murikeer’s whiskers drooped and his tail fell at the news. In his pilgrimage he had missed knowing the one who was lost, and did not know those that remained. Death was far too common for the young and he felt the loss poignantly. “I am sorry to hear that, my Lady.” He could find no other words to offer by way of comfort, for what could be said so long after such ill tidings? “How has Charles fared with his loss? Where does he patrol these days, with Misha?”
“No,” Kimberly shook her head, tears standing in her gentle rodentine eyes. “He’s been gone south since the summer. I had hoped that you would cross paths with him in your travels but that does not seem to have been the case. He didn’t even get to say his farewells before he was sent away to brace some evil and with Eli’s graze vanquish it.”
Murikeer blinked, “He’s been gone since summer?” he barked in surprise, leaning back on the arm of the couch with the shock. “Where’s he gone? What is this evil he hopes to vanquish?” He tilted his head and scowled, “And who did he travel with? I certainly hope he did not go alone?”
“I do not believe he was alone, no. I’ve been told that the mate of the raccoon Charles had such unpleasantness with went with him, the other skunk lady.” Kimberly sighed and looked at the quilt half finished upon her lap, wringing her hands in consternation, “Kayla. James went with him as well. And the kangaroo Habakkuk and some woodcutter.” She raised her head to look back toward Murikeer, gazing at his one good eye. “They went to a place called Marzac.”
Murikeer reared back so far that he slipped from the arm of the couch and fell into it, “Marzac? He went to Marzac?” Just what had happened while he’d been gone from Metamor to make them send one, nay more than one, of their few powerful warriors to such an abominable place? Murikeer felt a crush of fear clutch at his heart, he should have been one of those sent! Such a place could only be faced with the potency of magic at hand, corporeal strength could do little to the dark powers said to claim Marzac. Heorn had spoken of it from time to time, as a warning as to just how very, very bad mismanaged use of magic could go wrong. What he had described had been enough to convince Murikeer to be both mindful of his own ambitions and magic, and that he would never trod such a profane place.
Certainly never to such a degree that he would face the magic that corrupted the place directly!
He straightened himself in the couch, “What raccoon?” he asked in a strained croak. He only knew of one raccoon at Metamor whose mate was a skunk.
Kimberly shook her head, “I do not recall his name; Rick or the like. He and Charles were always at odds, but they had some… some degree of connection.”
“Rickkter.” Murikeer mumbled in a numbed groan. “Kayla.” Kimberly listened a moment and then nodded silently. Unknowing the depths of the exchange between the two Kozaithy could only stand near Kimberly’s chair and listen, at a loss. “Kayla went to Marzac.”
“Aye, that is her name,” Kimberly replied, nodding as it returned to her.
“Rickkter did not go with the others?” Murikeer was quite surprised at that news as well as confused that they would send Kayla who had no training as a warrior or mage to speak of.
Kimberly shook her head slowly with a backing of her round ears, “I do not know all of those who were sent but from what Charles said in his letter and what little Misha would tell me I do not believe that person was among them. Charles said there was a pair from the Barrier range, some monster and a man only the size of a child. I know no more than that. I have waited so long for news of him, but all is silence.” She grabbed what may have once been a walking stick leaning against the rocking chair and gnawed at the end. After a moment she stood up slowly and crossed toward the small kitchen area. “Misha was very reticent about providing any clear news concerning any of them, even my own husband, or the reason for such a fool’s errand.” She returned with small cauldron and hung it within the hearth to heat. “But enough of such unpleasantness, Muri. Let’s share some tea and talk, tell me of your own travels.”
Murikeer smiled as a new round of scampering claws echoed overhead. Beside him he felt Kozaithy draw near, her face lost in sympathy, but also in curiosity. Murikeer would seek a room at the Inn later, and on the morrow seek out his Aunt. Kimberly needed news, any news, to begin healing the wounds of her heart.
He would provide. He set aside the pensiveness brought about by the news and smiled with a nod. “A hot tea on such a chilly day would be very nice, milady, as would talk of better days. I can share some small bit of news but should not tarry overlong as I have yet to speak with Jurmas and find rooms for myself and Kozaithy.” Kimberly returned to her seat with a smile toward Murikeer’s quiet, ghost-white companion.
“Where did you two meet?”
“The young un’s are settled, milady, as well as can be expected of them.” Bearle stepped from the stairs brushing her hands upon her apron. “They can hear new voices.”
“Curiosity banishes even the weight of sleep.” Kimberly intoned softly with a rueful shake of her head. “I’ve put tea on to steep, Bearle. Muri’s going to tarry for a short time and speak some of his travels.”
“Indeed.” Murikeer smiled at the opossum warmly, “As to where I met Kozaithy...”
Barren fields of dirt and grime stretched before them for miles to east and west. Behind them short grasses rose up along the undulating swards of southern Pyralis. Before them pillars of stone and wood kept watch over the empty roads and the land to the south. Abutting the watchtowers were shacks where the unfortunate soldiers stationed there ate, diced, and slept.
And they were all abandoned.
The Rheh stomped their hooves and snorted. James flecked his lips and said, “This is bad, isn’t it?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Lindsey said. The Northerner glowered at the watchtowers. Beyond them they could see a smear of dark green. The swamps of Marzac.
“Why do you suppose the watchtowers are empty?” the donkey asked.
“Well,” Kayla said, her long tail dancing back and forth in agitation, “what little we knew at Metamor of this place told us that the watchtowers were under the auspices of the Marquis du Tournemire.”
“So why move his troops?” Jessica asked.
“In Qorfuu,” Abafouq said, only the vaguest traces of pain in his voice, “we Binoq do not guard passages where there be no danger. The Marquis is not afraid of us.”
“These watchtowers had two purposes,” Charles said. The rat pointed at the cupola. “It’s open on four sides.”
“So?” Lindsey asked. “All of Metamor’s watchtowers are open on four sides.”
“Metamor’s watchtowers protect us from invaders coming south through the valley. And they’re in a forest; they have to watch everywhere. These watchtowers on a plain. The only thing south of them is the swamp where nothing lives. So why would the opening facing the swamp be larger than the northward opening? Nobody north of here is foolish enough to go into that swamp.”
“Except us,” Lindsey added with a faint smirk.
The rat’s whiskers twitched and the vine drew tighter across his chest. “So these watchtowers are designed to keep people out of the swamp, but more importantly to keep what’s in the swamp from coming into Pyralis.”
“What are you saying?” James asked.
“I’m saying Abafouq is right. We sailed from Breckaris to avoid the Marquis’s armies, and also those of this Sutt heir. So where are they? We saw some evidence of fighting, but this land is empty! The watchtowers are empty! This frightens me more than a thousand fighting men. I would rather see the armies that we might know where our enemy waits. This,” Charles gestured to the empty watchtowers again, “tells me that the Marquis does not fear us or anyone. This tells me that he is waiting for us, daring us to come to him.”
“It says the same to us as well,” Andares added in a quiet voice.
“Well,” the donkey mused, “what choice do we have?”
“None,” Lindsay replied.
Abafouq rifled through his knapsack, saying, “I am thinking it is time for us to wear the charms Guernef and I made. These will help keep the corruption at bay.”
Charles glanced from the Binoq to the two Åelf who sat atop their Rheh with either placid or worried expressions. He couldn’t tell which. His eyes then stole to the two golden, green-eyed horses. What of them?
“Will the Rheh leave us now?” the rat asked. All of them, even Jerome who’d ridden next to the Binoq to help him distribute the charms, turned towards Qan-af-årael.
The ancient Åelf ran a slender hand across the tender mane and proud neck of the least impressive of the Rheh. The creature snorted, as if indignant at the question. But there was also a hint of assurance in its equine voice. For a moment, the rat recalled the burst of poetry that had cried out from the dwindling leaves at the edge of the Åelfwood so many weeks ago. Yet he felt no closer to an answer; his question lingered in the air as the oldest living being considered it.
Quietly, Jerome and Abafouq passed out the charms. Charles slipped the simple yew pendant over his shoulders. The wooden tree nestled beneath a band of the ivy twining his body. One of the verdant petals curled into a chalice to embrace and protect it. Beneath him he felt the trembling energy of his Rheh. For a moment he imagined the great beast was impatient.
After all the charms had been distributed, Qan-af-årael lifted his hand and afforded them a faint smile. It stretched his ageless skin like a tanner would leather. “The corruption does not touch them the way it would us. They have promised to guide us this far, and now they will take us even farther. To the Chateau they will not go. As far as they can, they will bring us. It could a week or two more, or it could be a single day. But they will go on with us.”
Charles ran his claws through the soft mane, its silken hairs tingling his furless paws. “Thank you, Rheh.”
“We do not have much more time,” Habakkuk said. The kangaroo shifted, his bulky tail always making him uncomfortable in the saddle. “The Winter Solstice approaches. It may feel warm to us for the season, but December is at our doorstep knocking. If there is nothing else we need to do, we should ride on.”
“Aye,” Charles said. The rat leaned back in his saddle, long tail dangling over the Rheh’s thighs as Sir Saulius had taught him what seemed a lifetime ago. “Let us be off.”
None of them said another word as the Rheh started into a trot, and then leapt into the air to carry them past the empty watchtowers of a barren land. Silently they rode, their charms bouncing against their chests and holding the evil air at bay. The Marzac swamp beckoned before them, lush with green and poison.
Phil hopped back and forth across the terrazzo gardens in the palace’s main courtyard. A bright blue sky surrounded him, bringing fresh air tinged with only the mild chill common to Whalish winters. Twice in his youth he’d seen snow in the city streets, and during his days as a Naval Captain he’d witnessed it in many of the cities of the Midlands and Sathmore. But it was not until he’d lived at Metamor that he’d learned to endure it for an entire season. It was one thing he didn’t miss now that he lived in his homeland again.
For the first time since he’d returned in February he felt energized and alive. His adoptive father, King Tenomides, had recovered from his illness and now could see to the ruling of their people. While Phil felt the burden of responsibility no less than before, he could now focus his attention on those things that he knew best — warfare. And the corrupted fleet under the banner of Marzac would soon feel the wrath of his attention.
“The fleet is ready to traverse the seas,” Commodore Pythoreaus said for the third time. “We wait only on your word, your highness.”
“We will leave soon,” the rabbit replied. His body, so often overcome by beastly instincts, seemed for the first time since his change utterly divorced from them. He was confidant again, ready to face the rigours of battle with all the hardened instinct of a seasoned veteran. Phil loved the feeling and savoured it as he waited, hopping along the garden paths with the Commodore dutifully trailing behind him. “But we must wait for Heraclitus. We’ve suffered our greatest loss in centuries at the hands of Marzac. If lose even a third of our fleet in this battle, we will be crippled for a generation. Can you imagine what the other countries may do during our time of weakness?”
“For centuries we’ve kept peace on the seas,” the older man mused. “I know why you wait, your highness. But the men are anxious to avenge the loss of their companions. You know it will do no good to wait too long. And you’ve been pacing these gardens for two days now waiting for Heraclitus. When he comes, messengers will be sent for you. You should see to the men and give them encouragement. Otherwise they will start to grumble and take their eagerness to the brothels instead of the battle.”
Phil stopped for a moment next to a cluster of hydrangea which lay dormant for the winter. “Well put. Arrange for my carriage. I will go down and see the men at the docks. A quick inspection and promise that our fight is soon to come will keep their focus where it should be.”
Pythoreaus nodded with a faint smile upon his lips. He turned and began to walk away but his boots stopped after only a few paces. Phil turned his head to see why he’d stopped, but though he saw Pythoreaus staring into the sky, the rabbit’s eye sight wasn’t good enough to see what he stared at. “What is it?”
“Unless my eyes mistake me, your wait has come to an end, your highness. I believe that is Heraclitus now.”
Phil hopped to the man’s side and stared past the battlements towards the eastern mountains. Their tops were white all year round, and within them lived the dragons of Whales. The Whalish people did not go near those mountains out of respect for the elder wyrms, but from time to time, one of the younger dragons would volunteer their services to the Whalish Throne and take a Whalish name for their own. So was it with the red-scaled Heraclitus.
After a minute of staring, what had once been a pristine blue sky revealed the dragon coasting down to the palace. Phil and Pythoreaus moved to a sheltered alcove to give Heraclitus room to land. The dragon drew back his wings, extending his legs, large claws digging into the terrazzo and leaving gouges in the stones that the masons would shed tears over. His front legs settled a moment later, his wings folding over his back, the long serpentine neck turning from side to side until great yellow eyes found them. His long tail swayed gently back and forth, ponderous but held high enough to touch nothing.
“Word has reached us, your highness, of the recovery of King Tenomides.” His voice boomed through the courtyard though Phil knew that he whispered. “My brethren rejoice in his majesty’s health. They bade me also tell you that the blockade has been successful with but one incident.”
“What incident is this?” Phil asked, alarm blossoming anew in his heart.
Heraclitus turned his head to one side, eyes narrowed as he stared at the eastern mountains and beyond. “A single ship bearing the flag of Breckaris passed through the blockade near Tournemire. In the process it crippled the Anathes, though all of her crew were saved.” He turned his gaze back to Phil and Pythoreaus. “The ship was a cargo vessel, though it moved with a speed that implies an empty hold. And it was aided by strange magics. On board were seen creatures such as yourself, a blend of man and animal.”
Phil stood on his hind feet, ears erect. “Metamorians? Why would they be sailing to Marzac? Don’t they know what will happen?” He hopped back and forth for a moment to regain his composure. “Were they followed?”
“Two ships followed them out to sea for a day, before they realized they had been tricked by an illusion. They never caught sight of them again.”
Phil regarded the dragon as calmly as he could. His instincts assured him that he was only moments away from being a tasty snack and that if he hurried he could burrow beneath the courtyard wall. But he was a prince and a naval captain too. “Then we can only hope they have found a way of turning back the corruption. We must turn our thoughts to the enemy fleet. What say you of my request? Will you and your venerable brethren come to our aid?”
Heraclitus lowered his neck in obeisance, the broad scales only an inch above the ground. “Your highness, we wait for your command.”
Phil turned to Pythoreaus. “Commodore, tell the captains, we leave port tomorrow morning. It is time for battle.” He noted a fierce grin on the veteran’s face as he bowed.
Despite the fact that of the three sea voyages the raccoon had undertaken in the last six months this was the only one of which his true appearance was both known and welcomed by the captain and his crew, the turbulent seas were making it also the most taxing. Both trips across the Splitting Sea had been calm and uneventful apart from the uncertain anxiety on his first and the utter ruin of his spirit on the second. Now, though he felt a sense of peace he’d long thought lost, the tossing of the waves and the swaying of the small ship frequently made him ill.
But rarely had it made him so ill that he’d kept himself locked in the room he shared with Nylene with the chamberpot between his legs incase he needed to vomit again. In that undesirable position he found himself a little over two weeks after they’d left Silvassa. The river was far behind, and to their east the coast of Sathmore slid past. The day had begun bright and calm — as calm as the Great Western sea ever was — but a little after noon a storm had descended from the northwest and shook them as it hammered the boat with rain. Flashes of lightning danced through the heavens. The floor kept lifting and falling, turning and tilting until the raccoon’s stomach could stand it no longer.
Nylene crouched beside him, one hand at his back, prayers whispered on her lips, but his ears could focus on none of them. Where were Dvalin and Wvelkim now? Were they testing him? Or was he, as always, being too prideful again and thinking that all events around him happened because of him and for him?
The priestess pressed her fingers against the small of his back. He’d doffed the acolyte’s robe and stuffed it in a corner after retching his morning meal of fish across the front, and so sat with only his linens covering his middle. He could feel her slender fingers stroking through his soft fur. He shuddered at the rocking of the ship, and tried to think only of her touch.
Outside he heard the shouts of the captain and his men as they worked to outlast the storm. The hammering rain felt like the beating of thousands of drums against the deck. And the flashes of light outside their porthole were quickly followed thunder that cracked like a faggot of wood breaking one branch at a time. At one time he’d loved the rain, for in the parched land of Abaef rain was a blessing of life. Now he wished it would just go away.
Nylene put her other hand on his arm and brushed his thick pelt. She ceased her prayers for a moment to lean closer and whisper into his ear. “Take heart, my Elvmere. The storm is abating.” Out of reflex, he flicked his ear back and it brushed her cheek. She leaned in closer and added, “Do you not hear? The thunder and the lightning grow apart. It is passing us by.”
The floor jerked beneath him and he felt a spasm clutch his stomach, but he’d long since disgorged everything that was going to come up. When the boat steadied, he turned his ear to listen for the thunder. It was some seconds before the porthole brightened with a sudden flash, after which he tapped his claws five times against the chamberpot before the rolling thunder crushed the skies. It did seem longer to him now that he thought about it.
Nylene resumed her praying, and Elvmere tried to remember the words to the prayers she’d taught him. A lifetime spent learning prayers had given him the ability to summon the words quickly, and soon he offered prayers to Dvalin, Wvelkim, and Kammoloth for their protection. A small part of him also seemed to offer the same prayer to Eli, and he knew all help would have Him as its source. Still, Elvmere recognized the gulf of excommunication and kept his focus upon the Lothanansi prayers.
As the minutes passed the storm abated. First the thunder and lightning receded, followed by the sloshing waves. The rain continued for some time, but by the time Elvmere felt like he could stand again, it seemed more a gentle mist than a thousand hammer blows. He took long deep breaths, tongue pressing between his short, sharp teeth with each one. Nylene pet his back gently, her touch soothing his frayed nerves.
“There, the storm has passed. Come, you are weary. Sleep in my bed this night. You will only wear yourself raw if you continue to sleep on the floor.”
Elvmere allowed her to ease him to his feet and guide him into the comfort of the small bed. The sheets were smooth against this fur, drawing it in every direction. He lay on his back, tail twixt his legs, head resting on a feather pillow. It was more comfortable to lay like this. The ship still rocked from side to side more than usual, but it no longer troubled him.
“Here, drink this,” Nylene handed him a small cup of juice. He gingerly tipped it to his snout and lapped it down. It was cold, but the tart flavour washed out the bile of his vomit. Even his gums seemed to feel better. When he finished, Nylene took the cup from his paws and set it on the small bureau next to the bed.
Smiling to him, Nylene leaned over and stroked between his ears before undressing. Elvmere closed his eyes out of a sense of propriety. But his ears heard the fall of her gown and the careful folding of each bit of cloth. The floor creaked in a way distinct from the sea under her soft footsteps. And then, he felt the covers shift and was aware of the warmth of her body sliding next to his own. A hand rested on his chest, her thumb drawing through the fur over his breast.
“Are you comfortable, my Elvmere?”
He nodded. “Very.”
“Good.” She leaned in closer and whispered, “Why do you close your eyes?”
“It is improper to watch a lady undress.”
“I am finished.”
Elvmere blushed, ears folding back some. His tail tip twitched between his legs. Beneath her fingers his heart beat faster, a strange warmth suffusing him. Still, it took him several seconds to overcome his modesty and open his eyes. The cabin was lit by a single lantern, and to his left lay Nylene. She lay on her side, the covers drawn up to her chest, though he still saw a sagging nipple resting against the mattress. Her face was turned from the lamp, but the smile radiated a light that seemed all the brighter.
The bed was only just big enough for the both of them to lay next to each other. Nylene’s legs brushed against his, and her toes explored his own. He kept his feet still lest he cut her with his beastly claws. She continued to brush her fingers over his chest, exploring the fur and muscles that lay beneath them. Elvmere took his breaths slowly and deeply. He knew instinctively he was treading upon waters he’d never before witnessed. Not in all the long years of his life had any other touched him in this way.
Ever since his return to Silvassa, he’d seen in Nylene a woman of strength and character. She had taken him in and sheltered him, even risked her own standing to see him safely to Metamor. This priestess of a faith once rival to his own but which he now sought entrance to taught him of the gods and their spheres of influence and how each came to Galendor to provide for the people living there. These gods ministered to the needs of many races, something that the Ecclesia had yet to accomplish. But never once did Nylene slander or say aught to disparage the Ecclesia or those who followed its ways.
And never had Nylene looked at him as anything less than a man. If he would ever be with a woman, this was she.
Somehow without realizing it, Elvmere had slid one arm up to brush her hair from her face. She in turn drew closer to him, their legs intertwining. He rolled onto his side and drew her hair through his fingers and across her back. With his paw pads he gently massaged the smooth but aging skin. Nylene was many years his junior, but the curses of Metamor made it seem the other way. And he could see in the warm appraisal of her eye that she enjoyed what it had done to him.
With each passing moment, they drew closer and closer together. Their legs twined as her toes curled through his tail fur. His paws spread from her chest to her back, his snout nearing her face. Those sensitive digits noted every crevice in her skin, from pox scars lingering since childhood, to creases age had brought her womanly shape. Her hands spread through his fur from shoulder to the root of his tail.
And then her lips brushed his snout, and the pounding of his heart blotted out all other thoughts. Their bodies pressed together beneath the covers, one human one a blend of raccoon and man. Yet for what seemed an eternity of discovery, those two became as one flesh. For the first time in his life, Elvmere was intimately aware of the sensations in every part of his body. He felt each strand of fur as it stood out, pressed flat from her skin or the blankets, and warmed him. He knew the softness and pleasure of a woman. He could smell fragrances that maddened the beast inside. He was both animal and man more completely than he knew possible.
A great gasp and it was done. Elvmere rolled onto his back, gasping for breath, his paws clawing at the empty air above him. The rocking of the ship seemed a mother’s hand upon a crib, soothing instead of nauseating. Beside him Nylene sung a blissful song. The air was rich with desire consummated.
The raccoon man fell asleep even as Nylene’s lips brushed his cheek, forehead and ears.
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