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
While the hills of the Outer Midlands were cris-crossed by streams fed by runoff from mountains to both north and south, few of them were wide enough even during the Spring thaw to support anything larger than fishing trawlers. There was plenty of water for both farming and pastureland which the Outer Midlands possessed in abundance, but without navigable rivers they were at a disadvantage in both commerce and war.
To address this lack the elves fashioned many roads of tight fitting stone for their human subjects in centuries long past. These roads passed many a town and city, but only one of their cities could still truly claim the heritage of their long-lived benefactors. All the rest had been built over by the hand of man enough that the peculiar touch of the elves was disguised. Only the ancient city of Salinon, to which these many roads led, still seemed to match the roads themselves.
Riding in a caleche with chains binding his hands, Lord Mayor Jaime Verdane, son of Duke Titian Verdane of Kelewair, could not clearly see the outlines of the city as they neared. Through the caleche window he could see the eastern sky was dark with storm clouds and the coming night. Behind them a red dusk bathed the land in long crimson-streaked shadows. The pearlescent towers of Salinon, standing upon a tall bluff overlooking an ice-locked lake and clusters of houses owned by farmers and fishermen now covered in a layer of snow easily a foot deep, glowed with a sombre light like the burnt feathers of the falcon.
Across from him a dark-haired, black-clad man who bore on his chest the gilded falcon of the house Otakar smiled contemptuously at him. Ladislav, the eldest living son of Duke Krisztov Otakar, could not take his eyes off his hostage. Jaime had grown accustomed to the stare in the weeks since his capture in Bozojo. He had hardly been out of Ladislav’s presence for more than a few minutes each day. It was clear that the Otakar family would keep a very tight leash on the wolf they’d chained.
Of his retinue he’d not heard a word since they’d been parted. Ostensibly they’d been returned to his father along with news of Calladar’s treachery and his capture. He suspected that only parts of them had been returned; enough to establish the truth of the letter at least. He hadn’t even known all their names. And now men who’d sworn to protect him not only failed in their duty but their bodies were now most likely feeding dogs, crows, or fish. And there wasn’t anything he could do about it.
His eyes slipped from the many towers to the snow-covered fields around them. The road went around both southern and northern flanks of the city, but their caravan turned down the southern fork. The northern led through the greater part of the city so apparently Duke Otakar wasn’t interested in parading him before the people of Salinon just yet. The southern branch passed by the fishing villages that clustered like barnacles to the city walls. Once inside the heavily fortified walls, they would proceed by a series of locks, ladders, and gates up the steep incline until they passed into the castle itself.
The main part of the castle was built upon the white bluff that had once jutted from the ground like a tombstone in an empty field. Over the years as first the elves and then man had come to live here, the western slope had been smoothed and blended into the surrounding landscape providing easy access to the summit. The northern face had also been smoothed to some degree, but the southern face, especially nearest the cliffs, would still be impassible if not for what they’d built there. All this and more Jaime knew of Salinon because of a brief stay prior to his marriage and because his wife Valada had told it all to him during that all too brief marriage. Her face, cloaked by raven hair, had bloomed with pride when she described the marvels of her home. Yet still she had laughed with delight when she saw Jaime’s city of Kelewair, so much plainer for only having been built by men. Ah, how he still missed her.
The caleche crossed a slightly arched bridge spanning the river that flowed westward from the lake beneath the bluff. The air practically bristled with the sound of hardening ice. Jaime’s eyes stole out to those white fields marred by foot and hoof of farmer and beast. A sigh escaped his throat and he turned to his gaoler. “Ladislav. I will be spending many years in your father’s castle with no chance to leave. Permit me if you will to walk for a few minutes in the open air.”
Ladislav’s smile grew and a glint of malice briefly flickered through his blue eyes. For a moment Jaime was certain his request would be met with derision and laughter. But the smile faded after a second’s appraisal and he began to nod. “We will be in my father’s home soon enough. There’s nowhere you can run. Very well. A few minutes in the open air.” He knocked on the panelling behind which sat the coachman. “Driver! Stop!”
The caleche drew to a stop as did the horsemen accompanying them on the bitter winter day. Ladislav gestured to the door with a sweeping arm. “Enjoy your few minutes, Jaime.” He then leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. He was probably counting and begrudging him every second.
Jaime pushed open the door and set one boot upon the smooth stone roadway. Another strange gift of the elves; though snow fell upon the road, the wind always seemed to carry it away. Jaime’s wonder at that ended with the clattering of the chains binding his wrists. He was a prisoner, a noble prisoner, but a prisoner nonetheless.
Beyond the road he saw a rolling field of snow marred by scattered clusters of trees and huddled together like cattle protecting their young. A light wind brushed past his face bringing with it the stinging bite of snow and ice. He cared not for it was the last taste of freedom he would feel for many long years. All the soldiers stared at him in their caravan, but for these few minutes he would pay them no mind.
Jaime stepped into the snow which came up to the middle of his shins. He walked a dozen paces up the gentle incline before he began to feel the cold through his tough leather boots. Slowly he knelt down in the snow which crunched beneath him soft but firm. He wrapped his fingers about the chain and dragged it through the snow until he’d drawn a passable yew. Once satisfied, he tilted back his head, spread his arms as wide as the chain allowed, and truly prayed for the first time in years.
The tears began freezing on his cheeks, but that was not what brought him out of his prayer. Behind him Ladislav approached and said, “Your time is up. If we do not hurry we will lose all light.” Jaime cast a quick glance at the sun and saw that already it began to dip below the horizon. He sighed and turned his gaze back on the yew in the snow. The crimson light of dusk made it appear to bleed.
Jaime stood and brushed the snow from his woolen leggings. “Then let us waste no more time. Take me to your father.” He turned and headed back to the waiting caleche. Behind him he heard Ladislav kicking snow around. He glanced behind him and saw his gaoler destroying his yew. Jaime sighed, made the sign of the yew over his chest and stared at the castle now even more sombre as dusk faded into auburn twilight. It was once his beloved wife’s home. Whether he liked it or not, it would be the same for him for however long the Otakar family wished.
He closed his eyes as he climbed into the caleche and sat down. The chains rattled between his knees.
The ascent through the various baileys and locks on Salinon’s southern slopes took the better part of an hour. Jaime was kept in chains the entire time with a pentecount of soldiers before and behind him. Ladislav led them through the twisting maze and despite the chill and the ice on the steps showed no signs of consideration for his former cousin. Jaime wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing him fall or complain. He kept to his feet and fixed his face to keep every wince hidden.
Once all of the soldiers had ascended to the final lock overlooking the southern slope and abutting the castle face, Jaime chanced a look around. The lock was surrounded by walls on three sides with a higher wall on the northern flank. From there soldiers could rain arrows or pitch on invaders and they could do nothing but die. Ladislav opened the single unremarkable door at the far end and revealed a dark ladder flanked by bright flambeaux. Jaime glanced at the starry sky above and felt a slight wave of nausea. The stars didn’t look right for some reason.
One of the soldiers behind him shoved him forward and he nearly toppled to the icy stonework. But he caught himself and lowered his gaze. One by one the soldiers preceded him up the ladder. The room inside was pleasantly warm. The ladder led up at least twenty feet before passing through a opening far too small for a fully armoured man to crawl through. No wonder the guards only wore their winter gear.
As the ice and snow still tucked into the corners of his clothing began to melt, Jaime climbed the ladder with the same steely demeanour he’d shown the entire forlorn journey from Bozojo. He found himself in a small storage room with a single oaken door that swung outward. It already stood open with Ladislav lingering beneath the arched transom. He suspected that the door was usually barred from the inside and only with a certain password would the guards open it.
The guards shucked their winter wear on racks along one side of the room. A small gutter would let the melt drain away to some far off cistern. Jaime made note of everything, fixing each detail in his mind as he watched the falcon-crested soldiers readjust their livery.
“Come. My father is ready to see you,” Ladislav beckoned and then turned off to the left. Jaime and the soldiers followed. The passages were tight and drafty and apart from where flambeaux burned he felt the familiar chill of the winter outside. Every door he passed was closed and he saw no placards to betray their purpose. Still, he memorized each turn, each stair, and each door.
After a few minutes walk he arrived at a door bearing an imposing falcon crest above the arch. Guards flanked the door but they stepped aside for Ladislav. Jaime waited while Ladislav knocked. A familiar man opened the door. He was of medium build with a broad jaw and bald head. He bore the black livery of the falcon, one hand resting on the pommel of a sword. For a Steward, Pyotr Szeveny kept far more a martial appearance than any other Jaime knew.
Pyotr smiled with something approaching true delight. His blue eyes danced in the vermillion light of the flambeaux. “Ah, your graces. His grace, Duke Krisztov Otakar the XII will see you now.”
Ladislav gestured for Jaime to go first and so he did. He nodded to Pyotr whose smile turned to a frown when he saw the manacles on his hands. But the bald Steward ground his teeth and said nothing.
The room was apparently Duke Otakar’s private study. On either end crackled hearth fires over which hung the head of wolf and bear. Between them was a set of shelves haphazardly stacked with scrolls and tomes. The stone floor was completely covered in carpets of an intricate weave that would leave the Clothworker’s Guild in Kelewair green with envy. Seated in an ornate alabaster chair to one side of the far hearth was the Duke.
Krisztov was dressed in royal purple with the black falcon across his chest embroidered with gold. He was a man of swarthy complexion and his belly distended with the gut of a noble who no longer did his own hunting. Meaty hands surrounded a goblet, and on every other finger sparkled a ring set with rubies. A long mustache graced his wide upper lip, and dark eyes peered out from his heavy brow. A crown of gold fashioned like a wreath of leaves obscured his balding head. What remained of his black hair cascaded like a woman’s shawl down his shoulders and back.
He set the goblet on one knee and leaned forward in his chair. His lips scowled far more than did his Steward. “Ladislav! Why is my guest manacled? Is this how we treat visiting nobility?”
Ladislav tensed, his dark eyes narrowing as he looked between the Steward and his father. “No, it is not, father. Guards, unshackle his grace.” Despite his obvious distaste for Jaime, he managed the command without any of his wounded pride showing.
The guard captain came around and undid the shackles. Jaime rubbed his wrists where they’d chaffed then nodded to Krisztov but did not thank him. “Your grace. It has been some time since I last had the pleasure of your company.”
Krisztov smiled again. “Come, Jaime! My house has felt empty since your last visit. I mean to enjoy your company while you are with us and for however long you are with us. Please, sit and have something to drink.”
Jaime stepped past Ladislav and Pyotr to take the other chair next to the fire. The bald man poured him a goblet of something red from a carafe sitting near to the Duke. Krisztov saw his uncertain look and laughed. “Oh fear not, Jaime. I would not go to such lengths to bring you here only to poison you as some have said my niece Valada was. You are a guest and will be treated as such. Pyotr, tell him the vintage he is about to sample.”
Pyotr offered him the goblet and smiled. Jaime could well remember the fondness the Steward of the Otakar house had for him when he’d come for the hand of Valada. The smile hadn’t changed which left him feeling uneasy. The voice was the same too. “A tawny port of Fronham, 694 CR.”
“A very good vintage then,” Jaime agreed. The port was sweet and dry.
Krisztov grinned broadly and then nodded to his son. “Ladislav, see to Jaime’s quarters and make sure that all is ready for his sojourn here in our beloved city.”
Ladislav managed a twisted smile as he bowed. “Gladly, father.” He glanced once at Jaime and then left. The door closed heavily in his wake.
Krisztov leaned back in his cushioned chair and regarded Jaime with interest. “You’ll forgive my son, he still thinks your family is responsible for Valada’s death.”
“And you don’t?” Jaime ventured.
“I don’t believe you are,” he replied with an even regard. His eyes stayed fixed on Jaime while Pyotr kept just within sight. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword and Jaime had no doubt, despite Pyotr’s apparent fondness for him, should Jaime make any move to attack the Duke, that sword would strike him down without pity or regret.
“And why not? I was her husband for only a few weeks.”
Krisztov sipped at his wine and smiled. “My wife, who has been waiting for me on the other side for twelve years now, was chosen for me to cement relationships with one of the noble houses in Marigund. I never met her until our wedding day. Yet, it was not until her last years when her illness came that I loved her so strongly as I saw that you loved my niece. For a Verdane, your eyes have some honesty. And when they saw my niece, I saw your love. No, you didn’t kill Valada. Your father or one of his subjects? Perhaps. It certainly destroyed any hopes we had of allying against Metamor or Sathmore.”
Krisztov took another drink and then set his goblet aside. Pyotr moved forward to refill it but the Duke shook his head. “Which brings us to the present. As a guest, it would be rude of me to lie to you about the reasons you are here.”
Jaime didn’t feel like waiting for his unwilling host to come to the point. “I am your hostage to guarantee my father doesn’t try to reclaim Bozojo.”
“Aye. That you are. Your quarters are in the donjon across my courtyard. Forgive the bars on the door but it cannot be helped. You will have every amenity you require. Clothes, food, wine, quilts, books, writing materials, even a musical instrument should you desire it. I will hold back nothing out of respect for the love my Valada had for you. You will be restricted to only the donjon, the courtyard, and what few chambers my guards bring you to when I wish your company. I will send for a Follower priest to attend the needs of your faith. But you will be permitted no other visitors. And I hardly need tell you that any letter you write or receive will be read first by me.”
“No, you don’t,” Jaime replied. He wondered about the priest. Perhaps he could slip secret messages out through him. He’d have to sound him out first. “How long should I expect to stay here as your hostage?” Though Krisztov may call him guest, he would never use that word for himself.
“You are here to keep your father out of Bozojo. Until I know it is irretrievably mine, you will stay.”
“You may never be so certain.”
“Then my heir will have your body brought back to whoever sits on your father’s seat after you die in your tower.” A frown crossed his face and he shook his head. “I mean you no ill will, Jaime. But I must control those trade routes. I will do everything I can to make your stay here as comfortable for a scion of noble blood as possible. But aye, you are my hostage and you will come at my beck and call. You are my wolf now and you will be domesticated until I release you.”
Jaime finished the wine and turned his goblet over. “My father may grant you Bozojo, but do not think he will just wait for you to let me go.”
“Oh he will.” Krisztov reached into his tunic and pulled out a bit of parchment. Jaime could see his father’s wolf-head sigil in the broken wax. “He has written to say that he agrees to my terms. You will be pleased to learn that the civil war in his lands has come to an end. I think he should hear some good news as well. Pyotr will take you to your new quarters. There you will find quill and parchment as promised. Write to your father that you have arrived safely and have been well treated — which you have been — and that you wish to put his fears for your safety to rest. Tell him all I have promised you and that you are content to wait for the time when you will see each other again.”
Jaime rose from his seat to follow Pyotr. “Very well, your grace, I will do as you ask. But my signet ring was taken from me in Bozojo. How will my father know it is me?”
“He knows your handwriting. If you must, tell him some memory of your youth that only he would know.”
“And to seal the letter?”
Krisztov waved a thick hand. “You shouldn’t worry about that. As the letter comes from my castle, my seal shall be upon it.” The opulent Duke rose from his seat with a newly minted frown across his meaty lips. “It is very late tonight. I have already supped, but I will have food from my table sent up for you. Good night, Jaime Verdane.”
He felt Pyotr’s bidding stare on his back but paused long enough to offer a curt bow to the Duke. “And good night to you, your grace.” No matter how gracious his host, from henceforth, Jaime intended to be a most disagreeable guest. The very thought of it sustained what smile he had all the way up the tower steps to his bejewelled prison.
On the shortest day of the year, with twilight already settling over the Valley, Misha Brightleaf and Sir Erick Saulius rode together along the northbound road from the Keep toward the forest village of Glen Avery. They would have left the Keep sooner but it had taken most of the day for the fox to disentangle himself from his many responsibilities as Commander of the Long Scouts. Once they had received the good news from Copernicus, both fox and rat agreed they would deliver it personally. Each had a close friendship at stake, and neither wanted to let the other bring the news alone.
Not that there was any animosity between them. But both had different visions for their friend’s future and weren’t afraid to say so.
“He’s a Long Scout, Erick,” Misha said for the third time that evening. They both rode horseback to save time. With the rat on a pony and the fox a little uncomfortable in the saddle they easily kept pace with one another. “It’s what he’s best at and you know it.”
The knight rat was dressed in one of his tabards bearing the heraldry he’d chosen for himself, a rat clutching a bundle of Flatlander grass, overtop his winter tunic and breeches. A cap of wool covered his head, ears and all. “‘Tis true that my squire hath excelled under thy tutelage. He hath a keen eye, ear, and nose for the forest. But I hath seen him a saddle. Hast thou seen his eyes when he takes to the list? He hath a fire kindled in his heart for knighthood.”
Misha remembered well seeing Matthias compete in the annual joust. Even if he was only serving as Sir Saulius’s squire, there was no question he enjoyed the attention. But that didn’t change who he was. “And he’ll probably be in the joust every year, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to leave the Long Scouts. We need him there.”
“The Lady Kimberly and his children need him here. He can be at their side better training as my squire.”
“I have every intent to keep him close to home once he returns,” Misha replied, feeling the sting of the unsaid accusation. Ever since being made a Long Scout a little over a year ago, Charles had spent far more time away from Kimberly than with her. No matter how Charles protested, the fox had every intention of evening that out. “But he can do more good for Metamor as an already trained Long Scout than as a yet to be trained knight. I know you know this, Erick.”
Saulius lowered his eyes to the road ahead. Being nocturnal animals, both could see well enough in the dark. Their steeds could not, and so both carried lanterns to guide them down the northern road. Wagons had passed back and forth breaking up most of the snow in the roadway so it was easy to follow. But with the moon new, there wasn’t enough light to make the snow glimmer as it would on nights with full moon. And with the forest now surrounding them, not even the stars aided them.
“I hath always known he wouldst make a mighty knight,” Saulius said in a quieter voice. He sighed and his whiskers drooped.
“Aye,” Misha agreed somewhat reluctantly. He could sense the rodent’s introspection and knew now was not the time for more confrontation. “With enough training he would at that. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They aren’t home yet.”
“But we dost bring good news,” Saulius said with somewhat brighter tone. “And if my eyes dost not mistake me, we hath reached the Glen.”
Misha glanced up into the trees for the scouts he knew would be there. But he couldn’t see anything even with his excellent night eyes. Still, as he studied the road and the trees he felt certain that the knight was correct. The trees towered over them, as wide as a wagon and flanked by snow drifts so large that they looked like bright dressing gowns for a wedding. They were clearly nearing the Glen if not there already. Now they just had to find the turn into the clearing.
Another minute of riding — his thighs and rear were going to be sore for a week after this, he should have just changed into a foxtaur and travelled that way — and they could see a series of lamps through the trees. After making their way past the next set of colossal trunks, they spied the main clearing of the Glen, surrounded on all sides by the lighted lamps. Both fox and rat turned their steeds down the snow swept avenue into the wide clearing. It had been cleared of snow as well, but a fresh dusting blanketed the hard ground. Paw prints, hoof prints, and wheel tracks crisscrossed the clearing. Toward the sides where the snow still lingered several snow men had been built by the Glen’s children. Most of them had snouts, ears and tails.
“‘Tis surprising that none hath come to greet us,” Saulius noted with a faint note of disappointment. The rat lifted his shout, whiskers and ears alert, and sniffed the air. “E’en my nose dost not tell me who be on duty.”
“Don’t forget, it has been a year since Nasoj attacked. Everybody is on alert. I just returned from a patrol north of the Giant’s Dike last night. Almost all of the Long Scouts are still on patrol.”
Saulius laughed, a bright chittering laugh. “I wast on patrol too not long before. Methinks it has more to do with the Ducal groom than with the dastard grim.”
Misha laughed at the bit of wit at Nasoj’s expense. Things had been so quiet from Death Mountain in the last year the Long Scout was beginning to believe that they may one day be completely free of fear. How he hoped it would be in their lifetimes! He glanced through the pleasant light of the clearing and spotted the Matthias home nestled in the twisted roots of a massive redwood. “Well, we’re here now. What are we going to do with the horses?”
“I’ll take them,” a gruff voice said from behind them. Both fox and rat spun their heads around to see a broad-shouldered badger standing with longsword wrapped in a meaty paw. His muzzle split into a grin. “I told you I could sneak up on you, Misha. You owe me five silver.”
“Angus!” Misha laughed and swung his leg off the borrowed horse. His paws landed in the thin layer of snow with a satisfying crunch. “It’s good to see you again. How long have you been following us?”
The badger shrugged his shoulders and clasped paws with the fox. “I’ve been shadowing you for a couple minutes. Not long.” He looked the fox up and down and then over at the rat. “Always good to see you, Misha. And you as well, Sir Saulius. What brings you to Glen Avery?”
“News of our friend, Charles,” the rat replied as he dismounted with far more grace than the vulpine. “We hath come to deliver it to his wife and children.”
Angus nodded and sheathed his sword. “I pray that it is good news?”
“He’s alive,” Misha replied. “At least he was alive two months ago. A messenger from some city in Pyralis arrived a day or so ago with the news.”
“Well, you both are welcome guests then,” Angus said as he breathed a sigh of relief. “I’ll take your steeds to the Inn and I’ll tell Jurmas to ready rooms for you both. You are staying the night aren’t you?”
“‘Twould be an honour to spend a night in your distinguished Glen,” Saulius said with a theatrical flourish. Sometimes the fox swore there was more jongleur to him than gentleman. But that was one way in which knight’s fought; with their very presence. And there was no question that this diminutive rat was one of the best.
Angus grinned, all his fangs glistening in the lamplit as his lips drew back from them. “Well, I won’t keep you any longer then. When you’re ready just come to the Inn. Misha, I’ll get those silvers from you later.”
The fox shook his head, laughed, and waved as the badger took the reins to both animals and led them toward the western edge of the village where the Inn nestled against a rocky slope. Together, rat and fox walked toward the familiar Matthias home within the base of the towering pine.
They could see warm light radiating through the circular windows set into the tree trunk on either side of the door nestled between two roots which spread out a good twenty feet. The sound of several voices, most of them the high-pitched timbre of a rodent, carried through the door as did the scent of several animals and something cooking. Saulius stood on the tips of his toes and gently rapped the back of his knuckles against the door. Misha stood right behind him, being careful not to step on the rat’s long, scaly tail.
To their pleasant surprise, a familiar grey-furred ferret met them at the door. Garigan was dressed in a thick woolen tunic with a green vest on top all shoved into a pair of trousers that looked freshly sewn. He blinked only once at the two of them and then smiled. “Sir Saulius! Misha Brightleaf! You two are very welcome in this home! Come in! Come in! Lady Kimberly, look who’s appeared.”
Garigan stepped back from the doorway and turned his sinuous body almost all the way around to look at the lady rat who perched on a tall stool in order to hang sprigs of some local leaf off the lintel between the main room and the kitchen. Helping steady her was the opossum Baerle. Sitting cross-legged next to a warmly crackling hearth with his long striped tail curled behind his head and a quartet of little rats clustered about his legs with eager faces was the skunk Murikeer. A familiar white-furred skunk watched the mage turned storyteller from one of the couches. Dancing merrily in the centre of the ceiling was a bright witchlight casting a silvery glow on everyone.
Kimberly smiled at the rat and fox and waved with one paw, her long tail lashing back and forth and nearly smacking Baerle’s snout. “Misha! Erick! Please come in and warm yourselves! I’m almost finished putting this up.” She stretched with all her might and then leaned back, the sprig in place. “There!”
Baerle helped her down and the two smiled. Kimberly then noted her four children still enraptured by Murikeer who was whispering to them some story all the while his one good eye appraised the two new guests. He smiled to them both and kept on whispering. But the mistress of the house would not tolerate rudeness in her children.
She put her paws on her hips and snapped, “Charles! Bernadette! Erick! Baerle! Where are your manners! We have guests!”
The four rats jumped up and spun, scampering on all fours while trying to run just on their hind paws. They got within four feet of the doorway, stopped, and stood. “Good evening and welcome!” they said in unison as if they’d been practising. Their eyes stole to their mother, whiskers and tails trembling with childish delight.
“Very good,” Kimberly said with a nod of her head. Garigan and Murikeer both stifled laughs.
All four rats immediately jumped and climbed up both Misha and Erick’s legs shouting their joy at seeing them. “Unca Saulius! Unca Misha!” “Come listen to Unca Muri’s story!” “You bring me anyfing?”
Sir Saulius scooped Bernadette and little Erick into his arms and hugged them both close. “Ah, thou art such sweet delights! Come hither and let us close the door. ‘Tis warm inside and here we shall stay.”
Misha scooped little Charles and Baerle into his arms. Little Baerle reached up one paw and tugged hard on his wounded ear. The fox yelped in surprise all the way to the couch where he was able to set them both down and free his wounded ear. That little rat had quite a grip!
“We didn’t expect to see either of you until after the new year,” Kimberly admitted as she pushed the stepping stool beneath a writing desk that did not look to have seen much use of late. “I can have some water steeping in a moment. Would you care for some tea?”
Misha smiled broadly as he settled onto the couch. “I’d love some, thank you.”
The white skunk rose with fluid grace and churred, “I’ll get that for you, milady.”
Kimberly’s whiskers bristled in exasperation but she let the skunk disappear into the kitchen to fetch a kettle for tea. She followed after her a moment and then said, “Kozaithy! Thank you, but you don’t need to do that!” The rat disappeared around the corner to press her right to serve her guests.
This was the first time Misha or Saulius had been here since Ladero’s funeral. Both of them felt an immense relief at the sounds and scents of delight pervading the Matthias home. Misha even felt his bones begin to relax. That was until little Baerle, covered in tan fur like her mother, climbed up the fox’s shoulder and resumed tugging his ear in every possible direction. Garigan settled in next to him and took the little girl in his lap and let her pull on his fingers. He gave Misha an amused grin. “Just wait until you and Caroline have children.”
Misha gave a short yipping laugh and shook his head. “Some day. Some day. Are we interrupting anything?” He gestured at the sprig and several other Yule-themed decorations he saw on the mantle and about the room. While not nearly as garish as the Long House was, it still gave this home which had seen too much sadness a look of joy.
Murikeer settled into the opposite couch where the skunk with white fur had sat a moment ago. Little Baerle’s large eyes watched his long tail curl over the back of the couch and then flick the tip from side to side. Muri seemed to take no notice to her attention and kept his gaze on the fox and rat from Metamor. “Garigan and I were helping them set out their decorations. You Patildor have some interesting traditions. So what brings you all the way from Metamor? Isn’t the Duke’s wedding in a few days?”
“Aye,” Saulius said with a quick nod of his head. He still carried the other two rats in his arms. They pawed at his chest and squeaked questions at him that he answered with a couple words before looking back at the skunk. “‘Tis good news we bring of he who is beloved in this home.”
Baerle’s scalloped ears perked. “News of Charles?”
“Yes,” Misha replied. “We have some news.”
Kimberly rushed in from the kitchen with a kettle of water in her paws. The water sloshed over the rim in her eagerness to reach their sides. “Oh do tell me! What have you heard?”
The white-furred skunk Kozaithy triumphantly took the kettle from the pleading rat’s paws and carefully set it on a spit over the flame. Her ears folded back, obviously eager to hear the news too.
Misha covered Kimberly’s paws with one of his own and smiled. “He is alive. A noble lad from a city in Pyralis arrived yesterday with news of Charles and the rest. About two months ago they passed through Breckaris on their way to Marzac.”
Kimberly breathed a sigh of relief and made the sign of the yew. “At least he is all right.” She glanced at the four little rats and smiled at them. “Did you hear that? Your Father is still on his quest. He’s far to the south now. But he’ll be coming back soon.”
“Where’s Dad!” little Charles cried with wide eyes. He sat on his haunches with tail curled around his legs. He rubbed his paws one over the other. “I wanna see Dad!”
Kimberly leaned over and licked his triangular head between the ears in the best approximation she could make to a kiss. “You will. Patience.”
“Kayla is well too?” Murikeer asked. “And the others?”
Saulius nodded. “All of them be well. Not a one has taken ill or harm on their journey. Kayla, Jessica, James, Lindsey, Habakkuk, and Charles art all well. And in good spirits as they dost undertake the last part of their quest.”
Kimberly’s eyes brimmed with tears and she kissed both rat and fox on their foreheads too. “Oh thank you both!” She brushed the tears from her eyes even as Baerle the opossum brought a handkerchief to help clean her face fur. “I’ve waited so long to hear such news.” She wrapped both Misha and Saulius in firm hugs then managed to settle herself back on the couch next to Baerle and Murikeer. Kozaithy smiled at them from the hearth where she kept watch over the steeping pot.
“We’re going to return to Metamor tomorrow morning,” Misha said as he fended off another set of little paws trying to tug his ear. “You and your family have been invited to Duke Thomas’s wedding. I’ll arrange for a carriage in the morning for you. We have a place you can stay for a few days while at Metamor.” He thought of the apartment that Kyia had built for the Matthias family in the Long House. How he wished he could convince her to stay there for good, but the rat loved her home in the woods too much to leave it. Perhaps after Charles returned he could coax them back to the Keep.
“And whilst thee stays there,” Saulius picked up the thread with a smiling twitch in his whiskers, “thou canst speak to the lad himself and hear it from his own lips.”
Kimberly blinked in confusion. “Which lad?”
“Why, Kurt Schanalein. The noble lad who met Charles.”
Kimberly’s face flushed and her ears drew back again. “Oh! Oh aye, I would like to meet him! But will we have to leave tomorrow morning?”
“With as many visitors arriving at Metamor, you’ll want to make haste. It will probably take the carriage a few hours to get past the gates, and that’s with my pass! Even if we leave by dawn tomorrow, it may be night by the time we have you and your family situated.”
Kimberly’s whiskers drooped thoughtfully while Kozaithy began pouring tea for everyone. She handed the first pair of cups to Misha and Saulius and then to Kimberly and the others. Lastly she poured one for herself and set the pot on top of the hearth where it could safely cool. She settled down next to Murikeer, her tail lazily brushing across his.
Kimberly lapped up a tongue-full of tea and then nodded. “All right. If you help out tonight, we can have everything ready for when we get back.”
“Ready for what?”
“Yahshua’s Birth!” Kimberly exclaimed brightly. “You didn’t think I’d celebrate it anywhere but my home did you?”
Misha and Saulius shook their heads and enjoyed their tea. The others laughed and began pestering them with questions about their friends journeying in strange lands.
The sultry air inside Dazheen’s wagon made Nemgas’s whole body sweat. From every pore salty tears drained. The young girl Bryone who tended the elderly seer was also sweating. She wiped her brow with the hem of her skirt and slicked back her dark hair as Nemgas entered bearing Chamag’s battered body on his left shoulder.
“Nemgas!” There was a look of stunned surprise on her face.
“Didst thee not hear of our return?”
“Aye,” she replied, and then her eyes and face lowered into her more familiar mouse-like posture. “But thou art changed.”
Nemgas frowned and pulled his right stump closer to his side. “‘Tis of no account for now. Dazheen must see Chamag.”
Bryone nodded and led him through the curtain into the even hotter central room. Seated behind the small table which Nemgas remembered always having an array of cards spread across its top was Dazheen. Wrapped about her head was a colourful handkerchief that obscured her eyes. Her gnarled hands lay on the table like crow’s talons but her cards were conspicuously absent. She turned her head at his entrance and her thin, cracked lips broke into a gap-toothed smile. She alone of all of them was not sweating.
“Welcome home, Nemgas. What hast happened to Chamag?” Her voice carried a grandmotherly warmth that made him forget the heat of the room for a moment.
Bryone pulled a long table from out of the top of the cabinets opposite Dazheen. Nemgas eased Chamag’s body down onto the wooden table. The wood groaned from his weight but held. Chamag lay on his back with one arm pinned beneath him and his head tilted so that his mouth hung agape. From behind his lips peered his unnaturally long fangs.
Nemgas straightened Chamag’s arms and then sighed. “A poison of undeath fouled his blood, Dazheen. It hath already smote Berkon and Kaspel. He didst run toward Cenziga and when he passed into the fog, the poison wast ripped from his body. I fear for his life and so brought him to thee.”
Dazheen shifted her lips to show that she understood. With great deliberation, Dazheen forced herself to stand and totter to the long table. Bryone rushed to her side and held her right arm to steady her. The seer extended her left hand over Chamag’s body, her curled fingers flexing up and down through the air.
Nemgas wiped sweat from his brow and kept a wary eye on his friend’s body. He well remembered the many times they’d bled Berkon. Each time they thought they’d rid him of the black blood, but each time it came back. Would it be so too for Chamag? The jewelled blade touched by Cenziga had destroyed Berkon in his undeath so he had some hope. But as he watched the faint smile on Dazheen’s lips turn to a sullen frown his hope grew ever more tenuous.
She lowered the hand and let it rest upon the man’s chest. It rose and fell with Chamag’s slow breaths and Dazheen appeared to match her breathing to it. Both Nemgas and Bryone had to dry their foreheads again before the seer finally spoke. “The poison hath left him. I feel no evil in his body. Yet he wilt need rest to recover. Whate’er tried to claim him ate away his strength.”
“I wilt take him to his wagon that he might sleep.” Though he didn’t say it, Nemgas meant to take Chamag back to the Bachelor’s wagon that they had once shared so long ago. Perhaps being in a wagon full of joyful memories would help him recover faster.
“Nae,” Dazheen said. She pressed her arm into Chamag’s chest as if holding him down. “Not yet. I wilt prepare draughts for him that will help. And I wish to speak to thee, Nemgas.”
“Thy journey. I wish thee to tell me all that thou didst see. Especially of the enemy. I must know all I can ere...” She turned away from him and leaned on Bryone for support. “Then thou wilt take Chamag to his wagon and return to me. I wilt need thy help for what wilt come then.”
“What art that?”
The answer was several long moments in coming. Her voice was muted and melancholy. “Thou wilt take me to Cenziga.”
Dusk fell quickly and the once sombre sky became a thing bright with thousands of stars but otherwise bleak with an icy emptiness that made the Magyars huddle ever closer to their fires. They pulled their cloaks tight about their necks and warmed their hands as their voices gave forth both delight and mist. Despite the joy all of them felt at being reunited after six long months apart, the joy was muted not by the cold but by the fog-shrouded mountain that watched over them.
Only one of them kept apart from the fires. Grastalko sat a short distance away with his bucket of snow between his knees. The pain in the burnt stump at the end of his left arm came in waves but never quite receded. The only thing that brought him relief was his snow, and if he neared the fires it would melt even faster. Grastalko sighed as he could feel a little bit of ice water at the bottom.
“What art thee doing over here?” a familiar voice asked. The young Magyar turned his head and smiled. The little thief Gamran, the very first to befriend him, was making his way past the nearest of the fires toward him. He had on the little cloth hat that Thelia had made him only a day before he’d had to leave the wagons as well as his thick coat and breeches. He juggled a pair of balls back and forth. With a flick of his wrist he tossed one of the balls at him.
Grastalko snatched it out of the air with his good hand and then sent it back. Gamran moved his hands quickly enough in the dim light that Grastalko didn’t see him catch it. But he did have one more ball than before.
“I hath to keep my hand in snow or it pains me,” Grastalko explained by nodding his chin to the bucket. “If I sit too close to the fire ‘twill all melt.”
Gamran frowned a little which gave his face a tragic cast in the darkness. “What thou didst tell me of thy hand... I wish there were aught I could do!”
“There is naught anyone can do. Dazheen hath done all she can for me. The draughts she hath given take away the pain for a time, and they dost help me sleep, but as we hath neared that,” he nodded toward the tower of fog, “the pain hath grown worse.”
Gamran caught his balls and sat next to him on the barren ground. The dirt was hard but not frozen. “Soon we shalt leave and the pain wilt go too. I doubt thou wilt e’er see this place again. And now thou wilt be able to see all the Steppe and visit all the cities and perform for them. Think of all that thou wilt see in the weeks and months ahead. Thou hast seen many great things already on thy journey. Things e’en I hath ne’er seen!”
“Aye, ‘tis true,” Grastalko admitted, but not with much joy. “But now all I shalt e’er see again is the Steppe.”
Gamran shrugged his shoulders and glanced past him. Grastalko turned and saw Pelgan walking over to them. His smile was thin but sure. Pelgan tossed his black braid over one shoulder and then began twirling one of his knives in his hand. “The Steppe ‘tis more than many shall e’er see.”
Grastalko shrugged and let his eyes sink into the bucket. He’d have to refill it ere the hour was out.
“Art thou still unhappy?” Pelgan asked after several moments of quiet.
“Aye,” he admitted. “Not for what I once wast. ‘Tis gone I know and e’en shouldst I wish it back, I could ne’er have it.”
“Dost thou wish it back?” Gamran asked as he leaned forward to keep their shoulders even.
“Nae,” Grastalko replied with a long sigh. It had been hard to admit to himself at first, but the life of a knight had always been a choice forced upon him. He’d had an opportunity to choose between being a knight and a Magyar and he’d chosen the latter. Like it or not he would always and ever more be a Magyar. “‘Tis not that. Hanaman hath taken me in to help me find my place, but I dost not know if I e’er will. What canst I do with but one hand?”
Pelgan caught his knife by the blade between two fingers and held it steady. “Nemgas hath ne’er suffered from lack of an arm.”
Grastalko forced the words through his teeth, “His dost not pain him!”
“Oh aye,” Gamran said with a faint laugh. “But thy pain will leave when we dost leave this place. Thou art limber, Grastalko. E’en with only one hand thou wilt make a fine tumbler. Together we couldst master new tricks of juggling. Whate’er thou canst do wilt only amaze others the more because thou hast but one arm. Thou art ne’er alone, Grastalko. And now thy friends hath returned to thee! Be of good cheer, I beseech thee!”
Grastalko felt a little ashamed at his sudden anger. He took a deep breath and did his best to ignore the throbbing pain aching his left arm. With some effort he managed a faint smile and nodded to them both. “Thou art my friends. Forgive me for being so poor in spirit at thy return. ‘Tis the pain. I hath no room to think!”
Both nodded but it was the little thief who spoke. “Fear not. All hath been forgiven e’en before thee asked!” An infectious grin spread across his face and Grastalko found his heart lifting with every passing moment. How did the presence of these two who he once would have seen as rogues in need of justice bring him a sense of companionship beyond what he’d known as a squire? He’d only ever spent a month in their presence, and most of that time had been as a prisoner!
But when his smile grew with that of his friend’s, those questions disappeared and he began to feel a sense of hope again. He believed them when they assured him that he would find a place amongst the Magyar and he looked forward to their tumbling. But the thought of aiding Gamran on a thieving still left him with mixed feelings. Though he knew stealing to be wrong, somehow he knew having Gamran lead him on that mischievous endeavour would make it seem a pleasant diversion. And that only made him more unsure of himself!
But that these were his friends he knew and the smile stayed on his face.
He was about to saying something more when Pelgan’s eyes fixed on something behind them. Grastalko shifted on his rear and saw the one-armed Nemgas approaching. Buckled to his belt was the silver and black blade Caur-Merripen. An inscrutable look was fixed on his face just as his eyes fixed upon Grastalko. The newest of the Magyars swallowed heavily and pushed his left arm further into the bucket of half-melted snow.
“Grastalko,” Nemgas said in a soft voice, “Dazheen needeth thee to come with us.”
“Where art we to go?” he asked, though in his heart he knew the answer. He remembered what the seer had told him after they’d left the Åelfwood.
“To Cenziga. She hath said that thou art needed as art I.” His gaze swept past Grastalko to take in the other Magyars sitting nearby. Both Gamran and Pelgan had shifted closer to their friend as if that could spare him the coming ordeal. The others flinched at the name of the mountain under whose shadow they camped.
Hanaman rose and stepped through the ring of Magyars around the fire and held up one hand. His eyes narrowed with a look of concern that Grastalko knew was meant for him. “Art thee sure ‘tis wise to go there again, Nemgas?”
The one-armed Magyar shrugged and then brushed the white lock of hair from his face. “Whether wise or no, ‘tis not my choice. Dazheen hath foreseen this, and so we must.”
The elder Magyar’s chiselled brow tightened as it always did once he’d made up his mind. “Then ja! Aid Dazheen in whate’er she ask of thee.”
Grastalko stood, holding his bucket tight in his good hand. He looked up at Hanaman but knew he could make no appeal. Hanaman’s lips pressed tight, but he put one hand on the young Magyar’s shoulder and squeezed with what little affection he could show. “I wilt aid Dazheen,” he said with as much courage as he could muster. He was rewarded by another firm squeeze from Hanaman’s powerful hand.
“Ja! I wilt see thee when thou dost return.” Hanaman let go and gestured for him to follow Nemgas.
Grastalko nodded, smiled once to Gamran and Pelgan who each gave him reassuring pats on the shoulder, and then followed Nemgas who walked back toward the wagons. The bucket bounced off Grastalko’s middle as he walked, but he’d long grown used to it. As they walked, Nemgas’s head turned to where the Assingh attempted to graze from the parched earth. Kisaiya stood in their midst, her eyes meeting his for several long moments. Grastalko licked his lips and lowered his eyes.
They soon reached the seer’s wagon. Nemgas vaulted up to the seat and opened the door. His voice was gentle. “Dazheen. We art ready.”
“Help me down,” the seer’s warm words echoed from within. Grastalko waited by the wheel while Nemgas disappeared in the doorway. A moment later he emerged with Dazheen’s brittle form cradled in his left arm with his stump supporting her legs. Behind them with head bowed walked Bryone. Grastlako’s heart tightened at the sight of her withdrawn face and quiet eyes. They flicked up to meet his gaze, then just as quickly darted away.
Nemgas carried Dazheen until he’d left the wagon, then gingerly set her back on her feet. Her usual colourful garb was supplemented by a long shawl draped across her neck and shoulders. Talismans of bone, feather, fang, cloth, reed, and stone hung from the shawl and bounced off her back. Grastalko stared at one fashioned from twined reeds that twisted in every direction. He tried to follow the path through the reeds but lost his place after only three turns.
Dazheen turned a cowled face toward him even though he’d not made a sound since arriving. “Grastalko, Bryone, lend me thy shoulders.” He nodded and stood at her left so she could rest her arm on his right shoulder. Bryone took her place opposite him and wrapped her left arm about Dazheen’s middle. Together they walked toward the pillar of fog with Nemgas at their heels.
Grastalko wedged the bucket beneath his good arm while keeping Dazheen balanced. His moved forward across that barren land only because they had to. His heart trembled in his chest, pounding louder and louder. Yet Dazheen at his side seemed unafraid. He felt no trembling in her old bones, and as her fingers gripped his shoulder, they pinched in close and tight with a strength he hadn’t thought possible. Even Bryone seemed resigned to braving the mysterious mountain.
It wasn’t the stories he’d heard that made him afraid; his fellow Magyars were remarkably tight-lipped about this place so he’d only heard a few, and most of them about how Nemgas had scaled the peak almost a year ago. Grastalko feared the pain. With each step he could feel the fire in his left stump smouldering hotter and hotter. He grit his teeth close and shifted the stump about until it was settled in an unmelted section of snow. He could hear the water sloshing at the bottom of the bucket, and as his eyes glanced down, saw a wisp of steam curl beneath the wooden rim.
If the pain grew too intense he’d fall over paralysed. But if he fell, Dazheen would fall too and that would surely kill her. He bit his lip and kept walking.
The eyes of the other Magyars were upon them as they passed beyond the lines of their fires and onto the empty plain. The fog rose up impenetrable and black. The flames should have cast wild shadows across its textured surface, but they saw nothing in the darkness. But he could hear something. A faint thrumming that beat against the inside of his ears grew with each step as did his pain.
And the others could hear it too. Dazheen’s wrinkles grew taut and her step wary. Bryone turned her head this way and that as if trying to find some way to position her ears so that she wouldn’t hear it. Behind them, Nemgas’s voice was almost soothing. “‘Tis Cenziga. Repeat thy name to thyself. Hold to thy name no matter what thou dost feel or hear. ‘Tis the only way to enter.”
Grastalko nodded and with each throbbing in his hand muttered under his tongue, “I hight Grastalko.” The ground crunched beneath his boots and each staccato pop of frozen earth propelled the beat of the mount deeper and deeper into his mind. He repeated his name to himself as many times as he could between each beat, blinking tears from his eyes as he stared at the tower of fog. It was so close now he could feel it like an army marching around a hill.
He stifled the cry in his chest. His hand felt like it would burst the bucket snow and all into flame at any second. Even the tears streaming down his cheeks burned like a heated iron rod dragged across his flesh. Still he cried his name to his mind and knew the truth of what the other Magyar had said — he could no longer remember anything but his name and the pain. And he would not be the pain!
His foot hit a loose stone and he skipped to stay on his feet. He bucket tilted upward and he nearly knocked whatever was resting on his shoulder over. Something steadied it, but the water in his bucket splashed across his legs and exposed his left stump to the air. The pain doubled so much that he fell to his knees cradling his arm and beating his head against the ground. All he could do as the mountain beat on him with a hammer was cry, “I hight Grastalko! I hight Grastalko!”
Something grabbed him around the shoulder and dragged him. A deep cold crawled over his flesh but did nothing to sate the infernal agony in his left stump. And with each pounding blow of the mountain he felt other words pushing into his consciousness. Cenziga. Slowly it bubbled through the miasma of his disintegrating thoughts. The one thread he had left that neither pain nor pound had severed was his name. Not the name he’d had at his birth, that was gone like chaff swallowed by fire. No, the name of his true self. Grastalko.
He was Grastalko. A single strand of identity amidst a tempest of fire and forge. It was so small and fragile but he would cling to it without fail.
And then, like a candle being snuffed, the pounding and the fire in his arm ceased. Grastlako blinked and looked up at a tower of fog curving around them. The bucket was gone from his arms, but his stump was dark and as free of pain as he could ever remember it being. He blinked and wiped tears from his cheeks. The air was cool but clear, and around him he saw three others dressed in the same colourful patchwork garments as he bore.
Because they were Magyars just like he. The one armed man was Nemgas who had dragged him through the fog. The elderly woman who crouched wearily was Dazheen. And the young girl whose white face and hands trembled as she aided the seer was Bryone. He was Grastalko.
And then his lungs lost their breath as his eyes met Cenziga.
It was and was not a mountain. It towered over them like a mountain and had the same triangular shape from its base to its summit. But its edge seemed more an interruption to the flat earth of the Steppe. Replete with jagged crevices and spikes all across its many textured surface, it made the crags of the Vysehrad appear smooth as riverbed stones. And he’d never before seen stone that bore the blue glow of lightning. From the summit stretched a solitary spire of black that glistened in the starlight. Grastalko narrowed his eyes as the stars began shifting overhead like a thousand fireflies dancing on a Summer night.
“Be wary,” Nemgas said as he helped Grastalko back to his feet. “It let us in this far. When I didst come here before it fought me all the way to the top. It may return to strike at any moment.”
“We shalt be safe.” They all turned to the seer whose voice seemed to come from the top of the mountain. Her hands reached for the cloth over her face but she couldn’t reach the knot. Bryone, still trembling from the passage through the fog, stepped behind her and managed to tease the knot loose.
Dazheen’s ruined eyes glanced at the mountain, and then she eased herself with Bryone’s help to the ground. Nemgas and Grastalko gathered close by as the seer took a pouch at her side and dumped the contents onto the ground. Bryone gasped, and Grastalko tightened his right hand into a fist. It was her cards.
They fell one by one from the pouch, and then, to their surprise, every single card landed face up. Dazheen spread them out with her hand, and the images on the cards blurred together like paint in the rain. Bryone cried in horror as a man’s face emerged through the cards. Dazheen stirred and the man turned to look back at them and smile. He had light hair with high aquiline nose and aristocratic bearing. He was dressed in a blue doublet and they could see that he stood in some dark chamber with intricate scroll work moulded into the walls.
His lips moved, and the cards rustling together became a voice speaking with utmost contempt. “You’ve arrived. Good. Watch and tremble. This is your last night alive, Dazheen.”
Even as Bryone cried in horror and hugged the woman, Dazheen continued to stir the cards. The face turned away from them and toward a long hall. A pair of shadows emerged from that hall as they all watched beneath the shadow of Cenziga.
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