Lineaments of Coming Night
nd here we are,” the kangaroo announced.
The house that Habakkuk had brought them to was a small two room stone structure. There were two small windows in either side, but the panes of glass were blurry and James could see nothing through them. A small chimney climbed one side, but there was no smoke rising from it. Aside from the front door, the entire house was fashioned from stone. The blocks were not large, and struck the donkey as being leftover after the Keep itself had been built millennia ago.
The white gryphon was waiting outside, and bowed its head low when they approached. James could not help but feel uncomfortable. Those intense black eyes seemed to study him as if the Nauh-kaee were considering whether donkey meat was stringy or not.
But at least, he thought ruefully, he still had flesh. Poor Charles no longer was flesh at all, but a stone statue that moved and talked! He had hoped, oh he had hoped that his greatest friend in all the world would come from that temple restored and healed. But no, almost exactly the same thing came out as went in. If even the gods could not break the curse on him, then what hope was there really?
Yes, Charles said he was supposed to return to flesh when they killed that Runecaster. But what chance did they have of doing that? They had barely survived that whole battle long, and then only by blind luck did they manage that! If that man, the Marquis, came back, he could always just use those cards to walk into their minds. James shuddered as he remembered what it felt like to have that man step into his thoughts, obliterate all of them but those simple and hateful commands. He would go back into the poor house and live the remainder of his days starving in the street if that would prevent the Marquis from raping his mind again.
“It looks nice,” James said, nodding back to the Nauh-kaee, still feeling rather uncomfortable in his presence.
Habakkuk smiled slightly. “Lindsey’s quite proud of it. Always said he had to build his own home and was not going to let the Keep do it for him.”
The kangaroo did not bother to knock, but simply opened the door and went inside. James followed him, being careful not to step on his guide’s large tail. The main room was wide and decorated with bearskins upon the floor, and various axes and maces affixed to the wall. An elk’s head was staring out at the occupants from above the inglenook. Several large packs were leaning against the wall. An assortment of metal spikes and other supplies were clustered around them. The small man who was friend to the gryphon was kneeling and inspecting the devices so intently that he did not turn when they stepped inside.
The doorway to the back room was directly in front of Habakkuk and James, covered by many long strings of beads. Lindsey appeared in that doorway a moment later carrying another bundle of supplies. His red beard stretched into a welcoming smile when he saw them. “Welcome to my house, James. We’ll be waiting here for a short while, so make yourself comfortable on one of the skins. I’m sorry but I have nothing else to sit on here.”
James found the thickest looking of the skins, that of a large polar bear stretched out near the hearth, and settled down atop it. The fur was not particularly warm, but it was soft and bore him up remarkably well. “Thank you, Lindsey,” James said, his eyes drawn to the bundle of supplies in the northerner’s arms. “What is all this?”
“These are our things for the journey. And one of these is going to be yours too. You could take a peek at it if Abafouq here would get his hands off of it.”
The little Binoq sounded indignant. “I’m merely inspecting it to make sure that it is sufficient for the climb ahead! You both may have had to contend with ice before, but what we will face is ice everywhere. You need the proper tools if you hope to survive!”
James’s eyes widened. “Do we have the proper tools?”
The Binoq’s face melted some, and he nodded. “Yes. Habakkuk here put together a very good pack for you. Here, let me show you what each piece is and how you will wear it.”
While the Binoq began a monologue on the various functions of the metal spike shoes – thankfully shaped to fit the donkey’s hooves – Lindsey and Habakkuk started a small conversation of their own. James couldn’t hear what they were saying, but from the looks on their faces, it seemed to be a painful subject, especially for the kangaroo. His ears were folded back, and his muzzle was turned down unpleasantly. His whole body, for just a moment, seemed to sag with weariness.
But, he drew back into startled life when another snout poked its way into the door that had been left half-open. James lifted his ears at that, and even Abafouq half turned to see who it was. “Pardon mine intrusion,” the rat said in a rather thick accent. “But I hath come looking for Charles. He didst leave to speak with thee, Habakkuk. Where hast he gone, for there art much that he and I hath still to do this day.”
“Ah, Sir Saulius,” Habakkuk said. He smiled widely. “I am sorry that I missed your bout against Sir Egland this morning. I understand that you have won the golden lance for a second year in a row. I remember seeing your performance last year. It was astonishing to see somebody so small have such skill with lance and blade.”
The knight rat stood a little taller then, his whiskers quivering on end, and his eyes lighting up with pride. He was dressed in a simple brocade tunic and breeches bearing colours of red and gold. There was no mail visible on him, and it looked like he was alone. “I thank thee, good scribe.” His eyes scanned the room, focussed on James for a moment and then looked back at the kangaroo. “Art thee preparing for a journey?”
“Aye,” Habakkuk replied, gesturing with the sweep of one paw at the packs assembled on the floor. “A very long journey I am afraid. If you wish, you can wait here with us for a short while. Charles will be joining us here soon. Your squire will be coming with us on this journey.”
Saulius opened his muzzle, eyes wide in shock. “But he hath obligations! Where art thee to travel, and why dost he go with thee?”
“His obligation to go with us is greater than his obligation to his family. There is a threat that we go to meet. I do not wish to say what that threat is, but simply believe me when I say it is the greatest any of us will ever face. Charles must come with us if we are to have any hope of success. Furthermore, it is the only way that Charles himself will be healed.”
“Healed?” Saulius said, his whole body, once confident and certain, was trembling with anxiety. “What hast happened?”
Habakkuk frowned, his ears lowered once more. “I am sorry to have to tell you this, Erick, but he has been turned to stone.”
“Stone! By the gods!” Saulius’s voice squeaked shrilly.
“The gods have healed him the best they can, and if we are successful, when we return, he will be flesh once more. But I am afraid that he must come with us.”
Saulius opened his muzzle to say something more, but the devastation and surprise in his eyes was clear. He simply did not know what to make of all that he had just heard. After working his jaw a few more times, the rat finally managed to spit out, “When wilt thee leave?”
“In an hour, hour an a half at most,” Habakkuk replied as gently as he could. “If you wish to see him again, we will leave by the main gate.”
Saulius nodded slowly, looking down at the ground now. “I shalt see thee then. ‘Tis foul news you bring me. ‘Tis foul news indeed.” The rat muttered some more to himself as he turned and left the doorway open behind him. James felt sorry for the knight. He had been so confident, so charming in fact while he had been training Charles at the Glen the last two months. He could not ever remember seeing him so befuddled and downcast.
Habakkuk pushed the door closed then and sighed heavily. “It is the worst part you know,” he said at last, a chuckle under his breath, though a bitter one. “Goodbye. There is no blade that cuts deeper than a farewell.”
“We’ll be coming back though, right?” James asked, feeling suddenly frightened.
“If we succeed. If we succeed.”
Somehow, the distance in the kangaroo’s eyes did not help assure him.
He saved her letter for last. The first three had been very easy for the rat to write, but this one was naturally going to be the most important. It took him longer than he had wanted, but finally it was laying before him, the ink drying slowly, the glistening letters fading into dark relief against the fresh parchment.
The first letter had been penned to Garigan. His instructions for the ferret were similar to what he had asked Misha; merely watch over his wife and children, and comfort them as best he could when they needed it. Of course, he enjoined him to continue his Sondecki exercises so that when Charles returned he could more adequately bring the ferret into a deeper understanding, but he knew he didn’t really have to tell Garigan that. Even so, he took some small pleasure in guiding the young man’s training.
His second letter he wrote to Lord Avery. He explained that he would be leaving on this venture and that he was concerned for the well-being of his family. To that end, Charles had also admonished the Lord of the Glen not to try and convince Kimberly to stay at the Glen should she choose to return to Metamor. If he knew the squirrel, then Brian Avery would work to keep them at the Glen.
Charles wrote his third letter to Jerome. He wrote letters to his fellow Sondeckis at least once a month, just so that they could keep in touch. Now, he had to explain why he would not be writing again, where it was he would be going, and repeat his warning about Zagrosek. It was not an easy letter to write either, but he finished it quickly enough.
But then, he tried to marshal his thoughts about his wife, already so long gone from his presence that he ached for her. But how could he hold her in paws of stone? Kimberly needed flesh and blood, and he had neither. And his children, they should not grow up with a father who chilled them from his touch. There was just so much he wished he could say. When the ink had finally dried, he looked and read what he had managed.
After reading his letter twice, Charles decided that he had said all that he truly could. He folded the letter, poured a bit of hot wax upon it, and then pressed his seal into the wax. Afterwards, he leaned back in Misha’s chair and stared at the four letters. He’d give Misha their instructions shortly. Only the letter to Jerome needed special consideration, and his long standing arrangement with Raven would suffice there.
The Sondeshike still lay on the table. It was unmoving, but it still caught his eyes. There really was little else to do now. Misha would have the Longs assembled in another few minutes. He may as well take what time he had left and use it wisely.
Grasping the Sondeshike, he left Misha’s office, leaving the letters behind on the desk. There were quite a few more Long Scouts out in the main hall, and most of them were helping with the decorations. Only a few of them remained up, but he doubted they would be visible for too much longer. Soon, Long House would return to some semblance of normalcy.
Charles had no desire to be interrupted by any of his fellow Longs just yet. He practically ran across the hall to the door that only he ever used. He shut it gratefully behind him, and felt as if he should sigh in relief. The room beyond was fashioned from clay, crisp and golden in the summer sun. Around a turn was the Sondecki altar, broad flat platform that was imbued with undiluted Sondeck. The angel knelt with hands upheld before it, her face serene and comforting. Even the air in the room was thick and rich with the feel of the Sondeck. Charles savoured it for a moment before stepping forward.
He extended the Sondeshike in his paws, and twirled it through the air, listening to the satisfying whoosh as he turned it end over end. Charles closed his eyes, and let his Sondeck move through ever bit of stone that now comprised his body. He moved fluidly and fast, rediscovering all that he had learned over the many years in Sondeshara. It was all there, at the beck and call of his new granite form. Though he did not feel the same sort of fire that made his flesh tingle before, he still possessed that cold certainty that he could channel force just as greatly as before.
Satisfied, Charles set the Sondeshike upon the altar, and knelt before the angel, resting his stone paws in her alabaster hands. He could feel her fingers curl around his own. A surge of power flowed into his arms, filling him, and for one moment, he thought he could feel his stone skin tremble in excitement.
And then, all his fears were stilled. His calm came to him, reassuring, but surprising in its form. No longer was he standing in the desert under a star filled sky. Now, he stood even taller, the mighty mountain all alone in a field of grass. His dominion was clear, and his agelessness pervasive. Life in all its myriad of forms nestled at his feet, and earth clung to him protectively. He was stone, unmoving and impassive. Perfectly at rest, and yet moving with power.
Charles opened his eyes and snout, staring at the way his fingers had blended into the hands of the angel. He pulled back slowly, and watched as the colours bled into each other for a moment, before his digits once more became speckled grey. He flexed them a few times, and wondered at why he seemed to be able to merge with stone now. There would be no doubt. He’d need a heavy cloak to wrap himself in if he was to sleep safely.
Rising to his foot paws, the rat took the Sondeshike from the altar, retracted it and stepped back. He bowed low, tail raised high behind him, and then stood straight again. “Good bye,” he whispered, and then returned to the door.
Outside, he stared for a moment in surprise. Misha and the rest of the Long Scouts had gathered in a semicircle about the door to the Sondecki Shrine. They all had heavy eyes, but hopeful smiles. The rat blinked at them, and then smiled as well.
“You came back to us too briefly, Matt,” Misha said for the group. Charles looked and saw every one of them were there. Even Padraic the rabbit who had been on patrol that morning was there. He was still dressed in his scouting clothes, and so must have just walked in the gates. Charles was glad to see each of them. “We will all wait eagerly for your return. Your home is here and we will keep it ready for you.”
Charles let out a chocking sob then as he hugged the fox once more. And then, in a mass of bodies, he hugged each of the other Longs in an embrace that would have brought forth tears if he had any to shed. He wasn’t even sure in what order he hugged them, or who was the last he hugged, it all came so quickly and in such a blur. When it was over, he was standing in the middle of a circle, a sea of faces so familiar and yet so indistinguishable that he could barely even ponder why.
“I will miss you all my brothers and sisters. No matter what happens, I will always be a Long and will always be your brother.”
No family could ever have a farewell that did not bring tears. And this one certainly proved no different. By the time it was over and the rat had collected his cloak and a stout bow with a quiver of arrows, given Misha the instructions for each letter, and said goodbye to each Long once more, his shoulders and cheeks were each wet with his fellow Longs’ tears.
Sadly, but knowing that happiness would come again, he drew the cloak about him, put the Sondeshike in a pocket inside the cloak, and then left the Long House, wondering when he might return.
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