Lineaments of Coming Night
harles and Kayla were the last to arrive at Lindsey’s house. Rarely had the timbersman had so many people in his home at any one time. With seven in the main room, and Guernef the Nauh-kaee standing just outside the door with his black beak poking under the transom, there was little room for him or anyone other than the Binoq to move around.
“Now that everyone is here,” Lindsey announced, gesturing for everyone to look more closely. His own supplies were in a small pile next to his boots. He picked up the yellow vest and held it out. “I’ve had tailored for each us vests that should fit you comfortably. They are fashioned from spider silk. They are lighter than chain mail, and according to the weaver, can even stop a crossbow bolt. However, they can still be cut, and they can certainly be burned. And any damage that they sustain cannot be repaired. So let us not put their capabilities to the test.”
“Spider silk?” Charles asked dubiously. “I can walk through a spider web.”
“Feel it,” Lindsey suggested, tossing the stone rat the vest. Charles took it in his paws and pulled on the fabric. It did not give at all. “Not too hard now. They are expensive, and they take weeks to weave.”
Charles studied for a moment longer before handing it back to the northerner. “I take it the most important thing about them is that they are light?”
“Climbing mountains is best when you are light of foot or paw,” Abafouq pointed out, nodding his approval at the vests. “How heavy are you, Charles?”
“Too heavy, I fear. Perhaps I should take my full rat form when we climb. I could be carried then.” The thought of riding in somebody else’s satchel was certainly an intriguing one. But it brought back the memory of the time that the Lutin had snagged him as a rat and tossed him in his knapsack, intent on making a meal out of him. He grimaced visibly, and then shook his head, “But I’d rather avoid that if I could.”
“If things are truly difficult for you, Charles, we’ll find a way,” Habakkuk assured him. “I am sure Abafouq can teach you all sorts of tricks despite your weight.”
Charles crossed his arms and looked at the kangaroo oddly. “I’m a rat. Even before I became a rat I was not terribly large. I think this may be the first time I have ever had to worry about my weight.”
“Will you have a vest that fits me?” Jessica asked, not really paying any attention to the rat’s maundering.
“Yes,” Lindsey replied, pointing to another pile of supplies. “That one is yours. The arm holes are much wider for your wings. I can help you get it on if you have trouble.”
“Thank you.” Jessica nudged one of the heavy iron spikes with her talons. “What are these?”
“We’ll need to climb over ice flows amongst other things,” the timbersman replied. “They should fit your feet comfortably, and will give you the extra traction you are going to need. Charles, you’ll notice that I have four iron shoes for you. We will need you to use your taur form to carry extra supplies at first.”
“I’m three times heavier in my taur form you know,” Charles pointed out. “Are you sure that is wise?”
Abafouq grimaced and inspected the stone rat up and down. “You may find it easier to climb with six limbs. But if a ledge is too risky for you, I will warn you and we will find another way.”
Charles nodded and pulled the cloak tighter about his chest. “Very well, but I’d rather you did not ask me to change until after we left the city. We are a distinctive group, even by Metamor’s standards. If people see that I am stone as well, then they will definitely remember us. Enough people have seen me already.”
“That can be managed,” Habakkuk replied. “You can show them how to use the shoes when we break camp tomorrow morning. We do need to actually get into the mountains first. They won’t be any good for a few days travel at least.”
Lindsey twisted one of the braids of his red beard around a thick finger and grimaced. “True. Very quickly then, each of these packs contains some basic essentials. We have sufficient oil for torches if we need them, and there is a small bottle of grease for our exposed flesh if it grows very cold. We have food, enough to keep us going if we cannot catch any along the way. There is rope, flint, wineskins with fresh water and a pyrock to keep the water warm. If we need the pyrocks to keep ourselves warm, we can remove them from the wineskins as well. There is room in the packs for a few more personal items of your own. Otherwise, that is all we are going to bring.”
“What of weapons?” Kayla asked, looking up from her pack. She had slipped the vest on, and they all could see that it fit her very well. The yellow was surprisingly bright on her, contrasting well with her monochrome fur.
“You should have taken one from Long House. But I have a small cache.” Lindsey looked over at Charles and James. “Do either of you need anything?”
Charles fingered the bow he’d brought. “I have this.” He pulled the Sondeshike from his cloak. “And this. I will be fine.”
“I have my short sword,” James pointed out. “I’m not very good with anything else.”
Lindsey looked James over and smiled. “Except big bells. Too bad we can’t really carry any of them with us.”
The donkey smiled slightly at that and nodded. “Guess so.” His eyes then went over to the kangaroo who was wriggling out of his tunic. “Um.”
Habakkuk lifted the shirt over his head, his ear still caught in the fabric. “I recommend we wear the vests underneath our clothes until we leave the city. They will draw far too much attention. People might think that we are a performing troupe or something.”
They all agreed that it was a good idea, though the rest of them did possess enough modesty to turn around while they changed. Only Jessica, being a hawk, had nothing to put overtop of her vest. Lindsey showed her how it could be folded and slipped into the backpack for now. Once they were all dressed again, the timbersmen also helped them get all of their gear stowed, and hoisted properly on their backs.
“Since Charles will not be taking his taur form until we leave the city,” Lindsey said, gesturing to the much larger pack that occupied one end of the room. Foodstuffs, and heavy cloth were wrapped together in a tight bundle that was a bit too large for them to carry comfortably. “Guernef, can you carry this until we are free of the city walls?”
The Nauh-kaee remained impassive, but there was the subtlest of changes in the way his pristine eyes examined them. Only Abafouq seemed to be able to read that subtle change of expression, but the Binoq could not help but smile. “You are the only one who will be able to carry it.”
It took both Lindsey and Charles to position the bundle upon the white gryphon’s back. Guernef watched them intently, but said nothing the entire time. When they were done, the others filled out of Lindsey’s home, carrying their packs a bit awkwardly at first, shifting them about until they were comfortable.
Lindsey took one last look inside his home, frowning a bit as he did so. Habakkuk put a paw to the man’s back and patted him comfortingly. The northerner smiled sadly and shut the door. And it was he who led them down through the boisterous streets of Metamor.
It was a good four hours until the sun passed over the Dragon mountains in the West and cast the valley into shadow. Another hour still until full twilight would descend upon them. But the festivities at Metamor would run long past that, well into the night itself. The last of the revellers would still be drinking and singing when the sun shone its first rays across the Barrier Range the next morning.
And the streets were filled with people from all over the valley gathered to celebrate the first day of Summer. Lindsey managed to avoid the worst clumps of excited crowds, but several times, they did have to squeeze past people clogging streets to watch the street performers. There were men who swallowed swords, others who walked on hot coals without singing their fur, and even a gorilla morph juggling twenty some balls with both his arms and legs.
Thankfully, the only member of their company that did turn heads was the Nauh-kaee, who in size alone was as wide as three large men, and that was with his wings folded across his back framing the heavy satchel he carried. When other Keepers saw the white gryphon approaching, and especially when they saw his piercing avian eyes, they always managed to find a way, no matter how many others were clustered around to witness some performer or to see the wares of some merchant from far off lands, to slip around and away from where Guernef was going. This at several points allowed the group to continue moving down the long streets when otherwise they would have had to attempt a different route.
All of them looked at the feverish activities with a sense of loss. This was something that they wished they could enjoy, but for now, they could take no pleasure in it. This was the home they had known for so many years, and now they were leaving it. These were the people whom they called brother, sister, friend, and now they may never see them again. Several times, each of them would cast their eyes to the east and see the spires of the nearest of the mountains in the Barrier Range, and they would wonder what awaited them in those icy crags. But mostly, they just mourned the loss of their home.
It took twenty minutes to pass from Lindsey’s doorway to the Killing Fields themselves. The Killing Fields were at this time also clogged with merrymakers, as well as booths and pavilions where the various festivities were taking place. The jousting field was already being slowly taken down, its purpose fulfilled for that year. When Charles saw it, he felt a strange sense of detachment. That morning he had been worried about whether he should stay a scout or become a knight. Right then, he couldn’t feel anything.
Unlike the city itself, the Killing Fields were far easier to navigate. Normally, the road was completely clear from the edge of town to the edge of the gate. Even with all of the people, it was still a relatively clear path, and so they never had to slow down to weave their way between clumps of Metamorians. Lindsey kept them ever nearing that distant gate, that last bit of the Keep itself that they would walk through for months, if not years. And jarringly, it arrived far sooner than any of them had expected.
They were forced to wait a few minutes at the gate. On normal days, they could have just passed through. But this was the final day of the Solstice Festival, and so many were already leaving Metamor to return to their homes around the valley. Several merchants who had already sold their wares were also trying to make an early escape. The gate was only so large, and thus, there was a short line ambling their way forward.
Standing next to this line were two Keepers that Charles recognized immediately. Both of them appeared to be waiting not to leave, but to see somebody. And the rat knew that it was them. It was good to see their faces one last time though.
“Misha,” Lindsey addressed the fox cordially. He then nodded to the rat standing at Misha’s side. “Sir Saulius. Come to see us off?”
The fox nodded, and the knight rat beside him nodded as well. Misha appeared composed, though there was still some great tension lurking within him. But Saulius was clearly distracted, visibly distraught at the sight of them leaving Metamor.
“I wish I could go with you,” Misha said aloud, looking at Habakkuk for a moment as if he were hoping the kangaroo would change his mind suddenly. But Habakkuk only shook his head.
“I wish you could too, Misha. You would be a remarkable asset. But I must trust my visions as I always have.”
The fox nodded, and looked down the line. Saulius was doing the same, but immediately approached Charles. Charles had kept himself fully covered in his cloak so that only the end of his snout stuck out from the cloak. That alone was bad enough, since it was made from grey and speckled granite. But he saw a raw need in the knight’s eyes, and he felt an abyss of responsibility somehow for that need.
“Charles, what hath been done to thee?” Saulius asked, his voice haggard, but his manner tightly controlled.
For his friend, his knight these last two months, he could not be anything but completely forthright. He drew back the cloak and revealed his face, a grey thing of stone, with glittering black jewels for eyes, and a vein of black that appeared on his right cheek in the shape of a gangly hand. Saulius sucked in his breath, one paw clutching at the neck of his tunic.
“I’ve been turned to stone,” he said at last. For the moment, he felt as if he had accepted this and was prepared to live as stone for as long as he must. How would he feel tomorrow though, when he first woke up to the world as a lump of rock?
“Art there any way to turn thee back to flesh?” Saulius asked, his whiskers quivering in fear.
“Only one. Lady Akkala and Lady Velena have made it so that I will be flesh again when the woman who did this to me is dead. I swear to you now, Erick, we will not return until I have become flesh again.”
“‘Twas a beautiful day,” Saulius bemoaned then, shaking his head sadly. “Again, after our victory upon the field of honour, thou art snatched from me. I wilt wait for thy return, Matthias. I wilt wait for thy return.”
Charles blinked once and then suddenly understood something more of his friend. They had won the Golden Lance at last year’s festival, and already then Sir Saulius was dreaming of a second knight rat at the Keep. But instead, Charles had joined the Long Scouts. Misha had snatched Charles from Erick on that day of their victory. No wonder Saulius had been so insistent that Charles be his squire again. In some sense, he was fighting Misha for Charles’s allegiance. And it was why Erick had pressed him to leave the Long Scouts and become the knight’s squire for good on that very day. One year after his loss of Charles, he had hoped to reclaim him and make this day his greatest triumph of all.
And now, once again, Charles was snatched away, this time by a fate that Saulius could not fight, could not war subtly against. He could only accept it.
“I shall return, Erick. I do not know when. But do not pin all your hopes on me. What we do now will be accomplished in its own time. Do take care of Malicon for me. He will always be my horse.”
There was a subtle brightening in Sir Saulius’s eyes. “Aye, I shalt tend to thy steed. Thou mayest not be invested, but thou art a knight in thy heart. Fight bravely and with honour, and return thyself to flesh.”
Charles allowed himself a comradely smile then. “Tell my wife that I love her and our children. And tell the other rats that I said goodbye, and that I was sorry I could not say it in person.”
“I wilt convey thy message, Matthias. May all the gods smile upon thee and carry thee to thy goal.” Sir Saulius bowed his head low, kneeling before Charles as a supplicant kneels before the throne. “I shalt say a prayer for thee each evening until thee shouldst return. Go now my friend. The day waits for no man.”
“Thank you, Erick,” Charles said, drawing his cloak back over his head. He felt far less self-conscious that way. He wished that he had a flesh and blood heart to feel as strongly as he knew he should. He was heartened by what the knight had said, but it was all numbed inside of him, and it pained him to know it. Being stone would always be harder than he thought it would be.
Misha had been wishing each of them well in turn. The fox had waited for Sir Saulius to have said his piece before he approached Charles though. “Well, Matt, good luck. I cannot remember the last time one of the Longs went on a mission as big as this. But I’m sure something will surprise me soon enough.”
“And good luck to you too, Misha. Things may be even more interesting here than where I am going.”
“The day that things at Metamor are not interesting will be a very sad day indeed,” the fox laughed, but it was forced. For a moment the fox and rat just stood regarding each other, and then Misha swept him up in one more tight embrace. “You hurry back now, Matt. And get some flesh next time too.”
“I will, Misha. I will.”
Only a few minutes later, Charles was looking back over his shoulder at his two friends as they passed underneath the heavy gate. For a moment, the iron portcullis loomed overhead, and he stood between the Keep and the world beyond. And then, his towers were the trees, his avenue the rivers, and all of Metamor lay behind him. Lindsey led them down the road until they found the old track into the eastern woods. Several times, each of them looked back to see that jewel of the North slowly receding.
And then, after crossing the wooden bridge over the river and entering the eastern forest once again, Metamor Keep was lost from sight.
Green leaves of a hundred different hues fluted in the forest bowers above. Two figures breathed heavily and leaned against mighty oaks that rose up high, branches raised to the sky like a man shaking his fist in defiance. Around them, the ground was strewn with old sticks and last year’s leaves, as well as a few bushes and clusters of mushrooms amongst the profusion of heavy roots that burrowed like worms beneath the earth. The suns rays shimmered haphazardly amongst the breeze blown leaves.
The man leaned back against one of the trunks and slid down until his robe billowed beneath him like a pillow. He put his face to his hands and rubbed, as if he were still trying to dislodge something that clung there. The woman, her own face shrouded in the folds of her hood, knelt next to him, though she looked away through the woods.
“The scent is gone,” she chided him in a cold voice. “You may stop that nonsense.”
The man growled a bit, but lowered his hands. Dark eyes met the single one of hers. “Yes, the scent is gone. Thank you for that. But I shouldn’t have been caught off guard like that. And I won’t be again. You tell yourself that they are merely people in animal guises, you convince yourself that they are and always are more human than beast, and then one of them goes and does something like this. She sprayed me, Agathe! She sprayed me!”
Agathe regarded him archly. “And well she should. All men, when cornered and seeing no other option, will lash out and fight like beasts. The people of Metamor merely have an easier time of it. But we were successful. Remember that. And we still have much to do.”
The black cloaked Sondecki nodded. “True. We did succeed, but at the cost of Yonson’s life. We barely even had a chance to talk of simpler things.” He growled once more. “And did you see the look on Tournemire’s face. It was as if he did not even care!”
She reached out and brushed a bit of hair from his face. “He cares only about our success. It is the most important thing after all. We may all have to give our lives for it. But we must do it. You know that.”
“Yes, I know. I do not wish it though.”
“None of us ever do, Zag. But there is still much to do.”
Zagrosek grunted and then nodded his head slowly. “Yes, there is. I am to go to Yesulam to help Jothay. It seems that he is having some trouble with a rogue Yeshuel. One of the ones that was with the Patriarch.”
“The one you didn’t kill?” Agathe asked, her tone superior as if she had expected this all along.
“Aye. I had meant to finish the job, but the Keepers were coming if you may recall.”
“You should have killed him before moving on.”
“I know. And for that mistake, I am going to Yesulam to finish what I started.. And you are to follow the Keepers, are you not?” Zagrosek pushed himself to his feet then. Agathe rose with him.
“Yes,” Agathe said, her lips turning downwards in the shadow of her cowl. “And also to ensure that Hockmann maintains his war. You have a long journey ahead of you if you wish to reach Yesulam.”
“It will take me a few days, yes,” Zagrosek admitted. “When shall we see each other again?”
Agathe scowled then and put her hand on his face, pushing him back against the tree. “Do not waste your thoughts on such things. We have more important matters to attend. Remember that.”
The Sondecki tightened his hands into fists, but then sagged, nodding. “True enough. True enough. Good luck then, and I hope that our tasks brings us together again.”
“Go before there is too much shadow,” Agathe waved her hands at him, stepping back several feet. The black cloaked man nodded his head slowly, and then looked away, staring into the shadows cast by the trees. They were long and dark, and soon, they grew even darker. Zagrosek walked forward, immersing himself in that blackness, until he too, was no longer to be seen at all.
Agathe watched him go, and then turned her steps up the slope to the west. She did not look back, but made her way through the quiet woods, effortlessly gliding up over the rocky crags that jutted from the forest floor more and more frequently. After twenty minutes of scrambling up-slope, the trees broke, and a small cave opened before her. Faint light glowed within, and it grew brighter as she passed the aperture.
The cave sank downwards the further it went back. The walls were once slick, but had since dried from the torches light within. A small cookfire was lit, the smoke trailing up through the cracks in the cave roof above. There were at least a dozen scraggly men sitting waiting in the cave for her. Their faces were hard, and their manner brutish. They looked to the Runecaster contemptuously. “How much longer are we going to wait here, witch?” one of them, the largest of the lot, barked at her. He hefted a heavy spiked mace in one gloved hand. “The curse will take us soon. And you aren’t paying us enough to risk that. With or without you, we leave this valley tomorrow.”
“We are leaving the valley,” Agathe said. “And we are leaving tomorrow. Ready your things. At dawn, we will journey into the Barrier Range.”
“The Barrier Range!” the lead man shouted, clearly agitated. “You must be a fool to go there. What in all the hells is there but ice and death?”
“We track a group of Keepers. And when we find them, you are to kill them.” The men shifted at that, and there were a few laughs.
The leader smiled and showed several broken yellowed teeth. “Killing Keepers? Oh that we can do. That we can do all right.” The burly men laughed even louder, their voices a cacophony of baying wolves.
The seas were dark and deep, but the sun angled off the waves as they crested and brushed against the hull of the Miletus. The Whalish crew steered the three masted ship in mechanical precision, responding to each change in the wind with practised familiarity. However, they viewed any others upon the bridge with annoyance, as it was not the place for passengers – they were just in the way.
Marquis Camille du Tournemire was content to remain in their way as he watched the Isle of Whales begin to recede on the horizon. Another hour and it would be gone entirely. When that had happened, he would join Vigoureux and Sir Autrefois below decks. Until then, he rather enjoyed feeling the sea air and watching as the world became only water.
He did not like to sail, but there was few other ways to reach Whales. And what he wanted to do was now done. The Marquis felt a rush of satisfaction filing him. The seeds had been planted, and now he had only to germinate them.
The best place to stand and not be in the sailor’s path was the aft castle, and he leaned against the railing while the men milled behind him, focussed on their never-ending duties. He ran his hand slowly over that firm railing and smiled. The Miletus was a beautiful ship. It was fast, just as Phil had promised. It really was too bad that she was going to sink soon.
Not today of course. They were still too close to Whales. But perhaps tomorrow or the next day it would be sent to the deep sea where it would remain for all time. Today, he wanted to get a good night’s sleep. He’d earned it.
After all, he’d worked very hard today. He was going to enjoy his success.
Smiling to himself, the Marquis watched Whales continue to slip over the horizon.
“There,” Abafouq said, pointing as they left the woods behind and crested the first rise of the mountains. Far beyond, in the distance amongst the haze of the mountaintops there was a white streak that seemed to live at the edge of their vision. It glimmered with the last rays of sunlight as the great orb began its descent behind them. “You can see the glacier that rests atop the Barrier range. It should take us two days to reach it.”
Kayla was a bit out of breath when she finally reached the small rise. She still managed to gasp, “Two days?”
“It will take us two months to reach Nafqananok,” Abafouq added, though there was a note of uncertainty in his voice.
“I’ll die before then!” the skunk lamented.
Jessica looked to be in even worse shape, nursing her talons as she made her way up the last of the slope. “I don’t think I can do this,” she complained wearily. “Perhaps I should just fly.”
Charles had already taken his rattaur form and was labouring under the added strain of the heavy satchel. Guernef had taken a portion of it for himself, but still, it was very heavy. The thought of carrying the hawk’s things too made him groan.
“We can figure all of that out tomorrow morning,” Habakkuk said as he hopped up the last few feet. Before them, the mountains descended into a small bowl. Charles recognized it as the very place that Misha had taken him in the early days of his training as a Long Scout. He chuckled to himself as he remembered the nursery rhyme about the Binoq that the fox had shared. Now here they were being guided by one of the little people of the mountains. It was strange the way fate acted.
“That’s right,” Abafouq said. He pointed down towards the small copse of trees and the lake that lay in the centre of the bowl between the mountains. “We can make a camp there for the night.”
Lindsey stepped up to Charles’s side and patted him on his shoulder. In his rattaur form, he still was not quite as tall as the northerner. “Don’t worry, Charles. If Jessica needs to shift into her hawk form to travel, I can carry her things too.”
“How did you know?” Charles asked, quite surprised that the timerbsman had known his thoughts.
“I used to be a woman you know,” Lindsey said with a wicked grin. “Some things don’t change, even with the curse.”
Charles smiled at that, and then turned his head when he heard the donkey gasp, “It’s so beautiful!”
James was not looking at the glacier that hovered before them on the horizon like a beast waiting for its prey to draw nearer. Instead, he was looking back down the valley at the castle of Metamor which even now was shrouded in the orange hue of sunset, sparkling towers quiet and solemn. The city was full of lights, and more of them were being lit as they stared. With the forest surrounding the castle on most sides, and the fields dark from the sinking of the sun, it truly was a jewel in the valley.
The only place that did not seem to share in the warmth of that suffuse light was the Belfry. Charles looked at it once, until he felt very strange indeed. That place was still dark, still forbidding, and still dangerous. Nor was he alone in sharing in that unease. After James had cried out, they had all turned to stare at Metamor, but now, one by one, they each turned their backs upon the castle.
“Well,” James said at last, his ears folded back along his head. He looked tired, but his look of shock that he’d had ever since the battle in the Belfry was finally gone. “I guess we should go make camp now.”
One by one they each nodded and then began to follow the Binoq down into the depression. Rocks scattered under their feet and paws, clattering noisily down below. Charles grimaced at that, but said nothing. None of them did. Charles waited until the rest had gone ahead, and then looked back. For several more seconds he stared at the castle and valley that had been his home for more than six years.
Slowly, the rattaur turned, and scampered over the last of the incline and followed his friends down. One day they would be back.
|Talk to me!|