Liturgy of Blood - Part III

Sir Albert Bryonoth led his roan charger through the boisterous streets of Metamor, unable to tear his eyes from the fantastic forms walking by him and alongside of him. Even so, he doubted that the Keepers realized he was staring at them, as his polished brass visor was down, covering his face. Even so, he had to keep from turning his head when a particularly bizarre sight caught his eye, and in this city, that was not too difficult.

Having grown up in the northern plains of the western Flatlands, Albert was aware of this fabled city, as it was cloaked in mystery from the earliest ages. He had not even become a knight of Yesulam when the news of its bewitchment had reached his town, and that had been only six years ago. The thought of animal men fascinated him to no end, but never had he imagined he would glimpse them with his own eyes. Now that he was, he could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Bryonoth peered over his shoulder towards Sir Egland, whom he had ridden beside throughout the ceremony. His fellow knight also appeared to be staring at every Keeper they passed by on their way to the stables. Albert doubted that the Keepers would blame them. By now, they were probably used to being stared at by foreigners with no intent of sharing their fate. The thought of himself becoming a woman or a child sent shivers up his spine, but the image of himself covered in fur, with a twisted animal snarl for a face nearly made him rattle in his armour.

Yet, for all of his awe, he could not help but reflect back to the first day of his new life in Yesulam. The Flatlands were for aeons famous for their horseman, many who had travelled to more civilized portions of the world to become knights. Yet, in the steppes, permanent settlements were few and far between, usually towards the outskirts where the rolling hills of Pyralis began to the south, or towards the northern forests bordering the Outer Midlands.

As a babe, Albert had nursed while his mother had ridden in the saddle, pregnant already with a younger brother who would not survive past the age of three. His earliest memories had always been of ridding across the endless steppe, the feel of a horse between his legs - at first a pony, but then once he was large enough, one of his father's chargers. It was always this way with the children of the Flatlands, born to the saddle, and among some tribes, to the horse's bare back itself. Those powerful beasts were their lifeblood; some of the rumours that he'd heard in the markets of Yesulam even went so far as to suggest that a Flatlander had the blood of a horse and not a man flowing through him. Bryonoth was not one to disagree either, for he felt infinitely more comfortable with his hoofed companions on a gentle plain than he ever would in the crowded city markets of a place like Yesulam or Metamor.

Yet, life on the steppe was hard, and many families moved from settlement to settlement throughout the course of their yearly migration. Yet the accident that had changed his young life had not occurred out on those endless veldts, but while stopping for a few days at Beleth, a small settlement hugging the Athasca river which separated the Flatlands from eastern Pyralis. While driving some of his chargers into the fenced off paddock for the night, his steed stepped into a gopher hole, and fell from beneath him, breaking its leg from the impact. His father tumbled to the ground, smacking his head against a rock, dazing him long enough to allow the charger to roll across both of his legs in its dying agony.

Albert's father had never walked again, though he was a proud man, and did not let his infirmity keep him from riding. No Flatlander was ever far from his saddle, no matter the injury. Yet, his legs would never be able to cope the migratory runs of his herd, and so they settled in Beleth, trading and selling horses to Pyralian merchants.

For young Albert -- whose name at the time had been Algor of the Bryonoth clan; Albert had been the name given to him when he had become a Follower knight – the village of Beleth was astounding in many ways. Travelling the steppes was a lonely business, with only ones family and the other members of ones clan for company. The village life was quite staid, with most of the villagers acting as farmers in the surrounding fields clutching the sides of the river Athasca. He remembered being awed by the town's buildings, some of which had two floors, though the Lord Constable's home was three stories high. Three stories high! For a young boy of the steppe, it was an impressive sight indeed.

What had even more enthralled him was the ferryboat that crossed the river everyday, carrying with it horses, and oxen, and other beasts, as well as many men. Often times, while giving his father's horses exercise, he would stop to watch that immense gondola traverse the rushing waters of the Athasca. There were many rivers cris-crossing the Flatlands, and the fording of each was done only at carefully selected places. None of them were quite nearly as wide or as deep, or even flowing as fast as the mighty Athasca.

Yet, it would not be for another seven years before he would for the first time ride upon it himself. For Algor of Bryonoth, he had been a man for several years now, according to the tradition of the steppes. But the orders of Pyralis would have nothing to do with anyone not of the age fifteen. And so he had waited, succouring his dream in the stories told by the other folk of Beleth. His father had wanted him to return to the steppes with the rest of the Bryonoth clan, but upon seeing that his son's mind was set, instructed him to take one of his chargers, any of his choice, and not to let anyone take it from him.

He gently ran his gloved hand across Povunoth's flank, feeling the muscles beneath that thick skin twitch in the practised regal trot that he bore in all places. Povunoth had been barely a yearling when they had left Beleth together, but already he'd become one of the strongest and fastest of all of his father's herd. He was not the largest, not by any measure, being only sixteen hands high, but there was a spirit to him, a self-assuredness that many of the others lacked. Albert had known he'd chosen wisely when his father had nodded approvingly, a smile of pride gracing his cracked lips. "Thy choice hast brought you honour, my son. Take this honour, and the spirit of our clan with ye into the rest of the world. Show them the wisdom of our ways, of the ways of the steppe. Never forget thy clan, Algor. Never forget the world that has made thee a man." He'd said before watching him sail away on the ferry barge never to return to Beleth or the steppe again.

Once they had crossed the stormy Athasca, the man of the steppe had found himself in the company of several other young men all journeying south along the river to join the ranks of the Pyralian Knights. Most of them were also from the steppe, and so they quickly became friends on that long journey. Several times, one of the Pyralian boys would try to take Povunoth from him, thinking he, a barbaric savage from the Flatlands, would not notice when they replaced his steed with one that appeared similar in colour only. They regretted this swiftly, as he gave them a drubbing that left them too sore to sit comfortably in the saddle for over a week.

Yet, the journey lasted only a month, in which time they crossed the Athasca one last time, but this time in a ship larger even than the Lord Constable's home back in Beleth. Most of the children of the steppe could only gape at such a huge construction, not believing such a structure could have been built by sons of the earth. Some of the Pyralian boys had snickered – Algor had refused to think of those pampered scions of noble families as men – though one look from himself and many of his Flatlander brethren had silenced their snobbish pretension.

From there, they sailed to Yesulam, in the deserts of the Holy Land, as he was told it was called. The Flatlands were still mostly Lothanasi, though among the horsemen, only the worship of Dvalin and Artela was taken seriously. Yet, though he knew that in joining the Pyralian Knights he would be giving them up for the Abba of the Followers, he still could not help but send a few prayers to Wvelkim while they were on that ship. He did not like the way the timbers shifted beneath his feet, and neither did Povunoth. He'd even offered prayers of thanks to that mostly forgotten deity in the Flatlands when they'd landed in Yesulam, the centre of the Ecclesia faith.

And yet, once Albert had recovered his demeanor, and was with his fellow men of the steppe once more, they each stood in awe of the opulent city before them. Spires standing higher than any tree any of them had ever glimpsed, gold inlays sparkling in the morning air like the morning dew had upon the steppe, only this was a work of man. Crowded citadels and shining streets led their way to central temple where they were each to be blessed by the Bishop before their training would begin. As a child, he had thought Beleth had been real market of civilization. In that moment, he realized that it was just as much a backwater as the Flatlands themselves were. In this city, in this metropolis of singing lights and dancing colours, people changed the world.

As he gazed out from beneath his visor, Sir Albert Bryonoth found that same gleam in the plaster of the walls of the homes in Metamor, and in the fur and faces of each and every Keeper. He thought back to their triumphal entry into the city, listening to Sir Egland tell him that the Duke of this land was more horse than man. At the time he'd scoffed at such a notion. Surely the rumours surrounding this fabled jewel of the North had been exaggerated.

And then he'd seen the equine master of this place bend on one knee and kiss the hand of the Patriarch. Every motion, every muscle flexed just as a horse's ought. The ears turned at each sound just as his own steed's, and the deep brown chestnut eyes of Duke Thomas had gazed with that same independent defiance he had seen in so many of his father's chargers, including Povunoth. Even his tail – what indignity must it be to have a tail, he wondered – swished back and fort, slapping at his flanks as if he were dislodging flies.

For a brief moment, a whimsical image of himself breaking that noble stallion and incorporating him into his herd flashed through his mind. Yet this was a horse who had been a man, not some wild beast who had wandered too close to his father's eye. Besides, who ever heard of a two-hoofed horse? He found himself laughing at the notion despite his normal restraint, and Sir Egland cast him a glance, though his eyes were hidden beneath his own gleaming visor as well.

"What do you find so funny, Sir Bryonoth?" Egland asked in his deep Pyralian accent. Even though Egland had been born of a noble home, they had still managed to become friends.

Albert watched an upright cat walk sveltely across the distant battlements, a spear clutched between two paws. "Naught that thy mind needs to worry over."

"Please, you have me curious now. What was it?" There was as always something earnest in the man's voice. They were about the same age, barely twenty each, but in Albert's mind, they had long since been men. "You know that I am not going to stop asking you until you tell me what it was. So you might as well confess, or I shall be bothering you the entire way back to Yesulam!"

"All right, ye knave!" Bryonoth chuckled again. Then, in a low whisper he added, "Mine eye simply fancied what a beautiful stallion the good Duke Hassan would have made. Can ye imagine the foals that might have sprung from his royal loins?"

Sir Egland laughed heartily than, staring absently at what appeared to be a child berating a tall badger over some perceived insult. "Do you Flatlanders ever stop thinking about how to breed your horses stronger?"

"And what would thou have us do? Breed them weaker?"

Again, his friend laughed, nodding towards the stables which they had somehow managed to find despite being distracted by the sights and scents of the streets of Metamor. "No, I suppose not. Perhaps you'll find a few mares who you'd like to introduce Povunoth to in here."

Albert could not help but join his friend in laughter as they made their way towards the familiar smell, one that he'd lived with his whole life. The flavour of horses was strong from the long wooden structure abutting the castle walls. A slant, tiled roof angled across the timbers, dumping rain water into cisterns waiting below, while a nearby silo of unremarkable height stored grain that had been shipped in from the farming communities across the valley. The double doors to the building stood open, while the sound of voices and well oiled armour could be heard inside.

Passing beneath the aperture, many of the older timbers replaced by stout hickory in the last year, Albert scanned the stalls, finding most of them empty, almost certainly in preparation for their arrival. Also, there were two figures, one tall and wide, the other short and narrow standing in the centre of the hay-strewn floor, each dressed in full plate. Yet neither of them bore the heraldry of the Red Stallion, the official order of knights for Metamor. With a grin, Sir Bryonoth realized that these two were knight errants who had been trapped here by the curses.

"Hail to ye," the larger of the two called out in a distinctly northern accent. "I am Sir Andre Maugnard."

"And I am Sir Erick Saulius," the smaller of the two figures called out, a long ropy tail circling behind him. With a start, Albert realized the smaller figure was a rodent of some sort. There was also something strangely familiar about his accent, faint as it was. "Who are ye, noble knights?"

"I am sir Yacoub Egland," his friend began, proudly displaying the heraldry they each carried on their shields. Gazing across at the two figures, he could see that they each bore their family crests upon their own escutcheon. The smaller of the two bore an arching rodent clutching a fasces of wheat. His companion hefted a much wider shield, carrying a dragon standing just before a series of low mountains.

"I am Sir Albert Bryonoth, and ye do honour me with thy presence, good knights."

Saulius reached his gauntleted hand to his visor, and threw it open, and back against the gold and red plumes dangling from his helmet. The long snout of a rat poked out from beneath the brassy metal, long whiskers twitching with every breath. It was a comical sight for Bryonoth, as he was made to wonder how a person of that size could possibly still be a knight. "Thou art a man of the steppe?" the rat asked suddenly. There was a conviction in his tone that informed Albert that this figure before him knew what it meant to be a man of the steppe.

"Yea, I was born in that harsh land. And thou, my good knight? Art thou a Flatlander as well?" Instantly, his doubts of the rat's capabilities had vanished.

"Indeed, I was weaned south of the Sylvan mountains. And thyself?"

"My range was towards the southern end of the steppe, for I must admit, I had not heard of the Saulius clan."

"Nor I the Bryonoth," Erick admitted wryly, and then he peered at the others curiously. "It seems that you are the first to bring your steeds here. What of thy brethren? Do they not know that we await them too?"

Egland laughed at that, trying not to stare at the rat's face. "Well, they are probably still admiring the sights, my good Sir Saulius. Your kingdom is a magical one the likes of which we have never glimpsed before in our lives."

Andre reached up and raised his own visor, the long snout of some ferocious beast poking forth. He flashed them a smile which showed them several long, sharp teeth. "One cannot blame them I suppose. Such places as this are rare." Removing his gauntlets and laying them across a stall door, he pointed towards their own escutcheons. "And just what do those symbolize? The cross I know, but the bend sinister I am unfamiliar with."

Yacoub lifted his shield and traced a mailed finger over the aforementioned green band crossing the brassy surface diagonally. "This symbolizes that our gifts are not ours alone, but come from He who created us. We hold them in our left arms, and the power of the almighty streams down into our bodies like so."

"Green is the colour of Mother Ecclesia," Albert added then, tapping his own crest. "We wear it to show our loyalty to her Holy bosom."

Andre nodded, his face distant slightly, as if he were thinking of some other time and place. "And where wer't thou born?" Bryonoth finally asked.

"I was born North of the Sylvan mountains in the Outer Midlands. Yet, for the last ten years of my life I have been a knight here at Metamor. With my new shape, I am ill-suited to life anywhere else now. But that hardly matters, for there are very few places in this world quite so beautiful as this valley."

"Thou hast not seen a sunrise across the steppe, my good Sir Maugnard," Bryonoth chided, and found himself immediately supported by the rat, who had set down his shield and was leaning across it, the tip digging into the soft earth.

"And you have not seen a winter in this valley. When the sun shines upon the freshly laid snow, it is as if the whole world was waking up for the very first time. I do not believe you have much snow down in the veldts or steppes of the Flatlands."

"True enough," Albert chortled then, removing his helmet and gauntlets, setting them across Povunoth's saddle. "Where might we sequester our steeds?"

Andre waved a thick paw towards the long row of stalls along the masonry. "Anywhere you like. We've moved most of the Keep's steeds to the other stables along the walls to make room for your mounts."

"Thank you, good sir Maugnard," Albert inclined his head, running a gauntleted hand across Povunoth's neck. The breath was warm in his body, and yet, the animal that had served at his side for so many years appeared eager to rest inside those confining walls. Tomorrow he would be out in the fields dancing and prancing like his herd mates back in the Flatlands.

"I am curious though," Sir Egland said, his voice carrying with it that apologetic tone he bore every time he was about to ask an impertinent question. "Why are you two waiting here in the stables? Surely knights such as yourselves would have been present to greet the Patriarch when he arrived."

Saulius shook his head, "‘Twas not our intention to greet his Eminence, but instead we sought to greet you, our fellow champions of all that is decent and noble."

Andre shrugged, his armour creaking from his massive shoulders. "Besides, neither of us are part of Thomas's Red Stallion, nor is everyone here at the Keep a Follower as you may have noticed."

Leading Povunoth into the stall, the roan charger stomping in with a snort of independence, Bryonoth had trouble suppressing a smile. "Art thou Lothanasi?" he asked to the rat. It was strange, to see a rat wearing the colours and manner of a knight. In fact, it was a bit unnerving. Though his credentials were impeccable, as he was a man of the steppe, the very notion of a man being diminished so dramatically caused him to shudder imperceptibly in his protective sheen of armour.

Sir Saulius shook his head, at which Sir Egland breathed a sigh of relief. Having grown up a member of that pagan faith, Albert had much more tolerance than his Pyralian comrade. "‘Tis unimportant to whom a man like us prays, for it is our honour and our dedication which define us. Dost thou not feel the same way?"

"Yea, verily," Bryonoth replied. "Thou hast found the nugget of the matter."

Egland however, continued to frown, but he turned his face back to his steed, removing the barding slowly, piecemeal. Calling over his shoulder, he asked, "And Sir Andre, just what sort of animal are you? I've never seen the like of it in Pyralis."

"I am a wolverine, or so I have been informed." Andre flexed his sharp clawed paws, and grinned widely, revealing his collection of sharp teeth. "They are creatures of the Midlands and Northern Sathmore mostly. They are vicious predators, and that I did not need to be told to know it was true. These claws have come in handy on many occasion before. I am sure they will again someday."

"How do you cope with being a monster to so many?" Egland pried, asking the questions that Albert wished to know, but was too polite to pose.

"It is not so hard here at Metamor," Andre replied. "How could it be when everyone else around you is in much the same condition? We have learned to accept it, and have given each other comfort in the loss of our human shapes. Yet, no matter how bizarre, we refuse to lose our humanity, as has sometimes happened."

"Would it not be unbearably warm in the summer?"

"Aye," Saulius added, shrugging slightly, his slender frame appearing to barely fill the crested armour. "But again, thou hast not glimpsed a winter in this northern land."

Andre favoured them with another of his grins. Though he knew it was meant to be kindly, it still appeared to both the knights of Yesulam to be the precursor to a bestial snarl. "With mountains so close on either side, the weather can be quite rough. Have either of you seen any snow?"

"Once or twice," Egland replied, stroking the neck of his steed with the palm of his hand. "Pyralis is a warm country, we see snow in the highlands, but rarely elsewhere." He appeared thoughtful for one moment and then let slip, "I would greatly love to see a winter here. It was always a joyous occasion among my household when the winter brought us any snow."

Albert found himself nodding, though because he too wished to see a Metamorian winter. This was the reason that Yacoub and he had become fast friends; they both shared a love for the great wildernesses that Abba had provided for them. It was such an unusual trait for the son of a Pyralian dignitary, as most of them were urbane and lovers of cities and all that civilization had to offer. Someday, Albert would take his friend to the steppes, and there they would be true men of the horse.

"Perhaps, one day, if the curses are ever lifted, you will be able to see one," Andre mused, but his voice did not sound too hopeful. Despite his northern accent, the doubt that such would ever occur was plainly clear.

"Until then, I shall enjoy our visit," Egland said, before that momentary gloom could sink into their bones. "Tell me, is there any place where we might take a spot of ale and find something to eat? It has been a long journey, and the Patriarch ordered us to enjoy ourselves during our stay."

"Enjoy yourselves?" Saulius prodded curiously.

"Insofar as we didst not act in a manner unbecoming of a knight of Holy Mother Ecclesia," Albert added, running a curry down through Povunoth's flanks. It was always his practise to groom the charger each night after they had made camp. It kept the muscles well relaxed and ready for whatever might come on the morrow.

"Ah, certainly, the Deaf Mule is one such establishment, one of the singular places for Keepers to patronize. There are other establishments of course, some not quite so popular but equally well accounted."

"Let us hie to this Deaf Mule," Albert suggested, his voice brim with pleasure. Though he was unsure of these two knights, there was no doubt they were companionable sorts. "It sounds like a rather congenial house."

"That it is, though I am afraid that it may be a bit crowded," Andre murmured. "Shall we wait for your fellow knights?"

Albert did his best not to blush, even as he felt Povunoth's tail slap him across his cheek, as if the horse knew what had been said and was reprimanding him for his thoughtlessness. "Of course, I am not much in the habit of being a part of great crowd."

"Neither am I, but for my esteemed peers," Andre held out his thick furred paws once more, gesturing to them both, "I will gladly make exception."

"And I as well. Ye are both honourable knights, and thou of my homeland no less! We shall wait for your companions until every last one is with us." Saulius wiggled his beard of whiskers, giving that whimsical cast to his muzzle once more. Sir Bryonoth found it hard not to laugh at the sight.

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