Liturgy of Blood - Part XIII

Even though the sun had yet to rise, both Matthias and Finbar could see well enough in the dark that they had little difficulty in scouring the rolling terrain. Still, the rat grimaced every time he bumped his toe on a loose stone or got tripped up by a dangling root. Clouds had settled over the region just south of Metamor, leaving with them very few stars to guide them by. Finbar though was familiar with the area, and helped Charles along as they traversed the same grounds over and over again.

He'd had little difficulty rising at the appointed hour thankfully. After the beautiful Service that the Patriarch had given at the Chapel, Charles had dropped right off to bed. He'd only woken up when Garigan came in several hours later, but the rest of his night was peaceful. So, several hours before the first rays of the sun would shine above the mountain ridge to the east, he'd slipped over to the Long House, and met with the ferret and Misha.

Brightleaf informed them that he'd heard rumours of somebody, or something, stalking the forests near Lorland from George, who in turn had heard it from several knights. So, instead of keeping an eye out for Lutins from the North, they were chasing after phantasms to the South. Still, Matthias knew that is was important. The Patriarch was one of the most powerful men in all the world, and the lands of the West were not very hospitable to his message.

Glancing up at the ferret's backside, dyed brown and green not one hour before, Charles watched him scurry to the edge of the forest over looking a long broad field. Finbar gazed back and waved his paw in a quick motion. Matthias scrambled up the incline, his claws barely leaving a trace of his presence. He slouched down low, next to the ferret, his paws resting before him as his tail dangled back down the hill.

"Those are the woods," Finbar signed with his paws, and pointing across the open field of grass towards the tightly bound copse of oak. Leafless branches strained at the dark sky, like a tangled skein.

"Do we have to cross the field?" Matthias indicated, his face creased with worry. Being a rat, he did prefer having cover. Scampering about in the open felt like courting disaster.

Finbar shook his head and moved his paw in a circle. Charles breathed a sigh of relief, and began to slip back down the incline, returning once more to the safety of the woods, clustered about like ancient pillars. The ferret slipped back down after him, and motioned for him to follow once more, starting off in a westerly direction, staying close to the edge of the trees.

Lifting his feet high to avoid the gnarled roots that gripped the hard ground tightly, Charles set out after him. Leaves were littered over every scrap of earth, rustling and shifting at each sudden breeze. The branches overhead shook as the clouds churned overhead, even more leaves falling about their path. One even landed on the rat's shoulder a moment, before being swept off to settle on a small caern of stones.

It was rather cold in the early morning air. Matthias was thankful for his fur, and the thick cloth he wore, that the same colour as the dye in his fur. It was not the same sort of cold he knew living in a desert, where the heat simply drained away into empty air. Here in the woods of Metamor, the chill felt as if it clustered, growing from the soil itself, and budding where the leaves had once been. Every wind would shake a bit of that chill loose, only to drag it across their fur, and settle into their bones. The rat had no often been outside the walls of Metamor in the winter, and he realized that he did not relish that thought.

Finbar appeared to be used to the chill though, scouting out ahead, carefully scrambling over loose stones and leaves, without shivering once. Charles idly wondered how long Finbar had been a Long Scout. He had never actually asked after the ferret much, as he was usually off on patrols and so forth. Though he had worked along side of him before, they truly did not know each other well enough yet. Matthias would of course have to make amends of that when the time came.

Grimacing, he lifted his foot a bit higher so as not to trip over the root that had suddenly appeared in his path. Matthias chided himself on letting his thoughts wander, and so returned his attention to the leaf strewn ground, and that of his companion in these lonely woods an hour or so before dawn. It was not unlike his days in Sondeshara when he would be forced to march in silence across the countless dunes. Even so, it would have been pleasant if Finbar and he could have spoken of something aside from their mission. Yet, Misha had instructed them to act as if there were Lutins around every tree.

Gazing at the gnarled branches and sloping bark, Charles wondered if indeed there was something out in these woods. From all that Misha had said, the knights had been quite startled by whatever it was they had glimpsed, or thought they glimpsed. Yet they could not describe it any better than a strange shifting of the leaves. The rat was not convinced that anything at all lay out here, as the leaves were always stirring, and if one mind was worked up, one could imagine they had seen all sorts of fantastic images among them. Yet, one thing was for certain, their horses had been spooked by something.

For that reason, and that reason alone, Charles was concerned. Even Misha had appeared as if he did not believe it fully himself. Yet, when such an important man as the Patriarch was about, not even the merest and most ridiculous of threats could be ignored. If there was somebody out there, they had to know who.

Finally, while the clouds overhead began to continue to eat up the last remaining stars, Finbar motioned for them to stop and climb the incline yet again. Charles rubbed his paws together slowly, nodding, and began to scale the tree roots to the tope of the rise. When he peered out across the field of grass from beneath a mulberry, he could see that the copse was only a short distance away.

He signalled, "Do we cross now?"

Finbar nodded and slowly slipped out of his jerkin, shifting down to his smaller animal form. Charles shuddered as he listened for any owls or other birds of prey. It would be most humiliating to die like a rat, a meal for some simple beast.

However, Finbar did not shrink all the way, just until he was small enough to crawl through the grasses unseen. Clutching a dagger between his teeth, he scurried out into the tall weeds, disappearing instantly. Matthias watched the tops of the flowing reeds, some already brown from the cold, noting an occasional rustle, but he had to admit he was not sure if that was Finbar or the wind.

It took a few minutes, but soon he saw the ferret crouched on the other side of the ridge, waving with his paw, the dagger still clutched in his musteline jaw. Matthias then put down his own dagger, and slowly shrank to nearly his normal animal size. Then, taking the almost impossibly large dagger between his teeth, resisting the temptation to chew upon it, he descended the hillside, the feel of dried grass all about him.

The ferret's scent was strong among the grasses, as well as a couple of mice that probably had a burrow nearby. Following in the Long's footsteps, he slowly navigated the clearing between the two groups of trees. Ducking and weaving, taking each step one at a time, he did his best not to disturb any of the grasses. His ears strained to hear the sound of flapping wings that would herald a predator come to snatch his life away, despite the fact that he knew owl's made little noise when they flew. Vaguely, he recalled the time a hawk had tried to snatch him from one of the Keep's flying buttresses, and it had only been Kimberly' sudden warning that had saved his life. Shuddering, he pushed such morbid thoughts from his mind, and continued on through the grasses.

It did not take that long to cross the short clearing though, and soon he was at Finbar's side, returning to his morph form. Though, now that they were both naked, he could feel the bite of the cold even more. Thankfully the copse was rather small, so it would not take them overly long to search through its demesnes.

Walking side by side, Charles and Finbar scoured the outer edge of the woods, their daggers clutched firmly in their paws. To the rat's eyes, there did not appear to be anything untoward about the dense cluster of trees set on the rise. Finbar, though, shivered as they walked through the lonely boughs, casting his dark eyes about warily.

However, their first search produced nothing, no scents of anything but the forest dwellers, and even they were muted, sleeping in their hollows. Moving further into the cluster of trees, almost no light to see by except what the curses had provided them, they scoured for traces of signs of passage, any broken twigs, charred remnants of a fire, anything that would lead them to unravel the mystery. Yet there was nothing to be found.

Finbar leaned against one tree, his expression most confused. "Did you see anything?" he signed, his motions slightly erratic but readable. The cold must he been effecting the ferret more without his jerkin, Matthias thought.

The rat shook his head once, and then returned in a series of quick gestures, "Maybe it was just a wolf or mountain lion that spooked the horses."

"I suppose," Finbar replied, his paws hesitant, and his expression even more reluctant. "This place just feels wrong somehow."

Charles blinked in surprise, resting his back against an oak. He could feel the dye scratching off, revealing his bark brown fur underneath. "I don't feel anything. Are you certain?"

"Very," his eyes scanned about the dark enclave of strange shapes. Charles peered about as well, noting the twisted trunks and rising branches, each a lifeless arm beckoning the rolling clouds overhead. On many occasions, the rat's mind would have reformed the shapes before him into spectral nightmares. Yet at that moment, they remained as they were, trees that had lost their leaves for the winter.

"There is nothing out here," Matthias signed, rising from his reclined position. "It is cold, and I doubt we will find anything by standing around here waiting."

Finbar sighed and nodded, heading back towards the rise from which they had crossed over. Charles wrapped his arms tight about his chest, shivering at the slightly damp air. Gazing up at the dark clouds overhead, churning and thickening slowly, he knew that there was a storm coming. It was probably inevitable, their good weather would have to turn sometime.

Grimacing, he trotted just a little bit faster. It would be pleasant to drape himself once more in the thick wool of his jerkin. Even more pleasant was the thought of sharing some hot cider next to the fire in the Deaf Mule with Lady Kimberly! With that image in mind, he crouched low to the hill while Finbar made the passage. Storm or no storm, they would enjoy themselves.

Vinsah sat next to the Patriarch that next morning over a breakfast of fresh eggs and some strange yellow melon that he'd never partaken of before. Sucking upon the tender juices for a moment, he tried his best to remain affable. He'd barely been able to sleep after reciting the First Litany that previous evening, instead lying in bed, staring at the window and the moonbeams shining in through the jalousie. When they finally faded some hours before dawn, he'd slumbered warily, rising every few minutes so as not to tumble into the world of dreams again.

With a shudder that he barely was able to conceal as he spooned a bit of the eggs upon his tongue, thoughts of what had awaited him on the other side of sleep began to resurface. That Murikeer had been a particularly strong image was rather disconcerting, especially considering the things that he had said. Vinsah had laid down to rest after his absolutions hoping that the dream would fade with time, like all dreams did. However, this one did not, and the visions he glimpsed the previous night were just as strong then as they were that moment. He imagined that they would remain with him forever, taunting him with their ghastly questions.

They had come unbidden, as if they had been there all along, waiting for him to arrive in their demesnes. Gazing mysteriously at the walls about him, he could almost hear their voices still, especially that nameless woman's. It was as if she were speaking through the very stones of the Keep, making her request known, and calling him by that other name that was not his own.

Shaking his eyes from the masonry, he helplessly rubbed his fingers around his eyes, but they only met bare skin. He'd done that so often, it was almost like a habit he'd had his whole life. He doubted that Akabaieth would not notice either. The Patriarch was man used to discerning a soul in distress, no matter how well hidden. Or masked, he thought ruefully.

Kashin had come into his room that morning and informed him that he should tell the Patriarch what had happened last night. Still, the Yeshuel assured him that the choice was his own. The Bishop was free to tell or not of his own volition, they would not discuss a matter that they felt was irrelevant anyway, a pure accident. Vinsah had not replied at all, only nodding his head so that they would know he understood the request.

Yet, it mattered little, since from the way Akabaieth wiped his mouth with a gentle touch of the green cloth napkin, he knew that the Patriarch would quest after such knowledge himself. And only a moment later, the bishop was proven right as the older man asked, "There is something troubling you, Vinsah. I can see it in your eyes, and how you barely eat anything at all. What is it?"

Sighing, he set the melon down and lowered his gaze to his plate. "I had an awful dream last night, Father. I took a walk to get my mind of such things, but stumbled into a figure who appeared to have stepped out of my dream."

Akabaieth's frown was a curious one. "Stepped out of your dream? How is that possible?"

Vinsah shrugged slightly. "It was dark, and I was a bit wound up, so I probably was just seeing things, and gave some poor Keeper quite a start." Even as he spoke them, he did not believe the words. Whoever it had been he'd seen in the hallway, there was only one thing that he could be certain of he wore a mask.

The Patriarch nodded thoughtfully, as if he had suspected that to be the truth all along. "And your dream? What was so horrible that it disturbed your rest?"

Tapping the melon slice with one finger, the Bishop narrowed his eyes, wondering what he could say. Would Akabaieth laugh if he told him that a woman spoke to him, and that both Murikeer and Raven had taunted him? How would the Patriarch react to the telling of a bit of his own past? He pushed that away and spoke softly, carefully, "It was about this place, that much I know. There was this man standing outside the gates, his hands bloody. There was also this woman asking me to stay. It was so strange, that I have been trying to keep my mind from it."

"Eli speaks to us in dreams," Akabaieth murmured quietly as he leaned forward slightly over his plate. "Sometimes what he says is very subtle, we cannot hear it."

Vinsah bit his lip. "Maybe, I know it is crazy, but maybe we should stay here."

Akabaieth's eyes rose high on his brow. "Here? At Metamor?" Vinsah sighed, and looked away, ashamed at himself for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. The Patriarch however, was continuing, "It is impossible of course, you know that. We are on a mission of peace. We cannot attain that by hiding anywhere, be it at Yesulam or here. While I admit this castle and its people have quite a bit of charm, it is not my place."

He then furrowed his brow, his eyes soft and gentle. Yet, at the same time, there was a worry in them that Vinsah had no often seen. "If you wish," Akabaieth murmured, so softly that Vinsah could barely hear him, "I would allow you to stay here, if you feel your dream requires it of you. I would miss your company of course, but Eli's ways are a mystery to us all."

Vinsah shook his head quickly, stunned that the Pontiff would even make such a suggestion. "No, I will be at your side, Father. The dream, was just a dream, a frightening one, but a dream nonetheless." Yet, he wondered if it had been a message. It was not any sort he would expect from his Abba though, filled with pagans and magical beings as it was!

Akabaieth smiled then, patting the Bishop's hand with his own far more frail one. "You are a dependable man, Vinsah. I always knew in my heart that you would be a servant of peace."

Vinsah stuck the melon slice into his mouth to keep himself from saying anymore. Even thinking about the dream brought it back. There was so much more to it that he was afraid to tell, so much more that cast his soul in doubt.

Yet, Akabaieth at least sensed his unease to discuss such matters, and turned to a different topic. "Kashin tells me that there is a storm approaching. He does not think that it will interfere with the speech later this afternoon, but I would like you to talk with Thalberg about arrangements for another place to give it if it does rain."

"Of course," Vinsah said between bites. "Is there anything else that you would like me to do to prepare for such a misfortune?"

"Well, the reason I wanted to speak to the field was so that everyone who wished could hear me. If we are forced inside, we'll only be able to take a limited few. What of the others who wish to hear? Do you believe that you could talk to some of the mages hereabouts to see if they might know of some way around this problem?"

Vinsah felt his breath catch in his throat. "I'd rather not, if that s all right with you, Father."

Akabaieth once again appeared to have expected this response. His gaze was once again disapproving, and the Bishop felt himself wilt underneath of it, like a flower under a parched sun. "Are you that uncomfortable around the presence of magic?"

The Bishop sighed, looking away, his face flush with shame. "Maybe I just need more time to come to terms with the idea. I don't like it, and I've always believed it to be wrong. Yet here I watch you treat it much like any other curiosity. How am I supposed to feel?"

Looking away as well, the Patriarch gazed across the room to the Yeshuel who stood at the door, but did not listen. "How did you feel talking with Merai yesterday? You were quite unwilling to do that at first I remember. Yet when I came out, you both appeared to be in animated conversation."

Vinsah grunted at the memory. "It was not as bad as I thought it would be. They were friendly people. Merai had a graciousness that I hadn't expected in one so young."

"And why do you believe that this task may be any different?" Akabaieth returned his gaze to the Bishop, eyes still disapproving, yet offering him some hope. They were eyes that understood his misgivings, yet wished to help him rise above them.

Sighing, he stood from his chair. "I suppose I shall do as you ask. You are right, I will never know unless I try. I will ask Thalberg when I see him today who he might recommend."

Akabaieth finished the last of his eggs. "You might consider asking Murikeer Khannas. I am not certain of his depth of ability, but he might be able to help. I am rather fond of him."

Vinsah kept his lips closed as he heard his master's idea. The bit of quartz that Muri had tried to offer him in his dream almost standing before him on a pedestal. It was a brief image, but one that he quickly dismissed. "I'll be sure to ask him," Vinsah said quickly, catching the moment. "I should see to the arrangements as soon as possible, to give Thalberg and his people the time to prepare.

The older man nodded, smiling once more to his adjutant. "Remember, my son. These people are doing their best to struggle in a world that has cursed them. Without their own magic, they would all be dead."

Vinsah nodded slowly, and politely excused himself, stepping out the door almost in relief. Akabaieth watched the Bishop leave and sighed. One day, he knew Vinsah would be the man he wished him to be. Yet, he had to ask Eli in a rather impromptu prayer, why did it have to take so long?

Sipping upon warm apple cider, Dream watched the quartet of knights at the front of the Mule laugh and eat, swapping old stories, and some not quite so old. Some he even recognized as jongleur tales from his days in Pyralis, retold poorly as their own misadventures. Smiling, he wiped the aromatic sweetness from his muzzle with a folded handkerchief, wondering if that was not how all such tales were formed, each man claiming as their own, until they were absorbed into the travelling bard's repertoire.

It was quiet for a midday meal at the Mule, the four knights excepting. After last night though, Dream wanted some quiet, some place to sit and think, to reflect on just what had happened. Mosha had not been forthcoming with information when he'd returned to slumber, and to her sometimes desultory manner. He'd tried to forget about it as just an uptight superstitious foreigner, but the look on his face, as if it were one of recognition, was not something that he was likely to banish from his mind for long.

And so he sat at a dark corner of the Mule, sipping at his apple cider leftovers from the banquet two nights before and listening to the sound of the knights' voices as well as the crackle of the fire in the inglenook. October was not a cold month to many at the Keep, but the embers of summer had long since gone out, leaving them with the approaching frost of winter. The glow from the hearth was welcome though, as it warmed his outside while the cider his inside. Plus, the scent of flames lapping through the oak was one that he found distinctively pleasant.

Glancing up, he saw that there was a short figure standing before the table, a mazer of the crisp-smelling apple cider in one slender paw. It was a rat, the black of his eyes turned to flame as they shone brightly in the fire's gleam. He was dressed in a light green brocade, the neck turned down on his tunic. It took the marten a moment to realize that it was Matthias, once Head of the Writer's Guild. "Do you mind if I join you?" the rat asked, indicating the empty chairs about the table.

Dream smiled then, and indicated that the rat take the seat next to the wall. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

Charles threaded his tail through the back of the chair and lapped a bit at the cider, his whole face contorting in bliss at the flavour. "Well, I was just coming in to relax for a bit. I just returned from a patrol, and wanted something to drink. I saw that you were alone, and so thought to give you company." Mathias dipped his nose into the mazer again for a moment. "Besides, I was hoping to run into you sometime anyway. We've lived here for many years the both of us, and both being storytellers, it is remarkable that we've never actually told our stories to each other."

Dream Serpent fingered the side of his mazer with one blunt claw, leaning forward a bit with his sinuous body. "That is a rather fancy way of saying you wish to become acquainted."

The rat laughed slightly, his eyes straying to gaze curiously at the knights as they laughed raucously. He then peered back at the marten sitting next to him, his muzzle relaxing into a smile. "Well, one should always strive to use one's language to their utmost fullest."

"To what end though? So that your listeners will understand or so that they won't?"

Matthias sipped at the cider, one of his whiskers glistening with the bright, golden brew. "Actually, only so that those I wish to understand, will. You are a bard, yes? Are your tales for everyone, or only for those who hear them?"

Dream favoured him with a grin then. This was the sort of thing he needed actually, a distraction, a pleasant witty conversation to take his mind away from the screaming flight of the Patriarch's adjutant. "A well put question, my good scout. I am curious why one who has such a way with words, as you yourself demonstrate, would choose the life of a warrior?"

"I do not wish to fight, but to protect that which is important to me, I shall. Would you also not strive to keep safe those who matter to you?"

"Everyone must choose their own path. But if I can offer them a step out of danger, then I will." He gazed back at the knight's as one of them made a call for more wine be brought to their table. The wolverine pushed his large paw against one of the men, nearly toppling his chair in his enthusiasm.

"So," Matthias asked then, rubbing his claws along the wooden surface of his mazer, "when did you come to the Keep?"

As the marten and rat talked of times spent in the past, the knights became a bit more subdued, speaking of tomorrows and of yesterdays. The laughter lay at the back of their throats, each new friends, knowing that they likely would part company for the last time that next morning. As the wine was poured into each of their goblets, they regarded each other, half-formed smiles upon lips and muzzles. Finally, Andre held aloft his glass, "To honour and comradeship."

"To honour and comradeship," they each intoned as they solemnly partook of the new wine.

Sir Bryonoth was the first to set his glass down, gazing at the steer behind the corner with one speculative eye. "Dost thee realize that we know each other so well, yet we have only known of each other for scant two days?"

"Aye," Saulius murmured softly. "Tis good to here of my homeland. I wish it were possible for me to return there someday."

Egland appeared rather thoughtful at that, running one slender finger down his boyish face. "Maybe someday you will."

The rat shook his head. "I do not believe so. Look at me. Dost thee truly believe that they will accept me as a man of the steppe looking as I am now? Nay, my good friend, Sir Egland, they will not."

The younger knight from Pyralis grimaced ."It may yet be possible for you to return to your old form."

"I share in thy hope," Saulius murmured then, once again returning his narrow snout to the tumbler.

"We all do," Andre interrupted, his tongue working around his large teeth. "But it is good to see that at least here we can be friends, without fear of our skin."

Bryonoth nodded gladly at that. "Most certainly! Thou hast a bountiful menagerie to behold, yet behind each frail skein, is a man or woman, just as with us. Truly, the wonders of creation are not the containers, but what rests inside of them."

Egland appeared to wilt slightly at that declaration, regarding his goblet morosely, his eyes straying over to the wolverine's paws, and then back to his goblet. He then spoke softly. "We don't often open ourselves to reveal what is inside though." He then looked up, fixing both Andre and Saulius a smile. "You both have shown great kindness to my companion and I. I thought I'd show you a little something of my private self."

"Dost this have anything to do with thy box?" Saulius said, pointing a claw towards the small wooden box that Egland had carried with him.

The knight nodded, rising from his chair and lifting the box from the table behind him, and set it down next to his tumbler. The case was made from hard pressed hickory, metal clasps on one end holding it together. Unleashing each in turn, he gently lowered one side to reveal a velvety interior, and crisp , finely wrought instrument. Four narrow strings ran from the knobby head, to the base, passing over an ornate bridge, carved delicately by a master artisan.

To one side was a small bow, the horsehairs lining the inside drawn taut. He gently lifted the neck of the instrument in one hand, and rested the other end beneath his chin, and drew the bow across the strings, a sudden dulcet tone resonating throughout the bar. Egland favoured them with a slight grin as their expressions filled with delight.

"I did not know you were a musician as well!" Andre roared in surprise.

Egland blushed slightly. "I know, that is why I wanted to share this with you now. It will leave you with something to remember me by more than just as a fellow knight." And at that, he began to draw the bow across the strings again, his left hand delicately touching and changing the timbre of each note, producing a sonorous melody, soft, yet instantly capturing. A song-chant echoed from that simple piece of wood and string, under the careful touch of Egland's skill.

Even Matthias and Dream were caught by the lucidity of the note, turning their heads a moment to gaze at the standing knight, performing like a bard before his friends. Dream's brow furrowed in delight at the sight, though his ears began to pick up imperfections in the tuning. With a sudden grin, he saw the knight stop playing, and turn the knob to fix the note.

However, that interruption broke the spell around Matthias, and so he turned to his companion and asked in a soft voice, "So, how good is he?"

"Oh, he sounds to be quite talented. I am sure that with a bit of training he could have even become a minstrel."

"Do you know his name?" Charles asked as he considered both of the musicians. "Also, what is he playing? I always have such a hard time remembering their names."

Dream stared at the slender man, his eyes curious. "I believe that the others called him Yacoub. And the instrument he's playing is known as a viola. It is the larger sister to the violin, something I am sure you have seen in your travels."

Charles nodded, grinning slightly. "Yes, I do recall hearing such beautiful tones before. Though never from a knight. What a strange occupation he has chosen for himself."

Dream chuckled lightly and pointed at the finely wrought design of the viola. "Look at his bearing, and at the quality of the instrument. He is probably the third or fourth son of some minor noble. So far from the line of succession, he was probably forced to be a knight by his family and his honour."

Following the marten's blunt claw, Charles had to admit that what Dream said was probably true. However, another thought came to mind at that point. "I have heard that you are giving Caroline Hardy lessons on the flute."

Dream nodded and sipped at the last remnants of his apple cider. "True, she just one day in the market happened upon me and asked to be shown the flute, and so was so intrigued by it, that now I give her lessons. I am happy to help any unleash their hidden musical talents. You may even have one that you are not aware of," he remarked, gazing mischievously at the rat.

"Perhaps," Charles said, drinking the last of his cider as well. "Do you have your flute with you?"

Dream nodded, and drew it out from beneath his coat. "Yes, why?"

"Well, I think you should see if he would care for a duet."

Dream turned back towards the knight, and smiled. "I think I shall. Come, let us ask if he would accept my accompaniment!"

The two crossed by the inglenook, sparkling flames licking higher and higher up through the chimney, a testament to all that a warm home welcomed them here, and over to where the four knights relaxed. Yacoub did not stop his recital when he noticed the two others approaching, but only grinned as his music had drawn forth enjoyment from more than just his fellow knights. Even the bovine bartender had stopped his cleaning and was listening with one ear beneath his horns.

Dream stood patiently, flute held behind him as he watched and listened to the gentle flowing melody emanate from the finely crafted viola, each string vibrating as the bow passed over its surface in long fluid motions. Though his hands had been calloused from carrying the reins of his horse, their was a fineness to Yacoub's hands that still lent itself well to the handling of such a delicate thing as music.

And then, with a low mournful cry, the piece came to a close, and Sir Saulius stood from his chair, paws applauding, while tears stood in his eyes. "Ye hath a great skill, Sir Egland. I could almost see the faces of my fellow Flatlanders gazing across the plains, watching the grasses flow in the late Autumn winds. Marvellous!"

Egland bowed, a smile filling his face as the other present also clapped, though none quite so eloquently as the knight rat. Dream finally though came forward and with a wide flourish, bowed and produced his flute. "Might you care to play a duet? I couldn't help but admire the skill of a fellow musician like myself, and though to share a tune or two with you."

Yacoub appeared startled for a moment, and then a smile crept across his features as he gripped the bow tightly in his right hand. "Certainly. Perhaps you would like to play a few variations on a theme with me? I know just the theme too. Seeing so many rats about, I could not help but think of it."

Both Charles and Saulius blushed, now eager to hear what bit of sound they could possibly have reminded him of.

"That sounds pleasant," Dream concurred, loosening one end of his flute, and then replacing it to just the right length, testing the notes.

"I will play the theme once, and then I'll replay it, and you can join in then. After that, well, we shall see where we will go then. Ready?"

Dream licked his lips, silently tapping the keys to his silver flute. He blew on the hole, a single note sounding, and then nodded. Egland grinned to the knights, an almost fiendish cast to it as he started instantly into a rather quick duple metre, the notes scurrying up and down the scales, darting this way and that. Almost like a pair of rats, Matthias thought with a grin.

Though the melody was rhythmically rather straightforward, the harmonies it intimated at were quite advanced. It was rather exciting, and soon all of them were caught up in his recitation, that they barely noticed Dream joining in at the repeat, as his notes were slow, merely a backdrop to the first few phrases. Yet, before even the theme had been restated in full, Dream began a counterpoint to Egland, matching his tenacity, and his flavour with wispy breaths upon that slender instrument.

Yacoub smiled at the excitement that Dream and he were able to concoct in tandem as they moved onto the first variation, one that was even more erratic than the theme itself. Small notes graced every main one, almost as if they were an afterthought to the theme. Yet they added an urgency that even more gave Matthias the impression of rats. Glancing over at Saulius's squirming nose and whiskers, he could see too that his fellow rodent felt much the same.

The variations came quickly on the heels of each other, with Egland and Dream trading off melodies, interweaving into each other, and often times playing contrapuntally. The original theme would rise for one moment upon the viola out of the sea of notes of notes flourishing upon the flute, and then it would sink back down into the miasma, only to have the flute follow him up in the grandeur of that original declamatory statement.

And then, as if on some unseen signal, both of the instruments went soft, playing a rather guttural intonation on the largest of the strings. Each noted was stunted, as if it could only start itself, and then was clipped short, while Dream played a variety of figurations in the flute's lower register, a rather dull sound that somehow the marten gave a sombre life.

Yet, even that passed quickly, as the theme became more martial in texture, while Dream adapted the original four note motif to a military caste. Charles could almost hear the drummers leading them into battle, when that too disappeared beneath a strident storm as Egland rose in ascending ferocity up to the highest of his strings, gliding his fingers back and forth along its thin length, making the animal morphs wince at the squeaking texture.

Dream however, somehow managed to match that, by dropping quickly with his own tone every time Yacoub raised his own. Matthias could imagine those rats being dragged across something hot now, squealing as their fur was singed. Yet, the unpleasant, but strangely delightful passage was soon followed by a much more melodically inclined theme, this one barely recognizable as being derived from the original theme. Yet, Dream was able to draw upwards each of their hearts at the mellow tone he created in harmony with the viola's singing. With a bit of regret, it passed as well onto yet another variation.

And so the two musicians continued, each showing the strengths of their craft by continuously adapting to what the other had given, until the original theme felt as if it had been completely varied away. Yet, everyone gave a bit of surprise when that theme resurfaced suddenly, and logically right out of the depth of the music, asserting itself mischievously on the viola, while Dream continued to play that other melody, until it too disintegrated back to that four note motif. With an ever rising flourish, they joined in unison, escaping away to higher and higher notes, until Egland lifted the bow, and Dream lowered his flute, both of their grins wide.

The applause was slow to come, as the four others stood in amazement at what they had just witnessed. Yet, Andre did manage to bring his massive paws together in a thunderous peal to break the sudden silence. The rest joined quickly, each quite impressed with what they had just seen. "That was amazing! It did sound like two rats scurrying about there in the beginning," Charles remarked with delight as he patted both Dream and Egland on the back with his slender paws.

Yacoub winked playfully at the rat, and then turned to Dream, "You play remarkably well. I have not had quite so much fun simply playing in many years. It is a pity that we may never have another opportunity to perform together again."

Dream blew another note on his flute, and grinned. "I do have a few things that I ought to see to, but I think that we have time for a little more fun. I doubt anyone would object."

"Please!" Andre insisted, grinning from ear to ear, his muzzle pulling back to reveal the large teeth. "Continue!"

"Verily, I say unto thee. If it is thy intent to tantalize us with such prowess, than at least thou might have the courtesy to slay us with your delightful tunes," Sir Albert pointed out, waggling one finger, a grin creasing his face as well.

Both of the rats chimed in agreement with their comrades, and soon, Egland held the viola beneath his chin once more. "Your turn to pick a theme. I don't believe I ever caught your name."

"Dream, " the marten said simply, and then began to play something a little bit slower, extending one long, slender leg in the first steps of a slow, circling dance, his tail swaying in time with the haunting notes escaping from the gleaming silver flute. Charles took the seat among the knights, deciding that he did not have anything he really needed to do just that moment.

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