Lots - Part VII
ell,” Elizabeth said thoughtfully after Jessica’s long tale had ended. “I will confess I am surprised to hear all of this. The damage to Alberta’s spirit must have been greater than we thought. Zagrosek must have torn out her very sense of self, or at least sundered it from her masculinity.”
Jessica nodded slowly. The very notion that the black clad man could tear a person’s spirit apart so radically was frightening. “So that is what has caused her new transformation?”
“Possibly. It is possible that Zagrosek tore out the part of her spirit that the curse was anchored to. But that does not explain why she did not change back into a man. To remove the curse and not to have the altered person change back, you’d have to somehow leave only the single identity for the body to inhabit.”
The hawk blinked and cracked her beak in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. We’ve never had a person be freed from the curse after all. It is possible that the forms you now wear do not require any magical maintenance, and that were the curse to cease, you would remain as you are. Perhaps the curse’s presence on you merely lets you modify your form, in your case from your present shape to that of a normal hawk. But I do not speak from experience. I have studied Misha before, and we even tried to remove the curse from him once, but we could find no way to dislodge it. I fact, we changed him into an even stranger form for a time. So what I say is all speculation.”
As Jessica listened, some part of her whispered that there was something in her Master’s old notes that touched on this. She lowered her beak as she tried to remember just what it had been. Wessex had spent a great deal of time after the curses had first been laid experimenting with various ways to undo the powerful weave of spells. But only once, had there been any hint of success.
“Oh my,” she cried out. “We’ve forgotten completely about the counter curses. The spells that Wessex and the other Keep mages cast at the Battle of Three Gates to weaken the curses, to prevent us from becoming beasts or babes. Once, he tried to amplify the power of the counter curse on Phil, and for a brief moment, it looked as if they were returning him to his human form, when suddenly he caught flame again.”
Elizabeth narrowed her gaze. “Caught flame again? Why would that happen?”
“Phil was using Whalish Fire against the forces of Nasoj. His weapon misfired, and the substance landed on him, and would have incinerated him if the curses had not been cast at just that moment. They doused the flames from his flesh as he became a rabbit. The counter curses must have tried to restore him to that moment, and not just beat back the curse itself.”
“Yes, they would have to do that. I had never heard of this. I’m glad you told me. That’s one more piece in this puzzle. Zagrosek not only removed Alberta’s connection to the curse, but to the counter curse as well. What effect that would have, I do not know. But that is what must have happened. I suggest that your mages focus their study on that moment. I think it will reveal the answer to you.”
“Is that all?” Jessica asked in surprise, wing tips fluttering slightly. “We had hoped you might know the reason.”
“I do not know all, Jessica. You have told me what you know, and I have told you my guesses. I will consider this problem further, but I suspect that with my guesses and your mages first-hand knowledge, you will discover the answer to this puzzle sooner than I.” Elizabeth rose from her seat then, and extended her hands, resting them on the hawk’s shoulders. “You should return now. We will continue your lessons at our next meeting. Until then, practice what you have learned, and seek out new ideas for your own.”
The hawk nodded and hopped off the perch, her talons digging into the rug. “I will.” She could not help but feel disappointed at the dismissal. But she did have some new ideas to consider. Raven would be very interested to hear them.
She extended her wings, and the two hugged as best they were able. “I will be back in a few days,” Jessica said, and Elizabeth smiled.
“I hope to hear good things from you then.”
And with that, the world of Marigund began to fade, the lines drawing back and melting into another like a fresh painting set out in the rain. Jessica felt herself adrift in that whorl of colours, until finally, the canvas was wiped clean, and all that remained was Metamor.
The jousting line was freshly painted white, so it still bore a brilliant sheen that caught the light from any angle. Intoran was racing his steed down the line, turning, and then repeating the exercise, doing his best to keep his lance aloft. Periodically, he would bring is steed to a rest, and the roan stallion would lower his head to crop the grass at the edge of the run. All that remained of the local vegetation in the run itself was a line of grass beneath the jousting line. The rest had been pounded to red dirt.
Sitting in the saddle both Sir Egland and Sir Saulius watched as the squire continued his runs. There was nearly three feet of difference in their stature though, as Saulius was both nearly a foot and a half shorter than the elk, and riding a pony to boot. Egland’s steed Galadan had always been large, for which Egland was now very grateful as he was several stone heavier in his elk form than he’d been as a human. But even so, when they spoke, there was never any hint of that disparity.
“He hast improved o’er the last time I didst see him,” Saulius opined after a run in which Intoran had managed to keep the lance point from falling towards the ground. “He hast not yet unhorsed himself today.”
“He will be ready for the joust,” Egland said, smiling proudly at the oryx. “And your squire?”
The rat’s whiskers twitched in amusement. “He wast ready a fortnight ago, but I shalt see to it that he art ready for far more ere the joust arriveth.” Looking up at his fellow knight, Saulius pointed to the roan stallion. “Hast thy squire named his steed?”
“Aye,” Egland replied, grinning right back. “Purparae. An old Suielish word that means both purpose and joy, or joy at purpose, or some such. It has more to do with my squire than to do with the horse I think.”
Saulius nodded in approval, and turned back to consider the squire. Intoran had let Purparae to the basin of water at the far end of the line and was letting his steed drink to cool himself. “A name doth possess great importance. And ‘tis something that hast plagued my thoughts ere I arrived yesterday.”
“What do you mean, Erick?”
“Thou art Sir Yacoub Egland, and I hight Sir Erick Saulius. Though we both hath changed into animal men, we art still the men we once were. But not so with Bryonoth. She hast changed here,” he rapped his fist upon his chest. “When she wast younger, she wast Algor Bryonoth, a boy of the Steppes. When that boy went to Yesulam to be a knight, he didst take the name Albert. When the curse made her a woman, she took the name Alberta. Now the curse hath taken her again, and much of who she once was, is gone. She canst no longer be Alberta Bryonoth. She doth need another name, methinks.”
Egland let those words roll about in his mind. Perhaps there could be no way that either of them could continue to grow s long a they were clinging to what was, and not what had to be. He had already come to the conclusion that the man he once loved, Sir Albert Bryonoth, his Ts’amut, was dead. But if she changed her name once more, there would be no hope of seeing that man ever come back.
Perhaps, he never could.
Egland took a deep breath and nodded slowly. “Mayhap you are right, Erick. It should be her choice though, not mine.”
“Then we shalt ask her when she dost wake,” Saulius said, his eyes seeking out the elk’s. “She dost still loves thee, Yacoub. Loves thee as a sister to a brother. Thou must learn to accept that love for her sake. Else thee wilt hurt her. She hast suffered too much already.”
“Aye, she has. She has.” Egland did not know what to feel. He stared blindly out across the jousting line, eyes stretching to the gray walls of Metamor beyond, and the line of mountains that pierced the cloudy sky.
They met once again on the top of one of Metamor’s towers. This time Jessica was by herself, while Raven was accompanied by Rickkter. The day was stretching towards evening, and an orange glow was beginning to fill the western sky as the sun continued its journey. Clouds had begun filling the sky that afternoon and occupied most of the eastern half of the valley. A storm appeared to be brewing, though it would not likely hit the castle itself until well into the night. But the bright flashes of blue light that danced across the edges of those dark clouds promised that a storm was to come.
“So,” Rickkter said after he listened to Jessica’s recitation, “it is not just the curse we should be considering but the counter-curse as well? Both are so tightly wrapped together here at Metamor, I’ve begun thinking of them as one and the same.”
“As had I,” Raven nodded, her tail wagging ever so slightly behind her legs. “But clearly there is some aspect, some way in which the two interrelate that has led to Bryonoth’s condition. But after considering this, I think it is safe to say that we can discard the idea that the curse’s hold on Bryonoth was weakened from use of the halter.”
“Yes,” the raccoon agreed. He crossed his arms and began pacing back and forth, striding fro one end of the tower to the other. “If that had been the case, she should have started to become a man again, because the halter was focussed solely on the curse side. That did not happen, in fact the opposite seems to be the case, she’s become completely feminine. So, somehow, Zagrosek removed her connection to both the curse and counter curse at the same time.”
Raven tapped one foot paw. “By removing part of her spirit. That’s how he accomplished both. But we know from what happened when Wessex tried to amplify the counter curse in Phil, is that the counter curse does not simply try to keep you from being cursed. It acts as a memory. It remembers how you once were before the curse took a hold of you. Which is why Phil caught fire.”
The raccoon nodded as he continued to pace, long stripped tail lashing behind him. Dark eyes brooded thoughtfully, as his paws went from being folded over his chest to being folded across his back just over the root of his tail. “That still doesn’t explain why she didn’t become a man again. Or why she suddenly became so feminine.”
Raven leaned back against one of the tower crenellations, her own head lost in thought. Jessica felt sure that the answer had to be right there just out of their reach. There was some leap of logic that had yet to be made. Looking over them both, Jessica felt an undeniable urge to take to the air. Flying often helped her clear her mind, and problems that were confusing before often became clear afterwards. And it would be nice to fly for a bit before the storm moved in and made the sky a mass of turbulent winds and torrent rain. She hated flying in the rain.
“Wait,” Rickkter announced, stopping where he was pacing. “Yes it does. Damn, could it be that simple?”
Raven blinked and stood upright once more. “What is it, Rickkter?”
“You said it yourself. The counter curse acts as memory. It remembers for our bodies, what they had once been, and presents that over and over to the curses, which present us with an animal, or another gender, and so on. Which is why we are generally these half and half forms. The curse is slightly stronger, and so it predominates, which is why I can become a raccoon and Jessica a hawk, should we so choose. But the counter curse in us still remembers how we once were.”
“So if one could remove the curse, than the counter curse would take effect, and we’d go back to exactly how we were before we were cursed?” Jessica asked.
“Precisely! Or at least, that’s what seems to be the case to me. Elsewise, why would Phil have caught fire again when Wessex was pumping power into the counter curse? There’s no other explanation for it. At least not combined with what we know about Bryonoth.”
“But she lost both,” Raven pointed out. And then her eyes widened, even as the raccoon nodded his head. “Ah, and that’s why she did not change back. With the counter curse removed too, her body no longer remembered what it once was. And so it simply never changed at all.”
“And I’d wager that Bryonoth never became more or less feminine in appearance since that night in her cell,” Rickkter added. “And so, because her body no longer remembered being male, neither did she really understand it. All she knew was that she felt female, and with nothing else really except scattered memories, she began to act female. With her spirit damaged, the curse could not take her immediately because it lacked the proper aspect to latch on to. But when that grew back as it naturally would, it struck.”
“Could it have made her male again?” Jessica asked.
“Probably,” Raven replied. “But that would not have made her the man she once was either. She would have thought of herself as a woman who was turned into a man.”
Rickkter nodded, and set to pacing once more. “That’s how it must have happened,” he mused, eyes casting out towards the clouds. He frowned as he stared at them, but when he reached the wall, he turned, and continued pacing in the other direction. “Although this does mean that we should never lift the curse itself.”
“Why is that?” Raven asked, a genuine look of surprise on her brow.
“Because I’d die. And many others like me. There are quite a few who came here to Metamor because we knew that the curse would grant us new bodies. If we lift the curse, the counter curse will give us our old ones right back, and my old one is still quite riddled with disease. It would probably even return us to our physical ages at the time we were cursed. It’d be like we all stepped back in time. No, that is something we should not do.”
“So,” Raven mused quietly, “if we ever want to lift the curse, we’d have to find a way of modifying the counter curse to free us from those ills that brought many here in the first place. How many of us had been injured and lay dying when the curse spared our lives? I do not wish to imagine that. You are right, Rickkter, as it is, we cannot and should not lift the curse.”
Jessica squawked then, feeling that the conversation had taken a rather uncomfortable turn somewhere. “And what of Bryonoth?”
“We let the curse finish changing her,” Rickkter said with a shrug. “There’s nothing we can do for her, and there is no other danger that she possess at the moment. As far as I’m concerned, we report this to Thomas, write it down for future study, and then go back to our daily lives. There’s little more that we can do about it.”
“I think I will check on Bryonoth one last time,” Raven suggested. “But otherwise, Rickkter is right. There is little else that can be done for her.” She smiled to the hawk. “Thank you for your help, Jessica. You may tell Elizabeth that her suggestion led us on the right path.”
Rickkter looked eastward and grimaced once. “Well, I think that’s al for now. I don’t know about either of you, but I’m getting back inside before that storm arrives. Good Night.” And with that, the raccoon turned, lifted the hatch, and slipped down the stairwell. The hatch thunked closed above him.
“I too will take my leave now,” Raven looked after the departing raccoon with narrowed gaze. “Will you be all right?”
“Yes, I’ll just fly down. I could never handle the stairs anyway.”
Raven smiled warmly, and then followed after the warrior mage, even as a distant rumbling could be heard. Jessica glanced back at the approaching storm clouds and sighed. The storm was approaching faster now. She’d have to hurry if she wanted to stay out of the rain. She jumped, spread her wings, and dove off the end of the tower.
Habakkuk could feel the bruises from his previous match already beginning to form. The vole had proved a feistier opponent than he’d suspected, and that one-two punch to his side made him wince as he tried to stay comfortable in his seat. But in the end, Habakkuk had dispatched the relative newcomer to the Writer’s Guild with a steady pummelling that kangaroo’s were so well equipped for. It was one of the reasons that Habakkuk remained the champion of the Writer’s Guild boxing tournament.
And naturally, everyone was there to watch, and a good quarter of them had signed on to compete. There were some like Tallis who after competing once never did so again, as his frame was simply too light to withstand the fight. Habakkuk could remember when the rat had joined in at Nahum’s urging a couple years ago. Tallis had been so battered he hadn’t climbed out of bed for a week afterwards, after vowing that he was going to strangle the fox.
The kangaroo chuckled lightly to himself. Nahum had managed not to be strangled of course. And in fact, it appeared that he’d been doing some exercises in preparation for this contest, as he was still holding up well enough. He and Loden, a woman who’d become a man, were busy trading blows, though Habakkuk judged that the fox was faring better. Of course, whoever won this match would be facing him in the final bout for the tournament. It had all gone so fast, Habakkuk thought unhappily. Where had the time gone?
The sound of heavy rain still drummed away at the roof of the Guild, while the crack of thunder rattled every few minutes or so. The storm had started shortly after the tournament began. It had been very intense at first, the constant snarling and lashing of thunder making the lanterns swing from the ceiling so much that it looked as if they were on a ship. But the initial fury subsided after a few minutes, though with each new crack of thunder, they were reminded of the promise of that fury.
The main hall of the Writer’s Guild was filled completely with all three dozen or so members. Most had managed to arrive before the storm hit, so there were only a few who were still damp. Their faces, some muzzled and others still human, all watched the fight with rapt attention. Most had their favourites that they rooted for, calling out suggestions, cheers and jeers at every solid blow.
Smiling, Habakkuk did his best to relax and just enjoy the end of the match, but it came far quicker than he’d hoped. Loren was circling bout the fox, a smear of blood trickling down the side of his mouth. His stance was wobbly though, uncertain. Nahum kept his paws balled into fists – no claws were allowed in the fight on pain of disqualification – Loren darted in, swinging high. Nahum ducked low, and planted a solid blow in Loren’s exposed side. He followed that up with another hit to the belly, and then the chest, and finally an uppercut to Loren’s chin. The man fell backwards in surprise, crashing to the ground with a dazed expression on his agonized face.
Being cautious, the fox took several steps backwards, panting heavily at last, his long tongue poking out between his jaws. “Do you yield?” he called out after several long seconds in which Loren tried to get back to his feet and failed.
Loren gave the fox a dissolute stare, and then nodded, motioning for somebody to come help him to his feet. Tallis, who by not competing had made himself the master of ceremonies for the evening, declared, “Our Headmaster Nahum has won this round, and now will face our other Headmaster Habakkuk in the last round for the championship! Let them ready for five minutes and then the match will begin. If you are going to place your bets, do so now.”
Habakkuk was considered the favourite of course, but even so, there were a few who put their money on the fox. Rising from his seat, the bruises making their protest known, Habakkuk patted Tallis on the shoulder, and moved around, smiling and pumping his fists as he passed the other members of the Guild. When he reached the end of the table, he circled around the backside, and grinned at the fox who was still panting at the other end. Some one had brought him a trencher of water, and he was greedily lapping at it like a dog.
“Don’t drink too much”, Habakkuk warned. Nahum gave him an amused grin and then spat the water on the floor.
“Would you like some?” the fox asked, holding out the trencher in one paw while he supported himself with the other. “It’s fresh rainwater.”
Habakkuk looked up overhead. The rain was still coming down in torrents. Every few seconds or so, the intensity of the clamour would increase, and then wane once more, as if a thick sheet of rain had passed over them. “At least it is not hailing.” He then bent forward and began to stretch out his muscles for one last fight. He reached down and touched the claws at the end of his exceptionally long feet, and then bent further to touch his heels as well. He could feel the ache in his muscles protest the whole time, but he ignored the pain, fighting off the tension that wished to fill him. He needed to be loose.
Habakkuk continued to stretch as those five minutes quickly slipped away. After washing some of the blood from his mouth, Nahum had begun to stretch as well, but he did not need to do as much to keep loose. The room was generally quiet except for the racket of the storm outside. Most were whispering one to another, pondering how the fight might turn out. A few opined that they hoped the fight lasted a good long while so that they did not have to brave the rain. Habakkuk could not help but grin at their worries. They were so pleasantly simple.
“Well, are you ready? Nahum asked as the minutes drew to a close.
“To whoop your sorry tail? You had best believe it!” Habakkuk grinned, taking a few steps closer.
Nahum laughed and shook his head. “Not tonight! Tonight we’re going to have a new champion!” The fox crouched a bit as he approached, grinning. His teeth gleamed beneath his jowls.
“I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed,” Habakkuk replied sagely, and then stepped close enough for the fight to begin.
“All right,” Tallis said from the head of the table. “Remember the rules, and let the final match begin!”
Nahum grinned and took a quick swipe at the kangaroo. Habakkuk jumped back a step and punched with his left arm. It caught the fox on the shoulder, and he spun back a few paces. But he was quick to circle back around, launching a few of his own at the kangaroo’s head. Habakkuk dodged to one side, but not before one of the blows grazed the side of his head, clipping his ear. He let out another punch at the fox’s shoulder, but missed that time. They both darted back out a couple of paces, and then the fight really began.
Nahum seemed to prefer a duck and weave style this time. In the past, he’d been much more of a straight confrontational fighter, which was probably why he’d never been able to win more than a few fights. The fox was not naturally a physically imposing form. While there were some fox Keepers – Misha Brightleaf came to mind – who were natural fighters, this came from training and not raw animal ability. It was clear that Nahum had been taking lessons of some sort, and was learning how better to use his strengths. When Habakkuk punched, the fox ducked or stepped aside, before striking back on his own.
Habakkuk was glad to see that Nahum had improved greatly in the last year, though his punches still lacked the over all strength that the kangaroo could muster. While Habakkuk had always had a harder time manoeuvring because of the size of his legs, he was able to deliver blows that sometimes felled his opponents on the first hit. And they had served him well in holding the title. Few amongst the Writer’s Guild were really warriors as it was, and so none had ever really tried to take advantage of Habakkuk’s relative slowness.
Nahum was attempting to do that now.
Hopping to one side to avoid Nahum’s latest assault, Habakkuk punched and baerly missed the fox’s shoulder. It was not entirely due to Nahum’s improved performance either. Habakkuk had no desire to end the fight in that manner, though he knew he probably could. Instead, he let the fox come at him again, landing a few solid blows into his chest. He fell backwards, nearly landing on his thick tail, but he managed to get it behind him properly and pushed off to one side. His chest ached from the pummelling, but it was nothing he had not felt before.
The crowd was beginning to cheer on the fox as Nahum pressed Habakkuk backwards. It had been a long time since anybody had seen their leader having so difficult a time, and Metamorians were long used to rooting for the underdog. The kangaroo did not mind. A grin creased his muzzle then as the fox stepped in a bit too close to press the attack and he punched him square in the nose.
Nahum reeled backwards, one paw covering his face in shock, though he did manage to stay on his feet. Habakkuk lept after him, forcing the fox to continue to side step and duck, preventing him from landing any blows at all. The gasps and cheers from the crowd grew as did their excitement. Here was the champion, coming back to finish the job. A crack of thunder overhead seemed to further drive that point home.
The fox looked quite unhappy by his changing fortunes, his face, where once it had looked excited, was now determined and snarling. A bit of blood was dribbling from his nose where Habakkuk had punched him, though the fox did not appear to notice at all. Habakkuk continued to push him though, forcing him back into one corner with his bigger body and stronger punches.
When at last Nahum’s back was in the corner, the fox realised that he was in serious trouble. He had nowhere else to go. And so it was then that Habakkuk gave him the opening that he would need. It was a subtle thing, one that most in the crowd would not see. But Habakkuk, grinning as if in triumph, swung a solid roundhouse at the fox’s head. Nahum ducked, and quickly punched the kangaroo right above the thighs on either side. His blows were solid, and he repeated them three times before Habakkuk could give out a cry and back up a few paces.
And then it was virtually over. His thighs no longer responding as quickly as they ought, Nahum danced around the kangaroo, ducking the punches, and continuing to strike across his sides and chest. At long last, Habakkuk, worn and tired, tried to grapple the fox, when another punch came to his chin, and he fell backwards and to the side, landing upon the floor.
“Stay your paw!” Habakkuk cried out, to the hushed silence of the Guild. “I yield! You have won!”
And then the Guild erupted in delighted cheers. The look on Nahum’s face was one of elated surprise blended with triumphant glee. Habakkuk grinned as best he could, holding out his paw. Nahum clasped it and lifted the kangaroo back to his feet. Several of the Guild members leapt over the tables to pat the winning fox on the back. Habakkuk nodded his head, feeling his entire body tightening up already.
“I did it!” Nahum crowed, grinning from ear to ear! “Break out the beer! The fight has been won!”
Habakkuk smiled, and offered Nahum a hug. “Good job, Nahum! I wouldn’t have believed it unless I felt it.”
“You’ll feel it tomorrow too,” the fox replied with a grin. “Let me get you a beer!”
All about them, they were surrounded by the laughter and exultant cheers of their friends.
“Healer Coe?” Raven called out as she stepped through the doorway. Still standing beneath the transom, she waited for the raccoon to uncurl himself from the pile of papers he had spread across the flagstone.
“Yes, Raven?” Coe asked, ears upraised as he brushed a bit of dust from his trousers. The room was quiet but for the rattling of the shutters. The storm was still blowing strong outside, and from the look of the sills, the raccoon had not managed to get all the windows closed in time. Small puddles pooled beneath a few of the windows, though they would be dry by the morning.
“I was hoping to see the knight one more time this evening. How is she?”
Coe shrugged slightly, eyes casting over towards the hallway down which the knight was sleeping. “She’s well enough. Her change is almost complete. I expect it will be by tomorrow. Her last changing spurt did not pain her nearly as much as the others, and she was almost able to mouth words to me, but I couldn’t tell what they were.”
“Has she woken then? I received no letter.”
“Nae, she has not yet arisen,” the raccoon explained. “The change is taking a lot of energy from her. I have to force the food and water down her throat each day. She has been growing a great deal as well. She makes no waste, so everything she consumes is only adding to her change.”
Raven nodded then. It was often the case with those who grew into larger forms that they would have no bodily wastes while they transformed. Just as it was with those who shrank in size, they often did have quite a few wastes, and some in surprising ways.
“Have you figured out why she’s changing?” Coe asked then, rubbing his paws together.
“I believe so, yes. What is causing it is nothing that I would wish upon anyone else. And if we are right, then we may not be able to remove the curse.”
“And some of us would you rather didn’t,” Coe pointed out with a slight churr to his speech. “Some of us like being the way we are now, and don’t want to go back.”
Raven smiled, her tail wagging ever so slightly. “There is that as well, yes.” She looked down the hallway and nodded her head. “I would like to see her now though.”
“Of course. You won’t be alone though. His grace is still in there.”
“Still?” Raven asked in surprise. She had not heard that Thomas was here visiting with her.
“For three hours now,” Coe replied, his voice emptying itself of anything more than the words themselves. “He’s been there every night since she’s come here. And he usually stays until well past dusk.”
Raven narrowed her gaze. Why would Thomas spent so much time watching after her unless... “I am sure his grace will not mind my company.”
“As you wish,” Coe replied. “You know te door, Raven. It is unlocked.”
The wolf priestess nodded and as quietly as possible made her way down to the door. Her ears turned up to listen, but all she could hear was the sound of breathing beyond. But she could smell two equines. Raising one paw, she quietly knocked at the door.
“Who is it?” Thomas’s voice called out.
“It’s Raven, your grace. May I come in?”
“Of course,” the voice was tired and strangely weary.
Raven opened the door and found Thomas sitting on a stool, his long head staring at the form that lay within the bed. His eyes were attentive, but there was a look of fatigue to them. “Your grace,” Raven said, nodding her head low. He acknowledged her with a wave of one hand, and then returned to his consideration of Alberta.
The knight still lay underneath white linen sheets, but the shape beneath them was no longer merely that of a woman. Her whole body had greatly increased in size since the last she had seen her. From out the foot of the bed a pair of solid equine hooves protruded, the hooves themselves a bit larger than Thomas’s own. Her tail was not visible, though one arm was, a two-fingered hand spread across the pillow, the fingers ending in thick hoof-like nails. She still possessed her thumbs, and they seemed as well formed as Thomas’s own.
But it was her head that caught her eyes most fiercely. Gone was the long black hair. Instead, a thick matting of black hair ran down the length of her neck, the hairs roughly six inches in length the whole way. Ears that had grown long and thick with fur topped her massive head, each of them lying to the side. Her face had distended into an equine muzzle much as Thomas’s had, grey fur covering the front in a distinctive pattern. Her wide nostrils breathed in and out.
It was strange to look at her, for her change was still not finished. Hints of fur patterns existed at her shoulders, though they were not complete. And even a few patches on her face were still bereft of the fur that would cover them for the remainder of her days. But it was increasingly clear what she was becoming, although there was still something wrong with it.
While the colour of her fur, and the shape of her mane and ears strongly gave them the impression of a donkey, her frame was simply too large for it. It was clearly taller and thinner in places, at the same time being more robust overall. While it looked like a donkey, it wasn’t quite that either.
“Do you know why this happened?” Thomas asked then, even as he reached out a hand and brushed the back of his two fingers across her own.
“I believe so, your grace,” Raven replied, wishing that she herself had a stool to sit upon, but there was only the one.
“Please, call me Thomas for now.” He let his hand fall back into his lap, and his gaze finally left the knight. Raven could now see that there was an opened letter sitting upon the bedside.
“When Zagrosek removed that part of her spirit, he removed her connection to both the curse and counter curse,” Raven explained. “It is that part of our spirit that the curse anchors itself. Without it, the curse could not affect her. Once her spirit healed naturally, it took her again. She did not become a man again, because without the power of the counter curse, her body had no way to change back. At least, that is what all that we know leads us to believe.”
Thomas nodded slowly at that. “And is that why I hear she feels so feminine now?”
“Yes. She does not really have any connection with the masculine. For her, it may be as if she had never been male.”
“Never?” Thomas asked, and then nodded. “I...” but his voice trailed off into silence and his head once more swung around to watch the knight. The sheet stirred slightly as her tail shifted underneath.
Raven looked between the two equines, staring intently at them, probing the Duke’s eyes for any clue to his state. But all she could find in the darkness was the flickering of the lamp reflected. “Why are you here watching her, Thomas? Brian says that you’ve been here for several hours the last two nights too.”
The horse lord did not return the priestess’s gaze. Instead, he continued to watch the sleeping equine with saturnine patience. “I wanted,” he said at last, his voice soft, almost swallowed by the thundering racket outside, “I wanted to make sure that she was all right.”
In just those few words, Raven knew there was more to it than that. Her heart began to beat a bit faster, as possibilities began to occur to her. She knew the story about Thomas asking Bryonoth to dance at the Knight’s Ball. After hearing about the halter and what it had done to him, she’s just assumed that had been one more aspect of the halter’s influence. But now Thomas had been freed from it. What if that had not been the halter’s doing, but Thomas’s own?
“Do you care for her?” Raven asked, her own voice whispered. Somehow, speaking of this any louder seemed inappropriate.
“Yes,” he admitted with a slow nod of his head. “I do. Even though the halter was ruining my judgement, there was an intimacy in our time together that I cannot describe. Something passed between us in those nights. I was more vulnerable for her than I have ever been with any other.”
Thomas turned then and tried to meet Raven’s gaze, but his eyes kept trying to wander back to Alberta. “She may have been under Zagrosek’s control, but when we were together, I saw a tenderness in her that was not of his doing. She loved tending to the horses. And now she,” Thomas did look back at her body, “is becoming an equine too. It makes me feel like...”
“Like what, Thomas?” Raven rested one paw gently upon his shoulder. “I am your priestess as well as your friend. You may tell me whatever it is that is on your mind and heart.”
The horse lord nodded, the flicker of emotions moving quickly across his brow. “It makes me feel like we could be together again.” He turned his eye back to Raven. “Not as horse and ostler. No, I do not want that at all.”
“Then how do you wish to be with her?” Raven asked, though the whispers in her heart told her the answer already. She could feel her fur standing on end in anxiety as she waited to hear the words from Thomas’s own lips.
“As man and woman.” Thomas smiled slightly, and then reached over and picked up the letter. “I wrote this letter right after we were freed from the halter.” Raven took the parchment and unfolded it, angling it towards the light that she might read. “It’s ironic,” Thoams said, reaching out one hand and brushing across the top of Alberta’s mane. “I wrote that expecting her to accept my offer to join the Red Stallion. I never really understood why she turned me down until now. As a woman, a woman of the Steppe, she did not think she was supposed to do such a thing.”
The letter, Raven found, was genuinely heartfelt, and showed a side of the duke she had not seen before. Thomas had been little interested in the parade of noble women that Thalberg and Posti had brought before him in the years before the curse. And in the years after, very few were the women interested in him. Raven knew that Thalberg and Malisa were beginning to worry that Thomas might never have any direct heirs. But here, in this letter, the seeds of union were being laid. Thomas was asking Alberta to be a part of his life, unspecified, but still a part. Raven had never seen the likes of it before.
“Do you love her?” she asked, handing the letter back.
Thomas turned in surprise at the question, and then looked back at the sleeping form. The sheet stirred slightly, but that was all. “I’ve never loved another in the way a man is to love a woman, Raven. If what I feel is love, then I do not recognize it yet. What I do know is that what I wrote in this letter is true. I do not wish to live without having Alberta play some part in my life. I want to be with her once more, and I want her to be with me.”
Nodding slowly, Raven lay her paw on his shoulder once more and patted him consolingly. “It may yet be, Thomas. Why did you never send this letter?”
Thomas sighed heavily. “I was afraid that Thalberg and Malisa would become convinced that I was still under the halter’s influence in some way. I was afraid that they’d find some excuse to send her to one of the other towns to make sure we could never see each other.”
A crack of thunder that sounded closer than its companions rattled the windows so much that one of the shutters banged inwards. Raven stepped around the bed to shut it and latch it once more. Turning back, she could see that Alberta’s muzzle was open slightly, the lips twitching in her sleep. Lifting her gaze, Raven peered at the horse lord. “Even when every mage says that you are not under the influence of dark magic any more? They would be wrong, and we both know it. And your councilors can do nothing without your consent.”
“Oh they can, and have,” Thomas pointed out ruefully. There was a bitter laugh in his voice. “I own my life to their treachery, Raven. It may have been for the best, but acting against my will is still treachery. I do not blame them for it, and I am glad they did it. But if they did it once, then if they feel I have become compromised by magical forces, they will do it again.”
“Something that is simple to verify,” Raven pointed out, her tone lecturing. For a moment she felt as if she were in the Temple explaining some theological point to one of her acolytes. “Malisa, Rickkter, and myself can all look at you with mage sight and give no hint that we are doing so. And we will all see that you are merely yourself, Duke Thomas Hassan. That is something that not even Thalberg will argue with.”
She could see that the horse lord still looked conflicted and confused. He nodded his head slowly and returned to watching Alberta as she lay in the bed. “Thomas,” Raven said, coming back around the bedside, “if it will help, I will speak to Malisa and Thalberg, assuring them that I believe you to be wholly yourself, in this especially. If you wish to pursue her, then do so without fear. I trust my liege’s judgement.”
Thomas smiled lightly then and patter her paw with his hoof-like hand. “Thank you, Raven. Thank you. I will pursue her. It must be slowly at first. I don’t want too many rumours starting.”
Raven smiled lightly, though she could not quite tell how she felt. “Very good, your grace. I have seen all I came to see. Alberta is well and in good hands here. Good Night, your grace. I will see you again.”
“Good Night, Lothanasa. I will linger here a bit longer before I retire.”
Raven continued to smile as she backed out the door. Thomas’s gaze had gone resolutely back to the sleeping figure, and paid her no more heed. The look in his eyes was one that she had seen before in many Keeper’s eyes. Though Thomas may not understand it in all its particulars, and may not yet be ready to call it for what it was, Raven knew.
Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor was finally after so many long years, in love.
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