Never Again a Man - Part II

Morning in Kelewair was filled with birdsong. With so many trees left untouched near the brick manor, there were several roosts a short distance from the Marquis’s window. Their songs were different from those he was used to hearing in the southern marshes of Pyralis, but their incessant twittering woke him nevertheless. In the distance, the sounds of a city could be heard, the clack of horseshoes upon stone, the dry muttering of people’s voices, and the creaking of wagon wheels. But they were all insignificant next to the chirping of the birds.

He was sitting in the main room of his temporary quarters, with a small table set before him. A half-eaten plate of bread and cheese remained where he’d left it, pushed aside to make room for his cards. He’d laid out several, all of them face down, while the rest of the deck was stacked to one side. Sir Autrefois was in the foyer organizing a rotating guard with one of the soldiers the Marquis had brought with him, and Vigoureux was busying himself with a tome on the noble families of the southern Midlands. Thus, there was only the shadow of a Sondeckis to stand by the Marquis’s table.

He had arrived only a moment before, his entrance quite unlike his exit the night before. Zagrosek had simply walked out of one of the doors adjoining the main room as if he’d just risen from a long night’s sleep. After quietly closing the door behind him, he’d strode directly to the table where the Marquis fiddled with his cards. These were the same plain deck he’d handled the night before. His own hand-made deck was still securely hidden in his travel-sack.

“What have you discovered?” the Marquis du Tournemire asked, glancing at his fingernails as he felt the edge of a card nip against one.

Zagrosek clasped his hands behind his back and leaned ever so slightly forward. “Your grace, it seems that there are two families here, the Duprés of Mallow Horn and the Guilfords of Masyor. Both are to the West and have become embroiled in a very heated dispute. I do not know all the details, but in listening to them speak amongst their own men, I think that there was an incident between their sons, both of whom are here in this castle.”

The Marquis nodded lightly. Petty squabbles were an annoying distraction. He gestured with one hand for Zagrosek to continue and the Sondeckis did. There was little feeling to his voice. “I believe that both Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford were attempting to use the same tract of land between them to hunt with their sons, and something happened between them. There has never been any love lost between their families, but this has only made it worse.”

“Is that all?”

“No,” Zagrosek said slowly. “Lord Dupré’s wife is the daughter of Duke Verdane, so they feel that alone will win them the dispute. It was Lord Guilford who asked that Bishop Ammodus investigate the claims that both men made. He probably hoped that the Bishop would be able to corroborate his own story.” He paused then, eyes never wavering from the Marquis’s reclining form. Nor did he make any move to join the Pyralian noble at the table. None would dare sit at the same table as he without being invited to do so.

“All else that I have learned is this: Duke Verdane is an ambitious man. His eldest son is the lord mayor of Kelewair, while his other is the Prelate, second only to the Bishop in authority for this diocese.”

The Marquis looked up from his fingernails. “That is interesting.” He turned over one of the cards and saw the King of Coins. “And useful.”

Zagrosek glanced down at the cards and narrowed his gaze. “I thought you said that you could not use your cards this close to Marigund.”

“No, I did not say that,” the Marquis said, his voice abrupt. “I cannot use them to take a man as I did Bishop Hockmann of Breckaris. Or even you. Those fools at Marigund would surely notice something if I did. But I can watch the cards.” He narrowed his gaze. “Now go and keep your ears open. I shall watch.”

Stiffly, Zagrosek bowed his head and left the Marquis to his table and to the arrangement of cards before him. Still bearing the haughty frown of one insulted, du Tournemire slid the rest of the deck over the cards, spreading them out face down. Soon, the King of Coins was covered and lost to sight. He smeared them about for a moment, and then lifted his hand. At last, as each of the cards lined up just so forming an unmoving picture, his smile returned.

There were many times when Father Hough wondered how deep the mysteries surrounding Madog went. But he could rarely ponder them when the big mechanical fox was there with him. The fox understood him in a strange way, and never pushed him against his wishes, at least none that he would dare not go against. Often times he would mean to complete some task, finish up the last of his homily for the next Service, and there would be Madog, an iron ball in his muzzle, metal tail wagging behind him.

Hough did not mind so much the automaton’s attention. In fact, he was almost always delighted to see Madog’s metal snout poking through his doorway for a little bit of fun and play. At those times, Hough allowed himself to be the boy that the curse had made him into. There was little serious on his mind, just the fun of watching that big metal beast chase after a ball, or more lately, jump and snap at the butterflies moving to and fro amongst the blooming gardens in the Keep’s shadow. They even tumbled together a few times out in the fields, and never once did he fear being hurt by the immense weight of the automaton which was easily twice his size, and five times his mass.

This time, he’d just finished his morning devotions in the chapel when he felt the warm metallic nose pressing under his shoulder. He smiled, made the sign of the tree before his chest, and turned to look at the pleading face. Madog’s blue eyes regarded him hopefully, though he did not have the iron ball in his muzzle this time. “Good morning, Madog,” the priest said, his delight barely concealed.

“Hello Father,” Madog replied, tail wagging.

When the mechanical fox didn’t continue, Hough turned and collected the phylactery from the altar. The sweet scent of myrrh fumed from the brass phylactery, and wisps of smoke trailed out the sides as it dangled from one hand. He wrapped the chain around the cuff of his alb so he could hold it more easily. He then turned about and saw that Madog was still sitting upon his haunches, his blue eyes only a short distance beneath the priest’s own.

“I take it Misha hasn’t returned yet form patrol?” Hough asked at last. It had been Misha that had rebuilt the automaton and with whom the creature ostensibly stayed. And the fox scout certainly did have many stories of his own about Madog living with him. But Hough was fairly certain that Madog was no more owned by the scout than what Madog willed. Though others could debate the intelligence of the automaton, about whether he had a soul or not, but for Hough there was no question. Madog was his friend, and possessed one of the purest souls the priest had ever encountered.

Madog gave out a small yip. “Misha not back yet. Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Hough admitted. It was not uncommon for the fox scout to be gone for several days at a time. In fact, it had been a full day before the priest had even heard that Misha had gone on patrol. He’d not even thought about it until Madog had shown up. “He’s out on patrol, I don’t know where. I’m sure he’ll be back in a day or two. Do you miss him?”

“We need him,” was all that Madog said then. Hough’s eyes narrowed, but he continued on his way, carrying the phylactery back into his private chambers. Madog followed at his feet, the metal of his paws making a soft clinking noise upon the stone floor. There were only a few others in the chapel at the time praying, and none of them paid the priest and the mechanical fox any attention.

“No doubt,” Hough said as he set the phylactery back in its case. He closed the receptacle, cutting off the vaporous mist leaking out. The myrrh would cool on its own for another day. “Do you want me to go find him?” His voice had become quite boyish, in keeping with the silliness of the question. Even in the best of times it was not safe for Hough to leave the Keep now.

But Madog shook his head, tail wagging. “Want to play?”

He laughed and nodded, his face brightening. “Yes!” He cried out, delighted. He’d been supposed to go meet with Duke Thomas that morning on some errand for one of the knights, but he could not think about that anymore. To ask a child if he would like to play with a big dog was enough to erase all other thoughts form his mind, even if that big dog happened to be a mechanical talking fox built thousands of years ago.

Madog yipped delightedly and leaped over, bowling Hough down. The child gave out a startled laugh as he rolled back onto his alb, the fox licking him with a silvery tongue. It was not quite the same as a real dog licking him, but it made him laugh just the same. Hough put up his hands to try and stop him, and before he could touch Madog’s muzzle, the animal leapt off of him and took two quick steps across the room, glancing back over his shoulders with wide blue expectant eyes.

So it was tag. Hough giggled delightedly and jumped to his feet, running after the fox with both arms outstretched. With a small bark, Madog leapt around the room, deftly dodging around the chairs before the hearth, paws splayed out before him, rear high in the air with tail standing like a spike above, wiggling ever so slightly. Hough turned to follow him, running as fast as his little legs would carry him. But as he passed between the chairs, Madog leapt again, right over one of the chairs, to dash next to his bookcase, stop, and turn around once more, waiting for the boy to catch up.

When Hough followed after him this time, Madog nosed open the door to the sanctuary and bolted through. Hough chased after him unconcerned that he was still dressed in his priestly garments. He had to catch the automaton! Madog had wiggled between one of the pews, looking back to him curiously.

But Hough was loathe to play in the sanctuary. There were others praying here after all. In his boyish mind, he could suddenly remember the instructions his own father had given him many years before about the respect one should have, the decorum they ought to display when in the cathedrals of Eli. It was a lesson that came back to him in that moment before he charged giggling after the mechanical fox. It did not dampen in anyway his desire to play or to finally tag the fox, but he could not do it there.

He shook his head nd whispered quietly. “No, Madog. Not here.” He glanced up and saw several faces had turned to look at him. He smiled to them and they went back to their prayers. The mechanical fox nodded and continued on at a slower pace, one with barely contained enthusiasm, to the other end of the pew. He came around back to where Hough stood just outside his door, and then leapt right back through.

Hough smiled and chased after the fox, right through his room and out into the corridor beyond. He laughed brightly then, chasing after as best he could. Madog didn’t run too far ahead. If the fox had wanted to, it could have easily outpaced the ten year old. Eventually though, Hough finally managed to get his hands around the big metal tail, while Madog tried to extricate his paw from between the legs of a suit of armour without knocking it over.

“You’re it!” Hough declared brightly, and then turned and ran off down the corridor. Madog yipped and took up the chase. The priest ran as fas as he could barely able to even laugh. He knew it would not be long before Madog had bowled him over once more but that was all part of the fun. A few Metamorians were quick to step out of their way as they came hurtling past, startled expressions plain to see. A few of them were Followers and recognized the priest. But his romps with Madog were known of, so their surprise quickly turned to amusement.

Hough glanced back over his shoulder just as he rounded a corner, and saw that Madog was not too far behind. And then he felt a sharp impact, and landed on his backside, the fabric of his alb pulling at his collar. Rubbing at his head, Hough blinked and saw that there was another boy sitting awkwardly on his rump rubbing at his head. He was dressed in the manner of one of the Steward’s men, grey-liveried with the Hassan house sigil laced into the breast.

“Watch where you’re going,” the boy chided, clearly another age regressed Keeper.

But before Hough could respond he was yanked back down to the ground from behind, Madog’s paws gently pressing down on his shoulders. “Gotcha!” Madog announced in hearty enthusiasm. He then bounded off once more, and was off down the hall. He turned back around, looking at Hough excitedly, waiting for the boy priest to resume the chase.

Hough smiled to the other boy then, the fellow’s eyes gone wide hands grasping at the air with a sudden interest. He looked like he was twelve years old in physical age. The curse seemed to strike some of them differently. He was not one of Hough’s parishioners, but his growing smile was still very familiar. The child was taking hold of him too.

“Can I play?” the boy asked, looking a bit abashed.

Hough smiled and nodded, climbing once more to his feet, pulling up his alb in his hands a moment. “Sure! Let’s get him!” And then the two boys laughed and were off after the big metal fox. Madog gave out a yelp of surprise and was off down the corridor once more, barking buoyantly to any Keepers who strode in his path.

As the other boy was a bit older in form – there was no way to tell if he was chronologically older than Hough or not – he ran faster than the priest and managed to catch up to the automaton first. But Madog just barked a laugh to him, and it was then that Hough realized just how silly he’d been. He was it. The other boy couldn’t make Madog it until he was it! And so, smiling impishly, he reached out and patted his palm on the boy’s back. “You’re it!” he chimed, and then darted off down the hall.

Madog quickly bounded away as well, chasing after Hough with a few yips. Chagrined at his own mistake, the boy laughed and took up pursuit. And so it went. The game of Tag moved from the corridors of the Keep eventually to one of the outside gardens. By then, several other boys had also joined in the chase, Madog yipping and barking his delight at the game. Some of the boys that were playing were truly young, actual children who had not yet fallen under the sway of the curses. Yet none of those who’d been age regressed seemed to mind In fact, as Hough was tagged by one such child, he could only laugh. He’d given the boy his first communion only a couple weeks ago, and now they were playmates.

The game of tag eventually became hide and seek as they began to get tired of all the running. Madog was the seeker the first time, and Hough secreted himself amidst a thicket of rose bushes. The pricks caught at his alb, but he was careful not to tear anything. It would need a thorough cleaning, as the white fabric had several dirt stains along front and back. Across the terrazzo there was a single hyacinth rising up from the earth like a sentinel. The hyacinth was not native to the valley, or even to the Midlands. It was a southern flower that grew in marshlands mostly.

And the very man he’d been told who brought it to Metamor soon strode into view. Long black-and-white striped tail swinging back and forth, the ambassador from Marzac cupped the flower in one paw and sniffed at the petals. His golden eyes glimmered in the morning sun, and his muzzle moved, soft words caressing those tender petals.

Hough watched Yonson for several moments, eyes irrepressibly curious. He was alone, dressed in a simple sky blue tunic with baggy pants to match. The lemur stood before the flower, his shadow casting across it, long tail curling behind him in a question mark. As he gently held that blossom in his paws, short claws cradling the petals, he pressed his muzzle to the pistol and blew gently across it. And then, he seemed to whisper to it, the corners of his muzzle moving subtly. Hough strained to hear what the ambassador was saying, but his voice was too quiet.

And then, seemingly satisfied, Ambassador Yonson straightened up, looked up at the clear sky overhead, one of the few April days in which the sun shone, and then continued on his way along the terrazzo. Hough watched him leave, smiling to himself. The hyacinth was a very pretty flower after all, with a funnel-shaped blossom of deep-blue melting into violet petals. And if the ambassador had indeed brought it with him, it was no wonder he liked it so much.

And then Hough felt a pair of metal paws push against his back and a yip of delight. “Found you!” cried Madog from behind him. Hough very nearly jumped sharply forward, right through the briar, but caught himself just in time. Or more precisely, his alb caught him, stuck on several thorns as it was.

Madog sat back on his haunches waiting for the boy priest to extricate himself. Removing the cloying thorns, Hough climbed out from underneath the rose bush and brushed himself off. “That you did.” He smiled to the mechanical fox, who sat where he was unmoving. He wondered at this, as there were still several other boys who hadn’t been found yet. He could hear the voices of the other boys who’d been found laughing on the other side of the hedge, and it was clear that it was not all of them. “Do you have a thorn in your paw, Madog?”

The automaton looked down at his paw, and then looked back up at him. “No. Do you still want to play?” The fox’s tail wagged.

The question surprised the priest, because Madog had never asked him that before. When they had played together alone, the games only ended after they both settled down together, usually the boy with his arms around the fox’s neck, resting their heads together. And so, his mind was brought back from the fun and games to his own reality. There had been something else, some other errand that he was meant to attend to that day. Sir Egland has come to him the previous evening to ask a favour, and he’d agreed to it.

“No, Madog,” Father Hough said, the weight of his responsibilities once more upon his shoulders. They were a familiar burden of course, part of the joy of his service to Eli. Eli may have granted him another childhood to enjoy, but he still had to serve. “I have to see the Duke about something. You have fun though, and we’ll play again another time.”

Madog nodded, stepped forward once and nuzzled at the priest’s chest with his snout, and then bounded off along the terrazzo and through an opening in the hedge. Hough looked down at his priestly vestments and let out a sigh. He should have taken them off before he let himself get carried away. There was no doubt about it, before he went to see the Duke, he’d have to change his attire.

Hiking up the edges of his alb in his hands, Hough dashed as quickly as he could back into the Keep, passing through the Ivy Causeway and along the lower halls until at last he was before his own door. Along the way, he’d startled a few more guards and passerbys, but a child running through the corridors of Metamor was hardly unheard of. In fact, he expected some to have heard already about the boys and metal fox that had been creating havoc earlier that day. If it weren’t already known that Father Hough and Madog were playmates, it would have caused quite a scandal!

Once in his chambers, Hough doffed the alb, taking only a moment to fold it and place it within its drawer. He stripped his underclothes as well – even though they looked reasonably clean, they were not presentable enough for an audience with the Duke. He selected a tunic and trousers of woolen black, and an embroidered dalmatic to signify his office to go overtop. After donning that and combing his hair once more, Hough put on his boy-sized boots and strode purposefully and dignified down the halls of the Keep. Who would even recognize him as the boy running about wildly a few minutes before if not for the priestly alb?

There were quite a few people moving about the Keep that morning. It was past mid-morning by then, and nearing noon itself. But there was always somebody moving through the halls of Metamor. And with so many people living within the castle, it was inevitable that he would see many familiar faces, greet them, and stop to share a few words with them. Thus, by the time he did finally make it to the Duke’s chambers, it was already past noon. He did not see it in the sky, but felt it in his belly.

Duke Thomas’s door was wide and arched, with the horsehead coat of arms set in a placard above the lintel. Standing at either side were two guards armoured in heavy ring-mail, gauntleted fists clutching large spears. Swords were sheathed at their sides. One of the two, the bull morph, was Andhun, and one of his parishioners. He was exceptionally tall, and Hough’s head only came up to the bull’s stomach. When approaching the altar for communion, the bull nearly toppled over every time, not quite able to balance well enough to get his muzzle low enough for Hough to put the unleavened wafer upon his tongue.

“Greetings, Father,” Andhun said, his voice low and booming. “Coming to call on his grace?”

“Aye, Andhun,” Hough said. He smiled up at the bull morph, and then nodded to the male human who stood at guard with him. He was not a Follower, or if he was, he was not a practising Follower, as Hough had never seen him in the Chapel before. It was not surprising, most of the Metamorians were Lothanasi after all. But the Follower community was growing still, a fact that delighted the boy priest to no end. “Is his grace in?”

The bull morph did not shake his head. With those massive black horns on either side, that could prove dangerous. Instead he chuffed, a heavy sound that felt as if he’d been tilling the earth by dragging the plow behind him like a common beast. “No, his grace is taking his lunch in the audience chamber below.”

“Ah, ‘tis a shame. I was hoping to speak with him privately,” Hough said abruptly. It was a terrible habit, one that he’d only developed since coming to Metamor. He suspected that his speaking so quickly had more to do with now being a child than anything else. His newfound abruptness was understood though, and few took offence.

“If you’d come an hour or two ago, Father, you could have,” Andhun offered, rolling the iron spear about in his heavy hands. His fingers were thick, their tips being akin to hooves, covered in a hard nail-like surface.

Hough laughed then, and shook his head. This surprised both of the guards, but he held up one small hand to ward off their questions. “It is of small concern. Thank you, Andhun. Will I see you at services on Sunday?”

The bull did nod his head, albeit only slightly. “Aye, I will be there, Father. Steward Thalberg has been gracious enough to not assign me any duties on Sunday mornings for the last few weeks.”

“It will be good to see you there,” Hough said with a smile. He then nodded once to the bull morph, and to the human at his side. “Thank you once again, nd I shall see you on Sunday.” He turned about then and returned the way he’d come. He could hear the low murmur of voices as he passed back around the corner, one of them unmistakeably the bull’s, but he could not make out what was said.

He was not worried about it either. Instead, he was chastising himself for letting himself become so engrossed with his play that he’d missed the opportunity to speak with the Duke privately. After all, this was a private concern. It would not do to have ill rumours spread about Dame Bryonoth. She was having a difficult enough time as it was. But, to fulfill his promise, it seemed he would have to do just that.

The audience chamber was a place where petitioners could come see the Duke. His grace often spent a small portion of each day there, though from what the priest understood, he was usually attending to other affairs while there because he was not often called upon randomly. The room itself was not very large, though it was ornamented with clear displays of the equine emblem, one that Thomas himself mirrored now. Each doorway featured a set of pillars that framed it, and a guard stood watch over each pillar, both on the inside and out. A red carpet lay out before a small throne, a mahogany bust of a stallion surmounting it.

Thomas was sitting in the throne, working his way through a plate of fruits and grains. He did not even notice the priest as the boy entered, but kept his gaze upon the silver platter resting upon one of the wide arms of his chair. His long tail flicked form side to side out from under the other arm. Thalberg was also there, the alligator steward busying himself with a few parchments, reciting figures on the receipts of taxes, and the costs of upkeep and the like. The reptile stopped speaking however when his yellow eyes alighted upon the priest.

The Steward placed the bit of parchment back upon the small table he stood before. He crossed his green paws before it, dark claws tapping at the cherry wood beneath. “Welcome, Father. Is there anything we might do for you today?”

Father Hough smiled and nodded once to the Steward before turning to Thomas, who had sat back up straight in his throne and swallowed the last bit of apple he’d been chewing. “Ah, welcome Father Hough.”

Hough smiled, and bowed once to the duke. “Thank you, your grace. I have been given the responsibility of bearing a concern to you.”

“Of course,” Thomas nodded, waving one hoof for him to continue. “From whom do you bear this concern?”

Hough looked briefly at the Steward, but the alligator’s eyes had returned to his ledger. He then returned his gaze upon the equine duke. “The concern comes from Sir Egland. He is worried about Dame Bryonoth.” At the mention of her name, the Duke’s eyes went wide, his ears erect, and he griped the arms of his chair so suddenly he nearly upended the platter his meal rested upon. Thalberg looked up at that, not at Hough, but at the Duke. The alligator’s gaze was curious, and it made Hough distinctly uncomfortable.

“Sir Egland is concerned that Dame Bryonoth is having difficulty adjusting. He thinks, and I agree with him, that the time has come for you to reinstate her as a full knight and assign her knightly duties.” Hough could see that the Duke looked very uncertain and quite unhappy about something. He could not recall seeing that expression in the Duke’s face before, and he could not imagine what could have caused it. After a moment though, he added, “If you assign her to knightly duties again, she will spend more time with her warhorse Povunoth and less carting onions, which...”

“No!” Thomas shouted suddenly, his voice full of a sudden shrill anger. “No! She will not go back to Povunoth!” And then, the horse lord’s entire composure melted. Everyone in the room had flinched. Father Hough took several steps back, even raising up his arms to ward off a blow that would not come. Thalberg’s jaw had dropped, and he was staring at his liege in utter shock and dismay.

Thomas himself seemed to have realised the magnitude of his breach of etiquette and sunk into his seat, muzzle hanging low against his chest. “Forgive me,” he murmured, holding up one hoof-like hand. He seemed to be looking into it, though Hough could not see what the Duke fancied he saw there. “Have you spoken with Dame Bryonoth about this?” the Duke’s voice was so quiet, it was if he whispered it from another room.

Already distraught at the sudden flare of something that Hough could not quite place, Hough found it difficult to even speak. Strange terrible images began to fill his mind, brought back by his fright. There he was, a small boy, tied down to the bed, that sick fat lord leaning over top of im, piercing him most cruelly. He shut his eyes tightly then, rubbing his face with his hands. At times like that, it was all he could do to keep from letting the curse bring him some surcease.

“No, I have not, your grace,” Hough admitted, his own voice very soft, trembling from his fright.

The Duke seemed to be more his old self then, his face grave though. There was still a wildness to his eye sand a tension to his muscles that he’d never seen before. His voice was stiff, but the words seemed measured. “If carting onions is what makes her happy, then leave her to it. Until she asks to be a knight once more, in the stables she will remain.”

Hough stared at the Duke for several moments, the fear abated. In its place stood confused shock. How could the Duke have done that? He’d danced with Dame Bryonoth after all. How could he deny this request, to restore Bryonoth to what she truly was? “But your grace,” Hough said then, his heart beating quickly, “she will never come out and say that. She is to proud to ask it.”

“Or maybe she likes tending to the other horses,” Thomas retorted, his voice becoming hot again. Again, his eyes were filled with a strange ferocity, as if he were protecting something dear to him. “No, Father, I must deny your request. Was there anything else?”

He felt the sting of a tear glistening in his left eye. Hough fought it back with all his strength. He would not cry right there before the Duke and his Steward. “No, your grace. I will leave you to your meal.”

At the Duke’s nod, Hough bowed stiffly and quickly backed out of the room. The last thing he could remember seeing in there was Thalberg’s very disturbed gaze towards the Duke, as well as that of each of the guards who were stationed within. Hough paid none of them any mind though, beginning to find his pace quickening as he worked is way back to his room.

As he stumbled along through the myriad corridors of Keep, the only thought that preyed upon Hough’s mind was a longing for Madog. Just the very thought of the metal automaton brought forth the tears, and soon Hough was curled up in a corner behind a tall suit of armour sobbing like a lost child.

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