Never Again a Man - Part IV

It was quite gracious of you to invite me to sup with you this eve, your grace,” Marquis Camille du Tournemire said, smiling pleasantly across the plate of freshly prepared lamb.

Duke Verdane nodded, even as a servant refilled his crystal goblet with a thick red wine. “Not at all. I merely wish to more properly acquaint myself with my esteemed guest from Pyralis. I am afraid that I know little of the Tournemire land itself. Nor have I heard much of you yourself. You must be highly esteemed in Yesulam to have servants of yours granted audiences with the Patriarch.”

“It is true that I have many friends amongst the Bishop’s circle. Patriarch Geshter was once the Cardinal of Pyralis as you know. We have often performed services for each other.”

Verdane was chewing on a bit of lamb, smiling as he did so. He swallowed after a moment, and sipped at his wine. “The wine is from Lanton, bottled in 699. Do have a taste, Camille.” The Marquis nodded and sipped from the wine, holding the goblet delicately. The flavour was strong, rich in a blend of fruits, peach notable amongst them. “Your servant Zagrosek interests me though,” Verdane went on, skewering a bit of lamb upon a silver fork. “I heard that he bested Lord Dupré in a duel this morning. William is a fine swordsman, yet he never landed a blow. I find that curious.”

“Naturally, such a demonstration of prowess with blade would pique a man’s curiosity. Zagrosek is a man of many talents, else he would not be so useful to me.” The Marquis took another bite of his lamb then. It had a rich flavour, the meat cooked in its own blood.

Apart from the servants that stood ready to refill their goblets, the two nobles were alone in the chamber. The room was the same that the Duke had greeted him in the previous night. The doors of the room were rather thick, and there were few places where an idle eye could peer within, so it was fairly free to speak.

Even so, the Marquis’s mind was more focussed on what he had discovered that afternoon. His search for an eddy in the magical flow had mixed results. There were places where eddies seemed to form, but they were tenuous and oftentimes simply disappeared. So he had to conclude that there were no places that might provide him with a guaranteed shelter form magical observation. He would have to be cautious. Marquis du Tournemire hated being cautious.

“Indubitably,” Titian replied after a moment’s pause, his smile cold and distant. “I do wonder where he learned to fight like that. I’m told he held a broadsword as if it were a rapier or epee. Few men alive can marshal such strength.” The pointedness of his musings annoyed the Marquis. He had to wait for the arrival of the Bishop over the Southern Midlands, and he would not reveal his purpose until then.

“He is from the Southlands originally,” The Marquis said before taking a sip form his wine and then resuming with his lamb.

“Ah,” Verdane said, smiling and nodding. “Strange arts they practice down there I’m told.”

“We have trade with them frequently, though mostly for more exotic fabrics. The cost of a journey over the Splitting Sea is often prohibitive for anything but luxuries or necessity. Mostly I sell spices that I extract from the swamps to the South, and I import various silks, furs, and fragrances not to be found on this continent.”

Titian Verdane nodded through all of that as he ate his lamb. He’d already finished half of it, and his goblet was refilled with the red Lanton wine. “Perhaps we could discuss some trade ourselves if you would be so inclined. I’m rather interested in what spices and silks you could procure.” He smiled and swallowed one more bit of lamb. “Strange though.” At the Marquis’s polite stare of curiosity, the Duke went on. “Strange that your servant Zagrosek would dress all in black while the members of your household would be all in blue.”

“He is a retainer,” the Marquis reminded him. “He only swears loyalty to my house so long as I pay him his due.”

“An unreliable servant then? How would you know another might not pay him more than you so as to steal him away?”

The Marquis chuckled lightly. “The currency he demands very few can provide.”

“Truly? Then you are fortunate to have a supply.” Titian seemed to ponder something for a moment before he went on. “I have heard that black is the colour of the highest rank in Southern mage orders. If that means what I think it does, then you are doubly fortunate to have such a man at your beck and call.” His smile grew. “Ah, but enough about your servant. Let us discuss matters of commerce, they are far more stimulating.”

“Indeed,” the Marquis agreed with a cold smile. Though it was not the sort of business he wished to discuss, it would be pleasant nonetheless to see how much he could worm out of the Duke for a few paltry spices.

Benedict had been rather delighted when he’d received the missive from Andwyn that afternoon. As one of the few spies that Andwyn kept within Metamor for is own purposes, he often didn’t have much espionage to do. There was little he liked more than being able to skulk about and discover hard kept secrets. True, it was dangerous work at times, especially if he were to be caught. But still, he had a thrill knowing things that others thought were secrets.

He was faintly disappointed at the assignment though, merely to watch some woman knight and keep a close tab on her activities. As a mouse morph, it was fairly easy for him to watch another without being noticed. Even in his most human form he was only three feet tall, and that was smaller than many of the age regressed at Metamor. And in this assignment, he found it doubly easy, for Dame Bryonoth, the knight on whom he was to keep a watch, was very focussed on what she was doing, and thus seemingly oblivious to the rest of the world.

After Andwyn told him where she lived, he had gone out into the town, dressed in his usual nondescript brown tunic and breeches, clothes that blended well with the hooded tan of his own fur. It had not taken him long to follow the bat’s directions to her home, a small house that she shared with another knight named Sir Egland and his squire Intoran. He had then circled around the entire neighbourhood, noting that there were two figures duelling with wooden blades out behind the house. They were an elk and an oryx – Egland and Intoran. He had ignored them.

After circling the house, Benedict had come back around to the front, passed it by, and turned down an alley. The shadows were deep within, but he still had been able to find a good place to watch the house from. He had crossed his legs together and leaned against one wall, whittling a bit of wood with his incisors. The wait was always the worst part, but there was a great deal one could learn then too.

As luck would have it, Benedict didn’t have to wait very long. Not ten minutes after he’d slipped within the alley, Dame Bryonoth had emerged form the front of the house and began walking along the cobblestone street dressed in rather plain tunic and breeches. Her dark hair was tied back behind her head in a long ponytail, the end reaching down to the middle of her back. Benedict had slipped the wooden stick back within his belt and began to follow after her, a good distance back naturally, but close enough that he would not lose her should she turn down a side street.

And so it was that Benedict followed her across town itself until at last they came to one of the main stables. This was the same one that Andwyn had told him she worked in after the assault. By now twilight had fallen and the lamplighters were busy at their tasks. Benedict found it even easier to keep track of Bryonoth, but once she went inside the stables, things became complicated. He could not follow her in as he was – if she were doing something interesting, she’d stop the moment he entered, even if she didn’t think he was spying on her. But he could sneak in under the door as a regular mouse.

Folding his tunic in a pile behind a cistern, he shifted down into his mouse form, and crept through the soft grass lining the side of the stables. The scent of horses and all that came with them was strong. He slipped around the wheels of a wagon not in use and then finally was under the door. There was a single lantern lit inside, casting a pale yellow glow over a few of the stalls. He couldn’t se Bryonoth though, but he heard her gathering tools of some sort in one of the stalls. The stomping and grunting of other horses was the only other sound inside.

He hugged the wall of one stall, small paws held before him as he watched. Benedict was always wary that some cat might come around thinking him a good meal, and several times while spying for Andwyn, and before him Phil, that had happened. But he’d never been caught yet. He was careful about that after all. But it did make it hard sometimes to get the best view. And now, unable to see Bryonoth, but knowing that she was inside one of the stalls made things even worse. It sounded like she was sorting through some horse shoes, but that was all he could tell.

Then, abruptly, she left the stall, and made her way towards the double-door exit on the other end. Worried that he might lose he, Benedict slipped back out the front, shifted into his morphic form, pulled his tunic back on, and dashed around to the other side. He caught a glimpse of Bryonoth vanishing into the shadows along one of the side streets, and breathed a quick sigh of relief. Casually, he followed after her, being careful not to make any noise. There were far fewer people on the streets now, with night well underway.

Bryonoth headed towards the castle itself, something that surprised the mouse. But she didn’t head towards any of the main entrances, but instead around to the little used Western edge. Benedict hung further back then, his eyes adjusting themselves to the darkness. From a distance he watched her, waiting as she approached one of the walls. It took her several minutes to reach the castle itself, and soon she was but a speck in the darkness. Benedict took a rick and moved closer in, being careful to stay in the taller grasses. He even shifted to a more mouse-like form to help hide himself.

When Bryonoth reached the wall, she seemed to waste little time. Although she was too far away for him to see how, she managed to open some secret doorway in the wall. Inside she slipped, the portal closing behind her. Benedict stared with his muzzle hanging before him. He kicked at the ground then, cursing his cautiousness. He’d lost her!

Thomas left his quarters shortly after the sun fell behind the western mountains as Andwyn had come to expect. But it was not by his doorway that he left, but instead through a secret passage hidden behind his father’s tapestry. The bat hung from a parapet outside the duke’s window, one more gargoyle overlooking the city. He waited and watched, both with his poor eyes and the new vision that the curse had bestowed upon him, that of sight with his very ears. Given that the Duke’s equine ears were keener than a man’s, Andwyn did not dare use echolocation to scour the very details of the room, as he was not sure whether the Duke could hear it or not. But now that Thomas had left, it was safe.

The quarters were in their usual unkempt state. When the horse lord retired to his chambers early, he often spent much of that time laying upon his bed sobbing, beating at the pillows with fists, tossing and turning, leaving his sheets and quilts a tangled mess. When he returned from his nightly sojourn he would always straighten them so that none would be the wiser, but Andwyn has seen.

Andwyn waited several minutes after Thomas had left to be sure it was safe to follow after him through the secret passage. Letting go of his perch, he took to wing, and swept within the room. With Spring here, Thomas left his windows open. A month before and he would have had to brave the chimney and its soot. It would not have been the first time he had flown down a chimney either, but the memory of it was unpleasant enough that he allowed himself a brief moment of pleasure at the fortune in finding the windows open.

To open the secret door though, he would have to assume his morphic form. First though he latched himself to the ceiling, his toes digging into the masonry with ease. Listening, he could hear the guards sharing some small joke, the sound of their laughter and the shaking of their bodies clear even through the stout oaken door. There was the barest of a whisper to indicate the secret passage behind the tapestry, but otherwise, no sound came from beyond. Thomas had certainly gone on his way.

Letting go of the ceiling, Andwyn landed upon the carpet. He shifted upward, the room shrinking around him, and growing clearer to his eyes. And less so to his ears. But the chief of Metamor’s Intelligence wasted no time in moving to the tapestry, and slipping himself beneath it. The mechanism itself was to touch the bit of lighter stone behind the weaving of Thomas’s father twice. The first time, the stone shifted inwards slightly, and the second, it came back out again. The doorway turned inwards then, the grinding of the stone so subtle it was a whispering hiss in his ears.

Andwyn could see that Thomas kept the brazier affixed to the wall well oiled though it was shielded. The light it cast was dim, but sufficient to see by. The trail of hooves in the layer of dust was clear. Thomas had been this way many times, though Andwyn could discern which were the most recent tracks. But Thomas would know he’d been followed if he stayed in his morphic form. And so Andwyn shifted back to his simple bat form, and took to the air, winding is way down the corridor, clutching the ceiling at each intersection to make certain of the Duke’s path.

Thomas’s path strayed only once though, turning down a side passage as he wound his way through those tight dark and dusty corridors. Though Andwyn had to admit he found dark places comforting, these halls were desolate, ill-used, and secretive. There was something unpleasant about them, as if they held a malice towards any who would seek within them.

When he reached the intersection, Andwyn saw that Thomas had taken a side path, returned from that same path, and continued on. And it looked like he had done so every time he’d entered these secret halls. Wondering what the Duke could need down the side passage, Andwyn followed in his steps, but the passage quickly came to a doorway. It had but a simple handle, yet it would still be impossible for the bat to manipulate while still a bat. Scanning the floor before the doorway, he rejoiced when he saw that it opened outwards, sweeping the dust before it. There was a chance still.

Landing in the path of the door, Andwyn changed once more. He had grown so adroit at shifting, that it barely took a couple of seconds for the world to grow small to him again. Reaching up with his wingtips, he turned the latch, and began to pull the door open. It creaked, but not loudly. He lifted himself up from the floor by the latch, and once again shifted back down to his bat form. It took him but a moment to flit inside, and with luck, Thomas would never suspect.

The room beyond was one that Andwyn had not often had occasion to enter. Nevertheless, he recognized it instantly. It was the warehouse for magical artifacts that were deemed too dangerous to allow any other to obtain. There in one case was the amulet that Matthias had absconded from Calephas in Arabarb. Several other implements had once belonged to Wessex, or had at least been studied by him over the course of his life, devices of strange and weird purpose best left alone. But Thomas’s tracks were direct each time, and never faltered. They went straight to an empty glass case.

Andwyn kept an inventory of this room committed to memory. Malisa had a copy of it as well, as did Wessex while he was alive having been the mage at Metamor most knowledgeable about the dark arts. No other was privy to its contents, apart from the Duke himself. But whereas the others only knew what was contained in the vault, Andwyn also knew where each item was placed. And so he knew immediately what had been in that glass case.

Alarmed, Andwyn flitted back out of the vault, shifted to his morphic form and closed the door. He then took to the air again as a normal sized bat, and followed after the horse lord’s hoof marks in the dust. This time the path was sure, leading down several more flights of steps until at last it came to another dead end lit by a single brazier stocked with oil. The dust here was wildly disturbed, with two more sets of distinct prints. One of them was clearly the booted feet of a human, or a morph in great discomfort.

Andwyn perched upon the ceiling there and scanned the rest of the area, probing every clue. At one side were folded the simple but elegant tunic and breeches that Thomas had left his chambers dressed in. The dust on the floor had been deliberately cleared away to keep the clothes clean. Thomas’s linens were also folded on the pile. A latch was set in the wall, and it opened the concealed door at the end of the hall. Likely to the outside grounds of Metamor, Andwyn surmised. These passages were after all maintain by the Keep as a means of escape for the Duke and his family should dire times call for it.

The last set of prints in the dust were that of a full grown horse. The horse both came in through the doorway and left through it. Though, unless Andwyn’s ears deceived him, and rare was that, so far that evening the horse had only left the hall, it had not entered it. And judging from what was taken from the magical vault, Andwyn knew precisely who that horse was.

The moroseness of the corridors filled him, but still he took to wing. He had to return to Thomas’s chambers and close the secret door behind the tapestry. It was not likely that Thomas would return for some time, but when he did he must suspect nothing was amiss. And afterwards, Andwyn would wait where he had promised for Benedict’s report. He expected it to be very enlightening.

Benedict felt a rush of alarm and delight when he saw the portal open again. He’d neared the castle, half wondering if he should examine what latching device there was to open the door, but his cautious nature kept him from getting too close. Ducking back down into the grasses, the dark of the night making it unlikely any would see him, he observed Bryonoth leading a large stallion out through that portal.

That was strange, Benedict thought. Where did the horse come from? He studied the animal in the dim light as he watched the knight lead it along the outer wall of the castle back towards town. At least on its right flank, he saw no brand. He could not see what colour it was yet, only that it stood perhaps eighteen hands high and was very stout. It followed after Bryonoth, led by a short pair of reins attached to its halter, quite contentedly, though there did seem to be a bit of a rush to its step. Excited to see her perhaps?

It was clear after a minute that Bryonoth was bringing the horse back to the stables, and so Benedict headed back that way himself, shadowing them both naturally. He saw the knight lead the stallion in through the rear entrance, and once he was satisfied that they were not going to leave again, he darted around to the front, removed his clothes, and shifted back into his mouse form. Benedict then crept back inside the warm stables, finding himself in the bath of equine scents once more.

Bryonoth had just managed to coax the horse back into one of the stalls, and was removing the halter, speaking softly, but comfortingly to the animal. The horse was nudging at her hands, chuffing as he did so. Though Benedict’s ears were astute, he still could not quite make out her words. And so he scampered along the front of the stalls, nearing them both, but staying hidden in the hay-strewn floor.

Bryonoth hung the leather halter from one of the hooks on the post next to the stall, and then brought out a feed bag, hanging that on the front of the stall door. Benedict could smell that it was filled with dry oats, the thought of a few of them reminding him of his hunger. Perhaps a couple will spill over the edge. Besides, even if she did see him, she’d think him nothing more than a stable mouse collecting scraps. Of course, he’d do his best not to be seen.

After the knight had affixed the feed bag and the horse had stuck his head within, Benedict began to approach once more. The knight went inside the stall with the horse before he arrived, whistling a pleasant tune as she worked. Benedict did find a few pieces of oat spilled form the bag, and he nibbled upon them absently, hiding in the hay, listening to the whistling, and the sounds of scraping that came form the stall. He wondered at that. The scraping was consistent for a few seconds, then it would stop, only to start again a moment later.

And it would move about. At first the sound had been near to the front of the stall, but after a few minutes it came from the rear. It wasn’t until he heard the clinking of horseshoes that Benedict understood what she was at. The stallion wasn’t shod, and she had been filing down his hooves in preparation for it. But wouldn’t she have to beat the horseshoes to fit the hooves first? How would she know what size to use?

There weren’t too many pieces of oat that fell, but Benedict ate them all, unless they were obviously old. Why settle for old pieces when he could have the fresh ones that the horse was dislodging then? As for assignments, he was beginning to think this was one of the silliest that Andwyn or Phil had ever sent him on. Bryonoth was a knight, of course she would love a horse. But why had the horse come from within the castle? That seemed to be the most important question.

The shoeing itself took some time, during which Bryonoth merely whistled. But at last it was over, and she rose, unlatching the stall. Benedict had to scurry aside quickly, but once safe, he turned and looked back up at the two. They towered like giants above him, but he was used to this view. The horse nudged anxiously against Bryonoth’s head, and she turned to face him, running her hand along his muzzle. The horse’s eyes were wide, very concerned about something.

“After, Toumoth,” Bryonoth said then, smiling to him. So that was the horse’s name, Benedict thought. And then he marvelled at the intelligence of the beast, for it calmed down and followed her out of the stables, new shoes clopping noisily across the floor. Benedict stayed where he was huddled in the hay next to the stall, and he watched the two of them make their way out the front entrance this time. At the main door, Bryonoth took a harness from the wall and draped it over the horse’s back.

Benedict followed after them, and watched quietly from the shadows as the knight hooked the horse up to the cart that had been sitting beside the stables. The horse was patient enough, accepting the bit when it was proffered, and shouldering the weight of the wagon poles when they were affixed to his harness. Bryonoth then climbed up onto the wagon and gave the reins a quick flick of her wrists. The horse then began to pull the cart out from the stable wall and onto the cobblestone street.

Benedict watched them go, and then darted back behind the barrel to reclaim his clothes. Once his normal size and dressed, he went around the next building over and then out onto the street, idly following after the knight, horse, and cart. It was not difficult, the streets of Metamor were still active, though most went about on foot. There were a couple merchants with their own wagons and carriages, but none of them were driven by a woman.

Bryonoth led them all into the merchant’s district immediately. She stopped before one establishment, and spoke with a well-built badger named Derygan. Benedict did not know him well, only that he sold onions. And he sold quite a few to Bryonoth that night as well.

Benedict crept as close as he could without being seen by any of them, but their voices were still hard to make out. They were talking business, mostly about how much profit she was making from this, and where she should take her onions that night. While they talked, a few of Derygan’s servants loaded up the cart with several heavy bags filled with the pungent vegetable.

By the time that Benedict was close enough to finally make out what they were saying, they had finished their business and the servants had returned inside. Derygan had strode down to the horse and laid a thick paw upon its neck. “Ah, good to see Toumoth shod finally. What took you so long about it?”

Bryonoth shrugged, but Benedict could not see her face as she had her back to him. “He wast nervous. A horse shouldst be led.”

“I suppose you Flatlanders would know about that,” Derygan mused, patting the horse’s neck firmly. Toumoth’s ears were perked, otherwise he remained calm, despite the wicked claws so close to his flesh.

After that, they said their goodbyes and Bryonoth climbed up once more in the cart and flicked the reins. Toumoth resumed his pace, and Benedict continued to follow. There was certainly something odd about this, but he could not quite put his claw on what. He did not know the traditions of the Flatlands herders, but he did know that they were devoted to their horses.

Bryonoth led them to several Inns that night, and at each one she sold a bag of onions for a little bit more than she had paid for them. It was dull work, but Benedict kept a watch, wondering as always why the Chief of Intelligence would be interested in this. But the singular questions that had plagued him since the beginning came back. Why had the horse come from the castle itself?

It was well into the night when they finally returned to the stables. Benedict watched from afar as Bryonoth unhooked the harnesses and let Toumoth back inside the stables. He followed after then, removing his clothes once more and taking his mouse form. He crept back to his familiar spot, finding the two of them both in the stall again. Bryonoth was currying the horse’s flanks while the horse ate once more from the feed bag.

Benedict looked up at the horse curiously for a moment, and the horse’s eyes peered down past the bag and saw him looking up. Benedict wasn’t concerned of course, but then the animal nudged deliberately at the edge of the bag, spilling some of the oats on the ground around where Benedict sat. A normal mouse would of course immediately go after the food, and that is precisely what he did, attacking each morsel with a rodent delight.

But that very act made him wonder anew about the horse. It seemed strange to have a horse share his food, even one so well trained. Sharing was not a natural trait between creatures of different species. Only men themselves gave food willingly to other creatures. A flash of insight suddenly hit the mouse, and he very nearly dropped the piece of oat he’d been chewing upon. Toumoth was not a normal horse. He was a Keeper.

He furiously kept eating the oats though, lest that Keeper suspect him not a mouse. He could hear Bryonoth’s voice, now whispered. He could not make out what she was saying, but it seemed to excite Toumoth, as he began chaffing, stamping his shod hooves and making other very happy horse sounds. About the only thing that Benedict was certain he heard was the last words of assurance that Bryonoth gave him. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.” What could that mean?

Benedict spent the remainder of their time together very shaken. After finishing the morsels, he crept back along the stalls until he could disappear from sight and just listen. The grooming went on for at least an hour, all the while Bryonoth’s voice was simply that of a master speaking to a beloved animal. Who could this horse really be, and why would they want to be treated as just another beast? He understood how a person who’d become an animal morph would want to make more use of that new animal side, as he had done himself, but to want to be treated like an animal too? Pulling a cart of onions all about town, being shod? It was simply too much.

Regardless, the mouse remained, listening as Bryonoth removed each of the shoes in turn, and then replaced that halter upon the horse’s muzzle. She led him right back outside through the back entrance once more. Benedict retrieved his clothes, grew back to morph form, and followed after. As he had expected, she led the horse right back to the castle. She led him within that same entrance from which she’d produced him, and a few minutes later, she emerged without him. Bryonoth went back to the stables where she put away her things before heading home.

All the while, Benedict watched and listened, shaken by what he knew, unable but to wonder who she might be doing this too. Once he was sure she was not going to leave her home though, he rushed back along the city streets. Andwyn would be waiting for him, and he had so much to tell the bat. He hoped that for once the bat might be able to tell him what this was about, but he expected to go to his grave wondering. That was the way of the spy though, he reflected sullenly.

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