Never Again a Man - Part V
halberg was cramped yet once again in that tiny linen closet that Andwyn seemed to prefer for their clandestine meetings. The single candle wobbled before his sleepy eyes, it’s light just sufficient to show him how dusty the closet had become. If he could, he would unobtrusively let Malqure know of the need for its cleaning. The ibis archivist would be quick to attend to it.
But for now, his thoughts dwelt on the bat, and what he had to say. “So,” Thalberg asked, his voice gruff and heavy, weighing down upon the room much as the ceiling and the shelves filled with jars and linens did. “What have you discovered?”
Andwyn bore himself up to his full height, though still dwarfed by the alligator. “It is worse than we feared I am afraid. The passage into which Duke Thomas went was very dusty, so there was no difficulty in tracing those steps. He went first to the magical vault, removed the halter, you know the one, and then went down to one of the exits that the Keep maintains in case the castle is overrun. There he met a human, removed and folded his clothes, and I can only assume donned the halter with the human’s aid, for his tracks disappeared there, and the tracks of a large horse appeared.”
“How do you know,” Thalberg asked, though he knew he was merely grasping at straws, “that this human didn’t bring the horse with them?”
“Because the horse’s hoof prints only leave the passage, they do not enter it. Likewise Duke Thomas’s tracks only came down to the exit, they do not leave it. I also found his clothes, including his linens folded in a small pile where they had cleared the dust away.”
“Are you sure it was the halter that he took?”
“Yes.” Andwyn did not hesitate in replying. “It was the only thing missing from the vault. Clearly, the power it once had over him is still in existence. It was not broken merely by taking it off of him after his abduction. We will need to inform a few trusted mages of this so that they can break this enchantment.”
“And what of your man following Bryonoth?” Thalberg asked, nodding slightly, long chin narrowly avoiding dipping into the flame.
“He watched Bryonoth leave her home shortly before sunset, travel to the main stables where Duke Thomas set her to work. She set out a few tools there and then continued on to the Western edge of the castle, where she slipped inside a hidden doorway.” Thalberg sighed heavily at that, but the bat continued. “She emerged a few moments later with a horse bearing a halter. She led the horse back to the stables where she placed him in one of the stalls and removed the halter.”
“She removed the halter?” Thalberg asked, slightly surprised. “Then why didn’t his grace change back?”
Andwyn’s wings fluttered slightly. “Please allow me to finish, good Steward. Duke Thomas did not change back, but then began to eat from a feed bag filled with oats like any common horse. She then filed down his hooves and shod him.”
“Shod him?” Thalberg found his voice rising, despite his efforts to keep it in check. “She shod the Duke of Metamor like a common beast!”
Andwyn held out one wing. “Calm down, good Steward. The tale gets worse I fear.” After Thalberg managed to take a few deep breaths, the bat continued. “She then led him out from the stables and hitched him to a cart. He then pulled the cart through the town to a shop owned by a Master Derygan, a shop that sells onions. Bryonoth bought several bags of them, then delivered a bag each to several Inns.”
Every word was like a dagger in Thalberg’s heart. His Duke, the man he’d served and watched over for years, traipsing about town like a simple animal, a beast of burden. The thought filled him with rage. Bryonoth would stretch for this.
“After delivering the onions, Bryonoth led him back to the stables, where she curried him and talked to him like any animal. It was then that my man realized the horse was a Keeper. She whispered things in his ear, but he could not hear what was said. He did say that she called the horse Toumoth.”
“Toumoth,” Thalberg intoned softly. “I looked that name up in the library today on a whim. It’s the Flatlands version of our Thomas.”
Andwyn nodded slightly at that. “She spent about an hour currying him and cleaning him, then she removed the horseshoes, placed the halter upon him again, and then led him back to the castle. They used that same entrance, only this time, when she left she was alone. She returned to the stables, cleaned up her tools, and then went home. The only other thing that my man could tell me was that Bryonoth kept telling his grace ‘tomorrow’.”
“It sounds like they plan to rendezvous again tomorrow then,” Thalberg mused darkly, yellow eyes narrowing.
“That was my thought as well.”
Thalberg crossed his arms before him. “We must stop them. It ends tomorrow. We should bring in a few warriors and a few mages to help us stop this madness. We will need to catch them in the act after all, at least to insure that no doubt remains, and that we will not be accused of treason.”
“We could still be accused anyway if we are not careful. Should Duke Thomas order our own executions...”
“He shall not do that,” Thalberg said firmly. “We must inform Malisa as well, she’ll be needed to temporarily supercede his authority. He is ill after all, and a man can make foolish decisions when they are ill.”
“And possibly corrupted by magical influences,” Andwyn added. “It is the only ground we have to stand upon, so we’d best make a firm perch. Who do you suggest we inform?”
“As few as possible. I want no chance this may become common knowledge. Your man, will he keep quiet?”
The bat appeared to take umbrage at the question. “Of course. I would never have given him the task if I thought his lips might slip.”
“Good. Misha Brightleaf should be there, if he returns from his scouting mission in time.”
“He returned a half hour ago,” Andwyn said. “The fox is presently in one of the bath houses steaming off the grime of his mission.”
“How you know that, I will not ask. Perhaps Rickkter as well. He can serve as both warrior and mage. George should be called upon too. I am thinking he can select several trusted guards who will prevent anyone else from entering the stables, and who will not ask questions or tell stories.”
“Yes, good choices so far. Rickkter may not want to help, he can be unpredictable.”
“True. I will give them all a chance to decline to assist us. It is only fair. But we must have one more mage if not two.”
“Use only one for now,” Andwyn advised. “Bring in the rest when the time comes to break any magical enchantments laid upon the Duke. I recommend Jessica, as she has worked with the magic of the enemy that took Bryonoth in the first place. She may see some connection that another mage may not. But call upon the rest when the time comes to break the enchantment. We may need all their help.”
Thalberg nodded slowly then. “I think you are right. I will summon them all to my chambers first thing in the morning. You will need to be there as well to stand with me and my claims.”
“We should have Malisa’s agreement first,” Andwyn pointed out.
“True. We must go to her for that. At sunrise, we shall see her.”
Thalberg uncrossed his arms, and looked about himself. “I hate this room.”
“Hopefully, you will never need return,” Andwyn replied, folding his wings before him like a cowl.
The hand, the eye, that delivered the gentle touch to his hide belonged to Bryonoth. Toumoth felt them caressing his hide, lightly brushing across his short fur, feeling the powerful muscles held in check beneath. Standing tall, on four hooves, Toumoth pressed into that touch, savouring it, her scent powerful, filling his mind with nothing but contented pleasure, the sweet memory of oats, or onions, of curry and horseshoes mixed together within that scent. Even the joy of their dance together came into it, clumsy as it was.
Her words were even softer upon his ears, like dew upon the morning grass it was there when he expected it. Toumoth did not listen to her words so much as enjoy the fact that he could hear her voice. Bryonoth’s voice was milk and honey to him, a sweetness that left him wanting more after each taste. He would know when the words would be important, and then he would listen to them. But for now, he would merely follow her voice as well as her hands.
They were in the stables he knew, though she had not set him out his oats as usual. Something far greater would be done, and afterwards, he could eat in contentment, eat forever of the oats, carrots and barley that were the staple of a horse’s diet. He would enjoy succulent apples, taking them straight from her hand, rewards for especially good behaviour. She did delight in favouring him with them when she could.
A thrill ran along his spine, leaving his tail to swish in excitement. Her fingers were working around his ears, finding that soft sensitive spot that he enjoyed ever so much. The halter was upon him, the leather straps fitting closely to his face, the bit between his teeth. The sharp taste of metal was pacifying to him though, his tongue rubbing gently across it as it rested in the hollow of his jaw between his teeth. With the halter on, he was stuck as a horse, but that was what Toumoth was, a horse.
“‘Twill be forever,” she had said, and he exulted in that emotion. It was coming he knew. That moment when her powers would combine with his desire to make that statement come true. His heart beat faster in his chest as he hoped for that, eagerly awaiting it. Dreams filled him, leagues of unending grasses to gallop through bearing her aloft and cart after cart of onions to haul at her command all came. Toumoth had often pulled carts, but never had she taken him out to ride through the grasses, and he so wanted her to do that. Once it was forever, she would be able to.
He could see her now, Dame Bryonoth moving lithely around before his large head, her hands never leaving his face. Her fingers stroked across his cheeks, and he nudged her with his nose, barely able to restrain his impatience. Her smile dispelled what anxieties remained, and he could only chuff at the air, his chestnut orbs meeting her own. She leaned forward then and planted a kiss upon his snout, a slow tender kiss, her arms underneath his head, framing it, fingers splayed through the fur. His flesh shivered, teeth ground against each other, the tang of the metal seeming to disappear.
When she looked up once more, Toumoth knew it was time. He stamped his hooves. She had not yet shod him, but had promised she would once it was over. They would not feel right until she had done so. But he could not think of that now as he looked into her gaze, her hands moving across his face, touching every bit of that halter and his flesh underneath. He’d once had hands he knew. But no more, he had no need of them as long as she possessed them. All the epicurean delights of the world were as ash when compared to her simple touch, her smile, her whispering words. Toumoth would be glad to be rid of all else.
“Take it in, Toumoth,” she said, her words somehow breaking all boundaries, as if they themselves sundered what was real from the imaginary. Toumoth stared, wondering how she hoped him to accomplish this feat, but her smile kept his anxiety at bay. “Breathe deeply. Take it in with each breath.”
She continued to stroke his long head, even as his nostrils flared, his chest expanding with the intake of breath. He could feel the leather straps upon his head pulling tight against his skin. But it did not hurt, it felt comforting in fact. The metallic bit itself seemed to dissipate, filling his entire maw. He breathed in again and the sensation only became stronger, the straps themselves burning against his skin, as if they had suddenly become freshly beaten iron not yet cooled from the forge. But still it did not hurt, his skin rising against those straps, tugging at them.
Another breath and Toumoth felt the halter sink anew, constricting once more, pulling tighter within himself. He felt his skin begin to slide across it, as if his flesh were water, filling in as the halter sank. And then, with one more breath, Toumoth felt every bit of that halter disappear within him, absorbed within his very body, becoming as much a part of him as his own flesh. It was done. It would be forever.
He continued to breath deeply, though nothing further changed. Bryonoth smiled to him then, her eyes alight with pride. She kissed him again on the head between his eyes this time, and he nudged her slightly. It had finally come to pass, and he thrilled at it. He was Toumoth, a horse, Dame Bryonoth’s horse. And she was here touching him, and it would be that way until the end of their days.
Suddenly, the entire world tilted to the side, and he let out a startled whinny. The warmth and brightness of Bryonoth’s presence turned into a fumbling in the dark, legs tangled in some terrible cloth, a hard floor rushing to meet him. Blinking and struggling against the sheet, he pulled himself up and looked about. And seeing made his heart fall and the anxiety fill him once more. Bryonoth was not there, and it was not yet forever. He wasn’t even Toumoth, but Thomas, and still Duke of Metamor.
His peaceful sleep broken by the rolling out of bed, he did his best to straighten his sheet with clumsy fingers – with but hooves, he would never have to worry over this again. His room was dark and empty. A cool breeze floated in on the windows overlooking the city. He used to like this room in all its finery. Now it was merely one more burden, one more thing that kept him from her.
Sighing, he reminded himself that tomorrow it would be forever, she had promised him that. Looking down at the linens he wore, he could see why he’d rolled out of bed. The linens themselves were in tatters across his body, the pressure of a shift into full horse form too much for them to take. He removed them and tossed them into a pile on the floor. His bed was large enough to accommodate Toumoth, but only if he stayed still. Yet another rude awakening.
Still, he tried to remember the pleasant dream as he climbed back into his bed. Not all dreams came true, but this one would, and it would do so the very next evening. Keeping that thought in mind, he soon began to feel better. It would be forever after all. Tomorrow he could stop pretending to be the Duke of Metamor and be what he was – a horse.
“Do you often travel this far North, Camille?” Lord Anson Guilford asked as he bit into a piece of dark bread. The Lord of Masyor had invited the Marquis to break fast with him that morning. The rooms that the lakeland lord had been given were of finer quality than that which the Marquis himself enjoyed. A large veranda overlooked the fields and forests to the North, balustrades made of marble lining the brick deck. Inset into the brick was a colourful tiling that was carefully maintained - the Marquis had noted only one chipped tile .
“No,” Camille du Tournemire replied, smiling as he cradled a small goblet of juice within his hands. Joining them at the table where Lord Guildford’s wife Tara and their eight year old son Lucat. Zagrosek had also been invited to join them at the table, but had demurred at first. At Lord Anson’s insistence, the black clad man took a place a short distance from the Marquis. The table was not overly large, made of the same stout cherry as most of the doors and parquetry in the estate. But it provided the five of them ample room.
“No,” the Marquis continued, “I do not travel this far North often. This is my first venture to the Midlands.”
“A fine country,” Anson nodded at that, smiling with a bit of pride as his eyes swept past the Marquis and surveyed the forests beyond. “You should see Masyor and the lake though.” He shifted slightly in his seat, the blue surcoat bearing the issuant osprey twisting so as to cut the bird’s beak in half. “As fine a sparkling blue as can be found in the world. Lake Masyor is the largest freshwater lake this side of the Barrier Range in fact. Why even on a clear day, you cannot see the other shore!”
“Quite lovely,” the Marquis agreed, taking a small sip of his juice. Their meal consisted of dark bread, a few eggs, some sausage and cheese. It would tide them over for a few hours certainly. While Anson and the Marquis talked, Lucat was doing his best to eat in a dignified manner, while Lady Tara corrected the boy quietly if he seemed uncouth at any time. Zagrosek ate in silence, smiling politely, but saying nothing.
“But what brings you away from such splendour?” the Marquis asked at last. It would have been unseemly to decline the invitation, and it provided him with an opportunity to feel for any magical eddies in the Guilford chambers. However, the flow had been smooth and undisturbed, much to his consternation.
The subject seemed to distress Lord Guilford, for his smile evaporated. “Ah, the Dupré’s of course. They’ve been fighting me for the land South of Masyor for years. Hunting rights they claim, they say they won it in a game of cards with my father.”
The Marquis’s interested piqued, he leaned forward. “A game of cards you say?”
“My father denied it of course right up until he died last year. He did like to play cards though, so Duke Verdane never settled the matter.”
“Ah, you have my condolences.” The Marquis frowned, but then let a small inquiring smile creep onto his lips. “Tell me, Lord Anson, do you perchance play cards?”
“No,” Anson shook his head. “My father did gamble away several tracts of land with them, though not the ones the Dupré’s want. I will not do the same.”
Disappointed: “Not even to pass the time? Not every game of cards is a gamble for money.”
“Not even to pass the time.” Anson turned his head then and smiled to Tara. He rested his hand on hers and she smiled back at him. Lord Anson Guilford was not as large a man as William Dupré had been, though his arms were quite thick, chest as well. Perhaps he had worked the nets himself upon the lake from time to time. Lady Tara was quiet small though even by comparison, her long hair just as frail as the rest of her. An errant wind could have snapped her in two. Lucat appeared to be more of the father than the mother, though he had her golden hair.
“It is a regret, for I do enjoy a game of cards, even when I lose,” the Marquis sighed, and bit into the sausage. The spices within were few, but they were hot, just as he liked them. “But tell me, what matter are you trying to settle now?”
Lord Anson’s gaze passed over to his son, whose genial manner descended into indignance. “A week ago, I was hunting with Lucat. I did not know it, but William had taken their insufferable brat Jory to hunt as well. In those same woods. We flushed out a bit of game, a small herd of deer, and took up the chase. Jory had run afield of his father’s hounds, and happened to get in the way of the herd. His horse was slain, though the boy was only scratched.”
“Oh my,” the Marquis said as he sipped his juice.
Anson snorted. “William claims I tried to murder his son, but we had no idea they were there. And who can truly direct the flight of deer in the first place?”
“And so you come to defend your name and that of your son’s?”
“Yes,” Lord Guilford nodded firmly. “I have no choice. Had William simply asked for recompense for the horse as he should have, I would have gladly paid him and end the matter. No, he must accuse me of attempted murder. And with Jory being Duke Verdane’s grandchild, the sentence could be severe.”
“Yet until then, he treats you well,” the Marquis gestured about the veranda.
Lady Tara had become increasingly worried at the talk. “Please, not around Lucat,” she asked of her husband. The boy’s eyes were wide, but there was a seriousness to them. He almost appeared insulted by his mother’s plea.
“He has to become a man someday, Tara. Men don’t lie to themselves.” He turned back to the Marquis. “It’s why I asked for Bishop Ammodus to investigate. He’s a good honest priest, even if a Patildor.”
“As am I,” the Marquis replied, his words careful. “Being from Pyralis, it is required.”
“Heh. No offence meant, Camille,” Anson seemed to apologize. “Bishop Ammodus is a good man, as I said. He’ll see that it was all an accident, and when he tells the Duke that, all will be well.”
At that, Zagrosek stood up. The sudden motion from the dark clad man caught them all by surprise. “Excuse me, Lord Guildford, Lady Guilford.” He nodded to them each in turn, and then to the boy. His gaze returned to Anson. “I am afraid that I must leave your company for now. You have been a gracious host, but there is a matter I must attend to at this time.”
The Marquis look askance at him, but said nothing. Lord Anson nodded then. “Attend to your duties, and thank you for joining us at the table.”
“Thank you, my lord.” He bowed to them, and then to the Marquis before leaving back the way he had come. One of the Masyor soldiers followed him back into the manor itself.
After he was gone, Lord Guilford swallowed the last of his eggs. “Does your servant always come and go as he pleases?”
“Often. But more often he comes and goes as I please.” The Marquis leaned forward slightly, still smiling. “Now do tell me, as I will be travelling that way once my business here is done, what are the roads west of Masyor and Mallow Horn like? I must reach Giftum in two weeks.”
Prime Minister Malisa gave both the Steward and Chief of Intelligence hard stares. “Are you certain of all of this? Certain that my father has been carting onions around town?”
Thalberg nodded slowly, his voice tinged by both sadness and anger. “Yes. There is no doubt in my mind that is what is happening. And no doubt that we must put a stop to it. You’ve seen him, seen how he has changed in the last few months, and changed for the worse.”
She uncrossed her arms and leaned forward. The papers she’d thought important that morning – reports of diplomatic exchanges in the South – were pushed aside. “And what do you propose to do about it?”
“They will be meeting again tonight,” Andwyn said, betraying none of the exhaustion he must have felt. “We will catch them in the act and stop them. Afterwards, we will need the help of the mages to break any ensorcelment that has been laid upon him. During that time...”
“Yes?” Malisa prodded at the sudden silence.
“During that time,” Thalberg continued for him, “Duke Thomas will not be able to make any coherent decisions. We need you to rule in his stead until he can be returned to his normal self.”
Malisa took a deep breath, having expected that to be asked of her. “You naturally mean to keep the real reason secret?”
“Of course. If word of this ever made it south, all of the Northern Midlands beyond the valley itself would abandon Metamor.” Thalberg rubbed at his long chin with one scaly paw. “We should simply tell any who must know that Duke Thomas is not feeling himself and must recuperate for a few days. It is not a lie after all.”
“But it is meant to deceive,” Malisa pointed out, though her voice was mor resigned than anything else. “Very well. That will only keep for a few days, a week at most, before rumours begin to circle.”
“Oh they will circle the moment we strike,” Andwyn said, his own voice raspy, though there was a strange delight to it as well. “Rumours of many sorts have always circled the Duke. But you are right, Prime Minister. Duke Thomas must recover quickly to dispel any such rumours.”
“And that is the job of the mages,” Thalberg put in gruffly. “But unless we catch them in the act, it may never end.”
“I agree,” Malisa said. “Very well, gather what you need. Send word to me when you meet with Misha and the rest. I will join you for that, though I leave the planning up to you.”
Thalberg nodded his head low. “I am relieved and thank you for this.” He did not sound terribly relieved. The anger was buried within his voice like a stone sentinel covered by sand. A sudden shifting of the wind could unearth it again. “Let us hope that within a few days all will be as it once was here at Metamor.”
“We are all agreed on that,” Andwyn added, fluttering his leathery wingtips.
Duke Verdane had been speaking with his son Jaime when the dark clad servant of the Southern Marquis requested a private audience. His son had given him a queer inquisitive look but the Duke had merely shrugged. Their business could hold for a few minutes while they entertained this master of arcane Southern arts. And so, the figure strode into the small study, casting Jaime a curious glance.
“Welcome, Zagrosek,” Titian called, finding the strange name not to his tongue’s liking. “What business have you with me?”
Zagrosek glanced once from Jaime, a young man only a few years his junior with the same fiery red hair of his father, and much the same build. “Your son?”
“Yes, this is Jaime Verdane, Lord Mayor of Kelewair and my heir. I know you asked to speak with me privately, but I have no secrets from my son and heir, so whatever you told me he would hear of as well.”
“Of course, your grace,” Zagrosek nodded at that, inclining his head respectfully to them both. “I would like to offer my services to you in the matter of the dispute between Lord Dupré and Lord Guilford.”
Verdane blinked once, and only once. He masked the surprise he felt carefully. Jaime’s only reaction was to widen his eyes. “Truly?” Titian stretched his arms and leaned back in his seat. The small study had several bookshelves against two of the walls, a wide window at the far wall in which air flowed, and only the one seat. Jaime stood a few paces behind his father, dressed in blue with the wolf’s head emblem upon a bandolier. Zagrosek stood just to the side of the desk, a healthy six ors even paces from the Duke. “And how do you propose to do that?”
“If I am not mistaken, this matter at present rests upon the word of the two boys. Perhaps then, it would be wisest to know something of the character of the two boys.”
The Duke crossed his arms. “Explain that.”
“Both boys cannot be telling the truth. The claim that it was an accident, that the deer ran amuck comes from the lad Lucat Guilford. If he is telling the truth, then Jory Dupré is lying when he says it was an attempt to kill him. And if Jory is telling the truth, then Lucat is lying. Whichever of them is lying, it means that they have a deplorable lack of character. No sense of anything but their own greed. I propose to help you see which of them it is.”
“How will you manage that?” Jaime asked, a look of bemused disbelief in his features.
“If you will allow me, your grace, I would like your permission to show both children a kindness. Something that would endear me to them, or at least, to most children their age. They do not know me, but if I were to show them a kindness, they might take a liking to me. And then, in both of their presences, I want you to have Sir Royce beat me on some ridiculous pretext. Whichever child cries out against it is the one of good character. The child that laughs at my pain is a foul beast who could lie with ease.”
Although Duke Verdane managed to hold his grim countenance, Jaime laughed derisively. “You would have us beat you publically and risk a diplomatic incident with Pyralis? Are you mad?”
“This is of my own free will, and though I serve the Marquis, I am not a bonded servant. He will not be terribly put out at any wounding that I should suffer at your hands, so long as I am not killed.”
“Du Tournemire cares that little for your health?” Verdane asked, uncrossing his arms to stroke at his chin. “How strange.” He shifted in his seat, leaning forward once more. “Tell me, why do you want to help me in this? What stake do you have that you put yourself at risk for it?”
Zagrosek shrugged. “None whatsoever. I merely wish to see the righteous pardoned, and the unrighteous punished.” He paused and then frowned. “And no, the Marquis did not send me here. I came of my own will.” His eyes skirted away from the Duke then, focussing on one corner where shadows lay.
“A strange one at that. Very well, I shall think on your suggestion. If I decide to allow it, I will send word.” Verdane stoped then, watching the black clad man’s face. It twisted oddly, his lips twitching for a few seconds, before the dark eyes lifted back from the corner and met his own. “Was there anything else?”
“No,” Zagrosek shook his head. “Thank you, your grace.”
The Duke nodded, and Zagrosek slipped back out the way he had come. He shut the door quietly on his way out. Jaime let out a barking laugh after the latch clicked into place. “What a strange man, father. Allow himself to be beaten by Sir Royce! Does he have any idea what Sir Royce can do to him?”
“Careful, Jaime. You also heard what that man did to William Dupré.”
“Lord Dupré is an arrogant blowhard. He thinks because he married Anya he can do anything.”
But Titian Verdane shook his head. “No, Jaime. There is more to this Zagrosek than we know. Let us consider his offer very carefully.” His gaze turned to meet his son. “Very carefully,” he reiterated. Jaime nodded, though he still laughed quietly to himself.
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