Never Again a Man - Part VIII

Thomas had still been unconscious when Thalberg finally left him to traverse the secret passageways that he knew of, but rarely used. Given the way that Zagrosek had used the shadows to move about, Thalberg had made sure that every sconce within the chamber had been lit and kept well stocked with oil. The chamber itself was a small room without any decoration. The floor was fashioned completely from stone, as were the walls, so there was nothing to burn. No windows looked out, and only the few vents in the ceiling let the smoke from the sconces leave. The door itself was beaten iron, and so there was no avenue for Thomas to escape. To further insure this, Thalberg had personally attached a heavy iron collar about the equine neck, one that was attached to a heavy chain anchored to the far wall. He would not even be able to reach the door.

It pained Thalberg to imprison his liege so, but what choice did they have? Thomas was acting like a true horse because of some magical compulsion. He had to be kept contained until that compulsion could be lifted. Of course, there was always the possibility that the halter’s hold on Thomas had not been as strong as they feared. If so, all Thomas needed to do was to retake his morphic form. The collar was too large to hold him in that form.

The guards outside the door were some of George’s own. It was unlikely that any would find their way to that door however, as it was in a remote part of the Keep that even when Thalberg was thinking of it took him nearly fifteen minutes to reach.

Satisfied that all would be well for a time, Thalberg left down one of the secret passages. It was the same route that Thomas had used to secret himself out of the Keep at night, but the Steward took it backwards. After several minutes moving through the dusty interior, he pressed one scaled paw against a wall, and strode out into Thomas’s chambers. He still had the horse blanket wrapped about his torso as if it were a toga – he’d have to acquire more proper clothes as soon as he could.

The chambers were much as he expected them to be. The bed was dishevelled, with sheets and blankets strewn about. Apart from that, most of the rest of the room was in good order. Except for the desk though, as several papers were scattered in a disorganized heap. There was a single sheet with freshly dried ink upon it. Thalberg recognized the Ducal seal, and gingerly picked it up between two claws. His paws trembled as he read:

“24 April, 707 CR

I, Duke Thomas Hassan V, liege of Metamor Keep, Duke of the Northern Midlands, do hereby appoint Lord Brian Avery of Glen Avery as my successor in all titles and offices. Lord Brian Avery, upon a vacancy in the office of Duke of the Northern Midlands, shall ascend to that office and carry out its responsibilities. All of his family holdings in the Glen shall pass to his younger son Christopher. The line of succession for Duke Avery shall be to his elder son, Darien.

Further, I, Duke Thomas Hassan V, do hereby abdicate the office of Duke of the Northern Midlands and of Metamor, effective upon the twenty-fifth of April, 707 CR. This letter shall be read publically before the coronation of Brian Avery to the populace of Metamor on the first of May. Copies of this letter shall be sent to every city in the Northern Midlands on the twenty-sixth of April so that delegations may be sent to attend the coronation, or to greet the new Duke if they are unable to attend.

This edict is effective immediately.

Duke Thomas Hassan V”

His grip upon the paper tightening, Thalberg, closed his yellow eyes and hung his head. Turning about, his long tail nearly upending the chair set before the table, he strode towards the hearth that still simmered with nearly spent coals, and placed the letter atop them. The coals were no longer hot, but still, after a few moments, the parchment caught flame, and Thalberg watched as the finely wrought letters curled up, blackening and disappearing to ash. The wax seal melted as the flame took it, running red down across the coals.

Thalberg took a poker from the wrought iron stand and stirred the ashes about, mixing the melted wax into the grey ash at the bottom of the hearth until none could see it. Setting the poker aside, he placed another layer of kindling atop the coals, and breathed them into fiery life as well. Once the faltering flames began to snap and crackle with renewed vigour, he put several logs atop them, watching them all burn serenely.

Satisfied at last, Thalberg placed the poker back into its holder, and closed the sluice, letting the fire burn atop the ashes of Thomas’s letter. With a heavy heart, the Steward returned to the desk to see if there were any other such missives that he would have to destroy for Metamor’s sake.

“Let’s set him down there,” Misha said, pointing to a pallet in his workshop. They had managed to find a stout wheelbarrow after leaving Bryonoth with the gaoler Roscoe and had loaded Madog into it. The automaton did not put up any resistance, offering only an occasional whine and disconsolate glances to Misha.

Even with all four of them, hoisting Madog from the wheelbarrow to the pallet made all of them groan and strain. The wheel barrow itself had been bent and warped from the automaton’s weight. But finally the metal fox was deposited upon the appel laying with the gash in his belly facing upwards.

George wiped his paws along his breeches. “Well, I should attend to the assigning of the guards. And then a lot of ale.”

“Do you need company?” Misha asked, though his eyes never strayed from the automaton.

“No, I’d rather be alone I think. In a well-lighted tavern too.” At that, the jackal turned and left the workshop.

Rickkter waited until the patrol master had left and then also turned to the door. “I have some reading I must do. Until tomorrow then.”

Misha nodded as the raccoon left. Only Sir Egland was left standing in the door. The elk looked lost, one hand idly scratching at the base of his growing antlers. The fox shifted slightly on his haunches so that he could gaze at him out of the corner of his eye. “Are you all right?”

“No,” Sir Egland admitted. “Will Madog be well?”

“In time,” Misha admitted, resting one paw over the automaton’s head comfortingly. Madog tried to lick at his paw with his metal tongue. “I have a lot of work ahead of me to repair him.”

The elk nodded slowly. “I see. I think I shall retire as well then. Good night, Misha.”

“Good night, Sir Egland.” And then, comfortingly: “I’m sure that we’ll be able to break whatever spells have been cast over Dame Bryonoth as well.”

But the elk did not reply, as he was already slipping out the door on soft hooves.

Intoran stirred at the sound of the latch being turned in the front door. All around him was darkness apart from a small patch of light that fell across the bed. He’d left the shutters open, and so the flickering glow of a streetlamp cast inside. Pulling himself up to a sitting position, the outline of his legs and the hooves they ended in dimly visible beneath the thin sheet, the squire listened to the sound of another pair of hooves slowly treading across the wood floors below.

It was clearly Sir Egland returning home after his errand, but he was alone. Intoran had known that his knight had gone off to speak with Bryonoth himself, but he had expected the Dame to return with him. Still, Intoran felt groggy, and wondering what time it was, slipped from under the woolen sheet to set his hooves upon the floor. They creaked beneath him, and the sound of treading hooves below ceased. Rubbing the back of his wrist against either side of his head to clear it, he strode the three paces to the window and peered out.

The streets themselves were quiet. There down at the far corner he could see a member of the Watch smoking a pipe, and across the street one Keeper was stumbling along, barely able to walk straight. The drunk finally fell over and began to roll about on his back on the cobblestones, singing a bawdy tune in a slurred and off-key voice. It must be very late indeed, Intoran thought. What could have kept his knight out so long? And where was Dame Bryonoth?

Once more he could hear Egland moving about below. He was slowly climbing the stairs, his tread heavy, as if he were carrying some great weight. Intoran stood silently listening, ears turning to follow the sounds that echoed down the hallway to the top of the stairs. Though his door was closed, he could hear them all clearly. Egland was breathing heavily, a low whispering breath that trickled across his cervine lips like a breeze through fog.

The hoof falls finally came to a stop before Intoran’s door. Yellow light crept in underneath the crack. He blinked, breath caught in his chest, wondering, hoping perhaps. And then, after a long moment of silence, a gentle knock came on the door. Intoran found his muzzle curling into a smile. “Enter,” he called in a low whispering tone.

Intoran was still standing beside the open window when Egland opened the door, peering in past the quiet glow of an oil lamp clutched in one hoof-like hand. Eyes merely darker pools in the already dark fur of his muzzle found Intoran there, and stared for a moment before the lips beneath them parted, “I hope I did not wake you.”

“Do not think on it,” Intoran whispered, stepping away from the window. The glow of the lamp was nearly chartreuse upon his white chest fur. “You look tired.”

“Aye,” Sir Egland said with a slow nod. He set the lamp in a small sconce next to the door frame. “It was a long night.”

There was more than exhaustion to the elk’s voice, Intoran knew. There was a weariness and sorrow mingled in, a sorrow the likes of which he had never heard. Suddenly worried for his knight, he crossed the few steps over to him and rested one hand upon his shoulder. “Did things not go well with Dame Bryonoth? Where is she?”

Sir Egland looked away so that Intoran could not see his eyes. He gave a heavy sigh, his body trembling slightly as he hung his head. “Things did not go well, my D’ahshan. They went very badly.”

There was more than weariness in that voice then. Intoran could feel a sense of dread there. His chest tightened with worry. “Come, sit.” At first, Egland did not move, merely standing there atremble. But Intoran gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze, and then a gentle shove, and then Egland’s hooves took the few steps across the small room until he was sitting upon the bed next to Intoran.

There, the oryx could see his knight’s eyes, and saw that the fur of his muzzle was streaked with tears. He reached up on finger and brushed across those streaks. “What happened?”

“I was told not to say,” the elk whispered.

“You know I’ll never betray your confidence,” Intoran assured him, even as he leaned over and gently placed his muzzle behind the elk’s ears. He kissed there softly, one hand gently running along his knight’s back. He then sat back upright and smiled comfortingly as best he could.

Egland’s eyes turned to his once, and then he nodded slowly. “I need to think about it all to sort it out, but Dame Bryonoth was put in the dungeon.”

Intoran sat stunned. “Why?”

“She was after the Duke again.” Intoran was about to open his muzzle to ask another question, but Egland turned away slightly. “I’m tired, I should sleep.”

Frowning, Intoran let out a heavy sigh. “Yes, you should. You can tell me the rest tomorrow. For now you should sleep. Let me help.” He reached to Egland’s front, and undid the lacings of his tunic. The elk’s eyes trailed upwards to meet his, sad eyes brimming still with tears. But there was no refusal in them.

After untying the lacing, Intoran gently lifted the tunic over the elk’s head, being careful of the short antlers. In another few months, they would be so large that Egland would only be able to wear clothes that buttoned at the front. Intoran folded the shirt and set it on the end of the bed before leaning down and undoing the lacing of his knight’s breeches too. Before long, they too had been folded and set aside.

Neither of them spoke while Intoran undressed his knight, and neither of them spoke afterwards for several moments. Taking the pile of clothing, Intoran put it on the small chest he kept on the far well, and then drew back the thin sheet of his bed. Putting a single hand upon Egland’s broad chest, he gently pushed, and the knight lay down upon the lumpy mattress. Smiling only slightly, Intoran extinguished the oil lamb before slipping in the bed hooves first, settling himself against his knight.

Egland had turned his back to the window, and soon Intoran pressed his chest against him, draping one arm over his shoulder, still rubbing at his chest. Egland had drawn up the sheet, and Intoran finished the job, leaving their warm bodies pressed close in the oryx’s bed. Resting his muzzle against the side of the knight’s head, Intoran whispered, “Sleep well, my D’ahshan.”

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