Never Again a Man - Part XIII

Varnal was quite surprised to see the human mage dressed in silvery robes enter their midst alongside the raccoon Rickkter. He did not care for the raccoon. Though he could not help but offer begrudging respect for his mastery with the skills of magic, his arrogance and manner brought out the worst in the fox. Still, there were several others in the chambers with them, so perhaps he could hold his tongue better.

“And this is the halter?” the lady asked, as she seemingly glided across the arcane runes inlaid upon the floor.

{Aye, ‘tis} the great bear’s thoughts came to them, even as a deep rumbling thrummed within his massive belly. Varnal had to repress his feelings of disquiet around the bear. Although adorned in the robes of a Lightbringer acolyte, there was still great power and the scent of a predator to him. Nevertheless, it gave the fox secret pleasure to know that he was not alone in being trapped as an animal.

Her eyes met each of them briefly, seeming to focus on Varnal for several long seconds. But she did not speak to him, merely considered him. Varnal caught the impression that he should know this strange lady somehow, but could not place it.

The lady smiled as she saw Jessica, and reached out to greet her. Jessica also stood a bit taller, golden eyes filled with delight and recognition. “Elizabeth,” Jessica cawed, jumping up and fluttering her wings. “You’ve come!”

The lady smiled widely then and embraced the hawk as best she could. “It is good to see you, Jessica. But we’ve much work to do. Can you help us focus our sight?”

Jessica nodded firmly. “I will. But be careful.” The hawk hopped back a few paces and closed her golden eyes. Varnal watched as Elizabeth bent down and unfolded the straps of the harness, laying them out as evenly as possible. Her task was scarcely done when the milky effervescence of magic coalesced into view. The silvery prominences leapt once more from the leather hide of the harness, the buckles glowing with a faint blue nimbus.

“Interesting,” was Elizabeth’s first word upon seeing them. Her eyes cast up to Varnal for a moment, before slipping to the raccoon who stood with arms crossed before his chest still. He knew that they had told her not to tell him of whatever else that was going on. But Varnal did not truly mind. He had a vague notion of who this halter had been meant to strike anyway.

{Ya can see they are all over to strike nae matter which way ya near} Christopher thought, leaning back on his heavy haunches. The ursine’s dark eyes stayed focussed upon the halter though, filled with probing curiosity. Varnal wondered what more he thought but did not share.

“Yes, and none of you can risk reaching out to it,” Elizabeth said, even as she brought her hand near. Unlike before, the prominences did not arc towards her quite as fervently. A few seemed intent on reaching out to her, but they could not find any purchase, even when she touched them herself. Her slender hands pushed at them, trying to slide them away from the halter itself. They slid along her fingers like noodles, but when her hand passed, they slipped back into place once more.

“There is something under all of this,” Elizabeth said. Varnal held back his tongue, thinking what she said obvious. “Let me see if I can draw it aside.”

They all waited while Elizabeth began to craft a few symbols with her hands around the halter, each attempting to drew magic away from the device. Her voice spoke quietly, each word intoned with grace and care. Varnal could feel a deep well of power bubbling forth with each syllable. His estimation of the mage rose by several notches as he listened to difficult incantations slip from her tongue with the poise of a master bard’s sonnet. Incantations whose pronunciations vexed even the most cunning of linguists were easily discernable in her voice. And their effects upon the milky swirl of magical lines in the room was immediate and distinctive.

And still, none of it dislodged the prominences from the halter for more than a moment. Varnal resisted the temptation to groom himself as he waited. Those brief glimpses beneath the layer of silvery arcs did reveal intricate lines of the same hue as the blue nimbus surrounding the metal braces. But he could discern no recognizable details there.

Finally, Elizabeth stopped her incantations. Gripping the ends of her robes, she gently dropped to her knees before it with some relief. “I believe that this magical protection is meant to obscure the halter’s true nature from those like us who seek to know it. As a defence, it is both clever and efficacious in its single-mindedness.”

{Nae,} Christopher rumbled suddenly, the light of an idea brimming within his eyes. {It has another purpose, lady Elizabeth. To change the cursed to be aught but animals, that ‘tis what it seeks.}

Rickkter uncrossed his arms and then crossed them again in the other direction. “What are you suggesting, Christopher?”

{Nae a thing can be done against it, long as it remains dormant. ‘Twere it t’be activated, mayhap something could be done.}

“You mean, one of us should near it?” Malisa asked, her face filling with revulsion at the idea.

{Aye. Nae touch it, but draw near to it.}

Varnal nodded, tail wagging slightly. His eyes cast once to Rickkter, and then back to the bear. “I think you have hit on a fine idea, Christopher. But I think it best that it not be you that nears it. If it were to actually touch you, it might enrage you. And I think none of us would benefit from the company of an enraged bear. So, I proffer myself as the one who shall distract it that Elizabeth might reveal its nature to us.” He could barely contain the alacrity in his voice.

{I can nae argue with ye, Varnal.} Christopher admitted, a wry amusement lacing the thought. The bear’s muzzle seemed drawn back in a grin, though with the wicked teeth he displayed, it was far from welcoming.

Elizabeth swept her hands before her silk gown, straightening out a few wrinkles. “Whenever you are ready, I am,” she said to the fox, her eyes piqued, but still focussed.

Varnal nodded, rose to all fours once more, and trotted to within two paces of the halter. Almost immediately as he neared, the prominences, once dancing randomly amongst themselves, began to arc in his direction with each straining to reach towards him. Varnal licked his nose nervously, suddenly afraid of what might happen should they actually reach him. His tail tried to tuck itself between his legs, but he fought to hold it out steady, going so far as to sit on his haunches and letting it curl around his side to keep from showing his sudden anxiety to the others. And all the while his eyes stayed fixed upon those silvery flares of magic, magic that would render him nothing more than a simple beast for a time should it claim him.

In fact, as he watched those dancing lights, even though he could see Elizabeth’s hands once more dip into them trying to pry them off the halter from which they sprung, he felt strangely entranced. It was as if, against the soft fur of is ears, he could hear a gentle whispering. There was no voice to it, but he found himself wanting to understand the words. Yet there were no words either, only feelings. Varnal lapsed into them, panting slightly as he leaned forward more, sniffing curiously.

It was a strange magic he thought, even as the arcs glimmered hypnotically. Though his own cursing was unconventional, it still was drawn to him, yearning to reduce him in mind and habit to a simple fox. In many ways, it was merely the completion of a spell started years ago, bringing the journey he began to its logical conclusion. It was quite elegant in its simplicity, offering simplicity in return. The thrumming against his ears seemed a contented churring, much like he often found stirring within his own throat.

“Varnal!” a voice cried out, cutting through the stillness that had coalesced about his mind. Blinking wildly, stunned by the sudden outburst, Varnal saw that the silverly prominences were lashing only an inch form his muzzle. He did not know who had called out his name, but it was enough for him to yip in fright, and scoot back along on his haunches.

“What happened?” he asked, panting slightly from the anxiety.

{Ye nearly touched them} Christopher’s mental voice seemed to tramp about in his head, a discordance that shattered the calming churr that had come to him before.

“You were leaning towards the halter,” Malisa said, her voice more gentle. “Far too close. Why did you do that?”

Varnal shook his head, wiping at his muzzle with one forepaw. “I don’t know,” he said, after setting that paw back upon the ground. “I just felt very soothed as I watched them reach for me. I could almost hear it singing to me. I think it was calling out to the cursed part of me.” After a moment, his tail began to wag in agitation. “I cannot even remember if you were able to dislodge them form the halter.”

Elizabeth frowned then, her hand still resting upon the leather. “I did have more success, but we will need more time before we can understand what we saw down there. There’s some strange and very intricate symbol drawn there. I could not identify it in the brief glimpse I had.”

“Nor I,” Rickkter intoned slowly. “We will need to transcribe it so that we can consult all of our tomes.”

“So I will have to draw its power to me again,” Varnal finished the unspoken thought. “Some one will need to be near me, that they might draw me back should I venture too close. Whoever should do this will need to watch me and not the halter. So, as Christopher’s insight into the curse may prove indispensable, Jessica’s power is used to make this visible for all, and Elizabeth is the one whose hands must uncover whatever secret lies within, either Rickkter or Malisa needs watch over me.” He cast his glance between the raccoon mage and the Prime Minister. Neither of them seemed particularly pleased by the course of the fox’s logic.

“I will watch over you,” Malisa offered after a moment’s silence. She stepped around Elizabeth and sat down on her knees beside him. “Should you draw to near, I will pull you back. Fair enough?”

Varnal nodded to her, and then turned back to the halter. “I am ready to try again if you are.” Elizabeth nodded slowly then, inviting him forward with a gentle beckoning of one hand. Varnal took a few tentative steps closer, and watched as the silvery tendrils once more began to clamour for the touch of his vulpine muzzle.

It was late in the day by the time that Misha escorted his sister to the dungeons to visit Bryonoth. Rickkter was still at her side as he had been all day, though for this, Misha had insisted on joining them. When the shadows had grown long, Elizabeth had called an end to their study of the halter so that they might sup before bed. Each of them were quite tired, and so readily agreed.

Elizabeth had dined with Misha and Caroline, while Rickkter had attended to his own needs. For the fox, their time together in the Long House was far too brief. It only seemed like minutes before the raccoon returned to escort Elizabeth to the dungeons. Of course, Misha had spent most of the time listening to Elizabeth and Caroline talk about things that made his head swim or his one ear blush.

So by the time that they went down into the dungeons, the sun was already beginning to sink behind the western mountains. Misha told his sister about Roscoe, warning her of his unsightly appearance. It seemed hardly necessary, as Elizabeth was quite gracious when she met him. “Ah, master gaoler,” she said as she stood before his door. The cave scorpion stared up at her with surprised pale eyes. “Pardon our intrusion, but I have come to visit with one of your charges.”

Roscoe’s pincer claws clacked against each other for a moment. “Of course, my lady. My guards will allow you passage.”

Elizabeth bent over slightly, and gently rested one hand upon one of his pincers. This only seemed to make the cave scorpion even more skittish than normal. “Thank you, kind sir.”

Stammering, Roscoe tried to keep still. “Having a lady of such beauty as yourself will only bring light where there has been darkness, my lady. I hope you will pardon me for saying so.”

Misha blinked at that, and even Elizabeth had to stifle a small laugh. “Thank you, master gaoler. You are a true gentleman. I would stay to speak longer, but our errand cannot wait. Thank you again.”

“And thank you, my lady!” Roscoe chirped, seeming to stand taller if that were possible for him. She lifted her hand from his pincer and stood up again, smiling widely, before bowing slightly, and moving down the corridor.

It was not until they reached the bottom of the next landing that Misha was able to find his voice. “I don’t think I have ever heard Roscoe call anything beautiful in all the years I’ve known him, sis.”

Elizabeth patted the side of his arm, smiling. “After what you said about him, I thought it might be nice to show him that kindness. How many who see him for the first time actually smile?”

The fox could only nod at that, even as they made their way down the long corridor to the dungeons themselves. At seeing Misha amongst them, they were quickly let in to the central hall. Dallar the ram was not there though, having that day to spend with his wife and children. But his replacement quickly brought them to Bryonoth’s cell. Bright light still shone around the edges of the door frame.

“Are you ready?” Misha asked, the smile he’d had before gone. Elizabeth nodded, her face also grim. Rickkter stood just to the side, his own eyes inscrutable. Taking a deep breath, Misha unlocked the door with the key the guard had given him, and opened it wide.

Inside Bryonoth was still chained to the wall. The cloak that they had brought in was draped over her chest though. Her ungainly feet still jutted out form the end, dirty and damp. Her head stirred slightly, and eyes whose pupils had shrunk so small that they had nearly disappeared stared up at them. She seemed to ignore both Misha and Rickkter, seeing only Elizabeth. “Who are you?” her voice seemed drained, like a dried corn husk.

Elizabeth glided into the room, lifting the hem of her robe with one hand and kneeling down beside the knight. Misha and Rickkter both came in and stood shortly behind her. “My name is Elizabeth. What’s yours?”

The Flatlander woman blinked once. “My name?” Her voice came slow, still hollow and far away. “Alberta.”

Misha had taken one of the small bales of hay that were stacked outside the door and set it down just behind Elizabeth. She turned her head slightly to offer him a grateful smile before resting upon the bale. “Alberta,” Elizabeth said then. “Do you know what’s happened to you?”

Alberta looked up at the mage and could only stare for a few moments. The glowing ball of light that illuminated the room was off to one side, so one side of her face was cast into shadow. “He’s gone.”

“Is he?” The two women stared at each other for a moment. Rickkter was taping one paw on the stone floor, arms crossed over his chest. He was staring at her very intently, despite the grimace across his muzzle. “Where did he go?”

The expression on Alberta’s face became confused. Turning her head up slightly, she repeated, “He’s gone.” It seemed an almost plaintive cry, as if she were hoping what she said were true, but no longer sure.

Elizabeth breathed slowly. “Who is he?”

“He,” Alberta repeated, a look of pain crossing her rough features. Though the curse had made her female, and with it brought the sense of carnal sexuality that it often graced those whose gender it switched, there was still the harshness and vigour that came from a life begun on Steppes in those features. And then, in a moment’s time, they became streaked with abject terror. “No! No! No!!!!” She flung her head form side to side, screaming at a sudden agony. At last, she pressed her face against one arm, eyes clenched shut tight.

Elizabeth was off the bale only a second later, with Misha at her side. Rickkter himself took a step closer as the Marigund mage bent over the knight. Reaching out her hand, Elizabeth pushed back the dark hair that had fallen over Alberta’s face. The woman’s flesh was trembling. Elizabeth touched her softly, and ten leaned back. “I am sorry, Alberta. He is gone. You’re free. You don’t have to be afraid anymore.”

But Alberta kept her face pressed against her arm, trembling and whimpering. Only one word managed to brush past her lips and it was very faint. “Ts’amut.”

“That’s a Flatlander word,” Rickkter observed drily. “It means brother.”

Elizabeth nodded slowly. “Does she have a brother?”

The raccoon shook his head. “Not at Metamor. She came to us from the Patriarch’s ill-fated troop.”

Misha peered down at the knight, shivering, though not sobbing, and felt a like he knew that there was something else. And then, he knew it must be true. “A knight’s brothers are his fellow knights,” Misha said quietly. “She’s calling for Sir Egland.”

“The elk knight?” Elizabeth asked, only vaguely recalling the name from when Misha and Jessica had explained to her what had happened.

“Aye, that’s him. The two have been very close friends for many years from what I can tell.”

“He might be able to heal that tear that I see in her,” Elizabeth opined thoughtfully. “But first I would like to examine it more closely.”

Misha nodded, feeling rather numb as he stood upon the cold hard stone with bare paws.

The monstrance glowed brightly in the warm radiance of the paschal candle that stood only a few feet from it next to the later in the Ecclesia Chapel. Three pews from the front knelt Sir Egland and his squire Intoran. Their long heads were bowed before them, hoof-like hands clasped in silent prayer. They were not alone in the chapel, as several other Followers were also kneeling in prayer in adoration of the sacrament clasped within the gold-laden monstrance. Despite this, all that they could smell was the rich perfume of the incense burning in the phylacteries at the altar.

Sir Egland liked to spend a bit of time each week in that practice, and after Intoran had become his squire, it was only natural that he too would join. Father Hough usually only came to set the monstrance upon the alter and to say the prayers of blessing, but then the boy priest would attend to other duties, visiting with the families of his parish usually. The half hour that the knight spent in prayer helped calm his mind, and focus it upon those things that were of most concern to him.

And in that half hour, only one thought, one concern, came to his mind. That of his Yisaada, Dame Bryonoth. Apart from asking Misha how she was, and hearing little to please him, he had no knowledge of her condition. He’d finally had to tell Intoran what had happened after making the oryx swear on his sword never to speak of it to any other. Intoran had been distressed to hear the news, and, he had assured Egland that he too would pray for the Steppe-born knight.

But the time came to an end swiftly, as it always did when he could think of so little to pray for. As the bells tolled the arrival of noon, both Egland and Intoran made the sign of the tree upon their breasts and rose from where they knelt. Silently, they turned and were surprised to see the Long Scout Misha also rising from prayer a few pews back. Misha nodded to them both, eyes catching Egland’s first. With a wave of one paw, he gestured towards the front of the Chapel. Confused but intrigued, Egland followed after him, the hollow ringing of his hooves upon the flagstone echoing through the Chapel.

When they reached the narthex, Misha whispered quietly. “Sir Egland, there is something about which I need to speak to you.”

Egland nodded. “Intoran, if you would go to the kitchens and prepare meals for us both? I will be with you shortly.”

“Yes, Sir Egland,” Intoran said, nodding his head gently, the long horns atop it nearly catching on the lintel of the large doorway. But he was quite deft after so many years bearing them, and in the same motion, slipped through the doors and once more into the myriad of hallways of the Keep.

Misha normally bore only a simple tunic, but today the green of his colours were supplemented by a gold trim along the front, collar, cuffs, and sleeves. Egland noted that, with a curious frown.

“Caroline’s father Will Hardy has invited Caroline and I to sup with him shortly. But I needed to speak with you today before then.” There was a hesitation in the fox’s voice that made the elk feel that there was some other reason that Misha was more finely dressed than normal, but knew better than to press.

“I hope the meal pleases you. What is it that you needed to speak with me about?”

Misha motioned for the elk to draw even further into the recesses of the narthex and away from any ears that might inadvertently overhear. “It is about Dame Bryonoth,” Misha said bluntly after they were standing in the shadows. “She is not well. We think that she has been freed from the influence of that man who attacked us a few nights ago, but he hurt her in the process.”

Egland’s ears went erect and turned fully towards the fox. So far from the altar now, and away from the perfume that filled his nose, he could now smell the anxiety coming form this predator. It made him all the more nervous. “What’s happened to her?”

“There is no physical damage. Her body looks fine, if dirty. But her spirit, it’s...”


“It’s been harmed. From what we have seen, a part of her spirit was torn from her.”

Egland tensed, his eyes going wide in fear. “Is she... damned?”

“No,” Misha replied, shaking his head, one ear laying back against his fur. “At least I don’t think so. Her spirit should repair itself, but it will take time. We thought that if you went to speak with her, spend time with her, it would be repaired far more quickly.”

“You want me to see her then?” Sir Egland asked, the momentary fear abating just as quickly as it had come. “When can I?”

“As soon as you wish. If you could do so today, and as often as possible, it will help. For certain reasons, we do not have long to break the spells.”

Egland frowned. “But I heard that Duke Thomas was holding audiences again.”

Misha smiled oddly. “A ruse I’m afraid. But say nothing of that. But you must speak to Bryonoth, help her recover. She may still hold the key to unlocking the maze of spells we are facing.”

The elk nodded at that, his face set in a grim line. “Of course. I had hoped to see her anyway. I will share dismiss Intoran for the rest of my day, and then go to her. Where is she?”

“In the dungeons. Roscoe already knows that you will be coming and will allow you to see her.”

“Thank you, Misha,” Sir Egland said, patting the fox on the shoulder. “I hope that I can do something for her. It’s been too long since I have been able to do anything it seems.”

Misha nodded slowly at that, and clasped his hoof-like hand in his own canine paw. “And I hope that you can as well, my friend.” The fox’s grey eyes stole out to the Chapel and the monstrance still gleaming atop the altar. “May Eli’s grace be upon us all.”


The Marquis had just finished supping on several succulent oranges when the pudgy form of his Steward Vigoureux blotted out the sun. “Forgive the intrusion, your grace, but an Ecclesiastical caravan entered Kelewair not one hour ago. They are presently making their way to the manor.”

With a curt nod, the Marquis said, “Good. I grow weary of this delay. See to it that I have a personal audience with his grace with all due haste.”

Vigoureux bowed low. “Of course, your grace.” He then retreated from the veranda to attend to the matter.

The return of Bishop Ammodus was what he had been waiting some time for now. Smiling privately, he sipped at his warm tea, tapping one foot to the beat of some unheard song. Zagrosek was occupied with those two boys as was his wont, and Sir Autrefois was seeing to the guards in their own caravan. That left the Marquis to himself with but a single servant to attend to him.

So he sat, letting his mind drift into the realms of magic. He could feel the flows as they moved through him and around him, each of them a soft caressing touch, pleading to him to be touched in return. He could feel the strands as they coursed across the walls, feel through them to touch those walls, and the grass and trees nearby. He could feel the servant standing just outside the aperture to the veranda. And he could even feel the spy that was stationed two floors up idly observing him from a small hole in one of the balconies.

The Maquis kept his face in check, deliberately taking another sip of tea. Blowing across its hot surface, he watched as the steam rose and faded from view. Turning his hand in circles, he swirled the steaming liquid until finally, a slight tremble slipped up along one of those strands of magic, and there was a sudden scuffling upon that balcony. The Marquis could feel as the man grasped at his suddenly soiled trousers in dismay.

Though he was wary of using magic so close to Marigund, so simple a cantrip would not be noticed. However, the spy, despite this, still remained at his post. Taking yet another sip of his tea, the Marquis let his will flow through those lines of magic, wrapping about the man’s middle, spinning about it, winding it tight. Through those strange threads, he could feel the man’s discomfort building, his queasiness and nausea accelerating for as long as he stared through that peephole.

And finally, the sound of the man retching could be heard amongst the singing of the birds. The Marquis allowed his head to turn out of curiosity, and he chanced a glance in the direction of the balcony, without actually looking at the balcony. He then went back to his tea, knowing that the spy was slipping back once more within the walls. A spy who was known, could not very well spy after all.

“Was that altogether wise?” a voice called from only a few feet from behind him.

The Marquis smiled. “Of course. The Duke will never admit to having set spies upon me, even if the he guessed I was the cause of his discomfort.” He frowned, holding the cup of tea just before his lips. “You are back early.”

Zagrosek leaped over the balustrade and landed solidly upon the veranda. “Once word of the Bishop’s arrival reached Lord Dupré’s ears, he called his son inside. I think they are expecting a decision to be reached soon.”

“Of course they will.”

Zagrosek brushed a bit of fur from his cloak. “Do you?”

The Marquis sipped at his tea, and regarded the black Sondeckis silently. Zagrosek returned the gaze, though his was more inquisitive, but it finally gave way to acquiescence. Turning aside, Zagrosek leaned against the balustrade and narrowed his gaze as Vigoureux stepped once more out from their chambers.

“What is it?” The Marquis asked, appearing bored.

Vigoureux nodded his head respectfully. “Pardon me, your grace, but Duke Verdane has invited you to sup with him this evening in honour of the return of Bishop Ammodus.”

The Marquis set his cup down and leaned back languidly in his seat. “I suppose the Duke has invited his other guests as well?”

“That was the impression I was given, yes your grace.”

“Good,” the Marquis said. He smiled once to Zagrosek. “Dinner conversation can be so stimulating.”

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