Never Again a Man - Part XIV

The dungeons of Metamor had only a passing similarity to the dungeons of Yesulam. In the scorched earth of that parched land, those who broke the most sacred laws of Yesulam were consigned to a fate across the river. There, a day’s ride out into the desert stood a single tower, straining to the sky, battered by the sands and the sun. The vilest of prisoner’s were placed in that tower, their doors unlocked. Each week pilgrims and priests would visit with those prisoners, who stayed in that tower because to leave meant death in the desert. The guards let them wander the tower freely, even to step outside. Only on days when a caravan came to bring supplies or visitors would they be prevented form leaving.

Here at Metamor though, things were different. These dungeons were carefully watched by a gaoler whose appearance would frighten children and grown men alike. The doors were heavily barred and locked, several times over. The walls of each cell were guarded against magic. And few were the visitors that ventured down those cold dreary halls. And so Sir Egland found himself holding his arms tightly to him as he stood before the door that held his Yisaada Dame Bryonoth captive.

It was the ram, Sergeant Dallar who opened the door for him. He held a long pipe between his lips, and one hoof-like hand before his eyes to shield them against the bright light within the chamber. Egland was not so ready and blinked furiously as he shielded his face, stepping through the portal as quickly as he could.

“Yisaada?” he called out as he entered, blinking still, eyes stinging painfully.

There was no response, but he could smell the scent of human filth, as well as misery. Her scent was there, the strongest of all, off to his right. Turning slightly, and keeping one hand framing his face, he finally saw her, or at least the outline at first. Misha had told him that she’d been chained to the wall, but it pained him to see her like that. Kneeling, he saw that she’d been clothed at last, though her smock was dirty. Turning, he saw that the portal was still open. “Can you bring clean rags and a wash basin, Sergeant?”

“Aye,” Dallar said around the pipe. The door closed quietly at least, and they were alone.

“Bryonoth?” Egland said, reaching out his free hand to brush against her face. She stirred only slightly, enough to shy her cheek from his touch. “Yisaada, it is I. Sir Egland. Your Ts’amut.” But the words only seemed to e absorbed into the dank walls of her cell. Though his eyes still stung, he could now begin to make out details. The floor, cold even through his breeches, was hard rock, though damp from both waste and mildew.

Before he could say anything else the door opened once more, and Sergeant Dallar slid in a small wash basin filled with water. To its side he set several clean rags, though they were still rags. Moth-eaten and coarse though they were, still they were fit to their task. “If you would but sit forward, Yisaada, I can clean you,” Egland said even as the ram closed the door once more.

She did turn her face to look at him that time. Her eyes narrowed somewhat, appearing dry and inured to the light. “I know thee,” she said, though her voice was just a whisper.

“Yes. I am Sir Egland. Yacoub Egland. We became knights together.” Egland smiled to her, gripping one of the rags in his hand.

“Knights? But I art a woman.” Bryonoth looked down at her frame in some confusion. “And a prisoner.”

“Aye, but you are a knight nonetheless. And you shall not be a prisoner long,” Egland said, still trying to hold his smile. This did not seem to be the man of the Steppes he had known for so many years. This was a broken woman, one who had been beaten for so long, she no longer knew up from down.

She looked over at the rag curiously. “What purpose hath that?”

“I need to clean you, Yisaada. If you would but lean forward as best you are able.”

Bryonoth seemed to understand at last, and lifted forward some, bracing herself on her legs, and planting her elbows firmly against the wall for further support. He slipped her breeches down to her knees, and took the cloths set within them and tossed them aside, nose wrinkling in disgust. Wetting one cloth, he cleaned up the filth as best he could, and then wiped her dry with another. He set several clean rags beneath her and bade her to lower herself once more.

Standing up, he knocked on the door. It boomed loudly, though Sergeant Dallar was apparently standing just outside. “What is it?” the ram asked through the small eye holes.

“She will need a fresh pair of breeches. Fetch them will you?”

“Of course.” And the familiar sound of hooves clopping against stone echoed down the hallway.

Egland turned back to Bryonoth, who sat against the wall with her breeches around her knees. There was no doubt that she was miserable, and uncomfortable, but not on account of hi. Not once did she look at him afraid that he might take advantage of her. Egland sat back down beside her and frowned. “I’m so sorry that this happened to you, Yisaada. All of it.” And then, despite himself, he felt tears streaming through the fur of his cheeks. “I’m so sorry that we’re stuck here and stuck like this. I’m so sorry!”

Bryonoth’s face creased in confusion, and a dirty lock of long dark hair fell over her face, obscuring one eye. “Didst thee do this to us?”

Egland shook his head slowly, still feeling the tears drench the fur of his muzzle. “No. But I wish it could have been I that changed to a woman, and you to the elk. I am better suited to it than you.”

She looked down at herself, past the breasts on her chest and to what was not between her thighs. “Thou saith I wast a man?”

Egland choked back another hard sob then, hands balling into fists as best they were able. “Aye. You were a man once. Sir Albert Bryonoth was your name. You grew up in the Flatlands Steppe, but journeyed to Yesulam to be a knight. We trained together there, and became as brothers, Ts’amut in the language of the Flatlanders, of your kin.”

Slowly, Bryonoth shook her head. “I know naught of what thee speaks. But I doth know that I call thee Ts’amut.”

Egland wiped at the tears, trying to hold them back. “Do you remember being a man at all?”

Bryonoth narrowed her gaze, looking at him intently, studying his features. Fro several long moments she simply regarded his cervine snout, and the short antlers that were growing from his head. And then, she shook her head slowly. “Nae, I dost not remember being aught but what I am.”

Frowning, Egland rubbed the last of the tears from his eyes. “What is the last thing that you do remember?”

Licking her lips, Bryonoth leaned her head back against the wall. Just as she opened her mouth to speak, a rapping came at the door. Egland stood up once more and stood before it. “Yes?” he called out.

“I’ve returned with a new pair of breeches for Dame Bryonoth,” the ram replied.

“Very well,” Egland said, gingerly taking the soiled rags and depositing them beside the door with the basin. “You may take the rest back with you, we are done with it.” There was a grunt from the other side, and then the sound of the bolt being turned. Egland stepped back a pace, his hoof making a light clap upon the stone.

Dallar did not poke his head through the doorway though. He merely held the thick breeches out in one hand and then bent down to retrieve the wash basin and rags. When he’d stepped back, he pulled the door shut and locked it once more.

“Lift your feet and I’ll change those breeches,” Egland said. Bryonoth lifted her feet as asked, and soon he had the soiled trousers off and tossed into a corner. Slipping the new breeches over her feet, he slipped them up to her thighs. She then set her feet down and lifted up from the rags, and he managed to get it around her hips too. Once she was properly clothed again, Egland leaned back, resting as comfortably as he could in the dank cell.

“So, Yisaada, what is the last thing that you can remember?”

“I...” she began to say, but then her face filled with a horror unlike anything Egland could ever recall. “Nae!!!! Him!!! Him!!! He hath left me!!!” She began to thrash about, fighting against her bonds, nearly making her wrists bleed as she struggled against the chains.

Egland leapt forward, holding her down, brushing his muzzle against her forehead. “Don’t think of that, Yisaada! Don’t think of him! Don’t. Please, try and be calm. Please.”

But it did not good. Bryonoth continued to scream, crying now herself, fighting and pulling, trying to work her hands loose form the shackles. She kicked and beat with her legs, he chapped feet beginning to bleed at the heels. She turned her head this way and that, long hair a tousled mess that hung across her face and shoulders. Egland griped her shoulders then and pressed his forehead against her own, his antlers just above her head. Some of her hair became entangled in them even.

“Stop it!” he shouted at last. “He can’t hurt you anymore, Yisaada!”

Her shaking and trembling continued for several more minutes even after that. But it did subside fairly quickly once he raised his voice. Egland breathed deeply as he stared into her eyes, but she would not meet his own until her skin stopped shivering. When at last her eyes met his, he stared deeply into them, their dark colour revealing a lost and very confused soul.

“Yisaada?” he asked, his voice very quiet.

“Ts’amut?” she called back, looking at him hopefully. “What hath happened to me?”

Egland frowned again. “Do you remember anything about Thomas?”

Bryonoth blinked once, and then a slow smile crept across her lips. “He asked me to dance.”

The elk could not help but nod. “Aye, he did. Do you remember anything about him as a horse?”

She frowned once more, eyes casting downwards. “Not Thomas then. ‘Twas Toumoth when he wast a stallion.”

“Could you tell me of him?” Egland asked, sitting back down once more. His short tail flicked in agitation as it brushed against the cold wet floor.

Bryonoth nodded, her face sullen as she spoke. To Egland’s ears, and much to his relief, more and more of the old knight he knew shone through in her words as the minutes turned to hours. Perhaps she might even remember more about herself next time. But for now, this would have to do, and hopefully would help Misha and the rest. Egland could only sit and listen, and try to remember what he heard.

And he pulled his knees close to his chest. It was cold in the dungeons of Metamor.

“The Marquis Camille du Tournemire!” He smiled as his name was called out to the assembled lords and their families. Striding through the doorway, dressed in blue velvet hose with white snowy ruff, all eyes were for a time upon him. The unicorn pendant that was the centrepiece of his chain glowed brightly, its diamond eye catching the glint of the candelabras. He smiled warmly to each of the other guests, before coming to stand before the seat that was offered him.

He was the last of the invited guests to arrive, and as such, was not given a seat of any great distinction at Duke Verdane’s table. However, he had been given a seat a the Duke’s table, which was important. Lord Anson and Lord Guilford were also afforded this honour, along with Bishop Ammodus and the Prelate Tyrion Verdane, Titian’s younger son. Even their children were made to sit at another lower table along with the knights and other court officials. Only Zagrosek joined the Marquis there, and that only by special request.

Zagrosek himself was a dark shadow in a world filled with bright colours. The other guests all bore hues that were warm and vibrant, rich blues and greens, bright reds and yellows. But Zagrosek, even to such a fine banquet as this, bore only his customary black, though of a finer material than his usual woolen robe. His shirt and trousers were fashioned from silk, and he trod upon snakeskin boots, polished to a rich gleam. As Zagrosek entered after the Marquis, whispering arose from the tables where sat the knights and other city officials. Had any ever set foot within the banquet hall dressed in black as he?

Zagrosek was the last to be announced though, and soon Duke Verdane tapped a silver fork upon his crystal goblet. “I would like to welcome all of you, my friends and guests of honour, to this banquet. We hold this in hour of his grace, Bishop Ammodus, recently returned to us from the lands of Lord’s Anson and Lord Guilford who are seated here with me this day. We also have the unexpected pleasure of an envoy from Pyralis, the Marquis du Tournemire, who is travelling these lands.

“Many are the thanks I give to those in attendance today. For the knights for their sworn service, to the lords for their leadership above their peoples, and to the clergy for guiding all of our souls to greater peace with whichever gods we serve. And also to the servants who have prepared this fine feast. But most especially to our children,” here he set one hand upon his son Jaime’s shoulder, as well as smiling at the table where the children were all sat to eat, mistresses set to watch over them. “For it is our children who give us hope the future will be bright, and that our names may still be on the tongues of men beyond our passing.

“Now, let us eat, drink, and celebrate this fine evening.” And at that, Duke Verdane clapped his hands together two time sharply, before sitting down. The rest of the assembled guests did as well, a buzzing murmur of delighted voices rising up to fill the silence left in the hall. The aforementioned servants began to rush out from the entrances, bringing trays of food, all of the first to Duke Verdane’s table.

Sitting across from the Marquis was Prelate Tyrion Verdane, youngest child to the Duke. He was red of hair like all in his family, though his frame was slight and he seemed to wear the decorative alb over his shoulders with some strain. His hands were very delicate and he gripped the fork clumsily in his fingers as one of the servants laid a small tray of breaded meats before him.

“Your grace,” the Marquis said with a smile, even as a few of the delectable meats were arrayed before him. He sampled one between his fingers, finding the juices succulent. Likely a mixture of beef and pork, though in what quantities, he could not discern. “Did your journey weary you?”

The Prelate nodded slowly. “I am not accustomed to such long journeys, even if I did not have to walk it myself.” His look grew curious, green eyes passing between the Marquis and Zagrosek. “Tell me, your lordship, what brings you so far North?”

“Matters of the Ecclesia as it turns out. I have enjoyed the hospitality of your father’s house while waiting for the return of Bishop Ammodus.” He then turned to the servant who was bearing a decanter of wine. “I would prefer tea, thank you.” The servant, a young woman of perhaps fifteen, bowed her head at that and scuttled along to the next goblet.

“Do you not drink wine then?” Tyrion asked.

“My tastes run to the southern vineyards, your grace. These northern vintages do not have the flavour to which I am accustomed. But the tea that springs forth in this land is quite subtle in its acumen. I find it without peer amongst the libations of Pyralis.”

Tyrion nodded then and sipped from his own goblet, glancing to the rest of the guests seated beside them. He appeared to be listening to some comment his father made a short ways down the table, but it was only barely intelligible. “I am sure my father will be glad to supply you with sufficient leaves that you might bring that taste with you on your return to Pyralis.”

The Marquis let out an expansive sigh, delicately lifting one of the morsels to his lips. “Alas, I will not be returning to Pyralis straightaway. But perhaps my return journey shall lead me this way again.” Before the Prelate could ask him what he meant by that, the Marquis continued. “If I may be so bold as to ask, your grace, what led you to join the Ecclesia?”

“A desire to serve,” Tyrion replied, a simple smile gracing his lips. His green eyes cast across the people feasting with a subtle benevolence. “I was born a clubfoot, and so could not serve as a knight as a second son ought. But though Eli made me lame, He did grace me with a capable mind, and so I serve His will in this world.”

“And your father, the Duke, approved of this?” The servant girl had returned with a small ewer of tea and set it before him. He bade the girl no notice, merely sipping that tea, letting the steam rise up and across his face.

Tyrion chewed on the piece of meat thoughtfully for a moment. Just as he swallowed, the servants emerged again en masse, gently depositing small loafs of bread upon their plates. They were warm, and smelled rich. They must have only just come from the brick ovens. “Would you care for some butter, your lordship?” Tyrion asked, offering the small dish upon which the churned milk sat.

“Thank you,” Camille replied, accepting the dish slowly, spreading a small glob upon the loaf of bread. It began to run down the sides as it melted.

“As to my father, I never thought he would disapprove of my decision. When we were younger, he told all of us that a ruler not only must rule, but also must serve. In return for fealty, my father provides much for those whom he rules. So it is with all of us. The Ecclesia guides the lands, and gives it direction and purpose. But it also serves the people, feeding the hungry and curing the sick, both in body and spirit. And that is but a part of what we do. And for a man born with a clubfoot, what more honourable pursuit is there than the cloth?”

“The will of the Ecclesia is not always so easily maintained, is it?”

Tyrion shrugged, chewing a morsel of the bread. “Sin will always inhabit the hearts of men. But we do what we can. We can only hope that people will listen.”

The Marquis could not help but nod, though was quickly growing disenchanted with the conversation. Titian’s second son seemed to be genuinely interested in doing the good works of the Ecclesia, and he had little hope of encouraging him towards the ends he needed. Certainly not over dinner at least where any attempt to draw out his cards would be noticed even by the other revellers. And there was still the matter of Kelewair being far too close to Marigund. Here, with so many other lives close by, the taking would ring far more loudly.

Still, he continued to inquire after the Prelate’s work, and after a small platter of boiled cabbage had come and gone, began to ask about the Bishop himself. What sort of leader was he? To what concerns did he pay particular attention? Did he have any secret ambitions for the Ecclesia in the Midlands? The answers he received, while not as detailed as he might have hoped, were still quite revealing.

Ammodus had been Prelate of Kelewair before rising to the rank of Bishop ten years ago. A mostly agreeable man, he was friends with the Verdane family, and he often would provide decisions that complimented the Duke’s own acts. What was surprising was that Verdane himself had suggested his ascension five years prior to his eventual appointment by Akabaieth. But what interested the Marquis the most was how Ammodus was fighting the moves by some in the Ecclesia to create a separate diocese for the Northern Midlands, which was still primarily the domain of the Lothanasi.

“Strange that he would not want to see the demesnes of the Ecclesia expanded,” the Marquis remarked while sampling a bit of the roasted fish that had been brought out after the cabbage. The flavour was hardy and rich, unlike the delicate texture of the tropical fish more familiar in his own harbours of Tournemire.

But at this, Tyrion shook his head. “Hardly. His grace simply does not feel that there are sufficient Followers to warrant the creation of a new diocese. He does hope to see more come to the grace that Yahshua offers.”

At this the Marquis did smile genuinely. “I do hope that my own purposes here can assist then in some small way. Strange are the ways of Eli after all. I have arranged to meet with his grace so that we might discuss ways that we can be of assistance to each other.” He pulled a small bone from his teeth and held it between his fingers for a moment. It was white and gossamer thin, but it held firm between his fingers. “After matters have been settled between Duke Verdane’s other guests of course. I do hope that your journey was edifying.”

At this Tyrion’s smile faded and his attention turned more to the grilled halibut. “I regret, monseigneur, that I cannot speak of those matters for now. Not before the time to speak of it arrives, at least.”

“I do apologize then for my unwanted intrusion on your affairs.”

“No apology is necessary, monseigneur. You asked in good faith.” He gestured with one hand slowly towards the Marquis’s plate. “And do eat your bread. It settles the stomach nicely during a meal. There is much still to see tonight, I think.”

The smile that curled the end of the Maquis’s lips caught slightly, but then regained their vigour. “I think you might be right, your grace. You may indeed be right.” The Marquis took the bread and ate it slowly, casting his eyes away from the priest for a moment, and down the table. Bishop Ammodus, sitting next to the Duke, looked back at him curiously, half-listening to something William Dupré was saying. “You may indeed be right,” he repeated, swallowing.

The hour had grown late, and still Bishop Ammodus and Duke Verdane sat alone in his solar, the sound of even the revellers in the city streets far below having passed into memory. Verdane finally stood from where he sat and crossed to one window, clutching at the drapes that stood at its side. “So, you found nothing to suggest it was not an accident?”

The Bishop nodded his head. “I know you love your grandson, Titian, but, his accusation is simply untenable.”

“My son-in-law’s accusation you mean,” Titian said with a scowl. “He’s using my grandson to further his own power in my lands. And Anya is letting him do it. Anya!” Titian threw the curtain’s closed, and stomped back through the narrow confines of his solar. The chessboard sat unused that day, the pieces arranged waiting for their game. Titian felt like smacking that too, but held back his hand.

“I know you wanted to believe her,” the Bishop said, his voice old and weary. “I looked. Eli knows I looked. But it seems the Guilfords have the right of it.”

“I have no choice now I suppose.”

“Choice?” Bishop Ammodus asked, folding his hands before him. “What choice do you have to make?”

“None truly,” Verdane admitted, smiling half to himself. “But your grace must forgive me for what I will do on the morrow.”

This seemed to particularly disturb the priest. “Whatever sin you plan on committing, I cannot offer you forgiveness if you go into it with open eyes.”

“Beware your tongue, Father. What I do is not a sin. But I must punish an innocent man, or at least I suppose he is innocent.” A queer sort of smile crossed the Duke’s lips. “He offered it after all. I just never thought I might actually have to take him up on his offer. He is a peculiar one.”

“Who is?” the old priest was even more confused now than before. He shifted in his seat, breathing heavily.

“That black clad Southerner – Zagrosek.”

It was midmorning when they finally all gathered together again in Duke Thomas’s council chambers. Misha could see upon their faces the lines of weariness that they all felt. Even Elizabeth appeared distraught. He did not know what hour it was when his sister had finally turned in for the night, her search in vain. But whatever sleep she might have purchased in those few hours time appeared to have done little for her constitution.

And it was that way with all the rest. Rickkter looked in particularly bad spirits, his fur a tangled mess, and his jerkin one hastily drawn on that morning as he’d struggled to lift his snout from whatever book he’d fallen asleep reading. Ink smears lined either side of his muzzle, and the fox was not sure yet where his friend had even noticed them.

Only Varnal was not present, as he was the only one who had not been invited. Even Sir Egland had joined them that morning, at Misha’s behest. The elk appeared withdrawn, his whole demeanour that of a man who has just watched his son taken to the executioner’s block. Occasionally he would reach one hoof like hand to rub at the antlers growing from his forehead, but otherwise he remained a statue.

In fact, as Misha scanned across the rest of them, the only person that seemed in the least bit pleased was the bat Andwyn. Of course, Misha found it hard to tell what the bat might be thinking. There always seemed to be a slight smile upon the corners of his muzzle. Still, Misha had greatly enjoyed his meal with Caroline’s father last night, and a few passages he’d read in his tomes suggested that Madog’s injury was not as bad as he had first supposed, so there were some reasons for even he to feel relieved.

But there could be no doubt, it was small solace compared to what they faced. Judging from the troubled countenance of the alligator steward and all of his friends, there could be no doubting that.

“It has been five days now since we stopped the attempt upon Duke Thomas’s very life. I thank you all for your tireless efforts on behalf of his grace, and I know that you will be able to solve this mystery. However, I want to know what sort of progress has been made, if any.”

At that point, the great retile opened wide his palms, gesturing to the mages to speak. Malisa, dressed in very conservative garb, took a deep breath and replied. “The spells surrounding the halter continue to stymie us, though thanks to the help of Mistress Elizabeth, we have been able to discern a few things. The spells take the form of tentacles that are wrapped fully around the halter itself, obscuring the underlying spells. They are attracted, as we discovered before, to those who are cursed. Somehow, enough of the nature of the curse was understood so that a spell might be cast with that as its trigger.”

She gestured to Christopher whose ursine bulk dominated one end of the round table. Even with the Lothanasi acolyte’s robe covering his shoulders, he appeared nothing more than a tamed beast. But behind those dark eyes was a keen intelligence. And that mind reached out to touch them all with its speech from time to time. But as the Prime Minister gestured to him, he lifted his large muzzle, nostrils flaring as he breathed and took in their scents. “Christopher here is living proof that some mages have at least a rudimentary understanding of the workings of the Curses, and are able to influence them. Some of you recall what had been done to Prince Phil and Macaban of Lorland about this time last year. In each case, the curse was amplified within them to terrifying ends.”

Misha nodded slowly, recalling those events. He had not been directly involved, but had heard the tale from Phil afterwards, before the rabbit himself had fallen under the poisonous influence of the portrait Bryonoth had drawn of her tormenter, and of the man they had faced five nights ago in the stables. He shuddered at each of those memories, tail tucking itself underneath his seat in an attempt to get between his legs.

“So I do not think we shouldn’t be too surprised that another form of this magic was employed here. However, in all four cases, there are similarities. For Christopher, a stone fetish was used to amplify his curse. For Macaban, it was a rune drawn by Loriod, a rune triggered when he was asked certain questions. With Phil it came in the form of runes inscribed upon a crate of carrots. And now for Thomas, in the form of a halter that also bears a rune.” At this, Malisa produced a folded piece of parchment from her sleeve, and spread it out on the table for all of them to see.

Misha studied the tangle of curls and lines that jutted from the mass on the paper and found his eyes beginning to hurt after only a few seconds examination. There was an aching familiarity about parts of them, but the way that they all tied together in the middle, in a blotch that seemed to cross over itself countless times, he could not recall where he’d ever seen anything like them.

Thalberg tapped his thumb claws together as he studied the picture, his yellow eyes filming slightly. “And what does this rune mean?”

“That’s what we don’t know,” Rickkter said morosely. The raccoon frowned as he stared down at it. “I’ve never seen a more complicated rune. I have been searching through all of my tomes, and I can find nothing that looks like this.”

“Nor I,” Malisa added. “It seems to be a complete mystery.”

“Have you ever seen the likes of this, Elizabeth?” Andwyn asked, though he himself did not even bother it with a glance.

But Misha’s sister shook her head. “No, this is unfamiliar to me. It seems too elaborate to be a simple spell. And the way the lines move in and out of the centre, it seems as if this were in fact several spells laid atop one another. But that too is not quite accurate.”

“How do you mean, Sis?” Misha asked her, his tail still pulled tight against his chair.

Elizabeth looked to the rest and frowned. “Magical energy is flowing into this sigil, but we cannot seem to find any magical energy actually flowing out from it!”

Thalberg’s reptilian moue deepened. “And what does that signify?”

It was Rickkter’s sharp voice that cut in. “Magical symbols should be expelling magical force. This is not. What goes in does not come back out. If this rune were to have any actual effect, then it would have to expend magical energy somehow. It does not.”

“But surely it must go somewhere,” Andwyn pondered.

“I would agree with you,” Rickkter replied, eyes scolding, “but this is the magic of our enemies, and his magic has proven to confound us in the past. He has mastered arts that were thought lost, and has harnessed energies from the Underworld itself. What is to say he could not create a spot from which no magical power could leave?”

{T’be sure, ‘tis most peculiar.} Christopher’s voice rang in their minds. {But I do not see anything in this that would touch those cursed. I cannae understand how it works, any more than I can understand where it comes from.}

“And that is the crux of our problem,” Malisa finished, folding her hands on the table before her. “It took a great deal of effort to reveal this rune. But now we have no idea what it could mean.”

Misha rubbed his paw pads together as he glanced once more at the parchment and the black curves that wound within each other upon it. He felt himself nearly lost in the dizzying swirls, and he could very well believe, as they all led inexorably to that inky blackness at the centre that nothing could escape from that point. No matter how many times his eyes went to another part of the figure, trying to discern the meaning of the crossed lines and convoluted turnings, still, he was drawn to that black spot like a moth to flame.

“What do we know of our enemy in this matter?” Andwyn asked at last, wings curling before him. “Is there any insight that can provide?”

All eyes turned towards the hawk who stood perched on a small stool not far from where the spy master himself perched. Her wings were folded behind her, golden eyes studying that document as well, and Misha could see from the way her pupils turned, that she too found it hard to break away from the dark spot.

“Well, we do know a little about the Underworld, that it is a drainer of magic,” Jessica started, her voice uncertain and creaking. She fluttered one wingtip in agitation. “The only other thing that we know is that they are exceptionally gifted at obscuring their tracks and leaving false trails.” Jessica went quiet again, but from the way her neck feathers ruffled, Misha could tell that something was bothering her.

Rickkter crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair. “Now wouldn’t that be annoying. Could this rune simply be another false path? Is there something underneath this that we missed?”

Elizabeth shook her head vehemently. “I do not think so. I scoured that bottom of that halter completely. I tried to find anything else hiding there, but saw nothing. This is not a false path. The enemy created such elaborate defences for this device, spells that served only to prevent its true nature from being uncovered.”

“Then what is this? I think we have been played a fool again,” Rickkter said, gesturing indignantly at the parchment and the strange symbol upon it. “Is there anything in this that even looks like it is affecting the curse? I ask you, is there?”

{Nae that I can see.} Christopher said at last, leaning his large head down over the table. {Mayhaps friend Rickkter is right.}

“So much of what they do is meant to deceive and leave us in a quandary,” Malisa admitted morosely. “Could it be possible that he is showing us what we do not need?”

Andwyn chirped brightly and smiled as best his face could allow. “I think it may be here before us even now.”

“How?” Misha asked, still confused himself. He was beginning to find the image itself distasteful. Even when he closed his eyes, he could still see it.

“Thalberg, if you would humour me for a moment,” the bat asked deferentially.

“What do you need?” the alligator regarded the far too eager bat with some suspicion.

“Take that parchment and hold it up to the light,” Andwyn suggested. “You are the tallest of us here.”

“There is no need for that,” Rickkter said, and snapped his fingers together. The paper began to levitate slowly from the table, and lift up towards the light. He twisted his paw and the paper began to turn in the air.

“Oh no, good mage. I want the side with the rune facing the light.” Rickkter nodded and kept the symbol face up, drawing up towards the chandelier above. The other side oft he paper came into view, and the bat twitched his wings, eyes open wide. “I want to see what is behind it.”

All eyes became very intent on the back of that paper as the light shone above it. As it drew nearer to the candles, the sign became visible through the paper, a dark mass of curls and smears, each seeming to violently assault the other. Of course, Misha realized, it was backwards from what they had seen. And the strange sense of foreboding familiarity became even more stark. It was like a shiver of ice that crawled up his spine.

“By the gods!” Jessica swore, her voice making them all flinch slightly. Andwyn had to bend his head down to cover his ears from the pain. “It’s them!”

Elizabeth stared, mouth agape and only nodded at the hawk’s pronouncement. But the rest of them stared in as much confusion as before. “What are they?” Rickkter asked, the unruliness gone from his voice.

“It’s the chevrons! From the censer! Here they are, all piled on top of one another.”

“Those symbols?” Misha barked, his own muzzle hanging in surprise, tail outstretched.

“Yes, those very ones. I didn’t see it before because they were backwards.” Jessica broke off her gaze and looked at the bat. “How did you know they would be there?”

But even the Intelligence Chief of Metamor appeared just as surprised as the rest of them. “I didn’t. I simply thought that there might be something in the image reversed that we couldn’t see before. After all, you said the rune was drawn on the inside of the halter. But we know from Bryonoth’s own testimony, that she drew her runes upon the outside of the halter when she first cast the spell on Thomas. I thought perhaps they had burned through somehow.”

“No, this had to have been cast before it was placed on Thomas,” Malisa mused. “We didn’t see anything on the top of the halter.”

“Or maybe we haven’t found what’s on the top of the halter,” Rickkter suggested thoughtfully. “We spent so much time uncovering this, we could have missed something else, something more subtle.”

“No,” Elizabeth repeated, looking slightly disturbed. “I searched it thoroughly, and that is all that there was.”

Rickkter lowered the paper back to the table with a wave of one paw. “Regardless, we’ll need to look at it again. I still don’t know how that spell works. You say it has the same symbols as the censer did?”

Jessica nodded. “Yes. And the same symbols that my master Wessex was forced to draw upon the wall where the tear made by the censer was imprisoned. I saw them with my own eyes, and these are they.”

“But why draw them one on top of another?” Thalberg asked, gesturing to it with one paw.

“I don’t know,” Jessica admitted, her shoulders slumping slightly. “I don’t know.”

“Well, regardless, it concerns me that these symbols were touching Duke Thomas upon his brow,” Thalberg pointed out. “They certainly have left their mark upon his grace.”

And then, it was the voice of Sir Egland, timorous and singularly distinct, that broke into their thoughts. “Is that what she meant?”

All heads turned to the elk who had until then remained as still and quiet as a garden statue. The elk looked to them all, eyes blinking widely. He opened his muzzle to speak, but no sound came out.

“Who are you talking about?” Thalberg asked at last, his voice solemn and firm.

Egland met that yellow gaze, and held it, breathing deeply. “Dame Bryonoth. I spoke to her last night in her cell. She barely knew who she was at first, but she was more certain by the end. She said some strange things though, things that I am still puzzling over.”

“What did she say? And what did she mean?” The alligator pressed.

Egland shook his head as if to clear it. “She said a lot of things. When I asked her about Duke Thomas, at first all she could remember was that he asked her to dance.” Thalberg’s moue deepened then, a look of mild annoyance flashing through his yellow eyes. But the elk continued, seemingly oblivious to the Steward’s altering expression. “She told me about their rendezvouses, at least some of it. How she would place the halter on his grace and lead him to the stables. And she did say that she’d tied his grace to the magic somehow. I didn’t understand it.”

“What were her exact words?” Rickkter interjected, leaning forward over the table.

Egland leaned back then, eyes still filled with some bestial fear. “It’s difficult,” he stammered, “I do not recall exactly.”

“Then as best you can remember,” Elizabeth suggested, smiling slightly.

The softer expression appeared to have some effect upon the knight, for his trembling flesh began to slow, and his grip upon the table with his hoof-like hands relaxed. Egland nodded slowly, taking in a deep breath and pursing his muzzle in thought. “I had asked her if the recent rendezvouses were like the first time she had placed the halter on the Duke, back when she’d still been a man. Bryonoth was having a hard time remembering that she had been a man, and I wanted her to remember it. She seemed to remember things about Duke Thomas just fine once she began speaking.”

Egland paused for a moment and took another breath, exhaling slowly, as if he were letting loose thoughts that he did not dare speak aloud. After a moment, in which all eyes remained focussed upon the elk, he spoke again, the twitching of his ears betraying his nervous uncertainty. “She said it was different then. I do not know exactly how she said it, but it was something like, ‘’Twas the time that I hath bound him with a knot, a knot that grows taut when pulled’. It went something like that at least.”

The knight fell silent once more, muzzle lowering to stare down at his hands. His ears flicked a bit, nearly rubbing against his antlers as they straightened. “That’s what she said to me.”

“She bound him with a knot?” Thalberg asked. He turned his snout from side to side. “Does this mean anything to you?”

“Well,” Elizabeth said, “the spell is bound to his grace. He is still a full horse now is he not?”

Thalberg shifted in his seat, the chair groaning in protest at his bulk. “Yes. But the spell reacts to the rest of you as well. Apart from you, Elizabeth. How then can it be bound to his grace if it effects everyone? What special way is it bound to him that it is not to the rest of us?”

Christopher let out a rumbling growl then, a deep throated sound that made the hairs on the back of Misha’s neck stand up. {‘Tis easy t’ see now, I cannae believe how I’d nae see ere now.}

Rickkter frowned, obviously still puzzling over it. “What do you see now that is so clear?”

{‘Tis but a guess, but the reason we nae know where the magic is going, the magic in this rune, is because we are seeing only half of the spell.} Christopher’s cyclopean bulk surveyed them each in turn to see if they comprehended what he thought. {The other half of the spell, as Andwyn has suggested, is on Duke Thomas himself. Or so ‘twould seem. That rune is the knot tied. It certainly has the countenance of one.}

The raccoon blinked once, and then let out a raucous laugh. “Of course! Of course! No wonder we haven’t been able to understand this spell yet. And that is where the last of what Bryonoth said makes sense. When you pull the ends of a string apart, the knot tied in them grows tighter still. It is impossible to undo that knot then. Only when the rope is loose can you undo the knot.”

Misha shook his head then. “I’m sorry, Rick, but you’ve lost me.”

The smile that had come to the raccoon’s muzzle would not leave though. “If Christopher is right about the other half of the spell being on Duke Thomas, then the only way we can break this spell, or even really understand it is by bringing them close together.”

Thalberg leaned forward suddenly, planting both palms flat upon the table, the wood there creaking too unhappily. “Do you suggest we put that halter back on his grace?”

“Oh yes,” Rickkter said, nodding firmly. “That is exactly what we should do.”

Back ButtonEnd Part XIV of "Never Again a Man"Forward Button

|| Home | Links | Metamor | Contents ||

Talk to me!