Never Again a Man - Part XV

Duke Verdane sat atop an ornate throne set at the highest part of the dias. It was fashioned from marble, though bright cherry wood was inlaid in the sides and the back, with gems set at each bend and at the top of the gothic arch. Gold trim lined the parquetry, while silver crosshatches climbed the arch like a gossamer ladder. To either side of the throne stood wooden stanchions upon which candles burned brightly, casting an amber glow upon the throne and its occupant. Only one man stood atop that dias with the Duke, and that was his eldest son Jaime, who stood in his crimson surcoat with arms crossed inquisitively.

Guards lined the hall, the red livery nearly the same colour as the tapestries they stood between. Only Sir Royce stood apart from them, and he at the base of the stairs before the throne itself. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his gaze was as impassive and unfriendly as stone. The Steward Apollinar stood opposite him, smiling knowingly, but not affably.

Standing on either side of the hall were the Guilford and Dupré families, dressed in their customary blues and greens. The issuant osprey of Lord Anson Guilford bore a glittering sapphire eye upon his chest, his doublet lined with silver thread. Lord William Dupré’s garment bore no jewels itself, though the great ram’s head was lined in gold that sparkled in the torchlight. Both Tara and Anya were dressed in their finest, though clearly Anya’s dress was the finer. Flowing silk gown like water cascading down a mountainside, the blend of green and white made her seemed even taller, with her flowing hair a fiery red.

Their sons were in attendance as well, each dressed in tunic and breeches similar to their father’s design, although Zagrosek noted that Jory Dupré was fiddling with his collar, trying ot loosen it repeatedly. The boys gazed across the gulf from time to time making unpleasant faces at each other.

Zagrosek himself was dressed as always in black, and he stood next to the sky blue liveried Marquis du Tournemire. The air of confidence swept about the Marquis, matched only by the curl of disinterest in his lips. His eyes, when they did rest for a moment upon someone, stayed mostly near where Bishop Ammodus stood at the base of the stairs, with head bowed.

“As you have requested your grace,” Ammodus began saying, “I have returned from an inspection of the forests between Masyor and Mallow Horn. Would it please you to hear what I have discovered?”

Verdane did nothing but tap his fingers together for a moment. Then, slowly, his head turned and he gazed down the steps with imperious fire. “Apollinar. Before his grace begins his discourse, let us be sure there are no other matters to be settled before me this day.”

The bookish Steward slipped on a pair of spectacles, letting them rest upon the end of his nose. He withdrew a scroll case from his belt loop and slipped the fresh scroll from within. Uncurling it, his eyes scanned through the text slowly, as if weighing each word, deciding what he should trouble the Duke with and what he should attend to himself. At last, after several strangely tense minutes, he rolled up the scroll and slid it back within its case, the case bearing the wolf’s head heraldry much like the soldiers lining the hall.

“There is one matter, your grace,” Apollinar said in his reedy voice. His eyes scanned the crowd, past the patient Bishop, and then beyond the feuding lords, until they settled upon the black clad Sondeckis. “There is the matter of Zagrosek to attend to.”

At that, people’s heads did turn in unexpected surprise. Zagrosek looked back and forth, and hid the smile that wished to emerge from his lips. Both of the boys had turned to look at him curiously, wondering what this meant. Duke Verdane grunted and nodded then, rising to stand before his throne. “Zagrosek of Pyralis, please come forward.”

Nodding once to the Marquis, who still seemed as disinterested as before, Zagrosek strode along the hall, his gait wide, both arms swinging freely at his sides, though there was still a subtle throbbing in his left where the automaton fox had ripped it off. He smiled once to each of the boys as he passed, and studiously avoided meeting the gazes of either lord. He could feel their impatience though; like a palpable fog it clouded their every move.

And then, he was standing before the steps, hands clasped before him, feet set widely apart. The cleft of his chin was raised, and he met the gaze of the Duke unafraid. “I am Zagrosek, your grace.”

Duke Verdane stared right back down, his lips set in a thin line of disapproval. “You are a guest in my house, Zagrosek, you and your master. Let this be a message to you both then. It is not merely the responsibility of the host to be a good host for his guests. It is also the responsibility of the guest to be a welcome guest in the host’s house. In that you have failed.”

At this there was several startled murmurs, and he even heard one of the boys cry out in surprise. It sounded like Lucat, the boy he’d shown how enjoyable it was to read and write. Would Jory respond too?

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sir Malcolm Royce approach from the side, teeth gritted beneath his broken nose. Zagrosek drew in a deep breath, letting unease fill him. “What have I done, your grace, to offend you?”

Duke Verdane rested one hand upon the arm of the throne. “A guest does not refuse the hospitality of his host lightly. Twice since you accepted my hospitality, you have departed from my demesnes without my leave, and through means that cannot be explained. I believe that you have been spying for some strange purpose. Though what I have heard leads me to believe you have meant no harm to my household, the very betrayal of trust is enough to merit punishment.”

Stopping for a moment to let his words sink into those about him, Verdane leaned forward, eyes narrowing. “Do you have anything to say to these charges?”

Zagrosek shook his head. “Only this do I say your grace. My affairs are my own, and I beg that you punish solely myself for these misdeeds.”

Verdane nodded at that, turning to one side. “Very well. Sir Royce, administer twenty lashes to Zagrosek for this crime.”

At that, both boys did start up, their voices quite sudden and abrupt in the hall, even as Sir Malcolm Royce uncoiled a long leather corded whip. “Don’t hurt him, he's a nice man!” Lucat piped. “He helped me! Dad, you have to stop it!” Jory cried out, equally aghast.

But then, the whip struck across Zagrosek’s back with a snap. The black clad Sondeckis gritted his teeth, even as he fell to his knees. Royce’s rough face was set in steely determination, and he brandished the whip with ruthless precision, lining the second and third blows just above and below the first.

Zagrosek listened as both William Dupré and Anson Guilford tried to quiet their children, even as they watched the flogging. Zagrosek lifted his face, eyes set firmly upon Duke Verdane. Titian returned the gaze, eyes firm and resolute as he watched Royce deliver blow after blow. The children continued to protest at the beating, both of them upset, and refusing to be quiet even at their father’s behest. William nearly ordered Jory taken away by Anya before he remembered that the child had to be here for what was to come next, Bishop Ammodus’s report.

Blood began to flow down Zagrosek’s back, the cloth of his black cloak torn in several places. Gritting his teeth together, he summoned the Sondeck within him to fight back the pain. Each strike made him shudder anew, for there was a force behind Sir Royce’s blows that was uncommonly penetrating. Though his flesh would mend, these were scars he would still carry, and gladly so.

At the tenth strike, with both children still protesting, Verdane raised a hand. “Sir Royce, cease for a moment.” The Castellan looked up in surprise, but obeyed the command of his master, stepping back a pace. He curled the whip in his arms, and stared at Zagrosek, still on his knees, back bloodied, several long gashes dripping upon the stonework below.

The boys looked relieved at this, and Verdane looked between them. “Jory. Lucat. Do you think I should spare this man?” Both boys nodded at once, as respectfully as they could muster. Zagrosek bore a slight smile at this.

Verdane seemed to sigh heavily, and sat back in his throne, as if the affair wearied him. “Go then,” he gestured dismissively with one hand. “Do not abuse my hospitality again. The children have bought the last ten strokes for now.”

Zagrosek nodded, rising shakily to his feet. Surprisingly, Sir Royce reached out a hand to help him. The Sondeckis nodded in silent thanks, and then strode stiffly back down the hall, still bleeding from the long gashes in his back, and all could see it. At the back of the hall, the Marquis was idly studying his fingernails. When Zagrosek neared him, the Marquis turned and began to leave the chamber, not even offering a glance at his servant.

The throne room doors were opened at the Marquis’s approach. Like the throne itself, they were fashioned in a gothic arch, the arch itself bearing a mounted wolf’s head, the muzzle set in a noble expression, one of quiet but austere contemplation. Without another glance, the Marquis swept through, his blue surcoat billowing at his heels.

But Zagrosek stopped at the threshold, and turned to look back at the crowd. Duke Verdane was still watching him, his expression strangely haunted, eyes sunk low against his cheeks. The black clad man looked to the two boys, both of whom had turned their faces in his direction. Slowly, the smile emerged once more from his face. Then, turning once again, he followed after his master. The doors shut with a quiet click behind him.

“This is terribly risky,” Thalberg grunted, arms crossed over his chest, the scarlet of his robes hiding the dark green of his scales. He stared warily at Thomas as the horse chewed on some hay, the bits of straw protruding from his muzzle like a slender pipe. The room was barely large enough to hold them all, and so both Andwyn and Egland had opted to remain outside. Misha stood near to the door with George, while Rickkter and Malisa kept the stallion calm from either side, while Elizabeth approached, bearing the halter in her hands. Christopher had barely managed to squeeze in the doorway, but he sat against the wall, watching magically as did Jessica who perched not far from the bear.

“Yes, it is,” Rickkter agreed, even as he held his paws before him. Thalberg could not see the power in those paws, but he knew that they were keeping Thomas from panicking. “But from what we can see, this looks to be the only way to free him. We have to try.”

Thalberg nodded uncertainly, narrowing his yellow eyes as he watched Elizabeth gently brush one finger past his ears. Thomas looked at her face, surprise there, but also confusion. Yet, as he sniffed at the halter in her hands, he seemed to recognize it. His ears went erect and his tail swished and there was a look of anticipation in his face. Thalberg felt his stomach turn, his own thick tail disturbing the folds in his robes with its anxious twisting.

With care, Elizabeth slipped the halter across his equine muzzle. He was quite willing to let her place it over his head, and he took the bit almost too eagerly, Thalberg thought. When she did the clasp behind his head, Thalberg saw the eyes of all the mages widen.

{There ‘tis,} Christopher said, his mind voice strangely subdued. {The other side of the spell.}

Rickkter nodded, grimacing a bit, even as Elizabeth stepped back. Thomas watched her for a moment, and then lowered his head and grabbed another mouthful of hay. Thalberg breathed deeply. “Now what?” He could barely hide the tension he felt.

“Now,” Rickkter said, “we see what Elizabeth can do to unmask this spell and undo it. It looks like all of the familiar defences have only grown in strength.”

Elizabeth nodded, lacing her fingers together as she stared down at Thomas’s massive head. “They are already reaching out to me. I will need some help distracting the spells. Brother?”

Misha nodded then, stepping forward. “Whatever I can do to help you, Sis, I will gladly do.”

She smiled warmly to him then, though her gaze never left the Duke. “Just come closer, Misha. Hold out your hand to the halter, but don’t touch it. Not now. I’ll tell you when you should stop.”

The Long Scout nodded slowly, stepping away form the wall, his grey eyes locked upon the Duke. Stretching out one arm, he strained his paw, the claws upon each finger seemingly drawn forward even further. He took step by step nearer to Thomas, his paws so softly treading upon the hay and stone, that a ghost would have sounded unruly just then.

Thalberg could not see what the mages were seeing, but from their eyes he knew that something was happening, some reaction to the fox’s proximity. Rickkter tensed slightly as he watched, though he tried to focus on Thomas, and whatever spells he was weaving himself. Elizabeth pursed her lips, gently running her fingers along the length of the halter, pressing against as if she were prying something loose. And Misha continued to step forward, his own hackles raising, sole ear erect, and eyes bright with apprehension.

And then, the suddenness of Elizabeth’s voice made the alligator tremble. “Stop now. Stay there, Misha. If you feel drawn further, speak it. Do not do it.”

Misha nodded. “I do feel something, Sis. I don’t know what it is.”

“It’s the magic trying to make you walk into its trap. Ignore it and remember what I said. Speak it, but do not listen to it.”

“Yes,” Misha replied, nodding, splaying his fingers some, the fur between his knuckles bristling slightly. “It doesn’t seem like there would be any harm in touching it,” Misha said. “At least, that’s the thought going through my head now.”

“That’s the thought it is putting in your head, brother. Remember what I have said. Should you come any closer, you will be a fox in body and mind. And it will take hours before you recover, if you do.”

“Never mind the swift boot to the head I’ll give you to get away from it,” Rickkter added through clenched teeth.

Misha swallowed heavily and nodded, holding his paw as steady as he could. He licked his nose once, eyes staring past his fingers and at the air between them and the halter, a scarce two feet.

Thomas continued to chew on his hay, watching Elizabeth as she traced her fingers over the halter, pressing along the bridge of his snout. Thalberg narrowed his eyes, wondering what she could see, but there was nothing revealed to his sight. The other mages were watching with keen interest. Christopher had reared up onto his hind legs for a moment to get a better view, before tumbling back down onto all fours in resignation.

“Do you see anything?” Misha asked after a few minutes, his voice tense.

Elizabeth nodded. “Yes, there appears to be another symbol drawn here upon the top of the halter that wasn’t here before. I think this may have been the spell that Bryonoth used to anchor the halter to Thomas. I can’t quite see it all though, but I should soon. Christopher, could you take Malisa’s place? I need Malisa to scribe down what we see here.”

The bear nodded at that {Aye.} He then lumbered over to where Malisa stood, and then sat back on his haunches, legs splayed before him, the folds of the Lothanasi acolytes cloak spilling between them. He held up his forepaws, sharp claws dangling in the air, twitching slightly as he took the spell from Malisa’s grasp. The Prime Minister let he own hands fall then and she patted the bear on the side of the neck as she stepped around to get a better look at the runes upon the halter.

“Careful now,” Elizabeth said. “It can sense you too.”

Malisa nodded. “I see that. Thalberg, the writing tablet?” Thalberg nodded, and took the bit of shale that they had brought with them and handed it to her, along with the bit of white chalk. She took it in her hands and gripped the chalk firmly, slowly drawing out supple curves upon the shale. But the sudden strident noise of the chalk on the shale caught Thomas’s attention, and he whipped his head from side to side.

“Misha!” Elizabeth cried in horror, and Thalberg turned in shock to see that Misha was stumbling backwards, shrinking and becoming tangled in his clothes, letting out a very fox-like yip of dismay.

She dived to catch him, but his changes stopped halfway down. He still fell to the ground, and the look of sudden terror in his eyes remained, even as they grew in size. His clothes were a tangle on him, and one of his arms was trapped in his jerkin as he returned to his full morph height.

“I’m all right,” Misha said as he struggled to get his left arm back through its sleeve. “But I felt it.”

{What was it like?} Christopher asked, his frown almost menacing.

“Like when we were in the stables again.” Misha shook his head clear, setting his right paw on Elizabeth’s shoulder to steady himself. “I just felt very frightened and confused.” He looked to his sister and tried to smile, but couldn’t. “I still do a bit.”

Elizabeth nodded and hugged him, helping him get his left arm through the sleeve again. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“If it’ll help you, Sis, I’ll do it.” Misha pushed himself to his foot paws once more. “Let’s try again, shall we?”

His sister smiled then, and hugged him once more. He wrapped his arms around her as well, and finally managed his smile. Thomas, no longer startled, continued to chew upon his hay.

One of the guards had been employed to clean up what blood had been spilt upon the stones of the throne room. It had not taken long though, as Zagrosek had bled very little, surprisingly little given the blows that Sir Royce had laid upon him. Both of the lords silenced their children finally after the black clad stranger had left their midst, but they both seemed mystified still as to why he’d be punished at all. Even Lord Guilford and Lord Dupré had the countenance of men who did not understand what they had witnessed.

Which, as far as Duke Verdane was concerned, was all well and good. Rubbing his brow with one hand, he gestured for Bishop Ammodus to come forward and present his findings in the lands contested by Mallow Horn and Masyor. The Bishop’s voice was firm as he spoke words that Titian already knew well. He’d helped the Bishop craft them to be as deft as possible the night before, but still, there was little that could hide their conclusion – it had all been an accident.

And as the Bishop began to say as much, Verdane could see anger simmering in the face of William Dupré, his countenance darkened with each new word. Had this been any other man speaking, Titian knew that William would accuse them of lying and of siding with the Lothanasi. But not so Bishop Ammodus. That had been a clever stroke on the part of Lord Guilford, seeking his intercession, and likely the only thing that saved him and his son.

But both children had cried out when Zagrosek had been beat. At least William hadn’t driven charity out of Jory’s heart yet. Verdane knew that charity was a tool like any other that a wise ruler must use. Without it, they became brutes and tyrants. Rulers still, yes, but incapable of truly ruling the hearts of their people.

“And so,” Ammodus said, spreading his palms wide before him, “it seems that this matter was all caused by a simple accident. Neither the Guilfords nor the Duprés knew that each other were in that forest, and so, no foul intent could have been planned on either side. Thus, there is no culpability in this matter, your grace.”

Duke Verdane nodded, and with the wave of another hand dismissed the Bishop. Ammodus stepped back from the stairs where Zagrosek had stood an hour ago, and took his place once more by the wall. “Jory Dupré. Lucat Guildford. Come forward please.”

Both boys tentatively stepped forward, their parents trailing along a few paces behind them. William’s face was stony, eyes like ice. The relief was clearly visible in Anson’s face though, even a slight smile could be seen trickling the edges of his lips. The boys were both nervous, each doing their best to look decorous. Whether they truly understood the import of the priest’s words, neither seemed to show it.

“First, to you Lucat Guilford. You have been accused of driving the herd of deer into Jory Dupré’s path. That you did so cannot be contested. But, you did not do so intending to hurt him. It was an accident. And thus, your only crime is carelessness. You will be confined to your father’s castle for a period of six months. You will not be allowed to hunt or fish in this time, but will devote yourself to study. Further, you will also apologize to Jory for your carelessness. Is that understood?”

Lucat looked back to his father uncertainly. Anson merely nodded his head, and so Lucat did the same to Duke Verdane.

“Now, Jory Dupré. You have accused Lucat here of intentionally driving that herd of deer into your path. But that was not the case. It was an accident. You will also apologize. But you will apologize for saying something bad about Lucat, something that wasn’t true. Is that understood?”

“Yes, grandfather,” Jory said, nodding his head, looking somewhat abashed.

“Good, now both of you, do so.” Verdane sat back upon his throne and gestured for them to commence.

Lucat turned to the side and took a few tentative steps forward. “I’m sorry, Jory. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He shot a quick glance at the Duke. Verdane was resting his chin in one hand, and nodded slowly.

Jory smiled a bit, and nodded to the other child. “And I’m sorry I said you did something bad, Lucat. I didn’t mean to.”

Verdane was not particularly surprised by that, as he had always felt that the accusation came more from the father than the son. Regardless, he nodded and said, “Very good. You boys may step back now. I must speak with your fathers.”

Both boys returned to their mothers, while their father stepped forward a few paces. William looked peeved, though he kept it under tight control. Anson was still breathing more easily. Verdane doubted either would be quite the same after what he said next.

“This affair only occurred because of the dispute between you two. You have feuded over these lands for years, but never quite so openly as in this. It will end today. As you are both my sworn vassals, I invoke my right as sovereign to seize the site where this accident occurred.”

“But your grace!” Lord Guilford protested, visibly shaken at this.

“Silence!” Duke Verdane shouted, his face a mask of anger. “This is my decision, Lord Guilford. You are still my sworn vassal, so you will abide by my decision. Do not think that I am taking this land for myself. I am going to divide that land in two. On the southern end, a chapel shall be built for the Ecclesia. Nothing elaborate, a simple shrine will do. And on the northern end, a Lothanasi shrine shall also be built. I will inform the Lothanas of my decision promptly.

“Nor is that all that I shall do. The lands themselves shall be further divided. All lands south of the shrine unto the city of Mallow Horn shall be yours, Lord Dupré.” William’s stone etched face began to break into a slight smile then. “All lands north of the shrines unto Masyor shall be yours Lord Guilford.”

“But that site is only a few leagues from my castle!” Lord Guilford protested. “You are giving over half of my lands to Lord Dupré for a matter that started because he falsely accused my son of attempted murder!”

Duke Verdane took a deep breath and leaned forward in his throne. “Yes, I am doing that aren’t I? But those lands have also been claimed for years by Lord Dupré. But you are right, it is true that Lord Dupré would have twice the demesnes that you would have, and it was his misstatement of judgement in this regard that provoked this incident.”

“I do not concur!” William barked. “Had the herd of deer not been led into my son’s path, this would not have occurred.”

Verdane slammed his fist down into his throne. “Enough! I have already decided the matter between your sons, William. Should you raise it again I will have no choice but to consider what to be done with the bearers of false witness.” William seethed, but did not speak. “Now, the land north of the Masyor river belongs to me at this time. There are several small villages over which I have appointed a Mayor, but the floods have washed out their bridges. Lord Guilford, build several new bridges, bridges that will not be washed away by the Spring floods, and all the land north of the river to the edge of the Weislyn forest shall be your fief.”

Lord Guilford bowed stiffly. “Thank you, your grace. You are most generous.”

Verdane nodded, gesturing for Guilford to stand again. “Now, there is only one matter left to attend to. William,” Dupré’s face turned expectant, but uncertain, “you turned a simple hunting accident into an incident that I do not care to see repeated. I fear for my grandson’s life. If you cannot keep him safe, then I must invoke my privileges as sovereign once again and take him as my ward.”

“But your grace,” William said in sudden shock. “He is my eldest, my heir! You cannot take him from me.” Jory looked about, suddenly very confused. Even Lord Guilford looked uncertain.

“I have already done so, William. When you leave here on the morrow, your son shall remain behind. You may send his things when you return to Mallow Horn, but from now until the day he takes a bride of my choosing, he shall remain my ward and go where I go, live where I live. That is my decree, and that is my will. It will now be carried out. Apollinar will provide you with the formal proclamations this evening.”

Verdane sat up straight then. His eyes held them as firmly as if they’d been shackled. “Only one other thing will I have of you both before this day is out. You will each meet with me privately before the sun has set. Do not bother calling on me, I shall send for you when I am ready. You may both go.” He waved dismissively at them. Stiffly, they both turned, neither of them satisfied, but each walking away with something. Verdane watched them leave, William almost storming out of the hall. His daughter Anya gazed back at him once with poison in her eyes. That would have to be soothed later.

When they had finally left, Bishop Ammodus trailing along behind them, Jaime turned to him and smiled. “That was masterful, father. But why did you take him up on his offer?” Though Jaime did not say the name, Titian knew of whom he spoke.

“I needed to know if they were still children. Ammodus could tell me nothing. He could.” Verdane said stiffly, his eyes trailing down to where the black clad man had fallen to his knees. “I tire of this chair. Let us retire to my solar so we can eat and speak. We’ve some plans to make.”

Jaime nodded and relayed the command to Apollinar and Sir Royce. All knees bowed once as Titian rose and dismounted the throne.

Elizabeth was exhausted after the nearly two hours it took to successfully transcribe the sigil that now glowed upon the halter. When they had finished, they had spent another hour continuing to examine Thomas and the halter itself, trying to understand how the magic worked. Together, they had even attempted to undo the runes placed atop it, but there was something else, some other, that stopped her. It was not something that any of them could describe, merely like a living wall, tangled in ivy that grasped them tight each time they reached for it.

And this ivy, had poisonous thorns.

With the first approach, when Elizabeth had set up a preliminary circle to lift the spell from the halter itself, a sudden jarring had been felt in the room, and dust had sifted down from the ceiling, small particles that left a visible cloud in their wake. And even when she completed that circle, everything about her twisted at strange angles, her body filled with nausea. And a withering pain began to fill in her skin, so much that her flesh seemed to draw inwards, as if being leeched from her very mouth.

The sensation passed only when the circle had been broken by her own vomit.

It was but the first in a series of failed attempts to pry even the slightest bit of that symbol from the halter. At one point they even let Rickkter attempt a casting, though he could not even pierce as deeply as she, for the prominences, those silvery tentacles, lashed out at him and coursed along the lines of his magic, shocking him into animalhood. It had taken another five minutes before the raccoon had been able to regain himself completely.

Even still, Rickkter continued to shudder, though he tried mightily to keep any from seeing the way his paws trembled. It was only when he stepped out of the cell for a few moments to breathe that he was able to completely compose himself once again. Nor did he express any desire to speak of it.

But it was increasingly clear that there was still some last hurdle, some presence which blocked them completely at every attempt. Finally, exhausted both mentally and physically, Elizabeth shook her head and crossed out her latest attempt. “It is of no use. There is still something we are missing here. We have the symbols. We should study them. Perhaps they will reveal to us another piece that will bring us closer to solving the puzzle.”

Christopher nodded his huge head, even as he lumbered around behind her to slip back out the door. {Aye. T’be sure, ‘tis something we should study.}

“It looks somewhat familiar to me,” Rickkter added, rubbing his paws together. “I know I will have something like it in my books.” The symbol itself was much simpler than the one that had been on the underside of the halter. And in fact, Elizabeth had explained most of what it could mean already. At least, what it should have been. Not a single aspect of it reacted the way its drawing would imply.

Thalberg crossed his arms unhappily. “I do not like this. When will you be able to free his grace?”

“We don’t know,” Malisa admitted, her face downcast as she looked at the equine state of her adoptive father. Thomas himself was lazily chewing on his hay, eyes and mind oblivious to what occurred around him. “By the gods, would someone take that cursed thing off of him? I cannot bear to see him like that.”

Elizabeth nodded, her own arms shaky. As tenderly as she could, she undid the buckles holding the halter in place and removed it fully. The leather crumpled in her hands as seemingly harmless as it always did. “Perhaps Bryonoth knows more as well. She gave us the clue that led us this far.”

Misha nodded slowly, glancing with one eye out the entrance to where the elk knight waited uncertainly. “I will ask him to visit her again this evening.”

“Show this symbol to Varnal,” Thalberg suggested. “Maybe he has seen it’s like before.”

“I tell you I have seen this myself,” Rickkter pointed out. “There’s no more need to involve him.”

“But you said it doesn’t behave the way it should,” Misha pointed out. “Maybe he will know why. He’s proven he can be trusted this far after all.”

“Excuse me,” George called out, poking his head through the doorway. “Forgive the intrusion, but a page has just come down bearing a message for Rickkter.”

Thalberg frowned. “I thought I forbade any to enter here.”

George nodded, his own face creased into a moue. “He gave the guards the password I gave them. Heaven knows where he got it.”

The bat let out a small screech at that, his voice sounding indignant. “You can be sure I will know by this evening’s end.”

The jackal held out the note, a small folded bit of parchment, the ends sealed with wax, though no insignia had been put upon it. Rickkter frowned at the bat but took the parchment. “I will see what this is.” Elizabeth watched the raccoon break the seal and fold the parchment open. There was a momentary look of surprise in his eyes, though it passed, the lips of his muzzle curling in anger. “I fear I have no choice but to obey this summons. Continue on without me.” He folded the parchment and slipped it into his jerkin. He offered the bat a stony look. “And do not set any to following me. I will know if you do.”

“Of course not!” the bat actually sounded indignant at that.

Rickkter still frowned, but left out the door, his tail lashing back and forth in aggravation.

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