Never Again a Man - Part XVIII

Duke Verdane bid them farewell that morning, and though their meeting was brief, it was as always, cordial. Neither of his sons saw them off, though Bishop Ammodus did offer them a short blessing before they went on their way. Nor were they the only ones to depart, as both the Duprés and the Guilfords wished to be on their way as well. The Guilfords were the first to leave, but no sooner had they left the gates of Kelewair behind, the Duprés themselves set out.

The Marquis waited a mere ten minutes after the Duprés had left the manor before ordering their men to mount and ride out into the city streets. The morning was cloudy and grey, though the air was warm enough to make travel comfortable. The city streets themselves stayed mostly clear as the procession of nobles went past, though in their wake business returned to normal.

The Marquis himself kept about him an air of nonchalance as he rode. Zagrosek watched him with the idle curiosity a slave reserved for their master in those few hours when the slave had nothing to do but wait for the master’s call. And it came shortly after they left the city gates and were once more on the roads of the Southern Midlands.

“Zagrosek, ride beside me,” the Marquis’s voice trailed back, and soon the black clad Sondeckis was at his side. “This has been a profitable delay. But not all of our work is done.”

When the Marquis did not say any more, Zagrosek felt obliged to prompt him. “What more is there?”

“First, we must catch up with the Duprés. There is a matter I need to discuss with Lord William still.”

“That should not take long. You can see them already passing over yonder hill.”

The Marquis acknowledged this with a nod. “And there is also another matter which has come to my attention. A matter at Metamor.”


“Last night somebody burned the hyacinth. I will not be able to use it on Midsummer as I had planned. I will need you and Agathe to be there to lend your own power to the casting. Once we reach the valley, you will find Agathe and give her this news.”

Zagrosek blinked and nodded. “Was it completely destroyed?”

“Enough of it that it is no longer of use. After you are done there, you are to return to Tournemire. I will give you further instruction there.”

“I could assist Agathe afterwards. And what of Yonson?”

“Both have their own tasks. I have one for you.” The Marquis turned to stare at him firmly. “Do not hesitate to perform it.”

“I shall do as you ask,” Zagrosek replied, nodding his head.

The Marquis smiled then and gave his horse a nudge, urging him faster. Zagrosek and the rest of their company did the same. The Duprés were continuing down the road at a somewhat leisurely pace, and so it took only a few minutes before they were finally caught up with them. The guards at Lord William’s behest allowed their company to ride up alongside, and soon, the Marquis was flanking the irritated Northerner.

“To what do I owe this pleasure?” Lord William asked without any pleasure in his voice. Quite the opposite in fact as he spat a bit of bile upon the road. He wiped the spittle from his lip with his green surcoat, the cuffs fashioned into the shape of a ram’s horns.

The Marquis could not help but smile to the Lord. Lady Anya’s carriage rode on ahead of them, and Zagrosek suspected it had carried William until just recently as well, judging from the lack of embellishment upon the horse he rode. “There is still the matter of the game you owe me, Lord Dupré. The game that was promised.”

William snorted in disgust. “Is that all? Well I did not receive what I want. You promised your man would deliver, and he has not. What did he get for any of us but a lashing?”

The Marquis smiled, the line of it almost feverish with suppressed glee. “He gained the trust of both your child and the Guilfords. You have lost your son, William, and for that I share your grief. And so too, once we reach your estate, will Anson Guilford.”

This caught both William and Zagrosek by surprise. But the Marquis went on, his smile filled with such unconcerned malevolence that several of the Dupré knights flinched from it. “My man here will deliver on my promises. And you shall do so as well. You owe me a game, Lord Dupré. When we reach your estate, you can fulfill that too.”

For likely the first time ever in his life, Lord William Dupré appeared cowed. Dumbly he nodded his head, and then pushed his horse back up along the company until he could disembark and slip into the carriage. The Marquis slowed his own mount to allow the Dupré company to slip ahead along the road. And even as Zagrosek continued to stare at the blue clad noble, Camille du Tournemire let a self-satisfied laugh burble up from his throat. The sound of it drowned out all else in the Sondecki’s mind for the rest of their three day journey to Mallow Horn.

Misha felt strangely forlorn when he entered the council chambers that morning. While it was wonderful to see his sister in the flesh again, he ached that their reuniting was spent over such a dire matter as the Duke’s enslavement to the degrading halter. The matter was further effaced by the seemingly sheer indomitability of the magic itself. While they had spent one evening supping with Caroline and Will Hardy - an evening filled with ebullient reminiscing that seemed little more than a reverie now - the rest Elizabeth had sequestered herself in study.

There were matters of a more mundane nature that Misha had thrown himself into not without a bit of alacrity. His duties as head of the Long Scouts occupied some of his time after all, though he left a good portion of the decisions to Kershaw and Meredith, both of whom were recovered from their injuries but still needed time to regain their former strength. But the greater portion of his days were spent pondering Madog, whose gaping injury still stood open and bothersome.

Madog himself complained little, and in fact had so far been helpful, but there was much left to do. Still, Misha longed for the company of his family. The fox had never fully realized how greatly he missed his family in Marigund until Elizabeth had come to help, and then was unable to spend more than a few minutes with her brother.

Still, Misha smiled as he entered the chambers and found his sister already seated, dressed in a thick wool gown. Misha had not seen her wear the blue dress before, and found himself liking this look for his sister. Sliding into the chair next to her, his tail wagged. “Good morning, Elizabeth.”

“Good morning, Misha,” Elizabeth replied, offering him a tired smile. Her icy blue eyes studied him for a moment and the smile became comforting. “I know. And I’m sorry.”

Misha nodded, his own half-formed grin slipping from his muzzle, one ear folding back remorsefully. “We never have any luck do we?”

“Well, let us hope that we have some today,” Elizabeth replied, some of her former cheer regained. “Rickkter said that he thinks we will make great progress today.”

Misha nodded and looked up at the rest assembled. Neither Thalberg nor Malisa had arrived, but they were usually the last to enter regardless. Christopher was slumped at the table, trying to keep his massive head above it. The dark ursine eyes appeared haggard, and there was a noticeable slump to them. Jessica did not appear tired, her golden eyes bright and wide, but then again, as a hawk, she was far more alert than most Keepers. But Rickkter was not there.

“Where is he?” Misha asked, but Christopher just shrugged.

{How can ye tell where the coon’ll be?}

“He sent us a note,” Jessica explained. “He said we should study the magical spells intently, as he thought that we had some new insight. I’m not sure why he feels so. He did not say.”

Misha spread his paws before him. The doors to the council chambers opened again, but it was only George sauntering in. The jackal eyed them all with his usual disinterested stare. “I see every one has been sleeping well.”

Christopher growled slightly then, turning his head. {Methinks ye jest over much.}

George shrugged as he slipped into his seat next to Misha. “Things were quiet last night for some, it is true.” He glanced around the table, and smiled. “Rickkter must still be catching up on his sleep.”

“His sleep?” Jessica asked, her eyes narrowing in an almost predatory manner.

“Oh yes, hadn’t you heard? Rickkter ran afoul of the Watch last night.” George seemed to be enjoying himself.

Misha blinked. “What happened?”

“If you wish to know,” Malisa’s voice came from the doorway. Andwyn was hopping alongside of the Prime Minister while Thalberg was only a few paces behind her, and between them all stood the raccoon. “Then perhaps you will ask the man himself.”

All eyes turned to them. Rickkter was carrying a small leather bag, the knot sealed tightly at the top. Thalberg looked distinctly uncomfortable, and swept his great red robe aside he moved around the table to take his place. Rickkter stood before his own seat, holding aloft the parcel with a look of sublime satisfaction.

“I’m glad to see you all here. As George has said, I was taken into custody by the Watch for actions taken last night. But, I made a discovery that could not wait. It demanded action immediately, and I took it.” He tossed the bag onto the table, and it landed with a soft thump. “This is the victory I sought. And it is why we will be able to destroy this magic.”

Elizabeth blinked, looking down from the bag and up back at Rickkter. “What is it, if you do not mind my asking.”

Rickkter looked them all about, and then undid the knot on the bag. Gripping the leather sack, he upended the contents. A pile of ash fluttered free, while the twisted remains of some root were disgorged. They had all been burned badly, and in fact, they shattered more when they landed upon the table.

Thalberg frowned. “I do hope you intend to remove that foul thing once you are finished showing off?”

The raccoon ignored the Steward’s jibe, and stood akimbo. “I ask you, Elizabeth, if in all your years of study, you have ever heard of the magical properties of the hyacinth?”

When Elizabeth shook her head, the raccoon nodded and then began to sketch out his adventure of the previous evening. From locating the poem that erased itself from your mind – he even passed around a translation, and damned if Misha could remember any of it by the time the raccoon was finished – to discerning its meaning and then plotting action to destroy it, Rickkter told all that he could, leaving out no detail that he remembered.

When Rickkter at last spoke of the flames scorching that hyacinth into ash, Elizabeth nodded her head. “Yes, I believe you. I do not know of any of this, but magic that occludes itself is not altogether unheard of. But I do not remember ever seeing anything about the hyacinth. If the knowledge is so tenuous, then how was it our enemy was able to ensorcel one to his ends?”

Rickkter held up his palms, the air of triumph fading from him. “I have not yet discovered that. But we already know our enemy is capable of harnessing the power of the Underworld. Perhaps that allowed him to enchant the hyacinth.”

“And this is all that remains?” Elizabeth asked, gesturing to the roots.

“Yes, and I have already searched them. Not one iota of life remains within them.” Rickkter began to scoop them up in the bag once more. “And this is why we must study those spells intently today. That hyacinth was blocking us from seeing what we needed to see. Now that it is gone, we may finally be able to break that halter’s hold over Duke Thomas.”

“I share your enthusiasm,” Malisa added then, her words measured. “But there are a few things that must be decided first. I would like to know whether we should involve Varnal any further in our study.”

Rickkter shook his head vehemently. “I did not like him involved in the first place. What we do now is far more sensitive than simply examining a bit of enchanted leather. This will involve the Duke, so he must be kept out.”

“I think Rickkter is right,” Jessica admitted, her squawking voice nevertheless filled with some measure of regret.

{Varnal has been of great help to us,} Christopher added, his own voice bearing heavily on their minds. {But if it involves the Duke, then perhaps it is better not to involve him further.}

Misha frowned at that, but knew their reasons were probably wise. Without waiting for any of the others to offer their own opinions, he shifted in his seat and declared, “It seems like you all agree Varnal should be left out. He has already guessed that it was my doing that led to his assistance. I will inform him that his services are not needed any more.” He cast a sharp glance to Malisa. “And also, that the agreement that was made will be honoured.”

Thalberg nodded his massive head. “Naturally. See to it that Varnal’s sentence is reduced as we agreed.”

“I will have an official letter drafted and sent to the mage within the week,” Malisa replied, tapping her fingers together. “That disposes of one matter. The other is this: what shall we do about Bryonoth?”

The silenced that followed in the room seemed heavier than any expected. Misha found it hard to work his tongue, and his fellow Keepers were also speechless. He knew that Elizabeth would say nothing in matters regarding the Keep’s security, and so her silence was from choice. But Misha could find no answer. After seeing the knight, bedraggled, naked and dirty, shivering upon that cell floor, he could find nothing but pity in his heart for her.

Oddly, it was George who first broke the silence. His voice, harsh from his years as a mercenary, was so tame that it took Misha a moment to realize that it was indeed the jackal who spoke. “Pardon her and then instate her in full as a knight of Metamor. Invite her to join the ranks of the Knights of the Red Stallion.”

“She just nearly turned Duke Thomas into a simple horse and you want to reward her?” Rickkter was incredulous. But the raccoon kept his voice under control. “Why would you ever think of doing something like that.”

“I’m wondering myself,” Thalberg said, green arms crossed before his chest, his muscles tightening visibly beneath the dark scales.

George rather nonchalantly reached behind one ear and scratched it with his paw. “Because if she hadn’t loved being a knight more than she had, I’d be chasing mice in the alleys if not dead.”

Misha’s face suddenly lit up, his one ear rising up in bubbling excitement. “Yes, George is right. She loved her steed more than she wanted to turn the Duke into a horse. If not for her, we’d all be animals in body and mind.” He looked to Malisa and frowned. “Well, almost all of us. If Zagrosek didn’t just kill us afterwards.”

Rickkter’s moue deepened. “Even with Madog fighting him?”

“Zagrosek may have lost his arm to Madog, but Madog couldn’t even stand up after that man wounded him.” His voice bristled with indignity and subsumed rage. “Even with only one arm, a group of frightened animals would have been no match for him.” He felt a soft hand rest upon his arm, and he saw that Elizabeth was smiling reassuringly to him once again. Misha felt some of his rage drain from him once again. Madog would be all right. He just needed to be repaired.

“Well, if I should ever see him again,” Rickkter groused, paws balling into fists, “then he had best hope he regrows that arm.”

“Or should he meet me!” Misha declared. “I’ll introduce him to Whisper.”

Malisa shook her head and set her hands down on the table. “We have no time for the two of you to plot revenge. Yes, I agree with what you two are saying, Misha and George. Without Bryonoth, we would all be in a far worse place. But without Bryonoth, none of this would have happened in the first place.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Jessica said. “Our enemy has some plan for Metamor. We don’t understand what it is yet, but it seems that at the very least he wants to sow chaos here. Even if Bryonoth had died in the attack on the Patriarch, or had never been captured, our enemy would have struck at us some way.”

“And we learn from every encounter with our enemy,” George pointed out. “I know I am lighting far more candles in my quarters now.” This caused an uneasy stir amongst the rest of them. Misha remembered well the way that Zagrosek had simply vanished into the shadows, even stepped through them as if only they existed. His hackles raised despite his attempts to keep them still.

{And her soul has been torn by the enemy?} Christopher thought, his query probing their minds gently.

Misha nodded and looked to his sister and Rickkter. The raccoon was shifting about in his seat, the leather satchel still in front of him. “Yes, that is true. But I still don’t see how any of this justifies elevating her to a knight.”

At this, Andwyn, who had said nothing the entire time, occupying himself with squeezing a bit of juice from a cherry propped on the ends of what passed for his fingers, suddenly interjected in his characteristically sinister tone. “And what will they say should Bryonoth be punished further? Ever since Duke Thomas asked her to dance with him, rumours have swirled. Little has come of them, but they persist.”

Thalberg scowled so fiercely at this that his fangs began to grind. Andwyn nearly stopped speaking from surprise at the sound. But the bat regained his good humour and continued. “Some have noticed that Bryonoth has gone absent already. Especially those that she brought onions with the help of his grace.”

At that Thalberg let out a sudden bellow of dismay. “You speak far too cavalierly, Spy!” the alligator raged, turning on the Head of Intelligence with fire in his yellow eyes. Still, he managed to calm himself after a moment and lean back in his seat. “Watch your tongue!” was his final admonish before he resumed grinding his fangs together.

“I shall do so with all alacrity, my friend. I apologize if my choice of words did offend. I meant no slight to his grace. The state that he is in is not one to be made light of. But I must recognize certain unpleasant truths in my duty as the Head of Metamor’s Intelligence. And one of those is that of rumour. I can no more stop it than I can swim. But, we can try to take advantage of it. Punishing Bryonoth would show to people that something worse has happened. And that we do not want any to know.

“But reinstating Bryonoth as a knight as George suggests would imply that nothing has happened at all. After all, it is known that after her punishment was deemed complete, she was to be made knight again in full honour. We allowed her to attend the Knight’s Ball, so we showed her some trust already. If we do as George suggests, then it is possible that we will not have to worry about any more rumours being spread.”

Thalberg appeared to roll those ideas around in his head. The alligator finally grunted and nodded then. “Although I feel as if I have waded into dirty water, I think I see what you say Andwyn. But what of her disappearance. It has been noticed as you said. What of that?”

But the bat again answered with a smile. “She was in seclusion, because the loss of her masculinity had finally grown too burdensome for her. She needed time to seek out peace with herself and her Eli.” The bat looked to Rickkter knowingly. “I believe that will also explain why her behaviour has changed so. I am given to understand that she does not quite truly remember being a man anymore, is that not so?”

Elizabeth was the one to nod then. “It is as you say, though she has begun to remember some things more clearly.”

“Well, I can think of no better solution than the one offered by our estimable Patrol Master.”

George laughed then and shook his head. “Don’t flatter me. I’m just a mercenary who’s settled.”

Misha could not help but smile slightly, though a part of him was disturbed by the twisted course that the bat had taken to arrive at his friend’s conclusion. “If the decision were mine, I’d take George’s suggestion. But for his reasons, not for Andwyn’s.” If this offended the bat, he did not show it.

Rickkter shook his head slowly then. “I can find no fault yet with your little theory, Andwyn. But that doesn’t make me like it any better.” His muzzle split with a sharp laugh. “‘Friends close and enemies closer.’”

“Though it pains me to let any who have harmed Duke Thomas go free, I am beginning to believe that Andwyn is right.” Thalberg admitted with some hesitation. “But I must think on this more.”

“As do I. The final decision is mine,” Malisa said, tapping her thumbs together, face a mixture of anger and resignation. “But that is enough of that for now. We have other matters to discuss. Let us pull the spells out once more and see what we can find.”

As the others leaned forward to peer at the arcane glyphs, Misha felt strangely disconsolate. All he could do was hope that Rickkter was right and that a solution would be found soon. It was only the fourth day since Elizabeth had come to Metamor. She could stay another day or two and still be safe from the Curse. Maybe he’d get to show her some of the valley too. Smiling at the thought, he leaned forward to listen in to the mages.

“A terrible shame! I do know you loved flowers a great deal,” Habakkuk said as he reclined on the chaise lounge in the rather open aired apartments in which Ambassador Yonson resided.

The lemur sat with his tail curled up along a banister and shrugged. “The fire was unfortunate, two drunks I am told, but there are still many lovely flowers left in the gardens.” There was a distracted quality to his eyes though. “But let us speak of other matters. You said that you had found something intriguing in that book of yours?”

Habakkuk leaned forward a little more, smiling to his old friend. “Why, yes I did. Strangely enough, it was about a flower as well. In the very middle of one sentence in the book, I found this very startling poem. You would not believe it!”

Yonson laughed drily. “Please, tell me more!”

Misha had nearly drifted off to sleep by the time that Elizabeth at last nodded her head and said in grave tones, “I believe this is it.”

Sitting up straighter, his tail beginning to wag despite himself, while his one ear also rose in attention, Misha blinked his grey eyes clear and looked at what the mages had done in the centre of the table. With Malisa scribbling notes and spreading them out before them, they had written out every conceivable property of the spell, and listed countermeasures to be taken against it. The list was exhaustive, and Misha shook his head as he stared at them.

Even Thalberg appeared mystified, his massive form almost ossified in his chair. His flesh groaned as he moved, ponderous weight shifting. The wood of his seat creaked as he leaned forward. “What do you have?”

Elizabeth turned to regard the Steward as she had when her brother had asked questions that each mage thought obvious. “The solution. The counter spells that will break the enchantment over Duke Thomas.”

This brightened the alligator perceptibly. His frame sat taller, and there was an edge of excitement in his voice. “Truly? How long before you can undo the spell?”

Rickkter was tapping his thumb claws together as if to keep them occupied. “Soon. There is one more thing we are missing though. You may recall that the spell on the back of the halter needed to be in touch with his grace’s head before the other half could be seen?”


“So too we need to have Bryonoth present. As she is the other half of the spell on the top side of the halter.”

“How do you know that?” Misha asked, shifting about in his own seat. Could they really have it? Might Duke Thomas be restored that very night?

{‘Tis but a guess,} Christopher admitted, his thoughts wary, but certain. {There nae else it can be.} Jessica nodded her head the whole while the bear thought to them.

“Christopher is right. It’s only a guess. But we can think of nothing else that might be the other half of the spell. Once the spell is brought together, the knot of it may be undone. But we will need Bryonoth there.”

“And that means we need Sir Egland there to help her,” Misha said, looking to the rest. “I can find him and bring him back here within an hour.”

“Bring him straight to the dungeons,” George suggested. “I’ll meet you there so we can escort Bryonoth to Duke Thomas’s temporary chambers.”

“Both good ideas,” Thalberg said, nodding his head. “What supplies will you mages need to perform the counter spell?”

Rickkter replied, his former enthusiasm burned down into dedicated professionalism, “We already have everything we need. It might be better to move the Duke into the practice chamber though. We will have more room there. It will be getting quite crowded down in his prison.”

Thalberg nodded at that. “I’ll see to it that he is moved within the hour. Is there anything else you will need?”

The raccoon laughed and smiled a sardonic grin, his fangs peeking out between his lips. “A good stiff drink after this is over would be nice.”

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