Never Again a Man - Part XX

The sun was beginning to set when the platter of soup and barley was set down before the Duke. Thomas reclined at his table stiffly, freshly dressed in blue tunic and hose, the azure seams speckled with sapphires. There was a scent of peaches in the air from when he’d bathed a few hours back, soaking his fur in the rich fragrances and oils necessary to clean it presentably. About his hooves he wore the thick woolen socks to soften their blow upon the masonry, though for the last few hours he’d only trod upon the carpets of his chambers as he examined all of his things once more.

“I am not wholly myself,” he said at long last, once the servant had slipped silently out the door again. Both Malisa and Thalberg had joined him at his table, though they had each ate something different. A platter of stew awaited the Prime Minister while the Steward feasted upon fish caught fresh from the river that morning. “I can remember these last few months still, but some things are hazy and strange.”

Thalberg frowned as he gulped down a chunk of haddock. “Do you remember what it was like being the horse?”

Thomas frowned, a loaf of bread halfway to his muzzle. “Yes, I do. I can still remember...” he paused then, his voice trailing off into inaudible whispering. His eyes scanned past them, and seemed a mix of emotions, melancholy, anger, and painful regret, all rolled into one. He stiffened and set the bread down for a moment. “I still remember it, yes. I cannot describe to you what these last few months have been like for me. All I can say is that I just felt this inexplicable yearning to be nothing but a horse. I apologize for the things I said to you both during that time. I did not wish to burden either of you more than you already were.”

Thomas lowered his head then. “And I certainly did not wish to burden you with acts that you felt were treasonous.”

Malisa reached across the table and clasped his hand. “Father, there are some burdens that we do not wish to bear. Those are the heaviest of all. But a burden we take on willingly can never bear us down. You are not only the Duke, you are also our friend, and,” she smiled lightly then, “something more. You need not apologize for what happened. It was not your doing.”

Thomas smiled back to her and nodded. He sat up straighter then, ears erect. He tore off a bit of the bread and placed it in his muzzle. He chewed a few times and swallowed. “Yes, you are right. Still, you say that this was a plot of our enemy? That they used Bryonoth to try and make me a beast? Why would they do that?”

“George thinks it is to create chaos here. If so, they have succeeded, but not for long. We’ve learned a great deal about them because of their failed attempt. More than we would have ever known without it, I begrudgingly admit.”

“We will need to have a council session to discuss all of these implications. I have not been myself for too long. I have been... Toumoth.” He said the last with a strange whimsy. “I cannot explain it though. There was something peaceful about being simply a horse. I suppose all animals feel this, as they have little else to trouble them.”

“An animal knows only what its body needs,” Thalberg replied, his voice sotto. “If it has that, it is satisfied. A man needs far more, your grace. A leader needs far more. A people need far more than an animal can provide.”

Thomas finished off the remainder of the bread and surveyed his friend for several seconds, his chestnut eyes, the same colour as they had been when he’d been Toumoth, though showing far more intelligence. “You are right, my friend.” He reached one hand and drew a thick finger down across his cheek. “Do you know I can still feel its touch here? It’s no longer in my mind, but I doubt I’ll ever forget how it felt.”

“I doubt if there was ever a man who has gone through what you have experienced, Father,” Malisa replied, her own voice still filled with relief, though there was an uncertain edge to it. “We are here for you. Metamor is here waiting for you to take your place again.”

The Duke nodded, setting his spoon in the soup. “Aye. Andwyn’s replacement for me, Leofe, was a pleasant chap, but he was not me. I could see it immediately.”

“And Andwyn says he is happy that he no longer has to pretend to be you,” Malisa said, her smile emerging as she skewered a chunk of beef on her fork. “Andwyn also says that he thinks a public appearance by you tomorrow will go a long way to quelling any rumours that may have started.”

Thomas stopped the spoon halfway to his muzzle. “Have any rumours started?”

Thalberg grunted. “None that he has mentioned. Well, any to do with you, Thomas. He has said that some have noticed Bryonoth’s absence.”

Thomas put the spoonful of broth in his muzzle and drank it down. “And what are we going to say about that? What will she say?”

“That she was in seclusion, contemplating her place at Metamor, and what the curse has done to her,” Malisa replied, a familiar curl to her lips. His adoptive daughter still did not like speaking about what the curse had done to her too. “She comes out of course when she knows that you will reinstate her as a knight in full, and even offer her a place amongst the Order of the Red Stallion.”

Thomas nodded slowly as he spooned another mouthful down. “Truly? So she is innocent then in this?”

The alligator nodded. “Apparently. We met the man truly responsible. You might remember it.”

This made Thomas set down his spoon and nodded, his flesh trembling. “Aye. The man in black. Zagrosek. I remember seeing him now. Damn, I remember hoping that he would succeed. Ah, I don’t know if I could ever forgive myself for that.”

“It was not your fault,” Malisa assured him, her voice comforting to hear. Though, it was still not quite right. Another voice would be far more soothing to him. “The magic of the halter affected your mind, forcing a completely different personality upon you. You were no more responsible than Bryonoth was. Zagrosek had a direct link to her somehow. And when we’d discovered what a danger she was, he tore out part of her spirit to remove it. If any have suffered worse than you, it is she.”

Thomas frowned, but kept his posture firm and stiff. “True. I will extend a personal invitation to her to join the Red Stallion.” He sipped from his goblet, staring across the edge at his friends. “I want to thank you both for everything you did to save me. If not for you, I would be grazing right now in a stable or on a field somewhere, and would be doing that the rest of my life. That night you came to stop her, that night, through her Zagrosek would have completely bound the halter to me. I would have been a horse then, for the rest of my life.”

Malisa nodded gravely, exchanging a glance with the Steward. Thalberg’s yellow eyes narrowed in displeasure. “We had wondered why that man had come to Metamor on that night. I suppose we know now.”

Thalberg set down his own goblet then and lowered his head slightly. “Your grace, you have no idea the pleasure it gives me to see you sit at this table and eat. To see you sit here and converse with us as we have so often in the past. Just to see you, dressed, walking and talking as a man again, it is the greatest gift I have ever received. I... I cannot express to you the depth of my joy.” When Thalberg lifted his head again, Thomas could have sworn that the alligator actually shed a tear.

“It is... it is good to be a man again,” Thomas said, smiling warmly then, before laughing amidst a shower of his own tears. Reaching across the table, he gripped the lapels of their collar sand pulled both his friends around to his side of the table. There, in a display of emotion that none had ever dared confess, they hugged tightly together for several long moments.

“Your hospitality,” the Marquis said as he raised a silver goblet to his lips, “is impeccable.” He sipped from the wine for a moment as he surveyed Lord Dupré’s solar. It was already late when they had arrived at the castle in Mallow Horn. The sun had been setting, casting a brilliant orange tint to the fluttering green ram-head banners that hung from the tower walls. The journey from Kelewair had been uneventful as promised, and most of the time the Dupré party kept well ahead of the Marquis’s own small band.

But now, three days later, he supped with Lord William in his tower, sitting across from each other at a stone table carved into the shape of a kneeling dragon. “I see that not all of your things are fashioned after your own House’s symbol.”

William frowned and drummed his fingers across one upraised wing. “I get bored of seeing the ram everywhere I turn, no matter how much I wish to see that banner fly upon the wind. And do not mock me with your words. You are here only because I have promised you a game. I am a man of my word, I will have you know.”

His smile unabated, the Marquis set the goblet down in a small receptacle carved into the wing. “Of course you are. I never doubted that, your lordship. I merely understand that in the haste of your departure you may have forgotten something. I was not an important dignitary at Duke Verdane’s estate, so the matter between us could very well have slipped your mind. You had other far more important things to consider after all. Do not think I am offended, for I assure you, I am not.”

William grunted sourly. “Spare me your false modesty. You have stuck your fingers in every affair that you come across. You like to stir the pot, don’t you, Marquis?”

“Well, I do enjoy tasting the meal as it is cooked,” he admitted, his smile changing ever so slightly. “But the meal itself is better once it has been cooked, I think you will agree. But I can see that my banter wearies you. Perhaps we should merely play our game. You have promised me one after all.”

“And only one. Tomorrow you will leave Mallow Horn.”

“But I do have your word of safe passage through your lands.”

He laughed bitterly. “That was if your man succeeded in giving me what I wanted.”

“And you have. The land is yours.”

“At the cost of my Jory. I promised you one game, and that is all that you will get. I owe you nothing else. On the morrow you will leave.”

The Marquis frowned, an exaggerated gesture that nevertheless contained some kernel of truth. “Ah, when I return to my lands, i will be saddened to say that the hospitality of Mallow Horn is not as I had hoped.”

“Please,” William sneered. “Get on with your game so that you can get out of my sight.”

The Marquis lifted up his chin, bearing the countenance of man who’d just been gravely insulted, but lacked the impertinence to say it. “Very well then. We shall do so.” Setting beside him was his mahogany case. He lifted it up, and placed it one the table before him, opening the case and slowly removing the cards. Gently, he laid the cards before him on the wing, and then closed the case and put it back on the floor.

Even as he bean to shuffle the cards, the wine in his goblet began to tilt, careening towards the edge. And when the Lord of Mallow Horn picked up the cards he’d been dealt, it was spilling over the side, cascading down the grooves and lines of the statuesque table. “Now, you are going to play more than one hand with me, Lord Dupré. And later, we will discuss your promise safe passage again, shall we not?”

William nodded then, lifting his own goblet to drink, and spilling half of it over his tunic as it rushed to meet him. The Marquis smiled as he sucked the will from the man from his very throat. “Good, because you do not want to upset your master, do you?”

William shook his head, the anger and bitterness having fled his eyes. Only the canine desire to please remained. The Marquis resisted the sudden temptation to pat him on his head and tell him what a good boy he was. Laughing, he began to play his game. William was now only too eager to play too.

It was now very late in the evening. Bryonoth sat across from Egland in the elk’s parlour, and each shared a drink. Intoran was off tending to their horses again, a task he knew meant that his knight needed some time alone, or with another. But the oryx did not mind, as he knew very much that the two knights needed some time alone. It had only been two days since Bryonoth had come back to live with them again, and she was decidedly different than what he could remember. The incongruity of it still bothered him, and so he was not completely comfortable around her yet.

Nor was she comfortable around him either. Bryonoth spoke little while Intoran was there, though she was polite in her Flatlander way. Egland had always understood the ways in which the Steppe born were different from those born in Pyralis, or even in the Midlands. There was a total dependency and love for their horses that went beyond even the most rabid knight.

But now Bryonoth was adopting many of the ways of the Flatlander woman. When she’d come down that morning, she’d asked him to braid her hair all the way down her back. She had even schooled him in the proper fashion, as there was a difference between the braids a Steppe-born man would wear, and the one a woman would wear. And there she sat in the chair, bearing a woman’s braid through her hair, and not feeling in the slightest bit demeaned by it.

Egland sighed and scratched at one of his antlers. “Yisaada, how are you feeling tonight?”

“I art well, Ts’amut. Thou hast been kind to me,” Bryonoth replied. Her smile was slow, but it was sure.

“I am still worried about you. You just haven’t been the same, since, well, I cannot say since when.”

Bryonoth frowned and looked down at her hands. “Since I wert a man? “Tis what thee wishest to say.” She held up her hands, touched her face, her braid, and her breasts and shook her head sadly. “I art a man no longer. I hath become a woman, Ts’amut.”

“Don’t you remember being a man?” Egland asked, feeling a great emptiness well up inside of him.

Alberta Bryonoth frowned for a moment. “I doth remember that I wast a man, but I remember little of being a man. I wishest that I couldst say it better.”

“But you still remember growing up in the Flatlands, of travelling to Yesulam to become a knight. You were a man when you did all these things.”

She nodded then, and offered him a weak smile. “Aye, I do.”

“Remember them as a man?”

Bryonoth’s smile faded, but she held it. “I remember them.”

Egland sighed. Bryonoth’s memory was slowly coming back, but the man he had called brother for so many years seemed even more lost than when he’d first become a woman. Perhaps in time, she would remember it more fully, but by then, Egland felt certain that the Albert Bryonoth he knew would be only a memory. Strangely though, he still loved this woman, loved her as his sister, his Yisaada. It was different, but it was love nevertheless.

He did his best to smile then, and found that he could manage one. “Will you accept the Duke’s offer of a place in the Order of the Red Stallion? I would love to have you in the capitular order here, but there is no more prestigious order of knights at Metamor than the Red Stallion.”

“‘Tis an honour, aye.” Bryonoth said, her voice growing distant. “Like asking me to dance.” Her smile grew then, and she fingered her braid as it lay across her shoulder. “I shalt think on his offer. I hath a lot of thinking to do, Ts’amut.”

Egland nodded then, smiling as best he could back to his friend. “Yes, my Yisaada, I think we all do.”

The Masyor lake under the light of the moon and the stars sparkled with their silvery radiance. The castle, standing on a bluff overlooking the lake, stood as a lone sentinel over the waters. Its lamps burned bright so that all sailors would see it and know that there was a power watching over them. Zagrosek could not help but be impressed by the view he beheld as he passed from the shadows back into the lit world. The journey had been long, but thankfully, the moon had bene shining brightly enough that he’d been able to make it with relative ease.

But it had still taken him another hour moving through the tight corridors of the castle at Masyor to find the boy’s room. Guards stood at his door of course, but Zagrosek was not concerned with them. Stepping back into the shadow, he felt its blackness course through his flesh. It was a searing that he would never grow accustomed to, but it was something he could ignore for a time. And then, pressing through the walls of the door, he passed out into the boy’s room. A single lamp was lit in Lucat’s quarters, a small room with a narrow window overlooking the lake. There were various small toys scattered about the floor, and several pieces of folded paper for writing secret messages that Zagrosek had taught him to make.

The boy himself was asleep in his bed, arms wrapped around a small stuffed horse. Zagrosek smiled as he saw this, though it was pained. Quietly stepping along the floor, making sure not to step on anything at all, he carried the lantern to the boy’s bedside and gently shook him on the shoulder. It could have been easy, but he could not do it then. Not while Lucat was sleeping.

Lucat rolled over then, eyes blinking wearily. When he saw who was standing above him, he blinked quickly and nearly shouted out his name in excitement, but Zagrosek put a finger to te boy’s lips, and made a shushing sound. He leaned forward and whispered, “Would you like to see another secret?”

The boy nodded excitedly, hugging his plush horse to his chest. He didn’t speak, but he let Zagrosek lift him out of bed. Once the boy was on hs shoulders, Zagrosek walked back into the shadows. The boy let out a startled cry of alarm, but the Sondeckis’s voice was reassuring. “Don’t worry, Lucat. It won’t hurt for long. This is a little trick I can do. I can walk right through shadows. Don’t worry, I won’t take you out of the castle, just someplace we can talk for a moment. Your father would be most upset if he knew you were awake after all.”

“Are you a guest?” the boy asked, wincing despite the pain. As Zagrosek had brought the boy through, he was able to shield the boy from most of the pain.

“No, I snuck in. I am sorry. I just had to see you again, Lucat. I missed you.”

“My Dad won’t like that.” The boy sounded quite upset now.

“Well, we just won’t tell him then, will we?” Zagrosek smiled back to the boy as he stepped back out of the shadows. They were now on one of the parapets overlooking the lake. The craggy rocks abutting the base of the bluff stood at the very bottom of the tower far below.

“Wow!” Lucat said as Zagrosek set him down. “Dad never lets me come up here! I can see all the way to the other side of the lake!” He still held the horse plush firmly in his arms. Though he now held those arm very close to his chest. The wind that battered the side of the ramparts was cold. Zagrosek smiled down at him, but his smile was empty. The Marquis had wanted this. It had to be. It would start war, but it had to be.

“Here, this will help keep you warm.” He draped a long sash about the boy’s neck. Although it was dark and Lucat could not see it, the fabric was green, and bore a ram’s head silhouette on either end. “That’s better isn’t it?”

“Yes, master Zaggersok! Thank you!” He pointed with one hand at the lake. “Isn’t it pretty?”

“It’s a lovely view,” Zagrosek replied, standing next to the boy. “And look how far down you can see!” He gestured over the end of the parapet. Lucat started to climb up on the stone, but Zagrosek stopped him. “Now be careful, it’s not safe to climb here. Let me hold you, then you can look.”

Lucat nodded, his bright face eager. The silver light of the moon limned his smile and the Sondeckis felt weak in his stomach. Lucat turned back to the lake, and began to climb once more, setting the horse plush down to one side as he did so. Zagrosek gripped him under his arms and helped him look out over the edge.

“Wow! I wish I could be a bird. Then I could fly out over the lake. I don’t want to stay in the castle.” The resignation in the boy’s voice was painful, and Zagrosek only gritted his teeth.

“I promise you, Lucat. I will help you fly.”

The boy looked back at him, even as Zagrosek leaned him further out over the edge of the parapet. “Really? You can make me a bird too?” From the look in the boy’s eyes, there was no doubt that Lucat believed him capable of anything.

“No, but you will feel as if you are flying. I am sorry, Lucat.” And he let go.

The boy’s screams ended several painful seconds later.

Duke Thomas Hassan could not sleep. It was only the third night since he’d gone back to sleeping in his bed of silks and not the bed of hay. But even so, it simply did not feel right to him, and so he tossed and turned. Finally, unable to deny it any longer, the duke rose up and lit a lamp. He had paced for a while across his quarters, but eventually found himself sitting at his desk, staring at a piece of parchment while the golden flame flickered in his lamp.

The last few days were still a blur to him. His public appearances had been hastily prepared, though he’d enjoyed them all. Even so, he could scarcely tell one from another. So much had happened since he’d been freed after all.

Elizabeth had stayed an extra day and spent it with her brother. She had stopped by one last time to ask after his health, but it had simply been a polite meeting. She’d left the next morning, changing into a bird to fly away for one of the towers. After her departure, Misha had spent almost every waking moment working on Madog, though he was scheduled to meet with the Head of the Long Scouts for a general report later in the week.

Rickkter was once again back with his studies. He’d at first objected when Thomas ordered the destruction of the halter, but had not objected too strenuously. Malisa had seen to its destruction – with the raccoon’s help of course – and soon it was a thing of the past that could no longer haunt them.

Malisa and Thalberg did haunt him though, but he understood why and welcomed their concern. It was hard to come back to being the Duke after so long as being a horse. But still, he had no desire ever to let himself fall so far again. He thought back on those months, and could not help but shudder.

He stared down at hooves, and lifted one up, feeling along the bottom. He could still feel the holes where she’d driven the nails through to shoe him. Sighing, Thomas let his hoof slide back to the carpeted floor. The image was once more in his mind. Bryonoth. Despite the horror of being made into an animal, there was something else in her touch that he could remember. There was another sensation, feeling her hands in his when they had danced, that he could not rid his mind of. And that sensation haunted him far more than his friends could ever do.

Quite without realizing it, Thomas had grasped the quill in one hand, and dipped it in the ink. Taking a deep breath, he set it to the parchment that lay empty before him.

Dame Alberta Bryonoth,

Whether it was fate that led you, a man of the Steppe, to join the Ecclesia as a knight, and whether it was then fate also that brought you to Metamor as a guard of the ill-fated journey of Patriarch Akabaieth, where you were captured and put up to a horrid task for the servants of evil, I find an irrelevant consideration.

In truth, what has passed between us is something few can ever speak of. The intimacy that we shared in these last few months, though something that neither of us would have embraced willingly without the unwanted aid of magic, is something that I can never forget. I have tried my best in these last few days to blot out the thoughts from my mind, tried with great alacrity, though to no avail.

When I consider all that we have done together in these last few months, I ponder if at any times the people we truly are spoke through the fog of magic. I do not believe that when I was a horse under your care that I was expressing my true self, for I have no desire to be a horse, no matter how peaceful an existence they may lead, and no matter how pleasant it was to be a horse under your considerate care.

I have no doubt that the concern that you displayed so readily as you tended to my needs as a horse were genuine. It has been your life long pursuit, your entire life even, to tend and care for your horse. A knight has no greater ally, I have heard it said. And so can be true of you and whatever horse is blessed to have you as its rider.

But as I sit here, unable to sleep for the thought so dominates my mind, I can not help but remember the one time we met as people. There we were at the knight’s ball, and I could find no face other than yours I wished to stare at. We danced. That dance has stayed with me, and when I close my eyes, I am still there dancing with you, Alberta. I am still dancing with you.

And as I sit here, my mind astir with these images, there is only one thing that I know for certain. I do not know how I can continue my life without Dame Bryonoth being a part of it somehow. I do not wish to be impertinent, as I know you have been through a great trauma as well. But I cannot help but hope that you feel as I do.

And if these feverish dreams and half hoped desires are to have any fulfilment, then there can be no doubt that we must meet again, this time as ourselves, without the interference of magical devices. We have seen each other in lights no other man can claim. And I realize now how much I had grown to enjoy it, even if in a way I have no fondness for now.

Could you, Alberta, meet with me? I wish it, but I will not force you. Please. I do not wish to see you only in my dreams.

Thomas set the quill aside and stared at the letter for some time. His eyes scanned over every line, plumbing them to see if what he’d written was how he really felt. He could find no discrepancy though, much to his own chagrin. He wanted to see Bryonoth again. His flesh trembled at the mere thought of her fingers brushing through his mane again.

Of course, should Thalberg or Malisa hear of this, they would stand against it. They would wonder how much of it was the halter’s doing. Thomas frowned then and sighed, picking up the parchment in his hands and striding towards the hearth. The fire had faded into red smouldering logs. He stabbed at them with his poker, stirring them until a few small flames began to leap up from the logs.

Holding out the letter in tight hands, he readied to toss it upon the flames. Thomas gritted his teeth, closing his eyes not wanting to see the letter burn. There, waiting for him on the other side of his eyelids was the dance once more. For several moments he just let those images play back through his mind, the memories of a night long ago, a night in which he had sought out another to dance with. When he’d sought out her.

Letting out another heavy sigh, Thomas turned back to his desk, and slipped the parchment into one of his drawers. He locked it shut with his key and sat for a moment staring at the drawer. Finally, he took the lantern and went back to his bed. He set the key and lamp back on his night stand as he climbed into the silk sheets. Tomorrow he’d look at it again. Yes, tomorrow.

Closing his eyes, Thomas smiled slowly. At least someone knew now, what it all was about, even if it was only himself. With that thought in mind, the Duke of Metamor settled into a long deep sleep.

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