Parlay - Part IV

As not all of the decorations were quite ready, a good portion of the women of the Glen continued to work on making the Glen ready for Spring. But quite a few, including all of the Longs, insisted on helping clean and prepare the elks. A series of winches were set up from the trees, and from these the elks were allowed to hang and drain. As most of them had lost a great deal of blood anyway, the Earth was only stained lightly by that crimson spill. The elk that Charles had killed had suffered no open wounds, and so it took the longest to drain.

After they had hung the first elk up to drain, Lars took a small flask, and held it before the wound, letting a bit of blood drip in. He did not yet say why he did this, but grinned at the rest, especially the Longs. When Charles or any other asked a Glenner what the bear was up to, they simply shook their heads and laughed, but would not say. Once he was satisfied he had enough, the bruin secreted his flask away, and would not speak of it again.

Another old song was sung as they all stood around the hanging elks, this one a cry to the Earth to bring forth good soil and bear great fruit. The blood, Charles realized, was meant to saturate and bless the ground, and it was a rite that the Glenners took seriously. Even so, after they had sung their song, they all went to the tables and shared from the pastries. As there were so many, they could only each have one slice, but it was more than sufficient.

Charles sat across from his wife, while Baerle was at her side as always. Misha and Caroline flanked him on one side, while James and Garigan were on the other. The talk around the table was delightful, of things yet to come, and of what had already come to pass. The rat had selected some of the strawberry pie, and was savouring its sweet taste, idly listening to James talk about his portion of the hunt, when he felt something brush against his knee.

He caught Kimberly’s eye then, and she smiled back at him. He leaned his leg forward a bit, finding her knee, and gently rubbed his flesh against her own. He continued to smile, even when Baerle turned and looked at him surprised. Her gaze was strangely curious, also pleased, and yet worried at the same time. It took the rat a moment to realize just what he had done, and feeling a bit of a blush sweep into his ears, he drew his leg back. He’d been touching Baerle, not his wife!

Kimberly did not appear to notice, so engrossed was she in her pie and describing all that she’d done that morning. Still feeling the heat in his face, Charles smiled and nodded, filling his muzzle with pie to keep himself from saying anything stupid just then. The opossum seemed slightly disappointed, but at the same time not. That was twice in one day he’d inadvertently touched her in a familiar way, but neither time had he meant to.

No further incidents occurred, and Baerle was polite enough not to say anything about it, or even hint that any thing had happened. Charles and James shared with each other their hunting tale. The donkey was particularly excited about his role in slaying the elk. Although he’d not been the one to fire the shot that had mortally wounded it, he had been the first to stumble across its tracks. When he spoke of that, he spoke proudly, calling it his elk. He did not mind at all that his group did not win, and Charles never brought it up. This was the first time the rat had ever seen his new found friend so exuberantly happy for himself since he’d met him crying in a ruined back alley of Metamor a little over two months ago.

Once they were finished with their meal, they inspected the elks and found that the blood had completely drained. The ground beneath was stained a dark red. Several hay bales were brought out, and the hay thrown across the blood until it was all soaked in completely. It took quite some time to get the hay spread completely over the ground to cover all of the blood. Several times it appeared that they had finished their task when one of them would set paw upon the hay, and blood would gurgle up around their toes and soak into their fur.

More and more strings of flowers were draped around the Glen, and some music had started up again. The sound of laughter could be heard from the children as they kicked around and chased after several hoops fashioned from leftover pieces of wood. The Avery boys appeared to be leading the efforts at the games, though they had just as much fun as their fellow children, who were naturally human. The rat smiled as he thought of the five children that Kimberly would bear in a couple months. They would be rats too.

In addition to the flowers, banners and streamers were being erected, the banners in bright colours, each bearing the twine trees that marked the heraldry of the Avery family, and that of the Glen. Smaller poles were set up, each bearing a little brass brazier, and inside each, the petals of various flowers, rose, lily, dandelion were crushed and burned with some incense. They did not provide illumination or much warmth unless one stood close, but they were pleasant to smell, and brought the festive spirit even more into the air.

James and Charles helped each other in the skinning and preparing of one of the donkey’s elk. Charles did not mind that another would tend to his own prize. It would all end up in their belly’s eventually anyway. Leather sacks were brought, and as they all worked hard with knife and saw, they removed meat, organs, and so forth, drying bits where they could, salting what they would need to save, which was nearly all of it, and talking, laughing, and singing the whole time.

The made steady progress across the sky. Being as they were beneath the canopy of the trees, they could only see snatches of it, though with much of the summer boughs still to come, there was ample opportunity. And with so many working together, it was not long before the last elk had been cut down and prepared. Wagon loads of meat had been carted off to the caves where they would be stored throughout the summer. There they would be kept cool and way from the insects that might delight in feasting upon it.

Most were already gathered in the clearing already, the strewn hay covering where the blood had spilled. Misha kept a close eye on all of them, and smiled every time he caught the rat’s own. Once the preparations of the elks had been completed, the fox allowed them all a few moments rest before he waved the musicians to a stop, and clapped his paws together. “The time has come for you all to learn how to change as I can.”

Misha had resumed his bipedal form for the lunch and work that followed. He still walked upon only two paws, though Charles was certain such would change very soon. There were a few embarrassed laughs as they all started to gather and look towards the fox, the winner of the bet. Before he could speak further though, an amused feminine tone broke through. “This was a wager between the men,” Lady Avery announced, letting her eyes fall only upon the many women who were in the clearing. “It is the men who must dance. Let us just watch and enjoy.”

As the men watched, some in great disappointment, the women of the Glen all slipped off to one side, near the tables. Quite a few were still eating there, though most of the food prepared for the midday meal was already gone. More would be ready for the evening meal of course. Some of them, Baerle and Kimberly included, were helping to clean off the tables where none still sat. Charles waved once to his wife, and both she and Baerle waved back to him.

Even the females of the Longs moved back so that they might watch their comrades try to do as Misha could. So too did Allart, Ralls, and Jotham, all of them still human, and thus unable to take a taur form quite the same way. At least, none of them had ever tried, for fear of what it might be. Kershaw also politely excused himself with a word to the fox, uncertain if this would be forbidden to him or not. But Meredith remained in the clearing, the bear wearing his bandages about his middle as if they were precious accolades and medals.

Rickkter himself crossed his arms and shook his head. “I think I’ll just watch too,” he said gruffly, his eyes betraying only mild amusement.

“Come now, Rickkter, we agreed to a dance,” Misha waved his paw once, smiling lopsidedly.

The raccoon’s tail flicked from one side to the other. “If we lost, Misha. And you know I have no desire to change my body any further. I will enjoy watching you all stumble and fall all over yourselves tomorrow.” He gaze briefly met Kayla’s and the two stared at each other for a moment, before he walked to her side. There had been some unspoken word between them, but none could say what it was.

Misha nodded then and laughed. “We will too.” He waited a moment, but now most of the men from the Glen were before him, as were the remainder of the Longs. He waved at Charles, and the rat came forward after a moment, a bit surprised. “Now, you will all need to stand a bit apart so that you will have room for the rest of you when it appears. Charles here can also take a taur form, so he will help too. Tell everyone how much you enjoy it, Matt.”

The rat smiled slightly at that and nodded. “I couldn’t believe my eyes the first time I saw Misha with four legs instead of two. But then he showed me how, and gave me a crash course in using that form. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of using it myself on various occasions in the many months since then. I cannot say I’ve mastered it yet, but I do enjoy the feel of four paws upon the ground instead of just two. Perhaps it is part of the animal instincts we each possess now, but there is no doubt, it is a wonderful feeling, one you will not soon forget.”

Smiling in approval, Misha clasped his paws together once more, his one ear standing straight up. The Glenners and other Longs had by this time managed to give everyone around them a little space, so that they were spread out across the clearing in loosely organized rows and columns that zigzagged back and forth, and through each other sometimes.

“Now, the easiest way it will be to change nobody try this yet is to close your eyes and try to think of your self-image,” Misha glanced along the first few rows, finding Brian Avery, Angus, and even Garigan all clustered near the front. “How you picture your form. Just keep that in mind, focus it completely, or as best as you can. It will take some practice, but you will all be able to do it. Then, you are going to want to give that image an extra set of legs, as if your lower torso were that of your species. I like to imagine my body being washed in the water of a cool river when I change.

“You don’t want to force it, just let it flow over you. Let your body flow naturally into this form. Charles and I will demonstrate for you in just one moment. But the first thing you will have to do is to take off your trousers.”

At this, many voices objected, turning from amusement to uncertainty and embarrassment. “I’m not taking my pants off!” “But I’ll be naked!” “We what?!?” and other such exclamations erupted from many throats. Misha waved his paws in the air, and the voices began to die down.

“You cannot change with your pants on, or you will ruin your pants. Besides, it won’t be embarrassing if nobody watches. I’m not embarrassed by it. Are you, Charles?”

The rat blinked as his name was called, and he shook his head. “No, of course not.” His words were slightly hesitant though, so with a lit of a blush he waved one paw in the air. “Well, not once I’m a rat-taur at least. Then it is not so bad.” He put both of his paws before his waist and trousers. “Until then I’m like this.”

Quite a few of the Glenners laughed at that, as did the fox who shared the platform with him. “Well then,” Misha said. “I suggest we all stand like that once we remove our pants. It will do good enough. Now everyone remove your trousers so we may begin.”

There was still quite a bit of hesitancy amongst the Glenners, but finally one by one, they began to undo their leggings, and depositing them on the ground before them. Charles and Misha undid their own, the rat, feeling terribly exposed as he did so. Except for the first time with Misha, he’d always doffed his pants to change when alone. Now he was in front of all of the Glen. It was quite a bit odder and he felt heat flush in his ears even as he covered his loins with his paws as best as he could.

The fox waited until he was satisfied that the assemblage was as naked as he. His own paws were covering his loins, though he seemed strangely nonchalant about it. “Now,” he called, his voice surprisingly level, “every close your eyes and imagine your forms as they are now.”

Ignoring the giggling of the women who were watching all of their husbands and friends disrobe publically, Charles closed his eyes and brought back the black silhouette of the rat into his mind, standing upright and walking upon two legs. He had been that way for nearly seven years now. It was extremely difficult for him to remember what he’d looked like before he’d gone to Metamor. Even were he offered an opportunity to change back, he would never have taken it now.

Misha’s voice broke through a moment later, clear and forcefully exuberant. “Now, Charles and I will shift. You may watch this part.” Charles gave a slight nod to his head, and let the waters of change flow across his flesh, imagining that image spreading backwards, a new pair of legs joining the first. He felt himself trembling, the rush of his transformation filling his mind with a giddy euphoria. And then, the wood of the platform was firm beneath four paws. A smile crept over his muzzle as he could feel his new weight, his body spread out over a larger area. He opened his eyes.

The Glenners before him all stood with wide eyes, paws covering their loins. His own were now at his side, just above the join that bound his two portions together. He rested them akimbo and smiled at the stunned Glenners. He looked to see Misha was also a taur, and nodded in approval. Turning to his side, he took several steps around the platform, before jumping off. As his lower form was that of a large rat, his gait was not as smooth as Misha’s, but he nevertheless managed to convey a sense of grace and power to those watching. The women were now only giggling behind their paws to each other as they watched and whispered.

“And now you all get to try,” Misha said, sitting back on his haunches, which gave him a height that was even greater than before. “Close your eyes and bring up that image of your morphic form. It is like becoming a normal animal. You just have to change in a different way.” He waited for a moment as they all closed their eyes, paws still covering their loins protectively. Although a few of the women tried to sneak peeks, neither Charles nor Misha had any such interest.

Charles did walk around them a little bit, trying to see the strain on the muzzles as they did their best to hold a single imagine within their minds. Few appeared to be having any difficulty though. A bit of pride surged within him when he saw Garigan completely calm, his face almost beatific as he waited for the next instruction to come. He hoped his student had no trouble assuming the taur form. Thinking of his fellow Sondeckis made him think about Rickkter, who was sitting with the Longs who could not participate and watching in dry amusement. He was glad the Kankoran had not tried. He would have wanted Rickkter to fail, but he was certain he’d be disappointed in that.

His mind was brought back from such dark thoughts by Misha’s voice once more. “Now, all of you, imagine your body is a river, flowing and shifting about. Do not try to force the image of the centaur shape upon your body. Let it just flow inti it naturally. As if the change were already in you. Just let it happen as it will.” He stopped then and just watched as all of them began to try and do as he’d suggested. Some tightened their paws into fits, while others flicked their ears in frustration. Nobody managed to change quite so soon.

Misha continued to speak though, speaking of the river and how it was flowing, how their bodes were just caught up within its eddies and currents, flowing and spreading down the river. Often, he would stop and describe for some individual in particular what they should be feeling, that second set of legs growing in and pushing back to hold up their new mass, their tails lengthening and gliding backwards with those new legs. And then, a handful of the Glenners got big.

Angus was actually one of the first, his new badger-taur form so massive that he almost knocked over Berchem who was standing at his side. Those that managed to do it, opened their eyes and stared at their newly enlarged bodies in disbelief, letting out delightful exhortations. Charles saw that Garigan was amongst those who had been able to change, and once more he could not help but smile. He wove his way to his student, and offered him a firm pat upon the shoulder. “Good job, Garigan. You did it!” Once more, the ferret was taller than him, two long sinuous torsos joined together in such a fashion that he could have run about on six legs if he wanted to do so, and it would not have seemed the least bit strange.

The ferret-taur looked down at himself, even as he tried to step out amongst the rest of the Glenners who were still struggling to change. “I did! It didn’t seem too hard to me,” he said quietly, smiling a bit. “But it sure is strange.” And so saying, he managed to stumble upon his feet, and would have fallen if Charles had not caught him up.

“Watch out!” Angus cried as he stumbled past several of the Glenners to join them past the platform from which Misha watched all with a delighted grin upon his muzzle. Charles and Garigan both backed out of the way as the badger-taur blundered along, nearly toppling over as he came to a stop on his massive frame. He was larger even than Misha in this form, and his bulk could have crushed them both should he have fallen. Resting a paw upon his join and forelegs, Angus marvelled at himself. “I’m so huge!”

“You could probably wrestle a Galumph like your ancestor Cruinh did,” Charles pointed out, smiling, as the memory of the story he’d told came back to him.

The effect of that simple statement upon the sword master of the Glen was quite astonishing. His face brightened, limned by the sun, shining across the white patches of fur upon his otherwise dark brow. Dark eyes caught that light and glowed, pride filling them. He stood even taller then, towering over the two of them nearly two feet in the air. “Now you make me want to hunt again, Charles!”

Garigan and Charles laughed at that, even as a couple other Glenners joined them apart from the others. Misha nodded in approval to them all. “Now, take some time and move around in your taur forms. You need to get acquainted with them if you don’t want to fall over yourself at the dance tomorrow.”

“If I fall over, I’m never going to be able to get up again,” Angus exclaimed with a loud guffaw.

“Nor will whoever you fall on,” Garigan added, smiling himself, poking a finger at the larger badger-taur. His own legs were scratching at the ground, as if eager to move and slink about. With that riposte, they all laughed merrily, even some of those close by still trying to become taurs.

It was evening before Zagrosek and Agathe arrived at the Earl’s mansion. The arboreum was filled with long crooked shadows that stretched like a outreached arm across the terrazzo. The wind blew down off the grasslands and out to the sea, banishing the salt from the air for the night. Purpling skies stood triumphant in the East, while the clouds hung red in the west, a harbinger of good weather on the morrow. The air was colder, though not intolerably so. Marquis Camille du Tournemire sat as he had all day upon that ivory bench, his thoughts fixed upon only one thing.

One of the Earl’s servants led the two Southern mages to the jade pond near where the Marquis reclined. After a brief word, the servant left at a brisk trot, obviously uncomfortable being around such strange individuals as the dark man and the lady draped in thick purple cloaks. Both figures stood silently regarding the Marquis until the man was out of earshot. And then both fell to one knee briefly.

“What happened to you?” The Marquis asked Agathe, gesturing to the hood over her face.

“Wessex struck me,” she said icily, tensing, the cowl of her cloak shrouding her face in even blacker darkness.

“Show me.”

With slow gliding hands, she drew back the cowl, her fingers tense around the rich fabric. Along either of her once pearl cheeks deep gouges had been left, the flesh blackened and scarred, some of it through completely so that her teeth and gums were visible. Along either edge of the burns, and even on parts of her gums, festering pustules clustered, some even oozing a vile rotting filth that seemed to vanish upon the air as it was suppurated. But the more pronounced feature was the dull red throbbing of her empty right eye socket. It was a cavernous expanse that seemed to withdraw for leagues within her mind, a passage limned in infernal light, burning at the inside of her mind constantly.

The Marquis blinked once and then waved his hand. “You may cover yourself. Why do you not heal yourself of these wounds?”

Agathe appeared only marginally grateful for the opportunity to hide her disfigurement once more. To her side, Zagrosek looked quite relieved, though not for his own sake. “These are magical injuries. They can only be healed by the one who made them, and he is long since gone.”

Frowning, du Tournemire waved his hand negligently. “It is of no matter now. It will not interfere in what must be done now. Time grows short and we cannot waste any more. I am to meet with Bishop Hockmann tomorrow and I will make sure that he does what we wish. You have no further obligations in Breckaris at this time. There are things you must still do though if we are to be successful.

“I have received word from Bishop Jothay that he is now in possession of our present. All proceeds well in Yesulam. I have also heard from Yonson in Metamor. With the seal finally removed, he has found what we need there. However, he cannot do this himself. I am sending you both to Metamor for the Summer Solstice. It must be done then and no later.”

The Marquis folded his hands across his lap then. “Afterwards, they will know enough of what we intend to move to stop us. They do not have the forces or the influence to move against us directly, so I expect they will hope to send whatever forces they can. Agathe, I want you to harry them and delay them as much as possible. If you are absolutely certain that you can kill them, then do so, but do not otherwise risk your own life.”

Zagrosek frowned then. “And what of me?”

With one eyebrow arched, the Marquis turned upon the black clad Sondeckis. “You, Zagrosek, shall return here after you are finished at Metamor. I will give you instructions then.”

“It should be I that follows after them, not Agathe,” Zagrosek said, tightening his fists, his voice heavy. “I am more experienced at this sort of thing than she is.”

Agathe said nothing at this, only remaining silent in her cloak. But the Marquis sat up a bit straighter then, his eyes narrowing. “You would question my judgement in this? The task is hers, and she will do it.”

“I do indeed question your judgement, Marquis. You have put her in the line of danger far too often, and I will not let you do so in this matter.”

“Will not let?” the Marquis asked, his voice suddenly shrill. He rose to his feet then, slowly, long nose inflamed with breath. Elegantly manicured nails pressed against each other as the terrazzo beneath their feet began to tilt strangely, the trees bending inwards to where the Marquis stood. Branches creaked and some snapped, hurtling to land at the Marquis’s feet, shrivelling into ash. “You dare to test my will, Zagrosek?”

The Sondeckis stood a little taller and firmer. “In this, yes. Let me be the one to take this task. I will not stand for you to once more send Agathe into a situation for which I am better equipped.”

“No, you won’t stand for it,” The Marquis said after a moment’s pause. He reached within his surcoat, and drew out a card as wide as his hand. The face was not visible to either Zagrosek or Agathe, but the backing was. A stylized design featuring the unicorn of the Tournemire heraldry, various swirls surrounding it, providing it an elegant look. “You will crawl.”

Zagrosek leapt forward just then, his eyes wide as he saw the card. But before the Sondeckis could reach him, the Marquis gave the card a quick twist. Unable to even scream, Zagrosek crumpled to the ground, his eyes pressing at his sockets, mouth wrenched open in a silent cry, every muscle in his body tense as his limbs thrashed and contorted. Agathe stared at him, her body slack as if she were a marionette dangling from a hook.

As Zagrosek writhed upon the terrazzo, his entire body stretched taut, the Marquis continued to twist the card back and forth. “You have become far too independent minded. I wonder what has led you to challenge my authority, what hope you could have had to be successful. Let me introduce you to the pain of having your own Sondeshike placed through your gut, prying your ribs apart.” He gave the card another twist, and then Zagrosek’s chest heaved upwards, his head pressed firmly against the ground, legs barely supporting him as he arched. For a moment, it appeared that his ribs were being pressed outward from his body, as if something were going to emerge through them in a shower of blood.

But then, the Marquis twisted the card in a different way, and he fell back down to the ground hands clawing at his face. “You are mine, Zagrosek. You will do as I command, and you shall never question me again.” He held out the card then in one hand towards the agonized figure. “Touch the card and the pain will leave you.” But Zagrosek gazed with hateful eyes back at the Marquis. With a trembling scowl, du Tournemire bent the card once more, eliciting another round of agonized writhing.

“Do not defy me again, touch the card.” The marquis took a step closer, nearly pressing the card against Zagrosek’s forehead. But the Sondeckis continued to keep himself apart from that device, averting his eyes from its compelling luster. The Marquis tensed, and the terrazzo tilted even more, the water in the jade pond now sloshing over the side, ripples running across its surface as if it were hailing. More tree branches snapped, their cracks resounding through the garden like the explosion of distant thunder.

And then, the Marquis reached out his other arm, and gripped at the air. With a yank, he pulled back, and suddenly, Zagrosek’s arm was flung upwards before it rested upon the card. The world trembled once more, and then all was still. The water drained back within the pond, the fallen trees branches, now nothing but ash, were borne up upon the wind and scattered. Zagrosek lay recumbent upon the ground, his face upon the stone, eyes closed. Agathe still stood as if she were unable to move.

Marquis du Tournemire waited a few moments before he placed the card back within his doublet. He turned and stepped back from Zagrosek, turning his back upon both he and Agathe. His footsteps carried him a short distance away from the jade pond before he glanced back. “We will leave together tomorrow after I have met with the Bishop. I will tell you more of what I intend when we ae safely upon the road. I am sure you can find your own way back to your Inn.”

With that, he left the arboreum. Agathe finally regained her own will, and stepped over to her prone comrade. She lay one hand over his face, the deep folds of her cloak hiding her own still. “Pompous fool,” she said low, even as she brushed the sweat streaked black hair from his face.

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