Questioning - Part VI
ight was upon them. The distant lights of Marilyth across the river separating the eastern reaches of the Pyralian Kingdoms from the broad Steppe were but another star within the night sky. The campfires were lit on the outskirts, their tents set in the middle, providing them with a clear view of all the grasslands about. Warm winds blew in from the South, bringing with them the taste of salt air. Apart from a mangy pack of jackals wandering the southern Steppe, they were the only life that they could see.
Sir Czestadt, born of Guldanya, purple of the Kankoran, Knight Templar of the Driheli, and known amongst his fellow knights as the Volka wie Stuth, was impatient. He sat upon a small wooden stool that could be quickly disassembled and packed away for travel, drumming his fingers upon the top of his heavy shield. His mailed knees framed the shield, the end pointing down into the sodden earth. It had been a week since they had first set foot upon this pagan land, and all he had done was ride one day inland with his men.
The order to scour the Flatlands had come from a member of the Bishops council, but more importantly, from the Bishop of Eavey, the westernmost city that Stuthgansk traded with. That alone gave the Bishop sufficient authority to compel the Driheli wherever he willed them. It had taken him many years to rise to the office of Knight Templar. Sir Czestadt had done so by his unfailing and fanatical loyalty, and his willingness to do whatever he was instructed. His distaste for inaction and this land would not deter him in the least.
He did find it an affront that he should be sitting like a dog waiting for his master’s return, more especially so in this pagan land. Sir Czestadt found it hard to believe that a land so close to Yesulam could remain pagan. Surely they could have brought in their knights to compel the wandering nomads to their ways. In Stuthgansk, it would not be so. In Stuthgansk, they would heel, or they would die.
Sir Czestadt did not consider himself an impatient man. On the contrary, he had stilled many of the complaining voices amongst his Knight Bachelors that very eve by stressing the need to wait for news from either Sir Poznan of Sir Petriz before they move. After they had made camp that first night, he’d sent the two Knight Commanders in different directions to scour the Steppe for any information they could find. They searched the land for one man, and in a land so vast, that would not be an easy task.
To the west along the river he’d sent Sir Petriz, and to the northeast he’d sent Sir Poznan. That had been six days ago. In that time he had studied the map of the Steppe that had been provided. A vast empty land of meandering rivers and low hills, wide grasses, and few scattered towns. Horses roamed freely, as did overlarge donkeys called Assingh. Nomads followed the herds as if they were seeking permission to join them. To the Southeast, the grasses dried out into the sands of the Holy Land and the Desert of Dreaming. To the North, the land grew cold until they reached the Sylvan Mountains, or the mysterious Åelfwood. To the East, the Great Easter Range rose unannounced from the Earth. And to the West, the river held back Pyralis in the South, while the Steppe bled into the Midlands in the North.
And somewhere in that vast land, Kashin disgraced of the Yeshuel was travelling.
And Sir Czestadt was charged with making sure he did not live.
He leaned back in his seat and gripped the top of his shield firmly, his fingers rubbing firmly against the cool iron. In truth, he did not so much care who it was that ended Kashin’s life. So long as it was ended, he had done what he had set out to do. An old maxim that he had learned during his youth with the Kankoran returned to him, “Whether by your hand or by another’s, if your enemy has died, rejoice.”
He sat alone on the stool, the darkness surrounding him like a cloak. The other knights had seen his dark mood and let him be. The spineless priest that accompanied them had once thought to approach him when he brooded, but had only barely avoided being struck by the lip of Czestadt’s shield. Father Givny was here to provide Eli’s counsel and strength to the knights and men under his charge. But Sir Czestadt was Knight Templar.
It was not that he did not approve of company. He had several times spent his evenings enjoying the camaraderie of his fellow knights, sharing their jokes and their drink. They were bloodied warriors who had stood the challenge of men. Father Givny was a bookworm who rode awkwardly and could barely lift a sword. Were Sir Czestadt to enter a city seeking the church, he might ask Father Givny for the way. But they were here to do battle, and for that, the priest could do nothing to help.
As he sat there, staring off into the horizon, he watched the grasses bend under the wind, twisting this way and that. Occasionally, subtle lights would play across the land, but he dismissed it as starlight reflecting on the myriad of small brooks that crisscrossed the empty expanse. But now, as he stared, his chin resting upon the edge of his shield, he thought he saw a series of flashes, as if something were moving. Interested, he kept his eyes fixed to the spot. Watching as several more flashes came, moving at a slight angle across the Steppe.
He sat up straighter then, blinking, shifting about on his stool. The heavy scabbard at his side dug through the ground as he stirred, forcing him to reach down with one hand and give it a firm tug. Satisfied, he returned his attention on the distant sparkling. It was growing closer, that he could tell. A rider perhaps? Whatever it was, it was still quite a long ways off, it would be several minutes before he would know for certain. He could hear laughing voices form one of the campfires. They had not yet seen what the Knight Templar saw, but surely they would in a minute or more.
In fact, even as he thought about it, the voices began to die down, as one by one they stood up from their seats, watching that distant sparkle as it grew in size and clarity. By the time Sir Czestadt manage to pull himself to his feet, the broad shield with the black hawk rising from flame, wearing the green and blue crest of the Driheli like a plate of mail upon its chest lifted upon one arm, he could clearly see that the figure was a rider, his horse galloping tirelessly.
There were a few whispered questions amongst the other knights, as all but a very few came to see what was descending down from the North. Czestadt felt a presence move in close behind him, and a small smile crept over his lips. He did not need to turn around to know it was his squire Heszky. He was a strong youth, who would make a fine knight someday. All of his squires did. Sir Petriz, Knight Commander of Vasks, was once a squire of his too.
Once Czestadt was satisfied that the rider was one of their own, the moon glinting off the blue and green crest he bore, he turned to his squire, who was only a few inches shorter than himself, and still had a few more years to grow. “See to it he is brought to my tent.”
“Yes, master Templar,” Heszky said, lowering his head gracefully. Czestadt did not wait for him to raise it before walking back amongst the nest of green tents that clustered on that gentle rise. Their horses were milling about to the South, long since bred never to wander far from their masters’ sides. Thus, the camp was free from any activity.
Czestadt’s tent was in the centre, and the largest by far. A single pole protruded from the centre, upon which flew his banner, the same black hawk rising from flame that graced his shield. It was the symbol of Stuthgansk, superimposed with the crest of the Driheli, the cross of blue upon a shield of green. The entrance was also held up by two cedar poles, the fabric of the tent made from thick cow’s hide.
Ducking his head low, he pulled the tent flap aside, and slipped into the darkened interior. From habit, he set his shield down in one corner, and picked up the flint he’d left in its place. There was a lantern set next to it as well, and soon, he had a small flame lit within it. Radiating out from the central pole were several other beams of cedar, giving the tent its shape. A metal hook hung down from each beam, and on all but the one by the door hung a similar lamp.
He returned the lamp to its place, and took a small candle and lit it from the lame within. Moving with practised grace, and a quietness not often known amongst the knights, he lit the others, and then returned the candle to its place on the table set in the front of the tent. Upon that table was rolled out a large map that the Bishop had given him of the Steppe. A cot adorned by soft sheets occupied the place opposite the table on the other side of the centre pole. A small pallet for his squire was a short distance away.
As he came to stand around behind the table, his squire slipped under the door flap, bearing the stool he’d sat upon. No words were exchanged, but Czestadt offered him a gentle nod. The squire set the stood down against the side of the tent, and then disappeared back outside once more.
Czestadt ran his fingers across the map. It was fairly newly scribed, only a few years old he guessed. The names of various towns and rivers were all written in the clever squirrelling curls of the Northern tongues, very different from his native Southern runes. But he would have been a poor student both of the Kankoran and the Ecclesia if he could not read them. His fingers touched the place where Marilyth stood at the delta of the great river to his west. He traced thumbs-width to the northeast, and tapped that spot several times. They knew but one corner of the vast Steppe, knew but one place where Kashin was not. He hoped and prayer the messenger would bring good news.
The tent flap stirred again, and he looked up to see Sir Guthven and Father Givny slip inside. His squire came in after them, a mere shadow against the back of the wall. Following them was a short man, panting heavily from his tiring ride. Sweat soaked his hair, despite the cool evening air. “Fetch him a drink, and we can begin.” Czestadt said, as his second, Sir Guthven, a broad man, who though slow of speech had a clear mind, came to stand at one side of the table, studying the map as well.
Heszky retrieved a brown ewer and a small wooden goblet, pouring out a bit of wine for the exhausted rider. The young man took it gratefully and drank it all down slowly. The wine was of modest quality, a draught that Czestadt reserved for messengers bearing news. His own supply was locked in a small travelling chest under his cot.
“What news do you bring?” Sir Czestadt asked, his voice firm, gaze unpleasant.
The rider saw the Knight Templar, his eyes wide as the warm brew filled his veins. He stepped closer and gave a sharp bow, quickly making the sign of the tree upon his breast. “Master Templar, sire, sir Poznan sent me to inform you of news of the traitor Yeshuel.”
Sir Guthven gave a barking laugh of delight then, and pounded the table with his fist, making the candle Czestadt had set upon it fall over and roll off onto the ground. “Out with it, man!” the knight prodded, his words trembling with excitement.
“He is travelling with a group of Magyars towards the eastern mountains.”
“Magyars?” Czestadt asked.
“Yes, master Templar, sire. Sir Poznan said they were a band of thieves and tricksters.”
“Pagans!” Father Givny said in surprise. “Not only has he betrayed the Ecclesia but he has now betrayed Eli himself!”
Sir Czestadt shot the priest a warning glance before he continued on. “What else has Sir Poznan to say?”
The young man looked once at the chastened priest, and then back to the two knights standing at the table with the map. “He said that he rides northeast, first to Doltatra, and then to the mountains.”
“Doltatra,” the Knight Templar murmured to himself. “Was there anything else?”
“No, master Templar, sire. That was all he told me to tell you, master Templar, sire.”
With the wave of one hand, he dismissed the rider, who was only too happy to slip back out of the tent to mingle amongst the other younger men in the camp. “Doltatra,” he murmured again, glancing down at the map to find the town.
“Here,” Guthven said, pointing towards the northeastern portion of the map. “On the Atra river.”
Czestadt glanced to his finger, and then down along the length of the Steppe. “It will take Sir Poznan several days to reach Doltatra.”
“And a fortnight to reach the mountains,” Guthven added after a moment. “We cannot take our horses into those mountains.”
“Not easily,” Czestadt agreed. “But Kashin cannot escape over them either.”
Guthven reached one hand up and stroked his dark beard thoughtfully. “I wish I knew more of these Magyars.”
Looking up at the shaken priest, Czestadt fixed his cool eyes upon the man. “Father Givny?”
Givny blinked, astonished that his help was for once requested. “Well, master Templar, sire, I do not know much of them. They are a nomadic people who put on shows in every town they pass through. I believe I once heard that they travel by wagon.”
“How many travel together?”
The slender priest shook his head, eyes staring at the map instead of the knight. “I do not know, master Templar, sire.”
He grumbled thoughtfully, staring once more down at the map. “With wagons, they certainly cannot cross the mountains,” Guthven offered.
“Very true. Here is what we shall do then. I want three riders on horseback this very hour. One to head west to find Sir Petriz, and give him my order for him to return here. I will write the order presently. The second is to go to Sir Poznan in the northeast to inform him that Sir Petriz and I will be moving our men along the Southern extremes of the Steppe to force Kashin against the mountains. The third will go to the Bishop’s adjutant in Abaef seeking any knowledge on the Magyars that he can provide.”
“Will we break camp once Sir Petriz returns?” Guthven asked, one hand clutching a shock of his beard.
“Yes,” Czestadt said firmly. “The very next morning in fact. Father Givny, inform the men of this news.” The priest nodded heavily, and slipped out of the tent quietly. “Heszky, parchment and quill will you.” He looped one metal boot about the stool, and sat himself before the table. Guthven pulled the map aside just as the squire produced the requested implements.
It took only a moment for Czestadt to write the note. Heszky had also produced the wax and seal by the time he was done. Another few seconds, and the order was ready to send. “Choose our fastest horse for this one. I want to be on the move in a week’s time.”
“Of course, master Templar,” Guthven said, bowing his head, smiling slightly. “It will be good to be back in the saddle again.”
“Yes, it will,” Czestadt gave his fellow knight a sullen smile. He then stood from his seat, and patted Guthven’s mailed shoulder. “Attend to the messages, then inform the other knights I will be out shortly. I wish to share drink with night.”
Guthven stood a little taller then, the top of his head surpassing the Knight Templar’s. “I will keep the best spot around the fire open for you, master Templar.”
The smile on his face twitched with pleasant humour, and then it disappeared altogether. He nodded his head once, and the knight slipped back out into the darkness of the Steppe. Sir Czestadt say back upon the stool, and tapped his fingers together thoughtfully. “Wine,” he said, and immediately Heszky retrieved the locked chest from beneath the cot.
Thieves, tricksters, and traitors, Czestadt thought ruefully. They quite well fit. But now at least, he knew where his quarry was. They would be cornered and crushed. It was simply a matter of time.
He repeated that thought to himself as he sipped from the goblet his squire had placed before him, smiling inwardly.
It was a long time before Bryonoth returned. The sun had passed beyond the Dragon mountains to the West, the lamps lining the streets of Metamor had been lit, and most Keepers sought the refuges of their homes, sitting huddled by the fire, their windows shut to ward out a chill that hung in the air like the scent of a dead animal. Egland had long since finished his supper, taking it with Intoran his squire, both sitting quietly, uneasily.
A messenger had arrived at their door only a short time ago, bearing two messages. One had been for Egland, the other for Bryonoth. The note for his fellow knight still lay upon the hearth. His own note had been open and read, and burned. The Questioners had summoned him.
He suspected Bryonoth’s note read much the same, it was marked with the cross just as his own had. What he’d hoped to avoid could not be avoided. Tomorrow afternoon he would go to their rooms, and face their questions. What would they ask him? Surly about the Patriarch, he knew that much. That did not worry him. It was all the other things in is life that made him loathe to see those dark priests.
Intoran knew his feelings, but had stayed on the other side of the room, making sure everything was clean, though for no particular reason other than to have something to do. The oryx had not been summoned of course. Egland had only met him at the end of last October, so it was not a surprise. But the elk worried that he would not be able to hide his secret from the Questioners. After all, Namir had not.
He let out a long breath of air, his tongue touching the thick teeth. Teeth suited to grazing now. In the many months since he’d had no choice but to remain at the Keep, he’d grown used to his new form, but every once in a while he pondered it. When he died, would his soul have the shape of an elk too? He’d asked Father Hough that question when he’d first begun to walk around, but the boy priest could only shrug and offer a few confusing words on theology. Egland had never been very good understanding the subtle nuance of Ecclesia learning and teaching despite his relationship with Namir, who had also been a priest.
But now, his concern was not so much for the spiritual, but for the temporal. What would the Questioners think when they saw him so oddly changed? Would they think less of his word, and think him somehow abandoned by Abba himself? That very thought frightened him a great deal. He did not want to be excommunicated after all. While in his youth he had not shared the dreams of knighthood that many of his fellow playmates had, it was his calling now, and he wished to continue to serve. He hoped and prayed that his new cervine form would not lead the Questioners to take even that away form him.
The turning of the bolt caused his slender ears to swivel about. A moment later, he shifted about in his seat, looking back down the hall to the entranceway. Dame Bryonoth slipped through, her face gaunt, eyes focussed elsewhere, as if she were poring over some unsolved problem. “You’ve returned, Yisaada,” Egland said, rising to his hooves, their hard substance resounding with a hollow beat against the flagstone.
“Aye,” Bryonoth said, her voice still distracted. She then lifted her head, coarse hair falling across her shoulders. She had not bothered to cut it once, in the tradition for women of the Steppe. A smile lit across her face then as she saw the elk who had been her brother knight at Yesulam for so many years. “Ts’amut. ‘Tis good to see thee again. I hast a difficult night.”
Egland nodded, smiling as well, though the expression was more subtle on his thick cervine features. His winter coat was beginning to shed, so in some places, the thick brown fur had become patchy. Absently, he rubbed his hoof-like hand against one of the unpleasant patches on his neck. “What happened? Did you deliver your note?”
Bryonoth slipped free of her thick coat, and hung it from a hook next to the thick oaken door. She was wearing loose fitting breeches and jerkin underneath, her femininity less obvious in their bagginess. “Aye,” she said, and then walked back into the small but warm sitting room. Intoran had risen from his seat as well, standing back several paces, glancing first to his master knight, and then to the female knight as she stepped through the doorway. Bryonoth remained beneath the lintel for a moment shaking her head.
“Twas a foul business this eve. Innkeeper’s hath no need of my services tomorrow night.” She paused as that sunk in, and then continued. “They hath no need as long as they art here.”
“The Questioners?” Intoran asked suddenly, his hoof-like hands clutching the back of the chair as if it were the only thing that could keep him upright.
Bryonoth simply nodded then, bitterly in fact. “They hath brought fear to Metamor. The merchants art leaving to Mycransburg, Lake Barnhardt, e’en Glen Avery.” Her gaze slipped past both Intoran and Egland then, and she blinked. Egland turned his head, and saw the unopened note laying across the mantle. “They hath sent for me?”
Egland nodded ruefully. “And I. Tomorrow afternoon. I do not know when they want to see you.” He reached over, plucked the note from the mantle and handed it to his fellow knight. She took it gently, her lips turned down in a frown. With one hand she brushed her long hair back over her shoulders and broke the seal. Her eyes nearly burned into the paper, but at the same time, there was a profound sadness in them.
She sighed heavily and folded the note up in her hand, offering it back to the elk. “They wish to see me tomorrow afternoon as well.” Bryonoth closed her eyes, one hand resting against her breasts. “Would that we were back in Yesulam, Akabaieth still drawing breath.” After a moment, her eyes met the Oryx’s. “I mean thee no insult, squire Intoran. Thou art both a valiant squire for my Ts’amut Yacoub and...” she could not force herself to finish her statement, but they all knew what it was she wished to say.
“I know,” Intoran nodded, his own face creased in bitter melancholy. “I know. Life can be cruel.” After a moment, he asked, “Have you had anything to eat? I could prepare you a meal if you have not taken your supper yet.”
“I think thee, but nay, I hath already partaken my meal for this eve,” Bryonoth admitted. “I dost owe thee an apology, young Intoran. I wish to enjoy thy labours to break my fast tomorrow morn, before we venture out to help thee with thy horsemanship.”
Intoran smiled at that, as did Egland. “It will be good to ride before we have to meet with those priests,” the elk affirmed. Though there was still a nagging thought at the back of his mind, it suddenly did not seem as important anymore. “Shall we share a libation before evensong?”
“Aye,” Bryonoth said, her smile widening. “A sup of wine wouldst be divine.” She strode to the third chair by the fire, slowly sinking into it’s soft cushions. Her hair lay across the back for a moment, but she did not seem to notice. Egland took his seat once more, nodding to his squire, before pursing his lips in an airy kiss.
Intoran smiled at the two knights, offered a kiss to his knight as well, and then went to retrieve wine and three cups from the larder.
Rickkter insisted on walking with Vinsah the entire way back to the Bishop’s quarters. Little more was said of the conversation with Duke Thomas. Each had their own thoughts, but neither were ready to share them just yet. Vinsah was honestly not certain what to make of the warrior mage. During his years at Abaef and Yesulam, he had never associated himself with anyone remotely similar to Rickkter. In fact, his heart had trembled at the thought of such men, mercenaries and wizards. But now, he found that not only did he care for his fellow raccoon, but he trusted him as well.
It was a strange sort of friendship they shared, the Bishop realized. When Coe had forced him to wander the Keep back in the early days of December, he’d stumbled in short order upon Rickkter. That they were both raccoon morphs brought them together. Otherwise, Rickkter would have never stopped to inquire after his identity. He’d had to give a name, and he’d used Elvmere, the only name he could find but his own. The name his Lady had always called him in his dreams.
He’d claimed to be a farmer from Jetta, a small town in the southern end of the Valley, just inside the radius of the curse. It was a lie, but one he’d sought and received forgiveness for. After the assault, when his identity could be hid no longer, he’d confessed the deception to Rickkter, for whom he felt the greatest burden of guilt. Rickkter had been surprised, but had not been angry in the least. Merely surprised. Over the course of the weeks and then months, they had occasionally passed each other in the halls of Metamor.
And then, only two weeks before, they had sat down at a table together, shared a meal, and talked a great deal. And Rickkter had asked him about the Questioners. At the time, the very thought of those priests showing themselves at Metamor had seemed impossible. But now it was very much a reality, one that he would have to confront. He was grateful for Rickkter’s intervention on his behalf with Duke Thomas, but he was not sure yet what good would come of it.
When they turned the last corner, striding down the hallway towards his room, those thoughts were chilled within his heart. A note was affixed to his door, one bearing the seal of the Questioners. Rickkter scowled at it, crossing his arms, one paw resting upon the hilt of his sword. Taking a heavy breath, Vinsah removed the note from the door, and broke the seal with a quick slice of his claw. His green eyes did not blink as he read it. Once finished, he gently folded the note, and held it within one paw.
“They wish to question me tomorrow morning. One hour after dawn.”
Rickkter leaned back a bit, his stance wide. “I will accompany you, if that does not bother you.”
“No, it does not. I would greatly appreciate your company.” He held the note up, and offered a crooked smile to his fellow raccoon. “I doubt they will.”
“I care not what whether they appreciate it or not. I will go with you,” Rickkter said. After a moment, a strange distracted look came over his face. “I am not one often given to putting myself in harm’s way for the sake of others. Akabaieth was a good man, and so are you. It disgusts me that these priests would use their ‘holy’ authority to destroy you.” From the way he had said “holy” Vinsah could tell that he thought exactly the opposite of them.
“They will not destroy me. I will meet them with the truth, as I said.”
Rickkter nodded then, his paws gripping his cloak firmly. “I will leave you then for this night. I shall return when hour of your meeting draws nigh. Sleep well, your grace.” A small flicker at the edge of his cheeks gave the priest hope for a smile, but it did not emerge. And then, the warrior mage turned about on his hind paws, and with his cloak billowing in his haste, disappeared back down the lamp-lit hallway.
Vinsah watched him for only a moment more, before turning to his door, and stepping through. His room was dark, but he kept the flint by the door. Setting the note aside, he struck a candle, and soon after had the room illuminated by a soft glow from his lamps. Taking the note, he unfolded it and scanned it once more. After reading it through two more times, he folded it and set it on his bedside table.
Lifting his prayer beads, he knelt before the tree mounted upon his wall, and began to offer the ritual prayers. In his mind, he could see his Lady smiling to him, her face white as porcelain, smile as radiant as the moon. As his muzzle twitched, tongue flicking over sharp teeth, the words of the ritual prayers of the Ecclesia coming from his throat, he could hear her voice speaking to him softly, soothingly. “My Elvmere.”
The glow of that touch erased any fears he had of the Questioners.
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