Questioning - Part VII

Healer Coe’s sleeping draught had worked very well. For the first time in many nights, Thomas had been able to settle his mind at ease as he lay in his own bed. While beds of hay in the thick air of a lively stable would have been more appealing to him, the satiny sheets were sufficient for the task that evening.

His sleep was not completely peaceful of course. Towards dawn, as the draught began to wear off, he tossed and turned, his dreams becoming a jumble of conflicting images, of frightening sights. One in particular stuck with him after he’d thrown off the covers and curled his legs up to his chest, eyelids blinking away sleep, and trying to blink away the dream. But it stayed with him, replaying in his mind.

They were travelling along a forest road, trees clutching tightly to the dirt path, as if jealous of its very existence. Bryonoth was riding upon his back as he trotted slowly along that causeway. He’d felt cool and comforted by the weight, her slender legs gripping the sides of his chest. But frightening odours had come to him, and even as she tried to soothe him with a gentle touch of her hand upon his neck, three great wolves, as large as ponies, bounded from the trees, snarling and snapping their jaws.

Thomas had yearned for Bryonoth to fight them and protect her horse. But the knight had jumped from the saddle and fled back down the road, leaving him, hooves dug deep in the dirt, to face those terrible beasts alone. They did not move to chase Bryonoth, but kept their golden ravenous eyes upon his equine flesh, blood dripping along their jowls, his blood, though they had not yet taken a bite from him. He backed up several steps, finding himself unable to act without her guidance. His heart pounded heavily, like a lodestone that rooted him to the road.

And then they’d advanced.

Mercifully, the dream had ended there, leaving him shivering upon the bed, clutching his equine legs to his chest, hoof-like hands stroking the fur to make sure his flesh was still intact. He had suffered no injuries though, it had been just a dream, but one that his mind did not want to let go of. Thomas closed his eyes tightly, and then opened them again, as if to wipe the images from his mind. But they persisted, fading only very slowly as he sat there upon his bed.

His chambers were dark, it was of course before the coming of dawn. His drapes were drawn as well, shutting out even the lights of Metamor herself. Sitting up a bit more against his pillows, hooves pressing firmly against the mattress, he could see a thin line of golden light streaming under his door. As a horse, his eyes were not as attuned to darkness as were some of his fellow Keepers’, but it was enough for him to find the small stone he’d kept at his bedside. It took him a few moments to still the trembling in his hands, but soon he had rubbed the magical rock into giving off a faint but firm glow.

There was an ornate clock that had been in his family for several generations standing against one wall. On either side it was flanked by banners, that of Metamor and of his own house. The clock stood nearly as tall as him, a thick brass pendulum swinging in the wooden casing below behind polished glass. The regular rhythm of the tick of gears was a soft reassuring mechanical noise, one that he focussed on, drowning out his unpleasant dreams with it. After a moment listening to its inexorable march, he lifted the rock slightly, rising from his bed, and stared at the face.

It was nearly eight o’clock. He blinked in surprise. The draught had done a great deal to help him get his sleep. Were it not for his unsettling dreams that morning, he might have slept past nine! Raven had said she would be by to break fast with him. Dawn had not yet arrived in the Valley, but it would not be far off now. Throwing aside his drapes with one hand, he could still see the town lights shining amidst a thick morning fog, like ghostly wraiths hovering between worlds. The sky had lightened slightly, but with all the clouds overhead he could not see the stars.

Satisfied, he let the drapes fall back into place. Given his thick pelt, he’d long since taken into the habit of sleeping without anything on at all. A slender purple robe was hanging from one banister of his bed, and he quickly slipped that on over his shoulders, tying the thick sash loosely. His tail flicked behind him, settling comfortably into the groove he’d had cut into his garment after the curses had warped his body. He then walked to his door, and gently turned the bolt.

The two guards outside were only too happy to see their liege emerge. “Good morning, your grace,” one of them said. Thomas recognized the elder stoat as Henry. The other guard was a woman that Thomas did not know by name yet.

“Good morning, Henry,” he said, trying his best to smile. He looked to the woman, who did not appear to mind that he’d forgotten her name.

“Abie, your grace,” she said, her face stretched in a warm smile.

Thomas felt his ears flick back. “Good morning, Abie. Can you send for a page to bring me my breakfast. I will need two courses, one for myself and one for the Lothanasa who will break fast with me.”

Henry nodded, shifting his spear from one paw to the other. “Certainly, your grace. I shall fetch one immediately.”

Thomas nodded and slipped back into his room. It would be several minutes before the page arrived to attend to his meal and other needs. So he took the time to light the lamps about the room. The fire in his hearth had long since been reduced to spent cinders. He’d allow the page to rekindle it when he arrived. They so did protest when Thomas did their work for them after all.

Doffing his robe upon the bed, he crossed to his heavy closet, and opened wide the doors. He kept one hand upon the frame, hoof-like fingers tracing over the dogtooth pattern in the wood, as he considered the various array of tunics, doublets, hose, vests, and other finery. He selected a simple surcoat of blue, and breeches to match, and quickly slipped them on, tying the dark laces with a deftness that would have surprised most visiting dignitaries. After all, how could he be so nimble with only two thick fingers and a thumb?

He was bending down to tie the lacings around his hocks, when his eyes lit upon the solid hoof that had ended his legs these last seven, nearly eight years. He blinked once, his ears twitching as he heard some shuffling outside of his door. With one thick finger, he traced a small circle across the surface of the hoof, hard and unrelenting. Bryonoth had wanted to shoe him. And the thought of that rounded metal firmly nailed into his hoof was startlingly appealing. It was the way for a horse to be after all. Not splitting a hoof was important, but could he change back if she did that to him? And even if he would always afterwards be but a horse, would he be able to tell her no if she tried? Would she even give him the chance to object?

The knocking at his door brought a quick end to those unsettling questions. His heart was torn by them, but in that moment, he was glad the Questioners were here. As long as they were at Metamor, he would not have to face that moment, that moment when he would have to decide whether he wanted to be shod or not.

Standing upright, he shut the closet door, and called out, “Enter.” The wide oak door opened wide then, and a youth of about twelve entered, bearing a tray filled with warm comestibles. A few apples were placed on the tray, as well as some cooked meat to appease Raven’s carnivorous appetite. “Set that on the table, would you,” Thomas directed. The young boy nodded, smiling, dressed smartly in grey livery. He slid the tray onto the fine mahogany, and then moved immediately to the hearth to get a fire started.

Thomas stepped over to the table, and examined the food. There were four apples, each a bright red in colour. Imported from the Midlands and magically preserved over the Winter of course. There were two fist-sized loaves of freshly baked bread, one laid on each plate, while a small dollop of barberry jam was placed in the centre of each. A bit of cooked sausage was lain on Raven’s plate, while in the centre of Thomas’s resided an omelet mixed with cheese and grains. The smell of the oats mixed in the eggs made his heart tremble. Though it was often bland, the thought of eating oats from the feed trough filled him with secret delight.

The page soon had a pleasant fire roaring in the hearth. He then attended to Thomas’s bed, straightening out the sheets, and giving the pillows a firm pat to make them presentable. Thomas stood at the table, resisting the temptation to snatch at the food before Raven arrived. At the far side of his plate, there was a goblet filled with milk. He grimaced at that. Thalberg’s idea certainly, probably to soothe whatever the alligator thought ailed him.

A sudden sweep of curtains brought Thomas around. The page had lifted the curtains from the windows, and was tying them off, bringing the morning light into his chambers. The fog still clutched the valley completely, shrouding all but the lights of the city from his view. In the sky overhead, he could only make out the lightening of the sky, and nothing else. While fog was not uncommon at Metamor in the spring, it was usually not quite so thick. Surely it would burn off by midday.

The page came smartly to attention then, smiling proudly up at the Duke. Thomas felt he should have known the boy’s name, but it was not coming to him. Instead, he smiled, and nodded approvingly. “My thanks to you. If you would be so good as to wait by the door?”

“Of course, your grace,” the boy said, bowing at his waist. He was the son of one of the many Keepers living in the city, proud parents to be certain. Thalberg did an excellent job of training all of the staff, teaching them the proper manner and speech. Quick to act when need arose, they were also unobtrusive when the need was not there.

Just as the page had reached the door a knocking sounded. The stoat guard Henry opened it wide and whispered to the page. The boy, bright blonde curls twisting about his ears, turned to the Duke and announced, “The Lothanasa Raven hin’Elric, your grace.”

“Let her in,” Thomas said. The door swung open fully, and the aloof priestess wept into the room, her ears erect, tail pressing against the back of her robes, tough not itself visible. Her white linen clerical robes, while simple, were still far more dignified than the comfortable surcoat and breeches that Thomas had selected for himself.

The door shut slowly behind her. Raven gave a brief nod of her head after striding several paces into the room. Thomas gestured to the chair opposite his own at the table. “I would be honoured if you would join me in breaking fast this morning, Lothanasa.”

“Thank you, your grace,” her tone was firm, but the graciousness was real. Also, her own use of titles assured Thomas that this was not just a matter of courtesy. Raven had important matters on her mind.

She strode to her chair dutifully, but waited first for Thomas to sit before taking her own place at his table. Taking one of the apples, Thomas swallowed it in two bites, enjoying the fruity pulp. He then picked up his goblet of milk, and with a shake of his wrist, swirled it about. “What did you wish to see me for, Raven?”

“Your grace,” Raven went on, her tone tense, even as she took the knife and spread the barberry jam across her loaf of bread. “I need to speak with you about the Questioners. You cannot let them stay here at Metamor.”

Thomas blinked, and then took a sip of the milk. It was fine and smooth, but wine would have been better. “I have no intention of letting them stay here forever. But I have granted them permission to stay for a few days.”

It was clear that Raven was quite upset with even that. “But why, your grace? Have you no idea what people such as these are capable of?”

“They wished merely to investigate the Patriarch’s murder.”

“Aye,” Raven said, before stuffing a bit of meat down her muzzle, as if to keep herself from saying something she might regret. “Yes, it always is something innocuous like that. But they are not here to just ask questions as they would have you believe, your grace. They mean to be judge, jury, and executioner. They may have already come with an edict from Yesulam to find some culprit here for all that we know.”

Thomas sighed, and ate another apple. “What would you have me do?”

“Send them away immediately,” Raven said, her paw gripping the edge of the table to keep from hitting it. “Do not give them time to object, just order them to leave this valley now.”

“I am afraid that I cannot do that,” Thomas said heavily. “They were sent here by order of the Patriarch himself.”

“We do not know if he is a man that we can trust,” Raven said, her voice level. “There is much we do not know of their intentions. Are you going to put the people of Metamor at risk for a man we do not know?”

He took in a deep breath then. “I’ve no wish to do that, you should know better. Our relationship with Yesulam is tenuous enough as it is, after Akabaieth’s murder. I do not want to risk irking them any further. If I throw them out, they may only conclude we are guilty.”

From the steely look in her eyes, it was clear that Raven had considered that already. “And if we let them stay, Yesulam will become convinced that they can walk all over the ancestral head of the Lothanasi faith. It will undoubtedly create further tensions with Sathmore.”

Thomas swallowed. He had not thought of that. But neither did he wish to have the Questioners leave just yet. A few days before he had to decide whether he wanted to be shod or not, that was all he sought. “You are right, Raven,” he said, words coming slowly. “I have already offered my protection to Bishop Vinsah should the Questioners do more than simply question. Should they exceed their stated intent, I will have reason to expel them. Until then, I do not want to act capriciously.”

“Capriciously?” Raven asked, her tone indignant. “Duke Thomas, my order here banished the Inquisitors of my own faith several generations ago because they were an abomination, a force that only brought fear and anguish to the people. These Questioners are no different from they. You have a history of precedent to turn to in this decision. It would not be capricious at all.”

Thomas stirred his fork within his eggs, wishing that he could spend more time eating and less time having to think about those Questioners. “Nevertheless, I feel that as long as they do not cause trouble, then we should let them get on with their investigation. If we throw them out, they may go to Yesulam to say we are guilty. If not, then we at least have a chance of them saying we are innocent.”

The look on the lupine priestess’s face told Thomas that she did not believe that what he said was possible. However, it was also clear that she was not going to argue further with him just then. “I wish you would reconsider,” she said, before finishing off her slice of bread.

He stuffed some of the omelet in his muzzle, and swallowed it down quickly. “Perhaps I will, but not just yet.” He wiped his mouth and sipped some of the milk.

Raven nodded then. “I thank you for letting me break fast with you, your grace. Might I have your permission to attend to other affairs?”

Thomas nodded, and rose from his seat. “Thank you for joining me, Lothanasa. I hope that you are wrong about them.”

She flicked an ear backwards at that. “I hope I am too, but I doubt it. Good day to you, your grace.” She then turned on her paws and glided gracefully to the door. The page opened it for her, and shut it after her. His face was blank, trained not to listen to what was said at these meetings. The news would of course spread through the servant’s ranks fairly quickly regardless.

Thomas returned to his seat, and picked up his third apple. Sourly, he ate that too.

“Veni, Sancte Spiritus, reple tuorum corda fidelium, et tui amoris in eis ignem accende,” Vinsah’s voice rang out softly as he knelt before the symbol of the tree he’d hung from one wall. The ancient words tripped delicately off his long procyonid tongue, claw tips tracing the wooden beads he held before him to count of each prayer. Even before he’d become a priest, he’d considered prayer important. It not only brought one into communion with Abba, but it composed both heart, soul and mind in preparation for whatever was to come.

His claws slipped along the modest chain, reaching the next wooden bead, rubbing it between callused fingertips. “Emitte Spiritum tuum et creabuntur.” He repeated those words three times each, even as one of his ears turned to the side. Footsteps were sounding on the hall, a heavy tread used to walking silently. The raccoon knew who it would be, but continued his prayer nevertheless.

“Et renovabis faciem terrae,” he breathed, his claws tracing the small metal links between the beads, the small circular emblem marking the prayer’s end nearing. The footsteps grew louder, and he knew they were meant for his door. He had waited long enough now, he would have no choice but to seek the Questioners now. But he would not face them until he had finished his own devotions.

The knocking sounded at his door, a gentle rapping, but firm. “Eli, qui corda fidelium Sancti Spiritus illustratione docuisti. Da nobis in eodem Spiritu recta sapere, et de eius semper consolatione gaudere. Per Yashuum Dominum nostrum. Amen” He said, his voice remaining low, even as he made the sign of the tree before himself, claws tracing slowly through the air. “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.” The priest bowed his head low, feeling a warmth fill him at the prayer’s end.

He rose slowly, finding his paws beneath him, and then curled his prayer beads once more in his belt. He gently patted them, and felt a smile crease his muzzle. The wooden, ornamental tree draped around his neck bounced against his chest heavily. “Enter,” he called, brushing his paws over his robe where he had knelt. Vinsah had chosen to wear a simple black priestly smock made from wool. It covered most of his body, including all but the tip of his tail, which poked out like a dog’s nose peering from under his master’s bed.

The door swung open, and in strode Rickkter. The raccoon also wore a dark cloak, but his was made from fine brocade satin, a blue trim woven along the rim. The collar was upturned, revealing a finely woven design, with images of black swords radiating out from his neck. Beneath the cloak he wore a subtle blue tunic and vest, breeches adorning his legs down to the hocks. At his left was a sword of eastern design, while Vinsah could see the hilt of a dagger poking up from his belt at his right. He suspected there were more weapons elsewhere on his fellow raccoon.

Rickkter noted the rumpled state of Vinsah’s robe. “Have I interrupted your prayers, Bishop?” It was more a statement than a question. He must certainly have heard Vinsah’s voice through the door.

“No,” Vinsah smiled a bit. Strange as it was to say, he would be glad for Rickkter’s company this morning. “I had just finished.”

Rickkter nodded and glanced about the room as if expecting to find somebody else there. He could see the small wooden bowl, and the fruit seeds left within it that had constituted the Bishop’s breakfast. “I doubt you want to keep them waiting.” He spoke with clear disdain in his voice, a fact that bothered Vinsah greatly, but at the same time, he understood. What Rickkter had described at Durrich unsettled him. He’d spent a good portion of the previous night contemplating it, asking his Lady about it. She had not been terribly responsive however, offering only words of comfort and admonitions not to be afraid.

Vinsah nodded slowly, scanning the room himself, but he already had all he wished to bring with him. There was nothing left but to meet with the Questioners and show them the truth. “Let us meet with them. Their message simply said to go to their rooms?”

Rickkter snorted. “Typical. Kyia will lead us there.” He stepped out of the room then, turning once in the hallway to wait for his fellow raccoon. Vinsah extinguished the lamp he’d lit and followed after him. He paused only one moment to close his door. Father Hough would know where he’d gone this day.

“They will wish to know your name,” Vinsah said, even as his paws rested upon his belt. “I have heard from others that you are called Feniagh as well?”

Rickkter shrugged. “Some call me that yes. It means bright, nimble hero.”

Vinsah nodded, offering a slight smile. “It suits you, in an odd way.” His fellow raccoon gave a slight barking laugh, but said no more. Soon, they both were walking side by side through the Keep.

The journey there was uneventful. The mood at the Keep was as sombre as the fog-laden air outside. What few pages and servants they passed were both quiet and quick on their feet, as if any delay in the performance of their duties would be met with a visit from the Questioners. They did not pause to speak with either of the raccoons, all backing out of their way only to greet them, before rushing to reclaim their pace along the mysterious halls of Metamor.

Vinsah felt his heart clutch tight within his chest as he saw the two Yesbearn standing outside the very familiar door. He had once been here himself, but then it had been the Yeshuel standing guard, and the Patriarch that they protected. His stomach turned in revulsion, and his ears flicked back, a light snarl escaping his throat. The Yesbearn, their tanned faces as pallid as polished stone, made no sign of recognition to this bestial exhortation.

That the Questioners should choose to stay in the same rooms that the Patriarch had on his ill-fated visit to Metamor was an insult, though almost certainly a deliberate one. While he’d had little to do with the much feared priests in his time at both Abaef and Yesulam, Vinsah did know that they liked to keep those they questioned off-balance as much as possible. Answers came more easily that way after all.

And so, he resolved not to let this wound fester or show. Vinsah strode purposefully before the Yesbearn, turning to face them fully. Rickkter crouched at his back, eyeing the armoured men perfunctorily. An air of disdain crossed the warrior’s demeanour, visible from the upward tilt of his muzzle, to the almost lazy swaying of his tail, and the sideways tilt to his ears.

“I have come at the Questioners request. I am Bishop Vinsah of Abaef. My companion is Rickkter Feniagh. I bid you permit us entrance.” The Bishop’s voice was firm and resolute. He stood with his foot paws shoulder’s width apart, his paws clasped before him, fingers laced together.

The two Yesbearn were both men in their thirties. Both wore the lines of many battles, scars that ran across their flesh as if fashioned by a clumsy artisan. Dark eyes took in the two raccoons, noting their every feature, as if only reminding themselves of them. Finally, the one on the left spoke, his words heavily accented. “We were told only to expect you, your grace.”

Vinsah stood taller then, glaring down the end of his snout. He was not accustomed to dealing with those under his command frostily, but sometimes it was all that they could understand. “I am a Bishop of the Ecclesia, Yesbearn soldier. He is my companion and he will accompany me in. Now permit us entrance. They are waiting.”

With a slow nod, the man lifted the latch, and swung the door inwards. Vinsah strode through as confidently as he could, though his heart was trembling. He fixed in his mind the comforting touch of his Lady, her soothing words that had set him at ease each sleep. But when he saw the familiar draperies, carvings, pillars, stonework, and woodwork that graced these rooms, even those thoughts fled. In their place flooded that night, the rain-swept hills, the terrible face in the dark, and the excruciating pain as his chest was caved in. And the sick finality of it all, waking up at Metamor to discover that his master was dead, and his body would no longer be his own.

All of it came back to him as he stepped once more within those rooms.

He felt a steadying touch at his ack, and then a moment later recognized it as Rickkter’s paw. If the Bishop of Abaef, and this warrior-mage who eschewed religious practice could become friends, then Akabaieth had not died in vain. Strength filled him once again, the strength of so many years serving the Ecclesia. He had been a faithful priest and minister of Eli’s will in this world. What did he have to fear of the Questioners?

Much the same as Bishop Joachim of Durrich had, but he refused to entertain that notion. Instead, he set his eyes upon the three black-cowled figures that sat waiting form him in finely upholstered chairs of white satin. The contrast was enormous, for in those fine chairs dwelled dark shadows, spectres of the night taken physical form. In each of their chests was hewn a red cross, as if it were a gaping hole into their being, the thread but coagulated blood.

Their faces were for the moment hidden underneath their cowls, but Vinsah could see in the flickering lamplit the desert features of men born in the Holy Land. Though they said nothing, he could feel that inquiry upon their lips, merely waiting for an answer. Behind them, the dense fog that had settled upon the valley was broken only by the lights of the watchtowers in the far distance. Were he standing at the sill, he would doubtless see the lights of the city far below as well. Each light an answer to the question ‘where are you?’

But the question that was upon the lips of those black-robed priests was only slightly different. “I am Bishop Vinsah of Abaef,” he declared, standing his ground. The priests did not move, not even stir in recognition of his name. “And my companion is Rickkter Feniagh of Metamor. I am here as you requested.”

The figure on the left spoke then, his voice also heavily accented. Vinsah had once born the same accent, though after the transformation had forced him to relearn to speak he’d picked up the Metamorian lisp instead. Where the Yesbearn had been detached, this priest spoke with an almost sardonic delight. “Correct but for one detail. You are no longer Bishop of Abaef.”

Vinsah blinked at that, but kept his stance firm. “When did this occur, and why was I not told?”

“Three months after we received word of Patriarch Akabaieth’s death you had not sent word declaring your intent to return to Abaef. Your stewardship over that community was thereby revoked, and given to another,” the Questioner seemed to take particular delight in Vinsah’s loss, though he could not tell why. Behind him, Rickkter’s muscles were tensing, eyes narrowing upon the figure speaking.

The central figure then spoke, his voice flat, but temperate against the harshness of the one to the left. “It is true that you are no longer the Bishop of Abaef, but you are still a Bishop. That has not been stripped of you, Bishop Vinsah. And it will not unless you fail to fulfill your duties as a Bishop of the Ecclesia.”

“You should not make threats so lightly,” Rickkter said then, his voice a strange cadence against the thick scrabbling tones of the Questioners.

“It is merely a statement of the situation,” the leftmost Questioner interjected. “And just what do you think you are doing here?”

Rickkter yawned. “Standing. Talking with a bunch of black cloaks. I prefer talking to faces. Do you have any?”

“They are for us to reveal when we choose,” the left Questioner snapped testily. However, the other two priests reached their hands up and pulled back their cowls. The central priest appeared to be in his fifties, while the one at the right was in his thirties. Both of them were expressionless. A few seconds later, the third priest also pulled his cowl down, revealing a man in his twenties, his lips turned down in a slight grimace.

“Rickkter Feniagh, you were not invited,” the middle-aged priest said, his voice empty. “Why have you come?”

“You heard the Bishop, didn’t you? I am his companion.” Rickkter then stepped around to Vinsah’s side. The Bishop stayed mute, merely facing the Questioners. “The important question is, why have you asked him here?”

“That is not your business!” the youngest snapped again. “Leave us, for we would question him alone.”

“And why should I?”

“Why shouldn’t you?” the priest at the right asked. The central priest simply sat listening, his eyes fastening onto Vinsah’s face. Vinsah met that stare, and found himself strangely unsettled. He recognized this man, though he could not yet tell from where. Perhaps they had simply passed many times in the halls of the great Cathedral in Yesulam?

Rickkter appeared to weigh whether he should respond in kind, or simply state his grievances. The temptation to frustrate won in the end, “Because I am with Bishop Vinsah of Abaef.”

“He is no longer Bishop of Abaef,” the young priest said, his eyes narrowing.

“Yes, I heard that. But you did not say where he has been made a Bishop of now. So I’ll call him Bishop of Abaef.”

Vinsah felt his tail twitch behind him. He did not need the Questioners to be irate with him before they had even begun asking their questions. But he was not going to make Rickkter look the fool by asking him to stop either.

The priest on the right rubbed his fingers on the arms of his chair. “Do you wish to see the papal bull revoking Bishop Vinsah’s claim to Abaef?”

Vinsah felt his heart tighten. The city that he had ministered to for so many years of his life was now taken from him forever. If it had been given to another simply because of his absence, then he might have one day been able to resume his duties. But for the change to be decreed so forcefully by the Patriarch meant that he could never again oversee Eli’s Church in that blessed desert city. Would he even have a chance to see those sparkling minarets, colourful frescoes, or the glimmering streets that shone like gold in the noonday sun again?

Rickkter crossed his arms over his chest, “And just why should I take the word of liars that any such documents may be real?”

At this, the young priest spat in indignation. “How dare you accuse priests of Eli of lying!’

“With ease. Your own doctrine permits the use of half truths and even outright lies in your pursuit of answers,” Rickkter replied glibly. There was a satisfied smile upon his muzzle as he saw the youngest priests lose his composure. The other two had yet to lose theirs. The eldest of the three in fact was so calm, it was possible he did not even understand what was being said. Vinsah gave the man another close look, seeing something familiar in the contours of his face. He knew this man, not just from passing occasionally in Yesulam. They had once known each other’s names.

As the young priest was too outraged to ask anything just then, the one on the right took up his slack. “What makes you think we are lying?”

Rickkter leaned his head forward, “Because I have seen your type in action before, and they lied then.”

“And how do you know that?” the priest asked again, this time, his voice rising a little bit, but still mostly empty of all but the faintest hints of actual human emotion.

Rickkter smiled at them, a sickly superior smile that was designed only to infuriate them further. “I was there. I saw, I knew, and I watched as they put an innocent man to judgement. That is how I know that you Questioners lie when it suits you.”

“Have you ever been questioned, Rickkter Feniagh?” the eldest priest suddenly asked, his voice cool and level.

As if one, all four men blinked as the eldest priest spoke. It took the raccoon only a moment to recover, training his attention once more on the man. Vinsah had heard the voice, the grating sound of it familiar as well. A name was floating up in the back of his mind, but it was still out of reach.

“No, but I have been falsely accused before. Even by your kind” His voice was mixed with mocking poison, but otherwise the raccoon managed to maintain his calm.

“I find it hard to believe that Bishop Vinsah would associate himself with someone so uncouth!” the younger priest spat then. “Show respect to Father Kehthaek!”

Vinsah blinked then as the name clicked. Father Kehthaek. They had studied in the monastery together nearly forty years ago. He’d been a bright lad, very inquisitive, but always smiling. Looking at the thin line, the weather face that now stood before him, he found it hard to believe that it was the same man.

Of course, no emblem of recognition was given just yet. Rickkter, never failing to rise to a barb, had called out, “You shouldn’t believe it. He has no desire to associate with you after all.”

At this, the younger priests eye’s opened wide with rage. “Get out! You were not summoned by the Questioners. Get out I say!”

Rickkter tightened his grip on his sleeves. “Make me.”

The young priest stood from his seat, and waved his hand in the air, a wild look in his eye. The two Yesbearn standing in the room glided silently up to Rickkter’s back, despite their mail armour. “You must leave,” the one at his right said, his accent so thick, it was a wonder he could even speak the Midland tongue.

“You do not order me about,” Rickkter said, a dangerous tone creeping at last into his voice.

“And why ever not?” the middle-aged priest asked, his own voice hot, but mildly so.

“You are not my masters, and never could be. You could not pay me enough to retain my services, or to gain my loyalty.”

“What has Bishop Vinsah paid you?”

Rickkter snorted in derision. “That is between me and him. You’ve not right to know that.”

The young priest had managed to compose himself enough to bark out, “It is our right to ask questions of all Followers of the Way. If you refuse to answer my question I will order them to cast you out!”

Rickkter leaned back, as if making himself even more available to the men standing behind him. “Go ahead. I doubt your men will appreciate being dead.”

Vinsah glanced back to the two Yesbearn who were standing at either of Rickkter’s shoulders. With a commanding voice, he said, “Enough! This foolishness is at an end. You two, back to your posts.” The Yesbearn nodded their heads slowly, eyes glancing once to the eldest priest. Kehthaek made no motion, but remained as he was, sitting there, staring fixedly at the two raccoons as if he were a lizard sunning himself upon a rock. The two Yesbearn, at seeing no countermand, slipped back to their stations by the door.

His voice now friendly, he patted Rickkter upon the shoulder with one paw. “My friend, please wait outside the door for me.”

Rickkter turned to him, and then nodded his head. “Of course, your grace. If they threaten you, simply give a cry and I will be back.”

“There will be no need,” Vinsah said, gazing once reproachfully at the youngest priest, who had managed to reclaim his seat, and was busy composing himself, “now.”

His fellow raccoon gave out a short barking laugh, and then turned on his foot paws and walked back to the door. It shut softly behind him, the latch faintly clicking. He could still hear Rickkter’s laughter though through the wood.

Father Kehthaek gestured with one upturned hand to the slender white chair before him. “Please have a seat, your grace.”

He eyed the familiar Questioner curiously, wondering if Kehthaek would make mention of their past. But the elder priest said nothing more. He simply held out his hand, dark curled fingers pointing to the chair. Vinsah slipped around the smooth fabric, and settled into the seat, his long tail curling up and over one of the arms behind him. The tip bounced back and forth slowly like a cat lost in dream.

“What would you have of me?” Vinsah asked at last. The time face their questions had come. He knew his Lady would keep him safe, strangely enough.

Kehthaek gestured to the younger priest, “This is Father Akaleth.” And then to his right, “And this is Father Felsah. We are the Questioners chosen to determine what it is that has happened here during and after Patriarch Akabaieth’s visit.”

The older priest – though he and Vinsah were roughly the same age, the Bishop no longer felt the years weighing upon his flesh and bones – leaned forward slightly in his seat and said, his voice low, “Do you know who killed Akabaieth?”

Vinsah shook his head. “No. I do not know who it was.”

“Did you see anyone that night who should not have been in the camp?” Felsah asked, his voice flat, but intent.

“Yes, but only briefly,” Vinsah proceeded quickly, knowing that it would be stupid to make these men yank every answer from him. “I was in my tent with my fellow priests when a figure entered the tent, and did something to us. It was raining and he had what little light there was at his back, so I could not see his face clearly. He was a man though, and he had dark hair, and rough features. But all of my glimpses of him were fleeting.”

“What did he do to you?” Felsah continued, the other priests now silent.

“He thrust his hands forward, and I felt a great force crushing my chest.”

“Did he touch you?”

“No, he did not.”

“And to the other priests?”

“He did the same.”

Felsah sat for a moment considering that. Kehthaek had leaned back once more in his chair by then. Akaleth was fidgeting in his seat, hands clasping and unclasping, rubbing over a small piece of leather that was dangling from his sleeve. It appeared to be the end of a belt, but Vinsah did not have a good view of it.

After several seconds of silence, Felsah spoke again, “And this killed the others, but only wounded you? Why is that?”

Vinsah felt himself grimacing inside. Though he knew it was unavoidable, he had hoped never to mention his dreams to the Questioners. He knew they would take the intervention of his Lady the wrong way. They would interpret it in the worst way possible. Akabaieth had dreamt of her too, he reminded himself, but he was not sure how much weight that would have with these three. When he had known Kehthaek, the man had been hailed for his zealousness in seeking the truth. But now, after nearly forty years s a Questioner, had the weight of his duty changed him completely?

“I had placed dinner plate over my chest,” Vinsah said at last.

Akaleth sat up in his seat at that, still trying to regain control over his facial expressions. He had more work to do, as the look of surprise was clear. “Why did you do that? When did you do that?”

“I was able to hear the sounds of confusion and combat outside of the tent. I’d been woken up by unsettling dreams. They had warned me to do this. When I heard the sounds of battle, I felt it prudent to do as my dreams suggested.”

“Dreams?” Akaleth barked in surprise. “Are you suggesting Eli himself warned you that you were about to die? Why then did he not do something to save Patriarch Akabaieth. Why save you?”

Vinsah shrugged. “I do not understand why it was. I have asked myself that question many, many times since then, and still I have no answer for you.”

“You say the man thrust his hands towards you,” Kehthaek said, his voice sounding strangely loud, as if the crashing of thunder on an otherwise clear day. “But he still struck you?”

“Yes. When he did that, I felt a blow to my chest, a very heavy blow. If I had not put the plate over my chest, it would have caved in my ribs. It did for my friends.” They had not been close, mere secretaries drawn by lot to accompany the Patriarch on the journey. But their death still stung.

Kehthaek nodded slowly. “What was the man who attacked you wearing?”

“A dark cloak, black I think. I did not see it better than that.”

“Were there any symbols on the cloak?” Kehthaek pursued.

Vinsah shrugged again, his ears leaning downwards somewhat. In all honesty, he could not remember whether there were any or not. “I did not see it well enough to say.”

Whether Felsah or Akaleth knew what Kehthaek might be intimating, Vinsah could not determine just by glancing from one eye to the other. The Bishop could well remember the trial of the rat Charles Matthias, and the many things said about Akabaieth’s attacker, or at least the man they supposed was that attacker. After having sat through all of the deliberations there, Vinsah could not say himself whether he thought that Zagrosek character was guilty or not. But the man that had been drawn was most assuredly guilty.

He turned his thoughts back to the three Questioners before him to keep from remembering that visage – and shuddering. Akaleth spoke then, his voice caustic, but restrained. “What did you do after you were injured?”

“I laid there until the Metamorians arrived to rescue us,” Vinsah said plainly.

“You did not try to assist Patriarch Akabaieth then? To stop the murderer from reaching his Eminence?”

Vinsah leaned forward in his chair, offering the young priest a lecturing moue. “My dinner plate had been imbedded in my rib-cage. I was passing in and out of consciousness. I could no more have stood up to stop them than I could make the sun rise in the West.”

“Did you try?” Akaleth asked, eyes narrowing. “Did you even try to get up?”

“I don’t remember,” Vinsah said then. “I was in a great deal of pain, I do not remember if I tried to get up or not.”

“What do you remember?”

“I remember seeing Kashin standing over me. He’d lost one of his arms in the battle.”

“What did he do for you?”

Vinsah gritted his teeth a bit. The image of the Yeshuel was hard to hold in his mind. That had been the last time he had seen Kashin. He wondered if he would ever see him again. “He told me that he would get me to somebody who would tend my wounds.”

“And so he took you to Metamor?” Felsah asked.

Vinsah shook his head. “No, I told him to take us to Metamor.”

Akaleth snorted, idly running his fingers along the length of leather that was still mostly concealed within his robe. Vinsah had the impression that it was a strap to beat victims with, but it did not appear thick enough for the purpose. “You told him to take you to Metamor? Why?”

“Because Metamor was the closest city with proper healers. We would not have survived if we tried to leave the valley.”

“Surely you knew that you would be subject to the demon curse of Metamor?” Akaleth prodded. “Yet still you said to come here.”

“It is not a demon curse,” Vinsah retorted, pointing a clawed finger at the youngest priest.

“Not a demon curse? Oh really? And yet you sit here before us deformed into the body of an animal. Animals are given no place in Eli’s salvation. Are you going to presume and tell me otherwise?”

“I will tell you otherwise,” Vinsah declared, leaning back in his chair slightly. The soft cushions were warm and inviting, but he barely felt them. “Over the matter of Metamor, the Ecclesia has already made a partial decision, both in allowing for the existence of a parish here, and for the continued pastoral care of Father Francis Hough, who the curses rendered a child of ten years in physical age.”

“But Hough is still human, where you are not,” Felsah pointed out, though far more mildly than Akaleth would have, Vinsah knew.

“That is true. It is the responsibility of the Patriarch and the Council of Bishops to reach a decision regarding my fate, not yours.”

“Then why are you still at Metamor avoiding that fate?” Akaleth jabbed one thin finger in the raccoon’s direction. “How long have you been fit to travel?”

Vinsah leaned back, “I have been ambulatory since November. But I have not been fit for a long journey until these last few months. And then, I did not journey because the weather would not permit it. Further, it is not safe for a man of my appearance to travel in the lands outside of this valley. Because there are some folk who accuse us of being demons. If not for their ilk, I would have already made my case before the Council of Bishops.”

The not-so-subtle barb had obviously gotten beneath Akaleth’s skin. He viciously scowled at the procyonid Bishop, eyes narrowed with cold fire. “It was your responsibility nevertheless. To the Ecclesia, to the people of Abaef, and to Eli Himself. You have failed in all three, and allowed fear for your own life to rule your actions. Had Yahshua feared more for his own life than that of Eli’s will, this world would still be completely in the thrall of demons and false gods. What have you to say of that?”

He sucked in his breath, and felt his claws digging at the cushioned arms. A few threads snapped beneath those narrow claws. “I am the only member of the priesthood to have survived the attack on the Patriarch’s caravan. This means that I am responsible for presenting this matter before the Council of Bishops. I cannot do this if I am not alive. Therefore, I am bound before our Abba and our Ecclesia, to fear for my life. I trust that when the time comes for me to journey to Yesulam, He will show me that it has come.”

Akaleth wrapped the leather strap around one of his hands. “Oh come now, Bishop. You know perfectly well that Eli’s will is personified by the Ecclesia. Because you were derelict in your duty, we were sent here. You are no longer bound to fear for your life, because that responsibility was taken from you and given to us. Why have you not gone to Yesulam?”

Vinsah turned from the younger priest and faced Kehthaek. “Is this true? Is what Father Akaleth says true about my responsibility?” The elder priest slowly nodded his head. Vinsah sucked in his breath, feeling his tongue against the back of his sharp teeth. “I did not know that it had been taken from me until just this moment. Metamor does not hear the edicts of Yesulam for many months. You cannot hold me to a crime that I could not have known I was committing.”

“And pray tell why not? You have committed a crime against the Ecclesia. It is our duty to investigate such matters.”

“Your duty,” Vinsah snarled, letting a bit of a bestial growl escape his throat, “is to understand what happened to Patriarch Akabaieth. That is what you said. You are not authorized to go any further than that. By your own admission, I am a Bishop. I know very well, what you can and cannot do.”

Felsah’s clear voice broke through then. “All that you say is true, up to a point. We are here to investigate Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. That is our primary purpose. But we were also sent to determine what happened here after his visit. That you have remained at Metamor instead of travelling to Yesulam would thus be a point of concern.”

“I stand by my decision,” Vinsah said coldly, his grip tightening on the chair. He was sure that by the time these three left Metamor there would be nothing left of the fabric. “I would do the same again. I have long since planned on returning to Yesulam. I have simply been waiting for the proper moment to do so.”

Kehthaek leaned forward then and nodded at long last. “I am glad to hear that, Bishop. Your absence from that city is noticed and felt by all on the Bishop’s council.”

Vinsah turned his gaze inquiringly upon the eldest priest. Was that a threat he’d heard his old seminary companion give him? If so, the man had truly changed in ways that he’d never have imagined possible. Then again, Akabaieth had once murdered a child. He could not help but remember the sight of his former master slitting the little girl’s throat in anger in that first dream of his. His Lady had shown him that. Perhaps to show him that any man could be redeemed?

“I am interested though,” Kehthaek said, his tone indicating that the matter of Vinsah’s journey to Yesulam was closed for that day, “in the content of your dream. You say you received a warning. How?”

“A woman came to me in my dream, and told me that if I did not do as she said, I would die. She told me to put the dinner plate on my chest under my clothes.” He could not quite believe he was saying this. But what choice did he have? Vinsah could well imagine the new line of badgering he would receive from Akaleth at this.

“A woman?” Akaleth asked, his voice trembling with disbelief. The young priest certainly did not disappoint.

“Yes, a woman,” Vinsah said firmly. “Eli has many messengers, does He not?”

Felsah nodded. “That is true. Was this woman one of the saints?”

Vinsah shrugged. “I am not sure. She did not identify herself to me.”

“Then how can you be sure she was a messenger of Eli?” Felsah continued, his head tilted ever so slightly to one side.

“What she said to me was the truth.”

“Even demons can speak the truth. Even the truth can be used to deceive. How do you know that she was a messenger from Eli?”

“I said I did not know if she is or is not a messenger of Eli. I think she is a servant of Eli though.”

“Is?” Kehthaek asked, noting the change of tense.

“Yes, is. She still comes to me in my dreams.”

Akaleth’s eyebrows shot up at this, and he pulled the leather strap further from his sleeve. “Who is she?”

“I do not know.”

“Then why do you listen to her?”

“Because she speaks truth to me. I know that I can trust her.”

“A spectral coming in your sleep, never identifies herself, tells you truth for now, and yet you know that you can trust her? Can you hope to explain to us why we should not think you deluded and led astray by one of the Archenemy’s vile servants?”

Vinsah was not sure how he could hope to explain her to them. She had become his comfort at night, knowing that she would be there to soothe his every thought, to assure him that all would be well, even in the midst of his greatest sorrows and trials. Her arms would be tight about him, her touch comforting, as if he were once more a babe and she his mother. At first, she’d frightened him, but only at first. Now, he smiled when he set his head down upon his pillow to sleep.

“Because she loves me, and is always there for me. She might be a guardian angel. I do not know for certain. But she has never asked me to do anything that would compromise my faith in Ely, Yahshua, and His Ecclesia. She had not led me astray like a servant of the Dark One would do. She has instead given me strength to face each new day, to accept this new body that the curses gave me as my own.”

“Hah!” Akaleth shouted in triumph. “What more need we hear? She urges you to accept that body, a body you gained through curses. Did you not know that the magic used to make those curses was powered from one of the self-anointed gods of the heathen Lightbringers? How could any servant of Eli suggest you accept a demon’s shackles?”

Feeling his chest tighten in an unfamiliar rage, he barked back, “Would you accuse Patriarch Akabaieth of being the tool of demons? Because he too stated that to be changed by the curses was not a sign of darkness to be feared and shunned. He called everyone here at Metamor a person, he saw them as such, and he treated them as such. Are you going to say he was of the Dark One too? I have no choice but to accept my body as it is now. And if you stayed here another week, you’d have to accept what the Keep would do to you.”

Akaleth leaned back, a sick little smile playing across his thin lips. Vinsah was reminded of a serpent in that look. “But I am no fool as to allow them to take me. What Akabaieth said was his own opinions, not the opinion of the Ecclesia. That the Council of Bishops rejected his opinions on the matter of Metamor simply demonstrates that he was led astray.”

Vinsah bolted up from his chair. A youthful rage filled his heart, one that he had difficulty controlling. How long had it been since he’d felt true violent anger filling his veins and mind? He could not recall. But there, in that moment, the world dulled red as he stared, that cross upon Akaleth’s chest bleeding out to smear the rest of his vision. “How dare you! How dare you spit on a dead man’s grave? You know nothing!” And then, much to his own surprise, he backhanded the young Questioner, sending him sprawling over the arm of his chair.

Felsah’s eyes went wide at this. The Yesbearn still in the room had their arms around Vinsah’s shoulders only a moment later, the points of blades against his throat, pressing into the flesh, though not pricking it. Akaleth spluttered insanely then as he righted himself, drawing out the leather strap from his sleeves fully. The end of it thickened, until it was as wide as his paw, and as thick as his claws.

“You dare to touch a Questioner!” Akaleth fumed, tightening his grip on the strap, readying to strike Vinsah with it. Vinsah stared coldly at the young priest, wondering just why this man had ever decided to join the Ecclesia. Vinsah had become a priest because of his desire to spread the loving words of Yahshua, to bring it closer to all the people he knew. What reason did this man have? There was no love in his heart.

Kehthaek’s voice was oddly calm in the midst of this. “Release him. Sit down.” His eyes went first from the Yesbearn to both Vinsah and Akaleth. Vinsah shrugged his shoulders about, and rubbed at his neck with one paw after the two guards let go. He then slumped back in his chair, refusing even to acknowledge Akaleth any further. He had spoken against Patriarch Akabaieth. In all of his years, Vinsah had never met a better man than he. And he doubted that he ever would.

His breath heavy, Vinsah could feel the fire smouldering still within him. His teeth were bared, and he snarled to the other two priests, “The Council of Bishops cannot rule infallibly. That power is reserved to the Patriarch alone. His opinion still carries great weight, regardless what the Council may think.”

“Yes,” Felsah said softly. “When did you first see this Lady in your dreams?”

It took him a moment to compose himself. He could still feel the smooth skin of Akaleth’s face against the back of his paw. He rubbed the short dark fur there, stroking his claws through it to comb it back into place. “It was, the second night I think, yes, the second night I was here at Metamor. The Patriarch was still alive then.”

“Patriarch Geshter still is today,” Akaleth blurted venomously.

Vinsah steeled his expression, even those he knew his hackles were raising once more on the back of his neck. Sometimes, he felt that being a raccoon made his emotions even more transparent than before – rage certainly was. “It was the second night. The night after our arrival here. That was the first I saw her.”

“How often do you see her?” Felsah continued.

“At first, once every few days she would visit my dreams. To console me, to give me comfort and strength as I said. Now, she is almost always there. I feel a terrible loss if she is not in my dreams.”

“Was she in your dreams last night?” Kehthaek asked, his voice curious.

“Yes,” Vinsah admitted. “She was.”

“What sort of comfort did she provide for you?” The elder priest continued.

Vinsah lowered his head, and let his eyes slide without looking over to Akaleth. “She assured me that all would be well. She assured me that I had nothing to fear from you. Because of her, I will not be intimidated.”

“To whom have you mentioned her?” Felsah asked. He was leaning ever so slightly forward in his chair, but his face was once more bereft of all feeling.

Vinsah had to think for a moment about that. He lived with her so fully, it surprised him to realize that he had only ever spoken of her once before. “Only one other. Otherwise, you are the first,” he admitted, the edge still in his voice.

“Who did you tell this too?”

“Patriarch Akabaieth. We were in the carriage together leaving Metamor.”

“Was this the night he was killed?”

Nodding, Vinsah bit at his tongue gently. “Yes, it was.”

“What did he have to say about it?”

Vinsah could remember it well. It was practically the last words they had ever spoken to each other in that world. It was certainly their last significant conversation. Akabaieth had said that he felt it might be better for Vinsah if he did stay at Metamor. Well, it had happened anyway. He had often wondered what would have happened if he had never even tried to leave Metamor. But Akabaieth would still have been murdered. He was glad he had faced that man himself. He would have felt a coward if he had not done so, a coward who’d abandoned the Patriarch.

“He said that she had visited him in his dreams as well.”

Akaleth snorted derisively, as if that had made his point. Felsah’s eyes went wide at this. Kehthaek, long practised in displaying no feelings, remained as impassive as before. “What did Patriarch Akabaieth say she did in his dream?” Felsah managed to say, his voice uneven.

Vinsah rubbed his paws against his robe for a moment, shifting his tail behind him to make it more comfortable. “She was standing with her hands upon my shoulders, I before her. She asked Akabaieth to leave me in her care.”

“She asked him to leave you?” Felsah asked, his robes stirring as he sat, as if there was an animal he was hiding beneath them that had just woken from pleasant slumber.

“That is what he told me of his dream.” Akabaieth had also mentioned that he’d been wearing a mask over his eyes. That feature of his dreams had seemed brought to their conclusion when he’d become a raccoon, now wearing his own mask forever.

Outside, the sound of wind could be heard swirling the fog in the streets far below. Vinsah chanced a glance towards the windows, but the oppressive mass showed o sign of leaving the Valley, merely of moving about it in eddying sways. He felt a brief surge of pity for those forced to wander the streets of Metamor in that unyielding mass. A single misstep and they could be lost amidst formless shapes coming and disappearing as if born only that moment from the aether. Those words spoken that day by Akabaieth felt like those shapes, some surging out of the obscuring mist to dangle before him a moment, only to disappear irresolutely, just as Akabaieth himself had disappeared that night – never to return.

“And what did Patriarch Akabaieth say about his dream? Did he tell you to stay at Metamor, or to come with him?” Felsah’s voice brought the Bishop back to the moment, though the image clung to him.

“No, I mean, he gave me no order either way. He left the decision to stay or to go with me. I decided to go with him, as I felt that my place was at his side.”

It was Kehthaek who asked the next question, his voice so subtle that it was nearly borne away in the fog. “Did she ask you in your dreams not to leave Metamor?”

Vinsah tensed slightly, but nodded. “Yes. She asked me not to leave.”

“Why did you not heed her?” the elder priest said, almost sounding confused at his choice, as if the black-robed Questioner would have stayed at Metamor at the beck of a Lady that had come unbidden in his dreams.

“It was the first time she had ever come to me in my dreams,” Vinsah said firmly. “Why should I have done what she said?”

“Yet you placed the plate on your chest when she said to the night the Patriarch was murdered,” Akaleth said testily.

Vinsah wanted to ignore that foul priest’s question. But what it intimated was something that could not go unanswered. “That is true,” he said, his words coming slowly, and once more through barred fangs. In all his time at Metamor, he had never felt the blood of the animal so firmly in his veins as he did now. “But there is a difference. When I woke from that dream, I heard the confused sounds of battle outside my tent, or at least the beginning of one. I was frightened enough to obey. While Akabaieth still drew breath, I wished only to be at his side, and no nighttime visitor could dissuade me from that course.”

“And yet you say she only means you good will,” Felsah chided, his face taking on a stern look, one that he had not glimpsed before.

Rather tartly, Vinsah shot back, “And it seems staying at Metamor would have been a wise decision for both myself and for the Patriarch, wouldn’t you say?”

“Tell me,” Kehthaek interjected, as if he had not even heard the Bishop speak, “how did you come to know a man like this Rickkter Feniagh?”

Vinsah leaned back in his seat then, remembering that snowy December day when they had first met. The month had just begun, bringing in cold airs the likes of which he’d never before experienced in his life. The small room Coe had lent him had no hearth, making the air even colder, the walls themselves alive with the chill. And then the Healer had kicked him out for a day, made him walk those snow-laden streets as any Keeper might.

And he’d taken that name. Even as he thought of it, he felt it burgeoning upon his lips, rising up from his inmost depths like a spring bubbling up from the rocks and sands. It was like a ray of light bursting from a cloud-filled sky, a spot of sun in an otherwise gray expanse. The simple curves of its letters were burned into the back of his mind like a farmer’s brand, singed upon his very soul. Yet while it had hurt the first time he had been so named, it was only a presence that existed within him, no longer bringing him anything but assuredness.

For that was the name his Lady had given him. It was special. That it was a Sathmoran name as well did not bring him any great displeasure anymore. It did not set his mind at ease, but it no longer made him dwell in agonized reflection. But he could not help but briefly wonder whether he should mention that name to the Questioners. Surely their reaction to it would be even worse than his own had been. If he could refrain from saying it, he would.

“It was December,” he stated finally, having composed himself, his thoughts finally gathered. “The first week in fact. I had finally risen from bed, and was taking myself on a tour of Metamor. He saw me, and wanted to speak with me. Aside from us two, there is only one other raccoon here at Metamor, so his interest was understandable.” He expected Kehthaek to understand that, but he had his doubts about Felsah and Akaleth. Whether Kehthaek chose to ignore the obvious explanation or not was another matter altogether. “After we introduced ourselves, he took me on a tour of the city far better than I could have managed myself.”

He waited a moment to see if any of them would speak, but they did not. “I did not see him again for another month, but after the assault, I began to help the people of Metamor rebuild their homes. We often had the pleasure of each other’s company then. As is the habit of people who spend time together, we grew closer, and in these last few weeks, I would say that we have become friends.”

“He is not a Follower, is he?” Akaleth snarled, as if making some grand point.

“No,” Vinsah said slowly, “But he had great respect for Patriarch Akabaieth. But his beliefs have always been his own. I am not privy to them.”

“He is a mercenary who only believes in money, is he not?” the younger priest pressed.

“I do not speak for him,” Vinsah repeated, still feeling the rage that burned within him over the young Questioner’s dishonour.

Akaleth did not seem to care. “He will do anything for the right price, is that not so?”

“I do not speak for him.”

“And he’d be willing to betray any confidence for the right sum, would he not?”

“Rickkter is not hear to answer these charges,” Vinsah felt the growl coming once more to the back of his throat. “Do not expect me to speak for a man that I cannot. If you are suggesting, as I think you are, that he could be in any way complicit in Akabaieth’s murder, then you are completely mistaken. That is all I will say.”

“A man whose has admitted a contempt for the Ecclesia, works for money, and there is no possibility or his involvement? Is that not foolish?” Akaleth said, his virulent composure fully returned.

Vinsah finally turned on the younger priest and offered him a scowl, baring his fangs. “You are a stupid man. Were you a priest under my authority, I’d have you flogged for your disrespect, your baseless insinuations, and your atrocious manner and foul disposition, all of them an anathema to Eli.”

Akaleth flinched again, his hand stirring as if to reach up to touch when he’d been struck earlier. “But I am not under your authority. You are under mine now, and you will answer my questions.”

The Bishop narrowed his gaze, and then felt a twisted grin splitting his muzzle. “Yes, I am under your authority this moment. But once I walk out those doors, I will no longer be. And while I do not have the authority to tell you all to leave Metamor, or otherwise change your mission here, being a Bishop I do have authority over your persons. I could very well order the Yesbearn to flog you, Father Akaleth. Do not tempt me.”

“Go ahead,” Akaleth sneered. If he feared Vinsah would actually make good on the threat, he was doing an admirable job for once of hiding it. “Go ahead and have a Questioner flogged by his honour guard. It will make for a pretty spectacle to show the Bishop’s Council how far you have fallen, Bishop.” This last he added with disgust, spitting upon the floor between them mockingly.

“I trust they will realize that you were flogged with good reason. You are a poor choice for a Questioner, and a poor choice for a priest. And you may tell them I said so.”

Akaleth’s smiled as if in triumph, though the slight hesitation in his response made it clear to all that he had been flustered by the Bishop’s threat. “I will tell them that.”

It was Father Kehthaek who once again spoke, his question light, but clear. “What happened to the other survivors?”

Vinsah found it surprisingly easy to focus his attention once more on Kehthaek. While his disposition was no sunnier than the fog-filled day outside, it was nevertheless more pleasant than Akaleth’s vicious and pointless accusations. “I am told that Kashin lost his left arm, and that he left to hunt down the Patriarch’s killer. Sir Egland’s legs were broken when his steed had rolled over them, but he has recovered, and serves the Ecclesia as one of her knights here at Metamor.”

He took a deep breath. “Sir Bryonoth was taken by someone, almost certainly the killer. We did not know where he was taken. There was an attack from the North against Metamor this Solstice, and while it was repelled, during the course of the attack, Bryonoth attempted to kidnap the Duke. He was stopped, and the evil spirit that had been placed within him was exorcised. The curse made him a woman, but she still serves as a knight of the Ecclesia.”

“A female knight?” Akaleth said in disdain.

“Does she remember what happened to her after the battle and before the exorcism?” Felsah asked.

Vinsah was about to nod, when he realized that he honestly did not know the answer to that question. He felt that he should, but it was as if he were looking for a troublesome insect in a jumble of parchments. He’d lift one, only to see the last leg as it scurried beneath another to hide from view. It seemed as if Bryonoth had not remembered, because he certainly could not tell if she had or not.

“I don’t know,” he admitted after a moment. “I know that we asked her, but I do not remember what was said.”

“How is it that you do not remember?” The middle-aged priest asked, his eyes narrowed in bemusement.

“I cannot say. It escapes me just now. Perhaps another can tell you. Dame Bryonoth surely would know.”

“That is most troubling,” Felsah admitted. “Of what nature was the spirit that was exorcised from Bryonoth?”

“It was a summoned creature,” Vinsah said, well remembering the terrible look he had seen on Bryonoth’s face when he’d been pressed down on the Cathedral floor, the being flinching and struggling to maintain its hold on the poor knight. “I think it clear that it was placed within him while he was unconscious.”

“Was the exorcism successful?”

“Of course it was!” Vinsah said, stiffening a bit. For a moment, he felt as if he had just caught a quick glimpse of the bug crawling about in his mind. But it was too elusive. And he had no intention of tracking it down for these priests. So he let it go.

“And there were no other survivors?” Felsah asked, as if surprised.

“No, we were the only ones.” Vinsah waited for the next question to come, but none did. They sat there for several moments, each just breathing slowly, waiting as if not wanting to the be the first to speak. One of the Yesbearn moved around behind the Questioners to add a few logs to the warmly crackling fire. Vinsah doubted any of these men had ever been in a chilly clime. They showed no discomfort though. He wondered how they would have fared a month ago, when the snows had clogged the streets and still feel from the sky nearly every day.

In fact, with each new breath, Vinsah felt himself vindicated. Their questions had come to an end, and it was only a matter of time before he would be allowed to leave their presence. He had no intention of ordering Akaleth’s flogging, although it was tempting as he had said. He thought it best not to mention this to anyone, lest they get the wrong idea about him. With a slight shudder, he wondered what Akabaieth would have thought of his performance. He could see that pleasant old man’s curious smile now, and the gentle shake of his head, all that was needed for him to display reproach.

“Are you happy here?”

The question caught him completely off guard. The voice had been level and firm, with only a touch of emotion – a curious whimsy that could no longer be denied. And it was much to Vinsah’s surprise to discover the question had come from no other than Father Kehthaek.

“Excuse me?” he asked in surprise.

Kehthaek blinked and then glanced from one side to the other. “Father Felsah, Father Akaleth, retire to your rooms.”

Akaleth’s eyes rose, even as Felsah rose to comply. “But...” Akaleth started to object.

“Retire,” Kehthaek repeated quickly, cutting the younger Questioner off.

Vinsah felt a certain smug satisfaction in seeing Akaleth chastened by his fellow Questioner. A look of poison shot from the young priest’s dark eyes, aimed both at the Bishop and at Kehthaek, though whether the older priest noticed them, he did not give any sign. Quietly, Felsah slipped behind his door and shut it. Akaleth did the same, although his door was very nearly slammed.

“Are you happy here?” Kehthaek repeated now that they were alone apart from the two Yesbearn.

“You play with loaded dice, Father Kehthaek,” Vinsah said skeptically. “There are many ways to be happy. Which one do you mean?”

Across from him, Kehthaek seemed to deliberate for a moment, his eyes steady but still reading the back of his mind. After a few seconds, he finally said, “Any and all.”

“Then I shall say this. Aside from the cold I have no complaints about living at Metamor. I am surrounded by good people trying their best to live the life they have been given. I have helped many of them rebuild those lives after the bitter siege we suffered this New Year. But would I prefer still to be accompanying Patriarch Akabaieth upon his mission of peace throughout the Midlands should he still be alive, then yes, I would prefer to be at his side still.”

Kehthaek breathed deeply then and nodded, though he did not say what he nodded about. “It has been thirty-seven years since last we spoke, Bishop Vinsah. Perhaps during my stay here we could find the time to reacquaint ourselves. You would be speaking to Father Kehthaek, and not a Questioner if you choose to accept.”

Vinsah sighed and shook his head. “Please do not lie to me, Father. You are always a Questioner. Not even for the sake of an old friendship could you change that.”

“Then simply choose your answers carefully. Nevertheless, I would like a time when we can be alone. Would you grant me that?”

He knew in his heart he should say no. While he had never once uttered anything as maddeningly insulting as Akaleth had, he still had let the younger priests say those things. The question remained, and always remained, where did Kehthaek stand. But Vinsah was not the sort to believe another guilty simply by the company they kept. And so, he inclined his muzzle a bit. “I will think on it. If I so choose, I will send you an invitation. Do not send one for me, as I will not appear.”

Kehthaek stood then, his hands slipping back into the folds of his black cloak. “I will await your word, Bishop Vinsah. May Eli smile upon you. You may go now.”

Vinsah rose from his chair, his whole body stiff from the nervous tension that filled it. He bowed his head slightly, and then swiftly turned about, and slipped out the door. The Yesbearn had opened it for him, and just as quickly shut it behind him.

It took only a moment to locate his fellow raccoon who was pacing back and forth along the hall. The other Yesbearn were standing still, eyes watching him curiously. Rickkter spun on his foot paws at the sound of the door opening, and a tight grin fixed upon the Bishop. “I see you still have your pelt.”

Vinsah touched one paw to his chest, and smiled warily. “Yes.” The warrior did not move, for which he was grateful. He wanted to be far away from that place as soon as possible. It took him only a moment to fall into step beside Rickkter, heading back down the hallway through the Keep. He did not care where they went, as long as it was away from those Questioners.

“Were they rough? I could not hear through the door.”

Vinsah nodded a bit. “I need something to drink.”

Rickkter chuckled mirthlessly. “I have plenty of that for you, your grace. Come with me and we’ll share some spirits.”

“Yes, thank you, Rickkter.” Vinsah rarely allowed himself any drink aside from wine. But today he would make an exception.

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