Questioning - Part VIII

Father Hough was in his office studiously preparing his next week’s Homily when Raven came calling. She had sent a note that morning, requesting a meeting, and he had sent the messenger back informing her that the noon hour would suffice. It was a Wednesday, and daily services would not be held for many hours yet.

While there was always a parishioner or two who would seek him out at any hour, whether to confess to some sin that could not wait, or to confide in him their fears and doubts, or perhaps to seek advice on some personal matter, today there were a greater number than usual. And they all had one concern in common – the Questioners. Eglaf had only been the first to mention their dreaded name. No less than three dozen had come to him yesterday with that name upon their lips. Only a dozen had seen him so far that morning, but the day was young still.

Standing in the cathedral ready to receive visitors, and more importantly, to direct the Lothanasa to his office was Eglaf. On days the horse was not assigned a duty from Metamor, he volunteered to help Hough watch over the cathedral, usually standing at the entrance as he was this day. And while Raven was with Hough, he was to inform the faithful that the Father was regretfully busy.

Hough knew exactly for what reason she had requested to meet. It was the same reason that so many of his flock had come to see him in the last day. It was the black-robed Questioners that had come from Yesulam. They were on everyone’s minds now, their presence dirt and mud smeared into an open wound. Hough, who normally found writing his Homilies to be a pleasant task, was taxing himself, calculating every phrase and every word he used, in case the Questioners stay for services on Sunday.

So it came as a great relief to hear the firm knocking upon his door. The boy priest sat upright, taking a moment to consider the state of his office. His desk was small, fitting his child’s height, but it was flush with the wall. Just a few paces from the hearth he had set several chairs, and it was in these that he met with guests. Setting his quill down, the loathsome document for the moment forgotten, he strode to the door, being careful not to trip over his smock, and opened it wide.

Eglaf was standing to one side, his ears flicking nervously, brown eyes wide as he considered the figure next to him. She was tall, her triangular ears upraised curiously. The long line of her snout was turned downwards, though she still had to tilt it even more to look into Hough’s eyes. She wore a white robe that undulated across the tiles and covered all of her form. Hough had on many occasions seen priests sport a much more garish costume – he had worn a number in his days – but this was a simple smock, adorned only by the gold twin cross about her neck.

“I bid you warm welcome, Lothanasa,” Father Hough said, inclining his head respectfully, and offering wide his arms. Raven stepped through the portal, her muzzle showing only the faintest hints of a polite smile.

“I thank you for your hospitality, Father Hough.”

Hough closed the door after her entrance, giving a nod to Eglaf as he did so. The horse nodded back, and clop-clopped his way back to the cathedral entrance. The boy priest turned to find Raven examining his warm office. His bookshelves were still being filled, and there were many patches of bare wall, but it was a pleasant place to do Eli’s work at Metamor.

“This is the first time you have been here, Lothanasa,” Hough said at last. “I know this is not as elegant as your own chambers, but I hope they are not too crude.”

Raven flicked an ear distractedly. “They are well appointed. I wish that my first visit did not come on such a foul errand.”

“Please, sit,” Hough indicated the circle of chairs about the crackling fire. As Raven glided to a blue chair next to the wall, Hough tossed another small log onto the fire, sending a small burst of sparks into the air. He then reached for his cupboard. “Would you care for something to drink?”

“Milk if you please,” Raven’s eyes were upon him. As he was a child, he knew he should feel afraid, but at the same time, he had to resist the boyish impulse to pet her between the ears.

Hough selected the proper ewer, and two small goblets. He poured the milk, fresh from the Keep’s stock, and handed one of the goblets to the wolf. She took it gracefully, nodding her thanks. She cradled it in one paw, lapping at it once.

“This is about the Questioners,” Hough said, settling himself in one of the chairs. His feet stuck out awkwardly from the end.

“Aye,” Raven nodded her head. “I want them out of Metamor.”

His chest heaved in a loud sigh. Resignation returned to him once more and he nodded regretfully. “I do too, Lothanasa. But there is little that I can do. I’m simply the parish priest for Metamor. I have no authority over them.”

“But you are responsible for all that happens under your care,” Raven said, her grip tightening upon the cup. “Surely you have the authority to prevent these men from harassing your parishioners. You can demand they leave your parish. It is your responsibility, not theirs.”

“I wish it were so simple as that.” Hough’s feet crossed one over the other and then uncrossed in agitation. “I am parish priest here by the will of Yesulam. If it is the will of Yesulam that these Questioners come here, then there is nothing I can do about it except send a protest to Yesulam. Long before my request would arrive there, the Curse will force them to leave.”

“Will it?” Raven asked, one of her ears upraised curiously. “Why could they not simply venture to Laselle, Menth or Midtown, and summon forth whatever Keepers they chose to meet them there where they could be safe from the Curse?”

Such a thought had never occurred to him – and as he felt his eyes widen in renewed fright, he knew he'd made that fact clear to the priestess, as well. “They will be no happier playing host to the Questioners than we are,” Hough said weakly, hiding his face with his cup of milk, sipping at it, tasting the thick warmth sparingly.

“Would they? I think they might enjoy a chance to plague Metamor. If they must suffer the Questioners to do so, do you honestly think they wouldn’t?”

His muscles were tense and his heart heavy. “I hope that does not happen. But I don’t know what I can do about it.”

Raven surveyed him with piercing blue eyes, the eyes of a predator. Where Hough had once felt a compulsion to pet her, he now felt the fear any child would feel at being confronted by a snarling hound. “You said they come at the behest of Yesulam. They would need an official message from Yesulam granting such authority. If they do not have one, then you would be able to demand they leave.”

Hough’s lips began to tremble, his heart beating faster, chest rising heavily, as if his robes were tightening about his neck like a noose. “If I asked to see it, they would say I was impeding them in their duty and might even suggest I had something to do with it.”

“And that is why they have to go, before they accuse innocent men and women of playing any role in Patriarch Akabaieth’s murder. Please, Father,” she leaned in closer then, ears fully erect, “he came to me in the hopes that our two faiths might work more closely together here, that we might be an example to the rest of the world. He asked me to work more closely with you, and I have done what I have been able. In these last few months, we have helped rebuild each other’s homes, issued joint memorials to all the dead, and brought our people closer than they ever have before.

“But now fear has come back into the hearts of my people and yours. We Lothanasi have our own Questioners. The Inquisitors as we call them. For over one hundred years they have been banished from Metamor because they accused innocents, tortured confessions from men, and did naught but instill fear and suffering in my people. Your Questioners bring the same things, things we banished so long ago. They are not welcome here, and should never have been allowed in the main gates.

“I ask you, I beseech you, Father Hough, as a gesture of good will between our faiths, do whatever you can to make them leave. If they have a document giving them authority from Yesulam, then make them produce it. Just please, do what you can, for Akabaieth’s sake.”

Hough quivered in his seat, his voice rising an octave, his eyes starting to grow heavy. “I can’t! If they go back thinking ill of me, they might take this parish away from Metamor. I can’t do that to my people. I can’t!”

“What good is the parish if you do not stand up for Akabaieth’s faith and hope for peace?” Raven said, leaning closer, far too closely in fact.

At that, Hough bolted out of the seat, tears streaming down his eyes, and huddled into a corner, his whole body shaking with childlike sadness. His mind was a jumble of thoughts that he could not make sense out of. Images and sensations crushed against him, overwhelming fear chief amongst them. The cup had fallen from his hands somewhere, he did not know where, but at present he held his balled fists to his eyes, rubbing at them as the tears streaked down, soaking his cheeks.

Surprise replaced frustration in Raven’s heart. Where before her had sat a priest, now in one corner of the room huddled crying a child. Her heart tightened at the sight of it, even as she could feel her tail beneath her robes twitch, earnestly seeking to wag out her frustration for all the world to see. Well she knew how pervasive the curse could be in changing a Keeper’s thoughts and feelings. She had underestimated how child-like Hough had become. Any man that had gone through as much as he had – raped, or so she heard, by the foul Loriod, not to mention having the head of his entire faith murdered within his parish – she had assumed would have a will of steel.

But his was a child’s body, and as was now apparent, a child’s feelings and heart. He was also a child with great responsibilities. How heavy must his own burden then be? Raven knew her own instincts, and her own changed thoughts well. So long had they been her companions that she would have felt empty without them. But to be a child and bear the weight of hundreds of souls upon one’s shoulders... what could that be like?

Rising slowly, she set her cup of milk upon the mantle, and then gingerly stepped to the backside of the sobbing child. Slowly, she laid her paw upon his back, shushing him as a mother might. Hough’s sobbing slowly began to abate, but did not stop. Her blue eyes scanned across the brown curls of his hair, and then his flushed cheeks, to the clenched eyes, seeing a terrible frustration mixed with the fear and sorrow.

He did not like showing such weakness, but could not stop himself from crying – the look in his eyes made that clear.

“I...” he said, between choked sobs, “want them g-g-g-gone. I j-just can’t d-d-do it.”

Raven’s voice was low, unsure how she could bring comfort to this child priest. “I’m sorry. But this has to be done by someone.”

Hough managed to turn himself around and stare at her with open eyes. His hands were still balled into fists, but were now held at his side. His wide brown eyes were still brimming with tears yet to be shed. “But I can’t!” he squealed, his voice as plaintive as a child’s. No trace of the adult remained within it.

Raven was about to say more, when a sudden change came to the priests’s face. His eyes stared past her, to something at the other end of the room. Curiously, Raven turned her own head, staring at the dim recess where the shadows thrown by the fire leapt and danced against the wall. Within those dark shapes was another figure whose body glowed when the shadows parted to cast the light of the fire upon them. The name curled against her lips as she recognized the rarely-seen creature that had once turned a statue that had stood for centuries into dust.

“Madog!” Hough cried out, his voice filled with relief as if he had been relieved of some hated chore.

The mechanical fox stepped out from the shadows, eyes gleaming as they took in the Lothanasa. He seemed almost protective as he bounded heavily across the room until his metal muzzle was pressing at the priest’s face, smearing the tears across his silvery hide like a sheen. Hough threw his arms about the automaton’s neck, rubbing his cheek over that muzzle. “What’s wrong?” Madog asked, his voice clear.

Raven stepped back several paces, giving the priest and the strange fox a bit of room. She knew that this was something with which she could not interfere. Her own curiosity about the creature that Misha had rebuilt would have to wait.

Petting the fox with one hand, Hough sighed heavily, tears still standing in his eyes, but for now unshed. “It’s the Questioners. I just don’t know what to do.”

Madog’s tail wagged. “The black priests? Are they not friendly?”

Hough shook his head. “No. And there’s nothing I can do about them.”

The fox blinked, tilting his head to one side, nuzzling at the boy once more. “But you’re friendly.”

One tear slid down his cheek. “I know.”

Madog’s ears stayed flat, allowing the boy to keep petting him. Raven was reminded of a boy and his dog as she watched. “Would you like to play?” Madog asked, requested really, Raven thought. There was a slight wag to his tail, a bunching of muscles, if a mechanical fox could be said to have muscles. The expression of eager playfulness could not have been more apparent on a real fox or hound.

Hough laughed then, and patted him on the head once more. “I would like to, but I’m talking with Raven.”

Madog wagged more. “She can play too.”

Hough blushed at that, and Raven found herself smiling awkwardly. And then, the gravity of her presence came back to her. “I will speak with them, Father. I understand your need to protect your parish. I will help you do that. I will give them no excuse to lay any blame at your feet.”

The priest gave a heavy sigh, and then nodded. “Thank you, Lothanasa. I’m sorry I could not help more.”

“No,” Raven said, straightening her robes out once more, “you have been a great deal of help. Now I know what to say.” She then stepped back towards the door. “I bid you a good day, Father. Thank you once again for your hospitality.”

Hough nodded, offering her a weak smile. “I hope to do so again.”

“As do I,” Raven smiled then, inclining her head, resting her paw on the door latch. “As do I.” She then stepped through the door, leaving the mechanical fox to comfort the boy with its play.

Metamor’s belfry was situated in the central spire, overlooking the tops of the six that surrounded it, as well as the blockier, foreboding half to the Keep. The spire continued for another hundred yards into the sky, the point swaying far overhead as the slight wind buffeted the chalcedony walls. Despite the shifting nature of the castle itself, only one route had ever been seen up beyond the belfry itself, a series of iron rungs sunk into the centre pole that housed the chains to ring the bells. That led to the pulley mechanisms for the bells, a dangerously cramped room best left alone. From there, a slender tight ladder led up to the tip of the spire. And there, was only the sky, an otherwise inaccessible perch that no Metamorian dared ascend to.

And the figure that gingerly stepped up from the westward stairwell emptying out into the belfry had no intention of going any higher that day. As he scanned the room, he could see that it was empty. This was hardly surprising. The four brass bells hung ponderously over a bowl shaped depression that occupied most of the chamber. The stair emptied out at the edge of that depression opposite one of the four slices of outer wall. It was six paces to the wall. Three paces beyond the edge of that thick stone was the empty air and a few second’s descent to the Keep’s roof.

Around the depression was a level walk that swept completely about. A second staircase descended on the eastern side, but otherwise there was no access to the belfry. Except from the air of course. On many days, the winds would sweep around the periphery, whistling and singing a shrill whine that would threaten to topple all but the stoutest of men. Today, the valley laced with fog, it was relatively still, tendrils of cloud and vapour passing through the stone like the tentacles of some nebulous, vapid thing, bereft of comprehension, blindly groping over everything, but never finding what it needed, if indeed such a need could exist.

Inset within the western wall was a small plaque firmly fixed to the heavy stone. It was inscribed with magical runes. He pressed his paw to the cold metal face, and suddenly, a warm hum began to crawl up his arm. He glanced wide golden eyes at the empty spaces between the walls, through which the bells would sound, and could see that the fog had been neatly severed. He could fling himself at the open air, and he’d be flung back within the belfry. There was nothing more to fear here.

He stepped between the southwestern bell and the open space beyond, and stared down across the valley and the mountains that flanked it. The mists clutched to the slopes of those peaks, making the snow-topped mountains look like islands of white in a sea of grey. They were the masts of distant sailing ships lost only minutes from port in a winter’s fog. A smile played across his muzzle, and he bent his head to study them. He breathed, slowly, feeling energy bubble forth from his chest. The fur beneath his shirt tensed, growing thicker as if a lightning storm were near.

Fire built within his chest, a sensation that sunk down through his foots paws as they spread out along that cold belfry stone. The brass bells behind him hummed a low pulse, a metallic groaning that one could feel but could not hear. His breath flowed in and out, trailing the fog that curled about his legs. Undulating waves broke those clouds, shivers and images flashing across the grey surface that rested beneath even greyer clouds. Subtle faces and shapes played along them, trailing southwards.

With them, the great bells pulsed, as if struck by a small hammer, sounding a chord so low that they could not even be heard by the Metamorian standing before them. The belfry shook with their resonance, a subtle shifting that made the air before him shimmer like a mist of glass in bright sunlight. And then, he breathed out his last, and the fog rolled before him, settling back into place only after several seconds. The bells behind him were silent.

Satisfied, he pressed his paw to the plaque against the wall, and returned down the stairs.

Pacing back and forth, Thalberg stroked the underside to his long muzzle with one claw. An hour ago he’d come upon Raven who had only moments ago left the Cathedral from meeting with Father Hough. The alligator did not ask about their meeting, for it was obvious what they had talked about.

But he had been intrigued to know how her meeting with Duke Thomas that morning had gone. Raven of course, was not disposed to tell him, but when he’d asked her if Thomas had seemed himself or not, she had replied. Thomas had been distracted, she’d said, as if he wished to be thinking of something else.

After his own unpleasant experience with the Questioners he could understand that desire. However, it was not like the Duke to shy away from such confrontations. In all the years that he had known Thomas, Thalberg had always admired him for his willingness to confront problems head on. He had hoped that it was simply a matter of Thomas not getting enough sleep as he’d said, but if after a night using Coe’s draught he was still uncertain, then perhaps it was a bit more serious.

Thalberg slapped the corner of his desk with one paw. He was being paranoid, that was all. Surely it was just the lack of sleep, as Thomas had said. There had been many periods in his life when he’d not been able to get enough sleep each night. After a few weeks of sleepless nights, he had not been himself either. Why did he not trust his Duke?

The answer was obvious though. Far too much had occurred recently at Metamor for him to discount even the faintest whispers at the back of his mind. In his many years as Steward for the Keep, he had learned to trust those whispers. Often, they were the seeds of ideas not yet known, the first dim awareness of some problem that was about to erupt. Of course, most of the problems he faced were in making sure that the Keep household was run smoothly, still they had proved reliable in the past.

And so, he paced back and forth, waiting for the knocking to come. It was with great relief that he finally heard it ordered for his visitor to enter. A blonde-haired page dressed in grey livery stepped through, his eyes wide. It was not often that the pages of Metamor received special summons to the Steward’s domicile. Nervous whispering accompanied every such summons, fearful speculation about what punishment the alligator would mete out, and for what crime it was being handed down.

“Yes, master Thalberg?” the boy asked, his voice still a soprano. In another two years, the curse would change far more than his voice.

Thalberg gestured to the chaise lounge. “Sit down,” he ordered gruffly, still pacing back and forth, long tail swaying peevishly from side to side. The boy did as instructed, staring at the massive red-robed alligator before him. Normally when he’d summoned a page to his quarters, he would let them sit, but usually stand, for a few moments before he would address them, all the while letting them see his clear displeasure. That was usually enough to inspire contrition. But today he was not interested in apologies and so spoke immediately.

“Lan son of Dathe, I did not summon you to berate you.” The child relaxed visibly, though there was still a bit of tension within his small frame. “I summoned you here because you have been Duke Thomas’s page this last week.’

Lan’s face twitched nervously. “Did his grace say I did something wrong, master Thalberg?”

“No,” Thalberg turned and regarded him fully, arms akimbo. “In fact, His grace has had only good things to say about you. It is of His grace himself that I wish to speak with you. You have been a page for two years now, is that not so?”

The boy nodded, blonde curls dangling over his ears. “Yes, master Thalberg. I’ve been a page for two years this February.”

“And you have been page to Duke Thomas many times?”

“Oh yes, master Thalberg, many times!”

Thalberg leaned in a little closer. “Then tell me, do you think Duke Thomas has been behaving strangely of late?”

At this, Lan shifted nervously about in his seat, glancing at the door, as if hoping to make a sudden escape. “Master Thalberg, I don’t like speaking ill of our Duke. It’s not right.”

“You won’t be, Lan son of Dathe. Just tell me all that you have seen the Duke do recently. I am his Steward, and his friend. I need to know these things. You have been with him a great deal, and so you will tell me, for our Duke.”

Lan nodded and gulped.

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