Questioning - Part XXI

The hour was quite late when Sir Petriz finally arrived at the Knight Templar's camp on the eastern bank of the Pyralis River. Sir Czestadt, Knight Templar of the Driheli, Volka wie Stuth, was sleeping in his tent, slumber restful, though he still twisted and turned in the soft blankets. His squire Heszky was sleeping a short distance away from the Knight Templar, upon a simple pallet that was hard and lumpy on the slight knoll. The Knight Templar did not dream. He never dreamed. Even when he'd been younger, a member of the Kankoran, he had never dreamed. So it was that when he woke, he felt calm and perfectly at ease. His stirrings were not from images that came unbidden, but from rising up from and then returning to sleep.

So, it was not difficult for Sir Guthven to wake him once it was clear who the riders coming down along the river's bank were. Sir Czestadt rubbed the sleep from his face with one hand, and blinked into the single lamplight that filled his tent. "What is it?" he asked, his voice clear. What grogginess that had been within him left within moments. Already his squire was beginning to stir and pull on his shirt and trousers that he might fetch his sire a flagon of whatever he desired.

The stout knight that Sir Czestadt trusted above all the others in his command smiled to him, his cropped beard spreading wide. "It is Sir Petriz returned from the West, master Templar."

Sir Czestadt sat up in bed immediately, letting the sheets fall to reveal his chest. Even in the dim light, the thick sprouts of hair that bore the slick of oil and sweat were visible. "Has he reached camp yet?"

"No, but he will in a few minutes, master Templar. I thought it best to alert you."

"Good. Wait with the others, I shall be with you when they arrive. Have my horse saddled and waiting for me outside my tent," Sir Czestadt reached for his undershirt that he'd deposited at the side of is cot. The grass beneath his tent was beginning to dry already. Another few days and it would be dead.

After the other knight had left, he quickly dressed himself. His squire Heszky was quickly bringing him the pieces to his armour, even though he'd wear it for but a few scant moments that night. A few minutes later, even as they could hear the sound of the oncoming riders and their horses, Sir Czestadt emerged from his tent, bearing the brilliant black falcon rising from the flame upon his breastplate and shield. A moment later, he was in his saddle and riding to the western edge of the camp. The sound of the Pyralis rippling along beside them was a quiet murmuring of silvery voices against the starry sky. But the beat of hooves was a drumroll of thunder that churned beneath the earth.

The riders were slowing down. They must have made the last stretch at a gallop, Sir Czestadt realized with grim delight. He had not expected to see Sir Petriz until the next day. Having him here was a true delight. Now they would be able to ride East to assist Sir Poznan. Sitting higher in his saddle, hands resting upon the pommel as a brace, Sir Czestadt smiled and stared into the darkness from which sprung his fellow knights of Driheli. Their company was only slightly smaller than his own, a score of men, knights, squires, and runners, as well as a priest to attend to their souls.

Sir Guthven rode up beside him, a grim smile limning his face. “He is early,” the knight said after a moment’s pause. The hoof beats continued to slow, another moment and Sir Petriz, his old squire, would be at his side.

“I am glad,” was all that the Knight Templar had to say. He lifted one arm and waved it in the air, a gesture that was returned by the coming knights. In the fickle moonlight, he could now make out the familiar crest of Vasks, the blue and black squares, with crescent moon and sword on either side. And then, he could see the youthful face of his one time squire approaching, smiling as well.

“It is good to see you again, Sir Petriz,” Sir Czestadt said at last, leaning back in his saddle. His horse took a solitary step forward, as if taking dominion over the land and all that trod upon it.

Sir Petriz somehow managed to bow in his saddle, holding his head low, eyes reverent. “And you, master Templar!” His voice betrayed a childish eagerness, an innocence that Sir Czestadt had never known to leave the man. While there were times that he feared his fellow knight was too naive, he nevertheless proved his worth time and time again. There were few knights of the Driheli that shared his dedication and devotion to the order and to the Ecclesia.

A quick glance at Sir Petriz’s bay mare, and the other horses that had come with him were all that the Knight Templar needed to know that they had ridden hard a long time. “You shall share our tents tonight,” Sir Czestadt announced. “We shall leave tomorrow morning. Sir Poznan has nearly a week on us all now, and I have no intention of leaving it at that.” A quick survey of the tired knights and squires brought a smile to his lips. “But first, a drink. Come, join us at the fire.”

Sir Petriz stood a little taller in his saddle then. “It would be an honour, master Templar.”

“Hevsky!” Sir Czestadt called to his new squire. The young man was quick on his feet, already also on horseback, and at his side before all of his name had been shouted. The Knight Commander glanced at the youth and could not help but smile. Hevsky was only Sir Czestadt’s second squire since Sir Petriz himself had been in that position. Petriz was always very kind to Hevsky, and often inquired after his training.

“Yes, master Templar?” Hevsky asked, smiling and nodding his head respectfully once to Sir Petriz, who returned the gesture, although not as grandly.

“My wine, fetch it if you would.” Though he did not specify which wine, both he and everyone about him knew he meant his finest.

The young man nodded, and broad grin creasing his features. Though it would be some time yet before they would do anything more but ride, even he was caught up in the excitement that tomorrow would bring. They would ride. They were finally on their way to capturing that traitor to the Ecclesia! With a laugh, Sir Petriz and Sir Czestadt embraced and then rode back into the camp.

Father Felsah was unable to sleep that night. They had learned so much that day, it all still raced through his mind. SO much had transpired at Metamor in the last year it was startling. He had trouble pondering how this one castle could be the focus of so many disparate events. Whoever the enemy of Metamor was certainly was also the enemy of Yesulam. That had been something the three of them had decided, though they would never admit it to Duke Thomas and his ilk. They had deliberately done their best to leave out important facts because it was inconvenient to them.

In short, the Metamorians had not trusted them. Felsah was very familiar with not being trusted. There were few places that a Questioner would be trusted. Inside the halls of the Bishop’s Council was one of them, and their word was highly prized. They were the eyes and ears of the Bishop’s, absolutely necessary to help the Ecclesia that Yahshua had founded come to the right decisions. And in these troubled times, they were even more essential.

But still, Felsah’s thoughts were troubled. He knew that laying there in his bed pondering all that he had heard he was like a man standing before a great dark lake wondering how deep it was. In coming to Metamor and asking their questions they had dipped their toes into the water to feel how warm it was, discovered that it seemed warm enough, and did not wade any further in. For all that he knew, their lake could be a great chasm that had simply been filled over the ages, a chasm that penetrated the very bones of the Earth.

And so, these thoughts troubling him, Father Felsah sought relief within the pages of the Canticles. They were as always a comfort to him, reading of the shepherd and his flock, guiding his people to safety. The corner’s of Felsah’s lips twitched as he put his mind in the place of that shepherd, bringing the sheep safely, caring for them, tending to their needs. There were many such psalms within the Canticles, and they were the ones that he enjoyed the most. They were not the most poignant passages to him, but they brought him something that he could not describe.

Yet even as he watched them, he felt a strange sense of ease come over him. At the same time, there was a certainty that he was being watched over in that moment. It was a comforting thought, yet strangely enough, it also made his flesh tingle. Though the room was silent but for the guttering of the candle, and the clicking of the clock, there was still something different about it, something he could discern even though his nose was buried within the Canticles.

Lowering the tome, he saw the reason for his sudden disquiet. The doorway beside his hearth was once more there, and Madog was once again sitting at the foot of his bed. “Good evening, Madog,” Felsah said, closing the Canticles slowly, as if whispering a promise that he would return shortly.

The mechanical fox opened his own jaws, tail wagging lightly. “Good evening, Father.” He continued to sit there expectantly watching him.

Felsah slipped out from under his covers. It was well enough, he was not likely to get any sleep anyway for some time. Spending more time with the automaton would be a pleasant reprieve. And of course, he would never have the opportunity again. Then, a stray thought caught his attention, and it made the priest pause. Had he been waiting up for Madog to arrive?

Dismissing the notion as childish, Felsah nevertheless got out of bed and kneeled down next to the mechanical fox. Slowly, he pet the creature with one hand, watching as Madog leaned into the touch as if he were a real animal and could actually feel it. But Madog did not stay for long, turning about and walking down that strange corridor, turning his head every so often to make sure that Felsah was following him.

“Where are you leading me?” Felsah inquired after the retreating automaton, but Madog did not give an answer. Quickly lighting his lantern, the priest followed after, noting that the passage seemed to twist in a different direction this time. Yet it still managed to come out into the same empty hallway as it had the previous night. Madog was still walking down its length, heavy metal tread somehow quiet upon the flagstones.

Madog disappeared around a corner several paces ahead of him. Felsah peered around it, but found only a narrower hall, and this one empty. One side of the wall appeared to hold dark glass windows. He could not make out the pictures that were framed within them though without any light behind them.

“Madog?” Felsah asked as he stared down the hall. His frail lamplight did not penetrate to the end. Cautiously, he took a step inside.

He felt something press at the back of his legs. Turning and glancing down, he saw that Madog was standing behind him, rubbing his head against the priest’s thighs. “Go in,” Madog urged.

“How?” Felsah asked, but felt silly. This creature could make passages appear where there were none. He went where he willed. Of course Madog could circle about without his noticing. Stepping forward, Felsah moved into the hall. He held his light up to the stained glass, noting with some delight that he was on the opposite face of the Ecclesia Cathedral within Metamor. Looking overhead, he could see there was a thin shaft cut into the wall. During the day, light would spill through and bring bright colours cascading down upon the faithful.

Madog waited patiently as Felsah smiled and laughed as he examined the stories told within those windows. He found many of the familiar scenes from the passion of Yahshua. In fact, as he moved along the glass panes and the finely wrought iron casing, he found himself reciting the scripture passages for each moment.

The birth of Yahshua, the days of his first ministry, the calling of the apostles, all he knew by heart. He smiled as he recounted some of the parables told by the great teacher in the markets of Yesulam. Felsah felt the gentle reproach as he spoke many of the words of Yahshua as captured for all time in the Canticles. After a time reading and gazing at the beautiful windows, he barely even noticed Madog there at his side. The mechanical fox stayed quiet, listening to the priest.

The craftsmanship of the windows was exquisite. The quality of the glass above and beyond what he had seen almost anywhere. Only the windows at Yesulam could compare with these. The colours were rich, blending well even within a single pane. And the glass itself was clear, permitting him a slightly obscured view of the cathedral beyond. It was a rare art indeed that had gone into fashioning those windows. But it had only been a year since Metamor was granted a parish of its own, how could they have fashioned this grand cathedral so quickly?

Yet his wonder turned to sorrow as he came to the next pane of glass. In it was depicted Yahshua’s betrayal. The words of the Canticles came as if ripped from his lips, spoken harshly and dejectedly. Felsah spoke, his face transfixed by the images of Yahshua kneeling down in prayer as the soldiers came for him. Kneeling in the garden. His voice faltered, choked, and then was no more. His face felt cold and withered, white and leprous. Trembling fingers traced along the iron fittings, the smooth glass seeming to sag as if crying.

Madog’s nuzzling brought Felsah back from that moment. He glanced down at the mechanical fox and blinked. The fox stared at him with golden eyes. “Why are you crying?” the automaton asked. Felsah brought his hand up to his face, and was surprised to find tears running down his cheeks.

“I...” Felsah began, and then stopped. He stroked his hand along the back of the automaton’s head. Somehow, he knew that Madog would understand. He looked back up at the stained glass, and gestured with a nod at the pictures there. “That is Yahshua. He has been betrayed by one of his friends, and now waits in the garden for the soldiers to come take him away to die.”

“But he came back,” Madog said simply. Whether Madog believed that as truly as Felsah did, or whether he was simply parroting something another had told him, he was not certain. But in that moment, the distinction did not truly matter to the Questioner.

“Yes. But he waited there for them, even knowing what they would do to them, he waited there.” Felsah’s fingers trailed up along the glass, touching the figure representing Yahshua. The look of pain on His face was clear, horrible, yet dignified nevertheless. He trembled and then looked away, closing his eyes, another tear pressed from them. “I cannot imagine it...”

Madog nuzzled him again, his tail tucked around his haunches. Felsah crumpled down upon the stone floor in the small hallway. His lamp was the only light, casting them in thick shadows. Yet the world with only themselves in it was enough in that moment. Felsah wrapped his arms about Madog’s neck, resting his cheek upon the strangely warm metal on the back of Madog’s head. With slow deliberate motions, he stroked the back of his fingers along Madog’s side, the smooth metal strangely supple beneath them.

For several minutes they huddled together like that, Questioner and automaton, a small point of light amidst the walls on the other side of the Cathedral. Both remained still, Felsah’s hand trailing occasionally. Though it would seem to any observer that the priest was holding Madog to him, and the mechanical fox was tolerating the attention, Felsah could feel the strange creature returning his embrace, holding him just as firmly, despite his lack of hands.

After a moment, Felsah leaned back, sitting against the wall opposite the windows, smiling subtly to Madog. Madog stared back with wide golden eyes, ears turned towards him curiously. The lamp stood upon the floor between them, casting weird shadows around Felsah’s temples. The flickering light limned Madog’s metallic face and ears, though it also shaded the bridge of his snout, provoking a slight chortle from the priest.

Madog then tilted his head to the side, and the moment was past. He broke the silence abruptly with a question that set Felsah back. “Do you like being a Questioner?”

Felsah blinked and folded his hands in his lap. Nobody had ever asked him that before. How was he to answer? “Well, I suppose so. It is an important task that Eli has set out for us. We are the eyes and ears of the Bishop’s. I am good at knowing what happens, and so the task falls to me. It is my way of serving the Ecclesia.”

The mechanical fox turned his head a little bit more. “But do you like being a Questioner?”

Felsah sighed then, no longer able to meet the golden gaze. His eyes fell down to his lap, contemplating the wrinkles on his knuckles. He could not help but ponder the question, one that he had not asked himself. “Sometimes,” he finally said, voice very quiet. “Sometimes, when I can help resolve differences I enjoy it. When the people I question are glad to answer me, I enjoy it. I do not like trying to force answers from people. I do not like what some of the other Questioners do to get answers.”

Madog was silent for along time after that. He sat there and stared with his golden eyes at the priest, tail still tucked along his side. Felsah continued to gaze down at his hands, face long and drawn, the shadows from the lantern making it more gaunt than usual. His dark hair was dishevelled from laying in bed reading, giving him a haunted look, as if he’d crawled up from the grave. How long had it been since he had thought on such matters? Felsah did not try and ponder that for too long, as it threatened to bring out more tears.

“Did you want to be a Questioner?” Madog asked then, his head becoming level once more. There was something different in the automaton’s tone, but the priest did not know what.

“No,” Felsah said after only a moment’s pause. “No, I did not. But I was told I would be wasting my talents in any other priestly pursuit.”

Madog leaned forward and nuzzled at his arm. Felsah lifted it and gently rubbed his fingertips around the mechanical fox’s ear. “What did you want to be?”

The Questioner shook his head then, but still touching the fox on his ear. “No, I shouldn’t speak of such things. Eli gave me the gifts to be a Questioner.” He said no more then, just stroking Madog’s ear. The automaton seemed to let out a murmuring growl, not in anger, but in pleasure. After several moments, Felsah let out a long sigh, the pleased sounds from the mechanical fox filling his ears. “I wanted to be a parish priest. I wanted to have my own flock to tend and care for.”

Madog nosed at his chest. “Like Father Hough?”

Felsah nodded, another tear tumbling down his cheek. How long had it been since he’d shed one, let alone so many? “Yes, like Father Hough.” Madog said nothing more, but continued to softly nuzzle at the Questioner’s chest. Felsah stroked behind the mechanical fox’s ears, rubbing his fingers at the metal, finding it strangely supple, but no longer surprised by it.

The silence of the moment stretched on into several long minutes. They sat once more in the midst of the grandeur of those stained glass windows, darkened but for the spattering of light from Felsah’s lamp. Where they shown, brilliant colours glowed, bringing to life the stories of Yahshua, from birth to death and resurrection. The ancient hymns sung in the Cathedral beyond seemed to resound then, long lost echoes that cascaded about the forgotten recesses. Felsah closed his eyes, hearing the words within his mind, chanted and sung, spoken and whispered, each a tribute to He who adorned those windows.

Felsah thought long about the Great Cathedral in Yesulam. It was far brighter than the one he saw here at Metamor, grander in a way that could not be described in fact. It seated thousands, and it needed to. Yet for all its splendour, it did not hold the one thing that this small corridor flanking the Metamor cathedral possessed. It was a strange sort of sensation, one that Felsah could not quite name, something he had long since abandoned. He felt different here in this corridor than he did in Yesulam. It was as if he were being pricked by a knife, but he could not tell where.

And then, even as the Questioner felt he was settling upon the source of the difference, Madog got up and moved away from him, back down the hall. Felsah grabbed the lantern and was quick to follow after the automaton. Once more, Madog turned the corner first, and the priest was several seconds behind. When he came round the corner, Madog was standing alertly, the brass bauble before him, ready to be rolled down the wider hall.

Felsah laughed then, smiling at the playful creature. Leaning down, he rolled the ball, watching as the mechanical fox pounced after it. When Madog brought it back, Felsah reached out and patted the creature upon the head with one hand. “I will miss you when I leave tomorrow, Madog.”

“I’ll wait for you,” Madog replied, nosing the metal ball closer.

The words of the automaton stung, but Felsah could not discern why. “I won’t be coming back, Madog. Tonight is the last night I will see you.”

“Oh,” the fox mused. “Then I will miss you too, Father Felsah.” If this bothered Madog, he did not show it, but simply nosed at the ball again, whining furtively. Felsah could do nothing more but smile down at the beast, and roll the ball once more. His smile grew upon his lips when Madog brought it back, and he rolled it again.

He had spoken truly when he’d said he would miss Madog. There was no other creature in the world like him. In many years, no other had made him smile or cry. With a bittersweet sigh, he settled down, and waited for the automaton to bring the ball back once more.

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