Wagging Tongues Will - Part II

Sir Albert Bryonoth was thankful for what his old friend Sir Yacoub Egland had done for him in allowing him to stay in his new home. It was a reasonably sized place in the city, and thankfully had been spared any serious damage during the attack itself. There were a few burn marks on the outer walls, but the blizzard had snuffed the flames before they had been able to cause any real damage. Like most newer buildings at the Keep, the ceiling was nearly twice the height of a normal man, while the doors were wide enough for two men to pass through comfortably. But considering that this was the home that Egland shared with his squire Intoran, an oryx whose own horns stood a good two feet over his already large height, such considerations were a necessity.

Yet, at the same time, the Flatlander knight felt the weight of a thousand ceilings pressing down upon him, crushing his breath from his lungs. The memory of his time under that freakish spirit’s guidance was still very clear in his mind. The actual cursing he underwent at the hand of the Patriarch’s murderer was less distinct, almost clouded in fact, though his actions in preparing to kidnap the Duke and stud him on the Steppe, and the actual night he rode Thomas as an ordinary horse were all still very tangible. And at the glance of any Keeper, he remembered every detail in a flash that threatened to suffocate him from shame.

And so he stood there working the curry down Povunoth’s back for the second time that day. It was only midmorning already, but he had been up for several hours before dawn. In this northern land, the sun rose so late that he found it startling. How could any of them stand such long nights as they were enduring? Back at Yesulam, the days and the nights stayed relatively the same all year round. The days were shorter during the winter, and longer in the summer, but only by two to three hours. On the steppe, the difference was greater, but again, only by another hour or two. But here at Metamor, the night was nearly three times as long as the day.

Yet, as he ran the curry over Povunoth’s flanks, his mind was brought back to why he was here. This was to be his punishment, to serve in the stables until Thomas had deemed it sufficient. Bryonoth smiled over to his steed, whose dark brown eyes were glancing back at him, a bit of half-eaten hay sticking from between those thick lips. He could not help but let his smile widen as he stared at the horse that had been his since he’d left to join the Knights of Yesulam. Povunoth pulled the rest of the hay into his mouth and then chewed upon it for a moment, before nickering earnestly towards him. Abashed, Bryonoth resumed the currying.

He was not sure if he truly wished to spend the rest of his life working in these stables. While he loved working with horses, his true joy came from the riding, the feel of the horse between his legs, powerful muscles grinding beneath him, propelling him great distances at incredible speeds. But for the moment, he enjoyed the atmosphere, the thick scent of horses about him. The main stables at the Keep were still being repaired, but the smaller private affair that was set near Egland’s home was just as suitable for his service. It was used by the families who lived in this mostly unharmed district of the city, though a good number of other horses had been placed here while the stables were being repaired, making for a very crowded group. He had already learned all the horses names, even though a few of their owners were no longer alive to look after them anymore. Once the main stables were rebuilt, the riderless mounts would be transferred there for general uses, or to await a new rider.

He worked the curry along Povunoth’s rump as he stood in the hay-strewn stall with his steed. They had not been for a ride together in so long, since before the Patriarch had died most foully. Bryonoth’s heart ached to wait for word that the valley had been cleared of the Lutin infestation once again. But Egland had promised him that once the troops sent North to harass the remnants of Nasoj’s fleeing army that they would ride together like they had in their younger days. Bryonoth snorted at that, much like his steed might. It had only been three months ago that they had been able to ride so freely, but already it felt a lifetime gone.

And there was the matter of Egland being an elk and no longer human in body. Though Yacoub carried himself well as the great cervid, it was still such a strange face to see upon a man he had called Ts’amut. And in another week or so he would bear a different one as well. That thought alone made him nervous. Already he had been here at the Keep a week. How much longer before his eventual fate would become clear he wondered. And what fate awaited him? That question sent shivers down his spine. He had not decided which would be the least traumatic, and could think of no reason to yearn for any change in particular. But it was his fate to become a Metamorian like Egland had so many months before, and he would accept whatever came.

As if the thought had summoned him, Bryonoth heard the clatter of cloven hooves upon the cobblestones outside the stable doors. Turning his head and giving Povunoth’s rump one last pat with his open palm, he saw the huge set of antlers poke through the wide doorway as it creaked open. The rest of Egland was not far behind, the tall elk standing dressed in thick blue livery, while the white ruff beneath his muzzle billowed out overtop of his collar, and the dark thick brown pelt around his neck and face glowed a golden colour in the warm lantern light.

“Well met, Ts’amut,” Bryonoth called out as he patted Povunoth on the cheek. The big stallion turned his head to consider his rider bemused for a moment, probably wondering why the curry stopped so suddenly. Bryonoth set the curry down, took the big horse’s head in his hands, and kissed him on the fleshy nose firmly, before stepping from the stall. He looked to see if Intoran the elk's squire would follow him in, but Egland was apparently alone.

“And the same to thee, Ts’amut,” Egland responded, his voice deeper, though there was still something recognizable in it, some hint of that lovely tenor he’d heard used so effectively in the knight’s choir.

“Where is thy squire, Intoran?” Bryonoth would never say who Intoran truly was to his old friend, at least not where others might hear.

“I sent him to fetch some supplies. We are running low on grains and fruits.” Egland scanned across the stables until his eyes alighted on his own steed Galadan. Bryonoth had yet to curry the russet hide of his friend’s mount, but the nearly blank look on the elk’s face told him that such did not bother him just then. “And how are you doing, Albert?”

Bryonoth shrugged slightly, leaning back against the stall door. Povunoth rested his head upon the knight’s shoulder, and he stroked the soft fur of his muzzle with one hand. “I feel well, though tis a bit chilly for my blood.”

“Nothing a good ride wouldn’t fix,” Egland replied, his muzzle creasing into the slight smile that was all it could manage. “I just wish the Duke would allow us even that!”

Bryonoth grimaced, but continued to gently draw his fingers through the hide of Povunoth’s cheek. “Hast thou heard any word on when they shall return?”

Egland shook his head, a massive undertaking as the antlers made him sway unsteadily for a moment on his narrow hooves. Bryonoth wondered how such a large bulk as his friend the elk possessed could possibly stand on such small hooves as those. He could not even walk on his tip toes for more than a step or two. “Not yet. I don’t think they’ll be out for more than a day or two more though. At least I hope they won’t. My legs need a good stretching too.”

Egland came over to stand at Bryonoth’s side, gently running his fur covered hand over Galadan’s dark face. His mount pressed forward, eyes firm, but showing no fear at the large mammal before him. Egland traced his two thick fingers down either side of his face, as if studying his new hands for the first time himself. “As do Galadan and Povunoth I’m sure. He missed you, you know.”

“I know,” Bryonoth said as he kissed his steed’s face. Povunoth nickered again, stamping his foot as if in agreement. Stepping out from underneath his horse’s head, Bryonoth grabbed a bucket of oats that was set just beside the stall, but out of Povunoth’s reach, and lifted it over the wooden railing. He let it drop to the hay at Povunoth’s forelegs, where it landed with a solid thunk. The Steppe-born stallion eagerly dipped his massive head into the bucket, tail swishing gently from side to side in contentment. Smiling a bit as he watched his horse feed, Bryonoth could not help but finish the thought. “I missed him too.”

Egland patted Galadan on the nose once before stepping forward to rest his two-fingered hand upon his fellow knight’s shoulder. “I have heard a little about what you did for Thomas while you were in that old stable before we found you. Even though that spirit had you, the good in you showed through clearly.”

“I would like to believe that thee speaks the truth, but I am uncertain.”

His friend frowned then, antlers dipping a bit lower as he leaned forward. “You’ve never questioned me like that before, Ts’amut.” There was more injury in the voice than reproach, though Bryonoth felt as if he’d been slapped.

“I do apologize. I hath disgraced myself again.” Bryonoth turned his face away, unable to look into the hurt in Egland’s dark brown eyes.

“No,” Egland said then, softly, though with a depth that his human form had lacked. “What happened to Thomas was not your fault. It could have been any of us that the Patriarch’s murderer had twisted. And did you ever really want to make him into a stud? No, you did not. You know you did not. I know what you said before was done in jest. Even Sir Saulius said that he had wondered the same thing about Thomas from time to time.”

Bryonoth took a deep breath, letting the words sink into his heart. He knew they were true, but why did they do nothing to alleviate the injury he knew he’d committed? That he could not explain. “I should not have questioned thy veracity. I know thee speaks the truth. I do not feel it in mine heart, though Ts’amut.”

The elk stood silent for some time, rubbing his changed hand across Galadan’s head, the warhorse pressing into that hand, eager for the attention from its rider. Bryonoth listened to the sound of snorting horses, munching of hay and of oats, as well as the occasional stomp of a hoof upon the hay-strewn floorboards. Once or twice, there was a flutter of wings from the hayloft above, as some winged tenant flitted from one beam to the next. Finally, he heard the shifting of fabric, and the creaking of hinges. Glancing back over his shoulder, he saw Egland opening the door to Galadan’s stall, while the powerful horse began to step out from the door, eyes expectant and hopeful.

“Well,” Egland began, as he ran a comforting hand down the warhorse’s neck. “We may not be able to ride outside of the walls, but there are fields within them we may trod upon. Would you care to go for a ride to clear your head for a while?”

Bryonoth blinked in surprise, a smile starting to pierce his lips. “What of Intoran, thy squire?” He very well knew that Intoran was more to Egland than just a squire, but he had known of his friend’s tastes for many years. Besides, there were some Steppe clans whose own rituals made Egland’s practices seem tame by comparison.

Egland shrugged, even as he retrieved the saddle from the opposite wall. Laying it upon Galadan’s waiting back he gave a short barking laugh. “If he returns while we are out, he will know what to do with the supplies. This is not the first time he has run such an errand. So, would you care to ride with me? I think the air would do you good.”

Bryonoth nodded, even as he smiled over to Povunoth, who was just finishing the bucket of oats, tail still flitting this way and that. “Thou knowest how much I yearn to ride. I will accompany thee.” And so saying, he opened the stall door, and motioned for Povunoth to step out. The steppe-born stallion did as instructed, excitement filling his dark eyes, hooves stamping with enthusiasm. And when Bryonoth retrieved the saddle that he had not been able to use in three months, Povunoth reared in equine delight, waving his forehooves in the air for a moment before clopping back down to the hay, neighing feverishly, as if to tell his rider to hurry.

He could not help but laugh at his steed’s antics. It had been far too long for himself as well. With practised ease, he secured the saddle and the stirrups, before retrieving the halter and slipping it over his exuberant mount’s head. Once all was in place, he cast a glance towards Egland. The elk had Galadan all prepared, and was setting one cloven hoof in the modified stirrups he’d had to use. They were further on down the horses sides, and the cup was larger and longer to fully rest the elk’s hooves within. Would Bryonoth need something like that soon as well?

Before another thought had passed through his head, Egland had lifted himself up and onto Galadan’s back, straddling his warhorse as easily as he had ever done. His antlers gave a visible challenge to the sky, and he had to duck to keep them from scaping against the hayloft overhead. His hands gripped the reins tightly, Strangely bent knees nudging Galadan’s sides. The horse obediently stepped out from beneath the hayloft and into the more open area at the front of the stables, allowing his rider to sit straighter.

Bryonoth set his own foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself onto Povunoth’s back. As soon as he swung his leg over his steed’s back, and stood in the saddle, he felt a sense of peace fill him. Yes, this was the life that was always meant for him. He smiled, drawing his hand across Povunoth’s neck, rubbing the thick muscles there. His legs found all the familiar contours of the great stallion’s sides, even as he let out a soft nicker, at which his steed moved forward to join his friend at the front of the stables. Povunoth snorted through his huge nostrils, even as he champed at the bit slightly, quite disappointed that they weren’t charging through those doors and into the street with reckless abandon.

“Will you be warm enough?” Egland asked, gesturing to the thick wool coat that Bryonoth had left hanging from one of the rungs on the ladder to the hayloft. Bryonoth glanced back at it and grimaced. He tugged once on the reins, and Povunoth turned about, trotting back to the ladder, snorting in dismay, but obedient nonetheless.

Bryonoth snatched the multicoloured jacket from the ladder and slipped it over his thinner jerkin. The stables themselves were warmed by having so many horses squeezed into the few stalls, and so he’d removed it as always upon entering. Now he felt as if he were suffocating from the thick wool, but he knew the sensation would not last. Running his fingers through Povunoth’s mane between his ears, he laughed heartily and said, “Do not worry thyself, my steed. Thou shalt run with the wind soon enough.”

Egland let out a dry chuckle, even as he with one flick of his wrists directed Galadan toward the doors. The warhorse nudged them open with his head, letting a blast of cool air flood the stables. Bryonoth breathed the fresh air, smelling its bite as it tried to assail his coat. Povunoth however moved beneath him, trotting towards the door until he was out onto the cobblestone streets alongside Galadan. The knight pulled the stallion to a stop beside Galadan, at which his steed snorted in annoyance.

Climbing down from Povunoth’s back, he quickly closed the stable doors behind him, drawing the handles shut. A moment later and he was once more on horseback, feeling his blood pound through his body, vibrant. Yes, this was exactly what he had needed. All the misgivings had left him already, the simple pleasure of riding nursing his hunger. As he did not know the city well enough yet, he followed after Egland, leaving the community where they lived in short order. Most of the homes in this quarter of the city were undamaged aside from a few charred timbers here and there. But as they neared the Killing Fields, more and more houses were left in shambles, twisted mounds of wood, clay, stone and ash mixing with the snow to the point that it was more black than white. Yet everywhere he looked, Keepers were rebuilding those homes, cleaning out the rubble, starting their lives anew, just as he was.

The Killing Fields themselves had not been used for their namesake nearly as much during this last siege as they had during the Battle of Three Gates, or so he had been told. The snow was mostly white in this area, only the wheels of carriages to and fro marred its smoothness. Some soot had been borne by the wind, scattered across the long fields, but otherwise, they remained untouched, a quiet reminder of the solemnity of the North. Once they had passed the last of the houses, Egland flashed him a quick nod of the head, his antlers dipping suggestively, before digging his hooves into Galadan’s side, setting the warhorse charging through the knee deep snow. With a shout of joy, Bryonoth was quick to follow suit.

Soon, they were bounding through winter’s promise, cavorting, throwing up the white powder across their legs as well as that of their steeds’. Bryonoth laughed as they moved about, nearly bursting into song as they disturbed the stillness of the fields. He shouted at the clear sky, staring from one set of mountains to the next, but feeling as if they were not there at all, and he was on the endless steppe once again. He had always said that Egland should have been born upon the steppe with him, and had promised his fellow knight that one day they would travel that way. In his heart, he knew that they still would, the curse be damned. The blood of the Steppe knew not appearance, for it was immutable. A constant from the moment of birth and the first sup of mare’s milk, to the day the ashes of that blood would be spread across the steppe, returning once more to the soil.

Bryonoth did not know how long they had been out there, but he did not care either. It had been so long since his body had felt so alive as this. And he could feel Povunoth beneath him relishing every motion, every step he took. Several times his steed would rear and wave his hooves proudly at the air, even as he gave off a defiant neigh. Bryonoth anticipated each motion of his steed, and moved with them, a part of them. They were not rider and steed, they were one flesh, one body joined forever by fate and will. Bryonoth hoped and prayed as he rode that never again would he be separated from his steed.

Yet, as they dashed alongside the Keep wall, Bryonoth felt a clenching in his stomach, and a pressure behind his eyes that made him nearly lose his balance. Povunoth sensed his unease, and slowed to a stop, turning his head back and peering at him curiously. Trying to steady himself, Bryonoth gripped the pommel of his saddle with one hand, while the other clutched at his belly. He felt as if his stomach were turning over and over again, and as if someone were taking a hammer to his skull.

Egland turned around and set Galadan in a gentle trot back to his side. “Albert, is anything wrong?” The look of concern was unmistakable, even on the cervine face.

Bryonoth tried to speak, but dizziness slammed into him, and before he knew quite what had happened, he’d tumbled from the saddle to land face first into the deep snow bank alongside the wall. He rolled down onto his back, staring up at the blue sky as it swam overhead, his hands clenching and unclenching as he tried to sort out the feelings flooding him. The face of the elk knight appeared over him, and he could feel that two fingered hand press against his chest, and just as suddenly pull back. Through the haze in his mind he could hear his friend say, “Ts’amut! It has you.”

And just before he finally succumbed to the disorientation and passed out, Bryonoth knew exactly what his fellow knight was referring to. The Curse upon the Keep had begun to claim him.

Lord Avery set the baked bread down on the small table before him. It was not nearly as fine as some of the furnishings he had seen the last time he’d graced Duke Thomas’s chambers, but given that many of the Ducal possessions were in ruins, this was what they had to make do with now. Not once did Duke Thomas appear to even notice the paucity of his surroundings, but then again, from what Brian Avery knew, the horse barely ever considered the finery that came with his royal station.

But, neither was Thomas a fool. Lord Avery knew that as quickly as possible these chambers would once more be decorated with works of rare craftsmanship. His position demanded such accoutrements. The other Lords and nobles that were under Thomas’s domain would need to see that Metamor remained rich and strong, and so Thomas must be rich and strong in every way, including his tastes, though certain adjustments had to be made as he was part stallion. But Lord Avery, being part grey squirrel, was familiar with that too.

Yet, as he favoured the horse lord with a wry grin, casting his eyes to the shutters that kept the winter chill from these chambers, he had to wonder just why Duke Thomas had asked him to delay his return to the Glen. He longed to return to his own land to oversee the repairs there. Here at Metamor they were far from finished, but they proceeded at a steady pace.

“So,” Lord Avery said, trying to bring the wandering horse’s mind back to the present. “What do we know from the North?”

Duke Thomas bit into an apple, swallowing it in two bites. He rested his hoof-like hands before him, the platter of fruits and breads between them upon the table not as full as either would hope. “Most of the commanders of that army have either been killed or captured. The soldiers themselves are still running, we dare not pursue them any farther until we can recoup our own strength at this point. Not all of our own people are happy to hear that but they understand the reasons.”

Avery tapped one claw on the table thoughtfully. “And Calephas? We had captured him. What he did to the guard I left was–” Avery shuddered at the image that sprang to mind. Although he had not seen it himself, what he’d heard of poor Keltin, the wolf who’d been disembowelled, was enough to conjure all sorts of foul imaginings.

Thomas grimaced, his ears laying back flat. “I’m afraid we have yet to hear any word on that man. He’s not been killed, nor has he been taken prisoner again.”

“He’s as slippery as an eel. That’s twice he’s snuck from my grasp!”

Thomas nodded at that. “You will hear no disagreement from me. Although that may be to our advantage in some way.”

Lord Avery’s tail flicked from side to side in agitation. He wished he could be there with Angela, holding her in his arms. He wished he could see the faces of his two boys once more, as well as all of his people he left behind when they’d worked alongside soldiers from Barnhardt’s armies to cut the Lutins off. “And how is that?”

“Well,” Thomas began, slipping another apple into his arms. The fruit was a bit cold, but it was the only way to keep it fresh this far into the Winter. “Arabarb is fairly well cut off from the rest of Nasoj’s domain by the Dragon Mountains. If Nasoj’s influence on the Giantdowns wanes because of this failure, then Calephas may indeed go his own way. He is certainly one of Nasoj’s better tacticians, it is a good thing that Nasoj does not trust him too much, otherwise we might not be speaking so right now. Without even basic support from him, Nasoj is weaker. The weaker he is, the happier I am.”

Avery finally had to nod at that, though a simmering desire still burned in his chest. “Very true. Let us hope that things are as you say. Metamor is starting to look better already if I may say so.”

“You know us, Brian, we are resilient. I don’t think Nasoj will be able to attempt anything on that scale for some time, if ever. We must not take any chances. That is one reason why I wanted to talk further with you today. There are a few matters we need to discuss. The defensive arrangement at the North end of the valley simply must be improved. The Glen rests on the northwestern area of the Valley, no inhabited city is farther North in fact. I’m afraid we are going to need more patrol support from the Glen. You were not hit nearly as badly after all, you told me that before.”

Avery grimaced. “A good number of our best scouts were slain in the onslaught. We are still stronger than we were after Nasoj’s previous invasion, but we too must rebuild our homes and defences. Without there being more Glenners, I don’t know how we can increase our patrols. We are already stretched fairly thin.”

“You accounted yourselves fairly well when you destroyed the bridge. If you hadn’t done that, Calephas might have been able to bring reinforcements to cement the Lutin’s hold on Metamor. For a while there, things looked grim as I have said.”

“I know,” Avery nodded, his heart fluttering. For a short while there in the darkest hours of the year, it had appeared as if Metamor had finally fallen to Nasoj’s Lutin hordes. The bright star of the North had flickered in that long night. He trembled at how near it had come to winking out altogether. “We had help though. I doubt my men could have struck down that bridge themselves.”

“Help?” Thomas asked, his face perplexed, dark ears standing erect.

“Oh yes, Garigan, Matthias, and their two friends.”

Thomas rubbed his chin in thought, thick lips pursed. “But Misha Brightleaf told me that Matthias was the only Long who did not assist in defending the Keep.”

“Oh, they weren’t Metamorians. They were both still human, and male. I think they were friends of Matthias’s in the days before he came to Metamor and became a rat.”

Thomas blinked once at that, and then he leaned forward, his tail flicking behind him nervously. There was a slight white edge to each of his pupils that made Lord Avery uneasy. What was this all about, the squirrel could only wonder. “Who were they? There were two you say? What were their names? Could you describe what they looked like?”

“Oh certainly I could describe them. And their names? Well, let me think.” Avery picked up the piece of bread again in his paws and brought it to his lips. It was comforting to just nibble upon the tasty morsel for a moment as he collected his thoughts. The intensity of the horse lord’s gaze was quite unsettling. “Well, the larger of the two was Jerome Krabbe I believe. The other, a thin man with black hair, his name was Krenek Zagrosek.”

Thomas just stared at him for several moments, face ashen with some untold terror. He slowly leaned back in his chair, eyes straying across the room towards the closed window on the far side. Avery felt as if a sudden draft had blown through, as a shiver raced up his tail and through his spine. “Is something wrong?” Avery finally managed to ask, finishing off the last of the bread.

“Maybe.” Thomas’s eyes turned back to the squirrel, though there was a bit of hope in them now, as of a drowning man clutching at a bit of flotsam. “Where did they go after the battle?”

“They quietly slipped away, as they did not want the curse to take them. They’d already been here five or six days by then, so were not going to take any chances by staying around any longer.”

“Did they say where they would be going?” Thomas pressed.

“No, I have no idea where they are now.” Avery leaned forward them as well, his composure regained. “Why are you so interested in them? They were just Matthias’s friends.”

“There are some mysteries held deep within this Keep that must be unravelled. I’m afraid you must stay here at the Keep a little bit longer. I need to consult with a few others before I do anything else. This situation must be resolved as quickly as possible.” Thomas stood then, and marched to the door behind Lord Avery. The squirrel watched over his shoulders as Thomas opened the door and spoke to one of the servants outside, “Can you summon Prince Phil please. Tell him this concerns Apadares.” The servant, a young wolf morph, nodded smartly and was off down the hall.

After Thomas had closed the door, Avery asked, “Can you at least tell me what this is about? What does Apadares mean?”

“As I said, this is a mystery the Keep has held deep within for some time now. Once Phil arrives, I am certain we can begin to sort this out. Please, eat, this should not take long.” Thomas then turned and drew an ottoman alongside the table. It was more refined than the table that Lord Avery was sitting at, though one of the seams was torn along the side. It must have been a Lutin’s afterthought, the squirrel mused unhappily. The Duke himself was pacing the room, hooves treading softly upon the thick carpeting. The fire crackled in the inglenook, though it provided scant warmth.

Lord Avery instead did as instructed, taking one of the apples and nibbling away at the juicy pulp. It took him far more than two bites to finish the apple unlike his equine companion, but by the time he had finished, a knocking sounded at the door. “Prince Phil to see you, milord,” the young lupine’s voice piped from the other side.

“See him in,” Duke Thomas called, coming to stand beside his chair. Lord Avery stood up from his own, straightening the grey doublet he wore with one paw. There were some bread crumbs in his lap, but this was nothing new. He wiped at them idly with one paw while in through the door bounded the rabbit, followed by the great ape who was his retainer.

“Your highness,” Thomas said courteously, even as Avery managed those same words. Rupert stopped just inside the door, even while Phil stood before the ottoman, resting his forepaws against its surface.

“You needed to see me, your grace?” Phil asked. Lord Avery felt an unease exist between them. It was as if the use of titles was something they reserved only for rare occasion.

“Rupert, I am afraid that I must ask you to leave us for now,” Thomas called out, not sparing a moment to answer Phil’s question. That made the rabbit’s ears stand on end in clear surprise.

The ape looked conflicted for a moment, before he nodded and stepped out back through the door, just fitting beneath the transom. He gripped the handle and closed it firmly, but quietly. Thomas then turned to Lord Avery, his eyes verging on steel. “Tell Prince Phil what you told me about Matthias’s friends who accompanied him to Glen Avery during the assault.”

Lord Avery swallowed a moment - he’d never seen Thomas this tense before. “Well, there were two men, neither of them were Keepers, in fact they left shortly after the battle was over so they could avoid being trapped by the curses. The larger of the two was named Jerome Krabbe, while the other was a thin man with black hair. His name was Krenek Zagrosek.”

Phil sucked in his breath, a shiver passing through his white fur, even beneath his coats. “And what were they wearing? Were there any symbols upon them?”

Avery blinked for a moment as he tried to recall what he’d seen. There was something terribly wrong, though he had no idea what it could be, and he was almost afraid to find out. “Oh yes, they both wore black robes. There was some heraldry, I didn’t recognize it. It was of a red shield, with palm inside, and in the palm was a white sword.”

Phil closed his eyes in silent fury. “It is him,” was all that he said. “I wonder what damage he has done this time.”

“Excuse me, but what are you talking about?” Avery asked, allowing his frustration to slip through into his voice.

Phil glanced at Thomas questioningly, and the horse nodded. “To put it mildly, Krenek Zagrosek is an enemy, and twice before he has come to this land and done serious harm while he was here.”

Brian Avery blinked several times at that, his mouth hanging open. “No, that cannot be. I fought at his side. He defended the Keep with his life. You must be mistaken.”

“That is him, your description fits all the ones that I have heard.”

“From whom?” Lord Avery asked, crossing his arms. “He saved the lives of many of my men. Before you go accusing him of terrible deeds, you better be certain it is him. Have you ever seen him?”

Phil shook his head, hoping up onto the ottoman. He spread his paws upon the table, rising up as high as he could on his hind legs. He glared down his long nose at the squirrel, a burning anger filling that lapine gaze. “Listen to me. I have not seen him, but everyone else who has is dead. A ferret named Dorson, Lord Loriod, and now my good friend Wessex. And the worst of all is that he is the one responsible for murdering Akabaieth, the Patriarch.”

Lord Avery sat open-mouthed at the stunning accusations. “I, I cannot believe it. I saw the man. I saw what he did for Metamor and for the Glen. How could a man willing to risk his life to fight Nasoj do those things that you say?”

“Believe it,” Phil said coldly. “I do not know how he did it either. The only one who understood what Zagrosek was capable of is now dead, not even his body is to be found anywhere, only his blood. If it weren’t from that note Matthias left Misha, we would have no idea what happened to him.”

Thomas leaned forward at that. “Excuse me, Matthias knew of Wessex’s demise? I did not know this.”

Phil nodded, casting a brief glance back at the horse lord. “Yes, he left the note just before going to the Glen to help the fighting there. I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it yet, I was too busy helping Misha coordinating our efforts up North. Why do you ask?”

The horse shook his head. “Think just for a moment. If Zagrosek was with Matthias at the Glen, would it not stand to reason that Zagrosek was with him before he went to the Glen too? And why would Zagrosek even be with Matthias? Can you answer me that?”

Phil paused suddenly, glancing back and forth between the disbelief in Lord Avery’s eyes to the frightened inquiry in Thomas’s. He slapped his paw on the table them, causing the platter to jump slightly. “Wessex told me some things last September that I didn’t want to believe. I did not want to believe them about Matthias. I still don’t. We’ll need to talk to our friend the rat first before we decide to do anything about this. I don’t know what to believe either, but we must know. I must know. Zagrosek’s presence during this terrible assault is the most troublesome news I have heard to date. Give me another army of Lutins, at least we know how to fight those.”

“What did Wessex tell you?” Thomas pressed, even as Lord Avery tried to put all these strange pieces together in his mind. Yet the squirrel could no more make sense of them than he could stop the Lutin hordes by himself.

“You remember that Wessex once told us just before the summer Solstice that Zagrosek belonged to a mage clan from the Southlands known as the Sondeckis? I wasn’t there that day, it was the day Ambassador Yonson arrived at the Keep, but Wessex told me he first mentioned it then. Well, Charles is also a Sondeckis.”

“We knew that already,” Thomas pointed out. “We’ve known that since he joined the Long Scouts.”

“Yes,” Phil mused. “Misha’s sister Elizabeth was very helpful in that. But what I was about to say was that Charles had told Wessex something he did not tell us. He knew Zagrosek, the very same Zagrosek who controlled Loriod, and who killed the Patriarch.”

“Knew him?” Thomas asked in alarm.

“Of course he knew him,” Lord Avery pointed out. “I told you that they were Matthias’s friends of old. But how can you be so certain that this is the same man?”

Phil let his eyes stray intently back to the squirrels incredulous face. “I cannot be completely certain myself. But consider this. What are the chances that there would be two Sondeckis of the black, the highest rank in a Southern mage order, both of whose names are Zagrosek, and both of whom are thin men with black hair? If you think about it for a moment you will see why I am so certain.”

Thomas sighed heavily at that. “If only Wessex were here. He could scan your thoughts and pick up the image of the man instantly. He’d know.”

Phil shook his head. “He isn’t here, and that is why this matters. You said, what if they were here together before they went to the Glen. That means that they had to have discovered that Wessex was dead together. I do not know what to think of Charles in all this, but we need to know and now where he stands. He knew what Zagrosek had done, and what did he do about it? Nothing. If he has protected that man, that man who killed,” Phil stopped then, his teeth grinding tightly in bitter frustration. Finally, the fit passed, and Phil spoke calmly, but coldly, “We need to find Matthias now, and find out just how Wessex died.”

“We will need some magical soothing though,” Thomas pointed out. “Whenever we deal with this man, powerful magical forces are involved.”

Phil grimaced. “We don’t have anyone capable of casting the ritual magic we need for that anymore. Christopher’s skills are in the wrong areas, and I do not trust Rickkter to be impartial where Matthias is concerned.”

“Yonson perhaps?” Thomas suggested.

“No, Yonson only knows weather magic. He may be able to throw lightning bolts, but I doubt he can be certain that he will speak the truth.”

“Rois could probably do it?”

Phil nodded at that. “Yes, I agree, she is probably our best choice.” Phil then blinked a moment, looking over at Lord Avery, and then back to Thomas. “No, not Rois. I think I know just who to ask for this task. She is only a journeyman, but is almost certainly better suited than any other mage in the Keep.”

“Who?” both Lord Avery and Duke Thomas chorused. They both leaned forward, their faces uncertain, needing to know where the loyalties of those they loved lay. Thomas hoped that this was all some terrible mistake, while Avery continued to tell himself over and over that it was so.

Phil pulled his paws back from the table and rested them before him on the ottoman again. “Why, Jessica. Wessex’s favourite student.”

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