Wagging Tongues Will - Part XII

Duke Thomas,” the envoy said in a friendly manner. He was in his mid-thirties, face worn by years upon the road. “We can supply you with two tons of iron tools or three tons of refined iron.”

Leaning back in his chair, the stallion considered the offer. The chairs in his meeting chamber weren't particularly comfortable, as the dull aching in his back attested. The table between himself and the smiling merchant was sufficiently large to mitigate any discomfort. After all, he wanted to keep people such as this bothersome merchant as far from him as possible, lest their oily natures infect him. People such as the merchant before him always bothered him, as he knew that no matter how much they smiled and offered platitudes of good faith, they sought nothing but their personal enrichment. The bargain they all sought would allow them to charge the highest prices they could for the least amount of goods. And even then, if Thomas were to accept the trade deal, many shipments would mysteriously come up short, victims of ‘banditry’.

As far as the Horse Lord was concerned, the only ‘banditry’ that was occurring was the one being practised by all the merchants that had flocked to Metamor after the New Year siege. Metamor was in desperate need of supplies to replenish their forces and defences, and so these merchants arrived with offers to help. But because of Metamor’s need, they all quoted prices far beyond what they had the previous Winter, sometimes five times as much. They were like buzzards pecking at a dying animal, taunting it while they waited for their meal to stop moving. Well, Thomas assured himself, Metamor was hardly finished.

Yet, before he managed to offer a response, the door opened wide, and there was his Steward, red robe in slight disarray, and his eyes fearful. He gripped the cane in his hand so hard it appeared ready to snap. “Thalberg?” Thomas called. “What’s happened?”

He came into the room, the door closing behind him. “Misha Brightleaf has returned, and I do not think he is well.” There was a sardonic cast to the voice, one that belied his concern. Thomas opened his mouth to speak, even as the merchant did his best to hold his smile despite the clear impatience writ upon his face. Yet, voices from outside caught their attention.

“Sir!” came the loud words echoing on the air. “You can't go in.” All eyes turned towards the sound and came to rest upon the door leading out of the room and into the corridor through which Thalberg had just entered. A loud crash made them each flinch slightly, and then a series of loud shouting that made the merchant forget his grin. Finally, the doors burst open, splinters cascading across the carpet, while the body of a guard flew in and landed on the floor in a heap. Following fast on his heels came Misha, his face livid, fur sticking out in every odd angle. Without looking, he calmly stepped over the stunned guard’s form.

With his bandaged hand he pointed to the shocked envoy, “Out,” he said in a cold whisper. His eyes caught a hold of the crocodilian Steward and they narrowed. “The same with you.”

“What is this,” the stunned merchant demanded, rising to his feet and putting on an air of haughty indignation. “How dare you intrude upon your grace’s chambers like this! If you think you can...” He did not seem to notice that Thomas was undaunted by the fox’s entrance.

Misha slammed a fist into a mahogany cabinet resting against the wall next to him. The piece of furniture, filled with expensive china, exploded in a spray of wood and porcelain. Even as the shards were still settling upon the carpeting, he had turned back to the trader, face grim with determination. “Don't make me repeat myself.”

The destruction of the rich cabinet had shocked the merchant enough that the confidant individual was gone, replaced by a man uncertain of whether he would leave the room alive. Even Thalberg had to wince as he saw the pieces of some expensive urn continue to tumble from the cracked wood. Only Thomas had not moved from his chair throughout the whole display. Instead the Duke appeared to be as calm as if Misha had announced the weather to him.

Glancing between horse and fox, the merchant appeared uncertain about what to do. Yet the Duke was not so divided. “Do as he says,” Thomas ordered and pointed to the door with his hand. “This meeting can be resumed tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” the merchant cried, his face aghast. “We're leaving tomorrow morning. Its been six days since I arrived.”

Misha gave a low growl and stared at the merchant with a feral look and the man crumpled behind the chair like a child. However, Thalberg reached under his shoulder and lifted him up, walking him towards the door. “Tomorrow you say? It is not very safe to travel these days, you may have to stay here until we can be certain that things are safe. But I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out. Now, what was it that you had come to sell again?”

The merchant appeared horrified at the Steward’s words, but he continued walking, eyes flicking with fright to Misha, his words barely comprehensible as they disappeared through the open doorway. Thomas grinned slightly as he watched his Steward begin the process of dropping the merchant’s asking price, he then turned back to the fox, eyes stern, and unafraid.

Yet, before either spoke, a dozen soldiers crowded at the aperture, swords and spears at the ready. At their head was a knight of the Red Stallion, grim face set firmly upon the fox, boldly striding forward to defend his liege. But Thomas stopped them with a single wave of his hoof-like hand. “Leave us alone. There is no danger here.”

“Sir?” The knight asked in confusion.

“I said leave us alone,” Thomas said, his voice stern. “He is merely here to talk.”

The knight nodded, uncertainly though. The other soldiers sheathed their weapons and helped the groggy guard up from the floor and out the door. The knight lingered a moment by the doorway, gripping the knob loosened in Misha’s entry. He stopped just before closing it and looked at the Duke, as if he were unable to believe the order he had been given.

“Out please,” the stallion said calmly, though he offered a brief smile to the man as assurance.

“Yes Sir,” the knight answered and reluctantly closed the door.

Instantly, Misha strode forward to the table, his face filled with a seething anger that did not appear eager to abate. “Why is one of my people in the dungeon?” the fox asked, his voice cold, almost detached.

Thomas had expected as much. Secrets were so hard to keep at Metamor. “Because he harboured the man who killed the Patriarch, or at least who we believe did so," the stallion answered in a steady tone. He gestured to the chair that the merchant had vacated. “Please, sit.”

Misha ignored the overture. “What man?” he snapped. “Would this be Zagrosek? And how long have you known about him?”

Thomas rested his hands on the back of his own chair, keeping his eyes focussed upon the Long Scout. “That is he. We've known of Zagrosek since Loriod's fall. He was one of the mages controlling Altera, and who knows what else.”

Misha slammed both of his fists upon the table, destroying a bottle of cheap wine that the merchant had given to Thomas as a gift. The wine spilled out across the wood, and then drained onto the carpet beneath their feet, staining it. “Why didn't you tell me about him?” he asked. His voice colder than steel.

“Because you would have tried to go after him,” The horse reasoned, ignoring the damage done to the carpet. Malqure would go into apoplexy, but there were plenty more carpets. “He has magical powers that we did not understand. We were not going to risk losing one of our best warriors while we knew so little.”

“Are you sure that's the only reason?” the fox pressed. There was a hardness to his tone that set the stallion’s teeth on edge. He could not recall a time when he’d seen the reynard so angry, except perhaps after Craig Latoner was killed.

And it was then that Thomas's calm demeanor changed to stern authority. No longer were they speaking as friends, but as leader to warrior. “Wessex, one of our most talented and knowledgeable mages, had barely been able to fight him. And now Wessex is dead.”

Misha was unperturbed. “Is that what you think? I'd just go off after him?” the scout countered. “Did it ever occur to you there is the minor point that I DON'T KNOW WHERE HE IS? So how can I go after him?" His voice nearly cracked at that. His anger filling him so much, the fox finally had to turn away from the Duke and look out one of the windows. Outside he could see the townsfolk hard at work rebuilding their homes, grim faces turned to cheer despite their loss. Yet here everything seemed to be falling apart, and he was damned if he was going to allow it.

So when he spoke again it was in a soft whisper. His anger was gone, replaced by a profound sadness, some terrible injury that he could not explain. “What really hurts is you believed I would desert Metamor to go off on revenge.”

“I know you would not abandon Metamor. But you just harassed the Lutins for revenge,” Thomas pointed out, his tone sarcastic. “Stepping Rock was about revenge. Why would He be any different? We simply did not know enough to know what to do.”

“Stepping Rock was a threat and you know that.”

“So is Zagrosek,” Thomas interrupted.

Misha bristled slightly, but only for a moment, before he continued. “I was planning that raid long before Caroline and Craig were attacked. What it all boils down to is that you didn't trust me enough.” His voice failed him then, and neither spoke for nearly a minute. They stood in the silence, Thomas watching the reynard’s back, while Misha continued to stare out across the town. Finally, his voice nearly hollow, he said, “After fighting and defending Metamor loyally for all these years you just don't trust me.”

“That's not true,” Thomas countered. “I trust you far more than I do most of the mages in my employ. But this whole thing is very confused and dangerous. The fewer people who knew all the facts the better.”

“If you had told me I could have warned the other Longs scouts. We could have been ready and waiting for him if he ever showed up. He wouldn't have escaped.”

“You might have caught him but how many would have died in the process?” Thomas came out from behind his chair and walked over to the fox, standing just at his shoulder. “We need to tread very carefully here until we know what is going on. This is a very dangerous affair and so is Zagrosek. That is why Charles is in the dungeon until we can sort this out. He’s a known associate of that man, so we had little choice. I apologize if I've insulted you and left you out. I should have told you before.”

Misha finally looked at the Duke. The fox seemed calm and collected, though the horse could not help but wonder what turbulent currents swept beneath that visage. All that he could see was a great weariness in his eyes that told of terrible exhaustion both mental and physical. “Can I see him?”

“I don't see why that would be a problem. Phil is overseeing these matters, he's been the closest to them other than Wessex. He will not want you to see Charles until you've talked with him. But I give you my permission. Phil will not complain about that.” Thomas leaned closer then and give Misha a very penetrating look, “You do realize how very painful this is for the Rabbit. Wessex was his Best Man, and the Patriarch his kinsman.”

“I know that. I also know he's next in line for the throne of Whales,” he said in a matter of fact tone. Nobility meant little to the fox, and never had. Misha always judged a person by their merits rather then their appearance or rank. It was a trait Thomas wished more people shared.

Misha broke in then with another question, one that struck deeply. “Why didn't you tell my people? We're all Longs. He's family.”

“We thought it best to keep this under wraps for now until you returned. Given the severity of the situation, if we told anybody, we would have to tell them of Zagrosek, and he is somebody we want to keep very secret, because we know so little of him.” The horse waved towards the chair with one hand once again. “Please, sit, and I'll tell you all that we do know of him right now. I know you understand that information is not to go any further then yourself for the time being.”

The fox shook his head. “I'd like to see Matthias first. I owe him that. Then we can talk about this Zagrosek and how to kill him.”

Thomas nodded slowly, but with understanding. “Very well. I will give you a letter to hand to the guards to let them know you are to be allowed to pass. They have orders to not let any see our friend just yet.”

Misha nodded once, watching as Thomas selected a quill pen and a small piece of paper from a second cabinet on the far wall. He waited while the Duke scribbled a quick note, his eyes distracted by the idle swishing of the Duke’s long tail. The distraction was momentary, for soon Thomas turned back around, the note folded and sealed by wax bearing his Ducal crest. “Show this to the guards and they will allow you through.”

He took the proffered note and nodded once more. “Thank you,” he muttered, voice low, though audible. Grimacing slightly, he walked once more out the door he’d come in. His rage had been tempered, but only to be replaced by grimmer thoughts. Thomas watched the fox go, and then, once the door was closed, turned about and strode to the window. He pushed the pane open and let the cold Winter air flow across his muzzle. All thought left him then as he breathed in the noontime scents, losing himself in all that was Metamor.

Marin did not feel any particular relief when they finally finished loading all the furs. Kaleas had come out into the courtyard celebrating the deal he’d struck, though his purse was quite a bit lighter than when he’d left. Thulin had of course asked about the price they’d finally negotiated, but Marin was so distracted by his thoughts he did not even heard what was said. While the workers slipped back inside the warehouse, Thulin checked the hitches upon their team of horses as Kaleas climbed up into the seat.

Marin usually sat with him, but found himself unable to move, his face flinching from the clouds and the furs and from every direction. Kaleas noticed his discomfort, and called out, “Marin, are you all right? You don’t look well.”

At hearing his name he glanced up, and saw the thick ruddy cheeks thinning, light hair replaced by the dark hair of the man as his features began to grow from his friend’s face. He winced, and then the sight was gone. “I think I may be catching a fever.”

“A fever?” Kaleas trumpeted, obviously distressed. Marin knew he was more distressed over losing his labour than his health. “We’ve two more proctors to visit before this day's work is done.”

“I’m sorry,” Marin said, his voice straining. “I need to lie down. I’ll be back at the Inn. A good hot stew may help.”

Kaleas nodded, even as Thulin climbed into the back of the wagon, eyeing him curiously. “It always will. Have yourself a bit to drink as well. Get your sleep, and tomorrow you’ll earn what you lost today I wager.”

“Will you be able to make it back to the Inn?” Thulin asked, leaning over, eyes studying Marin’s sweaty face.

“I think so. It’s not far,” Marin glanced over his shoulder down the street. He would not have far to walk, but it was a distance he needed to cover.

“We will see you there this evening then,” Kaleas said, before giving the reins a quick flick with one wrist. The horses neighed in protest, but began to walk across the cobblestone courtyard even further into the merchant’s district. Marin took only a few seconds to watch them go, before he turned back around, and began to walk as quickly as he could back towards the Inn.

It was cold all by himself in the city streets, though many others walked along them as well, horse-drawn carriages pulling by, and even a few vendors out braving the Winter season. He ignored them all, studiously avoiding them as he walked with cloak drawn tight before him down those streets, his boots slipping every now and then upon the icy road. The sky was still collecting far overhead, though as of yet, it had not given over to snow. It likely would not for some hours, he knew, but he hurried as if the storm would blind him at any moment.

Yet as he wound his way through the streets, the clay and timber of the houses on either side crowding nearer, he felt as if he were wandering without end or goal. The Inn was not his destination, merely a convenience, the stepping point for his true journey. Though his mind hinted tantalizingly at what he needed, he wished to keep that knowledge at bay, blinking to erase the images he kept seeing before him. Yet, as with the inevitability of the turning of the Seasons, he admitted to himself just what he sought. He needed to find that man, Krabbe, that they had played cards with that morning. His need was like a fist clutched round his heart, squeezing it ever tighter the longer he remained away from his presence.

Marin finally reached the Inn, his need so agonizing that he flung himself through the door, crying out in frustration, and knocking over another patron in his haste. The main room was warm, the sweat upon his brow dripping even more quickly. The chandeliers above swayed strangely, as if pulled by some unseen cord. Most of the tables were empty, only a few other travellers eating savoury meals while the fire crackled and popped in the hearth. Yet he had eyes only for one man, the same man who sat there at the back of the room near the long staircase up to the sleeping rooms. His dark hair glistened in the fire as if wet. Their eyes met as soon as he came into the room, hands still clutched at the cowl of his cloak, holding it firmly to his collar.

The man’s eyes flickered upwards, and he rose. Marin stumbled forward, his hands falling to his sides. There were others staring at him curiously for a moment before returning to their meals. Walking across the long room of the Inn, he watched as the man left his table and started for the stairs. It was not the table they’d been sitting at that morning while they’d gambled, but one situated at the corner of the stairs and wall, so that he could see all that came through the main room of the Inn. And there had been absolutely nothing on the table. Marin knew that Krabbe had been waiting for him, and yet somehow, this knowledge did not upset him in the least. He needed to be with this man, needed it more than anything else.

The dark-haired man had already climbed the stairs and was striding purposefully down the hallway past the rooms the Inn offered by the time Marin reached the bottom of the long staircase. Clutching the smooth banister with one hand, he pulled himself up. He felt almost as if his chest were pulling him upwards, dragging him so quickly that he nearly tripped several times during his ascent. But reach the top he did.

The hallway was lit only by lanterns, and consisted of several doors on both sides. One of the doors stood open, and Marin was drawn towards it. Turning around and inside, he saw the man standing at the window, his face gazing out across the town. “Shut the door,” he said in a soft voice. Marin turned about and did as instructed, locking it from the inside.

Krabbe turned back upon his heels then and Marin felt his gaze wash over him, his flesh prickling with anticipation. “Come forward,” the man’s voice ordered in a low voice, and Marin’s feet obeyed as if on instinct. Soon, the young merchant found himself standing before the older man, looking up the few inches into those dark eyes set atop his narrow nose. He wore the same dark tunic that he’d had on in the morning, though he could see a black robe laying across the bed in several folds.

“Kneel,” the man’s voice commanded, and Marin fell to one knee, his head bowed low. This was what he needed, to serve this man. Yes, that was what he had to do. He glimpsed something bright being drawn out from underneath the robe, and his eyes became fixed upon it. It was made entirely from gold, a merchant’s eye recognising it instantly. The blade was long, over four feet in fact, sharp and double-edged. The pommel and hilt had been shaped with nine sides, and though barely visible, Marin could make out strange symbols upon each side.

The man brought the end of the sword into the wooden timbers beneath them, the flat of the sword facing Marin. He could see his reflection in the gold, his ragged face becoming clearer, finding its purpose there in that image. “Kiss the blade,” the man said, his voice still soft, almost reassuring. Marin leaned forward and pressed his lips against its surface. The blade itself was far colder than gold ought to be, or any metal for that matter, and he felt as if his heart had stopped in that instant, and he stiffened as if dead.

And then, the man who was his master drew back the blade and placed it once more beneath the dark robe. His hand reached down, and the fingers traced across Marin’s cheeks, yet the merchant still found himself incapable of motion. Yet his heart exalted at this touch, as if within it he knew true completion. The thought of its absence filled him with a terrible dread.

“Rise,” the man said, and Marin was quick to come to his feet, his face still held low before his master. “Now,” the man said, voice carrying a hint of amusement, “you will wait for your companions in the main hall. Have something to eat and drink, and assure them you feel much better. Tomorrow, you will help make them mine as well. Do you understand?”

“Yes, master,” Marin intoned, his voice eager, his body yearning to fulfill this man’s wish. No other thought found its way into his mind.

“Then go, and do as I say.”

Marin nodded, turning quickly. He unlocked and opened the door, and then stumbled his way down to the main hall of the Inn. His master did not come down the stairs though, which disappointed him. Yet, when one of the serving maids came up to him and asked if he wished for anything, he was quick to tell her some stew and ale. Finding the nearest seat he waited for Thulin and Kaleas to return, just as his master wished for him to do.

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