Breaking the Duke - Part II

And remember, if it is Bryonoth, he was once my friend, I hope he still is,” Egland said as his hooves fell softly upon the carpet just outside the Cathedral entrance. He had grown used to walking upon them in the last two months. His adjustment to life at Metamor was hardly complete, though he had long since resigned himself to it. There were just so many things to become accustomed to, so many differences, that he suspected it would take a year at least before he would be comfortable calling himself a true Keeper.

Yet a Keeper he was, for he had given his allegiance to Duke Thomas after the Patriarch’s death. Sir Saulius and Sir Andre had made sure that he would not lose his knighthood, and he too was among the knight errants now locked in an animal’s form. Even so, he clung to the memories of the past and of the faces that were gone now. Yet here, on this most terrible of days, when his new home was besieged by ghastly forces from the frozen North, two of those faces had returned. First Bishop Vinsah, now masked as a raccoon revealed himself to stop the evil spirits from wreaking havoc in the Ecclesia Cathedral, and now Bryonoth had apparently stolen away with the Duke!

He breathed quietly, the weight of his mail shirt bearing down on his slender shoulders, but thick chest. He was not sure if he truly minded being a deer morph. The antlers as he’d discovered frightened his foes just as much as his blade did, and the diet of fruits and nuts that he tended to favour was one that he had preferred while in Yesulam. His body was lithe, and he found he could run faster than before, despite the fact that his feet had been replaced by narrow cloven hooves. He did often fall on his tail, but he was finding his balance much easier in the last few weeks.

Yet his biggest regret was the difficulty he had in playing his viola. His two thick fingers and thumb with large black hoof-like nails made the sort of delicacy he had once mastered impossible. In fact, his nails were so thick that he tended to press two or three strings down at a time whenever he attempted to sound a note. Dream Serpent, the gentle fop of a pine marten with the strange name, was helping him relearn the art of making music with his chosen instrument, and so far they had made fair progress, but he felt a child again, a vulgar brute, whenever he picked up that fragile bit of age polished wood and set the bow to its delicate strings.

And then, just as his thoughts turned towards the other more intimate lessons that Dream was teaching him, and new friends that the ever-smiling musician had introduced him to, they rounded one more corner and found the carnage left behind by his friend. Four bodies lay strewn in drying blood, smeared across the floor in Thalberg’s crawl to the Cathedral. Quickening his pace, Egland reached the bodies, and stepped past them, holding his sword tightly between his thick fingers. “Take them all back to the bishop, he can heal them.”

“Not her,” a young man said, indicating the woman who was laying face down in the pooled crimson. “I’m afraid she’s dead.”

“Take her anyway,” Egland groused.

“Thou wouldst not dishonour the memory of thy fellow Keeper by leaving the body of this lass for foul Lutins to pick over?” Saulius added pointedly, his whiskers twitching as he gazed down at the cooling corpse.

The man shook his head at that, reaching down and gripping the woman’s body underneath her shoulders. “Of course not. The living need our attention more. How many other Keepers will have their bodies defiled by the Lutins in this awful attack?”

“Too many,” Egland muttered, his tongue pressing firmly against his teeth as he worked his jaw side from side in displeasure. “But we have a chance to keep that body safe from such debasement, and so we shall.”

The man nodded, and began to drag the disembowelled woman back along the hallway, while the other three guards were checked over for injuries beyond the obvious ones. The goat stirred when shaken, and though still groggy, was helped to his hind hooves, and managed to walk back towards the Cathedral with minimal assistance. The stoat did not respond, but his flesh was still warm. The spaniel however, did not appear to have much life left in him, but two of the soldiers carried him back to the Cathedral anyway.

After the guards had been carted off, Egland began to inspect the area, while Saulius sniffed along the floors and walls, his whiskers twitching feverishly. The other two soldiers that had stayed with them, a large lizard morph tightly bundled in thick cloth and leather and a rather lightly clad polar bear whose presence made Egland a bit nervous, were watching either side of the hall to insure that no party of Lutin’s surprised them.

The bear though, gave out a startled cry, a deep rumbling sound that turned all of their heads. “What is it, Cassius?” Egland asked as he darted forward, always staying on the carpet to muffle the fall of his hooves.

“I think those are the Duke’s clothes,” Cassius pointed with a single claw at a pile of torn and shredded garments of a rather fine cloth.

Saulius approached them, even as the lizard morph Egland had heard given the name Copernicus stepped forward, bright eyes gleaming in the dim light. He turned the mace he’d taken from the Lutin warrior in his thick hands, a macabre trophy from a fallen foe who had foolishly led an attack against the Cathedral. Leaning over, the rat sniffed at the clothes a few times and then nodded. “They bear the scent of a stallion, our precious liege. Yet, they hath not any more than but a trace of blood upon them.” His narrow muzzle drew up in a disgusted moue, “Leastwise aught than Lutin.”

Egland peered down at them from over top of the rat’s kneeling form, and gently kicked them with one hoof. “Strange, what could cause this?”

“He probably shifted to his full horse form,” Cassius interjected. “I’ve made that mistake myself a few times, and I always shred my clothes like that when I do.”

“But why would he shift?”

“To run faster perhaps?” Copernicus suggested, his thick tail swaying back and forth underneath the thick wool he’d wrapped about it. Egland regarded the lizard for a moment as he considered that, pondering for a moment how he could be so effective when laden with so much cloth, but he had proven himself quite nimble.

“It would be a good idea. I cannot imagine a man dressed in armour could outrun a horse, especially not one as healthy as the Duke,” Cassius added, his deep voice resonating through Egland’s bones and making his neck fur stand on end. Before his change, Egland had been impressed in many ways by the sheer power that flowed through every sinew of the wolverine knight Andre’s body. Yet now, he was unnerved by the presence of this bear for many of those very same reasons. It was that part of being a deer that he did not find appealing, bearing the instincts of prey.

Saulius glanced up at them, his nose twitching. “‘Tis oil here as well.”

“Do you think that you can follow that trail, Sir Saulius?” Egland asked

‘Thou dost know I can, unless the Keep moves.”

Egland nodded and motioned for Saulius to lead them on. “Then let us hope that the Keep should hold its form long enough for us to follow this trail. Cassius, stay at Saulius’s back. Copernicus and I shall watch the rear.”

“Let us move quickly, “ Copernicus suggested. “If Thomas was fleeing, then we’ll have a long trail to follow.”

Saulius nodded, and then set up a rather quick pace, only stopping at intersections or doorways to determine which way the Duke had gone. With his heart filling his throat, Egland offered prayers once again that they would find him safe, and Bryonoth as well.

Biting down on the bit, Thomas followed meekly after the knight who had not said anything for the last hour except to give him the occasional command, which Thomas followed precisely, despite his fervent desire to do otherwise. They appeared to be wandering aimlessly through the Keep, but always downwards. He’d not had to attempt any stairs, as the Keep had provided them with long ramps to descend, almost as if the Keep were allowing Thomas to be degraded like this. Often he let the question in his mind flow freely, why was this being done, but of course, no answer was forthcoming.

Several times they passed by corpses of Lutins and Keepers, strewn in horrific piles along either side of the corridors. His heart would ache with a dull pounding every time he saw one of his own slain, but all he could do was to keep on following the lead of the knight. Yet, it wasn’t until they were on the ground floor that the knight took them anywhere but the varied halls of the Keep. Turning, he opened a door, and commanded Thomas to walk inside. Inside he went, into a blackness that made him shiver in a very equine fashion.

The knight struck a tinder and soon had a brazier illuminated. The door shut behind him with a whump, nearly catching his long tail between the frame. Yet, when the knight lit a small lantern and brought it over, Thomas could see what was in the room, and felt his heart beat even faster. They were standing in a store room for the stables, and various equipment for the care and control of horses was neatly organized along every wall.

“Indeed, thou dost know what this is for. Thou shalt become very familiar with it, my fine stallion,” the knight said mockingly as he ran his gauntleted hand over a dusty saddle. He then lifted it from the rack and carried it over to the Duke. Thomas tried to back away, but the barking command, “Stand still!” froze the muscles in his body.

He felt the weight of the saddle descend onto his back, not particularly heavy, but certainly alien and unwanted. With deft ease, the knight had tied it tightly around his chest, securing it firmly in place. Again, he took his gauntlet off and ran his hands through the Duke’s mane, gently stroking the fur, soothingly. Thomas breathed heavily, his eyes wide with nervous fright as he watched the man’s face. He could see very little within that visage, and that frightened him even worse.

The man suddenly grimaced, however, and then began to look over the racks again until he had come up with several blankets. “‘Tis freezing outside, thou shalt need some protection.” He undid the saddle, and set it aside upon the rack from which he’d taken it. Thomas felt instantly better with it off of his back, for it had felt like a noose tightening about his neck. Yet the moment was fleeting, for soon the man had lain the blankets across his back, and replaced the saddle.

Opening the door, the knight called out, “Back.” Thomas backed up then, his tail flitting from side to side, the terrible weight of the saddle choking his will and crushing his heart. Once he had returned to the hallway, his captor extinguished the lantern and the brazier, and closed the door behind him. Gripping the reins of the halter in one hand, and fitting his foot into one of the stirrups, the knight hoisted himself up onto Thomas’s back. Thomas felt his hooves grind into the carpet, and he gnashed his tongue against the bit and the place where he’d lost a tooth.

Clicking his tongue against his teeth, and pulling slightly on the reins, Thomas turned to his right, walking slowly through the corridors of the Keep, obediently following the knight’s commands as if he were a real horse. With a sinking feeling in his heart he knew that he was almost a real horse as it was. Whatever magic was in that halter, it had turned him into an obedient animal, and left only the thoughts raging in his mind to distinguish him from any other horse.

The air quickly grew cold as they approached one of the doors outside the Keep. Thomas was very glad for those blankets, for they did hold the warmth in his flesh, even as he bore up the knight upon his back. Yet was this to be his fate? Was he doomed to spend the rest of his life as a stud to be bred at this man’s whimsy, and to be ridden and constantly be reminded that he was just a simple animal? Would he over time begin to even believe it too? The thought of docilely accepting such a life filled him with even worse dread, yet his body continued to trot forward along the carpeting against his will.

And then, as they turned the corner and saw the doors burst inwards, and piles of snow filling the hall, they also saw a small band of Lutins standing at that doorway. The green-skinned beasts saw them and let out a cry as they charged at the horse and his rider, wielding wicked clubs and spears high in their stubby hands. The knight kicked Thomas in his sides and drew his sword, still holding the rein firmly in his other hand, letting out his own cry, “Charge!”

Thomas leapt forward, his hooves pounding into the carpet and stone as he snorted and ran forward to meet those filthy beasts. The first of the Lutins fell beneath his hooves with a satisfying crunch of bone. The knight severed the head of another, while the other four tried to attack from the flanks, even as Thomas stamped his hooves, and champed in fierce rage at the bit.

With a simple tug on the reins, Thomas turned around, kicking with his hind hooves at the two Lutins now at his back. One of them managed to duck out of the way, the other was tossed against the wall, the armour on his chest caved in fatally. Looking forward, he could see that one of the Lutins was jumping towards his shoulder to sink a knife into it, but the knight brought his boot forward and kicked the beast aside. With a jab of his sword, the other fell to the ground, his head hanging limply upon his shoulders.

The last Lutin gave out a strangled cry and began to run down the hall, his weapons dropped to the ground. With another kick into his sides, the knight commanded Thomas to charge again. His mind flaring with the battle fury, the Duke drove forward, his hooves crushing the stones beneath them, as the single Lutin grew closer and closer. His head turned once to see what the sound was, and then his eyes went wide in freakish terror, letting out a horrific cry of anguish as he tried to run as fast as he could. Yet it was a futile attempt, for soon, Thomas’s hooves met with the Lutin’s back, and sent him sprawling against the ground. A moment later, those same hooves ran across the prone Lutin’s form, smashing the bones to pieces.

Even as he continued to snort from the exertion, he felt a soothing hand at his neck, and a calm voice in his ears. “Thou hast done well.” Upon hearing that, Thomas could not help but look back at the bodies that now lay strewn through the snow littered-hallway. He’d behaved just as a warhorse might, and had enjoyed the thrill it had given him. With renewed fear and trepidation, he could only wonder what this halter was doing to him. Was it making him not only obedient in every way, but also a regular horse in every way? Would he begin to lose his memories of being anything but a horse?

Before he could even begin to debate those questions, he felt the tug of the reins, and heard the nicker from the knight’s lips. Turning, he began a slow trot back towards the open door, and the wintry blizzard that waited outside. Yet he felt the reins tighten as a set of blurry images rounded the far corner from which they had originally come. He stared at them for that moment, bringing them into focus, and felt joy fill his hear. For they were Keepers.

“Bryonoth!” he heard a light voice call out, as the figures rushed forward, four of them. He recognized the knight Saulius and his new friend Egland. Copernicus was at their back, wrapped in mounds of cloth, while a polar bear whose name he believed was Cassius was right at his side.

Yet the knight Bryonoth did not give the Duke long to ponder, for he had soon kicked his sides and cried, “Charge!” Thomas thundered forward, the din of hoof beats filling his ears, and the new scent of battle flooding his mind. He tried to hold back, as these were his fellow Keepers and friends, but the fury of the fight and the halter’s magic prevented him from doing anything but what the knight wanted.

The Keepers fanned out before him, trying to move out of the way of the charging horse. Copernicus turned his long head to one side beneath the bundles of cloth he’d wrapped about himself and called out, “Don’t hurt the horse, it’s Duke Thomas.” Thomas took some small solace in that they knew it was him, but found his hooves pounding relentlessly forward to smash their chests in and to crush them into the tiling.

Bryonoth swung his word in a wide arc as Thomas reared only feet from them, but the Keepers were quick, and stayed low. Egland and Saulius raised their swords, hefting the flat edge of the blade against the knight’s chest. But Bryonoth turned his own swing, and knocked back the rat’s blade, while kicking the deer in the chest with his armoured foot. While Egland was reeling and trying to catch his breath, Saulius swung again, only to be parried once more. Thomas found himself turning with the bit then, and lashed out his hooves at the rat, but the knight was quicker, and scurried back, his face twisting with desperation.

Cassius came swinging at the knight’s backside with his mace, but Thomas could see the motion out of one corner of his eyes. With a quick jerking motion, he kicked back with one hind leg, grazing the bear’s side, twisting him about as he tried to hold his balance. Yet the ursine warrior recovered fairly quickly, his dark eyes betraying the momentary pain he’d suffered beneath that white plume of fur.

Copernicus, being as tall as he was, had grabbed the knight’s sword arm, and was twisting his wrist, attempting to force him to drop it. Bryonoth, despite all of his years living in the Steppe, and the training he’d undergone at Yesulam, did not have the strength in him to wrestle with a three-hundred-fifty pound lizard. So for a moment he let go of the reins and with his other fist punched Cope square between the eyes. Dazed, the lizard stumbled backwards, letting go of the knight’s arm as he tried to wipe the swirling images from his eyes.

Having caught his breath, Egland slapped the flat of his blade at the knight’s back from his left. Having been too occupied with the lizard to see the deer approaching, Thomas was the only one who could keep his rider from harm. Though he wished to do nothing, his body acted, turning quickly to the side, and slammed his flanks right into the deer’s shoulder. He even went so far as to attempt to stomp hard down upon the knight’s foot, but as his feet were hooves as well, it merely glanced off to the side.

However, Thomas was surely not ready for what came next, for Egland, staring up into his face with desperate need, drove his fist hard into the side of the Duke’s head. Thomas let out a terrified whinny as he toppled to the ground, sending Bryonoth sprawling onto the floor. Pain swelled through his face, and especially in his mouth, as the strike had hammered the bit right into the empty space where one of his teeth had been. Kicking with all four of his hooves, Thomas tried to right himself, blinking with one eye at the bruise that was surely swelling.

Yet, as he did get to his feet, the weight of a rider was no longer present, and as he cast his eyes about, he saw the knight laying upon his back like a turtle, while the Keepers descended upon him, holding his limbs and trying to keep him down. Thomas told himself to stay there, to remain where he was, that his obligation even as a warhorse was ended to this man as he was down. It was time to allow himself to be rescued and restored to his more human shape.

“Ts’amut!” Egland cried out as he beat Bryonoth’s right arm into the ground, resting his chest completely on it. “It is I, your friend, Sir Egland! Please come back to us, Ts’amut!”

Though Thomas did not recognize the name he used, it was clear that Bryonoth did, for a flicker of recognition came into his face, and for a moment, his struggles ceased and a smile seemed to play across his swollen lips. Yet that flicker was short-lived, as some other personality drowned it out, pushing that glimmer back into the depths. The struggle for dominance was quick, and soon settled and won by that malicious nature, as if Bryonoth carried two souls within him.

Leaning forward, he slammed the front of his helmet into the deer’s face, but the massive deer ducked his head and the helmet clattered impotently against the animal-knight’s antlers. And then he cried out, “Help me!” Thomas found his muscles compelled to action as he reared and tried to land both front hooves into the bear’s back as he forced Bryonoth’s leg down. Copernicus gave a shout in time and Cassius was able to roll out of the way. But he did not escape Thomas’s bite, for his teeth gripped the bear’s shoulder and tore at the flesh in a fury that he could not ever remember allowing into his heart before. One leg freed, the furious knight twisted his body, bringing the armour plated knee up firmly against Egland’s ribs, forcing a startled grunt from the heavy deer, then again, kicking out as he lifted his chest and kneed him once again, finally knocking the gasping deer away.

Snorting, he spat out the distasteful flesh and fur, even as the bear tried to stop the flow of blood with his other paw. Thomas’s attention was no longer on the bear though, for he had turned toward the lizard who was laying atop the knight’s other leg. Stamping and snorting in rage, he tried to bring his hooves down on his chest, but Copernicus rolled inside, and with a quick punch, drove his fist into the horse’s chest. Thomas spluttered, nearly falling from his hooves again, but managed to remain upright, lifting his hooves for another attempt to kill. But Cope was no fool, and rolled out from underneath him again, and landed another punch into his flanks.

Letting out a whinny of rage, Thomas turned on the lizard, snorting and flaring at his effrontery. However, he heard Bryonoth call to him again, and turned to look at his rider, and heed his call. Bryonoth slammed his gauntleted fist down hard on Saulius’s helmet, making the rat’s head ring with the clanging vibrations. Jumping to his feet, he drew a dagger from his side, and sliced once more at the bear who had interposed himself between the knight and Thomas. Cassius let out a chocking cry as more blood began to stain his white fur, this time from a gash in his chest.

Gripping Thomas’s reins, Bryonoth pulled himself back into the saddle, and kicked hard into the Duke’s sides. With a thunder of hoofbeats, Thomas charged down the hallway, and then out into the open air through the door the Lutins had been watching. The snow was bitterly cold, and rose halfway up his legs, yet he did his best to leap through it. The excitement of the battle still pounded through his veins, yet in one part of his mind, all he could do was feel both his home and his humanity slip away. With defeated reluctance, he allowed himself to just be a horse for the time being.

“Damn!” Egland swore breathlessly as he climbed back to his hooves, using the wall to help him rise. Once standing, he rushed over to the open door, feeling the chill of the cold wind blow into his face. Though it was still snowing, it was not nearly as heavy as it had that morning. It was clear in which direction they had gone, for the long pockets in the snow were unmistakable. Yet those pockets would fill if they did not hurry. But who among them could outrun a horse?

Turning, he looked back to the others, as they rose to their paws, taking stock of their loss. Cassius did not rise easily, and needed Copernicus’s help to stay standing on his hind paws. He grimaced the whole time, pressing what little cloth he did have to his chest wound to staunch the flow of blood.

“I’m sorry, friends, but I cannot continue this chase,” Cassius said reluctantly, a terrible moue upon his muzzle the entire time. “I have to head back to the chapel.”

Egland nodded, and looked at Copernicus who appeared similarly regretful. “And you?”

“I would be of no use to you out in that weather. I’d slip into torpor within thirty minutes, despite all my protection. If it was during the day, perhaps, but not at night, and not with this much snow on the ground.” Copernicus offered him a weary grimace on his rather expressive face for a reptile. “I will help Cassius get back to the Cathedral, and tell the others what has happened so far. Are you going to continue?”

“Yes,” Egland said, meeting Saulius’s firm gaze. It was clear that the rat was bound to go on and rescue his liege. “We have to, though I do not know what hope we have of catching up to a horse in this weather. If we had our steeds, that would be one thing, but we cannot risk a journey to the stables, not with the Lutins sacking the city.”

“Thou art a deer,” Saulius pointed out. “Thou art fleet of hoof in thy natural form.”

Egland opened his mouth to object, but closed it again. The rat was right, it was quite likely the only way they could catch up with Bryonoth and the strangely compliant Duke. He finally nodded and began to undo the cinches holding his armour in place. “You are right, I must shift to my full deer form. You can hold onto my back, Sir Saulius.”

“We can use bits of cloth to help you hold on,” Copernicus suggested, gently setting Cassius against the wall. The bear nodded, and let the lizard leave him leaning there. “I suppose I can sacrifice my outermost layer to such a noble purpose.”

“Thy act is most appreciated,” Saulius said, nodding, watching his fellow knight undress.

Egland felt those eyes upon him very warmly, and though he had never before publically allowed his most intimate parts to be seen, he found the thought of it now strangely exhilarating. There was no shame in being naked when one was already an animal. Lifting his mail off, he deposited it on the ground beside him, and then removed the undershirt that was stained with oil. “I just want to know why Thomas acted like he did. You would think he would resist being made a horse.”

“He probably does not have a choice,” Cassius suggested between breaths.

“Yes, he probably is under some magical control. I can’t see why he would attack us otherwise,” Copernicus agreed, even as he ripped the black fabric robe he’d had on the outside into several long strips.

“Well, how are we supposed to defeat that? We aren’t mages!” Egland decried even as he slipped his leggings off.

“I’m not sure,” Copernicus admitted.

“For a moment, thy friend did recognize thee,” Saulius said softly, his whiskers twitching thoughtfully. He strapped a second sword to his belt, one for himself, and the other for Egland. “Perhaps thou ought to try to find that bit of him again.”

Egland nodded as he finally removed the last of his clothing, standing before them, a two-legged buck in only the flesh and fur. “Well, whatever we may do, we need to catch up with him first. I am ready, are you, Cope?”

“Yes, just shift and we’ll get you two strapped together,” Cope said, lifting several long strips of what had once been a thick black cloak.

Egland nodded, and let his form flow over him, watching as his hands hardened further into true hooves, before his shifting back forced them to the ground with a clatter. His fur was quite thick, and he felt taller than he had been before, though he knew that was just an impression. Though everyone called him a deer as it was more commonly known, he was truly an elk, broad thick neck, and massive powerful frame in his full form. It gave him renewed confidence that they would indeed rescue the Duke.

Copernicus lifted Saulius onto Egland’s back, the sudden weight surprising him. He spread his hooves to capture it more fully, but found that it was not a terrible burden. It probably would have been easier, had the rat removed his armour, but that would have been a foolish thing to do in the long run. And then, as he felt the rat’s claws dig into his neck fur, the lizard began to wrap the straps about his middle, tying them underneath firmly. After a few minutes, he stepped back and nodded. “I think that is secure. My best wishes to you both. May Eli guide your footsteps.”

“And thine as well,” Saulius said in response, before patting Egland on the neck, “Let us be off!”

Egland snorted and turned to face that open door through which the wintry wind howled. Charging at a brisk canter, he leapt out into the snowy night, his hooves finding those same tracts that Thomas’s had, and began to follow the trail around towards the back of the Keep, while the rat kept a look out for any Lutins.

It was not completely dark outside, as there were many bright fires that could be seen in the town some distance away. Burning homes lit the sky a lurid orange as they were reduced to cinders, testament to Nasoj’s greed and quest for power. Egland pondered just how many of those homes still had Keepers inside them when they were set to torch. How many people would come out after this was over and find their precious heirlooms naught more than piles of ash? How many gifts between husband and wife would have been smashed and shattered at the loutish hands of the Lutins? How many lives would be destroyed because of this madness? Egland did not dare attempt to answer any of those questions.

Charging through the snow, he realized that he barely could feel the chill in his present form. He had to leap through the piles of it, just as Thomas surely had to as well, and he still was not moving as fast as he would have liked. Leaving the town behind, he saw that they were circling to the rear of the Keep, where it was closest to the curtain wall atop the ridge that Metamor rested upon. The ground here was stripped bare, the earth littered with the fallen bodies of those that had been slain attempting to secure the wall above. Shattered ladders were cast about haphazardly, forcing the elk to slow his steps as he moved around the thick fall of corpses and broken wood. Some, he noticed, had no injuries at all. They had frozen to death before ever facing a single Keeper. Suddenly, the tracks veered off, and led closer toward the wall. Following them into the darkness that was the rear of the Keep, he could see that they were moving towards the small gate in the rear of the wall that had been put in place only just recently.

The gate was on the steep side of the ridge, which made it nearly impossible to reach. It was little used as well, built to make checking the outside walls easier. From what he’d heard, a mage had left a spell on that wall before, and it had taken months to find it, as nobody would have ever thought anyone would make that difficult walk all the way around the walls of the Keep.

Grunting, Egland drove forward to the gate, following the long strides of the horse that Thomas was. It was only a solitary door in the wall, just big enough for a rider to pass through. The snow around it had been cleared away, apparently in preparation for Bryonoth’s escape. It was slightly ajar, the wind whistling through the crack. Stepping up along side of it, Egland waited, unable to do anything about it himself.

Saulius pressed his claws into the crack, and heaved, drawing it open slightly. Egland then turned about on his hooves again, stepping softly in the comparably light dusting by the door. Pressing his snout into the crack, he wedged it further, before it finally swung wide before them. Cautiously, Egland stepped out past the aperture, peering into the solemn darkness, his eyes distinguishing very little of the snow-slick ridge.

“There!” Saulius cried, pointing his claw off to one side. “He hast switch-backed down the ridge. I shall guide thee.”

Egland nodded and set off carefully down the slope, following the gentler incline that Bryonoth had taken. By taking a constantly switching route, the knight had found a less dangerous way to descend the perilous ridge. Even so, Egland could feel his hooves slipping on the snow as he worked down, taking it as slowly as he could allow himself. Grunting in displeasure, he continued forward, despite the winds that were gently sweeping along the hillside, lifting the snow and throwing it into his face.

Saulius’s frame clutched tightly around his neck, the whiskers rubbing against his flesh as he slowly trotted, blunted by the fur there, even as it blunted the sheets of snow that were cast about both from above and below. The weight of the rat, dressed in his armour as he was, was quite heavy, but not terribly so, Egland felt. It did give him more reason to worry as he moved forward, trying to find purchase beneath the snow on the ridge. If the wrong wind should dislodge his friend even a bit, it could send them both tumbling down the hillside.

At a shout from the rat, he turned about, and began to work down the hillside in the opposite direction. So far, from what he could see, Thomas had had little difficulty in making his way down the ridge only a short time ago. The marks were just his dragging hoof steps, no signs of trouble, no long smears continuing on downwards. Just ever forward, inching down the ridge. Egland kept his eyes on following the path that he could see in the faint light that crept over the top of the ridge wall from Metamor. There were a few torches burning brightly still in that edifice, but far fewer than he would have hoped for.

Yet, even as the cold winds blasted across the forbidding hillside, his thoughts turned elsewhere. Here he was, in the form of a full elk stag, working his way down the hill carrying a knight rat upon his back. Saulius was riding him as if he were but a steed, just as Thomas was being rode like a war horse. Whatever foul magic his friend from the steppes had used on the Duke, it had made of him nothing more than a well-trained animal.

When the curses had originally struck, those like him had become animals in mind as well as body. Would Nasoj attempt to strengthen his original curse once more? Would he, Sir Yacoub Egland, formerly a knight of Yesulam, become nothing more than an elk, running off into the woods to chew on grass and shrubs the remainder of his days? And what of Saulius, clutching his neck as he was. Would he just become a small rat, tossed from the back of the elk only to be smashed against a tree, or crushed from the powerful hooves of a beast in panic as it tried to dislodge the armour from its back?

Even as he continued pondering such terrible deeds, he felt the guiding hand of the rat at his neck, and turned once more. Taking a moment to glance back up the hillside, he could see a bit of light streaming through the doorway before it was swallowed by the forbidding haunt of the storm and the night. It was many ells away though, clearly they were making good progress down the hillside. Turning back towards the path, he trotted along, carefully setting his hooves into the grooves left for him by Thomas’s own resolute march downwards and away from his kingdom.

What terrible thoughts must Thomas be thinking now, the knight wondered as he placed one hoof forward. Surely he cannot be happy about what has happened to him, as long as his conscious mind is still awake. He had heard rumours of fetishes that Lutins sometimes carried that triggered the curse into full bloom, reducing one so afflicted to nothing more than a dull-witted animal. Could Bryonoth have been given one of those to use on their poor Duke? If so, they would be leading back a horse, and nothing more, unless one of the mages at the Keep could lift such a deadly burden and find their liege beneath the equine exterior.

Yet Egland shook his head at that, determined not to see only disaster ahead, determined to find some hope, some glistening ray that would lead them onwards. Bryonoth was not that much farther ahead of them, he could not make Thomas run forever either. Eventually they would have to stop somewhere, and that is where Egland would catch up with them and knock some sense into his friend, and rid him of this evil influence that he appeared to be acting under. It was clear that something had gotten a hold of him. From all that he had heard, it was the same man who had killed the Patriarch.

A sudden shudder passed through him, even as he turned according to Saulius’s signal. He had failed to protect his former master, the man to whom he’d dedicated his life many years ago. With one blow he had been sent underneath his horse, his legs crushed to the point that he was lucky he could walk today. Lucky, with the help of the curse giving him completely new legs. He had failed once before, he would not allow himself that luxury this time. He was going to save the Duke, no matter what it cost himself.

And then, the ground began to level out. With a surge of relief, Egland realized that they had managed to descend the hill safely. Saulius gave out a short chittering laugh and patted him on the side of the neck. Gazing down towards the ground, he could easily see the path that Thomas had taken southwards. Snorting in new found urgency, he leapt through the snow, bounding with cervine grace into the wintry night, while the rat held on tight, his armour clanking at every hoof fall. Yes, he would save Thomas, that he promised himself.

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