Breaking the Duke - Part III

The storm’s urgency had faded the further South they went. Bryonoth was glad of that, for it allowed him the luxury of a bit more light as he continued to drive Thomas through the night. He was not sure if he was being followed, but he doubted very much that the Keepers would allow him the luxury of an escape so easily made, despite their other problems. But he knew that his steed could not handle too much exertion in one evening, especially through this sort of weather. Why, his legs must be freezing, only continuing to move because they were so used to the motion.

Bryonoth had been learning the layout of the land south of the Keep for the last two months, and so knew his way about fairly well, and knew where to find shelter. Turning through the woods, he slowed Thomas down slightly, pulling back on the reins. Obedience was immediate, and he doubted that Thomas even realized that the spell of control had waned. He was just used to obeying his rider’s commands. He’d strengthen it again while Thomas slept, so that he did not realize that it needed to be recharged. No point in giving his new found stallion reason to be obdurate or rebellious.

The snow was lighter at least, only a foot or so deep in the woods. The blizzard had mostly been concentrated at the Keep, and had died off to a light dusting after an hour’s ride. Both he and his steed appreciated that, as it allowed them to move faster down the valley. Bryonoth was no fool though. He knew that he was not safe, and Thomas would not truly be his steed until they had safely left the valley and were in the Midlands proper. There, he could have Thomas shod in preparation for the trip to the Steppe of the Flatlands.

Once they arrived in his homeland, it would not be difficult to rejoin the Bryonoth clan, and Thomas would produce many fine foals. Of course, he’d need a more fitting name than Thomas. It just wasn’t of the Steppe. He’d have to think on that for now, as nothing sprang to mind. But surely he would bring his family much honour by claiming a steed as this. And he knew a rune to cast that would seal Thomas forever into this form just as soon as he was branded by his clan.

However, for any of this to come to fruition, he needed to find shelter, before Thomas’s legs became too cold to move. Ducking under a few more lifeless branches, casting the snow upon it to the ground and over Thomas’s hindquarters, he saw the building that he’d been making for. It was a small farm that had been abandoned the previous winter. Signs of attack had still been upon it when Bryonoth had found it last month. He’d spent a few days repairing the stables, and stealing enough hay from the nearby farms to stock it.

With a click of his tongue he turned Thomas towards the front door, slowing him down to a simple walk. Thomas, with bowed head, complied, obviously exhausted from his run through the bitter winter chill. Bryonoth patted his steed’s neck with one hand to assure him that all was well, though said nothing. He had a few other places prepared in case he had been able to make it further on the first night of his escape, but the blizzard made this stable a necessity.

Dismounting, the knight lifted the latch on the stable door, and led Thomas inside where it was warmer, though not a great deal. After closing the door and removing his gauntlets, he took the tinder from the saddlebags perched on either side of Thomas’s flanks and lit the lantern he’d hung inside the doorway. The stable was small, only three stalls, each of them freshly stocked with hay, while more awaited in the hayloft above. There was a small fire pit on the other side, which had fresh kindling and twigs already placed inside. Taking a short stick, he lit it with the lantern’s flame, and then proceeded to start the fire.

It took him a few moments to get the flame nice and bright, but once he had done so, he removed a blanket from the saddlebags and held it before the flickering orange flame, until it was pleasantly warm. Turning, Bryonoth approached Thomas, who stood in the middle of the stables rather dumbly. Bryonoth let out another nicker, and the horse clopped forward upon the hay-strewn wood floor, his eyes on the fire both apprehensively, and appreciatively.

Bryonoth leaned forward and began to rub Thomas’s legs down with the warm cloth, restoring feeling to them as he worked. Thomas just stood there meekly, cooperating as if he were but a tame horse, though the knight gave no orders. Bryonoth gazed a moment into the Duke of Metamor’s eyes as he worked on his forelegs, trying to see what thoughts were betrayed in them. All that he could discern though was appreciation for this gesture. No sense of that former rebellion remained in them.

With a bit of a chuckle, Bryonoth patted Thomas’s cheek with one hand, a hand that the horse leaned into. Smiling, he turned to work over his steed’s rear legs, delighted at the compliance he found. Perhaps the Duke would not be so hard to break as he had at first suspected. And so, as the fire crackled, the flames growing higher and higher in the inglenook, Sir Albert Bryonoth continued warming the Duke’s body with the cloth, rubbing it firmly across every one of his legs, taking care around each joint.

Once he was finished with that, he lifted the saddle from the Duke’s back, and set it on the nearby rack. He then gripped the reins, and led Thomas into one of the stalls, turning him about so that his head rested above the slightly rotted wooden door. Thomas clopped about, his tail swishing from one side to the other almost lazily, snorting and champing a bit at the halter.

Bryonoth chuckled then, and patted the side of his head, just beneath one eye. “Thou art mistaken if thou thinkst I shall remove thy halter just yet.” Leaving the horse inside the stall, he retrieved two sets of poles from one of the other stalls, each with wide clasps on the ends. Returning to his steed, he said, “Stand still, “ and immediately, Thomas’s body stiffened, the legs locking beneath him as if he were sleeping.

Stepping underneath his stallion, Bryonoth placed the clasps around the upper portion of Thomas’s right foreleg, and then placed the other around his right hind leg. He used the other pole on the horses’s left side, before locking each clasp in place, and shifting them about to make sure that they were secure. He then stood before his horse and offered him a slight smile. “I shall warn thee, if thou attempts to change back, then thou shalt break thy arms and legs. A horse whose limbs are broken is good only for its flesh.”

Thomas’s eyes went wide at that, but he offered no protest. Bryonoth then untied the halter, and pulled it from the horse’s head, the bit coming free of Thomas’s mouth at last. It looked as if it were a great relief to Thomas to have those straps of leather from his face, for he opened and shut his mouth several times to get the taste of the bit out.

Bryonoth hung the halter from a peg on the post next to the stall, and then dragged one of the feedbags over, and began to pour the oats into the trough just inside the stall. Thomas was quick to set his face down into the offering, eating gluttonously. Nodding in approval, Bryonoth walked over to one of the cisterns on the other side of the barn, and placed a pail beneath the valve. Turning the handle, he saw that the water had not completely frozen, as it trickled slowly into the pan. Once it was half full, he turned the handle back, carried the pail back to the horse’s stall, and filled the water trough with what he had in the pail. Bryonoth made three trips before he was satisfied his steed had enough to drink.

Content that Thomas was well cared for at the moment, he turned to face the two doors leading outside. If indeed the Metamorians were looking for him, then the Keepers would have little difficulty in following the trail he’d left. He took the long shaft of wood and laid it in the braces for the door. It would take a bit of effort for any Keepers to burst their way into the stable, which would give him just enough alarm to defend himself and his steed.

He shoved a few logs into the inglenook then, listening to the crack of the fire as it snapped and worked to turn the kindling to ash. He held out his chapped hands to the flames, letting them be warmed once more. It would feel good to be back on the Steppe, were weather such as this rarely if ever occurred. There was a soreness to his body as well, in his legs, one that he had greatly missed in the last two months. It was the feel of a horse between his legs.

An unpleasant moue crossed his features then as he thought over the last two months. He’d had to live out of the saddle, without the companionship of his steed. It was a bitter existence that, one that he was not meant to live. He was born to the saddle, a man of the Steppe. He breathed in deep of his own flesh, and found its taint of equine odour appealing, a true impression of living. Turning back to Thomas, he saw that his steed was eating quietly from the feed tray, the poles about his legs not preventing him from taking small steps, but certainly from changing back or attempting to flee.

Walking once more across the short space of the stables, Bryonoth rested his now warmed hands upon the horse’s neck, running his fingers through the long, coarse, black mane there, and breathing in deep of the pleasing aroma. Thomas lifted his head to consider the knight, his eyes curious, but did not appear to be damning or in the least bit reproachful. Bryonoth rested his forehead against Thomas’s, as he gently ran his fingers through the cheek fur. “I thank thee,” was all he could say before he began to whimper quietly.

Thomas nuzzled him a bit with his head, and Bryonoth hugged that head close, his whole body so delighted to just have the feel of a horse so near. Never before could he remember when he had felt so delighted to have a steed at his side to care for. There was no doubt he needed a steed to feel complete, to feel like a man. As he held that massive equine head in his hands, all other thoughts fled his mind. Truly, the blood of a horse flowed in his own veins.

Snorting a moment, Egland considered the stable that emerged from the wood. It was attached to an old abandoned farm house, one that was crumbling from neglect. The stable though appeared to have been repaired somewhat, as the wood along one side was only a month old, whereas its neighbouring planks were rotting in places. Two aspects of the stable however spoke loudest to the elk. From between the cracks in the wood shown feeble light, and there was smoke emerging from the narrow chimney.

Saulius whispered into his ear, “It appears they hath taken this place as refuge.” Egland nodded, even as he felt Saulius loosen the straps around his belly. He stood solid there, his hooves planted firmly in the snow as the bits of cloth were unwound. With a muffled whump, Saulius rolled off of his back, landing in the snow with a mild grunt. “I do not wish to ride thee ever again, I hath sores from my tail tip to my whiskers.”

Egland snorted again, though this time it was in amusement. However, his heart returned quickly to his promise, eyes turned on those stable doors. He cautiously approached, not bothering to shift from his elk form, at least not yet. Saulius stalked at his side, sword in paw, his mail shirt tight in the chill.

As he drew near to the door, he could hear the crackling of a fire, and could smell the thick scent of a horse, and that of Bryonoth, as well as the customary hay that is usual with stables. However, there was no indication where any of them were inside of the stable, or what they were doing in there. Saulius stood back from the door watching him, waiting for something.

Egland felt a bit of a flush creeping over him as he realized the rat’s intent. Turning his hind quarters to face the middle of the double doors, he leaned forward and gave them a sharp kick. The sound of cracking and splintering wood came back to him, but the door still stood shut. Rearing again, he thrust his hind hooves with terrific energy into the wood, and the splintering grew more pronounced as the doors heaved inwards. Grunting, the elk knight kicked again, this time sending one door singing inwards as the long wooden shaft that held them shut cracked in two.

Saulius rushed inside, even as Egland turned on his hooves to see what lay before them. Bryonoth was standing, sword in hand, before a stall in which stood the horse that was Duke Thomas. Thomas appeared to be rather frightened, the whites showing around his pupils. Yet, he just stood there in the stall, whinnying in anxiety. “Thou canst not have him, he’s my steed!” Bryonoth declared hotly, waving his sword tip before him at the rat knight who was slowly stepping forward.

“Thou hast claimed the Duke of Metamor as they steed wrongfully,” Saulius answered back, his voice, though high pitched, challenging nonetheless. “Thou shalt let him return to his people, as is his right and privilege.”

“No, he is my steed, thou shan’t take him from me!” Bryonoth repeated, his eyes looking even more wild than before. Thomas continued to stand mute, just watching, tail flicking back and forth in agitation.

Saulius gasped, even as Egland began to change back to his morphic form. “Sir Bryonoth, it is I, a fellow man of the steppe. Dost thou remember me, Sir Erick Saulius?”

An expression of momentary recognition flashed over Bryonoth’s wild face, but it was quickly subsumed by that other part of him, that part that was determined to make Thomas a true horse. “He is my steed, and I am his rider. Thou wilt not separate us. I shall kill thee if I must to protect him.”

“Bryonoth,” Egland called. “Ts’amut! It is I, Sir Yacoub Egland. Please come back to me, Ts’amut.” He knew that the Flatlander word for friend/brother had caused Bryonoth to stir before. He hoped that it would do so again now, but even more strongly. There was a part of Bryonoth in there that he wished to summon, a part that he knew so well. He refused to believe that his friend of so many years had been completely corrupted by this evil notion.

“No!” Bryonoth cried then, shaking his head vividly. “Thou canst not be him, for thou art a monster, whereas he was a man, a man who should have been of the Steppe!”

“I am that man!” Egland declared, striding forward, interposing himself between Saulius and the crazed knight. “I am even more that man now that I am an elk, for I am still a knight, and I serve something higher than myself. I serve all the people of this continent. I serve them by standing here at Metamor to stop the hordes of Nasoj’s forces from sweeping through this valley. And that horse that you have taken is my liege, who I have sworn to serve.”

“No, he is my steed, my stallion, my honour!” Bryonoth cried, cringing back, the grip on his sword weakening. It appeared that he had to struggle just to stand there and face down the massive elk before him. His face twisted between fear, hope, and fierce rage, all within moments of each other.

“He is my liege, and by our friendship and by your honour, I ask you to let him go.” Egland stood tall, though naked, he was no longer afraid of what twisted Bryonoth. “Come with me, Ts’amut. Come with us to Metamor. Povunoth is waiting for you, for his rider.”

Bryonoth held up his hand to his face, as if to rip the skin free, even as he turned a terrible eye to Egland, one that yearned to both throw down his weapon, and skewer him mercilessly. “No, he is mine! Leave or I shall kill thee, vile imposter!”

Egland stood there watching, and felt something bubble up and out of him, the one thing he knew could be done to convince this man. He opened wide his mouth and began to sing notes and words that had not graced his throat in months, and all of it, in the archaic language of the Flatlanders.

“Have a day of sun strewn grass,
Fields abound endless in expanse,
Watering holes that will last,
And with good steeds for thy lad and lass.”

Bryonoth had stopped his shaking as he heard the song, so familiar to his Steppe born ears. Sir Saulius’s ears and whiskers had stood up at the sound of his old tongue, and he even joined in the song at the refrain, doubling Egland an octave above.

“Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.

Each day, a new sight to see;
A new hill, new hollow, new valley.
Ride with thy whole family,
And taste what it means to be free.

Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.

Sing the song and dance the dance,
Of Steppe born men free to pomp and prance.
Drink of joy, drink to a trance,
And drink to honour those gone to lance.

Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.

Born upon the horse’s back,
A Steppe born man who shall nothing lack.
Mare’s milk to sup, nipples black
While one hand already holds the tack.

Rise with the sun and set with the night,
Rejoice in the moonbeams by the firelight.
No home in which to dwell,
No land to tie thee down,
Ride thy horse through the swell,
And every field shalt thee own.

Before Egland could continue with the next stanza, he saw Bryonoth shudder visibly, and stare at him with sudden recognition, and terrible fear. “Egland? Help me!” He managed to force past quivering lips before he gave a violent twitch, the furious rage that they had seen before bubbling over and spilling out as his words lashed out at the elk, expectorating vile obscenities. Egland fell back a step, startled by the terrible vehemence in his old friend’s exclamations, his ears flattening back as the most painful words of all poured forth. The truth, each painful secret the once-man had tried to keep quietly to himself and his closest confidants, one of which had been the man who now assailed him with his own innermost secrets, peppering them liberally with the most vile epithets that Egland could ever recall hearing uttered by a human mouth. Abruptly Bryonoth’s tirade stopped, his harsh vocalizations ending with a pained grunt, and he collapsed limply to the hay-strewn floor as Saulius brought the hilt of his sword across the back of his head, having snuck behind him during the course of the song.

Egland glanced up and breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank you, Sir Saulius. Thank you for sparing him.”

“He is my friend as well,” Saulius murmured, leaning forward, inspecting the wound. “He shalt have a terrible headache when he arises.” The rat glanced up at the much taller elk standing beside him, his whiskers twitching for a few moments. “I shalt place what I hast heard here in mine confidence, friend.” The rat offered at length, turning his attention back toward the supine human.

Egland nodded quietly, and then turned towards the stall in which still stood the horse that was Duke Thomas of Metamor. Opening the stall door, he saw that the legs were secured by crossed, wooden hobbles. No wonder Thomas had done nothing, if he dared move, he’d break his own legs. Reaching down, he clumsily undid the clasps, and pulled the poles out from underneath him.

Almost instantly, the form began to shudder, as it shrank in size. Hands emerged from what had once been the forehooves, and the chest flattened somewhat, taking on a human cast. Soon, the figure standing naked before them was that of a morphic horse, one that looked quite relieved. “Thank you both for coming to my rescue, I had just about given up hope that any would come. How did you arrive so quickly?”

“Well, much the way you got here, I carried him just as you carried Bryonoth. There is an advantage to being fleet of hoof when you have four of them,” Egland mused drily. He then kneeled before the Duke, doing his best to ignore his nakedness. “I am so relieved to see that you are safe, my liege.”

Saulius was also at bent knee, and made his own genuflecting remarks, but Thomas waved them to their feet. “Again, I thank you. Your effort will not be forgotten. But we must return to the Keep quickly to help coordinate the defence. Your talents are being missed there, I assure you.”

“What of Bryonoth?” Egland asked. “What should we do with him?”

“I do not know,” Thomas muttered, as he gently kicked the prone body with one hoof. “He was controlling me with this.” He pointed one thick stubby hoof-like finger at the halter that hung on the hook outside his stall. “I saw him cast a rune into it as he slipped it on me. We ought to take this back so that Wessex can analyse it. Well, once we repel Nasoj at least.”

“If we wish to return as quickly as possible, I am afraid we must use our full animal forms,” Egland interposed, glancing briefly at the leather halter.

Thomas nodded. “I think I’m up to such a run, I just had a rather relaxing massage. He may have wanted to make me into a horse, but he treated me well for a horse, I suppose.”

“Even maligned, he was born of the Steppe. He could do no less,” Saulius proudly declared.

“We ought to bring him back as well. It is possible we could discern from him clues to solidify our evidence concerning the Patriarch’s murderer,” Thomas added, stretching his newly restored limbs.

“We will have to tie him down to your back then, I’m afraid,” Egland pointed out.

Thomas shrugged. “I’ve been carrying him on my back for the last few hours already, what is a few more?” He then turned and glanced at the saddle and saddlebags resting on the rack. “Bring the saddle bags as well, but I don’t think I want to wear that saddle ever again.”

“Of course,” Egland said, as he turned and shoved the halter into one of the bags, and then draped them over his shoulder. He watched as Thomas shifted back into his stallion form, the newly regained humanity disappearing beneath the body of the equine. Saulius tossed the blankets over his back, and the elk then strapped the saddle bags into place over his flanks. The two of them, while Thomas watched curiously, lifted Bryonoth by his arms and legs, and pulled him across Thomas’s back on top of the blankets.

“I am curious, where didst thou learn that song?” Saulius asked as he helped tie Bryonoth firmly onto Thomas’s back.

Egland smiled a bit, as much as his cervine face was capable. “Bryonoth taught it to me. I must confess I can’t remember what every stanza means.”

Saulius let out a small chuckle then, as he tightened the last strap. He then patted Thomas’s cheek. “Thy freight is secure. As soon as Sir Egland and I are ready, thou canst begin.”

Thomas nodded back, whickering softly, and stamping his hooves a bit impatiently. While Egland put the fire out, Saulius began to knot the straps that had held him in place on the elk’s back. He kept them sufficiently loose, but tight enough to hold him firmly. Then, the two knights stood together, the rat gripping the deer’s back, while the straps were wrapped about them. Egland let his full animal form flow out of him. Quickly, mass began to fill the empty spaces the straps offered, until they pulled the rat tightly to the proud elk’s back.

Egland snorted to Thomas, and stamped one hoof. Thomas did so in return, and gestured to the door with a toss of his head. The elk nodded submissively, his massive rack of antlers, spread out before him, and then started to trot through the permanently opened doorway. The horse followed after, the jingling of the rat and knight’s armours on their backs the only sound that cascaded through the snow-filled night air as they started on the road back to Metamor.

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