Breaking the Duke - Part IV

Yet, like all journeys, theirs came to and end as they finally found themselves faced with the Cathedral doors. The climb back up the treacherous ridge had been painstakingly slow. It was so much easier to go down than up, and so they had chosen an even leveller route up, switching back and forth nearly twenty times before they were finally at that solitary door in the wall, which had been wedged open by the falling snow. And even so, there had been many occasions where their hooves had slipped on the snow and ice, and they’d had to make another turn to regain their ground.

Egland had felt as if he were playing a game of Flumes and Ladders with his life as they’d climbed up that ridge, but thankfully, they only ever caught the short flumes. When they had reached the door however, other concerns took their minds. The Lutins were abundant inside the halls of the Keep, how could they possibly escape detection? Yet they had proceeded inside anyway, where Saulius undid the cloth holding himself onto Egland’s back, and the knight returned to his humanoid self, bearing the weapon that the rat had brought for him.

Yet as they carefully walked across the carpeting to muffle their hoof-falls, they continuously kept their ears open, and their noses sniffing, trying to discover if an ambuscade waited around the next corner. Yet, the only Lutins they ever saw were ones already dead, or even a few sleeping, half-empty bottles of fine wine clutched in their arms as they waited for a group of Keepers to come along and slit their throats. At the behest of Thomas’s very insistent nodding and stamping, Egland and Saulius did so, though it was not the sort of behaviour they were particularly fond of as knights.

So it was with great relief when they finally came upon the doors to the Follower Cathedral. Egland slammed his fist on the door, smiling over at Thomas, who was still a horse carrying Bryonoth over his back. Thomas however did not appear to mind stalking the halls of his own palace as a full equine. When the doors were opened, they were of course greeted by sword points at first, but it was soon followed by riotous joy! Egland nodded, smiling down to Saulius, whose whiskers were a twitter, and back at Thomas as they were ushered into the Cathedral and the doors closed behind him.

Vinsah and Hough were standing very close to see, while Thalberg and Cassius lay on mats along with the other injured a short distance away. Copernicus was beaming down to them as he half sat upon the edge of one row of pews. Finally, Hough found himself capable of speech, “Is that Duke Thomas?”

Egland nodded, even as he and Copernicus began to undo the thongs holding Bryonoth upon the horses back. “Yes, he decided to help carry back his presumptive captor. You remember Sir Bryonoth, do you not, Bishop Vinsah?”

Vinsah came forward, long striped tail swirling behind him underneath the black cassock. “Why, yes, I do. But why would he attack the Duke?”

“I’ll let Thomas answer that,” Egland murmured, as he and Copernicus drug Bryonoth along the floor for a bit, setting him down cautiously amongst the soldiers with their swords still unsheathed. “Watch him, we don’t know how he’ll react yet.” They nodded, and a few of them leaned upon their swords as they kept an eye on the unconscious knight.

After Saulius had removed the saddlebags from Thomas’s back, the horse began to shift, rising up upon its hind hooves, the fore hooves shifting, breaking into three pieces, as the head shrunk a bit, taking on a more human guise. The blankets draped over his back fell off as he stood upright, collecting around his hooves and fetlocks. Soon, in all his naked glory, there stood Duke Thomas. Saulius was quick to grab the blankets and offer them to Thomas for modesty’s sake, and the Duke was in no position to argue, wrapping them about his waist, while his tail flicked from side to side between his knees.

“I do apologize for not arriving with my escort, but I had a slight delay,” Thomas remarked, much to the amusement of the other Keepers who could not help but laugh a bit. The sound of laughter felt as if it had been gone from the Cathedral for aeons, and to hear it now caused a brightening to fill the air, as if the oppressive archaic and timeless quality of this antiquarian edifice had been brought into the present and vanquished.

Vinsah was leaning over Bryonoth’s body, running his dark paws across the man’s face. “What had he wanted with you?”

Thomas narrowed his eyes uncomfortably. “For some reason, he wanted to make me into a breeding stallion back on the Steppe.”

Egland narrowed his eyes as he tried to call back some long forgotten memory. Suddenly, the actual events began to return to him, the long beautiful houses, streets so clean, the magnificence that had since become so familiar to him had all been new that day, as if freshly cleaved from the womb. They had been walking side by side with their steeds between them. The remark that he had found so amusing just before they reached the stables had been so typically Flatlander of him, that Egland had not forgotten, and apparently, neither had somebody else.

“I remember him remarking the first day we arrived in Metamor that he thought you could sire many great foals, my lordship,” Egland said, feeling a bit embarrassed even in saying it out loud, despite what he had just seen that night. “He’s from the Flatlands, and has been around horses all his life, I suppose nobody can blame him for thinking such things at least in jest.”

Saulius appeared suddenly uncomfortable and nodded. “‘Tis true, my liege. I hath often wondered what fine steeds thou couldst produce.”

Thomas blinked a few times and then let out another laugh. Both Egland and Saulius stood there for a moment considering what was going through Thomas’s mind, but the Duke explained himself. “I find it a rather strange honour to be considered so highly for my lineage, even if in such an unconventional way! We of the nobility have often been bred by our families, so I suppose what Bryonoth wanted for me was hardly different than what I could have expected out of life had I not lived in such an enlightened city as Metamor.”

The ridiculous nature of his comparison left both the knights wondering if they were not being made fun of for a moment, but as the rest of the Cathedral let up in laughter with their liege, so too did the knights. Why should they feel slighted, after all, they had saved the Duke. And as they both thought on that, Thomas came to their sides and placed his hands upon their shoulders. “Thank you my friends. You have done a great service to me and this castle and to these people. When all this is over, I shall see to it that you are honoured appropriately.”

Both Egland and Saulius turned to face the Duke, and then bowed to their knees, lowering their heads. “We could do no less for thee, my liege,” Saulius intoned reverently, while Egland spoke clearly a similar epitaph.

Thomas then looked back to Father Hough. “How are the guards and Thalberg who had accompanied me?”

Hough shook his head. “Two of them didn’t make it. Thalberg is resting right now, but he will survive. Gregg and Miles will survive, though poor Miles has lost his arm.”

Vinsah was still leaning over Bryonoth, his green eyes a study in curiosity. “We’ve done what we could for them, but nothing we can do for a missing arm.”

“I shall find a new place for him to serve,” Thomas said, his voice drawing the attention of all by its breadth. “After this is over, I believe there will be much work for everyone” Most of the people in the Cathedral simply nodded at that, many of them capable of remembering what had happened the last time Nasoj had attacked. “There will be more destruction than there was last time. But I think our spirit will be stronger too.”

“We will make Nasoj pay for everything he has taken from us,” Hough declared, which was a strange thing to hear from a priest. Yet his fiery statement caused many of the Keepers to cheer and wave their swords and daggers about.

The coon Bishop was still looking down at the knight, but suddenly stood up and pointed at the prone figure. “And what of him? How do you intend to punish him? Do you truly believe he did this of his own accord? I knew Sir Bryonoth before this, and though his ways were sometimes strange to me, he never before showed a glint of malice in his soul, not like this.”

Sir Egland nodded, his antlers slicing the air. “I have known Sir Bryonoth for even longer than His Eminence has. He is a good man, a good knight, one that loved his steed and adored his friends, but had the utmost of respect for those in authority. For him to do something like this, he must have been deranged in some way.”

Thomas nodded at that and rubbed his chin with one hoof-like hand. “I saw many sides to him during my captivity under him. He showed me great kindness at the stable. I do not believe he was acting on his own volition. It strikes me most likely that whoever killed the Patriarch decided to use him to sow more dissension here at Metamor. I want Wessex to examine him and the magical items he used to enslave me.”

The Duke of Metamor then looked at the knight curiously, his eyes a mix of both anger at what was done, but concern for the man. “However, we won’t see Wessex until after Nasoj is pushed back again, I think. Is there anything you priests could do for him? He is of your faith after all.”

Vinsah and Hough gazed at each other for a moment before the Bishop clasped his paws together, his ears standing upright, and his tail circling about one of his ankles. “As a Bishop I am invested by Eli with dominion over many evil spirits. I do not know if this extends to abjuration.”

“Do you think you could try?” Thomas asked. “It would mean a great deal to me if you could rid him of the evil influencing him.” The horse’s eyes narrowed and he peered at Vinsah more closely. “Wait a moment, just who are you anyway, I don’t recall ever having seen you before.”

Vinsah hung his head for a moment. “Yes, I know. I am Bishop Vinsah of Abaef, the former Patriarch’s adjutant. I’ve been out of the coma for some time now, but was not ready to reveal myself until just now.”

Thomas’s eyes rose in delight. “Ah, it is good to see you healthy at last. I am grateful that you can spare your talents for us, Bishop Vinsah. I must say that you look much younger as a raccoon than I had thought you would.”

Vinsah nodded, his face looking a bit uncomfortable. “Let me see what I can do for the knight.” He leaned down, and placed his paws on the knight’s chest, and closed his eyes, clearly praying. After a few minutes, he made the sign of the yew tree upon his chest, and the body suddenly stirred, quite violently.

Vinsah nearly leaped back as Bryonoth’s eyes came open in livid rage, hatred pouring out of them, yet he could not raise his chest from the ground, as if it had been pinned there, or some great weight was bearing him down. Bryonoth grabbed at Vinsah’s tail and tugged him back to his knees, ripping a small bit of fur clear when he did so. The Bishop let out a startled cry, and slammed his fists back into the man’s chest, praying loudly, his words in the language of Yesulam, completely foreign to most of the Keepers’ ears.

Bryonoth screamed violently, but it was not his voice, but something far more sinister. It was as if some terrible daemon had crawled up from necrophagous pits and had let loose the cry instead, buried as it was inside the knight’s throat. But Vinsah kept his focus upon his prayers of release, signing the tree upon the knight’s chest several more times, each time unleashing another torrent of violent objection from the possessed man. He kicked, hit, clawed and ripped fur from Vinsah’s hide in his attempt to dislodge the raccoon, but the Bishop would not move.

From that mouth ushered obscenities that made Hough cringe in fear, blasphemous utterances that nearly made the walls of the Cathedral tremble in rage. Yet it was clearly not the voice of a man from the Steppes, for the poeticism was gone, the lyrical lilt to the tongue was debased into a course mockery of language. And yet, after each word was uttered, it was erased from the memories of those who heard it, as if it was tenuous and something not of this world, something that could not be contained within the walls of flesh.

And then Bryonoth fell silent, eyes closed, arms resting once more at his sides, totally prone and unconscious again. Vinsah collapsed over top of him, his paws pressed firmly into the tiling, holding him up. Egland knelt at his side and put his own hoof-like hands underneath his shoulders to help him up, but the bishop shook his head, “No, I’m all right. I just need a moment.”

Egland nodded and backed off slightly, his eyes turning instead to his long-time friend. The face was peaceful, no hint of the malice that had just a moment ago been painted across it. There was not even a line or groove on his skin to remember the ferocity of his fight with the priest. It was as if it had never even occurred. Finding his voice, the elk-morph managed to ask, “Did it work, is he all right?”

Vinsah shrugged as he leaned back on his tail. “I have no idea honestly. I think that it might have worked, but we will not know until he arises once more.” He breathed heavily, his chest rising and falling as if it had just been released from some terrible weight. “Whatever it was that had a hold on him, it did not want to let go. It did not feel like an evil spirit, despite what it did, but whatever magic was used in its conjuring or summoning, I don’t think that it was of this world.”

Suddenly, Bryonoth sat upright, breathing heavily, panting nearly, and flashing his eyes about. “Thou hast to help me, they art attempting to kill the Patriarch, please!” He then fell back to the stone, his eyes gazing almost emptily into the high vaults of the Cathedral roof.

Thomas, Hough, and Saulius darted closer, as did the other Keepers, intent to see what the newly awoken Bryonoth had to say. Bryonoth had reached up and gripped the hem of Vinsah’s cassock and was gazing forlornly, like a man completely lost. “Please, thou hast to save the Patriarch before it is too late.”

Vinsah gently gripped Bryonoth’s hand in his paw, holding it close to his chest, and shaking his head, his green eyes closed tight in the sorrow of memory. “It is too late, Sir Bryonoth. The Patriarch is dead, murdered most foul. You are at Metamor, in the Cathedral. I’m Bishop Vinsah, one of the few to survive the attack.”

Bryonoth gazed upwards into those green eyes and the mask that surrounded them in disbelief, and then he closed his own. “I... I know. I hath my memory still, twisted foully as it is.” He turned and peered up at Egland’s cervine face, reaching out a hand to stroke down the end of the muzzle, at which Egland had to chuff slightly. “Yacoub?”

Egland nodded, laughing, nearly crying as he held that hand to his face with his own hoof-like one. “It is I, Albert. I have missed you.”

“I have missed myself as well. What evil dost they use upon me?”

“We don’t know yet, but we will.”

Sir Albert Bryonoth nodded, and then turned his eyes to Thomas, who was still watching him curiously. Pushing himself out from underneath the Bishop, he kneeled before Thomas, bowing his head in shame. “I hath done a grievous wrong to thee, your lordship. I shalt humbly serve any punishment thou deem worthy for a man such as I.”

Thomas peered at him for a moment, but shook his head. “But you did nothing of your own will, it was that evil spirit that was controlling you that did those things to me. You are innocent of any intent.” Thomas knew all too well how easily it was for a mortal to be turned to powers that were beyond mortality. As with the bridle, and a cursed blade some months before, magic had ways most foul to invade the soul and the spirit, twisting them to evil ends. “You have done nothing to deserve punishment. Being used by the enemy like you were is hardly something you yourself would have wanted.”

“Please, your lordship, I beg of thee, I have done terrible crimes to thy people in taking thee. Punish me as thou wilt,” Bryonoth’s face was contorted into agony as he spoke, as if just thinking of the things that he had done while controlled was a burden he could not bear.

Thomas continued to shake his head, one hoof-like hand holding the blanket about his loins. “But you did nothing, it was that evil spirit that was controlling you that did those things to me.” He reiterated, “You were but a prisoner within your own body, Sir Bryonoth. You are innocent.”

Bryonoth shook his head, leaning even further down to the floor, nearly bursting with shame. “Nay, my lord, I would be haunted if thou didst not hold me responsible for this, for it was my flesh and blood that did this to you.”

The Duke of Metamor turned and looked at Egland, then Vinsah, as if hoping for some advice, yet they remained silent, offering only noncommittal shrugs, unsure themselves of what had to be done. Grimacing reluctantly, Thomas nodded, and tried his best to add gravity to his voice as he let his sentence be pronounced. “Sir Albert Bryonoth, formerly a knight of Yesulam, I Duke Thomas Hassan of Metamor, hereby decree that thou shalt serve Metamor in her stables until such time as I see fit to renounce your sentence. You will assist the other stable hands in caring for and cleaning the Keep’s horses, just as soon as we beat back Nasoj’s army that is.”

Bryonoth suddenly bore a queer look of appreciation on his face, one that he quickly tried to hide. Nodding, he kept his head low. “I thank thee, your lordship.” Only Duke Thomas, Sir Egland, and Sir Saulius knew just to what extent the knight of Yesulam meant that thanks.

“My thanks.” The Duke intoned as he accepted the robes and slid one arm into a sleeve, still regarding the knight kneeling before him, “But for now you are considered under arrest until such a time as those stables are liberated. Please conduct yourself to an unoccupied room and remain there unless you are called upon.” He raised his head as he rolled his shoulders into the robe and cinched it about his waist, “Sir Egland, you and your squire are to stand guard over him.” His voice was firm, his dignity regained at last.

Egland blinked, his ears twitching, “Squire, m’lord?” he muttered, momentarily confused. Thomas hooked a thumb at a tall, thick shouldered antelope standing at the fringes of the crowd, whose eyes continuously strayed to Egland’s frame with a strange dulcimer quality.

“The Oryx, Intoran?” He whickered as he stood, one ear turned toward the confused elk as he levelled a stare at him as if brooking any sort of argument. Egland opened his muzzle, then stopped and nodded woodenly, stepping forward to help Bryonoth to his feet.

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