Book I of The Last Tale of Yajakali
by Charles Matthias
|This is the prologue to a MK (Metamor Keep) serial. Go here for info on the MK setting|
Crack! reverberated in Lord Erick Matthias large ears as the musket fired. A cloud of smoke erupted from the long rifle he carried, and with one paw he dispersed the foul smelling haze to see if the musket was as accurate as the Vysehrad diplomat claimed. Not only did he possess the large ears and paws of a rat, but the fur, tail, and teeth too. The form of a four foot tall humanoid rat was the body that the curses of Metamor had bestowed upon him.
If mine eyes do not deceive me, he said, narrowing his gaze at the red and white target set on the other end of the grassy sward, then I have a perfect bulls-eye.
Meseems thou art correct, milord, the man at his right agreed.
Erick looked over at him with a moue of annoyance on his snout. He could forgive Kalder his use of official titles as the man was a foreign dignitary visiting the Metamor Valley on diplomatic business. But at the very least hed prefer if they didnt insist on using those dratted honorifics every time they opened their mouths!
Kalder in turn offered him a comfortable smile as he sat on his much larger steed. Apart from the sable grey riding uniform he bore, complete with epaulet and the shining mountain emblem of Vysehrad, he also bore a simple talisman draped over his neckhis protection against the curses of Metamor. It was the only thing that allowed any dignitaries to visit the Valley for more than a few days without suffering from that pernicious magic.
It had been three hundred years since the curses were laid down here. These curses had made the Valley a land populated by walking beasts; men who used to be women, and vice versa; and men returned to childhood. While the passage of centuries had reduced much of the associated malice and superstition to tawdry jokes, few wished to experience a new body first-hand.
The musket that thou holdst in thy hands canst fire accurately up to fifty yards een, Kalder declared with pride. Thou mayest consider it a gift from my land to thine.
Erick hefted the long musket in his paws. It was designed for a humans larger arms, but those in the Matthias clan were long since used to operating machines meant for those still men. For nearly all in the Matthias clan were as Erick, humanoid rats. It is well built. I have never seen a musket shoot so accurately. Our elite warriors still prefer the long bow. Is it magical in nature?
Nay, the only magic that hath gone into its crafting be the spirit of Vysehrad and his people, milord. Kalders eyes strayed past Erick to the mountains that stood behind them. The Matthias lands were a narrow strip that ran westward from the main north-south road through the valley to the Dragon Mountains. Part of the great house that the sire of their line had built led into a small pass in the mountains, allowing them to overlook their small portion of Metamor. Over the years the people had grown as the valley prospered, and now several thriving villages and towns existed on his land.
His lands were so narrow in fact that several generations ago the people had begun to call them The Narrows. At its widest, it was no more than ten miles across. Erick himself was often called the Lord of the Narrows, one of the few titles he appreciated.
Thine uncle Laurence told many fine tales of thy land and his spirit while he wast amongst us, Kalder added when his eyes settled back on the black-hooded rat who sat astride a pony with the Vysehrad musket cradled in his lap.
Ah, yes, Uncle Laurence always tells a good tale. Send my thanks to your King for allowing him the honour of spending a year in Cheskych as he requested.
I shall do as thee ask, milord, Kalder agreed with a smile. His mare stomped one hoof uncertainly, but at the touch of Kalders fingers on her neck, she quieted. He was a very entertaining guest in my lieges house. In sooth, he were the first Metamorian that many of my people hath eer seen.
He did not complain of any ill-treatment when he returned, Erick pointed out, worrying for a moment that something untoward might have happened that he was not being told. And then he recalled the almost euphoric excitement that had existed on his uncles greying snout when hed come home last week with the envoy from Cheskych. Even if anything had been done to him, Laurence would not have cared so long as he learned a new story in the process.
Kalder laughed warmly, his voice echoing in the warm Summer air. Ill-treated? Nay, milord, he wast treated very well, and shown every courtesy. My people live with the Bavol-engro in our mountains; a talking rat be but one more marvel of this marvellous world to behold.
Erick narrowed his eyes. He felt his whiskers twitch at some snatch of scent. It was the first other than the foul musket smoke hed detected in the last few minutes. Bavol-engro? I fear I do not know the word.
Tis an old word of the Steppe that we still doth use in my land. In thy tongue, I believe thou wouldst say... hmm... spirit of the dead.
Ghosts? You have ghosts in the Vysehrad? Now this was certainly interesting. He hoped he would hear a tale or two about them. He wondered if Laurence had brought back any such stories.
I hath no art in telling tales, milord, Kalder apologized and lowered his eyes. I am merely a diplomat who didst wish to honour thee for allowing us the privilege of hosting thy uncle these past twelve moons.
And doubtless you wished for a breath of air after spending the last five days cooped up in the castle with our majesty and his coterie of tiresome advisors? Erick asked with a wicked grin. It was a horrible trait passed down amongst his line, this sarcastic tongue. But as his father had often told him, a rat should never bite his tongue because with incisors like they had, theyd bite it off completely!
The diplomat blanched at first, and his eyes looked furtively to see if there was anyone else about. At last, he let out another resounding laugh and shook his head. Whether in answer to Ericks question or in simple disbelief that it had been asked, he did not know. But Kalder recovered his composure quickly and a guarded smile crossed his lips. That is as may be, he said in a professionally neutral tone. Still, I am curious why thy Lord might wish to purchase such a quantity of our muskets and their powder. Thou art at peace with all of thy neighbours, or so I wast led to believe.
Erick hefted the musket in his paws and nodded towards the target which had been pierced in the centre. As you say, the guns are very accurate. And peace? To be sure, the present time is one of peace, such as Metamor hath known on occasion. But these occasions are both short and uncommon, Kalder. Much of our history has been fraught with conflict. Peace is not the absence of war, but the presence of justice. I am not privy to all of his majestys secrets, but I am sure that he wishes these muskets to help maintain justice in our lands.
And there were few in Metamor that did not understand just how rare peace was. The Curses were a result of a military invasion, though one that had been unsuccessful. Making men into beasts, women or children had only increased their zeal to defend their home.
And may they do so. Kalders eyes lifted and he stared over the rats head at something in the distance. Ericks ears still smarted from the musket shot, but he could hear the sound of another pony galloping across the sward. Turning his head, he saw one of his cousins dressed in blue surcoat riding out to meet them.
My cousin Timothy, Erick explained while turning his pony towards the newcomer. His father runs the Commerce Guild, so you will doubtless get to know him once you and his majesty reach some accord.
And what doth Timothy do for the Guild?
Erick snorted, but could not help but smile. Do? I have yet to see Timothy do anything, but his father speaks highly of his talents. And he is a good-natured fellow, so I still have hope for him. Let us meet him. So saying, Erick held the musket in one paw while the other cracked the reins. His pony set off at a leisurely gallop, Kalder following a few hoofbeats behind.
Cousin! Timothy cried, sitting tall upon his pony. His face was covered in brown fur; hed donned a soft hat that perched between his ears like a dog curled on the floor. It is good to see you again.
Aye, cousin, Erick replied, his muzzle turned into a sardonic grin. Just as it was yesterday and the day before. Tell me what brings you out here to our humble field of practice?
Timothy pulled his pony to a stop beside them and frowned at Ericks bit of whimsy. Our uncle sent me to collect you. He says that his tale is finally finished and demands that you come hear it at once.
Laurence? Well, we had better not keep him waiting. Hell only grow more irritable if we do. Would you care to join us, Kalder? Uncle Laurences tales are always entertaining.
Kalder nodded and smiled to both rats. Yes, I would. Lead on, milord.
Timothy appeared to chuckle at seeing his cousins discomfort, but he masked it well. A twitch of the whiskers was visible; nothing more. That was all it took for Timothy to see it for what it was, but the human diplomat would not recognize it.
Together, the trio rode up along the sward until it rejoined the main road. The road was paved with close-fitting stones affording a comfortable wagon ride to any who traversed it. On horseback, every step resounded with a pleasant clop that filled the ears of human and rat alike. The road led up along an incline past stands of trees that joined the larger forest on either side. Where the trees had been cleared, small villages clustered with the sound of laughter, hammer, and game. The Lord of the Narrows was often seen riding along the main road with little or no escort, and so apart from the customary respect due to his title, the villagers paid them little attention.
It took nearly a quarter of an hours ride before they were passing through the gatehouse and into the Matthias Keep. Unlike the castle in Metamor, there were no massive towers stretching to the sky. Instead, along either mountain side several lookout huts had been built into the rock. The Keep was spread out over four levels each going higher and further back into the mountains. The first gatehouse was known as the Tree Gate, because on the bailey side, this Gates arches were chiselled to look like trees whose branches met in the middle. The outer bailey comprised a wide courtyard with stables, barracks, blacksmiths, and farriers all tending to their crafts. Many of the people living and working were marked by animal-like traits, and some few were curiously youthful for the activities they were engaged in.
Because the castle was built on an incline, the second gate was set off to the North where the slope was more manageable. Thick walls framed the second bailey, standing five times Ericks own height, and a good third of that was due to the lay of the land and not the height of the walls. As they passed beneath the Iron Gate, Erick could not help but glance up at the points of the massive portcullis for which the Gate was named. At sunset when it was lowered, everyone in the castle would hear its resounding crash.
Thy fortifications art well built, Kalder observed with admiration in his voice. Hast thee ever suffered a siege?
Aye, Erick said, nodding gravely. Thankfully not in many years. The first wall was built fifty years ago and it has never seen the touch of attackers. But this wall here has, and it has stood against them.
Theyll never get that far again! Timothy declared with a bit of pride in his voice. Will they, cousin?
I certainly hope not, Erick agreed.
The second bailey held many of the homes of the people who lived and worked in the castle. Small gardens lined either side of the road, and there were several out tending to flowers. Erick waved to them as he passed, and they each waved back with kind words on their tongues. The ground sloped upwards quickly as they neared the third gate, and it was there that Erick and Timothy pulled their ponies to a halt.
We proceed on foot from here, Erick declared. My men will tend to your horse, Kalder, so fret not for its safety.
Even as he spoke, a trio of ostlers emerged from a long low building which stank of horse. They dismounted and allowed the liverymen to take the reins to their steeds. Timothy paid them no mind on his way towards the Suns Gate. Erick made sure to thank the man by name before following after his cousin. Kalder waited until the two rats were at the gate before he left his steed.
The Suns Gate was shorter than the previous two, and beyond it was a trio of buildings a few stories high. The central tower was taller by a single story than the other two, and it was there that Erick conducted his official business. The building on the Southern side was the Ecclesia cathedral in which he and his people worshipped. The Northern building held quarters for visiting dignitaries, the Sondecki and Nocturna shrines, and a small, little-used chapel for the Lothanasi.
Not that many ever used the Sondecki or Nocturna shrines either. The Sondeckis were a clan of mages dedicated to preserving justice. Most of them lived on one of the Southern continents where their clan originated. Their power was not in the creation of fire, or the corralling of the winds, but in mastering the use of physical force. A properly-trained Sondecki could punch through solid concrete without so much as scratching his flesh. The most powerful, the blacks of their clan, could do so without even touching the concrete block.
One member in each generation of the Matthias clan was born with the Sondeck, just as their founder had been. Just as one member was born to serve Nocturna, the mistress of dreams, one of the old goddesses from the days when the Lothanasi faith and the Ecclesia had been at war. Though neither side had truly won that war, the Ecclesia was still strong, while the Lothanasi were no longer a true religion so much as a way of ordering ones life, and protecting it against evil spirits which still lurked in the dark places of the world. Once a year Erick had the shrines and chapel cleaned, but neither he nor anyone in his immediately family used them
Where did Laurence wish to tell his tale? Erick asked his cousin as they walked along the broad avenue towards the central tower.
In the main hall, naturally. He says he looks most impressive in there. Lise was trying to find all the children so they could hear, too, when I left.
Erick nodded and then smiled up at Kalder who was admiring the grounds. You are fortunate, my dear Kalder. You will not have to pass through Rats Gate.
The gate to the residence. It was built to our size, so a man as tall as yourself would find it uncomfortably short. Kalder said nothing in reply but he did smile.
The main hall of which Timothy spoke was only a short distance inside the centre tower. Before they made it that far, Erick accosted his Steward and bade him put the musket in his study. A moment later, his wife Lise spotted him and rushed to his side.
Ah, thank Eli you are here. Your uncle Laurence is becoming intolerable. Lise had cream-colored fur, and her face was perfectly shaped for a rat, triangular snout, with tall oval ears a soft peach in hue. Although she had also been born a rat, she was of the Matthias clan only by marriage.
Well, we should not keep him waiting. Lise, this is Kalder, diplomat from Vysehrad. Kalder, the Lady Lise Matthias.
Kalder bowed his head low. Tis an honour to meet thee, milady.
And to you, good diplomat. You must tell us of Vysehrad and how it fares with your king.
Twould give me great pleasure, milady. But I fear that thy uncle shalt be the better man to tell such tales. In this last year, he hath spent more time with his majesty than I.
Erick chuckled and gestured towards the double doors at the end of the hall. If we do not go see him soon, he will start the tale without us.
Timothy had already gone on ahead, and so Laurence knew of their arrival before they stepped past the door into the wide hall. The floor was lowered in the centre, with thick Kelewair rugs covering every bit of stone. Atop the rugs were about twenty boisterous children, almost all of whom were rats. In the centre stood Laurence, his dark fur greying at his muzzle. He stood with paws on hips, tail lashing back and forth in indignation. There you are, nephew. Showing poor Kalder the Narrows, are you?
A part of it, yes, Erick smiled to his uncle. In all the years hed known him, hed always been a character apart. Storyteller and master of pithy wisdom were but two of his many roles. I am told that your tale is finally finished?
Not my tale! Laurence replied, his snout lifting in the air, sniffing dramatically. Nay, but the tale I have worked the whole of my life to complete has finally been finished. I owe a great measure of thanks to your king, Kalder. He helped me find the parts of the tale that I have always been missing. And now I have every piece in its place, and am ready to declaim this greatest of all tales before you. Come sit, and hear a story of our ancestors, one whose repercussions have been felt by each generation since.
Erick and Lise sat down on the step to the depression, while Kalder sat cross-legged on the carpeting. Laurence waited until all eyes were upon him. The children gaped up at the aged storyteller, awestruck by his presence, and wondering what fantasy he would spin for them this time. The other adult rats in the household had also gathered to listen, and were sitting like Erick and Lise. Nobody spokenobody would dare speakwhile Laurence was at story! With a bit of magic, he dimmed the flames in the room until only he was bathed in light.
His voice full of smouldering power, Laurence began as all tales should begin: Once upon a time, there was a prince of the Åelves named Yajakali. This bold fellow was fair and beautiful and well beloved by all his people. But when an army of humans from the South attacked his land of Jagoduun, the prince fell into a great rage. A darkness crept into his heart, and from that darkness three frightful weapons were forged. Weapons so terrible that their mere presence could corrupt good men, making them into monsters.
In the human army were nine wizards; each one possessed more power than has ever been held by a single man since. Yajakali sought to destroy them, and his weapons were designed to draw out their life force and trap it. He would then use that life force to smite the human army and cast its ruin upon the sea. But while the Åelf-prince was making plans, his enemies wizards were not idle; they engaged in dark and eldritch ritual, hoping to break the power of the Åelves with arcane enchantments best left unremembered. May Eli grant that no man ever again learn those unspeakable secrets!
And ere long it came to pass that the enemies, human and Åelven, met and fought in fearsome battle once more. So great was the magic that they used that both sides, Jagoduun and the human forces alike, were utterly destroyed. And in his madness, Yajakali rent the fabric of the worlds; he did rip an opening to a deadly and darksome place known as the Underworld. And those three weapons he builta sword, a censer and a daiscould each be used to tap into the unspeakable power that lay in the Underworld.
Since then, many are the times when Yajakalis weapons have made their woeful mark on the world of mortal man... and each time, terrible deeds were done. The stories of such dreadful doings have been told before, and will be told again. But this day I tell to you a tale you have not heard. I will tell you of a time three hundred years agone, when the sire of our house left the safety of Metamor to strike a blow against a great evil. Hark to my words, and hear of the suffering and hardship that his family endured in his absence. I will tell you a tale of corruption and healing within the Ecclesia. You will learn of tricksters and travellers, ancient mounts and turbulent seas. A tale of prophets, prophets-to-be, wizards, and warriors whose names are known to us dearly.
Laurence leaned forward a bit, his eyes narrowing, and his voice deepening. Children of Metamor and Vysehrad, many are the tales of Yajakali, the mad prince of the Åelves. But this, the tale I tell you this day, is the last tale of Yajakali!