Never by its Cover - Part I

By: Ryx & Charles Matthias

This work comes between Marital Bliss and Lots.

Duke Thomas Hassan IV, Lord of Metamor Keep and the Northern Midlands, both within the range of the curses laid on Metamor, and beyond, sat in careful regard of the hand that he had been dealt. In his thick, hoof-like fingers he held four cards, each depicting the mapped demesnes of fiefs within the Duchy that was Metamor. The barons of the southern keeps glowered at him from their respective suits. On the table before him lay six cards face down, his lesser suits not yet offered to match or call. Face up, the anchor of his hand, lay Metamor Keep, ace of his suit.

Across from him sat a tigress in resplendent and noble attire watching him over her own held cards. Before her lay the suit of Kelewair and a full dozen lesser holdings yet to be revealed. To his left sat a lithe, brown-furred member of the weasel species garbed in rich, if overly foppish, silks of deep cobalt blue. A wry smile was on the fop's face though he held no cards in his hand and had laid before him a single card with a featureless black face; the Suit of Shadows.

Thomas gazed at his four strong holdings held within his grasp and was profoundly confused. He could not understand the purpose of the game nor why he was playing it. The tigress was no one that he had any familiarity with despite the fact that she exuded an air of monumental majesty. There was about her a dampened sense of greatness, like the growling inferno of a sealed forge awaiting the opening of a single port through which to spill its searing heat. He could feel the sheer weight of her presence through the veil of her appearance and it was with a force of will that he dragged his gaze away to the other.

The fop, at least, bore no such subtly hidden sense of unfathomable presence. He was simply as he appeared; a foppishly clad troubadour. Thomas wetted his thick equine lips as he looked toward the fop.

"You I know, though by deed if not name." He finally managed to force from his throat, "The bearer of mithril." With that he found himself reaching down to turn one of his suit cards face up; a mine with the title 'Joy's Legacy'. He slid the card half beneath the Metamor anchor, lending strength to all of his holdings.

The tigress said nothing as she lay one of her held cards beside Kelewair, but not beneath. Bound ally, but no granted strength to her position; the Suit of Spirit in white and green, the Church of the Ecclesia. With languid grace she turned up one of her holdings; the heraldry of the house featuring the head of a ram upon a field of green. Thomas was not greatly versed in the heraldry of Southern Midlands lesser houses, but he knew that some clue should have come to his memory, but he could recall nothing. She placed the card to the foot of Kelewair in the position of vassalage in support.

"Malger Sutt, your grace." The fop said smoothly as he laid a card beside his suit of shadows. Thomas frowned as he gazed upon the heraldry of a unicorn upon a field of grain but, while he sensed that he knew it well, its name refused to come to his memory. From nowhere, as with the first, the fop laid another card slightly beneath it in a position of strengthening support; again Thomas saw white and green of the Suit of Spirit. This suit of the Ecclesia, however, seemed somehow wrong; tainted and dark. Languidly the fop reached over and touched the tigress' Church card and a shadowy taint suddenly swept across its face, darkening the colours until it matched the shadowed Church laid before the fop. That taint began to spread, touching the Ram's head heraldry and staining the edges of Kelewair. If the tigress was aware of the change she showed no reaction. "While I was in company of the bearer I did not deliver unto you that which solidifies your foundation."

Thomas flicked his gaze to his cards as the action returned to him. He found that his hand also held a card of the Ecclesia, that he had not seen previously. It was of a lesser suit than the others already laid, graced with the young visage of Father Hough. Beside it in his hand was the Suit of Light, its Ace being the Lothanasa Raven hin Elric holding her mighty sword at the ready. Loath to risk his own Church to the shadowed touch of Malger's suit, he laid the Lothanasa crossways before Metamor in a position of warding. "With the skunk, the young mage Murikeer, who lost his eye." Thomas said, more to himself than the fop, to clarify his own memory. There were many things that happened while he was under the geas of the accursed halter that he often had trouble recalling. He had done the young mage a great disservice with his bland response to the monumental news of great wealth beneath the stones of his own kingdom. He watched the tigress lay down a card of coin and wheels, the Favourable Trade bid, before one of his own face down holdings. Unable to prevent his reaction he lowered his hand and turned the card over to reveal the heraldry of Giftum, then rotated the card so that its foundation faced the tigress and Kelewair; loyalty wavering but not yet sundered. "Why speak in riddles when his name would suffice as easily as your own?"

The fop laid down several cards though Thomas could see none in his hand. The first bore a red shield in which a warding hand was inscribed and within the hand was an upright sword of white. Thomas was struck by the heraldry, like a bell tolling a mighty peal within his skull, but no identity sprang forth. It was very familiar, he sensed, and he could remember that he had dealt with one who had borne that heraldry not very long in the past, but not who that had been. At the foot of the shield the fop lay a card that had been torn in half. The card was dredged up from the Suit of Domination and it was an image that Thomas knew all too well. When his eyes beheld the golden halter, even upon a simple card shorn in two, his heart skipped and he nearly dropped his cards. The fop's fingers rested upon the broken tool of the warding hand as he looked up. "This is not his dream, your grace, it is yours." He said in a gentle, melodic voice that seemed to strike the Duke's heart with a chill fist and send ice racing up his spine. He produced another card from a hand that held nothing and laid it, face down, among the Duke's own holdings. Another torn card was laid at the foot of that card; a flowering plant of some sort.

Thomas stared pensively at the face down card nested among his holdings but could not bring himself to turn it over. "My dream then? But I do not dream." Indeed, it felt to him that he was awake, alert, and well rested. The chamber in which they played their enigmatic game of cards was his own parlour. Beyond the open casements a fair breeze whispered with the scent of lilacs and the song of birds, voices, and rebuilding. The Duke drew from his hand, still holding only four cards, the Suit of Hunters; the Long Scouts as Ace, Andwyn the spy master as King, Eindah the castelain as Queen, and Rickkter the battle mage as Prince. All hunters were bent upon the unknown card.

The fop laughed merrily, "Often, then, is it that you play at the Game of Thrones with the Deck of Shadows in your parlour with a peasant minstrel and nameless Archduchess, your grace?"

Countered, Thomas could only turn his attention to the tigress as she laid her cards. Before his own hunters she laid the Lost Knight betwixt the Queen and King of his hunters. As his eyes fell upon the card his mind was filled with knowledge, as clear and sharp as if newly experienced. Bryonoth, wholly innocent of herself, used to thwart the efforts of his hunters by becoming the focus of their suspicion. West of her numerous holdings the tigress laid down the Bloodied Sword from the Suit of War. At its left the King of the Suit of Spirits; the black and red heraldry of the Questioners. Thomas frowned at the strange placement of her cards on the field of play, then realized the position that he held for himself. As Metamor he was placed at the head of the field, north, while the tigress as Kelewair was placed in the south at the foot of the table. That made the west, his right hand, the lands of Sathmore where news was arriving of strife. He recalled well the weapon that was found in the breast of Patriarch Akabaieth; a Sathmoran blade placed to direct blame for the assassination to that kingdom.

Thomas frowned and quickly lay a new card at the foot of the Questioners; the Questing Bishop to parry the point of war in the west. Just as quickly he countered the misdirection of the Lost Knight with his own card, the King of the Suit of Metamor. His thick finger slammed the black stallion down with a solid thud as he glowered across at the tigress. "And who is this Duchess that brings Kelewair and shadow athwart me?"

The fop smiled warmly as he laid one card, a strange looking sword aflame with darkness, alone behind all of his holdings. Beneath the hilt of the sword was some manner of religious incense burner covered with arcane script, both perched upon an upraised platform. Thomas could see strange symbols on the blade and burner that seemed to burn at his mind. The ritual incense burner seemed strangely familiar. "Ahhh, she, most magnificent." The gaily clad minstrel crooned. "She is my love eternal, to whom my heart cleaves and spirit bows, Mo-" the name died in his throat as the tigress suddenly lost the sardonic look of wry humour she offered the Duke and cast the fop a sharp look with those predatory eyes. Humbled, the fop bowed his head and Thomas suddenly heard the voice of Lothanasa Raven within his ears from the depths of his memory so clearly it was newly heard.

"I am not comforted a whit knowing that he chose to ally with us during the battle. He is an admitted worshipper of the daedra." She had said once while they supped, as they occasionally did, to discuss matters of faith pertaining to Metamor. Father Hough had been in attendance as well.

"He has been among us several years without incident, lady Raven. Why now is his loyalty and residence questioned?" the Duke had countered over his wine. Even now, seated at the table in his parlour playing at cards he could taste the dry bite of the chilled wine and smell the harsh cold of the waning winter beyond the walls. His voice rang within his ears as if issued presently from his own throat yet he did not speak nor move.

"He whelped that hedonistic following of sexual miscreants." The dark gray wolf pointed out with a cautionary growl.

"The sensates? While their choice of social activity is somewhat disturbing to more sedate tastes they have never caused a great deal of trouble. Yet why now does he step forward and admit himself a follower of Daedra?"

"His goddess demanded him to, as a payment for a boon he would not reveal."

"His goddess?" Thomas had asked.

Raven's response still rang in his ears as he felt the word rising from his own throat and the fop raised his head to speak. "Nocturna." the voices of Duke and minstrel said in harmony. The tigress smiled and many pearlescent white teeth gleamed as Thomas felt his cards slide from nerveless fingers to scatter over his arrayed holdings. Sharp golden eyes gazed from beneath heavy brows of russet and black as the tigress turned her gaze from the fop to the Duke.

"The Shadow from the Palace of Light grows, the Yew bends under the weight of a cancer within. Northward yearns the blade for blood as earthward bound the destiny of the heavenly court is set." Her voice was a thunder that quaked Thomas' bones and put an ache in his teeth while never rising above a conversational tone. "Ware the stormhand and shadows' unknowing host, dealt are the cards that bind, noble heart to shadows unwind. Stand fast amidst the terrible flood and stay thy hand from distant foe." Thomas sank back in his throne, grasping the arms with his hands as he shrank before the words of the dream goddess. The tigress did not rise nor move, but as she spoke she seemed to loom over him as a lion over a mouse. Each word burned itself into the horse lord's memory as he sat upon his deep throne, slack jawed. In the throne room the great banners and repaired tapestries shuddered with the power of each word like frightened curs. "The small shall extinguish the flame of ages. When repaired the irreparable the unbound will be bound with ire for loss the ageless gather on potent ground. The battle of battles comes in the wake of a darkness that knows no death save that which it brings. Be ready." The tigress abruptly ceased speaking and the quake left Thomas' breast, allowing him to gather his wits and breath. He unbent from the depths of his throne as the tigress laid her cards upon the steps of the throne dais.

Standing once more she looked up to meet his gaze, brown eyes transfixed by gold. "Be ready." She admonished once more before turning and striding regally from the throne room. The vast doors were already standing open, and it seemed that the tigress was too vast for them. Banners whipped and tapestries twitched as the doors drew closed with a hollow boom. Thomas blinked in surprise and looked to his left where the fop, Malger Sutt, stood station with flute in hand as a strange substitute for a warrior's sword, smiling through the visor of a royal knight's helm. Some unknown heraldry of a noble house gleamed from his breast.

The Duke faded, then the throne room, leaving only the empty throne upon its dais. Malger looked down where dropped cards lay in disarray. He spied the black stallion of Duke Thomas' card and toed it with one paw, heavy greaves glinting in the wan moonlight. The card slid aside to reveal another; a jackass clad in the finery of a noble, the diadem of Duchess upon her solid equine brow.

Malger raised his brows at that curious sight then shrugged as the dream faded and wakefulness approached. Already the portentous import of the dream was fast fading from his memory; it was for the Duke, not the fop.

"Until I dream again, my Love." He whispered as he offered the fading dream a parting kiss. He fancied he could feel a kiss in return as wakefulness stole upon him.

Malger lay unmoving for several long minutes with his eyes closed and listened to the coming dawn. Birds sang, scolded, and cried on all sides while crickets increased their chorus. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the trees surrounding their small camp. He could feel the cool touch whispering against his fur and smell honeysuckle heavily with each breath. Somewhere nearby a horse snorted softly and stamped a hoof. A tail swished and in the far distance a pack of coyotes yapped at the rising sun.

Opening his eyes Malger's first sight was of Murikeer, unmasked of his illusion, sitting with crossed legs on one of the saddles. His lush tail, still somewhat ragged with his shedding winter coat, was draped loosely about his paws. The skunk's head was bowed and his expression spoke of a deep, aching pain that lay heavily upon the young mage. "Good morning." Murikeer said without moving or opening his good eye, head still bowed. His voice also spoke of barely tolerated pain and the fatigue brought in resisting it. Malger chuffed acknowledgment and stretched slowly, muzzle splitting in a huge yawn.

Or, rather, his mouth opened in a yawn. He could feel his muzzle and whiskers, the points of his sharp teeth, but visually he appeared fully human. Outwardly he looked much as he had six years earlier; a handsome man in his mid thirties. The dark brown of his hair was graying at the temples but his face was not yet lined by age or exposure to extremes of environment. Clicking his tongue against the roof of his muzzle the pine marten in human guise sat up to continue his stretch. "Where's Elvmere?"

Murikeer's head came up and he opened his eye to focus on the minstrel. The aura of pain melted from him as he released his touch on magic. "Down at the stream seeing to his needs." The skunk informed as he waved an arm in the general direction of the water a short distance away. The stream was not visible from the camp as a huge boulder lay between, forming one side of their sheltered camp.

Malger yawned again and scratched through the dense fur of his chest. Murikeer was infected by the yawn and did so himself as he stood and stretched. Extending his arms above his head with clasped hands he bowed his back and lashed the thickly furred length of his tail behind him. Malger found himself staring at the skunk as he finished his yawn. The young mage was in good shape, if such things could be judged since he became a half-animal. His physique was trim and his form lithe, thick black and white fur gleaming with a healthy sheen. The minstrel was afforded a full view of the unclothed mage as his eyes traveled from head to paws and back. He always found it highly intriguing to what degree those affected by the trans-species aspect of the curse changed. Some definitely more than others he noticed with a small smile, and some in decidedly odd ways. Murikeer, for instance, had digitigrade legs much like those of a canine rather than plantigrade paws and straight legs that were natural to skunks or other members of the weasel family, like Malger.

So rapt was his examination that it took him a few moments to realize that Murikeer had stopped moving and was looking down at him curiously. Raising his eyes to meet the skunk's confused stare Malger smiled a sly grin and chuckled softly. Murikeer's eye widened in sudden affront and his stare became a hard scowl as the monochromatically furred mage ceased his stretch. Malger could not help but burst into a bout of merry laughter at the sudden reaction.

That only served to deepen the skunk's expression of ire and discomfiture, "Ware your eyes, lecher."

Malger continued to laugh as he stood and bounced on the pads of his paws. "Oh, kind sir, do please forgive mine ardent stare, o' magnificent lord." He crooned in a humorous parody of an aristocratic accent. Murikeer crossed and snatched his damp leggings from a nearby branch where they had been hung to dry.

"I'll not be one of your harem so keep your stares to yourself." Murikeer growled irritably as he thrust his leggings on, leaving laces of waist and shank dangling.

Malger grinned and knuckled his brow while slouching his body in a bent posture, grovelling with a raspy, peasant accent, "Good, kind lor', please do b' fergivin' such a unworthy wretch as I may be." He rasped, voice strangely modulated as he adopted a gravelly peasant accent, "Don' be turnin' me inta anything - unnat'ral."

The mage turned on him with a glare but Malger could see that his mood was lifting. "You're already unnatural, master Malger." He groused as he straightened his hastily donned clothing.

"Oh, aye, that I am." The minstrel laughed with a sweeping bow, his voice once more his own. At least he was wearing his own leggings so his antics were not wholly undignified.

"Are what?" Vinsah asked as he came around the side of the boulder. His fur was damp and tousled, no more clothed than Murikeer had been. Malger, in the act of kneeling before the fire to stir its coals to life, glanced up at the words. His eyes settled upon the unclothed form of the raccoon and he blinked once before glancing across at Murikeer who happened to look at him at the same moment. With a sly grin he feigned a pained wince and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the view of the raccoon, turning his full attention toward the fire.

"A complete letch." Murikeer chuffed as he retrieved the bucket of water that Vinsah carried. The raccoon bishop gave Malger a curious look, receiving a bright smile in return, as he crossed over to get his own clothing from the branches upon which they hung.

Malger sat back on his heels as the ashes sparked a small flame and he gently coaxed it higher. "Oh, a pox on abstinence, bane of my loins." He sang in dirge-like lament as Murikeer set a pot of water near the fire to heat.

"My son, you do not need the lustful congress of woman and man to ease your flesh. Opening yourself to the spirit of Eli will ease all such pangs." Vinsah admonished gently, his voice briefly muffled as he pulled on his shirt. Malger left the fire tending to Muri and stood with a soft trill of laughter.

"Woman? Who said anything about women?" he joked before wandering around the boulder toward the stream.

Vinsah watched him leave with a dubious look, "Often is it that I question the wisdom of his company."

Murikeer looked up from his work beside the fire. Already the pot was steaming, the herbs he had added to the water slowly drifting about as he let them steep. "He is more wise of the ways of the road than the both of us." He pointed out, sitting back on the heels of his long paws.

"And more worldly." Vinsah added with a chuff. Returning to his bedroll the raccoon retrieved his tree from where he had carefully secreted it in the pocket of the saddlebag he had used as a pillow. He found bathing and grooming to be disconcerting through the veil of Murikeer's illusion so needed to put the focus, his Yew tree of Eli, aside for that necessity. He offered a silent prayer as he looped it upon his neck once more. The gray, black, and brown fur of his true appearance disappeared under the veil of humanity. The lady of his dreams, the gossamer gowned apparition that both troubled his heart and lent him a peace he had not felt since his days at a child at his mother's side, had given him a mask in his dreams. When he first changed he believed that the mask she offered had been the bandit's mask of the raccoon that he eventually became. Yet even once he had taken the mask of his new species the image of the lady's offering did not change in his dreams. He felt that the mask was something more, something he would find himself adopting often and in many different ways in his life. Murikeer's illusion being just once such, he felt.

A lie, that illusion, but a lie he was forced to accept simply to survive where his animalistic appearance was a death sentence. His lady, the woman of his dreams, like an angel or some other strange seraph, bade him wear masks. He never sensed, in dreaming or waking, that Eli would allow her to mislead him.

Murikeer chuckled ruefully and nodded. "More worldly at this point than either of us shall be to our dying days." He set the pot aside to cool a bit. While the dark, foul smelling tea steeped he busied himself packing his personal items. He and Vinsah worked together to pack Malger's items.

As the minstrel's 'apprentices' their duties included the simple tasks of menial labour that their 'master' required of them. They said little as they went about their morning ritual of packing bags, currying and saddling mounts, and preparing a simple meal of bread, cheese, and salted meat. They could hear Malger singing a bawdy ballad as he bathed in the chill water of the stream not far away.

Luckily for Vinsah's sensitive ears the song hinted at much between the lines without outright saying anything direct. The song ended as Murikeer took up his pot of pungently astringent tea and withdrew a short distance from the camp. Kneeling in a small space of clear ground amidst the undergrowth he carefully removed the leather patch that covered the ruined hole where his left eye had once been. His nose wrinkled at the potent stench of corruption that rose from the back of the small bit of leather.

He set it aside for the moment to take a small bit of clean muslin from the small pouch he kept for the purpose and dipped it into the hot astringent tea. He let it soak for a few moments as he reached up and, with practiced care, pulled a sticky ball of soiled muslin from the hollow in his skull that had once been his left eye. While the patch had a stench it was mild compared to the reek that assailed his nose from the thick, foul mucous staining that ball of cloth. He was thankful that at least the stench of rot had finally been scoured away some weeks ago. The sharp, biting pungency of the seeping mucous did not threaten to wring his stomach free of its contents as had the foul miasma of decay once had. He peered at the sticky ball, unable to prevent his muzzle from twisting into a disgusted moue as he inspected the rag. The translucent white gob was only slightly tinged with red because he had not exerted the use of magic in the past couple of days. Since they had left Estravalle a fortnight previous he had performed very seldom, allowing himself to recover from the debilitating pain and weakness that had resulted from his efforts in that distant valley.

On days where he embraced the flowing essence of the earth, the wellspring from which all magic was drawn, to any great degree he would end up cleaning away more blood than mucous. Often his efforts to use greater magic would leave him too weak to function for several hours, or render him unconscious.

Using one hand he dug a hole in the earth nearby and dropped the disgusting ball of foulness into the cool dirt. He then took up the cloth that had been soaking and used it to clean the fur around his empty eye socket and another to cleanse the socket itself. He used a bit of muslin to rinse the wound and wipe the leather of his eye patch clean. The last bit, steeped in the tea with the other herbs when he first made the brew, he carefully crumpled into a ball and placed it into the void. Coe, the raccoon healer of Metamor Keep, had told him to keep something in the hole or his face would be deformed as the muscles collapsed around the empty socket. He was picking up his patch when he heard a movement behind him.

He flicked one ear back as his tail drew up at his back stiffly. "Doesn't that hurt?" Malger asked, his voice gentle. Murikeer secured the patch without turning, pouring the contents into the hole in which he had buried the soiled scraps of muslin, then shoved earth back into the hole.

"Yes." He replied as he turned to face the damp minstrel. Malger had a use-stained towel draped over his shoulders, his upper body naked. "But it's nothing compared to the agony of spellcasting." He shrugged as he passed. "I hardly notice the discomfort anymore, but it's still there always." The skunk drew up short when Malger placed a hand on his shoulder. The hand looked quite human but Murikeer could feel pads and claws.

"Hey, earlier I didn't mean offense."

Murikeer nodded slowly, "Maybe. I know your tastes, and that gender means little to you." He met the minstrel's gaze with his good eye. "What am I to think?"

"That you're a handsome lad? Joy chose well."

Murikeer looked away and they strode back toward camp. "Somehow your telling me that is hardly reassuring." He quipped and Malger laughed at the riposte. "Joy told me that you were a healer."

"Of sorts. Not like Elvmere."

Hearing his recently adopted nom-du-masque Vinsah looked up from extinguishing the fire. Everything had been packed and stowed save for the leaf-bundled sandwiches that the bishop had made of the meager food they had remaining. Their steeds sidled and snorted, champing at their bits, eager to be on the road and moving again. Murikeer crossed to the mount he normally used and retrieved his mithril pendant from the bags draped behind the saddle. He draped it around his neck and immediately fur disappeared, black and white markings fading under the veil of humanity that the illusion put about him. With a brief nod to Vinsah, readiness to begin, he mounted his steed. Settling into the deep saddle he gathered up the reins and looked down at Malger.

"I have no need of the manner of healing, nor method, that you can offer."

Stung, Malger watched as Murikeer spurred his mount back toward the road. Vinsah blinked after the retreating mage as he handed over the reins of Malger's steed.

"What's with Muri?" he asked.

Malger shrugged and swung up into his saddle. "I'm a letch." He offered. Vinsah grunted and shook his head as he followed Malger on foot, leading their pack horse.

It was an odd sort of company that Vinsah found he belonged to, but though at times he may wonder what course had led him to this, wisdom or folly, he did not doubt that it was the one he was meant to follow. Vinsah had often asked in his prayers whether he was making the right choices, though after Estravalle he knew that he had been shown these things for a purpose. Now he was venturing through Sathmore, the home of the Lothanasa faith, a following opposed to everything he had been given to know about Faith and God in his long life. This too, had a reason. Whatever they were, neither his prayers nor his dreams with his Lady provided any answers. Only reassurance that he was on the path they had set aside for him.

And even though he may be in the company of a mage who practiced the Lightbringer ways, his faith given to the goddess Artela, and a lecher who practiced worship to one of that pantheon thought of as 'evil', the goddess Nocturna, he found them pleasant and reassuring in a way that no troupe of monks could ever be. They were in their own way the salt of the earth, and he valued them more with each passing league.

Even so, Vinsah valued his moments alone to think. He'd enjoyed his bath in the spring that morning. The grime of many days' journey had begun to cake his claws and saturate his fur. He felt refreshed and more at ease now that he was clean, even if his tunic did cling to his still damp fur in places along his back. Though the illusion kept it all hidden from his eyes, he could feel the sway of his striped tail with every step. But at least the fur was clean, and it seemed to catch the subtle wind that much better.

Now, as he walked behind his other companions and leading the pack horse, he could not help but wonder if he was supposed to say or do anything to that might heal either Murikeer or Malger. Did he really need to, was there healing that could be done, he wondered. Vinsah had tried to use the powers Eli had granted him when he'd been consecrated as a Bishop to heal the pain that wracked the skunk mage, but too little effect. In the healer Coe's make-do hospital back at Metamor, shortly after the siege was lifted, he had joined many others talented with both mundane and miraculous healing to save the charred, tortured wreckage that he learned later was this same young mage. But the eye could not be touched, and that had always left Vinsah feeling somehow inadequate. Was there more he could do, he always wondered, he always tried. And then there was his other companion, his Master in this ruse. Judging from what he could of the minstrel, he found no pains to heal apart from his rather unhealthy interest in the pleasures of the flesh.

Maybe, he thought with sudden clarity as he continued on down the road, it was not they who needed healing. Perhaps it was they who were supposed to heal him.

The sun was just cresting the peaks of the Sathmore range to the east when Vinsah and Malger caught up with Murikeer at the edge of the forest. The young mage had drawn his mount to a halt in the broad clearing, a resting or passing point for caravans, and was looking up at the sky. A gentle, warming breeze blew in from the southwest to send the mane and tail of the mage's mare streaming.

"What raptness of gaze, apprentice." Malger called as he rode into the sunshine. The minstrel raised a hand to shade his eyes from the sunshine and looked up toward the southwestern sky. "What do you see?"

"A seam in the sky, master." Murikeer replied with a wave of his arm. "My studies are for earth and stone, not sky and storm. I do not know the import of this thing I see." Vinsah lead the pack horse from the shadows of the forest and drew up alongside Murikeer's Nylla to look up as well.

The sky was clear but for a scattering of mares' tails high above, wispy clouds hooking across the blue sky. The 'seam' that the mage spoke of was a line of demarcation stretching from the southeast horizon to the northwest. They sky on the northeast side of that line was a pale ice blue while the southwest side was markedly darker. Malger studied the line for several moments before scanning the horizon that he could see. Still deep in the forests that clustered the foothills of the ancient Sathmore Mountains meant that he could see little.

"Good eye, apprentice." Malger said at length. His mount, a spirited bay stallion named Vartuuth, danced in a tight circle, eager to be off. "That is a weather line, storms will arrive ere sundown. The light sky is dry and cold, the dark is wet, heavy, and warmer." Getting Vartuuth's nose pointed south he let the gelding trot a short distance then reined him back. "We should not tarry. With luck we will find a kind farmer who will let us shelter in his house or stables to wait out the wrath of the weather tonight." With that the minstrel gave Vartuuth full rein and charged southward along the caravan road.

Nylla, Murikeer's black mare, looked after the running horse and tossed her dark gray mane in seeming exasperation at the gelding's antics. She snorted once and rotated an ear back toward her rider with a single scrape of a forehoof to signal her own desire to get moving. Murikeer leaned forward to give the side of her neck a pat while Vinsah turned his steps southward. Their pack horse Hedda, a dapple gray with a long, white-tipped black mane and tail, placidly followed without letting the reins pull taut.

"Are you well, Muri?" Vinsah asked with a glance up at the young mage riding alongside. Murikeer, in the illusory guise of humanity, looked like a ruggedly handsome young man not quite beyond adolescence. Broad of shoulder and chest with a square jaw and chiselled face he bore a shrewd expression in his good eye. His arms were thick but not stout in the strong manner of a labourer, his overall frame stocky. The left side of his face had become pinched and showed pain lines on brow and cheek, shadowy etchings drawn toward the black leather patch over his left eye. He did not look down at Vinsah's question, merely raising his left hand to touch the back of his thumb to his eye patch in a gesture they had come to understand meant that his eye was causing him discomfort.

Vinsah looked much different in his human guise than his companion. Where Murikeer looked to have seen at most twenty summers and still had some boyish looks of youth Vinsah appeared to be somewhat older. A casual glance might appraise him to be in his mid twenties, an age that some quirk of Metamor's curse had visited upon him, he was in truth only a few years shy of his sixties. Murikeer looked to be of solid northern stock with fair skin and nearly black hair tinged with hints of red when the sun struck just so. Vinsah looked markedly different with a bronzed olive hue to his skin and the physique, wiry and nimble, of far southern ancestry. His hair was course, wavy, and so black it drank in the sunlight. Owing to the clandestine nature of their quest he did not wear the typical monk's tonsure of his order. Due to the growing tensions between the Ecclesia and the worshippers of the Lightbringer pantheon he no longer openly wore his yew tree either.

Indeed, as he thought on it, he was not sure if he could have a tonsure since under the illusion his head was covered with fur and not hair at all. And, he thought with a quiet laugh, a raccoon would look incredibly silly with a tonsured head. He honoured his faith, that of the Ecclesia and not openly accepted in Sathmore, with the yew tree he wore about his neck under his shirt. It was a gift given when he was invested as bishop years ago by his master and closest friend the, at that time, Cardinal Akabaieth.

Now that gift was all that remained of anything ever given him by the late patriarch. While he had found his master's journals in the wreckage of a wagon on the outset of their journey they were more a memory, and not a directly given gift. On occasion he opened the weathered writings to peruse, but he did so with hesitancy to invade the privacy of the deceased. The only measure of reassurance he gained in reading them was the occasional note he found within the yellowed pages that had been directly intended for his reading.

"Pardon my curiosity, Muri, but I heard you speak of healing with master Malger. He is some manner of healer?"

Murikeer reined Nylla back gently with a touch of his toes to her sides. The illusion he had crafted gave the appearance of boots on his feet though the structure of his paws made wearing anything akin to that quite difficult. Thus, while he appeared to touch her with boots he had actually just given the mare a gentle poke with the claws of his paw. Regardless of boot or claw Nylla understood the command and slowed to let Vinsah draw up alongside. Above their heads the limbs of trees moaned and lashed as the breeze built into a wind.

"He is, after a manner." Murikeer offered obliquely.

"After a manner?"

"Yes, not like your healing. Joy told me that he does something different, he is not a healer of flesh and bone."


Murikeer was silent for several seconds, staring at the road ahead. "Llyn." He said at length, voice flat. "She would have been my fiancée."

"Would have been?" Vinsah prompted as he glanced up at the narrow slice of sky offered through the tree. The line of mares' tails were gone and a haze of gray streamers stretched northeast across the sky high above.

"She was slain during the siege."

Vinsah winced and cast his gaze down, irritated at himself for making his companion dredge up painful memories. "Oh. I am sorry for your loss."

Murikeer touched his eye patch again as his voice hardened. "She was avenged of her slayer though the fault of her death will always rest upon me." His voice trailed away. Ahead the forest opened onto a broad clearing of plain to the west of the road.

The bishop blinked and glanced up at him with a quizzical look. "Your fault?"

Murikeer nodded. "Had she not known me as closely, had she not been with me that night, she might yet be alive. The spell intended to kill me would not have slain her."

"Instead a lutin arrow or axe. Muri, she could have fallen at any time in those dark days." Vinsah admonished gently. A stout wind tugged at their clothing and fur when they stepped from the shelter of the forest. To the southwest they could see a dark line of clouds building on the horizon. High above fingers of gray reached across the sky to the northwest.

"But I was the reason for her death. The man whose magic struck her down wanted my death above that of anyone with me. Had a lutin or giant or dire wolf been her demise she would have fallen as a hero of Metamor's defence." Murikeer groaned, reliving old memories and quite ignoring the wind. "With me she was cut down like a field weed. Her death was vain, futile; senseless."

"Why you? Why did this enemy mage desire your death so greatly?"

Murikeer looked down and the hollow gaze of his good eye gave Vinsah pause. "Because he knew me well." He said with slow malice. "He was once my student." He reached out a hand and slowly closed it into a fist. "But he is dead now, by my own hand. The loss of my eye to his tainted blade is a small price against the great cost of his evil."

Aghast at the news Vinsah could only stammer awkwardly. "I did not know, my son."

Murikeer leaned down to grasp Vinsah's shoulder. "You did not ask, father." He said with stress on the last word. Vinsah had slipped out of character, that of apprentice minstrel, in addressing the mage with his old habitual manner of priest to parishioner. "You never questioned the name of the charred wretch touched by your healing hands after the attack was thrown back? You knew that one wound failed to heal but the depths of the truth were never offered."

"It is a bitter draught to swallow, yes."

"But swallowed it has been. My student is dead, but also is Llyn dead. Eli has received her and the abyss her murderer." Murikeer sat up in his saddle and glanced toward the bulking clouds growing above the horizon. His gaze progressed up further to the fingers stretching overhead. "A draught made all the more bitter for having been drunk un-asked for. You wanted to understand how our master minstrel can offer healing."

Vinsah also watched the storms as the wind tugged at his garments and fur. "Ah, yes, his talent for healing lay - "

"With the heart." Murikeer interrupted, "Joy told me that he heals sorrow and grief, grants some easing of fear that the spirit cannot conquer." He looked down, illusory hair streaming across his fair, chiselled face. "But to do so requires a closeness that you, and I, would find more than uncomfortable. We would find the method of his healing touch verily offensive."

Vinsah peered up at Murikeer from under a hand raised against the wind. "Ah," he said after a moment, "He is a hedonist, after all. Mayhap an excuse to use his talent?"

"Mayhap because he enjoys it far too much."

"True, I cannot argue that." Vinsah looked back toward the south again in the direction Malger had ridden at a gallop. "Your revelation puts a new light on our lecherous master." As he scanned the southern road he spied Malger's horse standing a short distance off the western side of the road ahead without a rider. "And speaking of our master, it would appear that he has been unhorsed."

They found Malger seated in languid repose high upon the bent trunk of a half-uprooted tree. As they approached his horse looked up for a moment before returning to cropping the grass of the sward that stretched off toward the darkening western horizon. His hands were laced behind his head and his feathered cap pulled low on his brow. The regal plume of that cap whipped in the wind. Above them the sky grew steadily darker as the distant storm clouds loomed higher.

"Thou pair dost progress most slowly for they whom dost face an eminent and most thorough soaking." He drawled from under the pointed bill of his cap. The accent was heavily laden with the modality of the steppes, the balance of native inflection tilted toward one borne to the steppes language.

Murikeer reined Nylla to a halt. "Anon chet na'umoth bythrelan, seldiya." He replied jokingly as he drew abreast of the minstrel's perch. 'And ye wait with ill grace unhorsed, swift rider.' Malger tipped his hat up and laughed.

"A man of the steppe would gut you, young apprentice, for butchering their proud tongue so." With a smooth grace given only to a weasel he slid from his perch and dropped to the ground to land with a flourish. The effect with the illusion startled the eyes to the degree of movement beyond normal human ability. "That's book learning for you. Totally flat of proper inflection and rhythm." Still laughing he patted Nylla's arched neck. "Your words were right chosen, but wrongly spoken. Best to listen before trying at a conversation, belsesh."

Murikeer chuffed at the uncouth steppes slang for out-lander. "I see that you've managed to wound your horse." He countered as he watched Vartuuth take a step with favor to his right front hoof.

"Nay I, lad. Vartuuth himself with such lust to run got afoul of a stone." The minstrel explained. He walked to the grazing horse and retrieved his dangling reins. "He's got a bruised hoof but should recover well in a day or two with rest."

Vinsah scratched unseen whiskers with his free hand as he approached. "Let me see the pain he has suffered. Perhaps a gentle touch is all he needs to ease his discomfort."

Malger held up a forestalling hand. "Nay." He said as he moved to interpose himself between bishop in disguise and horse. "Nay, kind apprentice. Waste no miracles on simple horses. His gift and grace is for those in most dire need, not for a horse that foolishly ran himself lame." With a gentle hand he coaxed the gelding to raise his pained leg so that he could examine the frog of his hoof. "No great injury, this." He said after letting the hoof back down and then lead Vartuuth back to the road. "Besides, we never know what unseen eyes may see or ears hear." The minstrel gave Vinsah's shoulder a squeeze. "The storms come faster than expected. Within hours anything not under a roof will be miserable indeed."

Murikeer slid from his saddle. "I see little by way of man's hand at work here. I do not expect a farm very near."

"Aye and you are quite right. A league south along the road there is a tavern. I had hoped to pass it by, but yon storms give me little choice." He turned and began leading his mount. Vartuuth's limp was subtle but he favored the hoof with each pause.

"You?" Vinsah asked with some surprise. "You would willingly pass a tavern by without testing its offerings?"

"Oh, aye! Even among us of the road and wandering feet find places where we would not care to park our tails." He grinned sidelong at the bishop at the veiled pun.

"A mean place this must be indeed."

"The owner has much greed and miserly habit. We'll find little welcome there even as minstrels." They all looked toward the southwest as distant thunder growled. "Even apaw let us make haste. I gauge speed of storm and distance of road to put us and yon storm together as we reach our destination." They broke into a jog as the wind picked up in sudden gusts across the western sward.

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