Never by its Cover - Part II

By: Ryx & Charles Matthias

True to his estimation their group reached the hamlet of Aghen just as the first heavy drops were falling with loud slaps from the leaden sky. Also true was his description of the place as something to avoid. Aghen had once been a large, sprawling caravansary some time in the past, but it was now a vast ruin of old crumbling walls and fallen pillars. The stones of the courtyard thrust up from the earth at rakish angles against the trees that had upturned them. The great enfolding walls were but crumbled memories blackened by the ancient fire that had brought them down leaving short ragged remains and memories. Among the ruins the soot dark stones had been scavenged to build small homes and barnyards. All that remained of the original structure was the central hall now converted to a rough looking tavern. Pillars of stone, the supports for long forgotten upper floors, thrust from the dark, neglected thatch like arrows from a corpse.

The only other large building was the livery off to one side nestled into a remaining corner of the old wagon shelters. The thatch of the stable looked relatively fresh, no more than a couple of years old by the look. Vinsah contemplated for a moment that the livery might be better than the tavern to escape the coming storm. The thunder was no longer so distant and had increased in frequency noticeably. A bent, stoop backed man scuttled from the dark maw of the livery door as they neared, stopping between the shattered remains of two massive ancient pillars so vast that three men could not have reached fully around them.

"Bein' ye' o' luck, lords, sky be 'avin' teeth t'day." The old stable hand croaked and knuckled his brow toward them. "Ol' Shem be takin' right fine 'and wit ye animals, now." Malger surrendered Vartuuth's reins to the slender hand that was offered.

"Do you know liniments, horsemaster?"

"Aye, lord, an' well I does. Yer fine lad be comin' up sore?" The man cast a critical eye at Vartuuth, swiftly focusing his attention upon the stallion's right front hoof. "Ahh, ol' Shem see wit' these ol' eyes. Take gen'le 'and wit' yer fine lad, lord. And thine?" sharp eyes set in a gnarled, ancient face glanced at Vinsah and Murikeer, then at their animals with swift appraisal. Murikeer stepped forward and offered Nylla's reins and Vinsah did as well with Hedda's while blue and white flickers danced rapidly across the low, black clouds racing swiftly northeastward overhead. "Lord, yer blades nae b' welcome within." Shem croaked and nodded his head toward the tavern while accepting the reins.

Malger followed the motion then looked down at the tasseled hilts at each hip. He rested his hands upon them and shrugged. "For what yon keeper demands in prices I view as banditry, and I am not one to suffer bandits unarmed."

Shem's laugh was drowned by a sharp, cracking roar of thunder that sounded like a great tree being twisted asunder. The horses uttered uneasy squeals and yanked at their reins forcing Shem to throw his weight back and retreat hastily toward the livery. They were all too eager to escape into the dark depths of the building, near trampling the horsemaster in their haste. While the horses went one way the trio of travelers went another with similar haste with ducked heads and hunched shoulders against the coming rain.

Trees at the edge of the forest groaned and thrashed in the wind while thunder roared in a rapid, deafening barrage. The sky was lit by a steady flicker of lightning that raced hither and yon randomly through the clouds making stark shadows that danced and writhed upon the stones. Malger grasped the latch of the heavy wooden door and hauled it against the wind, then lurched as a gust from another direction caught the heavy portal and yanked it open with savage force. There was a rope and weight inside intended to draw the door shut but Malger had to add his weight upon it while Muri and Vinsah hauled at the door together, striving to defeat the powerful grasp of the wind. Once more the howling wind switched directions and thrust the door closed with a resounding crash that sent them staggering in the cavern-like gloom of the tavern foyer. The only light was offered through a squared arch of dim firelight at the far end of the entryway.

Malger gave his head and arms a shake to rid his fur of some water and his younger protégés did the same in the moments it took their eyes to become accustomed to the gloom. The rank miasma of stale air tinged with the lingering mustiness of old thatch, bad ale, and sweat assailed their sensitive noses. Mingled with the offensive odors of too much humanity in a sealed space was a slightly more favorable bouquet of passably savory cooking.

Compared to jerked, smoked, or salted meat, old cellar-kept winter vegetables, and hard tack bread the prospect of a properly cooked meal helped overcome their misgivings. Malger tugged his shirt into some degree of composure and lead the way as thunder bellowed outside only slightly muffled by heavy walls and thick thatch.

A short, surly looking man met them at the taproom threshold with a wary scowl of annoyance. "Who be ye? Wot be th' color o' yer coin?"

Malger drew up short with a sigh and Vinsah, close behind him, could feel the pine-marten's tail stiffen where it touched his hip. "We're travelers on the southern road, tavernkeep, and our coin is bright enough even in this gloom."

The sour faced tavern master gave Malger a hard stare and then the weapons on his hips. "'Ighway men ye be, bringin' weapons into Aq's 'ouse." Thick arms crossed the soiled breast of the shirt. "Be off wit ye, I gots nae 'ere fer ye."

"Master Aq, a great, dark storm howls beyond your threshold!" Vinsah spoke up swiftly, shocked that the tavernkeep would turn them out. "Surely you can understand the girding of our man-at-arms for there are many bandits on the trade routes in these dark days." The plainly clothed bishop continued effusively as he stepped quickly around Malger. "We've silver to spend and desire only to wait out the angry skies outside."

The man's eyes narrowed as he glanced Vinsah over with bold appraisal. "Who be ye?"

"Elvmere I am, routesman for the Thane Moraf of Silvassa." Vinsah turned and motioned toward Murikeer with one hand. Malger crossed his arms and watched silently with a perturbed scowl. "This is my bondsman Murikeer, my master's nephew, and our man-at-arms Malger. T'were he whom chose your fine establishment to wait out the storm."

"Thane's man, ay?" Aq rubbed his chin and looked them over again. "Show me yer silver." Vinsah dug into the small coin purse hanging from his belt with much clinking of metal before withdrawing the desired silver. The tavernkeep snatched the coin swiftly and regarded it in the dim firelit gloom of the taproom behind him. Thunder shook the rafters with a mighty crash. "Wot be dis face, a 'orse on yer coin?"

"The Duke Thomas Hassan IV of the cursed lands of Metamor." Murikeer offered with the bored air of an annoyed aristocrat, playing the part Vinsah had cast for him. "Routesmaster Elvmere's tasks and travels span from the southern sea to the northern keeps to secure trade agreements." Thunder roared and quieted to an angry growl. Behind them the heavy wooden door rattled against its latch as if some fey beast were trying to smash its way into the tavern. "Silver is silver, value by weight and not face as well you know, tavernmaster. My servants would like to get off their feet as much as I."

Finally some apparent degree of reason came to the bellicose tavernkeep's expression and the silver disappeared under the stained apron of some unidentifiable colour wrapped tightly about his stout middle. His head bobbed in eventual agreement and he took a step back and turned. "Zaithy!" he bellowed with all of his earlier surliness as he stalked away.

A strange, dark, shadowy shape detached itself from the gloom at the far end of the broad taproom as Aq stomped off toward a bar that dominated much of one wall. Despite its size the taproom seemed crowded by others likewise escaping the weather. Farmers and woodsmen sat at tables near the single huge hearth occupying the wall opposite the bar. Their garb was plain and bespoke of a living made solely from the land, simple homespun woolens that revealed how seldom tradesmen stopped to barter with the populace of Aghen.

They made quick appraisals of the crowd as they, in turn, were surveyed. Many of those eyes gleamed hungrily as they looked upon the wardrobe of the new arrivals. The travellers' garments were not rich by far, but compared to the rough plainness of the tavern crowd they looked like jays in a mob of crows.

The shadowy shape drew closer to them with a slow step, no face or hands visible in the black folds of ragged, cast off clothing the person was swathed in. Malger could not stop himself from grimacing and taking a step back and Vinsah gasped quietly when it became apparent that the cloaked, veiled shape was coming to them. Murikeer clenched his jaw but held his ground as it neared. Their earlier misgivings returned that much sharper at the sight of the cloaked individual. Such complete swathing was reserved normally for lepers or the hideous. That knowledge, either way, did not sit well in the stomachs of the three travellers.

"Milords." The shape spoke with a decidedly feminine voice. A clear contralto slurred slightly toward the end consonant of the address bringing unseen ears up with curious intrigue on three heads. "A table for thee, milords?" Malger's brow beetled in confusion as he cocked his head to one side to stare at the veiled woman.

"Far from the crowds, child." Vinsah said at length. The swathed head bobbed and the spill of ragged garments turned to lead them toward the far end of the taproom. Dust shifted from the gables as thunder bellowed angrily outside with the sound of boulders spilling down a mountain. Malger was reminded for a moment of Murikeer's feat of felling a huge boulder from a mountainside above Metamor not three months past. The thunder outside was nothing when held against the true sound of a falling mountain. That day Malger had truly thought he might die. His only regret was that his death would be under the impersonal weight of moving rocks and not upon the blade of an irate partner of one he had shared his bed with.

The swathed woman lead them to a table in the deeper gloom a good ten paces from the nearest table occupied by a half dozen huntsmen. Malger sat with his back to the stone of the wall while Murikeer and Vinsah sat at either side. All three set their stools so that they could watch the taproom. "Would milords desire refreshment?"

"What does your sour-faced master provide?" Malger asked with playful sarcasm.

"Watered ale and young wine, sire." She offered with some humor in her clear, slightly slurred voice. "There is a cool spring of sweetwater in the root cellar if that would suit your lordship's palette. I fear that there is naught else to offer."

"Water it shall be, lass." Malger stretched and leaned back against the wall, thrusting his paws out under the table before him. He laced his fingers behind his head. "Tell me, what is your name and why are you so crudely masked, lass? You've not the touch of a leper, I would hope." He replied boldly. Vinsah blinked and scowled at him.

The jumble of shrouding rags dipped slightly as the shape curtsied. "Kozaithy, milord." She replied demurely as one gloved hand raised to touch her face self-consciously through the veil. "I've not the leper's curse, lord, but I've not escaped the touch of some other foul element that has made me unpleasant to look upon." Her voice softened and threatened to break before she turned and retreated. They watched as she vanished through a curtained arch at the end of the bar.

"That was rude." Vinsah quipped tartly.

"It was necessary. I would have hoped that even one so disreputable as Aq would not stoop to employing lepers." Malger replied blandly as he looked toward the table of hunters. He stared fixedly until the men dropped their intent, watchful stares back to their own table. A wet slap issued from the floor nearby as a leak in the decayed thatch revealed itself. The roar of the rain was dulled to a mumbling hiss by the thick layers of aged roofing but the steady split and crack and roar of thunder was little softened.

"Quick thinking, my good apprentice, and a facile story." The minstrel continued at length. He let his gaze slide over to the bishop. "Your tongue has become most glib. You've got a good hand on the accent as well, but it's more closely related to your home so it comes easier methinks."

Vinsah nodded slowly. "The lie shames me, but the heated words you would have exchanged with the master swine would have found us back out in the rain."

"The livery looked more habitable." Murikeer chimed in ruefully as he looked at the table. It was neither entirely level nor smooth. The face of the ancient, stained wood was nicked and scored like a butcher's block while the table itself rocked slowly whenever they leaned on it.

Malger nodded, as did Vinsah, at that. "Master swine indeed. There are many huntsmen here, that bodes well for a meal of fresh meat."

"They've a look of wolves in late winter." Murikeer said with a glance toward the crowds nearer the hearth. Flames leaped from the depths of the stone arch and smoke belched into the taproom as the rafters groaned against especially strong blasts of wind. "Hungry and desperate."

"Aye, for our coin. We appear rich to their eyes."

Murikeer chuckled softly. "We are to them. We've a heavy purse each of us from our entertainments."

"Your lights and magic, young Muri, moreso than our crooning ballads." Vinsah admitted.

"Magic is a rare and wondrous thing among simple folk; even the paltry tricks of a mere apprentice." Malger said distractedly as he rested his shoulders back against the cool stone of the wall. "Yon lass had a schooled voice."

Vinsah nodded. "She did. Servant of a noble house at one time. She's quite out of place here among such rustic, rural folk."

"A mystery indeed." He fell silent as the veiled servant emerged from the curtained arch and set a stack of trays on the bar. She took the topmost tray and began serving the tables near the hearth. People leaned away from her approach and several times various signs of warding or offense were thrust at her back. While they reviled her presence not one of them turned away the laden trenchers she placed on the tables. No one would make a move to take them from her overburdened hands or even touch them until she was well away from their table.

After seeing to the other tables she retrieved the last tray with their steins from the bar and brought them over. She stopped short in surprise at the table when Murikeer reached out to accept the old, much cracked kiln-fired stein from her hand before she could place it upon the table. Her veiled head turned toward him as she released the container with almost haste.

"From whence come you, Kozaithy?" Malger asked as he followed Murikeer's lead and reached across for his drink.

"Bradanes, of the southern midlands, milord." She offered with a voice much subdued from its earlier brightness. Gloved hands wiped across the much-mended front of the garment she wore. "There is food fresh made, lords, if your appetite desires." She continued, cutting Malger's next comment and falling silent as a grinding crack of thunder sent more dust down from the rafters.

"Of wine or water your opinion of the repast, Kozi?" Murikeer asked. He hovered a protective hand over his stein and looked up toward the dark shadows lingering near the ceiling above.

"Sire? The master oversees, he cooks nor cleans not." Kozaithy said after a moment with a slight shrug. "One of the huntsmen brought in venison this very morn and it turns fresh upon the spit."

Malger slapped his stomach. "Ah, venison, a rare feast. Please do carve a large slab of a fine cut, lass, and bring with it much bread."

"Yes, sire." She demurred as she withdrew with bowed head. Malger watched her leave.

"I know Bradanes. Earl Donar and his wife Esardai." He said as he stroked his jaw with one hand. "Curious to find a servant of their house so far west."

Murikeer leaned back and stretched out his legs. "Well you could've asked if you hadn't cowed her with that callous opening question."

"What can you make of her condition?"

"Huh?" Murikeer looked across at Malger curiously.

"With that queer sight of yours. What does she look like?"

"Mage sight, and all it tells me is that she cannot give her malady to anyone. Her spirit is bound about by whatever disease this is that has stricken her, but its touch is all turned inward. There are no tendrils seeking outward as most other diseases that I have seen are typical of looking. This thing may be something given by her parentage, but could have been acquired by other means beyond my understanding." Murikeer explained quietly with a shrug. "I'd estimate that it will prove deadly within the next year or two." He continued as they saw her emerge once more from the curtained arch with a heavily laden tray. She said nothing as she passed out wooden trenchers and bread. With a curtsy she retreated and left them to their meal.

The savoury aroma of herbs, onion, and hints of spice about the large slab of venison haunch she set upon the table caused their mouths to water. A scattering of small potatoes and mushrooms flanked the moist, dark meat. While Vinsah quietly offered a feast prayer to Eli Murikeer began carving the hot meat with the jade-hilted dagger he kept with him. Malger broke the smallish loaves of dark, coarse bread into several pieces and produced his own eating knife from one of the scabbards on his hips. Once his prayer was complete Vinsah drew his own eating knife and set to the slice of venison that Murikeer laid upon his trencher.

"What say you, Elvmere?" Malger asked around a mouthful of meat and mushrooms after several long minutes of quiet feasting. Vinsah glanced up with a look of confusion on his face. In one hand the bishop held a dripping heel of bread.

"Plainly seasoned but amazingly tender. The mushrooms are most succulent." Vinsah offered as he resumed sopping gravy from his trencher with the bread.

Malger swallowed the bite of meat and shook his head. "No. The child's illness."

Vinsah glanced over toward the pillar of cloth carrying a large ewer of ale with difficulty toward the crowd around the hearth. Behind the bar Aq leaned against the wall and glared after her. "I could try. I could not promise a cure but at the least I could stave it off somewhat."

Murikeer looked from minstrel, epitome of hedonism and worshipper of daedra, to bishop, vassal of Eli and marked opposite of the creature to whom he spoke as boon companion. He chewed a bite from the slice of venison he held between two pieces of bread and swallowed it with a gulp of water. "What say you, o' master of bards, of 'not making light of His miracles'?" the mage said with a sardonic laugh.

"The lass is no horse. You said yourself that death is her destiny should no cure be found." Malger parried smoothly. The taproom suddenly lit an actinic blue as spidery lines of brilliant white scattered across the vaulted ceiling of the tavern. The deafening, crackling roar of thunder that shook the building sent many diving under their tables. Vinsah hunched his shoulders and clapped his hands over his ears as Murikeer and Malger looked up in surprise. A stench of charred mould tickled their noses as the rolling crash of thunder faded, leaving their ears ringing.

Murikeer looked over at Vinsah who was still looking at the thatch above. "Was that a vote for yes, or no?" he asked blandly.

"That was an argument for not replacing the thatch. It's so rotten that it won't burn." Malger muttered as he rubbed his ears. Murikeer picked the jade-hilted dagger, the very blade a lutin shaman named Keletikt had given him only a year earlier, up from the floor where his startled flinch had cast it. He inspected the unmarred blade, cleaned it on a rag he carried, and then slipped it back into its sheath under his shirt.

"Performing the miracle of Eli's healing here would be very unwise because word would spread more swiftly than our horses could run." Murikeer pointed out as he picked up his sandwich again. "Beside, I know how she might be cured."

"How?" two voices in harmony asked.

"The curse."

"You mean to sender her to Metamor purposely? That's a cure?" Malger asked in surprise.

"Accept the curse and the cure, or die. A simple choice, I think. Rickkter made it, you did as well, Malger." Murikeer argued quietly. "Elvmere and I had no choice in it."

"You have a point."

"Are you well, milords?" the subject of their conversation asked tentatively as she came near.

"We are, Kozi." Murikeer offered with a nod of his head. "Why ask us, strangers to this hamlet?" he asked as he looked toward the rest of the taproom crowd. Those that had taken cover were emerging and the murmur of conversation took on a scared increase in volume. Kozaithy followed his gaze with a turn of the shroud masking her face.

"I do not frighten you, lords." She admitted after a moment, "Why do I not?"

"Your ailment cannot be given to others, that is why."

It seemed that she blinked and stared at Malger. "How is it that you, strangers, know this when they I have been in contact with for some months believe otherwise?"

Malger shrugged expansively and smiled.

"Travellers see and know more, Kozi." Murikeer interjected. "And we know of a way that you might be cured of it."

"Zaitha, ye worthless lazy child!" Aq barked loudly across the tavern, "Get yer ugly arse t' work, be getting' dem trays!" She looked back at the bar then once more at Murikeer, clearly torn between the tavernkeep's wrath and learning of Murikeer's cure. "Girl! Get movin' afore I 'ave t' come git ye movin'!" Aq slammed his stout hands on the bar. Kozaithy grabbed up the tray and trenchers from the table hastily with a sigh and a quickly offered curtsy to them.

"Yes, master Aq, I am coming!" she cried in an anguished voice as fear of the man's wrath overcame her desire to know the cure. Moving quickly among the tables around the hearth she stacked trays and tableware in a heavy, precariously balanced heap before making her way toward the curtained arch leading to the kitchen. Murikeer watched her for a few moments before turning his attention back to Vinsah, ready to carry on the argument interrupted by the unexpected display of weather.

"Oh, she'll go, no doubt of that." He said with a slight nod and smile, "Even if it's only a rumour of a cure she'll go just for the chance to be cured." Abruptly a startled cry and loud clatter brought their heads around abruptly. Trays rattled and kilnware crashed as they watched the shrouded, veiled serving girl topple forward before reaching the kitchen archway. Bits of broken crockery and food discards scattered out before her in a fan of debris. Malger snarled suddenly and dug his claws into the table as a low, sporadic ripple of laughter drew Murikeer's attention toward the other tables. He glowered at the crowd for a heartbeat before looking back toward the fallen girl. She shook her head a couple of times as she gathered her knees up under her and drew her self up against the wall.

Storming from his post near the ale casks at the far end of the bar Aq reached her within seconds, his face a rictus snarl of rage. One thick arm drew back swiftly and delivered a stunning back-handed blow against Kozaithy's head so solidly that the sound of it could be heard over the muffled drone of rain and wind. The sound of her head striking the wall was nearly as loud and she slumped once more to the floor, stunned. "Fool clumsy arse o' a girl!" Aq bellowed loudly as he drew his arm back again for another blow. It did not fall since, in falling, she had passed out of easy range for another strike. He thrust a thick finger toward her. "Clean up dis mess! Wot ye've broke ye've to pay fer!" Spittle foamed at the corners of his mouth as he screamed. He sucked at it as he turned, panning the entire crowd of the tavern with a fierce glare, and stomped back toward the ale casks muttering dark imprecations.

Still snarling loudly and with such vehemence that the masking illusion was failing to wholly conceal the sound the animalistic sounds Malger's gaze fixed the tavernkeep with a murderous stare. Vinsah looked to the stricken girl as she began to gather up the scattered trenchers, trays, and steins. After a few moments the sound that Malger was making brought his attention around once more. "Malger?" While the tavernkeep's rough treatment was, to Vinsah, extreme he could not find cause to become so angered by it. Murikeer pulled his gaze away as well, his fingers making a brief motion that nearly silenced the vicious snarls.

"He tripped her." Malger growled indignantly. Vinsah looked quickly back toward Aq who stood near the casks, arms crossed upon his thick chest, glaring at his servant. "There's a loose board near the door that rose up as she stepped over it. That swine, myern rokha, was watching. Likely the other end of that board is under his foot." Vinsah was glad he did not understand the language owning the vulgarity Malger let loose. He scowled toward the tavernkeep for a moment before looking toward Malger again as he felt the minstrel move to rise. Murikeer's quick hand reached out and grasped his forearm to forestall his motion.

"No." the youngest of their small party said quickly. "Angry words and action will only cause us much strife with the locals. I'd rather not get pitched out into the storm at sword point. Nor gutted, at that."

Malger glared but dropped back onto his stool. "You can't expect that I just ignore that injustice?!"

Murikeer shook his head slowly and released Malger's arm. "Not at all." The smile he offered was cold and quite sinister. "I'll take care of this." He said as he stood. "After all, I'm the noble here, is that not so, master of routes?" Vinsah grunted a small, uneasy laugh and nodded. Murikeer stood and gave his shirt a tug before taking up his stein and wandering toward the bar.

Murikeer set the stein on the bar with purposeful care and wiped the scarred, age-darkened wood with the side of one hand before leaning his elbows upon it. Aq retreated a pace and stared warily at him from the opposite side of the bar. Murikeer could see, hanging from the wall within easy reach, a stout truncheon. With a warm smile he wrapped his hands around the stein before him and looked up to catch Aq's gaze with his good eye.

"You trust a diseased serving wench not to foul your food?" He asked blandly, letting a little of the aristocratic accent Malger had taught touch the edges of his voice. "Or not to scare your patronage elsewhere? Such swift ire against one such as she is not all that wise, master Aq of Aghen."

With a sneer the man cleared his throat and spat at the floor to one side. "At be no of yer worry, stranger, noble or not as ye may be." Stout arms crossed over his thick chest. "At wot disfegger th' sorry monster nae b' sommat she can pass about withal. An she be in me debt, nae let e'en one so 'ideous as she be leave wit'ou pay'n wot be due."

Murikeer took a sip of his drink, the water coursing down his throat cool and pure. "So you force her to work for her debt?"

"Oh, aye." Aq snorted as he looked toward the other end of the bar. Kozaithy had long since gathered up the mess and retreated into the kitchen beyond the curtained door. Dimly Murikeer could hear weeping. Aq's dark eyes narrowed as he glared shrewdly at him. "Be nae unusual, werkin' off debt o' the worthless lazy 'uns as 'ave no coin t' pay." He looked up as thunder cracked loudly overhead, sending dust filtering down from the thatch. The stench of mould made Murikeer's nose want to wrinkle in distaste but he fought down the reaction. "Be naught bu' a thief 'r bandit did I lets 'er go unpaid."

"Oh, true on that." Murikeer nodded as he brushed some of the powdery white powder from his sleeve. "What debt put her in your servitude?"

Aq frowned, sensing he was being lead somewhere he did not exactly wish to go. "Two silver an' some copper."

Murikeer's brows rose in surprise. "A hefty sum. What manner of theft did she endeavor for such a price?"

"No theft as outright be. Nae, took food an' som space fer a night as wit'ou coin t' be payin' er way." Aq turned and spat again. "She begged 'at I might allow 'er t' labour fer 'er debt, as she were a servant o' sum noble 'ouse."

"Bradanes, a house by name I know."

"Aye as 'at. But so an idiot an' poor on 'er feet as to shatter me wares wit nae coin as to pay fer wot she smash."

"She is not tripped up by loose flooring poorly maintained?" Murikeer asked with that bland air of aristocratic boredom as he turned the stein slowly in his hands. Aq's eyes narrowed to suspicious slits as his body tensed.

"She nae watch 'er own step."

"And since coming into your service how much debt has she incurred?"

Aq frowned and turned his head slightly, suspicious expression unsure, watching Murikeer sidelong. "Six piece, sire."



"Gold, indeed! A kingly ransom for a few crude piece of kilnware and wood." Murikeer exclaimed. He hid his sneer of disgust behind his stein as he took a long drink of water. The storm seemed to echo his mood as an especially heavy cascade of thunder shook the building. The hearth belched with a gust of wind and vomited a heap of burning cinders across the floor. Chaos ensued among the tables as patrons hastily stomped or doused the cinders with their beverages. The truncheon clattered as the wall upon which it hung shuddered, then slipped from its peg and fell to the floor.

Aq, startled by the sudden chaos, flinched when the heavy wooden truncheon rolled to the back of his feet. When he bent to retrieve the weapon Murikeer delved into his coin purse and withdrew six coins. Aq rose and hung the truncheon back in place with a distracted motion that bespoke of much repetitive use. His attention was momentarily distracted toward the hearth and he did not notice as Murikeer stacked the six coins of gold beside his stein. The distant growl of thunder was still fading when Aq's attention returned to the supposed noble standing at the bar. To his eye it did not look as if Murikeer had moved at all.

The gleam of gold newly appeared beside Murikeer's stein caught his eyes as another angry roar came from the sky. Several drops of water spattered noisily to the bar as the rain found a weakness in the rotting thatch. "Ye can see 'at trade nae come along dis way oft, stranger. Nor be craftsfolk nearer 'an two days' ride." The tavernkeep muttered angrily. "So replacin' wot 'at clumsy monster break nae b' a simple thin'." He looked hungrily at the gold but made no move to take it.

The topmost coin of the stack gleamed with the sailing ship of Elvquelin. A gold mast, as the coin was known, of the merchant guilds. Taken solely by weight it was worth no more than any other coin, but taken on the faith of the trade guilds that backed it the value was considerably greater than mere weight. It was a rare thing to see non-merchant travelers offering them lightly.

Murikeer ignored the gold. "You do know that her affliction will be her death."

Aq jerked his gaze up. "Aye, as like." He said as he looked at Murikeer suspiciously. "Ye be knowin' wot it be?"

"I have ideas, no more."

"But 'ere she be stayin' 'til she be payin' wot cost as she owe me." Aq continued stubbornly, trying not to stare fixedly at the small fortune stacked next to the strange traveler's stein.

"You keep her as a slave then?" Murikeer asked pointedly while raising the brow above his good eye. "To earn by her labor yet never lessen her debt?"

The tavernkeep paled, aghast. Slavery was a dangerous charge to have laid at one's doorstep. "Nae!" he gasped. "She cost mor'n she earn!"

Murikeer leaned forward on his elbows. "Then why not release such a costly burden?"

"Who, 'en, wut pay me losses?"

Murikeer gave the stack of coins a flick with one finger, toppling it. The gleaming coins of gold spilled across the bar, each coin gleaming with the ship of Elvquelin trade weight. The top coin skipped over the far edge of the bar and Aq caught it quickly. "That should cover what she has cost you, as well as the cost of replacing your rancid roof."

"Sire, I - " Aq stammered in surprise, "She is my cook, sire!" His voice trailed away weakly as he finally realized the trap that had been laid.

Murikeer stared pointedly at him for several long seconds with his good eye before turning to look back over his shoulder. "I count better than thirty souls here, Aq of Aghen. At even a single faceless copper to feed each cheaply I do not see the problem you have in honoring the stricken girl's debt." He said slowly as he turned his head to once more face tavernkeep. Aq could only gape, his face pale. As Murikeer leaned forward he retreated until his back pressed against the casks. His hard one-eyed stare bored at Aq. "Hire another cook." Murikeer growled. "Do not blackmail one into your service over a false debt for if I ever hear the name Aq of Aghen again in any injustice I will be highly wroth." One of the coins abruptly melted, sending the sharp stench of charred wood into the air as the hot metal burned into the bar top. Murikeer poured the remainder of his water over the splash of melted gold with a hiss of steam. "That was a trifle. The next time will be your eyes." He pushed himself away from the bar as Aq stared at the gleaming splay of metal burned into the bar top hissing quietly. "Summon her with more water for our table."

Turning, Murikeer strode back toward his table. As he crossed the length and breadth of the tavern he ignored the curious stares from the crowd. Thunder growled grumpily outside and the heavy hiss of rain had grown considerably heavier since he stood to speak with the tavernkeep. His conversation with Aq had not gone unnoticed, nor had the ready gold he had given over to the man.

Malger looked up as Murikeer returned. "You've just earned us the attention of every bandit from here to Silvassa." The minstrel commented flatly as he glanced from Murikeer to the hushed conversation of the patrons.

"Would've happened eventually." Murikeer sat and stretched. "Should I scare them off the trail with a light show?"

Malger laughed and shook his head. "From the look on the swine's face I think you've done enough in that regard. But why so much gold?"

"His quote of Kozi's debt."

"And you paid it?!"

"Why not? We'll be far away when the illusion fades." Murikeer said matter-of-factly as he met the minstrel's surprised look. Malger laughed again and even Vinsah chuckled.

"What did you give him?"

"Silver, and still too much for that."

Malger chuckled deeply with a quirking smile at the corner of his muzzle, "Devious, lad, devious. I like the way you think."

Vinsah looked from one to the other with a quirk of his own lips, "I am doomed to attend rascals and bandits to the day of my end." He rhapsodized with a soft smile of humour. "But for a little lie much good can come, so I guess I cannot be too upset." His gaze drew away from Murikeer and up as a shadow occluded the light of a nearby lantern. The black-swathed serving girl had returned, bearing a heavy carafe in one hand. She braced her free hand under the butt as she leaned forward to fill the stein Malger presented.

"Are you well, child? That earlier fall did not harm you?" Vinsah asked as he waited for her to fill Malger's stein.

"Not so harmful as her master's hand, though." Malger added as he looked up toward the veiled face. "Not an uncommon thanks for your labours, lass?"

"No." she said simply, her voice hushed, muffled by the thin veil. She turned to pour from the carafe into Vinsah's stein. Outside the storm had ebbed slightly, the thunder softening to distant, muffled growls while the earlier hiss of heavy rain faded to a whisper. The fire in the hearth calmed, no longer belching gusts of smoke and flame into the taproom with each gust of wind. The silence made the staccato patter of leaks all that much more apparent, like the noise if crickets in a suddenly quieted forest. Malger raised his stein and took a slow drink of cool, clean water as Kozaithy refilled Vinsah's stein and then Murikeer's.

"Wait, child." He spoke up as she turned away after filling the young mage's stein. She did as bid, turning her veiled head to look back.


"Come, child. Sit and parlay with us a few moments." Malger waved his hand toward the untenanted side of their table. She looked away, toward the bar where Aq was drawing a flagon of ale for one of the other patrons.

"Sire, as you ask, but I fear that such pause would further anger master Aq." she explained in a fearfully quiet voice as she couched the dented, tarnished copper carafe in the crook of one arm. "He is already quite wroth. Further laziness will only earn further punishment."

"Fear not the swineherd, lass, he is no longer your master." Vinsah spoke up quickly, while Murikeer sat without voice and sipped his water, listening and watching. Black rags swirled about black booted feet as she turned fully around to look at each of them in turn through the featureless veil.

"Milord?" her voice was flat, wary and confused.

"You owed the swineherd some debts, yes?" Malger's brows rose as he asked.

"Aye, milord. By his account some six pieces of gold." An edge cut at the flat wariness of her voice, a resigned sigh as the veil slowly shook from side to side.

"And by your reckoning? As a servant of a noble House I would think you understanding of small daily costs?"

Her head nodded, cloth rumpling and shifting as she resettled the carafe in her arm. "Myself, milord, were I to seek purchase of such things even from a greedy merchant, would expect little more than a two piece of silver and handful of copper for all that I have broken." Slender shoulders rose and fell with a short sigh. "He is a crook and a slave driver, but none here would say aught."

"Can you say with truth that even those coins are your rightly earned debts?" Malger persisted.

She shook her head. "Nay, sire, not all. Some, the meal I took and night's lodgings that brought all of this upon me, and what things I have broken in my true clumsiness. This affliction steals the strength and steadiness from my hands."

"And loose boards?"

She cast a look back over her shoulder toward the bar. Aq was talking to a grizzled old woodsman, whose flagon he had finished filling, and paid them little heed. "The greater portion of my debts I owe to boards, yes." She admitted. A distant crack of thunder growled sullenly through the quiet whisper of rain and heavy thatch. A the noise of the storm faded they could better hear the sounds closer at hand. The sharp slap of leaking rainwater came from all sides, undercut by the quiet crackle of the hearthfire at opposite end of the taproom. Around before the hearth the locals conversed over their meals and drinks, many of them watching the travellers and shambling black pillar of rags.

"Wench!" A hunstsman bellowed from one of the tables. "More wine, monster, an' be quick about it!" he slammed his stein on the table as several others took up the same demand.

"Monster is it?" Malger chortled and shook his head slowly. "Stay, child." He said quit a gentle voice as she moved to step away. "The swineherd can serve his red water as easily as you." Kozaithy peered down at him, arrested in mid step, clutching the base and handle of the carafe as she looked uneasily toward the patrons as their demands, and deprecations, grew louder. Very soon Malger was laughing merrily while Murikeer and Vinsah looked on in bewilderment. "Monster?! Hah!" the minstrel guffawed as he rocked back in his chair. "Would that they knew good Thalberg, or the Duke's butcher, ah, to say monster so easily."

It was then that Murikeer understood his mirth. "Or Master Rickkter's ire." He chuffed ruefully with a slight frown, watching the noisy crowd over his shoulder. Facing the battle mage's fury made Murikeer's blood run colder than facing the trapped Numious he had summoned, and spent a fortnight trying to banish, for the ascendancy trial that brought him to the rank of Master mage.

Vinsah shuddered. "Monster? A hellwraith, shadows from the abyss, I would say for them a true monster." The masquerading bishop shook his head but did not laugh. The memory of his terrible struggle with the shadowy unbeings in the choir loft of Metamor's Chapel sprang unbidden to his memory, as clear and vivid as that terrible night was only a few months past.

"Come away from the travelers, monster!" Howled one of the other patrons as he stood from his table but made no move to come closer. Malger had steel at his hip conspicuously and the roads were a dangerous place for three travellers alone. That fact alone, their confidence to travel without escort or within the safety of a caravan, instilled an uneasy respect in the locals. "Our mugs be dry 'n our throats parched! Gets th' wine, beast!"

"Aye, more wine!"


"Aq, get yer bitch to heel!"

Summoned, the tavernkeep came out from behind the bar, the older man he was talking to turning to lean against it as the burly man took action. Aq had a dark look of fury on his face as he stalked across the taproom toward Kozaithy and the three travellers speaking with her. Malger dropped one hand out of sight below the table as Murikeer turned on his stool and tensed as if to stand. Sensing trouble Vinsah leaned back from the table, his hand reflexively reaching up to clasp the breast of his shirt, and the reassuring contours of the Tree he wore beneath.

Kozaithy shrank back against the table as Aq neared, turning her veiled head away and hiking up her shoulders, trying to make herself seem smaller. The tavernkeep growled angrily as he neared, looking hard at the three travelers before reaching out and snatching the carafe away from her. Water splashed from its rim as he turned away and trudged toward the one who had drawn him into the action.

With an easy, sweeping wave of one arm he emptied the contents of the carafe into the man's face with a splash. "There's yer wine!" he roared, waving the empty carafe toward the bar. "Be more over dere, ye want's some ye gets it yerself!" With that he stomped back to his post behind the bar. He slammed the carafe down with such force that the base deformed, imparting a drunken lean where it wobbled to a standstill on the bar.

The woodsmen and hunters stared after Aq, not a single one laughing at their fellow's unexpected bath, then looked, almost in a single fluid movement of more than a score of heads, back toward the travelers and veiled serving girl. "Th' beast nae be a servant o' me 'ouse. Don' be askin 'er t serve yer slop, get it yerself."

Malger chortled and chuffed as he released the hilt of his sword and put his hand back up with its partner wrapped around his stein. "Ahh, beast, such a kind appellation. would that anyone understood." He shook his head sadly before taking a long swallow of water. "Sit down, child, before I get a kink in my neck looking up." He admonished with a wave of the stein. Kozaithy dropped down onto a stool bonelessly, her hands shaking as she clasped them together atop the table.

"What happened?"

"Methinks that master swineherd has released you from his service." Malger supplied blandly with a rakish smile.


"So you might be able to travel on, perhaps to find your people, perhaps to find a cure for your malady."

"Why would he do that? He has no cook nor servants to keep his tavern. I have not yet earned my debts."

"Oh, like as may be you already have, and many times over too." Malger said flatly as he leaned forward, hooking his wrists around the stein before him and lacing his fingers together. He flicked the thumb of one hand toward Murikeer. "But were that not the case, my fine young apprentice here has kindly supplied the coin to absolve your onus." Kozaithy's veiled head swung sharply toward the silent young mage who had yet to speak more than a few words since conversing with Aq at the bar.

"You? Why, milord? I am nobody to you."

Murikeer smiled warmly and shook his head. "We are all nobody until we become somebody, Kozi. This place would be your death, I could not sit idly by and do nothing."

"You have my thanks, milord."

"Murikeer, Kozi. I am no lord, merely a minstrel's apprentice."

"As I have said." Malger pointed out with a shrug and a shake of his head. "Perhaps there is another place we can parlay?" he asked with a brief glance at the tables closer to the hearth. "I feel the need to quit this place before dark looks become dark deeds. The locals are ill pleased with our chivalry."

"There are beds in the livery, kind sirs, and a bath as well." Kozaithy offered as the three travelers stood.

"I could do with a bath, certainly." Vinsah said with an emphatic nod while he gathered his damp cloak about his shoulders. A heavy drop of water leaking from the roof spattered off the bridge of his nose. "And a better roof." Under this illusion his muzzle wrinkled at the moldy stink of the water, whiskers flattening back.

Malger bowed toward Kozaithy and flourished one arm toward the door. "Lead on, milady."

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