Never by its Cover - Part III
By: Ryx & Charles Matthias
he next morning dawned gray and chill. A heavy fog lay up on the land obscuring everything on the length of three horses with an impenetrable veil of gray. But for the pattering fall of dew and the noise of their horses the world was silent, muffled. Few birds sang, and those that did sounded distant and oppressed under the stultifying weight of the wet dawn. Into this dim murk two riders led and a third followed afoot leading another mount as the first dawning light added some shadowy depth to the gray world.
The livery had proved as gracious as the tavern was mean. The horsemaster was Aq's uncle on his father's side and was far more amiable. He was also skilled with his craft. A poultice and rest in a warm, dry stall had done wonders for Malger's stone-bruised mount. Just as a hot bath in the horsemaster's huge hardwood basin worked wonders on the three travelers. They soaked in the steaming water like victims of a cannibal's feast, making liberal use of their store of soap and brushes and leaving behind no little fur. They carefully cleaned up their shed fur before retiring to the barracks style room that Shem the horsemaster had allowed them to use.
Drying took the longest, as it ever did, and while they waited for their fur to dry enough not to drip they used heavy brushes to groom themselves. Shem came as the leaden sky outside faded into darkness and invited them to share his fire. That affair was a circular pit at the end of the stables, there were only twelve stalls where there had once been forty, circled around with chairs, stools, benches, and all manner of bits and pieces of leather or wood in need of repair. There was no forge in Aghen, and Shem had never learned the ferrier's trade, meaning that any metalwork needing to be repaired had to be taken three days west into the mountains to the mining town of Harnst. Nor was there a potter, nor a woodturner though Shem was passing fair with woodwork.
The five of them, Malger and his 'apprentices', Shem, and Kozaithy also washed and swathed in cleaner looking rags, sat around the massive fire pit and talked well into the night. At some point Shem produced a skin of sour but not unpleasant red wine that all of them passed around without any moments of hesitation, even to the veiled lump that was not so withdrawn that she could not giggle at Malger's ribald humour.
They talked, for many hours. About Metamor and its curse, about how that curse offered Kozaithy an opportunity to escape the curse of the unnatural affliction that made her hideous to look upon and twisted her body more and more with each passing day. Kozaithy listened earnestly to their documentary of Metamor and life under the curse, and attentively listened and repeated back to them the directions to get there. Those were not difficult; go north until reaching the mountains. From there roads only go in two directions, east or west. Any town along those roads could point the way toward Metamor Keep, or as the caravans often said, away from Metamor.
She told them her own sad story, but it was not her story alone. It was a story shared by some five thousand souls, and another three thousand more of their relations. It began with a spurned suitor, about his unrequited love, the dark passions of a misguided soul. The objects of his obsessive desire were the Lady of Bradanes and her daughter, the heiress. The Lady spurned his advances most angrily, and the daughter spurned them with laughter and jest, and together they threatened to have him punished if he further sought their attentions. They threatened to tell of his unseemly courtship to the Lord of Bradanes, who would take most unkindly to the suitor's attentions.
The suitor took unkindly to being spurned, but he took his vengeance out on thousands rather than merely those two.
Kozaithy had been the handmaiden for the Heiress Ithay, had studied and served alongside her for many years as they were both of an age though looked nothing like each other. Her mother had been the head of the kitchens in the Manor house and her father had been seneschal to the Baron. Her entire family, from herself the youngest to her eldest grandparents, had served the Bradanes household for almost the entire century and a half that it had been a Named holding. That all ended the year before.
That suitor had somehow learned of or gotten hold of some substance that he introduced to the wells and cisterns of Bradanes. Not satisfied with the Manor house, he seeded the wells of the village, surrounding farm hamlets, and two more villages within the Bradanes holding. It was some weeks before the deformities began appearing, and months more before the afflictions were traced to the water supply. At the Manor, however, only one person was never afflicted, but he never drank the manor's water, not even in the typically diluted wine or ale. He carried a drinking skin everywhere he went. That began to raise suspicions.
The Baron had his apartments and everywhere he went by habit searched, and in his privy a cask was discovered with the dregs of a dry blue powder. When this was presented to him, and introduced into a chalice of water he was made to drink, the man went berserk and tried to flee. He could not escape, and was in the end forced to drink his own poison. He was then delivered up to justice.
During this time the Baron had requested aid of his Duke and the nobles of surrounding duchies, but no positive response was returned. His desperate bid for aid widened to other kingdoms; Pyralia, the midlands, Sathmore. Of the many dukes, princes, and would be kings only a single message came offering succor, but only if they could travel from their distant barony across the Sathmore mountains and all the way westward to the sea.
Only Elvquelin responded, but their terms seemed as insurmountable as the disease itself. From the plenty that was Bradanes to an uncertain existence on a quarantined island just off the coast of Sathmore a day's ride south of Elvquelin. Such a place was where the Lightbringers and other healers studied plagues and tried to learn how they could be cured or prevented. Eight thousand they had started out, having filled the wells, burst the cisterns, and put all of Bradanes to the torch to prevent the poisoning from happening to others. Eight thousand, a great army of ill equipped refugees suffering a slow, progressive affliction that made each day a new challenge, a new torture.
Bandits set upon them almost from the outset, plaguing their journey it seemed daily. People who learned of their coming turned out to bar their passage, fearing that the sickness would spread. From commoners with pitchforks to knights in full regalia, they stood athwart the western road to block their sorry pilgrimage. But they passed anyway, through when the force of arms blocking them was insufficient to stop their vast numbers, or around when whole armies turned out against them. Only once did a large group of militia come before them and actually strike, cutting down near three hundred poorly armed refugees before the remainder swarmed upon them, but that, Kozaithy explained, was another sad tale among many. Of eight thousand, only six thousand remained to pass the borders into Sathmore.
She was separated from them the past autumn after a bandit raid some days into Sathmore as they were coming down out of the heights of the mountain passes. After a fortnight lost in the woods she found Aghen, and begged succour for a night. Due to the debt Aq put upon her she was forced to stay the winter, having heard no news of the refugees of Bradanes. Malger and his retinue could offer her no news, for none had reached Metamor of such a vast exodus through the heart of Sathmore.
It was late by the time everyone had turned in, and Malger's troupe rose well before the dawn as was their usual habit. They found Shem already awake in the stables, their horses curried and saddled, ready to continue their journey. Few words were exchanged in the blanketing quiet of the foggy dawn, mounting their steeds, and turning for the southern road with only a farewell handshake and exchange of coin with the horsemaster. Kozaithy did not appear to see them off.
"Someone's behind us." Vinsah called out a couple of hours later as they progressed slowly through the gray murk. Dawn had come as they travelled, revealed only as a brightening of the fog from a dark, forbidding gray to an equally impenetrable white. The shadows of great trees loomed up like grim sentinels along either side of the road, reaching over them with great boughs that dripped a steady rain of condensation upon them. The road was unpleasantly muddy and ill maintained, making footing treacherous for horse and raccoon alike, and the once bishop had long since grown accustomed to the squish of slick, wet earth between the toes of his paws. He did wear sandals, which felt far more comfortable on his paws than boots such as Malger wore, but with the road being so wet they did him little good. He did not like it, no, but he kept to the road while their pack horse drudged mildly along beside him on a slack reign. Through all of the unpleasantness of the road he had prevailed, from facing down bandits to digging under falling temples he had persevered despite the discomforts.
What was a little mud, he conceded, against the weight of his purpose and journey. So he trudged on through the gloom and the wet and the mud. As usual he was behind the others, Malger and Murikeer some lengths ahead and visible only as indistinct grayish shadows in the fog. They heard him better than he could see them, however, for they reigned up and turned their horses to look back at him. He caught up in a couple dozen strides as the distant muffled sound of a horse approached them from the north along the road. Both mounted minstrels, as their guise maintained, looked past him as he drew abreast of them.
"One, on horse, coming at a trot, which is probably the best time they could make in this soup." Malger said after a few seconds of pondering their back trail. "Can you see any better, Muri? Through this?"
"No." the young mage said quickly with a shake of his head. "Fog is fog, even to the sight of mages."
"What say? Wait, or withdraw into the edge of the wood? Likely they could not see us at all, even among the tress at the edge of the road a length away."
Murikeer shook his head, "And as likely that we would loose the road entirely in this fog. I say wait. It's only one rider, hardly a danger. As fool as us to be out in this weather."
"Best to use the fog as cover, should the woodsmen decide that our gold is more valuable than the risk of ambushing us." Vinsah pointed out as he rubbed the nose of his horse. "They all had to have seen that stack of coin you left on the bar."
"Oh, they did." Malger drawled as the sound of hoofbeats neared. In silence they waited, and their patience was rewarded within minutes as a dim shadow in the mist became a shape and soon became a black wraith upon a pale gray steed. The black cloaked rider reigned their mount to a walk as they neared, the heavy cowl of the rider's cloak falling down to obscure their face.
"It was a long and risky ride to bid us a parting, lass." Malger called out as the hooded and cloaked rider drew close. Within two horse lengths the fog lifted enough for them to make out the black garbed serving girl upon the gray horse.
"I did not know that you would leave at such an early hour." She countered as she drew the hood of her heavy cloak back. It was blue, Vinsah saw, rendered a deeper shade of midnight in the fog and under the soaking weight of dew. A much mended but once quality cloak of wool, fringed with a paler blue border. The heraldry of the House Bradanes, a heron at wing on a blue field, was stitched upon the left breast.
"We did not mean to leave without a fare thee well, child, but our travels begin at an early hour and end late. We are trying to make time, and yesterday's storm slowed us." Malger explained as he dismounted, his boots squelching into the mud. The illusion gave the impression of boots to Murikeer and Vinsah, whose paws were ill suited to complicated footwear, but Malger's paws were not so much changed that he could not wear them. He preferred to be as naked apaw as his companions, but not on a morning such as this.
"Shem told me that when I awoke."
Malger laughed, "That'll twitch his gizzard. Thankfully Aghen is so far off the usual roads that a patrol would not come through soon enough for him to put them on your tail."
"Shem said that Aq would never notice. The horse hates him as much as he hates riding."
"You will make for Metamor?" Malger asked as Murikeer's horse sidled sideways through the mud, reigned back by a quick twitch of the reigns and a touch of an illusory boot to the side.
"No." Her black veiled head shook slowly. "Elvquelin. I have to find the people of Bradanes. If this curse can heal me, it can heal them too. If any survive." With a fluid movement that hinted and familiarity she slid from the saddle and dropped off her mount, boots sending up a spray of mud and brown water. The hem of her cloak trailed upon the muddy earth behind her. "There was a crossroads a quarter league back, heading westward. Shem named it the White Road."
Malger nodded slowly. "Aye, the White Road, because it was paved with white granite from the mountains. It will angle around to the northwest within a score of leagues and tie into the Rewn Way just east of the great forest that sits in the heart of Sathmore. That road stems from the old ruins of Rewn at the foot of the Sathmore mountains all the way west to Innesport. The Surre splits off at Aranay Vale direct north to Elvquelin."
Kozaithy listened and nodded slowly, then repeated it back to him. "I had wanted to ask a question of you last evening, but was. I could not bring myself to ask, then."
"What can we answer for you, lass?"
Kozaithy shifted on her feet, her head bowed and turned slightly as she reached for her courage, then looked up again. "I had meant to ask. you're all older, and you said the curse strikes at a younger age. Can you." she broke off again and her mount nudged at the back of her shoulder with its nose as if urging her on. The dark blue cloak rippled and swirled about her black boots. "Can you tell me how difficult it is to become a man?" she finally managed to ask, her voice rough edged but steady.
They just stared at her for several seconds. "Child?" Vinsah asked with some confusion at length.
She looked down and away again, her hands clutching into fists around the reins she held. She fell back a step. "You said the curse has three forms. child, beast, or becoming the opposite sex." She hazarded in a small voice, not looking up. "You're men now. How much of being a woman do you still remember?"
Malger almost fell down with a sudden loud guffaw and Murikeer cackled merrily. Even Vinsah had some difficulty containing his surprised cough of laughter as Kozaithy's head came up and she fell back two more paces, her horse moving back as well at the sudden gales of laughter. Murikeer was laughing and shaking as Malger threw up a staying hand to prevent her all out flight. Vinsah giggled despite himself as he shook his head likewise.
"We, none of us, child, have ever been women." Malger finally managed through fits of laughter. Kozaithy's veiled head turned to look at each of them in obvious confusion and some uneasiness in her posture.
"You're men. you said you were cursed like all others at Metamor?"
"Magic, my dear, magic." Malger handed the reigns of his mount across to Murikeer and stepped over to capture the reins of Kozaithy's mount before it bolted. "That young fellow there might be my apprentice, but he is also a very accomplished mage. One of his greatest magics is illusion, and that is what he has given us to travel beyond the borders of Metamor, where the cursed are not widely accepted."
"Particularly those with our manifestation." Vinsah added. Kozaithy released her reigns and stepped away from Malger uncertainly, gathering up the hem of her cloak to keep from tripping on it.
"Do you remember at what brought me to laughter last evening?" Malger managed to get his voice under control, but he still smiled hugely and chuffed short fits of laughter.
"Monster. When they called me monster. You said names." Her head turned toward Vinsah, "You said wraiths and hellish things."
"Things most certainly not of Metamor, lass." Vinsah assured her, "Conjured up by a foe preparing to attack."
"We were touched by the animal aspect of the curse, Kozaithy." Malger said reassuringly as he got the horse gentled and offered the reins back. She took them tentatively.
Murikeer dismounted with another squelch of mud and draped the reins of the mounts across their saddles. Without a word he turned to face Kozaithy and reached up to the pendant that hung about his neck. A simple, raw lump of silvery white metal crisscrossed with inclusions of pale white and green jade, the pendant was little to look upon, but held great magic. He raised it up and over his head, letting the leather thong fall from his neck, its magic unbound once removed. The illusion vanished.
Kozaithy took in a slow breath of surprise as she backed up half a pace before catching herself. The veil that obscured her face offered them no sense of her reaction, but she did not turn or run nor scream. She merely stood, dumbstruck, and stared at the humanoid skunk that stood before her clad in a man's clothing. Murikeer said nothing as his hands lowered to his sides, pendant dangling from his fingers. After a moment Malger looked from his apprentice minstrel to Vinsah and then raised his hand to remove the pendant that hung about his own neck. A similarly veined lump of raw silvery white metal, it bound the same illusion. Kozaithy looked across to him without retreating, one hand raised to her veiled mouth, the other dangling forgotten at her side with the reins of her restive mount dangling from her fingers. Vinsah caught Malger's eye when the marten looked across at him and also drew the focus of the illusion obscuring the truth of what he was over his neck.
Where Murikeer and Malger had rough bits of metal and stone binding the magic of their illusions Vinsah had instead an ornate Tree of his order. That was what captured Kozaithy's attention as he was revealed as a raccoon before her. "The Church is not immune." She breathed softly as she took a slow step away from Vinsah.
"Child?' Vinsah asked once more, the smoothness of his voice lost to the rough edged churr of his raccoon voice, but not unintelligible.
"You can still speak?" Kozaithy checked her retreat, leaning back against the neck of her steed. "The one who poisoned the wells of Bradanes was of your order, Father. He was a priest. Sharur of Yesulam. He was a good priest, but his flesh was weak and his mind unfortunately weaker. While he led his flock well, he did not listen to his own sermons." Kozaithy seemed beyond surprise at the revelation of what they were, her head turning away from Vinsah to look once more at Murikeer and Malger, then back to the skunk. Vinsah winced visibly at her declaration, shaking his head but saying nothing. He looked down at the tree dangling from his curled fingers as if seeking answers from somewhere within the ensorcelled icon of his faith.
"Yes, we still speak. Few loose their voices entire, but it has happened. None, that I know of, have ever lost their minds to what they become." Malger explained reassuringly, his churring voice still smooth and if not more seductive than the garrulous good humour affected under the illusion. She turned to listen briefly before returning her attention to Murikeer.
Taking two slow steps forward, she reached up with one gloved hand toward Murikeer's face, one finger extended but not quite touching the leather patch over his left eye. "Your eye was not part of the illusion." Murikeer shook his head. Her hand lowered and she once more looked across to Vinsah and then Malger before taking a pace back.
Reaching up with both hands she pulled the end of the gauzy black scarf from beneath the collar of her shirt and began unwinding it from about her head. The three travellers stood silently and watched as the mist flowed and stirred silently around them. Somewhere a crow cawed, its voice muffled through the fog. Slowly her head was revealed, beginning at the hollow of her throat, revealing skin as pale white as the morning fog, splotched with gray swaths of discolouration caused by the poisoning that slowly wasted her away.
The entire left side of her face looked like a candle placed too close to a fire; melted and sagging like soft wax. Her left eye was almost lost in the sagging pale flesh veined with grey disease. The right side of her face was not yet touched greatly by the affliction, and from beneath a pale brow looked out an eye of an intense, arresting green. Her left was the same colour, but clouded by some cataract. A stark white fall of long, fine hair cascaded down from the right side of her head. Patches of dull, lackluster frizz patched the right side of her scalp, leaving some behind on the black silk as she let it fall to drape about her shoulders.
Malger winced and Vinsah shook his head slowly, but Murikeer did not flinch. The deformity she suffered was nothing when placed against the experience of summoning, or battling, horrors brought up from the Hells. Even Malger had seen similar such tortured deformations, but only in the nightmares of sleepers. Vinsah had not seen the lepers of Azutha to the south of Yesulam, but he understood that their deformities were similar, and caused parts of their bodies to simply rot off.
In silence the four regarded each other for some passage of breaths as the distant crow was joined by a chorus of its cohorts and took wing noisily for someplace not lost beneath a blanket of impenetrable white. Kozaithy moved first, turning to offer her hand toward Malger, who shook it. "Thank you." She said quietly, "Now I know what I might face. Now I will not be afraid." She released his hand and turned to offer the same hand to Vinsah.
Vinsah clasped her hands between both of his own. "Not might, child. Will. You must go." He said earnestly. "With Eli's blessing." He forced a smile, though on his procyonid visage it came across as a wrinkling of his muzzle, a folding back of his whiskers, and a display of sharp omnivorous teeth. She did not flinch away, but peered at him curiously for a moment as if trying to understand the language of his animalistic display. "His true blessing, child. From one who holds close His faith."
"What were you, before this curse?"
"Somebody, child. Somebody. But no one of account more important than you, your health, freedom, and joy." He offered enigmatically as he released her hand.
"Eli's blessing on your quest then, Father." She said before turning back toward Murikeer. She did not offer her hand to him. She stepped forward and abruptly threw her arms around him. She was taller than he was by almost two hands, and he let out a startled churp at the sudden embrace while Malger chuffed a short laugh. "You bought my freedom, and that kindness cannot be undone by being a skunk." She said heavily as she squeezed him, then released and stepped back with a sheepish grin pulling at the good corner of her mouth. "I will find the survivors of Bradanes, and then I will go to Metamor." She grabbed the horn of her mount's saddle and put a foot into the stirrup, looking back over her shoulder at the three of them. "I will take what of my people will go, if there is a cure or not. This place, this Metamor, seems like a better place than all of the many lands we passed in our westward flight." She dropped into her saddle, still smiling, the silk strands of her headscarf drifting around her arms as she stilled her mount. "Luck be with you, my friends." A twitch of the reins brought her steed around and she trotted into the mist, disappearing from sight almost immediately.
"Luck be with you." Vinsah said as he raised his Yew tree and, after a long look, draped it around his neck once more. Malger had already done so, and Murikeer followed suit after a short pause. The two mounted up and Vinsah turned to follow. "You think she will make it?"
"She looks like death ahorse with that veil on. Can you name a bandit who would willingly take that on?" Malger opined as he laughed warmly, kicking muddied boots to his mount and trotting forward. "She'll make it probably easier than we will."
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