Never by its Cover

by Ryx

May 19, 707CR.

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 Ecclasia, 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 colors 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 Ecclasia, 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 Lothanasi 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 Lothanasi 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 Favorable 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 parlor. 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 parlor 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 Akabieth; 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 humor 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 Lothanasi 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 worshiper 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 parlor 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, groveling 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. Murkeer'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 labor 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 Vinash'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.

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 color 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 travelers' 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 travelers.

"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 savory 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 worshiper 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 mold 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.

"Travelers 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 rumor 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 clumbsy 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 striken 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.

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