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 mold 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' labor 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 clumbsy 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 humor. "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 labors, 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 reconing? 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 travelers 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 travelers 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 travelers 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.
"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."
The 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 humor.
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 succor 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 traveled, 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 humor 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 travelers 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 discoloration 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 color, 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 pryconid 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 Bredanes, 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."