"I must warn you, Elvmere. The Lothanasa s can see magic just as easily as I do." Murikeer explained as they followed the page boy who seem to have been assigned to them. In their wake walked the two guards that had likewise been assigned for the day. The guards politely but firmly refused to take them to Malger's cell until they were told otherwise by the Earl. While that did not make the two feel any better they both understood the necessity and acceded grudgingly. "She may very well ask us to remove our amulets."
At his side, freshly washed and fed, Elvmere blinked and missed a step in surprise. "What shall we do?" he quailed with a frown.
"As she asks." Murikeer could only shrug and shake his head, "She saw the truth yesterday, but I am unsure how deeply her sight might extend. Raven's vision was quite acute, but not so deep as mine own. The Lothanas see things differently than I."
The page lead them through the Earl's demesne which was a combination of ancient Elvish construction and more modern human additions. Sometimes the dissonance between the two was stark. Passing from a human built corridor of carefully cut and skillfully laid stone and into a corridor of Elvish design left even the most skilled work of humans hands looking crude by comparison. At the end of the Elvish built corridor stood a pair of tall plank doors of pale ash banded with polished iron. Reliefs of Lightbringer mythology had been deeply carven into the wood and from the hand of one hero hung a heavy brass knocker. When they reached the door one of the guards used it to rap on its brass striker.
A moment later the doors were drawn open by a berobed acolyte and they were ushered into the temple. It was far from vast, barely a quarter the size of the Metamor Temple, but it was just as well appointed. Statues and carved wood adorned every wall and even the hammerbeam roof above was festooned with liturgical engravings. The modern woodwork was clearly of human design but blended flawlessly with the older sweeping design of the original elvish builders. Between the arches along the outer wall towering casement windows let in the light of the clear day beyond. They were at the very base of the tower that dominated the center of the manor. The prominent placement of the Temple in the center of everything very clearly stated that the chosen faith was to the Lightbringer pantheon.
The pews were arrayed outward from the central dais in concentric circles and it was down an aisle between them that the acolyte silently lead them. Here and there other acolytes cleaned or prayed or conducted other studies in a hushed quiet broken only by small noises; the hiss of a scrub brush or leather soled shoe, a stifled cough, quiet whispers of topics not even the mage's keen ears could discern. They passed the dais upon which was an altar and podium before crossing toward a single door in the far wall. Upon reaching in the acolyte rapped lightly with his knuckles.
The door was drawn open and the acolyte withdrew, as did the page. The two guards moved forward to take up posts at either side of the door while Murikeer and Elvmere proceeded into the foyer beyond. One of the muscular guards from the Lothanasa's retinue waited until they passed him before quietly closing the door. With a heavy but noiseless tread he led them down the short, wide hallway that served as the foyer to the Lothanasa's private office and as they stepped into the large room smoothly drifted to one side to take up a post opposite another likewise muscular guard. Neither of them uttered a word.
"Cuialye lothan, gentlemen." The Lothanasa said in greetings as she rose from behind a vast table created from a single slice from some great tree. She swept a large arm to indicate the chairs near the table opposite her own throne-like chair. "Please, be seated so that we may talk."
Murikeer noted that her eyes were a strange hue; a pale blue that almost seemed silver. Her look was kind, but it was penetrating as she gazed over both of them. "Cuialye lothan, your grace." The skunk replied neutrally as he slid into the chair carefully. Furniture south of Metamor had never been designed with any thought that any of its future occupants might have tails so he had to employ some care when he settled himself into it.
"First, let me assure you that your master is safe and well." She offered after they had seated themselves and she resumed her own seat. She rested her elbows upon the arms of the huge chair and laced her fingers together upon the table. "He has been offered food and water as well as a basin to cleanse himself." Large fingers flexed in a brief gesture of helplessness, "He refused the food claiming hardships from the liquor he imbibed during your caretaking." She smiled slightly.
"When might we look in on him, your grace?" Elvmere asked with some concern.
"Soon. Tathim wishes to speak with him first, to ascertain his temperament and learn something of his person before he allows visitors." She leaned forward slightly and fixed her gaze on Murikeer. "Secondly; you two, and your master, keep secrets. I can see about you considerable magic, and you," one finger motioned toward Murikeer, "are a mage of some competence, no mere minstrel's apprentice."
"It is a necessity, mistress, to preserve our safety." Murikeer explained carefully.
"Indulge me, if you will? Remove the amulets you wear." He voice was gentle but even, brooking no argument. While she may have couched it as a gentle request neither of the two foreigners before her imagined that the burly guards would let them leave before their priestess released them. Murikeer took a long breath and closed his eyes for a moment before reaching up and drawing his amulet from beneath his shirt. Elvmere did the same with a silent prayer.
As the amulets were drawn over their heads the illusions faded to reveal the truth that the magic hid from the world. Murikeer laid his amulet upon the table but Elvmere kept his clutched in his hands to hide it from the Lothanasa's regard. The woman leaned back in her chair, clutching at its arms with suddenly tense hands as her eyebrows lifted with surprise. Silvery blue eyes darted back and forth between them for several moments before she blinked and wrinkled her nose.
"Ach." She huffed with a moue of consternation as Murikeer's scent reached her nostrils, "The amulet hides your looks and your scent? You are like those imprisoned in the wagons?" Her voice was strained slightly but she did not move to cover her nose against the acrid bite of the skunk's natural musk. Her upper lip lifted slightly and she unclenched her large hands from the arms of her chair, visibly pushing back her shock at the sudden presence of two very non-human looking creatures seated in her private demesne. At their back the two guards shifted slightly in place, hands dropping to their swords, but remained where they were at a brief flick of the Lothanasa's pale eyes.
Murikeer twitched his ears rearward briefly at the sound of the guards moving but when they stilled he swiveled them forward once more. "Cursed, as they are." His voice was once more the tenor churr which the illusion had made a more masculine baritone. He did not make any attempt to conceal his scent with more temporary magic lest the casting of any spell, even one so simple, cause the guards to react. Thus far they had not so much as moved a muscle though Murikeer had been listening for some sort of response from them. "We hail from Metamor in the north, which came under powerful curses some years past. The reasons for our southerly travels are not for any evil designs, your grace."
The woman continued to study them for some long moments as she nodded, "All kingdoms have those of their people who journey. Metamor would not be any different, I imagine, if its people may find such travels difficult. I have heard some small bit of the place, and its curse, but the stories are seldom complimentary." One eyebrow quirked slightly, "Of late it has been said they were responsible for the assassination of the Follower's high priest."
"They were not!" Elvmere blurted before Murikeer could speak, the vehemence of his words surprising them both. "With due apologies, mistress, but they were not." He shrank back to in his chair, mortified at his own outburst. Murikeer reached across to lay a gentling hand upon his arm.
"The Patriarch of the Ecclasia traveled to Metamor, yes." The young mage explained with a slow nod, "But it was others not of Metamor who perpetuated the wholesale slaughter of his retinue as they were returning southward, just beyond the range of the curse."
The Lothanasa nodded sagely, "And sought to direct blame upon Sathmore, yes? Or Metamor?"
"Metamor by proximity, and Sathmore with the weapon used to slay him." Murikeer conceded.
"Those magic-dead blind old men ever have been more than willing to lay blame on Sathmore, or anyone, for that matter, not of their closeted faith." She groused irritably and shrugged her broad shoulders. Dropping one hand down out of sight she retrieved something from some storage below the table and brought it up into sight. A long arrow of polished black wood fletched with black feathers. A gleaming steel arrowhead caught the sunlight as she set it upon the table between them. Elvmere groaned softly and Murikeer sighed; it was an arrow of the Yesbearn, knights of the church who attended the Questioners. "This we found in the ruins of a nearby village that was razed two days ago. No one escaped alive." She glared at the arrow as if it, alone, were responsible for so many deaths. "They slew even the livestock and poisoned the wells with manure."
"That," Elvmere jabbed a finger at the arrow, "was not done with the writ of the Church."
The Lothanasa raised an eyebrow and fixed her sharp gaze upon the raccoon. "How would you know this, apprentice?" she accented the word heavily, "How would a raccoon from a cursed dukedom on the furthest end of the civilized world understand what the Church wishes to do?"
Elvmere drew himself up in his seat and extended his hand outward over the table. Uncurling his fingers he let his amulet fall upon the table. Gleaming gold and gems caught the sun with a brilliant flash as the Tree of Yashua clattered upon the age polished wood. "Did you not imagine that any of the Patriarch's retinue might have survived?" he hissed angrily as he glared back across the table at her. "That the only place that they would find succor might be cursed and that they would suffer it?"
"Rumors of traitors within the church abound." The woman smiled laconically as she leaned back in her huge throne-like chair. She steepled her fingers under her chin and shifted her gaze back and forth between them. "Most interesting, indeed." She chortled deeply, almost sinisterly. "A mage of at least master rank, a highly ranked survivor of the old slaughterer's retinue, and a minstrel far too skilled with a sword all traveling together. This, truly, is a queer world we live in." One eyebrow twitched again as her smile broadened even further. "A mage, and a patildor, arm in arm?"
"Why we travel, and in whose company we travel, is none of your concern, Lightbringer." Elvmere snarled and snatched up his Tree. Convulsively he jerked it back over his head and became a man to all but touch once more. "The fate of our master is our concern; our only concern. If you're concerned only with past wrongs then I believe our audience here is at an end." He crossed his arms over his chest and glared witheringly at her.
"I met him, too." Murikeer offered blandly, likewise leaning back into his chair. "A slaughterer you may call him, but I spoke to him in the last days of his life. What he was in the fire of his youth was a regret that weighed heavily upon him."
"He condescended to comport with a mage?" The Lothanasa's brows beetled up on her broad brow.
"He spoke with me." Murikeer corrected, "He did not bandy about the secrets of his faith or my own over our cups. He sought to understand, not condemn." The skunk heaved a sigh and stared at the gleaming steel tip of the arrow. "And it is likely for that moderation of his past views he was murdered. I saw that, too. Would you like me to show you?"
The woman blinked across the table at him before slowly shaking her head. "The both of you speak with the vehemence of true believers, though I find that rather amazing of you, young mage. Are you not of the Light?"
Murikeer rolled his eyes and let a hiss escape past his sharp musteline teeth. "I am, yes, of your faith. I stand in Artela's sight, but I have also learned that my companion's faith is no less worthy, and certainly not blind nor false." Reaching out he retrieved his own amulet and slid it back over his head. To his perceptions nothing changed but he saw the monochromatic reflection in the steel of the arrow pale to the hue of flesh. "And as he said, not the concern of our present situation. You know, now, our secrets. Is that all that you wished, to satisfy your curiosity?"
"I know not why your master acted as he did."
"The men he slew raped someone he, we, loved. The showman, Maxamillian, caught her and had his men rape her for days on end in a vain attempt to break her so that she might be added to his menagerie."
"Two yet live, though are still incoherent from their injuries."
"So long as you do not tell me in which hospice they are being kept." Murikeer pitched his voice low and level. "I was only told long after the event of what happened. Our master witnessed it more directly; he helped her recover from it."
"If they do not awaken we have only the word of your master. I daresay the testimony of the accused will not stand with any strength under the Earl's inquiry." Her eyes shifted to the glowering priest and back, "I can bear witness only on the actions I saw yesterday. That was wonton slaughter, despite whatever your master claimed; Justice unfulfilled demanding its due."
"That I will let him explain, mistress, for my knowledge is years old and second hand." Murikeer shrugged with a sigh. "His actions aside, those he had imprisoned in those wagons were innocent of any wrongdoing. They were people, not beasts, merely cursed as we are. For that alone I can hold no guilt against my master."
"I saw that they were very heavily taken with magic as well, but the nature of it was hidden by the spells laid upon those wagons that held them." Her broad shoulders rose and fell slowly, "But that crime is moot, the man his minions are dead or nearly so. The manner of their demise is all that concerns the Earl."
"The immediate events, yes. What is your position concerning this? Other than prying out our secrets, I am not clear what you intend." Murikeer asked once he had tucked his amulet back into his shirt.
The woman shrugged her broad shoulders, "My intentions are merely to give an account of what I witnessed, in the present sense. That is all I can do."
"And what of our… secrets?"
"Not germane to the issue at hand. I have told the Earl that there are mysteries about you and if he asks further I will inform him of this news. It has some bearing on the issue of your master's violent justice, but only concerning the man and his prisoners, not the rape that you contend." Her acute gaze shifted from mage to priest and back slowly, "Your master is, likewise, a beast of some sort concealed by your magic?"
Murikeer nodded slowly, "Revelation of this in the public eye will be poorly received on any account so we would rather avoid it if at all possible."
"As said, it is not the issue before us. I see no reason to reveal it to others."
"We thank you, mistress. Malger's actions took us as much by surprise as it did everyone else. They were just, in my view, if far too publically expressed." Murikeer turned his head slightly to glance over his shoulder at the silent guards. "What of your worthies?"
"They will say nothing." Rising from her seat she rested her hands on the tables and gazed down at them, neither smiling nor frowning. "My curiosity has been satisfied and, I trust, your mysteries are no danger to us. If you will, the Temple does require my presence for certain functions." Slowly she raised her head in a nod back toward the door, "I believe there is little more to say, or ask, gentle— men?"
Murikeer pushed himself from his seat and Elvmore did as well with all due haste. The one-eyed mage bowed briefly, "Yes, your grace. We thank you for your discretion concerning our mysteries. Until the day our Master faces what reckoning the Earl may decide, fare you well."
The Ruby Heart had been a family heirloom which the late Imalshan heiress had cherished greatly. The day she had gotten it, a mere week before her own death, she had shown it off to her friends with great pride. Malger had been among them and well into his slow seduction of the heiress. Indeed, of those gathered in the solar only two had gracefully spurned his advances and one, the Lady Imalshan, was wed and thus not an object of conquest.
The lady Shifanii dan Imalshan was well aware of Malger's advances toward her daughter and, though she was arranged to marry a young baronet of a prominent Silvassan family, wholeheartedly approved. The foppish scapegrace duke's son would have proven a worthy instructor to show her daughter the myriad ways of the bed. The woman laughed off Malger's concern that the young baron might be displeased that his wife was not a virgin. Such things, it seemed, were not terribly important when placed against knowledge.
Now it was a marker for Malger's sybaritic life. He had caused her death by mere acquaintance and that weighed heavily upon his heart. He turned the ring slowly upon his finger until the sound of footfalls crossing the parapet above reached his ears. He looked up as a shadow crossed the mid morning sunlight spilling into his cell from the open grate above.
"Are you well, minstrel?" a confident voice called down from above. Malger held up a hand to shield his eyes from the sunny glare but could not make out his questioner. "I do apologize for the necessity that your actions have required, for it has been many long months since we enjoyed the visit of any entertainers. We are, after all, somewhat far off the beaten path."
"I live." Malger grunted at the shadow. "Whose shadow addresses me?"
"I am Tathim, master of this demesne." The shadow replied affably, "I am given to judge your actions and would treat with you that I might understand the why of your choice to slay three well armed men."
"I've little to say on the matter, sire." Malger sighed as his weary arm tired from being held before his face and he dropped his hand to back to his lap. The exertion only caused his multitude of injuries to ache unmercifully. "As much as I would wish to share pleasantries I must admit that my injuries make looking up considerably unpleasant." He nodded his head toward the heavy door at floor level, "Come to the door?"
The shadow chuckled softly but not with venom, "For the security of my house, minstrel, I needs must not partake in undue risk. You are, as yet, an unknown."
"I bear no ill will toward you or yours, milord. I acted in justice long allayed, not out of cold malice."
"Much as the Lothanasa explained to me. I know not the veracity of your justice. Other than the noisome reputation of the deceased I know nothing of his past crimes."
Malger sighed and leaned back against the cool stone of the wall. "Would that I could easily give you to understand the depths of his crimes, sire. I fear I haven't the words." Canting his head back he gazed up at the shadow. "All I can say is this; the man and his worthies, those who fell to my swords, captured and raped someone dear to me. That she survived was testament to her strength of will, for her body was savaged by their lusts."
"I have but your word on that." The Earl replied from above.
"T'is all I have to offer. One of my pupils, the lad with the missing eye, was also close to her. She told him of the assault, but he only knew her some years after its happening, long after I helped her regain herself."
"I shall inquire of him, as well those who survived your justice and the men who arrived with you."
"They yet live?" Malger tilted his head slightly, "I would hope that they have many long crippled years ahead of them to enjoy their infirmities while hale men scorn them."
"Such venom, minstrel." The Earl chided lightly.
With a frown Malger turned the new ring on his finger, "Forgive my ill grace, sire, my dreams were troubled and I ache terribly." The fact that his dreams played out behind his eyes each time they drifted closed troubled him more than slightly; memories tumbled about within his mind like pebbles in a cataract.
"That seems to have been the lot of many this past night." Tathim sighed from above, "The attack on Woodton has left everyone unsettled. Even my own dreams were restless and dark." With the scuff of booted feet on stone the shadow turned away. "Food and drink will be brought, and water to bathe." Without further comment the shadow withdrew. Malger listened to the scuff of the Earl's soft leather boots and the heavier tread of his personal guard walk away.
Different strides, different weights. None of them were his assassin come to gloat again. Malger slumped back against the wall with a huff of breath, exhausted beyond measure but scared to sleep lest another vision of past pains shared come unbidden upon him afresh.
After leaving the Temple they wandered out into the main courtyard commons with their two guards in tow to enjoy some of the mid-morning sunshine. While Murikeer admired the sweeping grace of the slender towers around the main spire Elvmere sighed irritably. "I often miss the tolerance of Metamor." He groused as he, too, gazed up at the arches of the buttress towers. "It is all too easy to forget the ignorance and bigotry that abounds beyond its reach."
Murikeer brought his gaze down to the priest and quirked a slight smile from one corner of his muzzle, "Much of which I would wager you will find within the walls of Yesulam herself." He pointed out gently, but with some humor. Elvmere chuffed with a sardonic nod.
"I fear I shall." He shook his head. "Beautiful architecture, though." He nodded his chin toward the slender arch from buttress tower to main spire.
"Elvish, and old, but I know not what function."
"It used to be an observatory." A man's voice interjected with the air of a scholar. Murikeer and Elvmere turned toward the speaker as one while the two guards attending them, simply for the sake of propriety as the Seneschal had explained the night before, only stopped when their charges did. Familiar with the scholar they paid him no heed. "For the study of the skies." The man was whipcord slender and ancient, his balding head gleaming in the morning sun as if polished. His eyes were twin chips of malachite under bushy white brows and bored into them with intense curiosity. "You're the lads who came with the unfortunate soul the Earl locked away?"
"Aye." Murikeer said with a nod toward the elderly man. "You know anything of his fate?"
With a shake of his bald head the man shrugged, "Nothing, lads." He thrust out a gnarled hand toward Elvmere who stood closest to him. "I am Thomas, Earl Tathim's archivist."
With a slight shake of his head Elvmere clasped his hands over his breast, "I fear I am disallowed contact with another, good sir. Our master has us on a quest to prove our worth, and such is one of its stipulations." He explained gently with a bow, "I am Elvmere and this is my friend, Murikeer."
Falling in step with them the man bobbed his head with affable good humor, "Travelers, a rare treat. Can you tell me aught of the world beyond these walls? It's been many a year since I was fit to travel." One aged hand waved vaguely toward the northeast, "The biggest event we've had in years has been naught but tragedy. Is war in the offing yet again?"
Elvmere sighed and Murikeer nodded slightly, "There are some strong tensions between the faiths right now. They're spilling over to more worldly tensions." The youth nodded his chin in the direction the scholar had indicated a moment before, "I fear that this Woodton is but another sorry victim in the first blush of a greater conflict to come."
The man bowed his head and sighed, smoothly sketching a sign of the tree across his breast and brow. "Eli forgive men their blindness."
"Dominus Tecum." Elvmere replied with a nod and a slight tilt of his head. Were he not hidden under a veil of illusion his ears would have been pinned forward in acute surprise.
"Ah!" Thomas exclaimed with a bright, child-like smile that lit up his face, "Another of Eli's scholars is among us. Well met, good sir, well met!"
Murikeer cracked a sardonic grin, "After our discussion with the Lothanasa I confess myself surprised to find another of the Way here."
Thomas waved a dismissive hand, "Damnant quodnon intelligent." He intoned pedantically with a wry smile, "She is not a bad person, but she wears blinders like a cart horse. Mind her not, my brothers. Now, tell me of what so occupies the lands of Man that they send Yesulam's best cavorting about the countryside fomenting murder and strife? I'll tell you a bit of my home, as well. The tower, yon, was erected some three centuries before Yashua walked the land. The scrolls of E'Ishemni, chief architect, were found in a sealed scriptorium below the Temple some thirty years ago by Earl Tathim himself shortly after he was deeded the land."
"Your indulgence, goodman Thomas, but we were hoping to meet your Earl as swiftly as we might." Murikeer cautioned as they walked slowly across the main courtyard under the brightness of the late morning sun. "We are keen to look in on our master."
"Ach, tut tut, lad." Thomas shook his head with a chortle, "The youth are ever impatient. I daresay our good Earl has a full trencher before him this day, organizing the local levies in response to the sacking of Woodton. With luck he will grant you an audience tomorrow."
"Tomorrow?" Murikeer coughed, aghast. "He has injuries that require attention!"
Thomas bobbed his head and waggled a skinny old finger toward his nose. "Listen and learn, lad; Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus. Heed well that lesson, yes." Catching his hands at his lower back Thomas rocked on his heels and grinned as if addled. "Tathim has lost a good ten score or more of his vassals within a day's ride; that has taken his attention. Kindly bear him no ill will." His bushy white brows rose above those intense, alert green eyes. "Ahh, how well I remember my youth; such impatience to do and see and live it all." The old scholar sighed, "From the Palaces of Yesulam to the edges of the Desert of Dreaming to the ports of Suttaivasse I have traveled, sneaking through the old brigand's lines by the dark of night. I have even perused the fabled libraries of Metamor before it was destroyed."
That brought Murikeer up short with an arch of his brows, "Destroyed, you say?"
"Eh, well, such would the few minstrels we have entertained in the past five years would have one believe." Thomas shrugged and lead them in the general direction of the main manor house. "I was there, oh, say… some fourty years agone now, when Tathim and I were just wandering vagabonds."
"Metamor still stands." Murikeer laughed.
"Fourty years?" Elvmere interjected, "The man I saw hardly looked to be out of his third decade!"
Thomas waggled his brows again and opened one of the manor doors, "Your eyes do not deceive you, yet they lie nonetheless. Come, come! Let you come to know this that is the Observatory of E'Ishemni"
"I am sorry, I do not understand." Elvmere scowled as he followed Murikeer through the door. He felt the brush of the skunk's invisible tail against the front of his knees. "How can he be as old as you yet as young as he appears?"
"Your friend had the right of it when you came from the temple, brother Elvmere." Thomas drew the door shut and secured it before sidling past them in the cool narrow stone corridor. Elvmere was careful to tuck his tail close behind his own legs as he pressed back against the wall. "Who built yonder tower?"
"Murikeer said it was of Elvish origin."
"Aye, indeed." Thomas piped over his shoulder as he led them down a long, narrow stone corridor toward a light some distance ahead.
Murikeer chuffed a short laugh, "He did not have the look of an Elf when we saw him."
"Nor you the appearance of beasts, yes?" Thomas glanced over his shoulder with a merry gleam in his eye.
"Sir??" Murikeer gawped in surprise and Elvmere staggered into his back when his steps faltered.
"Nice lady, not too bright sometimes." Thomas continued his walk leaving the momentarily halted duo behind a few paces. "Tends to forget that her little palace has windows!"
"So, you're saying he's hiding his age behind illusions, then?" Elvmere hazarded once they had resumed walking. He swatted at Murikeer's unseen tail as it brushed his chest.
"Oh, nae, he's just as you saw him. He's just… well, he's got the Blood in him is all. Father's side, so he tells me." Thomas led them out into a small library beneath a domed glass solarium. The room was crowded with books and tables, every inch of wall space not occupied by a door or casement crowded tightly with books, scrolls, and all manner of oddments collected over the scholar's lifetime.
"Just how old is he, then?" Elvmere asked.
"Hmm," Thomas pondered a moment as he wandered over to the only un-cluttered chair in the room and settled himself into it. "Near as I can figure a couple centuries or three. Elves do age considerably slower than we hot-blooded humans, after all."
"Astounding, but— ah— what does this mean for us or our master?"
"That he's older than the lot of us, and a fare share wiser. Give him his time."
"Elvish time and, as you said, human time are seldom in step, master Thomas." Murikeer pointed out sadly. "How, then, does one of the Cloth come to travel with an Elf for the greater extent of his life? They're not exactly given to following Eli, after all."
"Hai, you fellows find a seat!" Thomas dug a jug from beneath the cluttered table nearby and a trio of pewter goblets. "Just… put the stuff wherever. I'll find it again in all due time." Using the tail of his shirt he rubbed the goblets and gazed at them to judge their cleanliness. "T'is a long story, as I would think a worthy mage in the company of Eli's own might be, yes? Let us enjoy the day and let your worries ebb just a shade in the telling of such lengthy tales." He said, handing each of them a goblet after they had cleared books and dust from a couple of chairs and sat down. "How fares the grandness of Metamor, if I might ask? I sore miss her great libraries." Leaning forward in his chair he poured the contents of the jug, some manner of dark wine, into their extended goblets, "And this curse that has touched you?"
"As you said, stories of some lengthy telling." Murikeer said and took a sip of the wine. It was rich but not dry, with a mellow sweetness reminiscent of raspberries and honey.
"That is not why you are here, boy." The wolf growled from his chair without moving to rise. "You're to serve, not fight!"
"But, Jadis, it was only sword training!" He protested with a frown while he pored over the thick, meaty stew he had been tasked to prepare. It was hardly a challenge; throw a heaping plate of diced meat into the broth and just let it simmer all day before adding the few vegetables that he could eat. The wolf would ignore those and hoard the stewed meat for himself.
"Those kind of swords are not for your clumbsy hands, boy." Jadis snorted into his cup of ale, tall ears backed in irritation. "You're for the house, like any good slattern, to cook, to clean, mend, and make sure my sword is well tended." Slamming the cup down on the table beside his chair the wolf scratched the fur of his naked crotch. "You're worth nothing else." I am, I am! Mosha, tell me that I am!
"Jadis!" He quailed sorrowfully, stricken to his core at the callous disregard of his would-be mate, "How can you say such things!? Have I not served you faith— "
"YES!" Jadis barked as he surged to his paws with a harsh laugh of sarcasm, "You serve me as faithfully as the wonton bitch you are! That is what you are for, to serve me, no one else! You cook my food, clean my house, and warm my bed. Nothing else! Nothing!" The wolf raged, grinning with those sharp teeth as he advanced. A strong finger tipped with a stout claw poked him solidly in the chest and he fell back a pace despite the fact he stood a good foot and a half taller than the wolf and out-massed him by almost double. He quailed back until the heat of the cook stove singed his tail and his tall horns rattled on the beam over the stove.
"You can't mean that Jad— " This is not me! Not me! Mosha, please, why do you torture me so?!
"I do." The wolf's roar became a hard growl, "Now finish that stew, boy." He turned and stalked back toward his chair. Snatching up the ewer of ale he refilled his mug and took a long pull of the thick, frothy liquid. It clung to his muzzle giving him the look of a rabid animal until he wiped it off with the back of his arm. "If it is half palatable tonight I may let you play with my sword. If not, well." With a toothy grin he shrugged, "I'll just replace you."
"Shut up and cook, boy. Leave your betters some peace." With that Jadis flopped back into his huge chair and stretched his legs across the ottoman. Tears fell into the stew as its sorrowful cook returned to his duties, knowing that the wolf was right; he had no worth. No one would love him. Like Jadis, he was worthy only of being used.
Nocturna, no, I am worthy. Worthy! Why do you not answer, Mosha?
Malger jerked and grabbed at his face with both hands, slamming his head back against the wall with a stunning crack that sent him pitching forward off the cot he had been sitting on when sleep overtook him. Falling forward he spilled across the floor, scrabbling at the smooth stones with his claws as he tried to regain his wits past the pain in his head and the crushing fist grasping at his heart.
The sorrow was almost too much to bear and it brought him to weep. He rolled over onto his back and gasped for breath past the sobs that wrenched themselves from his breast. The cell was night dark and he saw no stars through the grate above. Pale moonlight shone upon the stones, wavering with shadow as unseen clouds drifted across the sky he could not see for the roof a short distance beyond that grate. The darkness did nothing to dispel the after-images of the sinister old wolf raging at him with mocking laughter.
I gave him away, Malger remembered, but the sorrow would not release his heart. I gave him to someone better, someone more gentle, someone who would care. But oh, why did it hurt so? Why would Nocturna not come to him? What had become of the realm of dreams that had ever been his sanctuary from the trials and pains of waking life?
The Cherry blossoms were in full bloom and filled the air with the sweet redolence of spring. In her hands was a simple embroidery that they used to help focus their thoughts. Upon it was an intricate design in slender blue thread; a crane upon a shoreline, identical to those being created by the sisters of her crèche seated all around in the cherry orchard. She could hear the soft susurrus of voices in her ear while her sisters chanted the Mandala of Focus, centering their minds against even the peaceful distractions engendered by the sweetness of the cherry blossoms and cool spring air.
Stroking the blanket across her thighs she looked down at her hands. A frown pulled at the corners of her muzzle at the sight of short black fur on slender fingers tipped with polished black claws. She turned one hand over and gazed at the coarse black pads upon her palm and fingertips. She was not supposed to be like that, was she, in the orchard of her crèche? Gazing around she saw that all of her sisters, engrossed in their embroidery, were all as human as they should be.
Why then, was she not? That question lingered in her mind, unspoken, for a time until another distraction entered into the peace of the orchard. The sisters, all girls between the ages of six and twelve at various degrees of their training, looked up toward the newcomer and primly placed their folded hands upon their laps. She did as well, sliding them under her embroidery to hide their blasphemous wrongness, as she looked toward the newcomer and quailed in sudden fear.
The woman, tall and willowy, radiated an air of quiet menace and unspeakable sorrow all at the same time. She was garbed from head to toe in a wrap of the purest mourning white. Walking sedately through the orchard she paid no heed to the trees or the sisters bowing forward on their knees, brows to the cool grass, as she passed. Fathomless dark eyes were for her alone and they bored through her with frightening power.
Here was a woman of the Highest Houses, whose whim would be the making or breaking of any girl within sight. The girl bowed forward as well, touching her nose to the grass and making sure her tail— tail!— was held low out behind her. "Rise, child." The woman spoke.
To her, of that there was no mistake, but she was too terrified to move. Her ears laid back upon her head and she shuddered under the tall, somber woman's regard. "Yes, child, I speak to you. Rise."
Swallowing the lump in her throat the child shifted back onto her knees and then, digging her claw tipped toes into the grass, rose slowly to stand before the noble matron. "Nen'si hai, nen'si asih." She whispered in a quiet voice as she stood with head properly bowed, hands clutched before her stomach. I hear, I obey.
"I have a task for you, child, a task only you can undertake." The woman's voice was a smooth contralto, gentle yet somehow bone-achingly powerful; it cut straight to her heart as effectively as any task master's shout.
"Nen'si hai," replied the child, dutifully pricking up her ears and keeping her wayward tail tucked. Why did none of the other girls have ears that moved? Or fur, or tails for that matter?
"A traveler seeks me, but he has become lost. I wish for you to find him for me."
"Until my dying breath, noble mistress, I will seek him." She swallowed slightly and hazarded a question, "How might I know when I have found the one you wish me to find?"
A touch of gentle humor softened the weight of the white-clad woman's words, "You will know. When you find this traveler, child, I wish you to help him find his way again." A gentle touch between her ears almost made the child fall to her knees but she remained dutifully upright with only a slight sideward splaying of her years. "Bring him to me, child, you will know the way."
"Nen'ae shai, im'nhi sai." She nodded her head slowly under the woman's touch. My life to serve you.
"Abesh non lased'hi, child." Serve with grace. "Now go, find my lost one."
Bobbing in a smooth curtsy the child looked up as she felt the woman's touch fade but the orchard was empty. She was alone.
Murikeer jerked spastically and lashed out against the huntsmen closing in from all sides, bloodlust gleaming in their hungry eyes. He had almost escaped but they had found him, cold steel gleaming in their hands. Beside him Elvmere gave out a startled cry when one of the skunk mage's arms clobbered him across the muzzle.
"Murikeer?" the priest clutched at his abused face and rolled away, putting some distance between him and the writhing skunk. "Eli scourge these nightmares!" His own sleep had been frighteningly troubled and, had the skunk not awakened him with a bruising drub across the face he would have been awakened by the fright of his dreams soon enough. Murikeer kicked off the heavy down comforter that made him feel like he was being broiled in his own fur and surged out of the bed in a fit of frightened fury.
"All the gods curse this place." The skunk growled in the baritone voice of his human guise, scrubbing his own face vigorously as he paced the room. "I have had naught but terror whenever I sleep since coming to this place!" He struck his shin against the edge of a table and staggered with a pained hiss. "I haven't dreamed of the days I was hunted in years. Years! Gods, I still feel that fear to my very core!"
"Aye." Elvmere sighed. He touched his muzzle through the guise of his illusion with his fingers to see if anything was more than bruised. "For me it was the plague that struck Abaef some fifteen years ago. I lived in terror of being touched by it for months." He sighed and just gave his muzzle a rub to quash the lingering throb. "I did, in the end, but it passed. Tell me, did you hear anyone calling out?"
"Yes." Elvmere stretched and untangled the spread enough to slide out of the huge bed. "Throughout it all there was someone calling out. A plaintive voice, as a child seeking their parent." Padding to the window he pushed open the shutters to let in the cool night air and gaze toward the moon. It was a mere sliver above the horizon and the sky was beginning to grow pale with coming dawn. "I could hear it, but not distinctly. It was a sorrowful sound that filled me with this ache of sorrow that was almost as strong as the terror of becoming plagued."
"We are plagued, Elvmere." Murikeer threw himself into a chair and rubbed his bruised shin. "This place is a pox."
"Aye. We should ask Malger of it. He is the dream worshiper among us. Perhaps he will know more."
Murikeer chuffed through his nose, "If this be-damned half-elvish lord gets around to us anytime within the years of our mortality."
"Brother Thomas promised to inquire."
Rubbing his muzzle Murikeer then stroked his hands back across his head, fingers combing through the false hair on his false head before dropping to the arms of the chair in which he sprawled. "I trust that he will, as the Earl's confidant. Come, I'm ill of this stifling room and need to feel the night air." Thrusting himself from his chair he straightened his leggings and cast about for his shirt. In the dark, even with eyes more sensitive in dim light than most, the dark fabric blended into the shadows almost completely. Elvmere located it folded on the footlocker and handed it over before taking up his own. Both had been laundered and mended by the Earl's house staff the previous day, as had the other clothing they had not been wearing at the time.
Whatever magic Murikeer used to mask their scents somehow lingered long past association with the wearers for no one commented at the musk that had to be on those clothes. Elvmere was well aware of what a raccoon smelled like, and skunk; neither of them pleasant in any great strength. Slipping the shirt on he tied the sash about his waist and followed the young mage out of the room. A pair of guards lounging outside the door stood abruptly and snatched up their spears. Unlike Elvmere, who felt as if he had not slept in three days and was going forward merely by the force of momentum pulling at his feet, the two guards looked very alert.
"Are ye gents a'aight?" One of the guards rumbled curiously, "Heard one o' ye hollerin' out a good bit o' th' night."
The other guard grunted and drew his helmet on. "More like both of ye's. An yer no alone."
"Not?" Murikeer asked. He paced down the hallway like someone with purpose though he had no idea where he wanted to go save away from that room, its heavy down comforter and its closed shutters.
"Aye, no. Been a lotta screamin' an hollerin' about toni'." The first guard paced alongside Elvmere while his cohort followed a few paces behind. "If ye stan' ou' on th' balcony ye can be hearin' 'em."
"Bloody chorus o' the damned." Quipped the one following along behind. His chain rattled and the butt of his spear thunked on the wood with each pace with a sound that made Elvmere's hackles ripple. To him it sounded like the gavel of an angry judge. "Last ni' too, but no so bad as this."
"And you two sleep during the day?" Elvmere asked. Murikeer had outpaced them by a good dozen strides.
"Aye as 'at."
"Any bad dreams?"
"No so much." The guard pacing him looked down at him as they walked, "But tell th' tru't I bein' almos' afraid ta be takin' me sleep t'day." He poked his spearpoint toward the end of the corridor where Murikeer stood waiting on them. "No wit all 'at screamin' inna dark like. Givin' me th' shillies." They passed a door to someone's bedchamber and heard from within the sound of muffled anguish. A mournful cry for someone's mam whispered through the heavy wood prompting Elvmere to trace a sign of the tree upon his brow and breast. The guard grunted with a nod and did the same despite the amulet of Kammoloth he wore around his neck. After the archavist Thomas' revelation that Followers were, albeit grudgingly, accepted Elvmere felt less restrained in showing his own faith. "Damn unsettlin'." The man sighed.
"Because of the attack on Woodton?" Elvmere asked. They reached the intersection and found Murikeer crouched petting a rather affectionate cat. When they came to him the cat gave a purring meow before moving to wend itself around the legs of a guard. The man knelt briefly to stroke the cat's head.
"That be when things began, aye, but seems t' me a lot o' anguish over a single attack." Offered the first guard who merely glanced at the cat. "But then has been peace here a right long time, then that." He shrugged and followed Murikeer through a door down one of the side halls out into the night. "Years o' peace, then out o' the blue a village is slaughtered." Canting his head back the man looked up at the waxing moon. "No just a raid, outright wanton slaughter. An' them that went the ruins said nothing was took." He looked across at Elvmere with a frown on his face. The moonlight left his eyes deep in shadow giving him the look of a cadaver. "No plunder, just death."
"Such would unsettle even the most hardened of hearts." Elvmere replied wanly. There were no words of condolence he could offer that felt could even begin to encompass the loss. He recalled Deep Springs and the senseless carnage he saw there.
"Someone wishes war." Murikeer growled irritably. He shook himself and took a deep breath of the cool night air. There was a taste of rain to it but the clouds were still relatively sparse. Perhaps the dawn would bring rain. "Such needless slaughter could only be a goad to force Sathmore into rising up in response, igniting a war between kingdoms for some unknowable goal."
"People always profit by the chaos." Pointed out one of the guards. "To wha' end, though?" he asked as they stood in a small ancillary courtyard behind the kitchens and smithy. "Sathmore and the Midlands've been at peace, fer th' mos' part, fer generations. Only big wars I be knowin' of were squabblin' provinces o' Pyralia."
"I cannot say." Elvmere sighed with a shrug. The smell of charcoal and iron from the smithy mingled strangely with the smell of bread from the kitchens and the underlying stink of compost in a way that was strangely comforting in its familiarity to Elvmere. Wherever he went in the many years of his life the smell of human settlements were always the same; pleasant and noisome in equal measure. "War for the sake of nothing more than war itself seems terribly senseless."
"There is a goal to it, Elvmere. I know not what, or for whose gain, but there is always a goal to war." Murikeer replied. Turning to one of the guards he tilted his head slightly, "Tell me, sir. Are we under arrest?"
The man cocked a brow for a moment and shook his head, "No, lad."
"Then why has the Earl assigned us guards to escort us about day and night?"
The guard chuckled warmly, "He didn't, lad, th' seneschal did. After Woodton everyone be on edge. An' yer mysterious travelin' folk, so we was 'appy t' volunteer. Ye've got news o' the world beyond. We dunna get many visitors."
"And, I would assume, to prevent us from attempting to liberate our master." Murikeer shrugged. They wandered between the buildings into the main courtyard wandering aimlessly.
"Aye, as such."
"Good morning, lads." A voice reached them from a pair of dark forms lounging on chairs in the moon shadow of the main house. "Tren, John."
"Archivist. Yer up uncommon early."
Thomas snorted irritably, "Care to watch my beloved die but once, my fellows. Come, have a seat and enjoy the dawn. T'is better than dreaming, of late." When they stepped out of the moonlight and into the shadows Murikeer found that the second person seated at Thomas' side was the Earl himself.
"Good morning, sire." The young mage offered with a bow. "As the good Thomas has said, the night has not proven especially restful. I thought I might clear my head with some cool air."
Earl Tathim nodded leisurely and saluted with a cup held in one hand. "Be at ease, young man. Thomas has spoken to me at some length about you. He holds you in some good regard."
"As we do him, sire." Elvmere smiled genially, "He is quite well read, and wise."
Again Tathim nodded, "And he has invited you to sit, so rather than strain his old bones looking up at you, feel free. He and I are most well traveled, and have had chance to visit the libraries of Metamor some decades ago. It pleases me to know it still stands."
"It does, indeed, sire. We suffered a grievous attack this past Yule, in which I lost my eye avenging the death of one I loved." Murikeer settled into one of the hard wooden chairs and leaned back after carefully settling his tail around to one side. He nodded concordance to Thomas' recent statement about the loss of his own love at some point. "But we survived it and rebuild."
"T'is all we can do, ere there is anything left to rebuild." Tathim sighed and sipped from his cup, "Ach, forgive my sharp tongue, lads. The nightmares that followed the sacking of Woodton, and the responsibilities of my office that came of it, weigh heavily on me."
"Tathim, boys, Tathim. Out here in the dark hours of morning we are all men at ease." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, rolling the cup between his palms. "Tell me of this master of yours. From his manner he does not seem the man his actions painted him to be. Likewise his skill with the blade, to have gone alone against an entire caravan worth of fighters and emerged alive, is considerable. More than I would expect of a mere troubadour."
Murikeer nodded and smiled thanks when Thomas handed him a wooden cup. The contents proved to be nothing more innocuous than cold brewed tea sweetened with maple. "Like you he was well traveled for many a year. He picked up all manner of skills. Rather than have us risk our journeys alone he agreed to escort us, and take us on as pupils, when we left Metamor."
"Is he as cursed as you?"
Murikeer blinked and shot a glance at Thomas who beamed like a triumphant fool and winked back at him over the rim of his pewter mug. "He is." He reached up to his amulet but Tathim waved a hand dismissively.
"Thomas, ever the spriteful old spy that he is, told me what he discovered through the priestess' high windows. I do not need further proof. Truth be told the idea of it rather raises the hairs on the back of my neck. You're brave sorts, and uncommonly skilled, to leave the shelter of others likewise touched where acceptance is the rule of normality."
"We learn that some wild un-truths have been spread about us in the past years." Murikeer sighed with a nod, dropping his hand.
"Perhaps disgruntled merchants too harried for time to reap the profits that Metamor offers have chosen to limit competition by spreading lies." Elvmere hazarded after taking a swallow of his own tea.
"That would not surprise me." Tathim grunted. "Your master claimed justice against those he slew. What do you know of it? He tells me that you, lad, have some understanding of his actions."
"Aye, milord— er, Tathim." Murikeer swirled the tea about in his cup, gazing into the dark liquid as if seeking some sort of truth. "The one I loved, the one I lost in the attack this past Yule and in whose name I lost an eye, was captured by the man and his stalwarts. I think it was some four or five years past, before I came to know what she became after our master helped her come to terms with what they did." He looked up and met the Earl's eyes. They seemed to shine with a golden luminescence in the moonlit dark. "What they did was… were atrocities I feel lacking to describe. She was beaten nigh unto death and raped, repeatedly and violently, over the duration of the fortnight she was their captive. Others were there, captured and chained and left to undergo the curse for the man's profits."
"Her strength must have been worthy of ballads."
"Aye, I would say. I saw her in battle, when I lived far north of Metamor. She aided me in destroying the engines of war being fielded by an enemy of Metamor."
"Aided you? Alone?"
"The two of us, aye. I am a mage, sire. With judicious use of magic and stealth I was able to strike against them in a moment of awkward vulnerability. As a result they were all destroyed, and a goodly portion of the escort with them."
"A tale worthy of telling, if you've the time."
"What of our master, though? Tathim, I would offer you what tales you may desire, but the fate of our injured companion is paramount."
"He is well, if as harried by dark dreams as any of us. I inquired if he needed the attentions of my healers and he refused. Once day has come I will allow you to see him as you wish. He is morose over his situation, and eats little we offer from mine own tables."
"The fight took much from him, and his injuries were many and, if not individually mortal, the plentitude of them is certainly a burden." Elvmere replied softly.
"Agreed, I have been in similar condition a few times. Only my fey blood has seen me through a good many scrapes."
"Ach!" Thomas crowed with a laugh, "That fey blood and a good hand at your side."
"Aye as much, my old friend." Tathim smiled at his aged companion with a salute of his cup before he drained it. "As for your master, Earl Motense of Fendshill will be here in two days' time to bear his witness of his attack on the caravan, as will a witness for Duke Thargood. Until then I can do little but deal with the results of the sacking of Woodton. The Lothanasa hin Caris tells me you were familiar with an arrow recovered from the slain?"
"Yes, sire." Elvmere sighed sadly, "We saw much the same in a village similarly attacked some three weeks journey to the north. They are unique to the Knights of the Ecclasia, specifically those attached to the Questioners of the Church."
Tathim sighed heavily and stared into his cup, "I sent out a messenger pigeon when I learned of the attack, and received word back just after dark this night. Eight remote settlements along the mountains bordering the midlands and Sathmore have all suffered the same violent end in the past month, discounting Woodton which brings the total to nine. All were sacked and razed with few, often no, survivors. Evidence left behind always bears the mark of the Yesbearn."
"Nine!" Elvmere exclaimed, aghast.
"Sathmore issued a writ to marshal all levies without delay. That was also a part of the message that was returned to me." Tathim informed them flatly. "I've little to raise, but— " he sighed and tossed back the remainder of his tea. "I will be sending riders to my vassalages in the morn to marshal what little I am able. Sathmore readies for war, lads. By rights, as adult males capable of wielding a sword I am required to conscript you. The fact that one of you is a mage only strengthens that claim."
"Sire!?" Elvmere gaped and almost dropped his cup but Tathim merely waved his fingers slightly.
"I shan't, no." He set the cup down on the small table before them and Thomas leaned forward to refill it. "After decades living among men I have left the pride of my lineage long behind. I am but a humble man wishing to live out his centuries in peace, not war. I would not wish to impress you into another pointless war." Taking his cup when Thomas handed it to him he took another drink. "It seems that humankind seek only to slaughter itself."
"You're not so far from human yourself, friend." Thomas offered humorously, "You've got some fire mixed into that cold elvish stuff, yourself."
"Indeed, my friend, indeed." Pushing himself from his seat he bent to set down the empty cup once more, "I tire, fellows, and I believe I may see if I can snatch a few moments between nightmares. Until the light of Ya'e'li shines upon you in warmth, be at peace." They watched him walk away for a few moments in silence.
"Ya'e'li?" Elvmere asked.
"One of the Elvish high gods from ancient times, represented by the sun." Thomas answered quietly as he leaned back in his chair, "Note the similarities between their High One, and our own Eli."
"A careful comparison to make, brother." Elvmere cautioned gently.
Thomas only laughed jocularly and smiled over his cup while he drank. "And yet it smiles gently upon us in these green forests, and glares with baleful heat upon the stones of Yesulam, my good brother Elvmere. I do not decry Eli, I merely note the similarities in the two faiths. Not much is left of the Elvish faiths, in any end. While I bear my Tree it still makes me mourn that wasting away."
"To all the world that mourning, Thomas." Murikeer replied with equal gravity.