The road south of Ellcaran was well worn, lined with hostels and villages every few miles. What few trees remained in that province of the Southern Midlands were far from the road, affording travellers a wide view of the Sathmoran Mountains to the South, the Sea of Stars to the West, and the rolling hills to the East. Farmlands dominated the countryside, as did pastures for sheep, cows, goats, horses, and pigs. And as it was the only road from the Southern Midlands into Sathmore itself, it was heavily travelled and patrolled by the local baronies.
Despite this, Vinsah felt that those roads were being watched far more closely, and the hands of many soldiers sharing the thoroughfare were much closer to their hilts. Merchants would steer their carriages to the far side of the road as they passed the trio, and riders on horseback would eye them warily, barely slowing to greet them as they passed. It was always the same, some distance, a great deal of cautiousness, and anxiety, and always, they moved on quickly enough, glad to put distance between themselves and everyone else.
Vinsah was not alone in feeling that way. Even when they said nothing, he could see it in the illusory eyes of his companions Murikeer and Malger. The amulets that the skunk mage had crafted to hide their true forms did not hide their feelings at all. And in many ways, their expressions were slightly exaggerated. Being part animal made their facial expressions more subtle, at least to the human eye. But having become accustomed to recognizing them for what they were, it seemed that the façade the amulets placed upon them had to make their feelings obvious – at least to Vinsah.
But despite the unfriendliness of their fellow travellers, the music that Malger brought, and the magical artistry that Murikeer showed bought them a room and food at a hostel each night. Vinsah of course, was posing as the foppish jongleur’s apprentice, and had in fact, kept a simple beat with the drums while Malger played at a few taverns along the way. He remembered the first time that the marten had told him he was to play for his meal, he’d been terribly apprehensive. He’d spent the entire time flicking his tail back and forth in a frenzy of distraction, toe claws clicking in his sandals.
Strangely, he remembered feeling much the same way when he’d given his first homily as a newly ordained priest of the Ecclesia. It had been over thirty years ago now, and he looked younger thanks to the amulet than he did then, but the feeling had been all too familiar. Thankfully, Malger’s skill with the flute and whatever other instrument he should chance to pick up in his paws was great enough that it overshadowed any mistakes the raccoon priest made. The tavernkeeps still loved them, and was glad to host them for a night given all the extra business they would bring in.
As Ellcaran itself began to recede to the North, Vinsah could not help but remember their stay at the mildly prosperous Inn the last night. Although they had spent a night in other midsize cities along the way, none of them could compare to Ellcaran in sheer size. In terms of opulence, Metamor clearly outshone it, but there were still more people living inside the walls of Ellcaran than Metamor itself.
The Bishop had been in larger cities of course, Yesulam for one. There was an almost prosaic quality to Ellcaran though, from the thick cobblestone streets lined with merchants, to the close sitting houses on either side leaning over the gutters like fawning children trying to peer at whatever labour their parents endeavoured. While the spires of the Ecclesia cathedral had been quite beautiful, the stonework radiating brilliant hues of green and blue and everything between, they never drew near enough for Vinsah to see more than that.
In fact, much to Vinsah’s dismay, Malger lead them into the Lothanasi section of the city. Strange symbols that had often adorned the walls of Metamor were once more before the Ecclesia priest, and greetings were given, praises and requests made to foreign gods. Somehow, during his stay at Metamor, Vinsah had begun to find them normal, and no longer performed the sign of the tree whenever he heard them. Yet when he’d been in Ellcaran, all of that seemed a distant memory.
Perhaps it had been then that Vinsah had finally understood the reality of where this journey would take him. With his companions Murikeer and Malger, he would be heading deep within Sathmore, the very heart of the Lothanasi faith. And given what they had been hearing at the Inns, and seeing on the roads themselves, they all knew that they would do well not to make an issue of their faith.
Grimacing, Vinsah continued to put one paw before the other. Looking down at his feet, he saw the sandals that he wore, but human toes stuck out through the straps. Narrowing his eyes, he tried to see past the illusion. He had to focus intently on the long toes of the raccoon, the dark fur and short claws, before he was even able to begin to glimpse what was really there. Bits of the illusion broke away, showing the procyonid digits that passed for his feet, but then the human image once more reasserted itself.
Rubbing his paws together, he could feel the fur on the back of his hands and fingers, short, sharp claws dragging through it, even though all he could see was the dark tones of skin warmed by many desert summers. Lifting one of those paws, he felt along his face, noting the narrow muzzle and soft nose. He chuffed slightly, twitching his lips as those digits dragged across his sensitive whiskers. They were all there, and he could still feel them, even if it took all his effort just to see them.
“Is something wrong, Elvmere?” Murikeer asked suddenly, moving alongside the Bishop. The face his amulet gave him was youthful, though he still bore the eyepatch. That much the illusion had not changed. It gave an intensity to his one good eye, the deep blue of which seemed to smoulder like the first breath of a flame.
The name Elvmere of course. Vinsah had not been able to escape it. And they insisted on calling him that whenever they spoke it to him. Perhaps they did that so that they would remember. Regardless, it felt strange to hear another call him that. Only his lady had ever used that name for him. She had given it to him after all.
“I was,” he said, looking past Murikeer to the bard who rode upon one of their horses. They had purchased another in Menth when they’d arrived there, as promised, but it merely carried the rest of their supplies. Malger himself rode most of the time, while Murikeer was content to walk with the Bishop. Vinsah of course, having been told by his lady that he must walk, would do nothing else. At first, his legs had become terribly sore, but now, he could barely feel it, and he found he could go longer without stopping. On one rare occasion when they were sheltered, he’d taken the time to remove his pendant and see his raccoon self, noting how much fitter he’d appeared.
“I was merely letting my mind wander, “ Vinsah replied, shrugging slightly, turning his attention to the road ahead. It was nearly noon already, but the sun had thankfully passed behind a patch of clouds. Small farmhouses were coming up along the rise, while the farmers were outside ripping up the weeds. A salty breeze blew in from the west, and he could feel it in his fur.
Murikeer nodded then, offering him a warm smile. “Well, we are on our way again.”
Vinsah found the smile infectious. “You did appear to be a bit uncomfortable last night.”
The youth who was truly a skunk shrugged his shoulders, the smile sliding from his face. “Though it’s been nearly a year since I first came to Metamor, I think I still prefer the company of few. The clamour of hundreds or thousands is nothing but that, clamour.”
“Ah, but the more we draw into the Inns, the finer the meals we shall eat,” called out Malger from atop his steed. With a flick of his wrist, he brought the bay alongside of them, and leaned over in his saddle, one elbow resting upon the pommel. “‘Twas the finest meal we have had in many nights last night, was it not?”
They’d dined upon crab quenelles mixed with poached egg and filets of catfish. Muzzle opening, Vinsah practically began to salivate at the memory of it. And he could see that Murikeer was doing much the same. “Yes, it was,” the skunk admitted, his voice churlish. “But nothing is as fine as the meal you catch and cook for yourself.”
Malger nodded then, a confidant grin upon his face. “Or stringy, or so I’ve found.” He leaned back in his saddle with an expansive sigh and patted at his belly. “But last night, ah, how glorious.”
“Be wary,” Murikeer warned, though his tone was jocular, “for with but a single motion, I can upend you from your saddle, you fop!”
“Oh now it would not do to have your master come to the next hostel with soiled clothes. The bard must be dressed finely. It is for the patrons to decide if he shall leave that way as well!”
Vinsah laughed then, giving his head a wide shake. “A hostel it will be then tonight?”
Malger nodded. “It will take us a few days more before we reach Sathmore. And even then, it will be another week at least before we reach any larger town.”
“Then is there nothing to stand as the border between the two realms?”
“There are stone markers,” Murikeer replied, scratching at the back of his neck with one hand. “But the pass north of the Sathmore range is very narrow, so neither side have ever positioned more than a few lookouts there.”
Vinsah continued walking on in silence for a moment then, considering that. Up ahead along the road he saw a merchant wagon crest the next rise. Surrounding the wagon were four soldiers on horseback. Each were dressed in dusty mail, and their eyes were cool. He could feel Murikeer and Malger tensing beside him, and indeed, his own hackles raised slightly. Fighting the bestial instincts, Vinsah put on a smile, and when they neared the merchant, he smiled and bowed his head to the passing soldiers. “Good day to you all, the blessing of.. Blessings be upon you.”
One of the soldiers nodded to them as they passed, his face set in a grim line, but he said nothing. Of the merchant himself, a fat balding man who was wiping sweat form his brow in the warm sea air, Vinsah thought he saw a look of fear in his eyes. Or perhaps it was loathing. Whichever it was, it made the raccoon’s hackles rise anew. His tail lashed back and forth wildly, and he felt sullen relief when they finally passed the merchant and his solders by. He breathed a sigh of relief when they finally disappeared around a bend in the road.
“Friendly lot, that,” Malger mused as he inspected his finger nails with mock vanity.
“It looks like many folks are beginning to worry that war may be coming,” Vinsah mused softly, wishing that his words were untrue. But he had lived a very long time already, and he had seen the evidence of this before. When whispers of war brewed amongst the populace, all would go about armed, wary of strangers.
“War may be coming,” Murikeer added. “I hope that we can be across the border before anything happens. Elvmere, would you consent to ride for a few days at least? At least until we are in Sathmore?”
Vinsah frowned at that, looking to his two companions before shaking his head slowly. “It would be easier that way, but I must remain true to what I have been tasked. Just as we all must.” He looked to them both and smiled. “It is strange that we three should travel together at this time, since we each follow different paths. I thank you both for who you are, and I am sorry that who I am causes us such trouble.”
Malger sniffed and leaned forward in his saddle once more. “I think that shall be enough. See that pile of rocks? We shall rest there for an hour, and practice some after we’ve eaten.”
Nodding, Vinsah kept his focus upon the small pile of rocks that jutted up along the side of the road. Beyond them, in the distance, he could make out the smooth crest of the northernmost ranges of the Sathmoran mountains. Unlike the peaks that framed the Metamor Valley, the Sathmoran range possessed few rocky peak. Copious trees grew all the way to the top of most summits. But from the lowlands south of Ellcaran, they were still imposing.
It took the trio only a few minutes more to reach the pile of rocks that Malger had suggested. Vinsah climbed up onto a smaller one that had been worn down by many a traveller using it for a perch. A larger boulder was at its back, and he leaned against it, striped tail curling out around from behind him, though he could only feel it as it lay against the cool stone. Pulling off his sandals, he stretched his long toes, claws scratching against the hard stone. But even that tugging at his claws felt good to him.
Malger tied the horse’s reins to a pole and staked it to the ground only a few feet away, leaving them to graze upon the grass that abutted the rocks. Deftly, he slipped up the pile of rocks, until he had found a position he liked, perched between two, leaning with booted feet sticking up in the air. “It will have to do,” he said with a disdainful air. But his rakish smile assured them both that he jested merely for his own amusement.
“Shall I break out some of our rations?” Murikeer asked as he stood beside the horses.
Vinsah suddenly felt terribly ashamed of himself. He was a servant of Eli, and that meant he was to be a servant of all His people’s. Rising up from his stone, he nodded. “Let me help you with that, Muri.”
Murikeer nodded and stepped away from the saddlebags, “I’ll prepare a fire then, if you’ll get some of the meat out, Elvmere.”
The raccoon nodded, drawing out the small bundle that held the salted strips of sausage that they’d brought with them. By the time they had reached Ellcaran, what they had purchased in Metamor was nearly exhausted, and so they had spent a bit of the money the Innkeeper had paid them to replenish their wares.
“And fetch my drums. After all the unmerciful beating you have given them I need to retune them,” Malger called out, his grin still fixed upon his lips.
Murikeer had already found a small circle of stones used by previous travellers, and was clearing some of the debris from it. Grimacing, he took one small stone and sent it sailing up towards the marten with a flick of his wrist. Malger caught it deftly and laughed. “Now, now, good mage! I never questioned your aim, just your timing!”
But the skunk shook his head and resumed working over the makeshift fire pit. Vinsah untied the satchel carrying the drums, and passed it up to the bard, who was whittling the stone against his fingernails. Actually, he was whittling against the air just beyond his fingernails. Once again, the illusions that were so cleverly crafted had their weak spots that could be noticed by a very careful observer. It had nearly been a fortnight since they had left Metamor, but even still he wished he could see his friends for what they really were.
“Ah, thank you,” Malger said as he took the satchel. He slipped the pair of drums from it, and began to tap at the skins held taut. He thrummed his fingers across them, and tightened or loosened the knobs that held the skins in place.
For some minutes the trio worked in relative silence, bent to their respective tasks. Vinsah quietly whispered prayers of thanks to Eli while unpacking and slicing a few pieces of meat from their carefully rationed stores, and then adding in larger portions of the heavy cheese wheel that they had purchased from the same hostel. Their bread would last only a few days in an edible form, so he was not sparing with that either. Malger had explained that he intended for them to reach a small caravan waypoint called Estravalle within only two days where they would be able to restock anything that they ran out of.
After having arranged the meaty morsels upon the heavy skillet, the rest tucked between his free arm and tunic, Vinsah turned to see what his skunk companion had accomplished. But Murikeer had made quick, efficient work of his task. After gathering up the leaves and other small bits of debris around the fire-pit and piling them in the centre he had simply made a small motion with one hand and the heap burst into smouldering flame. No matter how many times Vinsah had seen that, it still made him tremble in surprise, and his hackles rise up ever so slightly.
“You take the easy path.” Malger pointed out from his perch on the stones, his fingers idly caressing the face of the drum, eliciting a strange, sibilant, haunting hiss from the hollow, leather capped chamber. “The easy path leads to laziness, lad.”
Murikeer, seated on his heels and poking at the burning mass with a stick, “It only looks easy to you, Malger. Remember, even the simplest of magics is painful to me.” He retorted quietly, breaking the stick and adding it to the fire. “Each time I touch it inures me to the pain.” Vinsah remained still, remembering well the sight of that pain the magic brought to the skunk.
“Touché, young minstrel, touché.” Malger conceded with a soft laugh, bowing awkwardly from where he reclined. He turned slightly and set the drum aside and leaned across to pick up his tambour. His movements suddenly slowed as he clasped the instrument and began to sit back up. “Look sharp, we’re not alone.” He muttered in warning as he rattled his knuckles across the tambour, sending a mute throb of sound through the air. Murikeer tensed and sat back on his heels to look around, spying the company the bard spoke of almost immediately. Vinsah, still carrying the pan with the meat in one hand, the bread and cheese in the other, looked toward them at the same moment.
There were five of them, looking like farmers in well worn but ill-fitting clothing in bad need of washing. Three carried naked shortswords, two others medium hunting bows, and none of them looked as if they wanted to make a friendly greeting. Malger did not move, merely turning his head to look at them with an indolent expression, continuing to idly tap upon his tambour with the fingers of one hand. Murikeer stood slowly as Vinsah drew over to stand beside him.
“Outlanders nay be welcome here.” One of the five stated as they stepped out of the field and scanned the road furtively. “Bad times bring bad folk, we want you gone from these lands.”
Malger shrugged and sighed, “That was our plan, master farmer.” He said with a long-suffering tone, waving one hand in a negligent dismissal.
“Oh, you be doing that aright.” The speaker said as the bowmen clustered close behind him and the other two with swords moved out to either side to flank them. Following Malger’s cue, Murikeer and Vinsah merely stood their ground and watched. Vinsah’s gaze flicked from one to the next with a deep sense of apprehension racing through him, setting his hackles up under the collar of his shirt. He swallowed once, shifting his gaze to Malger, who seemed hardly impressed by the quintet of ruffians. The musician’s cavalier attitude emboldened him and he fought down his churning fear to bend and set the pan upon the side of the firepit as naturally as he was able to. The whole time, his tail lashed back and forth, though the illusion thankfully masked that. “But you be leaving behind them horses and everything else.”
Malger sat up and leaned his elbows on his knees, “Why would we want to do such a thing as that?” he asked with a raised eyebrow. “I am a Bard, and under the Bard’s Sanction.” He waved a hand toward Muri and Vinsah, “My pupils are also within that geas.” He explained lazily.
“Don’t be much caring about what you do, fop, but we be taking those steeds and gear.” The speaker said, the aged, pitted shortsword in his hand jumping as his hand tightened around the hilt. “Be standing away now, and we let you be on your way alive.”
“What city ran you out.” Malger grunted as he shook his head, “Come ahead on if you want them, but bear in mind that we are armed as well.” He patted the hilts of his swords, “Be about yourselves and we’ll be on our way without your corpses behind us.” He said as he stood slowly, “And the lad there by the fire is a trained mage of Master rank, just so that you’ll be fairly warned.”
The five looked amongst one another, both archers raising their bows and drawing back their strings. The two swordsmen flanking them seemed indecisive. Murikeer drew himself up and crossed his arms over his chest as he levelled a hard, one-eyed stare toward the nearest ruffian. “Care to test the truth of that?” he challenged as he smiled a very sinister smile.
The speaker looked from Malger to Vinsah, then Murikeer, weighing the risks of five against three against the profits of three horses, gear, and supplies. He took one step forward, then halted when Murikeer’s head snapped around to level that glare on him. It was not the glare that halted his step; it was the smoke smouldering from under the patch on his face. The man blinked rapidly as he looked to Vinsah as if expecting a similar display, but the priest was only clasping the amulet which hung from his neck.
“Gajen.” One of the archers said uneasily as his bow wavered from Malger to Muri and back, undecided who posed the greater risk. “Be in a bad way to rob minstrels.”
With a brief snarl the speaker growled and backed off, the two other sword wielders retreating to stand near him. “Be on you way swift, strangers. These parts not friendly to outsiders.” He warned before turning about and gathering his cohorts about him with a surly jerk of his free arm.
Vinsah held back the sigh of relief that fought to escape his muzzle. His fingers and claws still curled tightly around the sinewy branches of the yew tree amulet that hung around his neck. The ruffians went back through a small path in the fields to the east, trudging along, perhaps to accost the next traveller that should happen past. After a minute though they disappeared amidst the growing stalks, at which point he finally let out a long exhalation.
“You sound as if they worried you, Elvmere,” Malger said, almost wryly. “You must learn the rules of travel and hospice. A bard and those who journey with them are never to be molested. It is part of the Bard’s Sanction, a tradition that spans both centuries and countries.”
Vinsah narrowed his green eyes, even as he watched Malger settle back down once more upon his stone, thrumming his fingertips along the drumskin. “I know of it. Some of them did not.”
At this the marten let out a trilling laugh. “It does not hurt to have a mage with a smoking eye along either.”
At that, even Murikeer could not help but offer a small laugh. Feeling suddenly relieved, Vinsah set to stirring the meat upon the skillet as it sizzled, offering another silent prayer of thanks to Eli.
Although the rest of their journey that day proved uneventful, Vinsah still had difficulty forgetting the encounter with the farmers. There had been a look of desperation in their eyes that spoke of very troubled times. It put the unwelcoming gaze of soldiers and merchants that had passed them by into clearer context. Not only was war brewing, but lines had been drawn, and lives had already been displaced. The Bishop could not help but wonder if battles had already been fought, but they had heard nothing to suggest that it had. No armies had been amassed, and no towns had been sacked.
But still, he kept a wary eye glancing to the fields that lined either side of the road. And he saw that both Malger and Muri kept a closer watch as well. Malger himself rode with one hand resting upon the hilt of one of his short bravo swords. The skunk of course bore no weapons, for his magic was clearly potent enough to suffice should the need arise.
For Vinsah though, this was a first. When he had travelled in the kingdoms where the Ecclesia was held as the highest authority, he knew that he was completely safe, that none would dare harm him. And even when he had travelled with Patriarch Akabaieth to Metamor so many months ago, their guard was more for show than for protection, although they had selected the best warriors if it came to that.
And it had. And almost every one of them had been cut down by a single man.
Vinsah clenched his teeth tightly then, nearly biting his tongue. He still felt tremors when he thought of that night. But, he reminded himself, setting one foot paw before the other down the road, that was why he was journeying to Yesulam. While the route would be far stranger than he could have imagined it, still, Yesulam was his destination. The raccoon bishop could only ponder how greatly it had changed in the months since he’d left.
As the day progressed towards evening, Malger decided to have them both practice singing a few songs. Neither Vinsah nor Murikeer had the best voices for it, but the marten was astute at selecting pieces that fit their ranges and capabilities. And Vinsah was grateful too that the bard never asked him to sing anything in the least bit licentious. The priest felt quite embarrassed even hearing Murikeer or Malger sing them, and several times, his illusionary cheeky turned a bright red in hue.
They practised only for a couple hours, taking turns singing so that their voices would not wear too thin. But by the time the sun was nearing the sea to the west, both the skunk and raccoon felt rather hoarse. They spent the night in a hostel, but they were unable to earn much for their stay as there were few travellers sharing the accommodations with them. The hostel master did allow them free room and board for the night in exchange for their performance. After having performed before other audiences, Vinsah no longer felt nervous about it, letting Malger receive the attention as he kept the beat with the drums.
They left the hostel as the sun rose. Malger felt it imperative that they reach Estravalle before nightfall, so they would have to travel as long as they could. Though he did not quite say why, they all knew that the marten was thinking of those farmers. If the very people who lived on the land were willing to threaten travellers, then they could ill afford to stay out on the road during the night.
The coastal road that they had been following ever since Ellcaran branched as they reached the southern end of the Midland coast. The fork was well travelled, though unguarded. Only a signpost written in a slightly older script marked the way. The western road led to Tullwine, while the southern road proclaimed Estravalle as its nearest destination.
It was already midmorning by the time they passed the branch, and already the bright Spring sun was warming the air. Vinsah had found, despite the illusion that kept his raccoon appearance hidden, that he was beginning to shed his winter coat. He had quickly made the habit of cleaning up any stray fur he’d left behind in his bed at night, but lately he’d found the amount to be growing quite out of paw. He’s scrapped up four pawfuls of his own fur from the bed at the hostel that morning before he’d left and put it in a small leather bag. Both Malger and Murikeer had their own collections, which they dispersed discreetly once the hostel was no longer in sight.
But even so, as they walked, Vinsah found himself rubbing at his arm. When he pulled his hand away, he saw small wisps of greyish fur appear between his fingers. Malger, who was walking his own steed then, looked over to him and frowned. “Can you do something about that, Muri?” he pulled at his own arm, and a small tuft of chestnut fur drifted down to the sandy path.
The skunk frowned as well as he looked between them both. “I hadn’t thought of this. I will see if I can refine my own illusion first, when I have the time.”
“Until then,” Vinsah said patting down the mating fur on his arm, “we should wear long sleeved tunics.”
“We’ll be hugging the mountains on our way South, so that won’t be unnatural,” Malger agreed, returning his gaze to the South, and the verdant peaks that were very close now. They dominated the southern horizon, clustered closely together, their low height cloaking steep inclines and deep valleys. Already, as they moved further from the Sea of Stars, the terrain was dotted by hillocks and knolls, rolling across and upwards. The road itself was beginning to wind between them, but sometimes it went over them.
And it was on one such minor summit that Vinsah saw the stone marker to the west. He narrowed his eyes, but could not make out many details. Pointing, he asked, “What’s that monolith over yonder?”
Malger, who had since mounted his steed, turned and nodded slowly as he took in the sight. But it was Murikeer who spoke. “That’s a boundary marker, Elvmere. Everything beyond that is the lands of Sathmore.”
Vinsah nodded slowly. All throughout his life, the country of Sathmore had been a place to be scorned, or at least puzzled over. How could an entire country completely reject the word of Eli? There was not a single parish within that land, although along the borders there were one or two. It was a land that clung fervently to the old Lightbringer faith.
And there stood a stone marker, standing as a signal that upon one either side were two very different worlds. While the Southern Midlands had a large population of Lightbringers, it was becoming slowly and slowly more the land of the Ecclesia. Upon Vinsah’s side of that marker stood a land where yew trees were a symbol for their slain Lord, the one who redeemed them all from sin. It was a land that knew that the creator was one and all powerful. And it was in this land that Vinsah had spent the whole of his life.
And on the other side of that monolith was a land where the people worshipped many gods. And those gods were each named, supposed to stride the Earth at times, and demanded abundance from their followers. It was a land full of mystery, where pleasing each of the gods was an important aspect of life. The mysteries of magic were freely explored there, and it was said that in each home it was not uncommon to find a charm or two. And in that land, the Ecclesia was the enemy.
Vinsah found it hard not to stare at that marker as he continued on his way. Any man who went to live in that land on the other side of the stone would soon find the names of gods upon his lips, statuaries for each to populate his home, obeisance to observe, and a saviour to forget. They would pay heed to priests and priestesses telling them the mandate of heavens, and the wars and plots of gods themselves.
And it was into that land, into that land that feared the Ecclesia that he served, that Vinsah was to enter. He would cross that marker, doing so bearing a Sathmoran name – Elvmere.
And then, even as his thoughts reached that seeming conclusion, the road turned back down the other side of the low hill, and the monolith was lost to his sight. But still his thoughts churned, and one paw crept up along his tunic to clutch at the yew pendant that hung from his neck. Quite suddenly, he felt very afraid.
“I don’t quite know how to ask this,” Vinsah said at last, but his voice fell away.
Muri turned his head to one side to regard him. Vinsah could almost imagine his round ears lifting up slightly in curiosity. “Yes, Elvmere?”
“That is a part of it actually. The name, Elvmere. I’m told it’s Sathmoran.”
“Yes, though I never knew anyone named that while I lived there,” Murikeer admitted, rubbing one finger at the base of his eyepatch for a moment. “Are you afraid it will attract notice? Who will even remember it?”
But Vinsah shook his head then. “That is only part of it, Muri. I have never liked travelling incognito. It is wrong to pretend to be somebody that I am not. I am no more Malger’s apprentice than you are. I have consented to travel this way because it seems to be where I have been led. But now, we are about to enter Sathmore, or at least, we will do so on the morrow. And in Sathmore, this,” he lifted his pendant between two fingers, “will be noticed.”
Muri listened patiently, but said nothing. Malger though, smiled from atop his horse. “Aye, it will, though few will know who you truly are, your grace,” this last he added pointedly. “Even with yon mage’s illusion you still stand out, your dark skin marking you for a foreigner. I don’t think that tree will bring us any more grief.”
“But when I tell them my name is Elvmere, won’t that lead them to think?”
Malger shrugged. “Mayhaps. Few care as deeply about matters of faith as do you, Elvmere. It is your life. Religion will be a part of the lives of all we meet. Some will hate you for being Patildor. Others may find you more interesting because you are so foreign, and that can help us as we make our journey. People will pay more to see a man from a strange land come into their Inns.”
The bard leaned back in his saddle some, resting both hands upon the pommel. “Of course, if you prefer, you can keep that tree tucked under your tunic. You could always pretend to be in the fold of the Lothanasi. Both Muri and I could instruct you in the proper traditions of their faith. As you know, I became Lothanasi myself after escaping my father’s house. I know a great deal of their ways, even if I follow a different path now.”
But this offer only made Vinsah suck in his breath. “I thank you, Malger, for I know the offer was meant in kindness. But I do not think I could ever do that. It would be a terrible deception to all those around me, and even worse, would be blasphemous to Eli. And if the Council of Bishops should ever learn that I had worshipped the false gods of the Lightbringers, even if only in pretense, I would certainly be excommunicated, and possibly executed as well for such a horrific sin.”
Malger appeared to bristle at that, and Muri seemed somewhat taken aback at the Bishop's personal certainty. The marten managed to keep the edge out of his voice however. He turned and looked down at the raccoon priest veiled in a humanesque illusion. The leather of his saddle creaked as he spoke very slowly, his words measured and distinct. “I can speak with some authority when I say that the Lothanasi gods are no more false than your own Eli. And if you do not wish to call down those who hate the Ecclesia upon you, then that is one thing you will never call them again, Vinsah.”
Vinsah flinched at his words, the rebuke stinging deeply. “I apologize for my terrible words. It is what I have spent my life believing, friend Malger.”
“Be that as it may, when you cross into Sathmore, you should speak of it no longer.”
The raccoon Bishop could only nod numbly at those words, wondering anew what reason his Lady might have had in sending him with these two into the lands of the Lothanasi. He trusted her completely, and he reminded himself of that, but still he wanted to know why. But he had often asked Eli why Patriarch Akabaieth had to die so cruelly, and he had not received an answer. Would he receive one from his Lady?
“Even if you will not pretend to be Lothanasi, Elvmere,” Murikeer said, his voice strangely soothing then, “Malger is right that you must learn our ways, otherwise you could give offence.” He reached over and grasped the bishop’s shoulder with a firm hand, drawing closer as he glanced up the road toward Malger. “He’s met his goddess face to face, Elvmere. Even I have seen my goddess face to face, it insults us that you would so blithely call them false.” He said gently, but with warning in his voice. “I have never gainsaid your faith, nor your Eli, because the both of us, Malger and I, have witnessed something of his presence as well, so your words are a painful slap in the face.”
Vinsah pondered that for a moment as he walked before nodding, somewhat reluctantly. Strangely, he could not help but think once more of his Lady, she who came to him in his dreams. “I think that you are right, Muri, and I’m sorry… to both of you. It is not the way of Eli to instill anger in others. I will learn their ways from you both so that I might be a good neighbour to them.” He said as Muri’s hand dropped away.
Malger had drawn to a stop ahead, and they caught up with him in a short time. The bard’s fingers drummed along the pommel of his saddle as he waited for them to reach the hilltop where he had stopped. “We should move more quickly if we want to reach Estravalle before nightfall. Tomorrow when we set out on our journey, I will teach you the Lothanasi ways, Elvmere.” His words were distant, his expression cold as he turned his horse and led on. Muri cast Vinsah a sidelong look, raising one eyebrow, his expression speaking volumes to the bishop about Malger’s ire.
Though he wanted to take a deep breath, he fought the urge. His tail though lashed back and forth behind him, betraying his anxiety, though thanks to the illusion, none could see it. But soon his energy kept him apace with the horses. Murikeer pulled his steed to a stop so that he could climb into the saddle. Malger gave a quick flick of the reins, and his stallion began to canter along the increasingly rocky dirt road.
Vinsah siddled up along the third horse. The dappled grey mare carried their supplies, but the bishop thought of her as his own much of the time. It had been he who always put their supplies over her back, and he who gave her bits of apple and bread form his paw. At his approach, she nudged his shoulder with her head, as if asking him to climb atop her. He smiled affably, patted her cheek with one paw, and then gripped the reins. Keeping his pace brisk, he moved alongside of her, never fearing that she might step upon one of his foot paws. Somehow, he knew that he could trust this mare.
Still, he knew that he must eschew any property, for what he owned came at the sufferance of the faithful, and neither Murikeer nor Malger counted in that regard. Still, he liked the mare a great deal, and he hoped that when his journey was done, she might still be with him. What was especially pleasing, was that she did not flinch at all when he brought his hand to her face, and she felt a paw. Not even the first time when they had bought her in Menth.
He turned his head and smiled up to Murikeer who had managed to catch up wit them. The youth who was truly a skunk beneath the façade, smiled back to him. No matter what his faith, Vinsah reminded himself, he was still a friend, and a greater companion than many he had known in his life. No matter what else, Vinsah told himself, his Lady had been wise to bring the three of them together as companions on this journey.
And with that thought in mind, the raccoon Bishop continued on his way Southwards along the rock-strewn road, winding through the growing hills towards the tip of the Sathmore range, and the caravansary called Estravalle.