Vinsah knew that he was dreaming. For it was summertime at the Keep, gardens were blooming with a vast panoply of colours, and the sky was a bright blue in hue, instead of the leaden gray that it had been for the past four to five months. A gentle trickling of water in the fountains added a dimension of sound to the symphony of light laid out before him in splendid array. Warm gusts of wind traced along his fur, bringing with them fragrances of all varieties of flowers, some of them only found in the city of Yesulam itself.
Yet for all of the overwhelming bounty of life that came to his senses, there was only one other person present in that dream garden, and that was his lady. The Bishop had no other name for her – neither had he asked her what it was, nor had she offered to tell him. Nor did he really know much about the tall, thin, dark haired woman dressed in silvery robes. Nevertheless, he felt completely at ease, truly at peace when he was with her.
She sat upon one of the marble benches that lined the terrazzo walkways of the garden. He was nestled at her feet, legs curled up beneath him tail resting upon his foot paws, his muzzle stretched out across her gown covered knees. His mind was filled with sweet bliss, as he adored the way she simply smoothed over the fur between his ears with the back of her fingers. His own paws rested upon the ground at her feet, almost as if he were a beloved dog to the woman. Strangely though, he did not feel as if he were a pet or in the slightest demeaned by her. On the contrary, he felt uplifted.
Even when she spoke and called him that name, Elvmere. At first it had frightened him, especially after he discovered that it was a Sathmoran name, as Sathmore was the centre of the Lothanasi faith. Now, it was the trumpets of heaven sounding to hear her speak, and that name was sounded upon only the golden horns. His joy at being with her now was marred only when she did not speak to him.
And in this dream, she had not said a word yet.
Vinsah did not know quite what to make of that. As he kneeled against her legs, feeling her hand stroke his head fur, he pondered what her silence could mea. In most of his normal dreams, vague images came to him and then disappeared before he could truly grasp them. But when she came to him, it was like he had woken up in a different world, one just as vivid as that which he saw upon awakening. Even so, it was a world filled with perfumes and haze, a haze that filled his mind as well as his nostrils. Thought he Bishop dwelt on what might have led to her silence, he could not bring up enough memory of the real world to discern what it might be.
Several times, Vinsah had thought to ask her why she was so quiet. But each time he turned his muzzle towards her to speak, she would simply place one finger upon his face, trace out the outlines of the procyonid mask he bore, and smile gently. He would then lay his head back down, feeling strangely soothed, though his perplexity was not in the least diminished. He tried to recall if she had ever been silent so long before in his dreams. Strangely enough, he found it easier to remember them than he did the real world, as if his dream state was simply another wakefulness to which he went. But he was fairly certain that she had never remained so quiet before.
He was growing accustomed to the silence in fact when she finally did speak to him. Her voice cut through the stillness of the spectral Keep like the clear ringing of silver bells. It was serene, but melancholy too. And all that she said was his name, “Elvmere.”
The raccoon lifted his head, ears upraised, green eyes fixing his lady firmly. His fore paws lifted up from the ground and he placed them on the bench like a supplicant eager for a blessing. Strangely enough, he found his own tongue then. “My lady? What is it? Is something troubling you?”
But she only smiled, a delicate twist of lips so fine they could have been fashioned from porcelain. “No, Elvmere, there is nothing wrong. But you must be ready for what I have to say to you this night.”
Vinsah nodded, lifting himself up some. His tail brushed over his foot paws, and he tucked them further under his legs so that he might rise as soon as she stood. “I am ready.”
She nodded slightly then, her long hair cascading around her shoulder, fluttering in a sudden gust. “I will show you, Elvmere.” She rose to her feet, gliding across the terrazzo like a sailboat upon water. Vinsah followed her, not watching where he was being led, merely keeping his eyes on her silken frame.
He was only vaguely aware of them passing out of the gardens and coming before a large stone wall. The dimensions of his dream Keep were radically different from the one he knew in the real world. He did not need to look to know that they were at the outer wall surrounding the Keep itself. But his eyes did not stray from his lady, his heart heavy in his chest, wondering what she could possibly have to show him.
And then, she gestured with a smooth turning of her arm towards the gates of Metamor. They stood wide open, revealing an empty lane that stretched on into the trees. The trees themselves were lush, full of green leaves of every hue, stretching out into the distance. The road before him was inviting, though he could see that it was pitted with various size rocks.
Vinsah felt his heart tremble then. The enormity of what stood open before him sunk in quickly. His arms reached out and he clutched at the hem of her gown, green eyes pleading up to her angelic face. “Please do not ask me to leave you, my lady!”
Her hand glided across his muzzle, brushing back his whiskers and fur, neatly allaying the black mask across the otherwise grey muzzle. “I will be here if you need me, my Elvmere. But leave you must. You have a journey to make, and it must begin this day and no later.”
Vinsah tensed, as if tears were about to pour form his green eyes. His clawed paws reached out to grasp at her gown once again. “But I do not wish to go from you.”
Her smile was melancholy. “You have been living in a dream, Elvmere. You know the journey you must make.” She laid a single finger upon his brow. “You know it here already.” With slow deliberate ease, her grace beyond measure, that finger trailed down over his muzzle, neck, and chest until it settled over his heart. “You must feel it here too. You know why it must be done, Elvmere. Do it for my sake also.”
The raccoon trembled as he stood before his lady, her face glowing a brilliant hue, so tender yet so imbued with power. Faintly, he began to nod, his mind filled with silhouettes of places and people, the reasons he had made to leave Metamor when the time finally came. In his dream state, he could not understand them, but he knew they were important nevertheless.
One face was clear though, that of Akabaieth. The murdered Patriarch had been his friend and mentor for many years, a man that Vinsah had been proud to serve and stand beside. Yet the moment he most remembered now in all their years of service together was the very last true conversation they shared. They were riding from Metamor, and Akabaieth had told Vinsah about a dream he had that night. In the dream, his lady has asked the Patriarch to leave Vinsah in her care.
Akabaieth had then laid the choice before Vinsah, continue on with Akabaieth, or return to Metamor where even the Patriarch thought he might be more needed. The Patriarch himself, Akabaieth, his friend and mentor for many years had thought it better for him to be cursed like the Keepers, to become the raccoon that he now was. That blow had been a hard one, a wound that was only now beginning to heal.
Try as Vinsah might to have avoided it, he could not help but wonder whether Akabaieth had been right, and staying at Metamor had been the best thing for him. Vinsah could not help but speculate on how his life might have been different if he had voluntarily stayed at the Keep. Would things have been different if he had willingly embraced the curse, had he taken on that mask his lady had given him with joy instead of fear?
But the power of Akabaieth’s image, his very presence brought one other thing into clear focus. When Akabaieth had told him that he should stay at Metamor, he had been telling Vinsah that they needed to part. He had feared that, hated the very thought of it. But it had come about anyway. Now, his lady was telling him the same thing, that he had to leave her side and venture on the journey that he knew must be made. What other terrors would be brought about by his refusal this time? Would his lady be cruelly slain as Akabaieth was?
He could not imagine how that could be so, but the very thought of it brought forth tears from his eyes. Agonized, his body trembling from the sorrow he only imagined, he pressed his paws to his chest, still nodding to her. “I..” he choked back the sobs that filled his throat. “I will go.”
Vinsah felt her arms encircle him then in a warm embrace. It was of a sort he’d never received from her before, for this was chest to chest, almost motherly in fact. His own arms wound their way about her, his face buried into her chest. “You are brave, Elvmere. You have no reason to fear. As long as you follow in the ways you know, and never back down from that, you shall prosper.”
He did not say anything just then, preferring to simply let her words soothe him like a sweet balm. It took several moments of just being held and comforted by the sound of her voice for the raccoon Bishop to feel his body finally rest at ease. His tail stopped twitching distractedly and lay silent between his legs. His fur softened, laying quietly against his skin. His paws ceased their incessant trembling, and his eyes were dry and clear once more. Then, Vinsah allowed his tongue to move.
“What must I do?”
She pulled back from the embrace then, one of her hands smoothing out the fur of his muzzle once again. He gazed at her adoringly with his green eyes. “You must set out on your journey. You shall travel by foot, taking only enough provisions to last you a few weeks. Do not worry how you shall reach your destination. You will know the lay of your path when it is presented to you. Say what goodbyes you must, Elvmere, but leave ere the stroke of noon.”
Vinsah nodded slowly then, breathing heavily of the sweet garden air. His eyes cast once more to the open gate in his dreams. The road was not clear before him, as it wound quickly amongst the cluttering trees. Into what darkness would he be walking? He had been told not to worry, but could he truly do that?
“If I must first say my goodbyes,” Vinsah began, his voice choking once more, “then let me begin with you my lady. I do not want to leave, but I must. I shall miss you most of all.”
Her smile widened, losing a touch of the sadness that clouded it. “I shall always be here for you, Elvmere. Now go, sleep once more.” She leaned forward then, planting a soft kiss upon the top of his head between his ears. He felt the thrill of perfumes overwhelm his nostrils, a veritable fog that settled all across him, wrapping him completely in its vaporous touch. And peacefully within that fog, the raccoon slept.
“Today?” Father Hough’s voice was strained, his eyes brimming with tears. The boy priest was trembling upon his feet as he looked up at the Bishop, who towered a good two feet over him. It was still early in the morning, but the sun had yet to climb past the eastern mountain range. Hough was dressed in thick leggings and shirt of a nondescript brown. Vinsah half wondered if the boy had not thought to spend time playing with Madog, or the other children that morning.
“Yes, today,” Vinsah said, his own voice sad. It had only been a week since the Equinox Festival and the Easter celebrations. At that Service, Father Hough had told the parish of the Bishop’s intent to journey to Yesulam soon. They had all wished him then a fond farewell, though most at first protested his leaving in the first place. But even so, he had said his farewell to the Followers at Metamor then. Only Hough he felt he needed to see then.
The boy priest looked down to the ground then, crestfallen. “I knew you were going to leave soon. I just woke up each morning hoping that today would not be that day.”
“You knew it could not last forever,” Bishop Vinsah said, as much to the priest as to himself. “I am convinced that I am being guided to leave this day and set out on my journey.”
“But how will you travel looking as you do?” Hough protested, looking up once more, and pointing at the long tail, fur, and muzzle that the Bishop now bore.
Vinsah shook his head a bit, eyes narrowing. “I do not know. I am sure that Eli will guide me and reveal that to me in due time. Until then, I shall travel as I am on my two paws.”
“But I am certain that one of the parishioners will give you a horse to ride if you ask. Won’t that make your trip easier?” Hough bore the spectre of a man wishing and hoping that some miracle might restore a friend he did not want to believe dead to life. “At least let me do that for you, your grace.”
Once more the procyonid Bishop shook his head, tail flitting back and forth in agitation. He had no wish to hurt the boy priest whom he’d gained a warmth for in the last few months. But he could do nothing but what his lady instructed. She had been right. He’d known that he would venture to Yesulam sometime shortly after the Easter celebrations were ended. He’d made up his mind about that after the Questioners had come, and most especially after he’d talked of events back at the Holy City with Father Kehthaek. It was simply his heart that had been keeping him from taking that first step on the road. In the short time that he had lived in that fabled castle the raccoon Bishop had grown to love Metamor and her people.
“I will say this much to you, Father. I received what I believe to be a vision last night, telling me that the time had come. I was also told to travel by foot. How I will manage is to be left up to Eli.”
The boy nodded morosely then, his face sagging once more. He tried to smile, but his lips would not quite work so. But his tongue did find itself, and with the last vestige of his hope remaining upon the words, he said, “Can you at least spend a few more minutes here with me/ We could share a cup of cider...”
Vinsah could not repress the smile that leaped to his muzzle then. His ears perked, face delighted by the prospect. It was quite some time before noon still, and he had few errands left to attend to before he set out. “Yes, I have the time for that, my good friend. Let us share one last cup then.”
Hough nodded, his own smile returning. He turned about and strode over to his hearth, taking a ewer and pouring out its contents into a copper kettle. “It will be just a few minutes before it is warm. Do make yourself comfortable, your grace.”
Vinsah did. As he rested in the soft folds of the chair, he knew that life on the road was much rougher. It would be rare in the coming months, or years perhaps, for him to feel such things as cushions upon his seat. He considered very fixedly how it felt to sit in that seat in Hough’s rooms. It was just one of many sensations he would carry with him on his journey, sensations to bring back when he would need them.
As Hough fussed over the kettle, he smiled. The taste of the young priest’s cider would be yet another. Strangely, he hoped that when he had finished what he set out to do at Yesulam, he would be allowed to return to Metamor. There was too much he had discovered here in the last few months. He hoped that his parting would only be temporary.
“I do not like this one bit, your grace,” Misha Brightleaf said, his muzzle turned up in a scowl. His one good ear was folded back against his head, the red fur on the back of his neck raising slightly. Bishop Vinsah was sitting in the office of the head of the Longs. Behind Misha hung the green banner with the black axe and bow crossed over one another. Upon the desk between them was a map of the Valley. Written all over the map were various scribblings of battles, places to scout, and sightings of things to be wary of.
“I know you don’t, Misha, but that is how it must be,” Vinsah said, spreading his paws out before him in resignation.
Misha placed one claw down on the map, leaning forward in his chair. His grey eyes grew darker, nearly menacing. “I lost the Patriarch because I did not station enough men close enough to where you camped. And now you tell me I must risk the same with you? That is lunacy, and I will not do it again.”
“I do not believe that I was spared in the attack upon the Patriarch merely to die in the same way a few months later.” Vinsah paused then before he continued, his voice betraying very little of his pain. “And I am to travel to Yesulam. That is a long road, especially for one looking as I do.” With one paw he indicated his raccoon form. “Do you not think that I will face far greater danger once I leave the Valley itself, no matter what your scouts may do for me on this first day out?”
The fox almost snarled then, but it was not directed at the Bishop, but merely at circumstances in general. Misha leaned back in his chair slightly, but still he kept his paw pressed against the well-used map. “I think this whole journey of yours is lunacy. What hope do you have of even reaching Yesulam alive?”
“I have little choice in this matter. By staying here at Metamor, I risk a worse fate, as it may alienate Yesulam completely, turning her against Metamor in this time of our need.”
“Our need?” Misha asked, his voice speculative and surprised.
“Yes, our need. I have by my transformation become a Metamorian in flesh. All who see me will recognize me as such, regardless of my rank within the Ecclesia. And in these last few months I have grown to love this castle and its inhabitants, despite the unpleasant weather you are also cursed by.
“And our relations with Yesulam, of which I am inextricably a part, have decidedly worsened since the Patriarch’s assassination. Not only do I have a duty to myself to travel to Yesulam so that my own fate can be decided, but I must also go there so that I can speak on behalf of Metamor. It is my hope that by this journey I will be able to restore the dream that Patriarch Akabaieth had of a peaceful world, or at least set it back upon the road.”
Misha considered those words for several moments, one paw stroking thoughtfully along the length of his narrow vulpine muzzle. “I do not like this, your grace. Not one bit. Do you really feel that this is wise?”
Vinsah’s eye ridge lifted slightly, exposing ore of the green orbs he was cursed to possess as a raccoon morph. “Wise? I do not think any course at this time possesses great wisdom. But I do know that this is the course I must follow. Will you respect my wishes and give me no special protection as I begin this journey?”
The fox was quite disconsolate as he nodded. Then suddenly pulled the raccoon closer and gave him a warm hug. "Take care of yourself. I seem to be losing a lot of friends lately." Vinsah returned the hug gently, both surprised and pleased by the fox’s show of emotion. He wanted to say something wise then to console the Long Scout, but no words came.
Walking through the streets of Metamor, Vinsah carried with him a travelling pack slung across his pack, and a long walking stick fashioned from cedar in one paw. It’s tapping upon the cobblestone streets seemed eerily loud to the bishop, who surveyed the many homes, most of them rebuilt – some that he had helped to rebuild – as he passed. Keepers were up and about, sweeping their steps, running errands, kids playing in the side streets, kicking or throwing patchwork balls, some even hitting each other with wooden staves like warriors. Few seemed to notice the lone walker as he passed, and those that did just smiled and gave a brief wave.
It was far different the last time he had tried to leave Metamor. Throngs had gathered to wish the Patriarch well on his journey. It had been a far greater mass of people, Vinsah recalled, than had shown up for his arrival. Thought Akabaieth had not come to Metamor to create more Followers, he had nevertheless converted many hearts to his message of peace and brotherhood. But now as the Bishop himself left Metamor, there were no crowds, no congregation to wish him well on his journey.
Only a handful even knew he was leaving that day. He’d sent the Duke a letter shortly after he’d risen from slumber, just before he’d gone to see Father Hough in fact. By the time he’d begun packing his things after returning from the Long House, a letter was waiting for him. It had been written by Thalberg, he could tell from the crisp penmanship, but at least the Duke had signed it. He’d penned a few more notes to individuals who’d been particularly supportive of him, including his fellow raccoon Rickkter. But by the time the clock had struck nine, he’d not heard back from any of them. He did not want to wait or delay and longer, and so, he’d slung his pack upon his back and set out.
It was not yet April, though the first Springtime month was only a few short days away. The air was quite still, in contrast to the pleasant breeze he’d felt in his dream, with only a few scattered clouds in the sky above. The sun was just visible over the top of the Eastern mountains, and it warmed the raccoon with its rays. He did try to stay out of the shadows of the buildings, as they were still quite cool. The snows may have melted at Metamor, but the air was not yet warm in the way he would have liked. But at the very least he could no longer see his breath upon it.
As he passed the many homes and shops that lined the streets, he smiled especially at the ones that he’d help rebuild. The roof over the Baker’s shop was looking very sturdy. He remembered the pleasant hours he’d spent atop it with the feline apprentice Brennar as they’d pounded the shingles into place. And as he thought of that, he felt the sweet moistness of the Baker’s bread rolls upon his tongue. Having lived at Yesulam for so many years, he was used to fine breads and other such delicacies. But there was an almost indefinable difference to it here. It was somehow sweeter, though for what reason, the Bishop could not name.
There were many other homes he passed , his walking staff tapping on the stone a constant beat amongst them. He felt he were partaking in some ancient ritual, the tapping the rhythm by which all else proceeded as he walked down the long road to his goal. And none could be there to help him, only watch and wish him luck. Vinsah did not care for that feeling, and shut out such thoughts. Instead, he brought back a memory for each house he passed that he’d helped with. Those brought a smile to his muzzle, for there were so many to consider.
But eventually, even those had to be put aside, as he crossed from the town itself and into the Killing fields, the long stretch of open grassland that led out to the main gates of Metamor. Except along the distant walls themselves, the snow had all melted. The cracks in the cobblestone road were filled with mud and bits of loose grass that had flowed between them with the melt. Vinsah was glad he’d trimmed his toe claws that morning before setting out. He’d much prefer to have the mud upon his leather boots than between his toes.
The fields themselves were filled with markers erected from pieces of wood. Flowers were lain about them, some desicated, others fresh. Even through the winter, the greenhouses were studiously kept, so there were always fresh flowers to be laid out for a lost loved one. The grasses were short and brown, though new green sprouts could be seen pressing up from the damp earth. Vinsah felt as if the whole field were simply lying asleep, a place of disconsolate quiet that could not be disturbed. Even the tapping of his staff seemed muted.
Vinsah felt a sense of relief when he reached the city gates themselves. Several guards stood alongside of them, but the gates themselves were held open during the day to admit travellers. So far, Vinsah had seen none along the road, and now was no different. His pace slowed as he neared that massive aperture. His eyes strayed to the portcullis looming above his head. Should the chain break, it would slam shut, brutally impaling any who were unfortunate to be beneath it at the time. And there was little way that any would be able to lift it again, making it very nearly impossible for anyone inside Metamor to leave.
His heart pounded harder in his chest then, and a slight breeze caught at his tail and ears. The raccoon blinked then, feeling the wind press at his back like a hand guiding him ever on his road. Was he hoping the portcullis would slam into place to keep him trapped at Metamor even longer? Was he, a Bishop of the Ecclesia afraid to leave this strange and magical city now? It was only a few more steps until he passed out of it for the first time since he’d become a raccoon.
The guards all eyed him oddly, as if wondering why he had suddenly slowed to a stop. One of them waved their paw for him to go through. Vinsah still felt that slight breeze at his back, tail pressing into the back of his legs. This was the path he had chosen after all, the Bishop reminded himself. It would be foolish to turn back now. And it was his lady that had asked him to make this journey. A pang of regret filled him at that, but nevertheless, he managed to lift one of his boots, and set it down before him. The other came soon after, and soon, he felt the massive weight of the portcullis and the city gates pass overhead. And then, Vinsah had left Metamor, the walls were behind him, and he could see the vast northern forests climbing up the Valley before him, the winding road down to Euper and the river at the base of the plateau now visible.
Vinsah took a long breath, but his pace never slackened. He’d left Metamor, just as his lady had wished. His heart was filled with regret, his green eyes downcast as he watched the road. The incline was not so steep that he was slipping upon the mud-streaked road, but he was cautious nevertheless. While one paw used the staff to steady himself, the other reached up to his chest, and drew out the yew tree that dangled from his neck, and had dangled for many years. His thick fingers traced across the contours, claws carefully stroking its surface, careful not to scrape any of the wood away.
As he did so, he could feel the bit of quartz tucked within his breast pocket. It was the stone that Murikeer had sculpted for Patriarch Akabaieth while they had talked that day in the library. Magic had gone into its crafting, a thing that had at first frightened the racoon. But the longer he’d spent amongst the Metamorians, the more he learned what Akabaieth had long since realized – magic was but a force in the world, whether it was turned to good or evil was the decision of he who used it.
Vinsah continued on down the road to Euper, paw upon the yew tree, and a smile upon his muzzle. Akabaieth had often said that mankind possessed an insatiable appetite for learning. But how unexpected that learning could be!
It took him perhaps ten minutes to reach the town of Euper. It had been hit much harder than Metamor during the assault. Many of the buildings in fact were still burned out husks, lifeless shells in which ash and dust still lingered. But as in all things, life was creeping back in, he could see several townsfolk at work upon those homes, plastering in beams and shingles here and there, or clearing out the debris that remained. Out by the docks on the river, several fisherman were filling a few baskets to share.
Vinsah did not linger in Euper though, passing along its outskirts, noting several Midland merchants unloading their wares, merchants still afraid to venture within the walls of Metamor herself. He even passed one team of wagons as it was being led into the town, but soon, the road turned around the base of the hill that Metamor sat atop, and Euper was behind him too. Glancing to his left, he saw the walls of Metamor standing tall against the sky, blocking the sun. The chill of shadow filled him, and he huddled his arm closer about his chest. But he did not stop walking.
Nor could he stop looking up at the walls of Metamor. He had never seen them from this vantage point. When the wagons carrying the Patriarch and him had passed, he’d always sat on the wrong side to see this. Above those walls at the southern end, the highest portion of the hill in fact, rose the towers of the castle itself. They glimmered in the sunlight, radiant like pearl. Their shadows were long, sweeping out across the forested valley like fingers. He’d lived the last five months within that castle. It all felt like the sweet incense of a dream now.
He found it hard to wonder what life would have been like had the Patriarch not been murdered. It seemed so much a fabric of reality now, no matter how much he wished otherwise. Would Akabaieth have succeeded in easing the tensions between the faiths and peoples of the world? And would it have even lasted after his death? He wanted to think that it would be so, as he himself was the likeliest candidate to become the next Patriarch after Akabaieth’s death. But the curses had swept that aside too.
Strangely though, as he continued under the shadow of Metamor, he realized now that he had never truly wanted to be Patriarch. It had seemed his destiny, one that he would have performed as best he could, but it had never been something he’d aspired to. Even being the Bishop of Abaef, while a great honour, had been more than he had truly wanted from life. But what was it that he’d desired, he wondered. The answer seemed elusive, and in the dark shade from those silvery pinnacles, he could not find it.
The sun still had not risen beyond the walls of the Keep by the time Vinsah managed to pass beyond its shadow. The road continued to slope ever so slightly downwards. The forest was thinning as he went, and he could see several fields stretching out to the South. The farmlands of Lorland would already be tilled by then, but still the planting would continue. He regretted that he would not be able to watch them grow to harvest, but perhaps in future years he would be able to.
As he came out from behind the massive hill upon which Metamor sat, he could see the slender river meandering down amongst the rolling hills to his left. It stayed mostly to the East, though it would cross the road at several points too in its journey. The river itself was quite deep at this time of the year, though it was still too narrow to admit much commerce. It was mainly used for logging in the northern forests and for fishing. Vinsah had heard from a few braver souls that regardless of the time of year, the water was always very cold for bathing.
The road itself was now just tightly packed earth. Along the centre a hump of grasses and weeds had grown. Vinsah stayed to one side, his staff no longer giving him a drumbeat to measure the time by. All he had to listen to were the soft footfalls of his boots, the singing of birds in the trees, and the faint mechanistic sounds coming down from Metamor. And he would lose the latter soon enough.
In fact, the road ahead dipped between two hills covered in wide oaks. As Vinsah stepped into the turn, he glanced back once, watching as the walls of the Keep disappeared behind the thick trunks atop the knoll. He could not help but wonder when next he would see that jewel of the North.
After another three hours upon the road, Vinsah lost sight of the Keep altogether. Even though the walls were lost to him after that one turn, he could still glance back and see those spires rising up high into the sky. But they grew shorter and less distinct as he travelled south. Even though the sky looked clear, there was a very thin haze obscuring his vision. The towers of Metamor became fainter, the colours muted, muddled, until they were but a bright smear reflecting the sun. And then, as he the road switched back and forth in a run down a sudden defile, he lost sight of them altogether.
The sun had continued its trek across the sky, and kept him warm as he walked. For much of the time he had to shield his eyes though with one paw, as it was directly before him for a good deal of his journey. As a raccoon, his eyes were more sensitive to the light he’d found. In the darkness of the night, he could see quite well, something he’d found useful from time to time. But now he found it just one more burden to bear.
In fact, it had been so long since he’d had to travel anywhere by foot, that he’d forgotten how many things there were to discomfort one. Several times he’d had to shift the pack on his back about as it had grown heavy on one shoulder or the other. His paw pads were also sore from the way the staff shifted about over them. And his legs were already feeling a stiffness creep into them that he had not felt in many years. Though he’d known physical weariness because of his age, he had not intimately known the weariness that came through exertion in a very long time.
That he’d spent much of the past three months helping to rebuild homes at Metamor had built up his muscles and calluses, so it was not as bad as it could have been. But even so, he decided that he’d become far too accustomed to cushioned carriages and soft beds. Travelling the road by foot gave one a greater appreciation for life itself. At times he had wandered the gardens of Metamor and Yesulam, simply strolling through their demesnes to observe all the beauty contained therein. He had even walked through the city simply to see it. But this was completely different, for he was walking to reach a place, not just to admire the trees, hills and mountains – though he did that as well.
But it was only the rigours of the body that plagued him. His training as a priest of the Ecclesia had involved keeping one’s mind active when little else could be done. He sung hymns to himself, whistling their tune upon the air. When he had exhausted his supply of them, he went instead to reciting the various liturgies, at least ones that he felt were appropriate for a man journeying upon the road.
He deliberately kept himself from pondering how he would make his way south of the valley where Metamorians were not trusted. He would leave that to Eli to decide. If he dwelled on such affairs, Vinsah knew it would only make him worry and lose hope. Though he had fallen in love with the many wonders that Metamor possessed, he still wished to behold the city of his former life once again. There were splendours at Yesulam that could be contained nowhere else. And he wished to light candle at the great cathedral of Yesulam in honour of Patriarch Akabaieth.
Even as his recitation of the litanies continued, that thought broke through and made him smile. A great light had been lit for the Patriarch, his funeral pyre in fact had been a roaring flame upon the empty sea, exactly the way he wished to be buried. What had been the name that Akabaieth had possessed at birth, that Whalish name? Apadares? Yes, that was it. And even after becoming Patriarch, he’d still wished he’d been a sailor! Though Vinsah had never wanted specifically to rise to his lofty position within the Ecclesia, he nevertheless wished to serve as a priest. Akabaieth had not wanted even that. How remarkable, Vinsah marvelled.
And then, he felt the weight of his pack sitting a bit too heavily upon his left shoulder, and took a moment to reposition it again. He still smiled though, thinking about his one-time master.
Several times along his journey he would stop and rest for several minutes, rubbing his paws across his legs to soothe the aching muscles. As he was about to do so again, he saw that the sun was nearing the western horizon, dipping down towards the high peaks of the Dragon mountains that loomed to his right. And so, Vinsah found at last a small cove within the shelter of close leaning trees in which he could rest for the night. With a great sigh, he slipped free his pack, stretching out his shoulders in merciful relief.
At first, Vinsah simply sat there nestled within the crook of several tree roots between which rainfall had washed out the earth. But after a few minutes of rest, he rose to gather some kindling, and struck a fire. Vinsah was not used to starting fires out in the wild, and so it took him some time. But eventually the thin branches caught the flame, and with slow breaths, he nursed the tiny fire into a modest blaze.
He’d brought along a prepared meal for his first night, and removed it from his pack. It was a bit of sliced and slated meat nestled within a small loaf of bread. Sniffing at the meat, he could tell it was still good. He nestle din by the fire, said a quick blessing over his meal, and then ravenously devoured it. Vinsah was licking the bits of meat from his claws only a few moments later.
The ache of a long day travel filled him though, and so the Bishop took out his bed roll and spread it out in the nook between the tree roots. There he curled up beneath the woolen blankets, staring into the flame. He briefly gave thought to writing within his small journal, but as he flexed his fingers, he found them too cramped from clutching his walking staff. He’d simply have to wait until the morning for that. But he did recite the usual prayers he always spoke before sleep, and with his eyes still fixed upon the gently curling flame, he let himself drift into sleep.
Vinsah did not sleep much that first night out from Metamor. The tree root about him kept poking into his side, causing him to turn and roll about. He found it painfully difficult to get even slightly comfortable. At each new turn, he’d trade one discomfort for another. If not the tree root, then it would be a small stone wedged into his side. Several times he’d reached beneath him, found the offending pebble, and chucked it into the forest, where he’d hear it bounce of several trees before settling once more to the ground. One time, he’d hit the nearby tree by mistake, and it had careened back and nearly struck him in the chest. After that, he simply tossed them to one side.
Having travelled upon the road, the sounds of the animals out at night did not bother him nearly as much, but there was still something far more real to their cries than when he’d travelled by wagon. There were no soldiers to protect him now should any beast happen upon him and wish to take his food. All he had to keep them at bay was his meagre fire, a blaze that dimmed as the night wore on and the stars overhead turned in the sky. Several times, his heart would beat a little faster as he would hear the forlorn cry of a wolf howling somewhere in the dark. Each crash and rustle of tree branches would cause his breath to freeze within his chest and ice to lance up his spine.
So, in what little sleep he did manage, Vinsah did not dream much. When morning finally came, and light crept back into the world, the shadows stretching across the ground and him, he could not recall if his lady had come to him that night. He did not feel the sense of peace that came to him mornings after a visit from her. All that he felt was a heavy stiffness in all of his joints. The fire was merely a pile of ashes that smouldered in the morning dew. Vinsah was wet and tired.
Nor did he write in his journal that morning. He ate only a small piece of bread to break his fast, but then, gathered what few things he’d taken out that night, and placed them back in his pack. After offering a prayer to Yahshua that his journey that day would be easier going, he slipped the pack once more upon his back, gripped the cedar staff in his paw, and set out on the road once more.
His journey that day was much like the day before. As the sun rose in the sky, it warmed him, and before noon, his cloak was dry once more. But he still held one paw to his eyes on many occasions. His legs and paws were stiff, but he did not find it too difficult to keep walking. In fact, Vinsah discovered that the soreness he felt was best relieved by simply keeping on his foot paws, and going forward. Rarely had he heard that the cause of a malady could also be its cure, and ruminations of this sort amused him for a time. But soon his mind wandered back to the litanies and to the world about him.
The thickest forests of the valley were mostly held in the North, while towards the South more farmlands began to appear, as well as fields where the trees had been cut down for lumber. Vinsah saw no fresh stumps, but a few he saw along the road, holes bored within where squirrels or other small critters had made a home. The thickest stretches of forest followed along the river’s course naturally, but even in some places they had been thinned by farmers and lumberjacks.
Twice as he walked that road on his second day did he pass forks. Sign posts were erected at each, arrows with carefully crafted words fashioned into each. The signs were made from wood, and so grime had obscured some of the writing, but he found the roads to the Iron Mines and to Lorland, the latter a fresh sign with little in the way of degradation. He had hear that until recently it had been named something else, but the noble who had ruled there had become a traitor and was killed.
Thinking about some of the intrigue at Metamor in the past few years occupied his mind for a time. There were many currents that he could never hope to sift through, especially not having been present for much of it. But he had heard the talk from many, Rickkter, Misha, Hough being the most prominent of the tale tellers. But he was leaving all of that behind him again. And so, as the sun began to dip near the western mountains once more, he pushed such thoughts from his mind and began to look for a place to camp.
After a short while walking, he found a large copse of trees along a gurgling stream that wove its way across the valley floor like an aimless drunk. Standing empirically over the copse was a huge, ancient maple tree that was just putting on the first green of spring. The smaller trees that surrounded it were of a different species, and had put on a brilliant pink wardrobe of budding blossoms. With a gasp of relief, he slipped the heavy pack from his back and let it and his walking staff rest against the trunk. He took a moment to stretch, his entire body shifting slightly as bones popped and fell into their proper places once more. Surveying the afternoon shadows, he saw that the ground was dry, and that several branches littered the ground a little bit further into the swath of trees.
Vinsah remembered how it had taken him some time even after he’d collected enough sticks and pieces of log to light a fire the night before. He found that he was improving with practice, but he still occasionally missed and gave his knuckles a bruising. So after he’d framed them with a ring of small stones, he tossed a few dry leaves he’d found in amongst the kindling so that it would catch easier. They sizzled and smoked a little, but otherwise burned crisply. The sun had reached the tips of one of the mountain summit’s by the time he’d gotten the fire burning warmly.
At first he simply held his paws out before it, flexing his fingers, feeling the warmth fill them, working the stiffness free. Then, he began to open his pack and unroll his things. This had been his first full day upon the road, and he needed to remind himself what he had brought along. There was a bedroll of course that he laid out between the tree and the fire, but it was not very thick, just tightly woven wool that he could lay curled upon, and pull tightly over his frame to ward off the chill.
He also had food, though scarce little of it, for She had bade him to travel lightly. Why, he was not given to know, and had not asked. Ruminating upon that as he looked at the small collection of edibles, he wondered if his idea of traveling light was the same as Her own, for it seemed to him that his provisions would not see him even to the nearest town south of Metamor. For his food he had also packed a single small skillet so that he might enjoy a hot meal on his travels, rather than gnawing on cold dried meat and journey bread. Otherwise, there was only a second change of clothes, a cutting knife, two forks, a plate and bowl, his flint, prayer beads, his copy of the Canticles, a small journal with ink and quill, and two wineskins both filled with water. Not a great deal my some standards, but after only a few hours on the road they had seemed to gain thrice their weight, and that had increased the longer he travelled.
And he had only been on the road two days. He hoped fervently, and offered heartfelt prayers to Eli, that he might grow used to the burden swiftly, lest the unknown length of his pilgrimage wear him to a nub before he ever reached his destination.
Cutting a slice of dried meat, he laid that in the small skillet, along with a bit of onion and butter. He cut a narrow wedge of cheese as well, but this he set between his teeth. After wrapping his provisions back up and stuffing them in his pack once more, he began to distractedly chew the sharp cheese as he held the skillet in one paw over the crackling fire. The butter melted after several moments, as he stirred the bit of meat and onion around with his fork. It took some time, but the skillet began to warm in his paw, and the meat began to sizzle.
Once satisfied with the colour of the meat, Vinsah tilted the skillet over his plate, and slid the meat and onions out. He set the still hot skillet upside-down on a small bed of rocks he’d arranged. The butter grease dripped and soaked into the ground. He’d have to wash it clean before he slept. The river was within sight though, just a short walk from where he made camp.
Sitting cross-legged, his tail tucked around one paw, he said a prayer thanking Yahshua for this bounty, made the sign of the tree, and then pulled the plate into his lap. Vinsah ate slowly, listening mostly to the evening song of the birds, and the occasional rustling in the woods nearby. He’d not given himself much to eat, as he had little notion of when he’d next be able to buy food. He had no skills in hunting, so could not forage for what he needed along the way, and he had little in the way of money. He’d taken what he had, but that had never amounted to much. Part of being a priest after all meant giving up worldly possessions.
After he’d finished his meal, Vinsah took plate, fork, knife, and skillet along with a bit of cloth down to river bed. The bank was quite steep, but he found a place where a defile had left a level place good for kneeling, and the rocks along the shore were stable enough that he did not fear falling into the bone-chilling cold of the water. There was little way he could avoid smudging his trousers, and so simply did not worry about it. If he were to travel the road, some of the road was going to travel with him as well.
It did not take long to finish washing his dishes. After he returned to his camp, he removed his boots and then spent a good bit of time simply holding his paws out to the fire to warm them. The water of the river had indeed been very cold. His paws had been trembling so terribly that he’d nearly dropped the skillet into the water completely at one point. But he managed to clean his belongings without taking an unwanted bath as well, dried them off with the cloth, and placed them back into his pack where they would remain until the morning.
It was while he was warming his paws in fact that he began to hear the soft murmuring of voices coming down the road. His ears perked then, as they sounded fairly close. He had seen only one other traveller on his trip down from Metamor. That had been a merchant leading several carts full of cloth and wool towards the Keep. He’d stepped from the road respectfully as they passed, but the humans had paid him scant attention. So, it was with more than a little eager curiosity that he wondered who might these twilight wanderers be.
At first, he could not make out what the approaching travelers were saying, and he could not see them, for his camp was a short distance from the road, over a small abutment, and in the hollow of the stream, lost among the trees of the copse. Despite those obstacles, he could still hear, if not well, and thus he could tell that there were at least two people. He heard no other voices, merely horses, likely the steeds or drays of the unseen travelers. There was something oddly familiar in the way they enunciated, but he could not discern it at first. It was only after he began to make out what they were saying did he understand the reason for the slight northern clip to the intonation of their words. They were Metamorians, or if not from Metamor herself, from the same general geographic area. He was not, after all, terribly far from the Keep. He was not even sure yet if he had passed beyond the influence of the curse.
Startled, he realized that they had left the road, for their voices were growing more distinct, the crash of their horses pushing through the copse sent a lance of momentary fear into his breast. They had seen the glow of his fire, and were coming to investigate! For a moment he chided himself on his carelessness, for there was scant safety on the road. There never had been, even in days of peace. With the growing tension between the Lightbringer kingdoms and their Follower neighbors, it was doubly hazardous to be camped alone along the roadside.
He forced a modicum of calm over himself, however, for he was not far from Metamor, and the Patrol, as well as the Scouts, were vigilant in their efforts to keep the land safe from bandits. As he steeled himself and pushed his fear into abeyance Vinsah leaned closer to the warmth of the fire to place a few more sticks upon. He did not let it get too large, but it still burned a warm orange, the flames dancing several inches in height. The voices grew silent shortly thereafter, but the crunch of feet and hooves still filled the copse, drawing closer. His first thought was that they were Long scouts coming to keep an eye on him, but he dismissed that. Misha Brightleaf was far too honorable to go back on his word. They were most likely merchants from the local baronies, those few that were still loyal to Thomas’ reign, returning to their homes. Whoever it was, he would invite them to share his fire for the night. That was the hospitable and Follower thing to do.
As they stepped into the light of the fire, Vinsah drew himself to his paws, “Greetings.” He said smoothly, clasping his hands before his breast and offering a slight bow. Both appeared human, one a head taller than his more broad companion, and both lead horses behind them. The shorter, more broad shouldered of the two had an eyepatch over his left eye, which immediately brought Vinsah to think of the young skunk mage Murikeer, whom he had last seen curled in a miserable ball on a cold, windswept balcony not three weeks prior. Of course, he had not seen the skunk since, having been rebuffed of his attempts to help.
The skunk had been wracked with some great agony, a pain which Vinsah had tried to touch, using the gifts that Eli granted him, but had found, to his surprise and some fear, that he could not. Even as the thoughts of the skunk traced through his mind, he felt he could see that selfsame young mage standing there before him, thinly veiled by a strange illumination that left him with the guise of a human youth near his twentieth year. Vinsah blinked at that, chasing the strange illusion away with a brief shake of his head. Two days on the road, and was he already seeing things? The two humans glanced at each other for a moment, then back to the raccoon.
“Hail, good traveller, we spied your campfire from the road not a half league back, and came upon the boon idea that a traveller such as ourselves might be willing to share the warmth of his fire.” The taller of the pair, a foppish, gaily dressed man, intoned with a regal sweep of one arm as he bowed. Vinsah immediately realized that he was a bard, a travelling minstrel, and not a Metamorian at all.
The other man let out a quiet chuff from his nose and shook his head as he also addressed the raccoon, though the manner of his greeting was quite different, and took the priest back quite sharply. “Bishop Vinsah, I had not expected that we might find you, of all those of Metamor, here, on the roadside, camping in the cold.” He said levelly as he glanced around the small campsite.
Blinking, Vinsah cocked his head, one ear folding back in surprise as he was addressed by his name, for he was not dressed in the manner of a priest, and there were a very small number of individuals, even within Metamor, that knew him by sight. “Sir?” he asked querulously, furry eye ridges lifting in surprise, “I do not believe we have had the pleasure of meeting?”
The young man smiled, “Indeed, your grace, we have. Many times, both before you were what you are now, and since.” Turning, the man draped the reins of his horse over a nearby branch, “You did me a service a touch over a fortnight past.” At his side the other man let out a laugh, clapping his smaller companion on the shoulder, which caused the lad’s horse to start, jerking its head back with a snort.
“Come on, lad, he has no idea whom he is talking to.” The older man said with the same smooth, aristocratic air that he had earlier directed toward Vinsah.
“Indeed, good sir, I do not.” Vinsah concurred, looking back and forth between the two with some bemusement. There was something familiar in the manner of the younger of the two, the one who bore the eyepatch, and it bothered the raccoon that he could not identify what that was.
“Good, then,” The younger man said with a nod. Turning, he walked between the two horses and began worrying at the straps of the small, high mounted saddle on the animal’s back. “My magic is working. Shake his hand, Malger.” He said as he drew the saddle from his mount and carried it toward Vinsah’s small camp, setting it down opposite where the priest’s own possessions were laid out.
Watching him, Vinsah thrust out his paw as the taller man proffered his hand, distractedly shaking the bard’s paw.
With a startled gasp Vinsah snatched his paw back and turned on the taller human, who merely regarded him with a bright smile and a mischievous gleam in his piercing blue eyes. Vinsah looked at his paw, then at the human’s hand, which was still held out toward him. It looked like a hand, but when he had grasped it he had felt a paw. Complete with fur, pads, and claws where they pricked the back of his hand during the greeting.
“Touch is the only aspect I have not been able to master, as yet, your grace.” The younger man said as he stood near his horse, removing the animal’s bit and reins. “Malger and I are, like you, on a journey, though I don’t know what yours is.”
“My son, please, forgive an old man his addled mind, but who are you?” Vinsah hazarded as he wiped his hand upon the front of his shirt, swallowing as he tried to force the fur of his hackles to lie flat once more. The incongruity of his statement was not lost on the older man, who looked at the youthful raccoon with even wider mirth. Vinsah looked only a few years older than his companion after all.
“Murikeer Khunnas, your grace.” The youth replied as he lifted his saddle bags from his mount, leaving the animal with naught but its bridle. “And the bard is Malger Sutt.”
“Whom you met under a different guise, your grace.” Malger replied as he, too, began unsaddling his mount. Unlike Murikeer’s horse, his was heavily laden with instrument cases. “I played at the banquet which was offered in the Patriarch’s honour, known then as Dream.”
Vinsah was very surprised by this revelation, but it seemed reasonable. He knew that the skunk was a mage, whose talents tended toward aspects of earth, but who also dabbled in magics which fooled the eye; illusions and deceptions. He had seen the trap that Murikeer had fashioned for Rickkter barely a month ago, and he had heard it described how Murikeer, one of the very few animal morphs that ventured from Metamor to attend Akabaieth's funeral, had used the magic of illusion to bring Akabaieth’s funeral pyre alive for the Keepers. “You played beautifully, which I remember well.” Vinsah said with some bemusement as he studied the two humans. His gaze tried to pierce the illusion that the skunk had crafted, his eyes denied the truth that he knew should lie under that magical mask. Had he seen through it before when they’d first climbed the hill, or had that simply been his imagination?
Illusions, Murikeer claimed, which masked their animal natures in all ways except to the sense of touch. Magic was indeed, at times, a truly blessed thing, he thought as he watched the two settle themselves, still quite human in appearance. Saddles provided backrests as they unrolled their own bedrolls. “As I said earlier, your grace, I did not expect to find you here, of all places.” Muri said, waving an arm at the darkness surrounding their little ring of firelight.
“Nor I you, Master Khunnas.” Vinsah replied as he settled down once more, tucking his tail around his legs, letting the lush fur keep his unshod paws warm, “Please, call me Vinsah. You shall tire your tongue if you keep saying ‘Bishop’ and ‘your grace’ every time you address me.”
“Murikeer,” The young human replied with a smile, glancing up from digging through one of his saddlebags, “I had meant to thank you for what you did on that balcony, but I could not seem to cross paths with you in the last three weeks.”
“And I would simply be Malger, but you can call me anything you find appropriate,” The older human said as he stretched with a popping of joints. A strange symbol, one which Vinsah felt was indicative of the bard’s faith, dangled from around the man’s neck, but the priest could not identify to which of the Lightbringer gods it referred.
“I am sorry I could not have done more, Murikeer,” Vinsah admitted as the young man spitted a piece of meat on a long, slender metal skewer and held it toward the fire. How much he had changed in those weeks, Vinsah thought. There was a bit of the carefree youth he’d known in him when he’d first met him, and less of the brooding darkness he’d seen at the Inn and on that balcony.
The youth merely shrugged. “Your touch did more than you may think,” He said with a nod, then reached up to his neck with his free hand, clutching a nondescript looking medallion which hung at his breast. Ducking his head, he drew it up and off, and suddenly Vinsah found himself looking at the more familiar black and white furred individual he had crossed paths with in the past. Across from him, Malger followed the skunk’s lead and drew off a similar pendant from around his neck, and suddenly was a tall, slender morph that was a third human, and mostly pine marten.
“Remarkable,” was all that the Bishop could find to say as he stared at the more familiar animal forms. Strangely, he felt more comfortable to see them this way. Six months ago he would have been very uneasy to be surrounded by creatures such as they and now he. Now, it was a comfort to have more of his own ilk, even if they were of a different faith, sharing his campfire that evening.
“So,” Malger said, leaning back against his saddle, legs crossed before him. “What brings you out of Metamor so far by yourself?”
Vinsah nodded, stretching his fingers before the fire. It was beginning to dim though, and so he shoved a few more pieces of kindling upon it. The skunk offered a slight smile, a twitch of whiskers and muzzle which Vinsah would have been unable to read only a half a year previously, as he turned the skewer about in his paws, cooking the bits of meat from every side. “I am journeying to Yesulam.”
Murikeer’s one eye widened in surprise, and a bit of alarm at that. “Yesulam?” He momentarily forgot the skewer, and simply held it tight within his paw. “By yourself? You will never reach that place alive.”
“And even if you did,” Malger said, his own voice level, though thoughtful, “what would you hope to accomplish by going there?”
Shadows crept further along the dell, sliding stealthily across the earth as the sun began to dip behind the wall of mountain peaks in the west. Vinsah pulled himself a bit closer to the fire, tail more tightly wrapping about his legs. “Though I am no longer the Bishop of Abaef as I was before I came to Metamor, I am still a Bishop of the Ecclesia. That much at least was true at the time the Questioners were sent. I have a duty as the only member of the cloth to survive the attack to report both what happened then, and since then regarding the Patriarch’s assassination.”
His voice grew a bit quieter then, as he stretched his toe claws out and into the thick fur of his tail. “I also have a duty to let myself be judged for my actions there, so that my place within the Ecclesia might be resolved. I am a Bishop with no flock to tend, no affairs to oversee. These are all responsibilities I have, and to fulfill them, I must be in Yesulam.”
Murikeer frowned. “Did they tell you that you had to come?”
Although the skunk had not said who they were, from the unpleasant tone in his voice, and the glitter of pain that lurked behind his one eye, Vinsah knew he spoke of the Questioners. “I knew before they came that I had a duty to perform. I had thought to leave during the summer when the roads were most open, but the arrival of the Questioners only made the journey more urgent.”
“But did they tell you that you had to go to Yesulam?” Murikeer said, even as he continued to turn the skewer over the licking flames. The meat he was cooking was beginning to brown nicely.
“Yes, they did, which is why I am making that journey now.”
All three sat in a bit of silence for a moment. Malger rose to his foot paws and went about the camp collecting more firewood, but his ears were turned to them. Murikeer took a small nibble from the meat to see if it was cooked. He grimaced, spat out the fleck, and then held the skewer over the fire once more. To one side, the horses continued to crop the grass, tails lazily swishing behind them, content to remain where their riders camped.
“Tell me, Muri,” Vinsah said , finding his voice once more. “Where will your journey take you?” he asked, changing the subject for the moment, hoping to ward off some of the dread gloom that had come across their little group during the conversation.
“Deep into Sathmore, to find my father.” He adjusted the dark patch of soft leather over his ruined eye and turned the spit slowly over the fire, the orange flicker gleaming from his dark eye. “And to heal this, a task which only time will out.” he said after a moment, touching the patch once more.
“And this?” Vinsah suggested, pointing at his chest where his heart beat.
The skunk's one eye lifted slightly, but he nodded. “Aye that, which is the more grievous wound indeed.”
“Your father does not live at Metamor?" he continued, though gently, seeing a strange pensiveness come over the skunk.
Murikeer looked oddly at him across the fire as he swallowed the mouthful of food, “My father does not live, anywhere. He was struck down by a bandit's arrow six years ago,” the skunk replied with a slight shrug. “Those whom he was with at the time did not know the proper rituals to put his soul at rest, so I must return and find where he lies, and return him to his birthplace,” he explained as he shuffled through his saddlebag with one hand and produced a large loaf of what looked like relatively fresh bread. “He needs to lie alongside his love, my mother, whom I never knew.”
Before Vinsah could say or ask more Malger returned and deposited the firewood he’d collected upon the ground a short distance from the fire. He eyed the Bishop speculatively. “And I travel with my friend. I am more familiar with life on the road than he and I know the way in which the finest rooms at the Inn can be won, even if one has no gold to pay for them.” the marten offered, interjecting his own change of subject without having heard the exchange between skunk and raccoon.
“You area minstrel,” Vinsah pointed out.
“Aye, and that is why gold be not a worry, my goodly priest. I am a minstrel, and it has been many years since I have been able to wander so freely and ply my trade the way I wish.” He picked up the strange necklace he word with one claw, hoisting it for a moment from the ground. “The work of my friend here has made that possible once again, for which I am grateful.” Folding his legs, the marten hunkered down next to the fire and added a large slab of wood to the crackling blaze. For a moment the fire was banked, stifled by the added mass, but it quickly began to chew into the new fuel, growing larger than had been a short time before. “And yon handsome youth there is a mage, whose most simple talents can earn one a pretty coin as well.”
Vinsah smiled then, feeling some of the soreness and stiffness in his joints finally begin to relax. Perhaps he would even be able to sleep comfortably that night. The ground did not feel nearly so rough where he sat. “That is quite a marvel. But how will you keep others from accidentally touching you and discovering your secret?”
Malger smiled then, his ears upraised. “Oh, we shall do our best. ‘Tis not so hard to be untouched after all. A bard’s trade is to make merry with song and music after all. We will not need to be touched,” he said in a singsong ascent of vocal notes, but the priest detected something of a lament within the minstrel's song as well, though the reason of it was beyond him.
Murikeer tested the meat again, and this time was satisfied. He slid half of the pieces from the skewer onto a small plate and handed it to the bard. The rest he began to nibble upon directly off the skewer. Malger ate one morsel, and then smiled to the raccoon. “I imagine that you would find your own journey possible were you to have an illusion such as the ones that Muri and I possess. Perhaps if you would care to wait, Muri could even fashion one for you.”
The skunk glanced at his friend oddly. He did not appear to mind being volunteered for such a duty, but he did seem surprised that Malger did so. “Yes,” Murikeer said, after swallowing his last bite, “I could fashion an illusion for you, your grace, as I am most certain it would aid your journey.” He used a rag to wipe down the skewer, then set it aside as he took a bite from his portion of the bread, “But it would only work with your acquiescence, and I would need a personal item very close to you personally to affix the magic upon, as I do not have the proper material item prepared.” He touched the amulet which he had tucked in the breast pocket of his vest. “I used mithril for the two I created at the keep, but it takes nearly a week to prepare such materials, as they were never bonded to our persons.”
Vinsah considered the offer. A few months ago, he would have turned him down without question. But now, after living in the company of magic and how it could be used to benefit others, he was not certain. Yet, he still felt uncertain. And what would the Council of Bishops say if they discovered it? “I do not know. It seems like a wise idea, but I fear I would be betraying something important.” He could find nothing in what his lady had told him to guide him in that decision either. Was this one of the opportunities that he had to embrace, or was this a test of his devotion to his faith?
“What could you be betraying? Ho could you properly fulfill your duty if you cannot even reach Yesulam alive?” Malger argued.
It was a valid point, Vinsah had to admit to himself. Though some strange uncertainty lingered, he pondered whether it was just the last remnants of his long held antipathy to magic. He could not remember any particular instruction from his lady regarding such charms, only that she had counselled to follow in the paths he knew to be right. Vinsah’s heart fluttered, beating a bit more firmly in his chest. He wished that he could present this conundrum to her so that she might tell him what to do. That would be easiest.
But it would also be the action of a child, waiting for permission from his parents first before acting. Though he had lost half his physical years in the change of the curse, he was still a man. Part raccoon, but still fully a man in his mind and heart. Though he had put his trust in Eli and his lady, that did not mean that he should give up all decisions to them. At some point, he needed to be able to make some himself.
“All that you say is true, Malger,” Vinsah began, his voice slow, gaining speed as it went. “This is not an easy decision for me to make. I as of yet have no direction regarding such magical devices. One meant to hide my form would indeed be very useful, and make many aspects of my journey easier. But it could complicate matters towards the end, because magic is something still not seen in a favourable light in Yesulam.”
The marten appeared to roll his eyes at that. Murikeer frowned as well, pausing in his meal. “The Patriarch was open enough with me about it.”
Vinsah nodded. “Yes, he was. But not all in the Ecclesia are like the Patriarch. I was not open to it at first myself. I am now, and were this a journey to any other place, I would gladly and immediately accept the offer of your charm.” Even as he spoke thus, he knew that it was completely true.
The skunk remained silent for a moment, dark eye casting downwards towards the pleasantly crackling fire. The night air had begun to cool already, the shadows having stretched long and into the violet of twilight. Stars were beginning to appear in the sky, and the last rays of the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. Night was falling upon them and would be there shortly. The moon would not rise for many hours yet though.
“Sometimes,” it was Malger speaking. One of his paws was stroking along the necklace he had set aside, the one which bore the symbol of his faith. Vinsah narrowed his eyes as he gazed at it, but still could not discern its origin or meaning. “Sometimes we must be willing to be seen by others for who and what we are. Other times, we must keep that a secret. And sometimes we must be willing to let the unwise judgement of others come upon us, for good or for ill.”
Malger then lifted his paw and poked a claw towards the Bishop’s chest from across the fire. “Let yourself be judged for who you are, not who you want them to think you are. You have said that you would accept the offer were it anywhere else. But you fear what the Bishops might think of you should you accept.”
The marten’s finger still jabbed at his chest, and he could feel the claw press against his jerkin, even though it never came within a foot of him. “What you say is true. I do fear the judgement of the Bishop’s Council. They are already unhappy with the assassination, I fear how much more unhappy they might be should I bring magic within Yesulam. But as in all things, I must do what I think is right. Give me time to settle this question within my mind, to pray, and to let the answer come.”
Murikeer nodded, even as Malger settled back on his haunches. The skunk had by then finished his meal, and set the metal skewer aside upon the pile of rocks. He took several more pieces of kindling and laid them out upon the fire where they quickly caught the flame. “I have been thinking through this time about one other question. How do you intend to reach Yesulam? By what path?”
Vinsah sighed slightly, more from his own uncertainty than any distaste for the question. “That is not something I have decided. I remain confidant that such will be revealed to me in good time, but I had no particular plans once I reached the mouth of the Valley. Misha suggested to me I head to Marigund so that his sister might help me make the rest of the journey, but I have heard little favourable to a man of the cloth in Marigund.” The raccoon shrugged then. “I simply don’t know yet.”
“Perhaps,” Murikeer began, keeping his eye upon the Bishop, though it was a friendly gaze, “if you do accept the offer of a charm to hide your form, you would consider accompanying us on our journey. We will be heading towards the southern reaches of Sathmore, and once we reach there, you could hire passage upon a boat down the Marilyth river. That would take you to Yesulam if I remember my geography correctly.”
“Very near, yes,” Vinsah said, nodding slightly. The thought of having companions along on his journey was a comforting one, but they wanted to head into Sathmore, a land dominated completely by the Lightbringers. And then there was his lady’s instructions to consider as well. Hadn’t she told him he must travel alone? He could not remember for certain.
“But,” he added after a moment’s pause, “how would I, a Bishop of the Ecclesia, be able to walk openly through Sathmore?”
“With the charm of course,” Malger said, stretching out his legs. His toe claws stretched apart towards the fire, and then he pulled them back beneath him. “Murikeer and I planned on posing as a bard and his apprentice. I see no reason why I cannot take on two. Further, you are not the only one who will be walking openly into a land that may be hostile to your faith.”
Vinsah cocked his head to the side at that, ears perked. “What do you mean by that?”
Malger lifted his necklace, lacing his fingers through the chain and gently caressing the symbol it held. “Do you see this my venerable coon? This represents my fealty to her, to Nocturna. Most would consider me Moranasi, follower of the dark gods, though few understand that the term they give refers truly only to those faithful to Ba'al. They would strike me down for giving honour and worship to one of the Daedra. Unlike the others, Nocturna is not evil, yet nor is she good. She is simply the bringer of dreams.”
Vinsah started at that, nearly jumping to his hind paws in fact in his effort to move back from the marten. Both Murikeer and Malger looked very surprised at this reaction. “Bringer of Dreams?” Vinsah said, his voice choking as he tried to restrain himself. Could that be who his lady was, the Lightbringer mistress of the night? The fear that filled him with that very thought was quite unpleasant. He prayed fervently inside that it was not so.
“Yes, what is wrong, your grace?” Malger asked, leaning forward slightly, letting the necklace fall down at his breast once more.
Vinsah shook his head, closing his eyes, paws balled into fists on either side of his muzzle. “Leave me be,” he said, shutting his eyes tight. He tried top bring forth the image of his black-haired lady, wished to see her gossamer silver gown, scintillating in the moonlight. He wished to ask her if that was who she was, to see if he had not been cleverly deceived this many months.
Yet for all his fear, there was a nagging memory lurking at the back of his mind that seemed to well up to him in that time. There had been another dream, long ago, that had featured not a woman, but a strange mysterious man. What had that been? It was so nebulous, as if it wished to remain at the edge of his mind. And amidst a flurry of prayers to Eli and Yahshua, it had little chance to become the focus of his attention.
Still, the more Vinsah prayed, the more that single memory, that moment amongst a sea of dreams, came into focus before him. There had been a man, urging him to trust her, and to rely upon her. His presence had been earth shattering, as if a touch could have split the very sun into two. Yet for all that, it was in silence that this one time visitor had come, a silence so still and empty that nothing else could have been.
Vinsah’s breathing began to return to normal, and he felt himself settling back down before the fire. The litany of prayers within his mind had been staunched by some unseen hand, his mind clear and serene now. He felt his paws resting upon either knee, claws holding his cloak over those legs. His tail curled up around him once more, and his toe claws pressed into the thick fur.
And when he opened his eyes, he saw both Murikeer and Malger staring at him wide-eyed, their muzzles agape in mute fascination. He smiled to both of them, wishing them to know that all was well once more, even if he did not understand why. This simply made their shock greater.
“Are you well, your grace?” Murikeer finally asked, his voice curious.
Vinsah nodded once at that. “Yes. Thank you, Muri.”
“What happened?” Malger asked, his own voice quiet, subdued by the fall of night as if it were a weight bearing them down.
“I do not know,” the priest admitted. “Something said shocked me terribly, and then, it was gone.” He glanced up at the sky, dark and filling with stars. Night was upon them at last. “It is late, and the road will be long, no matter which road we choose. I am tired, and I have much to think about. I thank you for the offers you have made for me. I will try to have answers for you both by the morning. Should I journey with you, I will naturally want a charm for my own to hide my form. But I must still consider this offer.” Vinsah demurred, his voice bearing a slight churr.
Murikeer nodded after a moment, his composure slower to return than Malger’s had been. “Sleep well, Vinsah. I shall keep the first watch.”
“And I the second,” Malger said. The marten stood and moved his saddle further from the fire, laying out his bedroll where the saddle had been.
Vinsah nodded to them both, and crept inside his bedroll, already prepared. He pulled the cloth over his form, resting his head against his paws, having no pillow. Strangely, unlike his first night, he had no trouble in sleeping. The crackling of the fire lulled him into that sweet embrace.