Out From Metamor

by Charles Matthias

Sometime in the early afternoon, Murikeer climbed down from his rock and, staggering weakly back to their small camp collapsed upon his bedroll. The youth lay there for at least an hour, huddled tightly within the blankets, one eye closed tight, saying nothing. His back was to the fire, paws bunched up over his chest. He refused any assistance from either Malger or Vinsah, though he’d had to wave off the raccoon far more than the marten.

While Murikeer rested, Malger took Vinsah out for a walk through the woods surrounding the camp, giving the Bishop a chance to keep his legs in good shape for the travelling ahead. Much of the time they said little to each other, but for a short while Malger regaled him with a short tale that he’d heard in his days at Metamor. The Bishop could not later recall what it had been about, but he did remember enjoying it and laughing several times during its course.

After they returned to their camp, they found that Murikeer was sitting up with his blanket wrapped tightly about him, holding out his paws before him towards the fire. It’s orange glint sparkled in his one eye as he turned his head up to meet them. “Where have you been?”

Malger waved his paws over his head, gesturing at the trees about. “Why we’ve been wandering lost in these ancient woods, my good mephit. Were it not for this beacon fire, we’d be quite lost by now in its expanse!”

Murikeer gave his friend a sceptical frown, at which point Vinsah let out a slight laugh. “We were wandering, it is true. But we always kept the road or the fire in sight. How are you feeling, Muri?”

“Better,” He reached out and stirred the fire with one stick. He withdrew it quickly again so that it would not catch flame too. His one eye cast over them quickly. “I see you did not bring back a meal.”

Malger feigned indignation. “And you would refuse the best trail rations that I could prepare for you?”

“For a good bit of rabbit, yes!” the skunk growled, stabbing the fire with his stick, though there was a glint of humor in his good eye.

Letting out a barking laugh, Malger sat cross-legged before the fire, leaning back once more against his saddle. “Tomorrow I shall bring you a fine rabbit master mage. But first,” he waggled a single finger in the skunk’s direction, though a flick of his eye indicated that this was meant for Vinsah too, “you must earn your rabbit with your playing.”

Murikeer shook his head. “I can fetch my own rabbits you knave. Perhaps you should play for me so that I will bring one back for you as well!”

But the bard simply continued to smile, turning to his side and drawing out a single drum, passing it over towards the skunk. “When we are in the Midlands and Sathmore, our food will be won by good music. You will not find it as easy to capture rabbits the way we must travel.” He handed a second drum to the Bishop, who took it in reluctant but resigned paws. “And you will have scant time to learn if you do not keep practising.”

It was dusk by the time Malger called a halt to their musical practice for the day. With the ever darkening sky overhead, the marten prepared the meal while Muri and Vinsah rubbed some life back into their sore paws and muzzles. They were each in their own way delighted to hear that on the morrow Malger intended to test their singing voices, as it would give the rest of their bodies a chance to recover.

Dinner consisted of a few cooked pieces of meat and a little wine to wash it down. They shared a bit of onion as well, but that was all for their bellies. Once done, the three leaned back, simply sharing the warmth of the fire, each lost in their own thoughts. The skunk, after a few moments of silence, single eye regarding the burning fire between them, lifted his paws, palms up, fingers curled as if he held something light and delicate. Whispers of light then grew between his careful crafting fingers, growing and swirling around as he traced them through the air.

Vinsah’s eyes widened as he watched this in some surprise. The strange light began to coalesce after a moment into several shimmering orbs. With these orbs, Murikeer began to play, marking an intricate weave in the air, a dance of ghostly vapours. Yet there was no trace of pain in his visage as he demonstrated his skill in the magical arts for them all. Malger too watched in quiet delight, though his eyes strayed toward the Bishop after a moment.

Malger smiled across at the priest as Muri toyed with that handful of scintillating, shimmering spheres of naught but light. “You know, your pensive uneasiness about magic really is not necessary.”

“Hmm?” Vinsah asked, turning his attention to the bard, “My uneasiness about magic?”

“Yes. You've never admitted that you trust it, and whenever Muri offers some bit or other of magic, you always try to escape it.”

Vinsah merely shrugged. The observation unsettled him in that he knew it was true. “The Canticles, in many places, speak expressly against the use of magic.”

The martens furry eye-ridges raised slightly as he regarded the raccoon bishop, “Magic, truly? Where do the Canticles state that magic is forbidden, in such words?”

Frowning, the bishop cocked his head slightly, “The word magic is mentioned not in the Canticles,” he said after a few moments of thought. “Sorcery is, and sorcery is magic. In many places the Canticles expressly speak against the use of sorcery.”

Malger nodded, his smile growing more broad, “Indeed they do. Sorcery, which is a common translation of the Henad ‘sorsaasran’. Do you know the definition of that word, in Henad?”

Brow furrowing, Vinsah looked oddly at the bard, who rested his chin in one paw and regarded the priest with a strange look of superiority. “Sorassran refers to those who grow, harvest, and produce herbal unguents and potions which give the user strange vision and sometimes cause them to do odd and inexplicable things,” the raccoon offered after a moment of thought. “Roughly.”

“Quite close to the truth, you’re very right. Sora refers to the Sorinan plant, which, when boiled into a tea induces hallucinations. S'saran is one who sells such potions, a Sorcerer. Not a magician, as you can understand. The derivative for our definition of Sorcerer, which followed the latest translation of the Canticles by nearly four centuries, comes from the Dyrmaen language, which does mean magician, which was later adopted to Sieulman prior to the birth of Yahshua and the spreading of the Word beyond the holy land,” the bard explained gently as he watched the skunk entertain. Murikeer remained engrossed with his balls of spectral light, giving scant heed to anything his audience said. “So you see, in contemporary layspeak, Sorcerer has come to be understood as ‘mage’, while the last true translation of the Canticles meant nothing of the sort. It has been adopted, because the two words are the same, to mean that His word speaks directly against those who practice magic, but not against those who brew hallucinogenic potions.”

Vinsah’s eyebrows arched at that, for he knew little of the Dyrmae, which were a nomadic peoples who had settled much of what was now the southern Sathmoran and Pyralian kingdoms long before those two kingdoms came about. As a peoples they had been absorbed into the growing city-peoples spreading up from the far south and outward from the holy land almost a century after the birth, death, and resurrection of Yahshua. Much of their language had been incorporated and blended into the modern common tongue, while the root of the Ecclesiastic language had remained Henad for many centuries, then translated into Gaelas, then Moldaran, and finally into the more widely known common trade tongue. He felt his jaw hanging and closed it with a click of teeth.

“You are quite well read’” he said after several moments of silence.

“I am a bard,” Malger laughed, clapping Vinsah on the shoulder, “I have to know many languages.” Standing, he leaned over and smiled as he hissed in the priest’s ear. “I was also raised a Follower for my first nineteen years. My destiny was the Church,” he whispered as he tapped his thigh with the end of his flute, the pendant of his unnamed faith swinging in front of Vinsah’s face even as the bard admitted to having once been a Follower himself.

“So you are telling me that several hundred years of Ecclesia teaching have been incorrect merely because of a confusion between connotation and denotation? Between common meaning and original intent?” Vinsah asked after the marten had returned to his seat by the fire.

Malger nodded, his smile still broad. “Yes, it is as you say. A sad turn of events, to think of all those persecuted because of a misunderstanding.” He said slowly as he leaned back against his saddle, the firelight casting his muzzle in stark shadows and glistening brown fur. Colored glints chased across his eyes, casting them in a brief cat-like glow as the skunk’s ethereal lights danced around their small camp. “Originally the error may have been unintentional, as the translation and the derivative usage were centuries apart, but it has since been promulgated by the church to extend its influence and exercise its power over those within its sphere.” The marten’s voice went flat and distant, dark and foreboding as he stared into the fire, heedless of the dancing lights. “Porthas élan tu nobalise parha, gul nan Ecclasas destinon.” He quoted smoothly, a saying which concerned the political ambitions of the Church for centuries. Eminent destiny, for the church to exercise nobility over those lands within its influence. “Tu lafad nan tu nobalise élan.” He continued, the bastardized version of the quote trailing so smoothly they may have been one in the same; the noble right, to exercise their aims and desires without recourse to the peasantry who suffer their, and for their, excesses.

Vinsah scowled suddenly, pulling his knees up to his chest, turning his eyes to the fire. Somehow, he felt as if he had been slapped by the bard, although he felt no physical sting. Nevertheless, his very mind had been invaded by those unwelcome thoughts, that soothsaying that made him wonder how much of what he thought he knew to be firm was truly quicksand beneath his paws.

As if sensing his thoughts, Malger leaned over and patted Vinsah once more on the shoulder. “One of the first things I learned in Sathmore was this proverb: ‘Speak truth gently, for it wounds more deeply than any blade.’ I do not mean to hurt you by telling you this...”

“Say no more,” Vinsah said, holding up one paw to forestall any further consolation. “I know of that proverb as well, though in a different way. But I am now saddled with yet another burden. A single man may hear a truth and though pained, he will grow from it. How does one tell an entire people a truth they do not wish to hear?”

Malger leaned back against his saddle, opening his mouth to speak, but it was not his voice that sounded. Both of them turned their attention back to the skunk. Murikeer was still moving those globes of light along his paws, but now his attention was fixed upon his companions. “Was not Patriarch Akabaieth on a mission of a similar sort? Did he not set out to speak a truth that did not wish to be heard?”

None of them spoke for several moments then, each listening to the crackle of the fire. Malger shoved another log on, and it sparkled in crisp brilliance. Murikeer continued to weave his dance of light in the air, although his focus seemed less clear, and so too were the globes, their light flickering as if it were a candle nearly snuffed trying to hold on to its meagre life.

Vinsah surprised himself by speaking though. His voice rang out across the camp, though it was silenced by the close leaning trees before it could escape into the rest of the night. “There is one thing I have never understood, Muri. Why did you speak to Akabaieth as you did? Why did you talk so openly with the head of the faith that is in many ways the enemy of your own? And why did you challenge him with your words, as you challenge me with your gifts?”

“Why?” Murikeer asked, blinking then in surprise. His one eye seemed lost in memories unbidden. “I do not remember exactly. I suppose I felt that he was genuine in his questions. There was something strangely calming about his presence that I have never felt in another. As if all would be well if he could turn his thoughts upon it. I do not quite know. He asked, and it would seem a shame not to tell him all that I knew or thought.” He shrugged at last, dispelling the globes of light at the same time. “I can say no more than that, for it is all that I know.”

“It is strange,” Vinsah said after a moment’s pause. One finger was trailing along the end of his snout, stroking across the short fur. “Perhaps what you said was not meant for him but for I? Mayhap what was said was meant to prepare me for what Eli had in store for me now, or even at some later date. I do not know. And perhaps I am reading too much into a single conversation.”

“This world,” Malger said, rubbing his paws together before the fire, “is a strange one filled with many wonders, and many mysteries. I once heard this described by my mentor at the Lothanasi temple I first visited. He said that all of creation is a vast tapestry that hangs fromthe vault of heaven. On one side, the pattern of all creation is clear and yields a picture so beautiful and grand our minds could not hope to contain it all. But we, as long as we live upon this world, before we enter the embrace of our gods, can only see this amazing work from the backside, where all the threads are tied off. We can see part of the picture, but it is distorted, and the connections between threads are often hard if not impossible to follow.”

He spread his paws out in a shrug then. “I do not know what you may glean from that, but I suppose what I am trying to say is that some things we are not meant to understand this side of the tapestry. If we are not meant to know it, then are we not wasting our time by endlessly questing after that knowledge? Knowledge that we will gain later anyway?”

“But how are we to know what knowledge we must seek out, and that which we cannot know?” Vinsah asked. In all his years he had never heard creation described as a tapestry, a work of stitchery. But the image was clear, and he could see that it would be clear to all as well. It was such a simple way of understanding things that he could not help but wonder why it had never come to him before.

“For that question,” Malger said with a shrug, “none have any answers.”

And with that thought said, they each remained in quiet contemplation until the pale haft of moon shone in the night sky at last, beckoning them each to slumber.

The second full day camped there near the mouth of the valley was spent much as the first had. During the morning hours until noon Murikeer kept himself cloistered upon a rock in deep meditation. True to his word, Malger fetched a rabbit from the wild for their midday meal. And after they had all dined on a pleasant meal, the bard began to instruct both raccoon and skunk in the art of song.

Vinsah did not feel sore at all that morning, a feeling he relished into late afternoon, at which point his throat ached from singing poisonous notes into the air. At least the way that Malger winced at each new note he thought his voice must be atrocious. It sounded decent to his ears, but he was a priest, not a musician. Yet he had sung within the choir back in Yesulam for many years. Perhaps the change in his body had done some damage to his singing as well.

But by the day’s end, Malger seemed confidant that he had found a good voice somewhere buried in the Bishop’s throat. For that the raccoon was grateful, as he was certain that any more searching of his throat would have left him completely without voice for a week. Murikeer had not performed nearly as well in the marten’s estimation, but Vinsah thought that the three of them together had managed some good harmony at times.

After they’d finished their evening meal and Murikeer and Malger each drifted off into their own thoughts, Vinsah excused himself from the camp and began to walk out into the nearby clearing. The sky above was overcast, though a few bare patches let the stars and moon shine through. In the dark of night, the field was merely a series of silhouettes, dark lines carved out of even darker shadows marking trees from mountains.

Vinsah made his way into the centre of the field, the slight illumination from the fire at his back. He let his gaze rise up to the moon high above, and watched as it slowly slipped behind a bank of clouds, its bright illumination vanishing and casting the valley into even darker shadows. But at the same time, a portion of the area kept lit. Vinsah blinked as he could see a faint glow emanating from a shroud of trees a good distance away and on the other side of the road. Unlike the globes that had danced with Murikeer’s paws, these lights simply hung in the air, as if they were forgotten candles left burning by another traveller.

Vinsah stared at the strange shimmering for several moments, until the emergence of the moon from the clouds overpowered it’s faint illumination. But the raccoon merely continued to wait where he stood, staring perplexed at that phantom piece of forest. And when the moon disappeared once more, those ghostly lights began to glimmer once again. They stayed where they had been before, suspended in the air like fishing lures.

“Murikeer! Malger!” Vinsah called out in a loud voice then, his throat seemingly cleared at last. There was a bit of alarm in his voice, and both his companions rushed to his side as they heard it. Neither did Vinsah have to tell them anything, for when they reached his side, they too could see the strange lights illuminating the distant woods.

“What is this?” Malger said aloud, his own voice bearing a trace of unease, holding one of his sheathed swords in his hand, its tassels black in the darkness.

Yet, Murikeer only patted them both on the backs. “Put your minds at ease, both of you. Those witchlights are my own, though I had forgotten about them in all this time,” he said, peering off into the distance with a frown on his muzzle, his tail bushed thick and drawn up close against his back.

The marten appeared to give his friend a cross look, but in the darkness of the night, Vinsah could not be sure. “Your witchlights? Do tell when you put these up to give weary travellers a stir!”

Murikeer turned his focus towards Vinsah. Although there was very little light to see the skunk by, Vinsah’s own improved night vision as a raccoon let him see the melancholy in his companion’s expression. “This is the plain where the Patriarch’s party was slain, where you very nearly were as well, your grace,” he said at length, quietly, as he cast his gaze across the grassy expanse which showed little of the destruction that had been left in the wake of the chaos bestirred by the lone actions of a single, powerful enemy. “I was one of the first to arrive, and I created a host of magical lights to illuminate the scene so that we might battle your foes, but there were none to be found,” he added with a sigh, turning his back on the field, as if he could still see the destruction and death as clearly as he had the night it happened, “Come the dawn I released the magic which bound them, and they faded.” He glanced back over his shoulder, toward the distant treeline, “All save one, which is a work of my magic, but no longer a magic I can command. It remains, it lingers, over the spot where your ancient and wise master fell, Vinsah.”

The revelation that Vinsah had through some bizarre turn of fate found his way back to the same site that had brought about the most terrible events he’d witnessed in his life brought the Bishop to his knees. Surprised, Murikeer caught the stricken raccoon with his paws, and helped him back to his foot paws. “Are you all right, Vinsah?” Murikeer asked, his voice now filled with regret. Whether it was regret in telling Vinsah the truth about the clearing, or regret about the clearing itself, Vinsah could not tell.

Vinsah nodded after several moments, his eyes shut tightly. One paw wrapped itself about the yew tree that hung from his neck. How had he not noticed it before? Well, he’d stayed mostly within the trees, and it had been quite some time ago. Back then, the leaves were yellow, red, or brown. And it had been raining that day as well. Vinsah surely could forgive himself for not recognizing it given all that had changed since then.

“I need to lie down,” he said then, not even giving those strange spectral lights another glance. His mind was a swirl of thoughts, and just then, he could not hold onto any of them long enough to consider them. He was dimly aware of Murikeer nodding, and of Malger coming along to his other side, pulling his free arm over his shoulder. Together, the three of them returned to camp, with Vinsah’s foot paws only barely touching the ground.

And then he was laying within the warm confines of his bedroll, staring dazedly into the warm blaze. In those dancing flames he saw once again that man in black’s face standing at his tent, thrusting his hands forward and crushing the Bishop’s chest. He saw the blurred face of Kashin, one of his arms completely severed, standing over him asking him what he should do. And then, he saw that small room in Healer Coe’s quarters, in which he’d discovered that his fate had already been sealed, and he bore the mask that his lady had given him.

Vinsah hoped as he lay there that she would visit him in his dreams that night. With the leaping flames before him, the raccoon Bishop slowly let his eyes close, the murmured words of his two companions a pleasant ostinato further lulling him into slumber.

“I’ll need your pendant today.”

Vinsah lifted his head in some surprise from the small roll of bread he’d been nibbling. He’d manage to worry quite a crater within its round fire warmed surface, but he still could not tell just how it had tasted. Was it soft and warm, or hard and plain? The priest was not sure, as he was not sure yet if he cared what it was or how it tasted. It was flavourless to him and sat within his stomach like so many stones.

He was sitting upon haunches, only the tips of his foot paws touching the ground. His long striped tail curled around those feet to protect them from the cool air of the dawn. The sky was still overcast, though it bore no hint of storm to come. The air was still, and the blossoms hung limply from the branches like a thousand strands of woven thread.

“Your pendant?” Murikeer asked again, waving one paw before the distracted raccoon’s muzzle. “I’ll need your pendant today to complete the casting.”

Vinsah nodded distractedly, setting the morsel of bread between his teeth – it was soft bread, he noted – and then carefully lifted the yew tree from about his neck. His paws curling around the slender chain that held it, he offered his tree to the mage.

The skunk cradled it gently in his paws, offering the priest a wan smile. “Are you all right, Vinsah?”

He nodded slowly. “It just hit me rather hard last night is all,” Vinsah said after plucking the bread from his teeth. “I had not expected to come back to this spot, even by chance.” His eyes trailed out towards the field where he’d seen the glowing witchlight. Malger was out there now leading the horses, giving them a bit of exercise that day. They would be travelling again the next morn after all. It would not do to allow their muscles to stiffen.

“It will be done today then?” Vinsah asked, gesturing with one claw towards the yew pendant held gingerly within the skunk’s paws.

Murikeer nodded. “Shortly after noon I should think.”

“How will I, that is, what will I look like when I put that on?”

“However you would see yourself as a human. Most likely you will appear as you did in your youth.”

“My first youth, when I was first entering the priesthood you mean,” Vinsah said, pulling off a bit of the bread and popping it into his mouth. He chewed briefly and then swallowed the soft lump. “I will definitely appear as a foreigner in Sathmore then.”

But the skunk simply shrugged his shoulders, paws closing over the pendant. “Well, a travelling bard is often a foreigner. You will garner no further notice from that I suspect.” He smiled strangely then and hefted what he held in his paws a moment. “This will garner the strange glances more than anything else.” The skunk stood from his crouch slightly and, half turning, paused to look back, “As well your name, which is quite uncommon even in Pyralis. You may wish to use another name, at least until you reach Yesulam proper,” he advised gently as he carefully piled the chain atop the tree in his palm, closing his paw over the bundle.

“Yes,” Vinsah glanced across the field once more then. He couldn’t see where Malger was, but he did see one of the horses grazing. “I would like to be alone with my thoughts now, Muri.” He had no strength to argue, nor intent to consider what another name might mean just then. His gaze returned to the skunk after a moment’s silence. “Thank you for what you are doing on my behalf.” At this, he tried to smile, but there was still pain lingering there in his muzzle.

Muri nodded, offering a smile in return, before walking off towards his rock to continue his incantations. Vinsah sat in silence and finished the remainder of his bread. For several minutes afterwards, he simply remained upon his haunches, leaning towards the fire, ears turned down to shut out the sounds of the horses. He still could not collect his thoughts, his mind a jumble of images that had begun plaguing him the night before.

He thought briefly to write in his journal, but the feeling died when he reached for the book. What could he write after all? There was no calm to be found in his swirling thoughts. Nor had he been given any surcease last night in his dreams. She had not come to him, leaving him to wonder if she could even follow him this far from Metamor.

But she’d come this far twice before now. Once to warn him to put the place underneath his shirt, and the second time to assure him his path lay with Murikeer. But why had she not come to him to give him comfort as he stood upon ground that had seen so much blood? Why could she not come now and assure him that this field of death would not haunt him the rest of his days?

With a sigh, he fell back against his bedroll, nearly landing upon his tail, and rested his head in his paws. All he could see was that terrible black clad man’s face silhouetted in the tent entrance.

At some point, Vinsah forced himself to rise form his bedroll. The sun was high in the sky, shining through several layers of clouds to cast the field in warm illumination. The bending blades of grass shone brightly in that light as a shimmering knoll of green and gold like the puffy folds of a king’s royal doublet. A slight breeze played over that grass and across the flame that still burned in their firepit, a flame that had not gone out for three days now. He felt it across his face, turning his fur this way and that.

To one side he saw that Malger had returned to their camp beneath the towering maple’s sheltering branches. Sitting upon his saddlebags, he studiously cleaned the mud and dirt out from the horses’ hooves with a small pick. The horses for their part continued to crop the grass, ears turning slightly at the desultory whim of the wind. Under his breath he whistled a simple tune that seemed to twist ever upon itself, like a dog chasing its own tail.

But Murikeer still perched upon that flat tableaux at one edge of the field. Vinsah nodded once to the marten who only dully regarded the priest’s presence. He did not feel any rebuff however, for his own thoughts were as distracted as the bard’s. Instead, he slipped his boots over his foot paws, and then stepped out from the sheltering branches of the maple. Standing unprotected in the wind, it rustling both through the fur on his face and upon his tail, lifting the latter and holding it aloft like a knight’s streamer, he watched the skunk upon the rock.

Surrounding Murikeer were several runes he’d inscribed upon the rock, the same as the previous two days. And he sat then much as he had before, long tail laying across the back of the stone, one eye closed in concentration, legs crossed before him. But this time, his wrists did not rest upon his knees, but were within his lap, palms still turned upwards, cradling the yew tree within them. As far as Vinsah could see, nothing was happening yet. But would he even see anything if there was?

There were so many things to consider, so much that he learned in just the past few days alone that his head swam with the possibility. What the bard had told him of the translations of the Canticles still upset him. Perhaps the Ecclesia was completely wrong on the matter of magic. No infallible declaration had ever been made regarding it after all. The interpretation of the Canticles had never truly been challenged, so no such ruling was necessary. But how many souls had been persecuted over the centuries because of it? And why was Vinsah still discommoded by witnessing magic practised with such devotion as done by Murikeer?

No longer able to look at the spectacle of Murikeer’s art, Vinsah turned his muzzle back towards the open field, his boots leading him deeper within it. That field itself portended foul thoughts as well, for it was upon that field that he and the rest of the Patriarch’s entourage had made camp nearly six months ago. Almost every single one of them had been killed that night, and by a single man. But none of the blows was harsher than Akabaieth’s own death. The man he’d admired and looked to for leadership for so many years had been snatched away from him in that one night.

His muzzle became suddenly chill in the wind. Lifting one paw up to feel at his face, he found tears streaming down either side of his snout. In the moment that he touched them, he felt the grief overwhelm him, bringing him once more to his knees. His chest heaved, letting out a painful sob as the tears continued to stream forth. He pressed his muzzle within his paws as he rested his forehead against the grass. Claws dug at the flesh beneath the mask of fur, but all that came from him was tears. His sobbing was choked, throat clenched tight, heart feeling trapped within the confines of his chest.

Vinsah did not recover quickly either. For a long time he laid there crouched like a penitent servant before his lord, tail curled up between his legs, the tip brushing against his face as well. The tears stopped flowing after only a few minutes though, but the sobs continued, his body shivering and contorting in his agony. That black clad man was standing before him once again, terrible grin etched upon his demonic face.

Eventually, the image faded, and the raccoon priest began to calm once more. His sobs became merely heavy breaths, his clenches paws relaxing against his face. His flesh no longer trembled, but moved only with the rise and fall of his breath. Yet, it was not until he heard a soft melody begin to wind its way across the field that he lifted his head to look about himself. Malger had finished his work upon the horses and ha taken out his dulcimer once more, striking a forlorn tune upon the strings.

Vinsah had his ears turned to listen for a few moments, but then, the agony of his sorrow past, he pulled himself up to his feet, staring at the field around him. A strange thought occurred to him then as he looked at the ground where he stood, and the lay of the trees about. “I slept here,” he said quietly to himself.

With a strange sense of dispassionate surprise, Vinsah surveyed the ground, walking along particular lines until he was satisfied by the boot prints he left behind. “This was my tent. I slept there.” He pointed to the spot where he’d crushed the grass during his sobs. Somehow, he’d come to the very spot that he’d been injured, forcing him to open himself to the curse of Metamor. And it was upon that very spot that the current course of his life had begun.

Vinsah sat back down there, rubbing his paws over the grass, watching as the green fronds danced between dark-furred fingers. He knew his life had changed drastically in that moment, had accepted it in fact. Now he had to face that and more. How many unpleasant truths would he see in his journey he wondered. Not five days into his journey and he’d seen more than he wished to recount.

And as he sat there, stroking the grass, another one came back into his mind, one that he knew had to be resolved and quickly. Murikeer had told him that he would need a different name, for ‘Vinsah’ was of obvious Yesulam origin. But as when he had first explored Metamor in his current form, only one other name could come to his mind, ‘Elvmere’.

In his dreams he knew that he felt comforted by the Sathmoran name. But even so, while awake, he did not wish to think of it. He shuddered as he remembered the time he’d signed that Sathmoran name to a letter to Father Hough instead of his own. There could be no denying the wisdom of the skunk’s words, but his only choice was from a land dominated by a faith that stood in direct conflict with his own. How could he accept a Sathmoran name, a name of the Lothanasi?

With a disconsolate sigh, he pulled lightly at the grass. How could he pick another name that wasn’t ‘Elvmere’? Every time he tried to come up with a name to call himself aside from his own, that was the name that teetered on the tip of his tongue. It loomed so large within his mind that no other name could come forth. In those brief moments he could not even think of the names of his friends and associates. It was as if he were standing before a wide abyss, all else fallen within.

Perhaps, Vinsah thought with a sudden surge of hope, he could ask Malger or Murikeer to devise a suitable name for him. After all, they knew the land and the people’s better than he, and they would know a name that would not attract attention. Surely they would not have ‘Elvmere’ upon their muzzles as well.

The more the Bishop considered that, the more he liked the idea. It was simple, and it easily kept him from having to consider that which his lady called him. One of his travelling companions would name him for their journey through Sathmore, but once he was out of that country, he could reclaim his given name for his return to Yesulam. While something nagged him, a wisp of thought that he were straining grains of sand too finely, he had no wish to grant that thought place to germinate.

And in Vinsah’s reluctance to grant that thought any quarter, another more disturbing one came to him fully, as if the first had merely been a feint. What sort of name would those two conceive? Would they not just grant him a Sathmoran name as well, as it was into that country that they would venture? Surely a Pyralian name would be looked upon with suspicion as well, given tensions that existed then. What else could he honestly expect to receive?

Sighing heavily, Vinsah yanked the grass from the ground. It came easily, clutched tightly in his paws. The gentle tune of Malger’s dulcimer still sung low along the field. And Murikeer still perched upon the rock, fashioning a disguise for Vinsah to aid him in his journey. The face would still be his own, just one that he’d not worn in thirty or forty years. A face was only one part of a man though – the name was what truly gave him identity. For it coloured every aspect of their being. And there was something about ‘Elvmere’ that eluded his understanding, something immense and unknown.

But what could he do to avoid it? It stood in his path like a fantastic monolith reaching to the sky above, and to the horizon on either side. To ask Murikeer and Malger to provide him a name would be to follow a road not his own, one perhaps that led right back into the monolith of ‘Elvmere’.

Strangely, as he sat there considering the name as he did now that monolith, he began to wonder if the road he was on was truly the road to Yesulam. And if so, would he need to take the name ‘Elvmere’ to even get to Yesulam? This last thought unsettled him so much that his claws dug into the grass in his paws, and into his palms themselves. He dropped the grass from his right paw, and lifted that to his muzzle, breathing into it tightly, licking at the callused pads he now bore. A bitter taste filled him, and his green eyes opened wide. He could smell it as well, a thick odour that made his heart quicken. Glancing at his paw he could se four pinpricks out of which blood began to well.

Turning and looking at his other paw he saw the same. Grimacing, for he felt only the mildest sting of pain, he pressed both paws together tightly to staunch any further flow. But the blood only began to press out and stain the dark fur around his palms. After nearly a minute in which the blood had begun to drip upon the ground, spreading across the earth where so much blood had already been shed, Vinsah wondered if it would ever stop.

He was about to rise and walk back to camp to bandage his wounds, when he began to ponder the blood spilled already. Had he bled upon this field on that fateful night? His chest had been caved in by the pie plate, and a large number of his ribs had been broken, a wound healed both by Coe and by the curses themselves. But had he bled like the rest of the Patriarch’s entourage?

The answer shocked him then, and kept him sitting upon the ground where he’d made his tent, palms dripping with his own life. For while he’d been grievously wounded, he felt certain that he had not shed any blood that calamitous night. His expression grave, he opened his paws, and then pressed with the flat pad of his fingertips at his palms, squeezing more blood from his wounds. He moved his paws before him in circles over the ground, making sure that every bit of earth had been covered.

“Eli, please receive this blood I shed as blood shed or your servant Akabaieth,” he intoned, his voice quiet, tough it sounded as loud and sudden to him as a raging thunderstorm across the desert. With his bloody paws, he made the sign of the yew over his chest and over the ground to sanctify it. He then kissed both paws once more, and the earth that he stained. Leaning back up, he licked the blood that had stained his muzzle, trying to dislodge the viscous fluid from his fur. Its taste was not so bitter to him then.

With calm assurance then, Vinsah walked slowly back to camp, his boots seeming only to touch the grass and not the ground beneath it. He found Malger there nestled close to the fire playing his dulcimer, slender mallets striking the strings with deft ease. The marten did not regard him too closely at first, not until the raccoon began to tie strips of cloth about his paws. The bard’s eyes grew wide as he saw the blood still staining the Bishop’s snout.

“What happened, your grace?” Malger asked, pausing in his music.

Vinsah glanced down at the paws he’d bandaged. A smile crept over his muzzle then as he settled back upon his bedroll. “I wept,” he said, closing those paws over the linens he’d bound to them.

Malger stared at his quietly for a few moments, eyes studying him intently, before he nodded and returned back to his dulcimer, playing a melody filled with silently-breathed joy.

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