“TEW!” The feline sneezed violently.
“Do you need anything?” Stealth asked, covering his muzzle.
The paladin took air in haggard breaths as he trembled under the sheets, “More wood...”
Stealth turned to the hearth and quickly threw more logs onto the fire. Edmund’s quarters were already quite toasty, Stealth didn’t mind though Bridgette showed signs of discomfort. As she panted, the maned wolf helped Edmund with his chamber pot. Not that he felt the call but he couldn’t let his muzzle stray far from the pot for fear that he’d make a mess on the bed with the chicken soup that Bridgette fed him earlier.
The door suddenly opened and revealed a troubled fox.
“How is he?” Misha asked from the door, his arms and legs spread out as if he were about to bolt off somewhere.
“Misha close the door!” Stealth ordered sharply.
“Oh! Sorry.” He slammed the door shut behind him.
“Misha! Gently, no loud noises!!!” The feline lectured.
“Oops!” The vulpine’s ears folded and his eyes widened, a look Caroline was long familiar with.
Edmund coughed into the chamber pot, his chest compressed itself to squeeze out every last drop of fluid from his system, crushing his lungs and leaving him struggling for breath. Bridgette whimpered and rubbed his back. She could feel his heart beating rapidly and as a cheetah Ed already had a rapid heart beat...
“This is not good.” Misha mumbled under his breath. “The old man will be here within the hour.”
“Old man?” Stealth asked, “His father?”
“No, an important noble from the south is heading to the keep to negotiate a treaty for trade, something to do with Starven and some other places in the north.” Misha whispered as Edmund retched and heaved for breath, “He wants to meet Edmund.”
“What?” Stealth asked surprised, “What does Ed have to do with trade routes?”
“The old man knows about Edmund. He’s a devout follower and he’s heard of the ‘great paladin who sacrificed his humanity’ to help lost souls.”
“Oh.” Stealth said softly, “What if we get him up and about, you know – some fresh air. Can we fix him something from Pascal?”
“No!” Bridgette said sharply, her muzzle turning the same direction as her erect ear, “Edmund is sick. He’s staying here so I can look after him.”
Stealth nodded with his mouth agape, the feline turned his head down in shame.
“What will happen if I do not attend?” Edmund asked in a faint voice.
Misha shrugged, “He’s quite old and he travelled here... I think someone might have mentioned a meeting with you to secure these talks.”
“Just how important are these talks?” Stealth asked as Edmund began another coughing fit.
Misha took a deep breath, “Let’s just say we’re in a bad way right now. The keep needs friends and resources bad.”
“And we can’t bring him in here.” Stealth added, “If he’s old and he gets sick it could kill him.”
“How did he get sick?” Misha suddenly asked.
Stealth gritted his teeth, “A swine coughed several times directly in his face!”
“Ah... some repugnant person, eh?”
Stealth blinked, “No, Misha, a pig. He caught this flu from some swine.”
Edmund finally began to rest, for the time being his body was free of torment and he was exhausted. Bridgette applied a wet hand towel to his forehead and licked him gently on the cheek, resting her head near his.
Misha turned from the ill knight to the courier and pulled him in close, “how well do you know Ed?” He asked in a whisper.
“What do you mean?” Stealth whispered softly.
“I mean how well do you know Edmund as a person, how familiar are you with his... mannerisms...?”
Stealth blinked and then gasped, “Misha... that will never work!” He said in a harsh, soft voice.
“Why not? It’s not like this person has ever met Ed, also he’s old, he can be convinced and there’ll be several people supporting you ready to bail you out.”
Stealth bared his fangs at the fox, “I-cannot-pass-for-a-PALADIN!”
The vulpine’s gray, slit eyes bore into the feline, “You can. You are the ONLY one who can...”
The cheetah dragged the fox out of the room and closed the door behind him, when he was convinced they were out of earshot Stealth said, “You’ve lost it this time Misha. You’ve REALLY lost it. Marching into Nasoj’s citadel suddenly seems sane in contrast.”
“This isn’t hard!” Misha shot back, “You put on his clothes, meet the noble, talk pleasantly to him about how nice it is to be at Metamor, about the haunted woods or whatever, then tell him some stuff about Eli and being a Follower. Then he talks to the duke. You leave and never see him again. It’s easy and it will work.”
“And what if I have to answer complex questions about obscure Canticles text or use my ‘divine powers’ to cure him?”
“Improvise! You’ve talked to Edmund enough to understand the basics of being a Follower. If all else fails make some vague and confusing parable. Priests and paladins are always good at that!”
Stealth crossed his arms, “Don’t get me started...”
Misha grinned, “And I will stay nearby to help you if things get sticky.”
“But what if someone says, loudly, “hey, Stealth, What are you doing dressed up like Edmund?”” Stealth asked, throwing his voice to sound like a mock-moron.
Misha shook his head, “That’s just silly. No one will say that!”
The cheetah sighed and pondered, “...what’s in it for me?”
“Ah...” The fox began, “Friendship?”
Stealth pouted and then grinned slightly, “Damn you.”
Misha laughed, “Have you ever known me to be stingy with my money?”
Stealth looked at the door to his sick friend’s chambers, “What do we tell him? ...should we tell him? Or do you just want to sneak back in and nick his garb?”
“We need to tell him.” Misha said solemnly, “...Afterwards.”
Stealth nodded, “And what if I change my mind?”
Misha shrugged. “I will not force you to do anything but we need your help” He answered and opened the door before the cat pulled him back by the shoulder.
“What if we’re exposed?” He asked coldly.
The fox shrugged, “It wouldn’t be as black and white as that; the Duke has an army of word smiths who can spin any political situation around.” He answered and opened the door again.
After they closed the door behind them Stealth stood back near the fire place. Looking at the prostrate figure in the bed he suddenly felt very ashamed.
Edmund was snoozing lightly in the bed with Bridgette close by. She almost looked up at them defensively as if they’d come to take him away.
“We need to borrow some things.” Misha said softly to the maned wolf.
“Do what you need to do but don’t wake him.” The canine mumbled.
Misha went directly to the wardrobe but Stealth approached Edmund. As the vulpine searched through the paladin’s clothing Stealth kneeled down next to the bed and placed his hand on Edmund’s.
“Get better, Ed.” He whispered.
He looked up at Bridgette who nodded and then he stood up again, rejoining with the fox who now had a bundle of the Paladin’s more regal-looking clothes.
Before they departed Stealth turned back to the prone figure and the adjoining canine who had an unreadable look in her eyes. Perhaps she regarded them as scavengers and vultures – Stealth certainly felt like one.
Misha suddenly chipped in, “We know it’s dishonest but we have no choice. He was promised an audience with Ed to secure trade talks. If we break that promise we will loose a treaty, one that we need right now.”
Bridgette shrugged and didn’t answer. She couldn’t care less about treaties right now...
They had about an hour to prepare. With a little effort Stealth shifted his plantigrade legs up to digitigrade and then donned Edmund’s attire. Standing on his toes, his body was almost a perfect copy of Edmund’s though he wobbled considerably at first.
Misha preformed two rehearsals with the cat in which he played the Baron. In that time he also summoned Terrant. The Paladin’s second in command was fooled... for about a second until she looked into his eyes. Misha eventually explained the situation and managed to talk her into assisting.
Now they stood in a hall, waiting, practicing, waiting...
Duke Thomas paced back and forth on his hooves. He stopped, looked at the cheetah, and continued pacing. With some chagrin they discovered that Thomas could also see through the disguise. He was not happy.
To the untrained eye the feline looked every bit a Paladin. He wore a green vest with a large follower cross emblazoned on the front, a Yule tree hanging down from his neck and the steady visage of a casual yet regal leader. To the trained eye, Stealth was stiff, his eyes were dilated, his heart rate hectic and his tail thrashed about.
The fox elbowed him, “You’ll be fine so relax and stop fidgeting.” He ordered in a whisper.
Stealth licked his nose and took deep breaths, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll kill you.”
“Wait in line.” Thomas mumbled.
“Lord Marcus Von Claiborn approaches.” A page called out.
“No backing out now.” Misha whispered.
“Thanks for the reminder.” Stealth anxiously whispered back as the double doors on the far end of the hall opened.
A small procession entered the hall, amidst them was a man of advanced years dressed in fine attire. Time ground to a halt as the man approached. Stealth breathed a sigh of relief when the nobleman first allowed himself to be greeted by the duke, the conversation didn’t last long though, and then the procession continued to where the cheetah stood.
The two parties just stood and stared at each other for a long moment until one of the Duke’s aides, standing behind the visitors, began flailing his arms at the cheetah to speak.
“Lord Von Claiborn.” Stealth said regally and stiffly, “It is an honour to meet you.” He bowed, “I am Sir Edmund Delacot.”
The horse lord bit his lips and stood back, hidden underneath the robes his hand formed a fist.
Von Claiborn smiled tiredly, “Sir Edmund, It’s good to finally see you.” The old man held out his hand and the feline clasped it, “Tell me,” The noble began and leaned in, “Did you ever do my son that favour he asked of you all those years ago?”
Everyone in the room except the Merchant and his entourage stiffened.
Stealth looked at Thomas who looked back and shrugged in response.
“Could you remind me?” Stealth asked him.
The man grinned, “You know the task I speak of.”
The cheetah did his best to look casual and answered, “Forgive me, I’ve assisted many in their time of need.”
The old merchant looked taken aback, “I didn’t think it would be difficult to remember such a thing, it was quite important to him.”
“It is always important, no matter how small or great the task.” Stealth gulped.
The old man pointed scornfully, “None of that, Sir Ed, I know you know the task of which I speak and I can assure you, you weren’t sworn to secrecy. It was very public knowledge at that.”
Stealth tilted his head, “Then I need not delve into the past as you’d already know the answer.” The feline felt a moral boost, ‘Take that, old man’ he thought to himself with a mental grin.
Claiborn shook his head, “It was public knowledge among the common folk but I’m not one for gossip, so I am asking you, directly.”
Stealth reached out mentally for help, also to curse, specifically at the vulpine next to him, though he received no answer. The cheetah pretended to look thoughtful, like he was remembering until he answered, “Let me just say this, I’m sure that what happened was for the best.”
The old man smiled sadly and nodded, “Yes, it was.”
Stealth mentally breathed a sigh of relief and held out his arm to his right, “Come, rest your legs, milord. You’ve had a long trip.”
“Thank you, good knight, for your hospitality for one as old as I,” the merchant sighed with an air of palpable relief and began to shuffle off in the offered direction.
It took a moment but Von Claiborn was eventually seated in a comfortable chair in a small but well appointed chamber. To either side of the old man sat his aides. Stealth sat opposite with Misha to his left and Terry to his right.
“Do tell me, Sir Knight, who are your two... attendants?”
The feline motioned with his hand to his left, “This is Sir Misha Brightleaf, knight commander of the b-”
“Forgive me for interrupting.” He said, waving a hand, “I am curious to the relevance of their attendance.”
Misha frowned at the old man.
“Sir Brightleaf is too a merchant and also a friend; on both accounts he can claim responsibility for organising this meeting.”
“I thought your Steward, erm, Thalberg had the honours...?”
“The good Steward did help but his role is more... oh dear...” Stealth cringed, eyeing the reptile in the hallway.
“His role is more, what, rubber stamp? Bureaucrat? Waste of good tax payers’ gold?”
Stealth leaned forward, “Sir, he can hear you.”
“Oh, I know. Serves him right for eaves dropping.”
Only the morphs in the room could hear the reptilian grumble and shuffle away.
“I wouldn’t say eaves dropping, he is a minder for the duke and you know how minders of Lords and Ladies are.”
“True, true, speaking of which, who is your fair lady friend?” He asked, motioning to Terrant.
Stealth regally said, “This is Sir Terrant Gattaway, my Second in Command.”
“You claim a woman to be your second in command?” Von Claiborn asked scornfully, “Or is there more to your... relationship?”
Misha and Duke Thomas openly gawked at the merchant. Terry hid her anger under a veil of indifference while Stealth just tried to figure out how to respond. What should he say? What did he want to say? What would Ed say? He knew the answer to all three but would he blow any chance at a treaty? Most certainly. But could he just ‘go with it’ for the sake of the Keep?
Stealth took several seconds in which his guise began to wain until he became resolute and regarded the noble with a hard gaze, “Marcus Von Claiborn.” He began in the same way as a parent scolding a child, “Terrant is a fine soldier and every bit as proficient as she was when a man. There are changes one must deal with from the curse but it has not affected the ability of any of my men or women, if anything it has made them stronger and they are still the same people they were before.
“Any new habits or needs let alone appearance have not changed what my people have always been on the inside.” He said loudly, “And even if I wasn’t FORBIDDEN from sexual activity with another that would be between me and them. A private life is one’s own.”
Suddenly, Stealth realised that he was standing and everyone was looking at him. The cheetah slowly sat back down and looked patiently at Von Claiborn.
The old merchant nodded slowly, “Indeed. Forgive me Sir Edmund, Sir Terrant.” When he saw the ‘Paladin’ blink he continued, “I am impressed that you defend your people’s honour. Last time I made a similar remark the host agreed with me.” Marcus said regretfully.
“Oh... your host had a female commander?”
“No, but he held his servants in poor regard.”
Stealth nodded. His heart was still racing and he just couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d just evaded a poison arrow.
“Tell me sir knight, what do you make of this business in the south, the recent struggles between Lightbringer and Follower?”
Stealth shrugged, “It is a sad fact of life – conflict. There always have been and always will be a war somewhere.”
“Is it the will of the Great one?”
Stealth mentally groaned and pondered furiously on how to respond. Is it? Probably. Though he never did understand how or why a god would influence the world to achieve a goal yet punish sinners who’s crimes allowed the plans to come to fruition.
“The Great one is mysterious and works in many ways.” The feline answered.
“Could you subtract some of that mystery and enlighten me in Eli’s ways?” Marcus persisted.
The cheetah swallowed a lump in his throat and eventually answered, “No.”
Duke Thomas looked wide eyed at the feline.
“...no?” The merchant asked patently.
“I am but Eli’s servant; I do not know or claim to know his plans for us or how they are carried out, no one does.” He answered calmly... wondering if the old man bought it and cursing his words, him Eli’s servant? Like hell he is!
“But Bishop Brehany of Abewyvern claims he knows the Great one’s plan.”
“He is mistaken.” Stealth said coldly.
“But as a bishop he has greater understanding of the Canticles, including portions that are not publically read.”
Stealth began to glower, “The Canticles were written by mortals like Brehany, not by y- not by the Great One.”
Terrant suddenly stepped, meaningfully, on Stealth’s foot.
Stealth sighed, “A bishop cannot speak on the behalf of god, just interpret and spread his teachings.”
“But the teachings ARE the word of god, how can one spreading them not speak on god’s behalf?”
Stealth closed his eyes and silently cursed, “By using good judgement and not claiming your words as The words, just an interpretation. In the end it’s up to you and what you believe to be the truth.” He answered tiredly.
“So you cannot tell me?”
“Correct. I did say so a few moments ago.”
“Well if you cannot tell me what you know then you can tell me what you think.” The old man persisted.
Stealth grinned inwardly; he’d been here before... “Forgive me but I make no presumptions.”
The merchant pinched his nose bridge, “blast it, my dear feline, is there nothing you can tell me of, don’t you have any mind of your own?”
Stealth glared at him, “In my experience I’ve found that those who consider themselves experts and take sides are the ones with no minds of their own, I am just being honest, not neutral or evasive, just honest. If you’d like we could discuss topics that are more tangible.” He offered and quickly fretted if the last word was appropriate or would be taken the wrong way, “You could discuss religion with any number of people, why did you wish to meet me?”
Marcus nodded, “You’ve had dealings with my family in the past as I mentioned, but I am curious to why you sacrificed your humanity and your freedom to the curse.”
The cheetah could faintly hear the fox next to him growl softly under his breath.
“I have not lost my freedom, let alone my humanity to the curse. There are many your words would offend.”
The old man sat back and made himself more comfortable, “Then forgive me again but as you must know by now I’m not one for political correctness. Why did you do it?”
“Because Metamor needs me and I went where I was needed.”
“And why is that?” He asked in a bored tone.
“To free the souls of the long dead.” The feline explained.
Marcus raised an eyebrow, “Goodness, this castle is cursed and haunted?”
“No, not the Keep but a forest north, bordering the Giant Downs.” Stealth answered, “Long ago it was once the capital of the valley, under the Suleiman Empire and it was the first to fall. It is now known as Haunted Wood and the spirits of the Suleimans who lost their lives that night are trapped there, reliving their last night over and over each night.”
“Are they alive or is it a... memory, an image?”
“They are very much alive, trapped between this world and the next.” The cheetah answered. “And before you ask, no I do not know how to help them but I will not stop trying until I succeed.”
The old man grinned, “If they are Suleiman then they are unlikely to be men of faith but the ones responsible for the death of our saviour.”
Stealth pinched his nose bridge, “Lord Claiborn, with all due respect your tests have since become... transparent.”
“Perhaps but it is still a question many, albeit fools, would ask.” He countered.
“Yahshua died on the tree long before the empire actually fell and he allowed himself to be, so that he’d become a martyr and spread the word of our faith.” He silenced the merchant with a forestalling finger, “Ware your question, milord, we’ve been through this, I do not know Eli’s will and this conversation will lead down a never ending spiral.”
Terrant cringed, she knew Edmund well, better it seems then Stealth did... Stealth’s atheist and rebellious nature were showing through his disguise though he was obviously loosing patience with this man as they all were.
“I was told Yahshua died on the tree long before the empire actually fell and he allowed himself to that he’d set all men free from sin and spread the word of our faith, not to become a martyr.” The merchant intoned.
Stealth blushed and then felt a nudge from the knight, “Yes, that’s what I meant.”
The merchant nodded, “very well, and this is the reason you confined yourself to this valley... for the rest of your life?”
“Yes. I have much work ahead of me and I must remain here to complete it.”
“It doesn’t bother you that you and a score of your men will never leave this place? Except perhaps the third of your bountiful... warriors that’d make many a strong man happy in the south.”
Von Claiborn suddenly doubled over in pain on the table, clutching at the spot between his legs. As aides began looking around in alarm and confusion, Misha slowly lowered his foot-paw back down to the floor.
“Misha! Did you just...?!” Stealth asked in a loud voice.
“Aye, I kicked him in his manly-man-ness.” He shrugged, “A man needs to know when to quit.”
The fox began wrestling with the Duke’s guards as the merchant’s small entourage began running around in a panic.
“What’s wrong with Sir Brightleaf?” Von Claiborn asked, pointing to the fox.
Misha blinked out of his vengeful day dream, “Huh? Oh! Sorry, I have a lot on my mind.”
“The war and all...” Stealth added for him.
“As I was saying, for the most part your people won’t be leaving, doesn’t that bother you?”
“We have a home now.” The feline countered, both with the reasoning of Edmund and the heated emotion of Stealth, “Metamor is a good home for us, no more wandering about the midlands. We now have a true home and people who need us.”
“Indeed! Actually on the matter of need... I have need of you.”
Misha cringed and shifted his eyes to the Duke and then to Terry, neither of them returned the look, their eyes were dead set on the cheetah.
“How can I help?” Stealth asked, trying to sound casual.
“My right arm is in constant pain...” He answered and held it up, “Could you perform a small miracle and heal me with your prayers?”
“Of course.” He said and moved forward slightly, “Show me your arm.” Stealth avoided eye contact, knowing that he looked like a frightened child, no matter how hard he tried to hide it.
When the old merchant held out his arm and rolled up his sleeve, the feline swallowed a knot and began to probe around his elbow before he surprised everyone by saying, “Oh my... this is... this is infected!”
“Affected by what?” The merchant asked in confusion.
“No, this is an infection, not a true injury. I cannot heal this.”
“Oh? Why not? What is wrong with my arm that a warrior of god cannot heal?”
Stealth shook his head, “This is an infection – a bane. It is not a matter of damage or repairing damage, you need to expunge the bane from your body – there is nothing to heal here, just remove.”
“I am... possessed? Can you exorcise this evil from my body?”
“Not possession, just a bane that needs to be cleansed from your system.”
Marcus scratched his head, “How do I remove this bane?”
“With cleanliness, ointment and a healthy diet!”
Marcus laughed warmly, “Well, it has been pleasurable but I must attend to these talks with your Duke before either the curse or the grave claims this old merchant.” He said, changing the conversation from dreaded medical treatment and dietary needs...
Stealth smiled, “Of course. It has been a pleasure milord, I too must attend to my tasks.” He said and quickly stood up.
“What tasks are those?” The merchant casually asked.
Stealth gagged, “I... I have a dear friend who is very ill. I must tend to him.”
Marcus looked into the feline’s eyes before he nodded, “Aye... aye, I understand. Then please don’t let me keep you.”
“Thank you, good day.” The cheetah said as the human and vulpine practically whisked him away.
Once they were out of sight and ear shot Stealth practically collapsed into a trembling heap.
“Did it work?” He mumbled from the ground.
Terrant firmly grabbed the feline and pulled him up, “Aye, I don’t see why not.”
“I told you it was easy.” Misha said.
“EASY?!” He shouted.
Misha winced but nodded, “Easy. You handled that well. You did a fine job, Spots.”
Stealth pouted but then began to grin and blush.
“Now let’s get you out of these clothes.”
Stealth nodded. The uniform smelt strongly of his friend and every time he took a whiff he was reminded of what a big fraud he was.
As Terrant collected the clothing she smiled... and looked away from the handsome, scantly clad morph, “Stealth, thank you for what you said in there.”
The cheetah smiled shyly, “It’s the truth and I really meant it. Don’t Paladins have to tell the truth?”
She laughed but then sobered, “Speaking of which, each of us have some explaining to do.”
Stealth sighed and grimaced as he replaced his tunic.
Sunlight streamed into the room when the door opened. Feeling reserved, Stealth entered and closed the door behind him. He was relived to see Edmund sitting up awake.
“Ed! How do you feel?” He asked, quickly approaching his bedridden friend.
“Better then I did this morning.” The paladin answered tiredly.
Bridgette fed him chicken soup, due to his muzzle it looked like Ed was being fed in much the same way that a bird would take in water – tilting his head up to consume each spoonful.
Stealth kneeled beside the bed and tried to form the words to what he wanted to say, “Ed I... I just wanted to see how you were doing.”
The ill knight nodded, “Thank you.”
Stealth sighed and turned his head down.
“And the other matter?”
The feline bit his lip and remained silent, he felt as if the paladin’s eyes were boring into his soul, albeit as heavy as his eyelids were.
“I won’t force you to discuss anything you don’t want to my friend but I’d say you have something on your mind.”
“Yeah, I just think I need more time. Now that I think about it I might need to wait till you’re feeling better.” He said and stood up, turning briefly to the canine, “You’re doing a good job, Bridgette.” He said and stroked her cheek prompting the maned wolf to tail wag slightly.
“Alright,” Edmund answered softly, “What of the merchant? Was he disappointed?”
Stealth flinched and stood frozen, half way to the door... “I don’t know.” The cheetah mumbled, “I hope not, he’s still talking to the Duke and his aides.”
Edmund nodded, “We can only hope.”
His ears were folded and his tail swayed about but Stealth could only hope his body didn’t give him away as he rushed to the door and closed it behind him.
The feline headed down the hall, his head angled down as he, at the same time hoped for and dreaded Edmund’s full recovery.