The day was cold, but the skunk felt colder, as if there was a blade of ice lodged in the core of his very being, a blade so frigidly chill that it radiated out from him, spreading its dread touch across the land. Sorrow and fear, a pain that sliced deeper than mortal flesh and bone, a scar that seared his very soul with its terrible touch. It was an agony he had become familiar with, as much a part of him as his fur or his tail, those things which he was not born to, but had forced upon him by the cruel hand of fate, his choices unable to affect their outcome or the reality of their existence.
Lost in the frigid bite of his own throbbing agony, he could only clutch himself, alone and bereft, and stare sightlessly out across the rooftops of Metamor, at the distant mountains, obscured to indistinct lines by the listless fog that hung heavily over the Keep. Like a shroud of death, that fog lay in a pall of leaden grayness that reflected the weight of his heart and sorrow. Lost, he did not at first feel the touch, or hear the words that came close at his ear, a concerned voice that called his name, unheard.
The heat that began to battle the cold was the first sign that something was changing, something quite beyond his control. Yet again, he was left powerless as events outside of his being reached in to lay their touch upon him. The heat, a gentle, calming warmth at first breath, grew steadily, becoming a blazing, fiery heat that seared at the sliver of ice that had been thrust into the very center of his soul.
That ice the heat could not touch, it could not find a flaw in the dreadful edge of that frigid wound in his soul, an emptiness that defied all healing touches. That heat banished the bone deep agony that infused his being, however, bringing him back from his own abyss. His vision became clear, his sight resolving the fog shrouded rooftops beyond the parapet against which he rested. Yet the sorrow and emptiness remained, the heat could not fill that emptiness any better than it could heal the rent in his soul.
With a heavy sigh he reached up to grasp the wrist of the hand that grasped his head. He could feel the hard pricks of claws against his scalp; two hands holding his head in a grasp so desperately strong they shook. He turns his gaze to the priest, Rickkter’s new companion. A partnership of extreme oddness, the priest and the battle mage, yet they seemed to get along passably well for their distinctly different views of life and existence.
Muri could not immediately recall the name, or understand why the priest had used such a rare and potent ability upon him, another mage, not even a remote follower of the way. Yet Muri had admitted to a belief in the existence of the priest’s god, Eli. How could he not, after his terrible and glorious dreams whilst he lay at the edge of death only a month previous. Having stood before his own goddess and admitted that, at the cusp of his eminent destruction, he had not called upon her. To a god he had explained the reason for his calling upon the strength of a mere nymph, a mountain spirit, to sustain him when death seemed unavoidable.
And then, by some glorious and unknown purpose, he had been granted a reprieve, for Llyn came before him. His love, slain before his very eyes by the hand of a mage who had been shown the ways of his art by Murikeer himself, had been brought from the heavens to accept his love. Her life had been ended by a mage who had taken Muri’s own teachings and twisted them into darkness, then brought those dark evils to Metamor and laid waste to all that Muri had loved. A mage who, by his own admission, had left the skunk’s beloved master with the same wounds he had cursed the skunk with; tattered rents of the soul that rendered the touch of magic into an agony beyond bearing.
How she had been brought forth from Eli’s heavens he did not know, but his sorrow was lightened in knowing that she was, indeed, in a place of goodness and light beyond the touch of evil’s dark hand.
“It’s all right.” He sighed softly as he pried the priest’s hand from his brow, his head bowed as he took a slow breath, “Please, let me handle it.” He offered a brief, tentative smile of thanks as he released the raccoon’s wrist. Turning back to the parapet, he gathered his tail about himself once more and stared off into the foggy distance. He heard the priest mutter something behind him, but could not make it out, his attention distant. The heavy closing of a door heralded his solitude once more.
A lightening of the fog presaged the emergence of the sun, finally, after several long days. In the distance broad expanses of the mountains came into view through gaps in the fog, still in the shadows of the heavy clouds above. Through breaks in the clouds sunshine lanced narrow pillars, the golden pools of light racing across the distant mountains like the gaze of heavenly regard. A brilliant silver flash caused the skunk to lean away, eyes narrowing to slits as he peered at the distant mountain to identify the source of that startling reflection.
A mountain stream, cascading down from the snow-capped heights, had returned the glow of the sun in a touch of blinding brilliance. Watching that distant, sun lit clearing for several moments, even after the cloud shadows claimed it once more, until the fog of the valley bottom once more surged over the keep, stealing all but the closest rooftops from sight.
Standing slowly, the skunk looked off into the distance toward the mountains he could no longer see, viewing in his mind’s eye the contours of the far away landscape. Nodding slowly to himself, his jaw set, he turned and walked back into his chamber.
Indolence was a skill best practiced often, Malger believed, though there was always a method to his lazy lounging. Garbed in emerald trimmed in scarlet, he glimmered in the brilliant spring sunlight like a jungle lizard out sunning itself. He stood out against the drab gray stones of the Keep like a jewel in a stone, the silver gleam of his flute casting muted reflections about the small garden. He watched courtiers come and go, very few of them garbed as garishly as he was, knowing more than half of them in one manner or another.
Idly casting out a quiet tune on his flute, he watched the comings and goings of servant, resident, and courtier alike with equal measure, watching how they moved and acted amongst one another. Around his neck the crescent moon of Nocturna dangled freely, no longer concealed carefully under his garish raiment. The black wood drank in the light, adding to the glow of his wardrobe rather than clashing with it. His foot tapped lazily in response to his aimless tune, the cool touch of the day comfortable against his fur.
He found his attention drawn to a relatively rare species of curse-altered Metamor residence passing as they descended the broad stair, black and white tail lashing behind them with the skunk’s rapid pace. Shifting away from the pillar against which he leaned, Malger dropped from the stone rail and hastened after the longer legged keeper.
“Murikeer, lad, hold on a bit there will you?” the marten called after the skunk. One black ear cocked back as Muri glanced back over his shoulder curiously, his gaze falling upon the marten rather swiftly as the most garish person on the stair. His steps faltered momentarily as he completed his look, his gaze returning once more to the marten.
Drawing abreast of the skunk, Malger looked over at him even as he felt the cold regard of the young mage’s appraising glance up and down. “Dream serpent.” Muri said at length as he nodded and resumed his swift pace, prompting the marten to walk rapidly to keep up.
“No, lad, not any longer, not since the siege was lifted.” The skunk’s only response was to cock one ear in the garish musician’s direction as they passed through the archway and headed into the town of Metamor proper. “It’s a long and rather unpleasant story, but many years ago I was known by a different name, which my goddess has demanded I use once more.”
Muri glanced aside to the Marten as they strode through the town, his pace gruelingly swift for the Malger’s shorter legs, the mud soiling his expensive boots hopelessly beyond repair. “What goddess would make such a demand, then?” the skunk chuffed flatly.
“Noctourna, my goddess, when I begged a boon of her and brought Llyn’s spirit back from the heavens.”
That stopped the skunk mage in his tracks so abruptly that the marten passed him up by a couple strides. “What?” Muri growled, his eyes hard, the fur above the collar of his shirt bristling.
Malger turned slowly to regard the younger male calmly, “You ask. Did Llyn not come to you in your dreams, and offer forgiveness for the harsh words that had been left between you unresolved?”
Murikeer’s jaw worked slowly for a few seconds as his eyes narrowed, “She did, from the heavens as you say.” He scowled at the marten, whiskers drawn back against his muzzle as he frowned. “How is it that you know this?”
“Because I made it happen, Murikeer.” The marten said slowly, his voice gentle but earnest. He looked up and down the street for a moment before reaching out and catching Muri’s arm, urging him to continue walking. “I begged a boon of my goddess, and she answered.” He touched the crescent moon hanging from his neck as they resumed walking down the street, “She demanded only that I stop hiding. No longer could I conceal my faith in Her, nor my true name.”
“Why?” The skunk’s cold disposition had melted with the startling revelation, his voice hollow as he felt a great emptiness in his breast, his heart seeming to have collapsed to a mere pinprick. He felt a hand upon his shoulder and looked across at the taller marten, whose brown eyes held his with gentle regard.
“Because I loved her too, lad.” Malger said gently, giving that shoulder a squeeze before dropping his hand, “Not as you did, but I did hold her in my heart. While it sorrows me to the core that she is no longer with is, I am appeased in knowing that she is now safe, and free.”
“Your goddess summoned her from Eli’s heavens simply that you might know that, for you to know the fate of her soul?”
Malger shook his head slowly as the passed through the outer gates, trying to keep their trek to drier ground as carts churned the roadway to icy cold mud, “No, it was for you that she came back, even for such a brief time. Not for I.”
“To know what I truly felt for her?”
“Yes, and to let you go onward, rather than through the portal of death.”
Muri looked aside at the marten quizzically, frowning, “You know a great deal for a minstrel, Dream.”
“Malger, lad. Malger Sutt, my true name.”
“The lost son of the Sutt expansion.” Muri grunted, shaking his head slowly, “Still yet, you’re more than merely a lost baronling.”
Looking around at the dark fields around them as farmers went about their spring tasks of preparing the earth, Malger nodded slowly. “Indeed, my father was the late and most maligned baron Sutt, but I am not my father’s son in heart. I hold no care or concern for the land that was once my inheritance. My realm is that of dreams.”
“A power granted by your goddess?”
“No, a power that was within me at birth, though I denied it for many years.” Malger said as he shook his head, sidestepping a discarded pile of shrubbery. His boots were no longer the brilliant emerald green that he had paid a small fortune for, the leather stained a wet, muddy black. Not that it concerned him greatly, for he had many such boots. At least the ones he had chosen to wear this morning were appropriately insulated for a walk through mud and ice. “I am freely capable of walking the realm of dreams, and it was there that I saw your turmoil, and I felt the great sorrow which still haunts you.”
Muri watched the marten from one corner of his right eye as they moved further and further away from the walls of Metamor, passing the broad field lands and into the thin forests at the foot of the great mountains that towered to the east and west of the Keep. It was to the eastern mountains that Muri marched, his unexpected company keeping pace. “You directed the course of my dreams, then?”
Malger shook his head slowly, “No, I let the dreamer dream. I understood your need though, and it was my own, for I felt some cold seed of doubt that Llyn’s…. that the sins of her flesh would damn her to one of the hells. I called upon Nocturna, I asked if I could see Llyn’s path, if she could somehow be given to know of your true feelings.
“I do not know how, but she managed to accomplish a task I had thought impossible. Eli exists, you see, else why would there be heavens from which to draw Llyn’s eternally blessed soul.”
“Where does that leave us then, follower of the nightmare goddess?” Muri asked quietly, though not with venom in his voice.
“We have our own places to ascend to, mage, when we reach the end of our days. Nocturna holds no nightmares for me.” The marten replied smoothly, giving the skunk’s shoulder a squeeze briefly before he came to a halt. Murikeer walked several paces further before stopping and looking back. “Where are you going, anyway?”
Turning, Muri thrust an arm toward the heights to the east, “There, in the shadowed notch there, just to the left of that pine copse above.” Lowering his arm, he looked back to the marten, “If you would be willing, I would enjoy company.”
Giving a nod, Malger resumed walking, catching up with the skunk, “What is up there?”
“Joy’s legacy. You shall see.”
The ascent was not terribly slow, but it was arduous on both of them. The marten considered himself hardly dressed for such a trek, but that was more due to the limitations his wardrobe put on his flexibility than warmth. The hike itself was keeping him warm, his flute tapping at his back in its case. His swords hung at his hips as they always did, their scabbards matching his costume, their tassels fluttering in the mountain breeze. The skunk was lugging a backpack which had been haphazardly prepared, its contents not balanced for an extended trip.
Murikeer hardly seemed to care, however, setting a grueling pace up the mountain paths, his attention fixed ever higher. They said little as they walked, each lost to their private thoughts, the marten trailing the skunk as they moved through thick forests. Though the winter battle had decimated most of the northern tribes nearest the keep, and the retributive assaults had further reduced their numbers, both travelers were wary for unexpected attackers who may have escaped the increased attention of the patrols. Malger had loosed the ties on his swords and Muri had taken his pickaxe from its baldric across his back. Llyn’s longbow was slung alongside it, a quiver with half a dozen arrows strapped to the skunk’s left thigh.
The only lutins they encountered, however, were the much gnawed and half thawed corpses of those which had frozen to death in the days before the assault, their bodies left where they had fallen. Rusted weapons lay scattered across the ground amongst the bones and tattered hide clothing. Neither of the travelers bothered with the dead, leaving them as their tribesmen had left them, to be picked at by scavengers and forgotten.
Reaching the high meadow Muri was saddened to find that only six stone pedestals remained where Llyn’s sluice had once stood, the wooden construct gone. Likely destroyed by Lutins trying to warm themselves as they waited for the command to descend upon the Keep below. Standing upon the flat table of rock he had shared picnics with Llyn upon, he stared mutely at the six mute stones. Malger, some distance behind him, caught up a minute later, puffing for breath in the thinner air as he looked down at the stones as well.
“Her gold sluice?” he asked quietly, frowning. She had told him little of her penchant for rock collecting when he failed to be properly impressed when she showed him some odd specimen or another. Muri walked away, moving down to pass among the six heavy stones, resting his hands upon them as he looked around like someone returning to the remains of their home after decades away and finding only the foundation remaining. Watching the skunk, Malger sat down in the grass and tried to catch his breath, resting his scabbards across his lap as he looked around the valley.
It was a beautiful place, he had to admit, and he was one who enjoyed beauty in all its forms, both crafted by nature and hand. He felt a brief pang of jealousy that Llyn would have shown this young skunk, whom she had known for only a handful of months, her private valley when she had not given Malger that grace after four years. With a soft curse at himself he shook his head and sighed.
She was dead now, gone to a far better place, so his jealousy was unwarranted. After all, he and the young mage were a brotherhood for having known her as closely and as passionately as they had. Not, of course, that she had not known other males, but none of them had ever been treated as he and Murikeer had. Those others, usually brief flings, were mere vessels for her gratification and little more.
Had Malger been less of a playboy he knew that she would likely have made a husband of him more than two years ago, but he had known long before even then that he could never take a mortal wife. His flesh was something he knew to enjoy while he had it, his ability to assuage the sorrow and pained spirits of others a gift he would only be able to share when he was as mortal as they. Until the time came for him to join his love, his goddess, in her private demesne, he would please himself and heal those he could.
Watching Muri, he knew he could not offer the young mage that same succor. He simply would not understand it, nor accept Malger’s methods of employing his gift.
Lost in his contemplation, Malger did not sense the subtle shaking of the earth until it became more of a quake, the earth undulating and shifting around him as if some massive beast were moving close below the surface. Letting out a startled bark, he tried to stand, but the unstable earth was moving too much and all he could do was rise half way, resting one hand on the earth as he looked about wildly for the skunk.
Standing between the centermost of the six stones, Murikeer was unmoved by the disturbed earth, which was rock steady where he stood, waves surging outward from where he stood as he raised both of his arms toward the south. Palms facing upward, his gazed was focused upon a huge vertical wall of stone a hundred paces down the stream which cut along the side of the small valley. Ten feet thick and almost fifty high, the massive slab of rock had been disturbed at some far earlier age from its home high above and come to rest, like the discarded blade of an axe cleaved into a log, in the sloping wall of the valley.
Rocks and small boulders toppled from that huge slice of granite, the stream that cut around it foaming and churning as the huge rock began to move. Slowly at first, it rocked outward with a loud, grinding rumble that sent rocks spilling across the valley. High above Malger could see other rocks, disturbed by the shaking earth, breaking loose from their beds of centuries, bounding down the mountainside like so many panicked rabbits. Panic gripping his own heart, Malger scrambled hastily toward the skunk, stumbling and staggering across the earth as it went through the throes of great agony.
Intent on shaking the skunk out of whatever suicidal path he was bent upon, Malger was amazed to see that none of the rocks showering through the valley came anywhere close to the mage. Indeed, those that came close seemed to ricochet away, caroming off at right angles as the larger slab continued its inexorable emergence from the tortured earth. As he neared Murikeer he found the earth steadier, until within a few feet and it was not moving whatsoever, the skunk being the epicenter of the entire quake. He could only stand and watch, his fur plastered flat against his flesh, whiskers and ears backed against the thunderous crashes and rumbles, the sharp reports of shattering stone making him flinch. Tail tucked, he half crouched and watched to see which rapidly moving boulder would overcome the mage’s protections and squash the both of them flat.
No stone appeared from the dust and debris to flatten them, however, as the huge blade of granite toppled forward with stately grace, leaving a gaping wound in the wall of the valley from which it had been wrenched. Falling to the earth with a massive, thunderous crash, it knocked Malger off his paws as the ground gave a final, protesting heave that had nothing to do with the skunk’s magic. The marten threw up his arms as a shower of small rocks and dust fell across them in a pall, pelting him with tiny, stinging shards.
The crash and clatter of falling rocks continued for several moments longer, the valley filling with a choking cloud of pulverized stone. Covering his muzzle with the fur along the back of his forearm, Malger slitted his eyes against the dust and looked up at Muri, who still stood with his arms outstretched to the south. As the crashing subsided into an uneasy silence the skunk slowly lowered his arms, his body swaying. Malger watched as the skunk’s expression changed from one of grim resolve to a moue of great agony, his hands rising to clutch at his head as he slowly began to topple. Shifting onto his knees, the marten managed to catch Muri before he crashed headlong onto the stone littered ground, a surprised chuff escaping him as the dead weight came down in his arms.
The skunk was unconscious. Blood stained the left side of his face, plastering the fur under his ruined left eye flat against the planes of his muzzle. Grimacing at the blood, Malger laid the skunk out carefully and used the tip of a claw to push back the skunk’s eye patch. He knew that Muri had lost an eye during the siege, but the sight of the skunk’s wound made his stomach tighten as he shook his head sympathetically. Taking off his soiled doublet, the marten folded it into a makeshift pillow and laid Muri’s head upon it, then stood and retrieved the forgotten pack.
Small rocks had collected around it, but nothing seemed to have actually struck it, so he was relieved to find that its contents were still in relatively good shape. An extra set of warm weather garments, several bits and pieces of cloth for unknown uses, unguent pots he could not identify, a tinderbox and some small kindling, and a broad rectangular sheet of canvas that could be used to construct a shelter. Folded into the canvas was a bedroll and blanket as well. Setting everything out in an order from most identifiable to least, he took the canvas sheet and began constructing a lean-to in a small copse of birch a short distance away. He chose a place a little higher than the rest of the valley floor as the huge fallen stone had blocked the stream and he had no way of knowing how high the water would rise before finding an alternate course.
Though not the greatest traveler in the world, he knew enough of living on the road to make a comfortable campsite in a short span of time. The sun had been near its zenith when they started their trek, and in the hours it had taken them to reach the valley it had progressed steadily across the sky until it rested close at the western peaks. Malger could already see the shadows creeping across the western valleys and much of the Keep itself. Darkness would swiftly enough come upon them as well, as it was wont to do as the sun dropped below the peaks, and the temperature would drop precipitously.
Pine and beech boughs made a serviceable bed, and a few swift strikes of flint to steel produced a quick spark in the pitch leaden tinder. He built a serviceable fire within minutes, dragging several larger branches and logs over to the campsite to both reflect the heat toward the bed area and keep a steady supply through the night. Retrieving the unconscious mage, he carried him over and carefully deposited him upon the bedroll. Stripping the skunk down to his leggings, Malger hung everything on nearby tree limbs which he lashed into a loose frame at either end of the lean-to, using the skunk’s clothing and his own to block the wind.
As the first night shadows began to race across the valley the marten collected water in an empty unguent pot and carefully cleaned the crusting blood from the mage’s face. Luckily the bleeding seemed to have stopped, for he knew nothing of the medical arts beyond keeping the wound clean. He just hoped that the mage had merely overexerted himself in casting whatever spell he had employed to remove that huge boulder. If he had not come back to himself by the morning then Malger would have to portage him back down the mountain, a task which he did not much look forward to in the least, despite their growing friendship.
Stoking the fire as night fell, Malger settled himself beside the skunk, resting the mage’s head upon his shoulder, and drew the blanket over them. The bedroll was somewhat too small to share, but they would need to share their warmth to make the night even passably bearable, so Malger tolerated the occasional poke of a pine needle or broken branch.
The dawn found Muri awake shortly before the marten, a throbbing headache pounding at his skull, the pain in his eye akin to a blunt dagger grinding at the back of his eye socket. He groaned and sat up, barely cognizant of the body next to him or the sleepy buzz of inquiry as he staggered to his knees. He spied the glimmering coals of the fire and quickly threw a handful of leaves on it to bring up some light, which revealed the contents of his pack arranged to one side of the small camp area.
He snatched up the pot which contained a different mix of painkillers than he had been using previously. Weaker, but safer, it was a rather mundane combination of willow bark and other herbs, laced with the thinned out remnants of his narcotic painkiller. He dashed some into the pot beside the fire which he found to contain water and sat beside Malger, his tail curled about his cold legs, as he waited for it to heat and steep.
“Nice to see you’re alive, Murikeer.” Malger mumbled as he propped himself up on his elbows, peering at the skunk in the dim pre-dawn moonlight. “What in all the hells did you do yesterday?”
Glancing out across the valley, Muri could just barely make out the massive wall of stone that now crossed from one side of the valley to the other. “Joy’s legacy. Did the mountain open?” he grunted, his voice rough and rasping. He coughed, hissing against the lance of pain that stabbed his eye.
“Wha? Open?” Malger mumbled, frowning. He sat up, crossing his legs, and rubbed the fur of his shoulders to chase a little warmth into them. He added a few broken pieces of wood to the glowing embers, blowing gently to coax a little flame into them. As the fire grew and shed light upon their camp, he looked at the skunk, “I’m not exactly sure what you mean. It left a pretty huge hole, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Did you look at it?”
“No, why? I was too busy trying to keep you from freezing to death up here.” Malger explained as he retrieved his shirt and slipped it on, “Did you seriously think you were going to move that entire stone and then set up a camp?” he asked incredulously.
“No, I had planned on making a camp first. I knew I probably would end up unconscious, or worse.”
“Worse? Dead? You’re a fool, Murikeer.”
“Muri, just… Muri. It was something that needed to be done, so that Joy would be remembered.”
“She will be, skunk.”
Muri shot a glance across at the marten, frowning, “For how long, Dre… Malger? A few months, a year or two? Her sacrifice in that siege was senseless, absolutely without worth. She did not die a martyr, to save me or anyone else. She died an ignominious death at the hands of my own student.”
Malger scowled, “What are you talking about?”
Muri chuffed and stared into the fire, “The mage that killed her and the others we were trying to help was once my student, when I was under the tutelage of my master in Sathmore.” He looked up at the marten, the fire casting his muzzle in stark shadows, “That was before my change.”
“So why would he come up here? Did he come after you?”
“No, he did not know where I had gone until he saw me in the Kings’ Gallery.” Muri stood slowly, stepping out from under the shelter, and stretched. Malger could not help but notice the young mage’s flexibility and strength, but he quashed that. His predilections for bedmates of either gender left him unable to look at anyone without appraising them as possible targets of a carefully planned out seduction. The skunk was athletically toned, and bore the trademark flexibility of his species, and that tail would have left the marten weak in the knees if he had made plans on the skunk beyond their friendship. Finishing his stretch, Muri walked a few paces into the dawning shadows. He raised his voice slightly as he continued talking, casting his words back over his shoulder. From Malger’s vantage all he could see were the white stripes that defined the young mage’s back and tail.
“His name was Theodolphus et Vesquel, second son of a duke. His father knew that his son was ambitious and dangerous, and sought to get rid of him for an extended number of years so that his firstborn could ascend to the throne uncontested. So, seeing his second son’s talents, he sent him to various mage collegia.” The skunk explained as he crossed his arms over his chest, “Four expelled him in short order, his father was becoming quite desperate. He paid my master a king’s ransom to take the petulant apprentice in, and it was my task to remove the faulty teachings of the previous collegia and instill a proper understanding of basic magics in him.
“From the get go he was a quick study, and pleased that I was actually able to teach him real magic, his power growing swiftly. Yet I could sense that all he wished to do with that power was create dominion over others, so I began trying to model his magic into modes which would check his ambition.” Muri turned back to face the fire, his eyes glowing amber in the darkness. With a disgusted wave of his hands he took in his body, “But then this happened, this damnable curse. My work was left unfinished, his ambition released unchecked under some other instructor’s tutelage.” The sky above began to lighten to a pale blue as the stars began to fade, one by one, with the growing dawn. Even once the sky above was sapphire blue they would still be in shadows for some couple hours more.
“The next time I found him he had changed his name to Thorne, but his ambition was still the same. His hatred was even greater, for he saw my curse and abandonment as a kind of betrayal, that my life, the life of a commoner, were more important than his ambitions. He did hunt me for a time after the curse took me, but eventually gave up.” Muri crouched in the darkness, resting his elbows on his knees as he stared at the fire, not seeing Malger, who sat on the far side from him. “When he took my eye he said that he had done the same thing to my master, only that he had taken both of Heiorn’s eyes.” He sighed with a sad frown.
“Both?” Malger breathed with a wince, knowing just how terrible it would be for him to loose his sight, or hearing, or the use of his hands. Fears he had seen happen to others, such as Caroline or Muri, who had very nearly lost hands and eyes.
“That puts a mortal pain in my heart, that Heiorn might yet live, with the same agony I experience whenever I reach out for the magic that makes my existence worthwhile, but twice fold for having lost both eyes.” The skunk raised both hands helplessly, “To not see the beauty of his work, to not see the weave or the happiness on the faces of those he helped, to feel such agony. His life would be an empty, pitiable shell of what it once was, if he has not ended it.”
Prodding another bit of wood into the fire, Malger looked across to the skunk, “Why not go find him?”
Muri looked up, meeting his gaze across the flickering light, “I will, this summer.” He said as he stood, brushing his knees, “Though my intent is to find my father, first. I need to give him a proper burial.”
“Where does your father live, or lie?”
“He was slain by bandits in Sathmore, while working for a baron’s watch. Not knowing the customs of Artela, they simply buried him without rites where he fell. I was taken to Heiorn, who was the friend of another man with whom my father worked. To my memory the two are about a seven day apart on horseback.”
“How will you manage that? We’re pretty poorly looked upon south of here, Muri, since the curse. Even more so with the death of the follower’s grand priest.”
“Patriarch, Akabieth.” Murikeer nodded slowly, “I’ll be using a very powerful illusion, which I have been working on for the better part of a year now. I have managed to make it affect sight, sound, and scent, but touch is far more difficult. I doubt I’ll have that ready before I leave.”
“When do you plan on leaving?”
“As soon as the roads thaw enough. Within a fortnight.”
Malger chuffed, his eyebrows arching, “So soon?”
Muri nodded as he turned and looked across the valley once more, the raucous cries of waking birds beginning to fill every tree. “Yes. It will be a long journey, and I hope to return before the first snows.”
“You will need help.”
Muri turned back, his head cocked curiously, “What help?”
“You seriously expect to pass through both the northern and southern midlands and into Sathmore without being remarked upon? On foot?” he marten shook his head slowly, “I’m sorry, but even with your illusion you’ll be cut down by bandits if you’re not accosted by every village magistrate you encounter. Your customs will be different, your accent will mark you as an outlander and therefore to be mistrusted.”
“What do you suggest?”
“That I travel with you.”
“Because, my young friend, bards and minstrels are given haute grace.” The marten explained with a smirk, “Where lone travelers are mistrusted a minstrel as accepted with open arms and showered with gratuity.” The marten brushed his hands against his ruined emerald green leather pants, “A bard and his apprentice will be accepted in the most noble of keeps as well as the meanest and most base of village inns.”
Muri, silent, pondered that argument for several long minutes, rubbing his jaw as he nodded slowly, “That is quite a valid argument, Malger.” He said at length, slowly. “It’s also quite a stretch for you to walk into my dangerous pilgrimage.”
“We all on the road enter into dangerous journeys, Muri. I’ve been here going on five years now, and I feel an urgent need to leave, though not permanently. I want to see the world again, and feel the road beneath my feet.”
“You will travel under your given name, Sutt?”
Malger nodded, “I must, as Nocturna wishes.”
“And if we encounter those who lived through the predations of your sire?”
“We’ll deal with that as it comes upon us, mage.” Malger smiled as he stood up and stretched languidly, feeling greatly buoyed of spirit.
Muri turned and began walking into the dawn shadows, the indistinct shadows of trees and boulders resolving themselves dimly amidst the thin fog while the sky continued to lighten above them. Throwing one hand up almost negligently, Muri appeared starkly as a small sphere of brilliant white light blossomed into being just above his head. Malger shook his head slowly at the mage as he trotted after, managing to avoid stepping on the loose rocks scattered across the valley like the discarded toys left behind after a petulant child’s tantrum.
Eyes narrowed against the steady light, Malger drew up beside the skunk. He asked no questions as he followed the skunk toward the stream, which had carved a hole under the massive boulder and continued on its course relatively unchanged. Jumping carefully from stone to stone they crossed the stream, moving toward the base of the massive, toppled stone. A gaping maw of empty darkness opened up before them, leading deep into the mountain, its depths defying the skunk’s single light. Stepping carefully, Muri crawled up along the rim of the crater and peered within, the small spark of light hovering a little further, illuminating the ragged walls of the mountain’s wound.
Moving up a little higher, the marten peered into the ragged hole as well, not exactly sure what he was seeing. Chewing the inside of his cheek, he glanced over at Muri, “What are we looking for?” he whispered curiously, his tail twitching behind him in anticipation of something.
Muri glanced up at him and flashed a brief smile, “Buried treasure.” Leaning on a larger rock, he let the light fall further into the massive hole, illuminating shattered rocks and roots, an occasional gleam of wet rock or scurrying cave creature. “Llyn was hunting for years to find something, and I believe she was very close, but simply could not get into the vault.”
“Vault?” Malger grunted, brows furrowing as he watched the light fall deeper and deeper into the shadows. The skunk nodded as he waved one hand back at the fallen boulder.
“The mountain’s vault, that was the door. We’ve opened the vault.” The skunk said as the light began returning, moving closer to the near wall.
Malger chuckled warmly as he peered at the rock revealed by the glowing will-o-the-wisp, “You talk like this was some virgin you’ve just conquered.”
Muri glanced over at the marten with a startled scowl, one eyebrow quirking in surprise, “You’ve a uniquely sexual way of looking at everything, don’t you?” he asked, his voice incredulous. Malger merely shrugged helplessly and laughed. Muri shook his head slowly and looked back at the cavern. “If you think of it in those terms, I guess so.” He pointed at the darkness, “This entire side of the valley has never been mined, I doubt has ever even felt the touch of a miner’s axe.” He said slowly.
“There is that.” Malger replied as he shifted about and slid down the steep rim of the cavern several feet, digging his claws in as he scrambled into the darkness. Catching himself on a ledge, he looked at a nearby crevasse in the rock, “There’s something in here, looks like silver.”
Shimmying down beside the marten, Muri peered into the crack as the bobbing witchlight crowded close like a nosy neighbor, casting bright reflections from a thick vein of silvery material a few inches down into the crack. “That’s what I was hoping to see, wait here a moment.” The skunk said as he scrambled up to the brink of the hole and jogged back to the camp.
Malger had freed several loose stones from the edges of the crack by the time Muri returned with his strange stone pickaxe, exposing a long, broad vein if the silvered metal that chased crazily down the side of the crater like a branch of frozen lightning. Stepping to another ledge nearby, he hung on to secure rocks as the skunk began chipping at the wall with his miner’s tool, eventually loosening a large chunk of vein chased stone and throwing it back up over the edge of the crater. “That’s it, let’s go.”
“That’s it?” he marten grunted, looking around at the other veins he was beginning to make out among the rocks of the cavern wall, “We’re leaving the rest behind? What if someone else comes up here and finds this?”
“They won’t.” the skunk assured him as he scrambled to the brink, then reached down to help the marten out as well. “We’re going directly to the Duke, and he’ll have miners up here by dawn.” Muri said as he helped Malger over the lip of the cavern. Turning, he braced his foot against the heavy stone and began rapping at it sharply with his pick.
Flakes and chunks fell away with each blow, revealing more and more of the silvery metal within the stone, until all that remained was mostly metal, the dross scattered about in the grass. Muri hefted it with one hand and smiled triumphantly at the marten. “Do you have any idea what this is?”
“Silver?” the marten hazarded as he followed the skunk back across the stream. With a laugh Muri merely shook his head and dropped the chunk unceremoniously to the grass and began packing his belongings again. “Well, what on earth is it?”
Through the next several hours the marten tried repeatedly to pry the identity of the mysterious material from the skunk’s tight lips, but he failed at all turns. His examinations of the stone only revealed that it was deceptively light for its toughness, and it completely stymied him. The walk down the mountain was a great deal easier than the ascent, the bright sun warming the day comfortably as they neared the castle.
The learned before they had gotten much beyond the outer gates that the Questioners had left the previous afternoon, much to the relief of the entire Keep, but Muri did not seem to care. He had stuck the ore in his pack before they reached the keep, deeming it valuable enough not to reveal to the masses as they returned. Malger followed in unrequited curiosity, not heeding the startled glances cast at him by familiar faces that beheld the ruined leathers he wore.
As they reached the castle Muri made directly for the great hall, which at an hour before the noon meal would still be in use as the Duke listened to the morning petitioners. That being the case, the doors were open, the guards standing to either side giving Muri and Malger a brief appraising glance as they approached. They were more interested in the swords at Malger’s hips than the bow or pickaxe slung across the skunk’s back. Both the door guards and the ushers within knew Malger and smiled as he approached, not barring his entry.
A large crowd surrounded the dais upon which the black stallion of Metamor sat, his elbows resting upon his knees, hands draped loosely between his knees as he leaned forward to listen intently to the petition of a very age regressed resident of Euper. Muri slipped among the courtiers and awaiting petitioners, giving an usher a harsh look when the young woman stated that he needed to join the line.
“Milady, what I have to report to the Duke regards the prosperity of the entire Keep and kingdom. I believe, once the merits of my petition are heard, he will acquiesce to my bold interruption.” He skunk muttered harshly, yet at the same time delivered a beaming smile that left the young woman quite confused at how to respond to his approach. Malger stepped up and gave her a light kiss on the cheek as he smiled as well.
“Lorne, it’s okay, humor him. He’s gone through hell for this.” He suggested gently as he gave her cheek a caress with the back of his softly furred fingers, then stepped past her to follow the skunk. Rude in bypassing the entire crowd of petitioners and courtiers, the skunk showed enough consideration to let the current speaker finish her statement. He stood quietly before the dais, just in front of the crowd, his hands clasped before his stomach. Malger stepped up beside him and leaned close to whisper in the skunk’s ear.
“Are you going to tell me what the heck that is or leave me in mystery until you tell the Duke?” he hissed, his voice exasperated for his long trial and not being the first to know what the skunk had discovered.
Muri leaned close and hissed from the corner of his muzzle, “Mithril.” He offered in a single word, looking at the marten from the corner of his eye. Ears twitching, Malger’s jaw worked wordlessly for a few seconds before he scowled in confusion.
“Mithril!” Muri hissed again, eyes widening as he forced the word between clenched teeth. Malger blinked again, jaw hanging as his body slowly righted its posture, but his mind was already far away at the total surprise at their discovery.
“Master Mage Murikeer Khunnas.” Maria stated simply as the young petitioner was finished with her case and was ushered away to have her situation resolved by other beurocrats. Upon the Dais the Duke raised one eyebrow and sat back, resting his hands upon the arms of his thrown as he looked down upon the skunk and marten with cool regard.
“Master Khunnas, I do not believe this is a polite petition you are bringing, to place yourself ahead of those who have waited already.” The stallion Duke stated levelly, his dark eyes looking somewhat distracted. Muri sensed there was something to the Duke that screamed trouble, but he was too keyed at that moment to try divining its nature. The skunk bent one knee and lowered himself to kneel, head bowed deferentially. Malger copied his gesture, though with a much more smooth motion and a flourish of his hastily doffed coif.
“Milord, with the assistance of the Master Bard Malger Sutt have come upon a discovery of great importance to the power and economy of the entire Keep, and the kingdom of Metamor herself. We wished to bring this to your attention as swiftly as we were able, owing to the delicate nature of our current recovery efforts.” The skunk churred, his voice pitched smooth and loud enough to be heard, but the challenging gruffness had been shaved away. Malger, were he an observer and not a player in the grand scene, would have been impressed.
“Say on, Master Khunnas.”
Standing, Muri nodded slowly. Swinging his pack slowly from his shoulder, he set it before his feet carefully and began rummaging through it. Malger could sense the increased alertness of the guards around the throne and on the walkways around the upper tier of the great hall turning toward them. Reaching into the pack, the skunk drew out the dully gleaming slab of unremarkable silver metal.
“Your grace, Long Scout Llyn Wanderer revealed to me last autumn that she had been studying the rocks of the eastern wall of the pass for some years in hopes to find what I hold in my hand.” Muri explained as he held the ore before him with both hands, “Unfortunately she lost her life during the calamitous attack we all suffered this past Yule, and was unable to see the fulfillment of her search. I ask only that you grace her name to this discovery.” Stepping forward, he set the ore upon the tip step of the dais.
Maria stepped forward and hefted it, gasping to herself at the unexpected lightness. Casting a glance down to Muri, then the ore, she handed it to the Duke. Thick equine lips pursed, the stallion examined the metal for some moments in silence.
“Your grace, in memory of one known here as Joy, I wish to name the discovery of that resource the ‘Joy’s Legacy Strike’. I believe that everyone here, and in our kingdom, could benefit from a mithril discovery of such magnitude.” At the identification of the metal the Duke’s eyes snapped over to the skunk, his ears turning forward as his lips quirked. The stallion, well versed in the body mannerisms of the aristocracy, covered his surprise with smooth, practiced ease.
“Very well, Master Khunnas, your request and petition as so acknowledged. Madame Wanderer’s quest has been fulfilled, despite her unfortunate demise, and henceforth her discovery will be known as Joy’s Legacy. So it has been heard, so let it be written.” He said sedately as he nodded toward the scribes nearby, handing the metal ore off to Maria as he prepared to receive the next petitioner.
Already a quiet, murmuring susurration was making its way through the crowd, growing to a dull rumble as it neared the very limits of the great hall, such that the ever present steward was forced to rap the staff of office sharply upon the marble floor to overcome the growing noise and recover a modicum of quietude for the petitions to continue. Maria swept down from the dais and handed the mithril back to Murikeer, ushering them through a door behind the throne, into the Duke’s private preparation room.
“Murikeer, this discovery can save us or destroy us with the publicity that you announced it. We face a great risk now from both north and the south. If the disaffected southern baronies learn of this they may very well send their garrisons up here in an attempt to seize it!” she hissed, her eyes hard and fiery as the myriad of political ramifications of such a historic find raced through her mind.
“Or, madam Prime Minister, they may attempt to renew their vows of fealty to the throne in an effort to suckle at the great wealth that is sure to begin flowing from the Keep in lucrative trade and financial support once the mine is brought into even modest production.” Malger pointed out calmly as he stood beside the skunk. “Even acknowledging our losses from the winter devastation we remain strong enough to fend off any of the southern baronies if they should chose to attempt any such course, and they might find themselves under attack by their neighbors for such treason.”
Maria looked from the skunk to the marten and back and shook her head slowly as she moved back to the door to the great hall, “That very well may be the course that they do take, Master bard, but it is a tincture that is both sweet and bitter to the taste, but we are grateful for its discovery.” She said, giving a brief nod to them both before stepping through the door and closing it with a heavy thud.
With a quavering smile and a heavy sigh, Muri dropped himself back into the nearest chair, which nearly engulfed his slight frame. At the head of the council table, he sat in the Duke’s own chair, where he conducted affairs of state with the political entities of the keep and surrounding duchies. He laid the lump of ore on the table before him and regarded it. A few paces away, Malger stared at it as well.
“You know, lad, that in the oldest of songs that metal is the greatest and most rare of substances known to mortal man?” he said softly, his tail twitching behind him as a great, heavy exhaustion began to steal the adrenalized euphoria from his body. He slipped into one of the council chairs and rested his elbows on the polished table. Murikeer nodded slowly, looking equally spent as he adjusted the bloodstained patch over his eye.
In silence they sat in the council chamber, a peasant mage seated in the Duke’s chair, dwarfed by its size and magnificence, why an aristocratic minstrel sat nearby, his expensive and garish emerald wardrobe gray with dust and mud, both of them staring sightlessly at the cold lump of inert metal, their thoughts far, far away.