The introductions the next morning proved to be no problem. Morgan was limp as wet pasta and bone-skinny from his magical exertions. He'd completely used himself up and while he was carrying no geasairia because there'd been no subtlety to his castings, his power was well out of reach. Morgan was nearly unresponsive when Seth told him they had guests. He was too busy being deathly ill from the metabolic toxins left over from his self-consuming acts of magic.

Carteher proved to be a god-send since his superior senses let them know to go north and west to find people. Seth ended up having to carry Morgan piggy-back and make frequent stops to let him vomit. All the while Raiolal came and went in a consistently ghostly way.

Morgan was down trying to empty his empty stomach for the hundredth time when Raiolal reappeared and said “riders and woodsmen from the north.”

Seth considered his blades but he still hadn't been able to flash their hafts “trouble?”

“I doubt it, they look like militia, nothing of the road or the stocks to any of them.”

It made sense, Morgan's light show attracted some attention and said attention took just as long to organize as the light show took to run its course. Any prudent local would want to find out what happened without the expense of becoming part of the happenings themselves.

Raiolal didn't wait for the silence “I'd say we just want to meet up and make nice.”

They were quite a group. Seth tried to decide how they might be received by strangers but every time he factored in his current appearance and Carteher's probably-exotic strangeness his mind sort of balked. “We might as well just walk headlong into them.” Seth said, and that is exactly what they did.

All but walking abreast, they `happened upon' the party of locals. They tried to look innocent, and not fake, but ended up settling for not breaking out laughing. There was nothing particularly funny going on but they knew how odd a group they were and none of them were ready to speak for the whole group. In all, they projected an air of smug complicity that made them seem slightly sinister. If Seth hadn't been so grimy and Morgan so sickly, the meeting would not have gone at all well. No matter how innocent you try to act, it's impossible to accidentally intimidate anybody when one of your group is carrying another piggy-back.

* * *

The leader of the locals was a regional marshal. He pulled his horse out in front and then balked for a moment. He looked first at Carteher who was far to lizardish for his taste. Then Seth, particolored skin wearing a bit of canvas wrapped about his waist, clearly not leadership material. The pathetic stick figure of Morgan, covered with swirling black-and-white scars the way Seth was with ink, and nuzzled semi-conscious into Seth's mane, held little promise of an explanation. That left Raiolal, who'd dropped to a habitual crouch with one gloved fist pressed into the dirt. To his credit in the marshal's mind, he had a very practical, very normal looking bastard sword strapped to his back.

The marshal mistrusted the two grins he could see, the human face he couldn't, and the creature he couldn't read at all, but there were protocols to follow.

“Hail strangers, and well met,” his eyes clearly locked to Raiolal, “what know you of a commotion here in this wood?”

Raiolal stood as if he suddenly remembered he was in the company of humans. “Surely well met indeed, Lord Marshal, your timely aid is greater rescue than we had hoped.”

The use of word like `aid' and `rescue', along with elevating the local from common to `Lord' marshal nearly disarmed the man's suspicions as was intended. Carteher had been teaching him more than woodcraft.

“From what fate are you rescued?”

“This man, responsible for our coming, has suffered poisoning and affliction in defense of the realm. His assailant fled, we are lost and he is in desperate need of a man of letters and healing.”

The marshal looked at Morgan again and this time he saw with different eyes. What was simply strange and suspect was now exotic. He convinced himself that he could see a fineness to things that he'd overlooked before. He picked Seth's slave status out of the confusing clash of ink, he considered the operant nature of what they were investigating, the strange composition of the group, and lastly he spotted the staff for what it was, `concealed' in the tarp/backpack that was strapped to Morgan's back. The marshals mind changed like a summer's breeze. A few moments ago he'd been poking around the woods, now he was rescuing a mage. He was no toady or courtier, but his stock in the local community was clearly about to get a boost.

The marshal dismounted and approached. Raiolal stripped off a glove and they shook hands.

“How is he hurt?”

Raiolal had been briefed by Seth. Admitting he was near out of his mind would scare the locals but it was the only way to get the help they needed. Raiolal tapped his temple “His hurt is all inside. He has crossed talents with a mage outlawed by the Tenets, saving a good many lives but costing himself dearly.”

“It is a fair way to the nearest city, will he survive the road?”

Raiolal leaned in “He can, but the road may not. It would be far better, I think, to summon help than to chance a long trip with his wounds. He's too week to travel but he's not too weak to call havoc down around himself.”

* * *

It's sometimes hard to understand or predict the charity of others, but as a rule of thumb the less urban a people are, the more civilized they are. Once the hazardous details were out things went very well. One of the woodsmen volunteered his home which was decently away from the local village. The riders headed off to town to start the process of sending for help, and as if by magic, children were shuffled to neighbors, beds were found, and things were generally well underway by the time the men on foot reached the chosen homestead.

Morgan had been very right-headed all day. During the last leg of the walk Morgan whispered an order to Seth that was not very far from his own thoughts. Despite his dangerously depleted condition, Morgan told Seth to keep him dosed to near-death until proper help could be found. The thought of harming these people didn't sit well in Morgan's mind and he knew that when his power returned that might well not be the case.

The lady of the house was once a rare beauty, now she was something more. Age and children had tempered her with more wisdom and kindness than they had taken from mere appearance.

“Aye, there'd no be mistaking you.” She set a firm appraising eye on them for just a span.

Seth kind of bobbed his head in recognition, expecting Morgan to take up the pleasantries despite his condition. When that didn't happen Seth realized it was up to him. Without warning or reason he was stumped for something to say.

“Don'na just stand there lord, himself should be abed.” She led Seth into an adjoining room.

Seth was halfway through the door when the “lord” sunk in. Clearly he was out of station here. Either the woodsmen hadn't understood his status or they somehow hadn't passed it on to the lady of the house. A pace further on and the matter of station was forgotten as he hefted Morgan down onto the bed. His certain dread flashed up again. The pattern was moving forward despite Seth's efforts. Morgan was sweeping through the bottom of his arc and the idea that when he recovered it would be Seth's turn to fall again, harder still than the last time, would not be ignored.

Morgan didn't rouse to the bed at all and the lady of the house hustled Seth out of the room, still showing deference while clearly controlling situation. She had him out of the room, and then the house, and into the pump-house as surely as if he were her own, slightly churlish, child. All the while making every move seem the only reasonable one. It was a motherly diplomacy mixed with almost streetwise charm that had Seth wondering how she might fare in politics even as he pumped the cold water and began washing.

* * *

When he was clean he found someone's long jerkin and someone else's britches hanging outside the door. Both were of hearty cloth and fit as well he could hope given his size. The jerkin was closer to a half-shirt on him and the pants were roomy enough but stopped mid calf. Still, the experience of wearing a length of hard canvas like a dirty towel had worn thin on him some days ago and any kind of real clothing was something of a pleasure.

Back inside the main house Seth inquired after local herbs to find out how best to keep Morgan from havoc. There was a short wait while the local healer woman finished her hobble up from what there was of a town proper. Discussion verged on argument when the healer realized what a dangerous and addictive concoction Seth had in mind. Seth won the day after proving his considerable knowledge of natural drugs and ever-so politely forcing them to understand just how dangerous Morgan's present condition could be.

Several tedious hours followed.

Mixing the potent brew and making it strong enough but not toxic was vexing. The strength of herbs vary from plant to plant, sometimes from leaf to leaf and the key ingredient in this mess was notoriously fickle. Morgan wouldn't need his first dose until at least the next morning, maybe even later, he had to sleep off the expenditure of so much magic; so when Seth was sure he had it right, he gave himself a partial dose. He had the constitution to handle an overdose, if it came from the partial-dose he'd measured out.

The mixture was just about perfect, which in turn found Seth spilling his guts to Raiolal, Carteher and the two women. He was still self-possessed enough to leave the books out of the telling, but gathered around the evenings hearth-fire he told them about the ordeals he and Morgan had gone through, and about his suspicions of a pattern. The four seemed interested, wrapped in the story and prompting him with questions, but when he'd disgorged the last of it they were all silent for a while.

The silence lasted long enough that, even drugged, Seth began to wonder if he'd gone too far.

“Son...” the old herbalist had a particularly thoughtful look on her face, “ye may well be right.”

Carteher, who was sprawled belly-down over an ottoman, said “It is peculiarly... regular”

“and damn too frequent” Raiolal interjected, “to be random.”

The lady of the house said “It do be a suspicion worth taking to heart, but what force could move such happenings to its will, that you'd be wise to move again' it?”

“I don't follow...”

“One thing of harm you four share, the making of that wild'n up north had its berth in ancient times. You said a time or two that there be no sky's destiny touch'n you. What power can call back so far an not hold to the ways of fate? None I know. But if such a one there be, what way can you stand to it?”

“Am I supposed to just over roll and take it then?”

“Nay lad, you are full on the three-fold path. It's not to fight, nor to fold, you walk the path the best you can. That's all anyone can do.”

Raiolal asked the obvious. “Three-fold path?”

The old healer answered “Chance, Will, and Destiny. Three paths lay before each man to walk on as he may. Each step can be any way on any path, no matter the step before. The lesser destinies are not held to a particular man. Fields are sown and people fed no matter that a single man chose to fight or farm or squander, but a willful man born to the plow who steps with care and determination may well make himself a king.

“Now you lad, and your master there, seem full on your way to somewhere, but where exactly is no so certain. Without a sign, or a know'n of the way, you can't know where your paths lead. Walk ahead, or stand your ground, the only thing you know for sure, soon or late each man finds his grave. Everything betwixt then and now, you make of it what you can while what ever else there is does the same.”

“That is an interesting philosophy Dame,” Carteher said formally, “but what does it serve?”

Raiolal, sitting next to Carteher on the floor, elbowed him in the ribs.

“P'shaw,” the lady of the house took up the thread. “It'd be simple to follow your path if you know where it head, you'd walk or flee and know what you were making of your life. For some, their small fate as farmer or woodsman would see itself through no matter. For others there no be escape from one end alone, no mind where they step.

“These two, and likely any who spend more than a nonce in their same shade,” she looked pointedly at Carteher and Raiolal, “are loose from the ways. Something may be pulling you to an end, or pushing you away from one, but an end isn't the end.”

If Seth had been in better mind he would likely have paid no attention to the mysticism's of these simple folk. Slaves don't have much use for destiny. Then again he didn't feel much like a slave most of the time any more. In a way that thought made him feel like he'd lost more than he'd gained. Things in his life weren't lining up right any more. Perhaps that was the whole point they were trying to make.

“So what do I do?”

“Same as everybody else... the best you can.”

“And if you get any real answers you count yourself lucky.” Raiolal dropped into the end.

That seemed to be about it. Nobody had much left to say after that keen summation.

* * *

The next day went by without a hitch. Seth spent most of it nearly cramming food into Morgan while introducing the drug into his system very slowly. The food was more important than the drug at that point. He was all skin and bone. Once Morgan was fully dosed it was going to be very hard to get him to eat.

The next day was the first chance Seth had to see to his own needs. He spent a tiny amount of what they had to get leather and firewood. He cut a fresh Birch sapling himself and borrowed some tools. By the early afternoon he had everything together and he set aside everything else on his mind as went to work on new sheathing and hilts for his blades.

His procedure was a little irregular because he didn't need to worry about the temper of the steel. His plan was to split the sapling off center and lash mismatched sections together to make wide, flat, tapering sandwiches of the correct length. He'd heat the blades and then sear out the center of the sheath. While that was it basically, the actual doing involved a lot of cutting, tying, untying, and hard work. But he was really ready to enjoy some simple hard work for a change.

Sometime in the middle of yet another check-fitting of his work Seth saw Raiolal and Carteher return from somewhere out in the wood. Nothing unusual there. What was unusual was what they did next. Raiolal got out a stiff brush and started scrubbing Carteher for all he was worth.

It looked painful, but Carteher seemed to really be enjoying it.

If Raiolal hadn't been so obviously flushed with effort it would have been almost sexual. At the same time there was also something of a ritual about it. Seth did his best not to stare outright but his own work went a lot slower than it should have. They were out of clear earshot but there came a time when Raiolal simply had to rest. Being crouched down like that and working his arms continuously was not the kind of strain that a human could take indefinitely.

When he took his break Raiolal sort of sagged to his feet and started over toward Seth. Seth felt himself flush slightly in voyeurs guilt.

“Damn that's tiring, my arms feel like noodles.”

Seth grunted, “What was all that?”

“Scrubbing off his extra skin.”

Seth just gaped a minute.

“Where he's from its all desert and swamp. What the blowing sand doesn't scour away the odd bit of wet goo soaks off. His people grow extra skin fast and thick. Out here there's nothin ta take off the extra, so I brush it off.”


“Wouldn't do to have his lordship go'n about all flaky.”

“It's `His Lordship' now?”

“Oh, just sometimes. Just in fun.” Raiolal paused a second. “I guess you don't know. He's an ambassador or something. More rank than you might think anyway. He's in these parts to learn our ways. Very political.”

“So how'd you come to be his... ah...” Seth didn't want to use the word lackey, but that's what came to mind. Seth started to pay a little more attention to his work. “What is it between you two anyway?”

Raiolal stayed real quiet for a long time, long enough that Seth looked up at him, then he started back in.

“Um, after our trip... Well things got kind'a strange in my head, you know? Nightmares... I'd wake up yell'n my fool head off and not know'n why. Then again, I'd get to noticing things... and feel'n all different and such...”

When he just kind of tapered off Seth said “go on.”

“Well, comes one night, not three weeks after we got back, and I'm in the guard house, putt'n my problems to the mug. It's in the wee hours and in slides old four-feet, look'n like he hasn't slept a wink, and that's not so easy to see with him on the floor like that, but I see it. So he sets himself out on a bench and I get him a mug and we get to talking.

“Seems he's been having the same problems sleeping and seeing. After that night we keep on talking and getting to know each other. Well nothing much changes except we find out we get along pretty well and we get to sleeping better when we're near by. When things don't get all that better for a few more weeks, we head for the capital where we can meet with some of his people that might be able to help.

“From there on things start heading toward the abnormal.”

“Why `from there on'?”

“We've been running afoul of one thing after another.

“Somewhere along the way His Honor starts teaching me the ways of his people. The way they fight and work in the wild and so on. Anyhow, what with one thing or another, it took seven months for us to reach the capital. Seems we had to run across just about anything that might be on the road before we could get off of it, so I knew that what you were saying two nights back made a lot of sense. We just got there, the capital, about a month back. There is just enough time to get us both checked out tip to tail, with nothing found, when we get pulled aside by the court and sent on after you two.”

Seth put his work down carefully. “Why didn't you say something night before last?”

“We both wanted to keep our council till we could talk it over. It's awful queer the way he and I are of a mind nowadays.”

“That is clearly not the only thing. Did it all start for you both at the same time?”

“Yes, first night back from the mist.”

Seth thought for a heartbeat or two. “No, your nightmares started the first night in the mist. Remember, you and he wandered off, Morgan said he would have too...”

“Have you two been having nightmares too? From the mist?”

“No, not from the mist, mine come from before that, but more intense and much less regular as what you've been having. Morgan's problems seem more fleshy.”

Raiolal grunted.

* * *

When, by the third day, none of the dire possible harms came to pass, curiosity began to overcome caution in the minds of the locals. For some unlucky few that meant that overdue chores were waiting to be done about the homestead, but for the rest it meant a chance to see something relatively exotic. The first evident wave of gawkers was a brace of boys of about eight years, who Seth spotted behind a fence rail, watching him flash his sword hilts with leather.

Seth went about his business, giving them no sign that he could hear or see them. The raucous colors of his recurrent tattoos had fascinated him for some time, years ago, during their first lifetime. About the only word he really could make out of the boyish muttering was “dare” and when he heard it he turned slightly so they wouldn't see him grin.

Before either of the boys screwed up the courage to do whatever the dare was, Raiolal and Carteher appeared from somewhere and began to practice combat in an open space near by. Seth heard his erstwhile audience move off to the new fascination. Seth didn't blame them at all. The other two were a much better show. After a short time he put down his work and started to watch them himself.

Seth had never seen a combat style quite so strange in all his life. Carteher was exercising Raiolal, taking him through a drill that involved a lot of four-legged maneuvers. Rolls and flips, lashing out or kicking with any limb seemingly at any time. It took Seth a little while to figure out some of what was so bizarre about what he was watching. They were fighting with the same style, but at the same time they weren't. When Carteher swept out during a spin, trying to use his tail to take Raiolal off his feet, Seth suddenly had a lesson in comparative physiology. There was a huge component to the style that used the massively muscular and horizontally agile tail. While Raiolal had no such tail to strike with, he could reach many postures faster and in fewer moves than Carteher because he didn't have the heavy tail to manage. His counter to Carteher's tail sweep was an in-place back-flip that started and ended on all fours and made use of both the no-tail factor and the fact that the human spine could bend backwards far further and more effectively than a Wythria's.

Seth began to half-shadow Raiolal's movements the way a dancer's understudy watches a performance from the wings. It didn't take him long to recognize that, had he never seen it before, someone using this style could have probably taken him fairly easily. He also saw that some of Raiolal's adaptations and shortcuts could be even further improved by use of some of his dance-like combat training. Maybe so anyway.

At a break Carteher waived Seth into their set. From there on the mock combat began to look more like acrobats practicing an exotic routine. Even though they stopped frequently to test or argue technique, the encounter slowly evolved into a punishing exchange of knowledge. There was, perhaps, a clearing of pent angers and frustrations that went beyond the immediate, but whatever it was, they each came away with deep bruises, light hurts, and clearer selves.

By the time they finally broke there were more than the original two onlookers. A few of the braver ones approached Raiolal; Seth and Carteher were both still too different for the townsfolk. That day set a pattern for the ones to follow, but without the deeper hurts, and with a steadily growing audience. Only a few of the onlookers ever approached Seth or Carteher but Raiolal's following was ardent, especially with some of the young women.

Seth eyed the daily gathering beside their workout area as they broke from practice. Raiolal headed directly toward the small crowd, they'd gathered near his gear. Seth “accidentally” paralleled Carteher off the field. He was developing a new respect for Raiolal. The man had been subdued, almost mousy, on their trip to the mist, but he'd lately seen the man hinted-at the first time he'd seen him. A man that would face down an otherworldly creature alone to buy his companions time. If Seth didn't miss his mark, some of the locals were growing smitten with him.

Carteher was no fool, he marked Seth's path from the field as an indication that he wanted to talk. When Seth stopped a discrete distance from the others, to awkwardly peel off the gloves he'd just started to wear, Carteher came up on him.

“What troubles you?” Carteher asked.

Seth crouched to make conversation easier while he worked the stiff leather off his hand. “Raiolal's following.” He nodded at the small group which had surrounded their third.

“What of them? They seem to be no harm.”

“No... I'm worried about Raiolal.”

Carteher's face was different than a man's so it took Seth a minute to understand that he was seeing complete incomprehension there.

“I don't think it would be... polite... for Raiolal to get... involved with any of the local folk, especially any of these young ones.”

“Ah, you mean, um,” Carteher searched for a translation. “coupling for entertainment. My people don't do this, but Raiolal seemed well versed in those customs when he explained them to me.”

“There's the problem. I don't think it would be wise for him to get any more `versed' while we are here. It would offend these people.”

“I don't pretend to fully understand all the local customs but he seemed quite confident in his knowledge. We have never had any difficulties.”

“I just hope he doesn't do more than flirt with those young women.”