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Hand of the Plague
Author's note: This story has taken many incarnations. The cultures of the races have gone from Italian to Greek to French to English to Irish. The names likewise. This is, I think, it's best state.
The baby on their doorstep was oddly colored by Human standards. What little hair he had was white as an old man's, and his skin was a strange dark grey. This made all the more startling by the baby's gray eyes, intelligent, and bright as a silver coin. Lord Geoffrey Carrick, the man on whom's doorstep the baby was left, sure that there was Mage blood in the child. And while his wife, Philippa, may have a soft heart for the odd little foundling, Geoffrey was quite sure that he would bring only trouble.
Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But some day.
The baby was found as the couple and their only son were coming home from the Wintersend party at the royal palace in the center of the kingdom's capital. Wrapped in a threadbare blanket and cradled by snow, his skin had a slightly bluish cast to it as Philippa scooped him into her arms and held him close to her warmth.
"Geoffrey!" She gasped, cupping the child's cheek with her hand. "It's a baby!" Her husband, their sleeping son on his back, peered over her shoulder.
"What's a baby doing on our doorstep?" He wondered aloud as he followed Philippa into their warm house. He noticed that she held the child the way a mother holds her newborn child, and felt a small spot of apprehension. "We should take him down to the orphanage."
Her reaction to the suggestion startled him. She drew up to full height (which was quite tall) and glowered at her husband, still holding the child to her breast.
"I will not take this child to the orphange. Have you seen that place? It's run down, it's filthy, the children there are under-fed and loveless, and the caretakers simply don't care!" Her scowl grew more intense. "His mother obviously left him here so he could have a better life. You know the Lower Town; they're all so suspicious and superstitious. This child wouldn't last a day with the other children." Geoffrey had to admit that that much was true. The Magi, the lowest class of the Human Kingdom, were tolerant of varying skin tones and eye colors. They should be; unlike the other races, their features and tones varied remarkably. The Humans that lived in the Lower Town with them were less broad-minded, and it wasn't uncommon for a darker skinned Mage to find themselves tied to a stake and burned before the guard could come save them.
What would happen to a child with hair the color of snow, dark gray skin, ands silver eyes, Geoffrey didn't care the think.
"He was left here so he could have a better life," Philippa continued passionately. "Not so he could be dumped off at the orphanage. Obviously if that was a good option for the mother, she'd have done that, not dropped him off here." Her tone abruptly became gentler. "We've been trying to have another child. Perhaps this child is the Holy Mother's gift to us."
"He's obviously Mage stock," Geoffrey protested, his voice low so as not to wake their son. "Look at his skin and hair. If the king knows we took in a Mage knowingly-"
"But we don't know he's a Mage, dear." Philippa said pointedly. "He's just a child we found on our doorstep. An odd child, but there's no actual evidence to suggest he's a Mage." She looked at the boy with more love than Geoffrey liked to see. "Maybe he's a half-breed or some such thing. Perhaps that's why he looks this way, but was left at our door."
"Maybe." Geoffrey said reluctantly. "But that doesn't change that there's a chance he's a Mage. And that if he is, there'll be hell to pay for taking him in. Are you sure you want to risk that?" Philippa looked from her husband, to her son, to the baby cradled in her arms. After a moments hesitation, she nodded.
"Yes," she said firmly. "We'll name him Nea."
Seven Years Later...
Morwen, one of the younger servents in Lord Geoffrey's house, was dusting when Nea came to her. The little boy had been a subject of interest for most, if not all of the household servents since he was found at the doorstep. As a baby, he was happy. As a young boy, he was intelligent, rather secretive, and more than a bit strange.
He had few friends. The lord and lady's first child, Thomas, considered Nea to be his younger brother regardless of blood or color. But Lord Geoffrey taught many children the art of swordplay, including the children of several nobles and the crown princess herself. The majority of these children, in the casually, obliviously cruel way of children, didn't look past the odd coloring before making their judgement. The main group of what could only be called tormentors was led by the princess herself, and they made fun of not just his skin, hair and eyes, but also his name, his origins, and fairly obvious Mage heritage.
It made Morwen sick to her stomach. At the age of twelve, she was the same age and Thomas, and several years older than Nea, and between the two of them, she and Thomas tried to help the younger boy. But they couldn't stop it all, particularly when the princess was involved, and the children were clever enough to time their attacks carefully, and make their attack purely emotional.
So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when, one day, little Nea came to her and tugged on her sleeve.
She turned and met his eyes. She didn't think his eyes were creepy, like the other children. She thought they were beautiful; thought he was beautiful, in his own way.
"Miss Morwen?" He said, his small voice polite and quiet. "I need your help with something."
"Oh?" Morwen said with interest. "What is it, Nea? Spilled something?" Nea shook his head seriously.
"No. It's something more serious than that." He took her by the hand and led her into the garden, away from the bustle of the kitchen. In was a cool spring night, the stars dancing overhead and the two moons beaming down like the eyes of the gods. The lady's garden was just beginning to blossom, and while some of the flowers were unfurling, the majority were still tight in their buds.
"What's wrong, Nea?" Morwen asked as the child released her and walked over to one of the tea rose bushes.
"Watch." Nea whispered, and he touched one of the buds with a frown of intense concentration.
It took several moments, long enough for Morwen draw a breath to speak, but then the tightly wound petals began to unfurl. Morwen gasped as the flower bared itself to the night sky, unnaturally open before any of its kin. Nea plucked it off the bush and gave it to Morwen gravely, though even in the dim light, the older girl could see the fear and desperation in his eyes.
"I'm a Mage," he said miserably. "The princess said that if I'm a Mage, I'll have to go to Lower Town."
"The princess doesn't know anything." Morwen said firmly, though even she heard the doubt in her voice. Nea's eyes filled with tears.
"I don't want to go to Lower Town," he said in a voice barely over a whisper. "It's scary there. I like it here. I love Mama and Papa. I love Tommy and little Alyss. I don't want to go." His voice broke and he burst out into tears. Morwen, the little flower still in her hand, stood with tears streaming her cheeks.
Still holding the flower, making sure it wouldn't fly away, she wrapped her arms around the child.
"Don't worry," she said. "I can help you. We'll learn together and you can hide it. They don't have to know."
Nea held on to her tightly, his sobs dragging themselves out of his throat. He looked up at her, eyes wide and shining.
"Really?" He asked shakily. Morwen nodded encouragingly.
"Yup. I'm learning right now. You can learn too. I'll teach you." Nea sniffled and wiped the tears on his sleeve.
"But... we'd be lying to Mama and Papa..." He said slowly.
"Yes..." Morwen said, equally slowly. "But sometimes a lie is better in the long-run than the truth." Nea took a few deep breaths and wiped his eyes some more, so that no remnents of his tears remained. Then he nodded.
"Okay. I'll learn. What first?" Morwen smiled at her new apprentice.
"Tomorrow, we learn about water."
Twelve Years Later...
Menw hunched over the prone figure of the noblewoman, his hope for her recovery dwindling with every passing moment. No matter what healing he used, nothing was working, and he could feel the Dwarf king's eyes on his back, watching him far too closely for comfort.
The room was brightly lit with a combination of gently glowing crystals and candles, and was completely silent. The Dwarf king, a characteristically stout, strong old Dwarf with a heavily braided salt and pepper beard and dark eyes, dressed in long robes of scarlet and sable, the royal colors. The crown prince was dressed in a simpler outfit; a scarlet shirt and leather pants. He was barefoot, and his beard was little more than blond stubble on his face. The husband of the woman Menw was trying desperately to save paced anxiously back and forth, chewing his fingernails to the quick.
Menw himself was far taller and thinner than any of the men, or even the women, in the room. Though dressed in far simpler clothing, the fact that they were dyed the royal colors marked him as a Mage slave of the royal household. Menw had been Prince Malcolm's "pet" since they were both small, which had led to an inevitable friendship. When you're young, you don't understand the concept of slavery and civil rights, and by the time Menw was old enough to realize his best friend owned him, it was too late to hate him.
He could hate the others though. And he did. But that didn't mean he wanted this woman to die. One of the reasons he came to help was because he remembered the noblewoman, Gwen, from around the palace. She was kind to everyone, even the household slaves, and had a cheer that infected everyone. The palace would be a much sadder place without her to brighten its halls.
"How much longer?" Her husband said, ceasing his pacing and shuffling in place. Menw shook his head.
"Nothing I'm doing is working," he said quietly. King Uther stepped several paces closer to him, and he resisted the urge to shudder or draw away.
"My son tells me you're the best healing slave in Hinterland," the king said darkly. "And yet you can't even heal this woman?"
"This isn't a normal illness, Your Majesty." Menw said, his patience slowly wearing away and being replaced with a cool kind of fear.
"How so?" Prince Malcolm asked sharply, walking over to the bed in quick, metranomic steps. His presence calmed Menw somewhat, and he spoke a bit more confidently.
"I don't know how to explain it, Mal. Excuse me; I don't know how to explain it, Your Highness." The king scowled and Malcolm hid the barest hint of a grin. "It's almost like the seals." The seals were pieces of paper that were infused with magic, used to subdue Mage criminals, and the more fiery Mage slaves. Each paper is filled with enough magic to cancel out any spell the Mage in question attempted to use, and ultimately rendered the Mage helpless, as the seals also acted as bindings and gags.
Menw shuddered. The illness, whatever it was, was magical. And it was strong enough in magic to cancel out whatever healing spell he attempted to use. While he didn't mean to be arrogant, it was safe to say that he was one of the better healers in the massive Dwarven city. At the very least, he was good enough to act as the royal healer. The fact that his spells meant nothing to this illness was disconcerting to say the very least.
"So it's a magical illness?" Malcolm asked skeptically. "How can a sickness have magic?" Menw shrugged.
"I don't know, Your Highness. But I can't explain how else my spells wouldn't-"
Suddenly, the woman's back arched, and a gush of blood exploded from her lungs. Menw leapt to his feet and shoved the two royal men back, getting out of the radius of the spurt in time.
The woman's husband wasn't so lucky. The bright red liquid splattered against his shirt, and he flinched as it hit his face as well. The woman thrashed for a few moments longer, and then was still.
Menw grimly felt for a pulse. He sighed and shook his head.
"She's dead, my lord. I'm sorry." The husband shook violently, clearly in shock. As the king went to him and gripped his shoulder, Malcolm went to his friend as Menw closed the woman's eyes.
"You did all you could," he said, rather lamely. Menw smiled sadly at the prince.
"Yes, but it still..." He trailed off, too tired and sad to think of the right word. Malcolm clapped him on the arm in understanding.
"Come on," he said quietly. "Let's cover her up and get some rest-"
He was cut off by a horrific, choking cough. Both Menw and Malcom turned to see the nobleman on his hands and knees, one hand holding himself up, the other pressed against his mouth. Blood, bright red and thick, oozed from between his fingers.
Uther grabbed his son, and his son grabbed Menw.
"It's contagious!" Uther cried. "We have to get out of here!" Menw felt his stomach drop as the three of them ran for the guards, leaving the violently ill man with his wife's corpse.
The Human Kingdom's capital was alive with music, dancing, and fireworks. The cobbled streets were lined with booths, minstrels, acrobats and fire eaters; the air was heavy with sents of sweetbread, meat and candy, and the sound of talk, music and laughter. In the Lower Town, it was a night of drunken revelry and more than a few bar fights. The Upper and Middle Towns were the scene of the Summerday festival; the aforementioned street performers and booths.
Two young men slipped through the crowd. One was tall and visibly strong, with dark hair, dark eyes, a ruggedly handsome face, and richly embroidered clothing. His companion was shorter and slenderer, with silver-gray eyes, white hair, and disconcertingly dark gray skin. He too was dressed richly, though while the first young man wore green, the other wore white.
Despite the second man's odd appearance, the two of them made their way through the jovial throngs without much attention. Both of them had lived in the city for so long that even the shorter young man's oddness had become something in the landscape.
The taller man turned to his companion.
"Remember the plan, Nea?" He asked briskly. Nea nodded.
"Jump him with absolutely no finesse and lots of fists and kicks. Your subtlety knows no bounds, Tommy."
"Hey." His brother turned and scowled. "Tom or Thomas, remember?"
"So sorry, Thomas." Nea said, gravely. Thomas rolled his eyes.
"Smart ass. Let's go."