Prologue: May I Have This Dance?

In which Redcaps are very busy, and very confused.

Night is falling, damapened by a gentle snow. Silent as the night itself, a small red fox follows a man and his donkey. The man is rotund, wheezing a little as he crests the hill. The fox wrinkles her nose disapprovingly. The donkey is in much better shape, and has a red hat perched jauntily on his head. The man chats away as he leads his donkey, puffing and wheezing against the chill air.

"The White Lady is an odd place, lad. More mail's been coming out of there this past autumn than I've seen in decades. She's well near Winter. May not be mail out o' there much longer. I'm not one for traveling at night, but I thought it best not to stay there, if you catch my meaning." The donkey whuffs in agreement, and trudges onward.

The two plod through the rapidly accumulating snow. Finally, the man stops to set up camp, carefully building a shelter and a fire as the fox looks on intently through the trees. As darkness falls, the donkey's ears perk up, and he walks to the edge of their camp and looks out to the road.

"What's that, lad?" says the rotund man. "Look, it's just the night. Nothing to fear." He holds up his lantern squinting out towards the road. Seeing some form in the darkness, he frowns and then walks to the edge of their little camp, looking out to the road.

"Oh, sh-!" Before them, just off their camp and blocking the road as if it had grown out of the night, is a massive wall. It is of smooth white marble and no snow falls upon it. Man and donkey stand agape, staring at what now blocks their path.

With a satisfied shake of its tail, the fox trots away into the darkness.

On a similar, yet different, road…

The wind howls over the rocky landscape and down through a wide gap in the mountains with a road winding it’s way along the bottom. Shadows are long and large as the sun droops down to touch the western horizon. At the bottom of the gorge, the distant clop of hooves can be heard, accompanied by the rumble of a wagon and the periodic protest of a squeaky wheel. As the noise gets closer, it clarifies into two sets of hoof beats echoing off of the rough stone sides of the ravine.

A rider can be seen rounding a curve in the road. He sits stiffly on his horse, his back straight and eyes forward, totally oblivious to the cold wind coming off the mountain and the weariness of the mount underneath him. The dappled grey mare hangs her head low as she plods along resolutely down the road. Behind them follows a rugged chestnut mountain pony, pulling a cart with the vocal wheel.

Sinking ever lower, the sun finally disappears over the horizon. The rider abruptly vanishes from the back of the lead horse, leaving only a set of saddlebags behind. It takes the grey a few more steps to realize that her burden is missing, and she lays her ears back in annoyance. Stopping in the middle of the road, the mare closes her eyes for a couple minutes before lifting her head up to check out the surroundings. The pony, who stopped when the lead horse did, knickers, Rest? Snorting, Not yet, the grey mare moves onward again, this time more alert.

The two horses don’t go very far before they come upon a cleared area on the side of the road, obviously used as a campsite many times before. Leading the pony and cart into the middle of the clearing, the dappled mare knickers, Rest, and the little horse stops, noticeably happy to be done for the day. The larger horse stands still for a moment before she begins to shrink and change. Her front legs come off the ground and grow hands, fast enough to catch the saddlebags before they slide off her reduced torso and crash to the ground. Letting the bags down gently, the woman shivers violently as a gust of wind comes blowing through the gorge. Teeth chattering, she mumbles something to herself as she walk a little ways away from the pony and cart, trying to keep her arm steady as she reaches down to touch the ground.

At first, in the low light, it looks like the ground starts to flow up from where she touched it, spreading out in a line around her and meeting on the other side of the pony and wagon. The woman takes a step back as the circle shoots upward, curving inward to create a closed dome above. In no time, a round cabin is sitting in the middle of the campsite, it’s walls the white of birch bark, and it’s roof darker and rougher, like maple. A single wooden door forms in the wall where the woman was, the only opening in or out.

Inside the cabin, a small flame comes to life on the rocky floor, dimly illuminating a table and set of chairs that appeared along with the formation of the cottage. Still shivering, the woman mutters something as she steps over to the wall once more and touches the smooth white bark, sending a blast of warm air racing through the room. Warmer now, the woman walks to her dropped saddlebags as she steps on a sharp rock in her bare feet. Cursing and hopping on one foot, she reaches the bags and pulls out a big hooded grey robe and a pair of shoes. The pony, still attached to the cart, whinnies at her as she dresses.

“I’m coming,” she says tiredly as she puts on the second shoe and walks over to unhitch the pony. Free at last from the wagon, the pony starts sniffing around the woman’s robes, looking for a treat to eat. Pushing the pony’s head away, the woman walks around to the back of the cart, stopping to stare at the shrouded figure lying in the cart bed. The woman stands there, frozen in place, until the pony comes over to nuzzle her hand, snorting loudly into it. Frowning at her slimy hand, she wipes it on her robes before she starts rummaging around in the cart for some feed. Finding what she is looking for, she doles out some oats to the hungry pony and starts rubbing down the mare’s flanks as the pony eats.

The woman finishes by checking the pony’s feet for stones, and puts everything back in the wagon, determinedly avoiding looking at the still body. Walking over to her saddlebags, she pulls out a water skin and some travel food, including an apple. She takes the food and slumps down in one of the chairs, taking a bite out of the dry travel bread. Before long, all the food is gone except for the apple, which gets handed over to the waiting pony. Sighing heavily, the woman rests her arms on the table, bending her head as tears silently start to fall.

Hans wasn’t quite sure what to say. “Zener?”

The short, blond man who was standing in the middle of Hans, Jacob, and Hurtgar and eating a pear swallowed the bite of pear he had in his mouth and shook his head. “Ze-nO. Zeno.”

Hans shook his head. The blond man must not understand. Though how he could not with Jacob and Hurtgar pointing bows at him from two sides made no sense to a thinking man. “Take out your money,” Hans said again.

The blond man said some words and did something odd with the fingers of his free hand and then he wasn’t where he was. He was standing over not far from Jacob. “Zeno did not believe things move.” The blond man smiled and wagged his half eaten pear at Hans. “He said motion was not possible. Motion, to his mind, was an infinite number of steps and sequences which could never all be completely completed.”

“In-fa-nit?” said Hans.

“A big number. Lots and lots.” The blond man explained.

Jacob was turning and Hurtgar tried to adjust his aim. The blond man began to walk winder shins around Jacob, making Jacob turn and putting Jacob between Hurtgar and himself.

“Don’t shoot you fool,” Hans roared at Hurtgar.

The blond man said something else, did something else, and now he was behind and to the left of Hurtgar. “If a man and a tortoise were to race, and the man gave the tortoise a head start, in order to win, the man would first have to travel to the spot the tortoise had started from. Then the man would have to travel to the spot the tortoise would have traveled to in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise had started from. And then the man would have to reach the point the tortoise had reached in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise reached in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise had started from. And then the man would have to reach the point the tortoise had traveled to in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise had traveled to in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise had traveled to in the time it took the man to reach the spot the tortoise had started from. And, well…”

During all his words the blond man had ducked neatly around Hurtgar and then was gone again. Hans followed the sound of the blond man’s hateful, hateful voice and saw him sitting in the branch of a tree. The blond man smiled and said something, Hans wasn’t sure what. And then the blond man was quiet. The four men just stood there for a second, each side taking the other one in.

“Move you fools!” Hans yelled. “Shoot!” But by the time Hurtgar and Jacob got their bows back up the blond man was gone from the branch and standing a few steps ahead of Hans.

“And then the man would have had to travel-“the blond man was saying.

Hans saw Hurtgar and Jacob turn. He tried to yell NO but instead he heard himself yelling “SHOOT!!!”

The blond man was standing a few feet from where he had been standing. He, and Hurtgar, and Jacob all looked at Hans, lying on the ground, with an arrow in his throat and another in his stomach. The blond man took a last bite from his pear and tossed the core aside. He stepped over, bent down, and closed Hans' eyelids. The blond man stood, turning to Hurtgar and Jacob, spreading his hands wide. “I’m really very sorry about the loss of your friend.” His smile was soft and his voice sincere. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Report on the translation of the log of Korvin ex Mercere.

Master, your humble servant begs that you accept this report on our progress on the book you have given us. It has proved very educational in our attempts to break other codes from this House. Here is what we have so far.

(written in Mercere house cypher#7)
We arrived at the White Lady with just after Yule. It would have more difficult without our magic to help keep everyone warm and in good spirits. I traveled with one of my teachers,Faustulus and several other Redcap house mates (Rowena, Ursula and Kanutus). We found that the chapter house was already set up. The Covenant had given us an old building and the Redcaps under Alcyone had fixed it up, set up rooms and even an area for the portal in the basement. After we had shed our packs and got some warm food and drink we were greeted by Cato of Jerbiton. He is a senior mage at the Covenant and seemed very friendly. Even to the point of bringing a barrel of wine for everyone. He pulled me aside to warn me about Jacopo, whom, according to Cato, is standing in the way of making this Covenant great. We will be busy for the next several days taking measurements and performing the ritual for the portal.

[i]Master, the next several days are written in a cypher we have not been able to break. We work diligently on it since we believe it will have some insight into the preparations of this portal.

(written in Mercere House cypher#7)[/i]
That is done. The portal is functional and the wards and passphrases are set. It is much easier casting magic here than in Harco. There you could just feel the magic. Here it is almost palpable. Faustulus, Alcyone and Lucina take their leave with 4 other house mates. Rowena, Ursula, Kanutus and Hekuba stay with me to help run this satellite house. I wish they had taken Ursula. Lying with her is like sleeping with a board. Feels like work. Rowena, on the other hand is like her namesake. A joy.

(written in Mercere House cypher#33) This has not been completely broken We have a feel for the next page. We think he was given a lab that had been another mage. They had to hire a professional intruder to clean it out. Other than that he mentions Rowena quite a bit.

Your humble servant.

The day had been magnificent, a fine strong wind blowing the fallen snow in lacework across the rolling slopes, crystals clinging to crystals in delicate growing blades that, he was sure, the unseen fae had some small hand in. On the road to the covenant, far below, the upper part of a small black figure labored in the growing cold and blue shadows, kneedeep in last night's fall.

The mage stood, and walked along the cornice where he had been resting, a gulf several men tall below him before the steep rocky ridge reappeared from beneath the curved lip, unencumbered by the heavy clothes one might expect for such a location. He had been high up on the slopes that day, to the edge of a glacier and within it, his thoughts as deep and cold and meandering as any of the crevasses he navigated with casual ease.

But now his path led him down, back toward the covenant, tho' it was hardly near at hand, and his path and the road need not be the same. His thoughts - his stomach, truth to tell - were turning toward dinner, and a fine fire and a warm bowl of stew; he did not relish leaving the cold, for he loved the warmth no more, but appreciated it still.

It was then that his thoughts were broken by... a feeling. The type of feeling that makes one's eyes open of a sudden at night, and listen, and not be tempted to shut again until they have heard, or not heard. The very snow under his feet was shifting, sliding - he knew what this was, and could see it was large, too large for him to stop, and it was gaining speed. A rising anger grew in him with himself that he had not foreseen the danger, not been more crafty of the ways of the slopes, and had allowed himself to walk into such a position, even tho' he also knew it was at times impossible to avoid, and that he was in no real danger. With a word and a gesture, he was back on the windswept icy ridge, watching the majesty of the wrath of the mountain unfold below him, rumbling like his unforgiveness of his own mental errour.

And only then remembering the figure, below. His gaze turned, and watched it disappear in the leading edge of distant roar, a cottony froth from where he stood, only able to struggle a few paces and then throw an arm up in futile defense against the onslaught.

The mage waited until the inevitable had passed, the roar of the snows had softened and hissed into silence, and then in a heartbeat he was standing down near the road, eschewing the slopes even as the last of the snow-dust settled. He cast his gaze this way and that, his gaze penetrating the snows as if the clearest pond on a sunny day, and spotted what he was looking for - the figure, cast like a ragdoll, now some hundred paces below the road and under several man-heights of snow. In a blink, he was there, and with a gesture the figure was exposed, the tons of snow and ice now only a thin grey mist curling in the evening winds from the exposed hole.

He strode down into the pit, and felt for the life pulse - dead. He frowned a bit, and wondered what the person's purpose was that brought them this way at this late hour, and heaved a sigh. For all his power, it did nothing to save this life. Many die on the mountains, some unfound, some unmourned, and he did not regret this loss, but his inability to stop it. He wondered if, had his learnings not been ended and then begun again on a different track...

He stooped, lifted the figure in his arms, and carried it back up to the road, now himself laboring, at times thigh-deep, as any mundane would. He could see where the road was under the new fall, and set the cooling clay aside and uncovered the path again in a few short minutes, the entire length that had been lost, now clean and free under the tall shoulder of dusk-blue snows.

The corpse he left by that roadside, and returned his path toward home, and his thoughts toward dinner. He would remember to mention it to the seneschal when next he saw him.