The village was quiet with the silence that hung like clouds
before a storm, that was found in the eye of a hurricane;
an unnatural stillness that preceded danger. Nature herself
sensed that something was amiss. The stars burnt in the sky,
like ashes blown from a fire; guttering and flickering by
a swollen moon. A gusty wind blew scraps of leaves into the
village, wrapping them around feet and legs, beating with
twigs against doors. To the west, the mountains hunkered -
twisted, jagged shards of magma pressed through the earth
like fists. The river moved darkly through the woods, sliding
through trees and rocky clearings.
"He is coming." The woman whispered to the child
beside her, "The mage Magnus comes tonight." Plump
and rosy, she was sitting by the fire, hands moving as she
sewed charms into the woollen blanket. They would protect
her baby from the leBeau curse, he had told her, although
they had deprived her of sufficient food for a fortnight.
"'M scared, mother."
The boy clung to her skirts, hiding between the folds of
fabric as if it would save him from the Mage. She essayed
a smile, attempting to comfort the child.
"No need to be as long as he gets that which he requested,
"But, mother, he wants everything we have," her
older daughter, cynical and tempestuous, commented. The younger
generation had not lived through the curse, had not known
how much Magnus had done for them. Scared that the Mage would
hear her and withdraw his protection from her kith and kin,
she slapped her quickly and efficiently across the face. The
girl swore and howled, and the woman continued in a low, angry
voice. "Better that than to risk his displeasure. Better
that than to have those evil..."
She stopped short as a sudden flare of orange-red lit the
village, blocking out the flickering stars and swollen moon.
A false dawn that sillouetted the figure in billowing robes
who was emerging from the sky. The Great Mage. Crossing herself
surreptitiously and gathering her children around her, she
walked towards the town square, whispering:
"He is come."
Mouth curling in a sneer, Magnus looked around the congregated
villagers. A mass of brown and green, they milled beneath
him, burdened with parcels and bundles. A low hum emanated
from them, punctuated by the shrill, high mewling of an infant.
In the distance, fires burnt in front of their thatched, stone
houses, revealing vegetable gardens, chicken coops and flower
beds. The paved streets were worn and dusty, marble showing
through the mud.
Pathetic, parochial simpletons he thought, seeing
their homespun clothes and broad smiles. Their hands, calloused
with work and rough with the struggle of survival, were held
up to him in blessing. Wanting to acheive a greater effect,
he called for a light wind to blow his scarlet cloak into
ripples along with his bleached-silk hair. Raising a jewelled
hand so that the lamps and fires caught the ruby ring he wore
on his middle finger, he relished the silence that settled
over the town.
"My people, it is time." He smiled, "Bring
forth your gifts to me and I shall bless you in equal proportion."
A child came - stumbling, tripping - and deposited a small
bag of gold at the Mage's feet. He suppressed his distaste
for the grimy, flat-faced boy, clad in rags with a pouch of
charms around his neck. "For you, my lord."
He nodded, acknowledging the child's adulation. The pile
continued to grow steadily until it was a glittering carpet
at his feet. The tithing, of course, was more symbolic than
anything else. The villagers were farmers, fishermen, carpenters
- all poor, simple people who lived poor, simple lives and
gave their poor, simple money so they would be free from their
poor, simple curse. Absently, Magnus looked up at the villager
who was paying tribute to him. At her slender body beneath
the dull robe of homespun. At her emerald eyes which burned
with hatred. At her brown hair with a single streak of white.
No bobbing curtsies, bows or near genuflection from her; her
back was straight and she met his gaze with pride. Something
avaricious within him saw power within her - magic, hate or
something beyond both? - and wished to own it. Possess it
like a scepter or diadem; the mark of his reign. He smirked,
touching her cheek.
"What is your name, woman?"
"Sabrina." She slapped his hand away from her face,
glaring at him. His leer broadened.
"Most women would envy you, Sabrina," he savored
each syllable of her name, "I am giving you the opportunity
of a lifetime - the opportunity to become my wife."
"Never!" she spat, blood rising to her cheeks,
"I'm spoken for already, and, even if I wasn't, I would
never marry a sybaritic pig like you."
His grin became as cold as his steel-blue eyes as he leant
forward, whispering to her with loathsome intimacy: "Fortunately
for you, I like a woman with spirit."
He stood, addressing the village: "This woman shall
be my next tithe or your village shall be destroyed."
Sabrina's mouth opened in a horrified circle and tears began
to drip down her face, like rain down leaves. The Mage's smile
became wider - his reluctant bride would learn to love him,
would have to love him. He needed her. There was something
... indefinable about her that drew him to her, that necessitated
his possession of her. A silver luminescence, a glitter...
"Sir." A greying man stepped forward, worry evident
on his face, "Is there nothing else we can give you?"
Her father, the Mage wondered, or the person to
whom she was bespoken? If so, he would have to be eliminated.
It would not be appropriate for his wife to moon over this
senile dotard; to long for his trembling kisses and declarations
of affection. Still, the Goddess of Love\Hate worked in mysterious
ways ... The Mage was silent for a while, a sadistic smile
playing over his thin lips. It would not do to be seen as
unfair, yet he wanted to ensure that the other tribute was
"Yes, there is one thing. The horse of another color."
"Sir, that is just a legend. We cannot give you something
that does not exist."
The man was becoming angry, the Mage sensed, and he did not
feel like making an example of him on the night of his betrothal.
Besides, if his wife was to care for him, it might be best
not to destroy her father or lover in front of her people.
"Then prepare my bride for her wedding day, for I will
not take anything else." Magnus kissed Sabrina's lips.
Rainbows dancing through him. The scent of rain and cedar.
Swallows wheeling in an egg-shell sky. Freshness of spring.
He broke off, holding her shoulders to steady himself. Who
was this woman? He desperately tried to regain his composure,
unwilling to let the chattel see how much she had discomfitted
him. "Until then, beloved."
Smoke -- smelling of brimstone, corruption and incense --
swirled around the villagers, causing them to cough and choke.
When it dissipated, and the sky was once more clear, Magnus
had disappeared. Sabrina was sobbing angrily, wiping her mouth
against the sleeve of her dress.
"I'm sorry, daughter." The middle-aged man put
an arm around her waist, pulling her to him, "However,
look on the sunny side of the Goddess's face, he is a powerful
mage and more than wealthy. He will be a good husband to you
and you will be happy in time. You will learn to..."
"No, daddy. He can never make me happy."
She slipped out of his grasp and ran into the woods, white
stripe ghost-like against the darkness. The elder man made
as if to follow her, but was restrained by a twisted hand.
He turned angrily to face the crone in her purple robe and
silver amulets; wispy white hair floating around her sun-browned
face like clouds around a mountain.
"She won't become resigned to her fate." she said,
her blackened stumps of teeth bared in a smile, "I have
seen her future in the stars."
"And what is that, Madame Destiny?"
" Freedom." She replied simply. "Joy and freedom."
The highwayman leaned against the gnarled trunk of the oak-tree,
twirling a coin between two fingers. His horse -- a rich,
shimmering bay with a white star on its forehead -- was steaming
in the cold, night air as it ate mouthfuls of sweet grass.
Remy sighed, looking around for his somewhat late fiancee.
As always, coming to see her so close to the village was enough
of a risk without her being late, he thought ruefully, wanted
as he was by the Mage's guards and the Kingsmen. A twig snapped
behind him and he spun around, drawing his sword.
"As always, a warm welcome, sweetheart," Sabrina
quipped weakly, and he could hear an undercurrent of hopelessness
in her voice. She stepped into the pale moonlight and he could
see that she had been crying.
"What did that Goddess-damned Mage do this time?"
he stepped forward, sheathing the sword. He was all too aware
of how Magnus held the village hostage by the promise of protection;
how he demanded exhorbitant tithes and tributes for his services.
Remy did everything he could to alleviate some of the burden,
by passing on a percentage of his takings from the rich Lords
and toadies of the Mage, but it was never enough.
"You know the mage was here tonight?" he heard
her voice catch.
"Yes." He grinned, removing a heavy pouch from
his pocket, "If it's the money, don't worry. I lightened
the pockets of a few 'gentlemen' on the way here."
"It isn't the money," she said, "Magnus gave
it all back to us. To me."
"What?!" He sounded surprised, "So the old
snake has a heart, after all."
"Yes, he does." he saw her carefully constructed
compusure crumble, "Unfortunately, it's set on having
Cold dread slid down his heart, like a drink from one of
the icy streams of the underworld. Knowing and not knowing,
"What do you mean?"
"He wants my hand in marriage for his next tithe, or
he'll destroy the village."
"Goddess. And he won't take anyt'ing else?"
"Yes ... but ... but it doesn't even exist," she
sobbed. She was a slight woman, barely reaching his shoulders,
despite her forceful personality. Rumor spoke of her as a
shrew in a village where women were as meek and affectionate
as domestic cats. The child of a gypsy who still was governed
by the moon and the wind. A changeling. A dryad. Delicate,
vulnerable, she rested her streaked head against his chest
and her hand on his hip. He placed an arm around her, drawing
her to him, scared of losing her.
"Then we have to make it exist." He ran a hand
through her hair, like coarse silk, comforting her. "What
"The horse of another color..."
"Wow." The girl whispered as she looked around
the cave, "This is so incredibly beautiful."
The walls were studded with crystals, fragile, delicate,
crumbling at a touch. Light caught them and refracted in dancing
rainbow colors around the room. A sweep of an arm caused a
frisson of color to run from wrist to shoulder; a localized
rainbow rippling over her skin. As she walked, the light shifted
and swayed, like an aura. From the ceiling, stalactites hung,
joining with stalagmites, to form pillars and arches; gargoyles
"Come, child." The sorceress Ororo gestured to
the girl, "I have gathered all the crystals that I need."
Her apprentice looked up at her mistress with wide almond
eyes. Robed in white wool, threaded with silver and indigo,
her burnt honey skin was all the more golden. Startling, blue
eyes beneath a mane of pale hair crinkled at the corners in
"Coming..." She slipped a small piece of jade,
which she had found lying on the floor, into her herb pouch
where it sat snugly among the various packets of feverfew,
bramble, lavender and verbena. It was carved roughly into
the shape of a unicorn, with a spiralled horn made of diamond.
Four, long legs supported a graceful, elegant body, while
its mane -- frozen in stone -- blew out in ribbons. Holding
it filled her with bubbles of light; with the flush and thrill
of the hunt; with the balance of a well-made sword. Evidently,
it was magical. Once more, she debated whether or not to show
it to Ororo and decided against it. The sorceress would insist
that they found the rightful owner and she was too fond of
the ornament -- and the way it made her feel -- to relinquish
it so easily. The sorceress had already left the cave and
the apprentice ran after her with short, tripping paces. It
was a long walk back to the cottage in which they lived and
the sun was already beginning to tip the trees with crimson
and gold. In the distance, birds chattered and scolded; a
wolf lifted its snout to the moon and howled; a lazy wind
blew leaves in spirals. By the time they arrived home, a silver
moon hung high in the star-sprinkled sky. The sorceress unlocked
the door with a small golden key and rehung it around her
"Why did we need to get the crystals?" The apprentice
"Patience, Jubilation. All shall be revealed."
She answered distractedly, looking around the small room.
"Someone has been here ... I can sense another's presence."
"Yes. And he's made himself pretty comfortable
whoever he is." Jubilation commented wryly, noting the
trail of mud across the woolen carpet. It led into Ororo's
neat, aromatic quarters - more jungle than room with its blossoming
plants and creeping vines. Entering it, she pulled the sheets
down, crinkling her nose. A man was sleeping there, auburn
hair dark against the white pillow. He was as handsome as
any of the paintings Jubilation had seen of the twin-natured
Gods in her Gramayre, with fine features and a slight build.
Dark eyelashes curved against pale cheeks and his breath came
slowly and regularly.
"Hey, wake up." Jubilation shook him roughly, annoyed
with his intrusion into their personal space. Her hand came
up red with blood, and she gasped, wiping it swiftly on her
"I believe he is injured, child." Ororo came up
behind her, "Put this compress on his wound."
She handed the apprentice a viscous mass of green leaves.
They smelt vaguely astringent; the pungent odor causing her
eyes to water and her throat to catch. As with all Ororo's
medicines, pleasantness was secondary to efficaciousness.
The man winced slightly as Jubilation applied them to the
wound on the back of his head and his eyes opened. Red embers
glowed in a void of perfect blackness and she started. The
gramayre spoke of changelings who came from the netherworld
-- Blackheart's minions -- was he one of them?
"Am I in Empyrean?"
"No. You're in the sorceress Ororo's house." Jubilation
told him ironically, still pressing the sticky mess to his
"If you are Ororo, I need your help," he sat up,
clinging to the bedpost for support. He looked weak, but sane;
eyes blazing more strongly. Where he had been resting on the
pillow, a spreading stain of red blood remained.
"Firstly, explain who you are and why you are in my
house before you make demands," Ororo's voice was firm
as she held out a glass of steaming medicine. The same bitter
smell as the compress rose from them and he made a face, waving
it aside. Ororo raised an eyebrow and proferred the cup again,
which he finally took and drank, disgust wrinkling his nose.
Finally, she picked up a small glass jar of salve from a shelf
and applying it to his wound. Pale-green and oily, it smelt
like thyme and was a powerful antiseptic.
"It's a long story."
"We have time," Jubilation told him, intrigued
by both his arrival and appearance.
"My name is Remy du ... eh ... leBeau and I'm on a quest
to find the horse of another color." The young man sighed,
climbing off the bed and massaging his painful head, "I
come from a little village in the mountains a couple of leagues
from here. This village is 'protected' by a mage, Magnus.
Every month, in return for his patronage and support, Magnus
demands a tribute from the villagers. Usually, it isn't anything
too unusual -- gold, silver, jewels -- but this year, he wants
"Different?" Ororo asked, well-aware of the oft-times
bizarre requests of the these Magicians. Power was the ultimate
corrupter, and, more often than not, the frail human mind
could not resist the temptation to abuse it.
"Impossible more like it." Remy leBeau said, "The
mage has fallen in love with my fiancee and says that I must
give her to him, unless I can find the horse of another color.
Ororo held up a hand to silence Jubilation, forehead creasing
in thought. The child pouted and crossed her arms, angry at
having been humiliated by her mistress.
"If you do not, Remy leBeau?"
"He'll destroy the village. I came to you, because ...
because I thought you might know how to find it. Madame Destiny
said that you might be the only one who did, bar the Great
"Of course we'll help you!" Jubilation sprang to
her feet, recovering from her earlier indignation, "Just
think -- a real, live adventure!"
"Isn't an adventure, child." He looked grim, "Magnus
would do just about anything to stop us; including and preferably
killing us. His guards gave me this token of his affection
when they found me in the forest."
He gestured at his wounded neck which had stopped bleeding.
Ororo nodded in agreement. The boy was brave, honorable, but
evidently ill-equipped to undertake this quest. His clothes
and demeanour marked him as a highwayman, but defeating a
Sorceror would require more than swordplay and wits. In accordance
with her vows as a healer, she could not refuse him, because
her noncompliance would lead to his death.
"So where do we begin?" The apprentice asked, rubbing
her hands together.
"I shall use my scrying bowl to determine the position
of this horse of another color," Ororo removed a crystal
bowl from the shelf and poured a liquid into it. Purple and
viscuous, it shone greasily in the light, before Ororo added
a pinch of pink crystals. Suddenly, with the hiss of steam,
white mist rose from the bowl; the unfocussed image within
swirling, shattering and shifting.
"Rolo creh tonafo es rohem wohs."
She moved an elegant hand, decorated with a single silver
band, across the smoke. It dissipated, leaving a fluid behind
that was red and blue and gold all at once. Slowly, the picture
became clearer and the colors came together to form a green
horse with a silver horn. It neighed and stamped, before being
consumed by licking flames, which metamorphosed into a bird
of fire. Hooked talons grasped a branch, while a beak of burnished
gold tore the sky. Its wings shimmered in the wavering air,
while its tail was a trail of sparks.
The picture vanished into the reflection of Ororo's face,
which too disappeared as she turned to face the young man.
Resolutely, she told him:
"We must seek the help of the Goddess of Fire."
"But ... isn't she just a legend also?"
Jubilation laughed, "And basilisks turn you into feathers
when they look at you. Phoenix and Ororo are the best of friends."
"Although that is not quite the truth, I shall attempt
to explain." Ororo waved her hand, forming an image within
the purple liquid. The fists and fingers of the Promethean
Mountain appeared, bathed in fire, like the wars of dragons.
Superimposed on this panaroma, a slender red-head -- clad
in rich gold and gems - spread her arms and became a phoenix;
flicker and flare, "The Goddess of Fire lives within
the Promethean Mountains where the magma bubbles up through
the earth's crust and heats the world. It is a dangerous journey
-- one which I have only undertaken once to share in the Ceremony
of Balance. We were friends then."
"Why not now?" Jubilation asks, "Did you two
have an argument?"
"No, child. It is far more complex than a simple misunderstanding.
Like the fire, Phoenix is always changing. She exists for
a hundred years then gives birth to herself before dying.
At the moment, she is at the beginning of a new cycle. She
may not even remember me."
"None of that matters." The young man stood, "The
question is: can she help us?"
"Yes." She answered, "If we survive the journey."
"I once promised Sabrina that I'd walk through fire
for her. Never thought that it would be literal."
"Then what are we standing around her for?" Jubilation
jumped to her feet, scanning the room for potential travel
supplies, "We've got a date with a goddess."
"You are not coming." Ororo said, grimly, "It
is too dangerous."
"But I'm your apprentice..." the girl whined.
"Which is why you will stay here and go over your Gramayre
while I am away."
"But ... but..."
"Fine." Jubilation reluctantly capitulated, fully
intending to do anything but read the musty tome which was
her guide and compass. The sorceress moved briskly around
the room, filling flagons with water and packing robes and
food into a heavy, leather satchel. On top of the essentials,
she placed a few small pouches of herbs and some brilliantly
polished crystals. Satisfied with her ascetic luggage, she
told the girl to prepare her horse. Still sulky, the apprentice
fetched a stocky piebald from the makeshift stable around
the back, saddled it and placed the haversack into the saddlepacks.
"I'm afraid we don't have much time to waste," the
highwayman did similarly, checking that his supplies were
intact, "It's taken me a couple of weeks to find you."
"I shall take that as a compliment," Ororo said
with a smile.
"The bottom line is that next tithe is in a fortnight's
time. If we don't have the horse by then, I can kiss my fiancee
"Then let us start immediately. It will probably be
safer to travel by night in any event when the Kingsmen are
not as alert. Or awake."
Swinging her leg over the broad side of her mare, Ororo led
Remy into the forest.
Continued in Chapter
Disclaimer: All characters belong
to Marvel, but the world is mine. <cue Pinky and the Brain
themesong> Comments as always to firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a rewrite that I've been planning to do for a while,
because certain parts of the story are not cohesive enough
for my liking. I've taken all the accents out, because they
didn't make sense in context, have expanded on descriptions
and explained a few ... non sequiturs more adequately. The
heart of the story is still the same, though. :)
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