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"The Horse of Another Color"

The Horse of Another Color

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

This story is in progress

The sequel to this story is "The Sword and the Rose."

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Part 2

"Daughter?" A middle-aged man stepped into the small house, "Daughter? A parcel has arrived for you from leB ... uh ... the cursed keep. I believe it is your wedding dress."

He smiled at her, wiping his hands on his green-felt jerkin before running them through his salt-and-pepper hair. Having had time to consider the ramifications and implications of his daughter wedding Magnus, he reached the conclusion that this was a better match than any he could ever have imagined. The baker or blacksmith had both expressed an interest in Sabrina's hand but had soon realised that, despite her beauty and intermittent charm, her reputation for being something of a hellion was well-deserved. Since then, they'd settled down with two plump, docile blondes and were well on the way to huge families.

He sighed, looking at his daughter curled up in a chair with a novel in her hand. Her keen intelligence and perception did not make her an ideal match in an age where women were meant to serve as little more than a decoration or a breeding heifer.

"Go away." She looked up from her book briefly, fixing him with a gimlet eye, "I am not going through with it."

Anger filled him. How could this girl be so obtuse? Didn't she realise that the curse still hung over their heads, kept at bay only by the good temper and grace of the Mage Magnus? Didn't she realise what a great honour it would be to become the lady of the village, to take their protector as husband? Moreover, if he was married to a local woman, it would act as assurance that he never would leave.

"How can you be so selfish?" He pulled the book away from her roughly, flinging it onto the floor, "The safety of the whole village depends on you, yet you put your happiness above everything else."

Sabrina stood, planting hands on her hips, eyes narrowing. He could see her barely managing to keep her temper in check as her breath became shorter and shallower. Something inside him wrenched as he saw her mother's Gypsy temperament come to the fore, as she fixed him with a look that was both infinitely ancient and wild, something of the woods, paths and breezes, something that still sang and danced to the tambourine and zither. Alys, his wife, had been as lovely and as spirited.

"Daddy ... you don't understand. I can't."

"Why?" He asked, "You are a single woman of marrigeable age - there are no legal barriers to your betrothal."

"I am not single," she retaliated, thrusting a ringed finger in front of his face. The slender, gold band caught fire in the light, highlighting the two engraved letters in the metal.

"Stop pinning your hopes on that ... that..." He flung up his hands in exasperation, "rogue highwayman. Probably been killed by one of the good Mage's guards by now."

She smiled thinly, and her face became cold. Picking up her book from the floor with affected nonchalance and dusting it, "The Mage is the only one who is going to end up dead."

"Hush, child. It's treason to speak like that."

"So what?! I'd rather be dead than live as his wife."

The outburst had done both of them good, he saw, the tension of the moment had broken. Between his departed Alys and her, he thought he knew how the eye of a hurricane felt, surrounded by tossing winds and storm. More gently, realising how helpless Sabrina must feel, her father pleaded: "Come. See your wedding dress. Nancy tells me that it is fit for a princess."

The girl seemed to capitulate, although he could see the tension in the tightness of her muscles and the thinness of her mouth. "Okay. But it feels more like I'm going to be wearing it to my funeral."

"Better that than the funeral of the entire village," he took her arm, leading her out of the small house.

"Yes. Much better." She sighed, "Much better ... Goddess of Fortune\Misfortune, Remy, I hope you come through for me..."

"This is useless. "We've passed this tree six times already. I thought you said you knew the way," the highwayman swung himself off the horse, slamming his fist against the offending foliage. A shower of massive, yellow petals rained down, like confetti, bringing with them the sweet-sour smell of decay. Sweating from the heat of the day as much as the exertion, Remy removed his dark cloak and stowed it in a bag on the side of his saddle.

"I also recall saying that the journey would not be easy," Ororo appeared distracted. Her white-silver hair was plastered to her neck and forehead, despite being taken up into a practical braid. Sodden with perspiration, her blue chiffon robes clung to the hollows and curves of her chocolate skin.

"Yes," Remy crossed his arms, leaning against the guilty tree, "So? Are we lost?"

"No." She bent over some broken twigs, the furrow between her eyes deepening "I believe we are trapped."

"Trapped, Ororo?" He raised an eyebrow sceptically, "Don't see any bars."

"Trapped in time."

"What? That's impossible. The stuff of bard's tales told to prevent children from running away from home."

"Not if we are where I suspect we are," she looked around herself, shivering despite the warmth. The trees had a depraved verdancy about them - leaves flourished on each twisted branch, pocked with holes, black spots and bumps. The few flowers around rotted on the twigs as they bloomed, millions falling gently to earth. A sickly scent of decomposition tainted the purity of their exotic, spicy perfume.

"Which is?"

"The forest of the Lady Belladonna."

"Sounds like a plant." He snorted.

"Not quite." The sorceress straightened, glancing around her nervously and sketching a few wards with her hands, "She is both exceptionally beautiful and exceptionally cruel. Fond of playing games with the lives of mortals to alleviate her own immortal boredom."

"Now, my dear Ororo, is that any fair introduction?"

Her voice was as saccharine and as cloying as the scent of roses which accompanied her. A fragrance somehow suggestive of rot, as if these flowers like everything else were slowly decaying.


The woman was suddenly there. She was even more gorgeous than Ororo had said with curves as luscious as an over-ripe peach in her green silk-dress. Low-cut and tight, it left little to the imagination, while her smirk implied that even that much was unneccesary given time and privacy. Her long golden hair, threaded with tiny white buds, cascaded down to a slender waist and her violet eyes shone with a strange combination of malice and love.

"And I see you are not alone?" she cooed.

As she stepped closer to Remy, leer broadening, the dying roses became suffocating. With a finger, she sketched the outline of his right cheek-bone, smile becoming grimace as she seemed to realise something. Abruptly, she dropped her hand to her side and turned back to Ororo.

"Why didn't you say he was the...?"

"He doesn't know himself. Leave us, Belladonna. He and all his power will be yours in neither body nor soul."

"My power?" Remy mouthed at the Sorceress and she brushed it off as unimportant with a gesture.

Belladonna ignored the remark, becoming business-like as she regarded the man again. Ororo's sharpness had rubbed the moss off her underlying granite, though, and flirtation had given way to interrogation, although there was the hint of a smirk in her eyes and slight moue.

"Can you not speak for yourself?"

"Of course I can - I usually just don't talk to snakes."

She laughed - a sound similar to a harp being played by a beginner, contriving to be beautiful and grating all at once.

"I see she has already poisoned your mind against me." Her smile grew more brilliant, "I am not half the things that she would want you to believe."

"Don't see why Ororo would lie to me?"

"She is jealous. She always has been jealous." Belladonna purred, voice velvety, "Caught up in her musty books and dusty magic in her ramshackle house, never living life except by proxy; while I am life. I embody the spirit of the earth."

The buds in her hair opened briefly, emitting a rich and dark scent. The incense of the Goddess of Love\Hate, Remy thought, smelt like that. He had sneaked into one of her temples once as an inquistive adolescent, having heard stories of the hedonistic and decadent rituals that happened within the vaulted, marble walls. Hidden behind a velvet draping, he had peeped out of a hole in the musty fabric, nibbled by an inquisitive rat. To his disappointment, the gossip had turned out to be little more than folk-tales. A solemn monk, robed in a garment that was half-red and half-black, had placed wreaths of belladonna, or poison ivy around the neck of the androgynous deity. Stepping back, he had lit sticks of fragrance, chanting something that Remy privately thought sounded like a cat being thrown into a river. It had smelt like Belladonna's flowers - suffocating and tempting at the same time.

"Do not listen to her!" Ororo cautioned, "She may be life, but she is also death."

The woman frowned, blooms wilting, "But, no, I sense that it is not the words of Ororo you are listening to - but the words of your own heart. Perhaps if I take a form more pleasing to you."

The air shimmered around her, the scent of roses flared into a coruscating blaze of perfume, the sky turned dark. Through the dancing light that surrounded her, Remy could see her body shifting hideously into one grotesquerie after another, then reshaping, like clay in a potter's hand.

"Now is our chance..." The sorceress tugged at his arm, "While she is distracted, we may be able to escape."

"Wait." Remy said, transfixed by her transformation.

"You do not understand what a danger she poses." She pleaded.

"Tough luck, Ororo. It looks like you have lost."

Belladonna had disappeared to be replaced by a slender woman who was both beautiful and familiar to the Sorceress. Green silk had changed to the brown of homespun. Blue eyes were green but no less malevolent. Golden hair was brown with a single streak of white - the sign of the moon, the sorceress wondered, given to the ... She nipped the line of thought in the bud, unable to believe what eyes and mind told her was true.

"Sabrina." He whispered, at the same time that she exclaimed: "Impossible. She has not been carnate for cycles."

Shaking her head to dismiss the notion as foolishness, and the similarity of Remy's lover as chance, she concentrated her attention on the very real danger that lay ahead of the highwayman if he allowed himself to be tempted. She had heard legends of what Belladonna did to those that succumbed - some were frankly ribald, the others more sinister and probably more accurate.

"I can promise you that that is not the woman you love. Merely another of Belladonna's tricks."

"Don't listen to her, lover." The doppelganger begged, twisting a lock of hair winsomely around a finger, "It is me. You know that it is."

"Ororo - this is just crazy enough to be true." He turned to the sorceress, pleading, "It could be her. It could."

"Which is precisely what she wants you to think. This is not your fiancee."

Tears fell down the other woman's face, "I've come so far and you don't believe me. How can I make you believe that it is me, not her?"

"Shhh, darling." He put his arms around her, "I believe that it's you ... milady Belladonna."

The witch hissed and recoiled as she felt the point of a dagger touch the base of her spine through the thin silk of her dress. Remy smiled grimly as he shifted his grip around her waist so that he held her more securely.

"So the old stories about fairies and iron are true?"

She chuckled coquettishly, "Yes, the slightest prick from that accursed star-metal would kill me. Unfortunately, I know quite well who you are and, as a result, you would and could never do so."

"I am Remy leBeau," the man retorted, eyebrows drawing together in confusion.

"You are also Charles ex Aviere, Mar'vell Brightblade and Nate Askani'son," she whispered, voice become low and sonorous, 'You are the..."

"Enough, witch, I had hoped it would not come to this..." Ororo interrupted, gathering her power in the pit of her stomach. Lips murmured ancient incantations as she weaved together strands of power from the clouds in the sky and the moisture in the earth, trees and flowers. Finally, she released the tight cord in her abdomen in a white hot sphere of energy which cleared the air of its sickly fragrance as it arched through the air like a comet.

<<Pathetic>> She heard the voice say in her mind, <<Could do better with one hand behind my back>>

<<Maybe so, maybe not>>

They rose from the ground, mossy and decomposing, bringing with them the scent of rotting flesh, of funeral pyres, of death. On their lips were the wails and curses of the unblessed dead. Death-pale figures - Kings, Princes, Warriors, Peasants - approached in a parody of a military formation.

"No." The woman cried, struggle to be free of Remy's arms "Not them."

Hands grasping, snatching, tearing, Eyes wild with hate and fear. Feet marching inexorably towards her. A single chant, repeated over and over
again, through starved lips.

"La Belle Dame sans merci, thee hath in thrall. La Belle Dame sans merci, thee hath in thrall."

"Non." She screamed, illusion shedding itself like a snakeskin. Voluptuous, golden and luscious, Belladonna bit and clawed at him, like the skinniest urchin on the street caught scrumping apples. The thick fabric of his shirt began to tear, revealing skin.

"Witch." Remy's eyes were cold as he looked at her, "Would run you through myself, if I didn't think that these people deserved their revenge more than I did."

"Please ... do not leave me to them. They'll kill me." Belladonna changed tactics, pleading with him, cooing once more.

"And why do you think that you deserve to live?"

"I can help you." She said, suddenly crafty. "I know more magic than that charlatan would ever be able to learn. Besides which you never will escape unless I want you to - this is my forest, remember?"

"She has a point, Remy." Ororo sounded tired, "Very well, Bella. I however do not see why you need us if you are as powerful as you claim."

"These people were my victims - they are beyond my powers now." She sighed, slumping into Remy's arms who dropped her indecorously on the floor. Picking herself up and dusting herself off with a sour look at him, "Revenge has a strange magic of its own. Protects you from the one you would kill."

"How are we to vanquish these spectres?" Ororo asked, tracing wards with a finger to hold the advancing army back.

"Simple." A smile, glimmer-quick and fox-sly, crept across her face as she sensed that she was out of danger. "What's the one thing that death fears?"

"Life?" The sorceress guessed, impatient with the other's guessing games and constant manipulation.

"No." Her violet eyes were impatient, "Death solves the riddle of life - it doesn't fear something it can understand."

"Love." Remy said, quietly, " Because it lives beyond the grave."


She turned to him, a strange, sweet expression blossoming on her face. Her eyes held an appeal that he knew he should refuse, while knowing that he was unable to do so. That this event had the importance of the cornerstone around which the rest of his destiny was built. That if he did not go along with her plans, something more catastrophic would occur.

"I understand." He stepped forward, closer to the witch. "Do it."

"Are you sure you trust me?"

"Don't have much choice?"

"Hurt him and I shall..." Ororo threatened, fully prepared to break all her healer's vows.

Belladonna placed a cold hand on his chest over his heart. Remy gasped as he felt the tendrils of her power entwine themselves in his psyche like a gigantic parasite, bleeding him dry infinitely slowly. Drop by drop, he felt his blood grow cold and the singing in his nerves grow fainter. Her voice when she began to chant was slow and rhythmic:

"Life fleeting ends its dance. And I take that away. Night breaking ends the light. And I take that day. Months falling cold into winter. And I take that May. Love living beyond dusty urn. And I take that away. Esrep sids senk radfos ecrof! Tidnam moci evo lyb!"

The air shone with sudden brilliance, increasing in intensity until it seemed as if it could become no brighter. The sweet smell of death vanished, replaced by one of ozone. When Ororo finally looked up, the glade was deserted, save for some bleached bones lying on the green grass. One or two yellow soup-plate flowers drifted down to cover them.

"Remy?!" She asked, looking around for the young man. "Remy?! Where are you!?"

"He is no longer among us." Belladonna's face was serene.

"What do you mean, witch?"

"I mean that the incantation required one life for a life, one death for a death."

"He's dead?" she exploded, "You asked him to give up his life on something he barely understands. That is repugnant, even for you."

"Oh, relax." The woman stretched, a lazy, golden cat, "At least, my problems have been solved."

"No, they have not." Ororo was furious, "There must be a way to get him back! You know who he is..."

The witch turned to regard her in her bedraggled robes and messy, silver hair as if seeing her properly for the first time. In the same hideously calm voice, she replied:

"Yes, I do. I also know that the prophecy has to be fulfilled - the Child of Light shall give up all for the...." she hesitated over the word, crinkling her nose, "Succubus, shall exchange lust for love, life for death and sun for shadow. Et cetera."

"You also know that it speaks of another sacrifice: 'and, touched by him, the beautiful woman shall set him free'. How do you propose to do that?"

Belladonna was silent for a few seconds, twisting her flimsy garment between her fingers thoughtfully. When she looked up, her eyes were frightened, distant, haunted. Ororo swallowed: if the fairy was scared, then the solution was worse than any her fertile imagination had provided.

"There is an old prophecy that speaks of a way to save the soul of one who has died."

"How does it go?" She asked urgently.

Belle's brow furrowed in concentration, "Man may go beneath ... the ... ground to meet his master, Death ... Man ... may go where ... Death has trod ... to challenge as ... Scherezade, he who reigns beneath the ... sod ... to spare a mortal's breath. There! Are you happy?"

"Well and good, but how do we go 'beneath the ground'?"

"That, my dear Ororo, is easier than it sounds." Belladonna paused, realising something, "'We'? You think I'm coming with you?"

"You got him into this current predicament, you will extricate him from it. Besides, you know as well as I do the compulsion of prophecy. For the myth to be fulfilled and the reincarnate God to be killed, he must be saved. If this is prevented from happening and he is not present at the ultimate confrontation, the universe will tip into chaos."

The woman looked resigned, "Fine, it doesn't seem like I have a choice."

"So? How do we go beneath the ground'?"

Belladonna raised a slender eyebrow, "You aren't very good at the whole omniscient thing, are you?"

"Save the taunts for later. There is too much at stake for our own personal enmity to hamper us."

"The Well of Souls. Legend says that it is the bridge between the two worlds, that it was created from the tears of the Goddess of Love\Hate when she wept for her lost daughter who died after being shot through the heart while wearing the aspect of a nightingale. I'm not sure how true the legends are, but the Well exists. It's a few leagues from here but we can be there by nightfall."

Ororo nodded and followed Belladonna's lead through a grove of putrescent trees. As they walked, their footsteps through the forest were very quiet as they walked away, almost as if both of them wished to surprise each other...

"Stupid Gramayre." Jubilation turned over another thick, yellow page, sneezing at the dust cast up by the action, "'Stay and study your Gramayre while I have all the fun, Jubilation'. 'Be a good apprentice, Jubilation.' Yeah, right!"

She sighed, reading the runes out loud to herself and tracing the arcane symbols with a forefinger. When she had first decided on a career in magic, she had not expected it to be dull book-work. Her parents' spells were all glitter, coloured lights and ethereal chords, nothing like perpetual reptition of a long dead language. "Evil, evol, eval ... but I am sure that Ororo wouldn't object toooooo much if I came along. In fact, she'd probably welcome the company. Besides which, it's probably my duty as an apprentice to be alongside her."

She closed the thick, leather book, suddenly decisive. "Watch out, Magnus, Jubilation Lee is on her way!"


Continued in Chapter Three

Disclaimer: All the obvious information. Characters are Marvel's, prose is mine and comments are welcome. ;) The Scherezade verse comes courtesy of King's Quest VI.


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