The snow came down in great, wet clumps, bending the branches of the trees, like supplicants bowing their heads in a plea for respite. None would be forthcoming; this snowfall was merely the leading edge of an ocean-effect winter storm. Already, the rough land of the town of Bitter Ridge lay under a blanket of white, the hardscrabble land turned to a sort of soft magic. The Ashpine River was frozen over, and it, too, was covered by snow. A black speck could be seen, lurching and staggering across the ice, occasionally blundering into deeper drifts or falling headlong as his feet slid out from under him. As he approached closer, an observer could see that his right hand was gloved not in doeskin, but partly frozen blood. The injury made it difficult for him to gain a purchase on the bank, and he kicked and scrabbled in an attempt to get off the frozen water. His boot broke through where a tree limb had weakened it, and he slid down the bank and into the gap in the ice. And the man began to scream. The town had only one building of any size—a half-timbered inn of local stone, shaped like an H if it were to be seen from above. From it, a lad of seventeen ran, a length of rope in his hands. The young man had a tumble of curls as golden as ripe summer wheat and eyes of heaven-blue; clad as he was in linen dyed with woad and madder root, he was the brightest thing in this landscape of dun and grey. Reaching the river, the boy flung himself prone on the bank, hooking one leg around a rusting hitching-post. "Kick your legs backward," the young man shouted. "Do like you're swimming and grab this rope. Stay as flat as you can. I'll haul you out, but you have to keep your shit together." "My hand!" The man spluttered as icy water splashed into his mouth. "I can't hold on!" The youth whipped the rope back. He quickly tied it to the hitching post and then tied the other end securely around his waist. He then slithered down the bank, the rope allowing him enough range to grab the man's wrists. The boy was young, but his body was sleek with muscle. He hauled the man from the ice and far enough up the bank that he was able to get a purchase. As he crawled up onto the roadway, however, he began to sob. "Rabid," he moaned. "Been dog-bit, and the fuckin' thing was mad, foam dripping out of its muzzle, all over with mud and blood. Came at me as I was dressin' out a doe I shot. You gotta knife, Baltis? Don't let me die like that, boy, I'm beggin' you." "You're not going to die, Maglos. Seriously. You made it here alive." A smile curved the boy's full lips, deepening dimples in his round cheeks and making his brilliant blue eyes sparkle. "But you also know what the cost is when I lay on hands. Can you deal with a little embarrassment?" "I don't wanna die. Do what you gotta do and I swear on the White Lady I'll serve you for all your days." Maglos' filthy hands grabbed at the lapels of Baltis' tunic, leaving smears of mud and blood. "I don't want your service. Give it to Siganna, and I'll be well-paid. You'd better lie back. Something like rabies is going to cause more than my usual effects." "Anything. Praise be to the Lady of Mercy," Maglos breathed. He closed his eyes and lay back on the cold ground. Baltis placed one hand on Maglos' brow and the other on his chest, over his heart. When he spoke again, his voice rang out as clear as a bell, carried far away over the winter air. "Lady! Mother! Queen and Goddess! On this day of snow and winter air, as Your land lies sleeping beneath the snowy quilt You weave for its repose, I show You Maglos, son of Castwid, a hunter, a loner and a friend. I beseech Thee, take from his travail, his pain and this disease that threatens to rob my village of a good and worthy man who does honest work and ever speaks truth. In Siganna's most holy Name do I pray-Maglos, be thee HEALED!" The last word came as a roar, echoing off the foothills of the nearby Great Savahé Mountains. There were results at once. Spoiler (Move your mouse to the spoiler area to reveal the content) Maglos' back arched. He gave a hoarse cry—but not of pain. It was clear that the very heights of pleasure were flowing through his body as he panted and writhed, clawing at the ground in this transport of ecstasy. The wound in his had closed, as though Maglos was being bitten in reverse. At the end of it, the hunter lost consciousness, from a combination of blood loss and exhaustion. Baltis picked the man up with ease. he carried Maglos into the Inn of the Sable Bear and placed him in one of the guest rooms to recover from this day of extremes. He covered him with a worn but clean quilt and left the room, closing the door behind him. He then walked down the hallway and into his own room. In one corner of the room was an armor stand, beside which was a weapons-rack. Baltis stared long at the suit of armor, watching the dolorous winter light play over its gleaming surface. The armor seemed to cast a light of its own, with a slight chatoyancy and iridescence. It was mithril, and Baltis had yet to don it. But he had just completed the last task that would earn it for him. The healing of Maglos was the final proof. There was a word for men like Baltis Feskorsson. That word was Paladin. Baltis closed his eyes, pushing away the thrill of commingled dread and delight. Highly magical, the armor would meld with him, becoming a part of him. He could retract it into a set of bracers on his wrists, but he would never be able to remove it again. He knew that he was stepping away from Baltis the simple peasant lad into Ser Baltis Feskorsson, a Paladin of Siganna the Silent. He straightened his back and squared his broad shoulders, tossing back golden curls that were wet from snow-melt. He would not put the armor on his body until he was clean. He stepped into the small bathing-chamber within his room. The Inn of the Sable Bear was one of the few places in Pellithárias that possessed running water; the luxury was present due to Baltis' friendship with the Orc-King, Shavrakh Celebrinden. The Orcs were the most technologically-advanced people in the world, and Baltis had intentionally courted the favor of King Shavrakh with an eye to the benefit of the people of Bitter Ridge. He turned the hot tap on full-blast, mingling only a little cold water with it. And then he shucked his filthy clothes, kicking them to one side. Baltis felt a twinge as he realized that they were the last garments he would wear in secular life. He stepped into the stinging spray and grabbed a bar of castile soap, taking his time over making himself clean. After he was finished, he combed out his hair, leaving it loose to dry. And then he moved across to a wardrobe that stood within his room. The wardrobe was new and very fine. It contained garments unlike any he had ever worn; none of these clothes were made of expensive materials, but they were very finely-crafted and sturdy. They were worthy of the nobleman he now would be. He donned smallclothes of fine linen, and heavy linen trousers of deep blue, dyed with indigo, rather than woad. With this, he wore a linen tunic, its cut graceful and flowing, bobbin-lace at its cuffs and collar. There was a doeskin overvest of the same rich blue as the trousers, and he also donned a set of riding boots, their black leather gleaming. He strapped on his spurs by feel, eyes closed, and pondered their meaning: he would now be known as 'Ser Baltis', and would be far more than merely 'the innkeeper's boy'. And then he turned and faced the armor stand. The setting sun, veiled in grey, lent its glow to the room, falling upon the curves and planes of the mithril armor. Baltis crossed the room and rested his hand on the armor's breastplate. The emblem of Siganna—that of a chalice emblazoned with a crescent moon—seemed to take on a glow independent of the sky's sunset glow. Baltis spoke a few words. "In mercy and healing. In pleasure and fertility. I am Ser Baltis, son of Feskor, and upon me shine the rays of the Rising Moon. Within my heart shines the Six-Rayed Star. Gird me. Bind me. To Great Siganna I do forever dedicate my life." A tone like that of a bell sweetened the air; the scent of litheia, Siganna's holy flower, filled the room. The sound of the bell became that of a wind-harp, its strings singing with eerie harmony. And the armor seemed to melt from the stand, runnels of silver spreading over Baltis' body. He stood, tears streaming down his round young cheeks, and the armor soon covered him, gleaming. He had never felt Great Siganna so near. He took up the great mithril broadsword and belted it on. Although he had not intended to regard himself in the mirror, he caught a glimpse of himself as he passed. The image was not one he recognized. Uncomfortable, he put down the visor of his helm. He ignored the sudden silence that greeted him as he crossed the commons of his inn; the only sound was the chime of the spurs. Baltis stepped outside and began to look for the rabid dog. It had to be destroyed before it bit someone else or sickened other animals. It saddened him to know that his first act of mercy would be the shedding of blood. Baltis had thought that he would have to cross the river and track the dog through the salt-marsh. However, as he stepped out onto the Ashpine road, he saw a quadrupedal form staggering through the new, wet snow. The animal had once been nearly as white as the snow, but now it was a filthy, mud-clotted dun color, with the foam at its muzzle a blood-streaked and nauseating yellow. Its eyes were red orbs of rage, pain and torment. Baltis approached the dog slowly; he did not want it to spook and run. The mad dog stood, swaying, not seeming to understand where it was. Finally, Baltis was close enough to the animal to take action. Reaching out, he lay his right hand on the dog's head; even if it bit him, its teeth would not penetrate his gauntlet. He reached for the sword that hung at his right hip; Baltis was left-handed. However, the dog sighed and lay down in the snow. Baltis felt the pain and sickness leave the animal. A soft white light suffused the dog's body; the filth fell away, and the long, shaggy coat became snowdrop-white once again. He watched in awe as his very touch restored the huge dog to a health it could never have known before. It opened its bright, black shoebutton eyes and the tail thumped, flicking little puffs of snow. "Hey, fella," Baltis said softly. "Let's get you inside." And the helm he wore blurred, morphed and shifted, taking on the guise of the head of a shaggy dog whose ears stood tall. Baltis would ever be known as 'the White Dog.'