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When the great plague came to the Brienne valley, threatening to make Brionne a City of Corpses instead of a City of Thieves, there was a great surge of religious sentiment and devotion throughout the region. The shrines and temples of Shallya were flooded with converts, and the goddess's priestesses - whose ranks had been unkindly decimated - were soon driven to the brink of exhaustion by the excessive demands placed upon their magic and their time.
Further upriver, in the town of Coramdram, a score of ugly deaths sharply reminded the people of the duty which they had to pray to the gods who might protect them - a duty which more than a few had by habit neglected.
But there were some among them - as there invariably are, when the god of plague and pestilence sets his footprint upon a region - who quickly abandoned their own gods, choosing instead to address their placatory prayers to the Lord of Corruption. By this means they sought to be independent of the dubious charity of gods who might justly feel that earlier neglectfulness had disqualified their more wayward worshippers from consideration for special blessings.
One of these careful folk was Ophiria, wife of the ruddy-faced harness-maker Remy Brousse, who saw in the advent of the plague a chance of deliverance from a marriage which had come to seem unbearably tedious.
Remy Brousse was not cruel or quarrelsome, nor given to adulterous liaisons. His only crime, if crime it can be reckoned, was to have become very fat and indolent, while his wife had remained slender and energetic - both of which circumstances might not have been unconnected with the fact that they had no children.
Remy Brousse was a popular man in the district, for he was very clever with his hands, and in a region where leather was expensive he was always willing to make harnesses for poorer folk from rope or chord, or anything else which came conveniently to hand. But such virtues as he had were no longer noticed by his bitter spouse, who saw only his ugly massiveness, and longed to be free of him.
Ophiria knew that age would not leave her unmarked for many years longer, and she knew also that if she were to win a husband more to her taste then she would need to inherit her husband's shop, to use as a marriage-portion. And so she prayed devoutly to the god of plague and pestilence, saying to him: 'Please take my husband, who has become useless and burdensome to me, but would make a fine and fleshy morsel for one such as you!'
And the god of plague and pestilence, disposed for once to show generosity, did as he was asked.
While she watched the corpulent body of her husband fade gradually away, as though the flesh were melting from his bones, Ophiria began to feel the stinging pains of guilt - for it is never pleasant to watch at close quarters how disease and decay maltreat a man. She began to imagine, in addition, that her neighbours had somehow overheard her secret prayers, and that they suspected her allegiance to the forbidden god.
In order to disguise her true feelings, Ophiria commenced to make loud protestations against the supposed unkindness of that cruel god who had robbed her of all that she held dear in the world, and when Remy Brousse died she followed his coffin to its resting-place, weeping and wailing most ardently.
The next day and the day after, Ophiria went to her husband's grave, dressed in black and bare of foot. There she knelt beside the freshly turned earth and forced her tears to come in floods by surrpetiously pinching her tenderest flesh. She cried very loudly, before the priests of Morr and all the witnesses who knelt by other graves and shed tears of their own, lamenting the vile injustice of the world - but within her secret thoughts she gave abundant thanks to the Lord of Decay for answering her prayers.
On the first and second day, this performance proceeded exactly as she had planned, and on the night which followed she wondered whether she might have done enough to allay suspicion - but her anxiety was yet unquiet, and she decided that she must continue the pantomime for one more day.
On the next morning, bright and early, she walked yet again to Remy Brousse's grave, still barefoot and black-clad, and knelt down beside it, mustering her careful tears. The others who had taken up their stations at first light looked up at her passing, but paid her little heed.
No sooner had Ophiria begun for the third time to moisten the earth with her false tears than her husband's grave was disturbed by a horrid churning and wriggling. She recoiled in alarm, but it was too late: a monstrous worm had coiled itself around her wrist, holding her tightly down. Then another worm appeared, and another, each one longer by far than any she had ever seen before - and the worms began to crawl upon her body, climbing up her imprisoned arms to her shoulders, neck and face.
The sensation filled her with the purest horror, and she began to scream. She thought she was screaming as loud as she possibly could, until she realised that the worms were forming themselves about her head and shoulders into the shape of a bridle and tackle, and that more were winding themselves about her waist to form a girth, while a huge mass of them rested on her back in the image of a saddle - and a rider.
Only then was she privileged to discover how loudly a human being really can scream, with the right encouragement.
By this time, she was not alone in screaming, for the mourners at the other graves had seen what was happening, and Morr's priests were running from the shrine which stood beside the burial ground, to see what was afoot.
Where Ophiria's peculiar rider took her, when it began lambasting her with its whip of worms, no one ever discovered - but she was never seen in Coramdram again.
Her neighbours shook their heads, and speculated that she must have been driven mad by grief, and brought to her extremity to curse the god of plague and pestilence far too loudly for his liking. All of them agreed that it is an error for a widow to grieve too much for what she has lost - and all of them agreed, also, that Remy Brousse would be sorely missed in the town, for there was no one else in the province who could make workable harnesses out of such unpromising materials.
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