Cursebrand – Chapter 13
This is the thirteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Morning came early and Brand had a difficult start to it. His nightmares had kept him on the edge of sleep the whole night, and being woken by a curious firecat had made the transition into consciousness painful and confusing. It was initially difficult to untangle the demons in his dreams from the monster staring at him in the slow light of dawn. When the shock of reality finally set in, he rocketed to his feet in a panic and painfully rediscovered the bottom of the cart under which he had slept.
He rolled out from under the wagon, clutching his bruised head, and tried to clear his vision. The area between the carts was alive with people juggling knives, tumbling, and tuning instruments, and was filled with the smell of sizzling bear fat. He looked around at the madness and considered the possibility that the hit on the head was more severe that it had seemed.
He was offered breakfast and, as the sun rose, the world settled down to something approaching coherent. The performers practiced and played, a small child climbed on Igor and called him “daddy”, Ilea ran through the grass with Mitali, and everyone was groggily congenial, somehow forgetting the dark stories of the night before. Everyone except Callidus.
The wizard stomped out of his carriage, flask in hand, and stole some meat off the fire. He was surly towards the sun, vocally intolerant of the dew that glistened delicately on the long grass, and glowered at anyone who even attempted to be pleasant in his direction. He eventually shuffled grumpily over to Brand dragging Jaymes along with him. “Brand,” he muttered. “We’re going to get to Cochion tomorrow. Jaymes will fill you in on what needs to be done there. I warn you, you won’t like it, but it is necessary.” He paused. “At least I hope you won’t like it.”
Callidus shuffled back into his wagon and slammed the door. Brand had a moment to relax and contemplate the horrors that awaited him in the mysterious town of Cochion before the door flew open again and the wizard shouted out, “and get a haircut! You look like a squirrels’ nest.” The door slammed again.
“Is he always like that?” asked Brand, worried about the man who was to be his savior.
“Nah,” replied Jaymes with a grin and a dismissive wave, “Sometimes he’s in a bad mood.”
The day seemed to pass dreadfully slowly. Jaymes would eagerly speak on any subject except those that actually interested Brand. He would talk endlessly about various girls that he’d met and meals that he hoped to eat. He speculated about the weather and explained how very challenging the fiddle was to master. However, when pressed by Brand to actually explain what he was going to be doing in Cochion, Jaymes would just laugh a lot and change the subject.
Ilea and Yannis had volunteered, a little too enthusiastically, to cut Brand’s hair. He couldn’t imagine what about shearing off his mop could be so exciting, but the two of them spent much of the day plotting. They sat together on the wagon in which Mitali rested, gesturing wildly and jabbering at each other. Occasionally one would run back and board Callidus’ carriage to stare at Brand for a few moments before returning to scrap whatever plan had been made and start all over again.
Unknown to the others, all this was acting as fodder for the demon, who quietly whispered menacing speculation into Brand’s mind. It forged morbid dioramas of the horrors that awaited him in Cochion and goaded him to run. It warned him of the dangers of letting others too close to him with knives and scissors, and proffered means of fighting them off. It pushed him to seek out his spear, now buried somewhere in the confines of the wizard’s carriage, and also quietly prodded him with the dark promise of seeing Katarina again. He gripped his bench, ignored the demonic taunting and desperately tried to be interested in what Jaymes had to say.
He was rattled and jumpy by the time they formed camp for the night. He was given soap and a razor and ordered to wash his hair and shave his beard.
“I don’t know how,” he spat out awkwardly.
“That explains the smell,” taunted Jaymes.
“To shave,” Brand defended. “I have not ever shaved.” he stared at the ground, somewhat embarrassed.
“I’ll do it for you.”
Brand spun to face the owner of the small, eagerly malicious voice. Felisia was smiling at him in a way that made his stomach sink and his throat close over. “Okay,” he found himself squeaking, feeling slightly more afraid of what she might do if he refused than if he accepted.
Washed and resolute, Brand planted himself on a stool that had been prepared for him, and braced for the worst. Yannis and Ilea stood behind him with shears and combs and chattered about fringes, parts, layers, and other strange and foreign words. As they began to brush and snip, Felisia approached, wielding a well-used straight razor. She straddled him and sat on his lap, pressed the blade flat against his cheek and leaned in to whisper in his ear, “don’t even twitch; this blade has tasted blood before.”
Brand stiffened painfully. He desperately fought to keep his head still as Illea and Yannis tugged and trimmed from behind and the tiny assassin in his lap began to ruthlessly hack away at the thicket of hair obscuring his face. The tangles fell like an avalanche down his chest and back, forming black drifts around the base of the stool.
The bulk of the mass removed, the pace began to slow. The razor pressed delicately against the skin of his chin and he shivered at the fresh contact with the long concealed flesh. Felisia stared into his eyes, cutting by feel, daring him to retreat, challenging him to try.
He couldn’t even breathe.
He stared back, trapped in her malevolent glare. His heart felt like it was trying to pump syrup.
She leaned in to watch the edge of her blade scrape along the more difficult curves of his chin and he could feel her warm, damp breath on his neck and her deceptively strong fingers restraining his chin.
The world disappeared around him, all that existed were a pair of malevolent eye and the edge of a blade sliding up his cheek. Even his demon had fallen silent, not driving him to run or giving him the strength to fight. It, too, was afraid of her. He started to wonder if he might not be the only monster around.
Finally the demonic barber was finished and she sat back to admire her work. But her animal grin suddenly fell, as her mouth tried to form words but failed. She slid off Brand’s lap and took a few steps back, still staring in shock and confusion at his face.
“What’s wrong hun?” Ilea sang as she hopped around to the front to get a look for herself. Her smile, too, was replaced with shock.
Brand tried to hide his face away, worried that without the beard to hide it, the demon beneath would be clearly visible. His disguise had been cut away.
“But you’re just a boy!” laughed Ilea suddenly. That was not what Brand had expected, and somehow it hurt. “How did you grow such a beard?”
Callidus drifted out of the shadows. “He’s a Southerner,” he said between drinks. “We grow them young down there.” He scratched at his own silver beard. “But are punished for it by having it turn white just as early.” He chuckled and wandered back into the blackness.
Brand might have found these facts about his race interesting, or that Callidus was capable of laughter or being informative, but was distracted from them by Yannis grabbing his head and twisting it round to get a look at him. “Not ugly lad, either. Ilea! New plan!”
Yannis got to work rearranging whatever had been done previously, pushing the hair forward and sending a constant flow of clippings into his eyes and mouth.
Ilea cocked her head curiously. “Just how old are you?” she asked.
Brand struggled to remember how to count and after struggling through the mathematics, instantly regretted opening his mouth to speak. “Theventeen?” he said somewhat uncertainly while trying to spit out a mouthful of hair.
“Blimey! You’re barely older than Felisia.” She laughed musically and slapped him on the shoulder, evoking a troubled squeal from Yannis. “How long were you in the mountains again? Four years?”
Brand nodded very carefully so as to neither ingest any more hair nor upset the man behind him with the sharp objects.
“At thirteen, you survived alone in the wilderness for four years? Not too shabby, lad.” Ilea seemed somewhat impressed.
“I was only thirteen for the first year,” Brand corrected quietly.
Ilea’s shoulders slumped and she buried her face in her palm. “Brilliant. Another pedant. You and Callidus deserve each other. How’s it commin’ along Yan?”
“Is almost ready.” He had put the scissors away and was now carefully combing the remains of Brand’s mane into its final artistic perfection. “Done!”
He stepped away to let the rest of the troupe scrutinize his handiwork. They peered and circled and muttered and judged. Brand shriveled under their gaze, attempting to retreat into himself and become too small to see.
Callidus finally showed himself and broke the silence. “I’ve seen worse,” he snorted.
This caused an eruption from the onlookers. They chastised Callidus and complimented Ilea and Yannis for their artistry and good taste while Brand was left to guess at his appearance for some minutes. It was something of a shock to have the cranky wizard to be the first to show pity on the boy. He shuffled forward and offered his large silver flask as a mirror.
Brand stared into the well-polished surface, a stranger stared back. He had seen himself reflected in puddles and ponds, but his reflection had been a wild creature, an animal. The man on the flask was young, clean, and handsome. His jaw was strong and his brow was fierce, but his eyes were so old and sad that Brand felt instant pity for the stranger. He slowly took notice of his hair, mostly short, but left long in the front and combed to one side such that it obscured his right eye, and more importantly, his brand. He reached up and cautiously pushed the bangs to the side.
He had avoided looking at his own face, and particularly his mark of shame. It was only partly an accident that it had been covered by filth and beard and bangs, even when he was alone in the wild. The mark was a clean scar, slightly raised, and not as dark as the rest of his skin. The symbol was clear, the crescent moon circled his eye from cheekbone to brow. Four sharp daggers crossed it, radiating outwards, the longest stretching from just under his eye to below the line of his lips. It was the mark of the damned, now concealed only behind some neatly trimmed black bangs.
“Do you like?” queried Yannis eagerly.
“I do not know,” replied Brand. “The scar is the only part I recognize.”
“You look great,” assured Ilea. “Very handsome.”
This bolstered his confidence briefly, but Callidus interjected with spite, “he looks like a mopey poet.”
“Yes!” agreed Yannis proudly. “Is very good for his shape of face and eyes.”
There was a general murmur of agreement. With the spectacle basically over, everyone started to drift off to tend to their own interests. As Brand started to migrate to the pile of furs kept beneath the wizard’s wagon, Callidus grabbed him and dragged him off some distance.
“Alright kid,” he said, blowing his whiskey breath in Brand’s face. “We’re getting to town tomorrow and you need to learn to behave.”
“You look guilty,” explained the wizard. “You look like you deserve to be punished. Keep wearing that face and someone will find a reason to do so.”
“That is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re wearing your shame like a sign around your neck. You need become a mask.”
“I had one. Yannis cut it off.” Brand was both upset and confused at how this lecture was going.
“You misunderstand. Your face is a disguise for your soul. Everyone’s is. Learn to change it as you do your clothes.
Brand looked back at the wizard, befuddled. “I only have one set of clothes. You burned my other ones.”
Callidus buried his face in his hand and took a moment with his drink before trying a different tactic. “Perhaps a demonstration…” Callidus shook himself off, stretched his shoulders, and magically the grouchy drunken curmudgeon vanished, leaving in his place the confident and wicked wizard that hosted their performances. He grinned and spoke clearly and powerfully, his eyes bright and focused. “You must become the man you wish the world to see and thus conceal the one you believe yourself to be. Confident or cowardly, does not matter, only consistency.”
“But that was magic!” Brand retorted.
“Nonsense. That was posture. It does not take wizardry to stand up straight.”
Brand was slightly disappointed in himself for being impressed by something so mundane.
“Rule one.” instructed the wizard. “Never lie. You can be caught in a lie. And you, in particular, seem ill-suited to the task.”
Brand nodded, slightly insulted, but seeing the logic in the argument.
“Rule two: never tell the truth.”
Brand continued to nod for a moment, and then realized the paradox of the rules. “What?” he posited as eloquently as he could.
“The truth, the whole truth, is the crack in your mask; It is a gap in your armor that others can exploit, but only if they can find it. Speak in metaphors, incomplete explanations and ambiguous gestures. Humans despise a vacuum and will fill happily in the gaps with whatever makes them most comfortable. There is a great space between honesty and falsehood and you must occupy it.”
“What about my scar?” Brand could evade and mislead as much as he liked, but he did wear what he felt was a rather telling symbol of his character.
“You have seen little of the world, and thankfully that is true for most other people in it.” Callidus settled back into a more comfortable posture and again popped the top of his flask. “That mark is meaningful only to the mountain people beyond Vegjuvet, the children of Oreamnos. I know of it only from my reading. Out here, there are many gods and many nations. It is unlikely anyone will have seen its like before. Left unexplained, it will be a mark of crime, or exile, or even decoration. Regardless, neither hide it away in shame nor draw attention to it and it will become as another man’s wedding night.”
“A matter of intense curiosity, but entirely uncivilized to enquire after.”
“Oh…” That was a topic that Brand hadn’t had much time to consider in the preceding few years and now found himself blushing at the idea. At the mere reminder of such things he was desperate to ask what exactly went on, but somehow ashamed to even consider doing so. Callidus was, he had to admit, entirely correct.
Brand tried to apply what had been said, but quickly came to a complication. “How do I pretend to not be guilty?” he asked cautiously.
“You do not!” Callidus exploded back into his stage persona “That would be a lie. To feign innocence is more suspicious than honest guilt. But you have other feelings, do you not? Pain, joy, anger, contentment, confusion, misery… Simply espouse those. Display them loudly and the guilt will fade into the background. I would suggest the last two in particular. You seem well practiced at them both already and your task in Cochion will encourage the performance nicely.”
Callidus relaxed and started to shuffle back towards his Wagon. “Do you understand?” he asked with a rare, sympathetic tone.
“I think so,” replied Brand, still processing what he must become to keep himself, and the rest of the troupe safe.
“Then get some good sleep.”
This time, he did.