This is the fourteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Cochion was not quite what Brand had expected; he wasn’t entirely sure what he had expected, but this certainly wasn’t it. High stone walls, perhaps, dark and crowded streets, noise and danger, thieves and nobles… those would have lived up to the threats of the night before. What he found instead was a quiet little farming town.
The watchful guards of the town were children who sounded a siren of delighted screams as they ran out to meet the caravan. Several of them descended upon Igor and demanded to be tossed in the air. Others whined to see Mitali, while still more children laughed and cheered as Yan and Van juggled and danced to Jaymes’ fiddle.
Brand just stared. He had been prepared to be sullen and dour in an equally sullen and dour city. He couldn’t imagine what they would have him doing that could possibly be unpleasant in such a cheerful hamlet.
Less than an hour later, his doubts had vanished, and any need to pretend was gone.
“Why am I doing this?” Brand shouted at Jaymes, who was standing a safe distance away, laughing at Brand’s suffering.
“Because…” Jaymes wiped a tear from his eye. “Because Callidus needs more fire salt.”
“Well why doesn’t he just conjure it up? Why do I have to do this?”
“It has something to do with cabbages.” Jaymes waved his hand dismissively.
“What?” Brand wasn’t sure if he was angry, confused, or just worried about what he’d been eating.
“You’ll have to ask him. But trust me, this is important. I’m just happy that it’s not me doing it again.”
What Brand had been tasked with was filling barrel after barrel with the sandy dirt from beneath the floorboards of a pig farmer’s barn. The stench of the pig sty had been noxious enough before he had started to churn up the excrement soaked filth, but now he was struggling not to add the smell vomit to the mix of fumes.
Jaymes eventually abandoned Brand to his misery in order to join in the afternoon’s performance, leaving Brand to feel that he was being used. He refused, though, to be defeated by feces, though he fully intended to muster the courage to demand an explanation from Callidus. He had overcome challenges far more daunting than shoveling foul dirt.
It was after dark by the time he’d filled the last barrel. While in the wilds, Brand had spent days stalking prey, weeks fighting infections, months shivering in the cold, but he could not remember ever being so physically exhausted. Muscles that he hadn’t even known he had burned and old wounds screamed. He dragged himself back to the wagons to rest, only to have Jaymes intercept him and drag him back in the direction of the farm while cheerfully explaining the next step. “Next step?” Brand nearly collapsed.
“Oh yes, this will take all week.”
Brand did collapse.
“Don’t worry, the hardest work is done. The rest just stinks.”
“The last part didn’t?”
“Yeah, but not so much as the next part will.” Jaymes hauled Brand to his feet and they plodded back to the farm.
Brand had to give Jaymes some credit for his kindness; he stayed to help instead of running back to what was likely a lovely evening with the troupe. Together they poured carefully measured buckets of water into the barrels, added sheaves of hay, and stirred up the contents into a reeking mess. It was well past midnight by the time they were finished and the moon had long since sunk below the horizon. They left their nauseous brew to steep and stumbled to bed, exhausted.
Dawn arrived inconsiderately early. The sun was joyful and vibrant, lifting the dew in a pleasantly perfumed mist. Brand invented curse words to express how utterly unwelcome the intrusion on his sleep was. He buried his head beneath his fur blanket and quietly hated.
Something poked him. When he refused to react, it prodded a little more forcefully.
Conceding defeat, Brand rolled over face his assailant and found the miserable morning grimace of Callidus, hanging upside-down over the edge of the wagon. He was jabbing Brand with his walking stick and muttering unpleasantries.
“What do you want?” scowled Brand.
“Get up. You have work to do.”
“Sleeping, I suspect” said Callidus. “He got in very late last night. Come along, there is much to be done.”
Brand rolled out from under the wagon and staunchly refused to feel pleasantly warmed by the morning sun, or delighted by the sweet drifting mist. He was miserable and entirely unwilling to be soothed by such cheap tricks.
He trudged back to the farm behind Callidus who seemed to be able to cover distances impossibly quickly with his curmudgeonly shuffle.
“Why am I doing this?” demanded Brand, the haze of morning misery and pain giving him the courage to ask.
“Did Jaymes not tell you?” replied Callidus curiously. “I need the firesalt.”
“You’re a wizard, why not just conjure it up?” grumbled Brand indignantly.
Callidus stopped and turned and asked pointedly, “with what would I conjure it?”
Brand was lost. “With magic?”
Callidus began to lecture. “One cannot create something from nothing. A farmer, for example, does not simply conjure cabbages; they require seeds, soil, sun, and rain.”
“But you are a wizard…”
“And I know of no way to conjure firesalt that is easier or faster than what you are doing. I am in need of many components to create my various potions and conjurations. Some are difficult, dangerous, or unpleasant to find.” His eyes narrowed maliciously. “In exchange for helping to relieve you of your curse, you will be my hands. You will gather what I need and thereby earn your keep.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Why do you think?”
“Is it a test of some kind?”
“Seems likely, doesn’t it?” With that, Callidus turned and headed for the farm without another word.
There, Brand met the farmer and began to understand the lesson Callidus had tried to give two nights before about interacting with strangers. “A new one, eh Cal?” asked the ageing man, picking his teeth.
“Indeed,” replied Callidus between swigs of whiskey.
“Bit scrawny aintcha?”
Brand could think of no meaningful response so he just shrugged.
“What’s with that scar yer hidin?” said the farmer as he handed Brand an axe.
This seemed an entirely contradictory set of actions. Unable to think of a better response, he shrugged again.
“Musta done something right nasty to get that done to ya,” the farmer prodded.
Callidus stepped in and saved him at this point, though at first it didn’t seem that way. “Clearly. One should assume him to be a very dangerous individual,” he said flatly.
“Should I be locking up my daughters or my pigs?” The farmer laughed loudly and wandered off in amusement of his own joke.
Brand waited for him to be well gone before he spoke. “What just happened?”
“He made up his own story. He took what little we gave him, and told himself something he could be comfortable with. Now go chop down some trees.”
“You say that a lot.”
He spent the day clearing brush and the next burning the leaves to collect the ashes. Once he had gathered an adequate pile, he filtered the foul fecal brew through the ash into a huge copper drum, in which the resulting contents were boiled for another two days. This process resulted in two products: several casks of firesalt, which Callidus wanted, and a hideous sludge which turned Brand’s stomach to even look at and whose stench overwhelmed the senses.
It was this vile stew that finally saw Brand heaving the contents of his stomach into the nearby stream, where he was unexpectedly interrogated by a child.
“Are you okay?” said the little girl.
“What do you think?” moaned Brand.
“I don’t think you are,” she replied.
“Perhaps you are correct.” Brand was surprised to find himself mimicking Callidus’ dismissive tone.
“Daddy says I shouldn’t talk to you.”
Brand had suspected the girl was the old farmer’s daughter, but that confirmed it. “Perhaps he is correct.”
“Are you dangerous?”
Brand paused for a moment. She was a child; he could tell her anything and she would believe him. He could tell her that he was good and safe and kind, but that would be a lie and could put her at risk if she decided to hang about. He could tell her the truth and have her run, but she would run home and tell her parents. Callidus’ advice was starting to make sense. He must lie to protect himself, but must be honest to protect others. He pondered what to do as he exchanged stares with the child. “Most people are,” he said at last.
“I don’t think you’re scary!” she announced loudly, proclaiming her bravery even through her legs seemed unwilling to bring her within arm’s reach.
“Maybe that’s why I’m dangerous.” Brand found a malicious grin creeping across his face.
“What do you mean?” The little girl’s bravado was faltering and she started to retreat.
“Scary things warn you that they’re dangerous, even though they might be pretending.” He thought a moment to collect the words he would need. “But pretty flowers can be poisonous, cute animals can have claws, and you can drown in a placid pond.”
Brand launched to his feet and made himself as large as possible. “So I ask you, do you think I’m dangerous?” he boomed in as dark a voice as he could muster.
He knew it was wrong to find it funny, but he couldn’t help it. It was pathetic to take pride in having won a battle of wits with a girl less than half his age, but he took it anyway. His deception had protected her from any real danger, and he hadn’t exposed himself. The final crescendo might have been a complete lie and wouldn’t have fooled anyone over the age of twelve, but it didn’t matter. He understood the game he had to play, now, and he had won the first round.
The second round came a little sooner that he had anticipated. Minutes later he was confronted by the farmer, wearing a severe expression and wielding a pitchfork. “What’d ya do to my girl?” he demanded.
His demon yelled at him to grab the axe and fight, to kill the interloper and run, but Brand fought back and just stared at his boiling cauldron, desperately trying to look innocent. Big mistake.
The farmer thrust the filthy tines in Brand’s face. “If you hurt her, I swear to Solus I will gut you!”
“Sorry, who?” Brand’s guilt and fear forgotten, he looked up with confusion.
“You! I will gut you.”
“No, who are you swearing to?”
“Yes,” Brand smiled, “that. Who is Solus?”
“Um…” The farmer lowered his pitchfork, a little uncertain. “The sun god?”
“Oh, that makes sense.” Seeing that he had accidentally gained the upper hand, Brand continued to talk as he casually stoked the fire. “I’m not really from around here.” He gestured non-committally to his dark features. Then, worried that his ignorance in the gods might be as dangerous as his imagined crime against the farmer’s daughter, he changed tact. “Sorry, what were you saying?”
“Did ya hurt ma girl?” The tone was different this time. The accusation was gone and had been replaced with skeptical inquiry.
“Do you think I’d still be here tending my pot if I had?” The farmer relaxed. “Anything you could threaten me with pales in comparison to what Callidus would do to me if I offended you.”
This seemed to mostly satisfy the farmer, though a frown lingered on his face. “Why was she crying and hiding, then?”
“You told her that I was dangerous, did you not?”
The farmer nodded a little sheepishly.
“I told her that she should listen to her father.” Brand made some comically scary gestures and chuckled.
The farmer sort of thanked him, made a half apology, and wandered off in a bit of a daze. The moment he was out of sight, Brand ran to the river and dry-heaved into it until he was dripping with sweat. He had been terrified, but the thrill of combat and the need for survival had overcome his nerves and given him a dark confidence. The danger having passed, the knots that had formed in his stomach were unbinding and aiming to escape.
Finally he collapsed, exhausted. He let the cool stream wash over his face and began to giggle. He had survived, and not by the demon or by the spear. Nobody got hurt, nobody died. He imagined, for the first time, that he might be able to live alongside humans.