This is the Fifteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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After four days of exhausting labor and reeking, stench-filled misery, Brand was finished. He looked with some pride upon four barrels of firesalt. He didn’t know why the curmudgeonly mage needed it, and he didn’t care anymore. It was done and he’d be glad to be rid of the stuff.
He hauled them back to the wagons, under which he aimed to collapse. His respite was diverted, however, by a scowling wizard. “Good work,” Callidus said, in a way that left brand waiting for the “but” that was sure to follow.
“Yes?” Brand replied after an uncomfortable pause.
“You probably sorted out that this was a test.”
“Yes?” Brand had hoped this to be true.
“You passed,” Callidus grumbled, refusing entirely to give any indication as to whether he was pleased with the outcome. “There was purpose to this beyond what you can understand at the moment, I promise you that. The immediate test, though, was of your resolve. This is the most unpleasant task with which you will be saddled…”
Brandon sighed with some relief.
“But not by much,” the wizard continued. “There are a great many items that are needed to do my work. Some are difficult and some dangerous to acquire. By assisting me you will learn the ways and means of wizardry, and through that you may, and I stress, you may be able to rid yourself of the curse you carry.”
A question built on Brand’s lips, but Callidus snapped at him, answering before the query had been fully formed.
“Because I cannot separate you from your demons. They are indistinguishable to anyone but you. I could well banish them, but you’d not survive the process.”
“Wh…” Brand tried to say, but the precognitive abilities of the wizard outpaced his tired mind.
“There is good reason that I will not simply tell you the process; it would be either dangerous or pointless. Knowledge of this kind is powerful. Without the discipline gained from learning it yourself, you could do great harm. I will teach you nothing, I will simply give you the means by which to learn. And should I ever come to suspect that you will use the knowledge for ill…” Callidus shrugged and tipped his flask to his lips as if the conclusion were obvious.
This made sense to Brand. It was fair. It was good. Moreover, it meant that if things went wrong, if he lost control of the beast, someone would be there to do what was needed.
As the old mage shuffled back to his wagon, he muttered over his shoulder, “tomorrow you’ll be helping Felisia with her knives, so get some good sleep.”
Brand found the instruction somewhat paradoxical. Despite his exhaustion, he laid awake long into the night as he fought with his body to convince it that it was not about to go into battle with a wild, rabid beast.
Sleep-deprived and apprehensive, he was handed over to Felisia, who accepted the help with malicious glee. “Come, boy.” She grinned with murder in her eyes. “Let’s test your nerve.”
He was stood in front of a sturdy board and instructed not to move as Felisia began flinging knives in his general direction. In an attempt to distract himself from the blades slamming into the board around him, Brand tried to watch the rest of the show. It was very different for this town than the one he had seen in Vegjuvet. Yan and Van tumbled and juggled for children out in the open without any attempt to charge for the privilege. Whenever they tired, the band would take their place.
Illea kept Mitali in her wagon, but removed some of the panels of one side, revealing sturdy bars behind. Villagers marveled and gawked as the massive cat lounged and yawned at them. Illea gave a similarly lethargic performance, spending most of the day chatting with a man from the town and occasionally glaring at youths that approached the bars too closely.
As he watched Illea laugh and smile and play with her hair, his thoughts drifted to Katarina. She had been radiant in the mountain sun. He fought to fill his lungs as he considered the fact that he would likely never see her again. Love, was he even capable of that? That hadn’t been what he felt when he first saw her. That had been base animal want. Now, though, he wondered if it was his demon trying to take what his true heart wanted, or had it been the feral animal that he had become expressing a softer feeling that it did not understand. Standing in the sun, in the company of humans, watching the glowing smile of another beautiful woman, his feelings seemed gentler. He wanted to be close to Katarina, to have her laugh and bite her lip as Illea did. He wanted to feel her warmth near him and to…
A large knife bounced off the board and rebounded past his eyes. It yanked him forcefully back to the moment and he whipped his head back to face Felisia, teeth bared, ready to fight.
Her narrow eyes were accusing him of something heinous from behind her tousled bangs, but only for a moment. Their duel was averted by the realization that that a half-dozen onlookers were on the brink of panic.
Felisia laughed and grinned at the audience in a pacifying way. “Sorry, folks – new blade. Still finding the balance. You alright there Brand?” She strode up to collect the knives from the board and gave him a hearty and apologetic pat on the chest. “Stop ogling,” she growled in his ear. “You’re part of the show. Act like it.”
Brand returned to his role as a slightly nervous target and retriever of knives. As the day wore on he came to understand the performance. The real business was being done elsewhere, the music and clowning was merely a distraction. There was a slow, but constant stream of people, mostly younger ones, taking their turn with the fortune teller in her vibrantly colored pavilion tent. Across from her, Callidus was turning a brisk trade in potions, tinctures, and occasional house-calls.
As the day wore on, Brand became aware of a group of boys — young men, really — very quietly teasing and prodding one of their number. It was a familiar dance; he recognized the rhythm and the various steps from when he and Katarina would use it to convince Aleks to eat things or go places that he was, quite rightly, opposed to. He spied them with curiosity and nostalgia as they moved through the well-practiced movements, alternately building his confidence, throwing doubt on his bravery, and saddling him with the prospect of shame. Finally the victim’s resolve broke and he steeled himself for what he was about to do.
The boy strode up behind Felisia full of false bravado, possibly purchased from Callidus in bottle form. Brand could sense the danger, but there were knives in the air on their way toward him and all he could do was watch as the fool kicked a wasp nest. “Hey there kitty cat, my name’s Roy,” he said as he threw an arm casually over Felisia’s shoulder. “I hear yours is…”
There was less than a heartbeat between the moment his hand landed and he had a knife at both his throat and his groin. “Did I give you permission to touch me?” Felisia spat through clenched teeth.
“Hnnn,” whimpered Roy, too frightened to move and fighting hard to not wet himself.
Brand saw the panic in the villagers growing and could feel the predatory aura building in Felisia. A poorly considered move or attempt at wit from the beleaguered Roy might be the end of him, and likely Felisia, as well, as the town would undoubtedly mete out their vengeance on her. His mind raced but his mouth moved faster.
“Hey now, those knives are meant for me,” he shouted with a smarmy smirk. “I’ll get jealous if they end up inside somebody else.”
Brand managed to break the tension, but very nearly got his wish as Felisia flung the knife that had been at Roy’s throat directly at Brand. He felt the demon take over, pulling him to the ground as the knife bounced harmlessly off the backboard where his chest had previously been. The audience roared with laughter and Roy’s friends were in stitches as the shattered youth scurried off. Felisia’s composure failed to reassemble and she stared at the knife lying at the base of the target.
Brand picked up the knife and moved to return it to his motionless assailant. He started to talk to the crowd, mimicking Callidus’ dark, showman’s smile as best he could. “Thank you all very much, you’re far too kind. And let this be a reminder to us all, be cautious what you wish for, you may well get it.” He gestured to his chest with the blade and grimaced.
“And don’t sneak up on a woman when she’s armed,” suggested a helpful heckler.
“I find it safer, sir, to assume all women to be armed at all times.”
The audience seemed to accept this as a humorous qualification, but Brand very much meant it. He’d only met a half-dozen women since rejoining humanity, but it seemed a fair assessment that they were at least as dangerous as the creatures he’d met in the wild.
Brand grinned and waved at the crowd as he handed back the knife to Felisia. “Are we done here then?” he asked cautiously.
“Yeah,” she nodded slightly, then shook off whatever had gripped her and beamed at the audience. She bowed, thanked them, and chided Brand for not having already cleaned up the equipment. It was time for dinner, after all.
They bowed again and made their escape, replaced promptly by Yan and Van juggling torches and threatening, on occasion, to add a precocious toddler to the mix.
Felisia avoided Brand more than usual that night, refusing to even glare at him. He worried that he’d offended her, but Jaymes interrupted his ruminations by congratulating him on his quick thinking and proceeded to describe the various virtues of the girls in the town.
Long after dark, as Brand prepared to settle into his pile of furs beneath Callidus’ cart, Felisia stalked up to him out of the darkness and fidgeted with a knife agitatedly. There was an uncomfortably long silence during which Brand had the growing urge to run, or at the least arm himself. Finally, she made a quick thrust with the knife and Brand jumped back, hand reaching for the haft of his spear. A moment passed, and another. The cool spring breeze caught itself up in Felisia’s tangle of hair and revealed her furrowed brow and pained eyes. She stared fixedly at the ground with a look of desperate sadness and confusion.
“I’m glad you moved,” she said quickly and quietly.
Brand looked back to the knife; she held the blade, offering him the handle. He took it slowly, hesitantly. Uncertain if it was an offering or if she was simply preparing him for an honorable duel.
She let go and trudged off, leaving Brand utterly baffled and holding a knife. Why did she feel so guilty? She had thrown a knife, but it had bounced off the backboard harmlessly. It would have hit him, sure, but it was just an angry threat. The rotation had been wrong…
The rotation had been wrong… for the backboard.
The rotation had been right for something just in front of the board. One of Brand’s knees buckled and the air in his lungs evacuated as he realized that someone had, again, attempted to execute him. He was starting to think that, except for the slow and inevitable erosion of his soul, having a demon was a pretty useful thing.
Something touched his shoulder and he whipped around to bury his knife in the attacker. He stopped himself just short of eviscerating the assailant, as he caught the familiar scent and voice of Estheria.
“My goodness!” she said. “You would think I’d have learned not to surprise folk by now.” Her mouth smiled but her eyes were cool and knowing. “Would you do me a service?”
“Uh… sure…of course, whatever you want.” Brand pulled the knife back and tried awkwardly to find a place to stow it.
She laughed. “Is it valor or folly that would have a man agree so readily to a blind charge from a witch in the night?”
Brand fought to make sense of the question, trying to dig meaning out of the unknown words. “I’m not sure of the difference.”
“There is wisdom in that.” She laughed again, more genuinely and waved him onward. “Worry not, it is only my pavilion that needs packing. We move on tomorrow and the boy is fussing.”
“What?” Brand was lost. “What boy?”
“Tristan, our son.”
“How do we have a son?” Brand was only somewhat acquainted with the process of creating babies but he was certain that it wasn’t the sort of thing that happened without warning.
“What?” Replied Estheria, joining in the confusion. “Oh, my stars no. Mine and Igor’s son.”
“If you like.”
“You have a son?”
“Does nobody tell you these things?” Estheria shook her head in disbelief, “It’s no wonder that you always look like a rabbit at a dinner party.”
“Aren’t you too old?”
“My son certainly doesn’t think so.”
Brand tried to sort out his world again as she guided him through the process of dismantling her colorful pavilion tent while she jammed a seemingly endless stream of crystals, candles and pillows into travelling chests.
Brand paused for a moment and found enough mental purchase to attempt another question. “Is Felisia okay?”
Estheria stopped her packing. A terribly sad smile crept across her face and her eyes became very distant. “Small words and massive queries…” She held a pillow to her chest, as one might a troubled child. “Everyone here has scars, Brand. Some of them are just harder to see than yours. The less visible they are, the deeper they run.”
As if to punctuate her statement, Callidus shuffled by taking a long draw from his ever-present flask before vanishing into his wagon.
“Nobody comes to a life like this by choice” Estheria continued, “We are a collection of broken toys.” She went back to packing.
Brand stacked the poles and coiled the ropes in silence for a time. There had been a sadness in her voice that was difficult to hear and despite his curiosity, he was hesitant to call it up again. “What’s her story? Why is she so… odd?”
“I’m not sure that I can tell you,” she said as she began, again, to pack away her pillows. “Felisia was a stowaway. She stabbed Callidus in the leg when he found her and instead of stabbing her right back, he gave her food and a warm blanket. We don’t even know her name. Felisia is one we gave her before she was willing to talk to us.”
“Why does she hate me?” Brand asked.
“She doesn’t hate you.” Estheria chuckled
“Are you sure?” Brand tried to recall a single interaction that might support that ridiculous claim.
“But she doesn’t trust you. Also, I think you two are the same in many ways…”
“We’re both wild animals.” Brand knew this at his core. He felt the connection but it was not one of kindred spirits, more like a wolf straying into a lion’s den. He was not prey, but neither was he a welcome trespasser.
“Perhaps. A kitten and a puppy, maybe. But more that you were both on your own for a very long time.”
“She lived in the wilds?” Brand was surprised. Somehow, despite her feral eyes and catlike poise, she did not have the scent of the wilderness about her.
“In a sense, but a very different one than you.” Estheria’s tone darkened and she began to lecture, “She was in the city, and that is just as dangerous as any mountain or forest for a young girl all on her own. She fought through it and survived, but the city is cruel. However harsh, savage and unforgiving the wilderness may be, it has one virtue, it is honest. The dark places of the city are full of lies, false promises and proper evil. A bear may be able to kill you, but it can’t break your heart first.”
It was true. For every scar Brand carried from fights with bears, wolves and lions, none hurt as much or as long as the one from the stone that Katarina had thrown, and that hadn’t even hit him.
“Also, given that puppies are wont to chase kittens, let me give you a warning: should you wound our kitty cat, you will find that her claws are not the only ones you need to fear. She is family, you are yet a vagrant.”
“Understood.” Brand found some comfort in this. He was in someone else’s den and he’d just faced the den mother. A cautious truce was as positive an outcome as he could have hoped for.
“Get some good sleep,” she added, “We travel at dawn.”