This is the fourth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Time alone in the dark was not, as it turned out, what Brandon wanted. His only company was his thoughts and there was very little that his mind had to say to him that provided any comfort. He was going to die, that he knew for certain. He thought that should be weighing rather heavily upon him but his brain would not stop berating him long enough for him to get properly dejected. Instead he was bombarded by accusations of stupidity, weakness, and failure.
“Why didn’t you notice?” his mind screamed. “Why didn’t you know?” he added before he could formulate an answer. “Why did you allow yourself to put Katarina in danger by letter her be near a demon, which was you?” He had barely even parsed that one out before he was hit with a whopper. “Why didn’t you save your mother?”
He crumpled. The clamor within his head didn’t cease, but he no longer listened to it. He was a monster and he wasn’t even good at it. If only he’d known, he could have run away into the mountains years ago, he could have learned to use his power to save his mother and flee. As it was, he was a hid-den geyser, threatening to blow open at any moment and destroy everything around him.
The quiet of the cellar was invaded by mounting voices from outside. There was a crackling of fire, and shrieking coughs that were soon drowned out by a roar of anger and celebration. “That’s it?” he thought, “no chance to talk to her, to blame her, to forgive her, to say goodbye?”
He peaked through the crack between the cellar doors. At the edge of his vision he could see flames licking up above a mass of people hurling wood and insults onto the blaze. He watched until the furor subsided. Then the crowd dispersed and he was left forgotten for a time.
He slumped in the dirt in the corner. The accusations of his mind returned, adding not trying to escape while the entire town was distracted to the list of failures. All he could think to do now was wait for death. “That’s what’s right anyway,” he thought. “I’m a demon, I’ll bring nothing but suffering to these people if I’m allowed to live. My existence is an offence to Oreamnos. Even if I did escape, the mountain would surely not allow me to live.”
His quiet self-loathing was interrupted by nearby discussions. The mayor was speaking in frustrated tones with Magnus. “I don’t see why we don’t finish it now,” he grumbled, “The whole town doesn’t need to see this.”
“I disagree.” Magnus’ smooth and commanding tone seemed to patronize the mayor. “It is best that the town exorcise their demons together in the eyes of the mountain. By this, Oreamnos will know that none sheltered this blight knowingly. Besides, the light is fading. It is best done under the sun. Foul things may lurk in the shadows.”
While Brandon was somewhat pleased to hear someone put the mayor in his place, this was not the context he had hoped for. Moreover, Magnus had an air of arrogance about him that dwarfed even Katarina’s father, who seemed to be struggling to find some power in the exchange again. “How were you able to discern the witch so quickly when Father Aurens could not?” His tone made it sound more like and accusation than a question.
“But he had,” replied Magnus, “Father Aurens sent for me when he discovered the woman’s true nature. He did not feel he had the strength to combat her.”
“Father Aurens passed away four months ago,” mayor Alfried shot back.
“It is a long trek across these mountains, even with Oreamnos guiding my way.” The priest remained perfectly calm, a fact which clearly aggravated the mayor. “And I suspect that his death may have been less natural than it appeared. If his discovery had become known to the witch, she would not have allowed him to continue breathing. Did he die alone?”
“Yes, in his sleep. We discovered him when he did not arrive at the temple for sermon.”
“Typical. She must have stolen into his chambers in the night; cowardice is an accomplice to witchcraft. Have you burned the body?” The priest’s voice was suddenly urgent.
“Of course not.” The mayor was sounding flustered. He was out of his depth and seemed uncertain what the right answer should have been. “We couldn’t consecrate the bodies without a priest.”
“Bodies? There has been more than one death?” Father Magnus’s voice rose sharply, seeming to accuse the mayor.
Mayor Alfried, stumbled over his words, “Yes, there was a baby, a young girl, died in her cot.”
“And you left them preserved and in the reach of a witch.” The priest fought to contain his rage at the idiocy of the townsfolk. “You should count yourselves very lucky that they have not risen, the priest may have had the protection of Oreamnos, but the baby may well have become a tainted imp, devouring the children of this town. Fetch wood for three more pyres.”
“Three?” queried the mayor, having lost something along the way.
“Yes, three,” replied the priest patiently, “The demon’s progeny in the cellar also needs to be turned to ash, unless you’d forgotten, or perhaps wish to protect him?”
“No!” said the mayor hastily, “I am happy to be rid of the monster. However I’m not sure we have enough spare timber for four pyres within two sunrises. It will take time to gather more-”
“Tear down the witches hut,” interrupted father Magnus. “I shouldn’t think that she’ll be in need of it again. And fetch me a brazier and some coals so that we can brand the demon here.”
The mayor snapped. “That is quite enough,” he bellowed at the aged priest. “This is my town and these are my people and I’ll not have you ordering me around, Horn of Oreamnos or not. I am no er-rand boy. I am the leader of this town and I will not have you disrupting our peace.”
There was a moment of silence in Brandon’s earthy prison. He presumed that the priest was recoiling from the assault of the burly mayor, but as he scrambled to the crack between the doors to watch the inevitable battle between the two, he found the priest showing no fear whatsoever at the towering man shouting in his face. Father Magnus instead replied with perfect serenity.
“Quite right, mayor Alfried. The urgency of the situation has caused me to somewhat take leave of my manners and there may be a great deal of wisdom in your words. This is your town, these people need a strong leader in times like these and I cannot stay forever. Perhaps, if you have the fortitude of will, you could be an agent for the Ram God here for your subjects.”
“Of course I have the fortitude.” The mayor pulled himself up proudly in front of the priest. “And I’ll do whatever is needed to protect my town.”
Father Magnus nodded slowly. “Yes, yes, that may be best. I can prepare the ritual given a few hours to collect the offerings to the Mountain. It is not without some degree of risk, however.”
“What risk?” the mayor said his bravado wavering slightly. “I am not afraid.”
“You must slay an enemy of Oreamnos,” the priest replied. “The demon child will suit well, but he may be dangerous. I do not like the idea of sending you to face him on your own.”
“The boy does not frighten me.” Brandon swore that he saw a grin on the face of Katarina’s father. “Gather your offerings, Father. I will see to building the pyres and preparing the brand.”
The two men parted ways and left two large and nervous guards outside the cellar door to keep watch. Brandon fell back into the dirt at his feet and wept. His tears ran dry after some time, but was hit with another blow as he heard the sounds of his house being torn down. He was going to be branded and murdered by Katarina’s father, and then was going to be burned on the wood of his own home. The last thing he was ever likely to see was the sadistic grin of the mayor finally being allowed to do what he had clearly wanted all along. Brandon vomited rather a lot, and went on retching well after his stomach had emptied itself. Finally he collapsed into the muddy bile on the floor, utterly spent.
Time passed impossibly slowly. Brandon was aware of every heartbeat, every drop of filthy sweat rolling down his face, every spider and fly that came to investigate the new tenant in their domain, but he could not force himself from the floor. His despair kept him trapped beneath its weight.
Sometime later, perhaps minutes, perhaps hours, he heard a ceremony begin outside the cellar.
Brandon could hear the audible silence that a crowd of a hundred or so makes when trying to stay hushed. He could hear the crackling of wood, and the acrid smell of burning plants accented the stench of vomit that now permeated the cellar. He heard the priest mumbling strange words for some time before he began to speak properly.
“Alfried Vas Almdalir,” he began, his voice seeming to fill the valley. “In the name of Oreamnos, the Ram God, lord of all the mountains…”
“May His mountains protect us.” sang the chorus of townsfolk.
“You are hereby charged with the horns of stone,” continued father Magnus. The words pushed away Brandon’s despair and replaced it with desperation. “To His people and to His lands, you are bound.”
Brandon pulled himself to his feet and crept to the door to see. The mayor was kneeling, drinking some holy brew and being bathed in the smoke of oream berries.
“You are His horns, His hooves, you are the avalanche against His enemies.”
Brandon could see the whole town watching as the mayor became a Knight of the Mountain.
“You will stand unmoved by the wind, unburned by the sun, untouched by the rain and steadfast against the thunder for you are given the strength of the stone.”
Brandon looked at the prideful face of the mayor and was filled with anger. He would not yield to that man.
“Take up the mark of Oreamnos and bind the demon in its body.”
He would stand and face the brute of a man and spit in his face. If he was a demon, then he would fight with all the fury of the hells behind him.
“Let the Ram guide your hand, strike down His foe and He will know your devotion to Him. Praise be unto the Mountain.”
“May His mountain protect us,” rang the chorus of townsfolk again.
Brandon heard the cellar doors being unbarred; he steadied himself on the dirt floor and prepared to attack. The moment they swung open, he hurled himself into the light and onto the mayor. The big man threw him off easily, tossing the boy to the ground. The mayor, along with the rest of the crowd, was horrified by the sight. Brandon was bruised, bloodied and covered in his own sick, his eyes wild with rage and fear. It gave him time to charge again.
He leaped onto the mayor and tried to bite at his neck. He was, however, no match for the strength of a full-grown mountain man and was slammed to the dirt in seconds. He was held firm by his neck, choking and thrashing on the ground as the mayor reached for the brand being fired in the brazier.
Brandon stared up as the brand, swirls of red-hot steel was brought towards his face. The mayor lowered the glowing metal towards his right eye, moving far more slowly than necessary, seeming to savor the moment. Brandon hated him then. He did not know true hate before that moment, and it con-sumed him as the mayor leaned in close for a final threat. “I never trusted you, boy,” said the mayor, the pine stench of the holy tea on his breath sickening Brandon. “Now I know why.”
The priest began to speak as the brand lowered. “With this mark we bind thee, demon, to your human form. The name of Brandon is known as a cursed word. Do not speak that name for it is the name of the body of a demon. It is stripped and forgotten. The names of the cursed are poison on the tongues of the faithful. You are named Cursebrand, as all your fell brethren,” Father Magnus bellowed. “May you be destroyed in the consuming blaze under the protective gaze of Oreamnos.”
“May His mountains protect us,” sang the audience.
The glowing metal landed on his face and Brandon choked out a scream of pain. He fought under the weight of the mayor but could not move. The searing pain burned away all sense of reason. His mind screamed for any release at all. He wanted to run. He wanted to throw the huge man off of him. He wanted the mayor dead.
The brand fell away.
Brandon gasped for air as the mayor’s hand left his throat.
He looked up with his unwounded eye. The mayor was clutching his chest, eyes unnaturally wide, mouth struggling for a breath that his lungs wouldn’t take. And then he was still.
The mayor was dead.
Brandon scrambled to his feet and looked at the crowd. They looked back at him, neither knowing what to do.
The priest broke the silence. “Demon!” he shouted. “Do not approach him. He has the touch of death with him. Fetch sling and bow. I will hold him here.”
The crowd broke, some from fear and some to follow orders. Brandon turned to see the priest chanting and beginning to glow as he had the day before. In moments, Brandon would have a strong holy warrior to contend with under a hail of rocks and arrows. He ran.
He fled faster than he had ever imagined he could. He made for the forest but the villagers did not make it easy, and stones were hard to dodge with only one eye. The pain from the brand had been replaced by panic, but streaming gore and tears blinded him. He sprinted behind sheds and through stables, spooking the livestock as he went. Soon there were as many people trying to collect goats as were chasing him.
Over a low roof and under a tall mule, he managed to throw off the last of his immediate pursuers. He rounded a blind corner to find a group corralling some sheep. He thought himself certainly recaptured, but the men and women threw themselves out of the way for fear of his fatal grasp.
Brandon hadn’t had time to form any real opinions on his new-found ability, but for the moment he was thankful. He didn’t want to kill anyone, but it was considerably easier to run away from people that were disinclined to actually catch him.
New eruptions of horror and panic flew through the village as shouts traveled through the town that the infant’s corpse had gone missing. It was a mixed blessing as far as Brandon was concerned. It add-ed another layer of disorder to the town as everyone was now running to check on their children, which gave him a nearly clear path to his desired exit. But it also meant that he’d be sharing the wilderness with another demon. He considered very briefly whether thirteen was old enough that an imp wouldn’t want to eat him, but a stone whipping by his head brought him back to more pressing concerns.
He ducked down the alley between the house and the barn of Aleks’ family, making for a forest path known only to him and his friends. There, the thick underbrush would give him cover and he could navigate the maze of game trails at speed. In only a few yards he would be free of the town. He might survive.
There was a final obstacle that he had not considered. As he rounded the corner and entered the path between the buildings, he stumbled to a stop. Aleks and Katarina barred his way out. They had fore-seen his plan and had gone straight there. Without townsfolk to avoid, they had had enough time for Aleks to fetch his family’s bear spear and for Katarina to gather some stones to throw.
“Please,” was all that Brandon was able to say.
“You’re a monster!” accused Aleks.
“I didn’t know,” panted Brandon.
“You lied to us!” he screamed back.
“I swear, I didn’t know.” Brandon’s voice cracked.
“You killed Kat’s father!” Aleks shrieked. He was full of fury and his hands were shaking around the spear he held.
Brandon’s eyes met Katarina’s. They were filled with a sadness so deep that Brandon felt it in his chest. There was none of the hate and fury that burned in Aleks’s gaze, only sorrow. He stood there, bruised, bloodied, soaked in his own sick, utterly shattered inside and out. “I’m so sorry,” he pleaded.
Katarina said nothing. She just looked past him, as if he weren’t even there.
“Please move,” Brandon begged.
“We can’t,” replied Aleks, and he steadied himself, preparing to fight. “You can’t be allowed to hurt anyone else.”
“I never wanted to hurt anybody,” Brandon whimpered. He heard footsteps approaching fast around the building and made his decision. “And I’m not going to hurt you, but I have to get by.”
He started to run at his friends, praying to the Oreamnos to protect them from his curse. He may be a monster in the eyes of the Ram, but perhaps with the eyes of the Mountain on him, it would protect the innocent from his evil.
Katarina pulled back her arm and let loose a stone. Brandon turned his head away, unable to bear the look on her face or the impact of another rock. He wished as hard as he could for the rock to go wide before he heard it strike flesh solidly, but it wasn’t his. He looked back to see one of Shephard boys falling over himself from the impact. Brandon had a sudden moment of confidence. He had the power and desperation could call it forth. The next fight, though, did not need demonic powers, it just needed guile.
Aleks barred the way with the sharp end of the long spear, but the two of them had spent many hours fighting with sticks in the woods and Brandon knew how to bypass the guard of his old friend. In what felt like a familiar dance, Aleks thrust early, overextending his reach and Brandon went limp and let his weight carry him down as the spear sailed over him.
He bounced back quickly and grabbed the haft near the head, pushing as Aleks tried to recover. Thrown off balance, Aleks stumbled while Brandon planted his feet and pressed his advantage. He wrenched on the stick and threw his friend, sending him tumbling into Katarina.
When all three had found their feet again Brandon was holding the spear and had nothing but forest behind him. He looked into the shattered gaze of Katarina one last time. “I’m sorry,” he said, and ran.