This is the tenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Having just found some hope and shelter, Cursebrand was immediately exiled again. “Your stink is going to drive away customers, and that scar will attract trouble,” sneered Callidus. “Get well out of town and into the hills before dawn.”
“But…” Cursebrand searched frantically for words but found only a sense of rejection and fear. He was overcome with dread that he had entirely misunderstood the previous exchange and was being sent away.
“And take a bath for gods’ sake.”
“You will leave without me?” Cursebrand managed to spit out.
“That’s the plan,” replied the wizard callously.
“I will not see you again?”
“Then you’re a damned lousy hunter aren’t you?” Callidus grumbled as he prodded him towards the exit. “Get us something good to eat and meet us on the southbound road in two days. We’ll be gone before noon. Don’t miss us.”
Cursebrand nearly collapsed with relief. He was not being exiled after all, merely forced to hide for another two days. He grabbed his spear with newfound enthusiasm and started to march for the door.
“One more thing,” growled Callidus. “Always remember that this wasn’t my choice. I did not invite you. I did not choose you. The compassion that saw you into this tent tonight is not mine, and if you prove to be a burden of any kind you will find me most unsympathetic. Now get out of here, before your stench stains the canvas. ”
Cursebrand scurried out of the tent like a panicked squirrel, but once free and clear, he stopped to thank the Mountain. Oreamnos had helped him find his way there that night and it seemed that the wizard knew it. Even the great and powerful Callidus had to bow to the will of The Ram.
Cursebrand fled from the dwindling lights and music of the festival into the more familiar and welcoming rocks and hills. He found an alcove in a crevice and bundled himself up with furs to sleep for the night. Before he slept, he stopped to thank Oreamnos one more time. He knew that he was heading out of the domain of The Ram, and that soon his voice would no longer be heard; the protection and guidance that had been given would dwindle. Regardless, Oreamnos had seen fit to save him. For whatever purpose The Ram may have, he had been led to this place.
He did not sleep well that night, but that was not unusual. So long had he been among the beasts that he had learned to sleep as one as well. Sleep had been tentative and cautious, his mind always filled with the noises and dangers of the night. Now, however, it was filled with words and conversations, thing that had been said, or should have been said, or even things he might say in the future. He had dreams, not of eyes in the forest or of the taste of meat, but of people, places, and of long, smooth, white legs and supple lips and dangerous eyes of a very different kind.
He woke with the dawn and set to work. He laid snares in likely places and found some fish worth spearing, all the while chattering away to himself. Speaking had been a struggle the night before and he was going to make certain that it would not happen again. He told himself familiar songs and stories from his childhood, he talked at great length to his lunch about his old house and good places to play, he chatted with his cooking fire about the best way to skin and eat a bear. Some words came back easily, mostly things of the human world: house, trousers, bed. Others were less forthcoming. These were things that had been such grave and crucial aspects of survival, that they had become feelings and states of being rather than something so simple as a word: cold, pain, bear… winter.
As the day wore on, he realized that if he was going to be at all welcome, he would have to find something more impressive than a squirrel or a fish with which to share with his new master. He would need some proper game. Here, a new challenge presented itself. The passage through Veggjuvet seemed more than just a border to men. The whole world seemed split in half by the ridge of mountains: the grass, the trees, the fish, and the animals.
The berries that he found smelled foul, and he did not even know what kind of useful game might exist on this side of the pass; the traps he laid were filled by furious little beasts that looked like enormously fat weasels with black stripes over their eyes instead of terrified little rabbits. Regardless, the signs and hiding places are the same for any big animal. He would find the droppings, follow the trails, and kill one in the night where it slept.
Night fell as he neared in on what he thought to be a good candidate for a bear or lion den. He crept slowly into the earthy cave, giving time to let his eyes adjust. As the shape of his prey became discernible from the shadows, Cursebrand panicked. It was a small bear, a very small bear. He had made a terrible mistake; not only was a bear cub poor game, but it was alone, which meant its mother was likely just outside the cave.
He whirled to defend himself but found no mother. He slunk from the cave back into the shadows and contemplated his situation. He had always avoided killing mothers still with young. The hunters in Almdalir had said it was killing two and wasting one to do so, but more than that, he felt great sympathy for an orphaned child lost in the cold.
He started to wander away in defeat but was halted by the sound of growling from the cave. The baby had awoken; he had lingered too long and his scent had disturbed its sleep. He could hear it shuffling about and waited for the inevitable whine for its mother to return, but none came. Instead the little bear itself came tearing out of the cave in a rage, roaring with a deep throaty growl as it charged.
Now more clearly visible in the moonlight, Cursebrand puzzled at the rampaging little thing. It was certainly no baby: its shoulders were broad and strong, its fur was matted and growing thick for the winter, and it was dark black instead of the warm brown of the bears he knew. When it reared up on its hind legs, it barely reached Cursebrand’s nose in height.
He stuck the little thing through its chest with a single strike and dragged it back to his camp. But even a small bear is not an easy thing to move, and he found very little time to sleep before dawn.
Morning brought with it new problems. He now had a fine assortment of slaughtered creatures that he didn’t recognize, and he hoped that some of them would be delicious, or at least edible. But he still had another half to his mission. He needed to bathe.
A mountain stream was not a welcoming place to bathe even in the warmest months. Just stripping off the collection of poorly assembled furs that he used as clothing left him chilled in the chill autumn air. He scrubbed himself and his clothing furiously, his teeth chattering. Every few minutes, he would have to stop and warm himself by his fire, with diminishing success each time.
The worst part by far was his hair. He didn’t recall having ever cleaned it, and looking at his reflection in a still pool, he found it hard to believe that he hadn’t been thought completely mad by the wizard. It was thick and black and hung down to his chest in massive tangles where it merged with his beard. Both were caked with bits of filth and blood, most of it not his own. He scrubbed and bashed at it with rocks and was forced to cut some of the most tenacious clots and brambles.
He dressed in his sopping wet clothing and examined himself again. He looked no less mad, but perhaps he smelled somewhat less foul.
He bound his fresh kills and his old bindle to a skiff and dragged it down the rocky hills to wait in a hidden spot by the side of the road. The morning sun slowly dried and warmed him and left him a fluffy mess as he watched travelers pass back and forth. He waited anxiously and began to worry that he may have already missed them. With nothing else to do, doubt crept into his mind. Perhaps the wizard had been lying, perhaps he was not welcome. Maybe there would be no cure, maybe this was a trap and he would find Father Magnus and a forest of swords instead of a caravan. Dread began to overtake him, but he was calmed by the last threat of Callidus from the night before; he had not chosen Cursebrand, he had been bound by a higher power. The wizard was clearly a reluctant participant.
He sat on his skiff of corpses and wrestled with these thoughts for some time. So engrossed was he in his thoughts that he nearly let the caravan pass unnoticed, which would have been an embarrassment, given how poorly camouflaged it was. There were more than half a dozen wagons hauled by ox or horse. Some were canvas covered, but most of them were high-sided wooden things covered with vibrant decoration that looked more like houses on wheels than carts. The most ostentatious of them was piloted by a familiar giant. Cursebrand hopped into sight and shouted for them to stop.
“Igor! Please, I am here.” He yelled as he jumped out from the boulders behind which he had been hiding. Surprised, Igor jerked rather suddenly on the reins, affecting general disarray of the carts following him. Cursebrand winced, watching as the caravan trundled awkwardly to a halt. Inside one of the carts, something roared with displeasure.
Igor seemed oblivious to the cries of annoyance and confusion from the other drivers and grinned broadly at Cursebrand. “Hello mister wizard’s assistant,” he boomed in his strange, bouncy accent. He hopped down.
“I have done as I was told,” replied Cursebrand. “Is Master Callidus here? I have many things for him.”
“Master? He’ll like that,” laughed the young Jaymes as he bounded up the side of the rocky road. “Come on, let’s get you loaded.”
That was the end of the friendly greetings, though. Quizzical and judgmental eyes peered out from beneath wagon coverings and barely opened doors in wooden carts.
Upon seeing the pile of fresh kills, Jaymes called out. “Hey Igor, we’re gonna need some help with this.”
Igor hopped down and rounded the boulders as Cursebrand heaved the small bear such that its lifeless eyes were staring up at the giant, its tongue dangling grotesquely from its slack jaw. This offering was welcomed by an instantaneous and violent eruption of vomit.
A good while later, Cursebrand was once again clean, sopping wet, and freezing cold. He shivered violently on a bench beside Jaymes, who was still laughing as he tried to steer the wagon down the mountain road. “I am so… so sorry,” he snorted. “Igor is a bit sensitive. He doesn’t really like knowing where his food comes from. I should have thought.” Jaymes took another look at the misery of the shivering man beside him and burst out laughing again.
The day was not at all what he expected. He wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it clearly wasn’t what was happening. Jaymes prattled on ceaselessly about all manner of trivialities: towns they were to visit, his favorite foods, the weather, seeming entirely fearless in the company of the cursed man beside him. Cursebrand wasn’t sure if this was out of ignorance or experience. It was possible that the wizard had trained him in such matters, or that he simply wasn’t aware of the danger. Jaymes’ confidence did not, however, provide any comfort to Cursebrand.
Cursebrand did not fully know the extent of the effect of his demonic heritage, nor did he know how to control it. He only knew that he was dangerous, and that he could kill with a thought. As Jaymes chattered away the afternoon, Cursebrand tried to keep his mind on anything but murder, a task he found somewhat more challenging than he had hoped; trying not to think about the thing just brought it more sharply into focus. He tried to think of pleasant things, take an interest in the passing environment or listen to the perky ramblings of the boy beside him, but something inside him was shouting, taunting him with the harm he would doubtless do to these people.
He was strangely comforted by the appearance of Felisia. She climbed on top of the enclosed, wooden wagon in front of him and glared at him judgmentally while she toyed with an uncomfortably large knife. It seemed that her express purpose in doing so was make it clear that he was unwelcome and untrusted.
This seemed right to him. As her dark, feline stare seemed to burn into his very soul, he was comforted that there was at least one person in this troupe that knew better than to get friendly with a demon.
His brief peace of mind was battered, however, when Jaymes finally put a question to Cursebrand. “Are badgers tasty?”
“What?” Cursebrand stuttered, totally unprepared for conversation.
“Badgers. I didn’t know you could eat them,” bubbled Jaymes.
“That’s what I’m asking you.”
“What is a badger?”
There was a long moment of mutual confusion which very nearly led to shared trip down the side of a mountain as Jaymes failed to pay attention to his steering. “What do you mean? You brought three of them with you.”
“The fat, angry weasel things?” queried Cursebrand.
“Yes! Those things, the badgers!” shouted Jaymes as he fought for control of the wagon.
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen them before. I was trying to catch rabbits.”
“And you accidentally generated a stack of badgers?” Jaymes was incredulous, “And a massive bear. In one day you bagged four badgers and a huge bear. You’re either very good or completely mad.”
“It was a very small bear,” replied Cursebrand in surprise.
“That thing was nearly as big as me! It’s massive!”
“I thought it was a baby.”
“What, then, is a big bear?” challenged Jaymes.
Cursebrand set about unpacking his bindle and pulled out his favorite blanket. It was an adult male bearskin with a full winter coat. He held it up with some pride for Jaymes to see, which led to another adventure in dangerous driving.
The difficult recovery was made somewhat more precarious by the sudden appearance of a very angry wizard. His head popped out from a hatch in the carriage roof and snarled, “What in the hells do you think you’re doing? If you’re going to teach the idiot to drive, do it on flat roads!”
Cursebrand was so startled that he found himself clinging to the underside of the wagon, without any clear recollection of how he got there, a recollection that might have been valuable as he struggled to reverse the process.
Sweaty and rattled, he slumped back onto his side of the bench.
“You’re awfully jumpy,” chuckled Jaymes.
“I am not used to this,” replied Cursebrand a little sheepishly. “I have been alone a long time.”
“How long exactly?”
“Four winters.” The number seemed small, but in so many ways it had become his entire life. The childhood before that seemed like a dream and a lie. The brand, the demon, and the wild were all that he understood and knew to be true about himself.
“Four years?” Jaymes was shocked but managed to stay focused on the twisting road. “Completely alone?”
“Yes.” Cursebrand stared blankly into the middle distance.
“What happened? Why were you branded?”
“A demon hunter came to my town. He was after my mother. I was the son of a witch. I did not know.” Cursebrand felt dead inside as he related the story. “I am curseborn. I was branded. Someone died. I ran.”
“You killed someone?”
A long pause followed as Cursebrand prepared to fight or flee. “Yes,” he said cautiously and quietly.
“Who?” came a bright and curious reply.
That was not at all the response he was expecting. He edged into a position that he could throw himself from the cart and run. “The mayor, the man that branded me.”
“Can’t blame you there,” said Jaymes frankly. “I’d have wanted revenge for that, too.”
“No!” defended Cursebrand. “Not revenge, it was an accident.”
Jaymes was dubious. “You accidentally murdered the man that had branded your face.”
“I killed him while he branded my face.” Cursebrand got very quiet. “I wished him dead… and he died.”
“Holy hells!” laughed his bench-mate. “Remind me not to piss you off.”
Cursebrand was not at all comforted by the lack of concern shown by Jaymes. He edged further away, until he was balancing precariously on the end of the diver’s bench.
“What?” grinned the apparently mad violinist. “We travel with a giant, a wizard, a cat twice my size, and a girl who like knives more than people. I’m sorry to say, you’re probably not the most dangerous one here.”
Cursebrand was a little taken aback at that idea. He hated being a monster, but being told that he wasn’t a big enough monster to worry about was somehow insulting.
“What’s your name anyway?” asked Jaymes.
“Cursebrand,” he responded with shame.
“What? That’s your name? A bit prophetic of your current state isn’t it?”
“It was given to me when I was branded. My birth name is the name of a demon. To speak it invites calamity.” Cursebrand said solemnly.
“Well it’s utter shite!” stated Jaymes flatly. “It’s no good to call you Cursebrand. Think about it ‘Cursebrand, please pass the potatoes.’ It sounds ridiculous.”
“What are potatoes?”
Jaymes ignored him. “No it won’t do. We’ll just call you ‘Brand.’ It’s short, it’s easy, it sounds like a real name, and it doesn’t panic anyone if you shout it in a crowd.”
That was somehow a pleasing thought to Cursebrand. His identity had been stripped and replaced once before. This felt different. It was a disguise, a mask to wear in the dangerous world of men.
The day wore on and the shadows grew long as they slowly descended out of the rocky mountains. The stony road transformed into a rutted dirt one and the craggy grey peaks wore down into rolling forested hills. As the caravan pulled into a circle to camp for the night, the sun dipped to the horizon in a burst of vibrant colors the likes of which Brand had never seen. He sat dazzled by the beauty of the sunset and was filled with a sense of hope for his life in the strange world beyond the mountains.