This is the twelfth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Brand had been so utterly disoriented by barrage of introductions, that when he found himself sitting nervously in front of the aged oracle, he couldn’t recall how exactly he had gotten there. She squinted at him expectantly. “Well?” she said.
“What?” he replied.
“Cast the runes. Let us see what they have to say about you.”
“The ones in your pouch,” she growled impatiently.
Confused, he looked down at his waist to find that he did, indeed, have one of his pouches and that it seemed to be filled with small stones, rather than the nuts that he remembered having put inside. “What am I supposed to do?”
“Close your eyes, reach in the bag, allow yourself to take some of the runes into your hand. Do not try to hold them all, or to pick and choose. The fates are not easily coerced in such a way. Then toss them across the table,” she explained with a flourish of her hand. “The fates will decide what will be revealed.”
Brand hesitantly reached into the bag. He could feel some of the stones fall into his palm eagerly while others slipped away through his fingers, unwilling to be part of his story. He considered forcing it, swapping stones, choosing what might be a gentler tale. But when he glanced up, Estheria was staring straight through him, into his soul. There was nothing to be gained by trying to lie to this witch; she would know and he would learn nothing.
His resolve hardened. He pulled the runes and cast them across the low table. Some landed hard, seeming to know their place, others rolled and sought out their rightful location before settling, and one landed face down.
The moment they settled, Estheria burst into motion and began to pore over them. She investigated every detail: the runes, their angles, and their relative placement near or far from others. She would occasionally glance up at Brand, sometimes with eyes full of judgment, sometimes with curiosity, sometimes in shock. Her eyes settled on the single face-down stone sitting alone in the centre of the table and regarded it with severity.
Eventually a spirit seemed to overtake her and she began to speak quickly in a deep, hollow, distant voice. “You seem more beast than man.” Her hand flashed over various runes, picking them out as she spoke “Cold, ice, winter… cast far, pushed away but unable to escape them. Food, held close, precious, but sideways, no comfort or pleasure.” She plucked the stones from the table as she addressed each. “There is fear, yes, and pain…but there is also strength, determination, fortitude. A survivor, a fighter, a hunter.”
Her feverish pace slowed somewhat as the number of runes on the table diminished. “He is often lonely… Wishes for companionship, but fears it. He is searching for a place to belong, but he is broken. He carries his sins heavily. The scars run deep. ”
It was all true. Brand felt every word like it was being pulled from his soul. He was naked in front of the prying eyes of the seer.
Finally the table had only a few stones remaining and the oracle sat back and settled into a comfortable posture on her cushions. She picked up one of the runes, a series of crisp, wavy lines, and examined it for a moment more before speaking. “Tell them about the fire,” she said slowly.
Brand was suddenly acutely aware of the rest of the troupe. They were standing in the shadows, rapt with the story of the stones. His throat closed up and his chest was heavy as the memory washed over him.
“She was awake,” he said, and after a long pause added, “I could smell her burning.”
The attentive curiosity of the onlookers shifted to a mortified silence.
“I did not get to say goodbye.” Brand stared with dead eyes into the campfire, remembering that day that played out in endless loops in his dreams. “She was a witch. It had to be done.”
Estheria’s eyebrows rose and she looked down her nose at him. “What was her crime?”
“She was a witch.”
It seemed to him that this needed no further explanation, but she pressed him. “What was her crime?” she repeated.
“Sorcery… maybe murder… breeding with a devil,” he said very quietly, avoiding her eyes.
She leaned over and picked up a stone that had rolled off the table in the casting, a strong square shaped rune. “That explains this, then. A father, separated from the life yet still part of the fate. The devil himself was not about?” She posited quizzically.
“No.” Brand confirmed. “I did not know him. Mother would not speak of him.”
“Are your dark skin and hair not his?” She queried.
“Maybe. Mother was also dark. She said she was a Southerner. Maybe it was the evil in her… in us,” he mumbled.
Brand was unable to discern if it was satisfaction or impatience, but Estheria finally moved on to another rune. “Fury,” she said flatly as she picked up another. “Lying, here, next to temperance. There is a battle within you between light and dark. You have a rage that is sometimes hard to hold back, but your nature is kind.”
“The demon,” Brand interrupted with revulsion at the thing within him that was fighting to take him over. “It is a beast. It has kept me alive in the wild. It is hard to hold back sometimes. It should have died along with me just the same as mother.”
There was something of an awkward silence as the onlookers seemed to try, and fail, to find some levity in the situation. Estheria broke the silence by finally moving to another rune. She reached far across the table and picked up one that had rolled back to Brand, nearly falling off the table. “A woman,” she said with a suggestive glint in her eye, “held close to your heart, unwilling to let her go. A lover, perhaps, or a wife, an object of your affection… or an object of your lust?”
Brand scoured his mind. There was no such person. There couldn’t be. There was only him, he was alone in the world and there wasn’t anyone for him to love. Then a moment came crashing back to him. He had seen her as he left the Maw, shining like snow in the spring sun. The demon had wanted her, lusted after her, wished to devour her. He had fought it, though. He had resisted the demon. Why? She had been his friend, yes, but she was somehow more. Did he love her? Even after she tried to stone him, even after he had killed her father, could he care for her? “Katarina,” he whispered.
Estheria did not press him; instead she interrupted his thoughts and pointed to the last rune, the one that fell face-down. “Shall we show them what it is?” she said grimly, “You know what it is, don’t you.”
Brand feared that he did. He wanted to stop her, to grab the rock and run. He held back the urge, it was his demon trying to hide. These people needed to know what he was. They needed to know the danger. Perhaps they would not let him stay, perhaps they would kill him. It did not matter, here was his chance for salvation and he would have it. She flipped the tile.
A simple X.
“Death,” she whispered. “Face down, a hidden death, a murder.”
“No!” Brand rebutted “Not a murder… I… it wasn’t a plan. I mean I wanted to kill him. He was burning me.” His hand went to the scar on his face. “But I was too small, he was huge, as big as Igor. I wished him dead… and he was just… dead.” He looked at the ground and waited for judgment. “I am a monster.”
“Well we’d better learn to keep that beast shackled.” Brand jumped at the sudden whisper in his ear. He threw himself to the ground and found that Callidus was looming over him, stinking of liquor. “Tomorrow, well start that journey,” he growled grimly. “So get some good sleep tonight.” He waved as he shuffled off into the darkness.
He did not.