This is the nineteenth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, almost every Thursday.
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Brand found his feet and sunk his spear into the creature to ensure its death before kneeling and clasping his hands over the body in prayer.
“What are you doing?” Demanded Felisia impatiently.
Brand was startled at the question. He hadn’t really thought about the action, it was simply habit. As he considered it, there was a possibility that there were different traditions here; he was far from the mountains, perhaps the local god would expect appreciation in a different form. “I’m giving thanks to the forest god. Am I doing it wrong? Do you know his name?”
Felisia responded only with a scowl.
“Her name?” he ventured.
“Why would you thank a god?” Felisia’s voice was derisive, mocking. “I thought you were a monster, a demon. Demons don’t pray.”
Brand stared at his feet. It was true. Drawing the attention of a god might not be a good idea, but he couldn’t help the feeling the being polite was more important than hiding himself. Besides, Oreamnos had shown him into this land, and the local gods had provided him with fresh meat. “The gods have been good to me. I should show my thanks.”
Felisia laughed. The chuckle rocked her body, but her eyes were full of pity. “You are a cursed bastard, chased from your home and left to rot in the wilderness. How? How have the gods been good to you?”
“Oreamnos came to me. He gave me food to eat and led me to a safe place to live in the wilderness.”
“Safe? You mean the valley full of bears and lions and freezing winters?” Felicia continued to snicker through her incredulity.
“Yes.” he replied enthusiastically. “And He led Callidus to me, and me to Callidus, and finally He compelled Callidus to take me in.”
“Oh, come on. He did nothing of the sort.”
Brand was shocked. How could she even doubt such a thing? “Why else would Callidus take me on as his apprentice? He didn’t want me. He said as much himself. He had been compelled.”
“Yeah, he was compelled, but not by a goat.”
“A ram,” Brand interrupted. “The Ram.”
“Whatever.” Her voice was losing its laugh and beginning to grow impatient. “It wasn’t your goat-god that convinced Callidus to keep you. It was Igor.”
There was a long silence as Brand tried, and failed, to absorb the statement. “What?”
“Igor, the big guy, he took you in. Everyone knows it was him, we just can’t say it.”
Brand slouched a little. “Why not?” The world wasn’t making sense again. He felt rather like he was the wrong size all of a sudden. Felisia seemed so much older, more certain of everything, and, despite all physical appearances, larger than he was.
“Because Estheria would murder Igor if he picked up another stray.”
“Murder him?” Brand was horrified.
“Not actually, they’d just argue a lot. And by argue, I mean Esther would yell and Igor would cry and we’d all have a lousy time. It’s better for all of us if Callidus pretends it was his decision, even if we all know it wasn’t.”
Brand processed it all for a moment. He thought back to the night in the tent outside Vegjuvet. He remembered looks being exchanged between Igor and Jaymes and Callidus. “Callidus would have sent me away?”
“Happily… Wait, no. Cal never does anything happily.” She pondered for a minute, tapping the tip of her knife against her teeth. “Eagerly… remorselessly… mercilessly. That’s the word. He would have chucked you out into the cold mercilessly.”
“Is he really such a bad man?” Brand had been starting to warm to his master, but was now doubting his instincts.
“No, not bad. Just grumpy. I think he likes being grumpy. Are you going to move this boar or am I going back without you?”
Brand again took notice of the creature he had killed and on which he was now absent-mindedly sitting. “What did you call it?”
“A boar. It’s a boar. You don’t know what this is, do you?”
“Nope.” Brand hopped up cheerfully and started to tie up the beast for transport. “Is it tasty?”
“It’s like a pig.”
“That’s good, yes?”
“Yes, I suppose there are worse things to eat.”
Brand trudged happily through the woods to where he estimated the caravan to be headed, thinking to himself that he must find a way to thank Igor.
Felisia, however emboldened by the experiences of the day, started to lose her confidence in the face of the sounds of the forest going about its business. “Say something,” she demanded. “I don’t like the quiet. It’s too noisy.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Tell me anything. Tell me about your god, or your home, or your valley, or whatever.”
It took Brand a moment to find the words and the memories and to put them in order, and then the whole thing began to pour out. It started from before he could remember, from his mother, foreign, dark-skinned and alone, stumbling into strange town. He talked of his childhood, how he loved Aleks and Katarina, how they had played in the woods and how they had been the best of friends. This, though, seemed to make Felisia sad, so he moved on.
He spoke about the terrible day that Magnus had come. Of the burning of his mother, of his branding, and of the murder he had committed. He told her of his escape and of the berries left for him by the avatar of Oreamnos.
He recalled the imp in the cave in the mountains, a memory he had long buried. And he spoke until his voice hurt about his valley: about the winters and the summers; about the best places for berries and where the water tasted the best; about the animals, some he had affection for, some he had battled, some he had eaten.
As night fell and the forest broke into open land again, he told her of his journey out of the mountains, right up to meeting Callidus. A story which made her laugh.
“What a show-off,” she giggled. “That’s where I got this knife, you know.” She pointed to a larger blade that she wore on her hip. “It’s lousy for throwing, but it was a nice gift. I think Cal stole it off one of the muggers. He gave it to me.”
Brand thought it just that the robbers had been robbed in the end and grinned. Something struck him, though. His mind followed the story to the end, to Callidus accepting him, promising a potential cure. But the acceptance had been a lie…
He stopped walking. “Do you think Callidus can actually cure me?” he asked, not sure that he wanted to know the answer.
“I don’t think so.” The boar fell from Brand’s shoulders. “But I think I heard him say that you had to cure yourself, yeah?”
“Yes. Yes that’s right.” Brand grasped for the hope she was offering.
“I think he’s trying to help you do that, a bit at a time. He seems to think that it’s something you have to sort out for yourself.”
Brand slumped over his boar. “But I don’t think I understand what he’s teaching me.”
Felicia looked down on him with some pity. “I… I might be able to help. Just a little.” Brand stared up at her, desperate for the aid. “But you’re going to have to…” She cut herself off mid-sentence, choking on the words she was about to say.
“Yes?” pleaded Brand.
“See a lot of things that I show you.” she ended awkwardly. “We’re stuck together for a while anyway, right?”
“Right.” Brand was overwhelmed with gratitude and nearly hugged her before thinking better of touching her without warning. He straightened himself up like a proper man. “Thank you.”
With some renewed hope, he hauled the boar back onto his shoulders and squinted to see the lights of the caravan fire in the distance. “Can you tell me your story now?” he asked with friendly curiosity.
The sound of her footfalls stopped. He turned to see her frozen in place. Her brow furrowed, a lip quivered, her teeth clenched. Sadness washed over her eyes, then fear, anger, hate, pain. He watched as her life played out over her features. She seemed, for nearly a minute, unaware of his presence. Finally her eyes dropped to the ground and she let her tangle of bangs cover them. “No.”