Cursebrand – Chapter 7
This is the seventh chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Getting across the valley of Almdalir under cover of night was easier than Cursebrand had expected. Avoiding the throngs of people that seemed to be camped in every space large enough to pitch a tent, however, proved to be impossible. Thankfully, very few of these people seemed keen on investigating a large dark furry mass moving through the forest in the night. A few bear-like grunts were enough to discourage any close investigation.
He felt fairly clever for his little deception and was amused at the cowardice of the pilgrims. That is, he felt clever until he came upon a camp with some travelers both hungry enough and brave enough to consider hunting a wayward bear. Cursebrand considered himself very lucky that the hunger that had made them eager had also made them slow. He easily outpaced them, though he charged blindly through another campsite to do so, terrifying its residents. In the blur of motion lit by the flicker of a dwindling fire, he imagined that he must look like quite a terrible beast. He was covered in poorly skinned furs, with the skull of a lion being worn as a crown and an enormous furry hump that was his traveling bundle.
Later, he discovered that his apparent monstrous aspect had been amplified by the fact that he hadn’t noticed two arrows lodged in his back; they had been stopped by his dried meats. He chuckled as he clambered over the southern pass. The next morning the whole valley of pilgrims would be on the lookout for a terrible bear demon. They weren’t wrong, really, but they would be looking for the wrong kind of monster, as the actual demon was already long gone. Cursebrand hopped from valley to valley, taking the least navigable paths he could, but always with the same result: humans. Every little divot of green in the whole of Oreamnos’ Spine seemed to have somebody already living in it. Valley after valley was the same, except for two, which were very different, but no more habitable.
The first he came across only a couple of days after leaving Almdalir. Crossing the ridges far from the beaten paths meant that he did not see the warning posts erected to keep travelers out. He crossed the threshold and was briefly hopeful at the lack of people. He soon noticed, though, that there was farmed land and the signs of hunters, just no residents. He puzzled for some time at the few abandoned farmhouses until he came upon a massive rock-pile at the base of a steep cliff. Sticking up, here and there through the rocks, were squared timbers and thatched roofing. The little village had been wholly buried beneath an avalanche. Moreover, at the top of the pile was a pike with a ram’s skull on it, the mark of cursed land.
It seemed, logically, to be an ideal new home for a cursed man, but the dread of whatever had caused Oreamnos to purge this valley overwhelmed him. It wasn’t just these buildings that had been demolished, whatever survivors there might have been had fled their land as well. It was recent, too, as the timbers were still fresh and nature had not yet reclaimed the farms. He left that terrible place as quickly as he could.
The second, too, was cursed land, but he did not need to see the markers to know it. The moment he crested the ridge that guarded the valley, he knew what had happened. The valley had been purged of all life through holy fire and was now an ash pit. Whatever unholy things had taken up residence in this place had infested it so thoroughly that the only safe course was to burn it to the ground, trees, grass, farms, buildings, and everything living within. Oreamnos had exorcised the land, leaving it dead and cold. He hung his head and shuffled onwards. Plants were starting to grow again in the ash, but it would be generations before this land could support people again.
After three full months of wandering, he ran out of options. He had gone north, east and west. In each direction he had explored until the mountains grew so tall that their valleys no longer had green floors. The nights were getting colder and if he didn’t settle by winter he would surely freeze. His only option left was south, and that was worrisome in a whole new way.
To the south, the mountains gave way to different lands and different peoples. He knew his mother had come from there somewhere, but he knew nothing of their ways or how to live off of their lands. He was being pushed out of the land of Oreamnos into the hands of different gods. He did not know if they would be as giving or as merciful, but he could see no other choice.
He made his way south, to the Vegjuvet Pass. It was the only way in or out of the Ram’s Spine valleys and it presented him with a whole new terror. He knew from the stories the men had told of their trading ventures that Vegjuvet housed a city by the pass, and that he would have a hard time avoiding people through there, but he had not realized that the city had been built in the pass.
The city was bigger than he had ever imagined. It seemed to dominate the landscape from the moment he came over the ridge People swarmed in and out of its gates like ants. High stone walls spanned the space between sheer cliff faces, and they seemed to be built specifically to keep people like him out. Beyond the walls were endless rooftops of stone buildings, some more than two levels high. He stared in wonder and defeat at the immensity of the thing. He had never imagined that a town could grow so large.
He stilled his fears and steadied his nerves. Vegjuvet was an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one. Even a city this size must sleep. He would wait until well into the night, hop a wall and scurry unnoticed through the empty streets. It wasn’t a very thorough plan, but given that all of the other mountain valleys were barred to him, any other route was just a choice between flavors of suicide. At least this way, he wasn’t certain that it would lead to certain death. Moreover, he’d get to visit a city before he was killed, something he’d dreamed of as a child, though the fantasy had played out somewhat differently in his mind.
Cursebrand waited until dark, for the city to fall asleep, and then waited some more. He waited quite a long time, by his reckoning, but it seemed that nightfall went mostly unnoticed by the denizens of the city. Noise of all kinds carried on well into what should have been the most silent of the predawn hours. Finally, when things seemed to settle down enough for him to make his approach, he made the slow trek down from his hidden perch. He reached the edge of the wall just as the sun crept over the eastern peaks and the cockerels went about their task of waking everyone up again.
Cursebrand scuttled back into his hiding spot and reconsidered his plan. Perhaps waiting until everyone was asleep wouldn’t work quite as well as it did in little villages. The city did get substantially quieter some hours into the evening. He would just have to be careful. He was, after all, human-looking. He would just hide his brand, walk like a man, and perhaps take off his cat-skull hat, as he suspected it might not be fashionable. In the shadows of the night, with all of the assorted travelers in the city, who would look twice? He looked down at his clothing, a motley collection of animal furs, poorly skinned and haphazardly stitched together with sinew. He was proud of what he had accomplished with no supplies or training, but he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t going to stick out if anyone decided to pay him attention.
Darkness fell and eventually the city’s roar died to a rowdy murmur. He convinced himself, once again, that this was the only way forward and crept down to where the city wall met the rock face. It was an easier climb than he had anticipated, though he considered that he was more experienced at scaling cliffs than the average trader through the pass. He silently slunk over the top of the wall and lowered himself into the shadows on the other side. He dropped the five or so feet to the ground and was in another world.
It felt as though the wall wasn’t meant for people at all, that it was stopping the city from spilling out into the valleys beyond. The streets were narrow and everything seemed far too cramped. The roads were made of stones, laid and mortared in place. The air seemed heavy and stunk of cooking, smelting, ill-tended livestock, and excrement all mingling together. Noises of humans and animals, both familiar and foreign, filled the air. Somewhere music played, and elsewhere voices sang to a different tune. Everything felt stiflingly close. He looked back at the wall and considered retreat.
The sound of approaching feet along the wall made the decision for him. He scampered into the maze of alleys and was instantly lost. The streets seemed unwilling to travel in the directions he wanted, but the high rock walls that flanked the city kept him oriented as he fought with dead-ends and baffling intersections. His plan to walk with confidence and purpose hadn’t survived his feet hitting the ground, but after he ran short of breath from scampering between shadows, he re-collected some composure. He continued with caution, but he moved in the way he imagined city-folk would.
Now that he was paying attention, he could see that the streets were nearly empty; there were plenty of people awake, but they seemed confined to a few noisy establishments. He had come across a strange looking wolf travelling without a pack, but it was easily scared off. Another narrow, refuse-strewn alley that housed several small, furious creatures that looked like underfed lion cubs. They hissed and wailed at his approach and he retreated with due haste. He questioned the madness of a people that would allow such creatures to occupy their streets, but then, the city was such a maze that he considered that they might just not be able to find them all.
Cursebrand had absolutely no sense of how much progress he had made. He couldn’t imagine how anyone navigated that place. He ran into another dead-end, slumped against a wall and wished desperately to be back in his sheltered little valley. It had never been kind to him, but at least it had made sense.
A voice at the end of the alley called out to him. “Oy there mista trappa! Bit lost ahya?” The voice had a strange accent to it and sounded distinctly unfriendly.
Cursebrand looked up to see three young men sauntering towards him, blocking the way out. He stood strongly and in the most confident voice he could muster… utterly failed to say anything at all. He became acutely aware that he hadn’t spoken a word in years. He had shouted at animals on occasion, but he hadn’t needed words or sentences at all. As his mind scrambled to find phrases which should be familiar, his tongue just seemed to loll about, entirely unmoved by the direness of the current situation. “Hr?” was all that he manage to spit out.
“Scared dumb is ya?” another of the young men said. “That’s smawt of ya. You just play noice and ya migh not geturt.” He grinned menacingly as he exposed a short blade from beneath his cloak.
The third chimed in with his own interpretation of the language. “Ayethasrite. Yagotsum noice furs anwe’llbetakinthalotifyaplease.”
Cursebrand had never known the words to explain that he was having difficulty parsing their particular accent. The best he could muster was a confused gesture which failed entirely to convey the nature of his concerns. The three assailants closed in with the casual gait that he had been planning to mimic earlier. He tried to warn them away, to explain that he was dangerous and that their attempts to harm him may not end at all as they hoped. When that failed, he began to panic. He had promised to stay away from humans, and no sooner had he broken that promise was he about to kill three of them. He didn’t know how his demonic powers worked, but he knew that he would have a hard time stopping them from doing so if there was a knife coming his way.
A moment of lucidity swept over him and he looked for his spear which he had leaned against the wall. He might not be able to explain himself, but they might just reconsider their position if they were negotiating with the pointy end of a stick.
One of the men foresaw his train of thought, though and dashed between him and his weapon. “Awww naw. That there’s not neighborly,” he said with a wry grin “Now givuss ya furs ‘fore we get blood onem.”
Cursebrand finally understood their demands and quietly began to untie his bindle. He might lose his bed-furs and his food, but at least he wouldn’t hurt anybody.
As he dropped his pack to the ground, the least eloquent of the lot gestured at him with his knife. “Oithosetoo,” he mumbled, apparently indicating Cursebrands clothes.
He was starting to have a lot of difficulty containing his rage and was battling with the increasing feeling that these thieves might just deserve a bit of the curse that they seemed intent on unleashing. He started to struggle out of his patchwork shirt when another voice interrupted the robbery. “’Scuse me,” it said, slightly drunkenly “But it seems an inconsiderate time of year to be stealing the shirt off a man’s back.”
At the end of the alley stood an old man dressed all in black. He slouched casually, leaning lightly on his walking stick, cape hanging to one side. He was a Southerner, like Cursebrand, his dark skin nearly black in the night, but the dim light that managed to penetrate the back streets of the city played lightly in the silver-grey hair on his head and chin and the whites of his dark eyes glowed. He regarded the thugs with the sort of respect one pays to mice in their pantry.
“Piss off, drunk!” Came the response from the thieves.
“No,” said the man in black and he took a swig from his flask.
“Wannagetshankedoya?” threatened the fast-talker.
“No,” he repeated, casually. The man in black didn’t move. “Would you like to get cursed?”
Cursebrand panicked. How did the man know about his curse? Was he here to save him, or to save the robbers from him? He desperately wanted to run.
“What’s that, you say?” The leader of the troupe had apparently had enough of the invasion into his otherwise textbook mugging. “Vernon, go shut him up.”
Vernon broke away from his investigations into the dropped satchel with some obvious displeasure and ran at the man in black, aiming to silence him in a fairly permanent manner. As he came within striking distance, though, the man burst into a cloud of smoke and shadow into which the baffled Vernon plunged. When the smoke cleared, Vernon was on his knees clutching madly at his throat and choking for air. The man’s hands hovered several inches away from his victim, clutching him in an invisible grasp. His walking stick stood on its own nearby, waiting for its owner to return to it.
“Perhaps you better understand my threat, now,” he said calmly as he toyed with the choking man. “I am not simply a drunken passerby. I am a wizard of some talent, and it is possible that if you continue on this path that things may go very poorly for you.”
The fast-talker panicked and threw his knife. There was a swirl of the wizard’s cape and his walking stick clattered to the ground. Vernon gasped for air and began to cough as everyone saw what had happened. The wizard was holding the blade inches from Vernon’s face, caught between thumb and forefinger. “Your friend needs to aim more carefully,” he said as Vernon wheezed and coughed violently. “These things can be quite dangerous.” He stepped away from the coughing thief and reclaimed his walking stick which happily hopped into his hand. “If we’re done here, then?” he said ambiguously.
The assailants failed to respond.
“Very good, off you go.” He shuffled aside, allowing the thieves to pass. “I’ll just hang on to this,” he added, waving the knife he had caught as they sheepishly moved past. “We wouldn’t want you hurting yourselves would we?”
As they freed themselves from the alley and Vernon found his feet again, the leader had a moment of foolish bravado and he turned back, brandishing his own blade with threats and insults on his tongue. The words retreated back down his throat, though, for as he turned there was a flash of light and a puff of smoke, and the walking stick had transformed into a straight, narrow, and frighteningly sharp-looking blade which pointed steadily at the thief’s throat, despite its owner’s rather wobbly disposition.
“Sorry,” said the wizard. “Were you about to say something?”
The thief shook his head a tiny bit, stepped back, and ran.
The wizard searched about his person for a time, and then with some satisfaction rediscovered his flask and spent a few moments acquainting himself with its contents. Cursebrand stood, stunned. His heart was still trying to pound its way out of his chest and icy sweat coated him from head to toe. The wizard, though, was having a casual drink, apparently unfazed by the encounter. Moreover, the wizard had just done witchcraft in public with no apparent fear of retribution. He might have been too far into the drink to know the danger, but it seemed more likely that he was so powerful that he just didn’t care.
Eventually the man in black took some notice of the quivering man at the end of the alley. “You all right, Mister?”
Cursebrand held his breath and nodded a tiny, rapid nod.
“Right, then.” The wizard took some time making sure his feet were still where he had left them and then shuffled off into the night.
Cursebrand was alone again in the alley. The trembling in his body receded until it was just a light flutter in his stomach and he allowed himself to breathe again. He had nearly died. He had nearly killed, and he had been saved by some drunken sorcerer, apparently on a whim.
As his senses returned to him, he remembered that he was still deep in the city and had lost all sense of direction. He had forgotten from which way he had come and was no longer positive which way to go. Panic started to creep back into his chest when the obvious dawned on him. Chance was not so kind as to offer magical saviors in dark alleys of strange cities. This was meant to happen.
Cursebrand thanked the Mountain God in his heart for protecting him at the edge of His realm, and scuttled off after the wizard. He skulked in the shadows, unsure how to approach the sorcerer. He tried to find his voice and recall the words that he once used so freely. They were definitely still there; he could feel them trying to get out all at once. Finding the right ones was like trying to pick out gemstones from an avalanche in progress. Even when a couple that seemed right floated to the surface, they were instantly buried as another wave of inarticulate nonsense crashed through his mind. All the while, his mouth hung open dumbly, itself expressing a severe lack of confidence in its ability to actually form any of the syllables being suggested.
The end effect of this inner turmoil was that Cursebrand stalked the Wizard in complete silence until they reached the southern gate. This came as something of a shock to the boy. He had been so utterly lost and completely wrapped up in trying to remember the basics of human discourse that he hadn’t noticed that he was being led exactly where he wanted to go.
The wizard shuffled calmly toward the small passageway that served as the nighttime gate and tossed something to the guard while taking a long drink from his flask. The drowsy gatekeeper paid him no mind at all and let him pass.
Cursebrand worried that the guard might give him more trouble than he might a sorcerer of untold power and considered his options. He scanned the wall. He was certain that he could find a place to scale it, but he would risk losing track of the wizard. He decided that he would have to try the gate and be ready to run should the guard decide to try to touch him.
He straightened himself up as best he could, pulled down his long grimy hair over his face to hide his scar and strode up to the gate with as much confidence as he could fake. Cursebrand was nearly through before the guard shouted at him, “oi, toll please.”
Cursebrand didn’t know what that meant, and he froze.
“Oi, you, pay the toll. It’s still a half-shilling to pass the gate, even at night.”
Money. He needed money. He had seen money as a child. The men that went to Vegjuvet often had coins which they needed for trading in the city. Cursebrand didn’t understand the significance until this moment. Money was used for trading, he reasoned, furs were also used for trading. He didn’t know how much a half-shilling was worth, but it was less than a whole shilling, so maybe a half fur. He rummaged through his sack and tentatively proffered a couple of nice stoat skins that he sometimes used as a scarf.
“I can’t accept that, trapper, what’s wrong with you?” The guard buried his face in one of his hands.
Cursebrand looked appropriately apologetic at having offered something of so little value and dug out a nice new rabbit fur that he had been hoping to craft into a pouch.
The guard threw his head back and stared at the sky, seeming to curse the gods for the idiocy of the man before him. He sighed deeply and looked with pity on Cursebrand. “Do you not have any money at all?”
Cursebrand shook his head very slowly, trying to avoid eye contact or close scrutiny.
“You trappers are hopeless.” The guard sat back down on his stool with a defeated thump. “Toss one of them weasel furs in the bucket and get out of here. You’re stinking up the place.”
Being fairly certain that a weasel was a kind of stoat, he threw the nicer of his scarf-stoats in the toll bin and tried to catch up with his wizard.