This is the ninth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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It seemed a good long while that Cursebrand sat in the smoky pavilion, contemplating his fate and his resolve was starting to fade as his imagination was given time to explore the possibilities. He had followed the wizard in hopes that he could lift the curse. But what if he was, instead, a hunter of the cursed, or a giver of curses, or cursed himself. That final option seemed quite likely, given the display of dark powers that had just been given.
Just as his conviction was about to give out, Igor, the giant, re-entered with Callidus himself and began to extinguish torches. “Good show, nice crowd tonight,” chattered the giant in his monstrously deep voice as he snuffed a torch.
“Mmmm,” affirmed the wizard dispassionately.
“Yannis and Ivan looked very good, I think. Van’s ankle has healed well. Oh hello, who is this?” Cursebrand had finally been noticed in the half-darkened tent. “Callidus, look. Our smelly volunteer seems to be lost. “
Callidus spoke without interrupting his activity and entirely without interest. “You may have mistaken your earlier rescue and unpaid admission as some sort altruism on my part, or perhaps you have confused this as a lodging tent. I assure you this is not the case. So unless you have developed the desire to thank us in a fairly substantial financial fashion, you may see yourself out.” The wizard didn’t so much as turn to look at Cursebrand. “You are welcome to use the door this time,” he added.
Cursebrand gathered his things and began to shuffle toward the exit, but stopped short. He felt desperate to leave, as though he was being pulled through the door. It took all of his will just to remain in place. His demon wanted him out. It was afraid. What better sign could there be that this wizard could help?
He fought to find words. His voice still felt as though it had been mislaid somewhere in the mountains and his mouth like a crude instrument, now only useful for tearing meat from bone. He waded through muddled phrases in his mind and wrestled to untie the knot in his tongue.
Callidus seemed to take notice of the hesitation. “You may have heard that neither giants nor wizards are the sort of people to annoy; you risk of ending up broken or cursed,” he threatened as he continued about his business of snuffing torches and braziers.
“Too late.” The words fell out of his mouth without warning and entirely of their own volition. He slapped a hand over his mouth and shut his eyes with embarrassment. ‘Brilliant,’ he thought. ‘Four winters alone in the wilderness and the first words I speak to another human are an admission of demonhood. Well done.’
“Come again?” queried the man in black with sudden interest.
His soul screamed to bolt, to disappear into the night, but he held his ground. The truth was out, if there was any way to be saved from his demon, he would find it. Also, running from a wizard seemed pointless.
Crushing the panicked demon back down, he looked the wizard in the eye. “Cursed,” he managed to spit out. “Broken,” he added glumly.
Igor looked with some sympathy at the desperate, filthy intruder. He seemed curious, but untroubled by the revelation. Perhaps his time with a sorcerer had made him unafraid of such things, or perhaps it was just being twice the size of the cursed man.
“Really?” The wizard smiled with casual interest as he unscrewed the cap of his flask and began to scrutinize the boy. “And from what sort of curse are you suffering? A wasting illness? Ill fortune? Possession? Ah, yes, there it is.”
It was as though the wizard was looking into his soul with his terrifyingly dark eyes. “Yes,” was all that Cursebrand could muster in response. With a shaking hand, he pulled back his hair to reveal his scar and attempted to not turn away in shame.
“An exile, eh?” Callidus prodded the mark with the head of his cane, somewhat wary of coming in too close contact with it. “What earned you this little decoration?”
“Mom…” Cursebrand’s eyes started to well up with a mix of anger and sorrow. “Witch. I… curseborn.”
Callidus took a swig from his flask and wandered off to continue his dousing of torches. “And what brought you trespassing into my show? Looking for a kindred spirit? You’ll find none like you here.”
“Help,” mumbled Cursebrand. “Cure.”
The dark wizard peered back over his shoulder, under a furrowed brow. “I cannot cure such an affliction,” he said with a hint of regret. “You would do best to find your way to a place where they will not recognize that mark for what it is. Far to the west, across the great river, perhaps. Your foreign skin may allow you to call it a decoration if none know the symbols or traditions of these mountains.” There was a pause before he added out of apparent propriety, “I am sorry.”
Cursebrand’s heart sunk, and a much darker part of him cried with victory. He picked up his bundle and spear and shuffled off toward the exit. As he pushed the flap aside, the wizard called out with exasperated annoyance in his voice, “Wait.”
Cursebrand paused, preparing himself for worse news. “I cannot cure you, but…” The pause was torture. “There may be a way to cure yourself.”
He spun and stared at the wizard, exuberant, but also afraid that it would be some cruel trick, a lie or an impossible task. “How?”
“I can show you,” Callidus said reluctantly, not even deigning to look at the cursed boy. “But it could take a long time, and you have to do absolutely everything I say.”
“And you will have to earn your keep. Have you any skills of value?”
Cursebrand thought frantically. Somehow cave-dwelling did not seem a viable trade in this company. What could a band of giants, assassins, and wizards need that he had? Then a memory struck him; at least one member of their company was seriously under-dressed, and winter was coming. He presented his bundle of furs and spoke a single word with a grim pride. “Hunter.”
“Of much talent?”
“Very much.” This was an area in which Cursebrand was confident. The braggarts back in Almdalir boasted of the one time they brought down a bear on their own, or of when they had escaped a cave lion unscathed. Cursebrand had killed a dozen bears, fought cave lions in their dens, and returned the victor. He might be a monster amongst men, but in the wild he was the king of beasts.
“Well, then, welcome to the…”
“Hold it right there!” A woman burst through the tent entrance, nearly toppling Cursebrand. “What…” She paused to give herself opportunity to properly glare at Callidus. “Do you think you are doing?”
She was as obviously a mystic as Callidus was a wizard. She was old and bent, with runes and charms dangling from every place upon which they could find purchase. Her dress had so many vibrantly colored layers as to obscure any figure beneath. Her long grey hair fell in braids and dreadlocks about here furious face. Bangles on her wrists and bells on her belts jangled as she stormed about the tent. “We are not in the habit of picking up strays!”
“Our current roster seems very much to be evidence to the contrary,” came a rather harsh rebuttal from the wizard.
A young man carrying a fiddle braved the doorway. The fiddler’s entrance spawned a quick series of silent exchanges between himself, Callidus, and Igor, the details of which Cursebrand was unable to decipher, but it was very clear that that the woman was not someone to anger.
Callidus’ stance softened slightly and he took a swig from his flask. “Appologies, Estheria.” He bowed ever so slightly. “This man has been branded a curseborn, the son of a witch.”
“And so you invite catastrophe in for tea?” Estheria’s body may have been bent and grey, but her voice certainly had not felt the touch of the years. It belted with the vigor of a young mother scolding a child.
“He is not without his value. He is a hunter of some skill, or so it would seem.”
“And next you’ll bring me a fine mackerel to haul our carts.” The old mystic was making little sense to Cursebrand, but was clearly displeased.
“We could use some fresh meat in our diets. Besides, his tolerance for misery and his own malodorous miasma would seem to make him well suited to be my assistant.”
“And what of the previous?” scowled the crone. “Cast aside as a wilting flower?”
“Jaymes is spending entirely too much of his time in the company of that fiddle to be of proper use to me and what’s more his loyalties seem to have shifted somewhat.” Callidus glared at the musician, who shifted uncomfortably. “Perhaps it is time that he be released from my service so as to better support the troupe as a whole.”
Cursebrand was immediately skeptical of the agreement he’d just made, as Jaymes nearly burst with glee at the announcement of his release from the position to which he himself had just been assigned.
“As long as it is your own grave that you are digging, I have no quarrel. But I’d best not find your pet off his leash and prowling.” Estheria spoke softly and severely. “Are we clear?”
“Crystal,” replied Callidus. “I do suffer so for my tender heart.” His voice swirled with sarcasm and annoyance.
“And you.” The old mystic spun and stared down Cursebrand. “Are you willing to dance to my fiddle?”
A rather uncultured upbringing and years in exile had resulted in a somewhat stunted understanding of the figurative nuances of language, with utter bafflement the result. Cursebrand hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on. Jaymes clearly was the one with the fiddle. Further, as a hunter, prowling was exactly what he was meant to be doing. And why Callidus would be digging any grave, let alone his own, was a complete mystery. She was talking utter nonsense, to his ears. But so terrified was he of Estheria that he vigorously agreed to whatever she might be demanding of him.
“Shiny,” she said coldly. She broke her penetrating stare away from Cursebrand and stormed out while shouting, “Jaymes, Igor, idle hands.”
This seemed to serve as some sort of instruction to the two men and they exited with haste.
Callidus slumped down on a bench and took a long draw from his flask. “Well, what’s your name then mister?”
There was a pregnant pause and Callidus sighed. “Of course it is.” He took another drink.