The traditional Melrin Ball at Dargon Keep was almost over. Music and laughter could be heard outside the walls of the keep where Tobias Held paced impatiently. When the first guests started to make their way home, Tobias headed through old alleys towards the south of the keep. Just where the fields began, a single tree stood tall and majestic. Tobias didn’t have any trouble finding his way; he had located the meeting place in daylight and made a mental note of the surroundings. The location gave him the unique opportunity of seeing the main gate of the keep and the road leading to it without being seen. At night, however, all he could make out was swaying lantern light moving along the Street of Travellers.
Nochturon had disappeared from the sky, but stars provided enough light for him to make out the meeting place. The night was chilly and dew settled already on the grass. He could feel wetness creeping through his shoes.
Tobias’ thoughts wandered. He was worried about Anna; worried about leaving her behind, sick as she was, with Jerel and Zarit, worried he would never see her again. Most of all, he was worried that all his efforts towards finding an answer to his questions would be thwarted.
He had found Anna six years ago, a frightened little orphan girl, when he’d returned from his annual trip to Dargon. His efforts to find out about her family had come to a sudden halt after he had learned her mother had been killed in Cobbleswell, a village only two days travel away. The villagers thought that Anna’s mother had been in league with Arom-Nok, an evil god, and that Anna was the child of that liaison. How the villagers had found out that Anna was still alive was a mystery to Tobias, but they had and then acted on it. They had burnt down his cabin and taken the girl.
Tobias remembered the agony he had gone through when he had reached his cabin and found it burning. Not knowing at that point what had happened to the girl had been worse than fighting the fire and losing his cabin. According to Anna, a man called Drew had freed her that night. Exhausted as she was, Anna had tried to get back to the cabin, but collapsed before she could reach it.
When he finally found Anna the next day, she was ill. He had rushed her to his friends Zarit and Jerel, who helped him care for her. After the fever broke, careful questioning had revealed the whole story, and Tobias had taken it upon himself to seek Drew. Anna stayed behind.
Success came by means of a boy in ragged clothes who had passed on a message the day before. It had directed him to the south side of the keep and instructed him to wait by the tree until after the ball. The man he was looking for would meet him there, menes after the dismissal of Duke Clifton’s guests.
Tobias took a deep breath and climbed up the tree. He could see the swaying lantern light in the distance. One by one, he watched them move along the Street of Travellers to reach the bridge, cross the river, and go home. One by one, he watched the lantern lights disappear in the darkness. Tobias fidgeted on his branch, trying to find a more comfortable position. He let out a deep breath, wondering how much longer he would have to wait.
Finally! Hearing the footsteps of a person walking alone, he slid closer to the trunk of the tree.
“Tobias? Tobias Held? Are you there?” the voice in the darkness spoke softly.
“Who’s asking?” Tobias responded from above, just audible enough to be heard. “Stay where you are.”
The man halted in his tracks. “It is I, Drew Molag. The one who sent the boy to you.”
“How can I be sure?”
“I am the one who can tell you about Anna, her mother, and grandmother. I know what happened to the family, and what will happen.”
“How can I be sure you are who you say you are?”
“I have proof.” Drew took a step forward.
“What kind of proof?”
“I’m the one who let Anna escape in the forest after the other two wanted to drag her back to the village and stone her, like they did her mother six years ago. I know who burnt your cabin. Couldn’t do anything to stop them though.”
“Why the secrecy of the meeting?” Tobias demanded to know.
“I’m leaving Dargon on Melrin’s End, and don’t want anyone to know I’ve been talking to you. There is too much at stake for me! I am risking enough by meeting you here.”
“Then why do you risk it? What do you get from it all?” Tobias climbed out of the tree and stood before Drew. He looked directly at the man, trying to find an answer in his face.
“Nothing!” Drew shook his head.
“I don’t believe you!”
“There is nothing to be gained for me anymore; it’s too late for that. You, however, have a chance of saving Anna and protecting her from the curse.”
“What curse? And how can I protect her?” Tobias felt the urge to reach for the man’s collar and shake him, but he resisted. Instead he clenched his fists. Even the slightest hint of Anna being in danger infuriated him.
“Before I tell you, we need to leave here.” A sense of urgency was in Drew’s voice.
“There is a place not too far from here; it’s seldom used, and I have a few things there you’ll be needing later on.”
Drew turned and led the way. Following closely behind, Tobias walked in silence, wondering where this meeting would lead him, and if it really would be of any help to Anna. The thought of what had already happened to the girl made him shiver briefly.
“We’re here.” Drew stopped in front of an old hut. Opening the door, he gestured for Tobias to follow him in. Drew lit a candle, placed it on a small table, turned to the fireplace, and stirred the ashes. After adding a couple new logs, he got the fire going.
Tobias took a good look around. The place was sparsely furnished. A cot, a small table, and two stools were all he could see. He remained silent.
“Not very talkative, are you?” Drew commented while he pulled out two cups and a waterbag. “Care for some water?”
“No thanks.” Tobias’ first words since they’d started walking came out wobbly.
“I can see you have questions. Do ask.” invited Drew.
“I have many questions, but I would rather have you tell me your story first. I’ll ask later.”
“Then sit down where it pleases you and I shall begin.”
Tobias made himself comfortable on the cot. He watched as Drew poured a cup of water and seated himself at the table.
“The story begins five generations back, when a mage fell in love with a girl from Dargon. She, however, was betrothed. Her name was Zenia. Using potions and spells, the mage tried everything to win Zenia’s love, yet the girl stayed true to her betrothed. On her wedding day the groom fell ill and died the same night, just after the vows had been exchanged. In her grief, Zenia insulted the mage, accused him of killing her husband, even though it hadn’t been the mage’s fault. Over the course of several years, she rejected the mage’s attempts to win her. One evening after she had just turned down another proposal, Zenia and the mage had a fight. She told him that if he ever proposed to her again, she would marry the next bachelor who crossed her path, but never him. The mage was outraged and threatened to put a curse on her if she did that. Zenia just laughed at him, and he left fuming.
“Thinking she’d forgotten about the fight, he proposed a cycle later and was turned down again. Zenia, however, had not forgotten, and exchanged vows with one of the lads who worked for the Duke. The mage was furious and cast his spell. For the first time a spell that he cast worked well. Too well I might add.”
“What kind of curse?” interrupted Tobias. Drew’s tale had captured his attention.
Drew took a sip of water and continued. “The curse was simple, stating that if Zenia had a child, her husband would die the day the baby was born, and that Zenia herself would die a violent death if the child happened to be a girl. But when he spoke the curse out loud, in his anger and frustration, he added that each girl in the family who crosses the path of any mage would be cursed.” Drew slid back and forth on his stool; his hands played with the water cup. He took another sip of water. He looked sad and swallowed several times before he went on.
“Years later, when he was near his death, the mage tried to take the curse off, but couldn’t remember the exact words. He altered the spell so it could be broken. So far none of the descendants of Zenia have survived long enough to break the spell; neither did they remain childless.”
“Anna is a direct descendant of Zenia?” Tobias looked directly at Drew, hoping the answer was negative.
“Yes, she is –” Drew began, but Tobias interjected.
“How can the spell be broken?”
“According to our family scroll, the curse will be lifted if Anna remains childless or dies a natural death. ”
“Not an easy task –”
“True, but if you keep her away from people, it should be possible.”
Tobias shook his head slightly. He doubted that Anna would even believe him. Especially if it meant she’d never get to see Dargon.
“Go on Drew; what happened to Zenia?”
“Zenia was pregnant a few cycles after exchanging her vows. The night she gave birth to her daughter Tamari, Zenia’s husband fell off his horse and was trampled to death. Zenia herself lived long enough to see her daughter grow up, exchange vows, and give birth to a baby girl they named Sidra. Tamari’s husband, too, died the night the baby was born. He fell into the Coldwell and drowned. Only two cycles later the curse caught up with Zenia. Shivarees attacked her one morning. By the time help came, it was too late.
“Tamari’s suffering hadn’t ended. She fell ill and was buried a year later. Her daughter Sidra lived only long enough to give birth to Anna’s mother Meg. Sidra’s husband died in a hunting accident the same day Meg was born. Meg was never married, so I don’t know what happened to Anna’s father. I doubt he’s still alive. I believe you know what happened to Meg.”
Tobias nodded, remaining silent. Drew’s tale was almost more than he could stomach. He despised violence and just hearing that one person would set up a curse because he was rejected didn’t sit right with him. Tobias had noticed Drew’s fidgeting throughout the story and his playing with the cup. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.
“You said you had some things that would help?”
Drew nodded, got up, and picked up a pouch. He opened it and showed the contents to Tobias.
“Use them wisely! Each of these papers contains a powder that will ward off a mage for a fortnight.”
Tobias looked at Drew in disbelief. “I never heard of anything that can ward off a mage.”
“But these can!” insisted Drew, “These can!”
“How can you be so sure?”
“I cannot tell you, I promised.”
Tobias decided not to probe any deeper, it wouldn’t hurt to take the powder, and if it didn’t work, nothing would change. He was willing to take the chance. “Why are you doing this?” Tobias inquired finally. “How are you involved? You’re not a mage. How do you know so much?”
“I,” began Drew, “am the direct descendant of Zenia’s brother, for whom I was named. Meg was raised by my parents. I was only a boy when she ran off one day. It took me years to find out what had become of her. I picked up where my father had left off. For some time I thought all had come to an end, then I learned that Meg had a child after all. So I tried to find Anna. When I came to Cobbleswell, I questioned the villagers. They were rather proud to have killed Meg and thought that Anna had been dead. I was about to leave when one of the villagers came forward and said he’d seen a red-haired girl in the woods.
“The rest is told quickly. I convinced the villagers that I knew how to deal with the child of Arom-Nok, an evil god. They selected two men to go and bring Anna back to the village, and I went with them. When we got up there, we took Anna, and burnt the cabin. By nightfall we rested. Once the other two were asleep, I released Anna and told her to find her way to Dargon. My mistake, I should have gone with her.
“When I heard someone was looking for me in Dargon, I thought it was Anna. I learned it was you, and couldn’t understand why you would look for me. Then I remembered Anna calling for someone named Tobias. I took a chance and sent the boy.
“Our family history is written in this scroll. I have a son who carries my name and will continue to try to take the curse off the women of my family when I’m no more.”
“There are more women involved besides Zenia’s direct descendants?” Tobias was shocked.
“The original curse included all female family members. The curse is strongest among Zenia’s descendants. The female descendants of my ancestor’s brother never lived past their tenth year. What became of Zenia’s sister is unknown. I’ve lost three daughters to accidents and illnesses and my two sisters died in accidents.” Drew’s face was full of pain; his voice had a grief-stricken undertone. “I have a three-year-old girl at home right now; I would like to see her grow up.”
Tobias didn’t know what to say. The information he’d gained was more than he had expected and more than he felt he could deal with. He put his face in his hands and slumped forward. A feeling of helplessness and despair overcame him. For moments neither man spoke, then Drew broke the silence.
“I have to leave. Daybreak is only a few bells away. I intend to be on my way by then. You can stay as long as you like and rest.”
Drew packed his bag and swung it over his shoulder. “The best wishes to you and Anna. I hope you can help break the curse. It’s best if I don’t know where Anna is at this point. Take her far away from Dargon and keep her away from mages. You are her only hope.”
“Why do you have to leave?” Tobias inquired, “Why won’t you come and see Anna?”
“It’s better if I stay away from her, maybe you have a better chance of keeping her safe.” Drew reached for his bag and swung it over his shoulder.
“How do I get in touch with you if I need your assistance?” Tobias lifted his head and looked directly at Drew.
“I’ll be in Dargon around Melrin, and sometimes in Seber. Don’t forget the pouch. Keep it safe!”
Tobias stood up, took the pouch, and placed it in his beltbag. “I’ll do my best to help.” He took Drew’s hand and shook it briefly. “Safe travels.”
Drew nodded. “Safe travels to you as well.” He turned, opened the door, and left. The darkness of the forest swallowed him quickly.
Tobias closed the door, went to the cot, and stretched out. Feelings of helplessness and despair returned when he started to think about Anna and the story Drew had told him.
He wasn’t sure what to make of Drew. Too many questions about him remained unanswered. Tobias couldn’t shake the feeling that Drew hadn’t told him all he needed to know and that there were parts to the story that had nothing to do with a curse. Why would Drew leave Anna with him, if he was so sure she was his relative? His vague answer didn’t help at all. Tobias considered Drew on the verge of being insane. A curse so powerful it would still work after four generations seemed unreal to him. Yet, when provoked and extremely angry, a man could summon strengths he hadn’t before and wasn’t likely to have again. Tobias felt he was left with more unanswered questions than before.
It was midmorning when Tobias returned to the inn to pick up his belongings, paid the innkeeper, and made his way upriver to return to Anna, Jerel, and Zarit. Despite his brisk walking, it took him more than a fortnight to reach the small settlement. As he approached the village, he could hear laughter. It seemed that the entire village was gathered near the well. Tobias was curious to find out what the occasion was and approached quickly. He wasn’t at all prepared for what he saw.
A mage stood near the well and performed tricks for the applauding villagers. The mage held out his hand and a white ball appeared, turned into a beautiful flower, then into a dove. He sent the dove flying and pulled out a green crystal. Sunlight reflected off the crystal, making it sparkle. One of the girls couldn’t contain her excitement. She was fidgeting and the woman next to her put her hand on the girl’s shoulder. Then the girl turned her head, looking directly at him. It was Anna.
“Tobias!” she shouted from the top of her lungs, jumped up, and collided with the mage. Everyone watched in horror as the crystal went up into the air. On its way down it hit the rim of the well, broke in half and disappeared into the well.
“You!” shouted the mage, recovering first from his collision with Anna. “You clumsy brat! Look what you have done! Not only did you break my crystal, you made it fall into the well!”
“I — I –” stammered Anna, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I –” Sobbing, Anna stood up. She was horrified. “I didn’t do it on purpose, really I didn’t! It was an accident!” Anna turned and looked at the woman who’d been standing next to her. “Zarit, it was an accident!”
“Mage,” Zarit interjected, “I’m sure Anna had no intention of breaking your crystal. She just saw her guardian return from a long absence. She’s only a little girl. We beg your forgiveness!”
“She will pay for this!” hollered the mage, furious that he had lost his crystal. He looked at Anna and yelled, “Get out of my sight!”
Anna ran towards Tobias, and jumped into his open arms, tears of joy and horror streaming down her cheeks. “I didn’t do it on purpose!”
Tobias sank to his knees, his breathing heavy, as he returned Anna’s embrace. Suddenly his face turned ashen and a sharp pain ripped through his chest. His hand reached for his chest as he lost balance and fell, dragging Anna with him. “Too late,” he whispered with his last breath, “I’m too late!”