Edmond was not considered a learned man by any means. He could not read, could only write an approximation of his name, and had no skills that he could use to make a living. While it was true that he had apprenticed as a blacksmith, there was no work for another smith in the small town of Northern Hope. Furthermore, every single business venture he had attempted had failed miserably. Many of the townsfolk were in the same predicament: the curse of Northern Hope had struck both noblemen and paupers. So as he sat at the table, staring across at the man who had just offered him a job, it didn’t take him long to make up his mind.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
“I thought you might,” Anarr said. “There is a certain desperation in your eyes, though I suppose that can be said of most of this town’s inhabitants; the curse of Northern Hope seems to have had that effect on everyone.” Anarr reached into his robes and produced two Rounds. He slid them across the table, the silver metal tinted red by the waning daylight coming through the window. “This is for expenses, and as a retainer. You’ll get three more in Dargon. Tomorrow, we shall travel to the ruins, and return here the day after. After that, prepare for rough travel; we go to Dargon via Kenna, across the Darst Range.”
“Kenna?” Edmond screwed his face up in confusion. “Why not take the Asbridge River to the Cirr–”
“Too long,” Anarr replied. “I want to get this package to Dargon as quickly as possible, and the route over the Darst Range is faster.”
Edmond silently acknowledged that going through Kenna would be faster, though he was leery of traveling through the Darst Range. The ill-fortune that ran rampant through Northern Hope and its environs was dangerous on level ground; combining it with mountain travel could be devastating.
Edmond glanced casually around Lord Araesto’s Cat — or the Cat, as the inn was commonly known. Dusk was approaching, but it was not quite dark enough to light the rush lamps. A dim haze settled in the air, as two score patrons enjoyed an evening drink at their tables or seated at the bar. Behind the counter, Moritan busied himself by wiping mugs with an old towel, smiling proudly, and serving orders. In front of him, burned into the wood of the bar, was the reason Lord Araesto’s Cat enjoyed its increased popularity: the hand prints of Anarr the mage. It had only been two days, but already the hand prints were legendary, and everyone wanted to see the mark Anarr had left on their town.
Anarr reached out to the pewter mug on his table, and wrapped his hand around it. He scowled, then closed his eyes and muttered something under his breath. Edmond saw dew gather on the outside of the pewter and a thin layer of ice form over the ale inside. Anarr opened his eyes and looked up at Edmond. “Wine, I enjoy at its natural temperature; ale, I prefer chilled.”
In the corner, gaming dice rattled and clicked as two patrons entertained themselves. Edmond felt a familiar urge to investigate, to see who was playing, and to find out what the stakes were. Could he join in? Then he firmed his resolve, tightened his jaw, and gripped the table with his hands. “I should be going,” he said.
“What prompts you to leave so quickly?” Anarr asked.
“Nothing, really,” Edmond lied. Again the dice crashed against the corner. Edmond closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I have some things to do,” Edmond said. He rose from his seat on the bench. “I’ll meet you here at sunrise.”
Anarr scowled again. “Don’t spend it all on one whore.”
“You did what?”
Isabelle stood at her window, her blond hair turned fiery-red by the sun setting in the mountains. With the light behind her, Edmond could not make out her eyes, but he was certain they were focused in his direction with intense displeasure.
“I took a job,” he repeated.
“In Dargon,” she stated. He could hear sadness and frustration in her voice.
“Only going to Dargon,” he replied. “I’ll be back in three sennights.”
“I could be dead in three sennights.” She looked down at the dirt floor of her room, the strands of her hair falling loosely to the sides of her face. “You know this town is cursed.” The words seemed to come from behind a mask.
“Isabelle.” He crossed the room to her. She turned her back to him, but allowed his arms to enfold her. “Anarr has removed the curse.”
“He says he removed it,” she replied. Her voice was sad and tired. Northern Hope had done little to make her happy, and Edmond’s gaming had done less. “How do we know he’s even capable of that?”
“I saw him use magic to chill his beer at the pub.”
“Oh, well!” she exclaimed. She turned around to face him then, breaking out of his embrace. “If he can chill his beer, then certainly he’s powerful enough to break a curse!”
Edmond sighed. This was not going according to plan. Not that he had actually formed a plan, but if he had, it would not have included arguing with his betrothed. He looked around the small home they shared. It was barely more than a shack. It had four walls and one window. The floor was packed dirt, and they shared a straw-filled mattress. She kept her dresses and a hairbrush in a chest by the side of the bed. He kept a spare shirt and coat on a hook nailed into the wall. He was quite aware of the poverty they endured. He was also aware that it was his fault. “Isabelle, we cannot afford to marry without any money, and there aren’t any jobs for me in this town.”
“When we lived in Pyridain, you apprenticed as a blacksmith,” she stated.
“We’ve had this conversation before. Northern Hope has a blacksmith already, and there’s barely enough work to keep him in business. And the crops didn’t take. The cattle got sick and died.”
“If that was all part of the curse,” Isabelle started, “and the curse is now lifted, then why can’t you try those things again?” She turned to him, her eyes pleading.
“I can. We can,” Edmond insisted. “But we need money to start, and we don’t have any.”
“We did,” she said softly.
It was his turn, now, to drop his eyes to the floor. He was sure she had not intended to hurt him, but he was all too aware of his problem. He’d given up the dice over the past month, but it was as much due to circumstance as any promises he had made: they had nothing left to sell.
“I need to take this job. I was lucky to get it!”
Isabelle sighed, and stared down at the dirt floor. “Alright,” she conceded. She looked up into his eyes. “But three sennights, no more.”
“No more,” he agreed.
“And no gambling,” she added, and he heard the warning in her tone.
“No gambling, either,” he promised.
“Good,” she said.
Edmond folded his arms around her again, this time to comfort her. He smelled the scent of flowers in her hair. The warmth of her body pressed against him. His mind seemed to go blank while his heart beat faster. Isabelle looked up at him, her eyes half-lidded. Her stare swallowed him. She tilted her head slightly, then softly pressed her warm lips against his. When she next spoke, her voice was deep, smooth, and sultry. “If you’re going to be away for a while, give me something to remember you.”
Edmond had delayed visiting his parents’ home as long as possible. Isabelle had given him good reason, but it was also because he simply did not want to face either of them. He did not think he had the courage to ask them for anything more.
Edmond’s parents ran a dried goods store in Northern Hope, and Edmond had nearly caused its ruin. He owed them money — money that he had gambled away in the dark corners of the Cat — and he could not pay them back. They had covered his losses on more than one occasion. They were his parents, after all. But the last time he had come home to them with empty pockets and beer on his breath, instead of the sennight’s profits from the till, they had thrown him out.
Edmond’s mother met him at the door to her home, she on the inside and he outside. The door had two sections, allowing the top to open while the bottom stayed closed. Thus his mother guardedly greeted her son.
“It’s late,” she stated, but Edmond did not tell her what had delayed him. She frowned. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I’ve come for some of my things, mother.”
She tilted her head sideways, sizing her son up with a skeptical squint of her eyes. “Can you pay for them?”
Edmond lowered his gaze. “Some,” he replied. “And more, when I return.”
“We’ve heard that before, Edmond. Your father and I are not throwing our coin away again.”
“They’re my things!” he insisted.
“Not anymore. They’re all we have to cover our losses. Your losses,” she added.
Edmond reached into his pocket and withdrew one of the two Rounds that Anarr had given him. “There’s more to be earned, but not if I can’t have my things.”
“One Round is only a beginning for what you owe us,” she said in a soft and dangerous voice.
“Then let me make that beginning,” he pleaded. “I need my sword,” Edmond begged.
“I have a job. Real work.”
“Who would hire you?” his mother sneered.
“Anarr the mage.”
Edmond arrived at Lord Araesto’s Cat promptly at dawn. Anarr sat waiting in the common room, the remains of his breakfast on the table. The proprietor looked haggard and sleepy, unaccustomed to visitors actually waking before dawn. When Edmond waved hello, the proprietor scowled and went into the kitchen.
“Incompetent bumpkin,” Anarr muttered. “I look forward to eating in a respectable establishment.” Anarr’s hawkish eyes peered at Edmond, his long nose sniffed the air, and his bushy eyebrows rose as he said, “Surprising. She wasn’t a whore, after all.”
Edmond twitched. “How –?” he started, and then shook his head. “Isabelle and I are betrothed.”
Anarr rolled his eyes. “Surprised again,” he said dryly. “My brief respect for you has dwindled already.” Anarr waved his hand in the direction of the stairs. “I have some supplies in my room. Bring them to the mule out back.”
Edmond hesitated, but did as he was told. He had never been a mercenary by profession, but he was reasonably certain that carrying goods like a merchant’s stock boy was not part of the job. However, this was his first assignment. He owned his sword and nothing more. If he was going to make a living as a mercenary — at least for the time being — it was in his best interest to make sure his employer was happy. He therefore went to Anarr’s room to retrieve the supplies.
Edmond held the reins of the mule as he followed Anarr along their path. They had traveled up and down hills, into a heavily forested area, and finally into a sink hole at the base of a mountain. Edmond was surprised that Anarr had been able to find it, as the nearby terrain hid the entrance from casual observance. The walls of the pit were dotted with steaming cracks that drained hot liquid down their edges. The steam also made the surrounding rocks slippery and dangerous, though somehow Anarr picked a dry path for their descent. Sweat poured down Edmond’s back, soaking his shirt and pants. He trudged along on weary legs, and his tentative steps were evidence of the blistered feet within his boots. His sword hung from his waist, as he had no scabbard for it, and slapped against his aching thigh with every step. He was, in a word , irritated.
Anarr, on the other hand, strolled along as if he were walking in a clear field instead of into a hot pit of steam. He kept his beak-like nose pointed steadily towards their destination: some point up the canyon as far as Edmond could tell. Edmond wondered at Anarr’s apparent age; he had the smooth skin and muscle tone of a man with thirty summers, yet tales of his adventures were many decades old. Was this the same man? Perhaps, Edmond considered, this mage had simply taken Anarr’s name. Not that it mattered to him; his money was as good as anyone else’s.
Edmond looked at the sun. “Are we there yet?” he asked.
“You remind me of a child,” Anarr stated, not pausing in his pace. “There’s a reason I never reproduced.”
“Well, it’s bloody hot down here, and I’m tired. We’ve been walking all day.”
“We’ve only been walking for six bells,” Anarr replied. “And the heat you are suffering is brought on by the exercise, of which you are in desperate need.”
Edmond muttered to himself, “This steaming pit of hell might have something to do with it.”
“I beg your pardon?” Anarr asked.
“Nothing,” Edmond replied. But a moment later he asked, “If you’re such a powerful mage –”
“Magus!” Anarr shouted. He stopped and turned to face Edmond. “The word is ‘magus’, not ‘mage’.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A magus is a man who has been trained in the arcane arts, who has wisdom and power beyond regular men.”
“And a mage?”
“A mage is nothing,” Anarr sneered. “It is a made-up word; it is slang spoken by some cretin whose sole capacity for speech lay in monosyllabic banter, and worked its way into popular vocabulary by virtue of the laziness ever present in the uneducated mass of society.”
“Oh,” Edmond said. Anarr turned around and began walking again.
“Well if you’re such a powerful *magus*, perhaps you could do some tricky magic thing and get us there already. My legs are breaking.” Edmond said.
Anarr stopped again and turned to face him. “Your legs are decidedly not breaking. I could, as you say, perform some ‘tricky magic thing’ to rectify that situation if you like. Hmmn?” Anarr’s eyebrows rose with the question. “No, I thought not. Nor did I think you would realize that I have, in fact, already eased our travels through this day. Did you fail to notice the complete lack of obstacles on our path, or the ease with which we traversed the entrance to this canyon? Or did you think that an ancient path, unused by man for many years, would be as easily trod upon as a cobbled stone street?” Edmond opened his mouth to answer, but Anarr did not give him the opportunity. “No, let me guess. You didn’t think about it, did you? You simply didn’t think at all.”
Edmond sighed and lowered his gaze.
“I can offer you one comfort, however, that you may not be expecting, though why I bother is beyond even my cognizance.” Anarr said. Edmond lifted his eyes toward Anarr, expecting very little after that last tirade. Anarr was pointing at a pool of water in the base of the ravine. “Where these two water sources meet — the one hot from the walls of the gorge and the other cold from the mountain spring — there is a pleasant medium, worthy of revisit. We shall take a brief respite, and wash the grime of travel from our bodies.”
Edmond thanked the gods.
Edmond had seen broken or burned down homes in the past. He had seen half-destroyed castles, and had experienced the destruction of an invading army first hand as Beinison soldiers forcibly occupied Pyridain. The ruins Anarr had led him to, however, were hundreds of years old, their form deteriorated by the slow decay of time. Edmond would not have even recognized them as part of a settlement. They were, for the most part, circular mounds that merely hinted at buildings. A few remnants of stone walls were knee-high, indicating where sturdier dwellings once stood. The long shadows of the approaching evening added their darkness to the surrounding decay.
A few conifers grew in the area, assisting in dismantling and hiding the remaining structures. Only one building looked to be in the least bit habitable, and it had saplings growing out of the disheveled thatching of its roof. But there was a feeling in the air, a crispness that seemed to sharpen his senses. His curiosity was piqued; the presence of a roof on that structure made it stand out. He wanted to know more about these ruins. Who had lived here? Why had they left? What did they leave behind? Was there any … treasure?
Edmond pulled the mule into a flat square of grass bordered by stones that looked to be the remains of a former structure. He relieved the mule of its burden, and tied it off to a small tree. The mule began to munch the grass contentedly.
“Come,” Anarr called to Edmond. “There remains work to be done today.”
Anarr then led Edmond past the stone remains, and down a narrow dirt path. The path ended abruptly against a stone wall where the mouth of a small cave was partially covered with ivy.
“Here,” Anarr offered Edmond the lamp. “This is the entrance. Take the lamp and enter.”
Edmond stopped short. “Excuse me?” he asked. “There could be anything in there. Wolves. A bear.”
“There are none within, I promise you,” Anarr said.
“Then what is in there?”
“The statue of a god, finely wrought, ancient and beautiful. Worth a small fortune. It is a rare and wondrous find,” Anarr stated reverently.
Edmond smiled wryly. “No, really, what’s in there?”
“Enter!” Anarr commanded, and Edmond suddenly felt a compulsion that outweighed his fear to enter the cave.
The cave was low at the entrance, its ceiling slanted sideways with the angle of the mountain. Edmond ducked to avoid knocking his head against the stone. Once inside, the ceiling slowly took on a more rounded appearance, with occasional circular swirls ascending into shallow domes. Thin, tubular rock formations hung down, dripping water onto small rounded growths on the ground. The humidity in the cave was noticeable, though not oppressive.
Down the tunnel, something glinted. It drew Edmond forward, shining brightly one moment and dully the next. He couldn’t quite make it out from where he stood. He held the lamp in front and walked slowly toward the object. When he saw it for the first time, he could hardly believe his eyes.
Anarr had not lied. In front of him was an ornate statue of a man — perhaps a god, perhaps a demon — sitting cross-legged with a sword flat across his lap. The statue was jet black, its head thrown back, its mouth open as if yelling at the sky, revealing sharp teeth. The sword was made of pure silver, and its eyes glinted red in the lantern’s light. When he looked closely at the statue, he realized the man was in agony. A sense of pity overcame him, then. He felt sorry for the statue. It seemed a ridiculous thought, to feel pity for a statue, and yet he could not help himself.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Anarr asked. Edmond jumped, not realizing the magus had followed him in.
“Yes,” Edmond admitted. “But who is it?”
“Gow,” Anarr replied, “distorted by Amante. He suffers, and so the land around him suffers.”
“Who is Gow?” Edmond asked.
“Gow is the Beinison god of love and honorable battle. Mark the difference: chivalrous battle is not necessarily war.”
Anarr smiled. “Amante. Once a god of love, turned to lies and thievery by his jealousy. There is much more to the story, but I don’t have time to educate you on religious and mythological matters.”
“Then this statue is the source of the curse?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Anarr replied. “Amante’s curse is the source, but the curse has been placed upon this statue. I only recently discovered the proper supplications to bind the curse, but they are temporary, at best. Eventually, a means of removing the curse must be found, or, barring that, destroying the statue.”
“That seems … unfortunate,” Edmond said. The statue was a work of art, despite depicting the god in pain.
“Come,” Anarr said. “We must get to work and move the statue outside the cave. Tomorrow, we shall load it onto the mule.”
“That statue looks heavy,” Edmond said. “The mule won’t be happy.”
In fact, the mule was *not* happy.
At first, Edmond did not think moving the statue would be possible. It was not so much that it was too heavy, but it was bulky and difficult to maneuver in the cramped space of the cave. Edmond did not wish to damage such a finely-wrought sculpture. He soon found, however, that the statue was virtually indestructible. While trying to lift it, Edmond had dropped it onto the solid stone of the floor. Any item dropped onto the rock floor would have displayed a dent, a mark, a scratch. The statue did not; it was completely unblemished by the fall. Anarr had suggested making a row of log rollers on the cave floor, and then pushing it slowly out of the cave. However, that would have been a lengthy process in and of itself.
Eventually, Anarr tried magic. Edmond said that any magus of Anarr’s reputation would have tried that earlier, and was then subjected to a long and tiring discourse on the dangers of magic and its misuse. Edmond was also instructed that, in Anarr’s opinion, there were not any other magi of his reputation. Eventually he had admitted that the curse’s influence had recently hindered his magic. However, now that the curse had been abated, his magic seemed to work fine. Anarr had been able to simply lighten the weight of the statue, which made it easier for Edmond to maneuver.
In the morning, they placed the statue in a rucksack and fastened it onto the mule. Therefore, the mule was not happy. Anarr, on the other hand, seemed happy that his task was nearly complete. Edmond found himself somewhere between the two as they began their return trip to Northern Hope.
Edmond smiled as he and Anarr walked down the center of Northern Hope’s main street. It was good to be home, even after only one day away. Strangers and friends alike whispered and murmured to each other as they glanced in his direction, at the mule with the large pack on its back, and especially at Anarr, who walked with more than his usual amount of obvious pride. Anarr’s self-importance was bad enough; the additional awe and honor Northern Hope would shower him with would make him unbearable.
As they approached the Cat, Edmond recognized Kael Forester and two others walking toward them. “Greetings, milord Anarr, and welcome on your return to Northern Hope!” Kael nodded as he spoke. He seemed uncertain of himself, but that did not surprise Edmond. Most of the town’s leaders were uncertain of anything, after the past two years of bad luck. “I am Kael Forester, the regent of these lands. I wonder if I and my fellow councilmen might share a word with you?”
Anarr paused, then smiled and replied, “Gentlemen, I am at your service.”
Kael leaned forward and whispered. “It would be best if we could speak privately. We would like to discuss your … ah, expedition before rumor sets the town in an uproar.”
Anarr nodded. “Milord Forester, I appreciate your discretion, and will place myself at your disposal. However, I have spent the last five days trudging back and forth through the forest and performing magics sufficient to bind the very gods.” Edmond sighed and rolled his eyes. “I must see that my cargo is safely secured, and then I am going to enjoy the best meal that this backwater hovel can prepare. I hope that you and your councilmen will find it convenient to seek me in my quarters here at, say, second bell of evening?”
Kael met Anarr’s gaze and nodded back. “Indeed. Very well. Second bell.”
As they retreated, Anarr swung back toward the tavern, only to bump into a woman who had appeared at their side during the conversation. She was a black-haired woman, attractive enough, but it was her blue-painted lips that made her stand out. She was a stranger to Northern Hope, as far as Edmond could tell. “Anarr, I need to talk to you,” she said. “I need your help to lift a terrible curse which has afflicted my family for gen–”
“Silence!” shouted Anarr, and her words were choked off, though her mouth still tried to form words. Anarr was suddenly bristling with annoyance, though Edmond could see no reason for the outburst.
“I am here because I choose to be here,” he said. “I am not here to cure your affliction, or those of your family or your god-forsaken village! Nor am I bound by some silly creed to help every diseased or misbegotten peasant who crawls up to me. I have far more important works to do. Be gone!”
Anarr turned, his eyes smoldering. “Edmond! Bring the artifact up to our room.”
“But … but the room’s on the second storey! You hired me to guard the statue, not carry it everywhere you go …”
Anarr spat back at him. “Then get one of your local buddies to do it. Or hire someone; I already gave you two Rounds! I don’t want that thing out of your or my sight until we’re safely in Dargon.” Then he left, storming his way into the Cat, and probably, Edmond thought, throwing people out of his way as he did so.
“‘I don’t want it out of my sight,’” Edmond mimicked Anarr, adding a whine to his voice. “And what’s with the ‘our’ room? It’s his, not mine,” he continued speaking aloud to himself while he removed the package from the mule’s back.
“Excuse me,” asked a woman, “is that, or is that not, Anarr, the famous mage?”
“He’s no mage,” Edmond replied. “He’s a pain in my ass.”
The mule snorted its agreement.
Edmond’s guard duty started early the next morning when he awoke next to the statue. Anarr had gone for a morning walk, and then off to the main street; the town elders had declared a festival day to celebrate Anarr’s accomplishment, and he was expected to make an appearance. There was no one else at the inn, Edmond was certain, but Anarr had assured him that if someone were going to steal the statue, the festival would be an excellent distraction. So he kept awake, despite the pleasant drumming of the rain against the roof.
And then he heard the front door open and close. Someone was walking along the floor on the lower level. Whoever it was, they were being quiet. He heard the sound of a chair scraping briefly against the floorboards, then a creak on the steps. Edmond held his sword in his right hand and looked around the room. Where should he attack from? Behind the door? No, then he wouldn’t be able to see who was coming into the room. He crept to the door and quietly slid the bolt. The metallic click sounded as loud as a drum. The festival music drifted through the window, in time with the beating rain. Edmond’s heart was racing; the leather handle of the sword felt sticky against his sweaty palms. Perhaps it was just another guest? Then the stranger tried to open the door, only to find it bolted. Edmond knew it was no accident this person was trying to get into the room. If they somehow managed to break the bolt, then Edmond knew he was going to have to fight.
Then the stranger knocked on the door.
“Edmond?” a woman’s voice called to him.
Edmond dropped the sword and slipped the bolt, sighing in relief. “Isabelle!” he shouted as he opened the door. She stood in the doorway, wearing her best yellow dress. It was spotted with raindrops, but her soft blond hair had been kept dry by her green shawl, now draped around her shoulders.
“The hero of Northern Hope,” she said. She smiled warmly and her blue eyes shone as she stepped through the doorway.
“Not quite,” Edmond said. He blushed bashfully, and took her into his arms.
When Anarr returned to the inn, he was accompanied by the woman with blue-painted lips, whose name was Simona. Anarr dismissed Edmond and Isabelle, and they willingly left his company to enjoy the festival.
Despite the rain, musicians filled the streets: flutists and pipers lined the muddy roads, fiddlers and drummers played under tents. Vendors hawked food, speeches were made, and dancing ensued. A fight broke out between Gaston the Elder and a farmer named Hendrich, over a matter of little importance, but due to the nature of the celebration, neither was impounded in the stocks.
The time Edmond and Isabelle spent at the festival passed all too quickly. Edmond received many compliments and good wishes from the townsfolk for being involved with removing the curse. Even his parents, who were the gruffest of his critics, wished him well. Ultimately, however, Anarr summoned him back to duty. “You are in my employ to guard this statue, not frolic with women,” Anarr stated. “Celebrate when you return. We leave for Dargon.”
“Dargon,” thought Edmond. He had heard great tales of Dargon, but had never visited the city. Dargon had repelled the Beinison invaders, something the people of Pyridain had failed to do. Clifton Dargon, the duke, was said to be a great captain, and his fleet had defeated the Beinisonians during the war. How magnificent the harbor must be! How imposing the fortress! How proud the people! Edmond began packing supplies for the journey, momentarily forgetting his life in Northern Hope.