“What do you think they’re doing out there?” Edmond heard Kal ask. Kal was referring to his lover, Simona, and the magus, Anarr. Anarr and Simona had gone off into the woods “to work on a spell,” they had said. Edmond was only a hired guard for this trip, but he could tell that Anarr had more than a passing interest in Simona. He wasn’t sure if she reciprocated. Certainly, this wouldn’t be a very polite time to broach the idea, as they were all traveling to Dargon together, and Simona’s lover was with them. Then again, Edmond’s recent experience had taught him that Anarr was anything but polite. Edmond thought Kal looked nervous. If Kal decided to cause trouble with Anarr, Edmond might have to intercede. Not that Anarr would need assistance: he was a magus of great power and fame, and could more than handle himself against a scrawny ex-sailor.
“I have no idea,” Edmond replied. Then, with a teasing smile, he added, “And I don’t care to guess.” Edmond immediately regretted the remark; instead of lightening the mood, it put Kal into an angry depression. Kal paced the edge of the firelight, the frown on his face shadowed by the flickering flames.
Edmond watched Kal, appraising him, wondering what it would take to knock him down if trouble arose. Kal was dressed in common clothes and did not have the look of a warrior, nor did he carry a sword. He was a tall, thin man, an ex-sailor who had fallen in love with a bard. Edmond decided his own strong arms, forged from beating iron with a hammer while intense heat blasted his chest and face, were all the weapons he would need.
“Bloody, rotting, pain in the arse,” Kal swore. “Stupid, pompous, self-important cow.” Kal kicked dirt.
Edmond gazed momentarily at the mule they had brought with them on this trip, making sure it was still tied down. Sure enough, Kal’s ramblings and nervous energy had not fazed it a pinch. Its long gray nose nuzzled the branches on a tree, looking for something to eat.
Edmond then surveyed the rest of their small camp. Rain was lightly falling, largely inhibited by the conifer forest that grew along the mountainside. The ground was damp and soft from the precipitation, but had not turned to mud. Old needles padded the earth, providing a prickly barrier between the travelers and the moistened soil. The fire was magical in its inception, thanks to Anarr, but burned naturally now that some of the local wood had dried near its heat. Sitting next to Edmond was a bundled object, never to be out of his reach or control: an ancient statue of Gow, the Beinison god of war.
The statue was the real reason Edmond was here. According to Anarr, it had been cursed by Amante, another god. The curse caused ill luck to all those within its range, and until recently that had included Edmond’s home in Northern Hope. That settlement had been famous for its sudden quakes, floods, droughts, sickness, falling buildings, and general malaise. The only reason Edmond and his people had settled there was because the King of Baranur had granted them that land after Beinison had taken Pyridain in the recent war. It’s the rare refugee that turns down a helping hand, Edmond mused.
But Anarr had discovered the cause of Northern Hope’s ill luck: the curse that had been placed upon this statue of Gow. Anarr had also found a way to ward the curse, temporarily, or perhaps ‘placate’ was a better word. It was hungry, Anarr had said, and required regular feeding. Now he and Anarr were making their way to the city of Dargon, to deliver the statue to Anarr’s employer.
Edmond felt he was running into a lot of curses. While traveling back through Northern Hope, Anarr had been approached by Simona, who was also under a curse, one that had been plaguing her family for generations. Anarr had taken to her almost instantly, and decided to help her.
Not for the first time since meeting Anarr, Edmond began to wonder about the powers of magic, and if there were repercussions. Certainly, this statue was an example of malicious magic, the curse laid upon it having devastating effect. Additionally, Edmond had heard of wizards and magicians who had lost their minds, or even physical body parts, in their attempts to increase their knowledge and skills. Most of those tales were told around the Night of Souls, however, so he held little stock in their truth. But tales of Anarr had been told for decades before Edmond had been born, yet Anarr had the appearance of a man of thirty summers or less. What kind of magic could do that?
Simona apparently had some connection with the magus, but Edmond was not certain what that connection was. She had graduated from the College of Bards, in Magnus. They were a mysterious and somewhat magical group as well, Edmond knew, but was her connection to Anarr mystical or physical? Edmond had to admit that Simona was certainly an attractive woman, though her preoccupied whining irritated him, and he could not decide whether he liked the blue paint she used to color her lips.
“Hollow, windless, squid-born fish bait!” Kal said.
Beyond Kal’s ongoing fit of jealousy, Edmond made out a new sound: footsteps in the wood, getting closer. The pine branches parted to reveal the tall, aristocratic form of Anarr, and the delicate curves of Simona.
Kal’s pacing stopped, and his demeanor changed from anger to supplication. “Simona, are you alright? What happened?”
“Nothing you require knowledge of,” Anarr answered for her. “And it might be best if you did not know.” Simona smiled apologetically, but she was obviously exhausted and frustrated. Anarr was sweating for the first time since Edmond had met him, and his robes were covered in dirt and pine needles. Edmond reserved his thoughts about what might have happened between them. “Sadly, the attempt failed. We’ll have to try again later.” Then Anarr smiled evilly; his eyes flashed briefly at Kal before adding, “Won’t we, my dear?”
Kal bristled with jealousy. “Anarr,” he grumbled. “Look at her, she’s drained. You’re taking us on this wild trek across the mountains, just to get to Dargon. The sea would have been a better choice; why bother taking the route through Kenna?”
Anarr barely deigned to answer. “It’s faster.”
Kal pressed. “The Darst Range is not exactly safe.”
“You have no idea how dangerous it really is,” Anarr replied.
“Then why take it?” Kal asked again. “Have you no concern for Simona? Or are you just pretending to try to help her, in order to fulfill some other objective?” Edmond realized that the challenge was not about the direction they took, but the affections of Simona. Anarr turned to face Kal.
“I will inform you all why I chose to travel via Kenna rather than Miass. I do this solely to prevent a rift within our cozy fraternity.” Kal bristled at these words, but Simona reached for his hand to steady him. “From Northern Hope, Miass is a six-day barge ride down river. To then get to Dargon by sea would take another eight days. A fortnight, in total. It takes only four days to cross the Darst Range, and another four days down river to Dargon. Only eight days, for those of you lacking the ability to add. You could argue — and likely will, given your predisposition for unwarranted hostility — that crossing Marrow Gorge would be too dangerous for our lovely bard. However, the northern cape of Lands End is also a particularly dangerous area to negotiate, even for the most experienced of ship’s captains. Strong currents and stormy winds often conspire to drive vessels against the rocky cliffs, or force them to sail deep out to sea, where the icy northern weather can wreak havoc on a ship and its crew.
“So in effect, my young dilettante, not only am I saving us travel time, I am showing more concern for the safety of the lady in our group than you are.”
Anarr lay down suddenly, pulling a blanket over him. “I’m exhausted from the evening’s … exercises.” He smiled coldly at Kal. “Wake me in the morning, will you?” Kal smoldered, defeated. Simona futilely attempted to soothe Kal. Edmond poked the fire.
Before the next dawn, the group broke camp. Edmond felt a tense silence accompany the morning ritual of rolling the beds, dousing the last embers of the fire, and packing the cooking gear. He did not feel comfortable with the silence, yet could think of no conversation that would sound natural and unforced. Thus, the travelers made their way quietly as the sun rose in the east, marking the morning’s progress.
Edmond could hear Marrow Gorge long before he saw it. The low, distant rumble of the rapids echoed through a small valley between two mountains. A fine mist filled the air, coating him and the packs he carried, making everything damp. And then, as he followed Anarr past some fallen branches, he saw it: a magnificent crevasse, many fathoms deep, with a roaring river separating each side of the canyon. It couldn’t have been more than a dozen strides across, but it might as well have been a league: the bridge was destroyed, its splintered remains of rope and wood adorning each side of the ravine. Edmond knew that they now faced the impossible prospect of crossing a dangerous gap between two moss-covered cliffs without a bridge. He noted pine and small oak trees speckled each side of the gorge. He saw birds perched in the trees, spying the river for evidence of f eeding fish. He suspected they would be just as happy feeding on the corpses of foolish travelers dashed against the rocks below.
“Marrow Gorge,” Anarr announced. The roar of the water forced him to shout.
“We’ll never be able to cross here,” Simona said. She tentatively approached the edge of the cliff and looked up and down the ravine. “Nor anywhere else that I can see.” She backed away from the edge quickly.
“Well done, Anarr,” Kal said. Edmond thought he spied a satisfied smirk under the disappointed look on Kal’s face. “You’ve led us astray, with no place to cross. So much for saving time by going over the mountains.”
“This tributary to the Coldwell is a main artery,” Anarr said. “Its source is many leagues back into the mountains. Upriver, it is small and placid, but runs out of very steep mountains. By the time it reaches Marrow Gorge, it has been fed by other streams, above ground and below. It is the defining line between these two cliffs, and at no point are the two cliffs as close as they are here. The trade route fords the river in the lowlands, which would take us far north of our mark. We might as well walk the whole way to Dargon, if that’s the way you want to go.”
“We could have just hopped a barge at the ford,” Kal said. “Now we’re going to break our necks trying to cross this gap.”
“As ever, my short-sighted companion,” Anarr replied, “you think only the worst of me, and fail to appreciate my unique skills. It is a simple matter for us to cross here.”
Edmond raised his eyebrows. “Really?” he asked, disbelieving Anarr. He was certain Anarr was powerful, but what could he be thinking?
“Yes, Edmond, my student of the world. You are often as short-sighted as Kal, yet willing to understand. You have that much of an advantage over him.” Kal bristled, as he often did when Anarr spoke about him. Edmond was not entirely pleased with the compliment.
“Pray, educate us, O Exalted One,” Kal said, bowing deeply to Anarr with mocking subservience.
“That would take too long,” Anarr sneered at Kal. “However, a simple jumping spell is all it will take to cross this ravine.”
“A jumping spell?” Simona asked tentatively.
“Yes, quite simple,” Anarr stated. He looked around at his three traveling companions. “I cast the spell on you, and you will have a momentary ability to jump a great distance. We can easily clear this ravine.”
“I don’t think so,” Simona whispered.
“You first,” said Kal.
“Don’t be more of an idiot than you usually are, Kal,” Anarr replied. “I have to be last if I am to perform the incantation on everyone.”
“As if I’d trust you to cast a spell on me,” Kal said in a low tone.
“Kal,” Anarr said, “if I wanted you dead, I wouldn’t go to such elaborate means. I would simply suck the life out of your body to replenish my own. If your ignorance is any indication of your youth, I should get several good years out of you.”
“I’ll go first,” Edmond said. Everyone stopped and looked at him in surprise. He was a little surprised at himself.
“Edmond,” Anarr said, with perhaps a little affection in his voice. “You have finally learned to trust in my abilities.”
“Somewhat,” he acknowledged. “But I figure if I fall to my death, at least I don’t have to listen to the two of you anymore.”
Anarr reached into a fold in his robes and produced a feather and some oil. He dabbed the oil to the tops of Edmond’s boots, and mumbled something while waving the feather at his legs. Then he stood up and said, “There. Give it a try.”
Edmond hesitated. “You mean, now?”
“Just like that?”
“Yes,” Anarr stated flatly, “just like that.” Still Edmond did not move. He looked across the gorge to the other side. It seemed even farther than it had been just a few menes ago. “Well, don’t take all day, boy; the spell isn’t permanent.” Then Anarr yelled, “Go!”
Edmond faced the gap. He shook his head, realizing that this was potentially the most foolish thing he’d ever done in his life. Then he put his faith in Anarr’s magic, took a running start, and leapt.
As his right foot pushed off the edge of the cliff, Edmond knew he was going to die. His heart immediately began pounding in his chest. His legs did not feel any stronger, he had not run any faster, nor did his body feel any lighter. He was going to fall short, he was sure of it. The next instant, he thought that perhaps he would hit the far wall on his way down, and he could grab part of the rock, or the remains of the bridge. It would hurt, but he might live. He looked down. He thought he could make out the details of every rock, every stone he would hit if he fell straight down. Then he looked up, and was surprised that he was over the far edge. He landed, stumbled, slipped on the mossy rock and tumbled across the ground. His knees, shoulders and hands scraped on the hard rock. It hurt, but he was over. He was alive.
Edmond got up slowly. As he rose, he felt the scrapes and bangs that would eventually become bruises. He looked across at the others and yelled, “It worked!”
“We know,” Kal replied. He almost looked upset, Edmond thought. He saw Anarr bend over Kal’s feet and make some motions, and a mene later Kal leapt over the gorge. Edmond had an interesting perspective, seeing Kal’s approach from the front. His arms flailed wildly, and his legs kicked the air. He wondered if he had looked as ridiculous from behind when he had made the jump. Then he noticed Kal’s predicament: he was jumping too far, and would crash into the jagged rocks beyond the safe outcropping on which Edmond stood. Kal was still more than a man’s height off the ground as he approached Edmond’s position. As Kal came clos e by, Edmond jumped and grabbed at him, pulling him down. Kal collided with Edmond, causing them both to tumble hard onto the rock. “Thanks,” Kal muttered as they stood. “Though I’m not sure you helped,” he added sourly. “Flying into those rocks wouldn’t have been too much worse than landing on this rock.”
“Tell you what,” Edmond replied dryly. “Next time, I’ll let you smash against them, and then you can tell me how that felt.”
When Edmond looked back across, he saw Anarr standing next to Simona, gesturing for her to go across. She kept shaking her head no. Apparently, Anarr had already performed the incantation, but Simona’s fears were keeping her from jumping. Anarr dug into one of the packs on the mule, and pulled out a rope. He tied one end to Simona, and the other to himself. She nodded her head, then jumped.
If Kal had jumped too far, Simona made the opposite mistake: she jumped too short. Edmond didn’t know if it was a fear of heights, or rivers, or what. All he knew was that Simona wasn’t going to make it. “Simona!” he heard Kal yell, and saw him move for the edge of the gorge. Edmond moved quicker, and grabbed Kal to hold him back.
“What are you doing?” Kal cried.
“You can’t reach her!” Edmond yelled back at him. Edmond turned back to see Simona’s downward fall. Across the ravine, Anarr took three strides, and leapt high into the air. Edmond had not seen Anarr prepare himself for the jump, yet Anarr’s magical leap carried him over the gorge.
Simona screamed as she dropped straight down toward the river. Then the rope pulled taut by Anarr’s jump, and Edmond saw the magus, in mid-jump, yank the rope upward. Simona’s body, still hanging in the air between two rock cliffs, with only a treacherous river valley below her, was forcibly jerked upward, her breath audibly expelled from her lungs. Her momentum brought her toward Edmond and Kal. Now Edmond released Kal, who rushed to the edge and slid on his stomach. His hand reached out and grasped Simona’s, catching her before she fell again. When he pulled her up, there were tears in her eyes, and Kal hugged her close.
“Not again,” she muttered. “Not again.”
Edmond followed the trail of the rope tied around Simona’s waist up into a tree. There he saw Anarr, perched in a tall pine. Anarr made his way down, carefully. When he reached the three of them, Kal characteristically cut into him. “Well done, Anarr. Do you see what you did? She’s in tears!”
“What I did,” Anarr stated, “was save her life, at the risk of my own. It was her fear of crossing the gorge, even though she had seen the two of you come across safely, that caused her to hesitate. She does not trust in my magic, and somewhat does not trust in herself.” Edmond thought he caught a note of self-recrimination when Anarr added, softly, “But perhaps that is partially my fault.” Kal looked down at Simona and held her tighter.
Anarr moved to the cliff’s edge and took a sitting position. He stared across to the other side, where Edmond noted that the mule was still standing. “You going back over?” he asked.
“Nonsense,” Anarr replied. “The incantation can be done from here, though with a bit more effort, given the distance.” Anarr removed the oil and feather, and made the same movements Edmond had seen him make twice before.
“And how do you get the mule to jump?” Kal asked. This time, Edmond did not detect the usual scorn in Kal’s tone.
“Become the mule,” Anarr replied. Then Edmond saw Anarr’s eyes roll back into his head, and his shoulders go slack. Anarr’s mouth seemed to extend, just a bit, out from his head. He heard a snorting sound from across the gorge, and when he looked, the mule trotted lightly toward the gap, and leapt. It landed easily on all fours, appearing completely unperturbed by the entire experience.
Anarr stood slowly to his feet. “Interesting animal,” he stated. Those were the last words any of them spoke as they resumed their trip.
Late that afternoon, they arrived in Kenna. Edmond thought they looked like a rag-tag group of travelers. At the first tavern they came to, the River’s Edge, Anarr acquired rooms and meals for the whole group. Edmond wondered why Anarr was feeling so generous. He soon realized, however, that he was still sharing a room with the magus, while Simona and Kal had a room to themselves. Perhaps, he mused, Anarr was simply attempting to show them some kindness.
The next morning, they made their way to the river where Anarr also arranged passage for the entire group. Edmond had hoped that Kal would see this as a token of peace, and in fact Kal did seem more pleasant. But then, sharing the room with Simona might have had something to do with that. The passage Anarr had arranged took the form of a large river barge. A small boat might have been faster, but the mule would have to have been left behind.
The barge itself was not unlike a floating town, Edmond thought. It was smaller of course, but the variety of passengers it carried and the functions it served were numerous. Besides his small group of travelers, he noted the presence of a shepherdess with a small flock of sheep, a priest, a blacksmith, and a weaver. There were also three other travelers from a variety of professions: one seemed to be a mercenary like himself; the second was dressed in outlandish clothing, like a jester; and the third appeared to be some sort of monk. There were bales of cotton and grain being brought downriver for trade with Dargon, as well as coal from the nearby mines. In the center of the barge were four small structures built by stacking barrels and crates for walls, and pulling a large tarpaulin across the top. Anarr naturally claimed one for himself and the statue.
The first day of the journey was uneventful, though Edmond found it interesting. The bargemen worked slowly and steadily, with Kal spending much of his time speaking with and learning from them. Simona and Anarr conversed at some length, while Edmond spent most of his time with the statue, or enjoying the gentle travel along the river.
On the second day, as Edmond stood at the barge’s railing and watched the water rustle by, Anarr called to him. “Edmond, come here.”
Edmond walked the few paces between himself and his employer. “Yes?”
Anarr beckoned him into the structure, where he sat next to the statue of Gow. He had already removed it from the rucksack. Every time Edmond saw the statue, he was amazed at the exquisite carving. Although it depicted a man in pain, his head tilted back and screaming towards the heavens, Edmond thought it was utterly beautiful. A sword lay across the figure’s lap, grasped at each end by the figure’s hands.
Anarr spoke softly, and Edmond felt the importance in his words. “You have lived through the curse of Amante in the past. It has been assuaged for the time being, but the curse can return if the statue is not carefully managed. This is how it is managed.”
Anarr ran his thumb across the sharpened teeth of the statue, making a small cut on his digit. He squeezed his thumb, dripping several drops of blood into the statue’s mouth. The gaping maw of the statue moved! It opened wider, revealing a small parcel at the base of its throat.
“The screaming mouth of Gow is hollow, you see. And within that hollow is a mystical concoction that must always be maintained, else the curse will return. Northern Hope was fully twenty leagues from its hidden refuge, and yet your town still suffered from its influence.”
“Why are you telling me this? You make it sound like you’re leaving.”
“I am,” Anarr replied gravely. “I must get to Dargon before the barge, and to do so I must travel by magical means. The captain has agreed to leave me off tomorrow. I will meet you in Dargon.”
“Where in Dargon?”
“At the docks, when you arrive. From there we will make our way to Parris Dargon’s home in the north of town. Meanwhile, you must periodically check on something within the statue.” Anarr stepped back and pointed to the statue’s mouth. “Look in there, and you will see a small bundle of material. Within that bundle are the mystical elements that keep the curse at bay. At all costs, they must never be removed.”
“What if they fall out? Do you have any more?”
“In Dargon, yes, I can make more. I have none here, however. So guard it well.”
Edmond nodded his head. “I will.”
At about mid-morning on the third day, Anarr said his farewells. Simona and Edmond saw him ashore.
“Do not let the statue out of your sight,” he said to Edmond.
“I shall not,” Edmond replied.
“Where is it now?”
“It’s on the boat.”
Anarr simply sighed and stared at Edmond.
“Straight!” Edmond said as realized what Anarr was hinting at. “Goodbye, Anarr. I’ll go back to the statue.”
Edmond left Simona with Anarr, and proceeded to the structure where the statue was kept. He saw one of the passengers, the monk, standing off to the side, near to the statue.
“Greetings, friend,” the monk said.
“Quite a burden you’ve got there,” the monk said, indicating the wrapped statue. “Must be heavy to haul.”
“Not really,” Edmond replied. “We have the pack mule for that.” Edmond felt the barge shift slightly as it pulled away from the bank, leaving Anarr on shore.
“Ah,” the monk replied. “The Stevene said that the animals were given to us by God, to ease our burdens, but that we must treat them well.”
Edmond moaned internally. He thought, “Oh great, the monk is a Stevenic.”
“Yes, well,” Edmond said, “it was nice talking to you.”
The monk smiled weakly, nodded, and walked away around some barrels. Edmond hoped the monk would go off and find the priest.
“Psst! Buddy!” a voice called from his left.
“Now what?” Edmond muttered to himself. He walked around a crate of fruit to see the jester squatting on the ground. He had placed a large flat board over the rounded logs of the barge, and was shaking something in his hands. Something that rattled when he shook it. Something that sounded an awful lot like dice.
“Now that the boring religious type is gone, care to take a roll?” the jester asked. The jester threw the dice onto the board, bouncing them against the crate.
Edmond immediately felt woozy, and his knees weakened. He reminded himself of his promise to Isabelle. When he had left Northern Hope, he had promised his betrothed he would not indulge in gambling; it was his worst vice, and strongest desire. He tried to resist. However, an urging within him, a hunger, took control of his movements. He reached out with a shaking left hand, forgetting his promise to guard the statue.
“Perhaps just a game or two,” he said weakly, and the next thing he knew he was kneeling on the barge with a pair of dice in his hands. They felt good, smooth. They were worn with use, and they rattled soundly when he shook them. “Just a Bit,” he said off-handedly. “I really don’t gamble …”
He knew he should not be there. He knew he had made a promise to Isabelle. He knew he would probably lose all his money. But that did not stop him from emptying his purse on the board. His hand shook the dice. He was watching his hand do it, as if he wasn’t in control. At the same time, he knew he was shaking the dice on his own, and he didn’t care what was going to happen, as long as he got to throw.
Then an extraordinary thing happened, something that Edmond had rarely ever experienced: he won his roll. So he threw again, and won again. Then the jester threw, and lost. And Edmond, feeling the rush of victory, kept rolling the dice, betting more and more. He didn’t know what time it was; he barely knew where he was. All that mattered was the rattle of the dice, the thrill of the game. And the dice just kept falling in his favor, roll after roll after roll.
Just before the jester’s last throw, Edmond felt a wave of heat come over him. He noticed the wind shift, and a small lurch in the floor beneath him. Was that the sound of thunder, he wondered? Then the jester threw the dice, and somehow the dice broke in two, cracked neatly in half. It was such an unexpected occurrence that Edmond was suddenly pulled out of the allure of the game. He cast a quick glance around him: he was on the barge, and was supposed to be guarding the statue.
“Ol’s balls!” he cried and suddenly pulled himself up from the barge floor. “The statue! I almost forgot.” He grasped at the pile of coins in front of him and stumbled out from behind the crates. His legs tingled with sensation after squatting down for so long. He didn’t know how long he had been throwing dice, but the sun was lower in the sky.
When he returned to the statue, he breathed a sigh of relief; it was undisturbed, still contained in its sack and tied with the rope. It did seem a bit disheveled, as if something had tugged at the cloth, but that was probably one of the myriad rats that pervaded all water craft. Edmond removed the cover from the statue, just in case, and peered down the throat of Gow. A small bundle was visible, just where he had seen it the day before. Something seemed different to him, however. He stared at the statue, and he had the sense that it was alive. He suddenly felt as though Gow were screaming at him, trying to warn him. It made him nervous. For no reason he could identify, he spoke to the statue. “I am sworn to protect you at all costs.” Suddenly, cool air rushed over him and through him, chilling him to the bone. He felt the statue was no longer yelling at him. The scream of pain disappeared, to be replaced by a yell of e xultation.
He heard a splash of water, and someone cried out that a barrel had fallen into the river. “Odd,” he said to no one in particular, “I thought all the cargo was tied down.”