DargonZine 18, Issue 7

Journey’s End Part 2

Yuli 28, 1018 - Sy 12, 1018


This entry is part 12 of 27 in the series The Black Idol

Simona woke with a start and leaped out of bed. “Anarr!” she thought, “I need to make sure I find the mage before he leaves this morning. He’s the only one who can help me get rid of this curse.” She dressed quickly and left the barmaid Dora’s room to wake Kal, her travel companion, friend, and lover, whose bedroom was on the other side of the inn. She entered the common room in order to get across, but much to her surprise, Kal had already left his bedroom and was sitting at a table, drinking from a steaming cup.

“I’ll have some of that,” she told Dora, who was already tending to the few people present.

“Good morning to you, too,” Kal greeted her, a grim expression on his face.

“Morning,” Simona said and planted a quick kiss on his cheek. “Still sour about last night?”

“Straight,” Kal grumbled. “What’s it to her anyway who sleeps where?”

“The Lucky Round’s a respectable inn!” Dora said from across the room. The few people seated inside laughed.

“This girl hears everything that’s going on in town,” one of the men commented and showed a nearly toothless grin. “Doesn’t matter where you are.”

“Why thank you, Marag.” Dora bowed. “It’s not every day a girl gets such a compliment.”

Simona grinned. Since she and Kal had arrived at the inn last night, Dora had made sure the only thing the two had shared was the meal. Simona hadn’t minded, but Kal was visibly upset. She’d make it up to him, but for now she had more pressing matters on her mind.

Simona and Kal had traveled to Northern Hope in search of a mage who she hoped would have enough power to break the curse that’d been with her family for generations. The curse had affected the women in her family, causing the death of each woman’s husband upon the birth of a daughter. Simona didn’t want to share the same fate as her mother, grandmother, and those before them. She loved Kal and was afraid he would die if she gave birth to his daughter. She had been very happy when she learned that a mage had come to Northern Hope and had been elated when she found out it was Anarr. Simona had heard about him at the College of Bards and placed high hopes in his ability to lift the curse. According to the stories she’d heard about Anarr, the mage was well over one hundred years old and possessed great skills.

“Dora, a mene of your time,” Simona said after she’d finished the sweet brew the barmaid had put in front of her.

“You want directions to Lord Araesto’s Cat?”

“Straight.”

“I’m walking that way,” Marag said, stood up, and placed a worn hat on his head. “I’ll show you.”

Simona smiled at him and got up. Kal emptied his cup and followed.

***

The way across town to Lord Araesto’s Cat, the only other inn in Northern Hope, was short. Marag didn’t make conversation, and Simona was happy about that. She didn’t feel like sharing her reasons for visiting the other inn, nor why she was looking for Anarr.

Marag tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to her left. “There it is.”

“Thank you.” Simona said.

“Don’t mention it. I’m always glad to help a bard,” he replied and went on his way.

A picture of a black cat with a white tabard, displaying the letter “A” in red on it, over the door clearly marked the entrance. Simona and Kal entered without hesitation. The entire room was full of people chatting. Simona couldn’t make out a word anyone was saying. She scanned the room for someone who looked over one hundred years old, but not one person fell into this category. Disappointed, she walked up to a girl carrying several tankards filled with ale.

“I’m looking for Anarr,” she said.

The girl shrugged her shoulders and yelled. “You’ve got to speak up!”

“I’m looking for Anarr!” Simona shouted. Instantly, she felt the gaze of nearly everyone in the room on her. The noise in the room dropped considerably and Simona could hear the barmaid’s voice without straining.

“Anarr? He’s not here. Left early this morning. Not sure when he’ll be back, but some of his belongings are still here,” the girl said and placed the tankards on a table.

“Where’d he go?”

“Don’t know. Didn’t ask him.” The girl shook her head.

“Thank you.” Simona’s face fell. She felt cheated. She had traveled all the way to Northern Hope in search of a mage and now that she had reached his lodging, Anarr wasn’t there. She swallowed hard, suppressing tears, and then turned and stepped outside. She didn’t know why she was reacting to the news as she did. Finding a mage to rid her of the curse was a high priority, and she had been successful in locating a magus. She had done even better by finding Anarr, whose reputation preceded him. She couldn’t explain her own tears. Her disappointment upon learning that he had left the inn didn’t warrant crying. Leaning against the wall, she took in a deep breath and wiped her eyes with the sleeves of her tunic. She felt Kal’s hand on her shoulder, but shrugged it off. “He’s not here.”

“He’ll be back,” Kal said confidently, smiled, and took her hand. “Come, let’s go for a walk and we’ll come back later this afternoon.”

“I’d rather wait here until he returns.”

“Don’t be silly,” Kal said, pulling Simona away from the inn. “It could be bells. I’d like to see some of this town and its surroundings.”

“Fine.” Simona gave in and followed her companion. They spent the rest of the day exploring the town and returned to Lord Araesto’s Cat only to learn that Anarr hadn’t come back. Disappointed, Simona followed Kal’s lead as they walked back to the Lucky Round.

***

The following day, Simona and Kal spent most of their time walking. Simona couldn’t bear to sit at either inn, waiting for Anarr. She felt restless and needed to move around. They left the surrounding forest to return to the inn for an evening meal around the eighth bell. Dark clouds began forming in the west and the wind blew stronger than it had the past few days.

“I need to find Anarr! He should be returning soon. He’s been gone for some time now.”

“Then let’s go back to his inn,” Kal suggested and directed Simona towards Lord Araesto’s Cat. By the time they reached the inn, it had gotten quite cold. A huge crowd of people had gathered.

“What is going on?” Simona inquired.

“Anarr is back, good bard! He is talking with Regent Forester right now. See, he’s right over there,” one of the men answered, and pointed at a group of men. He met Simona’s gaze and smiled.

Simona thanked him and pushed her way through the crowd towards Anarr. When she finally got a good look at the mage, she had to take a second glance. He didn’t look like anything she had envisioned. His dark hair was slicked back and he walked with an air of authority around him. Most astonishing to Simona though was his appearance. She thought, “He must be over one hundred and fifty years old, yet he looks as if he’d reached manhood not too long ago.” At the same time Simona overcame her surprise at Anarr’s appearance, Anarr turned away from the man he had been talking to and bumped into her. She called out, “Anarr. I need to talk to you. I need your help to lift a terrible curse which has afflicted my family for gen–”

“Silence!” Anarr shouted. Simona fell silent, though her lips continued to move. She didn’t know what she had expected his reaction to be, but yelling at her had not been it. She was so taken aback by Anarr’s response that she didn’t hear what he was saying. Simona felt a gentle tug on her tunic sleeve and then Kal’s hand slipped into hers. Disappointed by mage’s reaction, she let Kal pull her out of the crowd, barely aware that he was guiding her away from the inn. Her thoughts circled around Anarr and her crushed hopes that the curse might be lifted.

By the time Simona and Kal reached the marketplace, a cold wind was blowing and dark clouds were forming in the evening sky. Simona had expected the people in Northern Hope to rush to their homes and stay inside, but she was mistaken. They were running into the street, shouting for joy. The whole neighborhood seemed one big celebration. At first she couldn’t make out what they were shouting, but then she understood bits and pieces.

“– done it! He’s really done it!” one man shouted.

“I wouldn’t believe it, if I didn’t see those black clouds. It’ll be raining by tomorrow!” another man agreed.

“I hope this rain isn’t going to cause any mudslides. And how do you know the curse is broken? This could just be another twist,” a third man said.

“Straight, Thomas, the rain is probably going to wash half the town down the river,” a woman chimed in.

“No! The curse is broken!” the barmaid from Lord Araesto’s Cat cried and wiped her eyes.

“Who broke what curse?” Simona asked the barmaid when the noise had died down considerably and conversation was possible again.

“Anarr! He broke the curse! He came about a sennight ago to lift the curse that lay on our town and today he succeeded.”

“How do you know he succeeded?” Simona asked.

“He just returned to the inn and said so! Everyone here has had bad luck with any undertaking. When the new millstone arrived a while back, it fell into the river and attempts to retrieve it were unsuccessful. Less than a bell ago, the men were able to lift it out and put it into its proper place. It hasn’t rained here in over a month, and now take a look at those clouds. Soon it’ll be raining and the crops we planted this year will have enough water to grow and ripen before winter begins.” The barmaid pulled out a dirty handkerchief and blew her nose.

Simona and Kal spent the next bell at the marketplace, listening to people’s stories about how the curse had made life difficult for them and what they hoped for themselves now that life could return to normal. The ringing of a bell and the loud voice of the town crier interrupted the storytelling.

“Hear ye, hear ye! Tomorrow will be a holiday!” he shouted. “Tomorrow will be a holiday! We’ll have a big celebration starting with the second bell of the day! Our Regent Forester just announced that the curse has been lifted!”

Simona turned as someone tugged her tunic. She looked at Marag, who had an apologetic look on his face.

“Pardon me, good bard,” Marag said. “I told the town council we have a bard in town and they request you sing for us.”

“I will honor their request,” Simona replied, “As soon as I have taken care of some business.”

“That will be acceptable,” Marag smiled and happily walked down the street.

“What have I gotten myself into?” Simona muttered.

“Huh?” Kal gave her a quizzical look.

“I just agreed to sing at the celebration tomorrow, but I also need to see if I can talk to Anarr again. I don’t know how long that will take me.”

“Why do you want to talk to that arrogant –” Kal stopped mid-sentence and Simona caught the glance he shot at her before he continued. “– jester again?”

“Because he should be able to help me,” she answered.

“Didn’t you hear what he said to you when you approached him the first time?”

“Not really,” she admitted.

Kal summarized Anarr’s outburst, “He basically called you a ‘misbegotten peasant’ and said he wasn’t here to cure anyone.”

Simona swallowed hard and suppressed tears. Determination took over and she looked straight at Kal. “It doesn’t matter what he called me. I have to try again. I have to make him understand. If he can remove the curse from a whole town, then he should be able to help me. I can’t give up now. I won’t give up. Not now, not ever!”

She got up and walked away from the marketplace, not even looking to see if Kal followed. “How could I have been so stupid?” she chided herself, “approaching him like the rest of the people in town who’d be overwhelming him with requests. I should have known better. Hopefully I can find him alone in the morning.” On and on she went, thinking of ways she could have approached Anarr differently, all the while walking mechanically without paying attention to the route she was taking.

When Simona finally registered her surroundings, she gave Kal a surprised look. “How –?”

“Dora wasn’t there, so I took you to my room,” Kal grinned, “And you were too preoccupied to object.”

“And I won’t object now,” Simona replied and kissed him.

***

It was still raining hard when the first bell of day chimed. Carefully, Simona slipped out of bed so as to not wake Kal who seemed sound asleep. She dressed quickly, left the room, and entered the main room. Dora was already up and gave her a disapproving look. Silently, Dora placed a mug with a steaming liquid in front of her and turned her back. Simona could hear her muttering, “‘Tis a respectable inn.”

Quietly, Simona drank the brew. It wasn’t as sweet as it had been the day before and she could taste cinnamon and a few other spices in it. She felt nourished nonetheless, thanked Dora, who barely looked at her, and then left the inn. Her goal was once again Lord Araesto’s Cat and Anarr, who she hoped would have a more open ear for her after a night’s rest. After all, the people were celebrating today in his honor.

Luck was with Simona as she approached the inn. The front door opened and none other than Anarr exited the establishment.

“Anarr,” she called out, “might I have a word with you?”

“What do –?” Anarr began angrily. Simona noticed his eyes fall on her pendant and the insignia on her belt. He changed his tone mid-sentence and inquired calmly, “You may. What is it that you want?”

“To apologize first and foremost for my behavior last night,” Simona said.

“Think nothing of it. Get to the point as I have limited time. I’m planning my departure.”

Simona took a deep breath. “Let me tell you the whole story so you know what you’ll be dealing with. I’ll –”

“Get on with it,” Anarr interrupted. “Be as brief as you can be.”

Simona nodded. “Six generations ago, my ancestress Zenia had to choose between two men. One was a mage, the other a farmer. She chose the farmer, which upset the mage and he put a curse on her. Zenia’s husband died the day their daughter was born. Zenia followed her husband not long after. From this point on, every female descendant of Zenia lost her husband when she gave birth to a daughter. No sons were born alive. For five generations the daughters grew up as orphans. My mother is the first in this line to live to see her daughters grow up, though both my sisters are dead now, and both my mother’s husbands died.

“My uncle, a descendant of Zenia’s brother, gave me a set of scrolls that contain the family history. There seems to be more to this curse, because according to the scrolls, none of the female descendants of Zenia’s brother’s side of the family lived to see adulthood.

“What I ask of you, Anarr, is that you help me get rid of this curse. You’re the only one I could think of powerful enough to be successful. I think my family has suffered enough. Please help me!”

Simona was sure Anarr had listened, but his silence was unsettling. She had noticed he had paled when she had mentioned Zenia’s name, but she didn’t know why. She needed him to help her, for her mother’s sake, for hers, and for Kal’s.

“I can pay you two Marks, and I will sing of your greatness,” Simona offered.

“I will be leaving for Kenna at midday on urgent business. Meet me at Lord Araesto’s Cat half a bell before midday and I’ll see what I can do for you. Now leave me.” Anarr hurried away. Simona stared in the direction he had gone, but the street was empty.

When the second bell of the day sounded it was like a long song. Every bell in town was ringing, beginning the celebration for Anarr. Simona strolled towards the marketplace. Overnight the people had put up tents of all shapes and sizes, shielding themselves adequately from the rain. No one seemed to mind the rain though. Local craftspeople sold their wares in booths they had set up. Early in the morning a merchant had arrived, bringing fresh fruit and vegetables. A food booth had been erected selling the fruit, stew, and the steaming brew Simona had drunk for breakfast. She bought some strawberries and was savoring their taste when her thoughts turned to Kal. “I should go and get him,” she thought guiltily. She was turning to leave the marketplace when she heard a voice behind her.

“Good bard, there you are.”

Simona recognized him. “Good morning Marag. What brings you to me?”

“I’ve been sent to show you to your tent so you can sing for the people,” Marag replied.

“I was just about to meet up with Kal, my companion –”

“I will send for him and show him where you are,” Marag said. “Please come with me.”

Simona followed the man to the largest of the tents. Inside were wooden benches, a variety of chairs, and wooden boards covered with blankets. In the middle of the tent was a slightly raised platform, covered with pillows and blankets. Marag pointed to the stage and asked her to seat herself.

“I need my lyre,” Simona said. “It’s at the Lucky Round with Kal.”

“I will get both then,” Marag replied. “In the meantime,” Marag blushed slightly and pulled a wooden flute out of his pouch, “I heard bards can play many instruments, so I made this for you. Please accept this as my gift.” He handed her the flute.

“Thank you,” Simona said, deeply moved, and accepted the instrument. She took a close look at it and noticed the fine craftsmanship. Surprised, she looked at the man in front of her and then put the flute to her lips and played a few notes. Every tone sounded clearly.

“Marag, this is a fine instrument! It is too much –”

“I want you to have it,” Marag said and placed his hands over hers.

“Then this song is just for you,” Simona said, placed the flute on her lips and played a vibrant tune. When she finished, she noticed Marag wiping a tear from his face.

“I will go and bring your companion,” he said and left the tent.

Simona nodded and began a new song on her flute. As she was playing a more familiar tune, other people with fiddles, drums, recorders, and dulcimers joined in. Soon some of the children began to dance, followed by some of their older playmates. Even adults joined the dancing.

When Kal arrived, he not only handed her the bag with her lyre, but also a tankard of ale. Simona took the tankard and emptied its contents without stopping.

“Thank you.” She smiled at him.

“They’re roasting a pig over a spit,” Kal announced.

“Aye,” a man with a fiddle in his hands said. “It’s Olean tradition!”

***

It was nearing midday when Simona called for a break and excused herself. Joined by Kal, she walked towards Lord Araesto’s Cat, worried that Anarr might have already left. Regent Forester had given a speech earlier to honor the mage and everyone in town had listened to it. She had used the time to get a bite to eat and another tankard of ale. Afterwards, she had lost sight of Anarr and returned to the tent for some more music.

When Simona turned the corner towards the inn, she saw Anarr coming from the other end of the street and breathed a sigh of relief.

“You’re late,” he acknowledged her arrival.

“So are you,” she retorted.

They entered the inn. A grumpy barmaid barely noticed them. Anarr called for a tankard of ale and received one.

“Follow me,” Anarr said to Simona and then pointed at Kal, “You will stay here!”

Simona nodded to Kal, handed him her bag, and followed Anarr. They took a narrow staircase to the second floor, walked towards the end of the hallway, and then Anarr opened a door and both entered.

“Edmond,” Anarr said before the occupant of the room could speak. “We’re leaving in a bell; you’ll have until then to enjoy the celebration.”

“Thank you.” Edmond left quickly.

Anarr bade Simona to sit down on the bed. He pulled the only chair close and sat down. His hands came to rest on Simona’s head and for a moment she shrank back from his touch, but then relaxed.

“Good,” Anarr said. “Close your eyes,” he instructed. Simona obeyed. She could feel his hands stroking her head, almost like a gentle caress. She took in a deep breath. As his hands continued to move over her head, a chill ran down her spine and she shuddered.

“Sit still or it won’t work!” Anarr said. His hands continued their journey over her head. She felt his thumbs following the outlines of her eyes and lips and finally down her neck. She was about to protest when Anarr removed his hands.

“Don’t open your eyes until I tell you,” he instructed and then muttered something in a language Simona did not understand. Again his hands touched her head and Anarr muttered some more words. He took his hands off and told her to open her eyes.

“How do you know it worked?” Simona asked.

“It didn’t,” Anarr said in frustration, “But it should have. I will need more time to work on a counter spell. You will need to travel with Edmond and me to Kenna. Ready yourself.”

“All I need is in my bag and Kal has it. We will need to settle our bill at the Lucky Round,” Simona replied. “Kal will travel with me.”

“If he must,” Anarr said and opened the door for her.

***

Two days had passed since Anarr, Edmond, Kal, and Simona had left Northern Hope to go to Kenna. The rain had finally let up and the sun had had its say. Simona was grateful for the mule Edmond was leading, which carried all their belongings. She had noticed that each evening when they made camp, Edmond took special care of a large, heavy rucksack, making sure it never left his side. He even slept with it. More than once she had wondered what the contents of this rucksack were, but had refrained from asking. Anarr spent almost all his time talking to her, yet the reason for his trip to Kenna was not part of their conversations.

Kal had been equally curious about the rucksack and its contents. Forced to spend much of their travel time alone or with Edmond, Kal had been able to get some of the answers from him and shared them with Simona. The rucksack contained a statue of Gow, a Beinison god, who had suffered the wrath of Amante, another Beinison god, because both had fallen in love with the goddess Alana. The statue needed to be warded in order to appease Amante and bad luck away from anyone in the statue’s vicinity. Anarr had found a way to ward the statue and remove it, restoring hope in town.

Anarr’s inquiries had required Simona to tell of the family curse again, this time in much more detail. Every time she mentioned Zenia, Anarr seemed to hold his breath. He seemed to be quite affected by her story. Her ancestress had been dead for over a century. Simona couldn’t think of a reason why the mention of her name and her story would move him so. For the first time, she regretted leaving the scrolls behind. In the afternoon of their third day of travel, shortly after they had selected a site for the night, Anarr led her away from the campsite.

“Where are you taking her?” Kal shouted and ran after them.

“I need some space and quiet so I can do what she asked of me,” Anarr said with an air of authority. “The spell won’t work if you’re clinging to her!”

“Kal,” Simona said quietly and placed her hand on his shoulder. “I need him to lift the curse. You know this as much as I do.”

Kal nodded, but Simona could see that he didn’t like her leaving with Anarr. She caught the look Kal gave Anarr and she realized he was jealous. She sighed, kissed Kal on the cheek, and followed Anarr. She could feel Kal’s gaze on her as she walked away from him.

Anarr stopped at a small clearing and asked her to sit down. Simona complied and looked expectantly at the mage.

“Close your eyes and don’t speak until I’m done,” Anarr said.

“How will I know?”

“I will tell you.”

“Then begin,” Simona said and closed her eyes. Focusing on her breathing, she tried to relax. She had almost succeeded in gaining a calm state, when Anarr’s hands touched her head and gently massaged her scalp. Simona tensed as she felt his hands slowly move towards her face and down her neck. She heard him mutter an incantation and then his hands moved down her back, continuing the slow, gentle touch. It felt almost like a caress. Anarr’s hands moved towards her front, briefly rested on her stomach, and then glided upwards, momentarily cupping her breasts.

Simona was about to protest when she remembered he had instructed her not to talk. She felt his hands release her breasts and move further upward, finding the string that held her tunic. Suddenly her tunic slipped over her shoulders and down to her waist. The cool evening air hit her like a splash of cold water. Anarr’s hands now rested on her shoulders. She felt something rough touch her back and then intermittently warm air breezed over her skin. She could hear him breathing harder and heavier. Simona shivered. What was taking him so long?

Anarr’s hands released her shoulders and the touch on her back was gone. For a mene, Simona sat in the middle of the clearing acutely aware of her upper body being exposed. She kept her eyes closed, focusing on her breathing. She felt cold. She was about to pull her tunic back over her shoulders when she felt something move across her back, not unlike someone drawing symbols. Simona tried to guess what was being drawn, but to no avail. She heard Anarr mutter another incantation in a language she didn’t understand.

“Let this work,” she thought. “Let this work!”

“You can pull up your tunic,” Anarr said, sounding tired and frustrated at the same time.

“Did it work? Did you lift the curse?” Simona asked anxiously.

Anarr didn’t speak. Even in the dim light, Simona could see he was sweating. “It didn’t work, did it?” she said, wiping a tear from her face.

“No, it didn’t work. Something is blocking me. I will need to do more testing, but not tonight.” Anarr seemed angry, though whether he was angry at her or his failure, Simona did not know.

Disappointed by the second failure, Simona walked slowly back to the campsite. Anarr walked stiffly in front of her and he seemed sore. She sat near the fire Edmond and Kal had started and accepted cheese and bread that Kal handed her. She ate in silence and then wrapped her blanket around herself. Sleep didn’t come easily for her. Hot tears ran down her face. She found little comfort when Kal settled down beside her and placed his arm protectively over her.

***

The next morning the four travelers continued their journey to Kenna. For the first time Anarr walked alone, trailing the others by several paces. He seemed subdued. Simona wasn’t quite sure whether he was trying to figure out what had gone wrong the night before, or if he was sulking. She glanced back every so often to make sure he was still there. Kal had taken the opportunity to walk alongside Simona. She barely listened to Kal, who tried to take her mind off her misery, because she was too preoccupied thinking about Anarr’s failure to lift the curse.

They arrived in Kenna by nightfall. Simona was looking forward to sleeping in a real bed. Anarr led them to an inn.

“I am leaving for Dargon in the morning,” Anarr told Simona and Kal after he had spoken to the innkeeper. “There is a barge leaving for the city. I think I now know what I need to do to lift the curse. Would you consider joining me on the barge so I can make another attempt on the trip?”

Simona took only a moment to respond. She thought, “Do I really have a choice? I need his help!” She nodded briefly and said aloud, “I will join you, but Kal is coming as well.”

“If he must,” Anarr said and left for his room.

“I –” Kal began, looking angry, but Simona placed a hand over his mouth.

“Don’t.”

When Kal had calmed, Simona asked the innkeeper for a chamber. Moments later she entered a small room, followed by Kal. As soon as the door closed, he took her in his arms and kissed her. Simona responded without hesitation. Any discussion she had planned would have to wait until morning.

A loud knocking woke Simona and Kal with a start. “The barge leaves in a bell,” the voice of Edmond sounded through the closed door.

“We’re coming,” Kal said and rolled out of bed. Both dressed quickly, took their belongings, and went into the main room for breakfast. Anarr and Edmond were already sitting at a table.

“I have arranged passage for all of us on a river barge to Dargon,” Anarr said when Simona sat down.

“Thank you,” she replied quietly and thought, “I hope his next attempt to lift the curse will be more successful.” She felt tired this morning and sick to her stomach. When the innkeeper brought their breakfast, she took one bite and then excused herself and ran to the outhouse. The fresh air outside helped her suppress the urge to vomit. Instead of going back inside she waited until the others emerged from the inn. Kal gave her a quizzical look, but she just shook her head. Simona let Kal guide her onto the river barge.

The barge was nearly loaded when the four arrived at the dock. Anarr ordered Edmond, who had been leading the mule with their belongings, to take the animal to the rear of the barge. A second gangplank was in place there for loading animals and merchandise. While Edmond did as he was told, Anarr decided Kal, Simona, and he should sit towards the front and so they seated themselves there. Simona watched with little interest as other passengers boarded and merchandise was loaded. A shepherd seemed to be the only other female traveler on the barge.

The next time Simona looked up, she noticed a priest and a jester. The two men looked at each other every now and then, but didn’t exchange a word. A blacksmith boarding reminded her of Nai, the friend she and Kal had left behind at her mother’s house, and a smile stole across her face. Several other people boarded, among them a monk. In the middle of the barge were four small structures, which would shelter the passengers from the weather if needed. It took some time to load all the merchandise, but eventually everything was on board. Only moments before the crew pulled in the planks, a single, balding passenger rushed on board. Simona wouldn’t have noticed him at all had he not been in such a hurry. Shortly thereafter the barge began its journey down the river.

The rhythmic motion of the boat calmed Simona. She began to feel better and was able to tolerate food. Anarr continued his questioning of her while Kal spent time with the crew and gave them a hand when needed. Edmond had decided that one of the small structures would be a better place for him and had taken Anarr’s belongings there.

Shortly before nightfall the travelers reached the first campsite. Small cabins along the riverbank provided shelter for the night. Kal handed her bread and cheese, which she ate. She noticed the balding man observing everything with a keen eye.

“I have to ask Kal who that man is,” she thought. Tired as she was, she forgot about the man by the time she and Kal took one of the cabins for the night.

The next morning Simona woke when one of the merchants began yelling that someone had gone through his property. Norilg, the merchant, was still yelling as he looked through his belongings. Only when he found that nothing was missing did he calm down and the journey continued. Simona got a respite from Anarr’s questioning. He had secluded himself and Edmond, for what purpose Simona did not know. She enjoyed the time to herself and watched the other passengers. Kal seemed to get along well with the crew, showing off his skills as a sailor.

The barge floated swiftly down the river and arrived earlier than anticipated at the second campsite. There was still more than a bell left before nightfall. After everyone had stepped ashore, Anarr pulled Simona aside.

“I will attempt to lift the curse again tonight,” he spoke quietly. “Follow me!”

“I need to tell Kal,” Simona replied. Anarr sighed and dismissed her with the wave of his hand.

“Hurry up then.”

A few menes later, Simona followed Anarr into the woods to a small spring. When Anarr instructed her again to sit down, close her eyes, and not move until he was done, Simona focused on the soft bubbling sound the water made as it ran over stones. Anarr’s hands began again on her head, worked their way down her neck and back. Next his hands moved forward, rested briefly over her breasts, and then loosened the tie on her tunic so it fell down to her waist. The cool evening air touching her bare skin gave her goose bumps. She could feel Anarr’s fingers drawing symbols on her back and she heard him muttering an incantation in an unfamiliar language. Then he drew symbols on her chest and over her breasts, continuing his incantation.

Before long, Anarr howled in frustration. Shaken by the unexpected noise, Simona opened her eyes and stood up. She pulled up her tunic to cover herself and noticed dark green marks on her skin.

“It didn’t work, did it?” she asked Anarr. He only shook his head. “Leave me then,” she told him and waited until he was out of sight before she let her tunic drop. She washed the green markings off her skin. Hot tears were streaming down her face as she dressed. “He failed again,” she thought. “I’ll never get rid of this curse. Never be able to have a child or spend the rest of my life with Kal. Why can’t he remove the curse? Why?” Unable to face Kal or any of the other people at the campsite, she sat next to the spring, wrapped her arms around her legs, and placed her head on her knees. When her sobbing slowed, she heard voices calling her name. Quickly, she dried her face and responded. Kal and two other men with lanterns came near.

“There you are!” Kal said, sounding worried. “We were looking for you for a while. Why didn’t you answer?”

“I didn’t hear you before now,” Simona explained simply and let the men guide her back. A fire was burning in the middle of the campsite and several of the travelers and sailors were sitting around it, talking.

“I saved you some meat and bread,” Kal said and handed her a bowl. Simona ate hungrily.

“Thank you,” she said after she had finished. She then pointed towards a set of hastily erected tents. “Which one?”

Kal showed her their sleeping place. Simona yawned and entered the tent followed by Kal.

“Did he succeed this time?” he inquired when they were alone. Simona shook her head, unable to say another word.

“That bastard,” he growled angrily, “and he lifted the curse off Northern Hope? I don’t believe it! He’s got no more power than a darningfly. Maybe in Dargon we’ll find a mage who can help you.”

“Maybe,” Simona whispered weakly, feeling frustrated and tired. She wrapped her blanket around herself and lay down on a mat, exhausted from the day’s travel and disappointed from the failed attempt to have the curse lifted. The last thing she noticed before falling asleep was Kal settling down beside her and, as so many times before, placing his arm protectively over her.

***

The next morning, everyone worked together to take the tents down and store them on the barge. Simona had just settled back into her usual spot at the front when Anarr approached her.

“I’ve made arrangements to leave the barge around midday. I will be heading towards Dargon ahead of the boat. I need to confer with the apothecary and get some fresh ingredients. Will you meet with me in Dargon?”

“What makes you think you will be successful next time?” Kal asked, his fists clenched. “You failed thrice so far.”

“I didn’t ask you for your opinion,” Anarr retorted, a look of disgust in his eyes. He turned back to Simona and repeated his question.

“Where should I meet you?”

“Spirit’s Haven. The inn is well kept and the owner –”

“We know the owner,” Kal interrupted.

“The owner is well respected,” Anarr continued, ignoring Kal’s comment. “I trust you will find the inn.”

“Straight,” Simona replied. “I will be there.” Feeling a bit better with a new sense of hope, Simona pulled the flute out of her bag and began to play.

At midday Anarr left the barge and headed away from the river. Simona stayed on the barge. She noticed the monk engaging Edmond in conversation. Soon the two disappeared from her sight. “What is he up to?” she wondered briefly and directed her thoughts to Anarr. Simona found it intriguing that a man like Anarr should be able to figure out a complex spell to ward a statue and lift a curse affecting a whole region, but not one that affected a single person. “I can only hope that next time he’ll be successful. I don’t know what I’m going to do if he fails again,” she thought.

***

During the next few days, the travelers on the barge encountered a series of mishaps. First, heavy cross-currents slowed the barge down, then it got stranded on a sandbank and had to be dug free. More than once, eddies caught them close to shore and spun the entire barge around. Cargo had to be fished out of the river. Then the shepherd went overboard. She would have drowned if Kal hadn’t jumped in after her and kept her head above water until both of them could be fished out again. No sooner were they back on course than one of the steering oars broke and the barge drifted down a minor branch of the river. They were stuck for several bells until the steering oar could be fixed. Some of the men decided to take the time to hunt game for dinner that night, but the only things they came back with were cuts and bruises. All these accidents caused them to miss the regular campsites along the river and so the travelers and crew were forced to spend the n ights on the barge.

On the eleventh of Sy, the barge reached one of the regular campsites for the night. Simona breathed a sigh of relief.

“I am tempted to walk the rest of the way tomorrow,” she said to Kal when they settled down for the night.

“I’m not,” he replied. “I’ve enjoyed working with the crew. The captain said we should be arriving in Dargon around midday tomorrow.”

“I’m looking forward to it. We’re four days late! I can only hope Anarr will wait.”

“He’ll wait,” Kal snorted. “He’ll want to get paid.”

In the morning, everyone on the barge looked forward to arriving in Dargon. Simona, in her usual spot at the front of the boat, decided to take a brief nap. Kal was again helping the crew. A loud crash woke her rudely and at the same time she felt herself catapulted out of the boat. Moments later she fell into the water. The coldness of the water took her breath away. Her clothing was quickly saturated and began pulling her under. She began kicking with her feet and thrashing with her arms to keep her head above water, but with limited success. As she opened her mouth a wave washed over her, filling her mouth instantly. Simona spat and tried to take in a breath, but more water entered her mouth and subsequently her lungs. Struggling for air she tried to let out a scream, but something hit her on the head and darkness enveloped her.

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