Simona felt like she was being pushed onto the beach. Gentle waves rolled over her slim figure. She sat up slowly and spat salty water, then took a deep breath. Simona rose on shaky legs and found she could stand without pain. A warm, gentle breeze quickly dried her wet clothing. She looked down on her body and noticed her tunic was torn and her arms and legs showed bruises and scratches. She reached up and touched her head, realizing her hair was tangled with seaweed. She pulled the seaweed out of her long, black hair and let it drop onto the sand. Looking up, she saw a group of people rushing toward her; leading them was a woman with long, red hair.
“Simona! Simona!” the red-haired woman called out joyfully as she came closer.
“Megan? Megan!” Simona responded, staring at the sister who had died in her arms. “Is it really you?”
“Yes, it’s me!” Megan laughed and pulled Simona into a tight embrace.
“I never thought I’d see you again,” Simona whispered, tears running down her face. She buried her face in her sister’s loose tunic and held her close.
“Come,” Megan said, letting go of her embrace, and taking Simona by her hand. “The others want to see you, too.” She guided her toward the group of people who had been standing several paces away, waiting patiently.
“I want to introduce you to my husband Raphael. Father is waiting and –”
“Father? But he –”
“Yes, father, and then there’s Mona, our little sister. You haven’t met her yet.” Megan interrupted with a big smile on her face.
“Where am I, Megan?” Simona asked.
Simona woke from her dream. Never before had she seen her sister’s face so clearly in her mind. She longed for her dead twin. A throbbing pain distracted her from her heartache. Slowly, she lifted her hand, touched her hurting head, and realized a bandage had been wrapped around her forehead. She tried to push it off, but someone else’s hand stopped her.
“She’s waking up,” a female voice said.
Simona tried to open her eyes, but found she couldn’t. Her throat hurt just as much as her head and she felt cold.
“Lie still,” the same voice instructed her.
“C– co– cold,” Simona managed to say. She heard a door opening.
“Bring some more heated stones!” a woman called out. Simona’s head was gently lifted.
“Here, drink some of this. It’ll help.”
Simona felt a wooden cup placed at her lip and took a few sips. The warm liquid felt good running down her throat. She opened her mouth for more, but the woman denied her request.
“You’ve got to take it slow, Simona. You swallowed a lot of river water.”
“Where am I?” she asked weakly, and added, “Who are you?”
“You don’t recognize my voice? I am May and you are at my inn, Spirit’s Haven. After the barge you were traveling on crashed into the causeway, your friend Kal pulled you out of the river and brought you here.”
Simona tried to sit up. A wave of nausea overcame her and she had to lie back down. She heard footsteps coming nearer and then a door opened.
“Here are the stones, May.”
“Thank you, lass,” May replied. “Anything else?”
“The man who brought her wants to know how she is doing.”
“You can tell him that she is awake,” May said. Simona felt the heat from the stones May had tucked under her blankets. It made her sleepy and she relaxed.
“Why can’t I open my eyes?” she whined.
“Hush! They’re swollen from your injury. I will put some more herbs on them to help reduce the swelling. Rebecca, one of the healers here in Dargon, should be here shortly. I sent for her when Kal brought you in, but if she’s helping at the causeway it might be a while longer.”
Simona’s thoughts circled for a mene around what May had just said. Rebecca? But Rebecca had been the healer in village where she grew up, and this was Dargon. Could she still be dreaming? She briefly considered the throbbing ache in her head and decided that no dream could hurt that much. Her thoughts drifted back to Rebecca. She remembered fetching herbs for her sister Megan from the healer, years ago. The picture of Megan she had seen in her dream was now as clear in her mind as if her sister was standing next to her in a well-lit room. A small sigh escaped her. She felt tears welling up and her breathing hurt.
“Simona, take another sip,” May said. Simona felt her head lifted gently and a cup placed at her lips. She swallowed a mouthful of the warm liquid. She heard the footsteps of several people entering the room.
“I brought Rebecca and her apprentice Lilike, May,” a girl’s voice announced.
“Thank you for coming,” May said. “Simona fell overboard when the barge crashed into the causeway; she was struck in the head by something. I think her wound may need some stitching. Were you at the causeway?”
“We were,” Lilike spoke up. “Part of the causeway fell into the river when a barge hit it. We’d been helping people for several bells already when your girl found us. We were nearly done taking care of the wounded. I think all the people that fell in have been pulled out.”
“For some of them all help was too late,” Rebecca said softly.
“I heard someone pulled a one-armed man out of the water, dead! They think he’s the duke.”
“Lilike!” Rebecca chided her, “Don’t go spreading rumors! Just because the man had only one arm doesn’t mean he’s the duke.”
“No! We have an injured woman here who needs our help,” Rebecca said with a tone of authority.
“I will take a look at that wound now,” Rebecca remarked. “I’ll be careful, but it’ll probably hurt a bit.” Simona felt cool hands unwrap the bandage on her head. As soon as the last part was removed she could feel something warm running down the right side of her face. She reached for it, but her hand was pushed away.
“Don’t touch! This will need cleaning and May is right; it will need stitching as well,” Rebecca said.
Simona felt skilled hands move down her body, searching for further injuries. She flinched slightly when her breasts were touched and again when the hands reached her stomach.
“You will be fine, child,” Rebecca stated after finishing her examination. “The wound on your head will heal after Lilike places the stitches. She has excellent skills in sewing. When she’s done, we’ll replace the herbs on your eyes and you should be able to open them within a bell or so. The rest will take time. You will also need to be more careful now. I will give you a tea to drink to ease you through your pregnancy. You’re fortunate that you didn’t miscarry.”
“What do you mean? Pregnancy? I’m not pregnant,” Simona protested. “I can’t be!” Simona heard someone giggle briefly; it irritated her.
“Child, I’ve been a midwife longer than you have been alive. I know the signs. Just think back. When were you bleeding last?”
“Two moons ago,” Simona said after a few moments, feeling faint.
“Is the man who brought you here the father?”
“There has been no other,” Simona said. “Please don’t tell him.”
“It’s not my place,” Rebecca replied simply. “Let’s get that wound on your head taken care of.” Simona felt a piece of wood being placed between her lips.
“Here, bite down on this,” the voice of a girl instructed.
“Must be Lilike,” Simona thought and bit on the wood. It tasted bitter. She gagged and for a moment fought the urge to vomit again.
When Lilike finished and the piece of wood was removed, Simona let out a sigh of relief; the pain from the needle piercing her skin was finally subsiding. She felt gentle hands apply a salve to her wound and then wrap a bandage swiftly around her head.
“The salve will help it heal. I’ll leave some of it with May. Rest now,” Rebecca instructed, but Simona wanted answers.
“Rebecca, when I was a little girl, I lived in a small settlement near where Kenna is now. I would go to our local healer to get herbs for my twin sister Megan. She used to get sick quite often when we were little. My mother’s name is Anna Molag and she was raising us without our father. Would you be that healer?”
“You’re Simona Molag? The girl who disappeared when she was only six?”
“Straight, that would be me.”
“We searched for days and couldn’t find you. One evening, one of the men brought your ripped and bloodied dress back and we thought the wolves had gotten you. Your mother was in tears. And Megan, she was never the same afterwards. By Stevene! Does your mother know you’re alive? Does Megan know?”
“Mother knows. I found Megan about a year ago. She is no longer with us.” Simona swallowed hard. “Mother lives in Hawksbridge now. I spent the winter with her. I left her nearly two months ago.”
“Megan is dead?” May whispered. “What about Raphael, her husband?”
“I’m sorry May; he died the same day.”
“I’m not sure,” Simona said quietly. “When we reached them, we found two men and a boy dead, and Megan barely alive. She was the one who told me where to find our mother. We sent their spirits on their way properly and then traveled on. I’m sorry, but I don’t have better news, May.”
“What happened to you that day you disappeared?” Rebecca inquired.
“My uncle Ezra kidnapped and took me to my grandparents. He cut my hair and I had to pretend I was a boy. When my grandparents found out who I truly was, my uncle and I had to leave. He taught me the basics of reading and writing and handed me off to the teachers at the College of Bards. When I finally left there, it was to find my mother and Megan. And now I’m looking for a mage named Anarr. He had promised to meet me at Spirit’s Haven. That was six days ago. Has he been here, May?”
“No, he hasn’t,” May replied. “Why are you looking for a mage?”
“There is a curse on my family, and I need him to lift it. Anarr tried before, but didn’t have any luck. He promised to meet me here to try again. Please let me know the moment he shows up,” she begged.
“I will, Simona, but you need to rest now, and I’m sure Rebecca agrees with me on that one!”
“I do,” Rebecca said. “Here are some herbs for her to help her heal. Just send for me, if you need further assistance. I need to go back to the causeway. The child of one of my clients is missing, and I want to help look for him.”
“Thank you, Rebecca,” Simona said.
“I will see Rebecca out and then send Kal up,” May said. “I’ll be back later with some soup for you. Now rest!”
“I will,” Simona promised and listened to the footsteps fade away. Her head hurt.
“How could I have been so stupid?” she thought. “I’m pregnant and I didn’t even know it. What will Kal think of me?” For a moment, Simona let the idea of her pregnancy sink in and then she felt the blood drain from her face. “By Stevene! Kal! The curse hasn’t been removed yet! If I have this child and the curse is still there …”
“No,” she moaned. “I don’t want to lose Kal! I don’t want him to die when the baby is born, like my father did when Megan and I arrived.” Panic rose in Simona and her thoughts raced. “I need to find Anarr so he can try again. I have to tell him that I’m pregnant. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t take the curse off. I have to find him!” She pulled herself into a sitting position, fighting the wave of nausea that hit her. The herbs had fallen off her eyelids and she rubbed her eyes in hopes of clearing her blurred vision.
“Where are my clothes?” she mumbled, forcing her eyes open. She could only make out dark shapes in the dimly lit room. When she heard her door open she startled and pulled the blanket over her chest.
“Mona!” Kal’s voice sounded concerned. “What are you doing?”
“I need to find Anarr! Help me, Kal! I have to get up and find him!” Simona said, panic in her voice.
“You need to lie down and rest. You were hurt and need to heal,” Kal told her. His voice made it clear that he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.
“I need to find him! Please, Kal! You know how important this is to me,” she pleaded.
“I will find him for you, Mona, my love. You need to lie down and rest.” His gentle words and touch soothed her and she complied.
“Tell him I’m –” she began, but stopped herself before she could say “pregnant”. “Tell him that I have some important information for him.”
“I will.” Kal tucked the blankets around Simona and kissed her. “Promise me you will stay in bed.”
“I promise,” Simona replied hesitantly, worried whether Kal would find Anarr or not, but glad she didn’t have to walk the streets of Dargon with her head hurting and her stomach revolting.
Kal stayed next to Simona’s bedside until he was sure she was asleep. He had been quite afraid when the barge had crashed into the causeway and Simona had been flung overboard and into the water. She had been struck by a falling piece of debris from the causeway and then pulled under. He had jumped in after her and managed to rescue her. She had been unconscious, but breathing shallowly. Her forehead showed a gash, which was bleeding freely. Raneela, one of many healers at the site of the accident, had briefly examined Simona and told Kal that there were others more seriously injured that needed her attention. She had given him some bandages to put around Simona’s head and left without another word.
Afraid of losing his beloved and uncertain of what else to do, he’d scooped her up in his arms and headed toward Spirit’s Haven, and the only friend he could remember in Dargon: May. A year ago, they had stayed at that inn during their search for Megan, Simona’s twin sister.
He’d had to stop several times along the way to let Simona vomit. When he had noticed that every time she’d relieved her stomach her breathing had gotten easier, his panic had subsided. When Kal had reached the inn, May had recognized them both from their previous visit and given them a room.
Now Simona was sleeping, and he was sure that something in May’s brew had helped that along. He would be able to go looking for Anarr without having to worry that Simona might get up and join the search. He regretted his promise to Simona to search for the mage. In his eyes, Anarr was a charlatan. Thrice the mage had attempted to lift the curse Simona believed lay upon her family, and thrice he had failed.
“And he supposedly lifted the curse of Northern Hope?” Kal thought as he got up and left Simona’s bedside. “I don’t care what his hired hand Edmond has to say about him. Who knows? Anarr probably put the curse there in the first place and then played hero. And now I have to find him again?” Kal let out a snort. He and Simona had first met Anarr in Northern Hope, after the mage had supposedly lifted the curse on the town. Anarr had said that the source of the curse had been a statue of the Beinisonian war god, Gow. He had claimed to have warded the statue, and the locals had thrown an enormous party in his honor. Kal had been skeptical, but Simona had approached the mage and had asked him to lift her curse. He had tried, and failed, but Simona had agreed to let him try again. So they had traveled to Dargon, by foot and then barge, along with Anarr; a local man, Edmond, whom the mage had hired; and the cursed statue. Anarr had departed during the barge trip, leaving the statue in Edmond’s care, and had agreed to meet them in Spirit’s Haven. The barge had arrived late, and crashed into the causeway. Kal had been too busy tending to Simona since then to think about the mage.
Kal entered the main room. Only a handful of old men sat at a table, smoking a pipe they passed around. “May?” he called out.
“Is she sleeping?” May inquired when she stepped out of her kitchen.
“Yes. She asked me to go looking for Anarr. She wouldn’t go to sleep unless I said I’d search for him.”
“Good luck,” May said as Kal left the inn. Kal wasn’t sure whether she was being sarcastic or trying to get his spirits up. He assumed the latter.
Kal heard the first bell of night and sighed. For the past two bells he’d been wandering the streets of Dargon in an attempt to find Anarr. He had stopped at every inn he could find to see if the mage had found a room for the night elsewhere, but without success. Now, he stood at the entrance to the city, where the Street of Travellers crossed Merchant’s Way, in the vain hope of seeing Anarr arrive.
Kal shivered in the cool night air. Along the way, he had tripped and fallen into a mud puddle. The fresh clothing May had loaned him was now mud-spattered and soaked through. He had not been alone in the puddle, though. While he had been climbing to his feet, a couple walking arm-in-arm had stumbled over him and fallen in as well. Kal shrugged. At least he was better off than the man he had seen fall from a rooftop into a pile of manure.
Traffic on the Street of Travellers had dwindled as evening faded into night, and Kal was about to give up when he heard the pounding of hoof beats and the rattle of wheels. A carriage! “Just like Anarr,” he thought, “to arrive in luxury.” Arms crossed, Kal waited for the carriage to arrive. His eyes were dazzled by a bright flash as a bolt of lightning shot down from the clear night sky. Kal blinked away spots of light as the thunder rumbled. When his vision cleared, he saw that the lightning bolt had struck an oak tree and split it in half and set part of it afire. Each half had dropped in a different direction, one smashing the carriage, the other crashing into the roof of a cottage, leaving a huge gap. The occupants, already in nightgowns, staggered into the street to look at the damage.
Kal rushed forward, already convinced that Anarr was in the carriage. He imagined having to tell Simona that her mighty mage had been killed by a tree. If he hadn’t known how upset Simona would be, he would have laughed. He reached the carriage and saw that the coachman was dead. Muffled voices inside cried for help. Kal climbed onto the toppled carriage, shoved some branches aside and pulled the door open. He helped the occupants, bruised and stunned from their ordeal, climb out. Anarr was not among them.
Another man had arrived and cut the horses loose. The two stayed to help the owners of the cottage put out the smoldering fires that had started on the remains of their roof.
A bell later, Kal returned to the Spirit’s Haven covered in mud and soot, exhausted, and no wiser about Anarr’s location. He found his own clothes, cleaned and folded, waiting for him. Grateful to his host, he washed his face and hands, changed out of his filthy garments, and staggered off to bed.
The crowing of a rooster woke Simona. She had dreamt of Megan again, the same dream as before. Carefully, she touched her head, felt the bandage, and remembered where she was. She opened her eyes. Weak sunlight illuminated the room. For a moment she stared at the ceiling, pleased that she could see again. Deciding it was time for her to get up and start searching for Anarr, she sat up and breathed a sigh of relief: her nausea was gone, and the pain, while still present, was bearable.
“Where are my clothes?” she muttered to herself. She wrapped the blanket around her body and stood up, almost tripping over a body that lay right in front of her bed.
“Kal? What are you doing on the floor?” Simona sat back down on her bed.
“Sleeping! Well, not anymore,” Kal replied grumpily. “How are you feeling?” he asked, a concerned look on his face.
“I’m fine,” Simona said. “Where are my clothes?”
“May took them yesterday to get them cleaned and mended,” Kal said and pulled himself to a sitting position. He rubbed his eyes. “I’ll go get them and bring some water.”
When Kal returned, Simona took her clothes and the water jug and began to clean her face. Realizing that Kal was still in the room, she asked him to leave and then continued her morning ablutions. She applied her blue lip color with care, removed the bandage from her head, applied the salve, and then brushed her hair, making sure it covered the gash Lilike had stitched so carefully the previous day.
As she smoothed her shirt over her stomach, she remembered Rebecca’s diagnosis. She was pregnant! And that meant that Kal was in danger from her family’s curse. She had to find Anarr and hope the pregnancy was the reason that the mage had failed. If it was, would she have to end the pregnancy? She shuddered at the thought, and then a realization struck her. If she couldn’t find the mage, she would certainly have to end the pregnancy. Simona knew that healers had herbs for such things, to be used when there was a danger to the mother. Could she convince Rebecca that this unborn child was a danger to the father? Could she herself make the choice between the man she loved and his unborn child?
“It cannot come to that,” she said to herself. “We must find Anarr, and he must end this curse despite my pregnancy.” She took a deep breath to calm herself and left her room.
“Good morning, May,” Simona greeted the innkeeper as she entered the main room.
“Much better. Thank you for taking care of my clothing.”
May nodded. “Ready for some breakfast?”
“Yes, please,” Simona said, suddenly aware of her hunger. She ate everything May placed in front of her without speaking a word. When she felt satiated, she leaned back and momentarily closed her eyes.
“Kal? Did you learn anything about Anarr’s whereabouts yesterday?” she asked, remembering Kal’s promise from the night before.
“No, he wasn’t in any of the inns I went to last night.”
“We’ll just have to keep looking, then.”
“We?” Kal asked. “You need to rest. I’ll look for him. You stay here and wait for Anarr in case he arrives.”
“I’m feeling much better today, Kal. If Anarr arrives, May will ask him to stay. I need to get out and walk around.”
“You are looking much better. Will you promise me that you’ll come back and rest if you get tired?”
Simona smiled at his concern. “Of course I will. Now, let’s get going. I want to try the barge docks first. Anarr might be there looking for word of us.”
The third bell of the day chimed as Simona and Kal left Spirit’s Haven. They made their way through the streets of Dargon toward the barge docks. Anarr was nowhere to be seen when they arrived. Simona fought down a moment of panic at the thought that they might never find the mage.
“Now what?” muttered Kal, placing his hands upon his hips.
Simona thought for a moment. The barge docks were crowded, and they could have easily missed the mage in the press of bodies. “Now you stay here and look for him. If he’s not in the crowd now, he might show up, either on a barge or on foot. I’m going to go check the inns.”
“But Simona, I already checked every inn I could find. No one knew anything about Anarr. And you need to be back at Spirit’s Haven, resting.”
Simona smiled. “Every inn you could find is not every inn there is, Kal. And just because no one told you anything doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything. I think the locals might be more inclined to talk to me.” She patted the bardic insignia on her belt as she finished speaking.
“That may be true, but still …”
“And I promise to rest if my head starts hurting too much. We’ll meet back at Spirit’s Haven at first bell of night.” Knowing that Kal would try to persuade her to let him come along, Simona spun on her heel without another word, the unsaid words still on his lips.
Simona visited a number of inns that morning, but had no luck finding Anarr, or word of him. The only information about the mage that she was able to coax from the locals were legends: the same tales she had heard about him at the College of Bards when she was a student. The tavern keepers and their patrons were more interested in talking about the causeway disaster, and their own tales of woe. From a fall down a staircase, to spoiled beer, to a bird-dropping in the eye, Simona had to endure a litany of minor miseries.
She was almost ready to give up in disgust when she came to the marketplace. It looked like someone had deliberately knocked down several of the stands. Fruits and vegetables were littered all over the street. Cracked eggs lay on the ground, the yolks forming a small yellow river around the shards of a once beautiful blue vase. A white blanket showed brown and red hoof prints and red stains from crushed tomatoes. Broken pottery and ripped cloth lay in the dirt.
“What happened here?” Simona inquired as soon as she recovered from her surprise, addressing the merchant closest to her.
“Barney’s donkey, that’s what happened here.” The man wiped his face with his sleeve. “That cursed animal was pulling Barney’s cart when a wheel broke. That must have scared it, because it broke loose and went on a rampage when the reins broke. I tell you, I’ve never seen a donkey buck, but this one did.”
“Quite a story,” Simona said.
“Straight, but not much of an ending,” the man responded bitterly. “All I can do here is sweep up the pieces and fire up the kiln. If that cursed beast crosses your path, make sure you drive a knife through its heart.”
“Straight!” another man spoke up, “And then take it to the butcher. Maybe he can do something useful with its carcass.”
Simona didn’t respond. Deep in thought, she made her way past the damaged section of the market. She intended to continue the search for Anarr, but if the locals didn’t know anything about the mage, she would ask about their recent misfortunes.
After a perfunctory search for Anarr, Kal leaned against one of the pilings used for tying up ships, chewing on a greenstick, the dried shoot from a cherry tree. Kal knew the mage wouldn’t be there. He and Simona would probably never see the charlatan again. “Probably the best thing for her,” he thought. “Now maybe she’ll find a mage with real talent to remove her curse, instead of wasting her time with that arrogant ass.”
With nothing better to do, Kal decided to watch the crowd in the hope of learning something about the city. He paid close attention to the conversations of the people in line and the barge masters. Most of the gossip was about the collapse of the causeway, who was injured, who was missing, and who had died.
After a few bells, Kal decided that the people of Dargon were the clumsiest he’d even seen. He had watched people run into each other and drop their loads, stumble over crates, and trip over their own feet. One man had even fallen off the pier, and two more oafs had fallen in trying to pull him out. He’d watched two barges collide and listened as the pilots exchanged curses that almost made him blush. It made him wonder how this city had managed to repel the Beinisonian invaders.
Some time after ninth bell, Kal decided to give up and return to Spirit’s Haven. He had just turned to leave when some angry shouts drew his attention. A burly man with a donkey cart had stepped out of the line for one of the barges and was shoving his way through the crowd. He forced his way to the front of the line, donkey and cart in tow.
“I need passage on the barge. Have a delivery for the duke,” the man barked at the barge master.
“Get in line with the others,” the barge master said and pointed to the line of people.
“I’m supposed to deliver this tonight!”
“If you have two Rounds, I can get you on tonight.”
“Don’t have two Rounds! I can give you four Bits.”
“That’s not enough,” the barge master shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve plenty of people able to pay their way across to fill the barge. If you want on it, you have to pay more than someone else is willing to.”
The man turned the cart around and stomped off. He had taken only a few steps when the left wheel fell off and the cart fell sideways.
“Nehru’s blood,” he muttered. For several menes he struggled to put the wheel back on, but failed.
Kal noticed the man look around the crowd for someone to help, but it didn’t seem anyone would come to his aid. Kal knew the man had brought it on himself with his behavior, but he couldn’t watch him struggle any longer. He stepped forward and picked up the wheel.
“Here, let me help you,” he said and rolled the wheel towards the cart.
“Thank ye, lad.” The man set the cart upright and held it so Kal could slide the wheel back on the axle.
“I’d best be getting back to his lordship. He’ll be mad that this didn’t get delivered, but as soon as he’s done yellin’, I can get some dinner in my belly. Straight?”
“Straight! Here, this should help,” Kal said. He stuck a stone into a slit at the end of the axle, and drove it in a bit further by pounding on it with another stone. As he did, he got a look at the load in the cart. It was empty, except for a single rucksack, which was tied down quite thoroughly. The sack was tattered, covered with stains, and had an unusual shape. Kal wondered what the duke was having delivered. Whatever it was, it had to be heavy for this man not to abandon his cart and pay the cheaper rate for a passenger on foot. Before he could speculate any further, the man’s heavy hand clapped onto his shoulder.
“Thank ye, again, lad. What’s yer name?”
“Straight. Pleased to meet ya, Kal. Name’s Rilk, and I think I owe ye a beer, but not tonight. Gotta get this back ‘n take me tongue lashing. Maybe I’ll see ye again.”
Kal smiled. “If you do, you can be sure I’ll take you up on that beer.”
Rilk waved, and led his donkey away from the docks. Kal left too, and headed for Spirit’s Haven.
When Kal arrived, Simona was sitting at one of the tables in the common room, eating a bowl of stew. Kal’s stomach rumbled when he saw it. He pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down.
She looked up. “Any luck?”
“No. And you?”
“Not a bit,” she said, and the corner of her mouth turned down slightly. Kal felt like he had missed something. “He hasn’t shown up here, either. May’s been around all day.”
May herself chose that moment to arrive, bearing another bowl of stew, which she placed in front of Kal before bustling away again.
“There’s something else I need to ask you,” Simona said as Kal dug into the stew.
“What’s that, Mona?” he asked between bites.
“Did you notice anything unusual today?”
“Don’t think so. Like what?”
She shrugged. “Any sort of accidents? Like maybe someone got hurt by the docks?”
Kal almost dropped his spoon. “Someone fell off the docks! How did you know?”
“Didn’t. Lucky guess.” The corner of her mouth was turned up again, like she was amused, but her eyes were serious. “Anything else happen?”
“Straight! These Dargoners sure are clumsy!” Between bites of his stew, he started to her about all of the mishaps he had observed at the docks. Halfway through his story about the barge collision, she held up her hand.
“Does it remind you of anyplace here?”
Kal wracked his brain. “Remind me? No. I’ve never seen anything like it. This place is worse than Northern Hope. I …” Kal trailed off as Simona began nodding.
“That’s just what I thought, too, after I spend the day watching mishaps and listening to stories about them. Like Northern Hope, only worse. Remember what happened to us on the way to Northern Hope? We lost half of our food. I slid down part of the mountain and got trapped and you injured your ankle. And remember what the people told us about their town? That statue of Gow is here somewhere, and I bet it’s no longer warded.”
“Do you think it lost the warding in the crash?”
“Maybe. Or maybe not. Remember, the barge was delayed. We had cargo go overboard –”
“And the shepherd fell in!” Kal added.
“Don’t forget the crash itself.”
Kal looked at Simona in surprise. “That would explain what I saw last night. I didn’t get a chance to tell you this morning.” He told her about the lightning bolt splitting the oak, and what happened afterward.
“Kal, we need to find that statue, and then find Anarr.”
Kal snorted. “Anarr! That charlatan! It’s his fault the statue is here in the first place. Let him deal with it. It’s probably at the bottom of the river, anyway.”
Simona gasped. “The river! Of course, it would have gone down during the crash. But how will we get it out? It will take time, but I’ll have to convince someone to go down and look for it. How hard can it be to find a big black statue with rubies for eyes and a sword in his lap, even on the bottom of a river? Wait! What if it’s still in Edmond’s rucksack? They’d never spot it then.”
Now it was Kal’s turn to gasp. The rucksack! The strange shape in Rilk’s rucksack had been the sword on Gow’s lap. And the rucksack itself, less tattered and without the stains, was the same one that Edmond had used to carry the statue. “Simona! It’s not in the river. I’ve seen it; I just didn’t know what I was looking at.” He proceeded to tell her about his encounter with Rilk.
“And you’re sure he’s going to try to cross again in the morning?” Simona asked.
“Well, that is the only way across the river, so let’s wait for him there when the ferries start again tomorrow.”
“Can you use your bardic authority to have the guards arrest him?”
Simona shook her head. “I could, but we don’t know when he will arrive, and the guards will be busy dealing with all of these disasters, so I can’t ask them to wait with us. And if they haven’t experienced Northern Hope, they might not believe the story about the statue. Besides, if he’s up to no good, he might run when he sees the guards. Any delay will cause the statue to be in Dargon longer, and we can’t risk that.”
“Straight,” Kal said with a sigh. “I’d rather leave this town altogether though.”
“And leave all these people unprotected? They don’t stand a chance. Didn’t you see what Northern Hope looked like? And the statue was nearly a day’s travel away. Now the statue is in the middle of the city. Anarr isn’t here to ward it. We’re the only ones who can get it away from here, far away from here! We have to!”
“Just how do you plan on doing that?” Kal asked again.
“You’re a sailor. Do you think you could handle any of the sailboats at the docks?”
“I think so. What do you have in mind?”
A gentle shake on her shoulder woke Simona. She opened her eyes and looked into Kal’s face. “Come on, it’s the ninth bell of night. Time to get up.” Simona nodded and Kal left the room. She took a moment to clear her head before getting up. She’d been dreaming of Megan again, but she couldn’t remember the dream.
Simona dressed quickly. She felt groggy, unaccustomed as she was to rising before sunrise. They had to get moving, though, if they wanted to get to the barge docks before Rilk. If her plan worked, they could get the statue safely away from the city, and return to look for Anarr and deal with her own curse. She wondered for a moment if the mage’s absence was her own back luck, inflicted by the statue.
In a few menes, she was dressed and on her way to the common room, where Kal waited with a small sack of food and a cask of water that May had supplied the night before.
They arrived at the docks just before dawn, and Kal took up his position, leaning against the same piling as he had the previous day. After nearly a bell of anxious waiting, he spotted Rilk guiding his donkey down the street towards the docks. The animal was hitched to the same cart Kal had seen the day before, and in the cart was the same strangely-shaped sack. The donkey seemed to have a mind of his own and more than once Kal saw Rilk pulling on the reins to make the animal move forward. Kal waved to Simona and pointed at Rilk. The bard nodded and began moving toward the burly man.
Kal watched as Simona crossed the street in front of Rilk, slipped, and fell down, letting out a scream. Kal ran towards the cart, but not to help her up; Rilk was already placing her on her feet again. Instead he went to the cart and cut the rope that held the rucksack in place. Then he pulled out the stone that he had placed in the axle the day before, gave the wheel a shove toward the end of the axle, and ducked back out of sight before Rilk turned around. He watched as Simona limped away, and Rilk continued toward the waiting barges. Only a few people seemed to have bothered to see what had happened. He breathed a sigh of relief and followed the cart from a distance. Simona wasn’t far behind.
“Why isn’t the wheel falling off?” Kal wondered. A few tense moments passed before the wheel began to wobble. Then Rilk got in line for the ferry and had to wait while a passenger ahead of him tried to haggle over the price of passage. Kal was trying to figure out how to knock the wheel off without Rilk seeing him when the big man pulled the donkey’s reins once more as the line advanced. It was then that the wheel came loose and fell onto the cobblestone road. The wagon tipped sideways and the rucksack slid off. Rilk cursed and stared at his collapsed cart. Kal approached, picked up the wheel, and rolled it towards the wagon.
“Let me give you a hand,” he said, holding the wheel, waiting for Rilk to pick up the cart.
“Oh, it’s you, Kal,” Rilk said with a surprised tone in his voice. “Thank you.”
Kal watched as Rilk placed the rucksack next to his feet, and lifted the cart. Kal took his time and carefully rolled the wheel into position. At the same time, he watched as Simona came closer, grabbed the rucksack with the statue in it, and headed towards the sailboat they had selected. She staggered under the statue’s weight.
“Thief!” Rilk shouted.
“I’ll catch her,” Kal said, as he dropped the wheel and ran after Simona. As soon as he reached her, he took the rucksack and ran the rest of the way. He dropped his heavy load into the boat and jumped in afterwards, closely followed by Simona. Moments later, the boat was away from the dock and headed towards the open ocean, leaving a screaming Rilk and dumbfounded people behind.
“We did it!” Simona sang as they moved further and further away from Dargon.
“Straight! It was close though. I thought the wheel would never fall off.” Kal said, having finally caught up with his breathing. “That statue is heavy! Which direction should we go?”
“Sail north. It will take us away from any occupied land. We can just drop the statue into the ocean once we’re far enough away.”
“How far is far enough?”
“Two, better three days. Just in case. There are probably quite a few ships near the shore.”
“North it is then,” Kal said and turned the tiller. He looked to the sky. “If the wind holds, we’ll be far away from Dargon in no time.”
By nightfall, all Simona could see was water in every direction she looked. She could taste the salt in the air. She was thirsty, but had to limit her drinking. They had enough food, but the water cask had developed a leak and fully two-thirds of it had drained out before they noticed. She had little doubt that it was another effect of the statue’s curse.
“Why don’t you lie down and sleep, Simona?” Kal suggested. “There isn’t much you can do right now. The wind is holding. When I get tired, I’ll wake you.”
“Thank you.” Simona tried to find a comfortable position and closed her eyes. The steady motion of the boat soon rocked her to sleep. When she opened her eyes again, dawn was breaking.
Simona sat beside Kal at the tiller. “You didn’t wake me. Why?”
“We’re still on a northbound course and the wind seems to be holding. If anything, it’s picking up,” Kal replied, avoiding an answer.
“But you haven’t slept! Kal, you need to sleep sometime. We’re going to be out here for a few days. When is the last time you saw another boat?”
Kal thought for a moment before replying. “It was a few bells ago, at least. Since then, I haven’t seen a single sail. It might be safe to say we’re away from the trading routes.”
Simona shook her head. “‘Might be’ isn’t good enough, and we’ll have to make sure we’re a good distance away from the trade routes. Remember Northern Hope. The statue was over a day’s travel from the town and they were still plagued by the curse. We’re going to have to sail for at least another day before we drop it overboard, and you can’t stay awake that long. Show me how to sail this boat so you can get some sleep.”
Kal showed her some basics of how to steer the boat, and reluctantly curled up to go to sleep, making her promise to wake him if she ran into any trouble. Simona listened carefully to his instruction. She’d had little exposure to sailing in her life, but she knew that it was not as easy as it seemed, and a mistake on her part could cost them their lives.
As Kal slept, Simona kept the ship on course. At first, she enjoyed the sight of the sun rising over the Valenfaer, the ocean breeze, and the salt spray upon her face. But the salt on her lips only reminded her of her increasing thirst. She took a sip from her water skin, but only a small one; their water would have to last for two more days. She closed her eyes. Megan’s image was clear in her mind and she remembered what she had dreamed three days before: Megan had welcomed her home.
Thoughts of Megan kept her mind occupied for several bells. Near midday, clouds began to gather, and Simona was grateful for relief from the sun’s rays. Through the afternoon, the wind picked up, while the clouds began to darken. Soon, large drops of rain began to fall individually. Simona leaned her head back, hoping for a drop to fall on her tongue. After a mene, one did, and she savored the cool moisture, thinking that at least the cursed statue could not deny her the simple pleasure of catching a raindrop on her tongue. She held out both hands to catch raindrops and when her hands were wet, she sipped up the water. Still, it was going to take more than a few scattered raindrops to replenish their water supply.
As if in response to that thought, the rain began to fall in earnest. Simona enjoyed the feel of the drops upon her skin and caught a few more in her mouth before tying off the tiller and going to pull the top off their water cask so it could fill. As she returned to her place at the stern, Kal woke up.
“It’s raining, Kal! We’ll have water again!”
“Raining? But you said you would wake me if anything happened!”
“Anything I couldn’t handle. This is just a little shower.”
Kal looked up through the rain. “It might be more than that. Look, I’d better take over for a while. Why don’t you get some rest?”
“Straight. But don’t let me sleep so long next time.” She rose and took a dipperful of water before finding a spot to sleep, using a blanket to keep the rain off.
“Simona, wake up!” Kal yelled and with a sigh of relief he saw she opened her eyes. “This is turning into a serious storm. I need you to move to the mast and secure yourself there. I don’t want you going overboard.”
Simona complied. She grabbed her bag and the rucksack and sat with her back to the mast, looking at the sky. “Look at this Kal. Have you seen clouds move this fast before?”
“Over land, no, but I’ve seen it at sea before.”
“Is there a way to get around it?”
“I don’t think that’ll work. It’s probably that cursed statue! It’s drawing the storm towards us, or making it. Either way, if it gets much worse, we’ll capsize!”
With every passing mene, the wind got stronger and the sailboat was thrown back and forth between the waves. Kal had a difficult time holding on to the rudder and continuing to steer. More than once he feared that he and Simona would go overboard before they could complete their mission. He reefed in the sail before the wind could tear it to pieces, but he was hesitant to take it down completely and leave them to deal with the storm with no means of propulsion.
“Hold on tight,” Kal screamed as a wave crashed onto the deck and soaked them both. As the water ran off, he noticed that Simona had one arm wrapped around the mast; the other held the rucksack. Kal wanted to aid her, but couldn’t let go of the tiller.
“There’s an island ahead, Kal,” Simona shouted, “We need to get past it.”
“Just hold on tight,” Kal replied.
As the storm grew stronger, more and more waves crashed onto the deck and Kal found it more difficult to control the boat. “Throw the statue overboard, Simona. Drop it now!” he yelled.
“No! It’s too soon,” came her reply. “We need to mover further out!”
“We’re about as far away from Dargon as we’ll get!” Kal doubted that she’d heard his words. A huge wave rolled over the rail. He heard the sound of breaking wood, and the deck lurched under his feet. As the water ran off and Kal was able to breathe again and open his eyes, he saw what he had heard just a moment before. The mast was gone, broken off about a foot above the deck. Simona and the rucksack were nowhere in sight. Only her bag, secured with her belt to the base of the mast, was still there.
“Mona!” Kal screamed, “Simona!” His eyes searched the surface of the water for several menes, but he didn’t see her. Another wave crashed onto the deck and then, for just a moment, Kal saw her in the ocean. Her eyes were open, staring blankly, and her right arm flopped limply, seeming to wave. And then she was gone.
“No! Mona! Come back!” Kal’s hand reached out, but to no avail.
As if to taunt him, another wave lifted Simona’s body briefly for him to see. She was even further away. Kal realized that she was dead and he had no chance of reaching her. Sobbing, he held onto the tiller, waiting for the storm to abate.
Bells later the storm had run its course and clear skies were visible once again. Kal still hung on to the tiller. As he looked at the boat with its broken mast and missing oars, he gave up hope of making it back to shore on his own. He scanned the surface of the water as far as his eyes would allow, but nowhere was a ship in sight, nor did he see the island Simona had mentioned before she went overboard.
“Mona!” Kal screamed one last time, hoping for an answer, yet knowing there wouldn’t be one. He found it hard to breathe. Tears welled up in his eyes again. “I’ve lost her,” he muttered, feeling hopeless. “I’ve lost her forever!”