Dourgam Finn gripped the handle of his axe tightly, feeling the sweat and grit on his palms grind against the wood of the haft. The forest around him was silent except for the buzz of gnats and the distant creaking of wagon wheels echoing from further up the road.
“This is it,” the older man beside Dourg muttered. “This’ll be the catch, lad, you wait an’ see.”
Dourg merely grunted in response and strained to see through the woods. Early that morning, one of the bandits had returned from keeping watch higher up on the hill, and had said that a three-wagon caravan was coming past. He hadn’t seen any guards, so the leader of their group, Ailo, had told them to get ready.
Five years ago, Dourg would never have dreamed he would one day be crouched in a ditch with bandits waiting to ambush travelers. But ever since he had been forced to flee his home duchy of Pyridain after troops from Beinison had marched on it, he’d had nothing but bad luck. He had never killed anyone and didn’t want to start now, but Ailo had said that all they had to do was scare the travelers. Most would hand over their valuables rather than face an unknown enemy. At the time, that was all it had taken to convince Dourg. Now, as his pulse quickened in anticipation, he wondered at his decision.
“I have a bad feeling about this,” Dourg said softly. “No one moves three wagons without some sort of guard.” He thought back to his father’s prosperous trade business back in Pyridain and knew it to be true. Only a fool would transport enough goods to fill three wagons without some precautions. And a fool would never get enough goods together to fill three wagons in the first place.
“Hush up, flit,” the bandit said. “We’ve been in this ditch for five days now with not a ‘van worth dung to pick on. I’m not waiting another five days eating bugs.” He drew a long, rusty knife from his belt and tied a piece of cloth to his face, hiding his features.
Dourg grimaced and sighed. He had to admit that the older man was right. When he had first come to Nulain with the hundreds of other refugees from the war, they had all been full of hope, so much so that they had named their town Northern Hope. But their hope had been stretched and stretched as the curse of Nulain bore down on them. They all knew the land that they had been granted wasn’t prime, but if it hadn’t been for the strange illnesses, fires, floods, droughts, and attacks by plagues of insects and strange beasts, their efforts alone would have made the small town into a prosperous city. As it stood, however, even the most persistent effort was rewarded by disaster.
In the years since they had first settled in Nulain, some of the former Pyridainians had given in to despair, while others merely tightened their resolve to make the best of their situation. Dourg had long been part of the latter group, struggling to start a trading business like his father’s in the budding community. His father, who had stayed behind to die fighting the Beinisons, had given him a sizable inheritance for that purpose when Dourg fled. Now, that inheritance was almost gone, as was Dourg’s hope. When his lover, Myla, told him she was pregnant, he knew he would have to switch strategies if he wanted to make money in the midst of a curse.
Letting the axe head rest on the ground, Dourg took a moment to glance around at the rest of the outlaws who stood with him. They were spaced out to either side of the road, many of them masked by strips of cloth tied around their heads.
Amidst the growing din of the approaching caravan, a sharp snap echoed through the forest and all of the bandits crouched down. The first of the wagons had run over the dried sticks that they had laid on the road earlier to alert them when it reached the last spot on the road before their hiding place would be in sight. Within moments a large wooden structure lumbered into view, its white sides gleaming beneath the shadow of the canopy and its wheels creaking and clanking over every stone and hole in the road.
Menes dragged on as the first wagon wound its way closer and the two that followed it appeared. Dourg crouched down as low as he could in the brush. Only a few paces from the road, he was certain that he or any of the bandits could be spotted if anyone looked directly at them. But no cry of alarm went off and Dourg continued holding his breath.
Then there was another snap as the first wagon reached a predetermined point, and Ailo scrambled onto the road in front of it. Holding his breath, Dourg peeked up to see the balding bandit leader wave a longsword and shout for the driver to stop. The horses pulling the wagon nickered and whinnied anxiously, but the driver calmly tugged the reigns and clicked his tongue.
Dourg heard Ailo shout, “We’ve two dozen more men surrounding you right now. Throw down your wares and any arms you have and we’ll let you pass in peace.” To emphasize the point, Dourg and the rest of the bandits stood up in unison then crouched back down, showing the wagon driver that there were indeed more people in the forest, but hopefully preventing him from counting their number.
The driver, a squat man with beady eyes, gave the bandit leader a sardonic glare, then brought two fingers to his lips and blew out a shrill whistle. Immediately, the doors of the second wagon flipped open and armored guards began emerging, wearing the tabards of Asbridge and carrying cocked crossbows.
Dourg felt his blood turn to ice even as he heard Ailo shouting and the bandits around him standing up and rushing to fight. “There’s only four of them!” Ailo bellowed. He started to rush at the emerging guards but one of them aimed and fired a bolt that took him in the leg. He stumbled to the ground with one last shout.
“Ol’s balls,” Dourg swore and turned to run down the hill away from the road.
“No you don’t, lad,” came the voice of the older bandit behind him and a hand grabbed his arm. “You’ll stand with us or die running!” He brought the knife up threateningly but then his expression went from anger to surprise as a crossbow bolt ripped its way through his back and stomach. Dourg, now thoroughly panicked, kicked the dying bandit away and fled.
He thought he was running downhill away from the road, but at a turn he found himself going uphill. There was a shout behind him and he pushed his legs to give another burst of speed, when he stepped on level ground and realized he had run back out onto the road.
Turning wide-eyed to his left, he saw the wagons barely fifty paces away. Bodies of bandits and at least one of the guards lay in the road grasping at gushing wounds, and a knot of bandits struggled with the remaining guards near the back of the lead wagon.
The driver was still sitting and calmly clicking to his horses. He spotted Dourg staring at him and he raised a crossbow from the seat beside him. Even with the distance between them and the noise of the battle, Dourg heard the click of the trigger as if it were the only sound in the forest, then a snapping twang as the crossbow string broke and lashed the driver’s hand. He howled in pain and dropped the weapon. Dourg didn’t wait to watch what happened next; he turned and plunged into the brush at the other side of the road.
In the back of his mind, he realized that running uphill was not advantageous in a chase, but all of his attention was focused on keeping his legs moving and avoiding the twisted trees. He could not avoid smaller impediments, though, and he tripped several times, scraping his arms and knees and almost dropping the axe. Finally, he tripped over a raised root and fell sprawling forward, losing his grip on the axe and knocking the breath from his lungs.
For several moments he lay there struggling to breathe. The forest around him was silent. There were no shouts from the guards or sounds of them rushing to overtake him. Moment after moment dragged by until Dourg felt a wave of relief. He choked in a breath and actually guffawed roughly before the pain from his bruised ribs forced him to breathe more normally again.
He sat up slowly and gazed around himself at the forest. He was still on a sharp incline, in a gully apparently carved by spring flows from higher up and then left dry in the summer. Downhill, the ditch weaved between trees and rocks, a path so treacherous that Dourg would hardly have attempted it at a normal pace. He couldn’t imagine how he had survived racing up that way while carrying his axe.
At the thought of his axe, he hurriedly turned to find it. It was a poor tool; the iron blade had quickly dulled on the tough trees of Nulain and the haft was splintery and uncomfortable. Still, it felt good to have some sort of weapon now that he found himself alone. He saw its handle hanging over the side of the gully and recovered it.
His first thought was to go back down the hill to the road. Whether or not the ambush had failed, he could perhaps find something of value. But then he immediately abandoned that thought. If some of the other bandits had survived, they would probably have the same thought, and desperate as they were they might kill Dourg, too. So, he decided to return to Northern Hope alone. The bandits wouldn’t bother him there and perhaps in a few sennights they would have forgotten his lack of loyalty and invite him to join them again.
But which way was Northern Hope? He had never been this far south of the town before, and only came here with Ailo’s group, who had preyed on travelers in this area before. He didn’t want to return to the ambush site, so he decided to continue up the hill. It seemed reasonable to assume that if he climbed to the top and then down the other side again, he would meet up with the same road where it wound around.
After four more bells of walking, Dourg had reached the other side of the hill and the road was nowhere in sight. The sun had been close to noon at time of the ambush, and as it now neared the horizon behind him he began to worry that he would not find the road again before nightfall. He had flint and steel in a pouch in his tunic, but without a torch or lantern it would be nearly impossible to travel through the forest at night, and his bruises and cuts were beginning to ache furiously, so he decided he’d be better off finding a place to bed down.
As he walked, he noticed a flatter area to his right flanked on either side by sharp slopes: a mountainous canyon. Hoping to find a cave, he turned and pushed through the thick growth. He emerged in an area where the trees were much smaller. Here and there rock columns thrust from the soil at odd angles, and in the waning light it was difficult to tell them apart from the trees.
Gradually, Dourg became aware of the sound of water running somewhere further up the canyon. Realizing how thirsty he was, he began walking more quickly when, at one step, his foot met no resistance and he fell forward and down through what he had thought was solid ground. He had just enough time to shout before he landed in a thorny bush and the breath was knocked out of his lungs for the second time that day.
He couldn’t say how much time had passed before he opened his eyes again, but the light of the sun had long since gone. Instead, the bright light of the moon cut through the tightly woven branches above his head. With a groan and a muttered curse, Dourg pushed himself into a sitting position and checked himself for injuries. He must have rolled through a thorn bush before passing out, for all over his back and one arm were scabbed over cuts, some of which began bleeding again as he struggled to rise. He didn’t seem to have any broken bones, but as he put his weight on one of his feet a searing pain told him he had twisted an ankle.
“Damn curse,” he muttered to himself as he stood on one leg wondering what to do. He felt despair creeping up on him but he shrugged it off. He had known nothing but bad luck since coming here; why should today be any different? With a sigh, he lowered himself back down and looked around.
The moon was bright enough for him to see the thorn bush he had fallen on. It appeared well crushed and he realized it had been dead, possibly for some time, when he had fallen on it. Though the sound of water running still echoed somewhere nearby, many of the smaller plants around him looked stunted.
He looked up to where he had fallen from. The walls of the depression were unnaturally steep and most of the plants at the bottom were much smaller than the plants growing around the edge. He had seen such things in Pyridain before: sinkholes that opened unexpectedly when the ground simply collapsed in one area. Dully, he wondered if he was so cursed that the hole had opened right under his feet, but the plants that struggled to grow here told him that the sinkhole was at least some years old. Instead, it was a weave of vining branches from the small trees that had blocked his view of the hole. He had thought he was stepping on fallen branches, but they were in fact the tops of trees.
Dourg reached into his tunic and took out the pouch that held his flint and steel. He had never been a woodsman while living in Pyridain, but he knew enough how to start a fire in the best of conditions, and the hard life of Nulain made everyone learn certain skills they had never needed before. He piled up twigs from the crushed bush, mindful of the thorns, and struck sparks to the pile until a thin stream of smoke rose from it. Then he blew on it frantically until flames appeared. Casting about, he found enough larger branches to feed the weak fire.
It wasn’t cold out, but the light of the flames gave him comfort. Except for the sound of running water, the sinkhole had an eerie silence to it that made him think he was being stalked. In the flickering light he could see that the thin trees were a little more dense around him, such that he couldn’t clearly see how large the hole really was.
For what wasn’t the first time since he had followed Ailo and the bandits to their ambush site, Dourg thought of Myla. “If she hadn’t gotten pregnant, I wouldn’t be out here,” he grumbled to himself, then felt an instant pang of regret. Besides being his lover, Myla was also the only person who was still friendly to Dourg. Over a year ago, when his last attempt at starting a trading business had bitterly failed, most of the people of Northern Hope had begun avoiding him for his darkening moods. But Myla had kept coming back to him, even when he was sometimes mean to her. Little more than three sennights ago, she had told him she was pregnant. The prospect of being a father scared him a little, but what scared him more was bringing up a child in this cursed land.
On the other hand, if he had any more run-ins with guards or fell into any more sinkholes, his child might not ever get the chance to meet its father. With that in mind, he set about chopping at one of the thin trees, awkwardly swinging his dull axe from a seated position until he separated the trunk from its roots. Using the newly-made staff to lever himself up, he put his weight on it and took a few experimental steps. Though dull pain shot up his leg with each step, with the help of the staff he could at least walk.
But he couldn’t climb. If he was to ever see Northern Hope and Myla again, he would have to find a more shallow area of the sinkhole to get out. Despite having spent the preceding day walking, Dourg was too thirsty and restless to sleep, so he decided to explore his surroundings and try to find the source of the trickling and splashing sound. He picked up a shorter stick and set the top of it alight in his small fire. It made a poor torch, but the light it gave off, combined with the light of the rising moon, was enough for him to see the path in front of him as long as he moved slowly.
He carefully made his way though the fence of small trees and into a wave of damp heat. Beyond the trees the floor of the sinkhole descended into a shallow bowl shape, in the center of which a small pond had formed. Gouts of steam rose up from the rippling water, signaling that the pool was being heated from beneath. Dourg stood and stared for a moment, for though he had heard of such things, he had never seen a naturally heated pool. Then he picked his way down to the water’s edge.
The pool was being fed by two streams that ran from opposite directions. Dourg quickly found that one of the streams was scaldingly hot, while the other was cold. He drank deeply from the cold water and then decided to follow the colder and deeper stream uphill.
The climb was difficult, especially with his injured ankle. He carried his axe in his right hand, braced each step with the staff under his right armpit, and raised the guttering torch with his left hand as high as he could. After what seemed like several bells of walking, he noticed that the walls of the canyon had widened considerably, and the vegetation grew less and less dense, despite the stream that he followed providing plenty of water. The padding of generations of fallen leaves underfoot turned into a thick mat of needles as the types of trees around him changed. Also, the short weedy plants gave way to tougher, woody shrubs that grew in small clumps where sunlight must have made it through the high limbs. Dourg decided he was probably out of the sinkhole by now, and stopped to catch his breath and contemplate finding a place to rest for the night, when he realized he was standing in the middle of a ring of stones, which he recognized as t he ancient foundation of a small building!
The discovery shocked him so much that he almost dropped his torch. He crept closer to one of the edges and lowered his light source to double check. There was no mistaking the roughly circular outline of a building, the chimney flue still standing where the walls had long since fallen away.
As amazing as the find was, Dourg quickly got over his interest in order to concentrate on his more immediate need of shelter. Where buildings had once stood, there was a far greater likelihood of finding someplace safe to rest the night.
He continued searching until he came to a rock wall, and there an arch-shaped opening gave the promise of a cave. Cheered, he began hurrying to the passage before coming to a hesitant stop. He had heard of bears and wolves using such caves as lairs, but there was something more that made him pause here. Though he was several paces away, he could feel cool air emanating from the opening, raising goose bumps on his arms. There was a subtle smell to the air, sticky sweet like the smell of cattle rotting in the field after having died during the night, musty like a diseased tree when you hit it with an axe. Dourg shivered and felt a spasm of pain from his ribs, then resolved to ignore his fancy.
Fortunately, the light of the setting moon was behind him as he entered the cave, so with the aid of the torch he could see fairly well. Beyond the opening, the floor was slightly uneven but appeared to have been smoothed like a footpath and the walls ballooned out to form a roughly round space. The ceiling also rose thirty hands from the floor, its uneven expanse was white and covered with thin stalactites, most no longer than his finger, some actively dripping. Dourg was so relieved to have found shelter that, carefully holding the burning branch to one side, he spread his arms underneath the falling water, letting it splatter on his shoulders and face.
Still standing with his arms outstretched, Dourg froze when something in the back of the cavern glittered. The milky illumination from the moon stretched midway across the cave floor, but did not illuminate any further. From within the darkness, he again saw a strange red glint. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his eyes widened as he tried to see what stalked him.
For a full mene he stared and held his breath, water splattering over his hair and down the back of his shirt. He kept thinking he heard deep, raspy breathing, but it might have been the night wind. He kept thinking he saw subtle movements in the darkness, but they might have been his imagination. Finally, when his shoulders were burning and his chest throbbing with pain, he lowered his arms and gripped the axe in one hand and the burning branch in the other. “Hello?” he called out, but only his echo responded.
Creeping awkwardly forward, Dourg’s eyes adjusted to the darkness and he became aware of a form on a rough pedestal, like a very small man sitting cross-legged. Strange flashes of colored light suggested the figure was wearing something shiny, and as Dourg finally stood close enough that his torchlight reflected off of it, he confirmed that the figure was a statue with large rubies for eyes and a silver sword. It took only a moment for the reality of what he was seeing to catch up with him, and after rubbing his eyes to make sure he was not dreaming, he stared gap-jawed at a fortune.
Dourg took another step forward and reached out a shaking hand to touch the statue. The figure was of a demon, its head thrown back in a fierce howl as if baring its long fangs at the sky. The strange black stone was frigid, so cold that for an instant when Dourg touched it he felt as if he had been burned, pulling his fingers back hastily and blowing on them. But the pain faded so quickly that he decided he had imagined it.
He realized with a certain amount of pride that a lesser man would have embraced the statue, carried it back to Northern Hope, and tried to trade it for all the ale he could drink. Dourg actually smiled at the idea of plopping the statue down on the counter in front of Moritan the bartender and asking for ale. No, Dourg saw that this random find, this amazing stroke of luck, would be his ticket to a new life and freedom from the curse.
His father used to have trade agents in a town called Kenna, in Duchy Dargon, only a few days’ travel from Northern Hope. If he could get the statue to them, he was certain they would help him sell it for enough money to start a new business. But Kenna was many leagues away, and the statue looked heavy. He could never carry it all the way there without any supplies, especially with his twisted ankle. He would have to go back to Northern Hope first and get a mule, some food, and a map for the journey, and he’d have to rest until his ankle healed.
All of these things would take time, he estimated a month or more to do it right. Meanwhile, he could not be seen walking into the small town with such a large bundle that the statue would make. Not even the plague could spread as fast as rumor there, and Dourg couldn’t risk the community’s leaders claiming the treasure for their own. So, with one last reluctant look at the artwork, Dourg wedged his torch in a niche on one wall, hefted his axe to his shoulder, and prepared to smash it into smaller parts that could more easily be concealed.
His first blow landed at an angle on the neck of the creature. Dourg hadn’t used all of his strength, fearing that the unknown stone would shatter like glass and he might damage the seemingly flawless rubies. The axe connected with a resounding snap and blinding sparks flew out at every direction, causing Dourg to throw one arm up to protect his eyes. When he looked again, the statue was undamaged; not even a scratch showed where the attack had been made.
Frowning, he tried again, this time lifting his tool high above his head and bringing it crashing down on the silver sword. The soft metal should have yielded easily to the axe, but instead it seemed to deflect the blow, and Dourg felt as if the axe had bounced in his hands, throwing his arms away from the statue and unbalancing him. He tried again and again, but the result was always the same: the statue would not be broken.
“So how do I bring you home?” Dourg asked the statue. He stared at it, as if waiting for the demonic lips to answer him, then released an exasperated sigh. The only answer was to take the whole statue to Kenna.
As the plan shaped and refined within his mind, he realized that he would have no choice but to leave the statue here. “Tomorrow, then,” he said, speaking again to the statue. “Tomorrow I’ll go back to Northern Hope, and soon I’ll be back to get you. This is one opportunity that Dourgam Finn will not lose.”
“I’m sure Carron and the rest of the villagers could use your help getting the millstone out of the river,” Myla called from across the empty taproom of Lord Araesto’s Cat. Dourg grunted without looking at her. “He might even pay for help …”
“Bits while I break my back,” Dourg said, giving her a sour glare. “Carron should have known things would go awry in cursed Nulain.” He tipped up his mug and took a swallow of ale.
“If it’s the curse you blame, then why not help out? You’ve certainly had your fair share of bad luck over the years. A curse is only as good as you let it get to you.”
Myla finished cleaning one of the tables with a tattered rag and turned to Dourg with her hands on her hips. “How many days are you just going to sit around doing nothing? You blame the curse for your bad fortune, but I say there’s a fair bit of laziness to blame as well.”
“Watch your tongue,” Dourg said. “I’ve tried and tried to make good here. In Pyridain, everything my family touched turned to gold. If anyone would pay a Bit for something, my father could have made a hundred Marks with it. But here …” He cast his arms around despondently. “Here everything turns to sh–”
“That’s your answer for everything,” Myla interrupted. “What about me? When I’m in your arms do I turn, too?”
Dourg angrily held her stare for a moment then dropped his eyes. “You don’t know how close I came, Myla …” He took another swallow of ale, letting its bitter taste remind him of his biggest failure. After finding the statue more than a month ago, he had gathered all the necessary supplies and set out to get it. He had been careful, so careful, knowing how the curse could turn all that’s good to rot. He had gathered food and water, gotten a mule and rope, and even managed to get a crude map to Kenna from one of the passing traders. All these he had carefully checked again and again until the day he was to leave. Then, trudging away from Northern Hope, he had quickly realized that he no longer knew where the cave was. It was as if the memories of the trip back after finding the statue had shriveled up like crops in the sun. He had searched the forested hills of N ulain for three days until, tired and almost out of food, he had solemnly led his mule back to town. Now, a day after having lost the biggest opportunity of his life, he lifted his mug again as if to celebrate.
Myla was still staring at him, but her hard expression softened and she came forward to sit next to him. She still wasn’t showing the pregnancy through her loose gown, but Dourg had seen her sick in the mornings and had known that perhaps six months remained before his child was born. Putting a hand on his knee, she said, “I know you tried, Dourg. I know …” Dourg didn’t look up. “But all I’m saying is that you have to try again. If you refuse to give up, there’s always hope.”
Dourg grunted out a bitter laugh, but he couldn’t help sharing Myla’s smile. With her straight, limp hair, dull hazel eyes, and sapling-thin waist, Dourg knew Myla wasn’t the prettiest girl in Northern Hope. But beyond her looks, there was something amazing about the woman in her strength and character, something he respected and admired more than anything else.
When she saw Dourg smile, her own smile broadened. “Listen,” she said, lowering her voice conspiratorially. “Moritan told me an interesting thing when I came in to start work. He said a stranger’s come to town.”
“Oh, how interesting that is.” Dourg said, not bothering to hide his sarcasm.
“This stranger *is* interesting, boy. Listen, now. Moritan said this man is a wizard, young by the look of him, but fabulously powerful. The wizard said he’d come here to find the cause of our curse and get rid of it!” Her eyes lit up as she spoke.
“A young man comes to Lord Araesto’s Cat and says he’s a wizard who’s going to stop the curse, eh? Well, then, when Moritan comes back tell him I’m the son of Ol and maybe he’ll give me a free drink, too.” He tipped his mug to show it was empty. He had no coin to buy more, having spent nearly every last Bit of his inheritance on supplies, and he wasn’t feeling compelled to listen to silly rumors.
“This man paid for his drink, Dourg.” Myla’s tone was icy.
“I’m just saying that any road-weary tot can saunter in and say he’s this or that and ol’ Moritan will believe him.”
“Is that so?” Myla said, arching a slender eyebrow, her most attractive feature. “As a matter of fact, Moritan didn’t believe this man either, and so the man put his hands on the counter and caused it to burn!”
“Moritan told you that? He’s been drinking his own wares, girl.” Dourg smirked but Myla still did not get angry.
“If you think so then go and look at the counter. You can still see the burn marks where his hands were.”
Dourg did not particularly feel like standing up, but some part of him harbored a hope that if he humored Myla, she might get him a free ale. With an exaggerated grunt, he stomped both boots on the floor, stood up, and trudged over to the counter. There he could clearly see the scorched wood in the shape of two hands on the public side of the counter.
“See?” Myla called from where she was still seated.
“Aye,” Dourg said. “There’s ten long burn marks that look like fingers, but couldn’t Moritan have done that himself with a hot poker? He was probably bored here all day with everyone out helping Carron.”
“If you still don’t believe it, you’ll have the chance to talk with the wizard yourself soon. He was asking about things southwest of Northern Hope, the caves and such, and Moritan told him you were down there a lot and could probably help him find what he was looking for.”
For an instant Dourg’s eyes opened wide and he had a flash memory of the statue. Of course! That must be what the wizard was after! But he couldn’t remember exactly where he had found it … Still, if he couldn’t find the statue himself, maybe he could make the wizard pay for what little he knew.
“Save it,” Dourg snapped, enjoying the look of haughty disbelief on the face of the young man whose introduction he had cut off.
It was the evening after his conversation with Myla. The stranger had come into the busy Lord Araesto’s Cat a few moments before and had spoken briefly with Moritan. The burly bartender had pointed at Dourg, and the man had gracefully strode over.
It wasn’t hard for Dourg to believe that this man was the “wizard” named Anarr that everyone had been talking about. A stranger was a rare enough sight in Northern Hope, but this man was also wearing rich robes and was tall and handsome.
What Dourg had trouble believing was that this man was really a wizard. He couldn’t be more than thirty years old, and he had a look about him more like a spoiled noble than a powerful magus. Dourg and his father had dealt with more than a few spoiled nobles in Pyridain, so he knew the trick was to know when to bow and when to snap. Right now, it was time to be snappy.
Anarr tried again to start the conversation. His voice was as rich as his robe, full of well-rounded pronunciations like someone too important to speak with a common accent. “Perhaps you misunderstand me. I would like to ask you –”
“I said ‘save it’,” Dourg said. “Myla told me about your conversation with the bartender.” He nodded toward the girl, who was busy serving another table. She was bad at pretending she wasn’t watching them, though, and when he nodded at her she looked up and flashed him an encouraging smile. Something about that smile irritated him, like she was his mother encouraging him to lace up his boots for the first time.
“She’s a nice girl,” the wizard said. “Are you planning on marrying her?”
“Hah!” he forced himself to guffaw. “What’s she to me? She’s just another roll. I’ll do better.”
Anarr did not share his laugh, but raised an eyebrow placatingly. For an uncomfortable moment, the wizard simply looked at him. In Pyridain, when his father had met with business partners and nobles, there would always be small talk exchanged before the dealing was done, but Dourg felt this conversation with the wizard was going terribly. Maybe he was being a little too snappy. Annoyed, he decided to get straight to the point.
“So, you want to know what’s upstream from here,” he said. “How much are you willing to pay for it?”
“Pay for it?” The wizard was almost aghast, as if amazed to think someone would request payment for his troubles. “I’ll not pay a Bit for it! Dourg, you have one opportunity to make something of yourself. Look around: people are already gossiping about why I am talking to you, instead of anyone else in this village. Tell me what you know, and you will look like a hero to everyone in this town. But if you don’t, I’ll find the artifact that’s causing this curse, and do it without you.”
Dourg listened to this lecture with bored impertinence clear on his face. Apparently, to wizards, being a hero was important; but being a hero didn’t make one wealthy. “And what if I go and fetch it and destroy it or remove it myself? Then I’ll be the hero!” he said threateningly.
Instead of the outrage Dourg had been expecting, Anarr simply shook his head. “No, Dourg. If that were so, you would have already done it. You can’t do it, and you know it. You need me to figure out how to get rid of it. Think about all the things it has done to your town already. How many people have died? I’ve already interacted with it myself, and I know how perniciously evil it is. You have little hope if you pit yourself against such power alone.”
“You’ve seen it?” Dourg blurted out, suddenly. The idea that Anarr had seen the same statue perked a memory in his head. After days of trying desperately to remember the way to the cave, this tiny fragment of a memory completely overcame his desire to deal.
“No, I said I’ve interacted with it,” Anarr was saying. “I’ve seen its power, and have an idea what and where it is. I will find it, with or without you.”
“You know what it is?” Dourg asked. The memory was just below the surface of his thinking. He grasped for it desperately.
“I used a divination spell to get a general idea of the item’s location.” Anarr said. “It’s in a valley about twenty leagues southwest of here –”
“Twenty leagues?” Dourg frowned. “Is that all? That can’t be right …” He suddenly remembered the walk back, it had seemed endless. He remembered seeing the settlement outside of the cave in the daylight and noticing that one of the buildings still stood, if just barely. He remembered skirting around the sinkhole that he had fallen in the night before.
“Straight, it’s probably at the old settlement. It’s a good five or six bells’ travel through the hills. It might be twenty leagues as the crow flies, but it’s a lot more on foot. And you’ll never find it without my help …”
“That’s true, and that’s why I’ve come to you. It’s quite an interesting artifact. I am rather curious to see it.
“What does this place look like?” Anarr asked, leaning forward slightly.
Dourg answered as if in a spell. Before he could stop himself, he had spilled out every detail that he could not remember just a few bells ago. Finally, feeling wrung out and limp, he fell silent. Anarr’s face held the same impassive expression it had had the whole time he was talking, but Dourg detected a slight look of satisfaction in the young man’s features.
“You have done yourself a service,” Anarr said and made as if to stand up.
“Wait!” Dourg said, trying to sound fierce but his voice coming out in more of a strangled whisper. “Did you use magic on me to make me talk?”
For the first time, Anarr’s thin lips twisted into a knowing smile. He stood up, turned, and walked straight-backed to the stairs that led up to the rented rooms.
Dourg stared after him with murder in his eyes. He had been tricked! Through black magic or treachery, it didn’t matter. Now the wizard knew exactly where to find the statue and Dourg hadn’t gotten any payment for it.
He cursed loud enough that the other patrons in the room turned to glance curiously at him. Myla hurried to his table and sat down next to him. “What did he say?” she asked excitedly.
Dourg continued staring as if he hadn’t heard her. “Damn him and all wizards like him,” he said. “I’ve worked too hard and waited too long to let some cocky boy-mage walk off with my statue.”
“Dourg?” Myla said. “What are you talking about? What statue?”
She reached out a hand to get his attention, but he stood up so fast his chair fell backwards behind him. “We’ll see what his magic is all about,” he said. Then he turned and stormed from the room, leaving Myla staring blankly after him.