Dourg stalked the mage in the forests near Northern Hope, a small village between the duchies of Narragan, Dargon, and Asbridge. The path was fairly narrow and he had given the mage on the donkey a head start. The summer day looked to be hot, although under the woodland canopy, the promise was as yet unfulfilled. It was humid though. The chittering of the birds and tree rats was loud enough to cover his footsteps, so Dourg allowed his thoughts to wander.
Originally from Pyridain, Dourg had fled to Northern Hope with refugees from the Beinison War. Unfortunately for him, bad luck had dogged him in his new home, although the truth was that misfortune had beset everyone in town. Untimely illnesses and strange accidents were common, such as winter fever in the summer, heat sickness in the winter, the cobbler falling into the river, and the miller’s barn falling down not once, but twice. One time there had even been an attack by strange beasts that no one recognized. Over the years, the citizenry had been forced to believe that they were laboring under a curse. It impacted every aspect of their lives and it could not be escaped, until now, when a mage named Anarr had come to remove it.
Ahead, the sound of gurgling water gave Dourg pause; he brought his wandering attention back, stopped behind a tree and took a careful peek at the mage. Anarr and his donkey were at one of the smaller streams, and as Dourg watched, the mage forded it without much difficulty. Dourg waited until his target had passed beyond sight before following.
He continued thinking about the events that had conspired to bring him here, following the mage. When he had come from Pyridain, he had brought part of his inheritance with him and had tried to start a trading business. But his venture had failed, and his money had dwindled, until, finally, he had accepted the insistent invitation of Ailo to join a group of bandits who ambushed travellers. Of course, the curse’s effects had been inevitable, and the ambush had gone terribly wrong, leaving Dourg running away from the wagons, helter-skelter. In his mad dash, he had found a statue of a demon in a cave on the western face of a mountain, the Mariencap. Unable to move the idol, he had decided to return with help but then had forgotten where it was: yet another result of the curse. It wasn’t until Anarr had come to the village and bespelled D ourg that he had remembered the statue’s location. He had then realized that the idol was the curse’s physical embodiment.
He glanced around, trying to see if this was the path he had taken on his earlier trek, and recognized the area. They were climbing now, and the terrain had gradually become rocky. Every now and then the path crossed little valleys that forced Dourg to hang behind until the mage on his donkey had gone beyond sight. It was windy, although they were not yet high enough for it to get cold.
Dourg knew that a small valley was coming up and found a convenient rock to wait behind. He watched the mage ride down into the small vale and up the other side. For some reason, there were not many trees here; the path went down and then up, completely open to the sky. The ride took awhile, forcing Dourg to wait for Anarr to move well ahead and vanish up the winding path before entering the valley.
His thoughts went back to his goal: the statue. It was of a figure seated cross-legged, with rubies for eyes and a silver sword across its lap. Dourg, son of a successful trader, had known it would fetch a high price the moment he had seen it two fortnights past. He had hoped to take it to sell it and start his trading business again, which was why he was now following the mage.
Dourg smiled as he thought about the reason for his decision to restart his business. Myla, the girl he had been seeing, had just told him that he was going to be a father. The thought both pleased him and scared him at the same time. The idea of having a little boy call him ‘Father’ was exciting. On the other hand, he knew that his current behavior of drinking and drifting probably needed fixing, for he would have to marry Myla.
He planned to get the idol and contact his father’s agent in Kenna. The smile vanished from his face as he thought of his father, a stern disciplinarian. He remembered the real reason for his departure from Pyridain, and his mind swelled with bitterness. The loss of his cousin, his best friend, still had the power to sting.
“Hey Dourg, what’cha doin’?”
Dourg looked up from the quarterstaff he was oiling. He was sitting in the open courtyard of his father’s house, a small, rectangular area outside the main building. On all sides, the roof extended out for a few feet over the courtyard, leaving the center open to the sky. It was a dull, overcast day, and the exposed area was dismal and gloomy. The dark clouds above promised rain, and soon.
“Uzhain! Look at this.” Dourg extended the staff, and his cousin, Uzhain, ran a gentle hand over it.
“Looks good. I prefer beechwood, meself,” Uzhain said, sitting down beside him and extending his long legs as he leaned back against the wall. With closely shorn wheat-colored hair and brown eyes, he resembled his cousin enough for the two of them to be mistaken for brothers, especially since Dourg’s father had brought Uzhain to live with them after he had been orphaned.
“What’re you doing here?” Dourg asked. “I thought you were going to go to the marketplace today.”
Before Uzhain could reply, there was a loud clatter at the far end of the courtyard, and a man entered. He was tall and broad-shouldered and carried a quarterstaff. “Dourg!”
“Gage,” Dourg muttered under his breath, a thrill of excitement and fear running through him. “He’s here already.” A thought suddenly came to him. He turned to the young man sitting nearby. “Is that why you came?” Even though he had shared the details of the impending meeting with Uzhain, Dourg didn’t want to hear yet another attempt to dissuade him from the fight, but he suspected he would be treated to one anyway.
Sure enough, Uzhain sat up, his brows contracting. “Listen Dourg, don’t do this. Don’t fight him. You know you did wrong –”
“Wrong? You’re my cousin, not my father. Now is not the time for this. If you’re here as my friend and my family, then support me!” Despite expecting a lecture, Dourg couldn’t digest the fact that his cousin and best friend, Uzhain, wasn’t wholeheartedly on his side.
There was a thud and Dourg looked up, recognizing the sound of a quarterstaff hitting the ground. Gage waited, holding his staff, an ominous picture. His weapon was of standard length, a bit taller than he was.
Uzhain put a restraining hand on Dourg’s arm and said, “I *am* your friend, and that’s why I’m saying this. You know you did badly by Gage. He might work for your father, but that doesn’t mean you can roll his wife and expect him to not care when he walked in on the two of you. Listen to me. I’ve already spoken to Gage and come to an understanding with him, and I can make this whole problem disappear if you will only say to him that you were wrong to take advantage of his wife.”
“Take advantage?” Dourg’s initial annoyance with his cousin blossomed into white rage as he repeated the two words with incredulity. “Uzhain, his wife will roll anything in breeches, and pro’ly skirts too, if I know anything of her. I did not take advantage, and if Gage thinks he can get away with fighting with his master’s son, his future master, then I will teach him better.”
“Dourg, please. If you think he’s like the other teachers who taught you to spar, you’re wrong. He won’t give –”
Dourg raised his hand. “Stop right there. What are you telling me? That I’m not good enough to fight him? That he’s better than me?”
Uzhain sighed, bowing his head for a moment. “Fine. Promise me one thing. If — and I mean if — if he wins, you will say you’re sorry.”
“Not now, not here, not ever.” Dourg moved away and then turned back to look at his cousin. The expression on Uzhain’s face, a mixture of regret, affection, and fear, made Dourg reach out to the other man’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Uzhain. He’ll never be better than me.”
As Dourg stepped forward, it seemed to him that the clouds above them darkened. Was it an omen? He was not superstitious, so he dismissed the thought. The only relevant impact of the forbidding clouds was the lack of light. If it got too dark, would they be able to fight?
Gage moved forward as well until they met in the center of the courtyard, about the length of a staff apart. He bowed briefly, but Dourg attacked without waiting for the courtesy to be completed. Gage raised his pole horizontally to block even before he raised his head, and the dance began. The only sounds in the courtyard were the clack-clack of the quarterstaffs, and the breathing of the two opponents that was still even, at this early stage of their fight.
The initial back-and-forth was, for both of them, a test of the other’s skill level. Dourg attacked side to side, staff parallel to the ground, hitting with each end in turn while moving forward. Gage defended, stepping back, preferring to deflect each blow on the center of his staff. Then he jumped backwards an extra step before striking at Dourg’s head with the lower end of his weapon. Now it was Dourg’s turn to defend. He didn’t know what Gage learned from the initial sparring, but Dourg recognized Gage’s tendency toward head and knee attacks. Stowing away the information, Dourg turned the tables again.
He attempted a strike at Gage’s skull, but the latter blocked it before aiming for Dourg’s knees. Turning his staff perpendicular, Dourg managed to deflect the blow. Bringing his weapon up, he went on the attack, moving it from right to left and back, hitting at Gage’s midriff with each end, and quickening the pace. Gage matched the tempo and blocked every blow with a force that hurt Dourg to block. Then he saw an opening to use his knowledge of his opponent’s tactics. He feinted a right side body blow and immediately aimed the other end of the staff at head level. Contact! A bright red spot blossommed on Gage’s temple.
His recovery was so fast that Dourg couldn’t even jump back. Gage’s pole caught Dourg on his side. His ribs ached, and he knew that at least one was broken. His breath was coming in harsh gasps, and he knew he was very close to being spent. Now Gage feinted toward Dourg’s left, and he fell for the ruse, turning his staff to deflect. Gage used the opportunity to knock at knee level again. Desperate, Dourg attempted something he’d never gotten the knack of: jumping to avoid the knee strike. It was only half successful; one leg cleared the staff but the other did not, and he tripped. Gage followed up with a powerful thwack on the back, and down Dourg fell, face to the ground, his opponent’s quarterstaff pinning him. He breathed the dust, heavin g with exertion.
“Say you were wrong,” Gage said, his breathing harsh and loud. “Say it.”
“No.” At once, Dourg heard a clattering as a staff fell to the ground, then felt a knife against the side of his neck; the skin broke, and he felt the blood. Fear rushed through his mind as he realized that Gage would kill him just for an apology.
“Say it now!” The voice was hoarse, but firm, and the breathing had evened out just a bit.
For Dourg, the choice was easy. They was just words, after all. He didn’t have to believe what he said, and if it meant that Gage would not kill him, then apologizing was a small price. “I’m sorry. I took advantage!”
The pressure eased and there was a clink as something hit the ground; Dourg rolled over and saw the knife on the ground near Gage, who was swabbing the blood on his wounded temple with a piece of cloth.
Dourg moved to pick up the knife; he was the master’s son and he would not suffer an insolent servant to live. But Gage was quicker and reached the knife first. He moved forward, death in his eyes and hand. Dourg stepped backwards in an attempt to avoid the blow, and then, suddenly, Uzhain was between them. Dourg couldn’t see what happened next, but Uzhain screamed, and Dourg’s stomach clenched in fear.
“No!” His cousin’s voice ebbed away into a whisper.
Dourg gasped as he tried to understand what had happened. He’d assumed that his cousin was far away from the fight, watching from the edges of the courtyard, but Uzhain had stepped in to stop the killing blow — without success. The knife which would have killed Dourg was now in Uzhain’s body.
“No, no,” Dourg whispered, as he lowered Uzhain gently to the ground. Dourg’s mind was a chaotic mess. All he could think of was that his cousin was not supposed to get hurt. Why had he stepped between the combatants?
“What have you done?” It was a new voice. Dimly, Dourg realized that his father had arrived.
It took Dourg a couple of tries before the words would emerge from his throat. “Uzhain, what did you do?” Dourg was surprised to feel dampness in his eyes. As his thoughts regained the coherence that had momentarily deserted him, he realized that he could guess why Uzhain had done it: to save him.
“Gage, get a healer at once!” That was his father, who then knelt and put a hand on Uzhain’s forehead, pushing away the lock of hair on his temple.
Uzhain whispered, “It was an accident. I only meant to stop him but …”
Dourg felt a wetness on his face and knew that it was blood as well as tears. Was he crying? Then he looked up and realized that the clouds wept too: a few drops began to fall from the ever-darkening sky. “By Illiena, you shouldn’t have done it!”
“Uzhain!” His father’s voice was choked.
“I only meant to stop him,” Uzhain repeated. “Dourg, don’t do anything stupid …” His voice trailed away as his eyes stared up sightlessly.
His father gasped, stood up, and moved away. Dourg stared down at the body in his arms, unable to even look at his father, his concern solely for the person lying motionless in his lap. He longed to say, “Wake up, Uzhain.” He would even be willing to hear one of his cousin’s endless lectures about fair play, if he would only wake up again.
The sky continued to spot the courtyard with big droplets, and in the background, Dourg could hear his father and Gage. They were talking about justice and death, but if Gage could want vengeance for something so meaningless as a roll, then what about justice for this? Clarity had deserted him the moment Uzhain had died, and Dourg couldn’t make any sense of what his father and Gage were saying to each other. He couldn’t seem to concentrate long enough to hear complete sentences.
“– can’t send him away!”
“Your knife … won’t report you …”
“… bargain with your son’s life.”
“No, not my son’s life … your life … It would be unjust to punish anyone for an accident. We will talk more, Gage, but for now, please take care of Uzhain’s body. It’s starting to rain.
“Dourg, come.” His father’s stern voice roused him.
Dourg still stared at the body in his arms, its clothes and his own showing little spots of dampness. “Where? Gage … Father, he has to be punished.”
“No, Gage is not at fault here. If not for your endless game of skirt chasing, Uzhain would be alive today. It was an accident caused entirely because of your behavior.”
He looked up at his father, a tall man. His receding, gray hair and the sharp bones with the sunken cheeks made him look old and emotionless. Even his gray eyes held no affection for Dourg. He couldn’t dredge up his usual anger at his father’s attitude, for Dourg’s brain chanted endlessly: dead, dead, dead! Uzhain’s open eyes mocked his cousin, and Dourg couldn’t tear his gaze away. “Gage killed him,” he said simply. “I didn’t.”
“It’s not important, do you hear me?” His father snapped. “I came to tell both of you that you need to leave, and now this! No matter. You will leave.”
“Leave? What do you mean?” At last, Dourg looked up, and lightning illuminated the courtyard in an eerie glitter, followed by thunder. Big, pearlescent drops fell with stunning force on his upturned face.
“Come with me.” His father placed an ungentle hand on Dourg’s arm. Dourg laid Uzhain’s body on the ground reverently as the grasp on his arm tightened. As he rose, it began to rain in earnest, and Gage hurried to pick up Uzhain’s body and move it to one of the sides where the extended roof would provide some cover from the elements.
Pulling at his damp clothing in some discomfort, Dourg entered the house. Inside the study, a small room on the far side, his father opened a chest with six drawers with locks, a very handsome piece of furniture that he was inordinately proud of, since he had commissioned it to store his gems and valuables. When Dourg remembered that Uzhain had designed it, the thought burned him.
His father spoke, his back to his son. “Dourg, you must leave.”
“But Father, I don’t want to go. You can’t make me go. It was an accident,” Dourg almost wailed. His mind was reluctant to let go of the image of Uzhain lying dead in his arms. The rhythmic beat of the rain enveloped him in anguish, as if even nature provided a death hymn for Uzhain.
“I know. I saw it.”
“Then why? Why are you making me go? And you want me to go right now? Where will I go? What about Uzhain’s funeral?” Dourg’s voice broke on the last word.
His father turned to face him, and now there was some expression on his face, a strange combination of grief and resignation. “Dourg, you know the war is going badly. Your mother … Well, I need you to leave Pyridain.”
“Mother? What about her? And what do you mean, the war is going badly?” Dourg couldn’t understand why his father was talking about his long deceased mother, while Uzhain lay dead outside in the courtyard, where the driving rain would have reached even into the sheltered area.
“Several of our friends are already dead or severely wounded, and I am expected to join the fight with you and Uzhain. Well, that isn’t going to happen. When your mother died when you were five, I promised her that I would keep you safe, and I’ll pay even Eilli-Syk’s price for that.
“I’ve heard that a group fleeing the war is leaving Pyridain tonight. You’re going with them.”
“This is not a discussion,” his father said harshly. “You are my blood, even if Uzhain was worth twice you, and so you will do as I say. At least one person of my family shall outlive this Kesra-damned war! That is final, do you hear me?”
Dourg heard, but he couldn’t seem to muster the energy to argue with his father. Uzhain’s death had stolen his words, which seemed to circle in his mind like a swarm of bees that he could never hope to catch. The storm above reached a crescendo, just like the argument between father and son, the sound from the sky reaching its zenith while Dourg’s emotions reached their nadir.
The rest of the conversation became a monologue on his father’s part, a barrage of instructions that Dourg wasn’t sure he would remember. Much to his surprise, his father had apparently been prepared for the eventuality of sending his son and foster-son away. He had turned much of his wealth into a few gems that would be easy to transport. He provided Dourg with the name and address of his business contact in Kenna, and told him where to go to join the other refugees fleeing Pyridain.
Thinking about those days still made Dourg’s stomach clench with a myriad of feelings: guilt at his cousin’s death; hatred that his father had seemed more upset at Uzhain’s death than his son’s departure; sorrow that he had never gotten a chance to grieve over Uzhain’s body; and a dull ache for the life that he had lost. Even after settling in Northern Hope, those emotions had never been far from Dourg’s heart, the disappointments and other disasters a constant reminder of everything his father had made him give up. Ale had become his prop, his solace, his Uzhain.
A sudden noise from ahead broke Dourg’s reverie. The mage and animal crossed a gorge by means of a makeshift bridge made by tree trunks that lay strategically across. Once they disappeared, Dourg traversed the makeshift bridge and followed, again stealthily. The mountain path was narrow and steep and Dourg had to watch his step carefully. Several times, one side of the path fell down in a steep incline, providing a beautiful view of the valley below.
As the long summer day drew to a close, Anarr arrived at the deserted hermit’s settlement that Dourg remembered from his previous trek. After a quick look around, the mage proceeded to lay out his blankets on the ground. Glancing up at the sky, Dourg knew that it would become dark before he could get to the nearby cavern to retrieve the statue, so he decided that he would follow Anarr’s example. Unfortunately, while the mage had come prepared to spend the night out of doors, Dourg had not. He had no blankets, and since they had climbed the slopes of the Mariencap during their trek, it promised to be an uncomfortable night. Still, it was worth it for the statue that he hoped to acquire, and the potential benefits from its sale.
The next morning, Dourg woke up stiff from the cold and the position he had slept in. Fear of the mage had forced him to rest on the hard ground away from the hermit’s settlement and the night had been one of extreme discomfort. He rose slowly and stretched, raising his face to the sky. It was barely dawn, but Dourg wanted to grab the statue before the mage. Still, he had to attend to his needs first. So he went to the small stream beyond the settlement and made his ablutions first. Then he followed the path that led to the cave set in the west face of the mountain, where he knew the statue was.
Just as he reached the opening, a flash of light came from within, along with a clattering sound. His heartbeat pounding like a caged bird’s wings, Dourg heard footsteps approaching. He looked around but there was little cover. Making an instant decision, he moved to the far side of the rock face and knelt down beside a gorse bush, making himself as small as he could, and remained unmoving, praying that the mage would not stay to explore. Whatever gods were out there seemed to have heard his prayer, for Anarr hurried out of the cave with nary a glance to spare for anything save the path. He kept knuckling his eyes and disappeared from sight immediately as he took a brisk pace on the path leading back to the settlement.
Dourg waited silently for a mene before he rose and entered the cave, but it was almost too dark to see. Still, he remembered where the statue was, so he pressed on, but when he reached it, he could not make out anything save its outline. The idol was on a pedestal, bringing its face up to Dourg’s eye level. It was a seated figure, with a silver sword in its lap that glinted in the darkness. He bent slightly to pick it up.
“Ah–ow. Ow!” His hands burned, and the idol repelled him with a physical force. Dourg flew backwards and hit the cavern wall with a thud. “Ow!” His head and the cavern wall met with gusto and Dourg found himself sitting a little distance away from the pedestal, feeling a painful tingle in his hand with a warm dampness that spoke of bleeding, and an ache on his head where he had bumped it. The Kesra-damned statue had pushed him away! It was the farking curse, he decided. Nothing worked because of it.
Anger bubbled through him as the pain in his hand intensified, so he dragged himself up and moved toward the sunlight. Once outside, he examined his hand, and found a jagged tear all the way across his palm. Biting down his annoyance and frustration, Dourg pressed on the wound to stop the bleeding, but his action only served to increase it. He needed a bandage, and he had nothing that he could use except for his tunic. Unfortunately, this high in the mountains, it was far too chilly to go without his tunic, which was ratty enough to begin with.
The dull ache in his skull reminded him that he had hit the cavern wall, so he gingerly touched the back of his head and discovered a small lump about the size of a cherry. Sighing with vexation, he began to make his way down the path which overlooked the valley on one side and hugged the hillside on the other. As he was halfway toward the settlement, he heard footsteps and realized that Anarr was probably coming back. Desperately, Dourg looked around for some form of concealment. Once again, cover was sparse; the side of the path that overlooked the valley was covered with rocks of various sizes, and the other side was the mountain face. He peered around one of the rocks and saw a tiny ledge, barely a handspan wide, open to the valley below. The footsteps approached! There was no time, and he slipped behind the stone onto the ledge.
Anarr passed by, and Dourg waited in silence. He wanted the mage well away before he returned to the path. After what seemed like a long time but was probably no more than a mene, he decided it would be safe to move. He put his hand on the rock for balance as he took a step. Unfortunately, it was his wounded hand. The pain and the slickness of the coagulating blood caused him to lose his balance and he fell, dislodging the small rocks and pebbles on the ledge with a sickening clatter. It felt like a long drop. He couldn’t see, because his eyes watered and he closed them. He couldn’t breathe because all the air inside him was expelled through his stomach, his throat. The wind buffeted him and whistled in his ears and then there was one single, sharp instant of pain.
Dourg’s awakening was a gradual awareness of something wrong. His head hurt in a familiar manner, as the smiths in his skull pounded away with their hammers, and Dourg assumed he had overindulged with ale as usual. But there was a dull pain in his hand as well, and he felt very cold. Wasn’t it summer? And surely Myla was there to keep him warm. An involuntary smile crossed his face at the thought of her before fading as the number of hammer-wielding smiths in his head doubled.
It was time to open his eyes, he decided. A cup of something hot would do him very nicely indeed. He opened his eyes and saw the faint light that filigreed the clouds. He stared up at the still-visible stars, as his scrambled thoughts grew clearer. He wasn’t at home: this was his first realization. He was out in the mountains somewhere. Then he remembered the cavern, the statue, and his fall. No wonder his head hurt. He touched the back of his skull, and there was the small lump from when he had fallen against the cavern wall. It seemed bigger now, more the size of a plum. There wasn’t much he could do about it, so he decided to forget it for the nonce.
His second thought was that it was getting on toward morning. The cooler, predawn air had the glowing anticipation of another fine summer’s day. He glanced down at his hand, but although the bleeding had stopped, the cut seemed to glare angrily at him. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. He must have slept overnight, he decided. He glanced around and saw that he was sitting on a promontory about midway up the northwestern face of the mountain. There was no way above to get back to the path he had fallen from. Down, he spied a dusty trail a short distance away, but getting there was questionable. Of course, it would be easy for a mountain goat, but he wasn’t one. He smiled at the little joke and decided that it would be best to wait a while. He didn’t feel ready for the exertion of getting down to the path, not to mention the fact that it was still a bit dark.
Amazingly enough, he fell asleep, and by the time he woke up, the sun was well into the sky. He judged that it was about midmorning, and decided to make his way to the path. Very carefully, he lowered himself on the side of the rock, but there was hardly any purchase. He fell a short distance, and it was enough to steal the breath from him in a gasp, although he was unhurt. Now the path was but a mene’s walk away.
Dourg’s stomach rumbled, and he realized that he was hungry, ravenous, in fact. He had actually brought some food with him, but it was in a tree near the mountain stream by the hermit’s settlement. He decided to forage near the path and finally found a small berry bush covered with ripe fruits that were a deep purple. The smell was so enticing and he was so famished that he fell upon the bush, popping the berries into his mouth as fast as he could pluck them. After he felt sated, he picked a few more for later, tucked them into his pockets, and started down the path.
This time, Dourg awoke with a start. Looking around, he saw Myla standing near the fireplace, dropping something into a pot. The wonderful smell of fresh-baked bread and thyme permeated the small room, and his stomach growled. Maybe Myla heard it, for she turned and smiled when she saw him awake.
“Oh, Dourg, how are you feeling?” She came to sit by him on the bed.
“What happened? I was up there on the mountain …” He couldn’t remember anything after that.
She frowned. “You went up to find the statue, didn’t you?”
After his discovery of the statue, he had expounded on his plans for it at length. Myla had tried her best to dissuade him and redirect his thoughts to some useful pursuit in the town.
“Girl, tell me how I came to be here,” he said, the old annoyance creeping in. At times, he felt like he loved Myla, especially when he thought of the child she carried, but other times, she irritated him so much that he snapped.
“You came home yesterday morning so early that it was still dark outside, and you banged on the door and then fainted,” she said disapprovingly. “I got Zakhmi to look at you, and she wasn’t happy to be called away from her other patients. She said that not only did you hit your head on something and cut your hand, but you also ate overripe star berries. I found one in your pocket. Where did you get them, and why did you eat them?”
Dourg grimaced. “I ate them because I was hungry. What’re star berries anyway?”
“Oh, Zakhmi says sometimes people make wort from them, and the berries are so strong that they make people fall asleep.” Myla rose from the bed and went to the fireplace to stir the pot. “As if it weren’t enough to drink here, you have to go and find berries to get drunk on.”
He ignored her acid comment. “Are you telling me that I was asleep for a whole day?”
“Yes.” She didn’t elaborate and he watched as Myla picked up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. She set it on the small table and tore a piece of bread.
He asked, “Where did you get the bread?”
Myla smiled at him. “The baker had some fresh this morning. Dourg, isn’t it wonderful? The mage removed the curse. Even the air smells different.”
“Yes, it does.” He realized that it was true, that the dry smell of dust had been replaced with a cool breeze that carried in the perfume of the wildflowers that had managed to flourish even in the cursed land. Then thoughts of the reason behind his trip to the mountain crowded his mind. “I have to get the statue,” Dourg muttered as he rose and made his way to the table.
Myla ignored his words and continued blithely, “Now that the curse is removed, we can be safe here. We should get married. Zakhmi knows I’m with child, and soon Dora will know too.”
Dora was Myla’s aunt, and the town gossip. She would also be very angry if she thought Dourg had taken advantage of Myla, and she would probably get the town elders to put him in the stocks. While he wanted to marry Myla, he certainly didn’t want to be forced into it by a woman who was so wedded to propriety that she frowned upon a little bit of tickle and giggle. Meanwhile, Myla continued to speak, and Dourg tried to focus on what she was saying.
“– know he will help you. And when our baby is born, we can be so happy.”
“Yes, we will be happy when the baby is born if only we had money,” Dourg’s voice was bitter.
Myla’s smile disappeared. “We will have money; of course we will. All you have to do is work. Don’t you remember, back when we first came here, you wanted to work with Darvale? Dourg, don’t get angry.”
The teary note in Myla’s voice made him feel bad. Dourg sighed as he stared down into his half-full bowl. “Myla, I want more for my son, more than just two meals a day. I want him to learn the things I learned growing up, and for that I need money. I want him to have the finest sword I can buy, and I want to buy silks for you. I want to hire the best teachers for my son.” He looked up at her, staring earnestly into her eyes. Then he rose and went to kneel by her, putting both hands around her waist. “My father and I didn’t see eye to eye on many things, but he made sure I was taught skills, Myla. I want the same thing for my son. Don’t you understand, sweet?”
She smiled at him and leaned forward to place a soft kiss on his lips. “Of course I do, but what things are you talking about? He can learn whatever he needs from everyone here in Nulain. If he wants to be a baker he can, or if he wants to be a smith, he can. Why, we even have a chandler if that’s what he wants to become.” Myla’s voice was full of awe as if making candles was a highly prized skill. Then she added in a caustic tone, “Besides, you don’t know if it’s going to be a boy.”
Dourg clenched his teeth and rose in a fluid movement. “By Illiena, woman, don’t you understand what I mean? It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl. All I want is for my child to learn his numbers, learn to read, and learn to fence. I want him to learn to fight with a quarterstaff, and I want him to understand the qualities of wine, and the difference between quartz and rubies. I want him to learn the finer things in life, and all you can talk about is chandlery. Arom-Nok’s dungeons, Myla, don’t you know anything?”
Myla was weeping by the time he finished his diatribe. He knew he had hurt her, but he couldn’t help it; the anger that crept up from inside him, as if from an endless well, made him lose all control.
“Are you so much better than me because I cannot read?” she cried. “You can read. You can do your numbers. What good has it done you? You are here, in Nulain, in this once-cursed place, same as I. What makes you think you are better than me?” Her voice began to throb with anger.
“Once-cursed, aye, that’s true, but I will still get my money,” Dourg snapped. “I will go and retrieve that statue. And I will –”
“Ha!” Myla laughed.
“Why are you laughing? Do you think –?”
“Yes, I laugh,” she interrupted him again. “I laugh because you think you can touch that accursed statue and make money from it. Well, don’t deceive yourself no more, because that mage is taking it away. He fetched it down from the mountain today, and he leaves tomorrow, taking the accursed thing with him.”
“What?” Dourg roared. “No! It’s my statue. I need it. I will get it. It’s mine!”
“Stop it! Stop it! It’s cursed. Let it go, Dourg,” Myla wailed.
He bent, lifted the table and shoved, yelling aloud, “Mine!”
Myla screamed as the pot of stew, the two half-finished bowls, and the bread scattered on the far side of the room. The shrill sound of her voice penetrated Dourg’s mind at last.
“Stop screaming. Now!” He approached her purposefully, and when she did not stop, he slapped her, once. The hysterical sound ceased, and Myla stared at him, her hazel eyes wide open, with tears streaking down her dusty cheeks, slight chest heaving.
Without another word, Dourg left the cottage. By the time he reached the tavern, his ire had subsided to a simmering frustration. The wellspring of anger within him had seemingly stopped for the moment.
“Hey Dourg!” The bartender, Moritan, greeted him as he entered the tavern and seated himself before the counter.
Dourg didn’t respond, and, momentarily, a mug of ale was placed on the counter before him. He picked it up morosely and said before taking a sip, “Thanks, Moritan.” The ale soothed him a little, but it also made him think about the events of the past two days. His failure to get the statue, his fall, and the loss of two days because of the Kesra-damned star berries were enough to make him lose all hope of profiting from the idol. His thoughts wandered as the bells passed and his mug was replenished until at last Moritan’s words broke into his reverie.
“Ah, there you are Myla. I was looking for you.” Moritan smiled in the direction of the doorway.
A niggling sense of shame rose within Dourg, strangling the impulse to turn around and look at her. He didn’t want to see if his hand had marked her cheek. For a moment, the enormity of his act seemed to stop his very breath in his chest as he heard in his mind’s ears his father’s voice saying, “Never raise a hand against someone weaker than you.”
Dourg expelled his breath forcefully, realizing that as the sun set outside, the tavern had begun filling up. He had sat at the bar all afternoon, he realized. The air of jubilation in the tavern made him crabby. He didn’t want to celebrate; he wanted to continue doing what he’d done all afternoon: brood over his failure to secure the statue. Then, as he took another sip of the ale, a tiny voice inside his mind that sounded very much like his father’s said, “And what have you done, that you might celebrate?”
He banged the empty mug down on the counter, but the crash was unsatisfying, drowned out by the rising noise in the tavern. Outside, it was raining quite heavily, the patter of drops on the roof a strange counterpoint to the singing. Dourg listened to the chorus of voices, peppered by the stamping of feet in time to the beat.
“Rain, rain, come today,
Come to help us grow
For ‘taters and corn we sow.
Rain, rain come today,
Come to help us grow.”
The refrain went on and Dourg sighed. It was a song sung mostly by farmers’ children, and his father with his ideas of making a lawyer out of Dourg had discouraged such pursuits.
Various conversations continued around him as Dourg moped. He took a sip from the refilled mug. He needed to get to the statue. A small voice inside wondered why that seemed so important, but the thought of the idol made the banked resentment within begin to boil, overpowering the sound of that tiny voice. He turned his attention without, seeking to ignore it.
“Aye, Edmond helped bring the cursed thing for the mage,” a voice said.
“We will be well rid of it,” said another.
Someone entered the pub and there was a chorus of welcome. “John Thomaso, welcome you be. Moritan, some brown ale for John. Tell us what happened.” That was one of the council members.
Several others joined in, urging him to speak.
“It’s safe upstairs in the magus’ room,” Thomaso said.
There was an immediate cacophony of anxious voices.
“The bad luck –”
“In the building!”
“The statue is safe,” Thomaso said. “It’s bad luck, that’s true, but Anarr has warded it. Thank Cydrian the lord will be leaving with it tomorrow.”
The conversation flowed, and Dourg finished his ale. As he replaced the mug on the counter, an idea, blinding in its splendidness took hold of his mind. His hand shook as the plan unfolded by itself. He would go now, when everyone was otherwise occupied, and get the statue. By Illiena, he would do it at once, and he would be free.
Dourg slipped away silently, and, in the celebrations, no one noticed him leave. He climbed the steps to the second storey where he knew the mage had a room. The corridor was silent and dark, every now and then illuminated by a violent flash of lightning that seemed to almost jump inside the building through the small window.
Two of the doors were ajar in the manner of empty rooms but the last door was tightly shut. Dourg knew that this was Anarr’s room. He crept forward and tried the latch. It unfastened! He crouched as the door slid open. Inside, Edmond slept. He slept! Dourg’s heart quickened as he thought how easy this would be. The statue sat beyond the guard, staring upwards with anger flowing from ruby eyes that seemed unbelievably wide to Dourg. Its ugly teeth were filed to pointed spikes, making its face look monstrous. The silver sword in its lap gleamed dangerously in the moonlight, while the larger, unadorned one next to Edmond had none of the former’s beauty.
The sound of the rain on the roof increased to a deep thrum, and it inexorably reminded Dourg of the last time it had rained this heavily. Dourg paused mid-step, his mind overpowered by memories. Slowly he put his foot down, the drumbeat recalling the death hymn sung in his home town in Pyridain. The boiling within receded and he could think again, feel again.
And he felt fear. He looked from the sword to the sleeping Edmond. Dourg knew that Edmond would wake as soon as the statue was moved. The moment Dourg thought of the idol, his glance moved back to the furious face. The answer was simple: kill Edmond. Still looking at the statue, Dourg leaned forward to pick up the sword.
When he looked at what he was doing, he shuddered. He was going to kill a man. A sleeping man. An innocent, unarmed man, just like Uzhain. Above, the tempo of the sky’s tears was rhythmic, and memories held Dourg in their thrall. Gage had killed Uzhain by accident, but Dourg was about to kill on purpose. His father’s voice filled his mind. “Never raise a hand to someone weaker. Discipline is the symbol of chivalry.”
The voice grew and grew, changing from his father’s to Uzhain’s. “Honor is the path to Illiena’s heaven. Fairness pleases the gods.”
The face of the statue blurred and became Uzhain’s, and the voices fell silent as the storm above reached a crescendo. His heart lifted as Dourg realized that he could no longer sense the boiling anger inside. He could hardly believe that he had considered killing, and that, an unarmed, sleeping man. Shame coursed through him, filling him with a bittersweet pain. His exile was deserved, and even a lifelong penance would be insufficient, for Uzhain’s life would never be again. Dourg had not wielded the knife, but his cousin was dead, nonetheless.
“Uzhain, I’m sorry,” he whispered aloud, retreating without looking at the statue. He had stopped himself from killing, and he felt a fragile peace within. The anger was gone, washed away in the rain that continued to pound the roof of the inn, reminding him of how he had held Uzhain’s body under a weeping sky a few years past. Dourg embraced his grief for the first time since then, and it cleansed him. The anguish he remembered was gone, and the sorrow tinged with bearable regret.
He thought of Myla and his soon to be born child. The decision to change, to fulfill his promise to her and his duty to his unborn offspring was easy, and the will to make it grew from the bittersweet memories of his past. He wouldn’t lose this opportunity to redeem himself. “I’ll do better,” he vowed as he exited, and the rain drummed against the roof in agreement.