Curses, Abandoned First Draft

[The following is the abandoned first draft of “Curses.” If enough people say, “Wow, this is awesome, you should finish it!” I might try to resurrect it.]

#

Olivaer Toebem woke from another dream in which had two arms, startled by a loud commotion in the common room downstairs. He threw off the bed covers and tried to stand, fumbling for balance in the near-darkness. He staggered to the doorway of his small room to find out what had happened. Perhaps Tias had dropped a stack of books.

“Where is it, old man?” a cold, hard voice drifted up the stairs. “I won’t ask again.”

Olivaer stopped and crouched by the door. That voice was unfamiliar and sounded dangerous. His room was on the second floor of the house, at the top of the stairs. Looking out over the balcony, he could see that someone had lit several lamps downstairs. The common room below was more of a library than a gathering place, with shelves lining the walls and several tables for study.

“Get out of my house at once!” the voice of Tias Kalor said. Tias, the master of the house, did not sound frightened, though Olivaer certainly was. The first man’s voice did not sound friendly at all. And then he cringed when he heard another crash that sounded like someone had toppled a shelf of books onto the floor.

“I’m going to start tearing apart everything down here, and then I’m going to go upstairs and tear everything apart,” the hard man said. “But if I have to go upstairs, you won’t be alive to see it.”

“Who are you?” Tias demanded. “What gives you the right—”

Something shattered, probably some of Tias’s prized pottery collection. Olivaer cringed on his behalf. Tias had gathered them from around the continent over forty long years, or so he said.

“Tell me where the crystal is,” the cold voice said. “All you have to do is tell me, and we’ll leave you in peace.”

“You will sprout wings and fly over a striped moon before you ever find it,” Tias said with a shocking amount of confidence. A striped moon? What was that supposed to mean? Tias had gotten slightly eccentric in his advancing years, to say nothing of the curse he lived with every day.

Olivaer thought he should go down and try to help his patron, but he could tell there was more than one intruder down there. He made out the sounds of at least three people rummaging. Maybe four. Just then a man in a ragged red tunic and breeches stepped into view, raising a thick club over his head. It came down on a table of clay figurines, shattering them and sending pieces flying everywhere. A few bits made it all the way up over the railing and landed on the floor beside Olivaer.

“Don’t mock me,” the hard voice warned. “This is your last—”

“Boy, stop your threats and leave!” Tias said, and Olivaer groaned inwardly. Tias never knew when to stop talking.

He caught a glimpse of a long knife in a gloved hand, and then he heard a soft grunt from Tias. No!

“Don’t call me boy!” the hard man shouted, and Olivaer heard the sounds of a knife plunging into soft flesh again. Tias grunted again, and let out a long sighing exhale. Someone fell to the floor with a loud thump. Tias, no! This can’t be happening! We played Towers just this afternoon; I almost beat him.

“Search everything,” the hard man said to his comrades. “Search every book, every pot, and corner. Lakus, go see if anyone else is upstairs.”

Olivaer thought frantically. If anyone walked up the rickety wooden steps, they would walk right into him. He had to get out of there. But first he had to get Emmie.

He felt a tickle in his nose at the thought. His Curse of Mystery, as they were called, what everyone dreaded while they were growing up. For the hundredth time, he wished he could be rid of the new curse that had come upon him since he met Emmie, but he might as well wish to be rid of the sun or the moon. Everyone had curses, and everyone had to deal with it. But this was no time to think about that.

He dashed down the hall to Emmie’s room on bare feet, holding his hand over his nose and mouth to keep from sneezing. He thought about the weather. Anything but Emmie. The mild summer they were having, and how there had been very little rain around Farenhill lately. The farmers grumbled to each other in the market every day. He pushed open Emmie’s door quietly, but quickly, and ducked inside. He wanted to bar the door, but there was no lock. There was barely enough light coming in from her window to see by.

There was Emmie Kalor sleeping in the moonlight with no sign that she had heard any of the disturbance. She could sleep through a wind storm. Olivaer’s nose itched like fire, and he grabbed a nearby garment, covered his face, and sneezed. He was going to give them away for sure. He thought about what would happen if someone heard him. They would march up the stairs and club him to death. The clubs would leave huge bruises, and it would hurt like a whipping. While he thought about the pain of a clubbing, he ran to Emmie’s bedside and knelt over her. He shook her with his only arm, the right one, then quickly put his hand over her mouth.

“Emmie, wake up,” he said, thinking about knives. At least one of them had a knife. It would would leave long cuts that would bleed and he would scream and by Vasek’s mercy his nose itched. He was going to sneeze again. Emmie’s eyes finally flew open and she tried to scream in his hand.

“Please be quiet, Emmie, we’re in trouble,” Olivaer said. He turned his head away and sneezed into his shoulder. Don’t think about her, think about something else. Think about the dry summer and the poor farmers. Think about those men gutting you if you don’t move faster.

“Who are you?” Emmie gasped, yanking the covers up to her chin. “What are you doing here?”

Emmie was afflicted with what had been categorized by scholars as a Curse of the Mind, a particularly bad one passed down from her grandfather, Tias Kalor, who owned the house. Every time she woke up, she would forget everyone she knew, even if she had been around them for years. Olivaer had been a student in Tias’s house for five months now. He had to introduce himself to her every day. Most days he had to introduce himself to Tias as well.

“I’m a friend,” Olivaer said quickly. “Thieves are inside the house. We have to run.” He grabbed up another nearby garment and sneezed into it. Only then did he realize it was one of Emmie’s shifts and he flung it away like it was on fire. Vasek’s mercy, don’t think about that. The man must be up the stairs by now, would he be able to hear them? “We have to climb out the window.”

Just then a tremendous crash came from downstairs. Someone must have toppled one of the bookcases that covered the whole wall. Other than her inability to recognize faces, Emmie was a smart and practical girl. She realized that sound meant danger, and she jumped out of the bed, grabbed a cloak hanging on the wall, and put it on.

Olivaer, who still wore only his bed linens, he realized with embarrassment, pushed the window shutters open one at a time. It let out onto a shallow slanted roof. From there they could climb down a nearby oak to the ground. Emmie had done it hundreds of times, having grown up in the house. She had shown Olivaer once or twice, on those rare days when she felt particularly daring around him. He helped her through the window as best he could, holding her hand to help her balance.

When she was through, a sneeze exploded out of him without warning. Then another, and another, wracking his body like convulsions. It was the touch of her hand.

The door crashed open and a man, presumably Lakus, stood there holding a flickering lantern in one hand and a small hand axe in the other. His face was covered by shadows but a hook nose made him look like a strange bird. “Hey, come back here,” he growled.

Olivaer grabbed a book from a nearby table and threw it at the man, then awkwardly drug himself through the window, feeling dizzy from the sudden sneezes, and Emmie was there to help him. He sneezed again. “I’m okay,” he managed to get out. “Go on, I’m right behind you.” He sneezed, feeling like his skull would burst. Vasek take these sneezes!

Emmie looked at him with more than a little suspicion and looked like she might say something, but then a hairy arm thrust out of the window and she screamed and jumped back. Olivaer rolled away from Lakus’s groping hand while Emmie shuffled quickly down the roof to the tree. She climbed onto a large oak branch and shimmied down the tree like it were no more challenging than a ladder, even wearing the bulky cloak.

Olivaer was nowhere near as agile as Emmie, having been cursed with only one arm long before the sneezes began. That was his Curse of Misery. Only a fleshy nub protruded from his left shoulder. He tottered down the roof and found a solid limb to hold. When he stepped onto a branch, an anxious voice shouted out from the open window. “Stop there, you bastard!”

Thoughts of Emmie, his watery eyes, and his itching nose vanished when he looked back at Lakus leaning out of the window. He had his small axe raised in his hand, preparing to throw it. At him.

Olivaer moved quicker than he ever had in his life. In that moment, he moved like he had two arms and lived in trees all his life. Something whipped by his head and glanced off the trunk of the tree, sending wood chips into his face. He ignored them and descended, feeling some satisfaction that the hook-nosed Lakus cursed fluently behind him. Of course, three-quarters of the way down he lost his grip and fell the last five feet, thumping to the ground on his back.

Emmie rushed over to see if he was all right. “I’m Olivaer,” he said, staring up at her and rubbing his nose. It was an automatic thing to say to her each day, which she normally seemed to appreciate, but at the moment, she just gave him a grim expression. She helped him climb to his feet. He stretched his back, but it didn’t feel like anything had broken.

“Thank you, Olivaer,” she said. “I’m sorry but I don’t remember you.” She always looked a little embarrassed but mostly sad when she admitted that. Part of the curse was knowing that she was unable to remember anyone. Tias had kept his desk covered with sketches and names of people that he reviewed each day, and Emmie also had a collection of portraits, but they were probably back in her room. She was quite a talented artist.

“We’d better get out of here,” Olivaer said after a fierce sneeze. “Let’s go down to the sheriff’s house. You go on, I’ll be right behind you.”

He watched her trot away down the street, and his nose felt better. He had discovered that the sneezing fits only came when he was close to women that he cared strongly for. Some people got sweaty palms, or tongue-tied. He sneezed until his nose bled. With a sigh, he trotted after her. He told himself over and over that his curse was not as bad as some. Many people had curses that made them sick, or weak, or miserable in some way or another. Some had to be cared for all their lives. A few people were cursed to change into animals; sheep, or dogs, or even snakes. Those were bad, but the worst were the people cursed to kill, or to die a painful death.

Farenhill had hard-packed clay streets which worked well in dry weather but turned into a miserable, slick mess when it rained. Fortunately, with no rain in sight, it was an easy jog to the sheriff’s house, two blocks down.

But before they had gone far, Olivaer saw a small group of men standing in the street a block from Tias’s house. Among them, he saw Sheriff Watts, the person he was looking for. What was going on? The sheriff did not look pleased to see him running around town in his small clothes.

“Sheriff, there are men in—” he started, but the gruff old man cut him off.

“I know there are men. They’re looking for Tias, son. They got me out of bed a while ago. Didn’t say what they were after, just said they wanted to question him. Said they came from Siom, on the king’s orders.”

“But they killed him!” Olivaer said. “At least they stabbed him. We just got out—”

“What? Who stabbed who?”

“Those men stabbed Tias.” Olivaer tried to contain his impatience. “You’ve got to do something. He might still be alive in there, bleeding to death.”

Sheriff Watts looked dubious. “They were king’s men, son,” he said. “Said Tias was suspected of stealing the king’s property. They almost tore my head off when I tried to make sense of it. Told me in no uncertain terms to stay out of it.”

Emmie walked up beside Olivaer. “They didn’t act like king’s men, sir,” she said. “They chased us. If it weren’t for—” she waved at Olivaer for a moment, trying to remember his name “—for … Olivaer, I would probably be dead. Or worse.”

A pair of men came from Tias’s house strode toward them. They both wore patchwork clothing of leather and wool, not the quality of noblemen, but also not the sort found in Farenhill. They wore swords at their belts, which they slid free of their sheathes as they drew them. One had long dark hair and a beard, the other was clean-shaven with short blond hair.

Sheriff Watts took a step forward and held up his hand. “Hold there, good men,” he said. “No need for those.”

Olivaer saw with alarm that none of the men in the sheriff’s group were armed with anything more than knives and fists. He shrunk back and tried to stand protectively in front of Emmie, and ignored the itching in his nose.

“Sheriff, I’ll need to question those two as well,” the blond-haired man said in a cold voice, a voice that Olivaer immediately recognized as belonging to the man who had stabbed Tias. “Stand aside.”

“That’s him,” Olivaer said. “He killed Tias, sheriff. Stabbed him.”

“What’s this I hear about a killing?” Sheriff Watts said to the two men. “You didn’t say anything about—”

“Stand aside, old man,” the blond man said. “In the name of the king, I command all of you men to stand aside.” He took a menacing step forward toward the sheriff. He held his blade down, but Olivaer could see his hand muscles flexing on the hilt.

“You can ask your questions from there,” Watts said. The sheriff was near fifty years old, and walked with a limp, but Olivaer had never seen the man intimidated by anything or anyone. He stood eye-to-eye with the blond stranger with no hint of fear in his voice.

The blond man with the cold voice scowled and gestured with his free hand to his partner, and they both raised their blades. Watts moved with unnatural speed when the swords came up. He stepped in and grappled with the blond man’s sword arm, wrestling for control. The other men with the sheriff moved to help. A general melee developed between the two swordsmen and the sheriff’s men right there in the clay street.

Olivaer wasted no time to see how the fight turned out. “Come on,” he said, grabbing Emmie’s arm to avoid her skin. The two of them ran.

#

Farenhill was a very small town, housing perhaps one hundred families in total, surrounded by hundreds of acres of farmland. Olivaer led Emmie along the main road out of town to the farm of the widow Iswa Dodsin, where they hid inside the widow’s barn with the draft horses. He picked widow Dodsin’s farm because he knew that her dog had died recently and she had not had the heart to find another, so there would be no commotion as they prowled around the farm. Neither of them had seen any signs of pursuit, but Olivaer did not want to take any chances. The widow’s two old mares barely made a sound at their presence.

When dawn arrived, he planned to ask the widow if she had any spare clothes he could borrow. It was embarrassing to walk around without proper clothes, and besides, the hay in the barn was scratching at his skin.

“Olivaer, who is Tias?” Emmie said tentatively. She sat huddled in her cloak as if she were cold.

Olivaer stared at her. Of course she wouldn’t remember him. Her own grandfather. It was a strange world they lived in. “He is … a scholar. A nice man. But I think he’s dead.”

“That’s awful,” Emmie said. “Did you know him well? Was he studying history as well?”

“Yes, I think so,” Olivaer said. “I have only known him for a few months, but I considered him a friend.” He didn’t think it would be a good idea to tell her that Tias owned the house and all of the history books that she read. She might then start wondering why she lived there with him, and that might lead her to wonder if she knew Tias more closely than he let on, and she might start crying.

A powerful series of sneezes erupted from his nose, making his head throb. He got up and wandered to the barn door, murmuring apologies and something about being allergic to hay. Emmie seemed to understand. She knew about the curses, and though few people spoke openly about them, everyone these days made allowances for odd behavior.

Peeking through the barn door, he saw no sign of anyone moving outside, for which he was glad. The horizon had begun to brighten a little.

He wondered what kind of crystal those men had been looking for, and why they thought Tias Kalor had it. Tias owned a lot of arcane collections of pottery, books, and other trinkets, but Olivaer had never seen much jewelry. Tias certainly never wore any. He was a very modest man, though he seemed to have quite a store of riches for someone living in the remote town of Farenhill. He always had coins to buy the things he needed.

He wondered about what Tias had said before he’d been stabbed. Something about sprouting wings and a striped moon. It was an odd thing for him to say. Tias was an eccentric man, but Olivaer had never known him to speak gibberish like that before. He supposed that when faced with a strange, knife-wielding vandal, anything might pop out of one’s mouth.

When the golden tip of the sun broke over the flat eastern horizon, Olivaer started to go to the widow’s house.

“Olivaer, wait,” Emmie said. She lifted a musty woolen riding cloak from a peg on the wall. “Put this on so you don’t scare the poor woman.”

Olivaer blushed and wrapped himself in the cloak, which was so long it drug the ground. It had clearly been made for a much larger person, probably the widow’s husband, who had been a hulking figure of a man. It smelled of dust and mildew, and he sneezed, this time for completely ordinary reasons.

They noticed smoke rising from the direction of the town, and they both had a sinking feeling they knew which house had been set on fire. They hurried to the farm house.

The widow Dodsin was a plump woman in her fifties, the kind of woman who would say a kind word to everyone she met. Her face lit up when she opened her door and found Olivaer and Emmie there.

“Why, good morning to you Olivaer. And Emmie. Whatever are you two doing on my doorstep so early this morning?”

“Good morning to you as well, goodmother,” Olivaer said with a respectful nod of his head and a smile. “This is very embarrassing to ask, but would you be willing to loan us some clothes for the day?”

Iswa Dodsin’s face looked puzzled for a moment, then she took in their appearance and her mouth turned down into a frown. Olivaer suddenly realized that they were both wrapped in cloaks as if neither one of them had any clothes on underneath, and he rushed to try to explain, blood rushing to his face. “Oh, no, goodmother! It’s not what it looks like. We didn’t … I mean, we aren’t … I mean, some men broke into Tias’s house and we had to escape quickly out the window. Not that we both were in the same room! I mean—” He had to stop when the sneezes took hold of him, and he felt like they would kill him this time.

#

After finding them both some suitable clothes, the widow decided that she would accompany them back into town, to see what all of the fuss was about. She said that she had not heard of anything so exciting as murder and arson in Farenhill since she was a girl, when Nillom Fabersin famously went mad after he caught his wife with another man. Nillom had murdered them both with an axe, then burned his own farm to the ground. The sheriff at the time found him sitting on the ground by the lake with his head in his hands, covered with blood, the grisly axe right there on the ground beside him. He never said a single word, even as they hanged him.

Olivaer found it disturbing that the widow Iswa delighted in telling the ghastly story so much. He thought about trying to explain to her that Emmie was the murder victim’s granddaughter, and it was slightly rude to talk about it so lightly in her presence, but his efforts would probably be lost on her.

Olivaer’s heart sank when he saw what was left of Tias Kalor’s house. One half of it had burned to charcoal, and the remaining parts smoldered, ready to catch fire at any moment. As he watched, he saw flames flicker up to catch another part of a wall on fire. Tias’s prized books were so much ash now. The upper story had collapsed, leaving little but debris in the place he had lived for the past five months.

Emmie held her hand over her mouth and stared, huddling in her cloak. She had lived there her whole life. The widow Iswa put an arm around her shoulder to comfort her. Olivaer felt a pang of jealousy and wished he could do the same, but his nose itched at the thought of it. He walked closer to the wreckage.

“There you are,” Sheriff Watts said, limping up to them. His arm was in a sling, and there was a white cloth wrapped around his head with a tiny red stain of blood seeping through.

“Sheriff, are you all right?” Olivaer said. “What happened to those men?”

“I’ve been worse,” he said with a shrug. “Old Jollim didn’t fare as well though. He’ll be in bed for a while. Got a bad cut on the ribs. That man never knew how to stay out of trouble. As for those men, they ran away when they saw they were outnumbered. They sure didn’t fight like any king’s men I ever saw. Swords or no, we took care of them. I counted four in total. The other two must have set fire to the house before they left. Sorry for your loss, son. Tias was a strange one but he was a good man.”

“Why would the king send men after someone like Tias Kalor?” Olivaer asked, scratching at his nose. “I don’t believe he stole anything, least of all from the king.”

Watts looked at him and then at Emmie for a time. “I don’t believe it either, son. Might have something to do with the old days, though. Tias was a famous man once, you know. Maybe his past caught up with him.”

“Tias, famous?” Olivaer said. “For what? I know he wrote some books, but I didn’t know they made him famous.”

The sheriff had stopped listening to him, staring at something down the street over his shoulder with a frown on his face. “Who’s this then?” he muttered.

Olivaer turned and saw a lone man on a tan horse walking into town, the horse’s hooves clopping on the hard clay as if it was stone. Olivaer thought he knew most everyone who lived in Farenhill, and he had never seen this man before. He wore a red coat with gold brocade on the sleeves, with a black square sigil stitched on the breast, marking him as a stranger to this part of the country if the bulging saddlebags indicating a long journey did not. He had long blond hair and a well-defined, clean-shaven face, unmarked by tattoos warning of dangerous curses, Olivaer noted. The stranger looked around the town with bright interest. He caught sight of them and steered toward them at a leisurely pace, as if he had all of the time in the world. As he came closer, Olivaer saw that he was armed with a sword and a bow, though the bow, at least, was unstrung on the saddle.

“Good morning to you gentle folk,” the man said, nodding respectfully. “I am Roduk Mongield. Could one of you direct me to the residence of Tias Kalor? A farmer told me that he lived in town.”

Watts gave Olivaer a look, and the sheriff’s hand fell to the handle of a knife at his belt. “You found it, sir. What is your business here?”

Roduk did not appear to notice the sheriff’s threatening gesture or tone. “Are you Tias Kalor?” he asked excitedly. “I’ve ridden a long way to speak with you—”

“I’m not Tias,” Watts growled. “I’m the sheriff. Sheriff Watts, that is.” He nodded toward the smoking house. “Tias lived there.”

Roduk took in the demolished structure for the first time and his pleasant expression froze. He muttered under his breath, “No, no, no.” He dismounted quickly and approached them with a serious expression, holding the reigns of his horse. “Please, do you know where he is? It’s urgent that I speak with him.”

“He’s dead,” Watts said. “The man that killed him asked to speak with him, too.”

Roduk looked like he had been struck in the stomach. “Dead? No, that’s not possible. That can’t be. I rode for days to get here, and he’s dead?” Then he looked up sharply. “You said there was a man that wanted to speak with him. What man? When?”

“Last night,” Olivaer said.

“Last night? He was killed last night?” Roduk stared up at the sky and clutched both hands to his head. “One day. One day faster and I could have talked to one of the Three.”

One of the Three? Tias?

“We don’t want any more trouble here, son,” Watts said. Roduk looked to be in his early twenties, but Watts called everyone under forty ‘son.’ “Tias is dead and nothing’s going to change that now. If you know who did it, though, I’d appreciate hearing some names.”

“I don’t know who killed him,” Roduk said woodenly, staring at the charred house like his own mother had died there. “I wish I did. What did they look like?”

“One of them had a hard face,” Watts said. “Short hair. Had a birth mark on his neck that looked like a spider. The other one had a beard. They said they were king’s men. Wanted to question Tias, just like you.”

“They were asking about some crystal,” Olivaer said, and instantly regretted it.

Roduk’s head whipped around and his eyes burrowed into Olivaer’s. The stranger suddenly seemed to loom over him. “Did they find it? The crystal? Tell me!”

“I—I don’t think so,” Olivaer stammered, taking a half step back. “I don’t know.”

“Step back, son,” Watts said, putting a hand gently on Roduk’s chest. “Calm down. What’s all this about a crystal? You didn’t mention that before, Olivaer.”

Roduk stepped away and gathered his composure with a visible effort. He ran a hand through his hair, brushing blond locks out of his face. “You were there when it happened? Olivaer, was it? I’m sorry if I startled you, Olivaer. It’s just that I’ve ridden a long way to get here.”

“I overheard the murderer asking about a crystal, that’s all,” Olivaer said. “Tias didn’t tell him where it was, though.” You will sprout wings and fly over a striped moon before you ever find it. “Then the man killed him.”

“Did you live there with him?” Roduk asked hopefully.

“I’ve only been studying his books for a few months,” Olivaer said. “He took me on as a student.”

“Oh, a budding scholar, eh?” Roduk said. “That’s great. Not enough people read. It keeps the mind sharp, I say. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“I lived there,” Emmie broke in, making Olivaer jump. He hadn’t noticed her join the conversation. His nose started itching.

“Oh? And who are you, good lady?” Roduk asked.

“Emmie. Emmie Kalor.” She had a hard expression on her face. “I heard your conversation just now. The man you were looking for is named Tias Kalor?”

Olivaer winced.

Roduk noted Olivaer’s expression and nodded slowly. “It is nice to meet you Emmie. Are you … related?”

“I suppose I am, but I don’t remember him. You could have told me, Olivaer.”

“I’m sorry, Emmie. I didn’t want to upset you.”

“How could I be upset?” Emmie said ruefully. “I don’t even know what he looks like. Now I suppose I never will. All my sketches were in the house.”

Roduk’s brow was creased as he tried to follow the conversation. “Forgive me, but I’m not sure I understand.”

“Emmie is his granddaughter,” Watts said, a note of pity creeping into his voice. “Has a hard time remembering people sometimes, same as Tias.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me!” Emmie declared, glaring at the sheriff. “You don’t have to say it like I’m … like I’m a cripple.” The widow Iswa put a comforting hand on her arm.

A cripple like me, Olivaer thought, wishing he could be somewhere else.

“Of course, dearie,” Watts said quickly, relenting under both women’s stares. “Didn’t mean anything by it. Everyone knows you’re the smartest kid in town.”

“Well, this is certainly an interesting town,” Roduk said into the awkward silence that followed, smiling broadly. “I have been riding for quite some time, sheriff. Is there somewhere I could stable my horse for a time and get a drink and a meal?”

“Janen’s place, right down the street,” Watts said, gesturing in the general direction. “It’s not much, but he’ll take care of you.”

“I thank you for your help,” Roduk said to the sheriff. He turned to Olivaer and Emmie, his expression open and inviting. “I would love to talk with you two some more, if you don’t mind. Have you eaten yet? Will you join me for breakfast?”

Olivaer’s stomach chose that moment to rumble. Still, he would have declined the invitation if Emmie hadn’t piped up and said, “I would like that.” Roduk’s face lit up with delight at her response, and Emmie smiled back at him. Olivaer realized that the man had one of those faces that girls usually liked. Before he knew it, he had sneezed again.

#

Jenen had lived in Farenhill his whole life, and as far as Olivaer knew, had never been physically more than a few miles from the center of town. But as the only innkeeper in Farenhill—if a house with two spare rooms could be called an inn—he had managed to collect stories from everyone who came through the town, not to mention all of the stories of his father, who owned the inn before him, so that one could believe the plump, gray-haired man had spent all of his youth traveling around the world.

"Here you go," Jenen said, setting out a block of cheese and bread on the table. His wife, following close behind, set out three bowls of porridge and honey. "Give a shout if you need anything else," the innkeeper said.

"You are too kind," Roduk said. He put his face over the porridge and breathed in the steam. "This smells delicious, goodmother," he added.

Jenen’s wife beamed and curtsied briefly before the pair retired to the back room.

"I have not had a decent meal in weeks," Roduk said, and began to spoon the porridge into his mouth as if he had not even eaten in weeks.

The three of them were alone in the small common room. Other tables were scattered around the edges of the room to accommodate more people, but Olivaer had never seen more than a dozen men and women inside before. The morning’s fire burned brightly in the corner, heating an iron cooking pot.

“So tell me your stories,” Roduk said around his spoon, eying Olivaer and Emmie across the table.

Olivaer glanced at Emmie, who shrugged and put a piece of bread in her mouth. Olivaer’s nose itched, and he supposed he would have to go first.

“I … don’t have a story,” Olivaer said hesitantly. “I was interested in Tias’s books, so he took me on as a student.”

“How long has he lived here?” Roduk asked.

“As long as I can remember,” Olivaer said, and Emmie nodded to confirm it. “He has always kept to himself, though, so not very many people really know him. He stays in his house most days, reading and writing. He was working on a compendium of pottery styles from around the continent.”

Roduk laughed at that. “Pottery! Amazing. How did he keep the glory-seekers away?”

“Glory-seekers? What do you mean? Nobody ever came to visit him, that I know of. He was a scholar, he never sought any glory.”

Roduk stared at them as if he had just heard the sun had vanished from the sky. “You don’t know who he is, do you?” Their expressions must have confirmed it. “Are you saying you two don’t know that Tias Kalor—your own grandfather, miss—was one of the Three who defeated Noxamu?”

Olivaer felt like his mouth must have fallen open. “Tias? I don’t believe it. He couldn’t have.”

Emmie looked puzzled. “What three? I thought Noxamu was a legend.”

It was Roduk’s turn to open his eyes wide. Olivaer rushed to explain before Roduk could say anything to embarrass her. “Noxamu was a man who terrorized Sioma a long time ago. He claimed to be descended from the gods. Not many people know much about that out here in Farenhill.” He directed that last to Roduk to explain their ignorance.

“Forty years gone now,” Roduk said to Emmie in a tone of reverence, “Noxamu spread fear and destruction through Sioma, until he was banished by three heroes: A warrior, a priest, and a scholar. Tias Kalor was the scholar. He never mentioned that? The whole time he lived here?”

Olivaer and Emmie both shook their heads. Tias? A hero? Olivaer could hardly wrap his mind around it. The man who could not remember his own granddaughter without a reminder every morning?

“How could he?” Olivaer said. “I mean, how could he do anything … heroic? He had a curse—”

“There were no curses back then,” Roduk said. “They came when Noxamu cursed the Three and all of Sioma with his last breath, calling on his father among the gods to avenge him. Ever since that day, every child has been born with a curse. I thought you were students. Haven’t you read any history?”

“I study plants,” Emmie said with a shrug, clearly indicating that she had no use for history.

Olivaer did read history, but Tias only had books about ancient history, stories from thousands of years ago, when winged beasts ruled the sky and people huddled in caves to survive.

“Ah, youth,” Roduk said, throwing up his hands. He had finished his porridge and now waved a piece of cheese toward them for emphasis. “Such as waste. Young minds should fill their heads with knowledge.”

“You aren’t that much older than us,” Emmie said, pointing her spoon back at him accusingly. “How do you know so much about Noxamu?”

“My employer filled in a lot of the details, to be honest,” Roduk said. “He’s a scholar himself.”

“Who is he?” Olivaer asked.

Roduk looked at them suspiciously. “He prefers to stay anonymous,” he said. “He pays me well, and I didn’t ask a lot of questions. The point is, he hired me to find the three crystals that were used to trap Noxamu’s soul. Somehow he knew that Tias Kalor could be found here in Farenhill, but he didn’t know where to find the others. Do either of you know where Tias might have kept a crystal? Did he have a place he kept valuables? A box? A chest? A hidden room?”

“He had a desk,” Olivaer said. “But it’s probably burned now. I don’t know where else he might have kept a crystal. How big is it?”

“It fits in your hand, that’s all I know. I think we should go have a look at what’s left of the house.”

#

[This section is just a quick summary to bridge between the sections.]

Sifting through the remains of the house was painful for Olivaer. He had only known Tias Kalor well for six months, but he had grown fond of the man and his strange ways. He had an eccentric personality that gave him an almost comical air. It was hard to imagine him as a hero of any sort. But Olivaer supposed that the curse had been a serious impairment to his abilities. Tias could not remember faces, but what else had been stripped from him after defeating Noxamu?

Tias’s desk had been burned to cinders, and even after poking through the remains with a stick, Roduk found nothing but chunks of wood and some melted silver.

Roduk had been counting on talking to Tias to find the locations of the other two Heroes and their crystals. He only knew their names: Lyeale Del, a priest, and Warom Reirdun, a swordsman of noble birth. That sparked a memory in Olivaer: He once overheard Tias talking about a woman named Lyeale. He thought he’d said she lived in a forest. Roduk grew excited and started to make plans to travel to the forest the next day.

Olivaer had once promised Tias to help Emmie get to Siom if anything happened to him. There she could live with her closest relatives. Realizing the forest was on the way to Siom, and being intensely curious about Roduk’s quest and eager to end the curses as well, Olivaer decided to go with Roduk. Roduk dubbed Olivaer his “squire.” The three of them set out on horseback for the forest.

On the road to the forest, a man with a tattoo of a skull on his cheek—a mark indicating the man had a curse which could be dangerous to others—tried to rob them.

Later, they began to suspect that someone was following them.

#

The air seemed to chill around them as they followed the narrow path into the forest, riding single file. The morning fog had not yet burned away, making the trees look like somber ghosts standing watch in a silent vigil that had gone on for centuries. At times, fir trees seemed to form curved walls at the edges of the path, reminding Olivaer of a cave. It was disconcerting to ride through them.

Roduk led the procession, seemingly unconcerned, letting his tan stallion walk at a comfortable pace. Emmie, following behind, stared at the misty trees with wide eyes. Her head swiveled in every direction as if expecting something to jump at them. Olivaer could hardly blame her. The trees did seem to close in on them.

“It’s here,” Roduk called out at last, grinning back at them. “She’s really here.”

They entered a clearing surrounded by old oaks and pines which seemed to lean inward, forming a canopy of limbs and leaves over the area. To Olivaer it felt like entering a strange cave of trunks, roots, and leaves. The ground was covered with a peaty mixture of dead leaves, old limbs, and dirt, from which not a single blade of grass grew. To one side, a small pond looked to have formed around a natural spring. There was a stone statue in front of the pond, with a wooden bench before it. On the opposite side of the clearing, there was a tall building that might loosely be called a wooden frame house. Looking at it, Olivaer wondered how it stood upright. It seemed to be made of sharp angles all around, none of which lined up correctly, and there was a noticeable lean to the entire structure. He saw only one window, staring like an eye from beneath a sharply angled ‘A’ frame at a height that indicated there must be two stories inside. A pair of hens wandered about near the house, and a nearby pen held a half dozen small pigs.

Roduk reigned to a stop ten yards from the house. His stallion tossed his head and looked askance at the house. “Hail!” Roduk announced. “Is anyone here? We mean no harm.” The trees and fog swallowed his voice.

Emmie stopped beside Roduk, but Olivaer held his roan at the edge of the clearing. His nose itched uncomfortably.

“We have traveled a great distance,” Roduk continued. “We were told that Lyeale Del lives here. I wish to speak with her.” Some of the pigs squealed at the disturbance.

Olivaer thought he saw a flicker of movement in the window, but it could have easily been a shadow. Someone must live here, though. The pigs and chickens were testament to that. Surely Lyeale would speak with them. Olivaer did not believe the stories that she had gone mad living out here alone in the forest; she was only being cautious, as anyone would. That was all.

“Please,” Roduk said, his voice losing some of its enthusiasm. “I swear we mean no harm. We just want to talk.”

Roduk looked back at Olivaer, silently asking if he had any ideas. Olivaer shrugged. He knew no more about Lyeale Del than Roduk did. The old librarian Tias had never said anything about her except where she lived.

“Perhaps she is out,” Emmie said. She could not keep an edge of anxiety from her voice.

“Perhaps so,” Roduk said. “I refuse to believe we traveled all this way for nothing. She must be here. I suppose we’ll wait for a while to see if she appears.”

They dismounted near the pond and allowed the horses to drink. The statue was a finely carved sculpture of the Tihabae, Goddess of the Moon, standing with her hands outstretched in welcome and her robes wafting. Her hair twisted all the way from her head down to her feet. The customary third eye in her forehead was closed. The expression on her face seemed pained, but somehow inviting at the same time.

“Move away from there,” a voice said.

They turned to see an old woman standing outside of the house, draped in dark brown robes that trailed the ground. Fine white hair sprouted from a mottled head and fell down in a tangle around her face. She stared at them with dark, accusing eyes.

“That is holy ground,” the woman said. Her voice was low but Olivaer had no difficulty hearing her even over the sounds of leaves rustling in the breeze and clucking chickens.

Roduk stepped toward her with a reverent expression on his face. “We mean no offense,” he said quickly. “Are you Lyeale Del?”

“I know that name,” the woman said, suspicion clear in her eyes. “None have sought her for long years.”

Roduk paused, confused. Was this Lyeale or wasn’t it? He came to a decision and pressed onward. “It is an honor to meet you,” he said with one of his easy smiles. “My name is Roduk Mongield. I have been looking forward to speaking with you, if you will agree to it.”

Olivaer glanced at Emmie. She stood behind her mare, clearly afraid of the woman. He placed himself midway between her and the old woman, wrinkling his nose to keep a sneeze down.

“I am in no mood for conversation, boy,” Lyeale said coldly. “Leave this place.”

Roduk continued unperturbed. “Goodmother, I would ask only a few moments of your time. I am on a very important mission and I think you can help me.”

“How did you find this place?” the woman asked.

Roduk glanced at Olivaer. “My friend knew of your general location,” he said. “The local farmers led us to your house. This is Olivaer, a student of someone you may know. Tias Kalor.”

Lyeale turned her gaze on Olivaer, her expression growing even more suspicious, if that were possible. Her face bore deep wrinkles of age and consternation, but her eyes were sharp and penetrating. “What do you know of Tias Kalor?”

Olivaer cleared his throat. “I studied in his library. In Farenhill? He was a brilliant man.”

Lyeale snorted. “Brilliant. Once, maybe. Who is that cowering behind the horses? Her face is familiar.”

“Emmie Kalor,” Roduk said. “His granddaughter. Come out and say hello, Emmie.”

Lyeale’s face contorted. “Keep her away from me!” she snapped. Emmie shrunk back as if slapped. “No wonder my head is pounding so,” Lyeale said, backing toward the door of her house. “If you two knew so much about me you should have known to leave her behind.”

Roduk frowned. “I don’t understand, goodmother.”

“Of course you don’t,” Lyeale said. “Nobody understands anything.” She took a moment to collect herself, or perhaps just to decide what she wanted to tell them. “The curse keeps us apart. The three of us, and our kin. If we get too close, it hurts, here.” She stabbed a finger at her temple. “Do you understand that?”

“Of course,” Roduk said smoothly. “I apologize for your discomfort.” He turned to Olivaer and spoke in a low tone. “Can you take her to the path, Olivaer? And come back when you’re done.”

“Take your horses away from there, too,” Lyeale called out when she saw Olivaer going to them. “I better not find any dung out there.”

Olivaer walked the horses to the edge of the clearing where the path started, and Emmie was all too happy to follow. “Will you watch the horses, Emmie?” Olivaer asked. “I’m sure we won’t be long.”

Emmie nodded. “Be careful. She scares me.”

“Me too.” Olivaer turned away quickly before the sneeze overtook him. He walked away quickly, rubbing at his watering eyes. When he returned, Lyeale stood with her arms folded, watching him. She looked like a hawk eying a field mouse.

“Is your headache better, goodmother?” Roduk asked.

“What do you two want from me?” Lyeale demanded, ignoring Roduk’s question. “If you’re looking for tales of high adventure, you can leave now. I’ve said all I care to say about the old days.”

Olivaer wondered where she had said those things. Perhaps there were chronicles in the Royal Library in Siom.

“I’m not looking for tales,” Roduk said. “But I am interested in the old days, yes. I am looking for the three crystals that you brought back from Noxamu’s lair.”

Lyeale kept her eyes on Olivaer for some reason. “What crystals?” she said.

“I was told there are three crystals holding Noxamu’s essence,” Roduk said. “After you and the others defeated Noxamu, it was said that you drained his essence into three crystals and hid them. I’m afraid I don’t know what they look like. None of the histories mention them.”

“How do you know there are crystals if it isn’t in the histories?” Lyeale asked.

“My patron knew of them,” Roduk said. “And Olivaer has heard Tias talk of them. Tias was killed by men looking for a crystal.”

“How did Tias deal with his curse?” Lyeale asked suddenly, still staring at Olivaer.

“The same as anyone I suppose,” Olivaer said with a shrug. “He learned to live with it. He kept notes about important people on his desk. He went over them every morning.”

Lyeale chuckled. “Learned to live with it, eh?”

“We all have to live with our curses,” Roduk said. He gave Olivaer a look that clearly said, don’t upset her.

“Some are worse than others, though, yes?” Lyeale said. “That’s why some people have tattoos, eh? They get locked up away from others. Tias got away with an easy one, I think. Forgetting faces. Not so bad. I suppose that child cowering by the horses has the same. Well, Warom got much worse. And me—” She shook her head and stopped talking.

It was considered rude to ask about a person’s curses, so Roduk refrained from asking the obvious question. Olivaer wondered again what curses Roduk kept hidden from them. Whatever they were, they weren’t as obvious as his missing arm and his sneezing.

“Goodmother, the crystals?” Roduk said politely. “Do you know of them?”

“Stop calling me that,” Lyeale said. “I have no children. And if I knew about any crystals, I wouldn’t tell two strangers about them. No good can come of those things anyway. There’s only one thing you can do with those crystals and believe me, nobody wants that. We went through hell and damnation to get rid of Noxamu. I went through hell. More than you can ever know.” Her voice raised to shrillness.

Roduk cleared his throat delicately and waited for Lyeale’s ire to fade. “I believe the crystals can be used to remove the curses.”

Lyeale’s eyes bulged for a moment, and then she laughed, a high-pitched, cackling sound that grated on Olivaer’s nerves. She laughed until it seemed she might fall down. Roduk hurried over to steady her, but she pulled away.

“Leave me be, child,” she said, still chuckling. “Someone has been filling your head with lies. Who gave you such a daft idea?”

Roduk appeared to be somewhere between insulted and embarrassed. “I was hired by a scholar of some renown, who has studied the subject. He explained that there was no danger of Noxamu returning if there was no body for him to inhabit. And his body is long gone, thanks to you and the other two. My patron believes that bringing the three crystals together will be enough to remove the curses.”

Lyeale squinted at Roduk, trying to decide if he were being truthful or not. “Your renowned scholar seems to have forgotten that Noxamu’s essence can inhabit anyone. Anyone who happens to be there. That means whoever brings the three crystals together will become Noxamu.” She stared at them and unconsciously licked her lips. It was a small movement but it gave Olivaer the impression she was hiding something. “Who is this scholar? How is he renowned?”

“He prefers to remain anonymous,” Roduk said, the same answer he had given Olivaer a dozen times.

“He won’t tell me, either,” Olivaer said, hoping to bring some levity into the conversation. It was getting far too serious.

Lyeale, however, ignored him. “How convenient. You should be wary of anyone who wants to find the crystals,” she said, jabbing a finger at Roduk. “There are those who wish to see Noxamu return and rule Sioma. Disciples. Followers. You aren’t one of those, are you?”

Now it was Roduk’s turn to laugh. “No, goodmo—good woman. I am certainly no disciple of Noxamu. Truthfully I am not a religious man at all.”

“Not religious? You look at the world and see no gods in it? Everyone cursed, everyone suffering, every day? No, child, you are blind. The gods play with us like children’s toys. I know this for certain. The gods turned their backs on me. On all of us.” She heaved a sigh. “But it makes no matter if a person is religious or not. The gods don’t care.”

“Nevertheless,” Roduk said, “my only goal is to rid the world of these foul curses.”

And gather the rewards of fame, Olivaer thought. Lyeale huffed with disdain at Roduk and turned her hawk-like gaze to him. It took him a moment to realize she wanted to know if he was a secret disciple of Noxamu. He cleared his throat. “I don’t either. Follow Noxamu, that is.” He wondered if the man who killed Tias—the man with the spider birthmark on his neck—was a Disciple of Noxamu.

“That’s a shame,” Lyeale murmured. “And I suppose that girl child over there doesn’t even know who Noxamu is.”

“Can you tell us what you know of the crystals?” Roduk prompted again. Impatience tinged his voice now, though he hid it from his face well.

Lyeale smiled, meeting his gaze evenly. “I know enough to stay away from them.”

Roduk refused to acknowledge the rebuff. “Do you know where they are? Where we might find them?”

“What if I did? Would you torture an old woman to find out what she knows?”

Roduk looked shocked. “No, of course not. I would never think of such a thing. I am an honorable man on an honorable mission.”

“You said you seek to remove the curses,” Lyeale persisted, grinning. “Isn’t such a lofty cause worth the life of one old woman?”

“Why do you play these games with me?” Roduk said, straightening his coat and folding his arms. Patience drained completely from his face. “Can you help us or not? If the honor of our cause won’t affect you, I can pay handsomely for whatever information you can provide.”

Lyeale’s grin widened, showing teeth that would chew no more. “Your coins mean nothing out here. What would I buy? I have my pigs and chickens already.” She kicked at one of the hens wandering around her feet—in frustration, Olivaer thought—causing it to squawk and run away. “I am a simple woman of simple means. Forgive me my games. I do not get to talk with others out here. But now I think I have had enough. I know nothing of crystals.”

“Is it here?” Roduk asked sharply.

It happened so fast that Olivaer was not sure he’d seen it at all: Lyeale’s eyes flickered to the pond and back. “Leave here,” she said, and turned to go back into her house. She stopped and turned back. “Give up this foolishness before you get hurt. Or someone else gets hurt.” She disappeared inside the odd house and slammed the door shut.

“Did you—” Olivaer started.

“Not here,” Roduk snapped. He led them back to where Emmie waited with the horses. “I saw it, too,” he said quietly. “The pond. Or maybe that statue. There’s something here. I can feel it.”

“What are we going to do?” Olivaer asked. “We can’t just dig around her home without her permission, and I don’t think she would like us going near that shrine at all.”

“Shrine?” Roduk said.

“You really aren’t religious, are you? That statue and the bench is a shrine to Tihabae, the Moon Goddess. She must be a follower.” Something about that tickled his mind, but he could not drag it out of his memory. “Remember? She called it holy ground.”

“I remember,” Roduk mused, tapping his chin thoughtfully. He was staring at the pond with a far-away look in his eye. “Perhaps after dark …”

“No,” Olivaer said. “I won’t defile anyone’s property. Particularly an old woman’s.”

Roduk made a vexed expression. “I had to pick a squire with scruples. Don’t worry, we won’t defile her shrine.”

The shrine. “That’s it! That’s what’s wrong with it. It’s a shrine to Tihabae, the Moon Goddess.”

“So?”

“Lyeale was Siom’s High Priestess of the Sun,” Olivaer said. “It was well known at the time. She appealed to Zyveses, the Sun Goddess, to bless the water that they used on Noxamu. So why does she have a shrine to Tihabae now?”

Roduk looked at him with exasperation. “What are you ranting about? What does it matter what kind of shrine it is? Maybe she changed her mind and pledged to a different goddess.”

“Tihabae is a strange goddess to pick,” Olivaer said, watching the slanted house uneasily. “She is the goddess of mischief, and chaos, and the unexpected. The exact opposite of Zyveses. I wonder what happened to Lyeale back when they confronted Noxamu. It must have been something bad for her to renounce Zyveses.”

“I don’t think she is going to tell us anything,” Roduk said. “At least, not now. But I mean to stay until she does. If we wait out here, she is bound to talk to us sooner or later. She can’t ignore us forever. Come on, let’s find a place to camp. Somewhere that she can see us from that window.”

#

By the time the sun reached its zenith, they had cleared a small area in the forest and built a campfire pit. They had no real need for the fire, but Roduk said it would show the woman they meant to stay a long time. Emmie sat with her legs crossed, huddling as far from Lyeale’s house as she could. The headache had begun to affect her, too. Olivaer’s nose itched fiercely whenever he thought of her in pain, so he started to heat some water to make tea to take his mind off of it.

“How long do you think we’ll have to stay out here?” Olivaer said.

“I don’t think it will be long,” Roduk said, leaning against a tree and staring at Lyeale’s house. “It must irritate her to see us here. She’ll talk to us before the sun sets, I’ll wager.”

Roduk’s hopes of luring the woman out of her house soon disappeared. Hours passed with no sign of Lyeale. Olivaer spent the time writing down a chronicle of their encounter with Lyeale. He unrolled his writing supplies–feather quills and stoppered ink pots that he carried everywhere with him–and set about penning the words carefully into his journal book in fine script. He did not worry about neatness out here in the woods. He concentrated on getting the memories down accurately. Later, when he had access to a better place to write, he would transfer the words to a more permanent manuscript. He had nothing to dry his ink, so he had to blow on it. Still, it came out relatively smudge-free. When he was done, he had nothing else to do but watch Roduk pace back and forth, fidgeting with his sword belt.

“If you keep pacing like that, she’ll know she is getting to you,” Olivaer pointed out.

Roduk gave him a glare and kept pacing. “We’re running out of time. There are others after these crystals, and they are not far behind us. A day at most. Maybe even closer. They could be here any moment, in fact, while we are sitting here.” He stopped and came to a decision. “I’m going to talk to her again, if I have to break down the door. She must be convinced to give over her crystal.” With that, he marched away from the camp in the direction of Lyeale’s house.

Olivaer shared a look with Emmie. “Wait here,” he said. “I better go keep him out of trouble.”

She smiled and nodded, and his nose itched. He got up quickly and trotted after Roduk. Why did she have to smile at him? It was always worse then. Even as he thought it, he sneezed. He tried to put her out of his mind.

Roduk turned at the noise and gave him a stubborn look. “Don’t try to stop me.”

“I’m not,” Olivaer said, raising his hands in self-defense. The thought never crossed his mind to try to stop Roduk. He had only known the man for a few short weeks, but he could already tell that Roduk was a stubborn mule once he was set on a course. “I just want to hear what she has to say. For the records.”

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