By Martha Wells
Illustrated by Storn Cook
from Black Gate 10, copyright © 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Crouching on the rocky flat above the streambed, Ilias studied the sandy gravel below for tracks. “I wish this idiot would just give up so we could kill him and go home,” he said in irritation.
“He’s not that smart,” Giliead replied, sounding weary. He stood above Ilias on an outcrop, surveying the narrow valley where it wound down the mountain pass. The late afternoon light was failing rapidly, as somewhere past the gray clouds the sun sank and the heavy shadows grew under the pine forest covering the slopes. This stretch of the pass was godless and they had seen no trace of anyone alive for days, except the frantic stumbling tracks left by Pheneras.
Ilias pushed to his feet, absently brushing his hands off on his pants. “Can you catch his scent?” He shook the hair out of his eyes; his queue needed to be rebraided and his skin itched from long days of travel. He was wearing a sheepskin jerkin over his shirt, but the dampness in the air made the cold seep into his bones. Giliead didn’t look much better off: his chestnut braids had mostly unraveled and his shirt was still stained with blood from the curse Pheneras had thrown at him before the wizard had fled. They both wore swords strapped across their backs but carried horn bows, as the preferable way to kill a wizard was from as great a distance as possible.
Giliead frowned, still looking down to where the stream vanished into the darkening forest. “No. There’s something, but it’s not Pheneras. I’d know his scent anywhere. This is faint, barely there, and…. It comes and goes.” He shook his head, shrugging it off. “Maybe it’s my imagination.”
“I don’t like it when you imagine things,” Ilias grumbled, shouldering his pack and following him down into the streambed. Especially not out here, when the nearest god was in Theselae, several days walk down the mountain. Giliead had caught hints of old curses, most rendered harmless by age, all the way up the trail. In civilized country the gods kept curselings and wizards at bay to a certain extent; out here people had nothing to rely on but themselves. And they had been heading inland long enough that Ilias missed the sound of the sea; the lonely wind through the tall pines and the rush of rocky streams were a poor substitute.
He and Giliead were brothers though Ilias was only a ward of the family, and they didn’t look like blood relations. They were both Syprians but Ilias’ ancestors had come from inland, where people were smaller with lighter hair and skin. Giliead, from the bigger, darker strain born on the coast, was more heavily built and nearly a head taller. The biggest difference between them was that Giliead had been gifted at birth by the god that watched over Cineth, the city near his family’s farm; the gift made him into a Chosen Vessel with the ability to smell curses and see the traces they left in air, earth and water. Sometimes Ilias thought the gift was a curse in itself; some people feared Chosen Vessels almost as much as they did the wizards Giliead hunted and killed.
“Camp here?” Giliead asked. He looked annoyed and disgusted with their progress. Or their lack of progress. In going on seven years of killing wizards, they had never had one run this far or this long. “There’s no point in going further tonight.”
Ilias considered it, pausing to look around again. Large flat rocks and gravel were strewn down to the sandy flat that led to the banks of the stream. Down toward the woods, the shadows grew under the trees and ground mist crept up through the grass. It was a lonely view, and a cold one, but nothing made his hackles rise. “All right. If we can’t catch Pheneras tonight, at least we can catch dinner.”
Ilias meant to help, but Giliead had caught three drowsing fish in the shallows of the stream by the time Ilias had found a branch to make a good spear. But then Ilias, wandering the edge of the twilight woods, idly kicking the occasional pine cone or sitting on his heels to poke curiously into a hollow under an old beech, wasn’t actually looking that hard. Wet to the knees from wading into the deeper center of the stream, Giliead had the discourtesy to point this out, which led to splashing. Giliead, completely drenched but at least temporarily distracted from his preoccupation with killing Pheneras, came out of the water to tackle Ilias and wrestle him into laughing surrender on the prickly carpet of dead leaves and dirt beneath the pines.
Under the darkening gray sky the lively noise echoed off the cold hollows, and if anything listened, it remained silent.
Sitting in front of the fire waiting for the fish to cook, his damp clothes drying, Ilias was still finding pine needles in inconvenient places. Wriggling, he dug one out from down the back of his shirt, aiming a mock glare at Giliead. The glare failed to land as Giliead was staring abstractly into the dark outside their shelter, the firelight glinting off the copper of his earrings.
They had found a cleft in the rock above the stream, with room to spread their blankets and protected enough that they could build a small fire without worry that Pheneras would see it. Though the wizard was such a poor woodsman and so afraid of Giliead, Ilias wasn’t much worried about that. “Do you smell redberry?” Giliead asked suddenly.
Ilias snorted, more interested in poking at their dinner where it was baking on the flat rocks next to the fire. All he could smell was woodsmoke and damp earth and about to be overcooked fish. “It’s too early for redberry. And I think we’re too high up.”
Giliead stared out at the dark a moment more, then dismissed it, shaking his head. “Must be something else.”
“Then why did you ask me?” Ilias speared a fish with his knife, pulling it away from the fire. He eyed Giliead, noticing his distracted expression. “You feel all right?”
“I’m fine.” Giliead gave him an odd look, as if Ilias was the one asking the odd question about the local flora. Shrugging it off, he poked experimentally at his own fish. “I was sure we would have found him by now,” he added with a grimace.
“He’ll never make the Barrens,” Ilias said around a mouthful of fish, shaking his burned fingers. There were no gods in the desert lands on the far side of these mountains, and the empty territory was rotten with curselings and worse. Wizards lived as they liked there, keeping people like cattle; they also guarded their territory jealously and killed their own kind as often as they killed everyone else, but Pheneras had nowhere else to run at this point. Ilias eyed Giliead sharply. “It wasn’t your fault, you know.” He had said it at the time, but he knew it bore repeating.
There was nothing mock about the glare Giliead fixed on him. “I wasn’t thinking about that.”
Ilias lifted a brow. It wasn’t an image he was having any luck getting out of his head and he hadn’t seen it at close range; he knew it would be that much worse for Giliead. But he said, “I didn’t say you were.”
Pheneras had been a traveling merchant, using subtle curse-traps and poisons to rid himself of competition and make people pay extravagant prices for his wares. It was the killing of another merchant in Cineth that had drawn Giliead’s attention and put him on Pheneras’ trail.
After a few days of searching, Giliead had caught him in the fountain square of a small town. It was a warm dusty day, near the noon hour when the men were coming to fill the water jugs and the women to meet and talk. Pheneras, emboldened by his success and unaware there was a Chosen Vessel nearby, had been trying to curse the well. Giliead had sensed it though he couldn’t tell what the curse was meant to do; it could have compelled the townsfolk to buy Pheneras’ trinkets or made them all fall in lust with him and line up to share his bed or it could have killed anyone who touched the well water. Giliead had drawn his bow, taking aim at the wizard across the square. But he had had to wait for a clear shot, and in those moments Pheneras had seen him and cast a curse.
The god’s protection rested on Giliead and most curses didn’t work on him, but this curse had been one that, thwarted of its target, had turned on the nearest victim. It could have been Ilias, but he had been angling through the crowd, trying to block Pheneras’ escape. The nearest had been a young girl, barely into her full growth, who had died in Giliead’s arms with her guts turned inside out.
She had been the only daughter of aged parents too, and in the city-states of the Syrnai only women could inherit land and property. When her mother died her younger brothers would lose ownership of their farm and might end up going begging, if the parents couldn’t buy good marriages for them before then. It couldn’t have been worse if Pheneras had picked her deliberately.
Giliead said, coldly, “If she’d lived she would have ended up with a curse mark and been shunned by the people who are mourning her now.” He looked away, out at the lonely night again. “It’s just part of what happens. It’s not me that gets hurt, it’s always someone else. You should know that better than anyone.”
Ilias rolled his eyes. “Right, you never get hurt.” Giliead had been dealing with it, or not dealing with it, by pretending he didn’t care when the reality was that it wore at him like an open wound. What Giliead needed was to go home, to be with his mother and his sister, the others who accepted him whether they understood him or not. Ilias just wanted to get this over with. When Giliead could bring Pheneras’ head to the girl’s mother and bury it at the nearest god’s cave, then he might have some peace.
Ilias remembered later that he had meant to take the first watch, but he didn’t remember waking Giliead for his turn, or lying down to sleep at all. He did remember that he had slept too deeply, curled on his side in the warm nest of blankets, and grumbled without really waking when Giliead shifted around, letting in cold air and laying a hand on his side. Ilias growled a sleepy protest, rolling over on his stomach and burying his head in his arms. A knee brushed his hip as Giliead climbed over him, then he was asleep again.
Ilias woke to birdsong. He rolled onto his back in the tumbled blankets, scratching idly. The light outside was gray with early dawn. He yawned, ready to go back to sleep before Giliead appeared to drag him out of the warmth.
Then he noticed that the fire had gone out, leaving just a heap of cold ashes.
Huh. Ilias sat up, listening, but couldn’t hear anything except the chuckle of the stream. Throwing the blanket back, he got to his feet, ducking out of the cleft.
He had expected to see Giliead in the stream again, catching breakfast. But he wasn’t there. Ilias squinted up at the sky, realizing the gray overcast had fooled him. It was well after dawn. Starting to worry in earnest, he scanned the area again, but nothing human moved.
He got up last night, Ilias remembered suddenly. That was hours ago. “He didn’t come back,” he said aloud, in startled realization. Swearing, he ducked back into the cleft. Giliead’s sword was still there, leaning against the rock in its scabbard, next to their bows and quivers and packs. Grabbing his own weapon, Ilias ducked out again. It had to be a curse. So, think. Why did it take him and not me? What did we do differently? There was nothing that he could think of.
This was why Ilias had decided long ago to accompany Giliead when he went searching for wizards; a strong subtle curse could still snare a Chosen Vessel, though it was rare. He had heard enough stories of past Vessels to know that the ones who had companions on their travels lived longer than the ones who went alone.
Ilias cast about for tracks in the mud between the rocks and found a clear heel print from a very familiar boot. Heading hurriedly downstream, he found another print leading into the forest.
About twenty paces under the trees, still following the stream, Ilias could tell he was on the right track. It didn’t take a Chosen Vessel to smell curses in these woods. Though it was broad daylight now the shadow under the heavy green canopy seemed just as dense as it had at twilight. He could tell there was something odd about it and it was almost inconceivable that Giliead hadn’t seen it last night. Curses that hid themselves from ordinary people were common enough, but those that could hide from Chosen Vessels, and ensnare them besides, were thankfully rare. Pheneras didn’t do this, he thought, ducking under low branches, that slimy little motherless bastard doesn’t have this in him. He picked up Giliead’s tracks readily and followed them deeper into the dank growth.
He caught sight of a shape out of the corner of his eye and jerked his sword up into a guard position, heart pounding. After a moment he realized the apparition wasn’t going to attack.
Ilias stepped cautiously closer. A stunted twisted tree perched on the bank of the stream grew around a man, or what was left of a man. The corpse was shrunken and mummified, like a body that had come out of a bog or been left in desert sand. The wood had grown through the skeleton, twining in the ribs. It didn’t look like a good way to die. What did Pheneras lead us to? He cautiously stepped close to the curving branches, careful not to touch them. They were wreathed with a vine that looked a little like redberry, though it was unpleasantly fat and succulent, as if the plant had fed off the dead man’s flesh. Ilias stepped back, feeling his stomach trying to turn. It might disappoint the cousins, but we’re definitely finding something else to wind around the door next Harvest Eve. At least he knew for certain now that this wasn’t Pheneras’ work. It had been here a long time.
He turned away from it, baffled, and found himself staring at a skull-face peering out of another twisted tree on the stream’s opposite bank. Incredulous, he moved forward, brushing past pine branches to see another body wound up in a wizened trunk. And another, and another, all along both banks of the stream.
Something crunched underfoot and he started back, looking down to see other bones scattered under the trees, grass and ferns growing up through ribs and skulls. All these bodies, undiscovered, unmourned, must have gone without rites; the whole woods must be lousy with angry shades.
Ilias looked around again, realizing the bones and the bizarre trees with their dead occupants were all tucked close to the water. Is the curse in the stream? But we both drank out of it, we both ate the fish. He grimaced at the thought now. But Giliead had waded into the deeper water and Ilias hadn’t. That was the only thing they had done differently, the only reason he could think why it had taken Giliead but not him.
Swearing under his breath, he pushed on, following the noxious water toward a thicker grove of trees, dimly seen ahead in the green twilight. From what he could tell, the curse must draw a victim into the forest with something borne in the water, then kill anyone who followed to look for him. That he was doing exactly as the curse expected didn’t escape Ilias, but there wasn’t anything else he could do. Giliead had to be here somewhere. Ilias refused to believe he was dead. Whatever old curse lived here might be subtle enough to catch a Chosen Vessel but surely not strong enough to kill one.