Young and ragged, a pauper named Mathas traveled to Rucesion in search of opportunity and relief of debt, stumbling the streets in a daze of hunger, and wondering just where he would begin. A woman suddenly darted to his side from seemingly nowhere, staring him down with a look of honest concern, in her hand, a wet cloth and a half-loaf of bread.
"Sir, what has happened to you? Is it the beasts of the country?" She asked, wiping his forehead.
Mathas sighed as the soothing water trickled down his cheek. "No, lady, I am just a man of troubled times. My home business was burned to the ground in a lamp fire and my own neighbors conned me into a terrible debt. I have nothing but the rags on my back and a wretched thread of hope…"
"Please, sir.. take this bread and eat it. I feel that you’ve been an honest man, and Cail willing, I will do what I should hope would be done if I am ever in your place right now. Come.. My father has a business by the harbor, and could use some extra help. You will stay with my family."
"Thank… thank you, kind lady.." Mathas choked, nearly lost for words.
The woman helped Mathas to her home, southern most in the city and teased by the spray of saltwater, and her plump old mother immediately began to hover over him, her warm old eyes wrinkled into worry.
"My, my, my…" She clucked, wiping at Mathas with a cloth. "the poor dear’s probably taken half the sickness of Temuair into his one little body! Now, now, don’t squirm, deary…"
His savior was at the fire, fastening a pot of water onto the overhanging bar, paying next to no attention to the smothering he endured.
The old woman turned her attention to her suddenly. "Paiha, go to the McLane’s and see if they have any chicken broth around.. Hurry now, deary, we haven’t got all day."
The young woman dashed out the door and on her errand, as her mother turned back to Mathas and put her hands to her hips.
"Now, young man, tell me about yourself. I’ll have no one staying in my house with some silly cloak of mystery about themselves!"
Mathas cowered slightly. The woman might have been motherly, but that certainly did not mean that she wasn’t intimidating. "Well, lady, I came from Piet…"
She nodded in a sympathetic way. "Ah, many a beggar hails from that little village… Who’s your father?"
"The late Benon O’Kafi, merchant of fine imports.."
A sharp glare was his response. "And your mother? Were they married?"
"Sholyla of Mareth, and yes, lady, they were."
Paiha reentered now, holding a small package of wrapped cloth. "They didn’t have broth, mother, but they gave me a part of chicken…"
"Good, good, deary, put that in the pot over there and boil it off… That’s a good girl." The old woman turned her attention back to Mathas. "What was I saying? Ah, yes.. did you disgrace your family to lose your father’s inheritance, lad, or what has happened that’s put you in such a state?"
"No, lady, I inherited the shop, but a cracked lamp caused it to burn down… I was alone, my mother passed on several years before father, and the neighbors took advantage of my problem and swindled my out of my last belongings and gold. I had nothing left in Piet, so I moved on…"
"Don’t you worry, deary." The old woman interrupted. "My husband will put you to work here in the harbor. He’ll be home soon enough for you to talk to."
And so it was that Mathas was cared for by the Birchon family, Mother Birchon pushing for her daughter to try and win the young man’s heart, as he had become prosperous under the supervision of Vanin, her father, and would make a good heir to the business. After many years, Vanin did indeed pass on at a ripe old age, leaving his business to Mathas, his apprentice. Some years after, Paiha and Mathas confessed their love in marriage and cared for Mother Birchon in their home, Paiha announcing that she was with child some time after.
The night of delivery finally came, and Mother Birchon had insisted upon a midwife and herself being the only two in the house, so Mathas was sent to the door to wait, even though a horrid storm raged and poured rain down on him.
"What a dread night to have a child, Paiha!" the midwife whispered, waiting patiently.
The woman was silent, her fingers tearing into the sheets of her bed, and her features wracked with pain. She sobbed quietly. "When will this be over?!"
"Don’t worry, deary." Mother Birchon remarked in her weak old voice. "This is what separates us from the menfolk.. We can endure, child, we can endure.."
Paiha suddenly screamed.
"The child is crowning, Ageth, it won’t be long now.." The midwife said to the old woman. "Push, Paiha, push!"
Wriggling in pain, the young woman strained.
"Just a little more, Paiha … a little more…"
Another scream tore through the air.
"I’ve got it! Oh, Paiha, you’ve got a beautiful baby girl.." the midwife’s face softened. "Look at those cute little eyes.. they’re just like—"
She suddenly became speechless, just staring at the small crying form in her hands, her mouth open in horror.
"What, what is it?" Mother Birchon asked.
The young woman tried to speak, but no words came out.
Paiha sighed, not seeming to care what was going on, so grateful for the relief of such pain, stretching back to be comfortable.
"I asked you a question, girlie, answer your elders!" the old woman said crisply. "What in the world is the matter with you?"
"S…s…. Danaan help us!"
"Spit it out, Olivia!"
"Sgrios! Forgive me, Mother, for saying that name!" The midwife began to pray suddenly, leaving the child to cry and wriggle on its own.
"How could you speak that name about an infant?" Mother Birchon asked, horrified. "Get out of my house this instant!"
Gratefully, Olivia rushed out the door, bumping Mathas on her way out.
"What happened to the midwife?" He asked, coming in.
His mother-in-law regarded him coolly. "You have a new baby girl, she said."
"What’s wrong with my baby?" Paiha said suddenly, her voice soft with fatigue, yet still imperious.
Mother Birchon clutched her hand. "I’m not sure what upset the midwife, deary, let me take a look.."
Edging over on her cane, the old woman peered down at the baby, squinting her eyes. "She seems to have some sort of birthmark on her chest.. I’m sorry, deary, but I can’t see in my old age.."
Mathas had come over now, and stood silently staring down at the crying form, his face a portrait of sadness and rage.
"Honey, what is it?" Paiha asked quietly, still too weak to move. "What’s wrong with my dear Zelina?"
"Is that what you’d name this child? After one of our founding mothers? Paiha, our child has the mark of Sgrios…"
"That’s not true…" the woman stated, staring up at the ceiling, her black hair plastered to her face in drying perspiration.
"For the Mother Danaan, Paiha, look at the weather, look at the pain you had! How can you deny it, Paiha, look at our child!" Mathas picked up the fussing infant as if it were a rabid wolf and pushed the wriggling moist body close to his wife’s face.
As sure as the rising sun, a reddish symbol loomed upon the new skin, mildly covered by birth fluid, but still visible, cut firmly into the area of the child’s heart.
Paiha stared, unmoved by the site. "Be more gently, Mathas, she’s just a newborn.."
Mathas let the baby drop into the mother’s arms, seeming not to care. "A newborn? I’d rather have this abomination dead! It’s a sign, and doom will come to us if we don’t dispose of it now!" Even in harsh words, Mathas sounded frightened all the same.
Paiha grew quite visibly angry. "This is my child, and I don’t care if she’s damned by Chadul itself, I’ll love her just the same! I’m ashamed of the way you speak. If you want to kill our baby, you will have to kill me first!"
Mathas tried to speak, but grew too angry. Turning, he stormed from the house, ducking into the slashing rain outside.
Sighing, Paiha kissed her whimpering child, cuddling her to her breast. "Mother, what has become of the world? It may be dark times, but we have no excuse to murder our children.."
Mother Birchon frowned, breaking her shocked silence. "Deary, I’m really quite scared, truth be told... I’m proud of you, of course, for what you’ve stood for, but I have a bad feeling for what will come.."
Paiha had started to nurse the child. "I can’t believe how he behaved…"
"We all do strange things when we feel threatened." The old woman replied, watching the window. "I just hope this town doesn’t feel threatened as well."
"Olivia has never spoken ill of us.." She replied.
Mother Birchon sighed. "But we can’t hide this secret forever…"
The young Zelina grew to the age of five in a fairly normal setting, never washed by nursemaids or allowed to wear the more airy summer wear of young girls. Mother Birchon had passed away at the whim of a heart attack a few weeks after the birth of the child, but Paiha and Mathas had grown quite prosperous, and lived in luxury in a larger house of Rucesion. As sweet and curious as every child of her age, Mathas soon learned not to scorn his daughter for her strange birthmark and began to wonder if it was perhaps just oddly shaped. Paiha preached to her even as an infant, teaching of Danaan and prayers of goodness, but not of the darker side of religion. Chadul was never mentioned, nor was the mark upon her heart; only that she should never let anyone see it, for it was ugly to behold.
Every day, Zelina tottered by the home a young boy named Kalen, a son of the family friends, and royal terror on his own. First the four-year-old face looming over the infant’s crib, he now treated her as an accomplice in crime, usually finding her an easy target for blaming.
"Zelina did it!"
"It was him!"
Neither cared to tattle, however, when it came to stealing juicy apples from the McBane orchard, as it seemed an equal truce could be shared under the influence of delicious treats. Alone, the growing boy couldn’t reach the bottoms of the lowest limb, so a swaying Zelina was balanced on his shoulders, and many times, both would topple over into a heap on the grass.
Of course, the little girl could never understand why Kalen was quick to leave her when other boys came around, but she had heard it had something to do with some sort of fleas that girls only possessed, so it was easily forgiven for the moment. Toy daggers and painted game stones would often find themselves traded between the two in stealth, soon to be lost during a trek in meadows, or given back to the rightful owner.
"You’re pretty fun, I guess…. for a girl…"
In the summer of that year, however, Zelina and several other young children of the area were under the watchful eye of a widowed lady from the west side of town, when the idea struck Kalen of how nice it would be on such a hot day to swim. Bound in a tight-collared dress, Zelina could not help by shake her head in agreement, excited at the prospect of doing something she had never tried before.
The little girl began to argue, however, when the widow tried to remove her dress for her.
"Lass, you have to get into your undergarments to wade about.. We can’t have your mother getting angry about your ruined dress! Why she’d—"
Becoming silent in the middle of unbuttoning, the woman began to stutter, her eyes locked onto the scar-like symbol over Zelina’s heart.
"Blessed Danaan, what are you?!" She had taken her hands off the young girl and was now backing away. "I’ve probably been cursed just being near you!"
"What is it, mum?" A nearby child began, looking confused. "It’s just a spot.."
She ignored her son. "Children, get out of the water; we’re leaving this place!"
There were groans of disappointment as the tiny bodies crawled up from the creek, gathering their clothes.
"Come, now… we’re going away…"
Kalen lolled behind the group a little, waiting for the sluggish girl to catch up to them, a tiny string of borrowed game stones in his hand.
Zelina began to trail after the group, buttoning up her dress.
"No!" The widow shrieked. "Not you! Stay here, far from my children!"
Confused, the small child obeyed, her ebony hair twitching slightly in the breeze as the blue eyes, flecked with tears, watched her playmates pull away from her. Kalen nearly stopped, but nursemaid ushered him on until they were gone.
Innocence of childhood made it hard to even guess what reason the widow had for suddenly turning to hate her. Mother had said the birthmark was ugly, but it didn’t seem ugly enough to make her an outcast.
"Follow in this path, my child…"
The little girl froze, looking all around.
"All of the people will hurt you, but only I can make them see."
With a small wail, Zelina tore off down the path, not daring even a peek back at whatever had spoken to her. Bursting into her house, she searched frantically for her mother, who was bowing her head by the fireplace.
Startled, Paiha stood. "Darling, I told you never to interrupt someone’s prayer.."
"I know, Mommy, but a voice talked to me!"
"Honey, that’s nonsense. I’m sure it was just your imagination… why aren’t you with your friends?" Paiha stared down at her daughter, waiting for a plausible answer.
"Missy Adan ran away from me and took them!"
There was a pause.
"Darling…. What happened today?" An edge of fear crept into the woman’s voice.
"We were going to wade in the Rabbit stream.. Missy Adan said it was clean now because the king’s army protects us from Dubhaim.."
Paiha’s voice caught in her throat.
"Missy Adan saw my ugly mark and left..."
"Did Mistress Adan say anything to you, Zelina?" Her mother asked, sweat beads forming on her brow.
"No… She just said stuff about curses and used bad words…"
"Look, sweetie, you just stay here.. Don’t leave, and be very, very silent." Paiha was hurrying about the room grabbing various items, including her hooded cloak.
Zelina sat down on a rug in front of the fire, confused greatly by the events that had just taken place as her mother blew out the lamps and drew the shutters in.
Taking a silver key from her pouch, Paiha closed the door behind her, rattling the lock into place from the outside.
Only a tiny stream of light poked into the front room from a loose fireplace brick near the ceiling, shattering the otherwise complete blackness.
Her mother was long gone now, judging how her footfalls had faded away, so Zelina edged to her feet, the fear of the dark having no particular effect on her, and gingerly lifted the latch of a shutter. Easing it open just barely, she peered out into the street through a tiny hole.
No sooner had she taken a breath, did a man come into view, staring fearfully at the house as he walked by. He was too far for her to identify what was in his hands, but obeying the warning of her mother, she inched her peeping hole shut, leaning back against the wall. Almost afraid to breathe, she heard the footsteps receding, but as she began to relax, they came back, stronger than before and towards the house.
The door shuddered on its hinges, then silence came back. With a few more steps, the chipping of wood echoed through her ears, and footfalls broke into a run, quickly fading into nothing.
Zelina shivered, crawling as far away from the front of the house as she could, yet still remaining in the front room for her mother, ducking under Paiha’s sewing table. A few yells sounded here and there outside, but no one else came near the house again.
After a long while, the sound of the back door opening and shutting made her freeze in place, curling into a tight ball as far under the table as possible. Low whispers and soft pairs of feet came forward through the hallway, a dim lantern casting an oval of beige into the room.
"Zelina?" Came a hoarse whisper as the first figure came in, drawn in an tanned cloak.
"Mother!" The little girl cried, nearly forgetting to whisper.
"Shh… hush, dear, we have to move fast." Paiha said in a soft voice, helping her daughter out from under the table. "Go run and get an extra dress from your clothes, dear, and put it in your pack."
Paiha was already taking Zelina’s tiny cloak from the hook and grabbing for her boots as the child hurried to her room. In a blur of darkness, she took up her favorite dress and pushed it into the tiny leather bag, turning in time to see her mother in the doorway behind.
"Take this… and be very careful with it. You’re only to use it if you’re in the greatest danger!" Worry fell over the words Paiha rushed in to, trusting a tiny dagger in a wooden case to her daughter’s reach, then shaking her head. She let the cloak fall to the floor and set the boots nearby. "Get ready to leave, sweetie.. I must go help your father.."
As the light traveled back down the hallway, Zelina put on her things, staring vacantly at all of the interesting things in her room. A colorful map hung loosely on the wall above her bed, a rare looking glass stood on her dresser, a wooden chest of carved dolls at the foot of her bed. Kalen’s wooden Loures coin stuck out from her night table.
With nimble fingers, Zelina scooped up treasure, wrapping tread from her blanket around it several times, the fastening it around her neck in hopes of the good luck her young friend had boasted it having.
Her father and mother came in soon after, their packs loaded and dangling from shoulders that were tense.
She heard her mother give a pained sigh.
"We have to go now.."
The city of Rucesion held a long sort of witch-hunt for the so-called "Cursed Child" that had been sighted by a local widow near the Rabbit stream. Guards were posted at the town gates, and independent parties led by torches scoured the countryside, but no sign of the accursed, or its family ever turned up.
An old baker from Loures reported seeing the child described once with two people trying to buy bread from her, but she had no word of where they had come from. Every town that thought the Cursed was living inside their walls were soon flabbergasted as the trio melted into the shadows and never turned up again, only to appear in another town. Word passed well in those days, and soon every city had parchments out for the Child, but after so long, the sightings became non-existent, the searches hopeless, and most people forgot about ever hearing of such a horribly phenomenon ever occurring in Temuair. Most people..
An apple balanced magically on the tip of a finger, a young man leaned lazily against a tree, staring in curiosity at the Rabbit stream. In a flash of motion, the apple was in his hand, a bit taken out of it, the sweet, sugary juice dripping down his chin.
A grin split his face as he thought of how tricky it used to be, but he was shaking his head again soon; McBane’s apples would always be child’s play to take.
Bluish hair pulled tightly back was shocked by the presence of almost orange hazel eyes, a green tunic that fit just a bit too snugly on him adorned with a plain leather belt and wooden sword, matching the hue of the stone beads around his neck.
Taking another bite, he wiped his chin with the back of his hand, then sent a rock hurling at the water.
For some reason, he had come to the stream so many times every summer since he was nine.. though he could not remember why by now. Whatever the case, the warnings put out by the town guard were far from keeping him away, Dubhaim curses or not.
Sighing, he noticed the sun was setting, and with the knowledge of what came out after dark, he made haste to get home, dashing over fallen limbs and rocks of the forest.
A tired face looked through those same rugged tree branches into the bright city beyond, fair skin brushing against leaves and twigs. A tiny dagger hanging on a thin leather string around her dark green dress, shining in the final rays of daylight.
Another raven-haired woman came up behind her, her tresses, however, streaked with much gray. "By nightfall we should be safe to go to the inn… if it's even still running."
"I’m sure it is." The observer remarked quietly, her stare not budging. Deep blue eyes rushed from side to side, a trait most often seen in varieties of prey.
"Your father’s behind again, covering the trail.. once he gets here, we can make more of a plan." The older woman stated, her face marred with the shadows of pain.
Paiha knelt down, praying softly to herself. "Mother bless this land to thee.. banish objects of the blackness, Mother.. that you would protect us on this night, my Light…"
Her eyes growing distant for a mere moment, Zelina softly whispered the words with her mother, banishing the screeching voices from her head as best she could, those that had followed her so long, at first just a tempting whisper, now growing louder by the day, seemingly as they moved closer to Rucesion. Oh, it had been identified in her mind what they were, and they had laid claims to the horrid scar on her chest… but she would resist it with every grain of strength left in her. After all, wasn’t it evil? She had always tried to be a good person.. discounting a few acts of the past.. and last week..
Well they wouldn’t have her that was set in her mind. It, they.. it made no difference what the numbers stood; she would deny them again and again.
Noise in the trees behind her suddenly caught her attention, yanking her eyes from the street so far away.
"No one should be able to follow us here, if they even pursued." The old man said, brushing off his tunic. His eyes seemed to be those of a beaten child.
"I finally thought we were safe…" Paiha remarked, staring sadly at the forest floor.
Zelina sniffed. "Maybe if that blasted merchant hadn’t recognized us, we would be… but I don’t think either of you wanted to risk him opening his mouth, now did you?"
The sun was setting, and the light was fading off, but she was sure she could see that old look in her father’s eyes; the look that whispered "if it hadn’t been for you coming into our perfect lives.." in such a wistful manner that she almost couldn’t hate it. Almost.
Averting her eyes, her gaze was on the windows that were slowly lighting up, not nearly enough to fight the darkness that was falling on the town, but only to assert that life was indeed within.
Standing from her crouch, she looked to her father.
"Yes, I believe its time, now.." He said gruffly, rubbing at his nose. "I’m still not sure if I believe the old stories of the Dubhaimid roaming this forest, but I’d rather not find out. There’s probably wolves, anyway."
Zelina smiled bitterly as she thought to herself. "Yes, haven forbid you believe the old stories, the same fables that told of people like me, the fallen, the darkened, and whatever names they were given. I will not be like them!"
He didn’t hear her, of course, but she suddenly felt afraid as if someone did as the screaming in her head turned to dark laughter. Shaking herself firmly, she followed her parents through the thicket.
The Inn was just as Zelina had remembered it: filthy, yet homely and full of drinkers. Of course, she hadn’t been there that much, if it made any difference, so she said nothing as her father sauntered up to heckle with the innkeeper, his face wrapped in a long scarf that clashed terribly with his cloak.
Both Zelina and her mother huddled into long, hooded cloaks, hoping their faces wouldn’t show. Unlike the other towns they had fled to, there was possibility that they would be recognized by just about anyone.
"Ah, but there’s a storm comin’ here, mate! You sure you’re only payin’ for one night? We can get booked up here real easy these days, in a storm, even!" The innkeeper argued, his rotund voice booming around the room. A few men drinking at a table across the way lifted an eyebrow at the heavily clad group. It was late spring!
Nodding, Mathas laid the extra payment on the table, leaving without another word.
The innkeeper shook his head. "What, you been struck mute after that? Don’t expect any extras outta me, impolite mister!"
Zelina hurried after her mother, swinging her pack over her shoulder once again. The eyes in the room seemed to burn right through her disguise.
"They know you, they know what you are!"
A shiver ran through her.
The morning came angrily, stealing Zelina’s first glorious night of slumber on a true mattress in weeks. Stretching, she tried to hide from the light that streamed in through the window, but was unsuccessful. With a yawn, she sat up, looking around the room. The two other beds were empty, their linens strewn onto the floor.
"I suppose they’ve gone off to ‘scout’ or whatever it is they think they’re doing…" Zelina frowned, swinging her feet around to the floor. "I don’t care about them for the moment, I need a to bathe!"
Putting her thoughts from her head, she grabbed her cloak and threw it over her shoulders, pulling the hood up over her head. Slipping on her boots, she locked their belongings in the trunk and crept out the door with her head low.
There was no way she’d ask the innkeeper for some water, so the Rabbit stream would have to do. It was doubtful that anyone ever came there anymore, not after what had happened there thirteen years ago.
At last she was out in the town again, bracing to take in the sound of bustle and liveliness.. but there was nothing of the sort. People bustled, but in a manner of distrust towards their neighbors, frightened in their looks. Children played in well-guarded areas, not let out of the sight of their mothers for even a second. This was definitely not the place she had left so long ago.
Ignoring the sight, she hurried on to the edge of the town, stopping for nothing, and to the forest. Without a second thought, she ducked into the leafy trees, avoiding the low brushes and thorns with her bare legs as she pushed forward, frequently checking behind herself. When at last she was satisfied that nothing was following, she ran joyously, throwing her hood back to feel the warm air on her face.
This is what she had missed, the carefree days of the forest where nothing could break her spirit. Tuning out the voices muttering in her brain, she dashed up to the stream, kneeling down the feel the clear waters, then splashing some into her mouth. It tasted as good as when she was a child.
With a final look behind her, she began to shed her clothing, hanging it on the branch of a bush that reached down to the stream, also serving as a sort of cover. Stepping carefully onto the smooth river stones, she lowered into the gentle water until it reached her cursed mark when she stood. Hastily rubbing the filth accumulated from traveling from her body, she dipped her head as well, cleaning her black hair to its maximum shine.
As she turned, however, she froze in place at what was staring at her not fifteen spans away. Fearfully, she wrapped her arms around herself, though the water was more than enough cover, and backed away.
The young man’s face suddenly became a shade of red, his blue hair twirling on the breeze. "I’m sorry! I’m not going to hurt you! I just.. This is where I usually come after I’m done in the field. I didn’t know someone else had taken up the… What’s that horrible scar!? Has the herbalist seen it? It can’t be good.."
Zelina pushed down into the water deeper. "It’s nothing. Just.. a birthmark… Please just leave, I’m not dying or anything and it’s very rude to stare!"
"Hey, it’s not as if I can see anything! I was just worried.. I thought that stream was cursed by the Dubhaimid since—"
His eyes suddenly grew wide and he nearly fell forward onto his face. "Since…… you.. you can’t be.."
Fingering old cord around her neck, Zelina closed her eyes. Where have I seen him before?
"You are her! You’re.. you’re the one that was chased from town that summer! These stones are yours!" He hastily untied the mass from his neck, holding them up to display. "I borrowed these from you, don’t you remember? I can finally give them back!"
Zelina had turned around now, gazing down into the stream at a piece of debris that floated near her. "You can stop pretending you’re not going to start pitching stones… Go on, tell them others.. I’m tired of running, anyway.."
"No! I’ll never do that! We used to be friends. Please remember.. Can’t you remember me, Zelina?"
"K.. Kalen?!" she turned around once more, her face a portrait of shock.
"That’s me." He gave a crooked smile. "I’ll put your stones with the clothes.."
"No!" she stated, surprising herself with the tone of her voice. "Just.. keep them. Keep them for me, ok?"
With a look back down at the stones, he smiled. "I will."
"But I have to give this back to you.." She reached up for the back of her neck, unconscious of the fact that she had left the scar an open target again.
"No!" Kalen remarked, making her drop her hands. His voice gentled. "Just keep it, ok?"
He turned to away from her. "Come see me sometime, ok? I live right where I used to.. we need to do some catching up. Take care of yourself until then, Zelina."
She was too shocked to say anything as he left. Was there really someone left out there that didn’t remember her with hatred and scorn?
When he was at last out of sight, she got out to put her clothes back on.
Kalen sighed, rapping on the old door of his grandfather. Being the only one who knew the old language, there wasn’t much other choice.
Suddenly the door whooshed open with a creak and a wrinkled head poked out. "What, what is it? David? Is that you?"
"Ah, yes.. I’m here, grandfather… David.." he tried to keep himself from snickering. Davie always had been granddad’s favorite..
"Well come right in! What is it you want, David?" The old man chuckled to himself, leading Kalen through the front room.
He cleared his throat. "I just need you to translate some old script I saw.. in the market."
"Oh, you just write it down, David, I’ll have that puzzled out in a just a cinch. My old eyes may be getting on, but this mind here is sharp as a whip. As a whip…" The old man lowered himself into the wooden chair and pulled the table to himself.
Kalen took the seat across from him and reached for the slate laying on a pile of books and scrolls nearby. Brushing it off, he began to scrawl what he remembered the scar looking like, carefully drawing the bits from his memory as best he could. Soon he was done, pushing the board towards his grandfather.
"Hmm.. It looks like.. no, too many points for it to be the verb.. hmm.. Oh my! I think I have it.. whatever merchant had this laying about should be run out of town, and on the double!"
"What is it?!" Kalen demanded, his patience wearing.
"Death.. decay.. damnation… the ancient word of it, I’d add. It’s just used by Sgrios followers today, David. They mark their altars with it, or steal babies.. something of the like. Who knows with them!"
"Thanks, Grandfather." Kalen said, standing up suddenly.
"What is it, David, house catch on fire?" The old man chuckled.
He shook his head. "No, no.. I just need to get home. Someone might drop by."
"A girl, David? You’ve needed to be married off for a while now… what, going on seventeen? That brother of yours is long gone. Kalen there’ll be lucky to be married at all now, being twenty!" The granddad slapped his knees with laughter.
"Oh, I’m sure he’ll come around. I have very low hopes for myself now.. I’m no good with girls." Kalen grumbled about his disguise as he left.
"Dear, we have to go again…" Paiha said sadly, tucking the sheets up on the bed. "I’m afraid Mrs. Rubrawn recognized me today in the market…"
"Did she say anything?" Zelina questioned.
"Not that I heard… but my hood fell back for a second as I was looking at bows.. She was right there."
Her daughter scoffed. "Mother, that can’t mean anything! She probably didn’t even notice!"
"Whatever the case, we’re not risking it this time. Last time was just too close." Mathas now spoke instead, tucking various supplies into his sack.
"I don’t want to leave here! I’m tired of running like a scared rabbit whenever the chance comes that someone might know us! There’s nowhere left to go! We’ve been chased out of every city and countryside from here to Undine!"
Paiha sighed. "Dear, you don’t understand the danger…"
"I know the danger and I don’t even care anymore! You run away, I’m staying here!" Crossing her arms, Zelina stomped on her cloak for effect.
"I’m going to check out.. try to speak some since into her!" Mathas said to his wife, ducking out the door.
"You know you’re not going to change my mind." Zelina stated, staring her mother down.
"Yes, yes… none are the boss of your will! One is here who would follow you to the ends of the earth and back!"
Shaking her head, she re-enforced her point. "I’d rather be stoned or hung than keep this foolish chase up! You two can go live on safely without me. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?"
"Honey, your father was only afraid.. he didn’t mean that…" Paiha whispered softy.
"For your own good, Mother, just let me die. It should have been that way from the start."
"Zelina… You know I’ll never think that’s true.."
There was a pounding on the door.
"Mathas, surely you didn’t lock us in.." Paiha muttered, turning the knob.
She was suddenly forced back as it was pushed open for her, angry citizens rushing into the room.
"There’s the witch!" cried a voice.
Another chimed in. "She’s back, she’s returned to curse us again!"
"Grab them, grab them and bring them with the man!"
"No!" Zelina cried, watching her mother, then herself be tied up.
Her arms felt as if they would be broken by the strong hold behind them.
"Tear it open! See the curse!"
Fingers dug into her skin as the front of her dress was buttoned open, exposing the cruel scar for all to see.
"Burn them, burn them!"
Everything seemed to blur together as the ropes cut into her neck and hands, her Mother’s cries muffled by a gag beside her. As they came out the hall, she saw her father, beaten unconscious and hanging between two men.
"They all will burn! Burn them!"
The street flashed into her view and the poles of a nearby stable stood stark ahead, stacked with excess wood and headed with mobs of torches.
"No!" She tried to scream, "Not them, too!" but the cloth over her mouth made all the sound seem alike.
The post hit hard against her back, and the ropes dug harder into her skin as they tied her there, her father’s head dangling low and senseless through it all. She saw her mother’s eyes, filled with terror as the torches began to come closer, the chanting burning in her ears.
"Kill the cursed!"
"Burn them pure!"
As the timbers at her feet were set aflame, everything suddenly went black.
She was falling…. Falling so fast…. Yet suddenly the cold stone floor was there, and she had never fallen at all. Everything was black, yet she could see. Raising her eyes from the stone floor, she looked up.
"Welcome, my child…"
Her mouth spread open in a silent scream as she saw the father of death and decay looming before her, overcoming her very soul.
"You are mine, and it is not yet the time for me to claim this… They will pay for what they have done.. now is the time, my child… Justice to your family and balance for the lives."
There was a flash of red… then everything was gone…
Her vision was returning, slowly, but surely.. and the smell of burnt flesh crept into her nostrils. She shook her head, and numbly became aware that something warm was in her hand. Rubbing her eye, he looked down and gasped.
Each finger in her left hand grasped the bloody hilt of her own dagger, the same blood spattered all over her dress, covering her hands. She looked around with a start at all the bodies that littered the ground, at the charred figures that dangled from the poles in front of her.
"What… what’s going on!?" She cried, staring. "I didn’t kill all these people.. I…"
With a cry, she ran, not caring where she was going, not caring if she ever stopped, running through the alley, running over the trash and rats, the cursed knife still dangling like a curse from her left hand. The forest met her and she continued to run, looking back in total fear, the tears burning hot on her face.
She ran so hard, that as soon as she met him, they both toppled down, the knife flying far into the thicket and cracking the branches.
"Hey!" Kalen grunted, rubbing his head. "Zelina, you…. Gods! What’s happened?!"
"I can’t tell you, you’d hate me.. you’d.." She sobbed into her hands, not caring if the blood smeared her face.
"I don’t care. I’d follow you to the end of time, Zelina, and I’d take the curse for myself. I want to be with you like we were before." He said, offering a hand.
As they stood, noise rose from the city.
"We have to leave." He said, pulling her forward. "Whatever you did, I’m staying by you."
"Now come on!"
She shook her head. "I’m fulfilling my destiny, Kalen… You can’t come with me when I pledge myself to…"
"I don’t care! Just move it!"
Blinded by tears and confused beyond all else, the only thing guiding Zelina through the night was a strong hand, one that never seemed to let go and only pulled on. Pulling her from the danger… from what she had become…
Oh thank you, Kalen… But I can’t let this become you, too…