A curse spreads among the people; 'blight' ravages the land. (Old Draft.)
| There could be no real reason for his trepidation, I felt, but he seemed a good person. There was a light to his aura, as though he too touched the source of life. I knew I could trust that. It was a long walk to Verdenten's manor, well over an hour, and the path was hard to determine since all the grass had turned to charcoal dust and blown away. But I had traveled it many times, and felt confident of the hills and stones along the way. "Why do you feel that you must accompany me? It truly is safe."
He took a deep breath, as if choosing his words carefully. "Perhaps my eyes deceive me. You say your son here, is not well. But, you do feel that he is alive?"
I scoffed. "What kind of a question is that?"
He nodded. "Forgive me, your grace. Dark magic surrounds your son, and until I can be sure which of us is bedeviled, I cannot leave you alone with him."
I scowled as I tried to hear meaning in his words. Something cold inside my head twisted until I stopped. All I could be certain of was the purity of his intention. "Forgive me. In all this, I have not learned the name of the stranger who insists on coming to my aid, when others refused."
"I am Soliden, bound by Sigrun's sacred Oath." He bowed. "And honored to serve."
Soliden shivered, straightened, and turned from me, looking back. In a flash he drew his blade. I had seen this before, in Drensen: always three drum beats before disaster revealed itself.
From behind us, two armed men rose out of the charcoal dust, their bare bones chalk white. Their hollow expression reminded me of the look on Carl's face when Kissla brought him to me, in the closet.
"Your grace, it is not safe. You must flee!"
Two more of the skeletal puppets rose from their inch-deep graves, where they had been planted to wait for us. Black dust merged with natural soil as it cascaded from their bones.
"I cannot abandon you to these monsters."
Soliden ducked under two swords and parried a third before landing a gauntlet on the face of another. "I would not get between you and a patient; do not get between me and these warriors. Leave the boy and run."
"But, I can help! I can grant you strength."
He touched the symbol on his chest, which gleamed in a light that came not from the sun, but from a place as bright as my own source. "Priestess, please. I have my own reservoir of strength." He knocked one opponent into another. "It's okay, really. I am no innocent: I choose this path freely."
Carl had slipped away. I chased him, ducking under a slow moving arm of bone.
Soliden swung time and again at his enemies, knocking their swords away and dealing little blows. "The boy, they will not harm him. We will be safer alone. Tend to yourself!"
I did not notice the truth of his statement. Carl had left us, heading off in a random direction while our attackers clung to us. I ran up behind Carl and swept him off his feet— he was barely more than bones himself— and ran, with all my might, away from Soliden and the cursed dead. I drove myself to cross over this next hill and down, to the gates of Verdenten's manor.
I tripped only a few paces in front of the gate. Looking back, I noted that we had not been followed. They wanted you alone. I took Carl's hand and walked through the open gate.
The instant I crossed the blue, pulsing curtain in front of the gates, into the verdant, living garden of my friend, something forced itself between me and Carl. He slipped out of my hands.
I turned in horror, but he stood, staring emptily at me.
"Carl, this is no time to play games. Come with me."
I reached for him, tried to take his hand, but Verdenten's magic would not let me get a grip.
He continued to stare, and the cold thing inside my head twisted and turned. I felt an urge to go outside, and a thought that came in a foreign voice said, It's okay. Just wait outside. Help will come."
It's Carl's Hunger talking. It's possessed my son, that's what has happened. Verdenten will know what to do. That was the best sense I could make of it, then. I turned and pushed past the leaves and vines. "Verdenten! My friend, I need your help." When he did not answer, I pushed further in.
There I saw him, his fat form sleeping on a living bench. I shook him.
Seeing me, he smiled. "My dear Carolie, it has been too long." The smile did not last as he read my face. "What is the trouble?"
"My son. I brought him for help. He's... I don't know, blighted? I could not get him in the manor. Please, help."
He grabbed my wrist, and pulled me away from the gate.
"My son, he's at the gate."
"Yes, yes, of course you believe that. I must gather your remedy from my shed."
Unlike mine, or Gregor's power, Verdenten's magic came from tools and books and long study, so that made sense to me. Still, I felt uneasy about the wait, especially in the cold place in my head.
He muttered under his breath. "They have gone too far." The shed door opened. I had never noticed that the wood of his shed still lived; the great strangling power of the Blight had made me sensitive to such things.
The only room in Verdenten's entire manor, the little laboratory was no larger than my bed, much smaller than the quarters we had given him in our castle, which I always thought too small. I guessed he did not spend much time here, away from the sky and earth. He pulled a bottle from a shelf, and some odd herbs. The bottle he stuck in his belt, and the herbs he rolled into a strap of cloth, saying a few unintelligible words as he did so. I saw, with the other sight, energy pulling into these herbs.
Then he led me back to the gate, where Carl stood beside one of Gregor's acolytes. The sickly man pulled a dagger from his waist and held it to my son's neck.
Verdenten sighed. "As I feared." He pulled out the bottle. "This is the remedy. Brace yourself, Carolie."
"Verdenten! Are you mad? The man is threatening my son's life."
The acolyte, a bony old bald man, hunched over my son, sawing the air in front of Carl's throat. "She must come."
Verdenten uncorked his bottle. "Carl is in no danger, and neither, I'm afraid, is this boy. The remedy is for you. In younger times I called it 'The Bitter Draught,' but today, simply, 'Truth'." He splashed me in the face.
When I opened my eyes, I screamed. Verdenten's magic had burned the flesh from Carl, leaving one of the skeletal puppets, floating an inch off the ground.
"You have been deceived."
Inside, I knew it was true. His 'bitter draught' had washed away the cold place in my head: This had never been Carl. I recognized the blank look this small skeleton gave me.
The acolyte pulled a cord out of the air, and the bones clattered to the ground. "We have your son, little witch. The real one. Only you can save him."
"Hold your tongue, thief of sorcery." Verdenten waved his walking stick at him like a sword. "There will be time for threats, if her grace deigns to grant you audience." He grabbed my wrist again, and pulled toward the shed.
"Can we turn our back on him?"
"Be careful, old man. Your wards can hold me, but Gregor is neither as patient nor as weak as I. When he arrives..."
Verdenten waved his left hand and the acolyte's mouth clapped shut. "Usually use that on insects! Could not be more fitting. And yes, we'd better talk, privately."
As we stumbled over the threshold of his shed, he breathed a sigh. I thought it might be one of relief. "Please do not judge me for what I am about to tell you. Perhaps your other friends were wise to lie to you, but I have never done that, quite. I do not intend to begin now."
He took a deep breath, and grabbed the table to steady his shaking hand. "In stories they speak of a chosen hero. The bards make it sound as if the choice is made by fate. In reality, all of us are called by fate, but few of us are fool enough to answer."
I scoffed, trying to hurry him. "I need help, not some kind of schooling."
"If only that were what I am doing. No, you have a terrible choice in front of you. I fear I know the path you are going to take." He shook his head. "The three of you rarely have ever made the choice I advise.."
I have never been one to anger, but I began to understand the feeling. I raised my voice a notch. "What are you talking about?"
"Your son's fate, the fate of all who remain here, is sealed. You are not bound to join them. We can escape."
"You're asking me to abandon my son?"
He pursed his lips, looked about to cry. "I could fight this out, but there would be no point. My art takes days, sometimes weeks of preparation. The thief of sorcery is right: Gregor would reduce my sanctum to black dust. And the other option is..." He choked, shaking his head.
I touched his shoulder, drizzling a bit of the source on him, to soothe his spirit. My voice softened. "Go on."
"It's unthinkable, that's what it is. You can't go with him, there's nothing you could possibly do. Is there? No, I'm sure I would know."
I found Kissla's signet and put it on, for strength. "I have to save my son, no matter what the cost."
His eyes cleared. "I almost think you might, at that." Then he looked at the ring. He groaned in frustration. "I can't believe you'd use that on me. But you've made your point. Put it away, save it for the right moment."
Not yet understanding the power of the ring, I did as instructed.
He took out the strap he had worked his magic into, and stood behind me, to tie my hands behind my back. "Do not open this until you are alone. It may help."
"What did you put in that strap?"
"The key to knowledge. And remember, no matter how hurtful it may be, no matter how awful the implications, knowledge is never evil. Knowing a thing does not stain your soul, it only gives you the option to do so."
He had said that before. I nodded, hoping that I would understand, if needed, in time. "So, you're giving me up."
"I could play the hero, but Carl would be lost. You would never forgive me. So I will leave you to it." He pulled the knot tighter, then leaned and whispered in my ear. "Say the word, and I will rescue you, no matter the consequences."
"No. My son needs me."
He laid his hand on my shoulder, and sobbed. "You always were the best of us." He pushed me out the door, toward the gate.
The acolyte sneered and nodded approval. "I knew you were a wise old man." He sniffed. "I can't wait to dig into this one. I hope the master lets me."
"What treachery!" Soliden exclaimed, limping behind the acolyte. "I thought this man was your friend."
Verdenten stopped. In a raised voice out of his younger days, he commanded, "Interfere not, paladin!"
Soliden drew his sword. "If you cannot see the evil of your ways, it is no matter. I will strike this blackguard down myself."
With a word, Verdenten summoned a great hand, which grabbed Soliden like a doll. Then, the earth beneath him turned to quicksand until it had swallowed his boots. With a final word, mud turned to stone, and the great hand dissolved like smoke in the wind.
"How can you betray this innocent woman into the hands of such monstrous evil?"
The acolyte whistled, leering hungrily. "Why does Gregor lust after the witch when you wield such magnificent power?"
"You cannot steal my years of training with your Harvest."
The acolyte shrugged. "Whatever. Just push her out of there, and we'll leave your sanctum standing for another few days."
Verdenten nudged me, and I stepped over the bones of the boy skeleton that had impersonated my son. "I advise you, paladin. Carolie is no innocent: she is chosen. Though I would barter my soul to save her, the fight is hers."
Soliden lowered his weapon and his gaze, as if that meant something. Meanwhile, the acolyte grabbed my shoulder in his bony grip. We flew low. He dragged me just an inch above the ground. "Don't mind the pain," he whispered, as he battered my feet against the stones and roots. "It's going to get a lot worse."
Continue: "Section 4: The Writing on the Wall"