First published in Black Gate #10, March 2007.
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.
Then from ahead he heard footsteps crunch on dead leaves. He stepped soundlessly to put his back against a tree, glancing first to make sure it was a harmless beech with no bone collection.
Brush rustled in the grove ahead and he squinted to see. Then suddenly Giliead was wading out of the streambed, his boots muddy and his pants wet to the knee. Ilias stared, stunned into calling out, "Gil! What happened, where were you?"
Giliead came toward him, apparently unhurt though it was hard to tell in the dim light. "You're asking me where I was?" he demanded.
Taken aback at his angry tone, Ilias gestured in confusion. "No. Yes. I was worried. What happened to you?" He moved forward, lowering his sword.
"Nothing happened." Reaching him, Giliead caught his arm, hauling him away from the stream. "I came to look at all this, but it's old, harmless."
"Harmless? Are you kidding?" Ilias protested, trying to look back as Giliead towed him over the uneven ground. He was used to heeding Giliead's instructions in anything to do with curses -- if he hadn't, he wouldn't have lived much past his sixteenth year. But Giliead wasn't usually this much of an ass about it. Tired of being dragged like a recalcitrant child, Ilias yanked his arm free, twitching his jerkin back into place. "Something lured you off here with all these...tree-things."
"No, there's nothing wrong," Giliead said flatly.
He reached for Ilias' arm again and Ilias fell back a step by reflex. "But there's still a curse here, right? In the stream?" He looked past Giliead toward the grove. Either there's a curse or we're both going crazy. "Why did you go in the middle of the night--"
Caught flat-footed, the punch spun him around and he lost his footing, slamming down into the ground nearly face first. Groggy, he shoved himself up on his hands and knees, swaying dizzily. "I'm guessing there's still a curse," he said thickly.
Ilias had held onto his sword by instinct and it was still under his right hand. He saw Giliead's boot come down on the blade and knew the other would be heading for his ribs. Abandoning the trapped sword he threw himself into a sideways roll, scrambling to his feet. He backed away, saying, "Giliead, listen to me--"
Giliead came toward him, a predatory cast to his face so alien to his normal self that it made him look almost like an entirely different person. "You're under a curse," Ilias tried, "You have to--"
Giliead swung at him but Ilias ducked under the blow, caught Giliead's arm and shifted his weight, sending him crashing to the ground. "--Snap out of it!" Ilias finished.
Giliead rolled to his feet with barely a pause and Ilias backed away.
They circled each other and Ilias tried again, "Look, it's me. You're under a curse, it's something in the water or the trees. You just need to concentrate and try to break--" He spun out of the way as Giliead charged him again.
Ilias kept trying but dodging lunges, ducking under punches, getting thrown down onto the bone-strewn grass and freeing himself from strangleholds didn't leave much breath for logical arguments or emotional appeals. He had fought Giliead for practice and for fun all his life, but it wasn't giving him any advantage. Giliead didn't seem to feel pain, either; punches to the face, kicks to the gut left him unmoved.
Ilias came to his feet again, braced to meet another charge. His jaw was sore, his arms and chest scraped and bruised and he was beginning to get winded. This is not going well. Then he saw Giliead scoop up a rock from the streambed about the size of his head. "Oh no, don't--" He ducked sideways but the rock caught him in the shoulder, knocking him flat in the weeds at the edge of the bank. He rolled over, hampered by a right arm numb from the impact, to see Giliead looming over him. He kicked up with both feet, catching the other man in the stomach and sending him staggering back, gaining enough time to roll to his feet.
"Giliead, for the love of--Yow!" His boot slipped on the mud as he made to dodge and the wild swing caught him in the side of the head.
Everything went black, leaving him with just the cold wet gravel against his face and under his hands to tell him he was still conscious. Oh no. Being beaten to death was not the end he would have chosen. And he didn't want a curse-ridden Giliead to be the one responsible. Ilias lifted his head, tasting his own blood, getting a hazy view of the ground as his vision slowly cleared. A hand gripped his hair and he realized Giliead was kneeling over him. "You don't want to do this," he said, slurring the words.
"But I do," Giliead breathed into his ear.
Ilias blinked grit out of his eyes, suddenly focusing on the hand planted firmly in the dirt only a few inches away from his face, the copper and leather archer's brace on the wrist. The olive leaves etched into it were a match for the designs on Ilias' own armbands. He's wearing that wrong, he thought woozily. Giliead drew his bow with his other arm. Then with sudden clarity, it's not him.
The realization came with a rush of equal parts relief and terror. There were curses that masked identity, but Ilias had been so convinced it was something affecting Giliead's mind that he hadn't even considered another possibility. Ilias made himself go limp, hoping whoever this was didn't just decide to snap his neck since he wasn't providing any more entertainment. After a moment the man shook him roughly by the hair, then pulled him up off the ground. Ilias twisted, smashing an elbow back into his face. The grip on his hair released and Ilias shoved off the ground, scrambling out of reach. He landed in a half-crouch, turning to put a tree at his back.
The man wiped his face with a sleeve, though the blow hadn't even given him a bloody nose. "I wasn't done yet anyway," he said, watching Ilias with that predatory expression so disconcerting to see on Giliead's face.
Except it's not quite Giliead's face, Ilias thought, eyeing him intently, looking for the subtle wrongness he knew was there now. The archer's brace on the left arm instead of the right was just the most obvious. He looked for the girl's bloodstain on Giliead's shirt and saw it was on the wrong side too; he hadn't noticed it earlier because the bad light made it hard to see against the red-brown cloth. It's a...mirror image. As if I'm looking at his reflection in water. He slipped a hand under his shirt and pulled his belt knife. "I think I'm done," he said through gritted teeth, shoving to his feet.
The duplicate surged toward him with a growl and Ilias slammed into him, driving the knife up under his breastbone as the bigger man's weight pushed him back into the tree. The duplicate gasped in shock and Ilias shoved him away, breathing hard.
The blade was buried in the man's chest to the hilt, but the fluid leaking from it was thick and green. It gave off a foul odor, like plants rotting in bog water. Ilias met the curseling's astonished gaze and said, "I thought so."
It lunged toward him again, but stopped short with a gasp, staggering back. It fell to its knees, fumbling at the blade. Ilias pushed away from the tree, watchfully evaluating its attempts to stand. When he was sure it wasn't going to get any further than clawing at the grass and writhing, he circled around it, limping over to collect his sword. His ribs stabbed him as he bent over to pick it up and his head throbbed from that last blow. He spat out some blood, took a deep breath to slow his pounding heart, then turned back.
It was still trying to get up but the thick green ichor was puddling around it, leaving it shrunken and its skin loose, as if it was a punctured wine skin. Its clothes, even the leather and metal, had shrunk and wrinkled too; it didn't even appear that human anymore, which made it much easier to look at.
Ilias stopped at the edge of the growing puddle of ichor and leaned on his sword. "What did you do to him?"
It looked up at him, baring its teeth. "You'll never find him."
So he's still alive. Ilias looked away to hide his relief. "I don't know, you seemed anxious to keep me out of that grove. I think I'll try there."
It snarled at him, making another wild grab, but its arm fell off. The sickening smell drove Ilias back another step. The abrupt movement had used up the last of its strength and it sank back into the puddle, the last remnants of humanity vanishing.
A crack and a strangled yell from the trees ahead spun him around. That was Gil. He bolted for the grove.
Past the first curtain of trees and brush the ground sloped down. Ilias fought his way past clinging vines to see the stream formed a large pool, choked and foul with weeds. Branches thrashed on the other side of the water as a familiar form grappled with one of the curseling trees. Ilias plunged toward it, calling out, "Gil!" though he had never tried to kill a tree before and had no idea where to start.
Wrestling with a whip-like branch trying to pierce his chest, Giliead looked up, shouting frantically, "Ilias, no! Don't let it touch you."
Ilias slid to an abrupt halt, staring in horror as he realized two of the sharp branches had already pierced Giliead's flesh, one burrowing into his thigh and another through his right upper arm, blood welling up around the foul wood. Giliead forced the writhing branch down, managing to free one hand. He reached out, saying with a gasp, "Give me your sword."
Ilias ducked in, slamming the hilt solidly into Giliead's palm as the branch whipped free and darted toward him. The wood slammed across his back but he twisted away, then another branch suddenly sprang up to curl around his ankle, yanking him off his feet.
Ilias hit the ground hard but saw Giliead use the instant of the curseling's distraction to drive the sword down under the roots. Half-sitting up, Ilias caught a glimpse of something green and horrible moving in the cavity under the tree.
A groan came from under the earth and a foul odor of rot filled the air. With a piercing crack the trunk split and the branches writhed wildly and drooped, all motion dying away.
Ilias pushed to his feet, dragging the nest of branches aside to get to Giliead. With gritted teeth, Giliead worked the wood out of his upper arm. He gasped as it came free, shaking his head with relief, his frayed braids flying. "That...was different."
"Different? That's a new word for it." Ilias was so giddy with relief he hardly knew what either one of them was saying. He took the sword from Giliead to awkwardly cut away the branch piercing his thigh. Giliead waved him away and pulled it out himself, making an inarticulate noise in his throat at the pain. Blood welled but Ilias could see it hadn't gone in as deep as he had feared. He stepped in to put an arm around Giliead's waist and Giliead grabbed his shoulder for support as Ilias hauled him away from the trunk. The thing under it began to leak that sour green fluid. "There's bodies in trees all up and down this water, do you think there's a curseling under every one?"
"No, I can't smell any other curselings. I think the curse was carried by the water from this one." Giliead leaned heavily on him, wincing. "I don't remember much of it. I left camp, came up here. I could smell the curseling, I went right to it. But instead of killing it.... The next thing I knew the tree was trying to eat me."
Ilias nodded, hearing his own suppositions confirmed. "It made a duplicate of you and tried to kill me. Maybe you woke up when I killed it."
"It made a what and did what?" Giliead demanded, then they both froze.
In the silence Ilias heard it again. A low groan, a human groan, from further into the grove. Giliead eased away from him and Ilias pushed cautiously forward, weaving around the trees, Giliead limping after him.
Following the edge of the pool where it wound further back into the grove, Ilias glimpsed movement. Another step revealed the source and he stopped, glancing up at Giliead.
It was the wizard Pheneras. He was wound up in one of the trees, pierced in a dozen places, the sharp branches weaving in and out of him. Some were broken off as if he had fought it long and hard, and blood stained the once fine material of his pants, shirt and overvest. Near the base of the trunk was a second Pheneras, slumped over in a heap, half its head bearing the sharp features and dark stringy hair of the wizard, the other half in the process of dissolving into green ooze.
Ilias looked at Giliead in time to see him swallow with difficulty. He glanced at Ilias, brow lifted, saying, "It did that to me?"
Ilias just nodded. Giliead shook his head with a grimace and reached for the sword. Ilias handed it over and Giliead limped forward, close enough to grab the real Pheneras' hair and jerk his head upright. Ilias twitched but the tree didn't react to Giliead's presence. Looking closer, he saw the branches drooped, no longer trying to force a way deeper into the wizard's flesh. Giliead was right, it had been just one curseling, connected to all the trees by the water.
Pheneras' eyes blinked and opened, staring uncomprehending at them. Giliead asked, "Did you know this was here?"
Pheneras drew a rattling breath, then his lips parted in a rictus smile. "No, it's old, older than any of us. Finding it was a happy accident. I saw it call you, I watched you fight it all night until it wore you away and took you in its embrace. But I lingered too long, and it seized me too."
Giliead was silent a moment, then nodded to himself. He said, "If you'd known it was here, I would have left you like this," and thrust the sword into Pheneras' chest.
Taking the head was awkward but they managed it. Since Giliead needed Ilias to lean on and they only had three usable arms between them, Ilias broke his rule about not carrying wizard heads, and said only, "I hope you remembered to bring a bag this time." Giliead grumbled a retort Ilias didn't bother to listen to.
Making their stumbling progress back through the forest, Ilias tried to make plans for when they could leave this motherless place. Once Giliead's wounds were cleaned and bound it would take him a few days to be able to walk. Then they would need to do the rites for all these bodies, to free any trapped shades wandering the woods. It was going to take days.
Ilias realized it was only last night that Giliead had said it was always others who got hurt, never him. Ilias said, "Well, it's not just others. You get hurt too. Happy now?"
Giliead snorted ruefully. "Oddly enough, not really."
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© Martha Wells 2007
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