Another messenger. From another village. With another monster they needed her to kill. And she didn’t have a fucking choice. Mariah stared into the camp fire, took a bite out of her lump of cheese.
The messenger was just a boy this time, smooth-faced, high-voiced. He sat off to her right and a little further from the fire.
“What’s my name, boy?”
“M’lady, it’s Mariah.”
“Yes. And I’m not a lady. I’m as low-born as you. I’ve goats for uncles. So stop calling me that.”
The boy sat silently again. He had a question burbling in his mind. She locked eyes with him and refused to supply it.
“Mariah how did—”
“By Demeter, you are a filthy child! I remember being that dirty. It’s disgusting to everyone but you because you’ve always been that way. You just think it’s normal for your crotch to itch all the time. It’s a special kind of filthy.”
He was silent again. The first few times she talked to him like this, she was treated to his tears, and she felt the curse push at her to stop, so she did. For a while. But then she did it again, mostly out of habit, and the boy didn’t cry, so the curse didn’t make her stop, and now insulting him entertained her.
“I could make you clean, you know? It would be the smallest thing, the tiniest bit of my vast, deadly powers!” The curse liked that, though. Yes it did. She resolved not to do it, but she already knew she didn’t have a choice. She whispered a few words to Poseidon, summoning a flood that would wash the child all the way back to his village. Instead, what she got was a tiny little rain cloud that showered him with warm water and left him smelling of the sea. It was the first time in his life the boy had ever been clean.
She could see his face clearly for the first time, now. Curly black hair, dark skin. There were lots of his people around here, from across the sea. He grinned. “Again!” Normally, Mariah could at least take some pleasure in scaring the life out of someone when the curse took hold of one of her spells, but this boy was unperturbed. The little wanker.
When she didn’t do anything for a minute, he spoke up again. “Mariah, can I ask you something?”
She took another bite of cheese and chewed with her mouth open between words. “Sure. Why not.”
“How did you learn witchcraft?”
“Everyone asks that. Nobody likes the answer.” She paused, scratched her nose. This was a well-told story. “Okay, I grew up in a tiny, shitty little village just like yours—don’t tell me your village isn’t shitty! I can tell by the look of you that it’s deeply shitty.”
She started again. “When I was a girl, a bit older than you, I met a woman who was a witch. I thought she was amazing. Nobody crossed her. Everyone did what she said. It looked fantastic. So, we made a trade. She’d teach me everything she knew, and I would be her slave. But then she didn’t teach me, and I was stuck.
“That was always the idea, of course. String me along, but never give me enough power to escape. So I started going through her things at night, learning all her secret secrets, everything she was holding back.
“I was going to kill her when I was done, obviously.”
The boy seemed shocked by that.
“Don’t look at me like that! She didn’t want a student she couldn’t control, I didn’t want a teacher who could control me. Killing me was always her plan, so I decided to kill her first. Neither of us were doing anything the other wouldn’t.” He seemed to understand now. Smart boy. “We fought. I won. But just before she died, she put the curse of Zeus me.”
“Let me ask you something, boy. You know I fought the iron bull?” He nodded. “Banished the screaming ghosts?” He nodded again. “Challenged the hungry cliffs?” He nodded a third time. “Yeah, you know that because the bards sing about it, the little shits, but they don’t sing about her, my ‘mistress.’ I told them everything I just told you, all of it. They just don’t like that part. Doesn’t go well in a song.”
She bit off another piece of cheese, talking and chewing. “I have to say, it was imaginative. I’d have never thought of it. I’m more of a ‘leave a mangled corpse’ type, myself. Curses aren’t my thing. But her! She bound me to carry out the justice of Zeus, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. It’s all she said before she died: “Justice.” Then she giggled at me like a little girl and dropped dead. I have to defeat the tyrants, slay the monsters, risk my precious life to save… well, little dullards like you mostly. No offence.”
The boy was disheartened. He had been so excited to meet her. He’d been asking annoying questions for two days. He wanted to know all about witchcraft and magical battles. And he clearly thought she was going to be the saviour of his little village. But she had spent the entire time insulting him, swearing at him, crushing his fantasies. Now, he finally knew why. She was an asshole.
“So, you asked me to come to your village and save you from some sorcerer who’s set up shop, yeah? That it?”
She looked him right in the eye. “Well I’d rather get drunk and fuck a stranger. That’s my kind of fun. I don’t give a squat of piss about your family and your village and your little sorcerer problem.”
The curse started grabbing at her tongue, trying to make her say sweet things to the boy. Being this mean to him was, apparently, a small act of injustice, at least according to the long-dead will of her former master. She decided to change her tune. Better to chose her own words. Letting it talk through her was a disturbing experience.
“But I’ll help you. Of course I will. I’ll kill your sorcerer. I’ll save your family. Someone will write a damn song about it, and then more people will come whine at me about their shitty little problems, which I’ll have to solve. Don’t worry your stupid little head.”
She ate the rest of her cheese in uncomfortable silence. Uncomfortable for him, mostly. He kept opening his mouth to ask more questions, but didn’t end up saying anything. She was having a lovely time of not talking to him. When she was finished her cheese, she offered him nothing: no food, no blanket, no shelter. The curse left her alone. She slept marvellously.
The village had a few homes, a small marketplace, and an inn, which she made a mental note of. Inns had food and wine, you see. The boy lead the two of them back to his family’s compound of huts, the same as the one Mariah had grown up in. It was all far too familiar for her taste. His father was tending to the goats, but his mother looked just like him. The same wide face, the same huge brown eyes. She kept a protective arm around him, holding him back from Mariah. Mariah wasn’t sure she was wrong to do it.
He talked with his mother for a time, asking what had happened since he’d gone. Mariah could have told the story easily enough. She didn’t really need the details. The sorcerer had terrorized the villagers for a day or two, then he’d ordered them to bring food and wine to a goatherd’s hut in the town’s outskirts, and they had spent the last week doing it. The owner of the hut was “gone,” and Mariah knew that meant “dead but we can’t admit it because we’re scared shitless.”
Mariah decided this sorcerer was an idiot. The inn would have been more defensible, and for the love of Dionysus, it was stocked with wine. But the curse had pushed her feet towards the goatherd’s hut, and she didn’t bother resisting. It was a short walk, and the stars were out.
The boy came with her, over his mother’s objections. She ordered him to stay in the hut and then yelled at him. Mariah just left, well rid of him, but before an hour was up, there he was, always ten or twelve paces behind and watching her every move. He walked with his shoulders hunched, like he was being caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to, but he never faltered. She had to admit, he was no coward. If he survived the day, it would probably define his life, better or worse. Of course if he didn’t survive, it wouldn’t matter because he’d be dead.
“Mariah,” he asked, as they walked and watched the sun set. “Why don’t you lift the curse yourself? You’re a witch!”
It had taken her two days to think of that. He was slower, but not by much. “True,” she said, “but how would that work?”
He thought for a moment. “Oh. You can’t, can you, because it wouldn’t be justice.”
“Just. It wouldn’t be just.”
They arrived at the hut just after sunset. Or near the hut. Or at the bottom of the hill at the top of which was the hut, anyway. She stopped and whispered, “Fuck.”
“Lower your stupid voice,” she hissed. “We’re sneaking up on a sorcerer, aren’t we!”
He whispered so quietly she almost couldn’t hear him. “Mariah, why are we stopping?”
“We’re stopping because that is a fucking sorcerer up there. They spend their whole lives learning how to not get killed, yeah? Usually, not getting killed involves killing the other guy first, and we’re the other guy, so shut it while I think.” He shut it, and shrank even further behind a boulder. Proper survival instinct.
She surveyed the hill. There wasn’t much to it, dirt and a couple of bushes. Actually, this was pretty defensible. He had a fire going, so there was no mistaking where he was, but he also had an unobstructed view. And he’d had a week to spread wards up and down the hill. She could see shadows and glimmers that weren’t supposed to be there, spots the eye couldn’t focus on. She had to admit, it was a good place to set up as the tyrant of the village. She realized she had just liked the idea of holing up in an inn and drinking wine. By Dionysus, she could use a jug. Fucking curse. She didn’t want to be there. She didn’t want to have to plan a one-witch assault on a sorcerer who was well and proper fortified. And she was tired. And it was dark. And she didn’t feel like a big fight tonight. Maybe she could be smarter this time, sort it out without killing anyone. Or risking getting herself killed. That was the important part.
She looked at the boy: “I’m going up there. You should go home because I’m probably going to die tonight, which means you’ll all die tomorrow, and you should kiss your shitty little family goodbye before any of that happens. Now fuck off!”
She turned her back on him and walked carefully up the hill. The sorcerer had crafted a lot of traps, but mostly the kind of thing that would stop a dumb villager: cloud of brimstone stench, swarm of burning coals, shouty voices. He hadn’t figured on her. She admired the workmanship while she sidestepped every last one, making the occasional counter-sign against one that could actually hurt her.
She heard two sets of heavy breathing as she got closer to the hut. That would explain how it was so easy to sneak up on him. He’d found some cooperative young person, maybe trying to curry favour, maybe just excited by the power. It didn’t matter. After she stepped past the last trap, she pitched her voice to carry up the hill: “You might as well finish and clear off. Me and that sorcerer need to have some words.” Someone swore under their breath, and then she heard them scramble for clothes. A silhouette fled down the hill. The curse liked that they got away unharmed. She could feel it. A little twinge of job well done! She hated that feeling, like being patted on the head. Fuck you, Zeus, she thought. But you know, quietly.
She was in spitting distance of the hut, now, coming up alongside of it. The fire was burning just outside the entrance, and he wasn’t coming out. He was confident, perhaps overconfident but perhaps just perfectly confident. Perhaps he had some brilliant you’re-completely-fucked plan that she didn’t know about. She hadn’t lived this long by underestimating threats, but those traps had also not presented a real danger. She took another hard look around for anything she might have missed, and then said, “I’m coming in, right? Just want to talk.” She kept talking to him as she rounded the side of the hut: “I don’t really think you can stop me anyway, but I reckoned I’d let you know, so here’s me, walking right in.” The curse left her alone. That was a good sign. “Hello,” she said, entering the hut.
The sorcerer was pale with bright eyes and yellow hair. She didn’t see people like him very much. A true foreigner. He wore something flowing and colourful. Judging by the blood stains, he’d taken it off someone he’d killed. He said nothing, just gave her the stink eye.
“Good collection of wards back there, by the way. Quality work. I had to pick my way through pretty carefully. You’re talented.” He gave a thin smile. She sat down on the dirt floor with fire to her back, outside of the hut, which put the sorcerer in shadow. Not ideal.
“I tell you what,” she said, feeling her way through the situation. This negotiating instead of killing, it was new to her. “This little village is not going to keep your attention for long. There’s only so much food and wine and willing young bodies. You’ll get bored. So, let’s speed up the process. How can I convince you to leave?” The curse didn’t stir, didn’t have a problem with what she was doing.
He spoke slowly, unhurried. “I like it here. It’s peaceful. Goatherds are obedient. If they run out of tribute, I’ll kill them all and move on, but not until then.”
She heard the slightest gasp from outside the hut. It was the boy. He must have been curious. He must have wanted to see the fight and followed her up the hill. He must have been as silent as a bird. He must have matched her every move, every gesture even. Clever boy. Far too fucking clever.
“Okay, I didn’t want to bring this up, but if you don’t agree to something, I’m going to have to kill you,” she smiled sweetly. “But let’s not focus on that,” she continued. “How about this, I’m a capable witch. Surely, I know things you’d like to know, and you can’t pick my brain if one of us is dead, so how about I give you something, and you move along to another village. Yeah?”
“I’m listening. What have you got?”
“Well, I did just walk through your mountain of wards and curses entirely unscathed. Wouldn’t you like to know how?”
“That is appealing.” She could hear the smile in his voice.
“A deal then! Lovely. You leave this little village, and in exchange I’ll teach you how to lift cur—” her throat closed suddenly. The curse wouldn’t let her finish. It had finally figured out what she was trying to do. She gasped through a clenched throat.
He started chuckling to himself. He slowly stood up. She could see his coloured robes shifting in the firelight, complete with blood stains. She’d tried to come at the curse sideways, and this curse was pretty dumb, as curses go, but not quite dumb enough, and now she was going to die for it.
“I have heard of you, your situation. I had thought it would put you in a distinct disadvantage. All I had to do was wait.”
Okay, bad plan. She was gasping for air, now. The curse gets particularly dickish when she tries to tamper with it. Should have seen this coming.
“And now, I’ll put an end to the mighty Mariah.” He raised a hand and began drawing an elaborate sign in the air. Foreigner’s magic. No wonder all he could manage was being lord of a tiny village. It was slow as goat shit.
Slow enough for the boy to burst into the hut. “No!” She wondered what he thought he was going to do. Probably he didn’t think at all. The sorcerer made the last gesture of his sign, and then threw the whole thing at the boy. Grey sores mushroomed across his face and chest. He little body fell to the ground.
The curse couldn’t stand for that. It unwrapped its fingers from her throat, and she spoke four hoarse words in prayer to Nemesis. A moment later, a spear sprouted from the sorcerer’s chest. His mouth smacked opened and closed without sound. His arms flailed, grabbing at the butt of the spear spear or trying to make more magic. Whatever. It didn’t work either way. Mariah spat out another quick prayer, and a dagger was in his forehead. Then he slumped forward and died. Finally.
She turned to the boy. The curse pushed at her almost frantically, and she didn’t resist. She knelt and began an elaborate prayer to Apollo. The boy was nearly dead, so it would take some effort. She whispered supplications, begging the god for aid. She called on Demeter’s protection, even reached back for Gaia’s mercy, anyone who might help. As she spoke, the sores expanded and burst leaving pink skin behind. And scars. There would be scars. Her power had limits. He would live though.
He opened his eyes slowly, clearly in pain. She asked in a ragged whisper: “Why? Why did you do that? You were so clever! Why risk your life!? For your shitty little village, full of shitty little people?”
“Yes,” he said, with a half smile, “for them.” But not just for them. Interesting.
She plopped onto the dirt and sat next to him, taking a moment to calm herself. “Well,” she looked at the body of the sorcerer. A spear through the chest and a dagger in the face was about how most of her enemies looked when she was done. “Your shitty village will be fine.” She coughed at her dry throat. “Your shitty family will live. Shittily.”
He smiled. He had finally started enjoying the vulgarity, as every child should. “Do I have to go home, now?” he asked.
There it was. This was the question she’d been expecting. Clever little boys who can walk past wards on their first try don’t tend to want to stay in their shitty little villages.
“You’ve seen things your people would marvel at in a song but never believe with their own eyes. You should get good at telling this story. It’ll get you well laid for the rest of your life, you play it right.”
He cocked his head at her. Too young for that to be appealing, apparently.
“Or,” she said, “you could come with me. Learn magic. Have adventures.” He brightened. “Yes, I suppose we could do that. It’s about time I had an apprentice, myself. And no murdering this time. Curse wouldn’t let me, anyway.” He didn’t need to say anything. His face told her he’d agreed. It was a deal.
They slept in the hut that night. Mariah had wanted to roll the Sorcerer’s body down the hill and let the crows eat him, but the boy insisted on a burial, so she asked Hades to take him to the Underworld. The ground opened, swallowed him, and then slammed shut. She was pleased with how hard it did that last bit. They went through the sorcerer’s things in the morning. There were some jewels, an amulet she liked the look of. The wards had disappeared by then. Quality work, but not lasting. They walked straight down the hill, found the main road, and kept walking until the Sun was low.
She’d tried to come at the curse sideways, but it wasn’t quite sideways enough. She had to be cleverer this time, take the really long way around.
She looked at the boy. “What’s your name? I can’t keep calling you ‘boy’ forever.”
(C) Copyright, Orion Ussner Kidder 2017