Mariah had slept the night in an actual bed. The owner of the bed—baker? armourer?—had offered it to her in gratitude to the great and mighty sorceress (witch, actually) and saviour of his cousin’s… something something? She’d stopped paying attention and started praying to Dionysus that there would be wine. When they got there and there was wine, she felt justified that she’d stopped listening to the story about his uncle. In celebration, she’d also invited him to join her in the bed, but neither his wife nor her curse would let her. For the hundredth time that day, she swore at the witch who’d put it on her, this curse of “justice.”
She woke up drunk and squinted at the Sun beaming down on this armourer’s courtyard. She had to admit that every so often, her curse led to some not entirely shit situations. She didn’t want to be a hero, constantly risking her life for people she couldn’t possibly care about if she tried—and she didn’t!—but at least there was the occasional warm bed and jug of wine. It wasn’t the same as spending a night fucking a grateful baker, but this was nice too.
She got out of bed, pulled on her dress, and walked across the courtyard. She wondered how her apprentice-of-convenience was doing across the way, in the women’s rooms. The armourer’s wife and daughter had insisted that the boy should stay with them. They seemed to think Mariah was a bad influence, which was basically true. She’d told them that she couldn’t hurt him if she tried, because of the curse,but they didn’t care, and she didn’t trust anyone who was this generous. They always have an angle. Sophus trusted them immediately. Of course.
He was a clever boy in specific ways but also deeply fucking stupid in others. Kept going on about adventures and rescuing people, but if she was very careful about it, he might save her from this life of fame and heroism, but it was delicate work. He learned quickly enough, but he didn’t listen nearly as hard when she tried to tell him that most people were basically bastards who’d kill you and sell you for meat if they could. Of course, the curse didn’t like that. For some reason, teaching Sophus to protect himself was also unjust. She’d feel it wagging its finger at her, and she’d always picture that witch who put it on her, the one who taught her witchcraft, the one she’d killed.
But really, how long was it going to take for Sophus to learn enough magic to free her? She’d been gathering curse lore for months, waiting for him to ask, but he was fascinated by everything else. He had to get around to it sometime, but she couldn’t ask him directly—the curse would try to strangle her to death, again—and “sometime” was not coming nearly fast enough.
It also turned out she hated teaching. She couldn’t just tell him what he needed to learn. If he didn’t figure it out for himself, then he didn’t learn it nearly as well, and he had to know it very well to be useful to her, so she was stuck waiting around for him to learn every other damn thing before he could solve her problem. It would take way more patience than she’d ever had. She didn’t like waiting for her wine to pour.
She stepped up to the door of the women’s rooms, pushed it open just a bit, and there was his gormless little face, the one that kept demanding more lessons, the one that grinned when she talked about almost getting killed by this monster or that wizard. Then she looked at the scars on his neck and cheek, grey circles on dark skin. He’d gotten those trying to… save her? They’d never really talked about it, so she didn’t know exactly what his intentions had been, but he’d been killed by something meant for her. The curse made her save him, but he hadn’t known that would happen. The boy had balls, even if they hadn’t dropped yet.
He was sleeping in the arms of the armourer’s daughter. Her in the bloom of youth, and thinking he was the cutest thing she’d ever seen, him smooth-cheeked and oblivious. Years from now, she thought, he will look back on this with cold regret at how stupid he was to not take advantage. But he’d also be smart enough to know that if he had been older, they would never have let him anywhere near her, this foreign boy, this apprentice to a travelling witch. She saw him stir, so she walked across the courtyard, back to her armourer’s bed.
A few minutes later, she heard his little feet pad across that same courtyard, and then up to her room, and then up to her bed.
“Mariah, you said we’d learn conjuring today.”
She lay there, refused to answer. The boy thrived on abuse, which was convenient because that’s what she was good at.
“You promised we’d move on to conjuring.”
He’d developed a bit of stubbornness over time. They’d been doing this routine every day since he’d left his village to come adventuring.
“I did?” she drawled, not opening her eyes. “Can’t recall.”
“Yes. You did. Three days ago, you said we’d do conjuring the next day, which means today—”
“Don’t care. Go away.”
The boy’s people were from the south, across the sea. They had the most annoying habit of sucking their teeth at you when they found your actions lacking. No specific sense of what you were lacking, just indefinably insufficient in some way. She felt that a child his age should not be doing it to an adult, but she also wasn’t entirely certain what it meant, so she was confounded by it every time. Sophus was sucking his teeth now, a real throaty suck.
“Ares’ asshole, will you stop that!” She sat up, opened her eyes. Then she saw him notice she was already in her dress. She must never forget how quick he was. He knew she’d already gotten up. His eyes flicked over to where he’d slept. Had he guessed she’d been looking in on him? If he had, what would he make of it? What else had he already figured out on his own? She grabbed a now very empty wine jug, scraping it along the floor, and put it in front him. “Fine. Conjure something.”
He answered carefully, “I don’t know how yet?” This was part of the game, her preposterous demands.
“Conjure something or fuck off.”
He stared at her, then the jug. His clever little head was remembered everything she’d ever shown him, deliberately or otherwise. He trusted her not to lie to him (ha!), so he assumed she had shown him how at some point. She couldn’t honestly say if she had. She didn’t think ahead like that.
Finally, he looked in the bottom of the jug and saw traces of wine. He touched them with his finger tips, then touched his fingers to his lips, tasting it, and then swallowed. He repeated a rhyme about Dionysus, one she’d drunkenly slurred a few weeks ago, and then wine started pouring backwards down the spout and into the jug. They both listened as it filled itself.
“Great,” she said. “Lesson over.”
One jug later, she was asleep and Sophus was sucking his teeth again. The boy had conjured some very strong wine.
Hours later, she woke up to his tiny hands shaking her, back and forth, back and forth. “Mariah! They told me to tell you that the Stone Man of Imbros is awake! He’s awake!” Her feat were in her sandals and halfway across the room before he finished talking.
She marched along the road—left, right, left, right—towards the nearest port she knew of. The Stone Man was awake. The thought was liquefying her bowels. She was in a cold sweat under a midday Sun.
“Mariah! Slow down!” Sophus called from behind her, far enough that he had to yell.
“Can’t! Have to kill him!” The curse was practically working her legs for her, which was useful because her mind was blank with panic.
“Fine!” He was huffing and puffing. “Then just tell me what a Stone Man is?”
He ran up beside her. “Why not?”
Dammit, the boy was obsessive. “The Stone Man was a terrifyingly powerful war-mage, a general in an ancient army who conquered half the world. Someone, a priest, got right fucking lucky two hundred years ago and turned him into a statue. Do the sums, boy, you’re not up for that.”
“But I’m your apprentice! I get to go with you!” He had a point. That was the deal. But he was her only chance at freedom, so…
“I have to go. Curse won’t let me not. But you want to come because you want to be a hero. You want to have a song about you.” She looked look him in the eye, legs still pumping. “Heroes die, Sophus. They die horribly before anyone’s ever heard of them. I know that because I live, every time, by being an asshole. I live by lying, treachery, and blinding violence. Heroism would have turned me into a corpse long before there was any songs for little idiots like you to get obsessed over.” He was starting to cry. Good. But the curse was letting her do it, letter her hurt him. She could feel its approval. Not good.
“But you promised!”
“What did I just tell you?” They stared at each other. They had been doing this since he joined her, fighting over things that they already knew and that weren’t going to change. She was a liar and he was an idealist. That was that.
“Go back to the baker’s house,” she said “The daughter likes you. You could get between her legs in a few days if you’d just make an effort.” Shit. Wrong tactic. Much too young for that to work.
“Take me with you.” It was a demand.
“No. Go back. I don’t need you.” But he didn’t. He kept yelling questions, and she kept yelling insults. They did that for hours before their voices were to rough to hear each other, then they walked in silence for the rest of the day.
The curse let her stop to sleep and, more importantly, to shit. Sophus caught up with her and started making new demands, so she looked him directly in the eye while she squatted over the sand. She was trying to disgust him, but it didn’t work. He’d see her do worse.
On the second day, she realized she was an idiot. “Hey! Hey, apprentice!” She threw her words over her shoulder. “Who told you the Stone Man was awake?”
Sophus scurried up beside her, delighted to be needed, “A messenger! He was following you.” He would have loved to say “us,” but he knew it wasn’t true.
“What else did he say?”
“That the Stone Man was giving the evil eye to islanders.”
“Just the eye?” she asked. He shrugged, and she didn’t ask a second time. He’d said all there was to say. If there’d been more, he would have spoken up.
“Am I your apprentice again? Are you taking me with you?”
“No and fuck off.”
By the third day, she was dragging her feet through the sand, and Sophus was only doing a little better (youth and sobriety, apparently). It would have been just perfect if she’d died on the way to challenging the Stone Man. A small part of her would have loved it. Sing a song about that, ya farty little bards. But a much bigger part of her would keep on living because fuck that witch who cursed her, that’s why. She would ask Gaia for food, Athena for strength, and she knew the shore was close enough they’d reach it by the next day. Keep living. That’s the only rule.
Sophus groaned, which pulled her away from her daydream of spitting in the Fates’ eyes.
“I know it’s not safe. I know we could die,” he said.
“Will die, boy. We will die.”
“But I’m your apprentice! I chose this.”
“I don’t care! Sophus, I’m telling you to go back because you’re shit at magic, yeah? You’re weak. You’re not useful.” Hang on, the curse was suddenly bothered by this, the insults. What changed?
He brightened. “I can come now, can’t I?”
“I can come now. I can tell. The curse wants me to.” Clever fucking boy. She wondered what else she thought she was hiding from him.
“No. Go back. You’re useless.”
“I’m not. I’m your apprentice. And I am coming.” All she could do was growl at him, then she prayed to Hestia that he would find happiness in the armourer’s house. For a moment, they both smelled warm embers, but then it changed to iron and blood. He grinned and bloodthirsty grin. The curse was screwing with her magic again.
“Fine. You’re coming with me.”
His little face split into a smile, and he started walking backwards in front of her, too much confidence. “So, the Stone Man is awake! But you can put him back to sleep, right?”
“The priest, one got lucky? He died trying. And I’ve no idea how he did it. My master didn’t know.”
“Oh.” He turned around again, walked next to her. “So what do we do?”
“I go to Imbros and get killed. You tag along and get killed.” Unless he got very good at lifting curses right now, of course. Otherwise, whether he lived or died didn’t matter.
They reached the shore the next day after sleeping out in the open next to the road. Stupid, that was, but the curse was dragging along, so she didn’t have a choice. Once they found a ship going to the right islands, Mariah bartered magic for passage. Wasn’t hard. Some good wind, less rain. Sailors always loved her. Partly because of her foul mouth, but mostly the witchcraft.
Once they were on board, she slumped down on the deck, the curse finally allowing her to sit still. Sophus slumped down beside her, and for a few moments, they felt the Sun on their faces, smelled the sea, listened to the strain of the oars.
“The locals,” she finally said, “think that if a virgin girl looks the Stone Man in the eye for five heartbeats, she will be barren for life. Girls dare each other to do it. And now he’s giving the actual evil eye. Those islanders aren’t stupid, turns out.”
“But what do we do?” Giving knowledge to that boy was like knocking an arrow. She hoped all she had to do was let go.
“I’ve been thinking for three days, Sophus, and I’m pretty sure the answer is: we’re fucked. The curse is making me go there, and you’re not smart enough to turn back.”
He thought for a while. She prayed to Apollo, Demeter, and (hell with it) Hades that the boy picked up on the obvious. There was only one reason she had to go there, and he might be able to change that.
“He’s not all the way awake, maybe? Maybe it’s only his eye?”
Damn. Smart boy, wrong detail. “Yeah. Thought of that. Could be just the eye. Maybe we can jam a pointy stick into it.”
After five days at sea, fives days of Sophus’ questions, and five days of Mariah shaking her head at him, when they finally stepped onto Imbros, that was still the best plan she had: a stick in the eye.
And the curse was screaming at her to go straight at the Stone Man: no plan, no strategy. Ah well. Living had been fun. Maybe being a shade with a mouth full of ash would be more peaceful.
When they got to the town square, there was a crowd in a wide ring around the former statue. Mariah pushed her way through it, and Sophus gripped her dress, dragging himself through. She thought to herself that all these islanders looked alike: same faces over and over, same clothes. Maybe she thought that because she was a traveller and had seen so much that wasn’t Imbros. Maybe it was just because she was an outsider. Funny things occur to you when you’re about to die.
She broke the edge of the crowd, which despite being gathered was well back from the statue, and saw the Stone Man of Imbros much like it has always been described: dressed in the garb of an ancient general, down on one knee, arm resting on that knee. It had been that way for centuries. But now, its right eye was awake and scanning the crowd, his mouth was flesh, and one brown hand hung down at his side, skin and bone to just above the wrist. The rest was unmoving stone. He couldn’t even turn his head.
In front of the statue was an old man—a priest, an elder, whatever—in flowing robes and on his knees, head bowed low. He spoke loud enough for the crowd to hear: “…allegiance until the rivers run dry and the mountains are brought low, until the sky and the land are one, until—”
“Stop that!” Mariah heard herself yell, and then hated herself immediately. The curse had done it, but there was no going back now. She tried to do a hero voice. “Don’t swear an oath to a fuckin’ war-mage! They’ll make you keep it!” She wasn’t very good at it.
The Stone Man’s eye fixed on her. He spoke in a halting, distant voice. His insides were still rock. “Who addresses me?”
“Mariah, the Witch,” said the curse, through her mouth. “Shit,” said Mariah, quietly, to herself. Giving a war-mage your name was also pretty stupid. She edged around the circle, keeping out of his very limited field of view.
“Mariah.” He spoke slowly. No hurry and showing no fear. That or he had gotten too used to being a statue. “I know this name. It is not a warrior’s name, a conqueror’s name. It is the name of an angry woman”—which he pronounced as if to rhyme with ‘slave’—“without children, without husband, without fortune or family.” That was all true, but she didn’t like the way he said it.“Come before me, daughter, so I may teach you your place.”
“Nah. I’ll stay here.” She edged slowly around him.
The Stone Man kept talking. “Ah, I see now.” His living hand wove shapes in the air. She saw old magic, divination. “You have no desire to challenge me. A compulsion has brought you here. A most ironic compulsion.”
There it was. Names do have power. But there was also a glimmer of possibility in it. Mariah picked her words carefully, “I’m here because youare here. I can’t ignore that.”
“Yes. I see that you cannot.” There was a long pause. The crowd waited silently. “But…” Yes, she thought, be a smart monster. There’s another option that neither of us can name.
“My daughter, come before me.” Her heart beat rapidly. Her freedom was close. She stepped gingerly into the Stone Man’s field of view. And then his free hand clenched in the air, and her body was frozen. This hand-magic was fast. He twisted his fist and reeled her in, pulling her face-to-face with him.
The situation was, in one sense, ideal. Unable to move, she couldn’t resist him removing the curse. But, unable to move, she also couldn’t resist him killing her. So not a lot she could do about it either way. Just hope he was thinking what she was thinking.
He pulled her close enough that she could smell his musty breath. “Compulsions can be dispelled. Removed. I could offer you this gift,” he said, “if you swore loyalty to me.” He wasn’t done, though. There were more words coming, but he also had some new hand-magic to throw, which meant he had to relax his hand, which meant Mariah could move, which meant the curse made her run from him. Fucking curse.
“Too slow!” she yelled, and darted to her right where he couldn’t see her past the bridge of his own nose. She was intensely aware of the crowd, now, still in a wide circle around him. They were cowed, but there was no telling what they’d do. She had lost track of Sophus, but she couldn’t worry about that now. He’d live or he’d die, and she had her own skin to save.
She loudly praised Gaia and a crack appeared in the ground underneath the Stone Man, but he lifted his hand, levitating himself for a moment, just long enough to bring his thumb together with his fingers and draw the crack closed. The statue thumped down to the ground. She couldn’t talk faster than he could wave his fingers around.
“Daughter, this ends in your death.”
“Yeah, got that.” The curse was screaming at her to kill him, kill him fast, kill him now! She couldn’t refuse, and the crowd was still shocked—the upside of having no plan is nobody knows what the hell you’re going to do next—which gave her time to pray to Helios. A shaft of blazing light opened above the Stone Man. The soil blackened underneath him, and what little flesh he had started to burn, but he spread his fingers wide and floated them upwards. A thick cloud appeared, shading him.
“Child, you live because I am showing you patience—”
“Great!” The crowd was starting to animate. Sooner or later, someone would decide trying to stop her would earn them favour from their new god-king, so she kept moving, circling around his other side. One more idea. An especially stupid plan. They were pretty far from the water, it would take much too long, and the islanders would hate her for generations, but she literally had no choice.
She dropped to her knees and raised her hands to Poseidon. The islanders rushed forwards and grabbed her, but it was too late. She had summoned an ocean wave as high as a palace, rolling up from the shore. It ate houses and people, smashed stone and wood, and would surely kill them all. The water slammed into her and the rest of the crowd. She didn’t know her ass from her elbow for a moment, but then water stopped moving and she fell backwards onto the hard ground, look up at a wall of water. Her feet were still inside it, but she pulled them out immediately.
She looked at the Stone Man. He had raised his hand up, palm forward, and now the water just hung there, like a huge window. At the top, it sloshed back and forth. Half the crowd had been swallowed by it, and what was left stood with gaping mouths and watched as their friends, family, presumably their lovers too, frantically swam towards the air, towards life. There were also unconscious bodies floating in it, knocked out or dead. And then the Stone Man slowly lowered his hand and the water drained away, placing everyone back on the ground. The islanders rushed towards the conscious and the unconscious, trying to give aid. Others stood over their broken homes, dead people, animals, and they wept.
They would blame her for this. They would be grateful to the Stone Man for saving them, and they would hate her. And they’d be right. It was a shit plan, in a lot of ways.
The Stone Man traced a circle in the air with his middle finger, and a ring of flame erupted around him and Mariah, where she lay.
“You will die now, daughter. A shame. I was wrong. You are indeed a warrior.” Oh joy. She’d earned his respect. Comforting.
The ring closed, pushing onto her feet and forcing her into the Stone Man’s field of view where he could kill her easily. This was the end of the line. Warrior or not, no plan, it turned out, was an especially shitty plan. If not for the curse, she would have given up, but she was a spiteful woman, and she refused to give it the satisfaction. So she jumped on the Stone Man’s back and jammed her thumb in his eye.
Sophus had kept a good grip on Mariah’s dress, but at some point, the cloth slipped through his fingers, and he was suddenly surrounded by nothing but opaque torsos, so he closed his eyes and Hermes showed him the island, complete with this crowd. He watched Mariah step forward, speak to the Stone Man, and then start fighting him. She was clearly not going to last long, but he didn’t know what to do. He’d once tried to help her in a battle, and he’d died. Yes, she’d brought him back to life, but he doubted she could do that this time, so he stayed in the crowd, trying, with Hermes’ aid, to get to its outer edges. That’s when he saw the huge wave moving up the shore.
He had a few seconds’ head start, bless Hermes, but it hardly mattered in a crowd this packed, so instead of running, he begged Poseidon for some kind of aid, anything. When the water finally wash over them all, there were a few seconds of confusion—bodies bashed into him, his sense of up and down disappeared—but then he found he could swim like a dolphin. He was powerful and swift, slipping past the slow humans with ease. But for some reason he could not breath, so he concentrated on escape.
Then the water lowered and drained away. He was down on all fours in the mud, feeling his lungs pulling in great gulps of air. He looked around at what Mariah had done, the scale of it. These people’s lives would never be the same. He couldn’t take his eyes off of one particular child, a little younger than himself. The flesh had been torn away from her skull leaving an open wound that was oozing blood into watery earth.
Then the wall of fire appeared, and a few seconds later, he and everyone else heard a scream of pain, and then silence. When the fire receded, the Stone Man appeared again, alone. Mariah was gone. Not injured. Not a corpse. Just gone. But he had an empty eye socket that dripped with blood, and gore was still rolling down his hardened cheek. His one good hand shook with rage, clawed the air, then tightened into a hard fist. The fist started punching forwards, as much as it could, and his face seemed to slam against the stone even though he couldn’t actually move. Each time, the whole statue shook, and cracks appeared around his other eye. After a loud crack, shards of stone fell, and half of his face was flesh again: both eyes, forehead, and mouth. His nose cheeks, and chin were still stone. Finally, he screamed a terrible scream and ripped his arm free sending bits of stone flying into the crowd. His lean, brown arm was covered in cuts where the stone had cracked, but it could move now.
“My children, your king will arrive soon. Once I am again flesh, this island will be the seat of a great empire, you have only to—” his eyes fell on Sophus, and even he would have to admit he did stand out, being the only dark-skinned boy in the crowd. The Stone Man extended his arm, blood dripping down the length of it, pointing at Sophus. “Come forwards, boy.”
Sophus was quick and clever, but he was not nearly as powerful as Mariah, and this war-mage had just killed her (or banished her, he hoped), and he couldn’t disappear into the crowd. He moved forward slowly, little feet taking especially little steps, and fought the urge to look the Stone Man in the eye.
“You came with her. Do not deny it. You are foreign,” he narrowed his eyes at him, “and you have her power. But not her curse. Why would you come here, boy?”
“I’m her apprentice,” he said, quiet but still proud. For some reason.
The Stone Man’s fingers stirred. Sophus readied himself, but he didn’t know what for. “And what have you learned, apprentice?”
The most valuable thing Mariah had taught him was to stay alive. The longer you’re alive, the more time you’ve got left to find a way to “punch ‘em in the danglers, first chance you’ve got!” (a thing she said a lot). Sophus finally answered: “Bring me an empty wine jug?”
The Stone Man smirked, waved a hand at the crowd. Seven people ran towards various buildings, came back with an assortment of jugs, and presented them to Sophus. He made a show of inspecting each one and then nodding at the adults who towered over him. In the fifth jug, he saw traces of wine, and it was fresh. He suspected the woman holding it had dumped it out and then run back.
He took the jug, tasted the wine, and recited Dionysian rhyme. The crowd was so quiet, they could hear the jug filling itself, and when he lifted it, he made a show of how heavy it now was. He offered it back to its owner, but she looked terrified, so he took a sip himself. The Stone Man smiled, the crowd relaxed. For now, no more fighting, and he had bartered himself a little more time to live.
Mariah would be, well not proud, but probably impressed by his not dying. The thought comforted him.
Three days later, under a starry evening sky, he staggered behind an islander’s home to relieve himself. He’d been gently intoxicated for days, and he was only just getting the hang of it. For the fiftieth time, he realized with a start that this is what it was like for Mariah every day. He did not see the appeal.
He also didn’t see the man hiding in the shadows behind him while he pissed. Young, strong, and handsome, he wore an islanders’ toga and bare feet. “You’ve been having fun. Still a virgin?”
Sophus’ bladder clamped down in mid-stream. It was not comfortable. “Sorry! Sorry!” He put himself away, getting urine on his fingers. “I’m so sorry! It’s all this wine.” He hung his head. “I’ll go.”
“Oh come on, boy, don’t you recognize your mistress?” The young man unfurled a mean, predatory gin. “Mariah! You’re alive!”
“Yes, and I’d like to stay that way so don’t say that fucking name! These people want to kill me.”
“I’ve never seen you do this before,” he pointed at the man’s body she seemed to be living in. “How…?”
“Oh pay attention!” She loved it when he missed something. “Dionysus is the god that never stops giving. If you weren’t so sloshed all the time, you’d have noticed that.”
“I thought you were dead! I thought I was alone!”
“I was sure you were dead. Makes no damn sense he let you live. How did you manage that?”
“No!” he hissed, too loudly. The young man narrowed his eyes at Sophus, exactly the way that Mariah always did. “No,” he whispered. “What happened to you? You disappeared.”
The young man shrugged. “I couldn’t find a pointed stick.”
Sophus stared at her with glassy eyes for a moment and then half-laughed and half-sobbed.
“Oh you are right pissed, aren’t you?”
“I had to! It’s the only way I’ve stayed alive.”
“And how’d you do that?” she asked.
“No! You. First. You tell me what happened to you.”
“Fine. I got him in the eye—which was fucking hard, by the way, gimme some credit for that!—then there was a feeling like swimming, and I was back on the mainland. Alone, by the way. So I paid for another ship with witchcraft: fixed a few oars, plugged a few holes. Then, sacrifice a goat to get here faster, smoke some sailor’s cannabis, fuck the sailor, all that. They dropped me on the shore yesterday, and it took me that long to find you. And now here we are. Pissing in the bushes.” Long pause. “Well? Your turn.”
He sighed, a little embarrassed, very relieved. He wasn’t alone any more. “I can make wine. He likes it. He told me to keep doing it, get all the islanders drunk.”
“Sure, he wants them grateful and docile. But why are you drunk?”
“I have to drink a little every time. It didn’t affect me at first, but it’s so much wine! After a while…”
“Yeah, that’ll happen. So you’re enjoying yourself then.”
“No!” He caught himself too late, lowered his voice. “I am not. I am trying to find a way to get off this island, but they all recognize me.” He gestured at his face. He was, after all, a stranger in a small place. Being three shades darker than everyone else didn’t help. “I really thought you were dead. I don’t know how to do this all by myself.”
He was such a clever boy that she sometimes forgot he was a boy, smooth-faced and a long way from home, and now, starting to tear up. The tension had faded and left sadness behind. Plus he was shitfaced. He’d start bawling soon, which was not at all useful. “No. No no no. None of that. I don’t need a wimp. I need an apprentice. If that’s not you, then you’re on your own.” Mariah, in this young man’s skin, started getting up to leave.
Sophuschoked back his tears. He clearly didn’t want to. He wanted to be hugged and soothed. He wanted to sleep it off, truth be told. Being dull-witted and emotional didn’t suit him.
Mariah—in her young man’s body—rolled her eyes at him. Had the boy learned nothing? She whispered a prayer to Athena, and Sophus was suddenly stone sober.
He took two cool breaths, stood up straight, and said “I’ve never done that before.”
“Why haven’t you ever done that before?”
The young man furrowed his brow at Sophus. “Never came up.”
“Okay. Fine. What do we do now?”
“Well, I have to kill that statue, but it’s apparently not quite stupid to make me go straight for him again.”
Sophus walked over and sat beside Mariah. He was sober and had his mistress back. Bless.
“I got lucky before, jumping around like an idiot. He hadn’t sized me up. It won’t work twice, so tell me what you know.”
He took a breath. He’d been preparing for this part. “His arm is free up to the shoulder,” he pointed to the exact spot on his own arm. “And his face is flesh down to the chin.” He pointed again. “He’s got one leg free, but it’s not enough to move around because the rest of him is too heavy. His neck is stone, so he can’t turn his head. But he can still do his hand-magic, and it is so fast, Mariah! I can barely see what he’s doing.” That was saying a lot. Sophus saw everything. “He healed his eye just by passing his fingers over it.” He mimicked the action, his hand never stopped moving. “It was just better. And then he left all the blood on his cheek for half a day to scare people.”
“So he’s stronger now, and he can heal himself.” She sat for a moment, chewing over their very limited options. “Make some more wine.”
Gods be damned, it was a heavy bow. They hadn’t talked about that when they made the plan, how hard it would be to pull the bloody thing. Mariah was wearing the body of muscled young man the likes of whom she’d very much enjoy rubbing up against periodically over the course of an evening, but be fair! She drank every day and ate heavy food on principle. She didn’t get a lot of sleep. She wasn’t exactly fit, is the point.
It was necessary, though, for Sophus’ plan to work. If the Stone Man’s hand-magic was too strong, then they’d have to cut the damn thing off. Not with an arrow, sadly. She’d get no such satisfaction. They agreed he’d see through her disguise without much trouble, and she’d be dead before she had a chance at him. That’s how they’d realized it would require keeping her as far away from him as physically possible, something she’d never have thought of. Not her style. She’d rather looking them in the eye, watch them realize a weak and feeble woman took them out of this world. Much more satisfying. Taught the right lesson to others, too. But no, this fight required some stealth, even subtlety. Things Mariah was particularly shit at, to be honest, which is how she ended up with the job of pulling a composite bow built for an actual warrior. Sophus’ plan made sense. Just not her kind of sense.
Pulling the bow was hard, and she wasn’t getting any help from Ares, no matter how much she prayed, so she asked Athena instead. The Stone Man’s hand, in her eyes, swelled to the size of a cow. It looked like it was just a few paces away. Lovely. He did wave the fucking thing around an awful lot, though, which was dizzying at that size. She’d have rather just loosed the arrow in the air, or even better, had it fly all on its own, but the gods give what they give, and what they’d given her was eagle eyes.
Still, she daydreamed about walking right up and jamming a knife in his throat. Sophus’ plan failed, you see, to deliver the bloody satisfaction of knowing enemy’s last sight is going to be your grinning gob. Still, it was a lot more likely to work, and the curse wasn’t resisting, which counted for a lot. A lot. So, she took a deep breath, made sure the gigantic hand was directly in front of her far-too-damned-heavy bow, and she loosed the arrow.
Sophus’ part of the plan, from the night before, was to make as much wine as possible. His fingers tips and lips were stained red, half the down was drunk off their asses, and he could recite the sobriety prayer by heart. The Imbrosi had created a reverent orgy around the Stone Man. They were drunk, grieving for dozens of their own dead, and anticipating the power of the empire he would bring. The rules of their lives didn’t apply any more. He paid them about as much attention as he would an army standing at the ready. That’s what they were to him.
Sophus had planted himself behind and to the left of the Stone Man, at what he was certain was the edge of his field of view. He was amazed at how little this great general cared. He was occupying an obviously tactical position. All he could think was that it was sheer pride. The Stone Man was accustomed to obedience, dominance, seemingly even worship. He would appoint himself god-king first chance he got. And Sophus, some little foreign boy, did not apparently present a threat.
He offered the Stone Man a goblet of wine, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he raised his good hand and drew a small circle over the goblet. The cup glowed for a moment, and then he took it up to his lips. They’d been right to not bother with poison. Whatever killed him, he mustn’t see it coming.
He took no pleasure in the drunken orgy in front of him, at least none that he showed, but he approved of their reverence. This chaos, this explosion of energy, this disruption to their lives, it was all for him. “My children!” he yelled. His voice was stronger now, more of him was flesh. “Every day, your King grows more poweful! Every day, his reputation spreads across the seas! Every day, we are closer to the empire that I shall build! Every day, from now on, shall be like today!” He spread his one arm wide, as if he had provided this erotic event, which he had, in a sense. “Drink! Celebrate! Soon, we shall all be gods!” The islanders—mostly the men—started going faster and faster. Sophus found it hard to look away. It was fascinating and revolting. It held his gaze.
But then he saw an arrow arc overhead. It was silent. It had been flying a long way. He watched it come down, almost straight down, and pierce the Stone Man’s fleshy hand, knocking the goblet out of it. For him, it simply appeared. He looked at the wound in horror, tried to move his fingers, let out a sharp grunt, and then watched the blood flow down the shaft of the arrow.
He desperately scanned his left, where Sophus had been a moment ago, but the boy had taken a single step out of sight. He didn’t know what was coming next, but he knew there would be something. He was defenceless.
Sophus, behind him, prayed silently to Chronos. What he wanted would take time, so he stepped slowly towards the Stone Man, who had dug his foot into the ground, but could not move his own weight.
Sophus closed his hand around a heavy wooden handle as the Stone Man clawed at the ground with his wounded hand, but even without the arrow, it would have been futile.
The wooden handle became heavier as a bronzesickle appeared. This was the part of the plan that made him the most nervous, whether he would have the strength—and frankly, the will—to do it. He stepped around the Stone Man’s side, sickled raised above his head. The two had a moment to acknowledge each other before the boy brought the inner edge of the blade down, which all the force he could had, onto the spot where the Stone Man’s hand met his wrist. He screamed again, in pain and also in horror. It didn’t come clean off, but was hanging limply.
The Stone Man looked at him with a rage Sophus had never seen. Despite himself, he dropped the sickle and backed away. The Stone Man snarled, writhed, and screamed. He ripped his head free, spraying blood and stone in all directions. The sound that came out of his mouth was sickening: pain and fury. Sophus had seen him do this before. He knew it had been a risk. The Stone Man twisted and struggled again, and finally ripped his arm free. It was covered in gore and flecks of rock, but it was moving. He lifted one hand, surely to kill the boy, when a second arrow slipped silently through the Stone Man’s neck. Sophus watched as his arms went limp and the life disappeared from his eyes.
In their drunken state, it took the islanders a few seconds to understand what had happened. Most just stared, but the angry ones among them got to their feet and ran at Sophus. They were weakened from drink, but still a threat. But this he had planned for. He spread his arms wide and praised Zeus. His neck lengthened, his feet shrank, his black curly hair turned to white feathers, and in a moment, he was a great swan. Flapping his wings, scratching with his claws, and pecking with his hard beak, he scared away his attackers and started flapping his huge wings as fast and as hard as he could. He climbed into the air and flew swiftly towards the shore.
Once he was high in the air, he looked down and realized what he was doing. He had changed shape. He was flying. He had just defeated a monster of legend. Sophus had grown up hearing stories of Mariah, the great sorceress, and now he would be in one. He looked down again and spotted her in her disguise as she ambled across the island to their meeting spot on the shore.
Mariah silently prayed to Poseidon and Aeolus to keep them from being dumped into the sea. They’d stolen the tiniest of tiny fishing boats, and the only thing keeping them alive was the sweet mercy of the gods, so she was just going to keep onpraising them. They’d just killed a legend, and she was not going to die during the getaway, thank you very much.
“That was amazing!” Sophus had a grin on his face that would not go away. “I’m going to be in a song! With you!”
“I’ve told you so many damn times how much I hate those songs! I’m not a hero. This is not fun!” She didn’t get really angry all that often. She was perpetually bitter, sarcastic, and mean, certainly, but not mad. She was mad now, fuming. “I’m not fucking special. I don’t have a choice.” She started screaming, “I’m just some asshole with a curse!”
He looked at her, calmbut confused. She’d learned to loath that look. It’s not that he was actually confused by what she was saying. It was that he saw it some other way entirely, some way that made a kind of sense that would never have occurred to her.
“But you are special, Mariah. You’re special because you’re cursed.” There it was. “It makes you fight the monsters. It makes you a hero.” She couldn’t look at him. She concentrated on the huge swells all around them, up and down. He kept talking. “That’s why I had to find that messenger, the one who told me about the Stone Man. The baker’s daughter said he had already turned back, but I caught up with him.”
She couldn’t look at the waves any more. They were too… inevitable. She stared at the hull of their little fishing boat. It would have already capsized if not for her magic. Such a vulnerable little collection of planks. Then she looked at Sophus again and realized just how wrong she had been about him. She wasn’t moulding him, manipulating him. He would never lift her curse. He had the keys to her freedom in his hands, that was true, but he wasn’t her saviour. He was thejailor.