In my family, there is a curse.
We don’t know how to end the curse because the caster was killed by my ancestor before she could finish.
Killing the caster before the curse finishes does not stop the curse. It just cuts off the last lines, which usually give a hint as to how to break the spell. This is common courtesy.
Unfortunately, my ancestor was an idiot.
The curse states that each firstborn member of my family shall, at some point in their life, be forced to leave home and wander the earth for seven years.
I am a firstborn.
Just a few years after I was born, my father, the king, followed a butterfly out of the royal garden and wasn’t seen for seven years. When he did return, I did not recognize him, and he did not recognize my younger sister, Kay-with-eyes-of-Autumn. That is probably because she was not technically his daughter. If my mother had not been preventing the kingdom from falling into ruin for the past seven years, things may have gone differently. But for her diligence, it was suggested that Kay was the king’s daughter. My father said not a word about it, or about much of anything else. He and my mother were distant figures, as our country was often unstable and in need of attention. My sister and I were each other’s comfort then, both through war and neglect.
These are the reasons I left. I did not want my life interrupted as my father’s was, did not want to leave a wife and child and country behind. If the curse could not be avoided, perhaps acceptance would ease the transition. For me, and for our country.
I packed my bags, and Kay and I said our goodbyes. I captured the picture of her face in my mind, her small features and her eyes the color of leaves rustling underfoot and chill evenings before the winter snows. If I never returned, everything went to Kay, including the kingdom.
It has been six-and-a-half years since I blithely strolled out of the palace, unaware of the troubles that awaited me.
The Present—Year Seven
“PY!” yells my talking sword, Anwar.
I can barely hear him over the wailing of the wind. “Busy!” I shout at the sky. I am currently clinging to a cliff face, fingers frozen into useless claws. Snow burns my face as it whips past us. Meanwhile, the frigid wind steals into every loose seam.
“I THINK THEY STOPPED CHASING US,” Anwar yells.
“Splendid,” I mutter through cold teeth. I look up instead of down. The “path” continues vertically for at least another hundred feet. After that cloud and snow obscure the way.
The road across the mountains is a mile below. There is no road to the center of the range, but a villager near the base of the mountain told us of this path.
He did not tell us it is guarded by ancient spirits who rise from the grave when you cross the boundary. We had run—or rather, I had run and Anwar had bounced at my side—across the last bit of the road and had begun to climb.
My feet find a sturdy ledge and I stop to rest, wrapping my arms around my body for warmth.
“Do you remember,” I start to say, and then stop to keep panting. The climb is tiring and the air is thinning.
“The cliff from Year Three?” Anwar cackles. “The muddy one you slid all the way down?”
Anwar has been with me since Year One, when I stumbled over him in a ditch. I grabbed him to fight off the bandits chasing me. Then, remembering I was terrible at sword fighting, I had crouched in the ditch until they had run past.
“So you’re a coward, then?” Anwar had asked. I had almost dropped him in shock.
“I need a weapon,” I realized, “so that people won’t see me as such an easy target.”
“You seem like an easy target to me,” Anwar had said.
I had ignored him. “You’re coming with me.”
“No, I’m busy rusting here.”
But there was nothing he could do to stop me from taking him, and we had been together ever since. Between us, years of misadventure can be produced to reminisce over.
“I was going to say the cliff by the ocean, from Year Five.”
Anwar laughs harder. “They never thought you were hanging just below!”
An unwilling smile cracks my frozen face. “When you suggested that, were you just trying to get me killed again?”
“Don’t be stupid, Py. I’d stopped trying to kill you by then.” He pauses. “And I would’ve gone into the ocean with you.”
I even laugh at that. “Good times,” I say.
“We should keep going,” Anwar decides. “It’s cold.”
I take a deep breath. My fingers twitch in their gloves but I do not move.
I let the breath out slowly. It turns to cloud in front of me. Then I force myself to my feet. To distract myself from the cold and the climb, I ask, “Do you remember when I was a gladiator?”
I mostly stumbled through the first years of my exile. I knew from the tales of my ancestors that the curse would not allow me to settle. If I tried, it would prompt me into motion.
I did not require any prompting. Each misadventure led to the next without giving me a moment to stop and think, until the gladiator’s stadium.
It was Year Two of the curse. I had just escaped being sacrificed by the Sisters of the Sea when I was captured and sold as a gladiator. Anwar was considered just battered enough to befit a gladiator, and so with the addition of an oversized helm wrought of bronze, we were pushed into an arena.
The door at the other side opened, and a bull raged out.
“What do I do?” I said aloud. My hand on Anwar’s hilt was slick with sweat. “Anwar…” I said in desperation.
“You should put me on the ground. Bulls do not like swords,” Anwar said.
“Okay,” I agreed, not wanting to anger the bull further. “Now what?”
“Now hop around like crazy. That should scare it off.”
I lifted my arms above my head and waved them. Then I jumped up and down.
The bull snorted and turned toward me. It pawed the ground.
My hands dropped to my sides. “I don’t think this is working, Anwar.”
The bull charged at me.
“Anwar!” I yelled.
“Pity they don’t give you a weapon to fight with,” Anwar commented.
My head snapped down to look at the talking sword.
I lunged down, picked up Anwar, and swung him in front of me. The sword clipped the bull’s nose. It bellowed, turning away from me.
“Whoo!” I yelled. Adrenaline coursed through my body, this time from exhilaration.
I faltered as the bull turned and charged me again. I stepped forward, intending to swing again. Instead, I tripped on my own feet and fell. I covered my hands with my eyes.
When nothing happened to me, I slowly lowered my hands. The bull had ground to a halt. He pawed the dirt of the arena and snorted.
I heard Anwar sigh beneath me.
When the bull could not be riled up by the handlers, the guards yanked me up off the ground and dragged me into a cell off of the gladiator’s arena. Before, I had been housed with others awaiting their chance to fight for freedom. Now I was alone, cramped in the wooden, stall-like cell.
“That’s it?” I asked. “That wasn’t so bad.”
Anwar laughed. “There are three rounds. They just need to find another bull. Or maybe a tiger.”
Anwar continued to torment me. “I wonder how long until you go back out?”
“Two minutes,” answered a female voice.
I turned in my cell, hitting my shoulders against the walls.
A beautiful girl had lifted herself on top of a wall of my cell and sat peering down on me. A dark blue cloak covered her shoulders. The seriousness of her features could not disguise her stunning eyes. They were the color I imagine magic to be.
“Prince Pythagoras,” she said.
I tried to tear myself away from her eyes but could not. “H-How do you know my name?”
“I’ve been sent here on one of the Four Winds, to tell you the answer to your troubles.”
“You know how to defeat the bull?” I asked.
“I—What?” She stopped to register what I had said. “No. Well, you just have to run to the other side of the arena and escape through the bull’s pen. However, I’m talking about your other trouble.”
I frowned, thinking.
“Oh!” I said. “The curse!”
“Idiot,” said Anwar.
To my surprise, he received a sharp rebuke from the girl. “This doesn’t concern you, General Anwar.”
“General Anwar?” I said, but the girl spoke over me.
“You may find a way to end the curse in the coastal city of A’a’ioklnsbinlf.”
“Gesundheit,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said, taking out a silk handkerchief to wipe her nose. “As I was saying, the coastal city of Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is, unfortunately, wreathed in eternal night. As such, it is difficult to find. I will give you directions.”
The door on my cell creaked. “Hurry,” I urged. “The bull.”
The girl leaned forward, almost falling into my cell.
The door creaked open farther, and she kissed me.
Rough hands yanked me into the gladiator’s arena.
The bull was released, and I ran the way I imagine people on fire run, straight to the other side of the arena, over the walls of the bull’s pen, and far away from the arena.
“Oh!” exclaimed Anwar as we ran. “Py like Pythagoras. Py, not Pie!”
The Present—Year Seven
As Anwar and I make it to the top of the cliff we can finally see the true, horizontal path extending before us, winding deep into the center of the range.
Behind me the cliff drops away with heart-stopping suddenness. I manage to walk a few feet away before collapsing to the ground to rest. I unhook Anwar from my belt and settle him across my legs, my back to a boulder.
We sit quietly before Anwar speaks. “Seven years are all but finished.”
“I know,” I say. I often lost track of the time during my various stints in jail cells, or wandering across desolate lands, but I manage to orient myself eventually.
“If you turned around now, it would take you three months to walk home. You would arrive just as the curse lifted.”
“So what is your plan? What if this is not where your curse can be broken?”
I sigh. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Saying it out loud will make it real. “I will continue to hunt for the way to break the curse for at least another year. We’ve traveled so far, we must be coming closer. I cannot lose the progress we’ve made. If I haven’t broken the curse by then, I’ll return home and pass the knowledge to my firstborn.” There was no reliable way to get a message home. Kay would worry, I knew, when I did not return. After seven years of waiting, would the eighth be the worst of all?
“Do you not want to return home first, to rest?”
I laugh. “If I do that, I fear it will be difficult to leave again.”
Probably as difficult as it has been to return. I know this because I had tried to return home the moment I left. Literally, I stepped through the palace gates into the bustling city and immediately turned around. But just then a rider and his steed nearly ran me down. Surprised, I had stumbled back, tripped on a clod of dirt, and fallen into a passing wagon. I hit my head on the side of the wagon and blacked out.
I awoke some hours later on the side of the road, relieved of all of my money and weapons. Shivering in the night air, I stood and began to make my way home.
Imagine my dejection to see that the bridge across the river had been swept away by an early flood. The next bridge was miles south, and so I turned and continued to walk. I never made it to that bridge, and not only because I had accidentally gone north. With every attempt I made to return home, the curse pushed me farther away.
The only solution had been to wander, moving slowly away from my native land. After meeting Magic in the gladiator’s stadium, I stopped wandering and began to move with purpose.
It was not until the beginning of the fourth year that we reached the coast. The winter skies were a constant shade of grey.
Night fell as Anwar and I trekked north, where we knew the city of Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga lay.
“Should we stop for the night?” I asked Anwar.
“Probably, if you want those scary-looking bandits to catch up to us.”
I whirled around to look behind us. “Bandits?” I saw no one.
“Three of them have been behind us for an hour. We should be safe if we reach the city.”
“If Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga is nearby, won’t the bandits know it and attack soon?”
Anwar would have shrugged if he had shoulders. “That’s your problem.”
More than a few of my ancestors had not returned from their cursed years. Hearing these tales, Kay had insisted I prepare by learning about edible fungi and how to find my way by the stars. None of those lessons took very well. Nevertheless, I had always been determined not to die on this trip. And now I was fortified by a new idea. There was a chance—a glimmer of hope—that I may be able to free myself and my family. None of my ancestors had ever mentioned the possibility of ending the curse; they had all accepted their fate. I would break it.
I sat down on the path.
“What are you doing?” asked Anwar.
I took him off my belt, as he was getting in the way. Then I started rotating my ankles.
“Stretching,” I answered.
I sat up to work on my quads.
“I’m running the rest of the way to Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga. I don’t want to pull something.”
“You may have to. The bandits are coming.”
I turned again and this time saw the three. A hulking person, a tall woman, and something small with a shuffling walk. As I looked, the three of them left the path and started to walk in the high grass.
“What are they doing?” I queried.
“You’re not very bright, are you? They’re circling around to cut us off from the front. Get up! Run!”
I stood, grabbed Anwar, and dashed down the path. My cursed years had given me experience with bandits, but Anwar was better than me at guessing what they might do.
I looked over and saw that the bandits had started running, too. I turned my head forward and ran straight into a cloud of pitch black.
I yelled in surprise, convinced that I was about to hit a solid wall. I covered my face with my arms, tripped over my own feet, and fell.
Anwar swore profusely when he bounced onto the ground. “Foolish boy! You’ll scratch my hilt!”
“I wouldn’t if it weren’t so cheaply made,” I muttered to myself.
On hands and knees, I groped around until I found Anwar. I strapped him to my belt.
“Magic wasn’t kidding when she said the city was ‘wreathed in eternal night.’”
“Stop calling the girl Magic,” snapped Anwar.
I smiled. The name was perfect, I thought, because of her eyes. “Maybe if she’d spent less time kissing me, she could have given me her real name,” I boasted.
Anwar sputtered. “You know as well as I that she was transferring the directions to Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga into your head! Stop acting so lovesick! It was just one kiss, you ninny. Probably the only one you’ll ever get!”
I ignored him and stretched out my arms in front of me. Then I began to walk forward, taking big, slow steps to avoid crashing into something.
Eventually, lights came into view, and we entered the city’s center. Candles and shining orbs held aloft by magic gave the city a soft glow. Even though true night was approaching the city was still quite active. It was free from the restrictions of other cities, which rose and slept with the sun.
“Excuse me,” I said to a young woman hanging a sign outside of a shop. “Do you know of anyone who can tell me about curses?”
The woman nodded. “I’ve heard that Anuuk has just arrived back in town. She may see you at her shop.”
I followed the woman’s directions to Anuuk’s shop and found a squat purple building. Gold lettering declared the name: Anuuk’s Fortune Telling.
I hunched over to enter through the small green door. Inside, the ceiling was high enough to allow me to stand straight up. A bell had gone off upon my entry, and three figures appeared from another room.
The four of us paused, staring at one another. The three who had entered the room were the three bandits I had run from earlier.
“Hm,” said the hulking person, who turned out to be a woman. She was half my height with not much leg, and her shoulders were wider than she was tall. Her shoulders and arms were bloated, hiding her neck and making it hard to bend her elbows.
“I am Anuuk,” she continued. “Why did you run from me, outside of Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga?”
“I thought you were a bandit, chasing me,” I explained. “Why did you run after me?”
“I thought you were a bandit, waiting for me.”
We gauged each other, but I was impatient and broke the silence.
“I want to break the curse set upon my family. That’s why I came to see you. Can you do it?”
Anuuk considered. “Sit down,” said she.
We sat at a little table on short chairs. My knees came up to my chest. I said nothing of my discomfort while Anuuk thought. Presently, Anuuk reached behind her and lifted a small creature onto the table. It was, I assumed, the shuffling thing which had been running with Anuuk into Dlaehr’g’uie’t’ga.
I looked behind Anuuk at the third person, a beautiful woman. She did not compare to Magic, but I appreciated the elegance of her tall, slim figure, her silver hair and sapphire eyes.
“What is your name?” I asked, thinking it odd how quiet she was.
Anuuk answered without looking up. “That is just my soul. She does not speak.”
“Oh,” I said. I turned my attention back to the creature on the table.
“This is a more useful object, a young sprite.”
The creature had spindly arms and legs. His head was too big for his body and his ears were large and pointy. His clothing was ratty and his skin green.
As I looked at the sprite, Anuuk reached over the table and dragged her hand across my face.
“Garhh,” I said, jerking away from her. “What are you doing?”
“Hush,” she said. Using the same hand, she rubbed the head of the sprite.
The young sprite’s eyes closed as he relaxed under the pressure of her hand. His head began to glow. The glow became brighter and brighter, until the sprite’s features had vanished, and a shining orb sat on top of the sprite’s body. Anuuk peered into the orb.
“I cannot remove your curse,” she said finally, her voice slow. “I do not have the power.”
“Who does then? Where can I go?”
“You must seek the last of the true wise women. Only these ancient beings still hold the secrets to unlocking such a powerful spell.”
“How? Where can I find a true wise woman?”
“There is but one left,” said Anuuk. “No one knows where she is.”
I had to pause to consider that. “But…then how will I find her? Where can I start looking?”
“I am sorry,” said Anuuk. “This I do not know.”
The Present—Year Seven
I have to take another break. The thin air of the mountains makes it hard for me to draw breath.
“Any guesses how much further we must go?” asks Anwar.
I shake my head. “Who cares? I feel good about this, Anwar. We’re coming closer to breaking the curse. I will see Kay-with-eyes-of-Autumn again soon.”
“Life at your home will be much changed, Py. Your sister will be grown. You may not know her anymore.”
I would laugh, except there isn’t enough air. “When you meet her you will know that is impossible. Kay grounded us all. She is sharp and practical while being funny and kind. You would like her.”
“Why do you think that?”
“She’s a commander. An organizer, just like you.” I think for a minute. “Well, she’s a lot nicer. You’re a little tough on the outside.”
“I am tough all the way through,” Anwar scowls.
I just shake my head.
I gasp when I see it: a small house resting in the crook of the mountain.
“I think we’re here,” I say to Anwar.
“What other crazy person lives up in the mountains all alone?” he asks.
I admit that I hope he’s right.
I take one step toward the house when a Minotaur steps from behind a boulder. He is blocking the path. I take that as a bad sign.
“Ah, hello,” I say.
“No trespassing,” he intones.
“I’m actually here to visit—” I point to the house, “—that woman. I mean her no harm. I just want to ask—”
“Yes, you said that. It’s just that I’ve come all this way. I need to talk to her, very quickly.”
The Minotaur stands at least a foot taller than me. Its hair is dark brown, and horns curl from its head. Its eyes are equally dark, but the Minotaur would look kind if not for the broadsword hanging from its back.
“How do I get by him?” I ask Anwar.
“You probably have to kill him.”
I frown at this option.
Anwar sighs. “I suppose you could try the sapphires…”
“Brilliant!” I say. I untie the small leather pouch from my belt. Loosening the ties, I pour five large sapphires into the palm of my hand. I hold them up for the Minotaur to admire. “Will you let us by for one of these?” I ask.
“No trespassing,” says the Minotaur.
“How about two?” I offer. “Three?”
“All right, all right, what about all five?”
The Minotaur looks at me, and then reaches out a hoof.
Years Five and Six
You must seek the last of the true wise women. From the moment I first heard them, the words never stopped ringing in my ears.
So began my true quest. Throughout the rest of Year Four and into Years Five and Six, Anwar and I traveled. We did not know where we were going, so it did not matter where we went. My question was simple: Where is the last true wise woman?
People had a lot of trouble with that one little word, true. I met charlatans and swindlers, pretenders to the throne and thieves with fingers faster than the eye. All of them claimed to be the second cousin twice-removed of the last true wise woman, and they would reveal her location for just a penny more.
Once, I was guided by a man down three dark alleys and two backrooms, while Anwar protested my naiveté and told me to run. I smiled and told him not to be so negative. Anwar saw danger everywhere. I did not believe that there could exist in the world as much evil as he said. People were certainly good when it came down to it. I smiled all the way up the gangplank and into a pair of manacles.
The revolt did not occur until I had been a galley slave for six weeks. I used the chaos as cover to break into the ship’s weapons cache. The slaves cheered for me, rushing past to claim a weapon. They turned on the slavers like hungry lions, just as a mighty storm broke over us. I managed to grab Anwar from the pile. With Anwar’s experience and my new muscles, we hacked our way through the fray. Waves tossed the ship and though I tried to get us to safety, we were bucked over the edge into the swirling water.
We washed up onto what we would later discover to be Godforsaken Island. Almost drowned, I crawled onto the beach holding Anwar by the hilt in a grip death could not end. I collapsed on the sand and lay there. The sun passed over us and the moon rose, and even Anwar knew to say nothing.
It would be the first of my fits of dejection.
Finally, I stood. I brushed the sand off of myself and walked up the beach.
“Py?” asked Anwar.
“What,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“To find the last true wise woman.”
He did not ask any more. I walked, stone-faced, into the night.
I learned to be wary of whom I spoke to. I grew better at seeing evil before it could hurt me. I was captured less often. But the hope I had felt upon learning the curse could be broken had faded. It is easy to see evil when it is all around you, when every smiling face is just a mask. Some days I could not rouse myself, and I would lie back and stare at nothing. Going on seemed pointless. The only light through the failure of my quest was the thought that soon it would not matter. It would all be over, and then I could see Kay once more.
Eventually, all of the trails went dead. The stories I heard were about the same so-called wise women, and they led nowhere new.
At the end of Year Six, I walked across a grassy plain. It was slow going, as I had been injured in battle. I cannot remember what the battle was about. I had wounded my leg and limped away, dragging Anwar behind me. Blood drooled out of a gash in my head. When the ground fell away beneath me, I did not know if my body had finally given out. I tumbled into a pit in the ground and was caught in a net, Anwar poking my ribs.
I heard a high-pitched laugh, and then someone smashed me over the head.
When I awoke I found myself in a prison cell. Familiar though the scene was, I had never been in a cell with gilded bars encrusted with precious stones.
My leg no longer pained me, and the cut on my head had been healed as well. I pressed my fingers against my temple but found no wound. I sat up, and with a start realized that Anwar was gone. We had been separated only a few times during the quest.
Again the high-pitched laughter sounded. I looked out into the dark stone hallway beyond the bars of my cell. By the light of a torch, I saw a short man wearing a pointed black hat. He was clothed in matching black robes, and carrying a white staff. The staff extended far above his head.
“Who are you?” I asked.
The small man’s face flushed. “Who am I? Who am I?” His chest puffed out. “You, boy, may count yourself lucky to be in the presence of the Wizard of the North, the Great Collector. The treasures contained in my hold are second to none, the envy of the land! You may call me…Svartdrake.
At this last, his eyes gleamed.
“I’m Py,” I said.
“Pie?” he asked.
“Did you take my sword?” I took in the wizard. I was certain Svartdrake’s head would only come up to my chest.
The wizard nodded. “When you fell into my trap, I became quite excited. I sensed something of great power.” His look turned sour. “Imagine my disappointment to realize it was just the weight of those curses. I hardly know how you walk with that on your shoulders.”
“We’re trying to break it,” I explained. I had not yet bothered to stand. Captured, again. It was unending. I continued talking, though my voice contained no emotion. “We have been searching for years for the last true wise woman.”
“For years? Ridiculous, everyone knows she’s on top of the mountains in the west.”
“Really,” I said, not believing him.
His chest puffed up again. “Svartdrake is never uncertain. It matters not, as that mountain is almost impossible to climb.”
“Hm,” I said.
When Svartdrake left, I laid down on the ground. A small voice in the back of my mind told me to find Anwar, but I ignored it. I drifted in and out of sleep.
A clanging awoke me.
“Breakfast!” Svartdrake was shouting. He put an apple through the bars and we both watched it drop to the ground. The wizard frowned. “Eat it.”
He may as well have given me ashes to eat. I let my eyes flutter closed.
Svartdrake and I went on this way for a few days. He kept trying to get me to eat or speak or play. I just lay on the ground. I had been in many a cell throughout my cursed years, and now I was not sure why I kept escaping them. I was comfortable and at an ambient temperature, food was arriving if I cared to eat…maybe I could just wait out the rest of my curse here, alone. Perhaps I would wait out the rest of my life.
“You are a boring pet,” Svartdrake finally said one day. “Why won’t you do anything? Pull yourself together.”
I thought of all the things I had done. I did not tell any of them to him. So many stories. Who would hear them when I was gone?
“If you don’t eat, I’ll stop feeding you,” Svartdrake threatened. I pretended to sleep.
I awoke many hours later. The torches in the hall were out. It was so black my eyes strained. I sat up, but dared not stand. So little had I eaten in the past few days that I did not know if I could stand at all.
Then, a single flame lit. It was low and blue…and just outside my cell.
A figure was revealed by the light of the flame. Nothing much was visible but its dark edges. Not even a candle could be seen, and the flame seemed to float on air. The figure shifted, and reached toward me.
“Hello,” I said to Death.
I had seen him many times during my cursed years. Sometimes he was hidden in the teeth of a tiger, an overpowering wave, or an angry sword. Other times, like on the beach, he looked just as he did now. I saw this dark figure when my fits of dejection left me immobilized. It was then, at my calmest, when he appeared.
Death never approached me. I knew that he was waiting for me to go to him. He was patient. I thought back to every time I had turned him away, or fought free of his grasp. This time, should I go? He was just across the short length of my cell. All I would have to do is stand up, walk over, and take that pale hand. And then my troubles would be over. I could rest, and we both knew how tired I was. Why had I always resisted?
As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer. Anwar. The sword had always been there to pull me out of my fits. He seemed to know just how I felt, and just what needed to be said. And as soon as I thought of Anwar, I felt a deep hesitation. Why had Svartdrake said ‘those curses’? Could I really leave my sword to a fate I myself was unwilling to face? If I left him, what would he think of me?
And Kay. My sister who had worried over me and supported me. Wasn’t my whole purpose to return to her? Had I come so far just to leave her wondering what had become of me?
“Not yet,” I said aloud.
Time stood still. The hand of Death was steady in the air. Then the flame flickered, and went out. The moment it did I felt the air in the room relax. I took a deep breath. Then I settled more comfortably on the ground. In the morning I was getting out of there.
Svartdrake woke me with the usual clanging on the golden bars of my cell. Before he could speak, I said, “I’d like to see my sword.”
He regarded me with narrowed eyes. “Well, I suppose a short trip wouldn’t hurt. But after that you’re going right back in here.”
Svartdrake produced a short dagger. After opening my cell, he placed the dagger at the small of my back and let me lead the way.
The winding halls of the castle were just as over-the-top as my cell. The floors were inlaid with precious stones, rich tapestries hung from the ceilings, and chandeliers lit the way. Then all of it was put to shame when we reached the treasury. My eyes widened. Gold coins overflowed from chests made of pure silver. Gems dotted the room with color, golden weaponry adorned the walls, as did silk tapestries. Anwar hung on the wall, encased in a sheath set with sapphires. His hilt was dull against the other riches.
“Anwar,” I said, suddenly seized by doubt. What if Anwar did not want to be rescued? The sword had complained more than I had over the trip. He had tried to get me killed and he sometimes did whatever he wanted during a swordfight. What if all he wanted was to be left alone?
“Take me with you,” said the sword.
I acted, jumping away from Svartdrake’s blade.
He shrieked and came after me, quicker than I expected. My foot snapped out, and I kicked him like a ball. His dagger flew from his grip.
I scrambled up a pile of silver coins and grabbed Anwar from the wall. Svartdrake rose to his feet and I stumbled away from him.
“We are leaving,” I said.
“You dare take my property?” the wizard said.
“Well, it was mine originally, so…” But my words trailed off when I saw Svartdrake’s eyes flash.
“Py…” Anwar said uncertainly.
Svartdrake’s voice deepened. “Who dares to steal from Svart…Drake…?”
At those words, a crack echoed through the treasury. Svartdrake’s body seized up. His skin started to boil, then stretch and reform. His hands turned to black scaled claws, and his ears grew sharp and pointed. He hunched over, losing his human form completely as his body morphed into that of a gigantic, black-scaled dragon. The dragon’s eye opened, and looked at me.
“PY!” yelled Anwar.
I leapt into action, sprinting for the faraway door. The dragon’s roar filled the chamber. I dared look behind and saw him uncoiling. The dragon’s wings spread and he roared again.
I turned into the hallway just as a great column of flame poured past the doorway. That proved to be the motivation I needed, and I flew down on hallway after another. After five minutes of running with Svartdrake close behind, I gasped to Anwar, “Do you know how to get out of here?”
“You dunce, I thought you knew! Go left here, yes, left!”
Since Anwar had been conscious coming into the castle, he was able to lead us out. I burst through the front doors and sprinted across the yard, through the gates and across the drawbridge. Svartdrake screeched and flamed, but we dove into the forest and hid ourselves in the thicket.
Anwar and I waited until nightfall, watching for Svartdrake through the leaves. I was weak from hunger and picked anxiously at the soft gold settings around the sapphires on Anwar’s hilt.
At nightfall I scanned the skies once more. “He hasn’t been back for a long time.”
“That was far too close,” Anwar muttered. He had been muttering the same all day.
“I think it’s safe.”
“May as well wait until moonrise.”
I agreed and settled back against a tree trunk again.
After a moment of silence, Anwar said, “It took you a while to come find me.”
There was no point in responding to this, since we both knew what happened. Instead, I asked, “Anwar, are you cursed?”
At first I thought I had rendered him speechless. Then he answered: “Yes.”
“My soul is tied to this sword. I can neither live nor die until my curse is broken.”
I let out a slow breath. “Do you think it can be?”
“I do not know. Curses are difficult things. And it has been many, many years already.”
“Huh,” I huffed. “More fool I, don’t you agree, for continuing to hope.”
“Perhaps,” said Anwar. “And perhaps not. There is so much bad in the world, and I have seen it as both sword and man. That you continue to struggle on, in the face of it all, means very much.”
A long silence fell.
“Why did you come with me?” I asked.
“I don’t have my own legs.”
I laughed once, and then again, until my head was tipped back and I roared with laughter.
When I recovered, I stood up again. “It’s light enough. Let’s go.”
“Where are we going?”
I looked at the pile of sapphires I had collected. “First, to buy some food.”
“To the mountain in the west,” I decided.
“Okay,” said Anwar. “Which one?”
The Present—Year Seven
The house is before us, cradled in the arms of the mountain of the west.
Please, I think. Don’t let this one send me somewhere else.
I pause at the door, wondering if I should knock.
It opens for me, though no one is there.
I enter, and the door shuts behind us. Then I see an old woman, seated at a table. A low fire burns behind her.
“Sit, traveler,” says the crone. “Anyone who defeats the Minotaur in battle is rewarded with an audience with me.”
“Yes, defeated in battle,” I mutter noncommittally. I sit in the chair across from her.
She pours tea into two cups and hands me one.
“Why are you here, traveler?”
I repeat the words I have said for many years. “I am seeking the last true wise woman in order to break the curse set upon my family.”
The crone leans forward in her chair. Raising her hand, she lets her palm rest on my forehead. My body tense with suspense, I allow it.
“I felt this curse’s power the moment you two entered. What do you know of your family’s history?”
“Everything,” I say, though I have to stretch my mind back to the lessons of my youth. “My family has ruled our kingdom since the moons first rose in the skies.”
The woman smiles. “Not quite that long, my son. Your ancestor betrayed the Queen he had sworn to protect. Just before he killed her, she cursed his treachery, forcing his descendants to wander the earth kingdomless for seven years.”
“Oh,” I say.
“This was long before Py’s time,” Anwar speaks up. “His family should no longer be punished.”
“Nevertheless,” the last wise woman said, “it falls to the descendants to right past wrongs.”
“How?” I ask.
“You must suffer the same way the rightful queen did. Your loss must be equal to hers.”
“But…she died,” I say.
The crone does not answer. I groan. Afraid to see Death’s figure again, my head sinks. I should have gone to him in the first place. Would all my suffering now count for nothing?
“There has to be another way, Py,” says Anwar. “We will find it. And we will get you back to Kay.”
My hands drop into my lap and I stare, considering them. They are rough and scarred. I trace my fingers over calluses that did not exist before my cursed years. In my mind the years of my exile rise from my memory, but to my surprise they do not hit me like stone but instead flow over me like water, good and bad moving through me. Anwar was with me then, and would stay with me whatever I decided. And then there was Kay…
My head comes up. “I have it.”
Anwar and the wise woman wait.
“I will give up my kingdom,” I say.
The wise woman’s face twitches. Anwar’s faceless reaction is much more noticeable. “Are you crazy?” he yells. “How would that solve anything? What will happen to your country? How will you—”
“And give it to Kay,” I interrupt.
Anwar is brought up short. “Will that work?”
We both direct our attention to the wise woman.
“My sister Kay is not of my father’s cursed bloodline,” I explain. “My sacrifice would be equal to that of the Queen who cursed us. I would lose my kingdom.”
The crone considers. “Curses are fickle things. It may work. However I cannot say that for certain.”
“We will try it,” Anwar says with resolution. “Any other thought is foolish, Py.”
“Even if you do allow your sister to rule, we may not know if the curse is broken until your firstborn has lived out his or her whole life,” the wise woman cautioned.
“I will tell my children of the curse, just in case.” Despite her words, I feel lighter already. And confident enough to raise another question. “And Anwar? What of the curse that binds him to the sword?”
The wise woman’s eyes move to the weapon on my hip. “General Anwar, I think, has his own wrongs to right.”
Anwar is quiet. For now, I do not ask.
“If that is all,” continues the wise woman, “you may rest here for the night. My apprentice will see you are settled.”
The wise woman rises and leaves through a side door. A moment later, the door reopens and a young woman springs into the room.
“Magic!” I cry.
A frown wrinkles Magic’s beautiful face. Then she smiles. “That isn’t my name, however, you may call me that.”
Anwar swears. “What is she doing here?”
Magic bobs a curtsy. “I am the apprentice. I assist the wise women in keeping balance in the world.”
“Wise women? I thought she was the last,” Anwar asks suspiciously.
“The last?” Magic hides a smile with a raised hand. “Wise women are not born, they are made. As long as there are apprentices, there will always be wise women.”
“But why did you help Py?”
“Curses disturb the natural order of things. I tried to help by sending you to Anuuk, but it seems your curse was too powerful for her.”
“Thank you,” I say before Anwar can continue. “We appreciate your help. You must be busy.”
She inclines her head. “There are many, many curses in the world, and more every day.”
“I think I would be a good curse breaker,” I declare.
I can hear Anwar sputter. “The last curse you broke took seven years!”
But Magic is smiling. “I must descend the mountain tomorrow as well. Perhaps we could walk together?”
“Oh, no,” interjects Anwar. “I am not staying with you two for that long. Just leave me here to rust. Or throw me off a cliff.”
I am not listening, I am looking into Magic’s eyes.
Six months later we stand outside of the palace I haven’t seen for seven years. I hesitate before entering.
“Hurry up,” says Anwar.
Magic puts an encouraging hand on my shoulder.
“Py!” someone yells.
I look to see a young woman running at me from across the courtyard. Her hair flies back from her head, and her eyes are the color of autumn.
I think to the future, when she is queen. I cannot know for certain if the curse will be broken, but in my heart I feel a little more balanced.
I step onto the palace grounds.
© 2015 Cecelia Isaac