The Cursedby Dave Duncan
The empire had been dead these hundred years and more, but its corpse still twitched now and again as petty kingdoms rose and bickered and fell. Common folk such as Gwin struggled on as best they might. Now a distant war had claimed Gwin's husband's life, and a plague of the star sickness had carried off her little babies. Left alone and desolate, she struggled on,… See more details below
The empire had been dead these hundred years and more, but its corpse still twitched now and again as petty kingdoms rose and bickered and fell. Common folk such as Gwin struggled on as best they might. Now a distant war had claimed Gwin's husband's life, and a plague of the star sickness had carried off her little babies. Left alone and desolate, she struggled on, nursing her neighbors through the foul disease. It was a thankless task, for wherever the plague touched, it either killed or cursed - and who could say which fate was worse? Each of the six stars cast a different spell. Each curse bestowed a different torture. The Cursed is an epic tale of mortal men and women swept up in the terrifying maelstrom of destiny, of kindness and its consequences, of love and loss and laughter, of unforgiving fate, and of new beginnings.
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By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 D.J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
In Daling, it began when Tibal Frainith came to Phoenix Street.
Gwin was helping Tob the stableboy replace the wheat sheaf over the door. She was needed only when a cart came along and threatened to sweep ladder and Tob and wheat sheaf all away together, but her presence discouraged passing urchins from attempting the same feat. Meanwhile, she could clean off the road with a broom—not just because it made the entrance more appealing, but because it meant less dirt to be tracked inside. She could have sent a servant to do all that, but then it would have taken twice as long. She welcomed an excuse just to go outside. It seemed she did not leave the hostel for weeks at a time nowadays.
Meanwhile, the staff indoors were probably sitting around eating and talking when they should be working. Morning was busy time. The last guests had just left. There was a stable to be shoveled out, water to carry, beds to make, bread to bake, bedding to air, and all the interminable cleaning. The Flamingo Room needed fumigating again, having still not recovered from the sailors who had infested it with bedbugs the previous week.
Morning sunlight brightened the narrow streets of Daling like a baby's smile. Stonework shone in the color of beech wood. The cobbles were polished little islands, each one set off by dark mire in the crevices between them, giving the roadway a texture of coarse cloth, a cobble carpet, dipping here and there into noxious puddles, although even they reflected the sun. Exterior windows were rare, but a few bronze grilles gleamed joyously; and all the doors were limed to a brilliant white.
Phoenix Street was occupied by pedestrians and horsemen and much idle gossip. Every few minutes, an ox cart would come clattering and rattling along, usually being chased by small children trying to cadge a ride, being shouted away by the carter. Strolling hawkers called their wares, stopping to talk with the women at the doorways.
The old wheat sheaf hit the cobbles, disintegrating into a cloud of dust and a mess of rotted straw where Gwin had just swept. She clucked annoyance, and hastened to pass up the replacement bundle to Tob. He took it without a word. Not even his own mother could call him swift. The only good thing about Tob was that he was too stupid to be dishonest.
She laid into the straw with her broom, spreading it out for hooves and wheels to crumble. She tried not to remember that self-same sheaf being hung—thirty-six weeks ago, a day as hot as this one promised to be. She had been helper then, too, but it had not been a half-wit stable boy up the ladder. It had been Carp himself. Now Carp was rotting in an unmarked grave somewhere near Tolamin. Karn and Naln had followed their father. She was the only one left now—widow, bereaved mother, innkeeper, Gwin Nien Solith.
She spun around, blinking into the sun.
The speaker was tall, lean, clean-shaven. He bore a bulky packsack on his shoulders. His smock and breeches had never been dyed and now were a nondescript gray. They were ordinary Kuolian garb, yet of an unfamiliar cut, as if they had traveled far from the loom that birthed them. He had steady gray eyes, brown tangled hair, worn shorter than was normal for men in Daling. Bone and sinew lay close under his skin. Yes, tall. He was smiling at her as if the two of them were old friends, close friends. She had never seen him before in her life.
"I don't ..."
He started. "Sorry! I am Tibal Ambor Frainith." He bowed.
"Most honored, Tibal Saj. I am Gwin Nien Solith."
"Yes. I mean I am honored, Gwin Saj." He was blushing.
The expectant look remained in his eyes. She could not recall being thrown off-balance like this for years. She did not forget faces. He was at least as old as she was, so why were his cheeks flaming red like that?
A stranger in town would seek out a hostelry. Carp Solith had won a good reputation for the Phoenix Street Hostel; his widow had sustained it so far. Most of her business came from repeats, established customers—merchants, farmers, ship captains—but first-timers were not rare.
So why was she gazing tongue-tied at this man? Why was he staring down at her with that blush on his cheeks and that wistful, disbelieving expression in his gray eyes? There was something strange about his gaze that she could not place.
"The Phoenix Street Hostel," he said in his unfamiliar accent. "Everyone will ... Everyone told me that it's the best hostelry in the city, Gwin Saj." He spoke too softly, stood a little too close.
A lead pair of oxen emerged from Sailors' Alley, with another following.
"They spoke no less than the truth, Tibal Saj."
"I need a room, Gwin." He still seemed mildly amused that she had not recognized him.
He was a little too quick dropping the honorific.
"Rooms are my business, Tibal Saj." Why else display a wheat sheaf above the door?
Tob was still up the ladder, tying the sheaf to the bracket. The ox cart was advancing along the road. Tibal backed into its path, holding up a hand to stop it, all without ever taking his eyes off Gwin.
"You came by way of Tolamin?" she said. He must have done, to be arriving in the city so early in the day.
He hesitated and then nodded. The wagoner howled curses at him.
"How is it?" she asked.
Tibal blinked and frowned. "Much the same," he said vaguely.
What ever did that mean? The Wesnarians had sacked it in the fall.
The teamster hauled on the traces and brought his rig to a clattering halt with the lead pair's steaming muzzles not an ell from the lanky stranger—who still ignored it all, still stared at Gwin.
Tob came slithering down the ladder, leering with pride at having completed an unfamiliar task. "All done, Gwin Saj."
"Take the ladder down, Tob."
"Oh. Yes." The lout moved the ladder. Tibal stepped out of the way, so the team could proceed.
"You almost got yourself jellied there," she said.
"What?" he glanced at the cart and its furious driver as if he had been unaware of their existence until she spoke. He shrugged. "No."
There was something definitely odd about Tibal Frainith, but he raised no sense of alarm in her. Almost the reverse—he seemed to be signaling friendship. Not asking for it, just assuming it. Curiously reassuring, somehow ... clothes neither rich nor poor ... carried his own pack. Not a rich man, therefore. Soft spoken. Not a soldier. Not a merchant. A wandering scholar, perhaps? At least he wasn't proposing marriage yet. Lately she spent half her days fighting off suitors who wanted to marry a hostel, and she was going to lose the battle.
She opened the door, setting the bell jangling. "I'll show you the rooms we have available." They were all available, but she would not admit to that.
He stepped past her. As she was about to follow him inside, a voice said, It has begun.
Startled, she jumped and looked around. There was no one there. Tob was just disappearing into the alley with the ladder, heading around to the back. The wagon had gone. The voice had not come from Tibal Frainith.
So who had spoken? Her nerves must be snapping if she were starting to hear voices. With a shiver of fear, she followed her guest inside, shutting the door harder than necessary.CHAPTER 2
In Tharn Valley, it began with a bad tooth. Bulion Tharn was no stranger to having teeth pulled. Any man who lived long enough to outlast his teeth had been blessed by the fates—that was how he liked to look on the matter. He had been fortunate in having Glothion around. Glothion was the blacksmith, the largest of his sons, with limbs like an oak. Old teeth tended to shatter when gripped with pliers, but Glothion could pull them with his bare fingers. It felt as if he were about to snap the jawbone and the way he steadied his victim's head under his arm would surely crush some unfortunate's skull one day, but nine times out of ten he could yank a tooth cleanly out.
This time had been one of the other times. Bulion should have stood the pain a week or two longer, perhaps, to let the rotting molar rot some more. He hadn't. He'd been in too much of a hurry, and Glothion had pulled the crown off.
That meant real bloodshed. Wosion had insisted they wait three days, until the fates were propitious, and by then Bulion had been almost out of his mind with the pain. It had taken Glothion and Brankion and Zanion to hold their father down while Wosion himself tried to cut out the roots with a dagger.
He hadn't found all of them, obviously. Now, two days later, Bulion's face was swollen like a pumpkin and nigh hot enough to set his beard on fire. He was running a fever. The pain was a constant throb of lightning all through his head.
He was very likely going to die of this.
There were surgeons in Daling. The odds that he could survive the two-day ride there were slim. The odds that any leech or sawbones could help him now were even slimmer.
It seemed the fates were ready to close the book on Bulion Tharn.CHAPTER 3
In Tolamin, it began with a runaway wagon. Two horses came careering down the narrow street in panic, trying to escape from the terrible racketing monster pursuing them. Its load of pottery ewers clattered and rolled; every few seconds another would bounce right out to explode on the stones and splatter contents everywhere. Bystanders leaped for the safety of doorways or pressed back against walls. There was no sign of the driver.
A child stood directly in the wagon's path, thumb in mouth, an infant clad only in a wisp of cloth, staring blankly at the doom hurtling down upon him.
The boy's mother rushed out to snatch him away to safety, but her foot slipped and the two of them sprawled headlong together, directly under the plunging hooves. Horses and wagon flashed over them and continued their headlong progress to certain destruction at the river. The woman scrambled to her feet, clutching her child. Apparently neither had suffered as much as a bruise.
"There!" Jasbur screeched. "You see that?"
"Lucky," Ordur muttered.
"Lucky? You call that lucky? I say it's impossible. I say somebody is influencing!"
Ordur scratched his head and thought about it. He wasn't thinking too clearly these days.
"Suppose it could be."
"Suppose? Hah! You're even stupider than you look, you know that?"
"You look like a moron, but you're not that smart. You don't have the brains of a lettuce."
That was the best Ordur could manage in repartee these days. He knew he was slow. It wasn't fair of Jasbur to call him ugly, though. Maybe he was ugly, but Jasbur was as bad. He was short and bent, almost a hunchback. His face was a grayish, swarthy shade as if it had not been washed for years, and gruesomely wrinkled. The whites of his eyes were yellow; he slavered all the time. Although the fringe of hair around his head was silver, its roots were dark. There were patches of shadowy dark stubble on his cheeks and more on his bald pate. His teeth were nastily prominent, his clothes tattered and filthy.
The wagon had reached the dock. The horses veered to right and left; trappings broke miraculously to free them. The wagon sailed on by itself, passing narrowly between two moored barges and vanishing into the water. Jasbur crowed witlessly at this further evidence of fatalist influence upsetting the normal probabilities of the world.
But talk of lettuce had reminded Ordur that his belly ached. He peered up the long street, then down it. There were a lot of people standing around, mostly staring after the wagon. An excited group had gathered around the woman and her child, babbling about their miraculous escape.
"I'm hungry. Haven't eaten all day!"
Jasbur shrieked in derision. "All day? It's barely dawn! You mean you didn't eat all day yesterday!"
"And I'm still hungry."
"Who's fault is that? You're supposed to be a beggar, but you look so bad you give children hysterics. Women set their dogs on us because of your ugly face."
"Half the people in this town don't eat. It was your idea to come to Tolamin and it was a stupid idea."
Ordur didn't think it had been his idea, but he wasn't going to argue with Jasbur today. Maybe tomorrow would be better. "You eaten today?"
"No, nor yesterday neither!"
"Don't like this town," Ordur announced. "It smells."
"Curd brain! It's all the burned buildings. It was sacked, you numskull."
As if to emphasize the point, a ruined shell of a house farther up the hill collapsed out into the street in a cascade of bricks and charred timbers. Dust flew up in black clouds. People screamed.
"There!" Jasbur cackled. "Months it's been standing, and it falls down now. I tell you, there's somebody influencing!"
"How should I know?"
Lightning flashed, and thunder cracked almost overhead. Ordur jumped. "Oughta get out of here!"
"Naw. Thunder at this time of day? How often d'you see that?"
"Don't see thunder, Jasbur. See lightning. Hear thunder."
"Bah! There's an Ogoalscath around here somewhere. Let's find him." Jasbur hobbled off down the hill on bandy legs.
Ordur strode after him. "Why? How'd yu know he's this way?"
"I don't, but he will be, you'll see."
Surely wise people would go away from an Ogoalscath, not toward him? But if Jasbur said to go this way, then Ordur would have to. Jasbur wasn't being very nice to him just now, but he did seem to be the smart one. He said he was, so it must be true.
Lightning flashed again, thunder rumbled, rain began to fall in grape-sized drops.CHAPTER 4
Emerging from the trees at the brow of the hill, Bulion Tharn turned off the path and reined in Thunder, so he could gaze back over the vale. He was certain he was taking a last look, but he would not admit that, even to himself. He could feel the others exchanging glances as they rode up to join him, but they would not dare comment—they knew he always did this. To make his usual inspection was normal, to ride on without it would be an admission of defeat.
Pain hammered hot nails in his jaw. The morning air was cold on his fevered face. Some of the men had doffed their smocks already and seemed content enough in their breeches, whereas he was still swathed in a heavy wool cloak and struggling not to let his shivering show.
From here he could see all of Tharn Valley—cattle on the hills, hay, crops, orchards, buildings, stockade. From this very spot he had seen it the first time, as a child at his father's side.
"This should do," his father had said, and tousled his hair. "Think you can conquer this place for us, young un?"
The women had laughed, and probably Mogion and Thilion had laughed too, although he could not recall if his brothers had been close enough to hear. He knew the women's laughter had annoyed him, so he had shouted and gone running ahead down the slope, waving his boy-size spear. He had been the first Tharn to enter the vale. Ever since that moment, there had been Tharns in Tharn Valley. Last night, kept awake by the pain, he had tried to tally them in his head, but had not been able to remember them all. He knew the total well enough, though. Including wives and husbands brought in from outside, there were three hundred twenty-six.
Truth be told, he could not see the valley as well now as he could still see it in his memory. The bright sun of summer trailed cloud shadows over the hills and the unripe grain. It flashed on the pools of the stream. But to make out people down there was quite beyond his aging eyes; even the cattle he could not be sure of.
He could call it all to mind, though: the barns, the workshops, the water mill, the neat circles of houses, the few stone buildings still standing, but fitted now with new thatch to replace the fallen tile roofs. The unfinished fort.
Half a century ago, it had been different. It had not been Tharn Valley then—just broken fences, stumps of fruit trees, a ruined villa dating from imperial times, a few more recent farm buildings in even worse decay, and the buried remains of a castle dating from before the empire. Even now, children found rusty swords and armor in the long grass. War, the curse of Muol, had rolled to and fro over the land, squeezing the people out like juice from a press. The vale had been lying there for the taking.
Excerpted from The Cursed by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1995 D.J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Dave Duncan is my favorite author. I have read this book a few times. It can be a bit creepy, but is an excellent story.